Month: February 2011

02:33

A phone call is all it takes to bring the sky down.

One call–just one in the black hours of Monday morning, lasting hardly any time at all.

It begins with the words: “I think your mother’s dead.”

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I’ll most likely not be blogging for a few days: there are Things Which Need to Be Done, and family who need to be taken care of. There are things to say, things to arrange… so many things.  And I need time. I’m burned and broken and raw, and so un-fun that it makes my eyes bleed.

But I will be back–soon. In the meantime, the world will keep on whirling along without me. As it should. And I’ll catch up with it again. Just not yet.

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Dead Dog Shoe-Shuffle

You either love Polly Morgan‘s art or you don’t, I think.

It’s not the sort of work that allows you to mimble around somewhere in between.

Part Victorian Gothic, part macabre contemplation on life (and death) and part remarkable craftsmanship, this falls neatly into the Stuff That I Want category, be it a bird asleep on a book or an explosion of wings.

Instead of trying to mimic reality–and, to put it bluntly, life–the pieces are surreal, even confrontational.

And I want one very, very much.

As long as I don’t have to dust it.

Or, you know, feed it.

 

The Naming of the Ways

 

London has some excellent street names.  This one’s right next to the Millennium Bridge, on the way from St Paul’s over to Tate Modern.*

The City has some of the best (and most notorious) street names I’ve ever seen: most of them are either connected to trades–there’s Milk Street and Bread Street not too far from each other off Cheapside. (There’s even–cough–Gropec*nt Lane and all manner of other bizarre epithets, all of which go back to the old City). But the one in the photo is my favourite thus far.

I have to admit, I’m not sure I’ll be able to rise to the challenge of finding Airwolf Street, but I did pick up an Angel Street on the way home (midway between St Pauls and the Barbican). And, being the type of gal I am, that’s good enough for me.

So now I’m thinking. We know there’s a wealth of streets with interesting /inappropriate /odd names around the place (York, you’ve got to be right in there, haven’t you, surely?). What are your particular favourites? And–more importantly–how many TV shows can we find? Is there a Buffy Avenue somewhere? If not, why not?

Oh, and if someone… anyone… can come up with a street name that involves Airwolf, give me a shout, would you?

 

*By the way, Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” installation? Incredibly poignant and thought-provoking. I didn’t see the point at all until I was standing in front of it. If you get the chance–even if it’s just to drop in and spend two minutes looking at it–do. You can’t walk on the seeds any more (boo) but somehow, that makes it all the more powerful. It’s free & runs until May.

The Special Hell

Disclosure: as everyone on Twitter is doubtless sick of hearing, I’m watching Firefly for the first time. I love it. And, while (virtually) shouting very loudly last night that no-one had told me Jane Espenson had been a writer on the show, I got a tweet back from her. In response to which I dissolved, gibbered and wibbled in an appropriately fangirlish way.

The “Special Hell” is not just reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre. Oh no. Chief among its inhabitants are the People Who Take A Packed Lunch Into Museum Cafes.

As someone who’s been spending a significant amount of time in museums the last week and a half– almost always with a small child whose chief utterances are: “I’m tired”, “I want to go home”, “I want something to eat” and the all-time classic: “I need to pee!”– I’ve developed a serious case of cafe rage. It began in the Natural History Museum with the father-and-son team taking up a large table as they chowed down on their Waitrose pre-prepared luncheon goods while I balanced a wriggling 3 year-old on a nine foot-high stool in the middle of a sea of broken glass.

That last bit might be an exaggeration. But only a little one.

And today? Today, at the British Museum, a young woman was nearly beaten to death by her own copy of Glamour. Christ alive, but if the editorial team have managed to dig out yet another “100 Sex Tips You Need to Know!” article (they’ve been doing this regularly since the magazine launched in 2001. What, do they have a team of gurus hanging out in the office?) then couldn’t you go and read it somewhere else? And as for the guy with the hiking boots, thermos flask and rugged stubble, trying to pick up French-student-with-long-hair-and-short-skirt by telling her that the walrus was extinct… don’t you have a mountain to climb? And, you know, jump off?

Sorry. It’s the cafe rage talking, not me.

What I was going to say was that I made it (with Small Boy, who was singularly unappreciative. This unfairness is compounded by the fact he got a scarab badge and I didn’t) to the British Museum’s “Book of the Dead” exhibition today, and it was stunning. Genuinely jaw-dropping. One of the exhibits is a still-rolled papyrus recovered from a sarcophagus; its wax seals still intact, its leather bindings complete… it’s never been opened. No-one knows exactly what’s in there, because whoever sealed it up died over 3,000 years ago. If that doesn’t mess with your head, nothing will.

I’m not saying that the ancient Egyptians pwn the Anglo-Saxons. Certainly not (and that’s only partly because I can’t speak ancient Egyptian) but boy, did they know how to do the afterlife. I think I must have been given a particularly grisly book on the Egyptians when I was little, as I distinctly remember having an imaginary pet Devourer around the age of 6 or 7.

Well, I would, wouldn’t I?

So go, if you have the chance. And then you, too, will know the joy of standing in front of a sarcophagus and desperately, desperately trying to stop yourself from saying in the quietest possible voice….

“Are you my mummy?”

The Sleeping Policeman

I’m still on my London odyssey. Along with Small Boy, I spent the morning in One New Change. Apart from the view of the newly-cleaned St Paul’s, you can take my word for it: skip it, but he certainly became my favourite ever shopping companion:

Me: “So, what do you think of this oddly-shaped and possibly too small jumper dress thing?”

Him: “I like it. You look like a princess.”

(Which I didn’t. I looked, well, not great. But that isn’t the point, is it? Mouths of babes and all that.)

Over the weekend, I added to my ever-growing collection of Converse trainers. Mr Charcoal, meet Messrs Pink, Green, Navy, Purple and Red. I’m thinking of staging a remake of Reservoir Dogs, only with shoes…. You’re looking at me like that’s not a good idea. OK. Moving on.

I poked around in Liberty (one of my favourite shops, and which is apparently built largely from the timbers of HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan…. who knew?) and went looking for the world’s smallest police station (allegedly) in Trafalgar Square. I’m sure I’ve heard of it before–and looked for it before–because I distinctly remember it freaking me out before.

I mean…

Does that not freak you out? Seriously?

I’m as big a fan of the TARDIS as any, but that….? No way. The longer I look at it, the more likely it seems that the door’s going to open and some eldritch thing is going to reach out and grab a passing exchange student. Or a pigeon.

In fact, now I think about it, there are definitely fewer pigeons around Trafalgar Square than I remember….

Urk.

The Silver Pipistrelle

I know I talked about “Batman Begins” quite recently, but seriously, this is relevant. Sort of. Well, slightly.

As part of our “3 weeks cooling our heels in central London” adventure, I took Small Boy to London Zoo yesterday. For him, it was all about the giraffes, and the monkeys fighting over a lettuce heart (who made me go all Johnny Morris). And I’ll admit the otters were sweet. As were the meerkats–now there’s an animal I feel sorry for: to have forty school-kids leering over you and shouting: “Simples!” all bloody day.

But, for me, it’s the bats. It’s always the bats: I love them, and can’t for the life of me understand people who don’t. They’re just all kinds of awesome. So I hauled a grumpy three year-old down to the “Nocturnal” section and stood in front of the bat cave.

Yes, the bat cave.

And yes, it did make me feel a bit like this:

(By the way: a sign you’re really rich? You’re quite happy to go slithering around a cave wearing a cashmere / wool blend coat.)

I have no idea whether it’ll be the right time of year, but something I’d really like to do while I’m over in Austin for World Horror this spring is to go and watch the bat flight from Congress Avenue Bridge.

It looks just a little bit excellent.

Love them or hate them, you’ve got to admit there’s something about them, isn’t there?

Synchroni-City

So there I was, talking about London and its slightly odd underbelly, when the forces of synchronicity came and walloped me round the head.

Jenni Hill, one of the editors over at Abaddon & Solaris—as well as one of my favourite people on Twitter—posted something to the effect of being tired of “alternate Londons”, and wondering why writers in the UK didn’t pick a wider range of cities for their urban fantasy works.

Of course I’ve got my own views on that (don’t I about everything?) which boil down to the fact that, as I said in my last post, London has a long, muddy and bloody history. It has more superstitions than you can shake a rat at—and heaven knows there’s enough of those about if you believe the stories. That’s not to say that Winchester or Edinburgh or York or Bath couldn’t rival it in the history stakes, nor that there are places with superstitions just as abiding as here—but London has its own gravity; it exerts its own pull, and perhaps that isn’t limited to the real world.

I can come up with a good number of alternate Londons off the top of my head: there’s—of course—Neil Gaiman’s London Below (“Neverwhere”), which was the first book to give me that ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?’ moment, with its Black Friars and Angel Islington. There’s China Mieville’s umbrella-stalked UnLondon; Suzanne McLeod’s London populated by witches, vampires, trolls & goblins. There’s Kate Griffin’s London where sorcery battles kebab-shop grease-monsters and hoodies with spray-paint and the best pseudo-Latin I’ve ever seen; Mike Shevdon’s version of a city which overlaps the land of Feyre, and which can be crossed in a heartbeat if you know the right roads, and Mike Carey’sFelix Castor” London, where the dead walk, talk and hang out in abandoned cinemas.

The thing is, I love these almost-Londons. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to several of these authors about their work (and hopefully those interviews will slowly creep into the light of day. They’ve been hideously delayed for reasons I can’t control, and for which I’m immensely sorry to the people who’ve given up their time to talk to me: their answers were all fascinating, particularly when it comes to the question of “Why London?”) and every one of them has a different thing to say about the city—or City. Each of them has picked another side to explore in their alternate universe: Kate Griffin chooses the London of now, with its graffiti and concrete. Suzanne McLeod opts for the bustle of Covent Garden: magic in plain sight, melding with technology. With Felix Castor, Mike Carey explores a particular sort of man—the kind you’re more likely to find here than anywhere else—who taps into the dead (of whom London has more than her fair share), while Mike Shevdon overlays the arcane traditions that the City perpetuates with something much more exotic, conjuring life from dust.

I can understand why people might tire of the alternate-London sub-genre (and I agree, it’s definitely becoming one), particularly as there seems to be a new book every couple of weeks. Ben Aaronovitch’s “Rivers of London” and the first of Sarah Silverwood’s “Nowhere Chronicles”, both recently released, have been getting great reviews. I’ve not read either yet, mostly due to my slight case of Everything-I-Own-Being-In-Storage, but I can certainly believe that these too can draw something fresh from a city I love. There’s a lot of books out there already—but I can’t say that any of the ones I’ve read have felt stale or samey. Each of them has brought something new, and each of them has made me look at the same old chewing-gum clogged pavements in a bright new way.

And for me, at least, that’s what it comes down to: I want fantasy to show me new faces to the familiar. I want it to take words I thought I understood, streets I thought I knew, and to turn them around—to show me the magic that was always there, unknown and unseen all along.

In my case, that’s most likely to happen in London. I was born in a small town in Wales, but in so many ways I was bred here, in London. My parents met here, married here. I came to university here at 17, and I never went home. It’s in my bones and in my blood; I love it and hate it and refute it and need it. I accept that might not be true of everyone… but to bring wonder to London—to a cynical Londoner (and that’s what I am) who’s been here a third of her life..?

Surely, however well-used it might be, there’s still some magic in that?

Return to Murderess Lane

“May you live in interesting times.”

That’s the saying, isn’t it?

Boy, are my times interesting.

As I mentioned before, the Other Half and I sold our house and moved out just over a week ago.

There were a couple of delays in the purchase we were making, an old barn which needed renovating and converting, and while these were causing a bit of a headache they were no major problem: we’d rent somewhere for a couple of weeks, and it’d be fine.

Until the whole thing fell through.

Like I said, interesting times.

So for now, we’re holed up in a little flat on the edge of the City of London, not even a hundred yards from our old stomping ground of the Barbican. The deli I worked in after college is round the corner, as is the church where we were married. But more peculiar, for me, is living an offal-fling from Smithfield market again.

This is, hands down, my favourite part of London (and I’ve lived all over it in the last 12 or so years). Smithfield being a trade market specialising in meat, it’s nocturnal; the market itself locked-up and dead in the day. Despite the office workers buzzing round (and they do: we’re still in the City, just) and the traffic stampeding in and out of St Bartholomew’s Hospital (possibly my favourite saint: he’s the one who carries his own flayed skin over his arm. Lovely.) there’s still a hulking great behemoth in the midst of it all, silent until the sun goes down.

I wrote a story about Smithfield a while back. It’s one of my favourites, although sometimes I wonder whether I wrote it, or whether I uncovered it and that it’s about something that was always there and just needed the words lining up on the page.

When people think about the City, they think of banks and bonuses, skyscrapers and steel. They forget what’s underneath, and has been for a very, very long time. That was where “Murderess Lane” came from: the things that are hidden, and the things that should stay hidden—because the oldest cities are built of more than bricks and glass.

In a funny way, walking around these same places a decade after I last lived here, I feel like a ghost. Not quite connected to them as they are, but not seeing them as they were. Some things change; some things stay the same—but some parts of the City never do either. They adapt, and what was once above is pushed below, where it hides in the darkness; waiting to snatch at your ankles or whisper in your ear when you least expect it.

“Murderess Lane” was published in Hub Fiction #127. It’s still available online and free to read (if you like it—and are a BFS or Fantasycon member—I’d be thrilled if you considered recommending it in the “Short Story” category for this year’s British Fantasy Awards).

As for me? I’ve got plans. Well, a plan. Which you’ll agree is better than no plan at all. I might be a bit sporadic, but I’m still here. And in the meantime, I’ll be making sure I don’t go wandering into any dark alleys. Who knows what I might find…