I’ve been pals with multi-faceted writer Steven Savile for years now, so when he asked if I might be interested in doing an event in Sweden, naturally I said yes. A little while later, Jan Smedh of The English Bookshop in Uppsala got in touch to invite me to the evening he was organising for the city’s annual Culture Night. When everything was finalised, we had a mini-SF-Crime convention, with me, Steve, Stephen Gallagher and RJ Barker being interviewed together by way of an introduction, followed by us discussing crime fiction and then a session on fantasy fiction, since one way and another, we’ve all written across both genres. There were intervals for book signing, and to give fans of one genre or the other to come and go as they felt inclined – not least because there were so many other events going on. The city was packed all day.
Now, I’ve only ever met Stephen Gallagher on a handshake-and-hello basis before, and never crossed paths with RJ Barker, but once we met up on Friday, it soon became apparent that Saturday evening would go with a swing, as we chatted about what we write and what we read. That’s exactly how it turned out, as we had different things to say as well as enough interests in common to generate really interesting conversations. We were also made wonderfully welcome by Jan, his wife, and the bookshop staff, as well as by Uppsala’s SF and Fantasy fans. Feeling so at ease made Saturday evening even more fun, and the time simply flew by. The audience certainly seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we did.
Those of you who couldn’t make it will get a flavour of the event in a little while, as Stephen, RJ and I were all interviewed on video by Magnus, another of our new friends, earlier in the day. We did that on the deck of the floating hotel Selma, where we were staying, moored on the river. I’ll post links in due course. Those of you who travel to European conventions should also note that Uppsala fandom are putting in a bid to run the 2023 Eurocon – follow @Uppsala2023 on Twitter to keep in touch with their progress.
Before that – yes, we really did make the most of our time – Jan had arranged for us to have a short introduction to the city’s history and a guided tour of Uppsala Cathedral with a brief visit to the museum now housed in one of the original University buildings. The cathedral is beautiful and full of fascinating memorials and stories – and something of more personal interest. Thanks to local Swedish fan Jonathan, who I first met at the Worldcon in Dublin, I knew to keep a look out for the Green Man carved on a pillar capital as we went round. I could go on and on, but I’d be writing this all day if I attempted a full recap. Put Uppsala on your own holiday destination list, that’s the best idea. Seriously. There are great places to eat as well as everything else to see in the city.
The museum was equally enthralling, and has one of the most ornate and astonishing examples of a Cabinet of Curiosities in the world – the Augsburg Art Cabinet. Other treasures include the original prototype Celsius thermometer. Carl Linnaeus is by no means the only globally renowned scientist that the university is rightly proud of. Mind you, the students Linnaeus sent out worldwide to collect his samples often came to an unexpected and early end… Of course, as authors, we love this sort of thing, so I suspect echoes of our trip will appear in all our writing one way or another over the next little while.
So that was Saturday, and on Sunday morning, Steve, Stephen and I took a train to Stockholm to walk around and get a flavour of the city, old and new, before it was time to head for the airport and our flights home. Now I must find time to rewatch my DVDs of the original Swedish TV series adapting the Millenium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc.) and see what I can see differently.
But now I must get some work done today. Still, I know that will come all the easier after a trip like this. Not only did we see countless things to fire the imagination, but meeting keen readers and enjoying so many varied conversations always inspires me to do my very best for the people who I ultimately write for.
Right, we’ve hit the halfway mark on the Desert Island Books (and music) list, so this looks like a good time to put those on pause. I’m off to Moniack Mhor on Monday, and that’s going to be a full-on week of teaching and mentoring – which I am really looking forward to – so I don’t expect to be blogging or doing much, if any, social media, until I get back.
I do have one more piece to post, which will follow this. Retrospective posts are all well and good but I’ve also been reflecting on the current state of play in politics and culture. We need to start thinking more seriously about what’s going on at the toxic intersection of fact and fiction at the moment. If you’re going to tell lies, what’s your justification?
Right, now I have workshops to prepare, student submissions to critique, and the fun and exciting game of working out how much warm clothing I can pack in a suitcase that meets Flybe’s size and weight requirements for hold luggage. It’s a nine to ten hour journey on the train from Oxford to Inverness, so I am taking a train to Birmingham airport and flying from there instead. In a plane where I suspect goggles and a long white scarf will be issued on check-in. Mind you, the Highlands are currently warmer than the Cotswolds, according the BBC Weather website.
We’ve recently spent a week in the Ardennes, Belgium. Specifically, in a miniscule village about 8 miles outside Bastogne. We rented a ground floor apartment in a barn conversion with thick stone walls, tiled floors and those continental shutters that the sons still insist on calling ‘blast doors’ after first encountering them at the age of ten or so, when they were really getting into the thrills of SF. So even with outdoor temperatures in the high twenties centigrade, that was a wonderfully cool place to relax, especially after a week spent working in the Netherlands in 35C heat.
Why Bastogne? Well, both Husband and I are interested in history and this area is famous as the arena for the World War Two ‘Battle of the Bulge’. We have a particular interest in this as my brother in law is a historical re-enactor with a group honouring the 101st Airborne, The Screaming Eagles, who were besieged in Bastogne by the German counter-attack of December 1944. When the Germans invited them to surrender, the U.S. commanding officer, General McAuliffe sent back the simple reply ‘Nuts’. This apparently baffled the Germans comprehensively.
If this is all new to you, I can seriously recommend the TV series ‘Band of Brothers’ for an overview of post D-Day WWII. If you’re already interested in such things, we visited and can very much recommend the Bastogne War Museum at the Mardasson Memorial, the 101st Airborne Museum in Bastogne itself and also the Bastogne Barracks, still a Belgian Army base where the soldiers offer guided tours of what were the U.S. HQ buildings, now with historical displays, along with one of the finest collections of World War Two military vehicles we’ve seen, including some real rarities.
If you’re not interested in such things? If you consider all this to be ‘old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago,’? I’d still recommend a visit to the area as it offers wonderful opportunities for outdoor pursuits of all kinds; hiking, cycling etc, through a beautiful region. While you’re there, you might like visit one of those museums and I think you will find more contemporary relevance than you might imagine. Exploring the rise of fascist nationalism in the 1930s, displays used contemporary documents and sources to highlight the failure of the political establishment as parties in all countries became more interested in internal back-biting and rivalries than tackling the very real, severe economic hardships and social inequalities which ordinary people faced. The demagogues – to the extreme left and the extreme right – offered simple-sounding solutions. They promised to sort everything out, they pointed the finger at easy scapegoats – and no one countered their deceptive narrative.
In the era of Trump and Brexit, that should give us all pause for thought. From the UK perspective in particular, I was struck yet again by how different the European experience of World War Two was from the British one. These museums make plain the impact of the war on the civilian population. There were the posters detailing requirements for the compulsory registration of Jews. Turn up on the appointed day and give all the details of your family, your parents, your grandparents, everyone’s dates of birth, addresses etc. – or else. Sabotage and any other resistance activity was strictly forbidden – warning posters specifically included such things as turning up late for work, or not doing your job with sufficient enthusiasm…
I recall my grandmother talking about getting twin babies and a dog down to the air raid shelter night after night on England’s south coast. They were in very real danger, as were all my relatives. In Bastogne I saw a video of a woman of much the same age, recalling spending two nights outdoors hiding in a wood in freezing temperatures with her baby. Driven back into the town by hunger and desperation, she was caught in a bombardment and both were injured. Her baby died of his wounds two days later. There are people suffering the same today. The 101st Airborne Museum has an audio-visual presentation in one of the building’s cellars. It gives you something of the experience of the townsfolk sheltering in those very cellars as the war raged overhead. Sitting there, with my ears ringing, dazzled by the flashes of light in the darkness and feeling the floor shake beneath my feet, I was forcefully struck by the thought, ‘This must be what life is like in Syria now’.
It’s not just the museums. I’m used to English village war memorials listing tragic losses through 1914-18 and 1939-45. I wince when I see the same surnames repeated, as families lost successive generations of fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, uncles. In Europe though, as I saw time and again on this trip, these memorials also have lists of ‘civilians’, ‘resistants’ or simply ‘shot by the Germans’. In some cases those outnumber those who died in the armed forces – in villages of under a hundred houses. No wonder the peaceful co-operation of the European Union (yes, with all its flaws) is so valued across the Channel. No wonder the couple of ordinary people who raised the subject with me were so baffled and politely indignant about the UK Referendum – both the campaign’s distortions and lies, and the vote’s outcome.
Gosh this all sounds very serious. Yes, such things are, and they matter, and I value these experiences which inform and expand my understanding. We also had plenty of fun as well as relaxing with books, DVDs and computer games according to taste. We had some splendid meals out; the local cuisine is good, hearty, farmland food. The countryside is lovely and the people are friendly and welcoming – and French speaking which was a relief as my Dutch is still really minimal.
We visited the Musee des Celtes and that was well worth the trip. It’s small, six rooms over two floors of an old building but with some nice artefacts well displayed, plus a replica Celtic chariot since chariot burials are a notable local feature. Overall it does a sound job of focusing on the specifically Ardennes Celtic populations and archaeology, within the overall context of Celts Europe-wide. That was interesting of itself to us since we’re so used to the Celtic focus being Scots/Welsh/Irish. There’s stuff to keep children interested, plus a wrap-up display about Celts in popular culture today, featuring Asterix, naturally. An interesting side note was the display on the 19th century Celtic Revival in the context of Belgian nationalism. I think I learned more specifically Belgian history that week than I’ve ever known before.
The displays and audio visuals are primarily in French but there is a English booklet offered which translates all the display case cards – in some cases rather amusingly. ‘The defunct’ instead of ‘the deceased’ raised a grin. Not that this party of three with two non-French speakers is in any position to feel superior, you understand. Overall, through the week, I was pleased/relieved how well my French held up as the family’s sole communicator, given I’ve never been properly fluent and I don’t use it overmuch.
By contrast, the Chateau de Bouillon is one of the biggest castles we’ve visited. It’s high on a rocky outcrop – and substantially built into it – dominating one of the river valleys that’s been a passage through the Ardennes for Germanic invaders heading west for, well, forever. Consequently this castle’s defences have been successively used, refined and updated from 968 to 1944. The views from it, and of it from the town, are spectacular and its long history is fascinating.
It’s also the only castle we’ve visited where dogs are banned specifically because the resident and apparently highly territorial eagles will see them as prey and attack accordingly… There’s an impressive collection of birds of prey with excellent daily displays featuring assorted owls and raptors from sparrowhawks to steppe eagles. Unsurprisingly I am now thinking how to integrate the new things I learned about falconry into my next fantasy project…
As promised, here are some pictures.
We’re back from a much-needed break in the Lake District. It’s somewhere I’ve never been before, while my husband went several times in his teens, doing ‘Outward Bound’ with the school – sailing, canoeing, rock climbing and such. (He tells me the hills have inexplicably got steeper since then…)
The idea was to get away from work, his and mine, and as it turned out, from the utter chaos of UK politics at present. So we made good use of our National Trust and English Heritage memberships as well as enjoying the scenery and solitude.
On our first day we went into Kendal and had a bimble around the town, which turns out to have a very unusual layout going back to medieval times. It also has quite the most convoluted one-way traffic system we’ve ever come across, so if you’re up that way, be warned! Later in the week we climbed up the hill to the castle ruins and that vantage point helps make a bit more sense of it, when you can see the layout of the hills and the river, as well as other impressive views, so that’s a walk well worth doing.
We found the museum that first day, and that was very interesting, not least to see what today’s curators can do with a collection of bequests from the days of Empire when British naturalists mostly went abroad to shoot things to prove they existed… A real added bonus was an exhibition of art inspired by the works of Beatrix Potter, and as a huge fan of Bryan Talbot, I was thrilled to see original artwork from The Tale of One Bad Rat.
Since it’s the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth, there’s an awful lot going on to celebrate and promote her work. We visited Hill Top, the farm she brought with her own money after Peter Rabbit’s success and that was probably the most touristy place we went. It is well worth a visit, not least to learn how much more there was to her than writing little books about cute animals.
One thing in particular worth noting is her commitment to supporting the Lake District as a working, thriving community. It’s one of those parts of England where an important industrial heritage deserves to be remembered – and the consequences of its loss on the modern day population needs to be addressed. We visited the Stott Park Bobbin Mill which used to produce literally millions of bobbins and cotton reels for the textile mills of Lancashire and beyond in its heyday. And that was only one of more than seventy such factories. Highly recommended for anyone who’s interested in Victorian and earlier industry. If you can get there on one of the ‘in steam’ days, to see the machines at work as we did, so much the better.
Not that the Victorians were all about work and no play. We also visited the Claife Viewing Station, once an elegant assembly rooms for Georgian tourists come to admire Windermere. It’s ruinous now but there’s an Aeolian harp installed as there was in its heyday – and since we were there on a blustery day, that added a distinctively unusual note to our visit.
Windermere and the towns around that particular stretch of water were busy – which must be a good thing for the local economy which does look to be under some stress. Quite a lot of commercial property was vacant, everywhere we went, along with plenty of house for-sale signs to catch the eye. But you don’t have to go far to find peace and quiet and leisurely country walking. We spent a very pleasant day in the hills above Patterdale – being overtaken by enthusiasts in Gore-Tex and lycra as we ambled along, enjoying the views of Ullswater. And on the way back, we rounded a corner on a country road and both saw a red squirrel sitting on a tree in a patch of sunlight, waiting just long enough for us both to say ‘oh look!’ before it bounded off.
After a day of walking, we fancied a sitting-down expedition, so went over to Coniston for a boat tour of the lake. Since I spent my early years reading about sailing small boats rather than doing so like my husband, I was pleased to see places which I remembered from the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books which I adored. I’m seriously considering giving them a re-read.
We also visited Wray Castle which is a very curious place, built as a Victorian exercise in ego for a wealthy industrialist by an architect who really didn’t know what he was doing – and who apparently drank himself to death. Since then, the National Trust hasn’t really known what to do with it and at present, it’s given over to fun activities for children, which seems an ideal use of the place. So if you’re up that way with a young family, bear it in mind!
Sizergh Castle is much more of a proper castle, and home to the Strickland family for over 700 years. The history and evolution of the house, from fortified manor to elegant residence is fascinating, with a lot of original features still in situ including fabulous Elizabethan panelling and carving. The family history is just as intriguing, especially their involvement with Jacobean politics and the exiled Stuarts in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth centuries. Then there are the splendid gardens – complete with a very friendly and sociable black cat. Possibly because, as I discovered reading the guidebook over a cup of tea, the herbaceous border he was so comfortably ensconced in includes a generous planting of catmints.
So that was our holiday in summary, and very enjoyable it was too. While I was up there I did acquire some reading – a scholarly biography of Beatrix Potter and also a book by Christina Hardyment detailing her searches for the places and people who inspired Arthur Ransome’s books. Those will warrant a separate blog post.
And now we’re both back to work. And yes, I’ve been places and seen things which have given me ideas for the stories I’m working on at present, as well as for future projects.