WHEN EVENTS DON’T GO AS PLANNED…

american-college

A writer’s life is varied when it comes to public appearances. Ask any author on a publicity tour and you’ll hear how on one evening they’ll experience venues full of fans, the next more intimate affairs where members of the audience can be counted on the fingers of a hand.

I often think of one event taking place about five years ago, when I’d been asked to go and speak in a public city library. The date had been scheduled months ahead and, around a week before, I sent an email to my contact to check that all was still on plan.

It was, and off I ventured on a chilly winter’s afternoon, spending many hours on trains to reach my destination. With more than half an hour to spare, I entered the doors of the library and approached the man on the central desk to whom I introduced myself, asking to meet the woman who’d booked me for the evening, only for him to answer: “Oh! She’s away on holiday. Who did you say you were again?”

A panicked glance around the library walls and I found a smallish leaflet. But, there in black and white it was. My name. That very evening’s date ~ at which point the male librarian then agreed to take me in the lift to the staff room on the floor above. There, I’d hoped to check the laptop which I’d been assured before would be provided for the slides I’d made to illustrate my talk that night; until more bad news was announced – “I don’t know about any laptop. The one we’ve got is on the blink.”

The door to the staff room opened up, just as I was digesting this. Blank faces stared back out as I then introduced myself again, and – again – enquired about the laptop on which to show my Powerpoint display. 

“We’ll have to see if we can find it.” Someone said, while someone else then pointed to the corner of the room, towards the other author who, I was now instructed, had also been booked to talk that night. “Perhaps you’ll find some common ground. Make the event a shared one…” 

Perhaps we could, and so I sat and asked my fellow author, “What’s your book about then? Mine’s a Victorian gothic novel.” Yet another cold blank stare was met, and then the answer I received in shock – “I’m here to talk about the shortage of human organ donations in the Nigerian population settled in North London.”

A silence fell between us. How on earth could we ever make this work? And, would I ever see the laptop on which to try and load my slides, what with it now less than five minutes before the evening’s event was due to start … and where would it be taking place? The library was very large.

“In the children’s section…” came another’s librarian’s answer. “We’ve set the chairs up, and the screen, but has anybody told you … the computer here is on the blink?”

Down in the lift we went, a sinking feeling also in my heart to discover the children’s library was open plan; not only that, but still wide open to the public. More disheartening was the audience. Six people waiting patiently. Six people who it then transpired had come along to hear me speak – which was when the other author then took a huff and disappeared off home. 

Feeling embarrassed and rather awkward, at least I could get on with things. If only the laptop would keep running. If only I didn’t have to talk above the cries and laughter of the children running round the room, or the hooting horns and ding ding dings of the computer games they played. I wished the floor open up and swallow me entirely when I spoke of Victorian child prostitutes, and brothels, and tertiary syphilis ~ with many lurid images displayed upon the screen behind.

Thank heavens when the laptop finally gave up the ghost for good, when two librarians who’d placed themselves on chairs at the back of the audience continued nattering amongst themselves as I did my best to fix it, until I asked despairingly, “Shall we just give up and find a pub?”

This is nearly the end of my story – but a story with a happy end – because three of the people who came along to have a drink with me that night remain the firmest friends today. One is a well-travelled businesswoman. One is a talented artist. One is a professional composer and singer who, along with another gifted friend, has performed her glorious music at the launches of other books of mine. 

I do often wonder, if that library talk had gone as planned, would these connections ever have been made? Perhaps not. But, they were, and because of that I cherish that night’s memory ~ as well as chuckling about it. 

And finally, here is the stunning music Kirsten Morrison composed and sang at the launch party for my novel: The Last Days of Leda Grey …

AN INTERVIEW ON BBC RADIO WALES…

Essie was featured on Phil – Phil the Shelf – Rickman’s Books Programme on BBC Radio Wales this week, in the excellent company of John Connolly, and Matt Lucas. A recording of the programme is here, and Essie comes in at about 11.18. The programme is available to ‘listen again’ for the next 28 days.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 22.12.23Phil Rickman, author of supernatural and mystery novels, who also hosts the BBC Radio Wales Book Programme

SALON FOR THE CITY ~ THE UNLUCKY MUMMY

 

The 50th Salon For The City, held at the Westminster Reference Library ~ just at the back of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square ~ was the most inspiring event. As ever this was thanks to Stephen Coates, the salon’s founder, who created this opportunity for writers, artists and historians to talk about their knowledge of the capital city of London.

Beginning with a whistle stop tour through the city’s architectural history from the ever engaging Doctor Matthew Green, the evening’s theme continued with several 5 minute talks from previous Salon alumni, each one of them then showcasing a favourite London character. 

My own five minute slot was all about The Unlucky Mummy, on display in the British Museum today, and below is the transcript of that talk …

Pearson's_Magazine_1909_with_Unlucky_Mummy.jpgImage of the Unlucky Mummy as featured on the cover of Pearson’s Magazine in 1909

I fear I may cause confusion tonight, with the subject of my five-minute talk originating in Egypt. But, as much of London’s great history has been built on those who’ve settled here, often coming from all over the world, I hope you’ll indulge my preference for talking about an antiquity … a relic dating back in time to around 950 BC, and most probably from a temple in Thebes … though I feel it may quite rightly claim to have earned its Londoner status now; having been in the city since the late 1880’s, on display in the British Museum’s Egyptian rooms … since when a great web of intrigue has been built up around it.

DMBF6WCW0AIFFd_.jpg

In fact, it’s not even a mummy as such, but the image of a woman painted on a relief of plaster and wood; the image of the person once contained below the coffin lid. Who does she even represent? Well, many say a high priestess who once served in the temple of Amen Ra, and who, since having resided here, has been called The Unlucky Mummy. Unlucky because her spirit is said to bring tragedy or dreadful luck to many who have seen her form.

This curse is something I reference in my novel, The Last Days of Leda Grey, in which the young Leda’s father explains –

‘Yes, it’s called The Unlucky Mummy, found back in the 1880s, when three Englishmen travelled to Egypt, where a terrible fate befell them all after one of the party paid thousands of pounds to possess the ancient relic. Later on, that very night, the man walked into the desert night and was never seen alive again … and that event occurring soon after the sarcophagus had been delivered to his rooms. The second man was to lose an arm when a servant asked to clean his gun then accidentally fired it off. The third returned to England to find himself entirely ruined when the bank in which his wealth was held had catastrophically failed, after which he was reduced to selling matches on the streets to live.

And that was not the end of it! Some years afterwards, when the mummy had been acquired by the British Museum in London, the night guards started speaking of some strange and ghostly happenings, with objects flying round the room, with banging sounds and agonising wails that seemed to emanate from underneath the coffin’s lid. Why, a journalist who was brought in to investigate the strange events was then tormented in his mind, when a photograph he’d taken that showed the casket’s painted face ~ a face normally quite serene ~ had changed into a mask of such a cruel and Hellish countenance… he lost his wits and killed himself.’

 

Well, that extract from my novel is just one variation on a theme – and is certainly NOT the end of it. Before reaching the British Museum, one household in which the coffin lay experienced strange phenomena, such as glass and ornaments being smashed, or the sounds of footsteps, or flickering lights in the attics in which it was – in final desperation – stored away and out of sight; but not before the entire staff of servants left the house in fright.

Screen Shot 2017-12-01 at 12.11.46.png

Another story claimed the curse was the cause of The Titanic’s fate, with the Mummy having been on board at the time when the tragedy occurred. However, this was nonsense. It was on display in the British Museum then. But, like many an urban folk tale, the myth was embellished considerably, quoted in papers and magazines as being a genuine ghost story – and all in an era when spiritualism was reaching levels of hysteria.

Bertram-Fletcher-Robinson.jpgBetram Fletcher Robinson

What could be more sinister than an Egyptian Mummy’s ghostly curse, and one that circulated long before Howard Carter made his own discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, with all the myths abounding after that, when many of those involved on the dig met with sudden tragic ends … as did the journalist, Betram Robinson Fletcher, who’d set about debunking the myth of the Unlucky Mummy, despite a serious warning from no other than Arthur Conan Doyle, who said, after the tragedy ~

“It was caused by Egyptian ‘elementals’ … because Mr Robinson had begun an investigation of the stories of the mummy’s malevolence. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty if this is true … but I warned Mr Robinson … I told him he was tempting fate by pursuing his enquiries …The immediate cause of death was typhoid fever, but that is the way in which the elementals guarding the mummy might act.”

Have you been to the British Museum. Have you observed this malevolent force yourself? Have you felt a little feverish? Well, whatever the truth of the Unlucky Mummy, I love the fact that its story is now engrained in London’s history… one of the most exotic and mysterious of characters.