IWD 2020

Hidden Figure by Steve Breen

(Art = Hidden Figure by Steve Breen) INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 2020


Published in: on March 8, 2020 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on IWD 2020  

Narnia Underground

Just before Christmas, I found myself watching The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, on TV. Nice CGI, fiesty female leads, children doing grown-up things (instead of much of modern film showing grownups acting like children).

What struck me was the timeshift at the end: the four children, hotfoot from a major battle in Narnia, step through a magic portal back into wartime London.London Underground - To The Trains

The Underground, filled with ARPs and darkness, the children in school uniform carrying gas masks. The London of air raids and the Blitz, of missing parents or siblings fighting a war more real and more close than anything Narnia might hold. A city under siege, with no end in sight. More terrifying than an enchanted forest and an army of monsters.

This ending, with its abrupt slip from greenery and fantasy into a country at war, set me thinking.

My parents lived under German bombing raids.

My father’s house was flattened and his family had only the possessions they’d taken into the bomb shelter – the clothes on their backs, the change in their pockets, the baby in its pram and my father barely out of nappies. For a brief while my mother was an evacuee, and she remembered the bonfire at the end of the street on VE Day with an effigy of Hitler ablaze on top.

When I was born they brought me home to a bombed-out suburb. If I’d grown up there my playground would have been rubble and bomb craters and the clearances of condemned housing.

Instead, us kids played in fields and forests. But every time an aircraft flew overhead, we’d hide “from the Germans”, although the plane was more likely a charter heading for one of the Inner Hebrides. Along with cowboys & indians and the Famous Five, the family memories of bombing raids permeated our games.

I’m probably one of the last generations to remember this. My playmates were a few years older, with older siblings, who’d been children in the Sixties when the memory of wartime and rationing were still strong.

Och, even when I started primary school our textbooks were all tainted by the Second World War:

It’s more real to me than the wars fought since by Britain, except perhaps the Troubles, which were as much a part of my upbringing as the threat of imminent nuclear destruction during the Cold War.

What struck me about the Narnia film especially was how frightening it must have been for everyone, not just children, living under siege in wartime Britain. Blackouts darkened the streets, and those who carried lanterns hid their glow from open sight. The long dark nights of winter must have felt quite threatening.

My childhood games were safe – we knew the war was over. Even C S Lewis writing in 1950 knew how it all turned out.

There was a happy ending, for some.

But while the war went on, there was no certainty. Nobody knew how it would end, or when.

Instead the struggle continued – on all sides – and people bore up, or suffered, or caved in. But not to know that you were safe? Not to know that your home would still be there when you rose up out of the shelter in the morning, when the raids were over, the streets obliterated by the rubble of their own construction? To walk through darkened streets with only the lanterns of your fellow wanderers to light your way?

My childhood forty years ago was closer to the Second World War than that childhood is to today. In those forty years or so, the certainties which seemed so strong have been eroded, and continue to disappear, and strange new worlds have taken their place.

This electronic realm is almost close to Narnia – a step away from the real world, into the imagination, away from everyday troubles. We use this realm of the imagination to escape our cold realities. We tell stories to allow ourselves happy endings, even when there’s little hope in sight.

And we look for other lanterns in the darkness, to know we’re not alone.

Blackout Poster on the London Underground

My Favourite Anubis

While I was writing the month-long series of posts about my novel, SHADOWBOX, I came across the marvellous online archive at the Griffith Institute, part of Oxford University.

Significant among the archives is Howard Carter’s complete excavation records for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact…’ – Howard Carter’s telegram to Lord Carnarvon on 5 November 1922

The treasures Carter uncovered during that excavation need no introduction. They’ve toured the world in exhibitions everywhere, including the current Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Countless reproductions and imitations made out of everything from tatty plastic to solid gold are available online and in the street markets of Luxor. The treasures of Tutankhamun inspired whole movements in art and architecture, film and fiction and fashion.

That influence haunts us yet.

Besides the golden sarcophagi and jewelled collars, the life-size statues, the mummified husks of his stillborn children, the ceremonial ostrich-feather fans, the evidence of his early life as Tutankhaten, one item stood out for me as I browsed the online archive of Harry Burton’s photographs:

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884; © Copyright Griffith Institute, 2000-2014

More so than the little statues of Nephthys and Selqet and Isis and Neith which stood guarding the corners of the sarcophagus, this little statue of the god Anubis has a charm that reaches out across the centuries.

Wrapped in linen, tucked carefully into a niche in the tomb wall, the statue was placed by a member of Tutankhamen’s funerary gathering in 1323 BCE the way you’d tuck a child’s favourite teddy under his quilt as he fell asleep.

Harry Burton’s photograph shows us that moment frozen in time.


Just as I wrote about the earliest photographs in First Light On Paris, the photograph is an artefact in itself.

Look closer. See the crack?

Curving from top to bottom, just to the right of the statuette’s hind quarters, a black line showing where the original glass negative has been broken. And parallel to this black line, as straight as tram-lines in Cairo, twin edges showing where sticky-tape held the glass together.

Layers of time, overlapping, each of which tells a story of its own.

Don’t you wonder who dropped Harry Burton’s glass negative – and stuck it back together with tape?

And don’t you wonder what the person thought who placed that statuette there, 3337 years ago?

Don’t you wonder who they were, he or she, who wrapped the statue of Anubis so carefully in linen as though it were a charmed memento, to accompany the tragically-young pharaoh into the afterlife?

I certainly do.It’s why many people are drawn to archaeology as a profession – to tell the stories of other people, long ago, from the remnants they leave behind.

But only fiction can give us the answer.

Published in: on August 20, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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The Scent Of History

Ah, scent. Of all the senses, it’s often used to anchor memory in the mind, so that the whiff of fresh mown grass takes you back to childhood summers or the odour of rank socks reminds you of house-sharing with a sporty type.

But what about events or places outside our experience?Odour

It’s been said that outer space smells of dust. And if a novelist tells me that a made-up food tastes like peaches and shampoo, I can make an educated guess at what that might be like without trying to experience it myself.

Sometimes, however, it helps to smell a scent first-hand.

From the more recent past, some of the things which perfumed history are still around.

For example, while writing a story set in the summer of 1914, I might describe the perfume one of the female characters was wearing. How would I know what that smelled like? Blogs like Yesterday’s Perfume show the way.

It might not mean much to other writers, but I am keen to keep my historical fiction as accurate as possible before I twist it my way. If I write that a character was drenched in Tabac Blond, he or she better not be drenched before 1919.

Likewise my latest short story, Dogger, Forties, German Bight. It’s set in the 1950s, in England, and the country was still under post-war rationing. My characters aren’t wealthy, and they live in a small rural community on the shore of the North Sea.

They aren’t the sort to drench themselves in Tabac Blond, or L’Heure Bleu. They smell of ordinary things: carbolic soap, newspaper ink, Brylcreem.

I know what these things smell like, because they’re still around. Carbolic soap, in big rough pink blocks, was the staple of school washrooms until at least the late 1980s. You can even still find Izal Medicated! Listerine has that clean sharp buzzing taste, the original version, but was it as harsh in the 1920s?

The trench hospital montage in the Imperial War Museum – when I visited a few years ago, anyway – hit you in the schnozz with a waft of dried blood and TCP. At the time I was up to my eyeballs in Great War history, including the John Buchan volumes (not all 23, I hasten to add), so I reckon the museum curators had it spot on. After all, there were still a good few WW1 veterans around when the display was constructed, and nothing beats experience when it comes to recreating something from scratch.

In the (mighty fine) novel Perfume, The Story Of A Murderer, a hero with no scent of his own lives surrounded by the odours of Paris and Provence which the author describes in lavish detail. We have perfume recipes from the era in which the book is set. We even have perfumes that claim to be from that era, and the scents of the Parisian fish markets and tanneries have remained unchanged for centuries.

We have the same olfactory organs, the same sensitivities, as people in the past. Once you smell a scent and know its name, you can use that memory to translate others. Hence wine buffs going on about “oak” and “black cherries” and “lemon pips” and “the scent of fresh linen on the spring day a child takes her first Communion”.

There are other sources of smells from the past. Historians have recreated Bronze Age beer, and made ancient-style bread, using modern stock of the old genotypes of wheat and barley and rye. Archaeologists in Siberia regularly excavate mammoths so we know, or can make a good guess, what their diet was, and what they might have smelled like on the wind blowing across the taiga when the Ice Age frosted Europe.

But when you have a truly lost scent, or the scent of an alien planet, how can you convey that on the page?

Giuseppe Baldini at the mixing desk

Du Riechst So Gut…

Published in: on March 12, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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Buried Treasure

“When we study history we obtain a more profound insight into human nature by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society”
Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1832)

As a student, I chose to study archaeology because I’d been fascinated by Ancient Egypt since childhood. Only when I got to university and had to decide in which area to specialise did I realise I’d been led down a false path.

I couldn’t see the practical application of being able to read and write hieroglyphics.

I couldn’t afford to visit Egypt, and back then I didn’t know enough about the world to realise that if I had to travel on business I’d get expenses.

And I didn’t see too many jobs in the museums of Britain where an in-depth knowledge of Egyptology was going to be a boon.

So I chose to study Prehistoric Europe.

Prehistory by its very nature is mysterious: before history, before documentation, before the record-keeping and writing that forms so much of what we know about ancient peoples. So I didn’t need to learn Ancient Greek, or Latin, or hieroglyphics.

I got to play with a theodolite. I got to Italy, and excavated a site where Otzi the Iceman got his axe. I got chapped fingers scrubbing pot-sherds in cold water.

I discovered buried treasure was the result of a lot of digging, a lot of sifting, and a lot of luck.

On November 5th 1922, Howard Carter wrote in his pocket diary: 'Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramsses VI investigated same & found seals intact.'

On November 5th 1922, Howard Carter wrote in his pocket diary: ‘Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramesses VI investigated same & found seals intact.’

I got to realise that the world of professional archaeology is a small one. Contracts are short, and pay is low. Competition is high for the paid jobs that come up and I’d started too late to make a career of it without paying my dues for years to come. Years of moving from place to place and job to job, never settled, not knowing where your next contract might lead.

I’d already spent years living like that. The lure of buried treasure wasn’t so strong that I’d put up with the equivalent of going to the Klondike and living in a tent for a decade.

But as a writer, I can create buried treasure of my own.

I go digging. From the comfort of my desk, with a map and an open mind.

I take my lantern and my shovel and go out into the darkness between the lines of my favourite stories, like Howard Carter searching between the empty tombs of the Valley Of The Kings.

Searching for wonderful things.

Giovanni Belzoni Gets A New Assistant

A trip to the British Museum this week brought an unexpected resource to  my attention for my current work-in-plan, Project AR: the travel drawings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi. The work in progress is a prequel to my novel, The Last Rhinemaiden, and is about the life of that story’s hero, Louis Beauregard, as a younger man.

Edward Dodwell, Simone Pomardi, Panorama from the top of the Mousaion Hill, Athens. Watercolour, 1805. From the British Museum website.

In my short story, All Roads Lead To The River, Louis visits the pyramids at Giza in the company of two English explorers. He’s described as having “caroused around the Greek islands in the company of playboys and poets”, until he arrives with Smyth & Petherick in Libya as their draftsman.

Dodwell and Pomardi were draftsmen.

Gold mine.

All their work took place twenty years or so before Louis fictionally arrives there. The landscape hadn’t changed much in that time, although it did in the ensuing twenty years as the Greeks, having won their War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, proceeded to remove all trace of the overseers.

I originally went to see the exhibition of Ice Age Art (how could I not? I majored in prehistory at university; Ice Ages and their effects on northern Europe play a major part in the story of The Last Rhinemaiden and its offshoots). While I waited for my ticket time to come around, I took a wander.

It’s the British Museum – there’s plenty of things to see. For once I didn’t go to see to Pete Marsh. I avoided the Egyptian gallery too, and the Elgin Marbles (although I began to wish I’d zipped past them just the once after this…)

Serendipity, call it what you will, but I entered the exhibition entitled “In Search of Classical Greece”. I hadn’t heard of either of the two gents whose drawings formed the mainstay of the exhibits, but as I went around I learned a lot more about them and the circles they moved in.

The drawings of the Greek landscape were technically perfect, but lots more interesting snippets popped out of the texts. Names to look up, topographical details, local people in costume, travellers in English period costume. I was scribbling notes like a wild thing. Byron; Shelley; the aforementioned Lord Elgin. A touch of The Stress Of Her Regard (Tim Powers) in the air, perhaps, of the British Museum on a sunny afternoon.

Then yesterday, in a planned day of exploration for more Project AR groundwork, I took a trip to Bristol and wandered around their Georgian House Museum – fascinating – before going up the steep hill of  Park Street to the university area and the lovely, compact but jam-packed City Museum & Art Gallery for a lunchtime talk.

On the drawings of the tomb of Seti I by Giovanni Belzoni.


In addition to a peek at some Belzoni artefacts – a chunk of plaster chipped from the wall of the tomb that Belzoni had marked with his name, for example – the talk also mentioned how the paintings were produced: the techniques used, the inks, the paper, the protocols for painting the scenery. I already knew some of the original Egyptian protocols, the dimensions and such like, but it was interesting to see that the copyists used much the same ideas.

And when he’d finished despoiling the tombs he excavated, what did Belzoni do with the goodies?

Belzoni assistant

Belzoni toured with his discoveries. This in the collections of Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery.

He shipped them off to Europe and toured the provinces at their expense.

Belzoni produced the drawings as part of a touring exhibition, and they formed a mock-up that people could wander around in. If I hadn’t been to the Dodwell & Pomardi exhibition the day before, I wouldn’t have known how common that was at the time, to the extent that special rotundas were built in the 1790s-1800s so people could go into a landscape and experience it in 360 degrees – the original Imax.

The Museum staff handed round a handbill of the exhibition of two mummies, an excellent example of the over-wordy printer-going-bananas-with-his-art. And there was a guidebook – a genuine one, from the period, with a map of Egypt that folded out, and about 8 pages of tight typescript explaining the excavation and the exhibition.

Wow. Again.

As a historian, even Belzoni’s artefacts are cool. I have handled a 180-year-old booklet produced for Giovanni Belzoni’s exhibition. Cool.

And in addition to being cool, both exhibitions gave me a nice set of reference points for Project AR and how Louis Beauregard would actually do all that carousing around the Grand Tour with poets and playboys.

The exhibitions are totally free. The talk was totally free. The British Museum, and Bristol City Museum, are getting a big acknowledgement in the front of the finished novel.

But first, I have to write the blasted thing…

I Bet They Had Blisters

Last night I was flipping through a history book (looking for something else) when I came across a set of pictures of Roman statues, all cool white marble and carved straining muscles, and I began to noodle on the practicalities, as one does.

Roman sandal on Belvedere Apollo by Pio Clementino

Roman sandal on Belvedere Apollo by Pio Clementino

Not just the argument that the statues were originally painted so they looked lifelike (sounds a bit cheesy to me, TBH).

The notion I found interesting was that when the sculptors hewed the marble, they (or their patrons) cared little for the physical realities of the gladiator/mythological hero/centurion they were portraying in their scanties.

I.E. Roman armour must have chafed something awful.

Especially for those Romans posted to Hadrian’s Wall, where even if you wore woolly undies, the climate isn’t best suited for iron scale mail. Rust, and chafing.

Even blisters. Those sandals don’t look comfortable, even if you do wear them with big woolly socks.

Caligae with nails - Roman sandal

Caligae with nails – Roman sandal via Wikimedia Commons

So where are the scars? The hard skin, the bunions, calluses and ingrown hairs? We don’t see them in the archaeological record – the soft parts don’t preserve too well – but anyone who has taken part in one of those re-enactment societies must know the daily grimness of the garments.

In choosing to portray the perfection of their imagination, do the sculptors betray the lives and great deeds of those they seek to portray?

Or is it just not noble enough to admit that Achilles’ heel was blistered?

Published in: on September 10, 2012 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on I Bet They Had Blisters  
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The Joy of Bloggy Relics

When I find a new blog I like, one of the activities I enjoy most is going back to the earliest postings and reading the whole thing through, up to the most recent.

From the start of Joe Konrath‘s blog, you read about his efforts to push his books to bookshops across the USA. He documents the details and the sheer hard work he put in to make this happen, and then there’s the subtle shift… He finds ebooks.

There’s Dean Wesley Smith, writing his sensible advice back in 2008, cautious about the new technology that is starting to gain traction.

Luann Udell, whose posts go back ten years on the trials and tribulations of making a living at your art (in her case, little Stone Age horse figurines).

My newest discovery, Grumpy Old Bookman, whose blog posts from 2004 onwards are an online archive of the development of publishing in the UK, including the rise of ebooks and indie publishing. I’ve been looking for a source of information with a UK perspective since finding Dean Wesley Smith two years ago. This is one of those sources, and I prefer it to others.

Nicola Morgan, the Crabbit Old Bat, is a great read and another UK perspective on publishing, including ebooks and especially non-fiction.

Terri Windling, whose lovely welcoming blog has lots of great illustrations used liberally, photos and words and links to folklore topics and a perspective from the editing side of the page. Plus, she has a very photogenic dog.

All of these – and more – filled with musings and developments. The gradual buildup of posts create a voice, a real sense of personality, and the best of them create a sense of being someone’s “home” on the web.

Each time I read a long-enduring blog, I’m reminded that the volume of posts takes time to create. One of the joys is seeing how situations change the writer, or the writer finds their niche or their specialism or their folly.

This inspires me.

Each blog post of my own is a marker on my own web history, the development of my work or the growth of my writing voice, what I choose to say with it.

The messages I send to the future.

And I know I’ve barely begun.

Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on The Joy of Bloggy Relics  
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Shaken, not stirred

Just watched Mythbusters on the debate over whether there’s a difference between a Martini made the James Bond way (shaken) versus The Other Way (stirred).

Turns out, according to the onscreen Martini expert(s), there is a significant difference. The “shaken” is more dilute than the “stirred” due to the ice in the cocktail shaker which melts a little during the crafting of the beverage and finds its way into the drinkie. The resulting “shaken” Martini is slightly less intoxicating than the “stirred” variety.

Using sobriety as a tool of espionage? How very British.

N.B. Thanks to T for the wit.

Published in: on July 13, 2012 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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How The Doors made ten albums with a dead Jim Morrison

When Jim Morrison died in 1971, the Doors were in a period of their career which is commonly referred to as the crisis point.Rolling Stone cover, August 1971 (Jim Morrison)

They had a number of years when they were experimental; played small venues; didn’t have a record contract with a major label. Nobody much outside their circle of friends went to see them.

They also had a number of years when they surfed the wave of festivals, outdoor concerts, TV shows, tours of the USA and Europe and Japan, had chart success across the world and lived the dream.

Then they reached the point where that workload stopped being attractive. They relaxed.

Not a bad thing – they had worked hard to get where they were and were all a little wacked out.

But having that success made it hard for them to get into the studio to record new material.

Jim Morrison was living in Paris, for a start, and was having trouble with his drinking, leading to ill-health.

As for the others, as they readily admit in various biographies, they were soaking up all sorts of recreational drugs, smoking and toking and injecting themselves with unregulated substances, which is not smart in itself.

While their creativity as individuals roamed new territories, the output from the Doors plummeted. How the heck do you produce a new album when you haven’t played together for months? And don’t particularly want to?

Album art for the Doors, Weird Scenes Inside The Goldmine

Weird Scenes Inside The Goldmine – a masterpiece in two parts (click to visit allmusic to hear samples)

When I first had enough money to buy music, I was limited by the amount of freight I could carry with me. I had no transport and relied on trains and buses to get me to the remote out-of-the-way places where I worked.

Everything I took with me, including my music, had to be portable. (This was before wi-fi and 3G and iPods, remember. Back in the 1980s.)

I discovered the Doors. I loved their music. I bought every cassette I could find that had a Doors album on it. And about seven albums in, I discovered something which stopped me buying any more.

The Doors didn’t record ten or twenty albums before Jim Morrison died.

They recorded six.

But if you look at the lists, you’ll see many more than six albums listed for the Doors. As Wikipedia has it:

The discography of the American rock band The Doors consists of nine studio albums, four live albums, twenty-two compilations, eighteen Bright Midnight Archives and twenty-one singles. The list also includes fourteen video albums, a bibliography, and a filmography.

How come?

Live performances. Concerts. Compilations. Recordings of album tracks made during tv shows

Japanese albums with slightly different running orders or different cover art.

German albums with restricted access because they came out in West Berlin and weren’t available to East Germany (remember the DDR?).

And, of the compilation albums, the outstanding Weird Scenes Inside The Goldmine.

I remember being pissed off at that, because the cassettes only had nine tracks on each and it meant I had to carry two cassettes for one album.


The remaining albums were repurposed, reimagined, repackaged compilations of tracks from the previous studio albums.

After Jimbo died, the sales of the Doors albums rose exponentially, as they always do when a star dies.

It happened with John Lennon, it happened with Michael Jackson, it happened with Kurt Cobain. It happened in 2011 with Amy Winehouse.

The record company or the manager of the remaining Doors or the producer – somebody – realised there was a way to cash in on this notoriety, even though there would be no new Doors tracks with Jim Morrison’s voice.

FFS, we even had a Doors tour recently where there was another singer doing the Jimbo bit. Old tracks, favourites, redone.

And now the bit that means a lot to writers.

If you have a set of short stories up for sale, you can combine them into collections. I have ten shorts in the Cuckoo Club Archives, and I have two “Tales from…” volumes.

I tried to design them to look like the proceedings of a learned society, to add to the overall feel of the universe, and I’m trying to work out how to produce a 10-story volume (it might have to be 12 stories, so it’s like an annual report).

But once I have another couple of dozen of those short stories, I can start to go all Doors on them.

Themed collections: rivers, London, specific characters, Russia, Europe, Africa, Asia, 19th century, prehistory…

Five stories in each volume. Ten stories in a larger volume. Twenty, twenty-five, fifty stories in an omnibus.

Novels with short stories that provide background details.

Novellas with short stories that have a similar theme, or a shared character, or location.

Whatever takes my fancy. Not to rip people off, but to spread the works around more readers, so that if you find my work through a short story about Thailand, for example, you can find other stories with that theme or character.

It’s not something that will happen overnight. It’s a big programme, and each story is a project within it, and has correspondences and links I have to identify and match up.

But is it fun?

Oh yes indeedy.

P.S. Come back next year and see how far I’ve got.

Published in: on March 27, 2012 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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