I’m dreaming of a …. Dark Christmas

I recently watched an amazing Christmas movie. It’s called Rare Exports, and it’s in Finnish with subtitles. The film opens with some crazy Americans digging up a giant hill in Lapland, while two young boys spy on them. They’re opening up a grave. They’re looking for treasure. But the boys know who’s in that hill – it’s Santa Claus! The real Santa Claus that is. The evil one who beats children to death and boils them alive. Can they stop him from getting out and ruining Christmas?

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Death in the Archives

Here’s another piece I wrote during my Arvon creative writing week for history writers. I’ve taken some old research and done something new with it. The aim of this piece was to be present in the text as a character, talking about myself and reflecting on my own experiences. The other aims were to fill the piece with changes of ‘texture’, as our tutor called it. It seems an odd word, but it makes sense: a piece of writing needs changes of pace, tone, point of view, etc., otherwise the reader feels it’s all too samey and they get bored. A third aim was to try to include dialogue or reported speech, though I only made a token gesture at that.

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The Forgotten Memorial

As some of you may know, I went on a creative writing course for history writers last week. One of the exercises we were set was to write about the history of the nearby village of Clun. There weren’t any books about it, so we had to get creative: visiting the place, talking to the locals, or in some cases just making up a bit of fiction. Here’s my effort. As you can probably tell I was feeling a bit fed up that day, but honestly I have nothing against Clun, it’s quite a lovely place to visit in fact!

Clun castle

The worst thing about history is that there’s just so much of it. Take the little town of Clun, for instance, nestled snugly in the Shropshire hills. Clun has a seventeenth century alms house; an ex-water mill; an ex-smithy; an ex-cottage hospital; two Churches; a war memorial; and a ruined castle, dramatically silhouetted against the low winter sun. That’s an awful lot of history for a town with only 680 inhabitants. That’s almost more heritage than people.

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I’ve been expecting you: on James Bond

*Many, many spoilers alert*

On Wednesday I went to the very swish and very expensive PictureHouse central cinema and watched the new James Bond movie, Spectre. As a side note, the bar staff at PictureHouse didn’t know how to make a Martini, and had to look it up. The end result was predictably unpalatable. Poor effort. Everything else about the cinema is great.

PictureHouse Central cinema

Spectre starts with a terrific action sequence during the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico city. Blofeld is re-introduced, along with his fluffy white cat, in a new incarnation. There’s a car chase in Rome, and a winter snow chase, involving vehicles other than the usual skis. There’s both fighting and sex on a train, and an unstoppable henchman. Continue reading

What did the Victorians drink? A guide to boozing in the 1800s

One of the things I find most delightful about history is that, while the people of the past wore funny clothes and sometimes thought about the world in a startlingly different way, many things remain the same. I like a drink, and it gives me warm and fluffy feelings to think that British people 200-ish years ago also liked a drink. Or several. Like all aspects of Victorian culture, drinking was strictly segregated on class and gender lines, partly on account of the expense of booze, partly through custom and preference. Working class boozers Working class men and women partook of two beverages: beer and gin. Wines and other drinks were not widely available and were out of their price-range, as they were imported. Beer has been brewed in Britain for centuries, and until recent times formed a vital part of the British diet. It really was a staple food. Water was unsafe to drink, especially in towns, giving people everything from an upset stomach to cholera. Since water could be deadly, everyone drank beer. This was brewed at home, by women, or in small breweries. Even as a commercial concern, brewing was traditionally one of the few professions open to women. Typical beer had a low alcohol content – maybe 2 percent – and was drunk all day long from breakfast to bed-time by men, women, children, babies, pregnant women, everyone. It was often thick and nourishing, filled with vitamins and minerals from the grains.

Typical boozers

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Heroes of History: Annie Besant?

My last post was about the ‘East End Women’s History Museum’ that turned into a Jack the Ripper museum, because apparently women are only interesting if they’ve been murdered. This got me wondering who you would include in a real feminist history of the east end. So I did a little investigation, and came up with the gloriously eccentric Annie Besant. She had a very interesting and varied life, but although she did some terrific things she also did some pretty questionable things. I’m not sure that she qualifies to feature as one of my ‘Heroes of History‘. Besant therefore gets to be a ‘hero of history – QUESTION MARK???’

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Archives and History News: Jack the Ripper Museum Special!

It’s all kicking off in east London! In October last year Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe gained planning permission for a new museum dedicated to the history of women in the east end. Last week the awnings were whisked down and – ta-dah!! it’s actually a jack the ripper museum. No suffragettes, no match workers strike, no Dagenham equal pay strike, no inspirational sisters doing it for themselves. Just victims of crime. How disappointing, how insulting, what a whopping lie.

The ripper ‘museum’

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The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream

Wrote Wallace Stevens, in 1923. It’s one of those notoriously difficult modernist poems, but all it really means is ‘don’t get all metaphysical now. Eat ice cream, because tomorrow you could be dead’. Seems like a good philosophy to me. Ice-cream is a sweet, delicious treat, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer’s day.

But who do we have to thank for first creating this amazing food? And who perfected it? Who made the greatest ever ice-cream in history? Who can we crown as the actual emperor of ice-cream?

yum!

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Mad Max: Fury Road and two rules for making great drama (plus some other reviews)

Spoilers alert!

I recently saw Mad Max: Fury Road. I must say I wasn’t too excited at first. Another tired old remake/sequel/prequel I thought – why can’t Hollywood come up with something new and original? But in fact this movie is really original! It’s about 2 hours long, and 1 hour 45 of that is one mighty car chase, in which monster trucks race across the desert and they all try to kill each other. The bad guy is accompanied into truck-based battle by a lorry full of drummers and a dude playing a frenzied guitar solo on a guitar that doubles as a flame thrower, swinging around off the top of a truck on a bungee rope. Insane guitar dude was quite possibly the best thing I have ever seen in my life. I mean, what evil apocalyptic warlord wouldn’t want a flame-throwing guitar player to accompany him into battle?

Mad Max’s crazy guitar dude

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Book reviews

I’ve been reviewing all the books I read this year. I was going to save this up until January, but that would make a monstrously long post. So here’s the top 5 books I’ve read in the last 6 months, and all the rest…

PROBABLE SPOILERS

 

1. The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I’m a fan of Hustvedt’s brand of psychological post-modernism, but I think this is her best book yet. Harriet Burden is a grandmother and widow of a rich, famous art dealer, and also an artist in her own right. She’s long felt that her gender and her husband’s status excluded her from the art-world fame she truly deserved, and now she’s devised an experiment. She will create the art shows, and get three male artists to pretend it’s their creation, see how the critics react, and later expose them for the hypocritical bigots they really are. Of course, things don’t actually work out like that. Although to a certain extent this is a satire on the art world, that aspect is not that important. The novel is presented as an edited collection of Harriet’s own diaries and notebooks, interspersed with reviews from critics and interviews with Harriet’s, friends, lovers, children and collaborators. It’s a regular polyphonic spree that explores gender, identity, the media, robotics, the internet age, neuroscience, memory, philosophy and art. How do we know who we are, and how can we control how others think of us? Are memories to be trusted? Do we become many different people over the course of our lifetimes? Do straight white men really get a free pass in life? Do women sabotage themselves and each other? There are no answers here, but there are jokes about Freud and footnotes on Heidegger. It is all incredibly highbrow and quite a challenging read in some ways. Yet there is also a terrific story, which builds an incredible sense of menace, mystery and tension. There are unexpected moments of pathos, fistfights, and a refusal to shy away from bodily functions. The language, descriptions and constantly shifting characters are so vivid that I found this truly a blazing world. The ending was so totally unexpected and yet so perfect that I actually cried, which drew some funny looks at 8.30am on the district line, I can tell you. I suppose this is not something that will appeal to everyone, but it’s definitely my book of the year so far. I’m looking forward to re-reading this to discover even more that I missed the first time round. Continue reading