Monday, 31 March 2014

Steed and Mrs Peel

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Emma Peel - elegant, sophisticated, brave, and intelligent. I wanted to dress in a slinky cat suit and throw villains across the room.
So my Young Man bought me a comic book for my birthday, A Very Civil Armageddon, with a story that pits Steed and Mrs Peel against the Hellfire Club (partly, I suspect, so they can use that costume with the spiky collar that she wore in the TV episode). The writer is Mark Waid (with Caleb Monroe) - I've been reading Mark Waid's Daredevil comics, and I like them a lot, but I wasn't sure initially that he would be able to pull off dialogue for two such English characters at the height of the Sixties.
The artists are Steve Bryant and Will Sliney.
In fact, he did the dialogue very well indeed, and he also brought out how much Emma and Steed care about each other between the witticisms, as well as getting the whimsical oddness that characterised the original series.
There was one point where I felt as if I'd missed something important - I wasn't quite clear how a bunch of cabinet ministers, Steed and Mrs Peel and members of the Hellfire Club all came to be sharing a nuclear bunker - but our heroes solved the mystery very satisfactorily - and now I'm going to be rewatching a few old episodes, and wondering if I could still fit into a cat suit!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Widdershins, a comic book

At London Super Comic Con, my Young Man insisted we had to visit the table of Kate Ashwin. He had a copy of her comic book, Widdershins, Sleight of Hand, and wanted to buy the second and third installments.
He lent me the first book. I've just got round to reading it - and I can see now why he was so keen to buy more! It's a slightly alternative-history 1830s, and Sid Malik, a failed wizard who is about to be evicted from his lodgings, gets accidentally involved with pipe-smoking Harriet Barber, bounty hunter (and her dog). Chases, railway journeys, green demons, and the King of Thieves combine in a witty and enjoyable story, and Sid and Harriet are an engaging couple of characters.
And now I want to get the next installments, too.
Kate Ashwin has a website at

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Captain Britain and his friends

Paul Cornell wrote a mini-series a few years ago about Captain Britain and a group of other British superheroes - my Young Man lent it to me, and it is awesome!
And right at the beginning, in the middle of a Skrull invasion, he creates a new female superhero - and he does it brilliantly. Dr Faiza Hussain is in the middle of the battlefield (around the Houses of Parliament), doing her job, when she's zapped by a Skrull weapon and wakes up with the ability to heal down to the sub-atomic level.

I love the way that the British Marvel superheroes have a strong connection to magic and the Arthurian myth. After all, King Arthur was the superhero of his day. And I also love the fact that, when Excalibur turns up - which it really has to do in a story about saving Britain from alien invaders - Captain Britain wields it for a bit, but it's not meant for him, and it's the Muslim woman from Essex who pulls the sword from the stone this time!

Paul Cornell is very good at characterisation, and though I'd never heard of most of the characters in the comic before, I quickly discovered everything I needed to know about them and what they were like. So that would be about everybody except Captain Britain, who I know about because my Young Man lent me the comics with his origin story - Black Knight, Spitfire, Pete Wisdom, John the Skrull, and Captain Midlands, who I like because he's a bit rubbish really. Black Knight gets a rather sweet romantic sub-plot with Faiza, too, right from the moment when she first meets him as a hero-worshipping fan.

And then the vampires arrive, and so does Blade, and Captain Britain's wife Meggan, and there are mad things like Dracula's castle on the moon, and has Spitfire really turned to the Dark Side (and why is her son Ken wearing that ridiculous costume)? And it's all a lot of fun.

So now I've got to find out where I can get more comics like this!

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

How to Become a Female Superhero

I picked up a couple of comics at the recent London Super Comic Con, put out by zenescope - Robyn Hood volumes one and two. This is part of their Grimm Fairy Tales series. I enjoyed the story, but there was something about it that also made me feel uncomfortable.
I rather liked the way the heroine scoffed at the idea that she was a "fantasy land orphan" brought through a magic portal (even though she was).
And then she got into deep trouble at high school and .... seriously - did it have to be rape?

I don't have an in-depth knowledge of comic book characters, but I do know some origin stories. Batman saw his parents shot dead. Green Arrow was stranded on an island and forced to find a way to survive. Daredevil was blinded by radioactive gunk. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. There are all sorts of ways to become a superhero, so why are the women so often raped?
Half an hour of googling has yielded me twelve female superheroes who have been raped at some point, and four male superheroes - Batman (depending on which version of the story you read), Green Arrow, Nightwing and Swamp Thing (not sure how that one worked).
As an origin story, Red Sonja is raped and calls upon the goddess Scathach for revenge, and so gets her powers. Frank Miller's version of Catwoman was raped. So was Lady Bullseye from the Daredevil comics (by the yakuza). I understand there are more, but the names of the characters mean very little to me.

The Robin Hood parallels in this story (by Pat Shand, Joe Brusha, Raven Gregory and Ralph Tedesco) are quite fun, and Gisborne seems to be rather more than just King John's henchman, so I want to know what happens next.
I just wish they'd found some other origin story.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sending Books to Prisoners

I started this blog to write about enjoyable things, but today I need to rant!
I listened this morning to a government minister on the radio blithely defending the new policy to stop books being sent to prisoners in UK prisons by their relatives and friends.
I have a friend who sends books to a friend of his who is in prison, and already the requirements are quite stringent. He can only send paperbacks and not hardbacks, for instance.
The minister claimed that the clampdown on packages was to stop the flow of drugs into prisons - but the more I thought about that, the less it made sense. Because the minister also said that a relative could send money to the prisoner so that they could order a book themselves. But the book will arrive in a parcel - so will the prisoner get it? And this doesn't work very well with second hand books - by the time they've ordered the copy that their relative has told them about and sent them the money for, the shop may well have already sold it. There's supposed to be a catalogue that prisoners can order from - but although the minister was asked about this, he failed to say who is putting out the catalogue or who is benefiting financially from it.
Oh, but they can borrow books from the prison library, said the minister - though the stock of books in prison libraries can be very limited, and are run from local council budgets - which are being cut so severely that many branch libraries across the country are being closed down.
Also forbidden are subscription magazines, which come from the magazine publishers, often in clear plastic wrappers. I really don't see how stopping someone's copy of Fly Fishing Monthly, or whatever the prisoner wants to keep in touch with from the outside world, will have any effect on the flow of drugs into the prisons.
Even more bizarrely, packages of underwear are now forbidden. Apparently, women prisoners depend on their relatives sending them underwear and other clothing because they don't wear a uniform. What are they supposed to do when they run out of knickers?
As Mary Beard, the academic, says: "Books educate and rehabilitate. Crazy to ban them being sent to prisoners in jail."
Not to mention mean-spirited.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Vikings at the British Museum

We weren't sure when we would be able to get to the British Museum to see the exhibition, so we hadn't bought tickets in advance. They'd actually organised it quite well - we had to queue for tickets at a main desk in the central courtyard, but there we were given a time slot to turn up at the exhibition - and it was so popular the slot we were given was in two hours' time.
This gave us time to slip away and browse the Atlantis Bookshop, where I bought a book of essays, Ten Years of Triumph of the Moon, about Ronald Hutton's work on the history of Pagan Britain on the tenth anniversary of its first publication.
Then we shot off down the road to Forbidden Planet for some rather more frivolous spending - Daredevil, and Captain Marvel (and she seems to be living in the top of the Statue of Liberty now, and dating Rhodey/Iron Patriot). I also found a copy of Neil Perryman's book Adventures with the Wife in Space, which is a companion to his brilliant blog. Basically, he got his wife Sue (who is not a Who fan) to agree to watch every single Doctor Who episode in order from the very beginning, and recorded her comments. The book is the background to the experiment - which went so well that they are now going through Blake's Seven in the same way!

Then it was back to the British Museum to enter the waiting area, where there was a member of staff with items from the stores that you could actually touch, including the hilt of a Viking sword (we asked if it was pattern-welded, and had to explain to her what pattern-welded meant, while she looked it up in her notes to find that, yes, it was).
Then we joined the slow-moving queue of people who were winding their way round the display cases in the exhibition itself. We didn't mind that it was slow-moving at all, because we wanted to examine every exhibit in detail, and talk about them in excited loud voices, which started a few interesting conversations with other people around us.
There were items there that I've seen in book after book about Vikings - and there they were, only a few inches away under glass, like the piece of wood with the graffiti of the Viking fleet (which is tiny!)! There were pictures of places around the Viking world, like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (where there's a bit of runic graffiti which says something like "Olaf was here" on a balcony). There were quotations on the walls from Viking texts, like the admonitions that a man should sip at his mead quietly and not gulp it down, and it was no bad thing to go early to bed.
There were hoards with coins from around the known world, and hack silver, and ornate brooches - and this was before we even got to the main hall.
That's where the ship is - Roskilde 6, 37 meters of Viking warship. Only 20% of the planking remains, but it has been displayed in a metal framework in the shape of the ship, so it's easy to imagine what it would have looked like originally.
It filled the hall, and there were display cases all around it as well, including a rowing boat burial of a warrior, and a sorceress's metal staffs, which resemble distaffs and may have had something to do with winding the thread of a person's life on them.
And in the corner - my jaw dropped. "That can't be the original!" I muttered. "It's got to be a replica!"
It was the Jelling Stone - and yes, it was a replica, brightly painted as it would have originally appeared, with Christ on one side and a monster on the other, with a lot of curly decoration and the inscription that Harald Bluetooth had raised the stone to honour his parents and to declare that he had made the Danes Christian. The original is outside a church he built, between two older pagan burial mounds.
Most of the stuff there was the real thing, though, and I don't think I've ever seen such a large collection in one place before. It was well worth the £16.50 to get in, and it took us two hours to get round, by which time our brains were starting to feel a little bit overloaded!
And then the shop (of course) followed by some much needed cake and coffee!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Green Arrow at London Comic Con

Here I am on the steps outside Excel, with my boxing glove arrow at the ready!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Following in the Footsteps of PC Peter Grant

While I was in London, we did quite a bit more than attending the Super Comic Con. One thing I was determined to do was to visit Patisserie Valerie in Old Compton Street. I've been there before, but this time, I wanted to sit at the very table that is mentioned in Moon over Soho, the second book in Ben Aaronovitch's series about magical policeman Peter Grant.
In fact, I managed to follow quite a Peter Grant trail over the weekend!
I came into London by National Express coach, which goes through Holland Park - a rather lovely, leafy area, with beautiful houses - and the scene of some gruesome murders in the first book, Rivers of London.
Later, my Young Man took me to Moss Bros to pick up the suit he'd hired for his Penguin costume. This is not mentioned in the books - but wow! What a wonderful shop!

While the Young Man was trying on the tail coat, I asked one of the assistants if he knew about the history of the building, and he said it had been a fire station! That was obviously in the days when public services were a cause for celebration rather than cuts!

We went on from there to Covent Garden, which is where the first book opens - just here, in fact -

Here's St Paul's church, and I was amused to see the Punch and Judy Tavern opposite.
When we came back that way to drop off the tail coat after the weekend, I heard opera playing from one of the sunken courtyards. "That's live," the Young Man said, and led me through to the other end of the row of shops to look down at a young lady singing. She wasn't using a microphone, and we'd been able to hear her right at the other end of the building.

Later on Monday afternoon, after we'd staggered out of the Viking Exhibition at the British Museum, our heads bursting with all the new knowledge, we headed to Old Compton Street for cake and coffee at Patisserie Valerie. On the way, we passed the Spice of Life - one of the jazz clubs mentioned in Moon over Soho. Then we sat at the very table used by Simone and Peter Grant in the book and enjoyed the double chocolate gateaux (me) and the Black Forest gateaux (the Young Man). It was a wonderful (and very sweet!) end to a wonderful day.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

London Super Comic Con

I'm just back from a fantastic weekend at Excel in London, where I've been attending my first convention for over twenty years.
I had fun.
Everyone was so friendly, and there was such a good mix of people there, a lot of them in costume.
It seems to me that there are a couple of main reasons to go to a con these days - one of which is to have your picture taken in costume (or to catch the eye of a youtube film crew like Sneaky Zebra). There were a lot of very good costumes, and it was a good job the Young Man was there to tell me who a lot of them were - my knowledge of comic characters is very limited and specific. There were several Doctors, Ten, Eleven and Four mostly, one of them going round with a very good River Song. There were a couple of Planet of the Apes chimpanzees, and lots of Batman characters. I saw two different Daredevils, and one Matt Murdock, complete with white stick and a briefcase with legal papers sticking out the top, with the heading Murdock and Nelson!
There was a Cyberman, and Doc Octopus, and several Captain Americas, a very good Iron Man, Dr Manhattan, several more Green Arrows in various versions of the costume, and the new Ms Marvel - I had my picture taken with her while I was being Captain Marvel, but I don't have a copy of it yet.
There was a group of Judges from MegaCity One and BritCit, and a tall black lady who looked absolutely stunning as Storm, with a white feather head dress and Thor's hammer. I saw Mother Russia, and Neil Gaiman's Death, and looked after the bags while the Bat Clan had their pictures taken in the underground car park - my Young Man was the Penguin (all 1960s style). The other villains were King Tut, the Riddler and Catwoman, and the good guys were Batman, Robin and Batgirl. We met another Penguin later, who was carrying a toy penguin with a little rocket strapped to its back. My Young Man was stopped so often for photos that it was like walking round with a celebrity!

The other main reason to be there seems to be to buy lots of cool stuff.
I bought lots of cool stuff. Mike Grell, who is the artist who did the classic Green Arrow story The Longbow Hunters, was there, and I bought a couple of his sketches to go on my wall. I was dressed up as Green Arrow at the time, complete with the arrows with little boxing gloves on the end.
I also bought a picture of Neil Gaiman's Death done by Aly Fell, who is a lovely man, and a very good artist.
On another table as I went round was Peter David, who wrote a lot of Star Trek novels back in the 1980s and 90s. "Why don't you go and have a word?" my Young Man asked, nudging me in his direction.
"I can't! That's Peter David!" I squeaked. I had to go round the hall again to pluck up the courage to say hello!

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Average Number of Books

There was a story on the Today programme the other morning about the average number of books a household owned. It seems that normal people in the UK own about 138 books, and have only read about half of them!
In a fit of curiosity I went round and counted my books - I have over 500, and I've read every single one.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Famous Five or Narnia?

I was reading a blog called bookwitch recently, and they were doing an interview with a writer in which they asked the question - Famous Five or Narnia? Which did you prefer when you were growing up?
I liked both - it wasn't an either/or question.
And now I have the image of George and Timmy exploring the secret passages at Smuggler's Top, and coming out in a forest with a street lamp in the middle of a clearing....
Timmy would frighten Mr Tumnus, and Anne would get on well with Mrs Beaver. There would be no equivalent of Edmund to go to the White Queen, so no need for Aslan's ultimate sacrifice, but there would be a battle, after which King Julian the Good and King Dick, Queen Georgina and Queen Anne would rule wisely and well from Caer Paravel, until they came back through the secret passage to Smuggler's Top in time to thwart the supposedly deaf butler and his cronies.

I wonder what the US equivalent question would be? Maybe Bobbsey Twins or Wizard of Oz?

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Women Warriors - in the Crimea

Since the Crimea is in the news at the moment, I thought I'd post this picture from an earlier conflict in the region - the Crimean War of 1855. It wasn't all noble (but stupid) cavalry charging the Russian guns - there was the lady with the lamp, Florence Nightingale, inventing modern nursing, Mary Seacole funding her own nursing efforts with her British Hotel for convalescent soldiers (having been turned down as one of Florence Nightingale's nurses), and Dr James Barry, the surgeon who was actually Margaret Bulkely in disguise, on the English side, together with officers' wives and the wives of Other Ranks, cooks and laundresses. In the nursing and support roles, the Crimea was heaving with women who were involved with the conflict - but did any of them fight? The nearest I can get to a woman in uniform is this French Cantiniere - she ran the soldiers' canteen.
So here, it seems, all the women stayed behind the lines and didn't take part in the actual fighting.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Women Warriors - Grace O'Malley

Or Grainne Ni Maille in Irish.
Ireland in the sixteenth century was a dangerous place - the English were trying to take over the whole island, as they had been ever since the days of King John, and outside the English sphere of influence there were the warring Irish families, of whom the O'Malleys were one. Grace inherited a large shipping and trading business from her father, and this is where her reputation as a pirate came from. The family took taxes or tolls from local fishermen for the right to fish in their waters, and extended this practice to passing merchant ships.
Her family also had a string of castles along the County Mayo coast, to protect their maritime interests. One of these was known as Cock's Castle - she got it from her first husband, Donal O'Flaherty (Donal of the Battles). There she was besieged by a rival family, the Joyces, who were so impressed with her defence that they renamed the castle Hen's Castle, the name it still has. Later, she also defended the castle successfully against an English attack.
She was deeply involved in the Irish resistance to English conquest, including providing transport for the gallowsglass mercenaries who came from Scotland to fight in the Irish rebellions - to the extent that the English Governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, said in a letter that "she was nurse to all rebellions in this province for forty years". It was to remove him from office, and to secure the release of her two sons and her half-brother, that she traveled to London, where she met Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich Palace. As a Queen herself, and because she did not recognise Elizabeth's claim to rule Ireland, Grace refused to bow to Elizabeth when they met. Because they had no other language in common, they conversed in Latin, and Sir Richard was, indeed, recalled to England (though only for a short time).
It was a complicated period - the English held land in the East, around Dublin, which was known as the Pale, where English laws and customs were enforced. Beyond the Pale (which actually was a long fence/ditch at one point) were the Irish families, carrying on much as they had throughout the medieval period, and with a completely different set of laws and customs.
There was also the problem of religion - the English were officially Protestant by this time, apart from a brief period under Queen Mary, but the Irish were Catholic. Like the Scots looking to the Auld Alliance with France for help against the English, the Irish looked to Catholic Spain - without much success. The English also had a policy of creating Plantations - bringing in English and Scottish settlers to live on previously Irish land, who would be loyal to English overlords and laws - which is why Ulster has such a troubled history even now.
Yet, through all of this, Grace O'Malley managed to make a success of her life, holding lands that supported a thousand cattle, her shipping fleet, a string of castles, and the loyalty of her own clan and the O'Flahertys who followed her after her first husband died.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Learning to use a Lucet

Here's a picture of a lucet with some cord, from Box Elder blog, which is written by Lucy, who lives in Brittany. Her description of how she came to learn the technique is on January 28th on her blog.
This is something I've been doing for some time, as a medieval craft, though as she says, it goes back to Viking times. The cords you can make with this simple tool are hard wearing and strong, and are useful for so many things, like bootlaces, or drawstrings for bags or clothing. Recently I've been lucetting loose cords, which I then plaited, and then wove into a rug on a peg loom. I've got them all around my bed now, and they're lovely and scrunchy to walk on in bare feet.
My latest project is to try a two coloured cord. Last year at Wonderwool, at the Royal Welsh Showground, I got some chunky wool in white and dark green, thinking I would make a belt. I've only just now got round to trying it, and the double loops are making a thick square cord which should go very well with my medieval dress and overtunic - the dress is red linen, and the overtunic is dark green wool.

This is me, outside one of Drudion's tents, at the Hereford History Weekend two years ago.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Female Assistant Librarians

There's a lovely article in the blog The Cat's Meat Shop (at from 1888, about the suitability of a career as an assistant librarian for young ladies - as long as the objection of climbing ladders was taken away! It was posted on 21st February - and it's nice to see that Manchester was one of the most forward-looking cities of the time, with 42 female assistants, including a branch librarian with a salary of £75 a year!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Arn the Knight Templar

In 2007, when this was made, it was the most expensive film ever to be made by the Swedish film industry, at around two million kroner. It's actually two films, which were also cut into six TV episodes, adapted from a book by Jan Guillou.
The cinematography is beautiful. Honestly, if the series were rubbish it would be worth watching just for the beauty of the shots. It was filmed in Sweden, Scotland (for monasteries and castles) and Morocco standing in for the Holy Land. The costumes are extremely good as well.
It started off in Swedish, with subtitles, but then Simon Callow appeared, as the abbot of a monastery, and he spoke English, and another monk at the monastery spoke French - and when they got to the Holy Land various characters, including Arn himself, spoke Arabic.
It's a love story - due to local politics, Arn and Cecilia are forced to do penance for their forbidden love for twenty years, Arn as a Knight Templar and Cecilia in a convent with an evil Mother Superior (who comes from the rival clan). Despite all their troubles, they never lose faith in each other, even though getting back together again is not as easy as it might be.
Any story involving the Knights Templar and the Crusades has to involve the Horns of Hattin - the disastrous battle (for the Christians) which Saladin won, after which Jerusalem was his for the taking. Sure enough, Arn gets to take part in the battle and not be slaughtered at the end as a Templar.
When he gets back to Sweden, he's involved in local politics again, defending the sons of his friend King Knut from the Svarker clan's takeover after Knut dies. There's a pitched battle in which the Folkunds are at a serious numerical disadvantage - but Arn didn't spend twenty years in the Holy Land twiddling his thumbs, and he comes up with the tactics that swing the balance in their favour. Some people have reviewed the film and complained that he invented Agincourt two hundred years too early, but his appreciation of the power of the longbow was well set up earlier in the story.
So, this is one of the more historically accurate films I've ever seen, with a good love story, exciting pitched battles and a hero who is straightforwardly honourable and faithful - a real old-fashioned hero, and a heroine who goes through terrible trauma to be true to him. I thought it was wonderful.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Smashwords: Smashwords Authors Publish 10 Billion Words

Smashwords: Smashwords Authors Publish 10 Billion Words: Smashwords authors today reached an exciting milestone:  10 Billion Words Published.  The milestone was reached sometime around noon Pacif...

Some encouraging words here for self-publishing authors like me.

Hapus Dydd Gwyl Dewi!

Happy St David's Day!