2015: The Things That Got The Jackdaw Flying

I am a guy who regularly concedes that he can become a little obsessive about his interests and pursuits. I have tried to reign things in a little, and be a bit more discerning about the things that excited me during 2015. There has been a lot, but here are some of my eclectic highs:

Books

Go Set A Watchman.

Yes, I was aware that it was not a bonafide sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. And neither did I think it was a ‘new’ novel, either. But this did nothing to temper my excitement about the publication of this book. For big fans of TKAM like myself, it was, at long last, something else to read by Harper Lee. Come on!  Treat it as a stand alone novel and leave Atticus up there on his pedestal.

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The Ingrid Pitt Bedside Companion For Vampire Lovers

Like Watchman, this was not a new book. But nor was it published in 2015, either. A definite highlight of the year was the unexpected discovery that I made, in a second hand book store, of a signed copy of this book. How thrilling to get my hands on a book signed by the Hammer Queen herself, offering ‘lots of fun & millions of fierce little bites-always !!’ Though I may have to change my name to Charlie.

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The Northlore Series Volume One:Folklore. 

Okay, I know I’m not exactly non-partisan about the following two books, but how could a banner year for me not be a highlight? In addition to a poem of mine being included in this anthology, called Mara, My Love, my first published fiction featured in the form of a short story, entitled And The Snow Came Down. Volume Two is to follow.

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Heading North. 

The next stage in my publishing journey was my very own poetry collection, published in December by Nordland Publishing. I was, and am, very proud to be featured as one of the Songs Of The North poets. After getting my hands on my very first solo collection, my appetite has been whetted!

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Travel

In September I fulfilled a long held ambition to visit Sweden, spending four great nights in the capital, Stockholm. Next in my sights is Malmö, including a journey over the Öresund Bridge to Denmark to meet up with an old school friend. I may have to wait until 2017, though. Christmas cleared me out.

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Small Screen

The Bridge. 

Speaking of the Öresund Bridge, I was much excited by the return to our screens of the joint Swedish-Danish crime series, Broen. I love this programme, one of the best things I have seen on television for a long time, and had been counting down the days until Season Three debuted in the UK. In the plethora of crime dramas that seem to dominate our television sets at the moment, I don’t think there is any character more  interesting and intriguing than that of Swedish police officer Saga Norén, played by Sofia Helin. This season lived up to the standards set by the previous two, and for the first time we saw a vulnerability in Saga. In no time at all I found myself drawn in again, both fearful and rooting for Saga. Now in my greed I want a Season Four!

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Doctor Who. 

As an unashamed Whovian, I have been a little disappointed with some of the writing for Capaldi’s Doctor, (even though I do like his portrayal of the Time Lord), but the 2015 Christmas special was a highlight. Whereas some episodes have been too convoluted in a seeming attempt to be ‘clever’, this was a straight, enjoyably old fashioned adventure romp. River Song is a delight, and that moment (pictured) when she recognises the Doctor (who she had only known during Matt Smith’s tenure) for who he really was, was profoundly moving. But then I’m just a sentimental softie at heart.

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Big Screen

Star Wars The Force Awakens. 

The nerd in me was counting down, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t be disappointed. I wasn’t. The moment when Han Solo and Chewbacca unexpectedly emerged onto the screen again for the first time, well, yes, the sentimental softie escaped again. I loved the film, but something occurred in it that I am biting my tongue not to say. Somehow I have managed to avoid venting my spleen as I’m mindful of spoilers for those who have not caught the film yet. BUT IT RUINED MY WHOLE DAMN CHRISTMAS! My wife, who hasn’t seen the film and cares not a jot about spoilers, told me several times to get over it as it was ruining her Christmas too. You will have to see it to discover what upset me so, or call back to Jackdaw in a month or so. There has been a great disturbance in the force.

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Music

The Beatles. 

Many times over the last eighteen months or so (since I first started using it) I have complained about my favourite group of all time not being available on Spotify. I discovered some great new groups on there, but I was unable to fall back on my default musical love. Then suddenly Beatles fans everywhere were granted an extra Christmas present by the news that the Fab Four were now available for streaming. Oh how I have already plagued my poor, beleaguered wife and children! Doing the pots, doing anything-every single Beatles album was accessible. And now I’m thinking of playlists 🙂 Here’s to 2016. You’ve got a lot to live up to.

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Ghosts Out Of Season

I’m not exactly sure why, but Christmas, particularly Christmas Eve, seems to be equated with ghost stories, even more so than Halloween. Perhaps it’s down to that Dickens fella.

If ever I turn to such fayre, I prefer the older, Gothic-type tales, my favourite, so far, being The Phantom Coach, by Amelia B. Edwards, set on a wild, wintry, northern moor.

Recently, on a coach journey of my own, albeit a motorised version, I finished the book that I was reading, and searched my Kindle for something else to read. I found three books that I had uploaded last year, and hadn’t gotten around to reading yet, by Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu was a great 19th Century Gothic writer, and really should be as well known as the likes of Poe and M R James, who himself was a champion of this author, and I decided to delve once more into his world.

I began In A Glass Darkly, a collection of five stories of varying length (in effect, a mix of short stories and novellas). They are all linked by being case studies of a certain Dr Martin Hesselius, who investigates medical cases with a twist of the supernatural about them. A stormy, winter evening would have been a more preferable time to immerse myself in these, rather than a sun-kissed August afternoon, but still, needs must.

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My favourite stories in this are Green Tea, a tale of a clergyman who is haunted by a freaky, red-eyed black monkey, whose plaguing of the poor man becomes progressively more disturbing, and also the wonderful Carmilla, the vampire story that was written before, and was an influence on, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This has long been a favourite of mine.

The role of Carmilla was played by Ingrid Pitt in the film adaptation The Vampire Lovers. Just thought I’d throw a little Hammer connection in there for you!

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Immediately on finishing this collection, I ordered an anthology of shorter ghost stories by Le Fanu, selected by James himself, for the princely sum of one pence!! One pence-I don’t even mind if I hate it at that price. Maybe I will wait until late December to read it. That will please the wife when she starts planning for Christmas.

One of the other three stories in this collection is called The Room In The Dragon Volant. One of the characters in it made this speech:

“Just so! You English, wherever you are, always look out for your English boors, your beer and ‘bifstek’; and when you come here, instead of trying to learn something of the people you visit, and pretend to study, you are guzzling, and swearing, and smoking with one another, and no wiser or more polished at the end of your travels than if you had been all the time carousing in a booth at Greenwich.”

Over a hundred years later, and it seems that we English haven’t changed that much.

Hammer Chooseday #5:Countess Dracula

Countess Dracula (1971) 4/5

Ingrid Pitt, the unanimously crowned ‘Queen Of Horror,’ appears in her most celebrated role. Dracula is a bit of a misnomer, though, as there is no Dracula in the film. (Just an uttered “Countess Dracula!” at the end to maybe  justify the title.) There isn’t even any vampirism.

Yes, I know what is says on this poster, but she didn't drink any blood.

Yes, I know what is says on this poster, but she didn’t drink any blood.

Pitt plays the historic figure of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was said (probably falsely) to have murdered hundreds of women to bathe in their blood. Nice.

Did you not hear me? I said BATHE in their blood!

Did you not hear me? I said BATHE in their blood!

In the film, the aged Countess accidentally discovers that the blood of a young virgin has regenerative effects. (Probably in the way that I accidentally discovered drinking vinegar as a kid made me vomit.) And so begins her quest for eternal youth. Both her and Madonna.

But every time the effect wears off, she ages greater than before. And there are only so many deaths or missing girls you can get away with before suspicions start to mount. (Not that I’m speaking from experience, you understand. Honest.)

What are you staring at? Have you never seen an eighty year old woman before?

What are you staring at? Have you never seen an eighty year old woman before?

Pitt is great as the woman who manipulates those around her to get what she wants, not least the man who has been besotted with her for the last twenty years: Captain Dobi, played brilliantly by Nigel Green of Zulu fame.

However, the Countess now has her eyes on a younger man, passing herself off as her daughter, who she has had imprisoned in a cottage deep within the forest by a mute.

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Love’s, ahem, young dream.

Bathory seems to be getting her way until, horror of horrors, her real self is revealed at the wedding ceremony.

"Wait a Goddamn minute!" shouts the groom. "I haven't signed anything yet!"

“Wait a Goddamn minute!” shouts the groom. “I haven’t signed anything yet!” He  no doubt has the honeymoon in mind.

In the end, as the enormity of her crimes are discovered, it is the noose that awaits the Countess. She really should have given Oil of Ulay a go instead.

Although not a favourite, (and surprisingly with little actual horror in it), it is a good film which, along with The Vampire Lovers, defines a Hammer favourite in Ms Pitt.

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Pitt Of Horror

I used to be a bit of a blood thirsty kid. I think I may have mentioned that before.

When I was growing up I was a huge fan of Hammer, and idolised the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Sir Christopher Lee, no less. I was gutted when I first heard of the death of Cushing. And, as a horror fan, films like The Vampire Lovers and Lust For A Vampire had everything that a teenage lad could want. If you know what I mean.

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I recently read the autobiography of Countess Dracula herself, Ingrid Pitt, the Polish born actress who was regarded as the Queen Of Horror.

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I wanted to read her book, in particular, as I knew that her story was not the usual Hollywood actress fare. And what a story it was.

The second part of the book included the usual name dropping anecdotes. How she played cards with John Wayne, rode a motorcycle with Clint Eastwood, and practiced karate with Elvis. But it is the retelling of the early part of her life that sets this book apart.

Her childhood coincided with the madness that consumed Europe in World War Two, and her early narrative tells of a last glimpse of her grandparents and (temporarily) her father, as she was led on a journey that eventually led to her being imprisoned in Stuthoff concentration camp along with her mother. A five year old girl, taken from everything familiar and suddenly surrounded by such cruelty and death, some of the memories related of this time in her life are harrowing. She remained imprisoned there, until, at the age of eight, both she and her mother escaped into the forest as they were being marched by the Nazis to face a firing squad.

They then lived in the wilderness among partisans, until the red army approached and the war came to its ignominious end.

What comes across in the book is the indomitable strength of her mother, who kept going on behalf of her child, with a strength and endurance she discovered because of her child. Together, they got through their hellish ordeal and eventually emerged on the other side.

Although her difficulties did not end there, I will leave it for you discover for yourself how she eventually became the famous actress and writer who was much celebrated by we Hammer fans. Suffice it to say that Pitt’s is a remarkable story of overcoming the odds in one of the darkest and shameful chapters in man’s history.

I read a comment about her autobiography, the original version of which is entitled Life’s A Scream, by a man who knew her. He said that she told him that she had wanted to call her book From Shit To Champagne, but was persuaded otherwise. I think that would have been a perfect analogy of her life journey. She herself said, in one interview, that acting in horror films was easy, because she had seen what real horror was.

R.I.P Ingrid Pitt 1937-2010

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