Thursday, March 16, 2017

Before The Internet Existed

Over on Twitter, #BeforeTheInternetExisted is currently trending. (Well, it's trending as I write this; by tomorrow something else will no doubt have overtaken it - #whatmycatjustdid or some such vital thing). I'm not sure I can confine myself to 140 characters on the topic of "What did we do before the internet?" so here's a blog post instead.

I'm not going to list all the things we did before the internet existed, and I'm definitely not going to go the full curmudgeon ("when I was a child we played outdoors on the main road/cleaned cars for a shilling/wrote 6 page letters to our grandmothers using a quill pen and parchment" etc etc). Personally I love the interwebz and cannot stay off it.*

One thing that I do remember with a certain fondness, though, is communicating with my loved ones when I was away travelling, in the days before smartphones, wifi, and - gasp! - even before internet cafes. Yes, dear friends, I have lived so long that I can remember such primitive times.

These days, when friends or relatives travel in far-flung places, they very properly post photographs to Facebook and Instagram the very same day. Sometimes they post them while they are actually doing whatever it is they are doing in those places. Back in 1992, when I travelled overland from London to Kathmandu on a Bedford truck, this was not so. Not only were there no internet cafes, the camera I took with me was one that had to be loaded with rolls of film, which were developed when you got home at the end of your trip. There was no Facebook yet, so the only way you could share your pictures with your friends was to show them the prints. You can imagine how time consuming that was. Nowadays, if I go anywhere interesting, I can show my snaps to 438 people with a few mouse clicks. Let us hope they are grateful. *cough*

In 1992 I did not have a mobile phone either. So the only way I could keep in touch with home was by using landlines (where I could get at one) or by post. Using a landline mostly meant waiting until we got to a city and then going to the telephone exchange, where I would pay extortionate amounts (in local terms) for a crackly two minutes talking to my boyfriend (now husband) in England. This was rather unsatisfactory, so mostly I used the post instead.

In the four months that I was away that time, I wrote to my other half pretty much every day, posting the letters whenever we got to somewhere with a posting box. I also wrote to my family. They wrote to me too, via a series of poste restante addresses that I gave them before I left. It was always rather a tense moment when we rolled into a town large enough to have a poste restante address, and went to see whether there were any letters! If there weren't any, it might be a wait of weeks before we got to the next poste restante, with no word in between.

I still have most of the letters exchanged on that trip. My husband kept all his, and I kept all the ones I received too. Nearly every single letter I sent on that trip and during my various other travels arrived safely. One from my mother addressed to me in Islamabad failed to turn up, and some postcards I sent from Uzbekistan took four months to arrive, but nothing else went astray.

Once in a blue moon I get all the letters out of the drawer where I keep them, and read some of them again. When I photographed them for this blog post (above), I picked out one at random and read, "I do not know when I will get to post this! We are rough camping on a hillside near Ephesus. It is dark and incredibly humid! This is our second attempt at a camp - we got moved off the last one by an irate farmer wielding a loaded shotgun (we know it was loaded because he fired a few warning shots)..." Ah, fun times.

Anyway, that's what we did before the internet existed.


Above: photo from the Karakoram Highway, taken with an old Pentax ME Super




* even though last time I used the word "interwebz", people actually wrote to me pointing out that "it is either the internet or the world wide web". Thanks.

Perthshire, "interspersed with anecdotes"!

Winter is nearly over: it's no longer dark at four o'clock in the afternoon, and last week I spotted the first daffodils. Even better, the wonderful Library of Innerpeffray (left) has opened again after its annual hibernation.

The other day I went over there with no more specific plan than to see if I could find some interesting tidbit to post on this blog. In the past I have posted extracts from A Treatise of Specter and from that perennial favourite, Reginald Scott's The Discoverie of Witchcraft. I still recall with affection Scott's warning to his readers: "A request to such readers as are loath to hear or read filthy and bawdy matters, which of necessity are here to be inserted, to pass over eight Chapters." I wonder if anybody ever did pass them over?

(NB: for the full story on those filthy and bawdy matters, take a peep here: http://helengrantbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/in-filthy-bawdery-it-passeth-all-tales.html)


Anyway, on this occasion, rather on impulse, I asked if there were any books about local country houses. I am very fond of visiting the historic sites of Perthshire, whether Historic Environment Scotland properties such as Huntingtower Castle, or those other lonely and seemingly unowned ruins that are dotted about the countryside, quietly crumbling into rubble. 



The library volunteer very kindly fished out three small volumes for me, one of which proved especially interesting. It was called "A Picture of Strathearn in Perthshire; or, a topographical description of its scenery, antiquities, & c. chiefly from Crieff to Lochearnhead. Interspersed with ancedotes." The book was written by "John Brown, Teacher of English, Writing, and Accounts, St.Fillan's, Comrie", and published in 1823. 

I think John Brown must have been an interesting person, and I wonder if I shall ever find out anything more about him, but that will have to wait for another day. I always feel very grateful to those nineteenth and early twentieth century local history fiends, who preserved so much interesting information. It was thanks to a German local historian, Father Krause, that the legends of Bad M√ľnstereifel that inspired my novel The Vanishing of Katharina Linden were preserved for posterity. 

Anyway, one particular passage in this book was of especial interest to me, and that was the part about the Dunira estate in Comrie, not far from where we live. One of my recent walks through the Perthshire countryside took me past the remains of old Dunira House, built in 1851-2 for Sir David Dundas, a.k.a. Viscount Melville. The property had stunning formal gardens laid out in the 1920s by Thomas Mawson. The house itself was mostly destroyed by fire in 1948, and eventually demolished within the last two decades. All that remains of it is the border of the terrace on which it stood, and overgrown staircases like the one pictured below. 



Of the gardens, somewhat more remains. Some years ago, they were briefly restored as part of a TV series - you can see the episode in question here: Lost Gardens - episode 5. It is still possible to pick out features such as fountain and pond. 

You can see a photograph of the house itself on the Canmore database alongside the architectural plans and some modern pictures of the site. The photograph is from about 1900. 


The house of 1851 was actually a replacement for a previous house at a different (but nearby) location, which had been prone to flooding. You can read more about that in Edward Rushworth's interesting History of Dunira. Given that
"A Picture of Strathearn in Perthshire" was published in 1823, it would be that previous house to which the book refers. 

This is what it says:


"Pursuing his tour for nearly a mile, with tall, flourishing plantations, and rich, level pasture-grounds on his left and right, the stranger at length arrives at the only open spot of the road from which a full view of the princely seat, velvet lawns, and variegated domains of


DUNIRA


is enjoyed. He will readily admit, that it would be difficult to find a spot in Scotland so singularly well adapted, in all respects, as the honourable retreat of a man who had figured so long and so conspicuously in the councils of the nation, and cabinet of his sovereign, as did its once noble proprietor, the late eminent statesman, profound politician, and patriotic Scotsman, Lord Viscount Melville. During a period the most critical and eventful in the history, and as regarded the destiny, of Europe, Lord Melville assisted in directing the helm of public affairs – and when he had at length resolved, at an advanced age, to retire from the fatigue and bustle of a public, to enjoy the peace and tranquility of a private country life, he made choice of the charming recess of Dunira as a fit place for spending the remainder of his days, and viewing with composure, the mighty events on the continent of Europe, resulting from the measures of himself and colleagues, when one of the heads of administration. 


Dunira House is a large square building, only about thirty years old, and designed somewhat in the ancient palace style, - the four fronts corresponding in height, and nearly so in breadth. They are studded with eighty-four windows, which, when darted upon by the sun's rays, as he declines to the western horizon, - assisted by the cheerful, whitened walls of the stately edifice, - the beautiful level green stretching for half a mile in front, encircled with a profusion of the thickest foliage, and of every hue, - the whole closely surrounded with mountains of stupendous height, covered with wood almost to the very summits, - form altogether a scene so enchanting, lively, and magnificent, as to defy the ablest pen or pencil to convey but a very inadequate idea of.*


Such as may feel inclined, and are at leisure to survey these premises more particularly, will be amply accommodated with private walks for that purpose. It is ascertained, that within the compass of less than two miles from the house, there are of these, measuring one with another, more than thirty miles in extent! They are in some places cut out of the solid rock, when leading to ravines, waterfalls (of which last there is a very curious one a little above the house,) fog-houses, or arbours, open rocky promontories, & c. The occasional views commanded from these situations, are romantic in the extreme; and indeed it require a whole summer day to do justice to the interesting environs of Dunira."


* A rather enticing footnote is inserted here, reading as follows:


"In one of the apartments of Dunira House, is an article of furniture singularly curious and valuable, being no other than the identical JEWEL CASKET which once belonged to the celebrated Indian prince HYDER ALLY, and which General Sir David Baird obtained among other precious spoil, when the cruel despot's stronghold at Seringapatam was at length totally demolished, after he himself had fallen in its defence, and amidst part of its ruins. Sir David made a gift of this splendid relic to his noble friend and countryman, the late Lord Melville. It is difficult to convey, by writing, an idea either of its construction or value. Its hinges, supporters, massy handles, and several large plates, are all of the purest gold! – And the various other materials of which it is built, are made to blend together by knobs and branches so exquisitely minute, and yet with the exactest order and design, as to render it an object of admiration, and one of the greatest curiosities ever brought to this country. Leave to see it may be obtained by application at the house."


I wonder what became of that jewel casket! Certainly it did not meet its end in the fire of 1948 because the estate had long since changed hands by then. Incidentally, there is a very large painting in the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, depicting Sir David Baird at Seringapatam, lording it over the body of Tipu Sultan, the son of Sultan Hyder Ali of Mysore. Presumably this was shortly before he pocketed all the loot, including the golden casket. 



I have probably thought about Sir David Baird more often than anyone sensibly should, because there is a monument to him close to Crieff, and the path to it is one of our favourite summer walks (there are raspberries to be picked on the way back). It takes the form of a large obelisk situated at the top of the small hill called Tom A' Chaisteil (left). The area is very overgrown, especially in the summertime. 

A few miles along the road in Comrie there is another hilltop obelisk, this one dedicated to that same Lord Melville to whom Sir David Baird presented the jewel casket. We have often idly speculated that the pair of them were trying to outdo each other ("my obelisk is bigger than yours"). 


Where, you may ask, is all this going? And I should have to answer: nowhere in particular. I simply love poking about in historic sites, and identifying the traces of history that proliferate everywhere. I love that "Ozymandias moment" of melancholy that comes from contemplating something that was once grand and important and is now largely forgotten. I love visiting abandoned places, and listening to the silent tales they tell. 

If I ever find out anything more about John Brown, I shall be sure to let you know. 












--> -->

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Antiquary and the Crocodile: M.R.James resources

As anyone who has read my blog before probably knows by now, I have been a big fan of the ghost story writer M.R.James since I was a child. I love the subtle and disturbing nature of his stories, expressed so restrainedly but often very gruesome when you look behind that elegant phrasing - face sucked off by tentacled creature, anyone?

One of MRJ's stories, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, was part of the inspiration for my novel The Glass Demon, which is about a set of haunted stained glass windows created by the same master craftsman who made the ones in MRJ's story. (MRJ's windows were real ones, however, from Steinfeld Abbey; mine are fictitious.)

I've also occasionally dabbled in Jamesian stories - Alberic de Mauleon, a prequel to Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, appeared in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows 1, and The Third Time, a sequel to A Neighbour's Landmark, appeared in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows 2. I have also written a completion to MRJ's unfinished tale The Game of Bear - it appeared in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter and was later republished in my collection The Sea Change and Other Stories. So my love of MRJ's stories has been quite creatively stimulating for me.

What I never really envisaged was that I would also end up writing quite a lot of non-fiction articles about M.R.James! It came about because of an accident of geography. We moved to Germany in 2001 and found ourselves living very close to Steinfeld Abbey, so I visited it, and wrote an article about the ways in which the real-life abbey differs from the imagined version of it in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. This led me to visit some of MRJ's other foreign story locations, and write about those too. One thing led to another, and by 2008 I had eight published articles about MRJ and his work, all of which appeared in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter.

A large proportion - but not all - of my articles are still available on the Ghosts and Scholars website, and some of them are available on my blog. However, I have long had it in mind that it would be a great idea to collect them all into one inexpensive eBook, so that anyone who shares my unreasonable passion for the ghost stories of M.R.James can read them easily and conveniently. I finally found time recently to do this, and the result is a kindle book, The Antiquary and the Crocodile

Although The Antiquary and the Crocodile is a collection of non-fiction articles, I took the decision to include as a "fiction extra" my completion of MRJ's The Game of Bear. The story first appeared in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter, and was later reprinted in The Sea Change and Other Stories. It was also republished in Weird Tales in 2014. Periodically I receive enquiries from people who have a particular interest in MRJ and would like to read my completion of it out of curiosity, so it seemed a good idea to include it in the eBook. I also feel that in some ways the story belongs with my other writings about M.R.James, because writing it was the one occasion when I consciously tried to meld my literary style with MRJ's (a task which, frankly, seems a bit terrifyingly ambitious in retrospect!).

Anyway, I very much hope that The Antiquary and the Crocodile will prove interesting and useful to both scholars and fans of M.R.James's ghost stories. The crocodile on the front cover, by the way, is the actual stuffed crocodile hanging on the cathedral wall at St. Bertrand de Comminges, as described in Canon Alberic's Scrap-book. My father William Bond took the photograph when we visited Comminges.




Wednesday, January 4, 2017

In which I do the talking...

If you are part of a school, library, community or arts group, or any other organisation within Scotland who would like an author visit in 2017, I just thought I'd post a timely reminder of the Scottish Book Trust's fantastic Live Literature funding scheme.

Under the scheme, you can apply for a visit from any author on the Live Literature database (including me!), and if you are successful, the Scottish Book Trust will fund more than 50% of the cost, plus any travel and accommodation expenses. This makes an author event far more affordable as it limits your costs to £75.00 + VAT per session.

I can personally offer the following types of event:

  • Talks about writing - a popular one answers the question "Where do you get your ideas?" by talking about the scary and atmospheric locations I have visited (with photos!) and how they have inspired the plots of my books. It's not enough to have a thrilling setting - I talk about the nuts and bolts of how I turn that spooky feeling into an actual story. This talk is suitable for schools as it is very relevant for creative writing projects.
  • Ghost story writing workshops - I can tailor these to a school audience or an adult audience. Creating a good ghost story uses lots of writing skills - the aim is to send a shiver down the spine without straying into blood and guts territory. We cover things like setting, choosing the right words, and why creating rounded characters is important. 
  • A talk about the great classic ghost story writer M.R.James and specifically the real-life locations of some of his most famous stories, including Canon Alberic's Scrapbook and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. I have personally visited the locations covered in the talks and have an array of photographs to share! This talk is suitable for adults. 
  • A talk about Getting Published - useful resources, maximising your chances of success, whether to try for an agent first, what to expect once you have a book deal. Again, this talk is more suited to adults. 
Although my entry on the Live Literature database lists Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Perth & Kinross as the local authorities where I can usually work, I'm happy to travel further afield, so if you are outside those areas but would like me to come and speak, I'm very prepared to consider it.

Finally, the reason for posting this reminder on my blog is that the deadline for applications for events between April and December 2017 is coming up - it's Wednesday 25th January 2017 at 12 noon. So if you think your school, library or other group here in Scotland might be interested in an author visit this year, now's the time to think about applying! 


I hope to see you in 2017! 





Saturday, June 4, 2016

Stepping back in time

I'm a little shocked to see that I haven't blogged since March! Time flies when you're having, er, fun. Over the last months I've been working very intensely on an extensive rewrite of my work-in-progress. I have to be honest and say: I don't much enjoy doing big rewrites. In my dreams, the final draft falls through a wormhole in space so I can make sure it's that version the first time round... Sadly, this has never yet happened.

Anyway, on Thursday the fateful moment finally arrived when I was able to type THE END on the current draft. I always "sleep on" manuscripts before sending them off to the agent who represents me, just in case I have a blinding midnight revelation that the plot should have worked out differently or something. But yesterday morning, Friday, I finally sent the book off for perusal. Then came the question: what to do with the rest of the day?

I suppose I probably should have cracked my knuckles, made another cup of tea and started on the next book. Or done all those jobs that have been neglected over recent months, such as clearing out the things growing in the back of the fridge, or taking all the glass to the recycling banks. However, when you've been working on one project for quite this long, it's hard to disengage from it and go straight on to something else. In short, I had the heebie jeebies and couldn't bear to stay indoors a minute longer. I've spent far too much time recently sitting in front of a computer screen, so I thought I'd have an old-fashioned day and stay offline altogether for a bit.

Out came the trusty bicycle, and I cycled over to the Library of Innerpeffray, a distance of about four and a half miles via country lanes. It was a gorgeous sunny morning and the verges at the side of the road were overgrown with buttercups, clouds of cow parsley and yellow gorse. When I got to the Library, I briefly stuck my nose into the beautiful new downstairs room, and then I went upstairs to the older reading rooms. In the smaller one, I found an interesting book called TYPES OF ANIMAL LIFE by St. George Mivart, F.R.S., published in 1894. It included a rather charming collection of illustrations of unusual creatures (well, unusual to St. George Mivart, anyway) such as ring tailed lemurs and manatees. I had a look at that for a while, and admired the view of the river from the reading room window.

 When I'd finished in the reading room, I went into the churchyard which belongs to the chapel adjoining the Library. I had an idle stroll about inside the chapel, which I have visited many times before, and admired the leper squint (a tiny window through which the local lepers were permitted to view the services going on inside the church without having to sit next to anyone. Hmmm....). Then I sat in the churchyard among the gravestones and had bread and cheese for lunch - it seemed the most fitting thing for a vintage kind of day; you can't really cycle about the lanes, read ancient books and then stuff your face with a pulled pork wrap - it's far too 21st century. I wish I'd had some ginger beer but made do with water instead. Then I cycled home again.

Later that day when the rest of the family got home, we drove over to Kenmore and swam in Loch Tay, which is very briskly fresh (ok: freezing cold) at this time of year (you can still see small patches of snow on the hills and I suspect meltwater is coming down into the loch). We shared our picnic with the rapacious ducks. Altogether, it was a very old-fashioned day - a bit like stepping back into 1930 or something. It took my mind off work very nicely. In fact, I'm rather sorry to be back in 2016...