私 の 日本 で 大冒険

(or ‘My Adventure in Japan’, for non-Japanese speakers)

In March and April of this year, Mr Mauro and I went to Japan. It wasn’t our first visit – we’d been before, in 2013, but this was – we hoped – going to be a much bigger, much more adventurous trip. This time, we were to forego Tokyo entirely – much as we both loved Tokyo, we had our sights set on the Kansai region, home of Kyoto and Osaka, and the region we both fell in love with on our first trip to Japan.

We arrived at Kansai airport without our luggage, which, it turns out, was lagging behind us in Amsterdam. Luckily, we had all of our essentials in our hand luggage, but clothes? Toiletries? Nope, they were off gallivanting in Europe while the two of us dragged our jetlagged carcasses through Kansai airport, out into Osaka and on to Kyoto, where we finally made it to the apartment we would be staying in for the first five days of the trip.

In hindsight, it wasn’t so bad dealing with delayed luggage. We went out into the wilds of Kyoto to buy a few bits and pieces to tide us over until our bags arrived. By this point – around mid-afternoon –  I was so jetlagged that I actually caught myself almost dropping off while walking, which was unnerving to say the least. Anyway, we located GU, the Japanese equivalent of Primark (but slightly better) and I managed to grab myself the kind of t-shirt you should always endeavour to wear in Japan:

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Extra sparkly indeed.

After crashing at a respectable 7.30pm, we woke the next day ready to explore Kyoto. As I mentioned, we’d already been to Kyoto before, and I think we both fell completely in love with it. Being in Kyoto again was almost a homecoming of sorts – it took no time at all to get our bearings and reacclimate to the calm atmosphere, the busy streets and, yes, the constant rain. It rained almost constantly in Kyoto, and the weather verged on chilly – the apartment, which was a gorgeous Japanese style place above a cafe, on a quiet street, was freezing much of the time, since Japanese apartments don’t typically have central heating. Not that I minded – futons are incredibly cosy, and a little chilliness is a perfectly acceptable trade-off for the chance to experience Kyoto apartment life:

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(modelled here by Mr Mauro)

While in Kyoto, we visited the Fushimi Inari shrine – a Shinto shrine in honour of the god Inari, who presides over agriculture and the harvest, rice, and of course, foxes:

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Foxes are my favourite animal, so even though we’d been before it felt necessary to go again. And it’s such a remarkable place, anyway: innumerable vermillion torii gates stretching up the mountain, with places to pause and admire the view over Kyoto. As well as the Fushimi Inari shrine, we made a return visit to Kiyomizu-dera, a beautiful mountainside Buddhist temple in east Kyoto (and walking distance to our apartment) and to Arashiyama, which, despite being a little bit crowded, was as beautiful as I remember it being the first time around.

I had plenty of opportunity to practice my Japanese speaking skills, which didn’t always work out as well as I’d hoped. One morning Mr Mauro woke up feeling terrible, so I left him sleeping in the apartment while I went in search of a pharmacy. The pharmacy trip was a great success – I managed to ask for and locate cold medicine, ask a few questions and understand the answers. I felt like a language god! I had to go and spoil it by stopping by the local Starbucks, intending to pick Mr M up a hot cocoa to soothe his cold. Unfortunately, I must have used up all of my day’s allocation of Japanese language skill because I made an absolute tit of myself – I managed to forget the word for ‘soy milk’ – 豆乳 , a word I’ve practised over and over because I’m lactose intolerant and I knew I’d need it. Such was my flustered embarrassment that every last scrap of Japanese ability left me, and after much tolerant politeness on the barista’s part I ran away from the Starbucks with only one hot chocolate, too embarrassed to attempt to order another. Mr M got his hot chocolate, and I never set foot in that Starbucks again.

From Kyoto, we travelled through Osaka and on to Koyasan. Mount Koya is a huge Buddhist temple complex, the centre of Shingon Buddhism, and to get there involves a train ride south of Osaka and, in our case, a coach trip up some very narrow mountain roads to the top, where the small town of Koya and all its attendant temples are nestled among the woodland.

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The majority of lodgings here are Buddhist temples, and we stayed overnight at Fudo-in, where we were able to attend the morning prayers. Koyasan is peaceful and atmospheric, and I wish we’d had more than one night there – not least because Fudo-in had the most comfortable futons of the whole trip (and delicious vegan food):

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From Koyasan, we went to Osaka for a few days, ostensibly to recharge our batteries before we set off travelling again. Osaka is not an easy place to recharge one’s batteries, mind you – it’s manic and busy and noisy and colourful, which I love as it reminds me of London, only much more interesting. Osaka is also the home of delicious food, including amazing steamed buns and gyoza from 551 Horai – which we must have eaten at a ridiculous number of times. It was just so good, and so cheap:

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Food in Japan is rarely bad. So much so that, to keep our budget down, we mostly ate Seven-Eleven ‘konbini’ food, 551 Horai and my other favourite, curry establishment CoCo Ichiban, which serves up giant plates of curry and rice. And it was all delicious. We did occasionally go elsewhere, though – when in Kansai, you can’t not have okonomiyaki, and the tonkatsu is pretty amazing too. Ramen is another comfort food, and something you can get reasonably cheap from most places. Although, for the love of god, don’t be tempted by the hot sweetcorn drink in the Kyoto vending machines. It is Satan’s own beverage:

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Just say no.

Our first stint in Osaka was in preparation for the next leg – to Hiroshima and beyond. Hiroshima is another place I wish we’d spent more time in – we were there only one night, but we both agreed that there as something incredibly special about the place. We hadn’t been sure what to expect, but Hiroshima is the furthest thing from morbid. Rather, it is a vibrant and positive place, a city which has rebuilt from literal ashes and which carries in its new incarnation the promise of peace. The Peace Park, situated beside the skeletal bomb dome (a truly eerie and humbling sight) feels like an optimistic monument rather than a sombre one: it seems as though the people of Hiroshima have faith in a better future, and, walking down the riverside path awash with cherry blossom, it’s easy to let yourself believe it.

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We both resolved to come back to Hiroshima next time, and to spend more time there. I think we were both surprised at how strong an impression the place left on us – more laid-back than Kyoto, but not quite as manic as Osaka, a perfect blend of the two. And Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is pretty amazing to boot. (Though – whisper it – I still prefer Osaka style okonomiyaki).

The next morning we took the ferry across to Miyajima, a small island famous for its offshore torii gate, which seems to float in the water at high tide. Being the eminently sensible human beings that we are, we decided – on the hottest, sunniest day of our trip – to climb Mount Misen, the highest mountain on Miyajima. Admittedly a large proportion of the trip is covered by a cable car ride, but when you’re as white as I am, climbing a mountain in bright sunshine as midday approaches is probably not the cleverest of choices.

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The view was spectacular, though.

Back down to ground level, and we strolled about for the day, enjoying the seaside vibe and the deer, who trail around everywhere in the hope of a snack – not quite as persistent as the Nara deer, but not quite as polite either. In Miyajima, we splashed out for one night in a seafront ryokan, which was well worth the cost just to sit on the balcony in the afternoon, reading in the sunshine with the sound of the sea just beyond. And at sunset, we (along with half the island) set out to see the torii gate at high tide:

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Well worth the detour.

Our last few days were spent back in Osaka, though we did take one very special day trip to Nara. Another place we loved on our first visit, we decided to spend our ten year wedding anniversary wandering around the park in the sunshine, dodging hungry deer and gawking at cherry blossom, which by this point was in full bloom.

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I also took a tip from the Japanese women I saw walking around and bought a parasol – the best decision my pasty skin and I have ever made, since I was able to enjoy the outdoors without fear of crisping up. Why didn’t I think of that before….?

In Osaka, we wandered off the beaten track, discovered quiet residential areas, cooked plans to come back, maybe rent an apartment, maybe get a job, maybe stay a while…? I can dream; I married a very cautious, very risk-averse man, so I’ll have a job on my hands to convince him it can be done. But as we spent our last night relaxing at a pro-wrestling bar, watching Japanese wrestling and conversing in bad Japanese (well, my Japanese was bad) with the barman, it seemed to me that it would at the very least be worth a try.

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It’s been over a month since we returned, and part of me is still pining. Maybe, in a few years. Maybe…

How I Learned To Love Mondays (For A Fortnight)

So I’ve been keeping this under my hat, in my typically superstitious fashion, fearing it would turn out to be a total disaster, but since it seems that everything went quite well (I think), let me tell you about how I spent the last two weeks working for Penguin Books, and how, at 31, I think I’m ready for a career change.

A little background: those who know me will probably already know that when I’m not writing, I work as a quality manager and sometime technician in a medical laboratory. I fell into laboratory work by accident – I needed a job, I was offered a job, I wasn’t terrible at it. Fast forward seven years and one morning, I wake up and realise I’ve spent the best part of a decade in laboratory work. It’s a good job, and it’s good work, and it’s given me something close to financial stability when I needed it most.

But. (There’s always a ‘but’.)

Last year, I decided it was finally time for me to do a Master’s – ten years after I graduated from university the first time round. Taking that step seems to have been something of a catalyst, because it also occurred to me that perhaps I ought to start taking other big steps. When I saw that Penguin were opening their work experience programme, I applied almost immediately, despite a few misgivings – was I too old, at 31, to be applying for work experience? Would I be able to get the time off work to do it? In the end, the possibility of obtaining valuable experience in editorial seemed too good to turn down. (Did I mention it’s a paid work experience programme too?) And besides. There was no guarantee they’d pick me.

It turns out, they did. So, two weeks ago, I found myself standing at the reception desk at Penguin’s Strand office, trying not to look too much like a rabbit in headlights. (And trying, probably unsuccessfully, to look ten years younger…)

I needn’t have worried. I’m a naturally anxious person, and meeting new people in new situations is a bit of an ordeal sometimes, but from the very start everyone was pleasant, and the working environment is a lot more laid-back than I had expected. That’s not to say there’s not a lot to do – there is a lot to do. The editorial team at Viking & Penguin Life kept me busy for the two weeks I was there, which is a good thing – I’ve always preferred being busy, and the variety of tasks meant I had the opportunity to learn a lot, both about the inner workings of publishing and editorial, and about the day-to-day tasks crucial to the successful running of a publishing imprint. (As a small aside, it was also really interesting from a writer’s perspective to see what happens once an agent fires your novel out into the ether – the sheer scale of submissions received, and the comparatively small number that go on to become books).

This work experience placement was a bit of a test for me; I wanted to see if editorial would be a good fit for me (you can never be sure that a dream job is actually a dream job until you experience it). But also, I wanted to see if I would be a good fit for editorial in terms of my skills, abilities and general temperament. I’m pleased to note that, at Penguin at least, the work environment is friendly and supportive, and everyone seems genuinely invested in helping one another – a very useful thing when you’re a nervous work experience trainee with only the faintest inkling what’s expected of you.

So, what did I do there? The quick answer is: lots and lots of printing. So much printing. But there was a good level of variety in the tasks I was given. So, one day I might be compiling a list of agent addresses, or researching Oxbridge historians specialising in modern European history, followed by compiling a list of references to specific countries in a non-fiction manuscript. The next day, I might be tasked with packaging promotional copies of a new thriller so they look unique (and Instagrammable), or reading a submitted manuscript with a view to reporting back to the editorial team on its good and bad points. There’s a lot of mailing out books (and so. much. printing.) There are a lot of other tasks too: transcribing sections of radio interviews for promotional quotes, creating ‘end-ads’ in InDesign (these are the adverts that appear at the end of books, promoting other titles in the series). Basically, there’s no opportunity to get bored, which is perfect for me – I love to be kept busy, and the editorial team were very generous with their time, willingly explaining anything I wasn’t sure about. It felt like a very supportive environment, and by the end of week 2 I was making plans to burrow under the desk and never leave.

(Also, three words: hot chocolate machine. Technically coffee machine, but free hot chocolate on tap is an absolute luxury and I dread to think how many cups I downed. You don’t get that working in the NHS, let me tell you.)

By this, you might surmise that I decided editorial is, in fact, an excellent fit for me. And you’d be right. Am I a good fit for editorial? Feedback was positive, and it didn’t take me long to start feeling comfortable in that environment – so, tentatively, I’d say yes. It’s not a simple change, though – editorial is a very competitive area, and for someone like me, who isn’t a fresh-faced graduate, nor carrying much in the way of industry experience, it’s going to be difficult to get my foot in the door. Still. Watch this space…

(For anyone else looking to apply for the Penguin work experience scheme – the best advice I can give is this:

  • Be organised, keep on top of your workload and don’t be afraid to ask for help prioritising.
  • Be willing to try anything, and do everything to the best of your ability – yes, even printing.
  • Other departments might offer you the chance to learn how they work – jump at the chance if it’s offered. It’s a great way of learning more about how publishing works, and it might open up other avenues to you. (One of the most interesting things I learned was how the production team work.)
  • Free hot chocolate. You know it makes sense.

And if you happen upon any of Penguin’s ‘European Writers‘ collection – pick them up! They’re great little reads (I should know, I got a sneak peek). And you might get to see the end-ads I helped with…..

For now, though, it’s back to the day job. For now….

A Podcast Bonanza

Apparently podcasts are my thing now, because this week there are two podcasts out featuring my dulcet Bermondsey tones.

First off, I make an appearance on Kit Power’s “Watching RoboCop with Kit Power” podcast, which is exactly what it says on the tin – we watch RoboCop, we discuss the joys of stop motion, Peter Weller’s cheekbones, dodgy 80’s sartorial decisions, RoboCop as a fetish object, toilet cameras and professional mimes. It was great fun to record and Kit is an excellent bloke.

And then there’s the latest episode of “New Horror Express”, which is a double bill featuring interviews with myself and fellow horror/weird fiction scribe Kristi DeMeester. In this episode I talk about my novella ‘Naming the Bones’ and the things which inspired it, the ‘genre fiction ghetto’, gateway drugs into horror fiction and mental health. It’s worth a listen not least because of Kristi DeMeester’s interview, which is a fascinating look into the inspiration behind and writing of her novel ‘Beneath’, and the projects she’s currently working on.

Best of British Science Fiction, Stephen King Mixtape & Jim McLeod interview

Very pleased to announce that my short story “Looking for Laika” has been chosen by Donna Bond to appear in Best of British Science Fiction 2017, imminently due for publication from NewCon Press. This is especially exciting for me as “Looking for Laika” is my first foray into sci-fi, and a story that means a great deal to me.

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In other news, I was asked by Mark West to pick a favourite Stephen King short story for the most recent in his excellent ‘Mixtape’ series (Previously featured: the Brit Horror mixtape, the American Horror mixtape, and the Women in Horror mixtape. You can find out which one I chose (and see all the other excellent choices) over at Mark’s blog.

And DLS Reviews are hosting an excellent interview with Jim McLeod, the Don of Horror and the heart & soul behind Ginger Nuts of Horror, a website which continually provides a vital service to the British horror community and beyond. The interview is as honest and illuminating as you would expect from Jim, and an absolute must-read.

New Fears 2 – Letters from Elodie

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Incredibly excited to be a part of New Fears 2, from Titan Books, appearing alongside such amazing authors as Priya Sharma, Stephen Volk, Paul Tremblay, Aliyah Whiteley, V.H. Leslie, Ray Cluley, Kit Power, Steve Rasnic Tem (the list goes on and on…) My short story “Letters from Elodie” joins a formidable lineup, and if it’s anything like the first volume, this anthology is going to be pure magic.

(I reviewed the first volume here and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves strange, scary stories)

Tai Chi and Chattering Monkeys

In December I decided to invest in my physical and mental wellbeing and switch to a fancier, more expensive gym closer to home. If there’s one thing I’m terrible at, it’s motivating myself, so having access to a variety of exercise classes seemed like a good idea – once you’re there, you’re committed to an hour’s exercise, and you’re guided, so there’s no standing about and messing around for twenty minutes while you decide what to do next. There is a wide range of class types too, so it’s varied enough to hold my (sometimes fickle) interest.

One of the classes I was especially interested in trying was Tai Chi. I suffer with what my former boss used to refer to as ‘chattering monkeys’ – that constant, nagging voice in your head which talks and talks and never seems to shut up unless you’re asleep, and even then it sometimes finds a way to sneak in. I’d tried yoga previously, and while I enjoyed the physical aspect of it, I found there were just enough long pauses for the voice to weasel in – in those quiet, meditative moments in which I ought to have been focusing on my breathing, or on holding a pose, I was instead trying in vain to quiet the brain-noise: what if this were to happen did you forget to do this thing remember that time two years ago when you did something really embarrassing you need to renew the home insurance what if you get home and everything has been stolen what if you mess up at work tomorrow and get the sack oh no you forgot to buy bread…

You know. Chattering monkeys.

I didn’t know what to expect from Tai Chi. I’ve seen people practicing it in parks; they always look so peaceful and graceful, so co-ordinated. I am none of those things. It turns out that isn’t a bad thing. Tai Chi requires a pleasant kind of concentration; you have to be ready to transition from one move to another in order to maintain the smooth flow of movement, so to a certain extent you must always be thinking ahead. And your movements must be smooth, slow and controlled, so you must also concentrate on the speed of your movement, the control of your muscles (and here I hear my instructor: “When we’re stressed, we speed up. Control your speed. Control your stress.”) You are focusing on form, on the physical reality of each movement, and on the concept which underlies it (‘Crane spreads its wings’, for example, or ‘needles at sea bottom’).

And to do all of this successfully, the brain must be focused solely on what you are doing. Which means there is no room for chattering monkeys. Which means an hour of blissful silence. And this alone means my gym membership has been worth every penny.

Desert Island Books

Here’s a stunningly unoriginal concept: Desert Island Discs, except that instead of eight recordings, you can choose eight books to accompany you. (Mine would of course be packed alongside a very large parasol and a keg of Factor 50 sunscreen – judging by the permanently blue hue of my skin, I was not designed for desert islands.)

My picks are liable to change with the weather, but I have chosen eight books which I always seem to return to, no matter how long I’ve been away, or however many other books I might fall for in the interim:

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Watership Down by Richard Adams: A choice which I suspect will surprise absolutely nobody. Watership Down is such a cleverly crafted story with so many subtle layers – from innovative rabbit linguistics to the ‘story-within-a-story’ construct of El-Ahrairah’s parables. I always quote Watership Down whenever anyone derides children’s fiction as lacking in depth or meaning – there surely cannot be many books out there as rich in meaning, imagination and sheer heart as Watership Down.

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The City and The City by China Mieville: Yes, China Mieville is often too self-indulgently clever for his own good, and he needs to let go of the thesaurus, but my god, can he tell a story. The City and The City is part police procedural, part weird fiction, set in a fictional European city which shares much of its material space with another neighbouring city. The bizarre twist is that it is illegal (and shockingly immoral) for citizens of either city to acknowledge or ‘see’ anything of its neighbour. It’s a story that absolutely has to be experienced to fully comprehend its sublime madness.

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The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: An uncanny series of similarities between the characters of The Robber Bride and my own group of friends means I am weirdly bound to this book; it feels as though it takes place in an alternative universe in which distant possibilities have played out. It is probably a testament to Atwood’s ability to craft three-dimensional characters that I identify so strongly with them, and with the story.

 

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Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson: Another oft-quoted book, and my most frequent pick for ‘favourite book of all time’. As with Richard Adams, there is nothing patronising about Jansson’s writing; she credits children with the intelligence and the emotional capacity to comprehend subjects as deep as loneliness and anxiety. Jansson’s peaceful summer valley is transformed into a cold, wintery realm which is in turns frighteningly inhospitable and eerily beautiful. And I think I would need that retreat into the cold if I were on a desert island – hot weather and I are uneasy companions.

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: I sometimes joke that Rebecca is a book about horrible people doing horrible things to one another, but I think that’s actually a fairly accurate summary of the book. Rebecca is the greatest horror story never to be shelved as horror; the unease blossoms so organically as the story progresses that by the time you realise how profoundly uncomfortable you are, you are almost at the end. A masterpiece of prolonged, wire-taut tension.

 

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Laika by Nick Abadzis: A recent discovery, this graphic novel dramatises the true story of Laika, the Soviet space dog, and is a beautiful and entirely appropriate tribute to this most unwitting of heroes. The inevitability of Laika’s fate makes for a heartbreaking read, and though it is fiction, the notion that someone – anyone – might have cared about her is both desperately sad and a small ray of sunshine in a tragic story.

 

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The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey: I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction at the best of times, and this is a wonderful, intelligent take on the end of the world. It also takes on another beloved trope of mine: sympathetic monsters. Melanie, the titular ‘girl’ (and a literal ‘girl’, not a woman for once!) serves as our eyes as we make our way through a Britain ravaged by a strange and terrifying fungal infection, and we are forced to consider the nature of monstrosity, as well as the very prescient question of whether or not the world will continue after we are gone – and whether it might just be better off without us.

 

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The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King: Another ‘girl’ (and another literal ‘girl’ to boot!) I could have picked any number of Stephen King books for the final slot – I might have picked apocalyptic epic The Stand, which, despite my ‘revolving door’ of favourite King books never fails to wind up in the top 3. I might have cheated and opted for the Dark Tower series. Instead, I’ve chosen one of his shorter works. For most of the book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon leaves us stranded (thematically appropriate!) in the woods with a single character: a nine year old girl. Her struggle to survive and to reach safety is a simple enough narrative, but things become far more complicated (and far stranger) when, overcome with exhaustion, she begins to hallucinate; we are never truly sure whether the nightmarish visions that follow her are supernatural or simply imaginary, but the answer scarcely matters.

 

What are your “Desert Island Books”? Let me know!