Monthly Archives: April 2014

Coffee memories


Strange how the mere hint of a smell can take you back years. It happened to me this morning, in my local garage shop, waiting by the coffee machine for my latte. I’ve used the same machine countless times, but today was different. I caught the smell of coffee beans and was instantly transported back over fifty years, to the coffee-house under the arches at Portsmouth station. The smell that emanated from its door was the most exotic, exciting scent in the world to me. A mixture of rich, heavy coffee, ice cream and wafer biscuits. Inside the long, narrow shop were two rows of fixed booths, with an aisle between them. It was like a train that never went anywhere.

My treat was an ice cream; cold, thick, and buttery yellow. I always went there with Great Aunt Eva. I spent a good part of my childhood with her, while my parents ran a pub in the city. Her sprawling Victorian terraced house had two steps up to the front door and a brass knocker that got polished every morning. Ice cream in hand, if it was fine, we’d wander into the park, with its aviaries and wide lawns. We’d watch the old man who spent every day there with a bag of seed, feeding the sparrows. They lined up on his outstretched arm, waiting to be fed. Sometimes we’d venture under the arches, into the town and stroll through Charlotte Street market. There was little shop, just a few feet wide, with a sloping marble slab in the window. Here were piles of cockles and winkles, fresh from the shore. We’d go home with a pint of cockles, wrapped in newspaper, through Guildhall Square, following the railway line, over the bomb sites (Portsmouth took a real pasting during WWII) and back home for lunch. The cockles were large and plump and tasted of the sea.

I loved my childhood with Aunt Eva. She didn’t mind if my long hair was loose and wild, didn’t mind me playing with a stray kitten in the coal shed at the bottom of the little garden, didn’t mind me roaming the castles and caves of the bomb sites. My mother would have had a blue fit if she’d known how much freedom I had in those years. My mother put my hair in rags at night so that I had pretty ringlets every day.

HMS Victory, the old face of Portsmouth

HMS Victory, the old face of Portsmouth

On rainy days I retreated to the chair below the little window in the back room that looked out into the yard. This was my island in the South Seas, safe from the storms, and the big dining table was the roof of my secret cave. The green velour cloth that always covered it hung down almost to the floor, and I’d sit with my back against a stout round leg, perfectly content with my world.

Aunt Eva had once been married to a sailor. I never met my Uncle, always referred to by my aunt as ‘My Jack’. He was a submariner. One day his boat submerged and never came up again. Aunt Eva never remarried, never had children of her own. Their wedding photo sat on the sideboard, next to the blue biscuit barrel, a sepia portrait, with Jack in his sailor’s uniform, and my aunt in her fox stole, leaning towards each other, smiling at the camera. I thought they looked like film stars.

Three doors down from my aunt’s house lived an ex-soldier and his Polish wife. When we visited we sat in the front parlour, surrounded by rich velvet throws and large plants. It was voluptuous, a feast for the eyes of deep red and gold.  It was a different word and it took my breath away. I can still feel the softness of velvet throws against my legs and see gold tassels shimmer in the firelight. To this day, I believe that room informs my choice of colours and fabrics for my own home.

Spinnaker Tower- the new face of Portsmouth

Spinnaker Tower- the new face of Portsmouth

I remember the corner shop, two streets away, where I was sent for packs of Woodbine cigarettes. I liked the picture on the packet front, the tiny blue flowers, and curling leaves. Sometimes there were pop bottles to take back, and the returned deposit to spend on sweets. There were square tin boxes of biscuits that could be bought by weight, and a box at the end of the row with broken biscuits for when money was tight.  A paper warehouse at the end of the road paid pennies for bundles of newspapers. Tied up with rough string that cut into my fingers, it was worth the pain for the sweet money.

Then the bomb sites were redeveloped as part of a grand plan for new housing. Aunt Eva’s beautiful house was subject to a compulsory purchase order. Even the road disappeared, buried somewhere under a high-rise block of flats. Aunt Eva moved back to North Wales to live near her sisters. I moved to Yorkshire with my parents and my childhood was over.

All this from a cup of coffee.



Whitby Goth Weekend


We picked the right day to go to WGW. Apart from a light drizzle just as we arrived, the day stayed fine, if cool. We braved the bracing east wind to sit outside cafes watching the endless parade of Goths, Steampunks and other characters that defied any classification.

I am in awe of the skill, imagination and sheer wackiness that goes in to the creation of some of the costumes. They range from full Victorian costumes, with hoops and bustles to Steampunks in glorious brass accoutrements, with the odd Viking warrior and a fair interpretation of Loki. Some were truly scary, like the hooded woman in grey, with a demon’s mask.

I always come away fromWGW with my faith in the creativity of the individual renewed. In a generation that seems largely to favour grey and black clothes in a limited range of styles, the panoply of colour and styles in Whitby is a feast for the eyes and a declaration that individual style is alive and kicking. No-one does black like a Goth.

Whitby Abbey looked suitably Gothic on the cliff top, under grey skies. I wonder what Bram Stoker would have made of it all?

Character migration


Words seem to be behaving again. I managed to get all my articles finished last week. I’d love to get on with another novel, but I know once I get started I won’t want to write anything else until it’s finished, and I need to get on with some more non-fiction stuff for a while.

I’m a great believer in letting things bubble away at the back of my mind. So that’s where I’ve consigned ideas for fiction right now. There’s only one problem. Characters seem to be migrating from one plot to another. This isn’t very helpful of them. Maybe they feel neglected, pinned in their half-formed stories, waiting to be called into the light of day and the reality of the printed word. It could be that they’re lonely. Most of them have to exist in isolation, until I dream up friends or enemies for them to play with.

I’m sure there’s a story in there somewhere….

Lost in translation


Sometimes the words just aren’t there. Actually, they are there, but the right words don’t come out in the right order. It’s as if there is a disconnection between brain, hand and screen. Somewhere in the translation of thought from idea to reality, the words get themselves tangled and confused.

Take yesterday (please take yesterday – erase it from memory as a non-event). I thought I’d have a few hours off in the afternoon, so started work early. All I had to do was write two fairly short articles and a blog post.  A total of about 1500 words. A walk in the proverbial park. By the end of the day not only had I not achieved that meagre output, but I hadn’t had a few hours off either.

So what went wrong? I’ve developed the habit of ‘writing’ articles in my head before I get anywhere near a laptop. That way I get off to a flying start, with at least the introduction ready to type and a good idea of the structure of the rest of the piece. Yesterday I was struck with an episode of BPS (Blank Page Syndrome) as soon as I opened up a new document. Half an hour later, the first sentence glared at me from the screen. It was ugly, poorly constructed, and didn’t say much at all. Back to square one with the BPS. By lunchtime, I’d struggled through about 700 words, by a laborious process of writing and erasing, over and over again. A quick break for lunch and I re-read the morning’s output. Somehow, in that brief break, the words had magically re-organised themselves into a truly awful piece of writing.

Eventually I finished a fair draft of that piece, got 200 words of a second article written, then gave up. I haven’t had the heart or the nerve to review yesterday’s work yet. I suspect I won’t be dancing for joy when I do.

Some days just don’t work.

The allure of gaslight


I don’t know what it is about gaslight fiction. I love reading it, and I love writing it. I think it goes back to when I read Jekyll and Hyde at uni. I peeled back the layers of the story through the social history of Victorian Britain and I was hooked. I think its got something to do with the duality of a society that covered up the legs on pianos and at the same time enabled, if not encouraged, a debauched under-society of prostitution, opium dens and every kind of depravity imaginable. That was for the men, of course. The women lived a life apart, on the whole, tied to house and family duty, either unaware, or deliberately ignorant of, the darker world beyond their front doors, just around the corner.

Edinburgh, where Robert Louis Stevenson was born, epitomised this duality, with its facade of wealthy, respectable houses masking all kinds of nastiness just a street or two distant. It’s this grey area, where the two worlds meet, that I’m drawn to. I am fascinated by liminal places, doorways, portals (real or imagined) and hidden entrances to ‘other’ places. There’s also the age-old battle between good and evil, an evergreen source of inspiration for writers. But again, the murky greyness is far more interesting. The flawed hero, the gentle woman who ends up as the mad woman in the attic.

But why gaslight particularly? For me, there’s a feeling that goes with either reading, writing or watching gaslight. It’s like eating a Belgian truffle rather than a dry biscuit, or handling velvet rather than sackcloth. There’s a sumptuous indulgence, almost a forbidden pleasure, in the language and the atmosphere.

Of course, there’s the esoteric side to it, especially when writing. The chance to bring the spirit world into the real, to hint at mysteries long buried, evils that rear their heads again to claim new victims. Wonderful stuff like that. In a gaslight story it seems natural to include ghosts and ghouls and things that go bump in the night. The Woman in Black was totally believable to me, because of the setting; the grey, drab, atmosphere. The same story wouldn’t have worked for me in a modern setting.

I am addicted to Lovecraftian language. I try not to use it, but I love reading it. It’s language you can swim in, it has deep texture and rolls like waves across the page. It undulates and pulses with barely described horrors. (See how easy it is to slip in to the mindset?)

Creaks and groans, things that slither and slide in the darkness. Un-nameable things from a dark past, conjured by some mad necromancer. The stuff of nightmares? Maybe. But let me dream on.

The world at my fingertips


I realise I’m several years later than most, but today I’ve installed Google Earth. Now I’ve got a new laptop that will actually load it without having a nervous breakdown and refusing to play until it’s had a long rest in a dark room.

I just wanted to look up some details about the topography of the Czech Republic. That was hours ago. Since then I’ve visited New York, crossed into Canada, journeyed through the Great Lakes and over the rocky Mountains. I’ve visited several houses I used to live in and Siena (my all-time favourite place). I even had a peek at where I live now (noting that the paintwork looked a lot better when the street view was filmed).

I have done no work since lunchtime. I don’t care. I feel as if I’ve been on an adventure. Work-wise, the rest of the week isn’t shaping up too well. So many places, so little time.



Movie Madness


So here I am again, shouting at the TV screen. It’s happening again. I’ve lost count of how many good movies have let me down this way, usually in the really good action scene at the end. There’s a clever, feisty heroine, a good fighter, so far showing no signs of a penchant for hysteria. The hero takes on the villain for the final battle. Does the heroine join in? Not on your life. She sits in a corner and screams for all she’s worth.

Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves is memorable for the intensity of Marian’s screams in the fight between Robin and Nottingham. All through the film, Marian shows the pluck required of her, even taking Robin on in hand to hand combat without uttering a squeak. So what happens when she could be really useful and help out when it matters? She cowers and whimpers. Then she starts screaming. It happens a lot. Maybe directors assume that it’s good for female characters to show their feminine side in this way.

Mind you, that’s not the only bad habit, displayed by both male and female characters, that has me ranting at the screen. For example, why, when they’re being chased, do characters always run UP the stairs? Down is better. Down is access to streets and people and places to run to. Up is bad. Up leads to a roof, with nowhere else to go without sprouting wings.

And what about the life-threatening impending disaster, bearing down on our plucky hero. Does he run like hell? No, he stands for a good few seconds, watching the tidal wave/lava flow/army of evil mutants bearing down on him, only reaching safety with a split-second to spare. If he’d moved more quickly he wouldn’t have cut it so fine.

Then there’s the all-time classic. It’s a dark and stormy night. Woman (usually), scantily clad in pale, flowing night clothes, hears a suspicious noise outside. Does she lock all the doors, arm herself with a poker and sit tight? No. She Grabs a torch and goes out. In the middle of a storm. In her nightclothes. With no raincoat. Towards the danger. Having been in that situation many years ago, I can still recall the sheer terror I felt. Wild horses wouldn’t have dragged me from the safety of a well-lit, locked-down house out into the uncertain night.

I know suspense has to be generated in movies. But it seems to me that dashing to the roof or venturing into the storm are not only predictable, but also severely underestimate the intelligence of the audience. In movies, as in books, the suspension of disbelief is critical. When characters behave with such predictable stupidity it weakens them and seriously undermines the whole plot.

Sometimes, I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of screams, by characters who run down instead of up, and by rational responses to danger in the dark. These are the exceptions rather than the rule. Am I alone in wanting it to be the other way round?