Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Sadness of the Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House in New South Wales, Australia, is an impressive hulk. With over 7 million visitors each year, it provides a venue not just for opera –  as its name suggests  but also ballet, symphonies and theatre companies.

A magnificent structure, and known the world over as a great architectural wonder. Yet there's a sad history hidden beneath its glossy tiles.

The Sad Story of Jon Utzon

The mind behind the design is Copenhagen born Jon Utzon, and was inspired by the simple act of peeling an orange: the 14 shells of the building, if combined, would form a perfect sphere.

From 1937 he studied architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and in 1957 entered a competition to design the Opera House. He unexpectedly won despite the fact that it was his first non-domestic design and his entry did not meet the contest criteria; his submissions were little more than preliminary drawings. One of the Judges described it as genius, and so began the foundations  literally – to a magnificent piece of art.

Halfway through its construction, in 1965, escalating costs of the project led to the Minister of Public Works ceasing payments to Utzon, forcing him to resign as chief architect in 1966. He secretly left the country days later.

According to sources, the entire project resulted in a cost overrun of 1,400 per cent.

Finally, in 1973, the Opera House was completed, and opened by Elizabeth II, Queen of Australia (Queen of the UK, no less!)

The architect, Jon Utzon, was not invited to the ceremony, nor was his name mentioned...

In March 2003 thirty years after its opening – Utzon was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney for his work on the Opera House, despite the controversy surrounding its early construction. On his behalf, Utzon's son, Jan, accepted the award as the architect himself was too ill to travel to Australia. Utzon was also made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) and given the Keys to the City of Sydney (this was back in 1985).

He was then involved in redesigning areas of the Opera House, particularly the Reception Hall, and later in 2003 he received the Pritzker Prize Architecture's highest honour, considered to be one of the world's premier architecture prizes and is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of architecture.

In March 2006, Queen Elizabeth II opened the western colonnade addition to the building. At the opening ceremony his son took his place, saying his father "is too old by now to take the long flight to Australia. But he lives and breathes the Opera House, and as its creator he just has to close his eyes to see it."

At the age of 90, following a series of operations, Utzon died of a heart attack, having never returned to Australia after his swift exit in 1966.

He never saw his complete works.

The Sydney Opera House Specifications

The roofs of the House are covered with 1,056,006 glossy white and matte cream tiles. Swedish-made, and despite their self-cleaning nature, they still have to be suitably maintained and replaced occasionally.

The building contains 150 tons of concrete, takes a height of 67 metres (221 feet), a width of 182 metres (597 feet), and sports 20,245 metres (66,420 feet) of glass!

Covering 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) of land, it is 183 metres (605 feet) long and about 120 metres (388 feet) wide at its widest point.

It is supported on 588 concrete piers sunk up to 25 metres (82 feet) below sea level, and its power supply is equivalent to that of a town with a population of 25,000.

All photographs are my own, taken from my travels in 2008.

Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.

Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook:

Monday, 6 May 2013

Trying out Flash Fiction: "Neighbourhood Watch"

Flash fiction has been around for a long time, and until recently wasn’t something that interested me. An opportunity came up, so I took it. And it was fun. A week after finishing the final edit of my first attempt, it was accepted for publication by Books of the Dead Press for their website. It’s called Neighbourhood Watch.

Go and read it, let me know what you think.

Having my head wrapped around The Shadow Fabric, a work-in-progress with a word count of 100k, it was a welcome break to tackle something smaller. In this instance, the requested flash fiction was 400 words.

From inception to Neighbourhood Watch

Twitter is an ideal place to meet like-minded people, and is where I met a guy called Viking Beard. Though I don’t think he came into this world with that name – David Eccles would be on his birth certificate. He tweeted a link to Books of the Dead Press, who'd featured his flash fiction, The Teeth Police. It’s a great story and inspired me to give it a shot.

With a flashing cursor and the echoes of a voice saying “And if you notice, everyone else’s bin lid is down” I began writing. Over a few days it grew, shrank, and grew again into a first draft. Then, the most important part: the series of redrafts. And this is where my editing technique, Burn Your Words, came into play.

This technique, I swear, was why it was successful. Writing is all about editing.

Shortly after submitting it to BOTD Press, I received an email from the editor, James Roy Daley, saying he loved my story and that I have a clean writing style. Apparently it was fine as it was –  my piece needed no further editing (which was a massive compliment in itself), and he wished to feature it on their site. He did. I was chuffed, to say the least. I didn’t tell him it was my first attempt at writing flash fiction. Though I’ve since owned up.

Having written, successfully, my first flash piece I know I’ll be writing more. I think there may be an addiction in the vein…

What is Flash Fiction?

According to Wiki, flash fiction is "...a style of fictional literature or fiction of extreme brevity. There is no widely accepted definition of the length of the category. Some self-described markets for flash fiction impose caps as low as 300 words, while others consider stories as long as 1,000 words to be flash fiction."

Flash, by definition, is something that moves or passes very quickly. And this is precisely what it is when linked with fiction: it’s a short, short story. Sometimes known as micro, sudden, mini, furious, fast, skinny, quick, or even postcard fiction.

It is not associated with Flash Gordon, or the DC Comic superhero Flash. Nor has it anything to do with detergent.

There are ‘arguments’ of a word count: it can be as short as a tweet (140 characters), or as long as what most competitions ask for: 1,500 words –  which to me is your typical short story. Flash could mean a page, which is somewhere around 300-400 words. For some it's 200, or even 800. Yes, it varies.

In case earlier you didn't click the link to BOTD Press site, here is the story in question:

Neighbourhood Watch

     I should’ve known there would be trouble with my neighbour when she ended our first conversation with: “And if you notice, everyone else’s bin lid is down.”
     I’d only just moved in, so of course there’d be more than the usual amount of rubbish.
    After that, there was the time I saw her nosing in my front window. Tiptoes, and everything. Her husband looked embarrassed, strolling away, ignoring her. She hadn’t realised I was walking down the road. He did. I wonder if he ever told her.
     Last week I spied them talking in hushed voices, eyeing my car. How was I to know she’d painted her name on the tarmac with invisible ink? Her car was further down the street. Was I in her parking space?
     A few days ago she’d called me by my name—my real name. Who had she been speaking with? I use several aliases. No one, apart from my mother, knows my real name.
     The day before yesterday there were scratching noises from next door, and I imagined her with an ear to the wall. No matter where I went in the house, the noises followed me. Had she somehow discovered what I do for a living? I sometimes take my work home with me, yet I’ve always been careful.
     Up until yesterday.
     I’d had a busy day, and returned home from a job that hadn’t turned out as expected. I leapt from my car, dropping the envelope. A few 50s spilled out. I’m such an idiot. When I snatched them up, I knew next door’s curtains twitched. Also, I realised my clothes were spattered in blood. It wasn’t mine.
     This morning there were footprints on my kitchen floor. Small ones.
     Immediately I pictured my neighbour on tiptoes, and remembered being amazed those tiny feet could support her large frame. Evidently she had a backdoor key to my house, left from the previous owner perhaps. Who knows? Again, I’d been an idiot: I should’ve changed the locks.
     A few hours ago I snuck in next door. I didn’t need a key, it’s what I do for a living, and I’m good at it. The two of them—I don’t know their names—died quietly.
     I’m always careful when disposing of my jobs. And tomorrow, my bin lid will be down.

Did you enjoy the flash fiction?

Here are the opening pages of The Shadow Fabric

Unable to blink, I shot a quick glance around the dining room. My heartbeat stormed my head. I had to get out of there, I had to leave the other men to it. These brothers had a lot of hate to throw around.
       The black fabric draped across the table and chair, tracing every contour. It flowed over the wood like liquid. Hugging tight whatever it touched, it turned everything into a shadow, a silhouette, a featureless dark blot of its former self. The way it moved defied physics.
       My throat clamped around a cry that came out a whimper.
       I had no idea what Stanley intended. The strange fabric didn’t travel far from his hand, and where the material ended, it rippled and pulsed, pulling further away, yet unable to claim more of its surroundings. The more it unfolded, the dimmer the room became. My skin itched as it sapped the light.
       Victor and Stanley stood facing each other: Victor, with his eyebrows pushed together, the ornate blade clenched in a fist, and Stanley, with his jaw tight and a twitch at the edge of his mouth. In Stanley’s grasp the fabric quivered, its material reminding me of the way midday sunlight reflects from the surface of a swimming pool, the ripples a criss-crossing of movement. It was peaceful to behold, hypnotic almost. But this thing was dark and stifling to observe.
       There was nothing remotely tranquil about this.
       I wanted to leave them to whatever absurd game this was…yet my feet refused to move. The familiar ache in my knee rushed through my body, drumming in my skull, telling me I was useless. Since the car accident the knee often was useless. I couldn’t leave Victor, I knew that. The man looked as terrified as I felt.
       “I hate you, Victor.” Stanley’s nose was no more than a thumb’s width from his brother’s.
       “No,” Victor gasped. His hand shook, his knuckles whitening around the knife. “Don’t!”
       I didn’t know who or what Victor spoke to. Was it Stanley? The shadows? The knife?
       In a blur of darkness, shadows coiling his arm, the blade slammed into Stanley’s chest. Blood spread and he staggered back.
       Victor’s eyes widened. Clutching the weapon, he stumbled from the fireplace, away from his brother. The knife slid out, sucking at the wound. A jet of scarlet misted the air, and then oozed.
       I could only see darkness…so much darkness, and my lungs went tight.
       The fabric—the Shadow Fabric—closed around Stanley’s buckling legs.
       The remaining material swept from the table, away from the violin case. Black tentacles whipped and grabbed Stanley. The darkness enfolded him as his eyes glazed over. It dragged his body along the carpet a short distance and tightened its grip.
       My jaw muscles twitched as I clenched my teeth.
       The Fabric began to shrink. Still in its embrace, the last I saw of Stanley was his dead stare.
       “Vic…” I whispered, and gripped the back of the sofa.
       My boss dragged his eyes away from the retreating shadows and stared at the knife. Behind him, the mantel clock hammered out several seconds before the weapon slipped from his hand onto the carpet, where it bounced with a red splash.
       He fell to his knees. “Oh God.”
       The Fabric vanished.
       I dashed across the room as much as my leg would allow and staggered to a halt beside him. Sobs wracked his frame as I grasped his bony shoulder.
       On the table next to where Stanley had been standing was the violin case, still open like a crooked yawn.
       A million thoughts tumbled through my head, but I couldn’t find the words. I’d been Victor’s chauffeur for no more than a day, and already I’d witnessed him stab his own brother. What the hell?
       I don’t know how long I remained like that, holding him, with light creeping reluctantly back into the room. Victor shouldn’t have been surprised that the shadows had taken his brother. After all, those shadows—the darkness—are associated with all that is dead…or should be dead.
       Silence clogged the air like we were buried in a tomb.
       For some of us, there is a moment in our lives where all we’ve believed real is whipped out from under us and we’re left to survive in a world that’s a lie. All the things in life we’ve taken for granted are sheathed in a weak veneer, behind which stands the shadows.
       For me, this was one of those moments.

Mark Cassell's dark fantasy novel is available
from all bookshops and also Amazon.


Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.

Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook:

Friday, 3 May 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

This will sound like fiction, yet it's not. It's a true story. And it has nothing to do with my novel, The Shadow Fabric (nor Metallica, incidentally).

With unexpected chiming, the alarm clock’s relentless bell yanked my family from sleep. This strange awakening leaving everyone bemused, which later would leave us all to question if it was a sign that a recently acquired possession was in fact possessed itself.

Many people follow beliefs in the unexplained, whether of superstitions, UFO phenomena or the supernatural. Yet, if we are honest, have we not prayed sometime in our lives when things have gone wrong on a personal level? If we're frightened for a loved one, we pray for help. Or at least have done so, at some time in our lives. For a moment – albeit brief – we'd cling onto a belief that in itself is unexplained.

Before I go on, I must add that I follow no religion. My faith is in the air I breathe, nothing more. This story centres around my mother, whose passion as a Jehovah's Witness is so strong that on one occasion it seems that her prayers saved the family from the unknown. A spirit, perhaps. An evil entity, a demon...

To this day, I still do not know. None of us know.

In the early hours of the morning, and for no apparent reason, the wind-up alarm clock went off. Knowing it was set for the usual 6 a.m. wake up, my parents put it down to a freak occurrence.

For the following few nights the very same thing happened, though at different times. No set pattern it seemed, and having now occurred more than once it had become somewhat irksome. Each and every time my parents failed to make anything of it.

Eventually, my father mumbled into his pillow, “Something weird is happening.” With that, he fell back asleep.

Wide awake now, my mother laid there thinking if anything in the house had changed. Whether there was anything new that had been ‘introduced’ into the home. Finally, she thought of recent purchases and whether anything significant had been bought. There was something, and it was in the corner of their room: a purple cardigan. Plain weaving, nothing too fanciful, and inoffensive in every way. She'd bought it a few days ago in a charity shop, and having since washed it, now it hung from a hanger on the wardrobe door.

Alongside these thoughts it was as if that cardigan took on a whole new meaning. Hanging there silently on the other side of the room, symbolising something foreign in our home; unwanted… Indeed, unknown. In immediate response she said a prayer, and strong in faith she asked for a sign: to confirm that this item of clothing was indeed the problem. Such is her faith.

On that instant, the alarm clanged almost with a renewed fury. Sparing not a second, she leapt from the bed, grabbing the cardigan from where it hung and took the stairs two at a time. Once outside, in the garden, she threw it in the dustbin.

After that the alarm clock remained silent throughout the nights to follow.

We can all recall those times when as a child we were afraid of a t-shirt or jumper hanging on the opposite side of the bedroom, appearing like a person’s silhouette. As a silent spectre in the shadows of a corner familiar to us during the day, yet morphing come night time; becoming a gaping chasm of unknown depths.

That is a child’s natural innocence: an imagination sparked by all things new in this world. By comparison, through the eyes of an adult things can become unnatural – supernatural – and here it appears that my mother’s faith kept us safe.

On a final note: Metallica's For Whom the Bell Tolls can be found here.

Author photo (c)Christopher Shoebridge
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, fantasy, and SF stories have featured in several anthologies and ezines.

His debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is a supernatural story and is available from Amazon.

Twitter: @Mark_Cassell Facebook: