Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Secret Cinema presents...

It is now safe to tell you about an exciting mission that took me and two friends deep into the shady heart of 1940s Vienna...

‘Psst! Do you want to go to a secret cinema?’

This was the tantalising question that arrived with a ‘ping’ into my Inbox last November. I quickly tapped a resounding and enthusiastic ‘YES!’ and hit send, only later thinking to ask ‘what actually is a secret cinema?’ A few discreet enquiries revealed that it's the brainchild of a specialist event company who take great delight in creating a theatrical spectacle based around a cult classic film. Clues are sent in a series of mysterious email communications and half the fun is trying to guess what you're going to see.

We were given this dress code...

A rogue-ish dress code

…and were told to meet a man carrying balloons outside Barbican tube station. It was all incredibly exciting. We booked into the Powder Room in Soho for some vintage hairstyling, ready to play our part as 'Rogues'. Already some subterfuge was going on as my long hair was very cunningly disguised into a bob.

A quick bite to eat at Leon in Soho
We met our contact and soon were being hurried along the dark streets by uniformed officials shouting ‘schnell’, creating bafflement in modern onlookers. Our destination was the shadowed entrance to a former ‘lead and glass’ warehouse in Clerkenwell. Practically everyone had adhered to the dress code, and this styling, combined with subtle smoke and clever lighting, helped create the illusion that we had turned back the clock, had suspended time.

Checking ID at the entrance to the International Zone

This feeling became more apparent as we entered the yard. Everywhere we looked was perfect – the money exchange swapping our sterling into Austrian schillings, the decorative bars in all their faded glory, the secretive gambling club upstairs, the spivs trying to barter watches and nylons. Every new arrival brought a book to leave behind – later to be swapped or given to charity - resulting in a heaped table filled with treasure.

Posters tying the film with the era

The money exchange

A higgledy piggledy pile of books

Clever lighting helped set the mood for film noir
The audience were part of the play – unrehearsed but just as key. Our greatest compliment came when we asked someone to take our picture. ‘But I thought you were actors!’ he said. Vintage mischief managed!

Me, no doubt transfixed by the wandering balloon seller

Lovely friend S

Lovely friend M, one of the bloggers behind To Happy Vegans
In what must have been a feat of unseen project management, little groups were gathered and rushed away to be shown secrets and illusion, helping to create the atmosphere of suspense. We whispered passwords and were ushered behind the bar, down echoing stone steps into a smoky long cellar. Here we played follow the leader through a strange underworld - scurrying across planks of wood bridging water, ducking through tunnels - were we chasing or being chased?

The motif of the evening was the man in a trilby hat – he lurked in the shadows; he appeared in the smoke. Occasionally you’d look up and there he was...

The man with the trilby hat
You may have guessed the film by now. It was The Third Man. And it was the best cinematic experience of my life!

Take a look at the short clip below to find out more...

Read M's write up at To Happy Vegans
Read more about Secret Cinema

Thanks to M for some of the pictures included on this blog post

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Writing workshop with Nicola Morgan

One of the best things you can do for your writing self, if at all possible, is to attend a writing workshop or a conference. Not only do we benefit from the insight of professional people within publishing, but for that day, evening, or hour, we live as writers – we are writers, and everyone around us writes, and these are our people, and this is our industry.

For me, both aspects are equally important. Writers work in isolation – we physically tuck ourselves away to write, and then mentally retreat from real life into the fantasy world of words. It can be hard to keep the flame alive, especially for unpublished folk who maybe don’t have anyone else cheerleading for them – time and again you have to speak against the doubting voice in your head, and it can be hard to convince yourself ‘I am a writer; I will be an author’, especially if the majority of your day is spent being someone else entirely.

Workshops are fab as they reaffirm our ambitions and aspirations. They are even nicer when they are run by someone like Nicola Morgan - a successful published author who clearly knows her stuff and delivers considered advice in a thoroughly engaging way. Readers of her blog, Help! I Need a Publisher!, will know that she holds the number one google ranking for ‘Crabbit Old Bat’, a moniker bestowed because of her honest forthright opinions on writing. What I've also discovered is that self-confessed crabbit old bats are also warm, witty, and incredibly nice people.

I was attending the workshop with Vikki, the writer behind Back to the Castle (and musician / costume maker extraordinaire), and so caught the 4.50 from Paddington up to Oxford. Being a huge Agatha Christie fan I was very tickled to get this train, although I’m happy to report there was a distinct lack of murders.

After a whistle-stop tour of the centre of Oxford, cunningly planned to incorporate a stop for delicious cake, we descended on Blackwell’s lovely bookshop. There was a good sized crowd of people with notebooks already seated as we scurried into place, and a show of hands revealed that we were nearly all fiction writers, with a small scattering of non-fiction amongst our number. Nicola’s talk was everything I was expecting but with added sparkle – she brought characters with her to demonstrate the numerous ways writers can fall into pitfalls, such as the dramatic woman in love with her own prose, the elderly lady who wants to write for children as ‘it’s easy’. This was a really clever and fun way to highlight key points from her presentation.

The part of the workshop I was most looking forward to was writing the pitch paragraph. This is the paragraph that appears in your covering letter – the bit that condenses your novel, the hook that sells your story. I am currently at this stage and so need all the help I can get! We’d been nicely led to this crucial moment - Nicola imbibing us with knowledge, and the red wine served at the interval perhaps giving a bit of Dutch courage. All I know is that for the first time I really seemed to get it – a paragraph fell from my pen onto my notebook, and I really, really like it. It needs a bit more work but the bones are there now, which is brilliant. Not only that, but all attendees got a free copy of Nicola’s e-book, Write A Great Synopsis, which I am halfway through reading and heartily recommend already.

And the best way to end such a magical evening? A glass of wine with friends in a lovely high-ceilinged Art Deco bar. Cheers to Oxford, Blackwell’s, Nicola Morgan, and Vikki! I now have some writing to do. *grins*

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The UK's largest second hand bookstore

‘I have a treat for you,’ said good friend C, when I travelled across the country to see her shortly before Christmas. ‘You’ll like it’, she added. ‘It involves books.’

To be precise, it involved more books than you can shake a stick at.*

This was no mere bookstore. It was instead a Giant Warehouse Stacked to the Sky. The sheer amount of books actually reduced me to round-eyed silence, and for a good few moments all I could do was pathetically poke book spines with my gloved finger, turning around every so often to look at Good Friend C with an expression hovering somewhere between dumb gratitude and awed wonder.

Books! Thousands upon thousands of books!

The next second I was gone. The last Good Friend C saw of me for at least two hours was my woolly hat disappearing around a stack of shelves.

I soon adopted the walk of the professional consummate book scanner (slow pace forward, head-at-slant, eyes flickering over book spines). Happily I began to accumulate treasure. A 1965 edition of Charles Webb’s The Graduate? Yes please. P. G. Wodehouse’s Summer Lightning? I thank you. Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange with that iconic graphic cover image? Yup yup.

Occasionally I’d bump into another book scanner; we’d apologise in hushed tones and continue on our way. And so I wound deeper and deeper into the warehouse, following shelves and stacks and piles and papers, until I came to the wild card of the warehouse: The unclassified section. ‘These books haven’t been sorted!’ the sign gleefully said, suggesting untold literary jewels might be hidden within the million copies of Giles, pet care annuals from the 1970s**, and instruction manuals for microwaves.

The way ahead looked dark and dusty. I texted good friend C to check she hadn’t expired of boredom but she was comfy in the coffee area way back at base camp. So I wrapped my scarf around me, and scurried in.

(You might get the impression from the gloves, hat and scarf that the warehouse was a little chilly. Don’t be misled. That warehouse was frickin’ freezing. I could see my breath in those lost back alleys of Unclassified.)

After a while even I had to call it a day. My Life Force urgently needed replenishing (anyone remember TV show Knightmare?). I had to find a hot coffee and a cake of some sticky description before my virtual eyeballs rolled away. Also, and more importantly; I couldn’t actually carry any more books. The Giant Warehouse had defeated me.

It’s only when you are physically surrounded by what looks like the entire stock of Amazon that you realise just how many books there are in the world. Billions of books – good books, bad books, books that surely only got published because someone along the line was squiffy. And then there are the invisible authors behind the books – hopeful authors, earnest authors, authors that dreamed big things, authors that stayed up late and got up early and typed their little hearts out, all to end up in the Giant Warehouse just waiting for someone like me to find their words again.

I love hearing their voices speak to me from the books and wonder about their lives, whether publication was the Holy Grail for them or whether it was a by-product of their academic progress, a sideline, so to speak. I wondered about the people that wrote the microwave cookbooks,  the children’s fiction epics that were swept under and aside by Narnia, the books that didn’t have the sprinkle of fairy dust needed to make them shine.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Book treasure rescued from the Giant Warehouse

* Surely you can shake a stick at anything regardless of its quantity and mass. I am quite capable of shaking a stick towards a mountain, for example. I can also shake a stick at my book collection. Apparently this saying came about because a confuddled shepherd was trying to count his sheep by waggling his crook at them, but couldn't do it because his flock was too big. I think he needed to come up with a more efficient counting method, personally.

**Old pet care books make me very sad. I can't even tell you why because then it will make you sad too. Let's think of something happier, like gambolling puppies and kittens. (Not gambling, though. Puppies and kittens are not known for their addiction to cards or pool-playing, despite what artist Louis Wain might have had us believe.)

And where is this large bookstore? Here:

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Delights of the falling season

It’s hard to crack open the blog when I’ve spent a little while away from it. I forget what words unlock my voice. So instead of struggling to find something profound to say that will encompass the highs and lows of balance finding, I will share some fun things from the tail end of last year. (Last year already! Time flies on hummingbird wings.)

A Happy Meeting

I had the good fortune to meet with the lovely bloggers behind Happy Frog And I and HeArtfully Drawn. A few messages passed between us beforehand (I have long hair! I’m wearing a red coat! I have on boots!), the way they do when online acquaintances skip past the monitor and land in the real world as friends. We instantly got along, nattering and chattering and laughing and sharing stories, making our table nestled inside a Paddington pub a small beacon of happiness. All too soon it was time to wind scarves around necks and bid a fond farewell... until next time.

A Grand Evening

Ever since the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel threw open its refurbished doors I have wanted to wander inside and soak up its luxurious Art Deco atmosphere. Luckily two good friends felt exactly the same way, and since we were in a celebratory sort of mood, we made reservations at the Gilbert Scott restaurant. This was (and still is, in a way) the Dining and Coffee Room of the original Midland Grand hotel, with pillars of polished limestone and gilded capitals carved with conquers, pea pods, and bursting pomegranates. 

The decor of the bar area is magnificent. There is something about sitting in such a chic environment that makes backs straighten, and anticipation thread through the air like stardust.

The ceilings were a marvel...

...awash with colour and style...

 ...and blinking large bells!

We enjoyed a lovely meal and relaxed afterwards with their signature cocktail, the 1873. Again it was one of those sparkling evenings where time fooled us, skipping ahead around the corner before we realised it had slipped away.

Read a lovely write-up of our night by M at To Happy Vegans


A Classical Spectacular

One of my biggest indulgences is going to the Royal Albert Hall at least once a year to listen to amazing orchestras. My mum shares my passion, so we excitedly look forward to our treat – a day ‘up west’ window-shopping, a pause for a coffee and cake, and then dinner in Kensington before the show. A Classical Spectacular will be a night of very accessible scores – as well as Elgar, there could be Ravel, Handel, Verdi, the ‘infernal galop’ of the Can Can, a tenor singing Nessun Dorma... A beautiful evening lost in music, letting thoughts soar into dreams.