Monday, 30 June 2014

Beyond Belief by Helen Smith





Emily Castle investigates future crimes. I’m guessing that when author Helen Smith first thought of this notion it seemed fun and quirky – now, I am certain that I’ve heard our government suggest that it would be a good way to save on public spending. However, I think the government solution would be to lock up all young men in hoodies, whereas Emily thinks about her dead dog, Jessie. 

Now, I have to say that when Helen Smith asked me (quite some time ago – sorry, Helen!) if I would like to read and review her latest book, I hadn’t quite appreciated that it was the third in a series – not that it would really have made a difference to my reply, I’d read one of her books, Alison Wonderland, earlier and found it funny and original. But I must admit that when I finished Beyond Belief I wasn’t entirely clear about the exact role that Jessie played in solving future crimes, given that Emily is quite emphatic that she’s not a spirit guide, or anything like that, but it didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the book, and I did, when I finished, download a copy of the short story which begins the series, Three Sisters. Not sure that it entirely cleared up the Jessie question, but it was a good story.

Emily’s thinking about whether to get a permanent job instead of temping when her neighbour Dr Muriel asks her to accompany her to a conference on the nature of belief – Belief and Beyond – ostensibly to take notes. For the first time the attendees will include mediums, hypnotists, and other fringe practitioners, in an attempt to find common ground with academia, and there are rumours that a death will take place at the event, perhaps because a notable stage magician has issued a challenge to delegates to prove the existence of the paranormal and has offered a huge reward. So far, so Jonathan Creek, but without the duffel coat. Dr Muriel hopes that if Emily documents the rumours, a pattern may emerge and prevent a death, if indeed, one is planned.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a good deal of the last twenty years organising conferences, that I seem to be an absolute sucker for plots which involve them. The weirder the delegates the better.  And here, there is a satisfactory cohort of English eccentrics, complete with floaty scarves, silver-topped canes, wigs and deceased dogs – because Emily is not entirely exempt from charges of eccentricity herself: “Emily had never quite found a job that suited her, a boyfriend who was clever enough for her, or a home that was close enough to the centre of London to make the commute to work tolerable.”  Anyway, to make me even happier, Belief and Beyond will take place in Torquay, memorable largely as the setting for Fawlty Towers – you’ve got to love the Royal Society for Science and Culture’s optimism in choosing such an ill-omened venue.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because I think you ought to read the book for yourself. There’s so much to enjoy here and my casting list is already underway – I have a very firm idea of who’s going to play Dr Muriel, for instance. She’s probably my absolute favourite character, I love her way of just throwing out ideas because she thinks they are interesting. And Gerald Ayode, the President of the Society (which used to be called the Royal Society for Science and Spiritualism), is very endearing in his efforts to embrace technology and modern life by tweeting from the conference. The conference atmosphere is very convincing, too, take it from me.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Sunday maggot...


 Fuchsia magellanica at Paxton House

Yet again my poor blog is being neglected and I'm afraid the weather is to blame, as one reason is that I've been spending a lot of time in the garden and greenhouse, making up for years of summers when I couldn't leave my desk. I haven't even been doing much reading, in comparison with past years, because it's not just the garden that's been taking up my time. Since I'm no longer travelling to London regularly, the pattern of my life has altered, and allowed some new projects.

I'm doing a course on The Literature of the Country House (the rest of this afternoon will be spent completing last week's work) which, as always with me, has prompted quite a bit of reading round the subject, which nicely dovetails with research for a talk I'll be giving later in the year. A search on the library catalogue yielded very few books which were helpful - so far, I've only found one that I could actually borrow, and one that would have necessitated a journey the length of Northumberland to read, but a trawl on Amazon turned up quite a few, and happily I had a couple of gift vouchers to spend. Okay, my selection was slightly influenced by choosing books priced at 1p plus postage, but one of the acquisitions has been Mark Girouard's definitive Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, so I'm happy!

Last week a whole day was given over to a costume photoshoot -- we were lucky with the weather and the generosity of friends who allowed the use of their photographic studio (and indeed, much of their house, and provided lunch!). I'll post more about this anon -- we didn't get through everything and still have Edwardian underwear and stockings to shoot, and I don't yet have copies of the photographs. Somewhat carried away by the fun of the day, with lovely models and lots of laughter, I found myself volunteering to make costumes for a production that second son is appearing in. It's funny, at the start of the day I had simply offered to do a bit of alteration to some shirt collars and so on, by the afternoon I'd said that I would cut a pattern and make three skirts for a beach scene. I may be borrowing the same friend's wonderfully equipped sewing room, since the work space on my desk is about 18 x 36 inches. And my sewing machine is at the bottom of a pile of stuff upstairs -- I think!

Despite all this busy-ness, second son and I did manage an afternoon outing to nearby Paxton House, with the express purpose of taking photographs. He has recently upgraded his camera and, along with a zoom lens, it weighs a ton! It's meant that I've inherited the original camera, as long as he's not on a job where he needs a second one, and I've got to learn to use it. Mostly I switch it to Auto and hope for the best, but I'm already frustrated by not being able to focus on two things at once. I was pretty excited, though, to be able to take a picture of a newt. Well, two newts, but there must have been hundreds in the pond.

Palmate newts

Great crested newt

For what felt like the first time in about a hundred years, I taught some Playford dances. For the uninitiated, these are the dances that turn up in film and TV adaptations of Jane Austen -- the six-part version of Pride and Prejudice used some of my favourites including Mr Beveridge's Maggot (a maggot is a piece of whimsy, and not something the newts above might eat). They are called "Playford" because in 1651 the first edition of The English Dancing Master was published by John Playford. It proved so popular that it was followed by a number of editions up to 1728, with over a thousand dances being described and other publishers cashing in on the enthusiasm for country dance. Some dances have wonderfully fanciful names -- Gathering Peascods, Mutual Love, Pleasures of the Town and Indian Queen to name a few, and there are lots of maggots. They are lovely to dance, often flowing and graceful, sometimes riotous, but even the Morpeth Rant needn't be too demanding for new dancers. Our group laughs a lot and we sometimes abandon a dance until next week when we might summon the collective brainpower to work out a tricky figure.


Funny, there were several things I meant to write about today and I don't seem to have got to any of them. Next Sunday perhaps...