Posts Tagged ‘travels’

Mythological maidens

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Hello, friends. We were in Ottawa this past weekend and I spent several minutes staring, transfixed, at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill. I had cleverly neglected to bring a working camera with me, so this image is ripped, with apologies, from the Public Works and Government Services of Canada website.

statue of Sir John A Macdonald by Louis-Philippe Hébert

I’m interested, specifically, in the slightly-larger-than-life-sized sculpture that adorns the pedestal: the regal-looking woman seated with a spear. There’s a much clearer image of her here, if you’re willing to click through. Or you can just take my word for everything I’m going to say.

I didn’t know who she was, at first: some generic Greek-mythological nymph, I thought. There’s quite a tradition of placing decorative female figures (which I’ll call FFs, from now on) below statues of male politicians. I had read somewhere, years before, that the FFs embodied aspects of the politician’s best-known leadership qualities. Well. If that is indeed the case, Macdonald (or “John A”, as he’s familiarly known in Kingston) was primarily celebrated for an imperious gaze, carelessly worn togas, and very large breasts.

The most striking thing about this statue (the woman is more than an embellishment; she’s a statue in her own right, and much more prominent than Macdonald himself, if you’re standing at ground level) is how extremely young, firm-bodied, and nearly undressed she is. She’s bare-armed, the thin fabric of her toga leaving nothing to the imagination. And she’s wearing very minimal sandals, so that her feet are essentially bare. This is an extraordinary state of public undress for 1895, the year of the statue’s creation by Louis-Philippe Hébert, and a year when respectable women dressed like this.

I suppose that’s the point: the FF is not meant to be a respectable woman, or any kind of real human being at all. She’s a decorative element, the spirit of a person or nation or movement personified. (This one is sometimes referred to as the Personification of Canada.) But it’s another startling reminder of just how casually the female body could be used, even in 1895. It’s also part of a long artistic tradition of male sculptors and painters evading the standards of the day by using “historical” costume to undress female bodies for visual pleasure.

I’ve been wondering how viewers in late-nineteenth century Ottawa responded to the FF. Did adolescent boys flock to view her, to their parents’ consternation? Did MPs pause before it for a few moments’ distraction, during a break in the House of Commons? Or was it simply another semi-nude figure scattered across Ottawa’s terrain? I would dearly love to know.

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Viva the Victorians

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

Hello, friends! When I last posted, I had just arrived in England and was feeling both stunned (about finishing Rivals in the City) and exhausted (by finishing Rivals in the City). But this week, I’m mostly full of glee. If you’ll permit me, I’m going to defer my post on the long-drawn-out writing of Rivals and talk a bit about what I’ve been doing, instead.

I’m on holiday! In northern England! During a heat wave! It’s been gloriously sunny and warm for 3 days in a row, which is outrageous by local standards. I had fish and chips for dinner last night. The news is almost entirely about Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory. And today, we went to a museum that made me shiver with excitement: the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.

One of the reasons I love Manchester is because it’s such a Victorian city. Yes, it was founded some 2000 years ago by the Romans, and there are the ancient ruins to prove it. But its period of massive, intensive growth came during the Industrial Revolution. When you walk around the city today, most of the evidence of your eyes is solid, red-brick, Gothic-nostalgic, science-and-engineering driven proof of Manchester’s own belle époque.

Let me hastily acknowledge: much of the social and human history of that belle époque was entirely the reverse of beautiful. But feast your eyes on this!

This is just a small number of the many engines collected in one of the Museum’s several vast buildings. Entirely appropriately, the Museum is located in a former industrial district. It features an historic train station. An 1830 red-brick warehouse. An entire building devoted to airplanes and bicycles. Another dedicated to trains. Underground exhibits about gas and waterworks. And a gruesome recreation of an impoverished man dying, painfully, during the 1830 cholera epidemic. Among other things.

It also has a number of exhibits still being developed. Behind one of the fenced-off areas, I found this first-class carriage from the old Liverpool and Manchester Railway. It’s tiny and lovingly polished, and if you peer inside, you can see six very comfortable-looking plush upholstered seats per compartment:

Now, turn your attention to the next carriage: a second-class car on the same railway, from the same period.

It must have been bitterly cold for most of the year. And look at those bent metal rods, presumably for safety!

I love these hard and shallow wooden benches. They weren’t the least bit subtle about the class difference, were they? And this is an updated version. The second-class carriages didn’t have any overhead shelter, initially, and the third-class carriages remained what were called “open trucks”.

Midway through our visit, I was amused to realize that I was dragging my family around the Museum, exclaiming with delight, agonizing over which exhibits we’d have to miss (entire buildings’ worth!), and what else might be lurking around the corner. We’d originally gone for nostalgic reasons (my husband went as a child) and because we thought the children would enjoy all the vehicles.

But I’m going to have to return for me alone: I may have just finished writing my last Mary Quinn novel, but my obsession with Victorian England shows no sign of abatement.

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Apology (and short update)

Thursday, July 4th, 2013

Hello, friends. I missed my Wednesday blog date this week, and I’m very sorry. I would like to offer you a reason (not an excuse; I know I was slack): on Sunday night, I emailed my editor a fully revised manuscript for Rivals in the City. And then on Monday, we left for England.

I’m sitting here now, on a clear! sunny! Lancashire evening, feeling both exhausted and contented. I have a steaming cup of tea and a square of 90% cacao chocolate beside me. I’m catching up on email and waiting for my jet-lagged son to fall asleep. And I’m planning to write a blog post for next week about writing Rivals in the City, and why it took so darn long to finish the book.

I hope you’ll pardon my no-show this week, and join me next week. And I hope you have a splendid week yourselves. Happy belated Canada Day, Happy Independence Day, and happy summer!

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A whole world of leisure

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Hello, friends. I’m on holiday with my extended family again, this time in Whistler, B.C. It’s a glorious break from reality: brilliant sunshine, sublime mountain vistas, and every time I wish for a cup of coffee, my brother is already grinding beans. How could I possibly complain?

So this isn’t a complaint, but rather an observation: one of the stranger things about being in Whistler is being in a place built entirely around the idea of leisure and luxury. It’s a wilderness of luxury hotels, twee Disney architecture, and elaborately landscaped boulevards. The “villages” consist of expensive stores and restaurants with holiday condos atop them. And it’s full of people who’ve travelled here purely to have a good time. It’s oppressively, deliciously, entirely synthetic. And you know what it makes me think of?

Bath. As in the city of Bath, in Somerset, England. It became a fashionable holiday place during the eighteenth century, and Jane Austen is famous for disliking it. Even today, it’s a popular spot – especially for Austenphiles like me, who are torn between admiring the Georgian architecture and trying to imagine how such a setting might have dampened Austen’s ability to write.

I’m not sure I have a neat and tidy point to make this week, except possibly that if Whistler’s buildings survive another two hundred years (good luck – they’re made of wood and stucco!), it’s fun to imagine reverent visitors of the future trekking through here, checking out the haunts of famous people in history, and trying to imagine the chaotic, fleshy, posing multitudes who are making it so very popular this summer.

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My favourite things

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Hello friends! This week, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite things about the English countryside:

1. Randomly occurring sheep.

2. Winding lanes.

3. Dry-stone walls. One day, I'm going to learn how to build them. Seriously.

4. The intense green-ness of it all. William Blake was precise when he wrote about "this green and pleasant land".

What are your favourite things about the countryside?

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The Omnibus Edition

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Hello, friends. We’re currently visiting family in Lancashire, England, and I have been lazy with the camera. That is, I’ve taken lots of photos of cousins and aunties and old friends, but not much that people outside the family would want to see. However, the other day we found ourselves at the Museum of Transport in Manchester.

I was expecting a bus or two, maybe a replica stagecoach, and some dioramas. Well. Was I ever mistaken. The museum is a former bus garage and it contains about seventy-five buses. Yes, they are very well parked, but still! Massive! The whole place reeks of diesel, there’s an open-topped fire engine that remained in service well into the 1960s, and most of the buses appear to be still running, since museum staff and volunteers take them out on a regular basis for shows and events.

And then I saw this:

It’s an omnibus from the 1890s. The plaque said it was drawn by 2 horses, or 3 up hills. (I love that. Can you picture them pulling over and harnessing a third horse before each hill?) Inside, it has 2 long bench seats running from front to back, and that precarious-looking staircase on the right leads to several rows of forward-facing seats on the open top. The ride must have been bumpy, as those are wooden wheels. And I’m fascinated by the advert for F. Robinson’s Light Bitter Ale. I tend to think of billboards as twentieth-century inventions, but this is a fantastic reminder that the nineteenth century was also a golden age of advertising.

What have you been up to, this week?

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Cheesy Compendium of Travel Truisms

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Hello, friends. Are you natural travellers, homebodies, or somewhere in between? While I love exploring new places and the perspective I gain just by leaving home, I also tend to resent being dislodged from my routine until the big journey actually happens. So today, while I’m visiting far-flung family, I have for you my five best travel tips. Some are truisms (“self-evident truths) in the strictest sense of the word, but they’re also so easy to lose sight of in the mayhem of prolonged travel. Let me know what you think, and what you’d add to the list.

1. Focus on the destination, not the odyssey. I tend to dread the duration, discomfort, and tedium of actually getting where I want to be. Keeping my thoughts on the positive really helps me avoid exaggerating the trip into a monster of inconvenience.

2. Conversely, remain curious and alert about the journey. We took a detour on Monday that could have been tricky – 3 hours of public transit in Toronto, on a public holiday – but made me see anew a city I know well, and triggered an interesting conversation about urban space.

3. Pack light. “Light”, of course, is a relative term – we have 2 little kids to keep clean, fed, rested, and diverted. But we try never to have more stuff than we can cart around while chasing a giddy toddler.

4. Tip well. We’re the ones lucky enough to have time off work and money to travel.

5. Clear enough mental space to see what’s passing before your eyes. I always remember the surprises, the unguarded moments, the happenstance, more than any planned activity.

What are your best travel tips?

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Sunshine at last

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

After 2 weeks of unremitting rain up north, we spent a few days visiting family in Newquay, Cornwall. It was time for sunshine!

Fistral Beach, Newquay. I love the way England just falls into the sea.

The harbour at Newquay. Can't you just smell the lobster traps in this photo?

Padstow harbour. When the tide's in, those fishing boats are at work.

This was my first time in Cornwall. I know there’s often tension between locals and tourists (“emmets”, in Cornish) but I’m not sure I can stay away. If I promise to support the local economy, not to be obnoxious, and to keep my mouth shut about Rick Stein, may I come back? Please?

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Towers and walls

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

So, The Body at the Tower is officially published – hurray! You may have noticed the lack of an official launch party: that’s because I’m saving it for September. I’m plotting all manner of good things, including an online launch with prizes. Please stay tuned for dates and details!

I’m going to continue gloating about my recent English travels. These daytrips are hardly breaking news (I’m in Tofino, British Columbia at the moment) but I really enjoyed my time in the green and pleasant land. While I was there, I climbed a Victorian vanity tower: a monument to Lancashire boy and C19 Prime Minister Robert Peel. It looms over the landscape from the top of Holcombe Hill, like so.

Peel Tower, Holcombe Hill

Have I mentioned that I adore both heights and Victorian follies? This is the view from the top of the tower, which is open on a hit-and-miss basis on summer weekends.

Lancashire hills

Then my family and I went to Chester to walk on the Roman walls. Yes, it’s every bit as lovely as the photo suggests – even on a cloudy day.

Chester is also a big shopping city; not really my thing, but check out those Tudor-timbered buildings!

Chester, within the city walls

Also, there’s a cafe called the Crypt which is – you guessed it – a genuine crypt. It’s also now part of a department store, but please don’t let that stop you. At least, I didn’t.

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London at last

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

I know – it doesn’t look that special, does it? But this is the British Library, aka my spiritual home in London. I spent 6 joyous months there researching my PhD thesis and even now, when I walk through the doors, I smile grin like a lunatic. That may sound a bit deranged, but come on – where else might you pass an antique printing press on your way to the loo? So this was my first stop when I got off the train at Euston. I didn’t have anything to look up this time, but went in anyway to pay my respects. (And if you’re looking for a clever gift for a bookish person, you could do a lot worse than adopting one of their books.)

I met my editor, Mara Bergman of Walker Books, for lunch. Her office is on the South Bank in a converted Victorian factory.

The sign says, "Horatio Myer & Co Ltd, bedstead manufacturers"

We had a lovely lunch with Katie, a cover designer, and Emily, Mara’s editorial assistant. Mara is a wonderful editor and she’s also an award-winning picture-book author! She very generously gave me her latest book, Oliver Who Travelled Far and Wide, and it’s already become my son’s new favourite book.

Mara, holding some random title, with Katie & Emily

After lunch I met Patrick Insole, who designed the gorgeous covers for Spy and Body. I really, really, really love Patrick’s work but that didn’t stop me from coercing him into taking a picture. I’m told he detests photos. Soz, P.

After meeting several other Walkerites, all of whom were absolutely lovely and passionate about books (hello Jane and Emma and Sean!), I wandered across to the Albert Embankment, where the weather finally matched my mood.

That sky looks fake, I know, but I used no filters and haven't tweaked anything on this image.

The following day I met my agent, Rowan Lawton, for breakfast. I adore talking with Rowan – she never fails to be inspiring and energizing. We talked about the next book, and the next, and then about some wacky ideas I was kicking around. It was brilliant.

I spent the rest of my time wandering around Bloomsbury, researching the setting for my next novel. If there’s a happier job in the world, I have yet to hear of it.

And now, book news: the blog tour for The Agency 2: The Body at the Tower starts on August 2 at the Story Siren! My theme this time is Notorious Victorians – oh, yes.

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