Mysterious Merzbarn

This weekend it was the Heritage Open Days event, when all sorts of places that aren’t normally open to the public fling wide their doors and invite all and sundry in.  Last year we missed it.  This year we were determined to get to some of the fascinating, unusual or just plain weird venues on the list, and on Sunday afternoon we drove into the central Lake District and succeeded.

First on the list was German-born artist Kurt Schwitters’ studio barn on the outskirts of Elterwater in Langdale.  Schwitters fled the Nazis just before World War II and after a brief sojourn in an internment camp on the Isle of Man, set up home in the Lake District.  He chose the Cylinders estate in Langdale as his new base to try to reproduce a ‘Merzbau’ artwork in Norway threatened by the fighting, and the Merz Barn was the result.

This is a strange combination of studio and artwork, where the studio itself became the artwork in the shape of a large relief sculpture built against and incorporated into one wall.  Sadly the artwork is no longer in situ, having been removed to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle for ‘safekeeping’, where it remains to this day.  Recently, however, the  Littoral Arts Trust have begun the painstaking task of clearing the Merz Barn out from under half a century of undergrowth and renovating it and the rest of this fascinating site.  It’s still very much a work in progress, but the barn itself has been stabilised and you can see a reproduction of the Merz artwork against the wall where it used to live.  There are also frequent information boards about the features on the site, both archaeological and artistic, and an art exhibition in the former shippen.  All in all it’s a tranquil, fascinating and slightly surreal experience and one that was well worth sharing.

After that, we headed for the equally bizarre High Close youth hostel, perched at the top of Red Bank, a somewhat alarming single-track road between Langdale and Grasmere.  The hostel started life as a seventeeth-century farmhouse, was extended in Georgian times and again in the 19th century with a vast Victorian ‘pile’ bolted on, only partly successfully, to one side.  This led to the creation of a rambling house full of long corridors, a rabbit-warren of rooms, and no proper front door.  The staff were busy clearing up after a particularly colourful morning-after-the-night-before, but it was still intriguing to follow the guide book around the nooks and crannies, before settling in the old lounge with a cuppa and some home made cake.

Surprisingly, there were only a handful of other visitors at the Merz Barn, and one other family at the youth hostel.  Perhaps the Heritage Open Days aren’t being well enough advertised, which is a shame because it’s a chance to see some amazing ‘forgotten corners’ around the country.

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Peaky Blinders for the cup?

I was intrigued by the headline of a piece on the BBC website over the weekend, which stated that Birmingham City FC fans were “dressing up as their favourite Peaky Blinders characters” when attending matches, both at home and away.  I had visions of football fans turning up in full Edwardian regalia – high collared shirts, cravats, waistcoats, boots, the lot.

Imagine my disappointment on seeing the photo of the “tribute”, which turned out to be a bunch of blokes and small boys in the standard blue home strip.  The only nod to Peaky Blinders was that they were all wearing flat caps.  Hardly much dressing up required!

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Fingertip technology

A week or so ago the media was awash with reports of a brand new identification technology being trialled by Barclays Bank for their business customers.  This involves using a small, portable scanner to map the pattern of tiny veins in a person’s finger, or finger-tip.  Apparently, the pattern is every bit as unique as the more traditional fingerprint and the technology may well be ‘rolled out’ to all customers in the not-too-distant future.

I immediately started asking questions, including what made this better than fingerprint technology, and what would prevent bank robbers simply cutting off someone’s finger and presenting it, suitably disguised of course, to the scanner.  The answer lies in the following throwaway comment in a BBC News article from 5 September:

Only a living finger is accepted by the scanner, reducing the risk that fraudsters will use substitutes or copies to break into a bank account.

In other words, although they don’t spell it out (to protect the squeamish, perhaps!) the vein pattern must degrade faster after death than the pattern of a fingerprint, making it far harder, or even impossible, to use the finger unless it’s still attached to its original owner.  Of course, it would still be possible to coerce the account holder in other ways (kidnapping family, blackmail, threats of violence), but then that’s true of almost any method of identification.

Crime writers might want to take note of the development for any books involving gangs breaking into customers’ bank accounts.

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Clash of the Genres

Saturday found me in Carlisle, attending a session organised as part of the new-ish Borderlines Carlisle book festival.  I’d only been to the city once before, on a nippy February day when everything looked rather bleak.  This time the whole city was buzzing with shoppers, festival attendees, students, buskers, and even a brass band in the bandstand by the market cross.  I’m not sure if the atmosphere was due to the festival or if it’s always like that, but it was all rather lovely.

The event itself, held in the impressive ballroom of the Crown & Mitre hotel, featured two crime writers (Matt Hilton and Sheila Quigley) and two historical novelists (Ben Kane and William Ryan), all of whom have links to the city or the wider area, in a so-called Clash of the Genres.  I’d been expecting this to be quite a feisty affair, with quick-fire questions parried by one or other of the genre pairings; in the event it was more of a four-way author talk, but no less interesting or entertaining for that.

It was fun hearing about Ben Kane’s perambulations along Hadrian’s Wall dressed in full Roman armour, and interesting to learn how all four writers got started, why they wrote what they wrote, and whether they did much research.  (Ten out of ten to Ms Quigley for admitting that she doesn’t bother with research, she just sits down and writes!)

The only bugbears were a glitchy sound system which all the authors struggled with, and the fact that I had to creep out before the end thanks to unhelpfully-timed trains.  At least I didn’t trip over the rug and make a racket on the way out, and I’ll definitely be back next year, hopefully for more of this excellent festival’s events.

Posted in Books, Events, News, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shelfie of the Week #2

This week it’s the turn of multi-talented, multi-personality writer K A (Kate) Laity, who also writes as C. Margery Kempe and Graham Wynd, amongst others.

According to Kate, the top photo is “my brag shelf in the NY home office” whilst photo number 2 is “a wider shot of the campus office primary shelf (brag shelf at top).”  All I can say is, with books like that why not do a bit of bragging?

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If you’d like to track down Kate’s books and see why they’re worthy of bragging (amazing covers… and the contents aren’t exactly bad either!) then pop along to her website, or that of her alter ego Graham Wynd.

There you’ll be able to browse books like ‘White Rabbit’, described by Netgalley as “like the unholy bastard lovechild of Bertie Wooster and Harry Dresden on speed” (and which I can thoroughly recommend, by the way); or the Chastity Flame series, newly available in rather spiffing paperbacks.

Happy reading, and keep an eye out for another Shelfie next week!

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Threepence a story…

exiles-cover-small-2The ebook version of Exiles: An Outsider Anthology has just been reduced – to only 77p.  Given that there are 26 stories in the anthology, that works out as… um… ‘scuse me… [dashes off to find calculator]… just under 3p per story!  Which is incredible value if you ask me, because I’ve read the book so I know those stories are excellent.

So, if you haven’t yet got round to buying it, now’s your chance.  I’m just saying.  ;)

The reduction applies to all variants of Amazon, including Amazon US.  For the Brits amongst us, you can find the Kindle edition here, and don’t forget – every last penny of the profits goes to charity.

Posted in Books, News, Noir, Tess Makovesky | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

DIY detection…

I thought this news item (from The Guardian) was a spoof when I first spotted it but it looks as though it’s all too true.  Apparently, many police forces in the UK now expect members of the public who are the victims of so-called “low level” crime (criminal damage, some burglaries, and car crime) to solve the cases themselves – or at least gather their own evidence and clues.

This includes looking for cctv footage, asking around for witnesses, and checking online marketplaces for their stolen belongings.  Both this article and a similar one on the BBC stress the silliness of the police asking the public to do their work for them, but one thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the danger.  The police are geared up to deal with criminals; ordinary householders aren’t.  Ask too many questions in the wrong places and you could find yourself on the wrong end of a beating at the very least.

And then of course the police would have yet another crime to investigate.  Unless they expect the victim to solve that one too…

Posted in Crime, Humour, Life, News | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Shelfie of the Week #1

As promised, here’s the start of my series on writers (or readers, for that matter) and their favourite bookshelves.  First past the post is Richard Hesketh, who submitted ‘not so much a shelf as a Hidden Objects Mystery’ which he explains is in two parts because of reflections on the glass!

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You can find Richard’s eclectic postings about life after psychiatry over at his blog, The At-Homium.

More shelfies coming soon… and if you’d like to take part too, just email a ‘shelfie’ (no more than 500 pixels wide, please, so I don’t frighten my blog), a bit of blurb and a link to your website or blog, to tessDOTmakoveskyATvirginmediaDOTcom.

Posted in Humour, Shelfie of the Week | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Coming soon – shelfies!

Watch this space for a whole new series as authors from around the world and across the genre divide share their favourite bookshelves.

Early shelfers will include Richard Hesketh, K A Laity and Sharon Bidwell.  Each guest post will include a ‘shelfie’ or photo of the shelf, plus a few words from the author on what makes the shelf special.

The first Shelfie of the Week should put in an appearance next week.  I hope it’ll provide an off-the-shelf experience…

 

Posted in Books, Humour | Tagged | 2 Comments

Troubled Waters

What do you get if you cross the Pied Piper of Hamelin with the Liverpool riots, with a little bit of Simon & Garfunkel thrown in?  The answer isn’t a joke, it’s my latest short story, ‘Troubled Waters’, which I heard on Saturday had been accepted by Grift magazine for their music-themed third issue.

The story is no joke either, but a dark, even elegiac tale of childhood magic, and the effect it has on a pair of life-long criminals caught up in the aftermath of the inner-city riots of a couple of years ago.  It was inspired partly by the old classic ‘Bridge Over Trouble Water’ and partly by my own experience of living in two of the cities affected by the riots (Birmingham in 2011 and Liverpool during the famous Toxteth riots of 1981).  Oh, and by the famous tale of the Pied Piper, although this doesn’t involve either rats or the mass abduction of children, you’ll be pleased to hear.

I don’t yet know when the magazine is due out but I’ll post further details as soon as I have them.  In the meantime, why not track down ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and sing along to it, for old times’ sake?  It’s a great song!

Posted in Crime, News, Submissions, Tess Makovesky, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

My Writing Process update

Just a quickie to say I passed the baton on to Lucy Cameron (without dropping it, I’ll have you know) and you can now read her fascinating responses over at her writing blog.  Her writing sounds like a darker and creepier shade of my own, so I’m particularly interested to see the details of her latest work, Night’s Watching.

Oh – and don’t forget my predecessor on the tour, Sharon Bidwell, still has her own responses available to read.  It never ceases to amaze me just how far these blog tours can get in circling the globe and reaching new authors and even genres, in a relatively short space of time.  Jump on and discover new worlds!

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My Writing Process blog tour

Thanks to friend and fellow-writer Sharon Bidwell for lassoing me and plonking me in the relay race that is the My Writing Process blog tour. I hope I won’t drop the baton half way round.

Q1 What are you currently working on?

I usually have about six things on the go at once, although I don’t physically work on them all at the same time. Currently I’m editing a couple of short stories for submission calls – making sure they fit the guidelines, word count and so on – and actually writing one longer piece. This is a novella partly inspired by a Pink Floyd track, which follows the actions of six or seven different victims of a serial killer, trying to get inside their heads and find out what if anything in their personalities led them to their fate. Light-hearted it ain’t, but I’m hoping it will be something a little different.

Q2 How does my work differ from others in my genre?

Well, there are plenty of crime writers, slightly fewer who concentrate on noir, but I think where I really veer off is that I hardly ever focus on the detective, police officer or other crime-solver, but instead write from the criminals’ point of view. My stories are littered with the has-beens and the “little people”, often challenged or unsuccessful, who make the great criminal world go round without ever really benefiting from it.

On top of that, I weave some fairly dark, “gallows” humour into my stories – think Keystone Cops, Frank Spencer, or (if you want something a little more up to date) the Coen Brothers – yet at the same time all my work has a distinct “Brit-grit” feel to it, which is a fairly unusual combination.

Oh – and then there are the elephants…

Q3 Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always had an interest in what makes people tick, what makes people do the things they do, and go on doing, even if it leads to disaster. I grew up watching the gritty British tv fare of the 70s and 80s – Softly Softly, Z Cars, The Professionals, The Sweeney – so that dark, violence-soaked, rain-soaked, back-alley style of drama is in my blood. And I’ve always enjoyed stories where there is no happy-ever-after, where people veer from one crisis to another or bring about their own very personal downfalls. I guess I’m just weird.

Q4 How does my writing process work?

Quite often, it doesn’t. I can sit and stare at the computer screen for hours, with thoughts jangling round in my head but nothing filtering through with sufficient lucidity to put down on paper. Once I catch hold of the loose thread and give it a tug, though, the ideas unravel, spill out and I can rattle off an entire short story in two days flat. Then I’m back to screen-staring again.

I find it almost impossible to plot, plan or work more methodically. The loose threads come when they will; listing characters or chapter headings in a notebook achieves nothing for me. In fact it can be counter-productive, because if I spend all my creative energy on an outline, I have nothing left to write the actual story. And letting the characters write their own story can lead up some very interesting blind alleys!

Q5 What’s new from you?

webDrag NoirI have a short story coming up in the Drag Noir anthology, edited by K A Laity. This is a serious look at drag in all its manifestations: the masks and disguises that people take on, the things they’re hiding from, the events that cause them to turn to such extreme measures. My own story, ‘Wheel Man’, is set in the gender-obsessed world of car theft, which Stephen Fry recently described as “the last bastion of sexism in British crime”, and examines the lengths one woman is prepared to go to, to keep doing what she loves. The book is due from Fox Spirit in October, but if you can’t wait that long you could do worse than seek out Exiles: An Outsider Anthology from Blackwitch Press, which also contains one of my short stories, ‘Dead Man Walking’. It’s available as either a print or e-book, it’s nice and cheap, and all proceeds go to charity (the Marfan Foundation) so you can donate to a good cause in the process.

And now it’s over to the next sacrifical victim, crime-buff Lucy Cameron, for the next step in the blog tour. Thanks for listening!

Posted in Tess Makovesky, Writing | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments