Monday, November 30, 2015

Every picture tells a story

This weekend I was in Newcastle for the Books on Tyne book festival, where I did an illustrated talk about Mystery Fiction for Young Adults at the impressive City Library (pictured left). A very big thankyou to those who attended, and also to the library staff, who were super friendly and very welcoming. The library is altogther an amazing place and has a very nice cafe too. I can vouch for the high quality of the hot chocolate!

I hadn't visited Newcastle for a very long time - decades, I think. This is not very surprising since we lived abroad for quite a while. Anyway, I was very keen to see something of the city while we were there. I went down to the quayside and photographed the Gateshead Millennium Bridge, and went up to the frankly terrifying glass viewing box on the fifth floor of the Baltic arts centre. We also did some shopping and drank mulled wine at the Christmas market. I think, however, the thing that I enjoyed the very most was visiting the Laing Art Gallery, which is very close to the City Library.

I visit art galleries fairly often with my art-loving teenage daughter, who has made me stand in front of all sorts of surrealist, cubist, conceptual and expressionist art. Personally I like older stuff, so I was thrilled to see that the Laing gallery has an "18th and 19th century" room. I made a bee line for it. It did not disappoint - there was a brilliant selection of paintings, the most famous of which is probably William Holman Hunt's gorgeously ominous Isabella and the pot of basil. 

I very much liked this painting, by John Martin, entitled The Bard.

According to the notice on the wall next to it, the painting shows the destruction of the Welsh bards by King Edward I. You can see the last remaining bard defiantly poised on a cliff top, clutching his harp.

Here's a close up of that bard:

I was unreasonably fascinated by this painting. Why would anyone want to wipe out all the bards? It seems to me that that is taking "not really being into the Arts" to extremes. Before anyone writes in to explain exactly why King Edward I did this, I am going to look it up. I am just enjoying speculating a bit first. I'm guessing the bards were peddling subversive songs or something. I quite like to imagine them standing under King Edward's bedroom window strumming on their harps and launching into "There was a young fellow named Eddie" or similar, until he lost his kingly temper. 

Anyway, I did eventually manage to tear myself away from The Bard and look at the other paintings in the room, and it was then that I came upon this one:

It's called The Unknown and it's by John Charles Dollman. There was also an information panel for this painting, which talked about mythology and symbolism, but however you dress it up, it's a topless woman giving a lesson to chimps. I absolutely love this painting. Aside from the breezily confident lunacy of the subject matter, it absolutely begs the viewer to make up their own story about what is happening. In fact, some of my friends did make up their own stories, after I posted the painting on Facebook: 

I put it on Twitter, too (you can never see a picture of chimps having a lesson too many times) and fellow author Kate Wiseman surmised:

Then, of course, you have to wonder why that one particular chimp has gone off, while the others are still listening. Is that the chimp who is going to become the leader of the new chimp civilisation? Or is that the chimp who can't be bothered, and has gone off to see if there are any bananas, leaving the others to construct a democratic chimp state by themselves? So many questions. 

That's the beauty of a really striking painting. It fills our heads with new stories. If you have any ideas about what's going on, feel free to share! And in the meantime, if you find yourself in Newcastle (or need an excuse to go) do visit the Laing Gallery. The chimps await. 

"Pah, I'm not listening to any more of this. Planet of the Apes is on the telly."

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Murder in the DIY store...

I've not done very much writing in the last couple of weeks. Not much creative writing, anyway. I've been at Shetland Noir, and since then I've been busy with a freelance project that falls into the editing category rather than the story writing category. Maybe the lack of lavish description and Byzantine plotting opportunities has been getting to me, because I've been having ideas in the strangest places.

Today we had to take the car to be serviced, which is one of the boringest jobs in the world, and unpleasant too, because you get the same car back at the end of it, plus a huge bill. The job was going to take a couple of hours, so my husband and I went into a nearby DIY store to while away some of the time.

The DIY store was not my idea. I know household jobs have to be done, but they don't fill me with a zealous passion to grout tiles or stick rawl plugs into walls. I don't know how any retail experience can be quite so horrifically dull as a DIY store. I mean, we are talking about a huge shop here, one it would take you several minutes to jog the length of, were you so inclined. There are shelves and shelves of things you can buy, and all of them are boring. The stuff is mostly beige or grey, for goodness' sake. The only thing likely to make your pulse quicken is the pricing. £380 for a toilet!

I'll admit I did complain quite a bit for the first few minutes. But then I started to think: I wonder if you could stage a murder story in here? (I think the chain of thought went something like: I'm dying of boredom > death > murder.) So I tuned out of the thrilling (not) conversation my husband was having with the shop assistant about tongue-and-groove flooring, and tried to think about murder instead.

I have to say that I think the Christmas grotto had definite murder scene potential. Imagine the pathos! How poignant to find a corpse amongst the glittering baubles, the white tinsel Christmas trees and the light-up penguins! Even better if there is Christmas muzak playing in the background - Santa Baby would probably cover the sounds of last gurgles and death rattles very nicely.

Aha, you may say, but isn't a DIY store a rather public place to commit a murder? You'd be caught on CCTV for sure, assuming one of those friendly assistants in their distinctive polo shirts didn't see you first. No problem, say I. See this rack of handy masks with dust filters? Pop one of those on and you've covered your face very nicely.

Now for the murder weapon. I lingered for a while by the power drills. They were all out on display, begging to be picked up and examined. On buttons were begging to be pushed. "What are you doing over there?" asked my husband. I put the drill down. "Er, seeing whether they were charged up or not. I guess not..." So that's one plotline thwarted. I guess it would have to be one of the other, blunter instruments. Which one? Use your imagination. If I can put a cheese grater into a crime story, you can think of a use for that stainless steel toilet roll & brush holder.

Finally: the victim. Well, that's an easy one. Whoever dragged you into the DIY store in the first place...

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

German traditions make me cry

I realised this morning that it is Saint Martin's Day (11th November). I couldn't believe I hadn't thought about it until now. 

We lived in Bad M√ľnstereifel in Germany for seven wonderful years while the children were small, and we took part in the Saint Martin's festivities many times. I liked Karneval, with its costume parades and sweetie-throwing, very much indeed, but Saint Martin was my favourite event of the German calendar. The centrepiece of the celebration was always a torch-lit procession around the town, which was an unbelievably picturesque event, what with the dancing flames and the beautiful old half-timbered houses. For several weeks before the procession, all the kindergarten and primary school children would be feverishly at work making lanterns to carry. In the olden days, these would have had actual flames inside, but modern ones have a little light bulb. Everyone would gather in the Klosterplatz, a square near the church, and there was always a brass band playing the traditional St. Martin songs, such as Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind and Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne. I still can't hear those tunes without welling up! Then "Saint Martin" would ride into the square on a horse - a very calm, good-natured horse, considering all the lights and loud noises. He would lead the procession around the town centre and all the children would follow with their lanterns. The brass band would play and we would all sing the songs as we walked. When we got back to the square, there would be a huge bonfire attended by the local fire brigade (just in case). Then "Saint Martin" and an actor dressed as a beggar would act out the legend of the saint, a Roman soldier who took pity on a beggarman freezing in the snow and gave him half his warm cloak to wear. The children always loved the bit where Saint Martin took out his sword and cut the cloak in half. Afterwards, all the children got a bun with big chunks of sugar on it. 

We all have our own special memories of the Saint Martin's procession. This is my favourite: one year when our son was too tiny to walk around, my husband carried him. When we got to the Catholic old people's home, a number of the old people were at the door watching, and with them was a small group of nuns. On impulse I whispered to my son that he should blow them a kiss. He was, I must say, a remarkably good-humoured toddler, so he did as he was asked, and I was amused to see all the nuns sighing over his adorable cuteness! I bet he hates to be reminded of that, now he's a whopping great teenager... 

My daughter's keenest memory is quite different. The year she was in the German fourth grade, the top year of primary school, I gave her her first mobile phone to take with her on the procession, in case she got lost or couldn't find us afterwards. She was thrilled. In fact I doubt the beggarman was more thrilled with his half-a-cloak. 

When we left Germany, I always swore that I would go back for Saint Martin's Day. But in 7 years I have only ever managed it once, mainly because of the cost of flying everyone back. It has gradually ceased to loom so large in my mental calendar, while Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes Night have become more prominent. But whenever I think about it, I still wish I could be there, walking over the worn cobblestones and singing along with the brass band. I listened to some of the traditional songs this morning on YouTube and found myself crying a bit, just from nostalgia. 

I always knew we would have to leave Bad M√ľnstereifel one day. We went there for 2 years, after all, and stayed for 7, but there was no way of stringing it out forever! But I'm pleased to say that like so many of the other aspects of our life there, the Saint Martin's procession is described in my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Of course, I've added a dark twist to it - someone vanishes during the procession! But it's all there, right down to the fact that if you walk right behind the horse you have to watch where you step...

Here's a short excerpt:

It was almost time for the procession to begin. The local brass band, resplendent in hunting-green uniforms and peaked caps, were assembling at the corner of the square, hoisting trombones and trumpets and horns, which glittered in the light of the lanterns and torches. Someone tried out the opening notes of one of the songs, a song so familiar that the words formed themselves inside my head as I listened: Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin, Sankt Martin ritt durch Schnee und Wind . . . It finished with a squeak which sent a ripple of laughter through the crowd.
Someone from the council had climbed the steps at the side of the square and was talking inaudibly into a loudhailer. Then we heard a clatter of hooves on the cobblestones and St Martin rode into the square.
Of course, all of the spectators except the very youngest knew that St Martin was really someone from the town, dressed up in a red velvet cloak and Roman helmet; in fact my parents even knew the family who lent the horse. But there was always something magical about St Martin; he was real in a way that Sankt Nikolaus and the Easter Bunny weren’t. For one thing, he was undeniably solid, and so was the horse: if you followed too closely behind it you had to look where you stepped.
As we watched, St Martin wheeled the horse round and began to ride slowly out of the south side of the square, the crimson cloak undulating on the horse’s hindquarters as it moved, the torchlight making the great golden helmet glitter. The band fell in behind him, and struck up with the first bars of ‘Ich gehe mit meiner Laterne’, the signal for the schoolchildren to follow. As the rest of us surged forward, I could see Frau Eichen counting the children again.
‘Can I go on ahead?’ I asked my mother hopefully, seeing that she was making woefully slow progress with Sebastian in his buggy. I was afraid we would be stuck right at the back, where we could hardly hear the band, and we would be last back into the square to see the bonfire.
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea, Pia.’ I didn’t bother to ask why.
‘I’ll go with her,’ said my father, turning up his collar. He looked at me sternly. ‘And stay where I can see you, Pia. No running off.’
‘Yes, Papa.’
I fell into step beside him; with his long legs we made good progress, and were soon pushing our way further up the procession. First it wound up the Heisterbacher Strasse and past our front door, then it followed the line of the medieval defensive walls west towards the great gate, the Orchheimer Tor. I looked about me at the excited faces, the flickering torches and glowing lanterns, and the ancient stones of the walls, interspersed with arrow slits. We could have been back in the Middle Ages, on our way to a coronation – or a witch-burning...

Above: no witches burning - just a bonfire!