Saturday, 30 March 2013

Mayhew's London

The main character in Neverwhere is Richard Mayhew - the one who falls through the cracks in the city to London Below, and finds a different world there.

In Victorian London, there was another Mayhew - Henry, who also found a different world to the one that most Londoners were aware of. He was a journalist who worked, among other things, as a joint-editor of Punch magazine, and he wrote many books of travel, biography, popular science and also novels and plays. What he's best remembered for now, though, is his huge tome London Labour and the London Poor. He made it his business to find out how the poor lived, and what their working lives were like, and where they lived, at a time when the middle and upper classes had no idea what the lives of the poor were like, and never really came into contact with them.
The sheer variety of jobs that were being carried on in London around the 1850s was astounding. There were porters, carrying goods on their backs around the city, and quenching their enormous thirsts with the dark beer that bears their name.
There were costermongers with their donkey carts, who bought fruit and vegetables for re-sale from Covent Garden. Mayhew described not only what they sold, but how they amused themselves in their time off.
Some of the street traders were very specific in their wares - oranges and nuts and lemons were popular, and so was hot elder wine, or hot green peas, or pickled whelks.
There were street traders selling anything from a goldfinch in a cage to second hand clothes to writing paper. One man only sold nutmeg graters.
There were people called 'screevers' who would write begging letters and petitions for their clients, and there were people who went round public houses selling metal spoons.
A gentleman could outfit himself with a walking stick, pipe, and tobacco box, without setting foot inside a shop, or a doll for his daughter and a stuffed bird for the mantlepiece.
There were street entertainers who played instruments or performed magic tricks on street corners. One man was a bagpiper who had been a corporal in the 93rd Southern Highlanders, and orderly to the Colonel of the regiment, until he went blind - and found that he had not served long enough to be entitled to a pension. While he played, his daughter danced the sword dance over two long tobacco pipes instead of swords. There were acrobats and jugglers and tightrope walkers, singers and dancing dogs, and 'Negro serenaders' who were white men who had blacked up.
Mayhew did meet a real Negro, though - an ex-sailor who had lost his legs, and worked as a crossing sweeper or, when he couldn't manage to do that, would beg while wearing his sailor's uniform.
He also met lots of Jews, engaged in a variety of trades. There was a lot of prejudice against them, but Mayhew found them selling 'foreign fruit' (such as oranges), or cheap jewellery, or second hand clothes, and sometimes ostrich feathers, cigars or looking glasses. He also found that they were being undercut in some street trading, especially mentioning oranges, by the Irish boys who had come over to London after the Irish Famine, because they were prepared to live in worse conditions than the Jewish boys were.
There were 'mudlarks' looking for anything that might have been washed up on the banks of the Thames, and men who went down the sewers looking for valuables and catching rats. Mayhew interviewed a little girl who worked as a crossing sweeper - sweeping the muck out of the way of people who wanted to cross the road - who was once given threepence for her trouble. So amazing was this amount to her that she declared "I should know that gentleman again." Other people went round with a bucket picking up dog dirt (or 'pure') which they then sold to the tanneries in Bermondsey for use in the leather tanning process.
Mayhew talked to the men who worked on the river, watermen and bargemen and steam-boat men, and the omnibus drivers and conductors (when an omnibus was horse-drawn), and the hackney cabdrivers, too.
The edition I have is abridged from three volumes down to one, so I've only got the edited highlights. Apparently there is a fourth volume which deals only with prostitutes, thieves, swindlers and beggars. It gives a vivid impression of what life was like on the streets of Victorian London, often in the words of the people being interviewed. I recommend it highly to anyone who's interested in Victorian history, and also anyone who wants to write about a fantasy city if they're going to take their characters into the poorer parts of town.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Neil Gaiman Delights

Hereford is not, it has to be said, at the cutting edge of modern culture (or much of anything else, really!). There used to be a comic shop - Demon Comics, I think - but that was before I started getting interested in comics and graphic novels, and it's long gone now. The only places I've found that stock graphic novels are Waterstones and WH Smiths, and it's a pretty thin selection. Waterstones have quite a bit of manga, but that's a whole new alien world for me which I haven't looked at yet.
However, I was very pleased to come up with one gem last week - the de luxe version of Black Orchid, by Neil Gaiman, hiding at the back of the stand.
I first read Black Orchid when I lived down in London. According to the notes in the book, that was in 1988, and there were only ever three issues to tell the story. Which I didn't keep, because I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman and I really didn't know how special those comics were.
So now I've got the hardback version, with all the notes, letters and scripts at the back. I took it out of my bag to look at it while I was waiting for the bus back to Hay. A lady in the queue spotted it, and remarked on what a beautiful front cover it is, with the purple lady and the brightly coloured birds. She then started chatting about the Alpha course she'd just been on, and how wonderful it was to be a new Christian, which was actually quite sweet - it seems to be making her happy.
Later this evening, I shall be settling down with a good beer to savour the Black Orchid, and see if it is as good as I remember it (or if I remember it clearly at all, after all this time!)

This has come hot on the heels of the wonderful Neverwhere on Radio 4, of course. We listened to it every evening over the week, and it was brilliantly done. The cast is amazing, of course, and each episode was introduced and discussed afterwards by the man who had directed it, with Nick Briggs the radio presenter for Radio 4 extra. He talked about making layers of sound, starting in the background, with the voices over the top so there was plenty of depth and texture in the sounds.
They managed to describe their surroundings without sounding artificial. Richard, being un-used to these things, really would comment on the fact that he's just gone from a tube train carriage into a stone walled library when he hasn't left the train, for instance. The sound of the Angel Islington's wings flapping was very impressive, too. I've seen the TV series version of Neverwhere, so I remember what that looked like in that - but if you were coming to it fresh, you would be able to imagine what everything looked like very clearly because it is so well done.
Neil Gaiman even got to take part himself! We giggled helplessly as the Fop with No Name cried "You cad!" during the fight at the Floating Market.
Neil Gaiman wrote recently that he had been terrified of appearing on stage only a few years ago - but then he met Amanda Palmer, and appeared in some of her stage shows, and then when Gerry Anderson died he performed the song Fireball XL5 on stage with the band (which Amanda Palmer commented was probably the weirdest thing they had ever done!). And now he's on radio with James MacAvoy and Natalie Dormer (as Door) and Sophie Okonedo as Hunter, not to mention the magnificent Marquis de Carabas (David Harewood being just as good as Paterson Joseph in the TV version) and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington.
The supporting cast is just as fantastic, with Bernard Cribbins as Old Bailey, Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl's Court, and Anthony Head chewing his lines deliciously as Mr Croup.
And then there are the Black Friars, who all have West Indian accents, and the rat speakers, and the sewer folk, and the stall holders of the Floating Market selling cat ("leg or breast?" "Um, that'll be two veg curries, please....").

Listen to this version - your ears will love you for it.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Books I can't get on with

Over on the Ship of Fools Forum, there's a discussion going on about books that are acclaimed classics, but which you can't manage to read or enjoy.
I have a few of those, and I refuse to feel guilty about it; there are so many books in the world that I want to read that I'm not going to worry about the books that are supposed to be classics and that well read people 'ought to read'.
So I'm not going to be revisiting any of the Russian authors any time soon. I tried War and Peace once, and after three pages I got so confused by all the different names for the same people that I gave up.
Likewise, The Worm Ouroboros by Eddison - a fantasy classic, but I have no idea what it's about. There were three different languages in the first three pages of that - without any translations. Also, the title always makes me think of the Red Dwarf joke about Our Rob or Ross.
As far as Virginia Woolf is concerned - look, just go to the Lighthouse, for heaven's sake!
And Madame Bovary - pull yourself together!
Thomas Hardy is depressing (and gets more so as he goes on), and Jane Austen's plots move at such a glacial pace it's like watching paint dry.
I tried to read Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was twelve - but all I remember of it was a description of a rainy garden, and as nothing exciting seemed to be happening, I gave up on that.
There was a CJ Cherryh fantasy that I tried to read that had the characters slogging through mud and cold rain for three chapters, and they were having such a miserable time of it that I gave up on that one too! (It wasn't the Morgaine one where the entire planet is drowning - I was fine with that one).
It's not as if I have any shortage of reading matter anyway - my 'mountain of books that must be read' will last me at least two years if I don't add any more to it.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

George RR Martin's Reading List

While fans of Game of Thrones are waiting for the next book, they often ask George RR Martin for recommendations of other books which are like the mammoth epic fantasy series.
I came across the list of 33 books that he has chosen on Huffington Post, and was delighted to see some old friends there:

No. 1 on the list is pretty obvious - it's Lord of the Rings.
However, it was No. 3 that made me go 'squee' - it's Jirel of Joiry, by CL Moore, the first fighting heroine in fantasy. She was wearing armour and beating up the bad guys long before Brienne of Tarth was a twinkle in her creator's eye!
Then there's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser - the barbarian and thief duo in the seedier quarters of the city of Lankhmar and beyond (and without Lankhmar, there would probably be no Ankh-Morpork). This series is by Fritz Leiber, and it's great fun.
Watership Down, by Richard Adams, made me stop and do a double take, but after you've got over the "But it's all about rabbits" stage, this actually does make a lot of sense - there are rabbit legends, different warrens with differing political systems, and complex interactions with other animals as Hazel, Fiver and the others struggle to establish their own warren.
A Wizard of Earthsea is another magical and detailed world, this time by Ursula K Le Guin. The classic Wizard School, with an archipelago of islands, dragons - and the white characters are these weird barbarians with a strange religion, who don't get on well with the rest of the islands.
Then there are a couple of Arthurian stories - the classic Once and Future King, by TH White, and Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff (one of my all time favourite children's authors). Another favourite children's author is Alan Garner, and The Wierdstone of Brisingamen is also on the list.
Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake, also makes a lot of sense, with that convoluted and inward looking castle and a huge cast of grotesque characters.

He finishes off with some historical fiction, including classics like Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who wrote rather more than Sherlock Holmes stories), Nigel Tranter's Scottish history, Bernard Cornwell, the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser (being the further adventures of the cad and bully Flashman from Tom Brown's Schooldays, full of footnotes about the real history, and great fun).
Another favourite author, Sharon Penman, is mentioned for Lionheart (about King Richard, of course) but I think I'd recommend her Welsh trilogy Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning - that is, if a reader is prepared to spend the last 200 pages of the last book sobbing, like I did (partly because I knew the history, so I knew what was going to happen to the characters). But anyone who's been through the Red Wedding would be able to cope with that, I think!

So those are my old favourites - which makes me think it really is time to start tracking down some of the other titles on the list which I haven't read. The Lies of Locke Lamora has already been recommended to me as something I might like (it's by Scott Lynch). I've also read one or two of the Conan stories, and I keep meaning to get round to the Dying Earth by Jack Vance.
Lovecraft I might leave to one side, and I suspect that Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique is similar to Lovecraft, so not my glass of tea.
Daniel Abraham's name is new to me, though, and his book Shadow and Betrayal is mentioned. So is Patrick Rothfuss and The Name of the Wind. Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold sounds promising, too.
Then there's Thomas B Costain and The Silver Chalice, Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates (I love Howard Pyle's artwork, and pirates. He also did illustrations for Robin Hood). Frank Yerby's Goat Song (about Ancient Greece) is next, though I think I prefer my Ancient Greece as told by Mary Renault.
Rosemary Hawley Jarman, with Crown in Candlelight, rings a faint bell - I may have read it once. I know I've heard good things about Stephen Pressfield - the Afghan Campaign is recommended, but one of his earlier books was Gates of Fire, about Thermopylae.
The Serpent Dreamer by Cecilia Holland is next - and it's nice to see a mixture of male and female authors on this list.
Then there's Sacred Band, by David Anthony Durham. It has a dragon on the cover, which looks promising. The Devil's Oasis is by Bartle Bull, and appears to be set in Egypt. And finally, there's the Iron King by Maurice Druon.

By the time I've tracked down all of those, there's a faint possibility that George RR Martin might have finished his series!

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Follow the Badger!

It's not often you hear Rupert the Bear mentioned in the same sentence as Quentin Tarantino - but those are two of the influences on Grandville, the graphic novel series starring Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard (who is a badger).

Mary Tourtel started the Rupert Bear comic strip in the Daily Express newspaper, but it really reached its glory days under the artistry of Alfred Bestall, who also introduced some of the more surreal elements into it. Rupert is basically a boy with a bear's head, and his friends are all sorts of other animals, including Bill the Badger, Edward Trunk the elephant, and others. Also living in the village of Nutwood is a human Chinese conjuror (who built himself a pagoda by the village green) and his pretty daughter Tiger Lily, one of the few female characters. Alfred Bestall worked on the strip, and the Annuals, for 38 years, up until 1973, and was succeeded by Alex Cubie, John Harrold and the present illustrator, Stuart Trotter.

In Grandille, too, most of the characters are basically human shaped, but with the heads of different animals, and their names reflect what kind of animal they are - so LeBrock the badger is assisted by Detective Ratzi, a rat, and the squirrel police sergeant at the beginning of the book is called Nutkin. Rather charmingly, Rupert Bear's father appears in the background of one picture, clipping his garden hedge - and the village is called Nutwood.
Inspector LeBrock is called in to investigate the murder of a diplomat, and his investigations soon lead him to Paris, the Grandville of the title. This is a reference to the French caricaturist Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard, who died in 1847, who worked under the nom-de-plume of JJ Grandville (according to the note at the front of the book). Bryan Talbot's other main influence is the French science fiction illustrator Albert Robida, who died in 1926.
In this alternate universe, Napoleon won his war with Britain, and the French Empire is the supreme power in Europe, with Britain reduced to a provincial backwater. Anglophobia is rife in France, ever since English anarchists blew up a great tower in the middle of Paris. There are quite a few clever political allusions in the story. I particularly liked the French prime minister, previously head of a small far-right wing party, called Jean-Marie Lapin (he's a rabbit, of course). There's also a lot of violence, which is where the reference to Quentin Tarantino comes in.
It's not just political allusions, either. There's a scene referencing Tin Tin, too - and all I can say about that is "Poor Snowy!"
It's also a popular story in Steampunk circles, thanks to the pseudo-Victorian fashions and things like the Channel railway bridge and the dirigibles.
But it's the character of LeBrock himself who makes the story so enjoyable - the scene where he asks for a full English breakfast in a posh French hotel for instance, is a delight.

Looking at the credits on the back pages, I found that I'd seen some of Bryan Talbot's work before. He was responsible, with Pat Mills, for Nemesis the Warlock in 2000AD, and I rather liked Nemesis, and his living starship the Blitzspear. It's quite refreshing to have a demonic alien as the good guy and the human Torquemada ("Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!") as the bad guy.

Bryan Talbot has also worked on Sandman (Neil Gaiman's comic series), and The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, and Alice in Sunderland, among others.

There are sequels to Grandville - Grandville Mon Amour, and Bete Noir - and we wants them, my precious!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

What is Steampunk For?

I was browsing through other blogs today and came upon M Harold Page, who is a writer of fantasy and SF, and he was musing about Steampunk as a literary genre on February 12th.
He compares it to SF and Fantasy, and concludes that Steampunk allows a writer to write about things that are difficult to do in either SF or Fantasy - a world of corporations and industrial development, but without the health and safety rules of the modern world (which would only become more restrictive in an imagined future), and where a writer can pick and mix Victorian elements with feminism, sky pirates and (obviously) dirigibles.

I can sympathise with this view (and it's a very enjoyable blog). I have an idea for a Steampunk story based on something I saw in another blog - Beyond Victoriana: a Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk. Ayleen the Peacemaker told the true story of Mongolian book-selling bandits that made me long to include them in a story. Apparently, in the 19th century, Chinese novels translated into Mongolian were wildly popular in Mongolia. Book sellers would take trains of pack horses through wild country to get the novels to their audience, and sometimes they were attacked by bandits, who would then sell the books themselves!
I am working on my own Steampunk persona, Miss Amelia Harper (named after my real great grandmother - though this Amelia is far more glamorous!) So I thought I'd send her to Mongolia, working undercover for a Victorian Torchwood type institute, with her Chinese friend Li Bic (based on the daughter of our local Chinese takeaway, who used to take my dog for walks), and get her mixed up with the Mongolian book bandits, an inter continental railway line, and mining engineers. In the modern world, and in a future world, my heroines would have to deal with annoying things like passport controls - and my science is definitely of the mad scientist/giant ray gun variety. Place the story in a pseudo-Victorian past, though, and a lady of the British Empire can get away with an awful lot when faced with foreign officialdom!

It's going to be a while before any of this is knocked into shape as a story - I'm stuck in the middle of Ytir for the foreseeable future. One of my characters has cursed the wrong person by mistake, and they're all at the "OMG what do we do now?" stage of dealing with it.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Slaine and the Celtic Dream

I've recently been reading my way through Slaine: Books of Invasions, three volumes of the most gorgeous artwork and gory battles, starring the 2000AD Celtic hero, Slaine mac Roth.
I started reading 2000AD among archaeologists, and Slaine came in for special praise because it was so well researched. Slaine was shown becoming High King in just the way that Gerald of Wales described, for instance, and some of the characters' faces were based on Celtic Iron Age stone heads.
It's also a very violent comic strip, of course. Slaine's catchphrase is "Kiss My Axe," after all. Pat Mills, one of the creators of Slaine, points out in an editorial at the back of the third volume of Books of Invasions that Slaine is not just a "hack and slay barbarian hero". He recalls criticism for having Slaine talking instead of just killing things every week, and the editorial team at 2000AD told him not to write any more "emotional stories" after he did a Slaine version of The Swan Children of Lir. They, too, wanted more hack and slash, and less talking.
In Hollywood, they don't like the Celtic names - too difficult - though there has been talk of a Slaine film for years. There's a group of Spanish fans (Slaine is very big in Europe, apparently) who made a short film sequence - and it looks just like the comics. It's absolutely beautiful work, by Miguel Mesas, and it can be found on YouTube as Slaine: The Horned God.

Other people, as Pat Mills says, 'get it'. The Celtic Dream. The Irish legends that are not as clear cut as Roman or Greek or Anglo-Saxon, "imbued with an anarchic sense of the fantastic, mixed with a deep and unique mysticism".

So the comic strip went through a rather rocky few years, with the Books of Invasions showing a triumphant return to form with the artists Clint Langley and Luke Preece, and the editors of 2000AD and the Graphic Novel, Matt Smith and Jonathan Oliver.

And Pat Mills mentions another group of people who 'get' Slaine - the road protesters trying to save the prehistoric landscape of Tara from a motorway a few years ago. They even used the slogan: "This beast you are calling a motorway can kiss my axe."
Sadly, the motorway was finally built - the government of Ireland has been rightly criticised for failing to protect the amazingly rich archaeological remains of the country in favour of short term profit.