Saturday, 29 June 2013

Writing Magazine Prize

I was going through a stack of old Writing Magazines the other day. The pile had reached the top of the shelf, and I wanted to thin them out and get rid of the ones that I wasn't going to read again.
About half way down the pile, I came upon the short story I'd written for one of their competitions. I won a copy of How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by writing a science fiction story in 250 words.
Can it really have been in 2006?
So here it is - I'm still quite proud of it:

The New Place

Zenna got back from school to find mum running the video of the new place they'd be living in. "You really ought to see where we'll be living," she said.
It was a big university, with lawns and trees between the buildings. "Down there's the beach," her mother said. "Think of it - all those miles of sea, as far as the eye can see."
As far as the eye could see wasn't very far, to Zenna. She remained unimpressed.
"We've been selfish, staying here for so long," her mother said. "It hasn't been fair for you."
Zenna shrugged. The ship was her world. She felt safe here - and she knew the safety drills as well as any of the adults. There would be many different things to learn at this new place.
"You'll have a lot more freedom," said her father. "We could even get a pet."
Zenna was fond of the class guinea pig. It would be nice to have her own.
So there it was. They were going, and that was all there was to it.
The ride down was OK, and it was interesting picking their luggage out of all the other luggage on the carousel.
Then they walked through the glass doors, and Zenna was outside, on the surface of a planet, for the first time in her life.
She looked up at the sky and knew that there was nothing holding it in - and she screamed, and screamed, and screamed.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Reading Crime Novels

I had a chat today with a chap who was buying one of Tony Hillerman's novels about the Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and he told me that there had been films made of some of the stories. IMDb website confirms this, listing four made for TV movies. The first was The Dark Wind in 1991, followed by Skinwalkers in 2002, Coyote Waits in 2003 and A Thief of Time in 2004. They look quite interesting - but not interesting enough to send off to the States for, so I think I'll continue to rely on my imagination for the settings, fed by old copies of National Geographic.
It was the setting that attracted me to the series. I'm never particularly bothered by who did the murder - what I'm interested in is life on the Navajo reservation and around the Four Quarters. And I now know that the film Cheyenne Autumn doesn't actually have any Cheyenne in it at all, thanks to a hilarious scene in one of the books where the film is screened at a local drive in movie.
It was the same with the Mma Ramotswe stories by Alexander McCall Smith, too - I wanted to know what it was like to live in Botswana. What particularly impressed me in the first book, the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency, was a comment by one of the characters that nobody wrote books about people like him - and the next chapter was entirely about him and his life.
That's why I read the Faye Kellerman novels about Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus, too - it's the details about Orthodox Jewish life in modern Los Angeles - and of course, that's the attraction of Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small series (titled with the days of the week). My memories of the murders are hazy, but the synagogue politics of the 1960s small American town remain vivid, as does Rabbi Small's impressions of Israel when he takes a sabbatical there.
Perhaps the most exotic location for a crime novel that I've read is Tibet. I came across Water Touching Stone, by Eliot Pattison, the second in a series featuring a Chinese detective in Tibet. This was more than just an interesting setting - it was an entirely different world. Occasionally there are trucks and Communist officials and cheap plastic shoes, but surrounded by villagers who believe in demons, remote lamaseries, a reincarnated lama, smugglers and an exiled White Russian with his favourite camel (surely a role for John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli and Indiana Jones' sidekick Sallah, if anyone ever attempted to film it). I've recently found a copy of the first book in the series, The Skull Mantra, so I'll be revisiting that strange and wonderful world soon.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

RIP Mick Aston

Mick Aston, in a trench, talking about archaeology (taken from
He made archaeology popular on TV with Time Team, and he will be sadly missed.
There's a tribute to him on Francis Pryor's blog, on the side-bar.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Super Heroines?

I'm fairly new to the comic scene, so my knowledge is sketchy at best.
There have been lots of films about Superman, and Batman, and Spiderman, as well as the Hulk, and Thor, and Iron Man - I love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man - it's his sarcasm and extreme cleverness, I think. I love Captain America, too - he makes me want to hug him, and take him home and feed him home-made apple pie. But where are the films about female superheroes?
Recently, I've been seeing speculation on the web about just that. Joss Whedon wants to make a Wonder Woman film - and it struck me that I don't really know about that many other super-heroines. Or female superheroes. Women, in costume, fighting crime. I thought Black Widow, in Avengers Assemble, was brilliant, and I understand Joss Whedon had to do some arguing to even include her in the picture. I liked her so much that I went looking for the comics, and came across something that combined two of my interests. Paul Cornell, who also writes for Doctor Who, wrote a comic called Black Widow, Deadly Origin - which was an ideal starting point for me, because it included a lot of her back-story and some of the other super-heroes that she had been involved with (including Hercules! Which seemed - well, no more bizarre than Thor and Loki, I suppose)
But who else is there?
I grew up with Lynda Carter, twirling around in her red, white and blue outfit as Wonder Woman, and lassoing people with her lasso of truth - but there doesn't seem to have been a film. All those re-boots of Superman, and not one single Wonder Woman film.
But there must be some more?
I'm vaguely aware that Captain Marvel is a woman now (having originally been a man), but I know nothing else about her.
I understand there are female versions of the Hulk (She-Hulk) and Spiderman (Spiderwoman), there's Supergirl and Batgirl - but are all the female superheroes just pale imitations of a male superhero?
I've heard of Scarlet Witch, and Oracle, but I know next to nothing about them, and they certainly haven't been the subject of a film that I know of.
When I first stumbled across comics, my immediate favourite was Green Arrow, because of the archery - but he had a girlfriend called Black Canary, and I thought she was extremely cool. Not sure about the fishnet tights and blonde wig, but as a character, I thought she was very good.
So, where are the interesting, three dimensional, female superheroes? And why can't there be a film about even one of them?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

What has it got in its Pocketses?

Not a lot, if you're a woman and your clothes have been designed without any!

Kyle Cassidy wrote a post about this on her blog, back on the 29th April, and I found it re-posted on Swan Tower blog. She also wrote a follow up post on 2nd May.
Basically, she was complaining about the design of women's clothes. Men's clothes almost always have pockets. Trousers, jackets - they all have places for men to keep their keys and loose change and whatever else they want to carry around with them. Some women's clothes have pockets, but a lot of women's jackets have fake pockets - just a flap with nothing inside - and skirts rarely have pockets. (I'm wearing a skirt now that has one tiny pocket at the back - it's almost impossible to put anything useful in it).

This is not a new problem. When I worked at the Children's Bookshop, I used to browse in the quiet times, and I came upon some fascinating articles in bound volumes of old Girls' Own magazines. These are wonderful big books, with pictorial board covers and gilt lettering, and they date from the late Victorian era into the early 20th century.
In one of them, I once found an article which was almost identical to the recent blog post! There were even line drawings of young ladies' skirts with and without pockets, with a plea for a sensible approach to dress making (a lot of girls would have been sewing their own skirts) by adding pockets to keep such useful items as a handkerchief or pair of scissors, or small change when they went out.
It's a piece of advice I heeded when I sew my own skirts - I usually use a pattern of an A-line skirt with built in pockets on the seam. I have quite basic sewing skills, but this is an easy one to do.
When I find myself wearing clothes without pockets, I use one of my medieval re-enactment pouches on a belt - prettier than the modern bumbags, I think! It's very rare that I carry a handbag.

What we need, as we needed a hundred years ago, is for clothing designers to actually think about how women will be wearing the clothes they are making, and what women will be doing when they're wearing them.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Pilgrims and Posies: Faded Beauty

Pilgrims and Posies: Faded Beauty: A while ago we were at a fair in the midlands and took advice from a friend to take a diversion on the way home to go to see the church of S...

As a re-enactor, I'm interested in blogs about other re-enactors, and this one is interesting because of the focus on music and pilgrimage.  This particular post caught my eye because it concerns Ashby St Legers, a village not far from Rugby.  The church is rather wonderful, but there's more to the village than the church.  I used to visit regularly, when visiting my in-laws in Rugby - mainly, I have to admit, for the pub, the Olde Coach House.  In those days it was a very good real ale pub, and did good food - it may be that it still does, but be that as it may, it has a lovely garden to sit in.
Anyway, next door to the church was the manor house, where Catesby of the Gunpowder Plot once lived.  In fact the room over the gatehouse was pointed out as the room where the plotters met.  These were people so incompetent that they thought it was a good idea to have their portraits painted as a group before they put their plot in motion - and they also thought it was a good idea to dry out damp gunpowder by spreading it out in front of an open fire.....
There's a footpath/bridle path leading from the village that would have been the route they followed to head for the house where young Princess Elizabeth (who they wanted to make into a Catholic Queen) was living.  There's a railway cutting across the line of the path now - when we followed it we imagined ghostly horsemen galloping across in mid air.
The rest of the village is charming too, full of thatched estate cottages designed by Lutyens.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

My Tonight From Shrewsbury: Want to Know What's Going on Inside Our Town's Mus...

My Tonight From Shrewsbury: Want to Know What's Going on Inside Our Town's Mus...: An extraordinary project is taking place in the heart of Shrewsbury and most people, if they’re anything like me, won’t know much about ...

Shrewsbury seems to have the right priorities when it comes to museums.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Messing about in Boats

Norfolk Wherries, Hunter's Yard, Ludham.

One of the discussion forums I visit regularly, Ship of Fools, has a thread about Fantasy Holidays going on at the moment. There are people who want to visit all sorts of exotic locations around the world, from Machu Picchu to the Faroe Islands to view a total eclipse.
The picture above shows what my fantasy holiday would be - and I don't even have to leave the country to do it. In fact, it would involve returning to one of my favourite English cities, Norwich, on the way to the Norfolk Broads.
I want to sail in a Norfolk wherry.
I discovered them when I lived in Norwich, and fell in love with a perfect working cargo boat. They have a shallow draught, so they can sail in just anything above a heavy dew (as the saying goes) and they have the wonderful ability to drop their masts, while sailing along, to shoot under bridges, and then raise the mast on the other side without pausing for breath.
They also featured in Arthur Ransome's books about the Broads, The Coot Club and The Big Six. Though Arthur Ransome is most famous for writing children's stories set in the Lake District, he also took his characters to other places, among them the Broads. Coot Club is an early story about bird conservation - the trouble starts when the children cast off a motor boat which is preventing a coot from returning to its nest, thus saving the chicks and annoying the "Hullaballoos" who are holidaying on the motor boat. Later in the story, two characters, twins nicknamed Port and Starboard, sail around the Broads by hitching a ride on every single different type of boat that used the Broads in the 1930s, including a wherry.
When I was writing Like Father, Like Daughter, I needed to get my characters from one place to another quite quickly, so I put them on a wherry on a big river. As it's my fantasy world, I see no reason why I can't have a 19th century boat in a mostly medieval environment!

So I want to spend some time following in the wake of Port and Starboard, in the height of summer when the meadowsweet will be thick among the reeds, with The Coot Club and The Big Six to re-read.
I think I'll draw the line at attempting to smoke eels in the cabin chimney, though!

There's another sort of boat I'd like to mess about on, too. This is Bodrum Harbour, in Turkey, with the Crusader Castle (built by the Knights of St John) in the background. The picture is taken from Bookable
As a holiday rep, I used to visit the harbour every Tuesday with a ferry load of holiday makers. They usually headed off to the market for bargains while I wandered round the castle - which has the largest tower built by the English outside England - and stroll along the sea front looking at the yachts and gulets. A gulet is the traditional sailing boat of the area, and they are still built locally in the traditional way. I used to have fantasies about chartering a gulet and cruising around the Greek islands - preferably one big enough for me to imagine myself as Maureen O'Hara in swashbuckling mode! A boat, sundrenched sea, Greek food, and lots of archaeology - perfect!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Museums Are Not a Luxury, Either

I've been pretty much ignoring the news over the last week, in favour of visitors - my sister and her family came in their camper van, and my Young Man was here at the same time. One thing I did notice, though, as we scrolled through Facebook one day, was the threat to the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, which may be forced to close because of cuts to the budget. Manchester, of course, is one of the heartlands of the Industrial Revolution. The cotton mills are long gone, but it is still important to remember what made Manchester so important in the past - and doubly important to show advances in science and technology to the public. This is the sort of thing that can inspire our next generation of scientists and engineers - but how will they be inspired if they are unable to find out about it? This is not some little local museum, either - it's nationally important.

The MOSI is in the same group as the London Science Museum, the National Railway Museum in York, and the National Media Museum in Bradford. Of these four, it is thought that the Media Museum in Bradford is most likely to be closed - even though it gets 500,000 visitors a year, this is less than the other museums in the group. But it is more important to Bradford than the Science Museum is to London - London has a wide variety of attractions and opportunities to find out about science. Bradford - not so much, but in this era of electronic entertainment, the history of photography, film, TV and video games is relevant to everyone's lives, and it's something that all Bradfordians seem to be proud of.

In Herefordshire, meanwhile, all the local museums are under threat of closure - though locals are fighting back against an uncaring council that sees them as unimportant. The costume collection is regularly consulted by people from places like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia - it's been quite interesting to see letters from the US in the pages of the Hereford Times on the issue.

Meanwhile, there seems to be plenty of money to spend on a new museum in honour of Margaret Thatcher - fifteen million pounds, in fact, supported by David Cameron in the pages of the Telegraph.

Isn't science and technology more important than the divisive legacy of a politician?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Longbows, Mary Rose and Robert Hardy

I've been sadly neglectful of this blog lately - it's been the Hay Festival, our busiest time of year, with so much going on around town that I haven't had time to think about writing anything.

Then, this morning I was listening to Broadcasting House on Radio 4 before I went off to work. There was a serious story about sleaze and Tory MPs - and then a delightful piece about longbows to celebrate the opening of the new Mary Rose museum.
I remember the wreck of the Mary Rose being lifted out of the water for the first time, in 1982. It was on Blue Peter! I was an archaeology student at the time, so the whole thing about preserving a huge wreck like that was fascinating. (You have to keep the wood wet, and there's some sort of preservative that gets pumped into the wood over time.)

A few years ago, I went down to the Portsmouth Dockyards and saw the old museum. By that time, I was a practising archer, and I've always had a love of Robin Hood, so it was the longbows that I wanted to see. Once I got inside, though, there were so many other things to fascinate me, like the brick oven that had been built inside the ship, and the reconstruction of the surgeon's tiny cabin. There was a re-enactor there, too, talking about the cannons. His kit was excellent, and he was one of those people who make a thing fascinating by communicating their own enthusiasm for the subject - he got me interested in the guns. I noticed that the gunners even decorated the sticks that held the slow matches to light the cannons - everything being hand made in those days.

Back to Broadcasting House, and they sent a young woman reporter to interview Robert Hardy. She clearly knew absolutely nothing about archery, which meant that she was asking the sorts of questions most of the audience would be wanting to ask, too. She was surprised, to start with, that the bow itself was so light. Robert Hardy gave her a bow with a 45lb draw weight to hold - the Mary Rose bows can be three times that, or more - basically, they are a stick and a piece of string, but the bows with the larger draw weights can shoot arrows that pierce steel armour. A 45lb draw weight, by the way, means that when the archer draws the string back with the arrow on it, they are pulling the equivalent of a 45lb weight back, and that force is then released into the arrow to enable it to penetrate what it is aimed at.
First, though, he had to string the bow. "A bow with a loose string is like a wet dream," Robert Hardy said, as he looped the string around the horn nock at the end of the bow, "no use to anyone!"
He didn't demonstrate shooting the bow, as he'd recently had an accident while filming something and hurt his ribs, but he did talk about the different injuries peculiar to archers. Several of the skeletons retrieved from the wreck could be firmly identified as archers, and study of the remains showed the stresses their bodies had suffered. It's a very unbalanced weapon to use - one arm is always stiff and straight, and the other has to pull a heavy weight, and this can lead to collapsed shoulders and tight tendons in the neck, and even paralysis of the fingers that curve round the bow string. Robert Hardy said that the pathologist working on the bones used to ring him up to ask about sporting injuries in archery, and said that she was finding exactly that evidence from the skeletons, including deformed spines. As the Warwick Archer said when I saw him re-enact the entire Battle of Agincourt single handed: "We archers are not as other men!"
"Women can't do it," Robert Hardy went on, and as feminists throughout the land drew in their breaths at this blatant sexism, he went on to explain that female musculature differs from male musculature, because it was designed for a different purpose - the strains on the body that come with pregnancy. "I've known some excellent women archers," he added, "but not with the heavy bows."
The reporter then asked about the noise the arrows make in flight. "It's a sort of whispering noise," Robert Hardy said, and added that some arrows were made with a bit of feather that would make a whistling noise in flight - I've seen these being shot, and they are quite impressive. "A thousand arrows whistling down at you makes you feel very wobbly," he said. "A thousand arrows anyway makes a hell of a noise!"