Autumn Colours

NEW IN THE SHOP: Original art! Angels, Tikis, Flower studies
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In this newsletter:
*** An Unexpected treat
*** News & Current projects
*** Cool Things Friends Do: "Some strange Felicity" CD Review
*** Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith

An Unexpected Treat

Last month, it became painfully evident that I was very urgently due for an update of my mattress. I've only had it for some five years or so – at the time, with my residency status still up in the air, I went for the cheapest in the shop, but now I decided it was time for something real. A good night's sleep is not something one should skimp on.

My first thought was to get a futon, but after doing a bit of research, which included lying on a good number of different types and brands of mattresses all around Wellington and Masterton, I decided that really, what I was going to be happy with for the next 20 years or so was a latex mattress. They don't come cheap, so I swallowed my pride and called my parents, with a view to sounding things out to see if they'd be willing to make a contribution. I have never been very successful at deceiving my mother about anything, so she spontaneously offered to pay for the whole thing, before I could even ask. Thanks, mum. :D

A quick look on the internet had revealed that the only manufacturer of futons in New Zealand is located in Auckland, and they also manufacture latex mattresses. Since none of the available options in the local shops had been convincing, and I am very hesitant to buy a mattress on mail order, I eventually decided to just get in the car and drive up there.

I figured that while I was on my way, I might as well stay the night at my favourite hot spring near Matamata, and satisfy my curiosity about any movie making activities at the same time. Then it turned out that the mattress shop was literally just across the road from my friend and fellow harper, Robyn Sutherland, whom I had stayed with the first time I came to Auckland. So I popped her an email to see if she had time for a cup of tea. What had first seemed like a bit of a bother, eventually turned into quite a fun trip.

On the way back, I stayed the night at another favourite campsite near Raglan – the main purpose, really, was to pick up some of the best face cream in New Zealand, available only from the Herbal Dispensary in Raglan, but when I woke up at the campsite the next morning, the day dawned so bright and sunny, that I spontaneously decided to spend the day and stay another night.

It is a gorgeous little spot of earth, nestled in a fold in the slopes of Mt Karioi, with a little river running through, and a wide empty surfer's beach just down the footpath. Usually when I get there, the weather is rotten – I have been hanging out to catch a nice sunny day, with nothing else to do than being there, for the last seven years or so. Finally, my chance! I grabbed it with both hands.

The two crusty old bachelors who run the place, seem to have become quite attached to me. One of them, a Maori fellow who appears to be more kaitiaki than owner, is now quite noticeably getting on in years. There is a strong hint of Tom Bombadil about him, when he stalks around the site in his fishing boots of a morning, making sure that everything is in order.

I did a bit of sketching that day, and a bit of dozing in the sun, then walked down to the beach, and did a bit of looking at things, and a bit of beachwalking, and took a few photos too. By the time I got back to the site it was getting dark, so I cooked myself a meal from my emergency ration of noodles and canned tomato sauce (sometimes it's good to be prepared!), then crawled into the back of my car to sleep.

The next day – still sunny and gorgeous – I lingered for a while along the windy and very scenic dirt road that leads back to Raglan, then picked up my magic face cream, and drove, and drove and drove. There was still time for a brief stopover at Tongariro National Park, just enough for a short sunset walk which rewarded me with a display of light and evening colours, stunning even by New Zealand standards.

Meanwhile, the new bed has arrived – it should improve my sleep rhythm, since I am now positively looking forward to crashing as a major highlight of my day, but then again, getting out of bed in the morning has just gotten that much harder. :D

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Foliage studies – London Art College assignment

News & Current Projects

Despite the spontaneous mattress break, this month has been quite a productive one. Most importantly, I have finally found the time to sort out those audio streaming buttons on my website. Have a listen to a selection of tracks from my Travels in Middle-earth CD. The other albums will follow suit in good time.

Even more importantly, Asni the Harper has now arrived in the digital age for good: If you liked what you've heard, you can now download the album, or a selection of individual tracks, from the CD Baby website! I know, it's been a long time coming. I still think owning the real physical album is nicer, but downloading it is definitely speedier! :D

Depending on how the downloads go, I will be happy to make the 700 Years of Pop album available in digital format as well, but first, I would like to recoup my signup fee. Hopefully it won't take too long – I already got some dollars sitting in my account!

Artwise, I've got quite a bit of work done this month. The series of still lives I started last winter now spans all four seasons, and what's even better, the newest still life is for sale! I have currently listed it on Ebay, or you can also contact me directly if you are interested.

The latest London Art College assignment was to produce some quick sketches of foliage, based on a photo. I took some shots of the greenery behind my house, printed them out black and white, and had so much fun with it that I wound up doing three. They really do look best at thumbnail size, but then the whole point of the exercise was, not to be meticulously detailed, but to grasp and quickly sketch out the bigger picture, so to speak.

When I was up in Raglan, I got out my sketchbook and tackled some real life three dimensonal greenery – the very selfsame manuka bush which I have already sketched some years ago, when I was just at the start of this mission of mine to learn how to wield a pencil. The first sketch is far more meticulous (and I remember it took me ages, and I ran out of time to finish the rest of it). The contorted shapes of these windblown bushes have always fascinated me, and this time, I decided to focus more on the general shape and movement of those lines, rather than getting lost in meticulous detail. I wouldn't say I like one or the other approach better, but different they are, in any case.

I also participated in a contest! I think the last time I did that was in high school, and my image got selected for the second round, but that's as far as I ever got with art contests. But along came the "One Cat, One Fruit, One Clock" contest on DeviantArt, organized by Fotolia, a stock photography site. As the title implies, the task was to combine at least three incongruent photos, supplied by the site: the work had to incorporate one cat, one fruit and one clock.

This appealed to my inner surrealist, and the "clock" part tied in nicely with a project that has been churning at the back of my mind for a little while now – something to do with time. Photomanipulation is not something I do very often, so I didn't have much of a plan when I started playing around with the source images in photoshop. But soon I found some shapes that pointed me in a direction, and a few late night sessions later, I'd come up with an image and a title – I am not sure which is the greater creative achievement! :D

Participation in this contest was massive, and some really and truly sophisticated and inventive artwork was produced. I didn't expect to win (and I didn't), but it's a neat addition to my portfolio. What's more, since the entry wasn't selected, I'm free to submit it elsewhere. Who knows, one day it might turn out to be the first step on that project of mine which keeps churning at the back of my mind.

I have now all but finalized my travel itinerary. The schedule is as follows: 31 May - arrive in London. 3 June, late afternoon - travel to Rutland to stay with friends. 5 & 6 June: pay the Bronte sisters a visit in Haworth, Yorkshire. 7 June, travel to Cardiff and spend the night, 8 June, return to London in the evening. 9 June, take the early morning train to Brugge and spend the afternoon sketching, & catching up with old friend. 10 June, travel on to Utrecht.

11 June, 2 pm: Play some tunes at the Tolkien Shop in Leiden, and officially launch the 2012 Middle Earth New Zealand calendar. Yay! The calendars went in the mail last Friday – they got done by a local printer in nearby Greytown this year, and I am really very pleased with how they've turned out. No more Vistaprint! CDs and "Fantastic Journeys" art prints will also be available for sale and signing!

Still 11 June, spend the night in Utrecht. 12 June, travel on to Bremen. 14 June, continue to Berlin. 16 June, catch the plane to Stockholm to visit more old friends, and attend the Eurocon. 19 June (eve), back to Berlin to be there for my mother's birthday on the 20th. After that, it gets a bit fuzzy, but I will be mostly in Germany (except for a short trip to Poland), and probably mostly in and around Berlin. Take the plane back to New Zealand on 8 July and arrive here on the 10th.

There will be a hiatus with this newsletter for the next couple of months – I highly doubt that I will get round to producing a full fledged version at the end of May, which is why I have made this a double edition, but I may flick you a short news update. There will definitely be no newsletter in June, while I'm travelling, but expect to hear the full story, along with travel photos and sketches, from July onwards.

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Manuka shapes, Mt Karioi, Raglan

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Cool Things Friends Do: "Some Strange Felicity" by Sospiri Ardenti

Lately, I have been casting the definition of "friend" quite broadly (as in "Facebook friend", perhaps), which proved to be necessary in order to continue this section as a regular feature. So I am quite happy that this time round, I get to introduce a new CD recording featuring a genuine real-life friend and former flatmate, Julie Comparini.

"Some Strange Felicity" is a selection of music associated with Shakespeare's The Tempest and Twelfth Night – both of them plays in which the performance of music plays quite an integral part in the plot. The album does not just present a collection of musical settings of the songs which appear in those plays, but puts them in a dramatic context, complete with spoken scenes and incidental music.

Julie originally studied Cognitive Science and Linguistics in Berkeley, California, and did some theatre training, before she decided to focus on early music performance, and came to Bremen to study voice with Harry van der Kamp. Her activities in Bremen have included helping to organize the queerfilm festival, and she has recently spent some time in Paris to do research into the life and works of a forgotten woman singer, composer, and uhm, what was it, pirate? Or something along those lines. Honestly, I'm not making this up.

Being a female alto singer in early music is not always easy, since it is one of the distinguishing features of the genre that alto parts are often taken by men – according to the dogma of "historical accuracy", but quite disregarding the fact that there were plenty of female professional singers around throughout the Renaissance and baroque periods. At one point, Julie told me about a project to create an alternate professional identy, impersonating a countertenor, just to see what would happen. I am not sure what became of that – though she does make quite a convincing young man, with the proper makeup and attitude – but I can see how the part of Viola in "Twelfth Night" would appeal to her!

This varied background comes through in her insightful program notes, with details of the various versions of those two plays, which have been kept in the repertory, and readapted, for some 400 years now – and also in the ensemble's approach to performance. Besides Julie, Sospiri Ardenti consists of Elen Delahanty (recorders and voice), Jurgen de Bruyn (lute & archlute), and Geert van Gele (recorders, harpsichord and sound recording). Together, they cut loose in a way that makes one notice that really, there is an unbroken tradition linking Dowland with the Beatles.

Music serves quite different functions in each play: The songs and dances in Twelfth Night are mainly performed by the comical team, for light relief. They seem to have included several tunes which must have been well known at the time, but date back a generation or two to John Dowland and his contemporaries. The recognition effect was probably very much part of the game! There are also some more lyrical pieces, including the strain with the dying fall, which Duke Orsino alludes to in his famous opening lines, "If music be the food of love, play on! Give me excess of it."

In The Tempest, which is very much one of the great-grandmothers of the fantasy-and-special-effects genre, the songs and music (performed mostly by the air spirits and Ariel) serve to evoke the storm which sets the story in motion, and the eerie enchanted atmosphere of Prospero's island. Of course, the recording includes Ben Johnson's well known settings of "Full fathom five" and "Where the bee sucks", which may well have been part of the original performance (and are beautifully performed here). Other pieces were part of a later revision, which wrote a few new characters into the play, to notch up the romance. One of them is an echo piece between a lost Fernando, and Ariel, who, trying to lure him, promises him "some strange felicity".

The record is published by Kattenberg recordings, Belgium, and is available on Amazon, CD Baby, or directly from Julie's website.

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Elisabeth Sladen with Tom Baker in 'Dr Who: Terror of the Zygons', 1975 Elisabeth Sladen with David Tennant Sarah Jane sorts things out: still from The Sarah Jane Adventures, season 2: The Mark of the Berserker (2008)

Sarah Jane and her Doctors :: Sarah Jane sorts things out. Images © BBC

Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith

Further in my explorations of the Whoiverse, I have been meaning to pick up the Sarah Jane Adventures next. Little did I suspect that by the time I got round to it, it would be to write an obituary for Elisabeth Sladen – the actress died of cancer, on Tuesday two weeks ago, aged 63. I get all teary eyed as I write this. I don't usually have such an emotional reaction to the news of the death of an actor or celebrity I have never had occasion to meet in real life, much as I may admire them. But she was something special.

I only got to meet her, and the character she has become so firmly identified with, such a short while ago – and then it was not Sarah Jane's young self as the best loved Doctor's companion ever, alongside the third and the fourth Doctors, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. No, it was her appearance in School Reunion, alongside David Tennant's 10th Doctor and Billie Piper's Rose, as an older and mature Sarah Jane, who does what she has always done – ask questions – but has somewhat failed to settle back into normal life after the fourth Doctor dumped her in Aberdeen, instead of South Croydon, thirty years ago. And I have to say, the ensuing cat fight between the old and the new favourite companion, when she trumps Rose by telling her she's seen the Loch Ness monster, has got to be one of the absolute shining highlights of the entire 40 odd year's worth of Doctor Who seasons.

Of course, they become best friends thereafter, and have a good laugh at the Doctor and his oddities. How could they not. Because, as I am catching up with the older seasons – beginning with The Time Warrior, Sarah Jane's first appearance, when she famously refuses to make the Doctor a cup of coffee, and later tries to incite the kitchen staff of the medieval castle she has been taken off to, to feminist revolt – it becomes increasingly clear that without Sarah Jane Smith, there would likely be no Rose Tyler. One even suspects that without Elisabeth Sladen, there might be no Billie Piper.

Some people who aim to change the world are very noisy about it. They make big speeches and a lot of fuss, demand attention, and everyone knows who they are. Then there are others, and I think of them as the yeast people. They quietly but stubbornly carry on with the necessary work, and one may hardly be aware of them, at least not as world changers. But then 30 years later, boof, the dough has risen and the world has a different shape.

I think Elisabeth Sladen must have been one of those. When she started on Doctor Who in 1973, all sorts of things were in the air. In an elevator in Indiana, two young academics met, who would go on to co-write The Madwoman in the Attic, an academic study of 19th century literature written by women, which wound up becoming part of 20th century pop culture. Ursula Le Guin had recently shot to fame with books like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Tombs of Atuan. All the while, astronauts had been busy flying to the moon – all of them male, of course. Of course??

There had been a "groundswell of comment", as one of the old Doctor Who producers put it, about the propensity of the Doctor's companions to wrench their ankle and scream "Doctor". So they were actively on the lookout for someone a bit more spunky and self-reliant, when they hit upon Elisabeth Sladen. But at the end of the day, it was the actress who took responsibility for the character, fleshing out the cardboard material offered by the scriptwriters, into a living breathing woman who consistently refused to drop back into the old pattern of helpless Doctor screaming, and needing to be rescued.

She was no handcuff wielding high heeled and mini skirted vamp, either. Her character never once saw the need to wave her sex appeal in anyone's face, in order to come across as a "strong woman". Small, slim and graceful – and very pretty, but in an unspectacular sort of way – Sarah Jane Smith seemed, if anything, rather childlike. A lot of the time, her battle was to be taken seriously by her male companions, and preventing them from trying to protect her. Because she was also intensely curious, and deeply convinced that where there was a problem, there would also be a solution – if only one could think of it in time. And in a tradition that was going to be picked up by the new Doctor Who, it was often she who saved the day with her quick brains.

It was not via a newspaper headline, or even the usual Facebook post, that I heard of Elisabeth Sladen's death. One of the young girls whose work I am following on my DeviantArt account, posted about it in her journal. Heartfelt tributes have appeared all over the internet. Tom Baker's first reaction on his blog was "Impossible! Impossible!". He had just signed a contract, he wrote, to do a series of audio adventures with his former onscreen companion, and hadn't even known that she was ill. She was always such a private person, he said, never wanted any fuss. And then he wrote about the good times they had together on set. I suppose he felt she would have wanted it that way.

Watching the audio commentaries and interviews which come with the Doctor Who DVD editions, it is remarkable with how much affection everyone who has worked with her, speaks of Elisabeth Sladen. The Tenth Doctor's stammering nervousness, when he unexpectedly runs into his old companion in "School Reunion", apparently required no acting – David Tennant has all but publicly admitted that he had a major crush on Sarah Jane when he was five, and he has been raving about what a great experience it was to work with Lis Sladen. Her own presence in interviews is always unassuming. She has a lot to say about the character and the series – not all of it flattering, especially when it comes to gender politics – and she says it with a fine sense of humour. Just as you would expect from Sarah Jane.

And now there is a new generation of kids who will grow up admiring her as a role model. After "School Reunion", Russell T Davies, also a long time fan of Sarah Jane's, approached Elisabeth Sladen about starring in her very own spin-off series. The Sarah Jane Adventures are slotted as a children's programme, but Russell T wouldn't be Russell T if he hadn't endowed his scripts with his typical brand of keenly observed psychological realism, which makes the show just as rewarding to watch as an adult. Perhaps more so, if you are a particular kind of adult.

The story picks up about a year or so after "School Reunion". Sarah Jane has made a fresh start as a freelance alien hunter, out of her, ahem, *attic* in Ealing. She has grown herself an alien supercomputer, whom she quaintly calls "Mr Smith", and she still has K9 for emotional comfort, even though for the first two seasons at least, the robot dog is busy plugging the black hole which was originated by the CERN particle accelerator in Switzerland some years ago (if you ever wondered why the world didn't get sucked down a black hole that day, well, this is exactly what happened, so now you know).

She leads a rather lonely life – after traveling with the Doctor, no other man has really cut it for her – until she is befriended by some neighbourhood kids who become her assistant alien hunters. Her ample collection of alien artefacts includes a sonic lipstick or two, which she wields with just as much conviction and expertise as any of the Doctors ever did their screwdriver. There are explosions, bog-eyed monsters, car chases, and lots and lots of running. But there is also the loneliness and vulnerability of an older woman who has no one to talk to about the amazing things she has seen and experienced – the neighbours regard her with suspicion, and would doubtless have her locked away as mad, if they had any inkling of the things that go on in that attic. At one point, the mother of the neighbourhood girl she has befriended, gleefully calls the police on her on a charge of kidnapping. Not precisely kid's stuff, that!

At sixty-some years old, Elisabeth Sladen was still just as graceful and beautiful as she had ever been. And some of the things she had to do in her new series, were really quite physical. Running, explosions, car chases – not typically the kind of movie that would star a woman of her age, unless it was intended as a parody. But no one would dare laugh at that Sarah Jane Smith!

She is the kind of woman a teenage girl would have a crush on, the mother figure who tells you that yes, you can be like her one day, too. Who lets you know it is ok to play with matchbox cars rather than barbie dolls, or like woodwork better than sewing. That it is ok to want to become a doctor, a scientist, or an artist, instead of a nurse, a secretary, or someone's muse. And that you can choose a solitary but autonomous life, instead of one crowded with family and social obligations, and "being there for others", and still hold your head up high.

In a media world which is saturated with hero figures who are young, strong and sexy – be they female or male – this fragile, wise, graceful woman has shown us, once again, that saving the world is not something that only superheroes can do. And you don't even have to be a boy. I didn't have the privilege to grow up watching Sarah Jane on the telly, but where would I be without the Eva Lotta Lisanders and Colonel Wilma Deerings who I identified with, or looked up to, as a young girl.

Rest in peace, Elisabeth Sladen, and thank you so, so much. Rock on, Sarah Jane Smith, and live forever!

Arohanui, from Asni

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