Edinburgh After Dark

With it being dark not long after four in the afternoon now it’s a lot easier to take night shots, without having to wait till much later at night and then stand around with camera and tripod as drunks come out the pubs! I was taking a few photos in Saint Andrew Square, one of two large, grand squares (along with Charlotte Square, home to the Book Festival each August) at either end of the Georgian-era New Town part of Edinburgh. In recent years the gardens in the centre of the square have been opened up to the public again and it’s a busy spot with folks coming and going, or using the garden paths as a shortcut to the other side of the square. I had been taking pics of the column and the new, small glass coffee store all lit up in the dark of a corner of the gardens when I looked behind me and realised that the wet, glistening path lined up perfectly with the vista of broad and rather posh George Street leading west, last glimpse of twilight still in the western sky. And I thought why have I never stood here and lined up this shot before? Especially at just the right time of evening where it is dark but with that last little light of dusk still in the west:

George Street, dusk
(as ever click to see the larger versions on my Flickr)

This is a zoom in on the statues that line the top of one the large, old bank headquarters on Saint Andrew Square – shot them before bathed in sunlight but not at night, the long exposure had the side effect of giving the fluttering flag this cool sense of movement which I was quite pleased with:

statues and very fluttery fluttering flag

And here’s Sir Walter Scott, seated between the enormous pillars of the soaring Scott Monument – again I have taken various shots and angles of Watty’s statue over the years but for some reason had never thought to zoom in and line it up so the illuminated clock of the Balmoral Hotel’s tower in the background would show over it like this at night, just noticed it while taking other pics nearby and realised it would make a nice picture. Funny how I have taken night shots around there so many times before but that perspective never occurred to me. One of the nice things about taking a lot of photos is sometimes you just see something you know very well in a different way because of the time of day (or night in this case), weather, season, just looking at it slightly differently…

Sir Walter and the Balmoral Clock, winter evening

Poet’s Pub

I enjoyed a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this afternoon, the first time I have been in for years as it was closed until recently for a huge refurbishment. Many spots now much more open and lighter, including the nice room they have an old friend of mine, in an old favourite from before the refurbishment, Sandy Moffat’s Poet’s Pub. Always loved this piece depicting some of the most important and influential writers of mid 20th century Scottish culture (including, as you can see on the far right, Captain Picard!). In the new display room it is in an airy, light filled space with a comfortable big padded seat right in front of it so you can sit there and regard it, with a touchscreen interface angled into the armrest so you can tap it for more information while sitting comfortably in front of the painting, touching the individual writers lets you hear them reading some of their own work in their own voice. Lovely.

The work itself is a composite as they were never all in the same pub at the same time and the location itself is a combination of elements from three different Edinburgh pubs, the Abbotsford, The Cafe Royale and Milnes. All still exist, although sadly Milnes these days is an awful chain-operated place with lousy service that I long since gave up on (complaints to company who runs it made it clear they never gave a damn about standards or customers so sod them), although the Royale and Abbotsford are still firm favourites of mine. In fact I was in the Abbotsford just a few nights ago and bumped into a number of contemporary Scottish writers I know, including two of our bestsellers, Ian and Iain:

 

An Iain and an Ian go into a bar

Pat Mills, Rodge Glass, Nick Hayes & William Goldsmith at the Edinburgh Book Festival

(Pat Mills on the left and Rodge Glass on the right signing after their talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the weekend; all pics from my Flickr, click for the larger versions)

The Edinburgh International Book Festival for 2011 came to an end last night and over the final weekend I was lucky enough to catch not one but two final comics-related talks, both of them double headers, with Rodge Glass, author of Dougie’s War, talking with Brit comics godfather Pat Mills about the portrayal of conflict in comics and the aftermath of various effects on the men and women who have to engage in real warfare. This was followed later on Sunday evening with two of Jonathan Cape’s latest alumni, Nick Hayes and William Goldsmith discussing their recently published works.

My Sunday at a soggy but still happily buzzing Book Festival started with the Rodge Glass and Pat Mills event, where the focus was on the depiction not only of warfare in comics but the effects the events and stresses of combat have on real life soldiers, especially after the conflict is over and they find themselves on their own, away from the support network of the comrades in their unit and the infrastructure of the armed forces and back to ‘normal’ on civvy street. Rodge wrote the recent Dougie’s War, the title itself a nod to the influence of Pat’s earlier work (and one of the great classics of British comics) Charley’s War. Where Charley’s War shoved us into the brutality of the mud and blood of trench warfare in the First World War Dougie’s War deals with a contemporary conflict as our protagonist has to deal with his return to everyday life back home after fighting in the dust of Afghanistan, with an admirable focus on having to cope (or failing to cope) with the emotional and mental after-effects from the intense strain of combat situations, seeing and being involved in violence and death.

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And as we know men in general are rather poor at seeking medical help at the best of times, with a proud former soldier, meant to be self reliant and tought, it can be even harder to ask for that help (if it is available) but if they don’t the effects can spiral – it’s a very sad thought that quite a number of veterans in the UK, USA and elsewhere will end up with a broken family, homeless or with a criminal record all from the effects of what they called Shell Shock in the war Pat and Joe Colquhoun so clearly documented and what by the time of Rodge’s book would be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, soliders who have performed often heroic acts at great peril, unable to reconcile themselves back to normal life afterwards. The pictures on the AV display flicked between the earlier and later comics works and some documentary photographs, from the bizarre electrical and optical devices scientists cobbled together to try and treat Shell Shock in the Great War to modern psychologists who mean the best but usually can’t totally relate to the soldiers they try to help because, simply, they weren’t there… Both Charley’s War and Dougie’s War both took pains not to varnish the truth or to make warfare look glamorous and both have been well received by actual veterans as well as readers and critics.

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In the evening I was at the Jonathan Cape double-header with William Goldsmith and Nick Hayes, both of whom had some very interesting debut works out from Cape this spring, William with the visually unique and fascinating Vignettes of Ystov (there’s also a sample of his style to be found in the Karrie Fransman-inspired Imaginary Cities anthology from the London Print Studio) and Nick with the massive Rime of the Modern Mariner (you can read a Director’s Commentary with Nick talking us though Mariner here on the blog).

Edinburgh International Book Festival - Nick Hayes & Wiliam Goldsmith 01

Edinburgh International Book Festival - Nick Hayes & Wiliam Goldsmith 03

William’s Vignettes of Ystov is a series of interlinked short stories, each only two pages, set in a fictional city with a central/Eastern European feel to it, each story standing on its own but also, as you progress through the work, building connections, weaving up a tapestry until, like the acclaimed Raymond Carver in Short Cuts, the stories of various seemingly unconnected individuals in a big city come together to show the connections we all, often unknowingly, share in a large urban environment, all with a very distinctive, loose art style (William said he experimented with different styles at art school but the final, loose art came to him when he realised he only had a few weeks to his project deadline!) that is, visually, one of the more unusual and unique (not to mention interesting) looking comics works in the UK this year, with the mutliple short stories set in the same city allowing us to take in a large cast of quirky, eccentric and sometimes wonderfully absurd characters (which may be why he said the short story form appealed to him so much, despite the fact that it demands a real economy of storytelling on the part of the creator). I’m happy to report that he is planning further Vignettes in the future.

Nick explained some of how he approached Rime of the Modern Mariner, which, inspired by Colerdige’s original verse, uses clever rhymes with the comics frames to deliver a contemporary take on the classic poem which takes a much more environmental bent. In fact Nick explained that he was originally inspired by reading about some of the horrific messes humans have made of our planet, such as the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex where many worldwide ocean currents converge, which also means it has become a focal point for the garbage we’ve dumped into our seas, mostly especially plastic that refuses to biodegrade but does, as Nick explained, photo degrade, slowly shrinking until small particles of it float in this large mass of plastic and are consumed by marine creatures… and then later in the food chain by those who consume those marine creatures, including humans. It isn’t all doom and gloom, thankfully – Nick takes his repentant mariner on a voyage both literally and metaphorically, which eventually opens his eyes and mind and soul to the natural world, and showcases some fabulous imagery, not least a beautiful depiction of a blue whale. Published in a format similar to a hardback prose novel it is a huge but very satisfying work.

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The event went very well, I’m pleased to say and there was, despite it being late in the evening and rather cool and wet (ah, the joys of the late Scottish summer! But rain is no stranger to Book Fest veterans and doesn’t stop us!) and both writers/artists being fairly new to the scene, with a good line of readers eager to get their books signed (I had to kick myself for leaving home with my books, carefully left on the table near the door so I would remember them, left behind… bugger…) and those readers all having a good chat with the Cape boys. Great night and both books much commended for your reading delight.

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And so ends another year of the world’s biggest book bash, just under 800 authors have graced the graceful Georgian environs of Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square and thousands of book lovers, with folks from the comics community playing their part in the diverse make up of the festival, from talks to comics workshops (in fact I bumped into Metaphrog’s Sandra and John during the Pat Mills signing as they were on their way to run a comics workshop for kids, still obviously delighted at their earlier chairing of a masterclass event with Shaun Tan at the Festival). Again it is great to see such a major literary event embracing the medium so happily, backed up with a good display of graphic novels in the on-site bookstore as well. Many thanks to the organisers and especially to the lovely folks in the press office for sneaking me into the events. You can read reports with photos from the Grant Morrison and the Neil Gaiman talks at the Book Fest earlier on the blog.

Winter poem

A friend at LittleBrown publishers asked to use one of my photographs to go on a newsletter from Scots author Alexander McCall Smith, to accompany the Winter Poem:

That there should be winter, that this hard light
Should fall over a December Scotland,
Should make the sea gray, like steel, and the land itself
A rock rising from metalled water;
That there should be empty skies,
Free of protecting cloud, too cold
Even for that; that there should be
A vapour trail of some great jet heading west
To the colder shores of Greenland, Labrador,
Northern neighbours to us, distant cousins
In our marginality and our pursuit of fish;
That all this should be in a land that in summer
Is so soft and wet with drifting veils of rain
And filled with deer and clouds of midges
And the rich fecundity of ploughed fields
That will yield gold barley and whisky
Beyond the barley –

Scotland is a country of the north,
Everything here cries north; north the natural
Orientation of all our signs, our habits;
I sometimes wish, I confess, for a life spent
In the scent of wild thyme and olive trees,
For evenings when one might stroll
Slowly about a square and watch pigeons
Launch themselves into Italian air
From some tower dreamed up
By some High Renaissance imagination;
That, though, is not where we are from
Or where we are destined to be;
Our place is north, our natural gravity
That of a land that is an afterthought
To Europe, a land that comes late
To so many of the parties it’s been invited to,
But which we love with all our heart,
With all our heart.

Winter doesn’t make us better, then, or worse,
But enables us to find ourselves again,
Because it forces us to be quiet, obliges us
To listen to the coursing of our own blood;
Winter reminds us that warmth
Is not something we find naturally,
Some gift of munificent nature, but must be made;
That we should make in Scotland
A small place of warmth, a small country
Of kindness to others, of brotherhood,
Is what our poets have been striving to say
Since they first gave voice to song.
That we might find this, in winter,
In the ice and the cold is a local miracle,
Is a particular joy.

Iron road to the Highlands 20

The photo, by the way, was shot by me just under 3 years ago on my way to Inverness as the train moved up through the Cairngorms national park, past snow covered mountains, white-dusted trees and the occassional deer walking by the edge of the railway line. I shot some photos through the window glass, not sure if they would work or not. This particular on was taken as the train crossed a bridge and as I did a flock of birds soared into the frame for good measure. I got lucky and the shot worked, despite shooting through a window.

Goodbye to a Scots Makar

I was very sad today to hear from Ian Rankin’s Twitter that the man who had been my favourite living Scots poet, Edwin Morgan, had passed away at the age of 90. He was writing to the end, a new collection published just this year to mark his 90th birthday, a bard who could shape verse in diverse ways and style, across many different subjects from everyday life to love to the creation of the universe, that important kiss, science fiction and of course his beloved Glasgow and Scotland. Poet Laureate of Glasgow then the first National Makar of Scotland, respected in dozens of countries and translated into many languages, one of the great figures of 20th century Scottish writing.

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

Happy birthday, Mr Poe

It’s the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, a favourite author of mine since I was about ten and thumbing through a collection of his work. One of the real ale pubs I regularly drink in has a poem extolling ale written by Poe, enscribed up on the wall, which always makes me smile. I wonder if the Poe Toaster made their customary, secretive appearance today? For half a century someone has left cognac and roses on Poe’s grave, a rather lovely little tradition, I think; they have become known as the Poe Toaster. I will raise a glass if single malt in his honour myself later on (any excuse).

Last summer the Edinburgh Film Festival had a retrospective of Roger Corman and the great Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe films from the 60s in their wonderfully lurid colour and with Vincent’s velvet voice. In fact I usually tell people who don’t get Poe to read his short fiction and to do so slowly, imagining in their head the voice of Vincent Price narrating it to them. If they still don’t get it then they are beyond help.

Poe has influenced and inspired many later writers, not just in the phantasmagorical, horror and fantasy realms but in establishing one of the great literary successes of the last century and a bit, the detective tale, setting out many of the rules and procedures of a proper, modern detective for fiction; without it probably no Sherlock Holmes, no Maigret, no Rebus…

He’s been directly referenced by generations of authors and other artists, including some of the finest, such as the immortal Ray Bradbury, who explored one of his favourite, lifelong themes – the battle against ignorance and censorship – in the short story Usher II, where there is a world where all fantastical tales, from outright horror to children’s fairy tales, are banned, only the logical and rational is allowed. One rich eccentric builds a replica of the House of Usher and staffs it with robotic versions of Poe characters, inviting the great and good from this new rational society to a party.

They are all shocked by his lawbreaking but take it as a delightful piece of bad taste for one night. What they don’t know is the robot characters are murdering them all, one by one, in the style of Poe deaths – a robot ape stuffs a screaming victim up the chimney and the rest of the guests applaud assuming it all artifice. The final victim only realises the trap they have come into as he is walled up, buried alive, at the end. His host explains that if he had read the books instead of burning them, he would have known what was happening and saved himself. Ignorance and embracing censorship has killed them all. He exits and the walls of Usher II rip asunder and fall into the mere…

Anyway, for Poe’s birthday, enjoy The Raven, here interpreted in a fine manner by Omnia:

Fog in Channel

Quite a while back I was asked by Tom and Simon Sykes if I’d like to contribute to a book they were putting together on British attitudes to Europe; its taken some time to get to print but its now finally been released (I just received my complimentary copy). It was quite nice to be asked (they had come across the Woolamaloo after the infamous ‘Bastardstone’s’ incident and liked my writing style) and it was unusual for me to be asked to write on something other than my regular subjects of books, comics or films (much as I do enjoy writing and talking about those). I’m also rather chuffed to think I’m in there with company such as Bill Deedes, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell and Tony Benn (my late uncle, a solid socialist to the day he died, would have been delighted to see his nephew in a book alongside Benn). The guys wanted to have a spread of people and so a variety of thoughts and opinion and not just the ‘usual suspects’, hence why I was also approached; I drew on my own experience of an earlier Union to describe my feeling towards European Union, looking at the notion of being Scottish and British against the idea of being British but also European. Fog in Channel (the title inspired by the old weather report on the radio) is published now by Shoehorn Publishing.

Mark Millar at the Edinburgh Book Festival

Over the holiday weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival once again, this time to see top Scottish comics scribe Mark Millar on what I think was his first appearance at this venerable literary bash. I bumped into Mark outside the Writer’s Yurt just before the event was about to start and he seemed pretty happy to be there, smiling and clearly enjoying the idea of being there. This enthusiasm was also evident during the actual event where Mark delighted the packed audience, discussing his comics and film work with much (and often self-effacing) humour before Scotland on Sunday’s books editor Stuart Kelly, who was chairing the event, opened proceedings up for the audience to ask some questions (including, as it turned out, an old friend of Mark’s from Glasgow’s well-loved AKA Comics).

Stuart introduced Mark, inviting him to discuss his earlier work and how he got into comics, with that well-proven path into comicdom for many a British writer, 2000 AD, which Mark was quite honest and candid about, talking about how he was obviously pleased when Tharg’s minions gave him his chance but saying that looking back he thinks he simply wasn’t quite ready at that stage and his writing wasn’t up to par, so there was an element of learning on the job. Naturally the subject of the notorious Big Dave strip for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic reared its beer-swilling head, the series he co-created with Grant Morrison and Steve Parkhouse and which still divides 2000 AD readers. Mark also paid tribute to Warren Ellis and getting noticed in the US comics market when he was given the writing gig for The Authority following Warren’s run.

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(Mark and supporting wine glasses signing for fans after the event at the Book Festival, click for the bigger pic on Flickr)

Stuart, who is a self-confessed comics lover, clearly knew his stuff and asked Mark about a variety of his work, taking us from 2000 AD and the Authority to childhood dream come true of working on some of the biggest comics characters around like the Superman and the Avengers and, of course, re-interpreting and reworking classic Marvel characters to such acclaim with the Ultimates and discussing Mark’s penchant for happily subverting established rules and clichés of the medium (which is, of course, one of the reasons we love him) and then on to creator-owned works such as American Jesus and Kick-Ass.

Graphic novels are, as we all know, now pretty damned big business in Hollywood and its no surprised that one of the medium’s best-known writers would be involved in this comics-celluloid crossover. However, as with much of his comics work Mark’s achieved this in his own style and he was refreshingly straightforward with the audience – it seems unlikely that the glamour of Tinsel Town or huge box office success is going to swell the head of the boy from Coatbridge. In fact it seemed quite the contrary – he was obviously delighted with the success he was enjoying in Hollywood, but he made it quite clear that at the end of the day his main occupation is a comics writer, although as he admitted laughingly, he had always wanted to write a superhero film since he was a kid after seeing the 70s Superman movie and deciding as a boy that he should be the one to write a sequel! Which prompted Stuart to ask him about the Superman movie he was almost involved in more recently, asking what his version would have been like. Laughter erupted as Mark explained he couldn’t tell us about that script idea unless we wrote him a very large cheque. Would he still like to write a Superman film? Oh yes!

Kick-Ass Mark Millar John Romita Jr

(a page from Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s Kick-Ass, published Marvel Icon)

Obviously Wanted came up – a serious box office success although it was considerably different from Mark’s original comics. When Stuart asked him how he felt about the differences he explained he didn’t mind, in fact he said he quite enjoyed the film version; the version he wrote worked perfectly as a comic, eh thought, but not necessarily as a film, so he had no big problem with changing concepts to suit a different medium and besides, he laughed, he loved some additions in the film version, like the loom (super-assassins knitting, what a great idea he commented).

Naturally the film version of Kick-Ass was discussed and the way studios were interested in the property but only if they could change elements they were worried about. Mark had nothing but praise for director Matthew Vaughan (Stardust, Layer Cake and the film version of American Jesus) who agreed with him that they wanted to go with the story from the comics, not some watered-down-by-studio-committee version (which would doubtless excise many of the controversial elements that are central to the concept) and set about talking to contacts to raise their own finance to do the film their way (an approach recently vindicated by the excited studios bidding for distribution rights to the completed film after footage screened at San Diego Comic Con to much excitement), as well as complimenting Jane Goldman’s script-writing ability. He also promises us that what we’ll see on screen is taken directly from the comic original.

All in all it was a cracking event, with a packed and very happy looking audience (including Ian Rankin and his son who is a big comics fan) clearly enjoying the evening discussing Mark’s comics and film work (not to mention briefly mentioning an idea he has been floating to Scottish Television for a possible show set in Scotland, which I’m sure we will hear more about further down the line) and it seemed to me that Mark was seriously enjoying himself talking to a home-country audience about comics at the Festival, carrying on his talk on a more individual level with a line of fans who waited patiently to speak to him while getting their books signed afterwards. As this year’s Book Festival draws to a close in Edinburgh I have to say that evening rounded it off very nicely for the comics fans.

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

Had dad through for the day over the weekend and we went wandering around some parts of the New Town taking pictures, including the home of one of my favourite writers, Robert Louis Stevenson:

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson 2

Home of Robert Louis Stevenson

In case you are wondering the old fashioned bell-pull on the bottom left, instead of stating the family name as usual simple says ” private house, not a museum”.

Alan Moore speaks

I was kept very busy this week finishing editing and setting up my mate Pádraigs incredibly Massive Mega Moore Marathon – its a new (15, 000 words or so, phew!) interview with Britain’s Wizard in Extraordinary, Mr Alan Moore. In fact its so big I had to break it into three sections across three days on the Forbidden Planet blog – part one is mostly concerned with the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, especially the new third volume Century, the first volume of which comes out this month (Century 1910), the second next year (Century 1969) and a final part which is set in the present day after that.

It will surprise no-one who knows Alan’s work to learn that the subjects and themes and references covered are diverse, from the Threepenny Opera to Jack the Ripper and Monty Python. Part two is where Alan talks about future projects and other works (including doing some work for a local youth culture mag which included Alan telling the kids the truth about drugs! Brilliant), taking in magic and James Joyce along the way, with the third and final part, which I posted up yesterday, is where Alan graciously agreed to take some selected questions sent in by readers of the FP blog. Its enormous but fascinating reading – many thanks again to Alan and for it.

On a related note, earlier this week we found out that media analysts Cision had posted a list of the top fifty blogs in the UK. As you might expect its dominated by politics blogs and blogs from established traditional media like the BBC and the Guardian. And in there at number 31 a solitary entry from the worlds of comics and science fiction – the Forbidden Planet blog. Needless to say I am surprised and delighted – I started that blog just over four years ago, now we have several contributors and its grown a lot (so much so that its a real juggling act for me to balance keeping the blog fires stoked and working on the main webstore; usually that means I end up doing a lot in my own time to keepit going, as do some of the contributors). And its nice that its grown so much since I started it and that a lot of folks in comics and SF communities check it out, but to see that its in the top 50 of all UK blogs? That its up there with Guardian blogs? Wow. Just goes to show that if its done correctly (and honestly) a good blog presence can be more effective (and cheaper and more enjoyable for you and your readers) than huge amounts of advertising. That’s the sort of thing that can happen when you embrace blogging culture as a company instead of screaming hysterically at it.