Outings: MCM London ComicCon & Holloway College

Hello. Long time no post.

I’ll be on a panel at MCM London ComicCon tomorrow – Saturday the 29th – talking about horror and dark fantasy with Jason Arnopp and Alison Littlewood. We’ll be on the Silver stage at 12pm. I’ll then be on the SolarStorm podcast talking about my upcoming novel Pseudotooth. After that, I’ll be knee deep in Star Wars merch, so say come and say hello while you can.
londonCOMICOnly a few more days until the general release of The Mighty Healer. All being well, there’ll be a launch evening at Holloway College itself on the 14th of November, where I’ll be signing books and lurking at the bar. More details as they’re finalised.

Whew.

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Death & The Maiden

I’m on DeadMaidens.com today, talking about Beauty Secrets of The Martyrs and the first time I met an incorrupt saint.
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I was fifteen when I stood over the incorrupt body of Saint Spyridon. It was my first visit to Corfu, a summer holiday with my parents. Peeking out onto a narrow street of lace-makers, icon sellers, and jewellers’ shops, the modest exterior of Spyridon’s shrine made its entrance easy to miss. There was certainly no fanfare for the miracle within as I stepped down into the perfumed candlelight. The Greek Orthodox Jesus possessed a strange allure; stern and penetrating, totally removed from the acoustic-guitar-and-custard-creams Sundays I spent in church at home. It’s heretical to say it, but the shrine had magic. [Read more…]

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Between you and me, William…

As it’s the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, I thought I’d share this Pre-Raphaelite tidbit from the twenty-one-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

In the autumn of 1849, he and William Holman Hunt took a holiday to the continent together. Rossetti journaled the experience in verse which he duly sent to his brother, William Michael, back in London. Between sniggering in art galleries and noticing pretty girls (French ones weren’t as nice as English ones, naturally), the PR Brothers took in the usual famous attractions, including the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Here’s what Rossetti thought of it:

On the Field of Waterloo.

So then, the name which travels side by side
With English life from childhood—Waterloo,
Means this. The sun is setting. “Their strife grew
Till the sunset, and ended,” says our guide.
It lacked the “chord” by stage-use sanctified,
Yet I believe one should have thrilled. For me,
I grinned not, and ’twas something:—certainly
These held their point, and did not turn but died:
So much is very well. “Under each span
“Of these ploughed fields” (’tis the guide still) “there rot
Three nations’ slain, a thousand-thousandfold.”
Am I to weep? Good sirs, the earth is old:
Of the whole earth there is no single spot
But hath among its dust the dust of man.

Oh dear. But he does have a point. And then, in a letter to William at home:

One of the great nuisances of this place, as also at Waterloo, is the plague of guides from which there is no escape. The one we had at Waterloo completely baulked me of all the sonnets I had promised myself; so that all I accomplished was the embryo bottled up in the preceding column. Between you and me, William, Waterloo is simply a bore.

Yawn.

Yawn.

 

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A Sense of Place

I find I’m writing more and more about a sense of place. I’m moving house this week, and all my notes are about waterways, familiar food, and the colour of soil.

I was born on the Rock of Gibraltar. My Dad was stationed at the Navy base there, and I spent the first two years of my life beautifully oblivious to the existence of England and drizzle and Margaret Thatcher. I went back last month, not for the first time. As usual, didn’t want to return.

As a Forces child, going wherever the MOD tells you to while the head of your family sweats in a minesweeper’s engine room somewhere far-off and unpronounceable, you’re left feeling like you belong nowhere. Family interactions take place via satellite phone, friendships are brief, and your birthday plans depend on what Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Miloševic have in store for June. Though I left Gibraltar in the late ’80s, the place always meant more to me than anywhere that followed. Two years after Gib, we were on a godawful submarine base in Scotland. Our allotted house had been arsoned a few months previously. Shards of glass, all over the garden.

The Rock was stable, I was safe there, and it was mine. Nulli Expugnabilis Hosti.

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Gib is dusty and colourful and intimate and huge, and every time I get off the plane and crane my neck to see the gulls wheeling around the harsh green crags of the upper Rock, I wonder why I ever let myself get mired in the flat Fens – though I love those, too.

It’s the abundance of light and water.

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Plus, you can buy a litre of vodka for £3.99. If that were the case in Britain, you’d be stepping over mounds of poisoned teenagers, but the closest I got to an encounter with a drunk was a sober gentleman carrying an easel, wanting to tell me something important:

“You’ve changed your dress. You were wearing black this morning. I saw you, wearing black. I had a demon inside me for fourteen years. But I met a man from Birmingham, and he made it come out of my neck, like whoosh.”

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I find it’s only after you leave a place that you begin to feel it inside you.

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An Easter Brontë Pilgrimage

It’s Charlotte Brontë’s 198th birthday today, and happily I found myself in Yorkshire.

I’ve always been excited to see the land that shaped the Brontës’ imagination; the foundations of Gondal and Angria, and the Parsonage where they lived, worked, and died, particularly as the North is so strikingly different to my own flat East Anglia.

As my Lancastrian boyfriend noted: “That inclining green structure over there… we call that a hill.”

Gawthorpe-HallThe previous week, we went to the Jacobean Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire’s Padiham, where Charlotte Brontë paid two awkward visits to Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth in the 1850s. Sir James fancied himself a budding writer, and the green couch where Charlotte withstood her host’s overpowering enthusiasm is still on display.

Charlotte found the attentions of Sir James and his wife “painful and trying”. The couple tried to coax her down to London for the Season, but Charlotte’s nervousness and dread of being patronised meant she never fully warmed to the couple, despite their real admiration for her radical writing.

The moors further up the country, on the way to Carlisle. Branwell applied for a job as the secretary of a proposed railway line connecting Hebden Bridge to Carlisle in 1845. He was turned down.

The Parsonage at Haworth

With a water supply contaminated by corpses, open sewers, and no ‘night soil’ men to deal with the animal waste in the streets, it’s little wonder that the average life expectancy in Haworth during the Brontës’ lifetimes was just 25.8 years. Nowadays, it’s a pretty little town with a winding road providing a steady influx of tourists. It’s the end of a long rainy winter here, and the heather was flowering and the lambs trotting about in the Easter sunshine. Not remotely Wuthering, but totally lovely.

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The Parsonage, from the graveyard.

As it was Charlotte’s birthday, we were lucky enough to be invited into the collections room not normally open to the public. There we were shown some of the museum’s treasures, including one of Charlotte and Branwell’s handmade miniature books, so tiny it would fit in the hands of their toy soldiers. There was Branwell’s well-loved copy of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a small-print volume with no publishing information, suggesting it was a ‘pirate’ copy. Most touching of all was one of the last letters Anne composed before her death, written in a delicate ‘crossed’ pattern to save paper. In it she talks about her desire to survive tuberculosis for the sake of her father, who had already weathered the loss of so many children.

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Another of Charlotte’s miniature books sold at auction for £690,850 in 2011.

Excitingly, we also got within breathing distance of a rare first edition of their Brontës’ 1846 collection of poems, published under their androgynous pseudonyms, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. The sisters paid the publishers’ bills, and sold a mere two copies. So if you’re ever feeling down about your own chapbook, take heart. The copy in the Parsonage collection room was gifted by the sisters to a favourite author, and includes a rather apologetic letter in which they detail its failure to fly off the shelves.

IMG_1727The house itself is unexpectedly small. I think that’s a function of decades of Brontë film adaptations set in sprawling Gothic estates, but when you take into account the width of women’s skirts during the 1840s, it’s easy to imagine the family having to shuffle about under each other’s feet, and the emotional closeness such proximity would generate.

Charlotte described Emily as “a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove”, and her presence in the house was less palpable than her sisters’. Emily’s written work demonstrates a self-made inner world fiercely independent from Victorian sentiment and acceptable femininity. Legendary scenes from her life, like her calmly cauterising a dog bite with a hot iron, make her seem remote, but stepping into the windowless kitchen, you get a sense of her there, kneading bread, quietly plotting her next adventure in Gondal.

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When Charlotte was 20, she wrote to Robert Southey, Poet Laureate, for career advice. She received one of the blandest misogynist responses on record: ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life; and it ought not to be […] Farewell Madam!’

Today, on her 198th birthday, when people from all over the world queue to see her writing desk, Charlotte’s reply reads beautifully deadpan:

‘In the evenings, I confess, I do think, but I never trouble any one else with my thoughts.’

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The Most Beautiful Bookshop In The World

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We were in Venice last week, lost, and chilly. In search of the third spritz of the afternoon, we’d taken a walk down an alley, then another, and found ourselves in a tiny, mossy courtyard, when abruptly…

‘WELCOME to the most beautiful bookshop in the world’.

The Libreria Acqua Alta. Part curiosity shoppe, part bottomless book-dump (good luck if you’re after a specific title) the Libreria Acqua Alta “looks like your corner of the living room”, according to Gabriel.

‘Für Katzen’, said a card propped up against a rather damp bowl of kibble. Inside, camera-shy kitties reclined on mounds of catalogues, faded postcards of American government buildings from the 1960s, and reproduction antique maps. In a landlocked gondola, Tintoretto languished with Taschen’s Big Penis Book (3D, in case you’re interested). The sweet, faintly worrying smell of paper-rot bloomed with varying intensity as we delved deeper into the labyrinth.

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sale8 I know what you’re thinking. Where’s the fire escape?

shop7Nailed it.

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Nudity, holy dirt, and bone-picking at Kelmscott Manor

“I am inclined to think that sort of thing is mostly rubbish” – William Morris, on his own work.

I managed to crawl my way out of last week’s all-pervading October fog – Dickensian or Hitchcockian, depending on the monsters looming out of it – to get to the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Kelmscott Manor.

The Body Beautiful: Burne-Jones At Work, was partly a goodwill gesture on behalf of The Tate, who carefully dismantled William Morris’ Kelmscott bed and took it to London for the Pre-Raphaelite: Victorian Avant-Garde show*. To be honest, I was expecting the Tate’s rejects. (“We’re having Love Among The Ruins. You can have this teacup.”) But the collection of hazy nudes and tactile studies, although small, was well worth the three-hour drive from Cambridge.

“It’s so flat that to see anything is not easy, and when you do see it, it isn’t worth seeing” – Rossetti, indulging in a grump.

For those of you who haven’t ventured out into the wilds of Lechlade to William Morris’ earthly paradise, let me first explain that Kelmscott exists inside a cosmic bubble. The modern world has been kept at such a distance, you can comfortably believe it no longer exists. The house and surrounding farm buildings have been preserved as sensitively as possible, encouraging visitors to see it as a home and not a museum. The weather is constantly mellow and glorious, and the carpark and the cafe are minor details – you can convince yourself that Morris has just pootled off to Iceland, and Jane is probably embroidering in the next room.

The illusion is compounded by little domestic details unfettered by velvet ropes. Rossetti’s satinwood writing desk (on wheels!) is so dinky, I wouldn’t get my legs under it. The general smallness of the house’s Victorian occupants was especially apparent in Morris’ overcoat, hanging from a door in the same room. Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Paris says the label, as if fresh off the catwalks. You can imagine him bustling about in it.

And then, upstairs…

The Body Beautiful: Burne-Jones at Work  

What I love about Burne-Jones’ nudes, especially the females, is their long, cold, anatomical beauty. There’s a sickliness about them I enjoy.

Of the small collection of studies, especially striking was the snake-necked Disiderium, the head of Amorous Desire, as dangerous as she is gorgeous. While some of the sketches looked scratched out and hurried, Disiderium oozes off the paper with the same anthropomorphic sensuousness present in Beguiling Merlin. More ‘the body bewitching’ than ‘the body beautiful’.

Woman In An Interior features Rossetti’s cockney darling, Fanny Cornforth, looking hard as nails. She wasn’t invited to stay at Kelmscott with him, strangely enough. I like her masculinity, here. Many men in Rossetti’s circle were mildly afraid of her, despite her being, by most accounts, a cheerful presence.

It’s a shame the exhibition was so little-publicised, because fans of Ned would really have loved this, especially given the extraordinary setting.

 

The certain secret thing he had to tell

Some of Rossetti’s worst illness and addiction was played out at Kelmscott, so it’s a sad place as much as a lovely one. When I last visited, I was in the midst of post traumatic stress disorder, and it was easy to see how the landscape of flat, marshy fields and slowly-flowing streams could be as much a help as a hindrance to someone suffering from an untreated mental illness. May Morris remembered him in his black cloak, “tramping away doggedly” across the landscape alone.

Jane, whose collected letters were published this month, doesn’t get much in the way of a ‘voice’ in comparison to the men at Kelmscott. Her job is muse. Embroiderer. In the dining room, I tried to imagine her as Burne-Jones described her at nineteen, laughing “until, like Guinevere, she fell under the table”, and found I couldn’t. Amusingly, on her bedside table today are the collected letters of noted drunkard and amateur sadist Algernon Swinburne, open on a page extolling “cannibalism as a wholesome and natural method of diet”. Oh, Algie, you card.

It’s amazing I ever got back in the car.

I have a bone to pick with The Society of Antiquaries.

Rossetti’s bombsite of a paintbox resides upstairs in the tapestry room he commandeered for the light. In hilarious contrast to Millais’ pristine palette, Rossetti’s paintbox looks like something you’d find at the bottom of a skip. All his squeezed tubes (missing their tops, naturally) are congealed together in a shallow tin box encrusted with lead drippings, studio detritus, and a sort of greenish, yellowish coating of grotesquery and rust.

It’s gorgeous.

The room attendant, who very tolerantly said, “I’m touched you react that way” when I basically had a fit of the vapours over the thing explained the paintbox is a conservationist’s nightmare. Like Beata Beatrix, which was restored in time for The Tate, the paintbox contains a certain amount of ‘holy dirt’: original detritus from Rossetti’s studio. The trick is to separate the holy dirt from the decades of accumulated filth and decay without damaging the artefact. The trouble is, they haven’t started the process yet. And from the sounds of it, there are no plans to.

I wish I could share a photograph of it here, but photography is strictly forbidden. There are no postcards of the paintbox either, and because it isn’t labeled, half the visitors are walking by it without ever knowing what it is.

I feel the need to start a campaign. Look here, Society of Antiquaries, print some postcards, and put the proceeds towards protecting that precious paintbox!

* Before any Morris fans worry, the crew photographed each step of the disassembly, so not a single tiny, precious screw will be forgotten when the bed eventually returns.

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The Victory of The Victim

Thank you to everyone who has already downloaded Contraindications.

We arrived back in London two days ago to a dismal reception of rain and royalty, but I could talk for weeks about Venice. The aftershocks of the earthquake 80 miles away (which I mistook for one of my dizzy spells until the doors began to rattle); Watching dumbstruck from our darkened kitchen as a tremendous electrical storm battered Lido with white strobe light; The sad sight of St Mark’s Square flooding at night, as if the Doge had left his bath running…

But of all the wonderful things the city had to offer, my favourite was this 3 Euro postcard.

I found it – along with some startlingly expensive tin ex votos – on a market stall run by two little old ladies who managed not to laugh at my bad Italian.

After scampering away with my prize, I wondered if the skeleton was King Cholera, hence the K, but after some Googling, it turns out that this postcard is called The Victory of The Victim. It’s the final card in a series of six commemorating the shooting of nurse Edith Cavell in 1915. Here they all are, in their shameless gothic glory. Higher resolutions scans of four can be found here.

I’ll admit I don’t know much about Edith Cavell beyond the fact that she was from Norfolk and that, by killing her, the Germans created an Allied martyr whose image went global in days. And it’s little wonder. Artist Tito Corbella, usually so frothy and Art Nouveau, turned Cavell into a Madonna-like wraith wafting around on a background of bloody hellfire, while Kultur (the symbol of German supremacy, replete with cloak and harpsichord) might as well be played by Peter Cushing. For someone so accustomed to painting pretty pastel frocks, Corbella had form when it came to propaganda.

Interestingly, the English batch of Corbella’s postcards were printed in London’s Red Lion Square, where Rossetti lived on two occasions. Small art world.

The idea of an international martyr from Norfolk is a touch surreal. It’s Norfolk. Norfolk. That flat black wasteland of impassioned fiery doom, and… Bernard Matthews. And the image is so Italian. That stare. Those fetishised silent film lips. I love it. What a find.

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Our compliments to your little sweetheart

Guess where I’ll be this time next month…

I’ve got my panama hat, my natty spectacles and the rouge is bleeding down my cheeks. But the boys of Venice are safe. I’m taking two of the British variety with me.

I’m more excited about Poveglia, the abandoned island two miles out into the Lagoon. A  quarantine/burial ground during the black death, it’s practically unvisitable these days, unless you find a very, very nice man with a boat, but even then, it’ll involve parting with quite a wad of Euros. Nowadays, the only inhabitants are packs of dogs running wild in the ruins of the old hospital there.

Poveglia has had a few uses over the centuries, most of them grim. In the ignominious tradition of dumping all our cultural anxieties onto the mentally ill, there are the usual regurgitated stories of rogue doctors throwing themselves off the tower of the psychiatric hospital operating there in the 1920s. TV ghost hunters enjoy telling American viewers how the soil is 50% human ash following the hasty mass burnings in the wake of the plague. Although there is a vineyard. Silver linings.

Deliciously dilapidated, it’s been described as “a great big ball of darkness, death and hauntings”  – picnic time! I’ll take Bonios for the wild doggies.

It’ll be good to get out of the UK. I’ve realised that the editing process is going to be much harder than I expected, and staring at the same pages every day is getting me down. The wet weather has been playing havoc with my knees – thanks, Marfans – so some sunshine wouldn’t go amiss.

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