strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
I got back on Monday night from a long weekend in Whitby spent in the company of around 40 Dracula Society members: including [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 whom I have now dragooned into joining! I went there with a smaller group of them two years ago, and managed a decent write-up of it afterwards too (LJ / DW), but this was a more formal gathering designed to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Society's first official visit there in 1977.

[personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I got there shortly before lunch on the Friday, but the official business didn't begin until that evening, so we spent the afternoon enjoying Gothic seaside fun in the sunshine. We pottered around the shops buying various treasures, and then headed down to the harbour front where she introduced me to Goth Blood milkshakes - basically ordinary milkshakes with bucket-loads of food colouring in them which turn your tongue blood-red after a single sip:

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I also went through the Dracula Experience: a once-in-a-lifetime audio-visual presentation of the Dracula story. I say 'once-in-a-lifetime' because it is so rubbish that it is hard to imagine anyone voluntarily going twice (for all the reasons aptly articulated in these TripAdvisor reviews). They have a cloak at the beginning of the exhibition which they claim is one of Christopher Lee's Dracula capes, but I'm afraid it clearly isn't: it has a strong diagonal ridged texture which none of Lee's capes in any of the Hammer Dracula films ever did. Still, though, the whole thing only cost three quid, and I did chuckle most of the way through at how inept it was, so I guess it wasn't the worst thing I've ever spent money on. Afterwards, we spent one whole pound each on the tuppenny falls, where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, who is an experienced competitive player, completely wiped the floor with me, winning more than double the amount of tuppences I had managed to score every time we compared our takings.

The evening began with the traditional gathering around the bench which the Society donated in 1980 (I suppose we'll celebrate the 40th anniversary of that in three years too!), where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 encountered most of the Society's members for the first time, and was also introduced to tuica: Romanian plum brandy, and of course our preferred toast. The rest of the evening was informal, but Julia (the Society's very energetic chair) had laid on a wonderful programme of events for us at the Royal Hotel the following day.

We began with a screening of 27. Holy Terrors (2017), dir. Julian Butler and Mark Goodall )

We also had two talks given by members of the Society: Gail-Nina Anderson on werewolves and Barry McCann on Jekyll and Hyde. Both traced the evolution of their creatures and their stories through time, looking at how and why they have been treated differently in different circumstances, and what aspects of the human experience they have been used to explore. And although this wasn't particularly planned, both actually informed the other very neatly, and indeed made me realise something I had never really noticed before: that Jekyll and Hyde is essentially a werewolf story. As Gail had already shown us, werewolf stories have never actually been that prescriptive about the matter of how a person becomes a werewolf: many just take it for granted that they exist, and those which do try to explain how it happens offer a much wider range of possibilities than the now common idea of being bitten by an existing werewolf. Nor is the moon particularly consistently required to prompt transformations. So a story about a man who brings out his inner beast voluntarily through a potion of his own making fits right into the canon.

After lunch (roast pork baps from the Greedy Pig GET IN MY FACE!), it was time for a quiz. Given that this consisted of a ten-point round on Stoker's Dracula (which I have read multiple times and am reading right now), a ten-point round on Whitby (where I was sat while taking the quiz), and a twenty-point round on film adaptations of Dracula (which are basically the heart of [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313's and my co-conspiratorial film watching), you would have thought I might manage to do quite well on this, but no! Somehow Julia managed to make it really hard. The winner, Kate, scored a fairly modest 26.5 points out of 40, while I scraped along with 14.5 and [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 bagged a mere 11.5. It's almost like we've been wasting our lives!

Oh well, at least we had plenty of opportunity to buy up books and DVDs which might help us to do better next time in the society auction - not to mention all sorts of other goodies, from the utterly tat-tastic to the actually very tasteful. This was my personal haul, including a notebook in the shape of Christopher Lee as Dracula )

That evening was the Society's formal dinner, so I grabbed the rare opportunity to dress up in full Gothic finery with both hands. We had allowed plenty of time to walk down from our guest-house and ended up arriving ridiculously early, so, as it was still light and I don't look like this very often, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 indulged me with a little photo-shoot.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity )

Much wine was drunk, merriment had and patrons on a ghost walk of Whitby outside the window trolled by means of a green Frankenstein torch shone at them through a white napkin (though irritatingly they didn't seem to notice). None of this, though, stopped a hardy band of us from getting up the next morning bright and early to do the six-and-a-half-mile cliff walk from Whitby to Robin Hood's Bay. This of course was all in honour of Mina and Lucy, who do just this walk in Stoker's novel straight after the funeral of the Demeter's captain: a plan concocted by Mina with a view to tiring Lucy out and stopping her from fretting about the funeral and sleep-walking that night. She records her plan in an entry on the morning of 10 August thus:
She will be dreaming of this tonight, I am sure. The whole agglomeration of things, the ship steered into port by a dead man, his attitude, tied to the wheel with a crucifix and beads, the touching funeral, the dog, now furious and now in terror, will all afford material for her dreams. I think it will be best for her to go to bed tired out physically, so I shall take her for a long walk by the cliffs to Robin Hood's Bay and back. She ought not to have much inclination for sleep-walking then.
And you can read her post-factum report of the walk itself that evening here.

We grabbed a couple of group pictures before we set off, which I hope Michael won't mind too much that I have stolen from his FB page:

Cliff walk party selfie Michael Borio.jpg

Cliff walk photo Dutch angle Michael Borio.jpg


Then off we went, past many picturesque delights )

The conversation as we walked unfolded much as you would expect in the circumstances. I can't remember exactly who said what now, but the gist of it all went more or less like this:

"Presumably Mina and Lucy can't actually have walked to Robins Hood's Bay. They must have taken a horse and cart or something."
"Oh no, it says quite clearly in the novel that they walked."
"Yes, that's right - they're obviously going across the fields because some cows come up and give them a fright."
"Can you imagine doing this in heels and a corset, though?"
"Well, Victorian women did have sensible walking boots and country clothing."
"Yes, absolutely - the Victorians were very much into their physical exercise and fresh air."
"They would still definitely have been wearing corsets, though."
"Oh yes. Mind you, the whalebone corsets had quite a lot of give in them. You would only wear the steel ones in the evening."
"Well, my respect for Mina and Lucy is increasing with every step."
"You've got to wonder if Bram ever actually thought about the implications of doing all this in a corset, though."
"Hmm, yes - good point. Well, unless he dressed up in the full regalia himself and did the whole walk that way. You know, just to really get into the heads of his characters."
"Well, given that he was 6'4", that would have been quite a sight!"

In the end, we were not as hardcore as Mina and Lucy ourselves, though. They walked both ways, and had to suffer an unwanted visit from a curate in the evening. We got the bus back, before enjoying another final dinner together ahead of our general dispersal on the Monday morning. Not that [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I were in a rush to get home that morning, though - not least because she didn't have any house-keys, so couldn't get into the house until [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy got home with his set anyway, and furthermore because their boiler had broken so the house would be freezing. Instead we spent most of the day in Filey, which I have never visited before, but which proved to be a charming seaside town with a lovely museum, some great charity shops, some excellent cafes, and a fountain with a surround designed like a compass showing the directions of all the locations mentioned in the shipping forecast )

They also had a crazy golf course, where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I played a game so utterly inept that it more than once reduced us to tears of laughter; but I feel duty bound to note that she did beat me, with a score of 37 shots for 9 holes to my 40. Finally it was time to head home, playing games of "I Spy" and "I am a Hammer film: which one am I?" as we drove. All in all a very enjoyable and much-needed final summer jolly before term hits with a vengeance next week...
strange_complex: (Leeds owl)
3. Mary Shelley (1818), Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

I read this in preparation for a trip to Geneva with the Dracula Society, organised to mark the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend in the Villa Diodati which gave rise to it (and to Polidori's 'The Vampyre'). I never wrote about the trip here in any detail, because it came half way through my Mum's final illness, and just at the point when we were really starting to realise that it was final. I spent a lot of the time while I was there worrying and checking my phone for updates, and then all the time after I got back just trying to cope while also carrying a pretty heavy load of work commitments. So the trip itself was a rather strained experience; but what I did get out of it was very much enhanced by my pre-holiday reading. I believe in the case of the novel it was my third time reading it, the first and second times being once in my mid-to-late-teens and another in my mid-twenties. Both well pre-date my habit of book-blogging here anyway, so as far as LJ / DW is concerned this is the first time. That makes it a pity that I didn't manage to do so while it was all fresh in my mind, but I did actually make a few notes about this one while reading it at the time, so I can do a slightly better job than with most of these catch-up reviews.

Obviously, it is a great novel. That isn't to say it's perfect. My mental red pen was particularly exercised by the way Justine was introduced: in the middle of a letter from Elizabeth to Victor, where she takes it upon herself to recount the entire story of how Justine came to be part of their household, even though Victor would of course already know all of this. I could see him as he read it turning over the pages in bafflement thinking "Why the hell is she telling me all this? Get onto something I don't know!" But hey, Mary was only 18 when she began writing the thing, and did it all in longhand while on the road through Switzerland and Italy. Let's cut her some slack. What she created here was innovative, genre-defining, gripping and incredibly cleverly put together.

Reading it now, I'm much more aware of its literary and historical context than I think I've been on previous encounters. Previously I think I have just accepted it as a gothic novel because that it how it is usually marketed, and also viewed it through the filters of its many film adaptations. It certainly is in the gothic arena, as you would expect given that Mary started writing the novel as an entry in a ghost story competition. It draws on established gothic tropes like descriptions of wild landscapes and huge, powerful storms; Victor's great moment of inspiration for how to build his creature happens in a charnel-house (what more gothic?); and he later uses a vampire metaphor to describe the effects of the creature on his family, saying that it is as though he himself had risen from the grave to murder them (exactly what Byron's vampire in The Giaour is condemned to do, as Mary must have known). But I think I understand the Romantic movement better now than I did when I first encountered Frankenstein, and I see now that its central themes of man's hubris, the rejection of technology and the nostalgic glorification of nature make it a Romantic novel more than anything else: again, totally unsurprisingly given who Mary was hanging out with while she wrote it. It's also frequently touted as the 'first Sci-Fi' novel, which of course isn't in the least bit incompatible with the other genres: it can be a Romantic novel which draws on gothic tropes while also sowing the seeds of something new. On the SF front, I was struck in particular coming to the book after many years of film adaptations by how very little scientific detail Mary provides about the creation of the creature. All those big set-pieces with sawing-and-stitching montages, lighting storms and of course bubbling equipment are entirely a product of the movie industry; Mary in fact skims very lightly over the creation process and gets on to its consequences instead. But SF-ness doesn't just lie in sciencey-science and techno-babble. I felt that her use of the creature's perspective to consider what our world might look like to an adult intelligence dropped into it without prior knowledge did justify describing it as an SF novel. In any case, certainly speculative fiction.

I think I was also alert to issues around social class this time in a way I haven't been on previous readings. For all Mary's radical family background, she certainly believes in a strong overlap between high social status and inherent worth. It's noticeable that her idealised family in the cottage turn out to be from a fallen 'good' family, rather than just being normal working people, and her account of how the Frankenstein family 'rescue' blonde aristocratic Elizabeth from the dark Italian peasant family who have taken her in practically slides into eugenics. More interestingly, though, there is a lot of anxiety detectable here. The narratives of the cottage family, Elizabeth and Victor's mother are all about people of once-high status who have fallen on hard times; a theme which must have felt potent for Mary after having thrown in her lot with Shelley at the cost of her father's disapproval and constant financial instability.

As for the characters, have I realised on previous readings what self-absorbed whiny little fuck Victor is? I'm not sure, but I found him almost unbearable this time around. He actually claims his suffering is worse than Justine's when she is about to be executed for a murder she didn't commit, on the grounds that at least she knows she's innocent. Fuck off! I've always known the novel was written to explore both sides of the creator / created relationship, inviting our sympathy for the creature as much as Victor, but on this read I massively preferred the creature, in spite of his cottage-burning anger management issues. I'm sure Mary intended us to find them both flawed, but at least the creature seems to start off with basically decent instincts, only to be drive to murderous extremes by the way other people treat him. Victor has no such excuse that I can see, creating his own woes, exacerbating them by behaving like an absolute wanker to everyone who tries to help him, and crying about how hard-done-by he is all the while. No to that, thank you very much.


4. Andrew McConnell Stott (2014), The Poet and the Vampyre: the curse of Byron and the birth of literature's greatest monsters / 4.5. parts of Daisy Hay (2010), Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

This was the other side of my pre-holiday reading: historical background about the famous Diodati weekend and the authoring of Frankenstein and 'The Vampyre'. The book by McConnell Stott I bought myself after Googling for something to help me understand the context for our holiday, and I definitely chose well. It is very much focused on the Diodati weekend and what came out of it, but includes plenty on the run-up and aftermath as well. The one by Hay was lent to me by the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and offers a broader general take on the Byron / Shelley phenomenon, so I just read one chapter and a few other snippets which dealt with the relevant material.

I hadn't realised before starting on either just how well-documented the movements of the people concerned actually were. More or less everyone involved was busy writing diaries or letters about what they did, which is why such detailed accounts of the events of the Geneva trip are possible. Stott made really good use of these, quoting from them at length and providing proper scholarly notes at the back of the book which I appreciated. His style is far from dry and academic, though – often his book reads almost like a novel in its own right, and I felt very engrossed and involved with all the characters. I won't try to recount everything I learnt from it, but I will note down the one thing which struck me most powerfully: viz. that Claire Clairmont is an absolute bad-ass! She is so often either left out of accounts of the Villa Diodati weekend altogether, or portrayed as the ditzy one who was just there to fuck Byron and wasn't on the same intellectual level as the others. But her surviving letters and memoirs make it very clear indeed that this was far from the case. Yes, she did want to fuck Byron, but for a girl of her age in the early 19th century to conceive of that goal and travel half-way across Europe to make good on it frankly isn't to be sniffed at. As for her intellect, she was brought up alongside Mary in the same radical intellectual household, and she clearly benefitted from it. Just because she didn't become a published poet or novelist doesn't mean she was thick.

Anyway, Mary and Claire got the last laugh in the end, outliving all the ridiculous, self-obsessed men in their lives by several decades each. Claire even wrote a set of memoirs in her old age hauling both Byron and Shelley over the coals, and not without cause. She was absolutely part of it all, and I'll never stand by and let her be erased from the Diodati story again.


That trip to Geneva

As already mentioned above, I never did write this trip up at the time and I can't now in detail, but I may as well include a few notes about it while I am looking back over the relevant reading material. We were there from the 3rd to 5th of June, c. ten days before the 1816 night of the ghost story competition (16th June), and at a time when the full party had all already arrived in the Geneva area. On the first day we went to the Villa Diodati itself, of course, followed by a bicentennial exhibition about its occupants at the nearby Bibliotheca Bodmeriana which was absolutely amazing: they had portraits of all five of the Diodati contingent, practically the whole of Mary Shelley's manuscript for Frankenstein, absolutely loads of other personal documents and effect of those concerned, and tons of fascinating material about the later impact of Frankenstein - e.g. play-bills for early theatrical versions of it. Then on the following days we went to Chillon Castle at the other end of Lake Geneva, which Byron visited and wrote a poem about, and which had its own bicentennial exhibition focused primarily on him, and then to Gruyères, of cheese fame, which also had a very nice castle as well as a festival going on in the medieval village and cows lounging about on the hillside just outside. These are a few pictures, showing all of us at the Villa Diodati, the boat arriving to take us home from Chillon, and me in the castle at Gruyères with a huge downpour bucketing down behind me.

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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: (Doctor Caecilius hands)
So! Film festival, day two. Here is the overall schedule for the day:

Saturday schedule.jpg


And here's what I did:

21. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), dir. Gordon Hessler / interview with Caroline Munro / Ray Harryhausen's Lost Treasures )

Interview with Katy Manning (aka Jo Grant from Doctor Who) )

Met Caroline Munro and got her autograph )

Doctor Who season 22 show-makers' interview )

Afterwards, I joined [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat for the first 45 minutes or so of The Rocketeer (1991), a sort of larger-than-life SF comedy about a US stunt pilot in the 1940s who finds a jet-pack, with Jennifer Connelly as his under-impressed girlfriend. I could see it was good and would have stayed to watch the whole thing if there weren't competing features on the schedule, but there were: two live commentaries from the Tenth Doctor era, marking the fact that his first full season screened ten years ago now. Ten is much more my thing than Six, so off I slipped...

Live commentary on New Who 2.3 School Reunion )

Live commentary on New Who 2.13 Doomsday )

All this time, Galaxy Quest had been playing in another room, which is a pity, because once the Doctor Who stuff was over and I went to join [livejournal.com profile] innerbrat, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and [livejournal.com profile] newandrewhickey in the screening, I realised what bloody good fun it was to watch at an actual con. But then again I have seen it multiple times before, and those live Doctor Who commentaries really were great, so I think I made the right choice.

After the film had finished, we went for food at a seriously good pizza / pasta place just down the road. It was nominally just a take-away / sit-in at fixed tables place, but the quality of the food was way better than you'd normally expect for a place like that, and along with the cute student room I was staying in and the well-appointed Co-op just below it, this was one of a number of things that really made me fall for the area where we were staying. Like, on one level, it was just edge-of-city-centre ring-roadish urban redevelopment, with a lot of medium-rise new-builds, but on another it did actually feel somehow quite modern and dynamic and nice to be in. In fact, hell, let's have a picture of it which fails to do justice to the intensity of the sunset on the Friday evening:

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22. Blood of the Tribades (2016), dir. Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein )

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strange_complex: (Sherlock Holmes trifles)
I'm spreading myself across the selected highlights of two different film festivals this weekend: the 2015 Widescreen Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford, and the Mayhem Horror Film Festival at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham. This was my first stop, seen in the company of the lovely miss_s_b in Bradford.

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There's some background information about it on the Widescreen Weekend website, and we got more too in a short introduction to the film by David Strohmaier, the director of the restored version we were seeing. Basically Scent of Mystery was originally intended as a curved-screen Cinerama spectacular with the added attraction of Smell-o-Vision - that is, appropriate scents released from little pipes under every seat in the auditorium at the right time to match up with the images being seen on the screen. But the Smell-o-Vision didn't quite work as intended at the initial screenings (stuff about that here), so it flopped, and was then edited down quite heavily and re-released without the smells as Holiday in Spain. Now, the original film has been restored as fully as possible (from a combination of a negative and a rather faded screen reel), and a new system devised for the smells - numbered vials and fans left on each seat in the auditorium, and illuminated numbered boards held up at the right time by attendants to tell people when to squirt their vial and fan it around to their neighbours.

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This was fun to do for the interactive aspect of it - I got very excited when my smell (grass) came up! And when it worked it certainly did enhance the film. I think the best smell of all for me was the incense released during a scene of people chasing each other around the columns of a Spanish cathedral, a) because that was a good strong scent which I picked up really easily, b) because that scene went on for quite a long time, so it was appropriate to have the smell of incense lingering in the air throughout it and c) because incense is so utterly characteristic of cathedral interiors that it really did help to deepen the sense of being there. Other good ones were the smell of oil-paints in an artist's studio, wine, coffee, mints and talc.

Quite a lot of thought had evidently gone into how to make the smells really work with the story when the film was originally produced, too, rather than just using them as extra decoration. Two plot points actually hung on them - cheap perfume gives away one imposter, since the person she is impersonating always wears genuine Scent of Mystery, while American pipe tobacco reveals the real identity of the man trying to kill her. However, neither of those worked for me until the characters on screen commented on them, because in practice the vials-and-fans system we were using wasn't perfect.

The biggest and easiest improvement would have been to hold up the numbers directing people to spray their vials about 30 seconds to one minute before the appropriate scene in the film, as it generally took people a good few seconds to fumble about checking what number they had, and then another 20 or 30 before it reached anyone else's noses. Smell is a much slower sense than sound or sight, and it takes time for aromas to spread and for people to breathe them in. Also, I suspect people sitting in the middle of the auditorium got a generally better experience than me, sitting to one side. Where I was, there simply wasn't always the critical mass of people near me with the right numbered vials for me to have access to the smell. (And I'm saying this as someone with a strong enough sense of smell to mean it's not unusual for me to smell things like lavender in people's gardens or particular fruits in the supermarket before I see them.)

Still, all of that pretty accurately replicates the original experience of the people who saw the film back in 1960, as it didn't work properly then either! And like I said, it was fun to be part of the experiment. Also, the film itself was well worth seeing anyway, with or without the smells. It was basically a typical 1960s tongue-in-cheek British adventure comedy, a bit like The Avengers or The Saint and with all the cut-glass accents and snappy dialogue that would imply - but also with a massively larger budget and the spectacular capacities of Cinerama.

Denholm Elliot was the main character - an English mystery novelist on holiday in Spain who becomes embroiled in a real-life adventure trying to prevent a mysterious woman from being murdered, which he narrates in a knowing voice-over as he goes along. He's so English that his hat stays on not only during a fight but also while upside-down in an open-topped aeroplane, and he doggedly carries an umbrella throughout the film (despite the glorious Spanish weather) which is also not just a decoration, but actually comes in extremely handy at the climax. Meanwhile, Peter Lorre is his side-kick - an ordinary taxi-driver with no particular appetite for adventure, but an indulgent streak which means he ends up driving Elliott around Spain in the hunt for the mystery lady. He does an excellent line in long-suffering resignation as he finds himself repeatedly in mortal danger, and makes the best of it all along the way - a pretty girl here, a pouch of tobacco there, and always the prospect of a big fat taxi fare at the end of the journey. There are some great cameos, too - especially from Diana Dors and another female screen icon whom I shan't name, as she genuinely took me by surprise at the end, and I don't want to spoil it for anyone else!

Meanwhile, we got the full Cinerama experience in fly-overs of the Spanish landscape, spectacular buildings like the Alhambra and the cathedral, and spectacular activities like fireworks, bull-running and ladies dancing in Flamenco dresses. It wasn't three-strip Cinerama, like The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm which I saw three years ago, so didn't quite have the almost 3D effect which that can achieve, but it still had a wonderful sweeping, immersive feel to it. Plus a lot of effort had been put into small details of set-up and design. E.g. on the wall in the painter's studio (where we got treated to the scent of oil-paints) I noticed a fragmentary Classical-looking relief of a face, with just the eye and nose preserved - in a film all about smells, geddit??? ;-)

The funniest detail for me, though, was one which the original film-makers couldn't have anticipated. Early on in the story, the mysterious woman cashes a cheque at a local shop, which Denholm Elliott's character then visits later on in order to try to discover her identity. He bullies the proprietor into reading out the names of everyone who has cashed a cheque there in the last hour, one of whom just happens to be a certain George Osborne. Austerity as a cover-up so that he can drain the treasury by cashing himself big fat cheques in Spain? I wouldn't put it past the man...

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I spent last weekend in Whitby with various members of the Dracula Society - i.e. the same people I went to Romania with at the beginning of the summer. Back when I lived in Oxford, I attended the annual Whitby Gothic Weekend at least three times. As far as I remember they were the Aprils of 1999 and 2000 and the October of 2001, but I didn't have a livejournal back then to record the great events, so who knows! Anyway, between the fact that the WGW always falls during term-time, and that even from Leeds Whitby is still at least a two-hour journey away, I have failed to go again ever since. So when the Dracula Society chair let me know that a few members would be there in mid-September for a long weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to put that right.

It wasn't a formal Society trip like the Romania visit - just a group of friends hanging out in a place of relevance to their interests, really. Most of the time we bimbled around the place, shopping, sitting in pubs and cafes, enjoying the local sights and so forth. But Julia (the Society chair) does like to look after us all, so she had recommended places for us to stay and made bookings at local restaurants for evening meals, while on the Sunday morning we all met up together and walked around some key sites of relevance to Stoker's novel and to the Dracula Society. For me, this made just the right balance, with plenty of opportunities to get together and do things, but also plenty of time to just wander, relax and bump into one another randomly.

I deliberately didn't take my digital camera, reasoning that I had been to Whitby and taken photos of it before, there are zillions of pictures of it all over the internet anyway, and I would prefer to just concentrate on being with people and experiencing the town. But of course once you get there, you get caught up in the beauty of it all, and our little walk around on the Sunday morning in particular brought up various things I wanted to photograph after all. So three cheers for smartphone cameras.

We began our walk by dropping in on the Great Man himself - or at least the guest-house where he and his family stayed when they visited Whitby )

Following the West Cliff round and turning as it does into the harbour mouth, you come to East Crescent, where this little row of houses looks out over the harbour itself )

Meanwhile, on the corner between the two where the cliff curves inland is the Royal Hotel, and in their lobby is a portrait of Bram Stoker donated by the Dracula Society on their first formal visit to Whitby in 1977 )

Actually, while I was in Whitby, Julia and her partner Adrian were kind enough to sit me down and show me a documentary made about the Society in 2003, its 30th anniversary, by one of its members who worked as an editor for the BBC. It includes interviews with the founder members, spliced together with a presenter's framing narrative, hand-held video footage of the trips they have taken over the years (including the earliest ones to Romania), and numerous spots on TV documentaries and quiz-shows. The Society was formed primarily to travel to Romania, but after a few years they decided to branch out and try some other things - hence the Whitby visit and the donation of the portrait in 1977. But honestly it was so funny hearing the founder members talking about the Whitby visit in the documentary, saying how obviously it had been quite difficult to plan it all from a distance. This from people who had already been to Romania while it still lay behind the Iron Curtain! Yes, Yorkshire is evidently alien indeed to people from That London...

By 1980, though, they had recovered enough from the experience to venture a return, and this time dedicate a bench in collaboration with the local council. I saw footage of the dedication ceremony too, in the documentary. In truth it is a bit of an Archimedes' bench by now, in that much of it has been replaced since 1980, including the dedicatory plaque. But it still sits proudly at the top of the Khyber Pass looking directly across the harbour towards the church and abbey on the East Cliff, and thus commemorating the various scenes in the novel when Mina and / or Lucy look in the same direction and see either Lucy and / or Dracula in the churchyard. The pictures below show both bench and view )

We gathered collectively at the bench at least twice for tuica brought back from the recent Romania trip and general collective toasting, as of course you would if you were in a town which contained a bench commemorating the Society you had come there with. Here, stolen from Julia's Facebook page (for which I hope she'll forgive me if she sees this!) is the group shot from the Sunday evening, taken before we all went for dinner in one of the restaurants on the west harbour pier.

DracSoc in Whitby.jpg

A lovely lot, all of them.

That was it for the (really very in)formal elements of the weekend, but while we were there plenty of us of course went up to the Abbey and inside the church )

It was strange all round, though, returning to the site of Whitby Gothic Weekends long past, and feeling the ghosts of that event and its people all around me. Even though it still goes on, for me it is something that belongs squarely at the turn of the century - and there I was again, doing almost the same thing, but not quite. Actually TBH one of the most striking differences was that back then I was a student, but now I have a salary, so that instead of staying in the cheapest places we could find, eating at takeaways and agonising over every tiny little purchase, I stayed in a luxurious room beautifully decorated in purple and gold, ate out at nice restaurants and Just Bought a pair of Whitby jet earrings (which I've always wanted) without worrying about it. Other than that, I hung out with people of a broadly gothic inclination, exchanged much the same kind of geeky in-jokes with them as Goths do, and enjoyed the Stoker-infused gothic atmosphere of the town. It was a little more about sharing a love of narrative and a little less about dressing up and listening to bands, but the lines are very blurry. Or maybe that was just all the tuica...?

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
It seems an awfully long time ago now since the Hammer horror / M.R. James weekend which I began writing up in this post, but I do still want to record the rest of it, as it really was spectacularly awesome.

In my previous post, I wrote up individual reviews for the three Hammer films which we saw at the Media Museum, but I also wanted to note down a few thoughts on the experience of watching all three together over the course of a single weekend )

Anyway, the course did not end with the third film, but culminated instead with a trip down to the Media Museum's archives to see the most relevant items from their Hammer special effects make-up collection, acquired from the estate of Roy Ashton (but also including material used by his mentor and colleague, Phil Leakey). I saw some of this material in 2012 during a Fantastic Films Weekend, but on that occasion it was all on display in glass cases, and my mobile phone camera at the time was definitely not as good as the one I have now. So this time I was able to see the material at a much closer range, including getting to see inside the exciting tins with labels reading 'vampire bites', 'eye pouches' etc., rather than just seeing them from the outside, and I was also able to get rather better photos )

The importance of not touching any of the material was, of course, strongly impressed upon us, resulting in some of us having to carefully hold our hands behind our backs to stave off our all-too-natural urges - especially where Dracula's lovely shiny curving fangs were concerned. And then of course there was general banter around the fact that 56 years earlier those very fangs had been in Christopher Lee's mouth, and there was probably enough biological material left on them to clone him. And somehow on the bus back to Leeds and during our walk into deepest Holbeck in search of M.R. James stories, this turned into a film script entitled Touch the Teeth of Dracula, which would involve some poor innocent soul succumbing to the urge to reach out and touch the fangs, and pulling their finger away with a shock to find it bleeding profusely, and the Count himself taking over their body and being reincarnated in 21st-century Bradford.

miss_s_b and I would then start fighting over him, and somehow (presumably after a thrilling coach chase to the Carpathian mountains) it would all end up with a fight to the death on the battlements of his castle, by the end of which we would both be on fire, and one of us would do Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 1 (falling forward) while the other did Christopher Lee Death Pose Number 2 (falling backwards), so that we tumbled in opposite directions to our doom. It was one of those classically geeky conversations where everyone is madly chucking in ideas, and no-one is quite sure where any of it came from, and all of it is completely ridiculous but somehow the sum total of it adds up to a thing of genius. I love those conversations - and the people I have them with.

All the while, we were traversing a landscape of Victorian industrial chimneys rumoured to have inspired Tolkien's Two Towers, moving steadily further from the traffic and lights of Leeds city centre and penetrating deeper into a domain of crumbling warehouses, cobbled side-streets and eventually open urban scrub waste-land. Catching up with a huddle of people ahead of us wearing long coats and wide-brimmed hats, we confirmed that we were indeed on the right course for the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, which was frankly welcome news as we started to pass work-yards populated with barking dogs and burly-looking men stoking oil-drum braziers. But the journey was well worth it. Inside, we found cheerful people serving wine in chipped white mugs for £1 a pop, free hot water-bottles to make up for the lack of central heating, and a room furnished with tatty sofas, drapes and various antique nick-nacks to mill around in while we waited for the show.

Eventually, we were ushered into the main performance space to snuggle up together on creaking sofas veiled in fabric throws, and watch Robert Lloyd Parry bringing M.R. James to life )

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
My research leave really has officially finished now, and I am back in the full throes of teaching and admin duties. The teaching I don't mind, but the admin - ugh! I haven't missed that. Death by Meetings, basically.

Still, I made sure my last weekend of freedom was a good one. I've been meaning for a long time to visit the Doctor Who and Me exhibition currently running at the National Media Museum in Bradford, which is all about the history of Doctor Who fandom since the programme began, and consists almost entirely of items lent to the museum by fans. So when the lovely [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours invited me to join a contingent of geeks from Manchester who were coming over to see it for a day-trip, I jumped at the chance - especially since said contingent turned out also to contain the equally-lovely [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva and (non-Mancunian) magister.

We had an awesome time, discussing which exact episode a particular Cyberman outfit was modelled on, inventing Cyberman onesies, working out which of us would be safe from Daleks due to their inexplicable inability to perceive the colour red, and generally bouncing enthusiastically off each other's geekiness, which is a highly-recommended way to spend time. My personal favourite items from the exhibition itself were:

Fan quotation, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
One of many fan quotations printed on the walls, which I'm not entirely sure really makes sense or indeed describes Doctor Who terribly accurately, but sounds cool anyway.

Docteur Qui, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
Phono Paul's TARDIS, Bradford Doctor Who exhibition
Easily the best piece of fan-art in the show. I've seen pictures of it online before, but it was great to see it in the flesh.
A full-sized TARDIS which belongs to a friend of several people I know, and which was liberated from his shed and erected for the exhibition by a crack team including [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and [livejournal.com profile] nigelmouse.

It's not a huge exhibition, so within about an hour we had had our fill, and went off in search of food instead - which we found in high-quality but very reasonably-priced form at a place called Glyde House just opposite the museum. Definitely better than the OK but rather over-priced cafe in the museum itself, and an excellent place to shelter from the apocalyptic weather raging outside.

Then we discussed what to do with the afternoon. Most of the Manchester geek contingent had already made plans to catch the 3:30 train back home, but [livejournal.com profile] diffrentcolours, [livejournal.com profile] minnesattva, magister and I wanted to hang around until more like 5ish, when the also-lovely1 miss_s_b and [twitter.com profile] A_C_McGregor would be joining us after the former had finished work. And I happened to have noticed that the Media Museum was screening the restored version of Hammer's Dracula that very afternoon at 3:10, which pretty much exactly filled that gap. So yeah, I went to see Dracula on the big screen AGAIN. It would've been rude not to, right?

4. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher )

Anyway, 1.5 hours spent watching Dracula are never wasted, and by the time they were finished, miss_s_b and [twitter.com profile] A_C_McGregor were waiting for us outside the cinema. So we all headed off for booze followed by curry, with a lot of laughing, more geekery and some bonus libdemmery along the way.

The following day, after sleeping off the excesses of the previous evening, I headed over to [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy's house. After presenting [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan with two new additions to her collection of Frightful Fridge Magnets, bought on my recent trip to Rome, we looked through the pictures she had taken the previous weekend at Wendyhouse, which are jolly impressive, and will be appearing on a website near you before very long. Then we settled down for another dose of vintage filmy goodness.

5. The Invisible Man (1933), dir. James Whale )

Anyway, definitely worth seeing, and now that we have discovered the sequel stars none other than the marvellous Vincent Price, we might well be tracking that down very soon...


1. Basically, all of my friends are lovely, but I see no harm in saying this explicitly whenever I happen to mention them directly in a post, rather than leaving it unstated.

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strange_complex: (Me Cornucopia)
Pre-Wendyhouse selfieI went out to Wendyhouse last night for the first time in about two years. The least appalling selfie which I took before going out is on the right, but it is physically quite difficult to press the right button on my phone-camera without dropping it or causing massive camera-shake, so I struggled to get one which showed what I was wearing without also capturing an annoyed and frustrated expression.

The Gentlemen of Leeds were obviously well-primed to make me feel good about myself once I reached the club, though, as I got several spontaneous and very charming compliments, all of which successfully steered well clear of Creepytown:
  • One made a special point of saying that he had liked my dancing. Always nice to hear.
  • Another told me that my outfit looked very expensive. In Yorkshire, this sort of comment can sometimes be code for "Well, you're a bit up yourself, aren't you?", so I quickly denied anything of the sort, but it turned out that he meant it in a very genuine "You look like a million dollars" sort of way.
  • And a third literally walked up to me, tapped me on the arm and said "Excuse me, would you like to dance?", which I didn't think was a phrase familiar to the Youth of Today. Furthermore, when I said that actually I had been just about to go and sit down for a while because my feet were killing me (which was true), he accepted that perfectly happily, pointed out the area of the dancefloor where I could find him if I changed my mind later, and walked away. Which shouldn't be a rare and noteworthy experience for a single woman in a nightclub, but sadly it very much is. If only all chaps would follow the same approach.
As for that bit about my feet killing me, I didn't understand why that was at the time. I thought the pair of boots I'd worn were trustworthy and comfortable, but by about half-way through the evening my toes and the balls of my feet were screaming in pain, and the dancing which I'd been complimented on earlier in the night had become more or less impossible to do. I wondered if maybe it was because I've just become even less used to wearing raised heels than I was last time I wore them, but when I got home into a properly-lit environment and took them off I discovered the truth:

Sad remnants Alas for the Shiny Boots of shininess They have danced their last

That mouldy-looking grey dust stuff on the floor all around them is the remains of whatever substance used once to fill the platform soles - some kind of synthetic foam-type material, I assume. I see how that would be a good filling for platform soles in the short term, as it would keep the boots relatively light compared to (say) wood, resin or plastic, in turn making them nicer to wear and move around in. But it has obviously degenerated with age since I bought the boots ten years ago, and last night was the night when it finally gave up the ghost, collapsed in on itself and began pouring out of the sides of the soles.

This means I spent half the night with the balls of my feet supported by the sorry remnants of an empty shell, rather than a nice solid platform. But because the heels remained solid and steadfast throughout, my feet were tipped forward much more than they were supposed to be, so it's no wonder that my toes hurt and the heels seemed so much higher than I'm used to than I was expecting. Today, the backs of my calves are aching rather for the same reason, and sadly the boots are clearly a total write-off.

Alas and alack for what were once a truly faithful pair of dance-floor companions. :-(

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
Here's another thing I saw recently with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy: a theatrical production of Bram Stoker's Dracula put on by these people in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey. It was a blissful summer's day at the height of the heatwave, and the show was staged in what must once have been the abbey cloisters, but is now a large square enclosure carpeted with grass and overlooked by ruined towers and flocks of birds. We took picnics and folding chairs, and settled down in the early evening sunshine, while members of the cast circulated doing a little in-character banter:

2013-07-18 18.53.29

The set-up was that they were the staff of an undertakers' company: Drakesmith and Graveston, services to the dead since 1822. They had been charged with conducting Jonathan Harker's funeral service, and were circulating around the mourners to enquire how we were connected with the deceased and sell us the following order of service for two florins:

Order of service

Two pounds were agreed to be an acceptable exchange rate for the florins, and of course the order of service was also the programme for the show. As the performance began, the undertakers explained that as part of the funeral service they would be reading out extracts from Jonathan Harker's diary at his family's request, and as they did so they switched into the roles of the characters from the story, acting it out pretty much as it unfolds within the book. The letters, telegrams, diary entries and newspaper articles written by other characters were explained as having been pasted into Harker's diary as a complete record of his experiences. And although I was a little unsure about the use of the undertakers as a sort of framing device for the main story, in fact it worked pretty well. In between scenes, they discussed the strange events which they had been reading about with one another, wondering what might come next and how they might feel in the same situation - basically acting much like the chorus in a Greek tragedy to help bridge the gap between the real life of the audience and the fantastical world of the story.

You can't, of course, have very much in the way of complicated stage machinery or even exits and entrances when you are staging an outdoor show, so the performance relied very much on simple devices and the use of the audience's imagination. Coffins doubled as beds, steps, benches on the cliff at Whitby and seats in a railway carriage, while their lids served as castle doors when required, and the performers swiftly cast aside the cloak of one character or donned the skirts of another as they changed roles. But it all worked very effectively to sweep the imagination from craggy Transylvania one moment to bustling Victorian London the next. Indeed, the cast consisted of only five actors, with most of them doubling up not only as undertakers, but also as at least two characters each within the story. But again, the constraints proved a virtue, adding extra layers to the story. I especially liked the casting of the same actor as both Van Helsing and Dracula, which of course prevented the two from ever meeting of course but did position them very nicely as matched adversaries who have more in common than they would like to admit.

I was busy eating my picnic and then sipping the summery rose cocktail which I had prepared for the first hour or so of the show, but after that I realised that an outdoor performance in the sunshine meant that I could easily take photos without disturbing anybody. So I got to work, tweeting the results and prompting a lot of people to tweet back in response saying how cool it looked and they wished that they were there. You'll have to imagine the scene which took place at Castle Dracula, in Whitby and on the good ship Demeter in the first half of the story while I was eating and drinking, but these are the high points of the rest of the show )

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strange_complex: (Willow pump)
I'm starting to despair a little of ever getting time to write up my recent holiday spent touring around Wicker Man filming locations in Scotland with [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos. It's partly busy-ness, and partly of course the fact that such things are rather more fun to do than to write about. But maybe I can get the juices flowing a bit by writing up my impressions on watching the film at the start and end of the holiday?

3a. Before - moustaches and world-building )

3b. After - location scouts and the hazy line between fiction and reality )

I promise that I'll put up some of the pictures from our holiday shortly in their own post, but for now I will just share my own favourite photo of the week, taken by the lovely [livejournal.com profile] thanatos_kalos. I am sitting on the wall outside Anwoth Old Kirk in bright sunshine, just like the musicians in the may-pole scene from the film. I think it very well captures how vivid the experience of going to these places is - and how much the weather did to contribute to the requisite summery atmosphere! Do feel free to compare it to the Youtube video of the relevant scene, below:

Me on the wall at Anwoth Old Kirk




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strange_complex: (Me Art Deco)
I wrote up my overall experiences curating the [twitter.com profile] PeopleofLeeds Twitter account a couple of weeks ago, and followed that up with a post containing some of the pictures I had shared of local Headingley landmarks. But the real theme of my week on the account was Art Deco Leeds, so this post rounds off the story by recording some of the pictures I shared on that topic. I'm not including absolutely every picture I took or tweeted here, as that would get a bit much, but these are the highlights of my Art Deco week.

Art Deco Headingley )

The University and city centre )

But the grand climax of my week was the Sunday, when I armed myself with my SatNav and a list of every other Art Deco building I knew of in Leeds, and drove around the city visiting and photographing each one )

Meanwhile, outside the sun set on my day of Art Deco, and my week as the Twitter face of Leeds. As I said in my previous post, it had its pros and cons, but the prompt to finally get myself organised and visit all these buildings systematically was very definitely one of the pros.

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strange_complex: (Hastings camera)
I went to stay with my parents in Birmingham this weekend, and on the Saturday evening I took my Mum out to their local art-house cinema to see this. It's a documentary about Don McCullin, a photojournalist who specialised in particular in war photography. After growing up in considerable poverty in London, he broke into the world of professional photography with a striking series of portraits of an east end gang who were basically his mates. He then went on to work for The Observer and The Sunday Times from the early '60s to the mid-'80s, covering events such as the construction of the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War, the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, the troubles in Northern Ireland, the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria, struggles over the control of Cyprus and the Lebanese Civil War, but also more slowly-unfolding human dramas such as poverty in New Orleans, homelessness in London and the sheer eccentricities of the British at leisure.

Unusually for a documentary like this, McCullin is still very much alive, and the piece was largely structured around a series of interviews with him in his home, looking back over his career and talking through his collection of his own photographs. He came across as a very thoughtful and sensitive man, who had been driven above all by the urge to show people the reality of what was happening around the world, and particularly to bring home the consequences of their actions to the politicians who make the decision to enter into armed conflicts. For these reasons, his images focused above all on the victims of conflict - dead and injured soldiers, starving civilians and all kinds of abandoned or displaced women and children. In some ways, his work had the desired effect, contributing to a strong change in public opinion about the war in Vietname, for example. But in others, of course, it did not, since we are still at it with no apparent change.

The real stars of the film are the photographs themselves, many of which were very harrowing but all of which were strikingly composed and very obviously the result of close involvement with the brutal reality of extreme human circumstances. Arguably, of course, they could be better engaged with via prints in a gallery or perhaps a large-format coffee table book. But the film could put them in the context of contemporary news-reels, as well as framing them with the very intimate and absorbing interviews with McCullin himself. The primary director, Jacqui Morris, apparently used to work with him as a photographic assistant, which probably helps to explain the relaxed, open, self-scrutinising manner in which he is willing to talk about his career in front of the camera, and this definitely adds considerable value which the photographs alone could not quite deliver.

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strange_complex: (Penny Lane)
I wrote about my experiences curating the [twitter.com profile] PeopleofLeeds Twitter account earlier today, and said at the end of that post that I would share here some of the pictures which I posted to that account during my week, so that I have a more permanent record of what I did with it. This post contains some (though not all) of the pictures I took of non-Art Deco landmarks in Headingley during my week, and the things I said about them.

The no-longer original oak )

5, Holly Bank, one-time home of J.R.R. Tolkien )

The Cottage Road and Hyde Park cinemas )

Remants of the Victorian-era Leeds Zoological and Botanical Gardens )

None of the above photos are that great, of course, because they were taken with my phone camera, and I didn't usually have the luxury to be able to wait around for good weather, good lighting, no cars, etc. before I took them. But that's the nature of Twitter, and I think they did convey a good sense of what I like about my area.

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strange_complex: (Sophia Loren lipstick)
So, I fully appreciate that this post is a bit loser-ish, but here I go anyway.

My last bottle of the conditioner I like (Garner Fructis Sleek 'n' Shine, pictured below left) has just run out. I've been using it for a good ten years, I'd say, but over the last three years it has gradually and steadily been disappearing from every shop where I used to buy it. We're now at the point where the only place I know of that I can reliably get it is a large edge-of-town supermarket (the Asda at Holt Park, for locals), but that isn't where I shop normally, so it means a special journey out there just for this one item. And given past form I wouldn't be surprised to see it disappear from there soon enough too.

So it is time to explore other options. Earlier this week, I popped into my local Superdrug, and bought one each of every one of their little travel-sized conditioners. Or at least, one each of the ones which didn't claim to be completely unsuitable for my hair-type - so I left behind the ones for dyed hair, blond hair, frizzy hair, and the ones which claim to produce 'volume' (or, as I like to call it 'tangles'). These are the results:

Conditioner line-up

I'm now going to work my way through each one sequentially, and - this is the really loser-ish bit - write a quick review of each one here when I get to the end of the bottle. I apologise in advance for becoming The Girl Who Blogs About Conditioners, especially since my findings probably won't be readily applicable to anyone else. I don't think very many of my friends share my very fine fly-away hair-type, which is so ultra-sensitive to any kind of residue left on it - be that conditioner, limescale in the water, or just sweat - that different products can genuinely make a huge difference to its appearance and manageability. But I promise they won't be very long. It is just my way of ensuring that I systematically write down a few notes about each one before I forget and move on to the next, so that I can compare them at the end and choose the best one to stick with.

For the sake of science, I will ensure comparability by continuing to use the same shampoo throughout: the matching Garnier Fructis one, which I get through much more slowly than the conditioner, and therefore still have two and a half bottles of. I also won't take these conditioners with me when I travel anywhere other than Leeds, in spite of their temptingly handy size, so that my observations are not skewed by different water types. (This is what I mean about my hair being ultra-sensitive - I barely need conditioner at all in Birmingham, which is supplied by pure spring water from the Welsh valleys, but need a ton of it and a lot of patience in Oxford, where the water is so hard when it comes out of the tap that you have to break it up with a hammer before you can use it.)

First exciting results on this journal in just a few short days - woo-hoo! Betcha can't wait.

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
OK, last meme entry. And again, although Boxing Day was awful, thankfully Christmas Day itself was all right, so I can describe it fairly normally.

I actually began Christmas Day at my sister's house in Warwick, because she had invited me and her old sixth-form friend Duncan over for the evening to keep up our old tradition of toasting in Christmas together at midnight. We had a lovely evening of canapés, drinks and chat, and did our little toast together at midnight (me with raspbery and cranberry juice), even though we were all yawning by that stage. Then Duncan and I bid them goodnight and headed off in my car, under a bright starry sky and taking care to avoid the (very few) other cars and people whom we saw pursuing their own rather drunken-looking paths home. I crept quietly into my parents' house with the benefit of much practice acquired during my teenage clubbing years, and sank into bed.

The next morning, we all got up, had breakfast, got ready and headed back over again to my sister's house in Warwick for Christmas Day itself. We arrived around 11am, and sat down with a round of coffee while we showered Eloise with presents. She is one and a half now, and has very definitely become a little girl rather than a baby:

Eloise


She also genuinely manages to get even cuter every time I see her. The picture doesn't begin to capture that, because so much of it is about her lovely smiling animated face and her increasingly eloquent chatter, and nor does it even really show off the growing mass of blonde curls hiding at the back of her head. But I hope it gives some idea at least.

Eloise's presents )

Christmas dinner )

Adult presents and Christmas TV )

A decent day all told - and a jolly good thing too, given what followed. :-/

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strange_complex: (Me as a child)
I spent this afternoon celebrating my 35th birthday (which actually happens on Tuesday) with a lovely group of friends and colleagues on St. George's Field in Leeds. This is in fact a disused cemetery, though it looks for all the world now like a beautiful garden enclave, all manicured lawns and weeping willows - but with clusters of Victorian Gothic funerary monuments and a neo-Classical chapel for good measure:

35 St George's Field picnic 1 35 St George's Field picnic 2 35 St George's Field picnic 3 35 St George's Field picnic 4

Although it is right in the middle of the University campus, it is hemmed in by buildings and high stone walls, so that even a lot of people who live and work right by it have no idea it is there. So this idyllic enclave was all ours for the afternoon, with barely a distant passer-by in sight. Well, that is until it began to spit with rain - but even then it was hardly a problem, since we were so close to the current (temporary) home of the Classics department that we could just go and carry on drinking in an enormous unused student common room instead!

Very many thanks to all those who came bearing houmous, parma ham parcels and home-make cakes, and sweetly sang 'Happy birthday' to me, and discussed everything from Burke and Hare to Higher Education policy, including [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy and [livejournal.com profile] kissmeforlonger - and of course many others WANOLJ. It was just the birthday picnic I'd envisioned - so thank you for coming along and making it possible. :-)

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strange_complex: (Clegg checks the omens)
I've just got back from a weekend in Sheffield, where I went to attend my first proper LibDem party conference )

Policy making )

What I actually attended )

Meeting people )

Anyway, there's lots more I could say about it all, but it's bed-time now, and I'll be back into full-on mega-busy mode at work again tomorrow. So I guess I will leave it there. Definitely an experience I'm glad I made time for, though, and I hope I'll get to do it again before too long.

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strange_complex: (Me Yes to Fairer Votes)
If you're within striking distance of Leeds and free this coming Saturday afternoon, our local Yes to Fairer Votes group is having a balloon release on the Town Hall steps at 3pm.

It'll basically be similar to what we did at the bonfire in November, except with balloons instead of fireworks. We have a helium canister and we're not afraid to use it!

The more people we can get crowding around looking interested, the better - so do come along and pose with 'Yes!' speech-bubbles, take photos of us or just enjoy looking at the pretty balloons (they are purple, of course!).

We're particularly keen to get as many photographers as possible down there. We've invited some local press photographers, but this should be a fun event for keen amateurs to take pictures of - and obviously we would absolutely love it if dozens of pictures of us all holding our 'Yes!' banners got uploaded to Flickr, Facebook and the like in the aftermath of the release. Anything to help spread the word!

Hope to see some of the local crowd there on Saturday - and I'm sure there will be pictures available afterwards for those who aren't able to come along in person.

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strange_complex: (Me Yes to Fairer Votes)
Many apologies that both writing and commenting here remains so light. It's going to be like this until December, when I finally finish and submit my article on Italian urban peripheries. Until then, the combination of that article, the other daily demands of my job and the ongoing fight to secure a viable future for our department just means I have very little spare brain-juice available for LJing. I'm doing my best.

Anyway, on Friday evening I downed tools and headed out of the house, all dressed from top to toe in purple, to help launch the nationwide Yes to Fairer Votes campaign at the Hyde Park bonfire in Leeds. The date of the AV referendum has been confirmed now, and November 5th marked exactly six months until it will take place. So it was time to get out there and start spreading the word.

We had a professional photographer along with us, as the nationwide campaign is asking local groups all over the country to submit photos of their events for a collective gallery. So we started out by doing a few posed photos )

Responses were pretty good on the whole. A few people just weren't interested, but I didn't encounter a single person who wanted to argue the case with us for keeping the existing first-past-the-post system. Rather more depressingly, though, the great majority of the people we talked to either a) had no idea that there was going to be a referendum on the voting system in six months' time or b) had no idea what AV is.

And that's a sad state of affairs, because what's happening next May is a really big deal. It's far bigger than a general election, where you merely vote to elect a government for the next five years. This referendum is about whether or not we should change this country's entire voting system permanently. It matters, and everyone should be thinking about it and talking about it and getting ready to decide how they want to vote in May.

Of course, the whole reason why we were there was to raise awareness about the referendum, and explain to people how AV works and why we believe it is fairer than the current system. And actually people seemed pretty interested once they heard about it. We chatted to as many people as we could and gave out a good couple of hundred flyers between us, with a fair number of people seeming actively pleased to be given them, or even coming up to us of their own volition to find out more. So it felt like a pretty positive start to the campaign. But there is still very definitely lots to be done.

Having said all that, of course, it would now be remiss of me not to finish off this post with a simple explanation of how AV works, and why I think it is an improvement on the current system. I know that a lot of people on my friendslist are already extremely well-informed about it. But I also know from my experience at the bonfire on Friday night that plenty of people won't be. Since everyone (who's over 18 and a UK citizen) will get to vote on this next May, I think it's time we all started talking about it. So this is my simple starter's guide to what on earth it's all about:

  • The change proposed is very simple. Under the current FPTP (first-past-the-post) system, you place an 'X' by the candidate you want to vote for, and whoever gets the most Xs wins. Under AV (alternative vote), you get to rank the candidates numerically in your order of preference instead.
  • If you want to, you can simply vote as you always have done under the AV system. You just put a '1' next to your favoured candidate, and leave the rest blank.
  • But AV also lets you express your preferences in more detail. You can vote '1' for the candidate you like best, but also '2' for the one you like next best, and so on until you run out of candidates or preferences. (See an example here.)
  • If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes on the basis of first preferences, the candidate who got the least votes is eliminated, and the electoral officers look instead at the second preferences expressed by the people who voted for them.
  • These second-preference votes are allocated to the relevant candidates, and this keeps happening until one candidate has at least 50% of the total vote. That candidate is then declared the winner.
  • This means that in order to win their seats, parliamentary candidates would have to appeal positively to at least 50% of the voters in their constituencies.
  • The result would be fewer safe seats, and thus more accountable MPs.
  • It also means that if you live in a seat where your favourite candidate usually comes third, you would no longer have to face the choice between wasting your vote and voting tactically. You could express your actual preference by putting your favourite candidate first, but (assuming that that candidate is then eliminated) you would also still get to have a say in which of the remaining candidates wins by using your second (or third, or fourth) preference votes.
  • And if everyone in the country was voting on that basis, we might just get a Parliament which represented the views of the voters rather better than it does now - surely a good thing, whatever your personal political preferences are.

There's a lot more to say about it than that, of course. It isn't a simple issue, and there is plenty of debate to be had about how AV would actually play out in practice. But I am well enough convinced that it would be fairer than the current system to consider it worth actively campaigning for a 'Yes' vote. And I am absolutely certain that we should all be thinking about it pretty hard between now and the actual referendum. So consider the above my small, humble contribution to kick-starting the thought-processes. If it's the first kick you've had, then I've done my job.

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