Gin, the Idler, and a Ragtime Parlour Band

The lovely Miss Hammond
and the charming Dr Barnett.

Last night I attended a smashing evening run by The Idler Academy up in the far-flung (to me) reaches of Westbourne Park. Richard Barnett gave a lively talk on the origins of gin, distilled from his excellent Dedalus Book of Gin (take off the dust jacket – an unfortunate slip – and enjoy the contents). As one would expect, gin and tonic was served.

To the crowd’s surprise and delight, Richard had invited the ‘Canadian Nightingale,’ singer Patricia Hammond, and the Ragtime Parlour Band to perform a handful of songs from the 1920s, recreating the feel of a speakeasy while we all absorbed Richard’s excellent talk – and our gin.

Ragtime Parlour lads.
Waistcoats & brogues out in force: love it.

Having spent the morning losing the ability to focus my eyes from staring at the screen for too long working on poetry (a productive morning but I had to get away from the screen & the page!) I went early, and enjoyed the feeling of being ‘with the band’ as Patricia and her lads tuned up and rehearsed. Appropriately, I idled on the chaise lounge in the window, and a few curious folk popped their heads through the open door to see what this wonderful music was all about.

Many thanks to the lovely girls at the Idler for sharing their early G&Ts with me! What a charming place; I only wish I lived nearer. Congratulations to Richard, Patricia, and the band for a perfect cocktail of an evening: intellect, wit, talent, sartorial excellence and relaxed decadence.

P & the RPB performing
'The Honeysuckle & The Bee'.

The Extraordinary Unpredictability of Everyday Life

A rainbow from the gloom of rain across Blackheath last week, just when I was needing one.

The title for this post is poking a bit of fun, as my friends & I have a running tally of phrases that would make bad/pop book titles – riffing on ‘The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake’ which I will admit that I haven’t read. The title is absurd, and we’ve had fun coming up with others. I think ‘The Uncanny Sensuality of Roasted Artichokes’ was a favourite.

All of this is to say that last week, a pile of things occurred to change my summer entirely, so I went from plans to spend all of June modelling in Bruges and very possibly all of July and half of August teaching in Scotland, to not doing either of those things. Instead, I’m going to Vienna, New York, Lithuania, France, and Bulgaria, for various durations and for various reasons. I also anticipate that those too are subject to some amount of change, because you never know how something will pan out.

In the past week, major potential plans relating to writing projects went up in smoke in a seriously distressing way, and all of these changes actually had nothing to do with me, or any of the large effort I’d put into the plans, but were variously due to disorganisation, poor communication, bad decisions, lack of funds, and people not paying attention. One is never pleased to be reminded of one’s insignificance, but as a writer, perhaps I should consider it good for me in the long run.

The bright side of this is that based on my previous plans, I’d had no idea when I’d collect Vespa from Les Adrets in the South of France, where I spent the winter house-sitting, and now I’m going to go down in the peak of the season when the weather should be as far from the chill November (when I travelled down) as possible, and I shall ride back through Provencal fields of lavender with no fixed necessity as to when I need to come back.

Timing is good, too, for my trip to Vienna in the first week of May, to visit my friend Megan who has been writing about her valiant experiences as an au pair at Jane Eyre, Fraulein Maria, and Me, and who kindly invited me to stay. The circumstances of this have worked out very well (granted they go to plan!) because as much as I wanted to go to Vienna, there was no way I was going to stay with the family for whom Megan is au pair (read her blog and you shall understand why). However, fate had it that Megan made friends with an elderly French nun who happens to live around the corner, who is going to France for the month of May, and who invited Megan to invite friends to stay if she wished. Yes, please! This means I’ll get to see Megan for a more substantial visit (she stayed for one night a few weeks ago when travelling to London and Scotland for her aunt & uncle’s wedding).

I’ll also get to visit the Josephinum, the second most significant place to go (after Florence) to see anatomical wax models made by the workshop of La Specola, arranged by Felice Fontana and crafted by Clemente Susini. All of this is to do with my poetry play, Venus Heart, which I’ll be editing in Vienna.

So that’s Vienna and France.

New York, Lithuania, and Bulgaria, are family-related trips, all of which I hope to treat as retreats to read, and to focus on poetry. In the cinders of last week, I went back to that which I am best at – poetry – and realised that I have enough strong, edited, post-Darwin’s Microscope poems (quite a few which have come out in various anthologies and publications) to make a manuscript. So I’m considering, arranging, and editing.

I beat myself up regularly about ‘being productive,’ but what is productivity? Is it words written, things read, things published? The recent audio collaborations I’ve done have got me thinking differently about some of my projects, and while I’m still paper-book-orientated, I’m beginning to see the merit in things to download, things to listen to, things to hear. I’m back to not knowing what will happen with my zillion-and-one projects, but I hope to adapt so that eventually these stories will have an audience – because isn’t that the point of telling stories?

Finally, I’ve had brilliant support through this. Dani has learned that the first appropriate reaction is to say, ‘those bastards,’ no matter what the circumstance. Not all of my friends knew the details or even that anything was wrong, but have been brilliant, inspiring, helpful, and supportive nonetheless – and those that did know were even more so.

Brain Science, Cholera, Gin (a few of my favourite things?)

I recently reviewed Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century by Anne Stiles for the British Society for Literature and Science. If you’re interested in the Gothic, vampires, murder-mysteries, Jekyll & Hyde, psychology, and nineteenth-century theories of the mind, I’d recommend it. In fact, it fits quite well with the exhibit I just saw at the Wellcome: Brains: The Mind as Matter.

Me, Richard, & Rebecca listening to 'Bedbugs' along with the Henry's crowd.
Photo courtesy of Rob Falconer.

Last night, the Wellcome ‘Henry’s Club’ held its first after-hours Member’s event, a launch of Rebecca Tremain’s ‘The Gilded Vectors of Disease‘ Episode 3: Bedbugs. It was great fun to be part of recording, and to write and perform a new poem, ‘A Bedbug in Manhattan,’ for the episode. About ten club members joined me, Rebecca, programme producer Rob Falconer, and Dr Richard Barnett (guest interviewer for Episode 3 & Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellow) for wine & snacks, and to listen to a preview of Bedbugs, which is on the air next Wednesday at 7:30 pm on Resonance FM. There were quite a few ‘ewws’ ‘ahhs’ and chuckles, and ‘A Bedbug in Manhattan’ garnered a round of applause!

The main theme of my week, however, has been Sick City. This project began as Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures, a gorgeous box-set of books and maps written by Richard Barnett, (mentioned above,) & published in 2008 by Strange Attractor Press, in association with the Wellcome Collection. It takes the reader on historical, self-guided walks around London, focusing on such stories as Dr John Snow’s solution to the Cholera epidemic in Soho, the lost Fleet River, and the rise and demise of gin in English culture. In his role as Engagement Fellow, Richard has begun to turn these ‘Sick City’ stories into digital media, starting with a series of cleverly-designed apps for smartphones which will allow listeners to go on his guided walks anytime they like.

Richard is working with former BBC radio producer Joanna Rahim to develop this series, and they began with the wonderfully-titled ‘Blood, Guts, Brains and Babies’, of which there is an enthusiastic review here. (6th paragraph down) and a wonderful interview here. ‘Blood Guts, Brains and Babies’ is available here to download free.

'Henry's' Club members listening to 'Bedbugs' pre-airing (pre-listening?)
Photo courtesy of Rob Falconer.

Working with Richard on The Gilded Vectors episode prompted him to invite me to be an extra voice on the apps, and we’ve spent the past few days working with Joanna on three walks: John Snow & Cholera, the London Gin Craze, and the Lost River Fleet. My role is to read excerpts from literature and poetry which flesh out the stories and help bring in colourful, contemporary primary resources.

I’m being treated to the best possible introduction to radio & audio recording, working first with Rob, Rebecca, and Richard, and now with Richard and Joanna. Everyone is delightful and they have a vast amount of professional experience amongst them. (It’s surreal to be repeatedly told I have a wonderful voice, and that I’m in the right country to have an ‘exotic American accent’ – oh Rhode Island, who knew?!)

Most of all, this is fun, and a brilliant learning experience. The pace is snappy and vibrant, a breath of fresh air compared to the geologic worlds of fiction and poetry publishing. Results are quick; sometimes immediate. We’re doing projects that have trackable results & readerships (as its all digital – in fact, Rob said a number of readers came to the ‘Gilded Vectors’ programme from having read it on this blog, so thank you, readers!).

The Sick City apps will be available soon, for free, and you know I’ll tell you when they’re online…

The British Museum, Gilded Vectors, and a Voice

KS by DI at the BM

Last Thursday, 29 March, I met the charming Daniele Iozzia, an Italian painter who divides his time between the south of Italy and the north of London, to take photos at the British Museum. Daniele contacted me as he was in need of a ‘delicate and classical beauty’ for a new commission, and he usually works from photographs due to his frequent travels. I didn’t mention that I’d been violently ill with a stomach virus the Monday leading up to our meeting, so I was certainly feeling delicate, if not classical or beautiful. Fortunately, by Thursday I was able to make it into town.

One thing I hadn’t thought of was the tourists. Doing a photo shoot, however unostentatious, in the British Museum means that a whole lot of people are going to start taking your picture. I had to swallow a few giggles. I did, however, learn a lot about curves, how to hold one’s hands and fingers, and how lighting works wonders.

Now for something completely different: the Gilded Vectors of Disease is on the air! I just listened to ‘Louse’ over lunch – perhaps for those of you with squeamish dispositions, don’t listen whilst eating. Fabulous and fascinating, the Louse episode will make you itch. Go to this link at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for links, which will be available for the week following the launch of each episode, and check out The Mustard Club for details about the series. I’m in episode 3: bedbug.

The Gilded Vectors experience is my first foray into radio, and an unexpected, delightful development is that apparently I have a voice people want to make use of. On Wednesday I was invited (commissioned?) to do some recordings next week for a podcast series, more information on which anon. I also sang with a couple of people at my latest ukulele lesson and wasn’t thrown out, so I suppose my voice may have potential after all…