The Snow Witch – finding those illustrations

Some of you may know that a little while ago I completed writing a novel called “The Snow Witch”. I’m currently in the throes of laying it out, and have been hoping to get some illustrations to head up each part of the book.

I was at something of a loss. The story is allegorical, quite beautiful (I think, anyway!) and tells the story of a young woman who comes from a mystery tradition separate from Judaeo-Christianity, and yet connected to it.

One of my other jobs is dealing in rare books. About 15 years ago I bought a pair of stunning, extremely heavy 18th Century volumes filled with luscious copperplate engravings. Last night, I decided to dig those books out from my collection. And, well, I think I have what I want.

Here are the images I’ve chosen.

This is for Part 1 – this section includes reminiscences of the central character’s childhood, in which she was trained in in herblore by her mother.

Part 2 includes a section in which a wild wolf runs loose. This image seemed appropriate:

Part 3 comes to the crux of the story, and includes a narrative about the ancient archetype Lilith, who in Jewish mythology was Adam’s first wife before the unfortunate Eve. This seemed perfect:

Finally, we have an Epilogue. The image of the Phoenix from the bible seemed appropriate enough!

Scanning the 250 year 0ld images has been quite an education. Only once you start to manipulate the image and blow it up, do you see the extraordinary detail of the original craftsman, who scratched the image in reverse on to a copper plate with a steel stylus. The physical strength, endurance and patience it took is humbling for a 21st Century man who often ends up cursing Adobe Photoshop.

We sit on the shoulders of giants.

Jessica Alba – how little did I know?

One of the things the series of biographic articles I’ve written for The Best You magazine has done for me is make me see famous people in more depth. The most recent article was about Jessica Alba, the actress who plays the Invisible Woman in the dismal Fantastic Four series of movies, and a stripper in Sin City.

I was expecting to be underwhelmed. But it also turns out that she is the founder and brains behind The Honest Company, essentially an American version of The Body Shop, which in under 5 years has risen to a valuation of $1.7 billion from start-up.
She runs the company ethically, has an emphasis on employing the young, often straight out of college, and is involved in numerous charities involved in promoting and lobbying for safe and ethical household chemicals. In the US, the FDA has banned only around 12 chemicals for use in the home, whereas the EU has banned around 1300.

She herself suffered terrible allergies as a child… and when she fell pregnant realised that one of the “child safe” detergents she was recommended by her mother brought her out in a serious rash. That was when the penny dropped. And so she has thrown herself into her role as founder and CEO of a massive ethical business.

These revelations surprise me and make me reassess the woman I see on the screen. As Sue Storm, she is mediocre, in a mediocre movie. But this other side to her makes me realise the limits of my own judgements of people. How little we know.

So, this brief note is in praise of the real Jessica Alba. Thank you for your work.

That Article 50 Letter In Full

That Article 50 Letter In Full.

Dear Europe, I thought I’d write a quick line
to say it was good fun, thanks for the stay,
the visit was lovely, but we’re off, today
so please – no more garlic, snails and fine wine.
About the war. When I said “thanks” are nice
– and you said “the EU is the thank you” –
how come? Strangers telling us what to do
is wrong… though, yes, the Empire was quite nice.
Brexit means Brexit, a red white and blue
one, let’s salute the flag, coz now we’re free
to climb into bed with Uncle Sam. See:
foreigners can’t shaft us! – Britannia rules!
So goodbye, toodle pip, we’ve seen the light,
who needs Puccini when we’ve got Marmite?

Lyonesse – A Sonnet

Lyonesse

I was wrong about the blind right, thinking
them haters and racists. No, some believe
all will be well – we’ll have perpetual spring
– a world full of golden light. How naïve!
Though in some ways a relief, it is sad
to see these creatures crow about their mess
cheerily marching forward waving flags
to the sunny uplands of Lyonesse.
I wonder when they see our destiny’s
much more mundane, will they say “I was wrong” –
or “foreigners wrecked our identity” –
that wartime complaint that goes on and on?
And me, what to do? Should I pack my trunk?
– Get out of this country before it’s sunk?

The Power of Stupid

“The Power of Stupid”

Have you seen the latest? Shocking! she says,
lifting a copy of the Daily Mail,
that collection of British fairytales
from the fifties, when darkies knew their place.
Did you see that old sod Junckers, saying
there’ll be a cost to Brexit. Excuse me!
Cheeky bastard! Over my dead body!
We’ll walk right out, we’re not bloody paying!
Oooh, Trump, I like his conviction! Classy!
just look at how he held Theresa’s hand –
that proves it – really, he’s a gentleman
– if she thinks he’s all right, then he must be.
Thus politics shrinks to banality
when dupes idolize personality.

Review – Cirque de Glace, “Evolution”, King’s Theatre, Southsea, 8th May 2017

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for the circus, so when I saw Cirque de Glace were performing at the King’s Theatre, I couldn’t resist going. I LOVE CIRCUSES, and this was one with a difference. The whole thing was a circus on ice, with a real refrigerated floor for the performers to skate around on! How would they do it? I wondered, how would the circus motif be transformed with this added frisson, or freeze-on, of a potential slip-up at any moment?

From the start, I knew things were going to be different. Taking our seats, the theatre was already filled with theatrical smoke. The show started with lights across the audience and ponderous music. The scene was set. We were at the start of the universe itself, and stars were being formed, the booming narrative informed us. Planets coalesced, the rock that would become the Earth was struck by a gigantic meteorite, splitting the proto-planet into Earth and moon and suddenly – boom! crash! – we were in the world of the volcanoes, billions of years ago…

Next, the skaters appeared, making a circle around a rather small volcano in the middle of the stage and skated around it. The music boomed, the voice continued talking about magma and rocks and the formation of the planet and… I started to lose my focus.

There was some great skating, but the first 15 minutes of the show felt like an extended geography lesson for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. I think I was meant to feel a sense of awe and wonder, but actually, being told that rocks formed and that somehow that had something to do with people skating around the stage… I’ve got to say it didn’t quite hit the spot. It was Geology On Ice.

Nevertheless, I persevered. Perhaps a narrative would evolve that would hold my attention. Sure enough, next came the creation of the sea, then insects, and Gaia doing acrobatics on an earth-shaped ball. Everything the performers did was brilliant technically, and I marvelled at the aerial silk performers dangling from the Fly Loft… except that the smoke I’d mentioned earlier hadn’t cleared away, and with lights directed straight at the audience, it was actually quite difficult to see what they were doing. The special effects distracted, until the performance got lost in smoke and lighting.

The skaters were brilliant, but something about the concept of the show didn’t quite work. The booming recorded voice of the narrator at times took on a tone half way between environmental activist and children’s poet – and when the narration descended into terrible doggerel, it introduced a new level of struggle for my tiny brain, that had to decipher what was going on, as well as fight the blinding lighting and deafening, meaningless words.

At the same time, the performers didn’t seem to understand the grammar of applause. The action flowed from one scenario to another, not giving the audience the right cues to clap. I was waiting for that breathing space to show my appreciation for the extraordinary feats I was viewing, but there was no room to allow it. Sitting just a few seats away, a member of the crew tried to encourage clapping by doing so loudly herself. That worked for the first two or three times – but people just wanted to watch. The clapper seemed not to understand that applause should come at the release of dramatic tension. The simplest way to do that in trad circuses is to do a drum roll, have the performer do their trick, then stand with arms outstretched. Bang! There’s your cue to clap.

No such cues were given to the audience. The planted clapper distractingly picked the wrong moments to clap, pulling the audience’s appreciation too early, so that when the right moment came to clap there was silence because they were already “clapped out”.

I so wanted to really enjoy this show. Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was good. But watching the story of the world unfold, with trees being chopped down by men with chainsaws, and then the voice track telling us that we were reaping the whirlwind of our own destruction, it all felt that we were being hectored and accused for the faults and greed of people we can’t control. That the refrigerated floor must use up a hefty dose of carbon emissions was an irony not missed on me. The performers were brilliant. The production, like the clapper, was just a tad heavy handed. 6/10.

When filming is not all right.

For many people, filming or recording a talk has become the simple way to keep notes, rather than do that laborious and oh-so-hard exercise of lifting up a pen. But it is not all right, and I will tell you why.

Last night I gave a talk as part of Portsmouth’s Bookfest 2017 with crime fiction author and doctor of criminology, Diana Bretherick. The hour long talk had been devised between us to look at two fascinating characters from the Victorian era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Cesare Lombroso – both scientists, and both of them devout Spiritualists.

The evening started well enough, although I did notice one guy, who had arrived early, and who had been sitting and holding his mobile phone at that perpendicular angle that implies he might be filming. Then, half way through the talk, I realised I felt uncomfortable, I looked across at him and found he had a handheld camera – not just a phone, pointed at me.

I was annoyed. I stopped the talk and addressed him directly:

“Excuse me, would you stop filming, please? You didn’t ask me if it was all right to film me, and I certainly haven’t given you my permission.”

Then I stood and waited.

He relented, and sat and sulked for the rest of the evening. That was fine by me, I immediately found that I was talking freely again.

Was this just me being a bit picky and self-conscious? Well, yes and no.

The fact is that the talk Diana and I were giving was the first run-through. It’s one that we intend to give again in sharpened form. We were doing it for free as part of Bookfest, and I certainly didn’t want our first presentation to be recorded and potentially made available online.

More importantly, that talk was born from hundreds of hours of research on both my and Diana’s part. The experience of finding out about these two fascinating people, of my building a knowledge of local literature (Conan Doyle invented Sherlock Holmes while living in Portsmouth, and also got into Spiritualism while living here) and Diana studying crime and writing about Lombroso were what led to that talk. That has value. Although Diana and I were giving the talk for free that night, I had no idea where that recording might end up. That work is my work, and I certainly have no intention of allowing it out there, with my name attached to it when it is an early incarnation of the talk we will finally give to other venues.

It was rude, it was off-putting, and frankly, cheeky for someone to turn up and simply try to record it without asking.

Writers and public speakers – be aware of this. Your hard work is your property and potentially your livelihood.

I wanted to ask this gentleman afterwards why he thought it was okay to record this talk and what he thought he was going to do with it. But at the end, he left quickly.

We are in an age in which it is very easy to record everything, and so, writers and speakers, I have learned a lesson and in future will be sure to announce that bootlegging is not allowed, and bootleggers will be asked to leave.

And oh, my goodness! Bootleggers?!? Do we all have to factor in considerations that used to be the reserve of rock bands, now, in our multimedia age?!?!

Yoga and Sherlock Holmes – a brace of Pompey events

Two very different cultural events occurred in Portsmouth yesterday, that I was lucky enough to attend.

The first was the limb-stretching Yoga for Writers, a workshop run by writer and Yoga teacher Helen Salsbury. A good hour and a half long, the workshop addressed the particular issues met by writers who spend too long at their desks and don’t take breaks. The stretches and exercises dealt with a number of issues: posture, ergonomics, stiffness of joints due to too much inactivity and glassy-eyed staring into the distance. For anyone who forgets to take a break and loosen up the body, Helen’s soothing lesson is a recommend. Another part of the training – and let’s face it, yoga is all about breath control and meditation, was how to just chillax. Entering different states of consciousness is the heart of the writer’s job. And with her hypnotic talk and relaxation exercises, the spaced out feeling of deep chilledness at which the doorway to creativity so often opens for many writers was a welcome reminder of the power of doing nothing. I walked away from this one feeling lighter and more focused. You can find out more about Helen Salsbury here: http://www.helensalsbury.com/

Another cultural event was the final instalment of The Sign of Six – a deeply joyous homage to one of Portsmouth’s great literary heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the character who is so famous I am sure he is even recognised in far-flung galaxies across the universe, Sherlock Holmes (and of course, his bosom buddy Doctor Watson!).

The Sign of Six was a series of six short plays performed at different venues across the city throughout the week. From Paulsgrove, to Southsea, Holmes and Watson were on the track of a deadly assassin who variously tried to bomb, gas, mine, poison and generally polish off the super-sleuth owner of the deerstalker. Each of the six venues yielded a clue to the identity of the would-be killer – until finally it was revealed that the man trying to kill off Holmes was none other than Conan Doyle himself.

The team behind the plays was Periplum, whom I went for drinks with after the final show, in Southsea. Dan, the villain of the piece described how working with the public in Pompey had its challenges – like being pushed in the Commercial Road fountain or dealing with people questioning them mid-rehearsal as to what they were doing. Yet, this was all part of the excitement of the live performance, and it worked out really well. A suitable street theatre compliment to one-time denizen of Portsmouth, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each play was broadcast on Facebook Live, the verve and fun with which this whole project was performed can be still be viewed, here: https://www.facebook.com/conandoylescasebook

There’s always something happening in Portsmouth!

Puss In Boots, the Phoenix Players, Southsea, February 2017

One of my secret pleasures in Portsmouth in the early months of the year is the Phoenix Players pantomime, at the Trinity Theatre on the corner of Frances Avenue.

Over the years I’ve seen Treasure Island with a massive cast replete in grass skirts, Cinderella with an outrageous pantomime dame, and Sleeping Beauty with an evil fairy godmother to die for.

This year, Puss in Boots got the treatment, and it was well worth a visit on a chilly February night out. The Phoenix Players are an amateur community troupe, and everyone at some point gets a chance to shine, in more ways than one. Whether it’s the outrageous bling of the costumes, the sparkle of magic or the UV special effects, the show is a visual delight. The writing is of the deep panto tradition, with a rich seam of 1950s music hall in the mix, along with Pacman and Super Mario Brothers.

What I love about the Phoenix Players is that they have a big, warm heart. They don’t worry too much about getting things a little wrong, and know how to laugh off mistakes when they happen from time to time, and keep the show pootling along nicely.

There’s also something else: the show has its surreal moments. The sudden arrival of Puss at Catland, where an unearthly feline court must decide whether Puss lives or dies was unexpected, and the sudden appearance of a Brummy-accented fairy godmother with a lisp and purple hair added to the fun.

For a good night out, haunted by Donald Trump ghosts, gigantic cuddly spiders and unearthly transformations, this is the place to go.

You’ll have a great night out.

Oh yes you will..!

Turn The Tides Gently Part 2 – An Opening

Been working on an opening for Turn The Tides Gently part 2. So, here’s something I wrote months ago. What do you think?

MermaidI will call you “Marine” he says as he looks at the child. About nine years old. An urchin, grubby faced, caked with the mud she is sinking in.

Here, have another.

A sixpence arcs through the air, turning over and over head, tail, head, tail, head… it lands with the tail up supported on the unstable black mud for a few seconds before an arm of black water reaches over the top of it.

Her blackened hands scoop it up with a handful of stinking black silt before the boys can get to it. One of them, Ned, a red haired boy with a hare lip groans – “It ain’t fair. And it ain’t lady-like. Go on, taking our loot!”

She rubs the mud from the coin on her far-from-clean dress and drops it in her pocket as the steady psssh psssh of the engine in the station starts up. A whistle echoing around the port mouth.

Ned comes towards her, aggressive, “I’ll have it. Come on,” he holds his hands out. She eyes him narrowly and freezes, watching him closely. Then as he moves in to take hold of her, she darts sideways under his reach, turns and kicks him square in the back so he sprawls on the flat mud.

The onlookers, tourists delighted by this scene of urchin rivalry, laugh; a delicate woman in silver bodice and flowing skirt looking more troubled than amused. Low morals. Ships, shops and low morals. Thus Portsmouth.

Grace, the girl urchin looks up at her benefactor, a tradesman of some sort, in a bowler hat and a neat moustache, bushy and almost comical, like the Walrus and the Carpenter she saw a picture of in a book. A book. Can you imagine. Someone left it behind on a bench by the sea and she’d found it, and there it was – Alice and all her adventures.

“Thank you, mate – Sir,” she shouts up, grinning white teeth from the black slime.

“There’s more where that come from,” he calls back in a deep, playful bass. “Oh plenty more. You come and see me, girl. Yes.”

She thinks, cocking her head on one side for a few seconds, then –

“Yes. Yes, mate. Wait there.” And she grabs a handhold in the side of the dock wall and climbs up to the crowd, which pushes back as she flops on to the deck, a sprawl of black mud and slime.

Later, after she has walked a while with the stranger amongst the naval outfitters and public houses, past the Gunwharf arch, he looks at her and says:

“I know you. I know your face. I’ve seen your eyes.”

“Where then?” she challenges him, putting her hands on her hips like the women do who banter with sailors and soldiers in the backstreets at night.

“A dream,” he says, his eyes suddenly burning. “In a dream.”

She laughs at that. “We got no room for dreamers here,” she says as if she’s said it all her life, an echo of Tope, the landlady at the public house where she lives. “Drunk more like! In at the Duchess, I bet you were, and drunk!”

“No, I’ve seen you. We’ve met. You come to my workshop. North End. I’ll tell you more.”
He holds up another sixpence. “There’s more of this.”

She smiles and laughs.

“At the back of the farm,” he says. “The workshop.”

“All right then. I’ll be there,” she answers with a grin.