Writer Mark West came up with the fun idea of curating a ‘Brit Horror Mixtape‘ by asking writers in the field to recommend a short story by a British horror writer that influenced their work.
It’s pretty hard to pick one favourite – as I have many – so I decided to select based on the spirit of the mixtape: which is to collate a distinctive range of interesting work from a variety of people. I was unaware of what writers other people were going to choose, but I decided not to pick a ghost story or one that featured a supernatural event. When the entire, massive field of British horror is available, it helps to impose limits to narrow down the work.
Pondering upon some great fiction I choose ‘The Birds’, by Daphne du Maurier, since it’s an outstanding example of ecological horror that has become enmeshed with our cultural memory. And when you examine Du Maurier’s catalogue of work it’s amazing to see how much of it has been adapted into other media – and some of them are outstanding versions on their own merits (such as Hitchcock’s film adaptation of ‘The Birds’).
Du Maurier was not only an excellent writer, but many of the core concepts and themes of her novels and stories contain a timeless human relevance that makes them popular to this day.
This year the Hay Festival, Kells is taking place from 23 – 26 June, and with technology journalist Karlin Lillington I’ve co-curated a stream of programming within the Festival called ‘The Image’, which features an array of talent from the arenas of illustration, cartooning, comic books, and computer games.
Thinking about yesterday’s blog post about items in one’s home that have meaning, it reminded me of a funny incident that happened to me back in 2010.
I was on my way to London, and stopped in a café (which is no longer in existence) to get a decent meal into me before the cavalcade of airport security, waiting rooms, flight, collecting luggage, train journey, and bus jaunt that would deliver me to my destination.
The café was one of those cool joints with books and nifty knick-knacks arranging in pleasing ways, and I spotted this diorama of objects.
(This has subsequently become of my favourite photos, so I was surprised today when I realised I’d never uploaded it to Flickr.)
I arrived in London, and the next day went into a favourite shop which specialises in eccentric objects. I visit pretty much every time I’m in the city.
Much to my surprise, the pink girl robot I had just taken a photo of in Ireland was in the shop for sale! How often does robot serendipity happen in one’s life? I purchased her immediately, and carried her back to my home in Galway.
Currently, she resides in a small diorama on top of my fridge – here’s a photo taken today of it in my living room (the light was too poor to take it in situ).
Note she has arms, which had been absent in the first robot I photographed. The robot to the left is a ceramic figure that separates into two, and its metal companion is a wind-up variety – I like his wide grin. Both of them were gifts. The plastic giraffe and monkey are cheap decorations that dangled off cocktails I was served at some event over the years.
The colourful metal tree is an inexpensive object I spotted and fell in love with about a year ago, and that’s when they all moved in together.
Over the years I’ve become increasingly careful about what new items I bring into my home. I’ve spent several years paring back book collections and ornaments to remove anything I don’t truly appreciate.
I established my simple formula before Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy became a revolution, but from what I understand (as I haven’t read the book) it gels quite closely to her system. I ask myself is the item 1) functional or 2) beautiful? If it’s both it’s unimpeachable, but it should hit one of these criteria. What is lovely to one person is hideous to another, therefore this is a wholly personal exercise.
I’m not entirely without sentiment, however. And that’s okay.
I’m not a fan of utterly sparse environments, but if you enjoy an abundance of items it’s better if they all possess meaning. Shallow, disposable tat doesn’t last long in my home anymore – unless it adheres to one of the above rules of course. Value doesn’t have to equal high cost.
Recently I welcomed a new sculpture into my home.
This is a raku ceramic hare by Paul Jenkins. It sits perfectly on my hearth, gently glowing even in the dim light we are wont to get in a country prone to overcast skies.
It’s at rest, but alert. Ready to spring into action and run quickly if necessary.
More and more I appreciate those items that make you smile even if you only catch a passing glance at them during your daily tasks.
I love sculpture. When I go to museums it’s the sculptures that command my attention. There is something about the dimensionality of them: they are physically present in a different way than flat artwork – although it’s the roughness and layering of brush strokes on original paintings that truly bring them to life.
When I visited Japan one of the things I was struck by was the sheer number of statues, often part of shrines, which populated the cities and rural landscapes. Many of them are adorned with clothing. The sense is that they are cared for, and not just an embellishment.
I could write several blog posts full with photos from my Japanese trip. It’s a country I loved exploring. I remember my time there often, and with fondness.
Generally, I think people have familiar relationship with statues in their cities. In Dublin they are all given funny nicknames, which lends them a feeling of being old friends. And if you see them in the street everyday, don’t they become part of your regular crowd? They also subtly shift in tone and attitude depending on the weather and time of day.
Here’s a Dublin sculpture I photographed at night, recently. I think it looks better here than it does during the day. It’s ‘Proclamation‘ by Rowan Gillespie. It’s a mournful piece, and this comes across especially in the dark.
Statues have traditionally been a locus for mythic and religious reverence. In this fashion they are meant to represent the God/saint/mystic in person. To stand before it is to be in the presence of the sacred.
You do not need to believe to be moved by great art. That’s its transcendent power. It’s why throughout human culture we have not been satisfied with rudimentary living.
From the beginning bodies were tattooed with designs, clothes weaved and stitched with patterns, jewelry fashioned from polished beads or the most expensive gold, cups and jugs painted and glazed, and icons have been carved and carried into our homes.
We decorate our lives and living spaces almost as a biological imperative. An ancient nesting drive now expressed through human artforms.
Sometimes that urge gets kicked into overdrive and there is only the panic of filling up all the lonely spaces in our lives.
And perhaps in such cases there is solace in hoarding. Nothing is let go, therefore nothing is forgotten, or left behind.
We surround ourselves with meaning through our objects, and arrange them in groups and dioramas that bring us joy. And they become part of our household.
I was born in the USA, and when I was three my parents whisked me and my brothers and sister back to Ireland. I don’t have many early memories of America, but I’ve been told I returned to Ireland with a Southern accent (the last place we lived was in Georgia).
My mother was always ‘Mom’, and my grandparents were ‘Grandma’ and ‘Grandpa’, something I took for being entirely normal, but it was one of a number of signs of my difference.
It’s only been for the last few years that I’ve come to realise how much that sense of being from another place shaped the formation of my identity in Ireland.
Like many people who grow up in a small town my ambition was to leave it! First to Galway city for college, and then to New York for summers and eventually to live.
New York will always have a special place in my heart. Whenever I return I am constantly struck at its energy and sense of possibility. This is a wonderful combination for anyone who is young and trying to figure things out. The teeming streets are home to dynamic and generous people, far more than the dangerous ones. Some of my oldest and dearest friends live there.
Of course, the city is fickle and sometimes cruel. In New York your safety net can be gossamer-thin, and below it are rocks.
In Ireland, the tighter community results in fewer crash landings when life takes dreadful turns, but the trade-off is less anonymity.
I’ve been settled in Ireland – first in Dublin and now in Galway – for a long time, but I’m not sure I ever feel truly in synch here. Yet, I love the land, and the absurd, fantastical humour of our warm-hearted people.
I’ve also been heartened by how much Ireland has developed in the past decade or so. There’s more acceptance of difference, and a recognition that we are a modern society hosting a variety of people. We have our crises and retrograde moments, but the country a much more tolerant place to live in since I arrived on its shores as a child emigrant.
I may always feel like someone who is of two places, and it’s likely neither of them will ever have complete sway over my soul. I suspect this liminal state of un-belonging has been a factor in what interests me as a writer. After all the struggle to forge our place in the world, against or with cultural/parental/religious expectations, is one of our defining experiences as human beings, and the subject of much fiction.
My experiences are both unique and similar. That’s where you mine your ideas for writing: along the edge, but near the seam.
The drab days of winter are behind us, and in-between indifferent Spring weather, we do catch a few glorious hours during which garlands of fragrant blossoms glow in the sunshine.
Today has seen a stretch of magnificent weather which stirs the senses and brings with it a burst of energy.
I spotted this tree in blossom as I was heading to a cafe. I pulled over the car, jumped out, and snapped off a couple of shots in the hopes that something would arise from it.
The worse thing about sunshine is how hard it is to take photos using a screen. But, I’ve learned the fine art of ‘prescient photography’: i.e. lining up the shot as best I can based on experience and a big dollop of hope.
You can end up with a series of muddy, out-of-focus images, but if you don’t try you won’t get anything.
It struck me recently that I’ve been a member of Flickr, the image-hosting web site, for 10 years this year. At this point I’ve a cache of over 3,000 images online. I’ve taken at least ten times that many, but I don’t just dump everything I take online. I like to be selective. In some ways it’s an extension of writing: I’m crafting a narrative, and to achieve an interesting result it requires editing.
I’ve been looking at this selection of photographs again and pondering the variety, so for the month of April I’m going to dip in and out of these images and talk about them a little on my blog.
The above is a recent photo I took of a sheep, which rendered rather nicely in black and white, and I cropped it to a square. I often do a number of adjustments to images, and I enjoy that part. For instance this photo was off-kilter, and I was able to straighten it correctly.
To my tastes this image works because of the textures of wool and wood, and the lines. Plus, the sheep is looking right at you. It’s not as sharp as I would normally like, but many animals aren’t natural posers and don’t hang about for the perfect shot.
Of course, there is no perfect shot. There is just training one’s eye, practice, and a certain amount of happenstance. Plus, figuring out inventive ways a slightly duff shot can be made better through judicious changes.
Most of my photos are taken via my phone now, plus I use it to do the editing. I love that I can take a photo, adjust it, and post it online within minutes. This is a marvellous magic that technology has bestowed upon us, which is already considered commonplace.
I do use Instagram also. Its preference for square images means that I don’t replicate every image on Flickr and Instagram. Almost every image I like goes up on Flickr, while there are some images that are not helped by the instance on a square view.
Yet, Instagram has made me think more on focusing tighter. The wide perspective is always useful, yet there is merit to removing surplus. Instagram is the Twitter for images. You learn how to be concise and pithy, often with eccentric filters. Yet there are times when you need to breathe, and show more space.
These are merely ways of expressing your perspective. Working visually is terrific training for a writer. What are you trying to express? What is the best way to convey that?
Often, the audience will have a different reaction to the work than you intended, which is why it is best if you crop, edit, and tune your images to your own tastes.
The attitude of abstract outsiders is the great unknowable in the mind of the creator.
The best you can do is snap the image, and decide whether to show it.
Then you take up the camera again, and hope that you can better convey your viewpoint the next time.