Share this...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Me and my ghosts...Ms. Stuart is at home

I’ve always had a fascination with ghost stories which I suspect began with my mother’s tale of a ghostly encounter in a Youth Hostel in Wales. My mother is an extremely sensible woman and not one given to histrionics or flights of fancy. The story, as she tells it, is that she and a friend on a cycling tour of Wales in the early 1950s stayed the night in a converted castle that was now used as a Youth Hostel. She woke during the night to the sensation of a woman’s fingers brushing her cheek. She could clearly see a woman bending over her and as she watched the figure dissolved into the wall.

My own paranormal experiences have been far less impressive and really take the form of an emotional response to a place rather than ghostly figures. The most powerful occurred when I visited Warwick Castle in my early 20s and like all tourists went down to the "dungeon" below the castle. The feeling of misery was so overwhelming I felt as if I would suffocate. On subsequent visits to the castle nothing and nobody has been able to induce me to go down to those cells again.

Ms. Stuart and friend at Warwick Castle in 2005
I have, to my knowledge, worked in at least two haunted buildings. Both of them were former nineteenth century mansions and both had been used by the Australian Army for many, many years. The first, “Netherby” in Melbourne was the Headquarters of the 3rd Training Group during my time but had been, reputedly, used by ASIO (Australian Security and Intelligency Organisation) or its equivalent in the 1950s. There were stories of soundproofed cellars and secret tunnels but no evidence has ever been found of either, even during Netherby’s more recent conversion to a wing of a modern hotel. Nothing untoward happened to me in all the years I worked at Netherby but I did start to pick up the stories of “Albert” reputedly the lonely ghost of a Rumanian spy. After collecting quite a few eye witness reports of Albert's activities, it started me on a quest to track down more ghost stories from Army establishments. I figured soldiers made fairly reliable witnesses. 

The other haunted mansion is Grosvenor (close to Netherby) which served as Headquarters 4th Brigade when I first went there. Like Netherby it has long since been sold and is now a rather depressed facade to some particularly ghastly apartments. Grosvenor was far grander than Netherby and was reputedly haunted by “Esmerelda”, a young maid servant who had been found drowned in the swamp that is now Albert Park Lake. Esmerelda and I did have some firsthand contact and like Albert she is well chronicled.

I will save the stories of “Albert” and “Esmerelda” for later posts.

One of the more unnerving experiences occurred on a visit to Housesteads Roman fort on Hadrians Wall. No one has ever been able to give me a reasonable explanation of the mark ('the blur") that appears on this digital photograph. It's not present on the photographs taken just minutes before or after... so its not a smudge on the lens. The weather was fine so its not rain.  Frustratingly I can't even say I felt cold chills.  

The "blur" at Housesteads Roman Fort
Over the years, wherever an opportunity has presented, I have gone on ghost tours some hokey and some downright spooky. You will have found me trailing lantern bearing guides in York, New Orleans, Edinburgh, Port Arthur in Tasmania (now there is a spooky place!) and Sydney Quarantine Station to name a few. Books about ghosts abound on my bookshelves because behind every good ghost there is a potential fodder for a writer and in my September release...GATHER THE BONES, I pulled together a few of these stories and created my ghostly characters. 

Hunting for ghosts - Underground Vaults, Edinburgh

I have written at least two ghostly short stories and one these...THE PROMISE is freely available on my website. Both stories are in TOWER OF TALES

Next month in "At Home with Ms. Stuart":  I will share the sad tale of Albert, the ghost of Netherby. Watch this space.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Orange Cat...Paws for Reflection by M.J. Scott

This week I am delighted to welcome guest writer, M.J. SCOTT to my monthly column on the animals in our lives.  Writers lead essentially solitary lives and animals, great and small, play an enormous role in all aspects of our lives. Alison

Over to M.J.....

I've had cats on and off all my life. When I went off to university and did the rounds of the usual share housing/moving around/no pets allowed, I was without a feline for a few years.  But then, I started work and decided it was time for another cat.  Two cats in fact. So off to the shelter we went and a tiny grey fluffy kitten and an equally tiny black and white kitten came home with us.  All was good for a few months.  Then the tiny black and white kitten got sick. Feline Leukaemia, which older cats could often live with for a few years, but tiny kittens, not so much.  Which left us with just the grey cat (and a worrying few months while we waiting to see if she had also caught the disease).  

Putting our heads together, we decided that this time, we'd try a purebred (using the logic that they should be healthier). So with gay abandon, we decided on a burmese (I blame too many Doreen Tovey books as a child which left me with a fascination for oriental cats) and acquired a teeny red (okay, pale orange) boy to go with the grey girl.

Teeny he might have been but his voice wasn't.  Nor was his personality. The orange cat was firmly convinced that he ruled the roost and that the humans should just play along. And when he didn't get what he wanted, he complained about it.  Loudly. Just as well he was very sweet and loving in all other ways, otherwise he may not have made it out of kittenhood.  Chatty cats during the day are one thing but loud burmese wailing at 4am is not so cute. Sadly, that was a habit he never grew out of (nor would he sleep nicely with the humans). We tried various methods but never could find something that would convince him to be quiet.

When he wasn't yowling, he was off having adventures (or sucking up to the two nice old ladies next door so that they would feed him and give him his proper doses of adoration when we were out).  Unfortunately, despite being beautiful and vocally adept, he wasn't the smartest cat in the world.  So his adventures often ended in drama.  He managed to dislocate his tail (twice), get into the odd fight (due to thinking he was far tougher than he was) and to top it all off, managed to sustain major ligament damage to both back legs in separate incidents (most likely, according to the vet, falling off things). I shall not go into how much ACL surgery for cats costs or the joys of six weeks post operative confinement.  He broke a tooth, regularly lost claws and delighted in pouncing on the grey cat when she didn't want to be pounced on.  She was too much of a lady to ever give him the swatting he deserved. He went missing one night and I eventually tracked him to a neighbour's garage when he eventually worked out yelling for help might be a good idea. Still, he was the most loving cat I've had, wanting most of all to be with me, sitting on my shoulder or my lap and purring away loudly while I patted him. Burmese fur feels like silk over rock hard muscle.  Very soothing. Probably another survival adaptation.

Sixteen years he purred for me and loved me and entertained me. And I loved him. The house felt way too quiet the day he finally succumbed to kidney disease. It still feels too quiet sometimes, even though two new cats are purring for me and competing for lap time.  The orange cat was an original and I hope he's waiting for me, over there wherever it may be. And that the over there version comes with volume control.

Thanks for being my guest, M.J. I have lived with a Burmese (in my days of share houses) and they are great characters. You must miss him! Alison

M.J. SCOTT's second book in her half-light city series, BLOOD KIN, has just been released. 

Imagine a city divided. A city where human and Fae magic rests uneasily next to the vampire Blood and the shapeshifting Beasts. A city where a fragile peace is brokered by a treaty that set the laws for all four races…a treaty that is faltering day by day.
I didn’t plan on becoming a thief and a spy. But options are limited for the half-breed daughter of a Fae lord. My father abandoned me but at least I inherited some of his magic, and my skills with charms and glamours mean that few are as good at uncovering secrets others wish to hide. Right now the city has many secrets. And those who seek them pay so well…
I never expected to stumble across a Templar Knight in my part of the city. Guy DuCaine is sworn to duty and honor and loyalty—all the things I’m not. I may have aroused more than his suspicion but he belongs to the Order and the human world. So when treachery and violence spill threaten both our worlds, learning to trust each other might be the only thing that saves us.
But even if a spy and a holy knight can work together, finding the key to peace is never going to be easy…

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Writers Corner - The Mind's Eye

The "Mind's Eye" is a phrase that refers  "to the human ability for visualization, i.e. for the experiencing of visual mental imagery; in other words, one's ability to "see" things with the mind." (thank you, Wikipedia!).

Good writing relies on the writers and readers imagination, on that big muscle between the ears. I was recently asked at a book talk who I had used as a model for the hero in THE KING'S MAN. The answer was no-one. When I write, I will give the characters height, build, eye colour, shape of face, hair colour and cut but anything more than that is up to the reader.  If you read the descriptions I have written of Kit Lovell, he could fit the profile of "any man". What I deliberately chose to do was leave the visualisation to the reader. If the reader wanted him to look like Hugh Jackman or Alex O'Louglin, they were free to do so and when we went around the room, every person had a different model in their "mind's eye" as they read the book.

As an aside:  Eye colour plays an important part in books but in reality I don't think we really notice the colour of people's eyes, unless they are striking in some way. At a recent writers retreat, as an exercise we had to write a description of the person sitting next to us. Despite the fact we were sitting just about on top of each other, I found myself squinting at my neighbour's eyes, having no idea what colour they were even though I have known her for years. How many descriptions do you read of the hero noticing the heroine's blue eyes from across the crowded drawing room or in one recent example I read - from the bottom of the garden? 

The phrase "lose yourself in a book" captures the work of a good writer if the reader can drop themselves into a world that is really their own imagination, fuelled only by written cues from the writer. 

Even illustrations don't really capture characters as the mind's eye visualises them. Many years ago, a two part excerpt of BY THE SWORD was published in a national magazine. You can imagine my excitement when an artist was commissioned to illustrate the story. I was going to see Jonathan and Kate brought to life!  This was the result. Yes, it is worth a giggle or two. Obviously the artist hadn't actually read the book. I ended up with a blonde hero and brunette heroine both dressed in clothes from the wrong period. They looked nothing at all like I had imagined them!

Illustration for BY THE SWORD...New Idea

Translation to film can be a bit dodgy too...ABC Arts Nation filmed a couple of scenes from THE KING'S MAN - on a very tight budget! If you would like another smile you can see the video on my website. Click Here (although just a warning for copyright reasons it may not work in all countries). 

There is a difference between the way men and women think and respond to the written word. I was recently reading an article about the rise of the erotica novel for the female audience (don't look at me...I can't write it!). The writer made the interesting point that women are reading erotica (or romotica) because the interest for them is in their own imaginations. Men on the other hand, prefer the visual stimulation of the image.

How many times have you gone to the movies to see a film translation of a favourite book and come out bitterly disappointed because the characters looked nothing like the characters in the book? 

Speaking from my own "mind's eye" I think the Harry Potter films and the Lord of the Rings trilogy captured the books and, most importantly, how I, the reader visualised the characters. A recent example where the film missed the book completely was Eagle of the Ninth, which I have adored since childhood. Channing Tatum as Marcus? Noooooo!


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

She walked to London to visit the Queen...

In 1897,  Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. Sixty Glorious Years.  June 22 was declared Jubilee Day and a grand procession through the streets of London was planned. The prime ministers of all the self-governing dominions were invited, and  troops from every part of the empire were to be included in the parade.

In the small industrial town of of Rawtenstall about 14 miles north of Manchester in Lancashire, a young girl, probably no more than 16 or 17, decided to walk to London to see Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee procession.  I don't know her name, but for the sake of the story, I will call her May. 

Rawtenstall in the early years of the 20th century
It is hard from the distance of over a hundred years to imagine the excitement that pervaded England in 1897, although perhaps we've seen a little of it in the past few days as England celebrates Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee. It was the height of the British Empire and presiding over it was the seventy eight year old monarch. Never had any monarch, male or female reigned for so long. Victoria was adored by her subjects which now stretched across every continent.
In the little kitchen of May’s two up, two down home in Rawtenstall, built by the industrialists who owned the mills that dominated the town, May and and a friend  counted their pennies and their hearts must have fallen when they saw they  barely had enough for a fare to Manchester, let alone all the way to London. With true Lancastrian grit, these two young girls decided to walk the 177 miles from Rawtenstall to London.

I know nothing about how long it took them, where they spent the nights on the road or where they lodged in London.  We do know over 4 million people flowed into London for the celebrations so we can assume that the roads of England were filled with loyal subjects all making the same pilgrimage through what was unusually  appalling summer weather. Spirits would have been high. This was a moment of high history and they were going to be a part of it. 

The day of the procession dawned bright and clear. Accompanied by the colonial troops and the great leaders of the Empire, the tiny monarch, dressed in black, and now crippled with arthiritis rode in her open carriage rom Buckingham Palace, via Mansion House, past Parliament and then across Westminster Bridge before recrossing the Thames for a service at St Paul's Cathedral (which was conducted on the steps of the Cathedral as the Queen was too crippled to climb the steps into the Cathedral). Lining the route were hundreds of thousands of spectators, huddled beneath bunting and banners - one of which declared Victoria "Queen of earthly Queens". 
In the poor streets of London (and the major cities), the streets were hung with bunting and free feasts for the poor were laid on by wealthy philanthropists. The tea magnate Thomas Lipton laid on one such party with free ale and pipe tobacco. A chain of beacons were lit across Britain and there were fireworks and a son et lumiere was played out on St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In her journal the Queen wrote: "No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those 6 miles of streets . . . The cheering was quite deafening & every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified." 
The Procession Route

For two young girls from Rawtenstall, it must have been magical.  With the last of her money May bought a souvenir of this wondrous occasion,  a delicate tea cup decorated with roses and royal banners, proudly declaring “For Union and for Queen”. She wrapped it carefully and carried it back to Rawtenstall along with the stories of all that she had seen.

In 1956, as a woman in her late seventies, May became embroiled in a family drama and she was placed in the position of having to formally adopt her grandson, a boy in his early teens.  The young social worker assigned to the case became close to the old woman and when she announced that she would be leaving England to take up a new role in Kenya, the old lady rose to her feet and crossed to her cupboard. From it she took a delicate tea cup and saucer, now cracked but still bearing its clear pattern of roses and imperial flags.  “I would like you to have this,” she said to the young woman, “as a momento.” May then told the young woman about how she had walked to London to see the Queen...

How do I know this story? The young woman was my mother. The little teacup and saucer has travelled with her over many moves and countries and now professionally mended, has pride of place in her home (along with her own more recent souvenir of the present Jubilee). Across the span of time, she no longer remembers the name of the woman who gave it to her, but she remembers the story she was told.

The following video is actual footage of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Procession. Perhaps if you look closely perhaps you can see May's shining face in the crowd...