Saturday, 28 June 2014

Women Warriors - the Woman who bought her own Tank

One of my friends has a great interest in tanks, and obscure corners of military history, so when he mentioned "the woman who bought her own tank" I had to investigate further.

This is another Soviet story (like the Night Witches I've blogged about previously).
Mariya Vasilyevna Oktyabrskaya was the wife of a Soviet army officer. Her husband was killed in 1941 - some accounts say her sons were also killed - and she donated her entire savings to the Red Army on the condition that they used the money to buy a tank, and that she would be allowed to drive the tank.
Seeing the good propaganda potential, the Red Army agreed, and Mariya qualified as a tank driver and mechanic. Her tank was a T-34, which she named "Fighting Girlfriend" and she took part in tank battles around Smolensk in 1943, where she was promoted to Sergeant.

In January 1944, she was involved in a tank battle in which her tank was hit by enemy fire. She jumped out of the tank to repair it, and was hit by shrapnel - she spent two months in a coma in a military hospital before dying of her wounds. She was made a Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

John Constantine and Hellblazer

A little while ago, my Young Man showed me a copy of a film called Constantine, starring Keanu Reeves. It seemed strange and depressing - the main character never seemed to have a lucky break and was followed around by hordes of insects. The saving grace of the film was Tilda Swinton as a mad Angel Gabriel.

Later I found out that the main character was supposed to have come from Liverpool....
And in the last week or so, I have seen a trailer for a new TV series about the same character. This time he really does sound Liverpudlian (though the actor,Matt Ryan, is Welsh) which gives the character a sort of gallows humour and cockiness that Keanu Reeves never managed to put across. It looks very promising, and on the strength of it I picked up an odd copy of one of the comics that I found in Addyman's bookshop in Hay-on-Wye.
It was a good choice, as it turned out, being a self-contained story from 1989 by Jamie Delano and Ron Tiner. It's about Jerry, an acquaintance of Constantine's who turns out to be a fictional character - and other fictional characters keep turning up to take him back to the world of fiction, because only the really famous ones (who are also free of copyright) have the right to roam the real world. Among the characters they meet along the way are Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, and Nancy and Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist.
The first character to tap his way across the pages is Blind Pew.
"Blind Who?" asks Constantine.
"From Treasure Island, you illiterate plebian!" says Jerry, who has just been handed the Black Spot.
And that's the point where I thought I've got to read more of this....

Monday, 23 June 2014

Becoming the Divine Sarah for a day

When I go to WorldCon, one of the things I will be doing is dressing up as a badger (as you do!). One of the guests of honour is Bryan Talbot, who writes and illustrates the Grandville graphic novels, which are about a badger who is an inspector at Scotland Yard. It's kind of like Rupert Bear with more violence, in an alternate Steampunk-esque reality. In fact, Rupert Bear's dad turns up in the background of a panel in the first story, cutting his garden hedge!
So my Young Man is planning to be Inspector Archie LeBrock, in caped coat and waistcoat and bowler hat (though he's disappointed that he won't be able to take his Very Big Gun along - the weapons policy of the convention rather rules that out). I will be Archie's love interest from the first Grandville story, the Divine Sarah, a character modelled on the great Victorian actress Sarah Bernhardt. So I will be wearing a crinoline skirt with added bustle, and a corset over my blouse. And this is why it's a good idea to try out a costume before the big day - I've grown sideways! The last time I wore the corset, it fitted beautifully. This time, I need more ribbon to lace it up. Quite a bit more ribbon....
Fortunately, I have found something suitable in my ribbon stash - black with a silver edging. The whole ensemble is mainly black with a touch of green, and white highlights. I've even got a black wig with white streaks.
If we're very brave, we'll put the badger makeup on at home, and travel to the Con on bus and Docklands Light Railway partly in costume (I'm never going to get up the stairs of a London bus in a crinoline!).

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Hugos - Queers Dig Time Lords

I'm in the middle of Queers Dig Time Lords at the moment, a collection of essays by gay, lesbian, bisexual - and anyone else who doesn't identify as 'straight', talking about Doctor Who fandom. It came in the download from the Hugo awards under the title "Related Works", so not actually science fiction or fantasy, but still part of the genre.
I'd say it was a light, easy read, except that some of these people are baring their souls and talking about what must be quite painful memories. It just shows how science fiction can be a refuge for anyone who feels different, and that it's something that enriches people's lives. It certainly worked that way for me (not gay, but I was always "the weird one", a title I now embrace!).

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Voting for the Hugos

This is all quite exciting.
I don't remember what happened in 1987, the last time I went to a WorldCon, but I'm pretty sure we didn't get packages of Hugo nominees to look at before we voted on them. In fact, I didn't go to the Hugo award ceremony at all - I was in another hall with the filk singers (I remember enjoying a trio of a capella singers called Technical Difficulties). Of course, back then, the only computer I had access to was my friend's BBC Micro, which used cassette tapes!
This time, it's much easier to vote from a position of knowledge without having spent large amounts of time and money collecting new releases in all the different categories. So I've just been downloading nominated novels, novellas, short stories, fan and pro art, and graphic stories to have a look at before I make my choice. It's a brilliant perk of membership of the Convention. One of the graphic stories on the list is Paul Cornell's The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who, which I was considering voting for - I had wanted to get it when it came out, but I missed the publication date, being so far from a comic shop of any sort. But now I see there's something called Girl Genius, which looks intriguing....
I'm better placed with the TV and film categories, which I have seen quite a few of - but do I choose An Adventure in Space and Time or The Five(ish) Doctors Revisited, which both have merits in their different ways? And having listened to a few of the Big Finish audio adventures now, I'm getting a new appreciation of Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy.
At least I've got until 31st July to make my decisions.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Further Adventures of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane

I've loved Dorothy Sayers' mysteries right back to the days of Ian Carmichael playing Lord Peter on TV. Harriet Vane has been one of my heroines for nearly as long - Harriet Walter played her just as I'd imagined in the TV series dramatising the stories Strong Poison, Gaudy Night and Have His Carcase which also starred Edward Petherbridge (a wonderful Wimsey).
The trouble with such a good series, with such memorable characters, is that there are never enough of them. Dorothy Sayers moved on to other work, such as the radio play about the life of Christ, The Man Born to be King, and her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, though she did leave clues to later stories she might have been planning.
The first of these clues was turned into the story Thrones, Dominions by Jill Paton Walsh - and she did it well enough that it was quite hard to see where Dorothy Sayers ended and Jill Paton Walsh began. It helped, I think, that Jill Paton Walsh had already written crime novels of her own. She's also a very good children's writer.
Thrones, Dominions was set in 1936, at the beginning of Peter and Harriet's married life, and was popular enough for Jill Paton Walsh to be asked to do another.
In A Presumption of Death, the time is 1940, and Peter and Harriet are living at Talboys with their small children. Talboys and the children appeared in the last Lord Peter story that Dorothy Sayers ever wrote, which was collected in the volume Striding Folly, and was set in 1942. Here, there are a couple of murders, one very grisly, unlicensed pigs, and a lot of detail about rationing and daily life in the "phony war" before the Blitz.
For this book, Jill Paton Walsh had a lot less to go on - Dorothy Sayers had written a series of letters from various members of the Wimsey family and familiar cast of her books, discussing aspects of the War, for the Spectator magazine, and some of these are included in the book. I must say I couldn't tell the difference between the letters and the rest of the story, though one or two of the details did make me think that the author was showing off her research a bit. The letters placed Lady Helen at the Ministry of Instruction and Morale, and Lord Peter and Bunter off on a secret mission somewhere, where they remain for the first part of the book. So it's Harriet who starts to investigate the mysterious murder of a land girl while the rest of the village were having an air raid practice down the cellars of the local pub (apart from the Methodists, who would rather use a nearby cave than be in close proximity to alcohol, whatever the reason for it).
There are two more books in the series after this, and I'll be tracking them down eventually. Even pastiche Wimsey is worth reading, and it's nice to see where the characters get to after the original books run out.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Personal Highlights of Hay Festival

One of the advantages of living in a small town on the Welsh borders which is known internationally for its secondhand books is that, once a year, the world comes to us in the form of the Hay Festival. It started as a quite small affair, but now it is huge, attracting well over a hundred thousand visitors for the ten days it is on - and there's another festival, How The Light Gets In, at the other end of town centred on the Globe Gallery, which attracted another thirty five thousand people this year. Or thereabouts.
For the locals, it's also the busiest time of year in all the shops and pubs and hotels and camp sites, but I did get to see a few good things in my time off.

Steven Moffat spoke about his career in television, in one of the largest tents at the Festival. I really couldn't miss that! Since the BBC are now partly sponsoring the Festival (previously it was on Sky) there are snippets of the interviews on iPlayer. As the showrunner of both Sherlock and Doctor Who, of course he was asked a lot of questions about the shows. My favourite was: "Why is Doctor Who filmed in Cardiff?"
"Because Cardiff," came the instant answer, "is the place on the planet that looks most like the Future, in Space!" Then he added; "Or at least, it does now," before admitting that it was a decision of the BBC, right back at the beginning in 2005.
I like Cardiff - and I can visit places like the Art Gallery there, which stood in for the Louvre in Vincent and the Doctor - I've walked up those same staircases!

I also got to see Jonathon Porritt, who has written a book looking back to the present from the sustainable world of 2050 (so in a way it's SF) and showing how to get there from here. There were long queues for his autograph in the Festival bookshop after the talk - though I felt I couldn't really justify spending £24.99 on a single book, so got something cheaper by George Monbiot instead - I've been wanting to read Feral, about the re-wilding of the countryside, for a while now.
And there was music. Friends went to see the Afro-Celt Sound System, and said they were great, and I went to see the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, mainly because I knew absolutely nothing about them, and they mentioned a lute in the programme. In the end, it was a strange hybrid of lute and guitar called a lutar - because the lute had been damaged by a certain German airline when the musicians were touring, which they seem to do a lot. They talked about playing in Poland, and Italy and touring a musical instrument factory in South America somewhere, in between playing beautiful, complex music on lutar, guitar and percussion.

As well as the main Festival, and the Globe Festival, there are also events happening round the town itself, and I managed to get to a relaxed evening in the patio garden at Tomatitos Tapas bar, to listen to Alan Cooper and his friends Simon on guitar and Di on cello. Alan plays fiddle very, very well. They also had a new CD out, which I treated myself to, and Chris the bookbinder was there with copies of a local poetry magazine called Quirk, which contains work by several people I know, as well.

So I got to see one fun talk, and one serious talk, and some excellent music, out of the hundreds of events that were on over the ten days. And I browsed the vintage fair (sadly very soggy - the weather was awful) and saw my friends selling artwork and silk scarves, and a woodwork workshop where children were using proper woodworking equipment to build their own stools, and the Big Skill craft fair across the river which had a master thatcher, and needle felting and knitting and pottery and pyrography and spinning and weaving and photography and art work of all sorts... and I never had time to think about writing - I was too busy having new experiences!