Thursday, 31 January 2013

How Landmarks Move Around When You're Not Looking

Manchester is my home city, but I haven't been back for an awfully long time.
In fact, the last time I went back, I got lost.
I was going to visit my sister. "This will be easy," I thought. "We get the train to Manchester Victoria, then walk down to Victoria Bus Station and get the 95 to the Swan and Cemetery."
Famous last words....
When we walked down the hill, Victoria Bus Station wasn't there.
This is what it looks like now:

So I left my ex-husband with the bags at the Shambles, and went in search of the right bus stop.
Now, the Shambles, otherwise known as the Old Wellington Inn and the Sinclair Oyster Bar, is one of the oldest buildings in Manchester, and when the Arndale Centre was built, it was raised four feet from its position to sit in the middle of the modern square at one end of the Arndale.
And then the IRA blew the Arndale Centre up.
I have to admit, my first thought when it came on the news was "Hurray!" because I'd never liked the modern buildings with their toilet block yellow tiles.
It meant that that whole area had to be rebuilt - it's a Harvey Nichols store now - and as part of the rebuilding the powers that be decided to move the Shambles to a different spot.
Actually, they've done it rather well. I was appalled at the idea when I first heard of it, but now it slots into a corner beside the Cathedral, at the top of Hanging Ditch, and it looks as if it has always been there.
We went there for breakfast, and it was really very pleasant. The Wellington is owned by Nicholson Inns now, which is a rather good chain. I've been in another pub of theirs in Southwark - the beer was very good, and the place was packed out.
So, this is what the Shambles looks like now:

Monday, 28 January 2013

Starting out with Graphic Novels

It's an unfamiliar area for me - graphic novels. I know very little about Marvel or DC or the tangled continuities of the superheroes, and it's difficult to know where to start, with such a wide variety of graphic novels out there.
When I was an archaeologist, though, one of the diggers used to buy a 2000AD comic for everyone in the site hut to pass around (yes, we were that poor!), so I've known about Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog and Nemesis the Warlock and so on for a long time. My favourite, though, was Slaine, and as archaeologists with an interest in the Celtic Iron Age we were all impressed with the amount of research that had gone on to write that one.
So when I was in Manchester over the weekend, we stumbled across a Forbidden Planet - and kind of couldn't pass the door until we'd explored the SF and Fantasy goodness within. Down in the comic section, we came across Slaine, the Books of Invasions - wonderful artwork by Clint Langley, with the story by Pat Mills.
And then I went a little mad.
Another comic I had come across in my youth was Green Arrow - I used to get that from a little comic shop near Scotland Yard when I worked in London, and I'm aware of the new US TV series, though I haven't seen any episodes of it yet. There was The Longbow Hunters, with Oliver Queen looking just as I remember him, with the yellow beard and the Robin Hood hat. And the longbow, obviously.
Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors, and I knew he'd started off in comics. In fact, back when I was reading Green Arrow, I also picked up Black Orchid - I had no idea of who the writer was at the time, because I'd never heard the name before, and it didn't stick in my memory. Then I started reading books like Neverwhere and American Gods, and did some reading about Neil Gaiman's career - and remembered how much I'd enjoyed Black Orchid. I didn't find that this weekend, but I did find Marvel 1602 - in the hands of such a master, how can I go wrong?
And finally, I'm dabbling at the edges of Steampunk. I love the costumes, and the alternative realities, and I had heard of a character called Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard. Who is a badger. In an alternative 'Victorian' London. They had Grandville, the first in the series, in which the Inspector goes to Paris.

I have the feeling there is a whole new world opening up before me....

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Beautiful Dress

I saw this rather gorgeous dress on Facebook, on the page of Celtic, Renaissance and Medieval Trim. It comes originally from - and we wants it, my precious!

Actually, it reminds me of a Star Trek Convention I went to in Birmingham many moons ago. There was a masked ball (David Gerrold was the guest of honour, and he spent the evening in his ordinary clothes, but carrying round a large inflatable banana which was wearing a mask). There were two ladies there in absolutely gorgeous Elizabethan dresses, one of which was not unlike this one. I guessed that one was Queen Elizabeth, and the other Mary, Queen of Scots - but she turned out to be Lady Blackadder.
I helped a friend to make a (male) Tudor Blackadder costume (well, I sat and watched her do all the complicated stuff), which took a huge amount of time and effort, and a lot of rewatching the videos ("Now, if he'd only just turn a little bit further so I can see the corner of his cloak...."), so to look at the male costume and, from that, design a dress.... simply amazing skill and dedication!

The male costume my friend made was worth all the hard work, though - the lad who wore it had girls falling at his feet all weekend!

Monday, 21 January 2013

James Hance SF and Fantasy Art

On Facebook, I follow The High Council of Timelords who post, as you would expect, Doctor Who related material. Just recently, they started posting pictures by an artist called James Hance. He was doing a charcoal sketch of each Doctor, in order, over a couple of weeks - and they are just superb! I think my favourite has to be David Tennant, but here they all are:

He's selling them as prints on ebay - under the name "jimjeroodles".

He's also done sketches of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock - and something else. I knew I'd seen his name somewhere before, and then it came to me - he also drew this:

Can there be many things cuter than a cross between Winnie the Pooh and Star Wars?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Childhood Heroes

The writer of The Age of Uncertainty blog was talking about his childhood heroes a little while ago, though I only caught up with reading the blog today. We had one or two in common: Virgil Tracy and Mr Spock, and I suspect (though I haven't checked) that I'm around the same age as he is.
Virgil Tracy, of course, was the second of the Tracy brothers, the one who flew Thunderbird 2 - and Thunderbird 2 was my favourite of all the aircraft and rockets by a long way. It wasn't only the lift off sequence with the palm trees bending back - it was the idea of having all those smaller craft and vehicles, like Thunderbird 4 and the Mole, in those interchangeable pods. And there was a moment in one episode, where Virgil saves Lady Penelope from being run over by a train in a tunnel. He's lying on the track, inches from speeding death as the train passes over him, and he's looking at Penelope. I know these were puppets and they didn't have facial expressions really, but at that moment I was certain that Virgil was in love with Lady Penelope but he would never tell her!
Mr Spock is an obvious hero to have - for me, anyway. I never did go for the gung-ho Captain Kirk types. It was nearly always the sidekick, the quiet one who was brave without being flashy about it, and Spock was intelligent, calm, logical - and not as emotionless as he liked to pretend.
One hero who was definitely not a sidekick was Robin Hood! For me, it had to be the Errol Flynn version, or Richard Greene from the 1950s, standing up against official injustice with a sword, a bow, and a quick wit. Actually, Errol Flynn was one of my heroes in just about any film he appeared in - as Queen Elizabeth's favourite Sea Hawk in court or rowing a Spanish galley, or as Captain Blood, or Don Juan, as long as he was in period costume and handling a rapier, I was there. (In those innocent days, I knew nothing of his activities in the bedroom - it was his skill with a sword I admired).
Also skilled in handling a sword, and using his quick wits to get across enemy territory to save the besieged city of Casale, (in a war I otherwise knew absolutely nothing about) was the Chevalier de Recci, the Flashing Blade himself. Looking back, they had every single swashbuckling cliche thrown into the mix, but it was all such fun!
Ilya Kuriakin was another sidekick who I liked much better than the over-suave Napoleon Solo. I spent ages, around the age of seven, practising how to say his name, and also practising the Vulcan salute.
And in those days when all nice little boys and girls watched Blue Peter, and made their own models with stickyback plastic and washing up bottles, John Noakes was a definite hero - always the one to do the dangerous stunts, and also the one with the friendly but naughty dog ("Get down, Shep!").

Now, I'm a girl, so I knew I couldn't really grow up to be Robin Hood or Ilya Kuriakin. Fortunately, in the 1960s and early 70s there were some pretty good role models for girls. So I wanted to be Emma Peel of the Avengers, and Sharon McCready from the Champions - with the ability to speak telepathically to the other Champions and throw bad guys across the room. I wanted to be George from Enid Blyton's Famous Five, looking like a boy and exploring secret passages with my faithful dog, and I wanted to be Sarah Jane Smith, exploring time and space with the Doctor.

Actually, I still want to be Sarah Jane Smith, and if I ever hear that wheezy old Tardis engine - well, when I disappear, that's where I'll have gone.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold

The very first LP I ever bought with my own money, way back in the mid 1970s, was called Captain Blood, and was a collection of classic film scores for Errol Flynn films. Captain Blood itself was represented by a short piece called Ship in the Night. Captain Blood and his pirates see a ship in the distance one evening.
"Where is she going?" one of them asks.
Errol Flynn gazes after the stern lights with melancholy longing. "England," he says. "Where we may never go...." (cue romantic Korngold score).
The record also had music from The Sea Hawk, one of my favourite pirate films of all time, including the bit where it turns briefly into an opera - the English galley slaves have taken over the Spanish ship, and they all start singing about being bound for the shores of Dover! If I were ever on Desert Island Discs, that would be one of my eight records, and the nearest thing to opera that I'd choose.
The Adventures of Don Juan is on there, by Max Steiner, and various other films like The Sun Also Rises - and to finish it all off, there's The Adventures of Robin Hood (my favourite Robin Hood film of all time), with what is supposed to
be the most complicated trumpet solo in any piece of film music.

Wonderful as all this was, and I still listen to the record regularly, it was only part of a set - the first Korngold record of the series got the other bits of Sea Hawk and Robin Hood, and I've been looking for it ever since.

Today, I was chatting to one of my colleagues at work when I happened to look down at the LPs she had leaning against her desk. One of them was The Sea Hawk. I looked closer. I beamed in a delighted way. There it was, with two galleons pounding each other with cannon fire on the front cover: The classic film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, including the other bits of Captain Blood, Sea Hawk and Robin Hood, and with other films like King's Row and The Constant Nymph.
Even better, there were two other records with it. Elizabeth and Essex, more Korngold scores, has Errol Flynn and Bette Davis on the front cover, and includes music from The Prince and the Pauper, Deception and Anthony Adverse.
Captain from Castile is the classic film scores of Alfred Newman, and has a large portrait shot of Tyrone Power on the front cover, on a background of Spanish soldiers and (presumably) Incas or Aztecs. That one includes music from Wuthering Heights, The Song of Bernadette and The Robe as well as Captain from Castile.

I bought the lot, on the spot, and I'm looking forward to a quiet evening communing with the record player!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Unconditional Love

I just heard that Neil Gaiman's dog Cabal has died. That's them above, taken from Neil Gaiman's Journal, where he's written a beautiful piece about the dog that made me cry - because I lost my "best dog in all the world" just over a year ago.

Here's Islay lying on the wall outside my house as an old lady - she liked the sun, and being in a position where people passing by could make a fuss of her.
Dogs can break your heart - but better that than not having known them at all.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

White Raven

I found this picture on the Goddess Central page on Facebook. White ravens are rare (though apparently there's a flock of them in Alaska, near Juneau). In Welsh, the word for White Raven (or White Crow) is Branwen, which is also a girl's name.
When I was looking for a name for one of my main characters, Branwen was the one I chose, partly for the Celtic raven associations, but also as an homage to Mary Gentle's character White Crow, who appears in several books.
In Rats and Gargoyle, Valentine/White Crow is a practitioner of Hermetic science and magic in a Renaissance city where human sized Rats also live - and I loved that book from the moment the rat with a rapier appeared!
In The Architecture of Desire, along with Lord-Architect Casaubon (who is hopelessly in love with her) White Crow is in a Restoration London where Queen Carola rules and Protector-General Olivia opposes her.
Left To His Own Devices brings White Crow and Casaubon into a modern day London slightly skewed out of this universe. This one has one of my favourite opening lines: "Eighty feet above the London pavement, rapier strikes against dagger."
It's obvious from the writing that Mary Gentle knows exactly what it feels like to handle a sword - and she includes a re-enactment group that portrays Elizabethan Wars of Religion, to give a context for the swordplay in a story which is more about computer hacking.
And in Scholars and Soldiers she takes us back to the city of Rats and Gargoyles in a short story collection.
They're all rich and rewarding reads, full of lush detail and interesting characters (she has a Rat Queen Victoria in one story, a nest of eight telepathically linked giant rats, tied together by the tails!)- and they're books I keep coming back to re-read. Which is not something I do much unless there's really something special about an author.

Saturday, 12 January 2013


"Wassail, wassail, I give you wassail - it comes in bottles, brown and pale.
Comes in bottles so bring some here - and we'll have a Happy New Year"

Or so the Kipper Family sang (comedy folk singers from Norfolk).

This is apple growing country, so wassail celebrations are going on in orchards all over Herefordshire and the Marches.
What usually happens is that there's a torchlit parade to an orchard (usually starting at a pub). At the orchard, bonfires are lit, and songs sung. Often the local morris dancing side will dance - and the climax of the evening is firing a shotgun through the branches of a chosen apple tree to scare away evil spirits and ensure a good apple crop for next year. This means cider apples, of course. It's all to do with alcohol!
Then it's back to the pub. Often the morris dancers will perform a mummer's play, featuring St George fighting a Turk, but the scripts vary enormously, and are often written for the occasion. It's a bit like panto - the general structure of the story is there, but improvised around.
It's an old, probably pagan, ritual, which is becoming more popular again now - and that's probably one reason that Phil Rickman used wassailing to start off his mystery series about Rev. Merrily Watkins. All his novels have a basis in local traditions and superstitions. In that story, The Wine of Angels, there are bodies in the orchard - and a rather messy suicide.
Mostly, though, it's more like this:

This is last year's Dorstone Wassail.

Friday, 11 January 2013

THUNDERBIIRDS - FAB "The Next Generation"

Thunderbirds Are Go

This comes under the general heading of "Things that make me happy".
I grew up watching just about everything that Gerry Anderson produced - it didn't bother me then that just about the only women around were Venus and Lady Penelope; it was all about the hardware and, as Neil Gaiman said just before he performed the Fireball XL5 Theme song on stage with Amanda Palmer, the space scooters!
When I lived in Norwich, I once went to the local theatre to see a show where mime artists pretended to be Thunderbirds puppets (and Captain Scarlet). They wore the uniforms, and there was a sort of plot to follow - but the best thing was the Thunderbird models they wore as hats, and the best thing about the models was the sequence where Thunderbird 2 took off. Complete with palm trees.
And here it is!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Alex Beecroft and LGBT Fantasy

I like to read blogs, when I'm not busy doing something else, and I have a long and ever changing list of blogs that I visit fairly regularly - about once every six or eight weeks. What I especially like is finding blogs that describe people's lives or interests that are different to my own, or which talk about my own interests (which are fairly varied) in an interesting way. Over the years, I've followed the blogs of gay men who knit, American Buddhists, several women priests and ministers, craft blogs, history blogs, writing blogs....and it was a writing blog that I was reading yesterday. This was the LGBT Fantasy Fans and Writers blog. Well, I'm a fantasy fan and writer, so that was my own interest, and I wanted to see fantasy looked at from a different angle.
That's how I came across Alex Beecroft, one of the writers of the shared blog.
It was the post about morris dancing that piqued my interest, and how dancing is used or ignored in fantasy novels. Alex Beecroft is a morris dancer, so she knows what she's talking about - and she posted a scene from one of her novels which talked about morris dancing and English folklore and wells, and I immediately wanted to know more. So I looked at the books she has written, and found the cover pictures for Bomber's Moon: Under the Hill and the sequel, Dogfighters. Bomber's Moon has a Lancaster Bomber on the front cover, and Dogfighters has a Mosquito fighter/bomber - fighting a dragon!
This brought a huge grin to my face without me needing to know anything else about the story. I love Mossies! I used to go to airshows when I was a kid, and I loved the World War Two aircraft. I've seen the City of Lincoln fly (the Lancaster) and the Battle of Britain flight with the Spitfire and Hurricane, and a Mosquito. I grew up watching films like 633 Squadron and The Battle of Britain, and the one where John Mills is a Lancaster pilot, and the Dambusters (this is in addition to the swashbucklers, of course - I'm sure anyone reading this blog is starting to get the impression that I was never a 'girly' little girl).
The thing to remember about the Mosquito is that it is a wooden plane. It's made of a wood frame with canvas stretched over it - and this writer has the pilot going up against a dragon. That speaks of extreme foolhardiness, or desperation - and I wanted to know more.
I bought Bomber's Moon yesterday evening, as an ebook, and I'm already up to chapter nine. The plot is intriguing - the main character's house has been attacked by fairies/elves and he needs protection, while the other main character's lover is trapped in the elven world, trying to get home. The characters are interesting - and I have no idea how the story will be resolved, so I'll have to keep reading! My guess is that it will take more than knocking down the new extension to Ben's house and putting some bowls of milk and honey out to appease these elves!

Oh, and there is also gay sex, which is not a subgenre that I had really looked at before. As a young teenager, I read several novels by Mary Renault set in Ancient Greece, where the main characters were gay - her Alexander the Great trilogy, for instance (and I remember reading The Persian Boy, the second of the trilogy, while hoping my gran didn't look over my shoulder to see what I was reading in case she was shocked!) But that's really been my whole knowledge of gay and lesbian literature until now, apart from Captain Jack in Doctor Who and Torchwood (in some ways I have led a sheltered life). In this book the main characters are gay men, but the romance goes alongside an action filled plot - it's just that the romance happens to be between the male characters. I'm not a great fan of slushy romance, so this was much more to my taste, and I can't wait to see how it will work out for them!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Holidays in Mordor

I've been re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in preparation for going to see the Hobbit at the weekend. At the same time, I've been following a discussion about The Hobbit on Ship of Fools forum - and there is one exchange that is too good not to share!
The discussion had turned to people who had learned Elvish script or Dwarven runes in their youth, sometimes to write secret graffiti, or to fill school rough books with bad poetry....

"Writing in Tolkein runes? I remember it well. Unfortunately I also remember a GCSE French project in which we were asked to make up identities and write about where went on holiday etc...
"Je m'appelle Frodo, Je suis un hobbit".
Oh my.(embarrassed smiley)"

Followed by....

"During my holiday I visited Mordor with a good friend and we went mountain climbing. We were followed by this really creepy guy who kept talking to himself! The spiders are really huge in Mordor and the food isn't very good. We had to bring our own. I lost my ring somewhere on the mountain but by that time I was feeling a bit unwell and all I wanted was just to get home..."

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Read More - Read Better

I was looking at onlinebookclub forum the other day, which is quite a good book discussion site, and someone was asking for advice. Aspiring writers are often told to "read more", and this particular aspiring writer wanted to know what sort of books they should read to be a better writer.
I gave some advice that had been useful to me, and I thought I'd like to expand on it here.
The first thing to do is to choose a book that you have already read, but which you didn't think was all that good. (Don't try to do this with a book you really, really like - you'll never be able to read it in the same way again!). It doesn't matter what the book is about, or who it's by - just choose a book that you finished, and then thought; "Well, that was average."
The next thing to do is to start re-reading it, and this time pick it apart. Did this particular scene confuse you? Why? How could it have been written better? What would you have included or left out to improve it?
And what about that character - the one who suddenly does something that makes no sense. Why did they do that? How would you have written it to keep the character consistent?
Or that description? Did you feel you were really there, in that place? If not, how could it have been re-written to improve it?

A good example of this for me (though this is a book I love, rather than one that I consider to be merely average!) came when I re-read Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff as an adult.
When I was in my first year at grammar school (so eleven or twelve years old), we studied Warrior Scarlet in English lessons. In those days, there was no national curriculum, so teachers were more free to choose books to read as a class than they are now. That year, we read Little Grey Men, by BB, Edward Lear's poetry - especially The Dong with the Luminous Nose and The Jumblies, and Warrior Scarlet. Nobody thought about the fact that an all girls' school was studying texts which hardly included any female characters (there are female characters in Warrior Scarlet, and one girl has an important sub-plot, but in the other texts we studied that year, female characters were invisible) - but it was the 1970s and things were different then.
Warrior Scarlet is about a Bronze Age boy becoming an adult of his tribe - and for the boys of the tribe, this means hunting and killing a wolf. Failure to do this means that the boy cannot be accepted as an adult of the tribe, and becomes part of the "servant class" of the Small Dark People who live on the fringes of the tribe. And they only get one try at it.
So an important scene in the book is the wolf hunt.
I remembered this scene in great detail from my first reading of the book - I was there, in my imagination, creeping through the undergrowth with my bronze tipped spear, examining wolf footprints and looking for wolf hairs caught on bushes. It was all very vivid.
When I came to the scene as an adult, none of that was there! It had all come from my own imagination, with only a few sparse descriptions from the text itself. There's the mark of a master storyteller - telling just enough for the reader's imagination to take flight and fill in the gaps for themselves!