Wednesday, 31 July 2013

All I Wanted was a Tshirt.... shouldn't be so difficult, surely?

So, I read Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight. I thought that Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel was a really cool character, and I would really like a tshirt in the colours of her costume, with the red shoulders and gold star and stripes and blue body.
There's a whole internet out there, selling all manner of stuff - surely someone makes this?

As it turns out - no.

There's someone on Red Bubble who is selling a tshirt which is kind of like what I'm after - but that's it.

So I went on the Marvel Comics website. Captain Marvel is their character. If anyone sells merchandise for that character, it should be them, right?
They sell 34 tshirts and tops on their website. Thirty of them are labelled "for men" and "for boys" (though I don't see why little girls shouldn't be able to wear the small tshirts - they're the same shape as boys when they're children, more or less).
Four out of 34 tshirts are labelled "for women". Of these. one has a picture of Iron Man, with the caption "I only kiss heroes". One is labelled Girl Power, and features six female superheroes, including Ms Marvel. One is labelled "I Love a Man in Uniform" with several male superheroes depicted, and the final one has the caption "Girls Rule the World", with the description "plus plenty of glitter to chase the bad guys away." Pink glitter.

I was not impressed.

Also on the site are 10 items of sleepwear, all "for boys", 9 costumes and accessories, all "for boys", and six outerwear, all "for boys".

Seriously, Marvel - this is rubbish! You're ignoring fifty per cent of the population, many of whom would like to buy your merchandise, if only you provided it.

On the plus side, while I was looking for something to wear, I came across the Carol Corps, at and they are brilliant. They also appear to make their own costumes.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Helpful Suggestions

I told a friend today that I had just uploaded my latest story onto Smashwords. He's not a fantasy fan, but was kind enough to say that he thought my writing was good, and got him interested in the story, when he read the sample of Like Father, Like Daughter.
"It only seems like five minutes since you put the last one up," he said.
I told him it had been nearly a year - because I'd had to do a fair bit of re-writing. "I had this really long horse ride in which nothing much happened," I said, "but I've managed to cut that out and now the story flows much better."
"Maybe you should call your next story A Really Long Horse Ride in Which Nothing Much Happens - I bet it'd go down really well!" he said.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

My Newest Book

I've just put my latest story up on Smashwords, the sequel to Like Father, Like Daughter. I put my young heroine into terrible danger....:)

I also have to thank Mark (my Voidmaster!), for helping me to work out some of what that terrible danger is, and how it works magically.

(It's all quite exciting, and it keeps me out of mischief!)

Friday, 26 July 2013

Becoming a Real Writer

Actually, I became a 'real writer' the moment I stood up and said I was at a writers' workshop run by David Gerrold at a Star Trek convention in the 1980s. He was the guest of honour, as the writer of Trouble with Tribbles, and offered to do the workshop as he was also teaching writing at the time. He got us all to admit, in that room, that we were already writers as long as we put pen to paper - it didn't matter if we were published or not. He was very persuasive.

Getting paid for your writing is a big step further on, though - and yesterday I got an email from Smashwords to tell me that they were paying me the first earnings that I had made on their website.
I'm delighted!
I'm a real writer, and I have the grand sum of £6.91 (or $10.90) to prove it!

As they say, you can't fail at e-publishing - the worst you can do is succeed very, very slowly!

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Wheelchair Cosplay

Over on Stellar Four blog, on the 24th June, there's a post about awesome costumes created by and for people in wheelchairs. There's a tiny Eleventh Doctor in his Tardis, and a fairy-tale Cinderella, Oracle, Wall-e, and more. They're really inventive and truly wonderful.

It reminded me of the days when I used to go to lots of Star Trek conventions, back in the 1980s. One lady in a wheelchair took part in the fancy dress parade (cosplay was not even a word then!) as The Ship Who Sang. The spaceship costume was constructed around her wheelchair. I think this was probably at Leeds Dragonara Hotel (I went to quite a few conventions at the Dragonara, which has since changed its name). The lady could only go to conventions at all by making arrangements with the local hospital so she could stay with them for the weekend - she really was seriously disabled - but she was determined to enjoy herself when she got into the hotel.

Friday, 19 July 2013

"Roll up, roll up, see the Sighthill circle..."

I happened to see an article in the latest Big Issue magazine called Save the Stone Circle, which talks about the Sighthill Stone Circle in Glasgow. It's not an ancient stone circle - it was built in 1979 - but it was the first astronomically aligned stone circle to be built in Britain for 3,000 years. The idea came from a competition for local primary schools, when a little girl suggested it.
Now Glasgow City Council want to knock it down, to make room for new development.

The story reminded me that I had heard the name Sighthill Stone Circle before.
Many years ago, when I was involved in Star Trek fandom, and went to lots of conventions, there was a style of singing called filk. This started off as a mis-spelling of "folk" music, and stuck, and it is SF inspired music. There are songs about Star Trek, and conventions, and vampire kittens, and various book series, either set to the tunes of genuine folk songs or to original music - and there are two which include references to the building of the stone circle. I looked them up in my copy of The Old Grey Wassail Test, a song book I bought at World Con 87. The first one is called Space and Scotland, and it was written by Duncan Lunan, to the tune "Fife's got everything", in 1982.

The relevant verse goes:
"The Sighthill megalith, the newest in the country,
We're waiting for midsummer just tae check on oor array.
It was done by calculation, and broadcast to the nation -
If it doesnae mark the sunrise, you'll find us in B.A.!"

The note at the end of the song says:
"This is the 'company song' of the Association in Scotland to Research into Astronautics, Ltd. (ASTRA). The first verse relates to the Glasgow Parks Dept. Astronomy Project, which built the first astronomically aligned megalith in Britain for three thousand years, but without an opportunity to check the alignments by observation beforehand."

It turns out that Duncan Lunan was the manager of the project.

The second song, also in The Old Grey Wassail Test, is called Mythcon XV, and is sung to the tune of The Rawtenstall Annual Fair (ta-ra-ra), and was written by Duncan Lunan and Leigh Ann Hussey.

Mostly, it describes what was going on at the convention, but the last verse goes:

"Roll up, roll up, see the Sighthill circle,
See the modern Stonehenge put together bit by bit;
In came the fans, and they gave out a sigh,
When the bowed stone snapped and then was left behind to die.
And there was Braithwaite in a quarry, Gavin Roberts in a lorry,
And Lunan guiding sunstones through the air, ta ra ra...
Solstice, standstills, and sunrise in a notch,
The Navy flew the stones and all the schoolkids came to watch;
If the nets had given way then you'd have seen rocks upon the Scotch!
At the Mythcon annual tear, ta ra ra...."

Mythcon was actually held in Oakland California, but Duncan Lunan was there talking about the building of the Sighthill stone circle. He wrote: "At the Spring Equinox of 1979 the circle was completed by a Sea-King helicopter from the HMS Gannett which flew in the last seven stones, though not (as I explained in my talk at Mythcon) without some misgivings about the strength of the nets."

"Braithwaite in a quarry" refers to the astronomer who helped to choose the stones and work out their positioning, and he was the father of Stuart Braithwaite, member of Mogwai, who wrote the article in the Big Issue. "...the idea you have to knock down absolutely everything to rebuild is a sad philosophy," he says.

There will be a benefit concert for Save Sighthill Stone Circle at Platform in Glasgow on July 27th from 4.30pm.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

How Culture Survives

Sometimes it can be by chance, almost an accident.

Take the greatest Anglo-Saxon poem, for example, Beowulf. It's well known now - there have been films, and several translations into modern English, including a rather wonderful one by Seamus Heaney the poet. For centuries, though, the poem was unknown, hidden away in a manuscript called the Nowell Codex - which was the only copy in existence. Even that was almost destroyed in a fire - in which case the poem would have been lost forever. Although we say now that this was one of the crowning glories of Anglo-Saxon literature, we don't really know - because we don't know what has been lost. It might have been head and shoulders above all other poems of the Anglo-Saxon period, or it could have been fairly run of the mill, while they thought some other poem was far superior.

Or take the Revelations of Divine Love by Dame Julian of Norwich. This is a masterpiece of medieval writing, the first book in English by a woman, and a meditation on the visions Dame Julian had of Christ which prompted her to become an anchoress, shut away from the world for the rest of her life so she could think about what had happened to her and make sense of it. When Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries, Benedictine nuns from nearby Carrow Abbey took their manuscript with them into exile, and although it was first published in 1670, it was little known until an edition in 1901 brought it to greater prominence. Now St Julian's church in Norwich (almost completely rebuilt after being bombed during the Second World War) is a place of pilgrimage, and there is even a modern Julian Order of monks and nuns in the United States, living according to her teachings.

Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth century mystic, clergyman and poet, was completely unknown to the wider world until some of his private papers were discovered on a bookstall in 1896, after having been hidden away in a private collection in Ledbury, Herefordshire, for almost 200 years. He was rector of Credenhill, near Hereford, for some time. Now there is a chapel dedicated to him in Hereford Cathedral, with some wonderful modern stained glass windows, and he is venerated as an Anglican saint.

And yesterday I was talking to a lady whose great grandfather almost singlehandedly saved much of Breton culture which was in danger of being lost forever. He and a musician friend walked all across Brittany, collecting stories and music from the traditional performers. It would have been at about the same time that people like Cecil Sharp and Vaughn Williams were collecting English folk songs before they were lost forever.
The lady I was speaking to has friends who are actors, and she asked one of them if he would perform some of the Breton poems for a video she wanted to make. The actor she asked couldn't do it, but suggested someone who could - and while he was reading through the poems she showed him, he came across one that surprised him. It was in Breton and French translations, but it concerned a saint and a holy well on an island near Anglesey in North Wales. It turned out that the lady's great grandfather had spent some time in North Wales, and while there he had come across the poem in Welsh and translated it into Breton and French. Since then, it had been completely lost in Welsh - but now a lady in Anglesey has translated it back into Welsh from the Breton and French versions.
St Dwynwen became a hermit on Llanddwyn Island (which is named after her). She was one of the many daughters of King Brychan - nearly all of his many children became Welsh saints - and retreated to her hermitage after refusing the hand of a young man called Maelon in marriage. Her feast day is 25th January, and she is the Welsh St Valentine, being the patron saint of lovers (and also sick animals!).
The lady I was speaking to had visited her holy well on the island, and tidied up the rubbish around it when she was there. Then she took a photo from the nearby hill - and when she showed it to people, there was a sunburst of light she hadn't noticed at the time, coming off the sea in the background. The locals were in no doubt - this was a sign of great favour from the saint, who had marked the lady for one of her own.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Druids in Bath

Scrape the veneer of rationality and enlightenment during the eighteenth century, and you never know what you might find lurking underneath!

I was in Bath on Tuesday, so of course I had to see the Circus and the Royal Crescent. They've been seen in many Jane Austen TV adaptations (and I think the chief archaeologist in the lamentable series Bonekickers was supposed to live on the Crescent. I always wondered how she could possibly have afforded it.). Elegant town houses, with Classical proportions, beautifully designed by John Wood, stand near the top of the hill that Bath is built on.

I first got the impression that there was more to this architecture than met the eye when I saw in one of the guide books that the Circus was supposed to represent the sun, and the Royal Crescent the moon - and then it added that the friezes around the houses of the Circus had symbols on them taken from a book of fortune telling.
I'm reading Blood and Mistletoe at the moment, by Ronald Hutton, which is a history of the Druids in Britain, told in a masterly scholarly style - and today I got up to the eighteenth century. Who should be mentioned but John Wood, the same architect who designed the Royal Crescent and Circus in Bath?
It turns out he had some - interesting - ideas about prehistory and the Druids, and fed these ideas into his architectural designs. People who have studied Wood and his work seem to agree that the Circus is based on the Masonic sign of a triangle in a circle. He also believed that stone circles, especially nearby Stanton Drew, which he studied (since other people had already studied Stonehenge and Avebury) represented Druidic temples, where the druids actually lived in houses among the stones, in Druidic colleges. With the Circus, he was putting that idea into contemporary form, and he also decorated the houses with stone acorns, to stress the Druidical associations with oak trees. Ronald Hutton says:
"Symbolically, it is the first Druidic temple to be erected in Britain since ancient times, created as the testimony of faith of a passionate, if highly unusual, Christian. It may, in fact, be the first stone temple ever built in the name of Druidry."
John Wood also wrote a history of Bath, published in two parts in 1742 and 1743. In this, he turned Stanton Drew into a Druidic national university, with the capital at Bath, which he imagined to be full of shrines to the ancient gods, especially Apollo and Diana under the name Onca, representing the sun and moon. He imagined King Bladud, the legendary founder of Bath, going on a fact finding tour around the ancient world and meeting Pythagoras and Zoroaster and the builders of the second temple of Jerusalem (for which he would have needed the aid of a time machine, but never mind....).
The second manuscript copy of his book on architecture, which incorporates his studies of Stanton Drew, are held at Bath Central Library now.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Nutmeg Photography Explorations Take 2: The Battle of Tewkesbury 1471

Nutmeg Photography Explorations Take 2: The Battle of Tewkesbury 1471: The sun was burning the earth when the men in the Yorkist camp woke up. Although it was not much past dawn, they were already sweating in t...

Megan Kelland was at the Battle of Tewkesbury this year, and talks through the battle with some wonderful photos of the action.  It's one of the big medieval re-enactment events of the year.
The year I went was hot as well - and one of the knights fainted on the battlefield.  An ambulance actually went into the middle of the battle to collect him!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Walks Far Woman

A lot of ink has been spilt over Johnny Depp's portrayal of Tonto in the Lone Ranger recently. For what it's worth, my take on it is that he's playing a man with a dead bird on his head, and the last man who was able to carry that off with a straight face was Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian in Doctor Who. Also, of course, Johnny Depp is white, for all his protestations of Native American ancestry - and there are lots of roles for white guys and not so many for Native American actors. I remember Jay Silverheels - and at least he was a Mohawk Indian (I always liked him better than the Lone Ranger. I've always had a soft spot for sidekicks).
In all this debate, though, I haven't seen a single mention of a movie I remember seeing on TV a few years ago. Starring Raquel Welch, of all people, it was called The Legend of Walks Far Woman. Here, too, you had a white woman playing a Native American - but I was quite impressed with the story. While looting the bodies of US Cavalrymen after a battle, Walks Far Woman finds a small pouch full of pieces of paper. The other women can't see any use for it, but she keeps it - and the movie audience can see at once that it is a wallet stuffed with dollar bills.
Later, she wants to buy land, since her people are being kicked off the land that was theirs. The white man who is helping her tells her that she could buy land if she called herself Walks Far Jones or something - claiming white blood - but full blooded Indians are not allowed to buy land. She refuses to lie about her identity, and fails to buy any land. To bring us full circle, at the end of the film she is seen as an old woman on a reservation, watching the Lone Ranger on the TV.
I remember being impressed. Before I watched this film, I had no idea that Raquel Welch could act - I knew of her only from that picture of her posing in a fur bikini in One Million Years BC.
I think it's a film that deserves to be better known - maybe it's time for a remake with a Native American actress in the lead role.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy

It's quite a small garden, behind an elegant terraced house in Bath, just out of the centre. It's not the sort of place you'd stumble across by chance, unless you were very lost! But this is the garden - this very spot - where William Herschel pointed his home made telescope at the night sky and discovered the planet Uranus. The discovery doubled the known size of our solar system at a single stroke.
What made it even more impressive was that he was self-taught. He was actually a musician, directing the music at the Octagon Chapel, composing and playing various instruments including the organ. As time went on, he spent more and more time on his astronomical research, including building telescopes - which included polishing the mirrors laboriously by hand, after casting the metal for them in his little workshop (the flagstones are seriously cracked due to an explosion with the molten metal!).
When he settled in Bath, he sent for his sister Caroline from Hanover to join him so she could run his household. He taught her English, and music (she was a fine singer, apparently) and mathematics, and she assisted him in his astronomical researches. She discovered eight comets herself, and was the first woman to be awarded a gold medal by the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. She was also the first woman ever to earn a wage as a scientist.
One of her dresses is on display at the museum - she was tiny! Yet she lived to the age of 98, having moved back to Hanover on the death of her brother.
By this time, they had left Bath behind. King George III was so enthusiastic about William Herschel's work that he offered him £200 a year to move close to Windsor to devote himself to astronomical research where the King could visit him whenever he wanted. It was a significant drop in his income, but William didn't hesitate - he moved to Slough, and built a telescope so big it was marked on ordnance survey maps as one of the wonders of the age.
Down in the cellar of the house, they show a little film narrated by Patrick Moore, who was the Patron of the Museum. In the film, he describes William Herschel as probably the greatest astronomer of all time - and if Patrick Moore thought so, that's good enough for me. He built around 400 telescopes over the years, finally inventing a polishing machine for the mirrors after 15 years of doing it by hand. He also discovered infra-red radiation, while working with prisms, and coined the word "asteroid", among his other accomplishments. He also had wonderfully clear handwriting - several of his letters are on display and they are perfectly legible (I often have trouble deciphering old handwriting).

And here they are together - William looking up at the sky, and Caroline writing it all down - in a shady corner of the garden.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Leafing Through My Mental Bookshelf

Dancing Beastie, who has the wonderful blog of the same name about life in a Scottish Castle, has been talking about writing, and how to decide what it is you want to write. She described it as "leafing through her mental bookshelf" for the books she loved - the books that she wanted to emulate when she wrote something.

My mental bookshelf has all sorts of things cluttering it up - but when I start thinking about it there are a few common themes.
One favourite writer, right back as far as the early 1980s, is Katherine Kurtz, author of the Deryni fantasy series. What I like about those is the way she blends fantasy with medieval historical detail.
For more historical detail, there's Sharon Kay Penman - who I love for all her books, but particularly the Welsh trilogy.
There's Rosemary Sutcliff, too - another writer who makes you feel that you're there, in the Roman villa or Bronze Age hillfort. She's also very good at dogs. There's a good dog character in nearly every one of her books.
And then there's Mary Gentle, who takes historical detail and fantasy and science fiction and archaeology and blends it all into one mad whole in her Ash stories - but it's a mad whole that makes glorious sense.
Finally there's Joy Chant, who wrote the wonderful Red Moon and Black Mountain, in which children from England slip across into an alternate fantasy world to fulfil their destinies, but in a way that is very unlike CS Lewis. When she was asked why she wrote fantasy, she said something along the lines of: "When I write, that's what comes out."
Which is pretty much what I find when I sit down to write, too.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

The Gentle Sex

Reading the Captain Marvel story, with the group of girl pilots from the Second World War, set something tickling at the back of my mind.

During the Second World War, Leslie Howard (best known for his roles as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, among others) made several films for propaganda purposes. One of these - in fact, the last film he ever made, before his death in a plane crash in 1943 - was The Gentle Sex, which was a look at the contributions women were making to the war effort. And it was a lot more than pouring tea in the NAAFI.
The film follows seven women of different backgrounds who meet at an Auxiliary Territorial Training camp. Leslie Howard provides the narration.

The scene from the film that I remember most vividly is where the women drive a convoy of trucks through the night to get them to where they need to be on time, while the men waiting for the trucks joke that they must have stopped to put their make up on.

Perhaps the most famous member of the ATS was Princess Elizabeth, now the Queen, who learned how to repair car engines, among other things. The ATS also manned searchlights (a very hazardous job, as the German planes would shoot down the searchlight beam to put out the lights). There's a famous picture of St Paul's Cathedral with searchlights in the "V for Victory" position behind it - I used to know the daughter of one of the women who was there, that night. Members of the ATS were also radar operators and manned anti-aircraft guns, as well as being telephonists and other support jobs.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Captain Marvel

I think I've found someone else that I want to be when I grow up!
(The first choice is Sarah Jane Smilth, obviously.)

Today I picked up a copy of Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight in Hereford, and I read it in the sunshine on the banks of the Wye while sipping some of the best beers the Beer on the Wye Festival could provide.
And Carol Danvers is awesome!
First of all, she has a sensible costume now, instead of flashing bare skin all over the place. She is (or was), after all, a Colonel in USAF - outranking Captain America, as she reminds him in the opening fight sequence.
It's a timeslip story - and it takes in some of the real heroic women pilots of the past - the women who ferried planes for the RAF and USAF in the Second World War, (at this point, the story suddenly becomes Commando Weekly for a while - and none the worse for that!) and the Mercury 13, who passed all the tests the men did who were training to be astronauts, but were still denied the opportunity to join the programme because this was 1961 - and they didn't have any experience in flying jets. Since only men got the opportunity to fly jets - well, they were cheated, and they should have been up there.
These are sensible women characters who have goals and desires well beyond being someone's girlfriend - they want to help the war effort (despite their lack of training), and they want to fly into space.

This is a wonderful comic book, and I will be looking out for more work by Kelly Sue DeConnick and the various artists who worked with her - principally Dexter Soy and Emma Rios, I think.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Hunting for Historic Pubs

There are few things nicer than sitting beside an open fire, with a glass of real ale in one hand and a good book in the other, in a historic pub.
In Hay-on-Wye, we are spoilt for choice. There's Kilverts - the bar area there looks quite different to the way it looked when I first came to Hay, but it has a constantly changing array of guest ales and an open fire. I usually spend an afternoon a week in there, while my washing is at the launderette - there's just time for an unhurried half and a chapter or so. The Blue Boar also scores highly on the real fire and real ale front, and so does the Rose and Crown. The Three Tuns has been extensively renovated after a fire, but it is one of the oldest buildings in Hay and the renovations were very sympathetic to the fabric of the building, as well as opening up areas that had never been on public view before (there's an area upstairs between the beams that used to be Lucy's bathroom - Lucy being the old landlady who ran it for many years before the fire). The Black Lion is more orientated towards food, but the building is very fine. I was once taken down into the cellar to look at their medieval flooring, and one of their guest rooms is known as the Cromwell Room, from a story that Cromwell once stayed there.

When we last went to Manchester, we visited the Shambles, or the Old Wellington - a building that was lifted four feet back in the 1970s to fit in with the design of the new Arndale Centre, and more recently was shifted bodily to nestle beside the Cathedral after the IRA bomb that prompted extensive re-building. (I've met more than one Mancunian who cheered when that IRA bomb went off; I was one of them. The original Arndale Centre design was not well loved!)

When I go down to see my Young Man, in London, he tries to take me to pubs that he thinks are particularly special. In Southwark, it was the George, now the subject of Pete Brown's latest beer-related book, Shakespeare's Local. It's a magnificent building, which might indeed have been Shakespeare's local, as well as Dickens' local - and Chaucer's pilgrims set off from another inn just down the road.
I love Southwark - there's the Borough Market huddling under the railway arches, with an exceptionally fine beer stall and a small pub called the Rake which seems to be where small brewers from all over the country end up when they're in the capital. No real fire, but more real ale than you can shake a stick at, and a pleasant little garden area. Scenes from the Doctor Who story The Talons of Weng-Chiang were filmed just outside the Clink prison, and there's the Cathedral, and the wine and whisky emporium - and the Globe, and the Golden Hind - and a sparkly pavement under a bridge that always makes me smile!

Wonderful as Southwark is, though (and there are other pubs we have visited there which are also rather fine), it's nice to venture out to other parts of London to see what's there.
So I was rather pleased to find a copy of London Heritage Pubs by Geoff Brandwood and Jane Jephcote, which is a beautifully illustrated tour of historic pubs in London. It was published by CAMRA, so there's an interest in the beers that are served in the pubs as well as the fabric of the buildings. And what fabric! The Young Man has mentioned taking me to the Black Friar at Blackfriars, but we haven't made it yet - the pictures of the interior in this book make me want to make the effort very soon!
There's polished wood, gleaming Victorian tiles, stained glass and ornate pub signs, beams and mirrors and wrought iron work.... It's going to take a long time to visit all of the pubs mentioned in the book - but there are worse ambitions in life!