Category Archives: travel

The Lady Novelist visits Mars (via Sydney)

img_5929During my train adventures in late October, I spent a few days in Sydney, taking in the MAAS Museum and its excellent Large Hadron Collider exhibition, the splendid production of My Fair Lady and a marvellous little shop called The Martian Embassy.

The Martian Embassy is the Sydney equivalent of the The Time Travel Mart literacy project I visited in Los Angeles in July this year. (The Melbourne version, The 100 Story Building, doesn’t have an entertaining shopfront, sadly, but does the same good work with young people.)

The Martian Embassy is filled with bizarre and entertaining ‘Martian’ exhibits and artefacts for sale, which makes it a fun place to visit and shop. The proceeds all go to the programs run by the organisation behind the Embassy – the Sydney Story Factory.

img_5922Those programs are aimed at assisting young people in the area to changte their lives through literacy, creative writing and storytelling. The seating and tables at the back of the store host workshops, and there’s a library for attendees to use.

When I was at the Time Travel Mart, I bought a little booklet of stories written by the kids who did the workshops. The Martian Embassy offered the same chance to support their project here. Whelp contains stories, poems and essays by young people from Sydney.

img_5928Its forward is by one of my favourite writers, Benjamin Law. The stories are hugely varied, full of flair, humour, imagination and, from time to time, startling insight. Some of the tales are downright Kafka-esque! It’s fabulous to read the result of the project’s work with young people.

Next time you’re in Sydney, drop in to The Martian Embassy at 176 Redfern Street, Redfern NSW 2016. In the meantime, you can:

The Lady Novelist crosses the Nullarbor by Train

img_6127 In late October I had the wonderful opportunity of joining Tim Richards, Travel Writer, on a train journey across Australia. I’ve crossed the Nullarbor once before, when I was moving from Canberra to Perth. That was by bus and I don’t have very fond memories of it. I can’t even recall the landscape, though I seem to be able to remember the back of the seat in front of me, because I stared at it for three days.

The XPT

img_5917The first leg of the trip was the overnight XPT from Melbourne to Sydney, courtesy Destination New South Wales. I like taking the overnighter to Sydney.

Sleeping on a train is a slightly odd sensation, but the train leaves from the middle of Melbourne and arrives in the middle of Sydney.  Cutting out the airport – the getting to and from, the having to be there early, all the security brou-ha-ha – is surprisingly relaxing.

It’s also unexpectedly charming to have this little cocoon of time away from the usual frantic activity. You can kick back in your compartment (shared, usually, so travel with someone who you like, or at least doesn’t snore) and read, look out the window, contemplate your sins or, if you’re me, all of the above while also plotting a new book.

If you have time to travel overnight, it’s a more calming way to both leave and enter a city. And of course rail retains the romance of being a 19th Century mode of travel that is more flexible, more relaxing and more pleasant than either flying or driving.

In case you can’t tell, it’s quite my favourite mode of travel.

About the XPT

The Indian-Pacific

img_6075After a few days in Sydney (and more on that in some other post) we lobbed up for the journey across Australia to Perth, via Broken Hill, Adelaide, Cook and Rawlinna – the latter two a ghost town and a sheep station respectively.

Great Southern Rail hosted us on this journey, and launched us in style with cocktails and live music on the platform.

Sleeping on trains, with its unexpected rocking cradle motion, still takes a bit of getting used to, but I tell you now, I adapted right away to just being on a train sliding through the landscape.

img_6115If you think the journey’s better done by plane, you’re probably missing the point of this version of travel, which is all about the getting there, not the arriving.

There’s always something liminal about being on a train, especially at night, and especially in unfamiliar territory. That feeling of being separated from time and space is both strange and soothing.

img_6135It’s an opportunity to contemplate; or to strike up conversations with strangers. In this time of constant connectivity, I really enjoyed having long periods of time to focus on some books. Tim and I also caught up on a few episodes of Game of Thrones.

I of course spent time gazing out the window. Australia is a vast country, varied it’s true, but also vast stretches of land that doesn’t change for hours.

img_6158The Nullarbor itself is almost hard to look at, especially for this city dweller. I’m used to having objects that interupt my line of sight constantly. It’s never just a smooth plain to the horizon. But the Nullarbor is just that – a vast expanse of red dirt and low shrubs, that goes on and on and on and on and on… it induces an almost horizontal vertigo.

Not all the scheduled excursion stops were possible – wet weather is not always your friend – but a trip to Hahndorf in Adelaide, a stop by the ghost town of Cook and dinner under the stars at Rawlinna were all fantastic, and part of that sense of just mooching along and enjoying the sense of time and space expanding out from our little bubble of forward motion.

img_6152Speaking of dinner, the food was endlessly excellent, using local ingredients where possible, and these two vegetarians were very well nourished from start to finish.

I enjoyed the XPT, but I absolutely adored the Indian-Pacific. The journey gives you three and a bit days of quiet but not solitude; of contemplation in motion. There’s time to talk, to listen, to think.

You can look at a far horizon across land so very flat that you can feel how you are sitting on the disk of the Earth.

Or you can have a really nice nap before the next glass of champagne and fascinating dinner conversation with a stranger.

For those three days, you may be living in a smallish metal tube that’s hurtling across the landscape, but you are also living unfettered by your established routine and out of your usual environment, so you can cocoon or commune as your heart sees fit. There’s nowhere else to be, after all.

About the Indian-Pacific

 

The Lady Novelist chills out in the west

IMG_5230After the full-on days of Comic Con in San Diego, I was able to pull back a little on the running around and spent some time chilling out in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and some smaller towns nearby.

Santa Barbara

The Pacific Surfliner train from San Diego passed through LA and on to the sunny shores of Santa Barbara, known as a beachside getaway for the wealthy and famous. And also, on our part, the fatigued and obscure.

IMG_5221We only had a few days there, but there was Spanish history at a reconstruction of the old Presidio and shade under a fruit-laden orange tree, a pond full of turtles, and bobbing about in the motel pool like a giant cork.

San Luis Obispo Farmer’s Market

San Luis Obispo, a little way down the track on the Pacific Surfliner, turned out to be a charming little university town, whose population swells during the university year.

IMG_5306A regular Thursday night farmers market showed off the local strawberries and flowers and a friendly crowd. I even bumped into a visitor and his son who I’d seen earlier in the day on our visit to Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle

Hearst CastleIMG_5264 is a bit out of town in an area called San Simeon. Built by the former media baron William Randolph Hearst, it was gifted to the state by his descendents. It’s lush, luscious, and always, for me, teetering on the border between impressive and crass, with all the genuine antiquities tucked into the modern walls.

Stars like Charlie Chaplin and Errol Flynn used to frolic here, though I was more intrigued on learning it had been occupied only by a skeleton staff for three years during World War 2, out of concern that Japanese submarines off shore would torpedo the place. Combine this with the unexpected atmospheric frequency of fogs and mists poised over the sea and shore here in the height of summer, it seems the perfect time and place to set a murder mystery!

Grey Wolf Winery

Other surprises, besides the beachside fog drifts, included the wine! Yes, I know there’s Napa Valley, but I’d honestly just never dwelled much on American wine. But when in wine country, one should always try the local produce. Grey Wolf, as well as having a fabulous logo, makes a very nice drop.

Art and artists

IMG_5327I also chanced across some lovely art in my travels. At Joebella, a very decent cafe in Paso Robles near San Luis, beautiful bird artwork was on display. I couldn’t afford my favourite piece, a raven, but was delighted to find a print for sale so I pounced. Greg Ellis Valencia creates lovely bird art: another of my favourites was a bird painted over a page from an old aircraft book.

In San Luis itself, I came across a narrow gallery where artist Gene Francis was working on a painting. His style reminded me a little of Norman Rockwell. We got to talking and he showed me his back room full of fabulous memorabilia he uses as props for his work.

In our far-ranging conversation, which covered travel, the Bechdel and Sexy Lamp Tests (prompted by a sexy lamp in his prop collection) and how professional writers and artists don’t ‘wait for inspiration’ – we can’t afford to! Instead, we work when we don’t feel like working, we push through and create even on the hard days, and we relentlessly chase down inspiration when it won’t come willingly to the table.

One thing Gene Francis said to me was, “People who are mediocre do their best work every day”. And we both nodded and agreed that this was sage.

IMG_5367

Pantages Theatre: Cabaret

Back in LA, we were fortunate to get in to see the latest revival of Cabaret, based on the 1993 Sam Mendes production. I’d last seen a version of the Mendes production in Melbourne, with Sally Bowles played by Lisa McCune. This version, with Randy Harrison (who’d I’d last seen in Queer as Folk) as the Emcee, was as lively and (sadly) as relevant as it has ever been. Tim Richards has reviewed the play over on his travel blog, Aerohaveno.

The Hollywood Pantages Theatre is gorgeous, by the way: a theatre from the days when picture palaces were built to be sumptuous and grand. If you’re in Los Angeles in the next few months, you can get tickets for shows like Hedwig and the Angry Inch starring Darren Criss (of Glee) or the concert tour for The Monkees.

Santa Monica

With an evening flight (for which I am currently waiting) back to cold and wintry Melbourne, we decided to make the most of the northern summer by going to Santa Monica to soak up the sun for a few hours. And look! They have plant-based dinosaurs! Surely the perfect note on which to complete my sojourn in sunny California!

On this segment of the trip, Tim and I were given travel, accomodation and theatre-going assistance by Visit California.

The Lady Novelist waits in line at San Diego Comic Con

The annual San Diego Comic Con is said to play host to over 130,000 attendees. In 2016, I was one of them. (As proof I offer this picture, wearing the ‘We’re Werewolves not Swear Wolves’ T-shirt – a line from What We Do in the Shadows – which I picked up from Steam Crow).

For those wondering how I scored a ticket, I did it the usual way – I submitted a request, got up at oh-dear-god o’clock in the morning for the lottery, and purchased my entry to whatever days were available when, by good fortune, my name was in the ticket pool for the crucial 15 minute window.

Comic Con was scheduled for the middle week of my three week visit to California – I’m still in the USA as I write and Comic Con ended five days ago. So I’ve had five days to think about my experiences, and to recover a little from the buzz and exhaustion of the event.

San Diego Comic Con: Population shock

The San Diego Comic Con is one of many cons of its type, but currently the largest. It’s getting so big that there are occasional articles in the press about whether it would be better moved to a city with bigger facilities. The organisers are committed to San Diego for a while yet, I understand, but there’s no mistaking that this convention is a great big animal, a leviathan of a convention. A many-headed beast that in part devours itself even as it grows.

IMG_4596The convention starts on the Wednesday night with preview events. I didn’t get a ticket to this, but rocked up once the registration opened so I’d have my badge ready for the morrow. (Americans signing up get their badges posted to them: those of us coming from overseas have to collect them in person.) I did at least get to see the most adorable little Rey, who’d come as Princess Leia the previous year (her mother told me).

Those who know me know that I’m an extrovert, a real people person. My reaction to being at the San Diego Convention Center with THOUSANDS of people either collecting badges or queuing for preview events? To whimper a bit and try to withdraw, snail-like, into a non-existant shell, and then to escape as quickly as possible to a location where I could relax again. Man, oh man, that number of people in one location was a bit of a shock! It was like sharing space in a single building with the entire population of Darwin or most of Cairns.

The Festival of Queuing

IMG_5169The next day I screwed my courage to the sticking place and went once more into the breach, dear friends. I’d heard that Comic Con was a place of very many people and many long queues, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned.

Thursday in the end was a lot more sensible and less confronting than I’d feared. Yes, there were people everywhere, but since we were no longer lining up to get to the registration desk, the bodies were more widely spaced. The convention center is huge, and while it was always busy, I never found it too congested to move.

My first panel was an industry panel – How to Get News Coverage – with small press comics publishers talking about how they get word out. I was looking from a small book press/writer perspective and was able to confirm some things I was doing right as well as getting new ideas.

Things came a cropper with the next panel I wanted to see – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written a novel about Mycroft Holmes and here was launching a comic, but despite queuing for half an hour, I just couldn’t get in the room. I abandoned the line about 20 minutes after the panel began – I was surrounded by people queuing an hour ahead to get into that room’s wrestling panel – and sought sustenance before trying the next panels on my list.

Those turned out to be 1986: There Can Be Only One, a discussion of the best film of 1986, and then The Most Dangerous Women at Comic-Con: To Bechdel or Not to Bechdel, which included several fabulous women and a fabulous man talking about the Bechdel Test (do two women have a conversation that is not about a man?) and related tests (the Sexy Lamp Test – can your female character be replaced with a sexy lamp without changing the story? – and the Mako Mori test – does your female character have her own story arc that does not exist to support a male character’s story arc?).

Industry and analysis panels were generally very easy to get into – no queuing, no fuss. No need to show up three panels in advance to stake your claim to a chair, and then hang on for dear life through panels that are not of especial interest just so you can see one panel that appeals.

It was a different story, as you may gather from that last comment, for the pop culture panels relating to TV shows and films, where people might wait in line for 90 minutes (or much, much more) to get into a room three panels ahead of their desired panel.

The lines were well managed, on the whole, even when they got so long they had to be redirected to outside terraces. Tents were set up to shield us from the summer sun, along with chains to keep the attendees in the line. Being a singleton in this situation was challenging – no loo breaks – but many folks waited with groups of friends. Some had brought little foldable stools, or picnics…

Exhibitors Hall: the wait goes on

IMG_4680Another big draw of Comic Con is the massive – and I mean MASSIVE – exhibitor’s hall. The big studios have exhibits here, often with giveaways for those fortunate enough to reach the front of the line. Often, the big companies have special edition action figures and other memorabilia only available at the giant US conventions.

This results not only in queues, but in queues for the queues. Sometimes you have to line up to get a ticket that will enable you to line up again for a chance to buy the thing you want. You might be there for an hour or more. On later days, you didn’t need a ticket but sometimes you still had to wait in a queue to join the queue. Sometimes the second queue was capped because it was so big, so you were sent off to browse elsewhere and try your luck again later.

Again, that’s a lot of time spent in lines, this time to buy something instead of seeing something.

But all is not lost – if you have more freewheeling tastes, there are plenty of opportunities to pick up something special with practically no waiting. That’s how I got my Werewolves not Swearwolves shirt, offered by a smaller company with much more unusual designs. I also had a lovely chat with the woman selling the shirts about What We Do in the Shadows and how much we both loved it, and how excited we are that there’s talk of a sequel all about those Not-Swearwolves in question.

IMG_4640Frankly, the exhibitor’s hall can be entertaining enough just to wander around to look at the goods, or at illustrators drawing at their tables, and, more fun still, the people who are cosplaying. You meet them everywhere, of course: in queues, in the halls, as well as here. Among my favourites were the genderswapped Rey and Kylo Ren.

Speaking of whom… did I wait in line for a special edition action figure? Hell, yes. I dithered about it for days, and figured that if the stars aligned I’d get it. I knew from talking to staff at Hasbro that they had ordered in a LOT of the Kylo Ren collectors’ edition figure, and every morning I checked to see if there were any left. Finally, on the last day, having just about determined that I didn’t really want one anyway, I arrived just as there was room at the end of the queue for the queue. The staff, who were used to seeing me moping about, chivvied me into the line I protested I’d given up on, and half an hour later I had my wee little sulky emo Kylo Ren special edition action figure, and I was pretty bloody happy with that.

Inherent tension

All that queuing though: therein lies the basic tension of attending Comic-Con – the constant stress and weighing up of ‘do I wait in this line for a few hours to buy The Desired Object That I Cannot Buy Online, or to see the cast and previews of the upcoming season of That Show I Like, and miss out on smaller, less showy panels, or do I try to get to the smaller panels and catch up on That Show I Like when the panel is inevitably shown on YouTube later?’

The latter would seem like a logical decision, except that there really is a buzz about being in the same room as The People From That Show and all the fans, that never really communicates in a YouTube clip.

Finding balance

In the end, I did a bit of both. In a move that may surprise some people, I decided I wouldn’t do the lining-up-the-night-before to get a wrist band that would allow me to queue again the next morning for several hours in the hope of probably getting into Hall H to see the cast and creators of Sherlock talk about Season 4 (which is still being filmed as I write, and which would remain assiduously free of spoilers in any case). Doing so would mean missing out on other things. I just didn’t want my Comic Con to be memories of long lines and sore feet.

IMG_4673I did pay separately for a side event: SherlockeDCC, for Sherlock fans. I figured, knowing Comic Con’s reputation for queues, that this way I’d get to at least one thing that really appealed to me.

I met some lovely people, and was pleasantly surprised when an unexpected guest arrived to answer some questions and then mingle – Steven Moffatt, with his son Louis, who’d played young Sherlock in the last episode of the third season, His Last Vow.

But for Comic Con proper?

I saw several smaller industry, writing, and discussion panels. When I did wait in lines, I chatted to the people around me.

I went early into one room to wait for the American Gods panel and was treated to previews of two new comedies: People of Earth, about a support group for people who’ve been kidnapped by aliens, and Powerless, an office comedy that happens to be set in a DC Universe city where heroes and villains battle it out. Alan Tudyk is in that one, and Vanessa Hudgens. Both shows look heaps of fun!

American Gods, by the way, looks brilliant in both casting and execution and I can’t wait.

I also waited in line for ages to slip in early for the end of the Grimm panel so I’d be there for the Supergirl and then Legends of Tomorrow shows. Ballroom 20 is huge (and is the room used for the Saturday night masquerade) so unless you’re up the front, most attendees watch the trailers and the panel itself on screens. But yes, the buzz was there, and it was cool to see new cast members introduced – Tyler Hoechlin (Teen Wolf) for Supergirl and John Barrowman (among others) in Legends of Tomorrow.

I would have stayed for The Flash panel – another show that I love, even if it doesn’t understand time travel or causality any better than Legends of Tomorrow – but I had a date with an old love.

IMG_4846Buckaroo Banzai: Getting the Band Back Together had a queue all right, full of people who know and love that crazy ol’ film from 1984. But within 15 minutes that room was stuffed to the gills to watch four of the old supporting cast talk about the film and the recent developments.

There’s been a lot of excitement recently because Kevin Smith has said he’s making a new TV series based on it. This Blue Blaze Irregular (code name Wookie) is thrilled to pieces and hopes it comes to pass.

On the panel were (left to right in the picture) musician Gerald Peterson (Rug Sucker, a mostly nonspeaking role, but who told me he’d once played for Renee Gayer’s band in Australia), Damon Hines (Scooter Lindley – he now has a PhD), Billy Vera (Pinky Carruthers in the film, and also a musician) and Pepe Serna (Reno Nevada – one of the Hong Kong Cavaliers).

They told stories of making the film, their careers, and that Kevin Smith has confirmed the series is being made and would like to have cast from the film make appearances if he can.

Barrowman LegsFinally, and very much worth the wait, was John Barrowman’s own Anything Goes with John Barrowman. He started his one-man chat with a crowded room by striding out in a little Star-Trekish miniskirt and white boots, proceeded to change the boots to white pumps and sang and danced a little of the song Anything Goes, then told outrageous, ribald stories, giggled with manic charm and generally schmoozed the audience that adored him.

The vibe in the room was fantastic, especially when he had to put on a fluffy rainbow skirt because his knickers were showing. There’s a reason he’s beloved, and his naughty exuberance was just the note to finish on – because it was indeed my last panel of the convention. I left in high spirits, a temperament Barrowman had shared with the whole room.

Comic Con, crowd control and accessibility

A word here for the comic con volunteers and staff, wIMG_4659ho were marvellous in the execution of their duties. They kept lines moving, they kept corridors clear – a particularly important point for general safety but also to ensure that con-goers with mobility issues could navigate more easily. There were special queues for people in wheelchairs and those with hearing difficulties, and plenty of space for mobility devices to move throughout the centre. Not using them myself I can’t speak absolutely for the ease of access, but I often saw people in wheelchairs, mobility scooters, on sticks etc, getting about fairly freely.

Some people got a little bossy by the last day – they were no doubt as exhausted as the rest of us – but on the whole everyone, from attendees to staff, were good natured.

Comic-Con: Worth going?

There’s no doubt that the San Diego Comic Con International is worth attending. If you can snag a ticket, you should go at least once in your life. It’s fantastic if you’re a big fan of pop culture – especially any pop culture related to comics or to the big film franchises like Star Trek.

Be prepared. Go over the program and use the scheduling tool to select the panels you’d like to see. Mix and match so you don’t spend most of the con queuing, but also select which panels are worth queuing for, for you. If possible, go with a friend so you can give each other loo breaks while waiting and generally have fun together.

Cosplay if you want to, but it’s as much fun to talk to the cosplayers and take photos. They’ve put in a lot of effort and appreciate people appreciating them. The little kids are adorable, but I always asked parents if it was  okay to take and post pics – then I usually gave them my card so they could look me up on Twitter later to get copies for themselves if they wanted.

I don’t know if I’ll ever do it again. The sheer numbers can be overwhelming and exhausting. The stress of constantly trying to find that balance of whether it’s worth queuing for hours is wearing, too.

But I did it this once, and I’m glad I did.

Perhaps next time I can get in as a creator and avoid all the queues…

 

 

The Lady Novelist Travels in Time

ttmart (1)Tucked away on West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, in an area called Echo Park, is a very special little shop. Time travellers, whether planning to visit the distant past or the distant future – or to bounce around between the two – will find anything they need at the Time Travel Mart. Era-appropriate facial hair; jars of nanobots; barbarian repellent; communist soap; viking odorant; robot emotion chips; or tins of mammoth chunks. The Time Travel Mart has it all.

The Mart is a vastly entertaining location, filled with items sourced from toyshops but also made especially for them. No opportunity for a witty time-travel joke is wasted, so you’ll find delightful warnings and notices posted up all over the space, in between the cans of Primordial Soup, candles for the patron saints of time travel (Hawking, Einstein and Mallett), robot milk and leeches.

Of course, like all the best odd, time-travel-related emporiums, the Mart is just a front for another organisation!

In fact, Temployee of the monthhe Time Travel Mart in Echo Park (and its sister store in Mar Vista on Venice Boulevard) are both fantastic little fundraisers and workshop spaces for 826LA, a non-profit literacy organisation, which supports school students from six to eighteen with writing skills.

The Employee of the Month board at the back of the store is full of fake pictures and dates, but the names are real: backers of the Echo Park Time Travel Mart have included JJ Abrams, Judd Aparatow and the late Melissa Mathison.

It’s a wonderfully funny and imaginative way to raise funds for a program to encourage and nurture writing. It’s doubly fabulous that the students taking part in 826LA get their work collected and published in little booklets sold within the store.

swagI picked up Vinyl has Aged Over Time and So Have We, a collection of poems, short stories, film reviews and essays by a 2016 class of students from the tutoring program. It includes the poem from which the title is taken, written by Michelle Garcia, and the entertaining An Era of Decay by Javier Hernandez, set in 2025 in which Superior Clinton has banished the consitution in favour of the Rights of Man, Woman and Child, and got rid of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Kardashians while she’s at it.

As if the Time Travel Mart wasn’t delightful enough, the 826 project operates similarly entertaining shopfronts throughout the USA. In Brooklyn, there’s a superhero supplies store; Boston has supplies for Bigfoot hunters; San Francisco can outfit pirates and in Chicago there’s the Wicker Park Secret Agent Supply Company.

If you’re in Australia and cursing your inability to get to the US to take part in the fun and support literacy, the good news is that you really only have to get as far as Sydney. Martian Embassy is the shopfront supporting the Sydney Story Factory, which runs free creative writing and storytelling workshops for kids aged 7 to 17.

Looks like I have a new shop to check out next time I’m in Sydney!

In the meantime, if you want to support the project, visit the Time Travel Mart’s online shop.

The Lady Novelist meets the Black Dahlia

BLACK DAHLIA TOURWhen we were planning this trip to Los Angeles, my husband, who knows me well, said ‘Esotouric does great crime tours; they’ve got one on the Black Dahlia murder. Do you want to write about that?’ My response was a red hot YES!

For those unfamiliar with the case, the Black Dahlia was the nickname of Elizabeth Short, a beautiful, lonely, troubled 22 year old woman living hand-to-mouth in Los Angeles off the kindness of strangers – strange men, mostly. In January 1947, her brutalised and bisected body was found dumped in a vacant lot in an uncompleted suburb. She’d last been seen a week before, but had so few friends that no-one had missed her.

Her murder remains unsolved: and like many unsolved murders, this crime has been the subject of numerous theories, books and films, including the famous novel-turned-film by James Ellroy.

Elizabeth Short’s lonely life and fairly horrible death are also a focal point for a lot more than her own fate. The particulars of her life make her a symbol of many women who somehow fall outside of the societal radar, who through circumstance and personal issues end up vulnerable and alone, ripe for victimisation and post-mortem judgement of their personality, relationships, sexuality and choices.

Beyond that, Short’s death was also a crux point for issues about the problematic relationship of the local media (Randolph Hearst’s newspaper was fundamental in uncovering elements of Short’s life and clues to the crime) and the investigation into her death was later the subject of an FBI investigation itself. It was, as the Esotouric guides say, a snapshot of Los Angeles at a particular time as well.

Richard, a guest, Joan, another guest, and Kim, at the former bus depot where Elizabeth Short had checked in her little suitcase full of letters.

The Real Black Dahlia Esotouric tour, hosted by Kim Cooper, Richard Schave and Joan Renner, takes place four times a year, with visitors taken to key locations in the drama in a comfortable tour bus. Screens within the bus show photographs – some of them graphic, though you’re given plenty of warning in case you’d rather shut your eyes.

Tours of this nature can sometimes feel exploitative, but the hosts of this tour are not only knowledgeable, they’re mindful that Elizabeth Short was a human being with a sorrowful history. They strip away some of the sensationalist myths that surround her life and death to show us a woman who was not only troubled but perhaps suffering chronic depression. Their narratives offer sympathy and even some respect, even though Short was an inveterate liar. Kim, Richard and Joan make Beth a real person, drawing parallels with many other women who have become famous as victims of crime.

Sharing the narrative among the three of them works well – there’s a lot to absorb of this complex story, made so much more complicated by lies told not only by Elizabeth Short but by all sorts of people around her. This includes numerous people who falsely confessed to her murder, and the numerous suspects who are still popping up decades later.

As the bus doesn’t stop in exact chronological order of events, this sharing of the narrative between the three hosts, with occasional recaps and distinct drawing together of the various personnel and events, keeps the layers straight.

Kim near the once empty lot where Elizabeth Short’s body was discovered.

The tour lays out the events, the different people, the repercussions and the difficulties of the case, including two unrelated crimes that were nevertheless influenced by the atmosphere around LA in the years following Short’s murder. The tour visits the places Short frequented, the places she was last seen alive and other pivotal locations, including the footpath beside which her body was found. (On the day we visited, a dried rose was found attached to a lightpost at the spot.)

Finally, the hosts let us know about some of those who confessed to the crime (and how they were discounted), some of the suspects, and their own very plausible theory.

The Real Black Dahlia Tour, including a coffee-and-donut break, is worth the US$58, not least because it makes an honest attempt to put Elizabeth Short at the centre of her own dark story, and in doing so shines a sympathetic light on the women who become vulnerable to similar crimes. It’s well and thoughtfully presented, with some interesting insights.

If you have an interest in true crime, and the Black Dahlia in particular, I highly recommend this lively, thoughtful, compassionate tour.

Just the Facts Ma’am: I was Esotouric’s guest on The Real Black Dahlia Tour.

The Lady Novelist’s First Impressions of Los Angeles

Shop at El Pueblo’s market

Here I am, travelling once more and taking in the atmosphere with eyes and brain wide, ready to learn new things. This is my second trip to the United States, my first to Los Angeles, and as always I’m finding a place to be both exactly like and nothing like I expected it to be.

The inherent contradiction in that sentence comes of course from the fact that no matter where you go in the world, the things you’ve seen (in films and television) and read (books, comics, articles) form a kind of proto-location before you see the place in real and actual life.

As a result, I always have impressions of a place before the First Impressions kick in. Kind of Impression Zero, as it were.

So. Impression Zero of Los Angeles: sunny; flashy; fast-paced; a bit superficial; all Hollywood; not much of a sense of history; everyone you see who is not in the film business is working out how to get into the film business; a veneer of cheerful over a bedrock of desperation; cars cars cars.

Since arriving in LA on 13 July (a few hours before I left Melbourne on the same date: gotta love the international date line and pseudo time travel!) Impression Zero has proven to be occasionally accurate but also – and naturally – a very shallow impression that’s as often completely wrong as right.

Batcycle from the 1960s Batman TV series at the Petersen Automotive Museum

It’s certainly sunny here, though most mornings have so far started a bit hazy. The July sun burns that fog away within a few hours, though, and hot days with blue skies follow.

Everyone I’ve met so far is very friendly, and I’ve had random conversations not only with service staff and Uber drivers but with people at museums. Today, for instance, I fell into conversation with an older couple at the Petersen Automotive Museum when they asked my opinion on the colour of a car on display (we finally agreed that it was probably mint green).

Is everyone in the service industry secretly trying to make it big in Hollywood? Maybe. An Uber driver today turned out to primarily be a music director of K-pop, who has organised Korean pop music gigs all over the world, including Australia. Next week he’s off to Japan for a big gig in Osaka.

Then there’s the waitress at our current hotel – The Redbury, a lovely flash hotel on Hollywood and Vine, all done up in rich reds and just down the road from Capitol Records. Virginia Tran is one of a team of people behind a new web series called Wait Crimes. If you’ve ever worked in the service industry with rude customers you’ll probably identify with the comedy shorts. Virginia told us this morning that more episodes are on the way, and that she and her fellow creators have enjoyed having creative control. Episode one is now available:

There was also the incident of discovering I hadn’t packed the right 3-pin adapter for my computer charger, and an emeregency trip to a Radio Shack to find one. Radio Shack has appeared in so many films that it felt like a Hollywood experience to visit one and find exactly the gadget I needed. (Thank you Radio Shack!)

But in most other ways, Impression Zero wasn’t much good. I’m sure the shallow, flashy, all-glitz LA is out there, but I haven’t seen it yet.

What I have noticed is that there’s a lot more Spanish spoken around the place than I had gathered from the films and TV I’ve watched. Combined with a lot of Spanish-style architecture there’s a weirdly more European feeling to the city than I expected. Additionally, Downtown LA is scattered through with grand old buildings that were once part of the financial district, but that relocated and these magnificent and imposing blocky buildings radiate a faded grandeur.

An example of Patrick Haemmerlein’s art at The Hive gallery.

These areas seem to be thriving locations for arts and culture, though. The monthly Downtown Artwalk opens up to all kinds of galleries that open late, along with little stalls lining the streets selling art and jewellery, and car parks filled with food trucks and DJs.

Altogether, I keep getting flashbacks of places I’ve visited in the Middle East and parts of Europe, where lively locals gather in suburbs past their prime to reclaim spaces, occupy the streets with handcrafts and generally inhabit their environment with a lot of energy and enterprise. Not that it’s all slick and shiny; there are plenty of signs of poverty around too. This is a real place, not a film set.

Los Angeles is a relatively young city, too. It was founded in 1781 by 44 Spanish-speaking people in what’s now known as El Pueblo. The area contains the oldest house in Los Angeles, the Avila Adobe.  However, the town stayed small for decades and most of the city was in fact built in the 20th century. Throughout Los Angeles, but particuarly here in El Pueblo, you get the strong resonance of Los Angeles’ Spanish history. Some of it is a bit ‘disneyfied’ but you also have the 1932 mural American Tropical, which far from being a happy little tropical image of Spanish peons in early America, is a strong political statement against oppression.

I thought Dire Wolf was a name made up for fantasy novels. But no. They were a real (but now extinct) thing.

Much older local history is at the La Brea tar pits, with their wealth of prehistoric fossils (including 404 Dire Wolf skulls) and their ongoing archeological digs; then there’s the automotive history at the aforementioned Petersen Automotive Museum (complete with Hollywood vehicle displays) and next week we’re off to the California Science Center to see the Endeavour space shuttle.

And yes, it’s a very car-oriented city, but I’ve found the buses and subway, both relatively new and shiny, to be excellent for getting around.

This is no doubt a twisted impression of the city too. I’ve only been here three days, after all, and like all large cities, there are several versions of it around, depending on the neighbourhood you’re in and what you’re looking to experience.

But so far? First impressions are positive and I’m looking forward to discovering more of the many versions of Los Angeles that exist.

You can find out more about LA at Discover Los Angeles, who are providing assistance to my travel-writing husband Tim Richards as we travel around.

The Lady Novelist Contemplates the Bard

Will DuckspeareStratford Upon Avon. Birthplace of the Bard. The village where William Shakespeare’s relatively humble origins lead some to believe (rather snobbily, I think) that a fellow with a fairly ordinary education could not possibly have written plays which still resonated with audiences 400 years later (as though all, or even the best, education happens in schoolrooms).

After several trips to the UK I finally made it to this English town, wanting to pay my respects to a writer who has lasted so long in our minds and imaginations, and whose explorations of the complex state of being human still have us talking today.

My concerns that Stratford would turn out to be a kind of DisneyShakespeareland were mostly unfounded – Stratford Upon Avon is not wall-to-wall Elizabethan Fun Park, although the township is obviously proud of their famous son and their heritage. The houses that are related to Shakespeare’s life – the house in which he was born; the one in which his daughter and her husband, a doctor, lived, and more – are well preserved, well signed and have guides in period costume to explain elements of everyday Tudor life.

On one window of the upstairs bedroom of Shakespeare’s birthplace, names have been scratched into glass (that wouldn’t even have been there in Shakespeare’s time) – including that of Henry Irving, the great Shakespearean actor of the 19th century.  A picture of the panel in question is in the gallery below.

At Shakespeare’s birthplace, a roving performer even did soliloquies on request. He first delivered Richard III’s opening speech, but then he said he remembered Margaret’s speech, having once done the role, and he let me film it.

Of course shops abound, filled with Shakespearean tat (say hello to William Duckspeare, above) as well as higher quality souvenirs. But the architecure is genuinely interesting – especially to an Australian. All the Tudor-style stuff we see here is obviously fake, from the 1960s and 70s I think.

IMG_0770Among other things, I learned that the expression ‘sleep tight’ relates to the way mattresses once rested on a kind of rope sling, and that the ropes would have to be regularly tightened to make sure sleepers didn’t eventually sag onto the floor!

The Shakespeare Centre next to the house is wonderful too, full of art and audio and souvenirs-through-the-ages, including a display copy of a first folio open at the first page of The Tragedy of Richard III!

IMG_0823Naturally I took the opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company in action! Their Henry V was excellent, with some new takes on familiar scenes. Henry addressing the troops was also addressing us, and when he pleads for assistance with his French in wooing the princess, I couldn’t help feeling that a Globe Theatre audience would have thrown some suggestions his way.

Visiting Shakespeare’s grave was a fascinating moment. Buried in Trinity Church, a pretty little place near the river, dear old Will continues to attract pilgrims. I’m not necessarily a keen tourist of Places Famous People Have Been, but there was something about sitting in a pew a little way down from his grave and the plea to leave his bones undisturbed that is carved into the stone that was quietly moving.

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I suppose that we all want to be remembered somehow – and Will has managed that more effectively than most. The thing is, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I believe that any immortality we have, such as it is, is in our deeds. Our names may not be remembered at all, in fact, but the things we do, how we treated people, how we engaged with our world – those are things that have ripple effects, in ways large and small. Perhaps a word I speak today, or a sentence I write, will mean something to someone one day. Perhaps something in my actions or words will prompt someone to think in a new direction (hopefully a more positive one) and that slight change now will mean something to someone else down the line. I get feedback on my work sometimes that leads me to hope this is so, even in small ways.

And here lies a man whose wit, compassion, subtlety and poetry, expressed through his words, has meant a huge amount to generations of readers and audiences. His characters and stories have opened up minds to many different facets of being human – that villains can have their better moments; that heroes can be flawed. That we are all made up of multiple motivations, and perhaps that ‘nothing is either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so’.

So Vale, Mr Shakespeare. You taught me a lot about writing, about humanity, and theatre and even myself.

Thank you.

 

The Lady Novelist Enjoys an Outre Museum

IMG_0716Bury St Edmunds is a lovely little market town in Suffolk. Well, that’s one thing it is. It’s also a lot of other things. It’s the place where an Anglo Saxon hamlet stood, and where a monastery was established, and where, in the early 10th century, the remains of Edmund, King of East Anglia (martyred and sainted in the 9th century) were reinterred.

The monastery became and abbey, and the abbey became the excuse for the barons to make a pilgrimage to visit the sainted bones of Edmund, but really to nut out the basics of the Magna Carta (a treasonous act).

The town and the abbey did booming business until Henry VIII was having all that marriage trouble and did that whole reformation/tearing down abbeys thing. His daughter Mary went about burning Protestants here as well. And then things trundled on a bit, the way they do, and some murders were committed, and trials and executions had, some with odd footnotes, and then a science fiction convention was held.

IMG_0624So, our lovely little market town of Bury St Edmunds (the ‘Bury’ is a corruption of ‘borough’ – the town name is not a command) has a long and fascinating history – and nearly all of it is represented in some fashion or other in its marvellous (and sometimes very gruesome) Moyse’s Hall Museum.

IMG_0628To begin with, ground floor of this Norman-era building (so even the stones of this museum are soaked through with history) has remnant stonework and artefacts from the old abbey. They’re also displaying some art from the Wolf Trail (the miracles of Edmund that lead to the sainthood include a very helpful wolf) and a wolf skull.

Among its historical treasures is a broken sword from the nearby battle of Fornham in 1173. The silver inlaid inscription translates as ‘Be thou blessed’ on one side and ‘In the name of the Lord’ on the other.

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IMG_0662Naturally, human nature being what it is, not all the mayhem and bloodshed is confined to the field of battle. Two displays from notorious murders are in the Hall’s Justice and Punishment section. The hall was for a time a police station, and among the displays are the mid-19th century truncheons issued to contstables for the exercise of their duties. The truncheons are decorated with arms and the crown demonstrating the officer’s authority – hence, one assumes (and certainly the signage does), the use of the verb ‘to crown’ meaning ‘to hit on the head’.

IMG_0711Rob Murrell, the knowledgable front of house person on the day, also showed me (once we’d fallen into animated conversation) grooves in the stonework that early policeman had worn in through sharpening their cutlasses (as the earliest river police carried) before a busy night of policing.

IMG_0639Most notoriously, the museum has on display a gibbet – that is, an iron cage, in which the bodies of the executed were displayed to dissuade more unsociable behaviour. The very gibbet was used for this purpose n 1794. One John Nichols and his son Nathan murdered Sarah Nichols – daughter and sister to the pair. Nathan’s fate was execution and dissection. John’s was execution and display in the gibbet. The gibbet was found in 1938, buried near the site of the murder, with his skeleton intact inside it.

And there it hangs at Moyse’s Hall Museum, looking like  a prop from a theatre restaurant. But it really, really isn’t.

But that’s not the most gruesome artefact. The other relates to the Red Barn Murder of 1827. William Corder was tried and hanged for the murder of Maria Marten, and his body was used for anatomical research: his skeleton was used to teach anatomy, his skull to advance research on that dodgy science of phrenology. But also, for reasons best known to himself, the dissecting doctor also tanned part of Corder’s scalp and skin, using the latter to bind a copy of the trial records. And these are also on display. (To tell the truth, this is the first thing I’d ever learned about this museum, from The Morbid Anatomy Anthology essay collection, and my prurient curiosity was the main reason I’d wanted to visit.) I’m not going to display pictures of body parts all unexpected here, but click the link to see the image here.

IMG_0645And thus we move trippingly along to displays of items of witchcraft, or to protect oneself from witchcraft (the region notoriosly burned a lot of ‘witches’.) Old shoes were buried inside walls a lot (sadly, along with cats, from time to time) to ward off evil spells. Most of the collection here was found inside one chimney. Along with many shoes, it includes a few mummified cats, some wands and a witch pot.

IMG_0668On the second floor is a display of the region’s proud military history, and the third has a beautiful clock room, filled with timepieces that tick-tock-tick, all on slightly different times, partly due to aging mechanisms affecting accuracy, and partly so that you get a chance to hear each particular tick and chime. It was a surprisingly soothing place to sit, feeling time measuring itself on in delicate ticks, chunky tocks, sudden chirpy songs of the quarter hours – providing a sense that time does not simply march on. Sometimes it skips and dances, sometimes it limps, but it sings to celebrate too. Time moves, and we with it, and it doesn’t have to be a dreadful thing.

There’s the added attraction that it feels like the Doctor is going to show up with his TARDIS at any moment!

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IMG_0678One or two more random things appear as well – musical instruments among them. The strangest, and therefore my favourite, was called the Horse Head Violin, named for the shape of the scroll, but it is in fact made mainly of a cow skull, elements of it stoppered up to obtain the appropriate resonance.

IMG_0675I spoke with Ron Murrell about this extraordinary violin later – I would love to hear it played – and he told me of a conversation with a visitor who had been doing up her Georgian era house and its period music room. They’d taken up the flooring to deal with a water leak, and found the base floor spaces between the joists filled with cow skulls. It turns out this was quite a thing for getting good accoustics in those rooms. Ron mentioned that in the Tudor period, nuts and nutshells were used in flooring to deaden echoes from wooden floors as well.

Wandering past old pub signs, some portraits and various other elements of town history, I passed a video playing on a loop – narrated by a very familiar voice! No credits appeared, however, so before leaving I spoke to Ron (and this is how we ended up having our very long conversation) and asked – “Is that Paul Darrow doing the narration of your video for the Hall?”

“Why, yes!” said Ron (or something very like it but less like a character from a not-very-good play, “He was here one year for our regular science fiction convention. What a lovely man!”

(Darrow, for those who don’t know or don’t remember, played Kerr Avon in the British SF show, Blake’s Seven, 35-odd years ago).

It turns out that, along with poetry readings (Ron does some of those), ghost walks and history walks, Bury St Edmunds has a regular SF and action film exhibition and convention, for which they encourage cosplay! Past guests have included Dave Prowse (the man in the Darth Vader suit).

This year, the event – which goes from 24th October to 15th November 2015 – will include  a few Star Wars villains and some props from Star Trek, including a costume once worn by Leonard Nimoy.

It seems that Bury St Edmunds isn’t contented to be part of the past. It’s angling to be part of the future as well!

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The Lady Novelist and Surprising London

IMG_0515One of the great joys for me being in London is not checking off things from a ‘must-do, must-see’ list: it’s simply wandering around the streets of this great city, preferably in the company of good friends who love this place as much as I do.

Yesterday was one such joyful day. London gave us one of it’s warm, sunny days – blue sky, a little humid but generally perfect for a meander. Fellow Improbable Presser, Wendy, and I met a delightful friend of hers at the National Theatre cafe for breakfast. (Here’s a London secret for you – the NT does a terrific breakfast and the coffee is pretty good). After a long chinwag with Alexina about feminism, rage, swearing and theatre, our friend Sara joined our table. Alexina had to be on her way, but the NT continued to be a happy meeting place and Wendy, Sara and I stayed on.

Eventually, having spent hours in happy, boisterous, passionate, ridiculous and earnest conversation in turn, the three of us left to walk through London.

London, like any great city, is full of the unexpected. Sometimes the surprises are small and subtle. Sometimes they’re grand and gobsmacking. Sometimes they’re just a fabulous melange of what-the-hellery that both puzzles and engages.

Well, that’s how the Dancing Bubble Sherlock Holmes struck us, anyway.

IMG_0492As we left the NT, one of us spotted a familiar figure in travelling coat and deerstalker hat at the embankment by the Thames. We also noticed glistening bubbles floating in profusion through the air. The three of us being enthusiastic Sherlockians, we naturally went closer to find the meaning of this Strange Affair.

We found a rather zen-like Holmes, impassive of expression yet graceful of motion, using a rope contraption to send cascades of bubbles into the air while he danced, a simple, elegant curve of motion. It was like he was trying to be as graceful as those huge rainbow-gilt bubbles he was sending to the sky.

Charmingly, he was surrounded by children, all squealing and running and trying to catch the bubbles. One baby boy smiled and laughed so hard he seemed about to float up into the air himself with the simple joy of it. Dancing Bubble Sherlock was sweet with the kids, making sure he let loose bubbles they could chase, without ever losing that self-contained serenity of his persona.

It was all very strange, and very beautiful, and very perfect.

IMG_0499We eventually dragged ourselves away from that seen of happiness, only to come across a small group of Morris Dancers, jingling away and inciting an audience member to kiss a prostrate dancer, for only the kiss of a virgin would save his life. A volunteer was handily found, and one he was revived, the rest of the troupe came over with a small case of Death, and had to be revived each in turn, so she gave each man a little peck and they jingled to their feet.

As we moved on, we kept encountering more and more Morris Dancers crossing the Millennium Bridge and converging on the embankment in front of the Thames. Some were in almost warlike face paint, though it was hard to feel threatened when they jingled merrily with every step. Of course, that didn’t stop me from hoping they were going to clash in a giant Morris Dancing Rumble, a fight to the finish to see who had the best bells and hankies.

We moved on, however, to cross the Millennium Bridge with the Tate at one end and St Paul’s at the other. But London had tiny wonders yet to reveal, and Wendy pointed down and said, ‘Look at these little pictures! I’ve seen the guy who does them lying on his stomach up here, painting them!’

So down we looked, and there they were, painted between the metal grooves of the bridge, these cartoony little pictures. Scattered all across the bridge – little buildings, odd machines, people, an insouciant frog reclining on the grooves, a yellow cat. Names and dates and bright, bright colours.

And it turns out, they’re all painted on the squished remains of discarded chewing gum by a man named Ben Wilson.

It’s really every bit as strange and wonderful as Dancing Bubble Sherlock or the Morris Dancer Thameside Dance-off.

So it seems that even when you are not that interested in the Changing of the Guard, you’ve already seen Hampton Court and the National Portrait Gallery holds no sway over you – London will give you unexpected history, wonders, strangeness and delight, even when you’re just taking the time to walk her streets and look.