Saturday, 26 October 2013

The Antigallican

Just down the road from the Woolwich Infant - and I think on the same bus route - is the Antigallican.
This was a name so unusual that I had to look it up, as well.
It seems that xenophobia is nothing new. The Anti-Gallican Society was formed around 1745 (according to the British Museum website, which holds a badge of one of the Presidents of the Society), to oppose French imports and French cultural influence in society. They also gave prizes for local products - a sort of early "I'm Backing Britain" campaign. The badge in the British Museum shows St George spearing the French flag.
A blog called Caroline's Miscellany mentions the pub, back in 2009.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The Woolwich Infant

In London recently, I was sitting in the top of a bus going through Woolwich when I noticed an old pub sign on the wall up above a row of shops near Woolwich Market. The pub had been called The Woolwich Infant, and had sold Courage beers.
It's such an unusual name that I looked it up.
The original Woolwich Infant was a 12 inch bore cannon, made at the nearby Woolwich Dockyards. It was designed to fire a 2 foot 6 inch long cartridge with 130lb of gunpowder, for a 700lb shot - but it cracked at the experimental stage. It was called the Woolwich Infant as a joke about it's great size - it weighed 35 tons.
The design of the gun was quickly improved upon, and when the Emperor of Russia was given a conducted tour of the dockyard in 1874, he was shown an entire "Infant School" of 35 ton and 25 ton guns.
The pub itself closed down in 2006, but before that it was said to be popular with the market traders.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Portal Fantasies

I've just been reading the blog of Phenderson Djeli Clark, at On 11th September she was talking about her experiences of trying to get her novel published - an Egypto-Nubian fantasy with a word count that enabled it to be split into four separate novels, and with a lot of black female characters - the Daughters of Sekhmet sound like fun!
I sympathise greatly with her struggles with agents and publishers - but one of the reasons that was suggested for why the book was not taken up was that it was a portal fantasy.

Now, I spent many hours as a child sitting in my mother's wardrobe trying to get to Narnia, so I'm naturally in favour of portals to other worlds. That's why my own first attempts at serious fantasy involve portals. Some of my characters live in Hay-on-Wye, the secondhand booktown on the Welsh Borders (on the grounds of 'write what you know', as I've been working in bookshops in Hay-on-Wye for around twenty years now), but they have a whole other life in the fantasy world of Ytir - one that they're reluctant to return to, for various very good reasons.

Like Phenderson Djeli Clark, I toyed with the idea of setting my story wholly within the fantasy world, which involved a huge amount of re-writing - but in the end, I decided I wanted the Hay-on-Wye parts of it, dammit, and I was going to have them. Which involved even more re-writing to get it back to the shape it had before (though I hope rather better written after all that work!).* And, despite the kind rejection letters that told me I was almost there as far as professional publishing was concerned, I decided I wasn't getting any younger and I wanted the stories to be out there and available - which is why I went the Smashwords route.
She's had some supportive comments about the portals, so maybe they're not the liability they're thought to be.

*as David Gerrold once said: "Remember, the first million words are just for practice!"

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

When Cult Viewing becomes Mainstream

You can tell that something only geeks once cared about has gone mainstream when it is used as the title of a teaching method at a University.
In this case, it is a training excavation site for archaeology students at the University of Queensland in Australia, which has the title Teaching Archaeological Research Discipline In Simulation.

Well, it's a form of time travel, I suppose.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Pangur Ban

"I and Pangur Ban my cat,
Tis a like task we are at.
Hunting mice is his delight.
Hunting words I sit all night..."

So starts a poem written in the margin of an early medieval Irish manuscript, with the monk comparing himself to his white cat - Pangur Ban means the white fulled one, fulling being a process in the making of woollen cloth. Any Welsh place with Pandy in the name once had a fulling mill.
I was footling about on Goodreads last night, and came across the children's series about Pangur Ban by Fay Sampson - and realised that I'd read almost all of them, years ago when I worked at the Children's Bookshop.
Pangur Ban and his monk Niall team up with pony-mad Princess Finnglas, and have several adventures in a fantasy version of medieval Ireland.
There are a lot of things to like about these stories, like the way Niall sings hymns loudly when in dire peril, and the dolphin Arthmael who helps them - or possibly the Son of God in the form of a dolphin (and sometimes, when they are away from the sea, a dog which is prepared to sacrifice himself to save them).
Her story about the naming of Pangur Ban, when he was still a kitten in a witch's cave, reminded me of another childhood favourite, Gobbolino the Witch's Cat, by Ursula Moray Williams - in that story, Gobbolino spends the whole book trying different ways of being an ordinary house cat, but is always discovered and chased away. His sister, who takes up the life of a witch's cat with enthusiasm, has the glorious name of Sootica.

Fay Sampson is a very good writer indeed, and for adults she has also written a re-telling of the myth of Inanna, the Mesopotamian goddess of Love and War, and her descent into the underworld, as well as a series of Arthurian novels, among other things. I liked Star Dancer, the Inanna story, a lot - it's not often that Mesopotamian myths are made into novels, but there are any number of versions of the Arthurian myth.
She also wrote a stand alone novel for older children called A Free Man on Sunday, about the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in the Lake District in the 1930s - back when the Ramblers' Association was considered to be a bunch of radical Communists, just for wanting the freedom to walk out on the moors that surrounded the Northern mill towns where they lived! That story includes the folk song written by Ewan McColl - The Manchester Rambler - which is also about the Mass Trespass. Part of the chorus is "I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday".
She has a website - with lots more books that I haven't read yet - at

Monday, 21 October 2013

Rabbi Small and the Absence of Guns

When I read crime fiction, I'm usually not reading it for the puzzle of who-dun-it, but for the background details of different ways of life. That's why I like the Harry Kemelman series about Rabbi Small. He's the rabbi of a Conservative Jewish temple in a small town somewhere near Boston in the 1960s and 70s, and the books go into some detail about the inner workings of the temple and the Jewish religion. With added murders, which Rabbi Small solves by applying rabbinical scholarship to the problems.
I've just finished reading Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (all the titles include days of the week), which brings Rabbi Small to his twelfth year as rabbi of the congregation of Barnard's Crossing, and somewhere in the early 1970s. Women's lib and sexism form part of the plot - women in the congregation want to take a full part in the synagogue services, while at the murder scene the police think a woman must have done the shooting because of the erratic nature of the shots fired.
And that's where I started pondering. It's not long ago that there was a massacre at the school in the town of Sandy Hook - a town that I imagine to be similar to Barnard's Crossing. I remember it being described by residents as a nice place to live, friendly, with a low crime rate - and yet the first woman to be killed (by her son) thought it necessary to keep assault rifles in her home.
Back in the 1970s, the murder weapon is brought from the local bank to the scene of the crime by one of the tellers - the guns were bought to make the tellers feel safer because the bank did not employ an armed guard. The old chap who lives in the semi-derelict old house on the hill does not have any weapons in his house. Nor does the ex-Captain of Marines who is president of the temple, it seems, or any of the other characters. Only one character is described as being keen on shooting - he spends a lot of time at the pistol range at the local yacht club - but he deliberately doesn't have a gun licence so that he isn't tempted to use his skill with a pistol to solve his arguments for him. Oh, and the janitor at the temple goes deer hunting occasionally - but that's it.
So how did small town America get from there to a situation where an ordinary woman thinks she needs an assault rifle?

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Captain Sheridan and Admiral Nelson

It's not an obvious pairing - the hero of Babylon 5 from the second season on, and the hero of Trafalgar. I recently discovered something that interested me, though. Before Lord Nelson commanded the Victory, his favourite ship as a Captain was the 64 gun Agamemnon. The ship was present at the Battle of Copenhagen (where she ran aground) and Trafalgar - and she was later wrecked at the mouth of the River Plate in South America.
When Captain Sheridan first showed up at Babylon 5, craving fresh oranges and a water shower, he was in command of the Agamemnon.
Somehow, I don't think it's a co-incidence.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Doctor Who at the Shire Hall

This is me, standing just across the road from the Shire Hall in Hereford, earlier today. BBC Hereford and Worcester were having a Doctor Who day, and I went in costume as a Tardis engineer. I have three jazzed up screwdrivers and a reel of gold wire on my toolbelt, together with a sonic screwdriver and a sonic torch. The engineer's overalls are a silk jumpsuit that came from a vintage fair in Hay a few months ago, and the beret has a UNIT badge sewn to it. I'm also wearing a Tardis key round my neck.

It was a fun event for the kids - toy daleks to drive, face masks to colour in, small Tardises to make, and plenty of tea and cake. It was also an excuse for local fans to show off their collections and some of the things they had made - like the full sized World War Two Dalek being shown off by one young man dressed as the Fourth Doctor (though he admitted that he had run out of jelly babies!). Other very fine costumes included an early Cyberman, a Weeping Angel, and a Cat Nun. There were also several fezes and tweed jackets in evidence - and a "Pin the Bowtie on the Doctor" game. There was also a Dalek up on the stage (called Derek, strangely - how can you be scared of a Dalek called Derek?) which must have been a real one from the TV, because no-one was allowed to touch that one. You could also go inside the Tardis, though that definitely wasn't the real one, because it wasn't bigger on the inside....
I saw quite a few kids in wheelchairs around the entrance hall. I'm not sure how they were able to get to the main hall, because the front way in is up a long staircase.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Alice in Sunderland

I first came across Bryan Talbot as the author and artist of the Grandville graphic novels, about Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard (who is a badger - one of the influences on the stories is the Rupert Bear Annuals).

Alice in Sunderland is rather different. It starts with the idea that Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell (who was the real Alice in Wonderland) are just as firmly associated with Sunderland and the surrounding area as they are with Oxford. As Bryan Talbot puts forward the evidence for this, based on a book by Michael Bute called A Town Like Alice's, he also tells the story of the Sunderland Empire theatre, which is where the story opens. This is, among other things, the place where Sid James of the Carry On films died on stage during a play, and Sid as a ghost turns up to make comments on the action throughout the book. I'd known about Sid James' death, but not that it had happened there. I was also aware, through a blog about Victorian life I came across some time ago (I think it was Cats Meat Shop), of the disaster in which nearly two hundred children at a Christmas show were killed in a crush caused partly by badly designed doors - and that happened at the Sunderland Empire, too.

But that's only a small portion of what the book contains. It also takes in the entire history of Sunderland back to prehistoric times, including local heroes like Jack Crawford, the Hero of Camperdown (a sailor in Nelson's navy - done in the style of the Boys Own comic). Doctor Who passes through - the first police boxes were made in Sunderland, and the ancient rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne is explained.
There are white rabbits, and rabbit holes, and the building of Sunderland docks, and - all human life, almost. He also manages to cover the history of comics, the history of his own house, Jack the Ripper (who never came to Sunderland, as far as anyone knows), the Corn Laws, the legend of the Lambton Worm - and manages to include his own views on fascism and immigration (he's against the first and in favour of the second).
In fact, immigration is something of a theme throughout the book, as he chronicles all the different peoples who have come to Sunderland to settle, all the way from Roman times to the present.

It's the sort of rich mixture that cannot be taken in completely on one reading - and the artwork is fantastic as well, in a variety of styles, including photography.
And one little extra pleasure for me is that the acknowledgements at the end of the book mention someone I know - he consulted Edward Wakeling, who is a renowned expert on Alice, and who comes into the shop where I work regularly.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Spirit of Albion

There's a record/CD/DVD shop down a local alleyway which often has interesting things in it. The last time I was in there, I caught a glimpse of a film called Spirit of Albion, which featured the music of Damh the Bard. I've been following Damh's blog, on the sidebar as The Bardic Blog, for some time, and I like his music a lot. I've also seen a video of him performing his song "The Sons and Daughters of Robin Hood" at the barricades at Balcombe, during the anti-fracking protests.
At first, I thought it would be a music video, but when I got it home I realised it was a film. It's an extremely low budget film (one of the characters wears her own wedding dress as a costume), and it is based on a youth theatre production - which shows in the way some of it is written, but the story is good enough to transcend the slight "staginess". It was performed at Witchfest, too, and was well received there.

Three people with problems meet in a wood, brought there by the Old Gods, who appear and disappear as the story goes on. The actors playing the gods are excellent - Arianrhod (Lucy Brennan) narrates, and Ceridwen, Herne, the Morrigan and Robin Goodfellow also appear (Joy Tinniswood, Sean George, Joanne Marriott and Redvers G Russell). There are also some battle scenes filmed with re-enactors.
The music is excellent, and really complements the action - I particularly liked Grey and Green, the song about Herne. In fact, I liked the music so much that I went online and downloaded the album after I'd watched the film.
What surprised me about finding the film secondhand in the first place is how new it is. It was only released in May 2012, and there weren't a huge number of copies made. So how did it make its way to a small shop on the Borders of Wales so quickly, I wonder? Maybe I was meant to find it!

However, the good news is that they did well enough that they are now working on a new film, Tales of Albion. Sean George will be returning as Herne (with bigger antlers - they joked that they'd been watering him over the winter!). There's a Scottish section to this one, and also a Robin Hood section, and more information can be found on the Facebook page for Spirit of Albion.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

New Book Covers

I've gone minimalist, to go with my minimal skills in Paint. The photos I used before were the best I could do at the time, but they were never quite right. These are better, I think - and hopefully more eyecatching! (I think I may have overdone the red for Raven's Heirs!).
So they're now appearing down the sidebar - Quarter Day, Raven's Heirs and Like Father, Like Daughter. I've left Ice Magic alone, since 207 people have downloaded it with the cover it already has, and it's free. I'm hoping that people will give me real money for the others!

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Minister of Chance

My Young Man gave me a business card. On one side there was a picture of a hooded man and a white haired girl, and the words: "Julian Wadham The Minister of Chance Lauren Crace"
On the other side it said:
Jenny Agutter, Jed Brophy, Paul Darrow, Philip Glenister, Tamsin Greig, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann - download all episodes absolutely free from iTunes or minister of"

He said it was a sci-fi/fantasy series, done as radio. It's sort of a spin off of a Doctor Who adventure called Death Comes to Time - but this version gives the Minister a universe of his own.
And - really, how could I not at least give it a go? - it's got two Doctors, and Avon, and Gene Hunt in it!!!

So I tried the prologue, in which Paul McGann plays a pleasant and genial ambassador - right up until the moment that he becomes totally ruthless.... I was hooked.

Then the Minister becomes involved, and gets himself a Companion in the form of Kitty, an argumentative young lady who is involved in the resistance movement against the Ambassador, who has taken over the country. The Ambassador's people are hunting down scientists - their leader back home, played by Sylvester McCoy, is called the Witch Prime, which gives some idea of their views on science - and Jenny Agutter is fantastic as the Professor in hiding.
All the actors are brilliant, and the script is intelligent and witty and keeps you guessing about who the villain of the piece really is - is it The Horseman (dangerous and deadly)? Or the Ambassador/Governor (clever and ruthless)? The Witch Prime? Lord Rathen, the general who is sent by the Witch Prime to keep an eye on the Ambassador? And why has the Minister involved himself in this (from his point of view) petty little war anyway? And just what is his relationship to Kitty, whose origins are shrouded in mystery?

I'm not going to give any spoilers - I'm just going to say listen to the episodes!

The whole thing was crowd funded, and now they're trying to raise money to turn it into a film. They're going to be making it in Cheshire, which they are renaming "Chanceshire" - the landscape is what they had in mind when they were describing Tanto, the country in which most of the action takes place.