Monday, 31 December 2012


Happy New Year!
This is the Mari Llwyd from the Chepstow morris side, which is traditionally taken from door to door in Wales on New Year's Eve.
Calennig means New Year gift.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Female Characters in Middle Earth

I've been thinking about The Hobbit - I could hardly avoid it at the moment, with the new film out - and what a very masculine story it is. A male hobbit, thirteen male dwarves, and a male wizard go on a quest. About the only woman in the film is Galadriel, and I'm not sure she's in the book.
And today I found that someone has actually worked out the ratio of male to female characters in Tolkein (there is only one dwarf woman mentioned, who is the mother of Kili and Fili - she's called Dis).

The original graph can be found at and it boils down to 19% female characters to 81% male characters.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

"Captain's Share! I Bespeak Her!"

I've been watching The Crimson Pirate over the holidays, and remembering why it is one of my favourite pirate films of all time. Burt Lancaster and Nick Cravat swinging on ropes and bouncing around all over the Italian fishing village that was standing in for the Caribbean, daring escapes and double crosses, and even a hot air balloon! It's all great good fun.
Light-hearted or not, from the first moment Eva Bartok as the beautiful Consuela sets foot on the deck of Captain Vallo's ship, she is at risk of rape.
"Why did you bolt your cabin door last night?" Vallo (Burt Lancaster) asks her.
"If you know it was bolted, you must have tried it, and if you tried it, you know why it was bolted," she says, having already pulled a knife on two pirates who were leering at her.
And later, after a couple more twists of the plot, she and her father are the pirates' prisoners - so they put her in a swing, up in the rigging, and set up a greasy pole to it. Whoever climbs the greasy pole, gets the girl - whether she wants it or not.
Captain Vallo stops that, but it's all presented as "a bit of fun".

The Crimson Pirate isn't the only film with this attitude. Okay, it was made in 1951, and The Black Swan (one of my other most favourite pirate films of all time) was made in 1943. That's where the title for this blog post comes from. In the first scene where Tyrone Power meets Maureen O'Hara, he sees her only as part of the plunder from the castle his men have stormed to rescue him. He claims her for himself, knocks her out cold, and then dumps her on the floor like a sack of potatoes.
Later in the film, he attempts to woo her in a more gentlemanly way - but that doesn't stop him from kidnapping her when it appears she's about to marry the wrong man! The boyfriend turns out to be one of the villains of the piece, though, so that's all right!

Kirk Douglas was doing the same sort of thing in 1959, when he made The Vikings. Again, it's one of my favourite films of all time - Vikings storming a medieval castle by throwing axes at the gates and climbing up them! Wonderful stuff! Tony Curtis almost getting eaten by crabs while tied to a stake in a rock pool! And Einar (Kirk) capturing Janet Leigh, who he keeps aboard his ship while the Vikings party - and gets drunk, and rows over to the ship to have his evil way with her. It's fortunate that Tony Curtis is a gentleman, and manages to rescue her.

So, three films that I grew up with, and love dearly, despite their flaws when it comes to women. It would be nice to think that film makers have become more enlightened since the 1950s - but I'm not sure there's been all that much improvement, or we wouldn't have something like the Beschdel Test to see how fairly women are portrayed now.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Women in Fandom

Women go to SF conventions.
Women have been going to conventions for a very long time - but over the past year, I've been hearing reports, mostly from the US, that women are not as welcome at conventions as they might be. The complaint, mostly from young white males, is that girls are "fake geeks" who only go to conventions and dress in skimpy costumes in order to get a boyfriend, and they don't actually know about the characters or the TV series or the comics.

This is an old refrain.
Thirty years ago, David Gerrold had a regular column in Starlog magazine, and in one of his columns he tackled the complaint that women were ruining fandom. Again, this was mostly in the US, and at that time it was mostly directed against Star Trek fans, who were overwhelmingly women. They weren't "real fans", and they were spoiling things for the true fans - who were all male, of course.
"Look, I'll tell you how women are 'ruining fandom'," David Gerrold said, and he filled the rest of his column with all the ways that women in fandom had improved things. It's a long time since I read the column (I kept it in a scrapbook for years, but all the scrapbooks had to go some years ago), but the main points I remember were that, because of women who were Star Trek fans, it had become normal for conventions to raise money for named charities, something that the old SF Cons had never thought of doing. They had also arranged blood donations in the US.
In that one column, he demolished any argument against women in fandom that existed at the time - and maybe someone should dig it out and repeat it, loudly, to this new generation of young men who don't like to see girls being interested in the same things as they are.

The "skimpy costumes" thing seems to be another problem for the complainers. But there's a point to be made here - right back into the dawn of SF history, costumes for women characters in comics and TV and film have overwhelmingly been designed by men, for men to look at. So the costumes available for women to dress up in are overwhelmingly skimpy and sexy if they want to portray certain characters. That doesn't mean that the women are making themselves available - it means that they are portraying that character, and that is all it means.
I remember going to Star Trek Cons in the 1980s, and the good thing about those Cons was that everybody felt safe. It was a place where a woman could wear what she liked, whether it was the green Orion slave girl or Starfleet Admiral, and she wouldn't be hassled. One man who tried to hassle girls, and took some girls in skimpy costumes to his room to "photograph" them, was quickly complained about, thrown out of the convention, and banned from all subsequent conventions that those organisers would put on. And the girls went up to his room, initially, because they felt safe - because that sort of thing wouldn't happen at a convention.
This is as far from "dressing up in skimpy costumes in order to get a boyfriend" as you can get.

Besides, do these men who are complaining really consider themselves to be so irresistible to women that they think a woman would spend quite a substantial amount of money to go to the convention, and time making a costume, just to get themselves a boyfriend? Could it not possibly be because they have an interest in SF, and want to have a good time, and meet other people with the same interests as they have? I'd like to know if any of these men doing the complaining have ever been approached by a girl in a sexy costume who wants him to be her boyfriend. I would suspect that it hasn't happened.

I grew up watching Doctor Who, and Classic Star Trek and Gerry Anderson. I've read SF and fantasy by many different authors. I've watched SF films. I've written Star Trek fan fiction and made costumes. I used to go to conventions, and I may go again in the future - and I went because I had an interest in the subject, and wanted to meet other people with the same interests, and talk to them, and have fun with them.
I don't want to hear any sexist idiots telling me I have no right to be there.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Gerry Anderson

There's another chunk of my childhood gone.
Gerry Anderson has died, aged 83, the man whose various puppet series spanned the 1960s.

I was too young to remember Four Feather Falls or Torchy the Battery Boy - my first clear memory of Gerry Anderson's work was Supercar flying through the clouds. Which is all I can remember, and probably only because it was the title sequence, so I saw it every week.
Then came Fireball XL5, and I have some very clear memories of Fireball XL5 taking off along the long ramp, and Steve Zodiac and Venus riding on their floating mopeds, and Robert the Robot. I'm not sure why, but I loved Robert the Robot - I think partly because he was transparent, and he was always reliable.
Stingray was even better, with the Aquaphibians under the sea, and "Anything could happen in the next half hour!". It even had a couple of decent female characters, Marina and Atlanta. Though Marina wasn't able to speak, she was very brave.
And then there was Thunderbirds. I went to see Gerry Anderson speak at WorldCon 87, which was held in Brighton (Doris Lessing was in the same audience!) and once he started talking about Thunderbirds he could have talked all day! I liked Virgil and Thunderbird 2 best - and Thunderbird 2 had the best take off sequence, with the palm trees folding back and the ramp going up.
When I lived in Norwich, around 1990, I went to see two mime artists doing a show based on Gerry Anderson's shows. They wore the uniforms, with the Thunderbird rockets as their hats, and when Thunderbird 2 came on stage for the first time, the actor was holding two tiny palm trees in his hands (and had a big grin on his face as he bent them back during the take-off sequence!). They mixed Captain Scarlet into it, too, and their encore was Stingray chasing a Terror Fish.
I think I started growing out of Supermarionation after that, though I watched Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 and even Secret Service with Stanley Unwin. At the time, we spent our school holidays in Blackpool, and on the way in we used to pass a large building in Lytham St Anne's which had a porch that was exactly the same shape as the building in Joe 90. I think it was really something to do with Premium Bonds, but we imagined the Big Rat being in there. It was almost as exciting as being the first one to see Blackpool Tower!
We used to make Mysterons with our torches (while checking the back of Mum's wardrobe for the way through to Narnia), too.
When John Sims as the Master in Doctor Who took them to his floating aircraft carrier - and when the SHIELD aircraft carrier took off in Avengers Assemble - like many others of a certain age my first thought was "Cloudbase!"
And then Gerry Anderson started to produce live action shows, which were also more grown up - UFO and Space:1999, though Space:1999 got a bit silly. The moon managed to travel awfully fast, and though I liked Maya, the shape-changing alien, at the time, some of the plots started getting maybe a touch too fantastic towards the end. I'm afraid I wasn't too keen on the lead actor, either. Martin Landau never looked as if he was enjoying himself! Commander Straker was much more my cup of tea, especially as Ed Bishop had also done the voice for Captain Blue!
(The less said about Terrahawks, the better, I think!)

I have gone back to re-watch some episodes of all of these as an adult - and I kind of wish I hadn't. I can see huge plot holes that I didn't notice as a child - and the sexism is appalling! There's one episode of Fireball XL5 where lava is lapping round the legs of the space ship, and Venus is unable to take off because she forgot to flick one of the switches (Steve Zodiac was busy being heroic somewhere else). In Thunderbirds, International Rescue tackle a terrible fire, and they all have a little chuckle, back at Tracy Island at the end of the episode, when they discover it was caused by a woman driver!
I don't think Gerry Anderson ever lost that view of women, either - I remember an interview he gave when he was trying to bring Thunderbirds back. He said he wanted to include a woman pilot, but then described her as being pushy and annoying and wouldn't it be funny if one of the Tracy boys pushed her in the swimming pool? Back in the 60s, that sort of attitude was unexceptional, but it would be nice to think we've moved on since then.
It's the space ships and aircraft and submarines that remain in the memory, though. There's never been anything else quite like them - and nothing done today could beat Thunderbird 2 taking off, with the little palm trees bending back as the ramp goes up, could it?
And isn't it nice to think of an entire series in which being heroic isn't taking up a gun and shooting at people, but going out to rescue people trapped during disasters, using sophisticated hi-tech equipment?

FAB, Gerry Anderson. Spectrum is Green.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Doctor and the Snowmen (Spoilers)

"Good evening. I am a lizard woman from the dawn of time, and this is my wife."

The Snowmen would have been a marvellous Doctor Who Christmas special if this line had been the highlight of it - but there was far more to enjoy than that!
Strax and the memory worm....
Darkover House, where the family lived, (surely a nod to the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, who wrote a whole series of books set on the world of Darkover - which had a lot of snow)....
The Tardis parked in a cloud with a spiral staircase leading up to it....
The one word answer that made the Doctor sit up and take notice....
The nod back to Patrick Troughton and the Yetis in the Underground (and the Great Intelligence!)....

And Clara. Wonderful Clara, who wouldn't go away and leave the Doctor alone, and trusted him to help, and argued with him brilliantly. And liked to make souffles....

And finally, Evil defeated by Love - the tears of the people who loved Clara washing the snow away.

And that's got the Doctor curious again - Clara is a mystery waiting to be solved - and he's off! And the next season promises to be glorious!

Monday, 24 December 2012

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Last night I went to see The Village Quire perform little known carols with readings, and I was delighted to find that one of the readings was the first appearance of the Green Knight at the Court of King Arthur, from the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The Village Quire sing a capella part songs, and some of the Christmas ones, like Gaudete and the Boar's Head Carol, go back to the Middle Ages.
Sir Gawain is also medieval. The only copy that survives was written down in 1400, in the dialect of the north-west midlands, in alliterative verse. The anonymous writer was familiar with aristocratic life, which is described in detail, and one theory is that he was part of John of Gaunt's court. In the portions of the poem where Gawain is searching for the Green Chapel, to meet the Green Knight again and fulfil his part of the bargain they struck, the descriptions match North Wales and the Wirral. That may be one reason it's one of my favourite medieval poems - the Welsh and North Western links - and the story is great fun, too.
It's one of my traditions of Christmas to listen to an old cassette tape of Ian McKellan narrating the story on a long ago Radio 4 programme. This was long before he ever became Gandalf, or even Sir Ian.
As you'd expect for a half hour programme, they had to leave a lot out. One passage describes Gawain being armed before he sets out, and goes to some lengths to explain the strange device on his shield, which to modern eyes seems quite unsuited to a Christian knight.

"Then thay* shewed hym the schelde, that was of schyr goulez,
Wyth the pentangel depaynt of pure golde hwez"

"Then they displayed for him the shield, which was of bright gules with the pentangle picked out in the colour of pure gold. He seized the shield by the baldrick and slung it about his neck; it suited the knight fittingly and well. And just why the pentangle is appropriate to that noble lord I am bent on telling you, even though it should delay me: it is a symbol that Solomon devised once upon a time as a token of fidelity, appropriately, for it is a figure which contains five points, and each line overlaps and interlocks with another, and it is unbroken anywhere,; and all over England, so I hear, it is called the endless knot. And so it is appropriate to this knight and to his unblemished arms; because he was always trustworthy in five respects and fivefold in each, Gawain was known to be a good knight, and like refined gold, free from every imperfection, graced with chivalric virtues...."

And it goes on to talk about the five senses, the five fingers, the five wounds of Christ, the five joys of the Queen of Heaven and his five virtues.

(from WRJ Barron's translation and notes)

*(the 'th' sounds above should be shown by the letter 'thorn', a medieval letter which has fallen out of use)

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Flag Fen and Seahenge - Francis Pryor's blog

I've just added a link on the side bar to Francis Pryor's blog. He's an archaeologist who has been involved in Time Team, and before that he was in charge of Flag Fen, a Bronze Age site near Peterborough. Because of the wet conditions, all sorts of things that would never otherwise be preserved have survived here - including many thousands of timbers. It's well worth a visit - I went while I was an archaeologist at Norwich (it was a sort of "school trip" - all the archaeologists on the Norwich dig got a coach for the day!). It has a visitor's centre and reconstructed houses from the Bronze Age and Iron Age.
What I remember most about the day there was the constant grittiness of the wind, as the Fenland's were literally blowing away bit by bit. They were naturally waterlogged, and draining them for farming has had the effect of uncovering fertile soil, but also drying it out to the point where it just blows away, a little bit more each year.
Francis Pryor was also involved in the excavation of Seahenge, which is a quite magnificent Bronze Age site originally positioned on the beach at Old Hunstanton in Norfolk. It had to be moved because it was being washed away, to the dismay of various neo-Pagan groups. Personally, I'm glad that it will be there for me to see when I finally get over to that part of the world again.
Francis Pryor has written books about both these sites, as well as other books which I can recommend as being readable and interesting and based on a lot of research.
Someone else who's written (fiction this time) about archaeology very similar to Seahenge is Elly Griffiths, in her mystery novel The Crossing Places. Her main character is an archaeologist who gets called in by the police. I saw Elly Griffiths a couple of years ago at Hay Festival, sharing a stage with Phil Rickman (who writes mysteries set in Herefordshire) and another lady whose name I forget. I'd forgotten Elly Griffiths too, though I thought at the time that I'd be interested to read her books, until I saw her mentioned again today on Francis Pryor's blog. Archaeologists in fiction tend to have appalling techniques (I'm looking at YOU, Indiana Jones - but it's not only Indy...) and be almost indistinguishable from treasure hunters, but this one seems to be doing it properly.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

History Books which have shaped me

One of my favourite discussion forums, Ship of Fools, has been discussing which history books shaped our view of the past. Here are some of mine:

I can't remember a time when I didn't read history, either fiction or non-fiction. Even one of my earliest school readers described making rush lights, and (weirdly) the window tax! I think it may have been the history of a house....
I moved on to the usual suspects - Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, Mary Renault, so that covered Romans, Ancient Greeks, Vikings, and odd bits of later stuff. (The nearer to the present day I come, the less interested I seem to get).
I had a brief flirtation with Georgette Heyer when I was a teenager - not the Regency novels so much as the eighteenth century stories. Of course, this was about the same time as Poldark was on TV, and I fancied Robin Ellis like mad (but TV is a subject for another post!).
At university, I studied archaeology and medieval history, so that's my comfort zone, and since I moved to Wales I've got fascinated by Welsh history. The best fiction about medieval Wales is by Sharon Penman (the Here Be Dragons trilogy) and Edith Pargeter's Brothers of Gwynnedd series, along with The Heaven Tree trilogy. And Brother Cadfael.
Another special interest is women in history, and the book that set me off on that track is the marvellous Women in Anglo-Saxon England by Christine Fell.
So here are a few books from my shelves that I turn to again and again:
The Visual Culture of Wales: Medieval Vision by Peter Lord
The Norman Achievement by Richard F Cassady (Normans in Sicily as well as England and France)
The Medieval Machine - The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages by Jean Gimpel, which shows how the middle ages wasn't all primitive and covered in mud
and The Making of the English Landscape by WG Hoskins. I've got the original at the moment, but I used to have an annotated version where another writer re-visited all the places Hoskins mentioned and described what they looked like now.

Oh, and I'll listen to Michael Wood talking about anything - even periods and places that I had no previous interest in, because he makes it so fascinating!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Solstice Greetings

This beautiful image comes from I found it on the Irish Medieval History page on Facebook. It shows a man crouching in the rays of the sun which, on the winter solstice, shines through a hole above the entrance to the tomb, along the corridor to illuminate the central room. It's a magical moment, and it's one of those things that I'd love to be able to get to one day. People who have been lucky enough to be chosen to stand in the central room of the tomb have said that it is a spiritual experience.
Newgrange is one of those "thin places" of the world, where you can become aware of something much bigger than yourself and mundane matters. It's also over 5000 years old, and the builders (who didn't even have the use of metal tools) got the angles of the sun exactly right for their purposes. No-one knows exactly what they believed, or the original purpose of the sunlight entering the tomb, but they left behind something which has lasted all this time, which we can still share in.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Welcome to Ytir!

This is actually my second attempt to have a blog dedicated to my burblings about fantasy, history, old Hollywood, historical re-enactment, and other things that make me happy but which have nothing to do with Hay-on-Wye, which is the subject of my main blog, Life in Hay. The first time I tried this, with Gateway to Ytir, it got infected with malware from a site I'd innocently linked to - publetariat. So I shan't be going anywhere near there again!

The main reason for this blog is that, like many others in the blogosphere, I am an aspiring writer, and you can find my fantasy novels Raven's Heir and Like Father, Like Daughter on Smashwords, as well as a free short story called Ice Magic. They can be found at for Raven's Heir for Like Father, Like Daughter
and for a free taster of my writing with the short story Ice Magic.

Morwenna is one of the characters in my stories - a frail old lady who spends most of her time at the top of a tower overlooking the sea, talking to ravens and seagulls. She can control the Element of Air, and rules her lands of Ravenscar with a velvet glove over a steel talon!
I love writing about powerful old ladies!