Friday, 31 January 2014

Women Pirates - Ching Shih

In the third Pirates of the Caribbean film, one of the pirate captains is a Chinese woman called Madam Ching. She was based on the real life Ching Shih, which means Widow of Zheng - she married the pirate Zheng Yi, and when he died in 1807, she took over the running of the pirate fleet. At its height, the fleet numbered around one thousand ships, and was known as the Red Flag Fleet. In one battle with the Chinese navy, her fleet captured 63 ships.
In 1810, an amnesty was offered to pirates in the South China Seas. Ching Shih took advantage of this to retire, with all her loot, having negotiated pardons for the majority of her crews as well. She died in 1844, when she was 69, having spent her retirement running a gambling house.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Pilgrims and Posies: Pipe Music from Underground

Pilgrims and Posies: Pipe Music from Underground: About seven years ago, around the same time I got hooked into bagpipes and their music, I was preparing an exhibition looking at Cheshire wr...

I've recently finished reading Boneland by Alan Garner, which is a sort of sequel to the Wierdstone of Brisingamen and Moon of Gomrath.  It's quite a sad book, but there is hope there too.  Colin has grown up with no memories at all of his life before he was thirteen, and he now works at Jodrell Bank, lives in a cabin on Alderley Edge (with an impressive wine cellar in a cave), and is going mad.  His new therapist is - unusual in her working practices, but does seem to be digging down to what is at the root of his problems.  As Alan Garner often does, there is a parallel plot in the far distant past, about a man who is a sort of magical caretaker of the Edge.
What links the book to the post from Pilgrims and Posies, is that Colin was struck by lightning at Stormy Point on the Edge when he was thirteen (in Moon of Gomrath), and Stormy Point features again in Boneland.  So the story of Alan Garner's brother and his real life experiences in the same place is interesting.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Women Warriors - the Battalion of Death

It can be surprising where a bit of research leads you. While I was looking up the Night Witches, one of the articles I read said something along the lines of "Had the Russians forgotten so quickly what women had done in the revolutionary war?"
I wondered what women had done in the revolutionary war, thinking to find the odd woman fighter here and there - but what I found were entire battalions!
After the February Revolution of 1917, no less than seventeen women's battalions were formed, including the Battalion of Death, the 3rd Kubans Women's Shock Battalion and the 1st Women's Naval Detachment. Over 5,000 women joined up, though only the 1st Battalion of Death and the Perm Battalion served in the front line. About 140 women from one battalion defended the Winter Palace during the October Revolution, along with cossacks and military cadets. Most of the men disappeared when the Bolsheviks attacked, leaving the women as the last defenders of the Kerensky government. They surrendered to the Red Guards and were disbanded shortly thereafter. (And how often is it even mentioned that women were defending the Winter Palace? I'd certainly never heard of it before).
The Battalion of Death was commanded by Maria Bochkareva, who had been serving in the Russian army since 1914, and had risen to become a non-commissioned officer. There were also unofficial women's units. The authorities permitted the formation of the battalions in the hope that women soldiers would encourage the men to continue to fight. They were called the Battalion of Death because they swore never to surrender, and took part in the Kerensky Offensive later that year. Maria Bochkareva fought against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and was executed by them in 1919. Before this, she had been to America to ask President Woodrow Wilson for his help in defeating the Bolsheviks. In 1994 the Russian Orthodox Church honoured her as "Martyr Maria the Soldier".

Earlier in the war, Colonel Alexandra Koudasheva commanded the 6th Ural Cossacks Regiment, with around a hundred women in the ranks. She was awarded the St George Cross for her bravery, and the 6th Ural Cossacks wasn't the only Cossack regiment to include women soldiers, including officers. Other Russian women entered the army in the traditional way, by disguising themselves as men.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Women Warriors - The Naga Queen

Or Ursula Graham Bower, as she was more properly known.
After reading about the Night Witches, I came across another fascinating story from the Second World War, and really, I can't do any better than to direct anyone who's interested to the Daily Mail article (and that's a sentence I never thought I'd type!) They did a feature in Femail on 23rd April 2010, which is excellent.
Ursula Graham Bower was a debutante who went out to Burma before the Second World War and fell in love with Nagaland. She did anthropological work with the tribespeople there. She even made some short films which are now in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
At the beginning of the Second World War, she was asked to organise "her" tribesmen into a scouting force to warn the British of the expected Japanese advance. The British army expected to quickly replace her with a male officer, but it never happened, and in the end they were sending men to her for jungle warfare training. She was made an MBE for her wartime work.
The British called her the Naga Queen, and that's the name of the book about her exploits written by Vicky Thomas. The Americans called her the Jungle Queen, and there was a comic strip of that name about her. She also wrote her own book, published in 1950, called The Naga Path. Fergal Keane, the BBC correspondent, has also written a book about the campaign in the Naga hills, centring on the siege of Kohima, but mentioning Ursula Graham Bower and her scouts. It's called Road of Bones.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Women Warriors - Night Witches

The Germans called them the Nachthexen, but in Russia they were known as Stalin's Falcons, the all female Soviet Russian night bomber squadron of the Second World War. There was also a fighter squadron and a dive bomber squadron. British and American women were allowed to fly in order to deliver new planes to airfields, and other behind the lines flying, but these women went into action.
The night bombers were flying old and obsolete biplanes, the Polikarpov Po-2, which were so slow their top speed was below the stalling speed of Messerschmitt 109s, but they were also very maneuverable, so they were very difficult to shoot down. A favoured tactic was to idle the engine when they got close to their target and coast in silently to drop their payload of two bombs each. They didn't carry radios, and navigated to their targets using an ordinary map and a stop watch. Oh, and because of the low altitude flying and the weight of the bombs, they didn't carry parachutes.
Ground defences were far more dangerous to them than enemy fighters. Being so slow, it was immensely dangerous to be caught in a searchlight beam. So they flew in teams of three; two planes would catch the attention of the ground defences while the third dropped her bombs, and then they would change places until they had all dropped their bombs.
At their largest size, the night bomber squadron had 40 two-person crews, and all the ground support staff were women as well. In the winter of 1942, there are stories of the ground crews having to lie on the wings of the planes to stop them from blowing away in gales - they were only made of wood and canvas.
The pilots flew 24,000 sorties in all, from 1942 to 1945. The number is so high because they flew multiple missions in a night. By the end of the war, the surviving pilots had all flown over 1,000 missions each, and 23 of them were awarded Hero of the Soviet Union medals (as comparison, Leonard Cheshire was awarded a VC for sustained courage over more than 100 missions in a Lancaster bomber).

Friday, 17 January 2014

Work in Progress

Paula Lofting, author of Sons of the Wolf, is playing a game where you post two paragraphs of your Work In Progress, from page 7, and then tag seven other authors who will do likewise. I'm not one of the authors tagged, and I don't know seven other authors to tag myself, but I thought I'd like to play anyway. This is from Lost Treasure of Ytir, sequel to Quarter Day, and it's Young Adult Fantasy:

"Not far now, miss." Her guide was an grey bearded man, dressed in the green jerkin of a forester - close enough to the livery of one of the Duke's Foresters to be mistaken for one of them at a glance, but different enough that he could claim not to be impersonating one of them if he was questioned about it. Arian still wasn't sure whether his first language was Tiraeg or Occitan - he spoke the one with the accent of Tir Twrch and the other with the accent that she supposed must be of Segur. She wasn't convinced that his name was Dickon, either.
"There's a fork in the track ahead," he went on, in Tiraeg. "Partriseau is one way, and off to the side there's the hermit's house and the spring. They're building a little chapel in the village, I've heard, for the pilgrims."

This will probably not end up on page 7, because I'm writing a couple of new scenes at the beginning to set the scene better (after my Young Man read the first draft and said "Huh? What's going on?")

New Year's Resolution - Finish the Damn Book!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Ada Lovelace Cosplay

I found this picture on a blog called EPBOT - I think it's brilliant that the boy knew that the first computer programmer was Ada Lovelace, and wanted to dress as her for the fancy dress party.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Honey in Ethiopia

This morning I listened to Michael Palin on the Today programme, visiting a project that his charity Farm Africa has set up in Ethiopia. They are teaching local farmers all sorts of techniques to make their farming more efficient, and one of the training courses they are offering is bee keeping. Michael Palin got kitted up in white overalls with mask and gloves while one of the beekeepers puffed smoke made from charcoal and cow dung at the bees and lifted the frames out to inspect them.
Honey is a useful cash crop for the local farmers, as it was in Wales in the Middle Ages (some rents were paid in barrels of honey), and in the Greek islands when I was there about ten years ago.

It reminded me of a book by Laurens Van der Post. He's mostly associated with South Africa, but in First Catch Your Eland, he travelled around the whole continent of Africa to look at the food of the different areas.
Before the Second World War, as a young army officer, he travelled through Ethiopia, and in one village he was given a meal that put him in mind of Homeric Greece. It began with tedj, or mead, followed by curds and whey and millet bread in wicker baskets, and then there was the honey:

"I looked at my own slab of honey in amazement; it had a "burnt face" too.* It was Ethiopian dark and yet so strangely translucent that it might have been made out of prehistoric amber....To this day I can recall every nuance of taste of the mead, the curds and whey, tart and fresh on my tongue and above all the subtlety of the honey which made my welcome in the humble hut so royal, and the purple bread that made it so real."

*He explains earlier that Ethiopia is Greek for "burnt face".

Monday, 13 January 2014

Alexandra Bastedo

I just heard the sad news that Alexandra Bastedo, who was best known as an actress for her role as Sharon McCready in The Champions back in the 1960s, has died. She had cancer.
I loved The Champions when I was a kid. Craig Sterling was heroic, and Richard Barrett was brainy, but I wanted to be Sharon McCready, and have her super-powers. (That is, if I couldn't be Emma Peel!) She was elegant and clever, she had a sort of telepathy with the other two (it was never quite clear to me whether they just had very very good hearing, or whether they were speaking mind to mind) and she could throw bad guys across the room.
In real life, she spent many years running the ABC Animal Sanctuary.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Problem of Susan

I found this rather wonderful piece about Susan Pevensie from the Narnia stories on Ana Mardoll's Ramblings - she found it at ink-splotch.tumblr.

When I first read the Narnia books (at the sort of impressionable age that I spent quite some time sitting in my mum's wardrobe trying to get through to the other side) CS Lewis says at one point that when children become too grown up, they lose the ability to get to Narnia. "Well, I'll never get too old," I decided, stubbornly.
And then Susan did grow up - there was the whole thing about her missing out on The Last Battle (and horrific death in a train crash, of course) because she'd got too fond of lipstick and nylons.
Susan was the only Pevensie left alive at the end of The Last Battle, and this is the best description of what might have happened to her that I have ever seen.

“There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” - JK Rowling
Can we talk about Susan’s fabulous adventures after Narnia? The ones where she wears nylons and elegant blouses when she wants to, and short skirts and bright lipstick when she wants to, and hiking boots and tough jeans and big men’s plaid shirts when she feels like backpacking out into the mountains and remembering what it was to be lost in a world full of terrific beauty— I know her siblings say she stops talking about it, that Susan walks away from the memories of Narnia, but I don’t think she ever really forgot.

I want to read about Susan finishing out boarding school as a grown queen reigning from a teenaged girl’s body. School bullies and peer pressure from children and teachers who treat you like you’re less than sentient wouldn’t have the same impact. C’mon, Susan of the Horn, Susan who bested the DLF at archery, and rode a lion, and won wars, sitting in a school uniform with her eyebrows rising higher and higher as some old goon at the front of the room slams his fist on the lectern.

Susan living through WW2, huddling with her siblings, a young adult (again), a fighting queen and champion marksman kept from the action, until she finally storms out against screaming parents’ wishes and volunteers as a nurse on the front. She keeps a knife or two hidden under her clothes because when it comes down to it, they called her Gentle, but sometimes loving means fighting for what you care for.

She’ll apply to a women’s college on the East Coast, because she fell in love with America when her parents took her there before the war. She goes in majoring in Literature (her ability to decipher High Diction in historical texts is uncanny), but checks out every book she can on history, philosophy, political science. She sneaks into the boys’ school across town and borrows their books too. She was once responsible for a kingdom, roads and taxes and widows and crops and war. She grew from child to woman with that mantle of duty wrapped around her shoulders. Now, tossed here on this mundane land, forever forbidden from her true kingdom, Susan finds that she can give up Narnia but she cannot give up that responsibility. She looks around and thinks I could do this better.

I want Susan sneaking out to drink at pubs with the girls, her friends giggling at the boys checking them out from across the way, until Susan walks over (with her nylons, with her lipstick, with her sovereignty written out in whatever language she damn well pleases) and beats them all at pool. Susan studying for tests and bemoaning Aristotle and trading a boy with freckles all over his nose shooting lessons so that he will teach her calculus. Susan kissing boys and writing home to Lucy and kissing girls and helping smuggle birth control to the ladies in her dorm because Susan Pevensie is a queen and she understands the right of a woman to rule over her own body.

Susan losing them all to a train crash, Edmund and Peter and Lucy, Jill and Eustace, and Lucy and Lucy and Lucy, who Susan’s always felt the most responsible for. Because this is a girl who breathes responsibility, the little mother to her three siblings until a wardrobe whisked them away and she became High Queen to a whole land, ruled it for more than a decade, then came back centuries later as a legend. What it must do to you, to be a legend in the body of a young girl, to have that weight on your shoulders and have a lion tell you that you have to let it go. What is must do to you, to be left alone to decide whether to bury your family in separate ceremonies, or all at once, the same way they died, all at once and without you. What it must do to you, to stand there in black, with your nylons, and your lipstick, and feel responsible for these people who you will never be able to explain yourself to and who you can never save.

Maybe she dreams sometimes they made it back to Narnia after all. Peter is a king again. Lucy walks with Aslan and all the dryads dance. Maybe Susan dreams that she went with them— the train jerks, a bright light, a roar calling you home.

Maybe she doesn’t.

Susan grows older and grows up. Sometimes she hears Lucy’s horrified voice in her head, “Nylons? Lipstick, Susan? Who wants to grow up?” and Susan thinks, “Well you never did, Luce.” Susan finishes her degree, stays in America (England looks too much like Narnia, too much like her siblings, and too little, all at once). She starts writing for the local paper under the pseudonym Frank Tumnus, because she wants to write about politics and social policy and be listened to, because the name would have made Edmund laugh.

She writes as Susan Pevensie, too, about nylons and lipstick, how to give a winning smiles and throw parties, because she knows there is a kind of power there and she respects it. She won wars with war sometimes, in Narnia, but sometimes she stopped them before they began.

Peter had always looked disapprovingly on the care with which Susan applied her makeup back home in England, called it vanity. And even then, Susan would smile at him, say “I use what weapons I have at hand,” and not explain any more than that. The boy ruled at her side for more than a decade. He should know better.

Vain is not the proper word. This is about power. But maybe Peter wouldn’t have liked the word “ambition” any more than “vanity.”

Susan is a young woman in the 50s and 60s. Frank Tumnus has quite the following now. He’s written a few books, controversial, incendiary. Susan gets wrapped up in the civil rights movement, because of course she would. It’s not her first war. All the same, she almost misses the White Witch. Greed is a cleaner villain than senseless hate. She gets on the Freedom Rider bus, mails Mr. Tumnus articles back home whenever there’s a chance, those rare occasions they’re not locked up or immediately threatened. She is older now than she ever was in Narnia. Susan dreams about Telemarines killing fauns.

Time rolls on. Maybe she falls in love with a young activist or an old cynic. Maybe she doesn’t. Maybe Frank Tumnus, controversial in the moment, brilliant in retrospect, gets offered an honorary title from a prestigious university. She declines and publishes an editorial revealing her identity. Her paper fires her. Three others mail her job offers.

When Vietnam rolls around, she protests in the streets. Susan understands the costs of war. She has lived through not just the brutal wars of one life, but two.

Maybe she has children now. Maybe she tells them stories about a magical place and a magical lion, the stories Lucy and Edmund brought home about how if you sail long enough you reach the place where the seas fall off the edge of the world. But maybe she tells them about Cinderella instead, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, except Rapunzel cuts off her own hair and uses it to climb down the tower and escape. The damsel uses what tools she has at hand.

A lion told her to walk away, and she did. He forbade her magic, he forbade her her own kingdom, so she made her own.

Susan Pevensie did not lose faith. She found it.

(Source: ifallelseperished)"

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Women Warriors - Cathay Williams

Under the name William Cathay, Cathay Williams was the first African-American woman to enlist in the US Army, as one of the Buffalo Soldiers, the 38th US Infantry Regiment, in 1866, after having worked as a servant with the 8th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Buffalo Soldiers is the term given to the units of African-American troops serving in the US army at that time.
In around 1890, she applied for a disability pension from the army, but was rejected - on medical grounds, not because she was female (though by that time she needed to walk with a crutch because all her toes had been amputated).
She didn't have a glorious military career, but she did spend two years serving alongside the men of her unit, marching long distances, doing garrison duty, and scouting for hostile Native Americans.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Shakespeare's Local by Pete Brown

I love Southwark. It's got the Borough Market under the railway viaducts, and Southwark Cathedral, and the Globe (I once went with my Young Man, to be a groundling when As You Like It was on, which was brilliant fun, but my back needed a day to recover from all the standing!) - and it has The George, the last coaching inn left standing along the Borough High Street.
When I next go to Southwark, I will be going with Shakespeare's Local in my hand. Pete Brown has been all over the world looking at different pub cultures, and taken a barrel of IPA from Burton-upon-Trent to India, but this time he's concentrated on one historic building in one small area, and brought out everything that's fascinating about it.
At the time when London Bridge was the only way into the city from that side of the river (apart from the watermen's boats - and the watermen successfully prevented another bridge being built for centuries) the George was only one of a whole row of inns. It wasn't the most famous, or the biggest, or the best, but it is the only one left standing. Originally it stood alongside inns such as The Tabard, where Chaucer's pilgrims gathered to start their journey to Canterbury, and The White Hart, immortalised by Dickens in the Pickwick Papers.
London Bridge was also the place where traitors' heads were displayed on spikes, on the gatehouse to the bridge (and is now the area where the Clink prison and the London Dungeon pull in the tourists).
The George itself seems to be quite a large pub at first glance, but in its glory days during the coaching era it was five times bigger. Not far away is Vinopolis, a huge wine merchants - I went in there with my Young Man once to gaze in amazement at the largest selection of whiskeys either of us had ever seen - and Vinopolis is on the site of the Anchor Brewery, which once covered 12 acres!
The George is now owned by the National Trust, and run by Greene King, and it's a wonderful place for a drink in an area which has several very fine pubs, especially on a fine summer day when you can sit outside in the inn yard. It doesn't take much imagination to see the galleried building that was once on the other side of the inn yard, and the stables beyond (and there were hop warehouses, too).
Pete Brown has written other beer related books before this: Man Walks Into a Pub, Three Sheets to the Wind and Hops and Glory. I very rarely buy new books, living as I do in a town full of second hand books, but I bought all of these, and I highly recommend them all.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Women Pirates - Anne Bonny and Mary Read

There's a new TV series coming out soon called Black Sails, which will mix real historical characters with the characters of Treasure Island when Captain Flint was sailing the Caribbean with John Silver and the rest of the motley crew.
Among the historical characters is Anne Bonny. She married Calico Jack Rackham (her second husband) and fought alongside him on his ship the Revenge. Mary Read was also in the crew - and neither of them had to disguise their sex to be there.
A fairly successful career ended with capture and trial. Calico Jack was hanged, but Anne and Mary "pled their bellies"; in other words, they claimed they were pregnant so that they wouldn't be hanged until they gave birth. Mary Read died in prison, perhaps of jail fever, but Anne - disappeared. There is no record of her execution.
There is speculation that her father, a successful businessman, secured her release. Another theory is that the judge in the case took a fancy to her - and was later seen leaving the island of Jamaica, where she was tried, with a new young servant boy....