Month: May 2011

Welcome to Hell (ingly)

Last week, we bought a couple of new pictures for the house. One was something arty by way of a wooden staircase and a chandelier (Other Half’s choice), and mine was… well, it was this.

Hellingly Main Hall: photograph by Mike McLean

I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was very taken with it. A village hall, maybe? Some kind of theatre…?

Nope.

An asylum.

Welcome to Hellingly.

Opened in 1903, it was designed by GT Hine – consultant to the Commissioners in Lunacy and asylum specialist (seriously, is there anything about that sentence you can’t love?). It remained in use until 1994, when the main building was vacated and decommissioned. Hine designed the hall as the centrepiece of the asylum, its heart, and even in its derelict state, it’s still possible to see the status it was awarded.

Since its closure, several of the associated outbuildings have remained in use: some are now privately owned, and some are retained by mental health services to house the criminally insane–but the main building has long fallen into disrepair. Frequent attacks by vandals and arsonists haven’t helped, and all that’s left is a shell.

Albeit a bloody creepy one…

 

You can learn more about Hellingly here, and here, as well as take a photographic tour on the Abandoned Britain site and read the account of a site visit by a UE group.

Pleasant dreams….

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Buried

You remember how I like my abandoned places, don’t you? Well, it’s been a while… so here’s a new one. An old one. Oh, you get the idea.

In the early years of the 20th Century, diamond fever hit Namibia.

The gem-rush led to the establishment of Kolmanskop: built to support the mining community, it even had a ballroom, theatre, casino and – apparently – the first tram system in Africa.

But after the First World War, diamond sales lost their sparkle and the town was gradually abandoned.

By the 1950s, it had become a ghost town; swallowed by the desert sands.

Judging by these photos, not even diamonds are forever….

Like most ghost towns, Kolmanskop is hugely interesting – because it’s empty. The thing about these places is that they show us our world in negative: by our absence, they show us the spaces we should be filling, the lives we should be inhabiting. They’re places that wouldn’t be there without our intervention… and without us, they’re fading away, just like their residents did.

One day, there’ll be nothing but sand, and dust, and the memories of houses lost to the desert; the ghosts of buildings with nothing to haunt them but air. In the meantime, it’s strikingly, sadly beautiful.

My Mother’s Pearls

My mother always said that she wanted me to have her pearls when she died.

It was one of her most treasured things, that necklace. My father gave it to her for her 40th birthday, and I think – I think, because the mind’s a funny thing, and your memory is never more prone to playing tricks on you than when there’s no-one to correct you – I remember that day. She was happy. The whole family got together at my grandparents’ house: an old farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere in rural Wales. There were fireworks, and my grandfather complained that said fireworks had blown up his “best cement-mixing bucket.” That’s my grandpa for you.

But that’s a digression. The point is my mother’s pearls. She loved them, very much. So much so that when I borrowed them on my wedding day, I could feel her watching them through my neck as I said my vows….

Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration.

Maybe.

Slight.

A few weeks ago, I brought those same pearls back down to Brighton with me. They were part of two carrier bags’ worth of things that I brought after my dad and I packed up her belongings – and as the train pulled out of Victoria, I wondered how everything a person is (or was) can fit into two bags. Just two.

Her pearls are in my bedroom now, on the mantelpiece (yes, I have a fireplace in my bedroom. She’d be so impressed, I tell you). I don’t think they’ll ever be “my” pearls; they’ll always be hers, and I’m still borrowing them. When I open the case, they still smell of her: a mixture of Rive Gauche & Chanel No. 5. Her “going out” perfumes, because her pearls were only for special occasions: dinner parties or evenings out. I’m afraid that if I open the box too often, the scent will disappear and that all will be left is a string of pearls – as though it’s the perfume that makes them hers.

Carrying those two bags back from the station, I thought I had everything that was left of her in my hands. Of course I was wrong.

There was a box. Upstairs, in the attic bedroom. One of the last few boxes we’ve not unpacked after the move. It had lived in the attic of our last house, sealed up, and had been that way since we moved out of our flat somewhere around the 2004 mark. I thought it had some china in it, and that was about it, so I never bothered to open it. It just moved with us, from storage cupboard to attic and now to the “stick it in the attic” pile here.

But this afternoon, I opened it.

Books.

My books: the books I read when I was younger. Books I’d long given up for lost, or passed along to my cousins (who had all my Redwall books, forcing me to buy new copies to read to my own little boy….) or simply gone. Wonderful books: my copy of Diana Wynne Jones’s “Fire & Hemlock“; Alison Uttley’s “A Traveller in Time“. “Puck of Pook’s Hill“, “The Princess and the Goblin“, “The Happy Prince” (which I remember trying to retell at Eastercon, with decidedly less panache & pathos than Wilde does), “The Shadow Cage“… The Noel Streatfeilds, the William books, Swallows & Amazons, even the novelisation of “Dark Season” (which I remember begging for in a bookshop somewhere near High St Kensington on a rare trip to London).

Oh, my books.

And even as I unpacked them, as I put them on the shelf, I realised that in so many ways, these books made me what I am. Fairies, time travel, history, goblins, fantasy, ghosts, evil computers and a man named Eldritch… my mother bought me these books. She, the same woman who rolled her eyes when I told her I was writing fantasy and horror, she bought me these books.

And to think that I believed all I had left of her was a necklace.

Never mind the jewellery. These books – and everything they taught me: this is what she left me.

These are my mother’s pearls.

Truthless Consequences

In my last post, I mentioned a game Ro Smith introduced us to at Eastercon – “Creative Consequences”. It’s a variation on the blind story: each player writes a line, having read only the line which immediately precedes theirs… which makes for some interesting results.

The other three players (Adam Christopher, Anne Lyle and – of course – Ro) have already posted the stories they took home, so now it’s my turn. And I’ll take the secret of who-wrote-what to my grave, thankyouverymuch.

There is a house in the woods, long-lost to the bracken and the dark.

In the house lives a charcoal burner and his three sons: Tom, Dick and Harry.

Harry was a professional blackjack dealer, who dreamed of large women from Oregon.

The large women were always wearing orange hats–it worried him.

He didn’t know why he was afraid of the colour–it might have something to do with his great-aunt Mildred.

She had been inordinately fond of kissing him with her sticky, blubbery lips.

Her tentacles, however, he wasn’t so keen on, however much she tried to show them off.

He’d always had a phobia of suckers–he didn’t know how to tell her politely.

Instead, he sat awkwardly on the edge of the chair, toying with the anti-macassar.

“Deidre,” he whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m leaving you to start a yak farm in Uzbekistan.”

Alright. So that one’s not the best of the bunch. But I’m drawn to the Lovecraftian mystery going on in the background: who were the large women from Oregon? Why did they wear orange hats? Was Aunt Mildred one of them? Was Aunt Mildred, in fact, Dagon, and the large citrus-attired ladies actually her cult? And where the hell did the yak farm come into it?

I like to think of the second one as a steampunk romance. A very, very silly steampunk romance….

“Roger!” she shouted, loudly. “What?” he replied manfully. “Push it!” she said, and he did, neither of them really sure.

“One should never push a big red button,” Charlton admonished, “Everybody knows that.”

He shrugged, “You’ll find that the blue button gets things going much quicker.”

She ignored him and pulled on the ivory-handled lever above the aetherscope.

“That lever doesn’t do what you think it does,” he said, covering his hands in industrial lubricant.

“Things are going to get sticky from here on out,” he continued, smiling with a little too much glee.

“I don’t care, Captain, as long as we’re together!”

He folded her in his arms and kissed her, as the first stars appeared in the sky.

She didn’t like being folded, despite his qualification in human origami.

So, one night when he least expected it, she plucked a piano wire from the grand and garrotted him.

Yeah. About the romance bit…. didn’t end well for poor old Roger-slash-Charlton, however manful he was. But yay for girl power. And for a possible dirigible with a grand piano on board.

Honestly, these kept us entertained for ages in the bar (and with only a couple of beers between us, I swear). It was impossible to keep a straight face reading them out afterwards – so if you were in the bar at Eastercon and saw the four of us weeping with laughter, that’ll be why. Sorry about that.

But it was worth it. Really, it was.

Eastercon 2011

The first of the posts-which-I-need-to-catch-up-on.

It’s hard to believe how long ago Eastercon feels already. My impressions of it were… mixed, but I think it’s fair to say the positive outweighed the negative – although this had little to do with the organisation of the Con itself.

I’ll admit to being slightly puzzled by the location, which was a perfect example of splendid isolationism if ever I saw one. It’s all very well running a Con in a hotel right next to Birmingham NEC if everything in the NEC itself is shut for the bank holiday weekend. Umm. This left the majority of attendees stuck with the hotel’s massively overpriced bar food (I ran into Rod Rees in the bar, just as his insanely expensive lunch arrived. We were so gobsmacked by the cost that we barely got to talking…) but that’s an already well-discussed gripe by now.

The thing about Eastercon is that it is, of course, very science-fictiony (and is to the BSFA what Fantasycon is to the BFS) so there’s inevitably less on the programming that appeals to me than at, say, World Horror or Fantasycon. As a result, I went to even fewer items than I usually do at these things (I think I managed 2… maybe? More of which later.) and more than ever, the reason for my going was the people.

This is why I enjoyed my Eastercon so very much, in the end. I met some wonderful people as well as catching up with some I already knew – even if it was all-too-briefly.

Lee Harris & Ro Smith spirited me away to watch Dr Horrible’s Singalong Blog (god, it’s good) and, as the name suggests, they sang along with most of it. The lovely Mike Shevdon & I got to bore everyone else with archery talk (again), and I caught up with Emma Jane Davies & Saxon Bullock as well as Rod, whose Demi-Monde is rapidly going, well, global. And having convinced me to read some Tim Powers, John Berlyne charged round the Dealers’ Room in search of the copy of “The Anubis Gates” he’d spotted earlier – and which we failed utterly to find.

But quite apart from old friends, there were new ones – some of them, like the fine fellows previously only known to me as mygoditsraining, gavreads and figures, from Twitter.*

There was the stellar Amanda Rutter, our fearless leader from Genre for Japan – this being the first time that we had met, and to get together with Amanda & Ro was fantastic.

I ended up tagging along with the Angry Robot team for most of the weekend, particularly with Anne Lyle (whose alternative history novel comes out early next year) and – at long last – Adam Christopher, whose debut will also be published by Angry Robot in 2012. We’ve chatted on Twitter for a while now, and have managed to miss each other at two conventions at least, so to finally get round to talking face to face felt long overdue. He’s an absolute gentleman, and both very funny and annoyingly clever – and I hope we get the chance to catch up again soon.

I got chatting too, to YA author & self-confessed China Mieville fanboy Tom Pollock – someone else I’d have loved to spend more time talking with as he’s fabulous. The same goes for the lovely Helen Callaghan (the lady has a healthy appreciation for Gerard Butler. She can do no wrong.)

My experience of the programming was slightly less positive: most notably summed up by the “Women Invisible” panel. Scheduled against one of the major Guest of Honour Q&As, this was never going to be well-attended, which was a shame. This was further compounded when what could have been an interesting debate on how to increase the visibility of women within genre (and to discuss why they are perceived as being so much less visible in the first place) descended into little more than in-fighting. It felt like an opportunity missed – and, to make matters worse, was largely repeated in the next gender-specific panel the next day. Perhaps the issue of women in SFF is too emotive for some of us, and unimportant for others… and never the twain shall meet.

But as I say, the memories of the actual programming are secondary to all the others – and I came away with some great ones: being dragged off to a very late-night room party by the excellent Lavie Tidhar & Mike Ramalho from Angry Robot / Osprey, where we were amply furnished with free drinks (hurrah!); watching Dr Who with an entire convention’s worth of people; an intensely serious but ultimately very interesting 3am conversation in the bar; another very late-night conversation which was still interesting but decidedly less serious (and after which The 300 will never be the same again…) and so many more. Adam tried to convince me to watch Dark Shadows from the start (and not just the bit where it gets interesting….), Amanda co-opted the Beeblebear I bought for Small Boy, and Ro introduced us to the game of Creative Consequences. The other palyers have already posted the stories they took home as a result: I’ll post mine soon.

In short, I had a fabulous time – in spite of (or, I suspect because of) my rarely moving from the bar. I always knew there would be a limited amount on the bill to interest me… but I came away feeling like it had been a weekend very well spent indeed – something I put down entirely to the quality of the company.

Which just goes to show: with the right company, even the Cons you’re not entirely sure about will turn out just fine…


*I should probably point out, as I’ve been oh-so-gently prompted to do (coughGavcough) that these fine folk also have real names. And those would be Andrew Reid, Gav Pugh and Adrian Faulkner respectively. Honestly, you try and preserve a little mystery….

The Weeks That Weren’t

Oh, sweet lord, I’m back.

Well, back-ish.

The last few weeks have been utterly nuts in the best possible way, which is why I’ve vanished from the internet.

Since the last time I was here, I’ve moved (properly this time) into a slightly eccentric but altogether lovely house, where I’ve been unpacking like a mad thing… and I’ve attended not one but two Cons, where I met some fantastic people, as well as catching up with some old friends.

All of this stuff needs blogging. It really does. Just give me a couple of days to cover it – because seriously, there’s a lot to say….