London

Halloween in the Hall of Corpses

If you follow some of the Team Mushens (as in Juliet Mushens, our lovely agent. Yes, she has a posse. I know.)  group on Twitter, you’ll probably have heard about the Halloween Shorts thing we’ve got running, arranged by the marvellous @mygoditsraining.

I say “we”, because I’m kind of cheating on this one and going slightly off-campus. While the others have all been terribly good and clever and written proper actual new short stories for Halloween, I’ve not had time and am horribly disorganised and, well, me.

However, the other day while I was rummaging through my hard drive looking for yet another file that I’d managed to save to completely the wrong place and then lose (because – again – me) I came across this. Think of it as something from the catacombs.

Murderess Lane is an old story of mine… I must’ve written it around 2009, 2010 – something like that and it was published online by Hub Fiction magazine. I’m very attached to it, partly because it’s set in Smithfield and the City of London. This has long been one of my favourite places and I’ve both lived and worked there. It’s part of my history – which is probably why I feel an incredible urge to go back and mess with it. This is also the story which introduced the Hall of Corpses – which is the closest thing to a mythos I’ve got. It’s turned up (either alluded to, in disguise or flat-out as itself) in a couple of things I’ve done, for no other reason than my idiotic affection for the idea.

So, ahead of Halloween (and posted now because come tomorrow I disappear down the convention rabbithole for a week)… welcome to Murderess Lane.

 

MURDERESS LANE

 

I once met a man who had a habit of finding strange places. I say “habit” rather than “gift” although that’s what I’d call it, myself. He was a man who could be found next to a bar – no matter the time of day or night; the kind of man who, if asked the right sort of questions and given the right sort of drinks, would tell you anything you wanted to know. Just the kind I was looking for.

I met him in a pub in west Smithfield, where he was slowly but steadily working his way through the row of bottles behind the bar: he wasn’t especially pleased to see me, but I sat down beside him anyway and began by asking if he was the man who had found the Hall of Corpses. The question didn’t surprise him, and instead he squinted across at me, then laughed. “So you know about that one, do you?”

(more…)

The Only Plan is B

Lots of people have already picked this up & commented on it, but as a long-term Plan B fan, I had to jump on the bandwagon.

In case you’ve not seen it, here’s the astonishingly good video for his next single: Ill Manors (language NSFW, by the way).

It’s worth checking out this interview with him from October 2011 if you want to hear more of his opinion on British society and government, and what he thinks needs to change (from 4:30 onwards). He’s a very passionate voice, and he speaks with intelligence and eloquence – something his recent speech at the TEDx festival only served to underline.

Everyone knows one person out there they can help who’s less fortunate than them. And I’m not talking about help financially. I’m talking about knowledge. Plant that seed. Find out what these kids are good at, or what they care about or what they like, and try and draw it out of them because it will change their lives.

If you’re talking about inspiring people, it’s good to sound like you mean it – and he does.

And more to the point, he’s certainly inspired me… how about you?

The Legend of Bleeding Heart Yard

One of my favourite London street names is “Bleeding Heart Yard”. It’s just off Hatton Garden, right at the edge of the City of London – and not far from the Barbican, where I used to live. Its unusual name stems from a particularly grim London legend.

The land was given to Sir Christopher Hatton by Elizabeth I. When he married, his wife’s dances became a high-point of the social season. One night, as a great ball was in progress, a black-robed man with a twisted hand threw open the doors to the ballroom and walked among the dancers until he found Lady Hatton; first, sweeping her into a dance, then leading her from the room.

Suddenly, there was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning… and the assembled company heard a piercing scream from outside. Rushing to the aid of their hostess, the party were able to find no trace of her… except for her still-beating heart in the courtyard.

Lady Hatton, so the legend goes, chose to dance with the devil – and paid for it with her soul.

 

Defending the Dead

There’s a ghastly story in the news today: the story of two brothers in Pakistan who dug up the body of a young woman and turned some of the flesh into a curry.

Predictably, I heard about this from one of the horror posse–and equally predictably, everyone else (me included) jumped in with less-than-tasteful comments.

That’s not the nicest response to such an appalling piece of news, I know. The thing is, how else do you process something like that? Humour is our only real defence against the real horrors of the world–and for all their posturing, horror writers are generally more appalled by these sorts of stories than they let on. After all, they like to think that they can think up worse than you’d ever dream of; things that you couldn’t ever imagine actually happening… sadly, that’s not always the case.

It’s been a day for the dead one way and another, with the release of photos from the new archeological digs that have opened up along the route of the Crossrail construction through central London. There are currently 20 digs in progress, one of which is directly in the middle of the site of Bedlam – or St Bethlem hospital – and its burial ground.

Any major building project in London always uncovers history: the arrival of the railways at Kings Cross & St Pancras led to mass exhumations from the churchyards around the parish of St Pancras, and the Barbican’s foundations stand in the middle of a large plague-pit (part excavated, admittedly, by the Blitz). When work on One Poultry, close to the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City, began in the mid 1990s, the archaeology uncovered was so valuable to our understanding of Roman London that the dig lasted a full two years.

London is built on the bones of the dead: today’s Londoners literally stand on the shoulders of their forebears.

All of this reminded me of an article the New Scientist ran back in March about legislation governing the display & reburial of bodies discovered at archeological digs. It’s an entirely sensible piece: one which recognises the importance of treating the dead with dignity; of returning identified remains to their family (where possible) and the appropriate handling of bodies which have been requested for reburial on religious grounds. But it also argues that we can learn so much more from the long-dead: those whose names have been lost to history.

It is not in any obvious sense disrespectful to display a skeleton of someone long dead, if the display has a valid purpose. After all, in Catholic countries the display of relics, often said to be bones of the saints, is still commonplace.

In this context it is important to note that the issue of consent is largely irrelevant. The long dead cannot consent to be excavated, studied and displayed, but neither can they consent to be removed from their graves to make room for roads and houses. If we relied on their consent we would be living in a static society.

Their names may be lost, but their faces are not. Thanks to modern technology, we can get a good idea of how they looked, what they ate, how they lived and what killed them. Through archaeology, they get to live again – they get to tell their stories; they get to teach and to inspire.

We’re still standing on their shoulders, of course… but this way, we get to see where we come from–not just where we’re going.

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 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?

At the Cross-Bones Gates

Gates to Cross Bones graveyard

There’s a curious graveyard in south London. It was closed in the 1850s, having been described as being “completely overcharged with dead”, its gates are decked with ribbons and it’s where you’ll find the Winchester Geese.

Who were the Winchester Geese? “Single women”, as the Londonism went: prostitutes licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Liberty of the Clink – the fabulously disreputable area of Southwark famed for its brothels since the 12th Century (as it fell outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, the Church found it a convenient place both to accommodate female orphans and to deal with the… urges of the clergy. It was a notorious gambling spot, and riddled with thieves – a veritable den of iniquity if ever there was one). Curiously, it’s why you’ll occasionally see “goose bumps” historically used to refer to VD – to be “bitten by a Winchester goose” was to contract syphilis. Nice.

But I digress. We were talking about Cross Bones.

The graveyard was unconsecrated – burial there was the fate of not just the prostitutes but paupers too: anyone from the margins of society could find themselves among the 15,000 bodies thought to be interred there.

A vigil is held there every Halloween, led by playwright John Constable and the Friends of Cross Bones

You’ll find Cross Bones on Redcross Way, in Borough: look for the ribbons, which have now come to symbolise not just the women buried within, but all women in the oldest profession – and any of society’s outcasts, living or long-dead.

 

Boneyard

There was one minor consolation in the morass that was yesterday (apart from seeing Mike Carey again of course, which in and of itself should be consolation enough. I am such a geek) and that was my walk over Hungerford Bridge.

Not only was there a massive puddle–and by massive, I mean mahooosive, about ten feet across–right at the end of the footbridge, which lent itself nicely to a bit of Crystal Maze-style clambering along the railings at the Charing Cross end (I like to live dangerously, me, and it was very interesting when you met someone coming the other way) but for the first time, I spotted the skateboard graveyard on one of the piers. I can only assume it’s there because of the area on the South Bank that’s been taken over by the skaters & BMXers, and I wonder how many of the poor broken boards did their final ollies there.

Now, no doubt there’s a load of other Londoners sitting there thinking, “Umm, yeah?” but I had genuinely never seen this before. I can’t decide if it’s a lovely, touching sight or something crushingly sad: all these shattered decks, once someone’s pride & joy…

Anyway, I’m obviously not the first one to notice it, and then it turns out there’s actually a memorial page connected to it–not especially busy, but that’s not the point, is it?

Next time you’re headed over that way, stop and have a quick look–and let me know what you make of it.

And, while you’re on the subject, what else have you seen in unexpected places around London–or elsewhere–lately? I used to be absolutely scuppered by bits of wood on the top of bus shelters in Shoreditch with EINE written on them–of course, now that mystery’s solved… but are there any still out there?

Country Life

Me, I’m a townie. I was born in a town (albeit a small market down lost in the depths of west Wales) and I’ve lived in various bits of London for 12 years now – an alarmingly long time, come to think of it. In that time, I’ve lived in the madness of the middle (off Tottenham Court Road), in Queensway (no matter the time of day or night, there’s a Lebanese restaurant open), holed up in the bunker of the Barbican (love it, but blimey it’s odd) and then out in the wilds of Hackney: the film “Bullet Boy” was shot in the block of flats where I lived. Shot being the operative word. Just to clarify, no, I didn’t live in the posh bit.

And then six years ago, we moved down here, to the edge of London. It’s got a lot going for it: we’re close to Richmond Park, and in that odd fuzzy transition between city and countryside where there’s still shoe shops and decent takeaways that deliver.

But lately, the garden feels like it’s shrunk and the house is almost straining at the seams. This, I’m told, is what happens when you fit a child’s Stuff into a house that was already replete with two adults’ Stuff. And a cat. Anyone who has ever owned a cat will understand that they must always count as a whole extra person when you’re talking about space. They may not strike you as very big, but my god they can take up space when they want to.

We went to see a friend of the Other Half’s today: one who lives waaaay out in the Proper Country. He actually has a ride-on lawnmower, so you know it must be true. There wasn’t a plane to be heard, and suddenly everything London-y seemed so very, very far away. I haven’t worked out yet if that’s a good or a bad thing.

And this leaves me in a very interesting place. I’m just not quite sure where that is.