strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
The other cool Dracula-related thing I did recently was to go on a little road-trip with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan to see two exhibitions dedicated to our favourite kind of horror films: British productions from the 1950s to '70s, and especially those made by Hammer. As luck would have it, the exhibitions we were interested in overlapped by about a week (over Halloween, natch) and were both located in the east Midlands area. So although each was quite small and it would have seemed a bit of an endeavour to go to either one from Leeds on its own, between the two they made for a very agreeable day out.

Our first port of call was Northampton, where the city's Museum and Art Gallery was hosting an exhibition of film posters entitled 'Scream And Scream Again: The Golden Age Of British Horror'. It's actually a touring exhibition, put together by an organisation called Abertoir who run a horror festival in Aberystwyth, so although the Northampton showing has finished now, it's worth looking out for it at a museum near you in the future if you like the sound of it. It wasn't huge, consisting of probably about 25-30 posters plus some collected front-of-house publicity stills in a gallery about the size of a typical village hall, but it provided a very well-selected cross-section of some of the best films of the era.

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More pictures under here )

We also both really liked Northampton as a whole. Neither of us could remember having been there before, and we did see it at its best in lovely sunshine and still-mild weather, but it certainly struck us as worth visiting. In fact, a lot of people I know would enjoy the regular collections of museum itself, because Northampton has a proud history as a major cobbling centre, so basically the whole ground floor of the museum (apart from the temporary exhibitions gallery where the horror posters were) is entirely devoted to SHOES! Victorian lace-up boots, clompy glittery platforms, fancy stilettos, you name it. You can get a taste of the sort of thing they have from their Shoe of the Month blog feature.

We found lots of interesting architecture in the town centre, of which I made a particular point of capturing some of the Art Deco highlights )

Our next destination was De Montfort University, Leicester for The Monsters of Hammer: A Screen Bestiary. This is the work of the University's Cinema and Television History research centre (CATH), who now hold Hammer's scripts archive (as well as a growing collection of other Hammer-related material), and were also responsible for the unique staged reading of a never-produced Dracula script, The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula which I enjoyed SO MUCH last year. Needless to say, I've been following their activities very closely ever since (and indeed before), so I was very excited for this.

The exhibition had been set up in the University's Heritage Centre, and was physically even smaller than the Northampton one, but they had packed a lot in! We spent a good hour-and-a-half there, compared to about 30-45 minutes in Northampton, and although that's probably more than most normal human beings because we are so geeky about Hammer films and needed to examine each item in detail, discuss it at length and take loads of photos, it is still probably good for almost an hour's interest even if you just look at each item and read through the text once. First, some general pictures to show the overall layout, size and feel of it all:

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Again more under here )

What I'd really like is for them to start publishing some of this material. I see in my mind's eye The Ultimate Hammer Dracula Script Collection, including a) the shooting scripts from the movies that were actually made, b) any earlier variant versions of those and most importantly c) all the ones which weren't produced at all. I don't even know if that is possible - presumably even the unmade scripts are still in copyright, so I can certainly see that it would be complicated. But I think publication has to be the ultimate end-goal of the whole project. Otherwise, for the vast majority of the public the difference between the scripts just not existing at all and lots of time and money being spent looking after, researching and cataloguing them will remain barely detectable.

Anyway, for now I would definitely encourage everyone who loves Hammer films to get along to DMU's Heritage Centre, enjoy their amazing exhibition, and fill in enthusiastic feedback forms to help support CATH's work and enable them to secure more research funding. It's open until next May, so you have plenty of time. :-)

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I have been doing lots of cool Dracula-related things lately, but until now haven't had the chance to write them up. They really need it though, as I will definitely want to remember them. So for today this is what I did two weeks ago at the Fourth World Dracula Congress - the latest in a series of ad hoc academic conferences on Dracula which began in Bucharest in 1995.

I wasn't actually sure I would be able to go to this until quite late in the day, as it was scheduled for a Thursday and Friday during term-time, but Friday is our regular research day anyway, and as luck would have it a lecture which I deliver fortnightly on Thursdays did not fall in that week. So off I went! Obviously the choice of Dublin for the venue reflected its status as Bram Stoker's birthplace, and indeed I had already made sure to visit his houses on my previous visits to the city: one of which in 2014 I managed to write up on LJ, and the other of which in 2015 I don't seem to have done, but involved visiting his childhood house on the edge of the city. Indeed, the whole conference actually took place in the same venue as the Augustan poetry conference which was the reason for me going over in 2014: the Long Room Hub on Trinity College campus. It was quite strange operating in the same venue but in a rather different capacity: last time academic, this time fannish. But that distinction only held true for me personally. The conference as a whole was very much an academic event, and indeed more so than I'd expected really. Every paper I heard was strong, and some represented really significant steps forward in our knowledge of Dracula: the novel, its author and the rich mythos behind it all. I'll highlight the two which that most held true for first, and then sketch out the others a little more briefly and by theme.

The first highlight paper was by Hans de Roos on Makt Myrkranna, the Icelandic 'translation' of Dracula )

My second highlight paper was by Paul Murray, author of 'From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker', which was initially published in 2004 but released in an updated edition in 2016 )

So those two papers between them were worth the price of admission alone. But then there were lots of other awesome papers! I have grouped them into themes, which in some cases reflect the way they were grouped for the conference, but in others do not. This is just how they come together for me.

Biographical papers )

Literary papers )

Papers on place )

Papers on Dracula from a Romanian perspective )

Papers on historically-attested 'vampire epidemics' in eastern Europe )

And then of course as if the conference were not enough, I also thoroughly enjoyed my third visit to Dublin in as many years. My main companion was Julia, chair of the London-based Dracula Society (i.e. the people I went to Romania and Geneva with), with whom I shared a room at Stauntons on the Green, a pleasant autumnal walk across a park from the city centre. We enjoyed several nice meals together, tried various Irish whiskies, met up with Julia's friend Brian Showers of the Swan River Press who organised a Ghost Story Festival in Dublin earlier this year, took a tour of Trinity campus including its splendid Long Room, and popped into Sweny's chemist, a historical pharmacy which features in James Joyce's Ulysses and is now run by volunteers as a literary centre and site of historical interest. Plus, after Julia had departed for her earlier flight, I mooched around Dublin a little more on my own, tracking down Sheridan le Fanu's house and buying a jolly nice new pair of flares. I close with a few photos of the sights of Dublin )

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Last weekend, the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I set off on a Hammer horror-related adventure, the first leg of which took us to Luton. More or less every person to whom I mentioned the Luton part of this endeavour curled up their lips in disdain, from which I gathered that Luton's public image is more or less equivalent to Birmingham's. But, just like Birmingham, Luton is actually well worth visiting for the under-rated treasures it offers to the intrepid visitor. In our case, the main attraction was the Stockwood Discovery Centre - once the grounds of a stately home; now home to a multiplicity of attractions, including gardens, adventure playgrounds, a local history museum and the the Mossman Carriage Collection.

What was so exciting about the Mossman Carriage Collection? Well, it contains more or less every horse-drawn vehicle ever to appear in a Hammer horror film, not to mention at least 50 other films made between 1937 (Doctor Syn) and 1985 (Out of Africa) besides. Basically, if you have ever watched a British-made film or TV production from that period which featured a carriage, the odds are it came from this collection. The man behind it was George Mossman, a Luton businessman born in 1908, who realised just at the time when horse-drawn transport was passing out of regular use that it would be a) fun and b) a good idea to buy up and restore some of the many carriages which were by then languishing away in barns and coach-houses across the country. Lending them out to film companies was of course one way of helping to make back the cost of buying and restoring them, and on Mossman's death the collection passed to the Luton Museum Service in 1991.

Before we went, I spent the best part of every evening for a week screen-capping every single carriage to feature in a Hammer Dracula film, and combing through the pictures on the Mossman Carriage Collection website to try to identify them. I'm glad to say that on arrival, my identifications proved 100% correct, so below each cut which follows you will find historical information about the carriage in question as taken from the website, pictures of it as it appears today, and screen-caps showing it in use within the Dracula films. Any pictures with me in them were of course taken by my trusty travel companion and acclaimed professional photographer, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan. Oh, and it's important to note that the paint colours on the carriages today don't always match up with how they look in the films, but as the website notes explain for the Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus (first entry, immediately below), Mossman himself was quite happy to repaint them as required for film commissions. In most cases, I was able to confirm what previous colours each of the carriages had been painted by simply looking closely at the inevitable scratches in the finish to see the previous layers.

Private ‘Favorite’ Omnibus, about 1880 )

Hearse, about 1860 )

Town Coach, about 1860 )

Victoria, about 1890 )

Brougham, about 1860 )

Round Backed Gig )

So far, so lovely, then. But after this, things got a bit frustrating. Because on arrival, we discovered that a wedding reception was going on inside the largest room of the collection, housing on my estimation at least half of the carriages. And we were not allowed to go in. That's pretty damned annoying when you have travelled all the way from Leeds to get there, I can tell you - especially when there is nothing on their website to warn potential visitors that this might happen. I'm pretty sure that there were at least three more carriages in that room which were used in the Dracula films, but I could only see one of them well enough to get a photograph of. Thankfully, it was the carriage I was second-most excited about seeing after the hearse, but I would really have liked to see it a lot better than I did - to say nothing of the other two which I think were in there.

Travelling Chariot, about 1790 )

There are a number of other carriages in the Hammer Dracula films which I never could identify on the Mossman Collection website, and after having visited as much as I could of the collection and looked through their excellent souvenir brochure as well, I have concluded that this is probably because they never came from it in the first place. From about 1970 onwards, Hammer must have been hiring from somewhere else - or possibly even making their own replicas, which would of course have had the advantage of being able to be bashed about a bit in the course of filming if needed. Certainly, I can't identify the Hargood family coach in Taste, the coach which Paul falls into from the window of Sarah's party in Scars, or the coach from the famous opening chase-through-Hyde-Park sequence at the beginning of Dracula AD 1972.

Meanwhile, the Mossman Collection Carriages of course had a wide and varied film career which went well beyond the world of Hammer. On the whole, I didn't worry about this - indeed, I didn't even worry about Hammer films other than the Dracula cycle. There's only so much film-geekery one brain can manage, after all. But I was excited to stumble across a replica chariot which its information panel informed us had been custom-made by George Mossman for use in Ben Hur (1959):

Replica Roman Chariot )

The fact that I was able to stand in it was in keeping with the collection's general policy, which was that genuine antique carriages had 'do not touch' labels on them, whereas visitors were allowed to sit or stand (as appropriate) in the replicas. This seems reasonable, but on the other hand I'm not sure they have thought hard enough about the heritage value of even some of the replicas, especially where they have appeared in really famous films like Ben Hur. Certainly, they don't draw very much attention to it. Only one small section of the museum mentions it, and this was the only information panel I saw which linked up a specific vehicle with a specific film. Meanwhile, as you can see in the photos, the decorative detail on the chariot is badly degraded. At first we assumed that this was just because it had been made in the first place of materials which had naturally perished over the years, but this is a picture of the same chariot from the collection's souvenir brochure:

Roman chariot from brochure.jpg

And this is it again in a video which was playing in one of the rooms of the museum:

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Judging by the hair and clothes of the people in the video, it must have been made within the last ten years at most. And meanwhile, when we looked closely at the chariot we realised that all the damage to its decoration is concentrated on the side of it which faces outwards from the arched entrance-way where it stands, and hence towards the elements. So in other words, at some point in the last ten years it has been placed facing into an open courtyard, and the result is that an iconic prop used in one of the biggest block-busters of the 20th century, which was fine ten years ago, has degraded into the state seen in the above pictures.

This makes me feel really sad, not only because it is a neglectful waste, but also because it is surely very short-sighted on the part of the museum management. Film tourism is a real thing, as our own visit proved, and the value of a prop from a film like Ben Hur is only going to grow as time goes by. Imagine being able to say at the time of its centenary in 2059 that you have a chariot used in that film! You know, a film which is famous for its chariot races... Except that a prop which is rotting away in the rain is going to be a lot less of a draw than one which has been kept in good condition.

In fact, I think the Mossman Collection could do with getting some film specialists to collaborate with them asap to draw up a proper and comprehensive list of all the films its vehicles have been used in, complete with screen-caps of the kind I've done here for the Dracula films, which could be displayed on their website and within the museum. They could reach whole new audiences by publicising that information properly - but right now, it is acknowledged only fleetingly and incompletely. It is up to geeks like me to create their own guide to the carriages used in the films they are interested in if that's what they want to see - and while I will do it and enjoyed the results enormously, even I would have been glad of a guide which covered just the other Hammer films at least.

A bit of a sad note there at the end, then, and the wedding reception thing was annoying too. But on the whole I would very much recommend a visit to the Mossman Collection, especially if you are a British film geek. You just might need to be prepared to do your own research in advance...

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
This is the second in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

Bram Stoker never visited Romania, drawing his descriptions of the country and its history entirely from library-based research. But that doesn't mean you can't trace the footsteps of his characters through the actual landscape if you do go there - and that, of course, is exactly what the Dracula Society likes to do. The relevant parts of our holiday are shown below, in the order in which they occur in Stoker's novel (though that wasn't the order we did them in).

The novel begins with Jonathan Harker in Bistritz (nowadays more usually spelt Bistrița), writing up his diary from the Golden Crown hotel, where he is staying overnight before travelling up the Borgo Pass to meet Dracula's carriage. The Golden Crown is an invention of Stoker's, but in the early 1970s, an enterprising local businessman built his own 'Coroana de Aur' to capitalise on the western interest in Dracula tourism )

Bistritz is Bistritz, though, and we had plenty of time to wander around it before our lunch. This is what it actually looks like )

In order to reach Castle Dracula, Harker travels up the Borgo Pass from Bistritz in a stage-coach, through "a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road". Stage-coaches weren't available to us, but from time to time Harker's coach also passes "a leiter-wagon - the ordinary peasants' cart - with its long, snakelike vertebra, calculated to suit the inequalities of the road". These are still in common use in Romania, and enterprising local farmers are very happy indeed to earn extra money transporting parties of Dracula-obsessed tourists through the Borgo Pass, just like Jonathan Harker. Thus it was that on our seventh day, we did this:
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More horseyness )

Dracula failed to meet us at the top of the pass, no doubt because it was still daylight, but his castle awaited:
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More castleyness )

Stoker's novel ends with a wild chase back to Dracula's castle, which sees the party of vampire hunters catching up with the gypsy cart carrying the count back home just as the sun sets. As Mina puts it in her journal:
The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well. As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.
The count's triumph is short-lived, of course, but still there was something about watching the sun set over the Borgo Pass from the terrace of the Hotel Castle Dracula which momentarily brought him back to life, and will stay with me forever:
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strange_complex: (Cicero history)
This is the first in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

We begin with the historical Dracula, because while Hammer's Dracula and Bram Stoker's Dracula are both very exciting, and their imaginative use of the Romanian landscape certainly shaped the way I saw it (see future posts on this), still in truth they are the products of Britain and Ireland respectively. It is direct encounters with the historical Dracula and his world that Romania has to offer, and that was my number one reason for wanting to go there. This isn't to say we visited every possible site connected with him while we were there. In practice, our trip was focused on Transylvania and Moldavia, whereas he was Voievod of Wallachia - the southern part of the country, between the Carpathians and the Danube. So we only spent a single day in the part of Romania which he actually ruled, which means there are still plenty more historical-Dracula-related sites for me to discover on a return visit. But between our day-trip to Wallachia, the fact that he spent a lot of his life in exile in Transylvania anyway, and the wider cast of historical characters who also have a role to play in his story, we did pretty well.

The highlight of our visit was Poienari castle, which we visited on our second day )
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Many more Poienari pictures )

On our third evening, we arrived at Sighișoara, where we proceeded to stay for the next two days. It is a medieval fortified town, with its centre very little changed by the march of history, and it contains this house:
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More of the house, in which the historical Dracula may or may not have been born )

After those two sites, we were done with the historical Dracula himself, but there were still plenty of places on the itinerary where we came across various of his political allies, enemies and relatives )

All in all then, traces of the historical Dracula were never too far away, and of course just being able to explore the geography and settlement structure of the landscape in which he operated helped me to understand him far better than I did before I went. There is more to learn, as ever, but this was a very satisfying historical Dracula field-trip.

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
So, I went to Romania. And it was completely amazing! Too amazing for one LJ post, actually, so what I am going to do is type up a sort of overview here, and then follow that up over the next few days and weeks with a series of themed posts, complete with pictures, about particular aspects of the holiday. Those will cover roughly:
  • The historical Dracula
  • Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • Hammeresque architecture and scenery
  • Health and safety gone (not 'gone mad' - just... gone)
  • Flora, fauna and topography
  • People
  • Misc other awesomeness
I think those are the main categories, but if I think of anything else I will add it in.

Anyway, the holiday came about in the manner which I have described here. Basically, I noticed that a London-based group called The Dracula Society which I'd been following on Twitter for a while was planning pretty much my dream trip to Romania, calculated that I should just about be able to fit it in time-wise even during the exam-marking season, and so joined up, paid my deposit and waited excitedly. As I said in the linked post, it was obviously a calculated risk committing to a 12-day holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know, but I'm very glad to say that my calculations were correct. On the basis of their website, I'd concluded that they were "a bunch of moderately-eccentric middle-class people having fun being a bit geeky - exactly like me", and this was confirmed when I arrived at the airport to meet them, and found one of them carrying the same Hammer Dracula bag as me. They were also extremely generous and welcoming to a stranger in their midst, which I felt very touched by and which made it easy to slot smoothly into the group dynamic. So it was lovely to be part of this vibrant and enthusiastic team pursuing excitement and adventure through the Carpathian mountains, and I have come back glad to have acquired a new circle of friends.

One thing I hadn't actually quite realised before I set off is that travel is actually the true raison d'être of the Dracula Society. I'd assumed they had grown towards that from a foundation based on monthly talks and meetings, but actually I discovered on chatting to some of the longer-standing members that the group had come together in 1973 precisely so that they could travel together to Romania - obviously not something that you could very readily do as an ordinary tourist at the time. They went for the first time in 1974, and again in 1975, and although they have since broadened out their travelling interests to include a range of other places of Gothic interest, they still return there on a roughly 6 or 7 year cycle. This is great news for me, because basically it means that I have now discovered an awesome bunch of people who organise holidays to awesome places on a regular basis, and will be very happy for me to join them on future ventures. Next year, they're planning a trip to Geneva to hang out in the general area of the Villa Diodati and celebrate the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend which gave rise to Frankenstein and The Vampyre - and assuming the timing fits in OK with my work commitments, I am totally going to join them!

The exact itinerary for our holiday can be seen here, and was basically generated by members of the Dracula Society sketching out all the places they wanted to visit, and then a company called Travel Counsellors pricing it up and handling all the logistics. We had a dedicated bus, driver and guide for the duration of the holiday, and toured around from location to location, staying in 8 different hotels over 11 nights (so no more than two nights in any one location). That made for a very busy holiday, especially since we packed a lot into every day, and some of what we did was quite physically demanding too - especially climbing hills to castles and steps inside medieval bell-towers, both of which we did a lot! So it was not exactly a chill-out holiday. In fact, it was so busy that I genuinely struggled to find the time to buy postcards or stamps, and at least twice we didn't arrive at our intended accommodation for the night until 10pm. But then again there was plenty of time spent sitting on the coach gazing out over beautiful mountainous landscapes, and the occasional morning or afternoon free for wandering round lovely medieval towns, sitting in cafes, or simply curling up in our rooms. Maybe it was just the sheer excitement of being there, but I never felt as tired out as I'd feared I might, especially after the rather epic efforts required to get my dissertations marked before leaving, and certainly arrived home feeling refreshed and invigorated - which I think is rather the point of holidays, isn't it?

Guided bus tours can be hit and miss, of course. I haven't been on many, actually, but I learnt enough about both historically ill-informed and boring guides on an eastern Mediterranean holiday with my sister in my early 20s to be aware of the dangers. Happily, though, the guide we had on this holiday was absolutely excellent. He was cheerful and enthusiastic, incredibly well-organised, unfailingly helpful and patient, really knew his stuff and was a delight to listen to and talk to. His name was Stefan, and he was so central to the success of the holiday that although this isn't really a picture post (that's what the follow-ups are for), I'm going to include a couple of pictures of him in action here, telling us all about the the baroque Banffy Castle in Bonțida to (as you can see) rapt attention:

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The pictures encapsulate pretty accurately both the weather we enjoyed and the types of sites we visited, too. Beautiful early summer sunshine for the most part, though with occasional wind, rain or oppressive heat, and an endless succession of incredibly interesting and beautiful historical monuments and landscapes. The monuments in particular would be difficult to visit in the way we did without an experienced local guide, because a lot of them weren't open on any kind of regular schedule - you had to know who the local key-holder was, and Stefan spent a lot of his time while we were travelling phoning ahead to arrange meeting up with that person to collect the key and let us in. But from our point of view it was impressively seamless, sweeping up in our coach and straight in through the gates to discover the wonders behind - and that is of course the real benefit of going on an organised tour. There are some places which weren't on the itinerary for this holiday which I'd like to visit (mainly sites in Wallachia connected with the historical Dracula), and I think now that I'm familiar with the country I would feel happy enough to do those myself, equipped with a hire car and a willing friend, and probably on a rather more leisurely schedule than the DracSoc tour. But I'm really glad I got started this way, with such incredible privileged access to the absolute best places Romania has to offer in the areas we visited.

As for the particular places we went to on this holiday, though, they were absolutely stupendous and consistently surpassed my expectations. I knew I would find the Dracula-related locations exciting, of course, as well as the general feeling of being in the real landscape which inspired both Stoker and so many of my favourite films - and I did. But although I was quite willing to mosey about the various fortified churches, monasteries, non-Dracula-related castles, towns, villages and landscapes also featured on our itinerary, I didn't expect them to be quite as spectacular as they were - or so easily relatable to the wider imaginative world of the Dracula story, either. More or less every medieval tower, every mountain valley and every local person walking by in traditional costume could be related back to one of the Draculas (historical, Stoker's or Hammer's) somehow or other. And all of them were just beautiful and awesome and exciting in their own right anyway. I'll save the details for my photo posts, since they're better shown than told, but in summary I cannot praise Romania's sites and landscapes highly enough.

Indeed, I would now recommend Romania very strongly to anyone as a holiday destination. I found all the people we encountered extremely polite, friendly and helpful, and in the contexts where we were operating (hotels, cafes, restaurants, tourist sites) they almost all spoke very good English - though they also patiently appreciated my halting attempts at phrase-book Romanian too! Those two classic tourist banes - pushy traders and pick-pockets - were utterly absent (though we didn't go to Bucharest, so I wouldn't want to offer a guarantee against pick-pocketing there, any more than I would in any other capital city). And though once or twice I was approached by plaintive-looking gypsy children whose parents watched from a short distance away, they weren't pushy either - and hey, begging also happens in the UK. A lot. Meanwhile, by UK standards everything there from a cup of coffee to a hotel room is incredibly cheap, costing typically I would say about 1/4 of what it costs here. The entire 12-day holiday, including flights from Luton, entry to all the sites we visited, the dedicated service of our bus, driver and guide, at least two meals a day, and accommodation in what were clearly the best hotels in each location cost me £1,376 in total - i.e. about £100 a day once you take out the cost of the flights. You just couldn't begin to get what we got for that money as a tourist anywhere in western Europe.

Obviously, countries which come across as cheap to western European tourists are also those with comparatively weak economies. Many parts of Romania are still barely touched by mechanised agriculture, many of the city apartment blocks put up in the Communist era are in serious need of structural repair work, and the country definitely took a hit during the credit crunch. But it's also very obvious that life has changed a great deal in Romania from what my parents experienced when they visited in 1987 - everything falling apart, barely anything in the shops and children begging for biros in the street because they had nothing to draw with. Standing at the top of a medieval tower in Sibiu, I could see around me three very distinct rings of construction - a sizeable medieval / early modern market town, an actually relatively narrow band of Communist-era blocks, and a vast explosion of post-Communist construction beyond:

Sibiu bands.jpg

I was also struck by how many property plots in the predominantly rural area of Maramureș had new-build houses either recently completed or under construction next to what was clearly the old cottage / farm-house, and how marked the upgrade was from the one to the other. Basically, people are replacing their 3-4 room traditional houses with 8+ room palaces - according to Stefan, partly on the basis of the local agriculture but also by going to do seasonal work in the construction industry in Italy. Good for them. Meanwhile, the shops and markets are bustling, the food (bar one or two disappointments) is good, and people seem to be really enjoying their lives. All in all, then, Romania comes across as a busy and growing country, and I'm not surprised to see from Wikipedia that, recent blip aside, they are doing pretty well on the whole. It's just that these things are relative, and of course an economy can grow a lot when it starts from a very low bar and experiences vastly improved access to prosperous neighbouring markets over a short period. Still, what can western European tourists like me do to help Romania keep on moving upwards? Go there, spend money, and have a brilliant time. I was happy to do my bit!

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strange_complex: (Clone Army)
miss_s_b gave me an R.

Something I hate: Reactionary social values, by which I mean believing things like "a woman's place is in the home", only particular narrowly-restricted sexual activities are acceptable, you must respect your elders (regardless of whether or not they actually deserve it), and foreigners should be treated with suspicion. I found the description of these views as 'reactionary' rather confusing when I first encountered it. It basically means 'reacting against the current status quo' (as the Wikipedia article explains), but the word in and of itself doesn't really indicate in which direction - towards greater tolerance and equality or lesser? Anyway, in context and in practice it means people who currently enjoy privilege wanting to shore up the inequalities which support it by appealing to tradition. I am a liberal, and I am against that sort of thing.

Something I love: Roses - both the flowers themselves, which I think are beautiful and smell lovely, and more particularly things which are rose-flavoured, such as Turkish Delight, rose creams and rose syrup. Rose flavoured confectionery used to be quite common a century ago, but it is such a delicate flavour that it is actually quite difficult to make it 'work' in any foodstuff and (probably more importantly) it is not easy to synthesise effectively either. So manufacturers of cheap confectionery have tended to drop it, and rose-flavoured delicacies are not at all easy to get hold of. If you ever see some in a shop and want to make me a very happy bunny, this is a fail-safe gift for me!

Somewhere I have been: Rome. Obviously! My career is centred around the study of Roman history, and more particularly Roman urban space. I tend to work with provincial cities more than Rome itself, because I am interested in how people at all levels of society negotiated with one another in the organisation of urban space, and the political importance of Rome means that the dynamics at play there were exceptional and can't be extrapolated more widely. But I still need to know Rome intimately because of the way it served as an archetype for other cities, and because of what it can also tell us about the political issues which I also teach and research. I went there just last week, this time in the name of political self-representation (specifically, Augustus') and other people's responses to it, but urban space was an important part of that too (e.g. his monuments and their post-Classical history). And I will keep going back there throughout my life, because it is such a rich city that I will never know everything there is to know about its ancient past - let alone the magnificent tapestry of contradictions which is modern Rome.

Somewhere I would like to go: Romania. Hands up - this is basically about my current fannish obsession with the Hammer Dracula franchise. But since that's an obsession which I've carried with me since before puberty, the idea of actually going to Romania and seeing the landscape which inspired the original legend is hardly a passing whim with me. What I'd really like to do is take a river cruise along the Danube, the segment of which between Vienna and Bratislava I have already travelled along with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, but right from Germany to Romania this time. Then I would travel inland to the Carpathians and do the full Dracula 'thing' - i.e. visit all of the locations associated with the real historical Vlad III Drăculea, but also those which had nothing to do with him but did inspire Stoker (e.g. Bistritz, the Borgo Pass). I'm pretty confident that as a holiday this would work very much in the same way as the Wicker Man trip which I did to Scotland last March with [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos - i.e. it would be a great way of achieving a new and deeper engagement with a story I love, but it would also lend a nice shape and structure to the exploration of places which are in any case very much worth visiting. However, doing all of that would probably require about two weeks (though of course the river cruise and Dracula's Romania sections could be separated out into two different one-week holidays), and what with the travel and work I'm going to need to do this year for Augustus' bimillennium I can't see when I would have time to fit in even half of it until that has passed.

Someone I know: [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula. This is a bit of a cheat, as her real-life name does not begin with an R, but as I knew her first by her LJ name, and have interacted with her here (as well as in real life) for the best part of a decade now, it is as real to me as anything on her birth certificate. [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula is one of the strongest, most sharp-witted, and most articulate women I know, and although the word has come to sound cheesy and empty due to widespread overuse, I do find her genuinely inspirational. I have learnt a lot from her, from why it is important to remove your make-up properly before going to bed to how to spot and avoid idiotic social fallacies and understand what is really important in life. If you enjoy food and good writing, I recommend her blog, Beggars Banquets.

Best movie: I badly want to cheat here and say [Dracula has] Risen from the Grave, because I never call it by its full title (who does?), so it effectively begins with an R for me. It is a fantastic movie, but then again I already waxed lyrical about it only very recently, so I guess I can manage without doing so here again. In which case, I will instead nominate Raw Meat, aka Death Line (1972). That's a bit of a cheat, too, since I have to call it by its American release title to sneak it in, but less brazen I think. It is a low-budget British horror movie, set in the contemporary present, and involving passengers being attacked by an unknown menace on the London Underground. It's not as widely-known as it deserves to be, but I think it's a real gem, probably above all because it succeeds in creating a very moving sense of pathos around its 'monsters' (who are actually just human beings who have themselves been very badly mistreated), even while also pulling no punches on the horror. It also has Christopher Lee in it (albeit only briefly), Donald Pleasence as a fantastic sarky Cockney copper, and lots of lovely seventies fashions. I have reviewed it in more detail here. Mind the doors!

OK, I'm done. Comment if you would like a letter of your own to play with.

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Holiday!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010 01:34
strange_complex: (Silver Jubilee knees-up)
There will be no research leave updates this week, because the master plan advises that May is 'probably a good point at which to take a clear, structured week off'. And this week I am taking that advice.

Holiday Tiems actually started late on Friday afternoon, when I set off for the station to catch a train to Tunbridge Wells for the wedding of [livejournal.com profile] swisstone and [livejournal.com profile] ladymoonray. I'd never been there before (and of course its reactionary reputation precedes it), but it is all very idyllic and leafy and Edwardian-looking. I stayed at The Royal Wells hotel, where allegedly Queen Victoria liked to go in her youth, but I expect her room was a little bit bigger than mine.

The setting and the ceremony )

The people )

As for the rest of the week, I have spent today busy doing nothing at all. Well, no - I have caught up on LJ, Facebook, emails and the weekend's TV, in between watching the snooker. That is still going on now, and looks like it could go on until about 2 in the morning. Both players are clearly very tense, and playing quite scrappily as a result. At the time of writing I think all of about 6 points have been scored in the last half-hour - or that's how it feels, anyway. But I do not care! I am on holiday, and can stay up as late as I like!

Snooker spoiler under here )

My main goal for the rest of the week is to de-blue my kitchen. Currently, it has duck-egg blue units, bright blue tiles, a pale sparkly blue floor, pale blue doors and blue walls. Even if I liked blue, that would be a bit much. Meanwhile, for some reason, someone has at some point chosen to paint the door-frames and skirting-boards a shade which the half-empty tin left behind in the shed reveals is called 'urban grey'. It's about as attractive as it sounds. So the blue walls and the grey woodwork are going, in favour of pale creams of the type which will complement the remaining blues without overwhelming the room.

I'm also having some local chums round for an election 2010 all-nighter on Thursday, in honour of which I shall be popping into town tomorrow to buy an assortment of red, blue and yellow sweets for consumption when the relevant parties win seats. It should be a good night - clearly it's going to be a very close-run election, and probably also one which has a major long-lasting effect on the political landscape in this country. It's not like the snooker, of course - it's our collective future at stake, not a shiny trophy. But all the more reason to go through it in the company of friends, I think.

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strange_complex: (True Blood Eric wink)
I've been having a pretty lazy, undemanding weekend - much needed after the last month and a half of zipping around the place and being intensively driven and intellectual all the time. I slept in till midday today and yesterday, and have been spending most of my waking hours lying on the sofa in my dressing-gown, drinking coffee, reading the internet and watching the snooker (which is throwing up a lot of surprises this year - but mainly nice ones as far as I'm concerned).

The only thing I can be said to have 'achieved' this weekend is to make the attached icon, which took me through quite a steep learning-curve with Adobe ImageReady (it's only the second animated icon I have ever made), but which I am now really proud of and very slightly in love with. I believe I have tipped over in this last week from thinking that True Blood is a pretty cool show which I'm careful never to miss an episode of, into full-blown squeeing fandom of the type which causes one to join fan communities ([livejournal.com profile] trueblood_lj seems to be the main one round these parts) and conceive crushes on regular characters.

[livejournal.com profile] lefaym made an excellent post a few weeks ago pointing out some of the many things which True Blood is getting right - well-realised characters; complex situations without simple solutions; and prominent black, female, queer and working-class characters whose lives and experiences are taken seriously and explored without the suggestion that they should somehow be ashamed or self-loathing about their under-privileged identities. I can't really improve upon [livejournal.com profile] lefaym's analysis, but I will also add that another big draw for me is the dialogue. It's sometimes very powerful, it does a brilliant job at revealing character and pushing on the plot without ever feeling forced, but most of all it regularly manages to be crackingly laugh-out-loud funny. There are a few quotations here, but TBH they don't really work out of context. They work because they all fit so well in the mouths of the characters they come out of, and in the structure of the scenes where they occur - and that is precisely why this is such a good show and so satisfying to watch.

Anyway, I did manage to get myself up off the sofa and dressed and over to Manchester yesterday evening for [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau and [livejournal.com profile] biascut's house-warming party. It was lovely to see them all set up and bright and cosy in there. I last saw the house on their first day in it, when it was mainly all boxes and make-shift furniture, but they have already made a massive difference to it in only two months, and it feels properly like their own glorious domain now. Filling it up with bright, interesting people and food and wine last night was the icing on the cake, really - as a house-warming should be.

It was also nice to discover that the trains between Leeds and Manchester really do mean that I can breeze out of the house on a summer evening with nothing but a little money and my house-keys in my pocket, sail over the Pennines in fading sunshine, spend a decent evening with fine people on the north edge of the city centre, and still be back safely curled up in my own bed by 1 in the morning. I've not really tried doing that before, but it opens up new social opportunities now that I know how easy it is.

Now it's about time I watched my recording of last night's Doctor Who so that I can find out what everyone's posts and comments about River Song's identity and Amy's developing character actually mean. Oh, it's a hard life...

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London weekend

Monday, 22 March 2010 13:08
strange_complex: (Twiggy)
My main reason for going to London was to attend a JACT Council meeting on the Saturday morning. I do this every six months, but normally only attend the Ancient History sub-committee (of which I am a member) in the afternoon. This time, though, I was asked to represent our committee on the main Council in the morning, which was quite good fun, actually - I certainly learnt a lot more about how the organisation as a whole works than I knew before.

Sneakily, since my travel to London is being paid for anyway, I usually take the opportunity to catch up while I am there with [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula, so I did just that this time too. I stayed over with her and the lovely [livejournal.com profile] itsjustaname (whose new blonde, 20s-style bob looks fantastic on her), and we were also joined by [livejournal.com profile] qatsi and Mrs. Q. on the Saturday evening for dinner. Much wine was quaffed and conversation enjoyed, while we gorged ourselves on a menu well up to [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula's usual culinary standards: chicken, chorizo and pumpkin pie with absolutely perfect pastry and accompanied by cheesy, creamy mash and veg, followed by an Imperial Purple Penny cake which she has invented in my honour. This mainly featured blackberries, blackcurrants and chocolate, but there was also a secret ingredient which we have all vowed solemnly never to divulge.


The cake in all its purple glory


Since the Ancient History sub-committee itself was not meeting this time, we also had some time free on Saturday afternoon to do a bit of sight-seeing. Friday evening was too full of wine and end-of-week decompression to make decisions about this, so I told [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula that I would just phone her when I came out of the morning's meeting, and she could surprise me with whatever idea she fancied. She came up with the Sir John Soane Museum, which preserves the house of the man who designed the original Bank of England building, and was also a fervent collector of antiquarian curiosities. He treated the house as much as a museum as a residence during his life-time, and it is still more or less as he left it on his death in 1833, in accordance with the terms of his will. It's really amazing - every nook and cranny absolutely crammed full of a bizarre mix of real and reproduction antiquities, including a huge Egyptian alabaster sarcophagus, hundreds of pieces of Roman architectural and funerary sculpture, drawers full of insects (which reminded me, inevitably, of Ghost Light) and models of Classical temples. In fact, it reminded me a very great deal of [livejournal.com profile] big_daz's house, which is much in the same vein only with fewer cremation urns and more commemorative plates.

The journey back wasn't so great, since it involved spending about 40 minutes stuck in Stevenage station while we waited for a broken-down train to be towed out of the way. But I made it back in the end, to curl up with Friday's episode of True Blood and some 'bear crunch' which [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula had sent me away with - nuts, fruit and chocolate, and extremely delicious.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I saw this last night at the Cottage Road cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy and Rachel WINOLJ (AFAIK). It was another of the Cottage's Classic film nights, like when we went to see Meet Me in St. Louis before Christmas, so once again we were treated to adverts from the 1950s to the 1980s before the film - though not, alas, a Pathé news reel this time. We got instructions on how to behave at a drive-in movie, two Hamlet cigar adverts, a very surreal cereal advert featuring a couple dressed as the people in the American Gothic painting singing about how great their cornflakes were, and a seductive soft-focus advert all about the pleasures of eating Wall's ice-cream in the sun, with a heavy emphasis on the posterior of a female bicyclist wearing tight blue satin hot-pants.

The film itself is an Ealing comedy. I didn't think I knew it, but recognised the plot point about trying to smuggle gold bullion out of the country disguised as souvenir Eiffel towers, so maybe I have seen snippets of it on TV at some point. Anyway, it was great, especially on the big screen, with lots of comic misdemeanours, farcical chase scenes and cracking characters. I especially liked the game old lady in the boarding house who had picked up loads of criminals' slang from reading detective novels; and the scene with Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway desperately attempting to leap on a cross-channel ferry, but having to work their way through a series of bureaucratic ticket officials, passport controllers, customs officers and foreign exchange dealers first. It reminded me painfully of some of my experiences in Schiphol airport, which it seems to be impossible to negotiate via anything other than a painful combination of mad dashes and frustratingly-slow queues.

The end credits threw up a surprising link with the last film I watched, too. I'd thought one of the characters in the opening scene looked rather like Audrey Hepburn, but assumed that it couldn't be, since her role was so minimal - all of about 10 seconds and two lines. But, sure enough, the credit list confirmed that it was indeed her, two years before she shot to fame in Roman Holiday. Her very brief scene is in this Youtube clip if any of you would like to see it for yourselves.

Finally, we were once again invited to stand and salute for the national anthem - but this time it was George VI who was projected on the screen in front of us, rather than a youthful QEII like last time. The film stock was clearly very old, as you could hardly make him out through the dust and scratches, but there he was in glorious technicolor with a Union Jack flying proudly behind him.

Another brilliant evening out, and once again I can't wait for the next time.

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strange_complex: (Purple and black phone)
Leeds people about to leave work might like to know that there is a bus ON FIRE on the Otley Rd. So may be some transport troubles tonight!


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strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
I'd never been on a hen-do before yesterday, and I don't think my introduction to the tradition was entirely a typical one either. But I enjoyed myself enormously marking [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's impending nuptials.

Gathering in York )

Afternoon tea )

Evening dinner )

Drunken but charming emo boy )

Sunday leisure )

ETA: Oh, by the way - did anyone who was in the restaurant find a purple scarf when you left? I'm pretty sure I left it on the floor by my chair. No worries if not - I think it only cost 99p in the first place. But it was deliciously soft and fluffy and a very lovely shade of purple... :-(

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strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
And so, welcome to the 'all about my holiday' entry. I'm going to keep it pretty minimal, actually, as I have a lot of work I need to get on with now. But, in simple list form:

This is what we did )

And these are the pictures )

I have, incidentally, submitted both of the purple Sshhh bag pictures shown above to the library's bag travel map, along with the signpost one from Belfast, since that one seems to have been the eventual victor in my poll.

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strange_complex: (Ulysses 31)
Right, I'm off away to Belfast for the weekend - or at least I will be if the traffic in Leeds city centre lets up enough for the bus to get out to the airport. I'll see some of you there. The rest, be good while I'm gone!

Excess baggage

Thursday, 14 August 2008 11:37
strange_complex: (Leeds Parkinson building)
About a year ago, the University library here at Leeds started selling coloured canvas bags with the word 'Sshhh!' printed on them, for people to carry their library books around in. For the sorts of unfathomable reasons that I suppose usually lie behind such fashion trends, they became a massive hit, quickly selling out and having to be re-ordered in vast numbers. It's unusual to walk across campus without seeing about twenty of them, hanging from people's hands, sitting on desks or lying on the grass in the (rare) sunshine.

Now, the library have set up a website which is charting the travels of these bags across the world as people take them on their summer holidays. They've got to Japan, Finland, the Cayman islands and sub-Saharan Africa. As yet, however, none seem to have been photographed in Belfast, Vienna or Bratislava - all cities which I will be visiting in late August and early September. So today I am going to buy one (in purple, natch), and be sure to photograph it in distinctive local venues when I go.

I am, incidentally, massively behind with LJ, because I have spent far too much time recently doing interesting things or having guests round, and far too little writing about it. Probably the right way to lean, really, but it does mean I won't then have records of the interesting things in the future. So this is me trying to break the ice and get back into the habit.

strange_complex: (F&L Geek pride)
I am nearing the end of the latest chapter of my (stupid) teaching portfolio, which is Good News. Soon, I shall be on to the final phase of putting the whole thing together and submitting it, and then you will not need to hear me complaining about it any more. Don't let your guard down just yet, though, as I'm sure that final phase will warrant griping of its own.

Anyway, I'd done enough by the end of Friday to head off with a clear conscience and the knowledge that I would not need to think about it again until Monday, and catch the train to charming Hebden Bridge; there to meet [livejournal.com profile] snapesbabe, [livejournal.com profile] matgb, [livejournal.com profile] burlesque_bunny and her fella, and attend a performance of Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf )

Saturday then saw me spending a tiring, but very satisfying, day painting the back bedroom in my house. And I took it as an opportunity for further Whovianism, in the form of some Eight audios. Something like painting, of course, presents the ideal opportunity to listen to stories like that, because the painting itself doesn't make any noise at all (unlike vacuuming, for instance), but it does successfully occupy those parts of your brain and body that might get bored just sitting still listening to a story, while leaving those parts that would definitely get bored just painting to enter entirely into the world of the drama.

Eighth Doctor audio: Storm Warning )

Eighth Doctor audio: Sword of Orion )

The early bird

Saturday, 26 April 2008 07:58
strange_complex: (TT Baby Helios)
Well, it was one thing being up and out of the house by 9 last Saturday. This week I'm on my way a full half hour earlier! What happened??? Theoretically, I am going to help sort out a colleague's computer in Harrogate - but I think the limits of my technical competence on that front may lie closer than he believes! :-/

strange_complex: (Sleeping Hermaphrodite)
I'm back from Verona. Very tired, but I had a brilliant time. In theory, I've gone all the way back through LJ to where I left off before I flew out, but it meant going back to skip=260, so it was very much skim-reading.

I'll post a proper report tomorrow, but in essence, after the initial flight cancellation tedium, it was all good. Students fine, my opposite number in Verona a real sweet-heart and very enthusiastic host, Verona wonderful, hotel welcoming, food excellent, and I have been to Venice! Wow.

In all honesty, I'd rather still be there than back in Britannia. But the good news is that the weather there is exactly as horrid as it is here, so I do not need to feel I am missing the sunshine. Only the warm internal glow of Italy and its people. :-(

I have many pictures, but for now you just get my favourite two:

My little friend from the theatre in Verona )

Have you hugged a tetrarch today? )

strange_complex: (Snape writing)
1. Last Wednesday - went off for the day with Mum on the Severn Valley Railway. We saw partridges, pheasants, rabbits, butterflies, great crested grebe, elephants, bison and gazelle. Although I suppose it's only fair to explain that the last three were in a safari park visible from the railway. Enjoyed a lovely picnic at Arley, then walked along the river a bit, glorying in the warm weather. All the way there and back, I examined properties along the route with a buyer's eye. I can't help it now - force of habit.

2. On that note, I'm still waiting to hear about the house. My first offer was rejected; I raised it to what was my absolute upper limit and said so; the seller relayed that it was rather less than she wanted but she'd think about it; I enquired again of the estate agents on Friday, but they said she still hadn't decided. I do know that no other offers have been made, though. So ideally she'll wait a bit longer, see that no-one else is offering and accept my bid. Two people saw it over the weekend, apparently, but I know a lot of people have seen it by now and very few have offered, so I'm cautiously hopeful.

3. Thursday to Saturday saw me attending the annual Classical Association conference. Well, actually it carried on this morning too, but I decided to bunk the last part for the sake of a lie-in and some more relaxed parent time. I must say it was probably the best CA conference I've been to (out of three altogether) in terms of papers and general conviviality. Logistics perhaps not so great - it was in a fairly second-rate hotel, with not wonderful food and tedious queues at the lifts to move around the building. But I spent the conference dinner last night (in the much nicer surroundings of the University of Birmingham's Great Hall) with a big grin on my face, feeling on a high from the whole experience. There's too much to record now, of course, but highlights were the comedy caretaker during John Henderson's opening lecture, some cracking panels on Roman cities and all flavours of Classical Receptions (including Buffy and Achilles / Patroclus m-preg fanfics), and all the lovely people I got to catch up with.

4. Did some enjoyable shopping in Brum on Saturday afternoon - scheduled as excursion time for conference-goers, but I'd been to all the places they suggested visiting many times before, having grown up here. Surprised myself slightly by buying some baseball boots - not my normal style, but I really was desperate for new shoes by this stage, and I think they can become my style. Also got CivCity: Rome, which I've wanted for about a year now, ever since I first heard it was coming out, and was reminded of by a great session on Classics in computer games at the conference. And I enjoyed just generally wandering around Birmingham city centre, experiencing the weird combination of things which haven't changed at all and things which are totally unrecognisable, and exploring the various memories which streets and buildings threw up in my mind. I'm proud of my roots here.

5. Term starts again tomorrow. Wah! Only two weeks of teaching and one of revision classes, but they're going to be pretty tough. I'm more-or-less ready, but have a lot to do over the next few days.

6. Haven't seen this week's Who yet, as I was out at the dinner last night, and now my parents' cable box is broken! So that will have to be squeezed in over the next few days too. Have been reading people's online reactions, though. It seems to have provoked quite a lot of discussion and some division.

7. I am travelling home first class in the train tonight, because there was a cheap weekend upgrade available, and I've always wanted to try it out. It'll be a bit different from the Severan Valley Railway, where we were in a third-class compartment!

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