Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Dude is Ten

How on earth did this happen, where did all that time go?
Ten years ago today, Alison went into hospital for a planned C-section (they were worried about pre-eclampsia, she's diabetic and Dude was huge) and I was terrified.  We went into theatre together, her attended by the nursing staff, me wearing scrubs and a hat and trying not to get in the way and I stood by her head, holding her hand as the doctors worked their magic.

Dude appeared at 3.15pm, all 10lbs 5.5ozs of him and our lives changed in that instant.  He had a very low blood sugar reading so was transfered to the Special Care Unit, whilst Alison was sent back up to the maternity ward to recuperate.  I got to give him his first feed and stayed with him for most of the afternoon and early evening, taking plenty of digital pictures and reporting his progress back to Mummy, who was laid up in bed.

He stayed in the SCU for a few days - his room-mate was a three-month old called Angel, who fitted into the palm of my hand, whilst Dude was a little sumo who filled his incubator - before we were allowed to take him home.

I was ready to be a Dad (ha, as ready as anyone ever can be), I was looking forward to that new role and it has been a never-ending learning experience since then, that has made me laugh and cry but never been less than wonderful.  Throughout Alison's pregnancy we called him nugget (because that's what I thought he looked like on the scan pictures) but that name didn't stick once he was in the world.  I can't remember when I started to call him Dude but it stuck and now, when I call him Matthew, he complains (unless he's in trouble, when we both understand why I use his given name...)

He's grown up to be a wonderful kid, who's kind and attentive and exasperating, occasionally stroppy, always funny and quite opinionated, who makes me laugh and makes me think and asks me questions because I'm Dad and know everything, who loves 80s music and going on adventures and snuggling in the chair with me to watch TV.

Ten years.  Quite possibly the best ten years of my life.

Happy birthday Dude, love you oodles...
2007
2010
Rude Dude - 2011
Photo-bombing Alison - 2013
2014
May, 2015

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Horrorstör, by Grady Hendrix (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book that I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.


Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find broken Kjerring bookshelves, shattered Glans water goblets, and smashed Liripip wardrobes. Sales are down, security cameras reveal nothing, and store managers are panicking.

To unravel the mystery, three employees volunteer to work a nine-hour dusk-till-dawn shift. In the dead of the night, they’ll patrol the empty showroom floor, investigate strange sights and sounds, and encounter horrors that defy the imagination.

It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming toward the massive beige box at the far end.  And so opens “Horrorstör”, setting the scene and tone for the rest of this clever little novel.  Focussing on the events of one particular store - the Cuyahoga, Cleveland branch - of the “IKEA rip-off” Orsk chain (complete with its own philosophy, mission statements and banal phrasings), over the course of a day and night, this centres around Amy, a college drop-out who is fed up with the downward spiral her life has taken and desperate for something else.  With all of the problems the store is having, a consultancy team is due from Head Office the next day so Amy’s manager (and bête noire) Basil recruits her, the always-nice-but-has-no-family-or-friends Ruth Anne and himself to spend the night on the premises and make sure nothing happens between closing and opening.  When Amy’s colleagues Trinity and Matt break in, to shoot a showreel of their show “Ghost Bomb” they want to sell to Bravo (“would everyone stop talking about A&E?”) and a strange homeless man called Carl wanders in, things take a turn for the worse.  It appears, as Trinity is eager to tell them, that the store was built over the remains of a prison from the nineteenth century whose warden, Josiah Worth, had odd ideas on how to get his inmates to repent.

Having said all that, this isn’t a grim novel and the first half is a smart satire on both the culture of a big corporation that believes its own hype (I wonder if IKEA had words, at some point) and also the way that we, the consumer, are pushed and prodded and psychologically conditioned on what to buy.  This strand of humour runs through the whole book and there were a couple of pieces that made me laugh out loud.

The characterisation is brisk and efficient, telling us just enough about each person to make us understand their actions and we quickly come to care about them, from the desperately lonely Ruth Anne, the beaten-down Amy and the strictly efficient Basil .  Almost a character in itself is the building, a proper haunted house that is part bland superstore, part psycho-fairground-funhouse and part grim Panopticon (the beehive of the graffiti Amy finds at the start of the story).  I’d never really thought about it but Hendrix does a great job of making the huge warehouse frightening, its claustrophobia coming from its size in the dark - how do you find your way? - plus the fact that it’s in the middle of nowhere (the police despatcher Amy calls when they discover Carl can’t find it).  In fact, Hendrix works with the tropes of the ghost story well, creating some moments that are genuinely creepy as he ramps up the tension.  The horror, too, comes thick and fast, dealt with in a brutally blunt way so that you read a quick line - a character loses a nail - and it’s not until you’re two or three lines on that the full revulsion hits you.

Helping everything along is the design (by Andie Reid) and illustrations (by Michael Rogalski), which is very good indeed - the book looks just like a catalogue from a Swedish home furnishing giant, complete with a store map, product details and a home delivery order form.  Each chapter is headed by a particular products design and description (some ruder sounding than others, my favourite was the Arsle chair) and these get grimmer as the story progresses, as if David Cronenberg was thinking of opening up his own furniture shop.

This is a well written, runs at a cracking pace and is witty, self-assured and clever without being obnoxious.  It made me laugh, it creeped me out and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Very highly recommended. 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Two Books (a Rebel and some Machine Gunners)...

Back in mid April (I blogged about it here, go and have a read, it was a fun day), a little group I'm part of - The Crusty Exterior - met up in London, to catch up, have a laugh and trawl the bookshops of London.  On that trip, I picked up two books that jumped to the top of my (never actually going to be finished, to be honest) TBR pile.  These are those two books.

 Rebel Without A Crew, by Robert Rodriguez

In 1991, Robert Rodriguez was just another film fanatic who wanted to make his own feature-length movie.  Unlike the bulk of people in the same situation, he actually did something about it - volunteering himself for medical trials to raise the funds, being his own crew, sorting out his cast and location and actually making a film.  Then his $7,000 movie, intended as a test-run to be sold to Spanish-language direct-to-video, was picked up by Columbia Pictures and Rodriguez became “a Hollywood Player”.

I remember reading about him in Premiere at the time (though it was long after this that I got a chance to see the film - in fact, I think I saw “Desperado” first) and being impressed both with his attitude and his story.  When I was in London recently, on the Crusty Exterior get-together, I found the book in Skoobs and picked it up and I’m glad I did.  A diary, from 8th March 1991 (the start of the project) to 26th February 1993 (as the film opens wide), this follows the “El Mariachi” saga all the way through - we experience the highs, lows and great fun of shooting, the frenzy from the studios and what happened next.

Rodriguez is a good guide to the whole thing, as amazed as anyone - though full of self-belief - and not quite able to believe his luck (but constantly thinking about how he can help his large family with the funds he suddenly has access too).  It helps that he has a great approach and knows his stuff (and what he doesn’t, he’s more than willing to learn) and has clearly put the work in (his previous short films had won various awards at film festivals).  The Hollywood experience is dazzling - he’s unsure about his “little” movie being on the big screen (“It’s not that I fear failure.  I just fear failure in front of other people.”) - and absurd at times, though the roots of his on-going friendship with Quentin Tarantino are clearly shown, as both film-makers approach each other with mutual respect.  The book also includes “The Ten Minute Film School” (a sort-of ‘call to arms’ that could apply to someone working in any of the creatives fields, that’s really quite galvanising) and the full screenplay to “El Mariachi”, with some amusing annotations.

Funny, well told (though a bit of judicious copy editing wouldn’t have gone amiss) and thoroughly enthralling, this is a great read for anyone creative who’s ever had a dream.  Highly recommended.

* * * * *

The Machine Gunners, by Robert Westall

“Chas McGill had the second best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth and he desperately wanted it to be the best”

Chas is fourteen, living with his Mum and Dad in the Tyneside town of Garmouth.  Whilst the war is sometimes a schoolboys dream of fun - getting souvenirs, missing school, periods of excitement - it is also quite terrifying, especially the air raids that mean he and his family have to spend the night in the Anderson shelter.  When he discovers a crashed plane, complete with machine gun, he decides to take it as a prize and enlists his friends Cem and Clogger to help him.  Later, with Audrey and Nicky and Carrot-Juice now part of the gang, they decide to use the heavy gun to help defend their town, first from a German pilot (Rudi, who they later befriend) and later from a supposed invasion.

This is based on Westall’s memories of the time period and it clearly shows, a well-told story that is immediate and real and often quite brutal.  From the body of the gunner, his eye missing, in the downed plane to the realisation that a schoolfriends house has been totally wiped out by a bomb, from the casual way people deal with the realities of war to the camaraderie that it engenders, this doesn’t pull any punches but works all the better for it.  Even with his parents, whilst  Chas always thiought of his father meaning safety - ‘large, solid, bristly-faced, smelling of tobacco’ - he comes to realise that grown-ups can’t keep kids safe and that his dad is just a ‘weary, helpless, middle-aged man’, a sequence that is both beautiful and heartbreaking (and echoed by Nicky who, having already lost his sea captain Dad to the war, then loses his Mum when their house is blown up).  When Rudi is discovered, the mutual animosity between them - created by their perceptions of each other, rather than reality - is well played, as is the thawing as they come to appreciate each other.  The air raids are vividly described, the characters all ring true (Westall dedicates the book to his ‘mother and father, who were the mother and father of the book’), with the grown-ups (teachers, ‘our John’ with his cry of “Where you going now?”, policemen, parents) given  as much space as the children.  Surprisingly dark at times, funny at others and with an abrupt ending that works perfectly, I really enjoyed this and would highly recommend it.


I picked this up at the Southbank Book Market, having vague memories of the BBC serial from the 80s (the cover art - which Westall really didn't like - came from that) but hadn't read it before.

Robert Westall, born on October 7th 1929 was a British author, teacher and journalist best known for children's fiction, though he also wrote non-fiction and for adults.  "The Machine Gunners" was his first published book and won the 1975 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, as the year's "outstanding children's book by a British subject".  He died on April 15th 1993 of respiratory failure as a result of pneumonia.  A website about him is maintained here and he wrote an interesting afterword on the novel, which can be found here.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Close Encounters under the stars

Growing up through the 70s and into the 80s, I absorbed a lot of American culture through TV, books and films.  Some of it left me cold (what the hell is a Twinkie and why would you eat something like that?), some of it made me gape (American teenagers had phones in their rooms?) and some of it made me wish we had the same thing in England (local TV stations, horror hosts and drive-ins).
Me & David, waiting for the sun to go down...
The drive-in.  Just the phrase sounded impossibly cool to me - you drive to the cinema, stay in your car and watch the movie! - and the whole thing got better when I realised they often showed the kind of trash film I certainly didn’t get to see at my local flicks.

But here in Britain (I imagine the weather played a huge part in the decision), drive-in’s just didn’t exist.  There were occasional outdoor shows (at Somerset House in London, for instance) but none that I ever got to and then, last year, I discovered a company called Luna Flix.  They were putting on a few outdoor films at Stanwick Lakes, one of which was to be “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” (a film I love) and had it not been for my heart attack at the time, I’d have gone.

Well, Luna Flix are running another programme this summer, up until early September and when my friend David & I went through the list, we realised we’d like to go and see most of the films - especially the first, “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” which, we both realised, we hadn’t seen for at least ten years and couldn’t remember big chunks of it.
David sets up camp
I hadn't eaten Space Raiders in years.  They were very nice...
Launch night was Friday 1st May.  David got to the park first and set up camp at the ‘outdoor theatre’, a terraced area of grass next to the lake across from the visitors centre.  As I walked around, I could hear a steady stream of space-related music, showed my ticket and in I went.  It was great - a big inflatable screen (that didn’t wobble), great sound-system, a hot drink tent and plenty of friendly fellow film-lovers.  Although we had to wait until it was dark, the time went quickly and a charming alien (we suspected the lady from the ticket office dressed up…) came amongst us, giving out packets of Space Raiders.  After a brief introduction, the film show (digitally projected Blu-Ray) opened with Daffy Duck in the classic “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century” and then we moved onto the main feature.

With the night fully dark and the geese flying on the lake, the film began and we were all immediately wrapped up in it.  For me, it held up really well (though some of the effects shots suffered in HD), I loved the atmosphere and I loved looking up from Doug Trumbull’s starfield on the screen to the stars above us.  All in all, it was a fantastic experience.


By the time the film ended (around 11.15pm) it was cold (losing weight and taking blood thinning tablets isn’t a good combination for keeping warm) but we headed back to the car, chatting away and both of us agreed it was a great evening.  There are plenty of upcoming films in the programme we want to see - some just the two of us, some with our families - and if this is what the outdoor cinema experience is like, I want more of it!

And I am really, really looking forward to watching “An American Werewolf In London” at the end of July.  Can you imagine it…?

If you’re local, check out the schedule here and pop along, it’s great fun.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Junction (a short film)

I've written about my love for short films on this blog before and so I'm pleased to say that my friends  Dave Jeffery and James Underhill Hart, at Venomous Little Man Productions, have now released their latest short "The Junction" via Vimeo.

I was lucky enough to watch it late last year, one edit back from this one and really enjoyed it - it has a good pace, the location was terrific and the direction was smooth and assured.  Anyway, enough of me waffling, watch the film yourself now...

 
The Junction from VLM Productions on Vimeo.

I've known Dave for a long time and we shared space in Peter Mark May's "Alt-Zombie" anthology, for which I also contributed the cover art.  When Dave decided to make a film of his own short, "Ascension", with James, I was really keen to see it and it's a thoroughly enjoyable piece of short cinema.  They also produced the excellent (and very short) "Six Feet Under", which I blogged about here.

At last years FantasyCon, "Ascension" was screened as part of the Short Film Showcase and I got to watch it with them, which was very enjoyable.  I blogged my review of the film, which you can read here and I also interviewed Dave and James back in 2013 and you can read that blog post here.

Watch "The Junction", I think you'll like it.  I know I did.

Good luck, you venomous little men, for all of your upcoming projects!

Monday, 20 April 2015

Make-up Effects in the movies

As regular readers of my blog will know (and if you don’t, this thread might interest you), I have a keen interest in the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts that go into the making of a film, everything from matte paintings to miniature work and all points between.  Following on from my post about Rick Baker (which you can read here), I decided to have a look at more special effects make-up that helped spark my interest in the art as I was growing up.

In 1974, Twentieth Century Fox decided to move away from the films and shifted the Planet Of The Apes saga to a weekly TV show.  Apparently it hit the UK screens in October of that year so I would have watched it in either 74 or 75.  I was six and loved it, embracing the whole she-bang - for years, I had a plastic ape mask that my parents picked up somewhere, which for a long time was one of my most favourite things ever and I was also an avid collector of the bubble-gum cards.  That Christmas, I was bought the Brown Watson annual (which I still have) and read it eagerly.  In addition to the usual 'kids annual' fare of comic strips, prose stories and biographies, there was a section at the back called ‘How To Make A Monkey Out Of Roddy McDowall’.  Hold on a minute - Roddy McDowall was a man?  Well, that was a surprise.  So the apes, chimps and orangutans in the TV show weren’t really apes, chimps and orangutans - they were people, made up to look like them!  My six-year-old mind was blown. 

John Chambers & Roddy McDowall pose
for a publicity shot
John Chambers (September 12, 1922 – August 25, 2001) was born in Chicago, Illinois and trained as a commercial artist, starting his career designing jewellery and carpets.  Following service in World War II as a medical technician, he worked at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Hines, Illinois, repairing faces and making prosthetic limbs for wounded veterans, in addition to training under Ben Nye, who was then head of make-up at 20th Century Fox.  Starting out as a special make-up effects artist, he created Spock’s ears for the original “Star Trek” TV series (in 1966) and worked on “The Munsters”, “The Outer Limits” and “Mission: Impossible” before winning an Oscar in 1968 for his work on “Planet Of The Apes”.  He worked extensively in films (“Slaughterhouse Five”, “Superbeast”, “Sssssss”, “The Island Of Dr Moreau”, “Halloween 2” and (uncredited) “Blade Runner”) and retired from them in 1982, though he continued to assist and mentor new artists.  In addition, Chambers was awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Medal of Merit for his involvement in the ‘Canadian Caper’, wherein six American hostages escaped during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.  The film “Argo” (2012) covers this and Chambers was played by John Goodman.

This image shows the process in detail.















Roddy McDowell (who played Cornelius in the original "Planet Of The Apes", as well as Galen in the TV series) was famed for his home movies.  This one shows him being made up (by Don Cash) for the film and also includes some footage of the production on location.  I love the apes in shades!

Jump forward a few years (to the very early 80s) and I picked up a make-up book (which I would love to find now, for a reasonable price) from the library which featured, amongst many other greats, the wonderful Lon Chaney and I was staggered at the illusions he was able to create.  Later (but still in the early 80s), BBC2 began to show old horror films around teatime (can you imagine that happening now?) and once I found out "The Phantom Of The Opera" was going to be shown, I was a dedicated fan of their programming thread.

The film features Lon Chaney as Erik, The Phantom and following the success of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), Chaney - who was skilled at the art of make-up and didn’t seem to mind the discomfort he put himself through in achieving a certain look - was given the freedom to create his own make-up.  Taking his cue directly from the description in the novel, he painted his eye sockets black (to give them a skull-like impression), pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it in place with wire, enlarged his nostrils with black paint, and put a set of jagged false teeth into his mouth to complete the overall look.  When audiences first saw The Phantom, they were said to have screamed or fainted at the unmasking scene with Christine - even watching it today, there's a real frisson to the piece (and the make-up) that makes me think it must have been great fun to see this in a cinema in 1925!

Leonidas Frank ‘Lon’ Chaney (April 1, 1883 – August 26, 1930) was an American stage and film actor, director and screenwriter, who is regarded as one of the most versatile actors of early cinema.  He excelled with tortured, often grotesque characters and was also a highly skilled dancer, singer and comedian whilst his groundbreaking artistry and development of special effects make-up earned him the nickname ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ (which was the title of the 1957 biopic starring James Cagney as Chaney).

Born in Colorado Springs, Colorado to deaf parents, he quickly became skilled in pantomime and began a stage career in 1902, travelling with popular Vaudeville and theatre acts. In 1905, he married the singer Cleva Creighton and they had one child, a son called Creighton Tull Chaney (who, as Lon Chaney, Jr., would go on to become a horror actor in his own right).  The marriage soured, with Cleva attempting suicide by swallowing mercuric chloride - she survived but it ruined her singing career - and the scandal (and subsequent divorce) forced Chaney out of the theatre and into film.  From 1912, he spent five years doing bit parts though his skill with make-up helped his chances.  In 1915 he married a chorus girl called Hazel Hastings, a union which lasted until his death and Chaney finally gained custody of his son.

He continued to work in film with his breakthrough performance - for both his acting ability and make-up skill - being ‘The Frog’ in “The Miracle Man” (1919).  He played an amputee gangster in “The Penalty” (1920), Quasimodo in “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” (1923), Erik in the aforementioned “Phantom Of The Opera” (1925) and a carnival knife-thrower called Alonzo the Armless in The Unknown (1927).  Also in 1927, he co-starred with Conrad Nagel, Marceline Day, Henry B. Walthall and Polly Moran in the Tod Browning film, “London After Midnight”, now considered as one of the most legendary and sought after lost films.
from left - "The Phantom Of The Opera", "London After Midnight", The Hunchback Of Notre Dame"
He spent the last five years of his film career from 1925-1930 working exclusively under contract to MGM.  His memorable performance as a tough drill instructor in “Tell It to the Marines” (1926), earned him the affection of the Marine Corps, who made him their first honorary member from the motion picture industry. He was also widely respected by aspiring actors, to whom he offered mentoring assistance.
Two shots of Chaney with his fabled make-up kit, which is still occasionally shown to the public
Chaney developed pneumonia whilst filming “Thunder” in the winter of 1929, was diagnosed that same year with bronchial lung cancer and picked up a serious throat infection caused by artifical snow used on the film (made from cornflakes).  He died of a throat haemorrhage on August 26, 1930 in Los Angeles and his funeral, on August 28 in Glendale, California, was given an Honor Guard by the US Marine Corps.

Also part of the same BBC2 strand that year was "Frankenstein" (1931), featuring the now legendary combination of Boris Karloff's wonderful performance and Jack Pierce's iconic make-up.  I watched that monster lumber across the screen with wide eyes and until I saw "The Creature From The Black Lagoon", he was my favourite.  Pierce's design (it's not clear how much input anyone else had) was both horrific and as logical as it could be, within the context of the story.  The scar and seal come from Henry Frankenstein accessing the brain cavity and the bolts on the neck - which everyone remembers - are electrodes, to carry the electrical charge needed to revive what is, in essence, a stitched-up corpse.

Jack (Janus Piccoula) Pierce (May 5, 1889 – July 19, 1968) was a Greek born emigre who, in the 1920s, worked as a cinema manager, stuntman and actor, building an interest and ability in make-up that culminated in his  transforming Jacques Lernier into an ape in “The Monkey Talks” (1926).  Impressing  Carl Laemmle, then head of Universal Studios, with his work, he was hired full-time after creating the rictus-grin face of Conrad Veidt in “The Man Who Laughs” (1928).

Although he had a reputation for being bad-tempered (he and Lon Chaney jr especially didn’t get on)  he enjoyed a good relationship with Boris Karloff which is just as well, since the Frankenstein make-up took four hours to apply.  As head of Universal Studio's make-up department, Pierce designed and created the now iconic make-ups for “Frankenstein”, “The Mummy” (1932) and “The Wolf Man” (1941) (plus their various sequels), utiliising ‘out of the kit’ techniques - building facial features out of cotton, liquid plastic or nose putty.  During the 1940s, as moulded foam latex appliances - cheaper, quicker and more comfortable for the actors - were used more often, Pierce found it difficult to adapt to modern methods.  With the old guard at the studio gone, he was ‘let go’ from Universal in 1946 and his last credit is as make-up artist for the TV show “Mister Ed” (from 1961 to 1964).

The following video link (which is, wonderfully, a slightly ropey VHS copy of an American TVB show from 1981) helps to explain the process and also features Dick Smith and Rick Baker (with his superb "An American Werewolf In London" make-up).
For my next mini-essay in this thread, I'll look at special make-up from the 60s, 70s and (boom-time) 80s!

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Crusty Exterior in London

The Crusty Exterior is a group of friends, united in their love for the horror genre, books and, of course, a good curry.  The core of the group - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris and me - met up for the first time at Andromeda Con in 2013 (see my report here), though Steve & I go back much further, first corresponding in the late 90s when he ran a newsletter called The Inner Circle.
At the Southbank Book Market - James, Phil, Steve and me
At Edge-Lit 3 last year (see my report here), we were talking about how good it was to see one another again and made plans to meet up at some point nearer to Christmas, though with Mrs Sloman and Mrs Everington giving birth as the year drew to a close, those plans were put back to 2015.  And so, on Saturday, The Crusty Exterior met for the first time, organised by Phil, to tour 2nd hand bookshops (and other places of culture, obviously) in our wonderful capital city.
In Covent Garden - Phil & I are NOT goosing the Highlander
I caught the 9.26 down, had the last seat in cattle-class before the 1st Class section and the blokes in the next seat (on the kebabs and beer already) played their music on a speaker for the whole journey.  I didn’t mind (it was 80s stuff), I had my own Walkman plus “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” but I was glad I hadn’t paid double the train fare to move one seat down and travel all posh!

From St Pancras, I tubed to Embankment and met Phil Sloman at the station there, we hugged and walked across Hungerford Bridge, running through the plans for the day.  At the Southbank, we met Steve Harris, who’d driven down and all quickly caught up, perusing the stalls, pointing books out to each other and marvelling over some of our finds.  James then arrived, more greetings and after taking an author pic for Steve (against a graffiti covered concrete stanchion, for Punk-Lit), we headed back to Charing Cross station.  It was great to see everyone, it was great to be back together and it’s always a pleasure to spend time with fellow writers, talking about projects and finds and not having to explain our conversational topics.

Since Steve had never been to Covent Garden, we took him through there (and I pointed out the location where Barry Foster brings out the body in the spud bag in “Frenzy”) and then walked along to Charing Cross Road/Leicester Square where we had lunch from the deli (and it was bloody lovely) on the corner.  Eating and chatting, we walked up Charing Cross and explored several bookshops, before cutting through to Shaftesbury Avenue (past the theatre showing ‘The Mousetrap’ - “I wonder,” I asked, “if they ever get people outside saying, if you don’t give me a tenner, I’ll tell you whodunit”) where I introduced the boys to The Cinema Store.
Outside The Mousetrap - both James and Phil made
a 'shush' noise as I took the photo...
After, we headed up Monmouth Street, past the Seven Dials (all the times I’ve crossed there, I never knew that was what it was called, so thanks for that Phil!) and picked up a drink from a newsagents and stood in the street, as London life went on around us, talking genre and books and people and it was a wonderful half an hour.  It even included a sighting of Mark Gatiss, who crossed the road into Forbidden Planet, spent a minute or so in there and then disappeared back the way he came.  When a tourist blocked the road taking pictures of a street sign, curiosity broke up our conversation and we all went to see what he’d been photographing.  The sign said “humps” and that was enough to have us thinking of schoolboy-humour-level jokes as we went into Forbidden Planet.  Spent some time (and money) in there, then walked to the Bloomsbury Tavern for a couple of drinks and more chat.  Well, I say drink - we took a table that had recently been vacated, with James & I clearing off the previous patrons dirty plates and one suspiciously full pint glass of clear liquid.  As we sat down and started talking, Phil & James sipped their pints, I sipped my Diet Coke and Steve sipped… nothing.  “Where’s my lemonade?” he asked.  Erm…

In the Bloomsbury Tavern - pint of lemonade definitely not pictured (I wonder where it went...?)
After a couple of pints - and several wonderful, tangent filled conversations - we headed towards Bloomsbury, passing ‘London’s Best Fish & Chip Shop’ on the way.  “Ah, London,” said James, “that well known seaside resort.”  “Smells like Skeggy,” I said and that set us off on a brief, but initially enthusiastic, idea of setting the next gathering there before good sense prevailed and we filled Steve in on why Mablethorpe wasn’t worth seeing.  We visited Skoob books (great cellar bookshop, filled to the rafters - quite literally), saw some blue plaques, nipped into another bookshop before calling into the Norfolk Arms for another drink and a conversation at the outside tables which encompassed critiques, what to do if you read a friends story and it’s not good and ruminations on genre.  After a lovely (and very reasonable) dinner at the Tavistock Tandoori, the day was up.  Steve & Phil were heading back across London, James & I were heading for St Pancras, so we said our goodbyes and wandered off.  We got into the station just in time, caught the 7.29 and talked the whole way back to Kettering, where I got off.
Ah, curry.  In the Tavistock Tandoori - we don't know why the waiter chose to cut most of Steve off...
As inaugural meetings go, it was brilliant - it was great to see everyone again, the conversation, humour and laughs flowed easily, we all picked up some decent book stashes and, most importantly, we had a good time.

Provisional plans have been made for the next Crusty gathering to be in Brum towards the end of the year, notwithstanding seeing one another at Edge-Lit and FantasyCon and I, for one, can’t wait.
In a Charing Cross bookshop cellar.
 p.s.  Membership of The Crusty Exterior is liquid, with several members unable to make this meeting, thus making it - in Steve's words - a "mini-con".

p.p.s. Just in case you were wondering, the name of the group comes from an off-hand comment made at Edge-Lit.  We were sitting in the cafe comparing scars (or, more to the point, the worst rejection letters we'd ever received) and, following Steve's newsletter, someone (we can't remember who now) said "we're not the Inner Circle, more like The Crusty Exterior".  That made us all laugh and when Phil set up an FB group to organise the meeting, that's what he called it.
My stash from the day