Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Meadowlark Lemon

Another bit of my childhood gone! The Harlem Globetrotters was one of the kids' cartoons I used to watch in the early 70s. It was a bit of American glamour - nobody played basketball in Manchester then! (Or nobody I knew, anyway).
And now Meadowlark Lemon, who was the leader of the team, has died. He was 83, and seems to have been a genuinely nice person.
Actually, it took me ages to work out that his name was Meadowlark - I had a bit of trouble understanding the accents on the cartoon - and I don't think I've ever come across anyone else with that first name.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Black Victorians - Shakespearean Actor Ira Aldridge

Ira Aldridge was born in New York, but spent most of his career as an actor on stage in England and Europe, especially in Shakespearean roles. When he arrived in Liverpool in 1824, with another black actor, James Wallack, England had only recently outlawed the slave trade.
One of his early reviews, from the Times, was less than complimentary - the reporter said that he had "lips so shaped that it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English". But he went on to play Othello - and also various white characters, for which he "whited up" with greasepaint and wigs, playing Shylock, Richard III and Macbeth and, later in his career, Lear.
He also toured Europe, with success in Germany, and performances in Russia, Serbia and Budapest.
Four of his children with his second wife went on to have musical careers. The two girls, Irene and Amanda, became opera singers. Amanda also gave elecution lessons to Paul Robeson in 1930 when he was preparing to play Othello in London.
Ira died in 1867, while visiting Poland, and is buried in Lodz, where he was given a state funeral. He was quickly forgotten in Britain, but remained a source of inspiration to African American actors. He is one of 33 actors honoured with a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the only African American.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Mosquito Aircraft

I met a lovely old gentleman in the book shop today, who was doing research into the Mosquito aircraft from the Second World War. His older brother had flown one during the war, ferrying injured soldiers from airfields in the Burmese jungles back to base - twenty minutes by air, but four days on the ground, by which time some of those men would have died.
But a Mosquito is only a two seater aircraft, and they were ferrying four injured soldiers at a time - in the bomb bay!
The gentleman's brother had been awarded a Burma Star medal, and he wanted to know how he had got it, because his brother had never talked about it.
He knew a lot of interesting things about Mosquitos - for instance, during the Second World War the best makers of ball bearings were in Switzerland, which was, of course, neutral territory. The British sent a Mosquito over occupied Europe with a buyer for the ball bearings travelling in the bomb bay - though this time the trip took six hours rather than twenty minutes! At the same time, German buyers were also going to the Swiss manufacturers to buy ball bearings, and the English and Germans would meet while doing their business there. It's one of those things that you don't really think about, but ball bearings were essential for lots of machinery.
As a boy, in Reading, he remembered a factory being put into the basement of the local department store - he used to go down there and scrounge waste wood and nails. He thought, though it was never said, that the girls cutting the wood to shape there were working on Mosquito frames - it being a wooden aircraft, and something that furniture makers could turn their hands to for the war effort.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Women Warriors - Kurdish rebels

ISIS is "afraid of girls."

Posted by INSIDER on Thursday, 10 December 2015

I hope this works - a short video on the young women Kurdish rebels who are fighting Daesh/ISIS.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Trowelblazers - Elizabeth Anderson Gray

Strictly speaking, Elizabeth Anderson Gray was a geologist, rather than an archaeologist, but she did contribute greatly to the knowledge of the past in Scotland by her fossil collecting.

Here she is, looking at the rocks of Girvan, the area where she lived and did most of her collecting. She also introduced her two daughters, Alice and Edith, to the work, and they continued to work in the field after her death.
It was her careful record keeping of where the specimens were found that was important to the study of the Paleozoic in Scotland and fossils that she collected still remain important to the study of the Ordovician and Silurian periods today. She made sure that the importance of her finds was recognised by having them formally described by established scientists (who were all men, of course), though she was honoured by having some of the specimens named after her (in her married name) and in 1903 she was awarded the Murchison Geological Fund by the Geological Society of London for her lifelong contribution to early Paleozoic geological research. She was the first woman to be so honoured, and was 72 at the time. She continued collecting until 1923 and died in 1924.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Anthony Valentine

One of my teenage heartthrobs, when I was ever so slightly obsessed with Raffles, has just died.

The 1970s was a good time to find Anthony Valentine on screen - often as a baddie (the Nazi officer in Colditz for example) but I also remember an episode of Pathfinder where he played the pilot of a Lancaster bomber whose crew had all baled out over France - he was flying the damaged plane back across the Channel alone, and about half way through the episode he started hallucinating. It was a gripping piece of television. (Who remembers Pathfinder now?)
He was also wonderfully scary as the Baron de Belleme, master of black magic, in Robin of Sherwood - I think he even scared the Sheriff!

And as my Young Man put it, he was always the most elegant man in the room.
So I was sad to hear yesterday that he has died, at the age of 76.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Black Victorians - Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole is quite famous - she volunteered as a nurse during the Crimean War, got turned down, and decided to go anyway. She paid for her nursing by opening a "British Hotel" which provided food and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent British soliders.
She was born Mary Jane Grant, in Jamaica, the daughter of a black woman and a Scottish soldier - her mother kept a boarding house in Kingston, and was also known as a "doctress" - she had a good knowledge of herbal medicine.
She married Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole in 1836 - he was supposed to have some connection with Lord Nelson, either being a secret illegitimate son or a godson - but he had a weak constitution and was dead by 1844. Sadly, by this time Mary's mother had also died, and Mary took over the running of the boarding house.
She gained experience of nursing cholera victims in an epidemic in Jamaica in 1850 and later at her half-brother's hotel in Cruces, in Panama. She charged the rich patients, and nursed the poor for free. Later returning to Jamaica, she nursed patients of a yellow fever epidemic. When news of the Crimean War reached her - she was now back in Panama - she decided to volunteer her services as a nurse.
Her services were refused, but she had ample experience of both nursing and setting up hotels and restaurants, so that's what she did. On the way, she met a doctor returning from the Crimea, who gave her a letter of introduction to Florence Nightingale. Their first meeting was friendly, but in later years they didn't get on at all well.
She built her British Hotel from locally found scrap materials, and as well as providing meals, with a staff of two black cooks, she had a shop that sold "anything from an anchor to a needle". She also provided outside catering, including to spectators who gathered to watch the battles from a short distance away. Having a picnic while watching men kill each other (from a safe distance) was quite common in wars of the period.
At the end of the war, she was forced to sell off her stock and possessions at a low price, as the armies left the area, and she then came to England. Though popular, she was in severe financial difficulty and became bankrupt. When this became public, a fund was set up for her, and she was discharged from bankrupcy. She also wrote a book, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, which was the first autobiography of a black woman in Britain.
In 1872, she was back in London from Jamaica, and became the personal masseuse of the Princess of Wales, who suffered from rheumatism and "white leg" which starts with deep vein thrombosis.
She died in 1881, and was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetary at Kensal Green.
She has a blue plaque at the house where she lived in Soho Square, and her story is part of the National Curriculum in schools.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Women Warriors - Lakshmi Bai

Lakshmi Bai was the Rani of Jhansi in India under the British Raj. When her husband the Maharajah died, he had no male heir. A boy had been adopted shortly before the maharajah's death, but the British would not accept him as the new maharajah, and annexed Jhansi, sending an official of the East India Company to deal with administrative matters. The Rani was only twenty two years old, but she refused to cede Jhansi to the British.
This was in 1854, and by 1857 the British had more to worry about than one small Indian state, as the Indian Mutiny had begun (with a rumour that the rounds of ammunition issued to the Indian troops were greased with beef and pig fat). Lakshmi Bai was proclaimed Regent of Jhansi, and asked the British official there for permission to raise troops for a bodyguard. Shortly after that, local Indian troops massacred their European officers - and Lakshmi Bai got written permission to manage the District for the British until a Superintendant arrived. Other forces which were rebelling against the British invaded Jhansi, but when she appealed to the British for help she got no reply, as by this time the British believed that she had been responsible for the massacre of the European officers.
So she set up a cannon foundry and prepared to defend the city herself.
When the British finally turned up, they found the city well defended, and the Rani refused to surrender to them.
After two weeks of fighting, the British took the city, but the Rani escaped and joined other rebel forces.
She remained with the rebel forces, though the campaign was by this time going badly for them. She died at Gwalior, in battle, dressed as a cavalry officer.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Trowelblazers - Edith Guest

There's not a lot on the web about Edith Guest.

She was a student and friend of Margaret Murray, and went with Margaret Murray and Gertrude Caton Thompson to Malta, where they excavated the Bronze Age megalithic monuments of Santa Sfia, Santa Maria tal Bakkari, Għar Dalam, and Borġ in-Nadur, all of which were threatened by the construction of a new aerodrome.

As a result of the excavations in Malta, Margaret Murray was invited to dig in Minorca, and Edith Guest went with her. Together, they excavated the megalithic sites of Trapucó and Sa Torrera, resulting in the publication of Cambridge Excavations in Minorca.

Later, Edith Guest dug in Cyprus - she is the co-author of Excavations at Erimi 1933 - 35, with Porphyrios Dikaios and V Seton-Williams. The Italian Archaeological Mission was digging the same site in 2012. It's a large Bronze Age settlement.
And that's about it.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Black Victorians - Samuel Coleridge Taylor

Not the poet who wrote Kubla Khan, but a composer, named after the poet.

He was born in London in 1876. His mother Alice Hare Martin was white, and English. His father was from Sierra Leone, Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, but they weren't married, and Dr Taylor went back to Sierra Leone without knowing Alice was pregnant. She named her baby after the poet.
Alice's brother was a professional musician, and Samuel studied the violin at the Royal College of Music. He later taught at the Crystal Palace School of Music and conducted the Croyden Conservatoire. He married a fellow student at the Royal College of Music, Jessie Walmisley, though her parents objected because he was of mixed race. Together they had a son called Hiawatha, after the famous poem, and a daughter called Gwendolyn who became a conductor/composer in her own right.
One of his great successes as a composer was the music Hiawatha's Wedding Feast, hence the name of his son. However, he got no royalties from the music, as he had sold it outright for 15 guineas. Musicians concerned about his young family after his death used this example as one of the cases that led to the formation of the Performing Rights Society.
He was helped by Elgar, who recommended him to the Three Choirs Festival, and also made three tours of the United States. He was even invited to visit Theodore Roosevelt at the White House in 1904.
He wanted to do for traditional African music what Brahms did for Hungarian music and Dvorak did for Bohemian music. It seemed the future was bright for him, but sadly he collapsed at Croyden railway station and died just a few days later, of pneumonia, aged only 37.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Trowelblazer and Woman Warrior - Dorothy Garrod

Here's Dorothy Garrod in Palestine in 1931, with Theodore McCown and Francis Turville-Petre.

She studied anthropology at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, where her father was Regius Professor of Medicine, though she got her first degree in Cambridge. There she was inspired to become an archaeologist, and studied with Abbe Breuil, which led to her excavating on Gibraltar in the 1920s, where she found a Neanderthal skull.
She was in Palestine, though, to excavate at Mount Carmel, where she worked closely with another woman archaeologist, Dorothea Bate. Her work on the site convinced the authorities not to use it as a quarry, and she continued to investigate three caves there. Her work was a major contribution to the understanding of the prehistoric sequence in the region. In those days, the bulk of the labour was usually done by local people, with the archaeologists supervising, and Dorothy Garrod hired mostly women from the surrounding villages.
From 1939 to 1952 she was Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge, though during the Second World War she served in the Women's Auxilary Air Force, at RAF Medmenham, where she was a section officer in a photographic interpretation unit - which makes her a Woman Warrior as well as a Trowelblazer. She was, in fact, the first female professor at Cambridge. It was not until 1947 that women students gained the same rights as male students at Cambridge.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Deborah J. Ross: Guest blog: Chaz Brenchley Steampunks Mars (With A...

I suppose it had to happen - and it is an absolutely brilliant idea!  The Chalet School on a Steampunk version of Mars....

Deborah J. Ross: Guest blog: Chaz Brenchley Steampunks Mars (With A...: Chaz Brenchley is an amazing writer -- I've been an unabashed fan ever since I read Bridge of Dreams , which led me to write to him, b...

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Secret of Saynshand

First draft completed - 28,000 words roughly.
Now to go back and fill in all the plot holes and write extra scenes (like explaining how an American comes to be working for the British Secret Service)!

Friday, 6 November 2015

Jedi Librarian

My Young Man knows a lot more about Star Wars than I do, so I was surprised when he told me that Jedi Librarians are a real thing in the extended universe. He even found this picture for me:

I love this idea, so this is what I'm going to try to put together as my hall costume for EasterCon next year.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Wudang Kung Fu Fan by Shifu Pan Kedi

This is beautiful, and the sort of thing I had in mind for Li Bic, one of the main characters in the story I'm writing at the moment.

Sunday, 1 November 2015


When my Young Man came to stay last week, one of the important things we did was to book for Mancunicon, next year's EasterCon. We had so much fun at this year's EasterCon, at Heathrow, that we wanted to see what it would be like next year. Also, I can't go to Lincoln Asylum, which is now held over the August Bank Holiday weekend, because of work commitments, and EasterCon is something I can get to more easily.
It is, unsurprisingly given the name, in Manchester, at the Hilton on Deansgate, which is apparently the eleventh tallest tower in Britain, so we should be able to find it fairly easily!
A couple of years ago, we went to the CAMRA Winter Beer Festival in Manchester, just a short bus ride out from Picadilly, though we made the mistake of walking out to it, not realising just how far it was. We got the bus back!
We stayed, that weekend, at the Ibis hotel near Picadilly. It's a budget hotel, and it had everything we needed, so we'll be staying there again and walking across town to the main hotel each day. We might even get to ride on the new (new to me, anyway) Manchester trams! The centre of Manchester has changed quite a bit since I lived there, but Picadilly and Deansgate are still in the same places, so I don't think I'm going to get lost.
The guests of honour at Mancunicon include Aliette de Bodard - I haven't read any of her novels yet, but I have seen all the publicity about her new book The House of Shattered Wings, and I also came across an extract of another story set in the same world - which starts in a library, so that caught my interest straight away!
The Mancunicon website can be found at and they also have a Facebook page.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Altan Urag - Davalgaa, Ijii Mongol (Official video)

Still working on my Mongolian Book Bandit story - this is inspiring!

Women Warriors - Nancy Wake, the White Mouse

Here's Nancy Wake, one of the most decorated service women of the Second World War - and one who had a five million franc price on her head at one point!
She was born in New Zealand, and grew up in Australia, and in 1937 she married a Frenchman, so at the outbreak of war she was living in Marseilles. She became a courier for the Resistance, and it was the Gestapo who nicknamed her White Mouse.
When she reached England in 1943, after escaping France over the Pyrenees, she joined the SOE, who parachuted her back into France in 1944. Once there, she co-ordinated groups of maquis - over 7,000 of them - and led raids herself. Once she killed a German sentry with a judo chop to the throat so that he wouldn't raise the alarm.
I saw a film about her a few years ago, (this would have been the 1987 film called Nancy Wake) in which she rode a bicycle for something like 300 miles, through several German checkpoints, to another group of resistance fighters, to use their radio, and then had to carry the answer back to her own group.
It was only when the war had ended that she learned that her husband had been tortured to death by the Gestapo for refusing to tell them where she was.

After the war, she was awarded the George Cross, the American Medal of Freedom, and the French Medal of Resistance and Croix de Guerre, among other honours.

She returned to Australia, where she married again, and she lived to be 98 years old, dying in 2011.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Maureen O'Hara

I just heard that Maureen O'Hara has died, at the age of 95.
Here she is in one of my favourite pirate films, The Black Swan, with Tyrone Power.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Black Victorians - Arthur Wharton, footballer

What a magnificent moustache! Here's Arthur Wharton, the first black professional footballer in England. He played for Darlington, was spotted by Preston North End, left them to concentrate on running, and returned to football with Rotherham. Then he moved to Sheffield United as a goalkeeper, followed by Ashton North End, Stalybridge Rovers, and Stockport.
He died in poverty in 1930, having become a collier after he retired from football.
He was born in Jamestown, on the Gold Coast, the son of a Grenadian, Henry Wharton, and Annie Florence Egyriba, a member of the Ghanaian royal family. He came to England at the age of nineteen to study to become a Methodist missionary, but turned to athletics instead. A year after he married Emma Lister, in 1890, he was the landlord of the Albert Tavern in Rotherham, but went back into football in 1894.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Women Warriors - Catharina Margaretha Linck

Poor Catharina - remembered more for the manner of her death than her years of military service in various armies.
Her mistake, after years of living as a man, was to marry a young woman, also called Catharina Margaretha, but whose maiden name was Muhlhahn. For this offence, she was sentenced to death by beheading in 1721, by the Prussian King, Frederick William. The court document of the case is the only documentary evidence of her life, but it includes information about her former life. From 1705 to 1708 (when she deserted) she served in the armed forces of Hanover, escaping hanging for desertion by revealing her sex. Later she joined the Prussian army, being dismissed when her superiors got a letter from the doctor who had examined her - and proved her to be female - for the Hanover army. She went on to join a Polish garrison and then the army of Hesse, deserting both times, and with spells of working in the cloth trade in between.
The court involved King Frederick because they were having difficulty in determining a suitable punishment for Linck, partly because there was nothing to cover the situation of two women having sex in the Bible.
Catherina Muhlhahn was sentenced to imprisonment, as she had originally believed that her husband was male.
In Catharina Linck's testimony, while preparing herself for death, she says: "Even were I to be done away with, those like me would remain."

Friday, 16 October 2015

Trowelblazers - Gertrude Caton Thompson and Great Zimbabwe

This is a really cool lady! In 1929, she organised a dig at Great Zimbabwe, with an all woman team, and declared that the site was built by an African civilisation. Which did not go down at all well in South Africa! Her views on the matter are now generally accepted, however. Zimbabwe is thought to mean "great houses of stone" in the Shona language, and the name has been attached to all ruins of this type across the region. There are around 200 of them, though Great Zimbabwe is the biggest and most impressive.
Here's a picture of some of the ruins, which gives an idea of the scale of the place, from the blog Zimtree:

Her work also helped to confirm the medieval dating of the site, which later excavation has shown to have been continuously inhabited from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, with the bulk of the finds coming from the fifteenth century.

Gertrude Caton Thompson got her experience as an archaeologist in Egypt, where she worked with Margaret Murray, Flinders Petrie and Dorothea Bate, and later with the British School of Archaeology, where her digs were characterised by her precision - it's routine now to plot the precise position and depth of artefacts, but it was a new idea in the 1920s.
She was a research fellow at Newnham College Cambridge, and the first female president of the Prehistoric Society as well as a founding member of the British School of History and Archaeology in East Africa.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Black Victorians - Sara Forbes Bonetta

"There weren't any black people in England in Victorian times," was the assertion during a discussion of Facebook I was looking at recently. Several people told the lady who said this that it wasn't true, and that there were lots of black people in England in Victorian times, so I thought I'd find out about some of them.
So here's Sara Forbes Bonetta, about the most high ranking black Victorian there could be - she was god-daughter to Queen Victoria herself!

As a small child, Sara (then called Aina) was orphaned and enslaved by a Dahomean army in West Africa. She ended up at the court of King Ghezo, and was intended to be a human sacrifice. Fortunately, she was rescued by Captain Frederick Forbes of the Royal Navy, who persuaded King Ghezo to give her to Queen Victoria as a gift. He named her Sara Forbes Bonetta (Bonetta was the name of his ship).
Queen Victoria was impressed with the child, and had her educated, and later gave her permission for Sara to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies. He was a Yoruba businessman, and they got married in Brighton. They had three children together - Victoria, Arthur and Stella. Victoria Davies also became a god-daughter of Queen Victoria, and they remained in touch even when the Davies family moved to Lagos. Descendants of the family now live in England, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
Sara died in 1880, aged only 37 - she had suffered for many years from a cough, which became tuberculosis, probably caused by the climate of England. Her husband erected an eight foot high granite obelisk in her memory at Ijon in Western Lagos, where he started a cocoa firm.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Women Warriors - Lam Thi Dep

This picture of a woman Viet Cong fighter was taken in 1972. Lam Thi Dep was eighteen at the time, and is carrying an American M-16 rifle.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Trowelblazers - Merilyn Phillips Hodgson

Dr Wendell Phillips was an archaeologist who worked in Arabia, particularly the Yemen, and by his premature death in 1976, at the age of only 54, he had become probably the richest archaeologist ever. He owned hundreds of oil leases at his death, thanks to his Arabian contacts, giving him the right to extract and sell the oil.
His archaeological work was important in casting light on the ancient incense routes, bringing frankincense and myrrh across the Arab world for use in Greek and Roman temples - though his main interest was in finding out more about the Biblical Queen of Sheba. He founded the American Foundation for the Study of Man, the AFSM, in 1949, a non-profit organisation to fund his expeditions.

And he had a sister. Merilyn Phillips Hodgson revived the AFSM in 1980, after being asked by the Government of Yemen to continue her brother's work. She is still the president of the organisation, which is investigating the Awam Temple, also known as the Mahram Bilqis, in Yemen. It dates back to the 7thC BC, and was dedicated to the Moon God Almaqah.

Before the work on the Mahram Bilqis began, Merilyn organized, planned and sponsored a series of archaeological expeditions to the Wadi al Jubah in Yemen. Five volumes were published as a result of this work.

Sadly, I can't seem to find any information about the dig at Mahram Bilqis or Merilyn Phillips Hodgson after 2006, when the AFSM appointed Dr Juris Zarins as director of the dig.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Who Carved the Lewis Chessmen?

One of the blogs I visit regularly is God of Wednesday. Nancy Marie Brown's blog about Iceland - the horses, the landscape and the history and folklore. Just recently she's been talking about the book she's written called Ivory Vikings, in which she considers the history of the Lewis chessmen in relation to Iceland.
Her theory is that the chessmen were carved on Iceland, which was certainly a source of walrus ivory, by Margaret the Adroit, hailed as the best carver in Iceland in the Saga of Bishop Pall. She was a member of his household.
The idea that Iceland was the source of the chessmen had been written off by earlier scholars, who had the idea that Iceland was a poor backwater, incapable of producing artists of the calibre of the carver of the chessmen, and too poor to afford the large amount of walrus ivory that went into the pieces. However, Nancy Marie Brown argues that Iceland was going through a Golden Age at this time, and Bishop Pall was wealthy, well-educated nobleman, with several artists in his retinue, including Margaret.
To me, this seems the best theory that's been put forward so far.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Stephen Quigg, Scottish folk singer

I have a cassette (yes, a cassette tape!) which is called Catch Me If You Can, by Stephen Quigg. Way back in 1985, I took my gran on a coach tour to Scotland, and on a couple of nights, when there was no entertainment laid on in the hotel, we went down into the small town (I think we were in Mallaig) to a local pub to listen to a young folk singer.
The set was the same both nights, but we really enjoyed ourselves, and I bought the cassette.
Last Wednesday at the acoustic evening I go to, one of the singers had been singing Scottish songs, and I sang The Dark Island, which I had learned from this cassette. I thought, for a bit of fun, I'd learn the words of Working for McBraynes, the song Stephen Quigg wrote about the ferry company in Scotland, to sing next time George and his friend came along.
So today I picked up the cassette and wondered what had become of Stephen Quigg - had he ever made it as a folk singer? What was he doing now?
I found his website straight away - it's a fairly unusual name, after all - and yes, he did make it as a folk singer. He joined a band called the McCalmans, and now sings with his Danish wife Pernille as The Quiggs. His website is
So now I'll have to buy some of his back catalogue - and I'm definitely going to learn Working for McBraynes!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Lady Charlotte Guest and the Mabinogion

Nearly two weeks ago, I went to Hay Castle to see the first fifteen minutes of a film called The Dancing Floor, inspired by the Welsh mythology which was preserved in the collection of stories called the Mabinogion. There was music, on crwth, pipes, guitar and cello, and a storyteller who told one of the tales - of Llew Llaw Gyffes, and the Woman of Flowers, of magic and betrayal and a hero who is reborn. They have a crowd funder going at Indigogo, and it really is a beautiful film, well worth supporting.

Also there that evening was a great great grand daughter of Lady Charlotte Guest (I think I've got the right number of greats). She spoke about her illustrious ancestor - because Lady Charlotte Guest translated the Mabinogion from Medieval Welsh into English and popularised it for the first time.
She would seem to be an unlikely candidate for the task - she was born in Lincolnshire, the daughter of wealthy and aristocratic parents, but she shocked polite society when she married an ironmaster from South Wales, who was twice her age! Josiah Guest was also the first MP for Merthyr Tydfil, and later was made a baronet.
When she arrived at Dowlais, near Merthyr Tydfil, at the big house next to the ironworks, at the age of 21, she began to learn Medieval Welsh. She was already a linguist, having learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian with her brother (she fell for the tutor) and then went on to teach herself Arabic, Hebrew and Persian. When her work was published, Alfred, Lord Tennyson himself commented on the beauty of her language.
She and her husband were interested in education, and built several schools for the working people locally. She also started a library, at first for a fee of 1/6, but in 1853, shortly after her husband died, it was made free of charge.
On her husband Josiah's death in 1852, she also took charge of the running of the ironworks, at the time the largest in the world, until she handed it over to her oldest son Ivor. By this time, she had ten children. Ivor later married Lady Cornelia Spencer-Churchill, an aunt of Winston Churchill.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Lyn Webster Wilde, writer and film maker

Tomorrow evening, I'm going to be at Hay Castle for a showing of the first 15 minutes of a film called The Dancing Floor - the event is to publicise the crowd-funder that Lyn Webster Wilde has launched in order to make the rest of the film. It's a story about a half-Welsh, half-Indian woman who comes up from London to Wales when she inherits a cottage - and gets involved with Welsh mythology. More information about the film can be found at

A few years ago, I went to a couple of writing courses that Lyn Webster Wilde ran in Hay - I learned a lot! I also started to look out for some of the books that she had written, especially Becoming the Enchanter, and On the Trail of the Women Warriors.
Becoming the Enchanter is the story of Lyn's discovery of the world of Welsh mythology, and On The Trail of the Women Warriors is about her search for the Amazons of Greek mythology. Both are fascinating - and the Women Warriors is, of course, right up my street, with my interest in fighting women throughout history. Both also involve a search for women's power, in mythology and history.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Women Warriors - Hannah Snell, Royal Marine

This is a story of a woman whose husband left her - so she went down to Portsmouth and joined the Royal Marines! The date was 1747, and her unit was sent out to India. She fought at Pondicherry in 1748, and at Devicotta in 1749 - she was injured eleven times in the legs, and once in the groin, but managed to keep her sex a secret. She was calling herself James Grey.
In 1750, her unit returned to Portsmouth, where she revealed her true identity. She was encouraged to approach the Duke of Cumberland, the head of the army, to ask for a pension - which she recieved.
She also shot to fame, appearing on stage in uniform doing military drill and singing. She also had her portrait painted. Her story was published as The Female Soldier by the publisher Robert Walker.
For a while, she kept a pub called The Female Warrior, and later she married twice more, and had two children.
Sadly, at the end of her life, in 1791, she had to be admitted to Bedlam, where she died.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Bersham Ironworks, near Wrexham

I follow a blog called archaeodeath, by Prof. Howard Williams from the University of Chester, partly for his thoughts on the memorials of death as seen through the lens of archaeology, and partly because of his posts about North Wales - he quite often visits sites I'm familiar with.

One of these is Bersham Ironworks. I spent a couple of seasons, back in the 1980s, digging at this site. I took the job to get out of my clerical position with the Met Police, and to get into the career that I had trained for at university. The main attraction at the time was the promise of half the season at Caergwrle Castle. I thought medieval archaeology would be much more interesting than an 18thC ironworks.
Caergwrle was great fun - it's one of my favourite castles - but Bersham proved to be fascinating too, and I really enjoyed working there.

And now it's closed. All that work we did, all that fascinating archaeology we uncovered, the visitor centre in the old mill that was, for a while, a tourist attraction - all locked up and deserted.

Prof Williams calls it Zombie Heritage.
This is the mill (used, like many small mills, up until 1947). I remember the very hot day we went into the mill race underneath there, right into the tunnel. Just to the side is the hillside where a local dowser predicted we'd find a wall - and we did, just where he said, though it wasn't on any of the plans, and we weren't expecting it. I remember our team's surveying being compared to the late 18thC map of the site, and the difference being only the width of a pencil line, even though they were measuring in chains. I remember the funeral party, who'd just come from the crematorium up the road, who came to look round, in their smart clothes - I suppose it was understandable that they seemed slightly spaced out.
I remember shifting vast heaps of bricks, and emptying out a pit that was full of the broken up sand moulds that were used to make big cauldrons - it took us about three days, and we rubbed banana skins on our hands when they caused a rash (which worked surprisingly well - none of us bothered with gloves for the job). And when we had emptied the pit, we found it was exactly the right shape for an experimental engine that Wilkinson had built.

And now Wrexham Council have closed it, and other heritage sites like Minera Lead Mines, to save a bit of money because of Austerity.

"Together they provoke a sense of sorrow at the loss of the past that is not simply sad, but tragic. These sites have been brought back to life, conserved, opened to the public only to be then shut and put into stasis: left to rot. They were made viable as heritage attractions and as natural conservation areas drawing visitors local and from further afield, and yet they became unsustainable in the face of local government funding cuts in our age of austerity. They may be open on demand for specific visits, and for activities for local kids, but they are not open in any real and proper sense."

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Trowelblazers - Margaret Murray

I first became aware of Margaret Murray's name because of her books on witches. As academic work, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe has been largely discredited now, but the book she wrote for the popular audience, The God of the Witches, has been very influential in the formation of the modern religion of Wicca.
But before she started writing about witches and pagan religion, she was an Egyptologist.
She studied under Flinders Petrie at University College, London, becoming his copyist and illustrator and providing the illustrations for his report on the archaeological dig at Qift. When she was promoted to Junior Lecturer in 1898, teaching the linguistic courses in the Egyptology Department, she became the first female lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom. She also taught Ancient Egyptian history and religion.
In 1902, she went to Abydos where Flinders Petrie was digging, for practical archeaological experience. As well as Hilda Petrie, there were other female archaeologists there, and the experiences she had there led her to feminist points of view (some male excavators objected to taking orders from a woman, for instance). She discovered the temple to Osiris at Abydos, and wrote the site report.
In 1908, she was chosen to perform the public unwrapping of a mummy from the Tomb of Two Brothers, excavated by Petrie. Around 500 people attended.

She also did important work in Maltese archaeology, together with Edith Guest and Gertrude Caton Thompson, and continued her interest in Egyptology throughout her career.
So it's a shame that her interest in Folklore and witchcraft has come to over-shadow her important contributions to Egyptology and archaeology more generally. When she died, at the great age of 100, Glyn Daniels (another well known archaeologist) called her the Grand Old Woman of Egyptology.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Mary Renault

Everything I knew about homosexuality as a teenager, I found out from reading Mary Renault!
This was a good thing, because in the pages of Mary Renault's novels about Ancient Greece, gay men were generally sympathetic, well rounded characters. Though I do remember reading The Persian Boy when I was fourteen (about Bagoas, the Persian eunoch who was friend to Alexander the Great) and hoping that my gran didn't try to read any of it over my shoulder!
The books, by the way, mostly came from the school library - we had a very good school librarian, who introduced all sorts of interesting literature to the mix. So I read the Alexander books, and The Last of the Wine (which included Athens under siege and Socrates), and her wonderful stories about Theseus The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. Later I found the audio book of The Bull from the Sea, narrated by Michael Yorke, who will always be the voice of Theseus for me now (though it was a pity the story had to be abridged so much - one of my favourite scenes, where the girl bull leapers go down to try to catch the escaped bull before Theseus gets there, was missing).
This year at Hay Festival, there were two talks about Mary Renault which I wasn't able to get to, by Bettany Hughes. She talked to Hannah Critchlow on May 24th and Tom Holland and Peter Stothard on May 25th.
I did manage to get my hands on the free handout paper for the Festival, though, with her article in it. The Daily Telegraph, sponsoring the Festival, put out an issue every day it was on, and this one also has an original short story by Neil Gaiman called Click-Clack the Rattlebag.

So this is what the school librarian was putting into my eager little hands at secondary school: "What she gets right is the sheer peacock-gaudy, drug-saturated, hardcore sensuality of this time and place. Cutting-edge science now tells us ancient warriors would indeed consume vast vats of liquid opiates and a ferocious honey-mead, retsina and wine cocktail. There was cannibalism. Girls and boys did oil one another with rose and saffron-scented olive oil. Renault heard and smelt the ancient world many millennia after it had died and decades before it was resurrected by contemporary technology."

She was a nurse during the Second World War, too, so when she wrote about wounds, she knew what she was talking about. Her books were one of the reasons I studied Greek Archaeology at university - because I'd already been to Athens, and Crete, and on campaign with Alexander.
And through the magic of literature, I can go back whenever I want, to listen to the girl playing the double-flute while languid lovers toss the dregs of their wine onto the tiled floor to try to make the initial letter of their lovers' name.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Women Warriors - Maude Butler

She didn't quite make it to the Front, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
Maude Butler was turned down as a Red Cross nurse when she applied during the First World War - so she acquired an army uniform and stowed away on a troop ship from Australia to Egypt. What gave her away, in the end, was the fact she had not been able to get the right boots - she was wearing her own boots - and that she needed to raid the ship's kitchen for food.
She was sent back to Australia on another troop carrier.
She was only sixteen at the time.
She did get to become a nurse, though, and ran a private hospital later in her life.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Archaeological Mystery Novels

This week I finally got round to reading two novels that I'd been getting round to for some time. Both have an archaeologist in the starring role, and both are murder mysteries. In real life, archaeologists are called in by the police to excavate when bones are found, and the techniques of archaeology are designed for collecting evidence, but writers so often get it wrong when they try to write about archaeology. I still have nightmares about that episode of Murder, She Wrote where the trenches were laid out in a style not seen since the 1950s and Jessica finds a valuable artefact - a gold plate, I think - and jumps up and down waving it in the air! And then there was that awful BBC series which started with an episode about the True Cross, and had the student digger inviting a member of the public down into the trench, and later wandering around with the lump of True Cross under her arm, instead of recording it properly! Come on, people, at least give it a context number!

Fortunately, The Lifers' Club is written by Francis Pryor, who is a real archaeologist who has written several very good non-fiction books on archaeology - and reading the descriptions of archeological digs here took me right back to the days when I was a circuit digger. Reading about setting up the grid, and dumpy levels (used for surveying), and trowelling back - it was like relaxing into something when you don't even realise you've been tense.
The mystery was interesting and complex as well, involving an "honour killing" in a Turkish family and the Turkish family's links to one of the archaeologists who were working on a dig when the young woman disappeared, who has since done very well for himself and now runs his own company. Our hero, Alan Cadbury, goes to work for the company, and at the same time is trying to prove the innocence of the young man convicted of the murder of his sister, who is a member of the Lifers' Club of the title in the nearby high security prison.
There was an interesting sub-plot about a Victorian pillar of the community who turned out not to be such a nice man after all, thanks to discoveries at a dig in a churchyard, which ties into the main plot when several of the Saxon skeletons they dig up turn out to come from Eastern Europe.
I really enjoyed this one, and will be looking out for the sequel. Francis Pryor also writes a good blog, with a link in the side bar.

Elly Griffiths isn't an archaeologist herself, but she's done her research very well. I first became aware of her at the Hay Festival a few years ago, when she was sharing the stage with Phil Rickman (our local mystery writer) and someone else whose name I've forgotten. Elly Griffiths stuck in my memory because she was writing about a woman archaeologist in Norfolk. I spent two years digging on the Norwich Castle Mall excavation, and as soon as my husband got his driving licence and a Rascal van we spent every weekend going out looking at Norfolk churches. So this is an area I used to know pretty well.
I finally got my hands on a copy of The Crossing Places, the first in her series about Ruth Galloway, and it involves child murder and a sea henge, and a druid in a purple cloak who calls himself Cathbad. The Chief Inspector on the case comes from Blackpool (another area I used to know well), there's a charismatic Norwegian archaeologist - and lots of marital infidelity.
I was impressed with Ruth Galloway, who came over as a competent archaologist and an interesting character, the mystery was very well done - and it did take me back to those big Norfolk skies. Elly Griffiths mentions her indebtedness to Francis Pryor's book Seahenge in the acknowledgements, too.
I'll be looking for the next one in her series as well.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Roof at Manchester Victoria Railway Station

I heard the other day that Manchester Victoria had been having a massive face-lift - after it had been voted Britain's worst railway station in 2009. Apparently they have taken off the old glass roof and replaced it with something more fitting for the 21st century as part of the upgrade. "Well," said the chap who told me, "it always used to leak anyway."

But I was thinking of a story my gran used to tell.

During the Second World War, my gran was travelling into Manchester Victoria from Bury (I think) with my mum, then a small baby, in a pram. Prams in those days were enormous, unwieldy beasts, and she could only travel in the guard's van. Which is why she was forgotten when the train was cleared of passengers at Victoria.
So she comes struggling off the guard's van and starts wheeling the pram down the platform - and comes face to face with a Luftwaffe officer! He was in handcuffs between two guards, presumably being taken to a prisoner of war camp. Outside the station, there was a crowd shouting at him through the locked railings - this was after Manchester had taken quite a bit of bomb damage, after all, and they wouldn't have been kindly disposed towards him if they'd got their hands on him.
Nana remembered him ignoring the crowd, and looking up at the roof of the station, with the glass shattered by bomb blasts, and she said he looked very satisfied, and pleased with what the German bombers had accomplished. Then she was hustled away and let out of a side door.
So I always used to look up at that old roof when I went through there, and think of my gran meeting the Luftwaffe officer.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Swallows and Amazons Forever!

I happened to hear on Radio 4 the other day that a new film of Swallows and Amazons is being made!
There is a film already, which is practically perfect, but it was made in 1974, so maybe this would be a good time to re-visit the story. As they said on the radio, children today almost never get a chance to do what those children did, camping out on Wild Cat Island without adult supervision (as long as they collected the milk from the farm every morning, they were assumed to be okay), sailing on the lake (and no life jackets in 1930!), with their father's permission for the holiday coming in a telegram worded "If not duffers, won't drown."
The island is real - Peel Island on Coniston Water, but the lake is a mixture of Coniston and Windermere.
The children were real, too, or at least very closely modelled on a real family, the Altounyans, who were taught to sail by Arthur Ransome.
According to the Arthur Ransome Trust, there may be one important change to the character names - Titty will become Tatty, to prevent sniggering at the back.

I hope they get it right!

Friday, 24 July 2015

Trowelblazers - Lina Eckenstein

I'd heard of Flinders Petrie, of course - you can't really avoid knowing his name if you have any interest in Egyptian archaeology. What I hadn't realised, though, is that he couldn't have achieved what he did without his wife Hilda and their friend Lina Eckenstein. Hilda Petrie took charge of the workers on the digs, and led expeditions, and Lina recorded the finds and made sure they were packed safely when they were sent back to wherever they were supposed to go. She also worked with Margaret Murray on these expeditions.
She wrote A History of Sinai in 1921, about the dig at Serabit el-Khadim, and theorised that it was the site of the Biblical Mount Sinai, in part because of the temple of Hathor they found there, which might be the origin of the story of the Golden Calf. The earliest recorded Semitic inscriptions were found here. It was also the site of mining activity - Hathor the cow goddess is associated with mining (though it seems to be a fairly strange association!).
This was one of several books she wrote on Egypt, including one which compared an Egyptian painted scene with the nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin. She also wrote important scholarly works about medieval monastic women, including Hildegard of Bingen, whose life and writings were little known at the time.

Friday, 17 July 2015

The Buccaneers

Here's Robert Shaw, about to give the order to fire cannons in the opening sequence of The Buccaneers.
The series was made by the same studio that made Robin Hood with Richard Greene, and at about the same time. It's maybe not quite as good as Robin Hood, but it's still enormous fun, and it's sad that it wasn't repeated very often. It's terribly dated now, of course, and was made very much with children in mind (the sort of child I was, who also loved Errol Flynn movies, though I suspect the makers were only thinking of boys).
Captain Dan Tempest was a reformed (sort of) pirate, working with Lt. Beamish of New Providence and getting involved with the Spanish, other pirates, searches for treasure, damsels in distress (or damsels perfectly able to hold their own, in the case of guest Joan Sims and her companions). Quite often, the villains of the week were corrupt British officials, so Dan and his crew were fighting redcoats.
There was some attempt to tie the events into real history, so the governor of the island (never seen after the first couple of episodes) was Woodes Rogers, who really was the governor of New Providence.
Dan was assisted by a multi-national crew - Armando the Spaniard (and where the script called for it, half-Indian), Taffy the Welshman and Gaff the Londoner, with Dickon as ship's boy in some episodes (introduced in the episode The Wasp, where he was working for Blackbeard).
There are some interesting guest stars, some of whom worked on Robin Hood as well - Sid James before the Carry On films, for instance (he was also a moneyer - maker of silver coins - in Robin Hood), Roger Delgado as a Spanish captain (who wonderfully at one point has the line "I am the master now" as he takes over the governor's mansion on New Providence briefly).
There are 39 episodes in all, some better than others of course, but the best are well plotted, and full of humour - and there's always a sword fight (and Dan always wins!).
I've just finished the box set, and I recommend it to anyone who likes old pirate films.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Klingon in the Welsh Assembly

There are times when the Welsh Assembly really does something with style!
Here's the story from boing.boing:

"Darren Millar, the Shadow Minister for Health and Social Services in Wales, posed three questions to Welsh economy, science and transport minister Edwina Hart about recent UFO sightings and funding research into the phenomena. A Welsh government spokesperson responded in Klingon:

Jang vIDa je due luq. 'ach ghotvam'e' QI'yaH devolve qaS.

Translation: "The minister will reply in due course. However this is a non-devolved matter."

"I've always suspected that Labour ministers came from another planet," Millar said. "This response confirms it." "

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Charles Stross: The Apocalypse Codex

I first saw Charles Stross at WorldCon last year - his novella Equoid won the Hugo.
I saw him again at EasterCon this year, making a great double act with Jim Butcher on stage, discussing such serious topics as how a werewolf might be affected by the Dangerous Dogs Act.
I'd somehow got the impression that he wrote horror, which is not something that I enjoy reading, but after seeing him on stage I thought I'd at least have a try of his Laundry Files series.
I can take horror if it's also funny, and this is very funny. The hero, Bob Howard, has a very witty turn of phrase. It's also more like an occult James Bond story than I was expecting, with their equivalent of "Q Division" handing out gadgets powered by ceremonial magic via laptops. And he's spot on with the descriptions of civil service bureaucracy, with Bob worrying about keeping receipts for his expenses along with the sorcery.
Of course, the book I picked up at random turned out to be number 4 in the series, but it was fairly easy to work out what was going on.
And now I'll have to get the others - I've just found myself another favourite author.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Women Warriors - Mai Bhag Kaur

Mai Bhag Kaur, or Mai Bhago, was a Sikh at the beginning of the 18th century. At this time, the Mughal Empire was trying to stamp out Sikhism, and the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, was besieged at Anandpur.
Forty of the Sikh soldiers there asked to be allowed to leave - the position seemed hopeless. Mai Bhag Kaur followed them, talked them into going back, and led them in a desperate battle against the Mughal forces - the Battle of Muktsar in 1705. All of them died, and Mai was badly wounded, but the Mughal army fled.
The forty soldiers are now known as the Forty Liberated Ones, and Mai Bhag Kaur became the Tenth Guru's bodyguard.
There is a shrine to her memory at Gurdwara Tap Asthan Mai Bhago.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Goodbye, Steed

I suspect, like most people, my image of Patrick Macnee is stuck firmly in the 1960s, though he played a lot of parts other than John Steed.
Looking on his official website this morning, I discovered that he'd gone to school with Christopher Lee - they were the same age. He was also friends with another screen idol of mine, David Niven.
And he does seem to have been a genuinely nice man. Charlie Jane Anders has done a very good obituary of him over on i09, where she points out that he was comfortable with sharing the screen with an intelligent, powerful woman (I am slightly too young to remember Cathy Gale, but I always wanted to be Emma Peel).
And he never carried a gun as Steed - saying that he'd seen too many friends blown to bits during the Second World War (he was in the Navy). In later years, apparently, he was in favour of gun control in the United States - he retired to California.
We need more heroes like that.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Disney Princesses as Indian Brides

I found this picture, and others depicting Disney Princesses, on the tumblr Worried about my Fern. She had found the pictures and re-blogged them. They're the work of Vancouver-based wedding photographer Amrit Grewal.
I don't actually know a lot about Disney princesses - that whole craze happened after I was a child - but I presume this is Mulan.
So this is the picture I'll be looking at from now on when I'm thinking about Li Bic, the main character in the Steampunk adventure I'm writing. I already have a picture for her partner Amelia Harper:

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Shanghai Steam

I've just finished this anthology of short stories. It was published by Hades Publications in Canada in 2012, and all the stories are about Chinese characters, mostly in a Steampunk China, but occasionally elsewhere - one is set in Tibet, and several are in the United States, with others on Mars or other extra terrestrial locations. The Boxer Rebellion is mentioned in several, and building the railroads of the United States, and there are clones, and steam powered robots, and drunken master swordsmen, and mechanical dragons.... It's all a lot of fun, and it shows that there's a lot more to Steampunk than just pseudo-Victorian London or the Wierd Wild West.
I don't usually buy (or read) books on Kindle, but it was the only way I could get hold of this one, and it was a good buy.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Christopher Lee

I was sad to hear of the death of Christopher Lee today, at the age of 93 - a man who led a fascinating life. He served in the RAF as an intelligence officer in the Second World War, and almost trained as an opera singer before he became an actor. Although he's best known for Dracula, Count Dooku in Star Wars and Saruman, I believe he was most proud of the film where he played the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

And of course, Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

I've come away from this book with a craving for tea and a vague feeling I should be wearing gloves! Which is a sure sign that I was pulled right into the world of the Radch, and the quest for revenge of the AI (artificial intelligence) which used to be the warship Justice of Toren, but is now reduced to one single human body - one of the ancillaries she used to control.
This, of course, is the book that swept the awards last year, Hugo and Nebula - and her sequel is up for awards again this year. I'll be getting it, of course. I want to know what happens to Breq/Justice of Toren and the sidekick she can't get rid of, Seivarden, who spent much of the previous thousand years in suspended animation, and woke to a world so changed that she (though I'm pretty sure Seivarden is male) couldn't cope with it.
The pronouns are one of the famous things about this book. In the Radch empire, everyone is 'she'. It's only when Breq is speaking other languages that she has to take account of gender - and occasionally she will mention that another character sings in a baritone, for instance, so you can guess that they are male. I'm still not sure which gender Lieutenant Awn was, but it doesn't actually matter, because it's the content of her character that's important. It's an interesting way of making the reader think about gender defaults in writing, and as an AI, Breq has a different way of looking at things anyway, which was very cleverly done.
So, this was one of those "keep reading till past midnight" books for me, and I'm happy to have found a new favourite author.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

David Gerrold Talks about WorldCon

I was reading a blog today called Ramblings of the Easily Distracted, and I came across a link to a Facebook post that David Gerrold had made about the history of WorldCon and this year's Hugo award disagreements. He's one of the Guests of Honour at Sasquan this year, with all the problems the Sad Puppies have caused looming over the Con itself.
So he was talking about the history of WorldCon, and previous disputes in its history, and one phrase he used pulled me up short. "I'm an old man," he said, adding that he knew he was invited to Cons and similar events as part of the tradition of SF, while new, younger writers were taking the tradition forwards.
And I remembered seeing The Trouble with Tribbles the first time it was aired on British TV - David Gerrold was nineteen when he wrote that, the new kid on the block! I remembered seeing him at British Star Trek Conventions in the 1980s (I went to two writers' workshops he led) - and he wasn't old!
But of course, he's right - he is part of the tradition, and there are a lot of younger writers out there taking the tradition forward.
And, although I was only about seven years old when I first saw Trouble with Tribbles, I'm not exactly young any more, either.
I still hope he's around for a good few years yet, though!

Monday, 25 May 2015

Shakespeare and Star Trek

It's the Hay Festival, and all sorts of interesting people are coming into town - and buying books.
One lady bought a stack of Star Trek novels, because she's about to do an MA on Shakespeare and Star Trek. The links go right back to the original series, with the episode The Conscience of the King. The plot was loosely based on Hamlet, and the play within the play which was intended to uncover King Claudius' guilt. In the case of the Star Trek episode, it was the leader of the players who was the guilty party, being the dictator of a planet who had disappeared after a genocidal reign twenty years before.
Jean-Luc Picard, of course, was always quoting Shakespeare - and I seem to remember a scene where Data was enacting a scene from Henry V with him.
So there's plenty of material to deal with for an MA.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Poor Sarah Jane!

I was lucky enough to find a whole lot of Doctor Who DVDs in a charity shop in Hereford the other day, so I've been watching a few which I'm sure I never saw first time round. One of them was Planet of Evil, in which a scientist tries to take anti-matter crystals from a remote planet, which starts killing the members of the expedition (or at least, the Creature of the Id a la Forbidden Planet does). The dark red jungle set was actually very impressive, but the story was a bit forgettable.
Then there was the Masque of Mandragora, with gorgeous Italian Renaissance costumes - Sarah Jane gets a lovely ball gown for the Masque itself (after nearly being sacrificed to a pagan god in the catacombs under the city).
But in both of those stories, apart from a few female extras in the masque scenes, Sarah Jane is the only woman there, and certainly the only woman with a speaking role. There's a black man on the crew of the space ship in Planet of Evil - and he doesn't die first! - but no other women at all.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Colony in Space

Ah, the glory days of Jon Pertwee - in this case, the first time Jo Grant steps inside the Tardis, and onto the surface of an alien world - or a china clay quarry in Cornwall.
This story of the evil Interplanetary Mining Company against poor colonists actually seems quite up to date, though I doubt that today's fracking companies would try to scare people off by using projections of giant lizards!
It was nice to see several women among the colonists, too, who even had speaking parts, though one of them died horribly early on, and another just vanished as the men started shooting at each other. Only Gail Tilsley from Coronation Street remained to man the radio.
Meanwhile, the "Primitives" didn't seem to have any women at all, and nobody among the colonists or the miners seemed to consider that they might just possibly have the prior claim to their own planet.
And then the Master comes along, disguised as the Adjudicator between the miners and the colonists - though what he really wants is to get his hands on a Doomsday Weapon hidden in the Primitives' city. And he wants to share ruling the universe with the Doctor.
My favourite lines of the story are between the Master and the Doctor:
"My credentials are immaculate."
"Forged, of course."
"Of course - but immaculate."
In the documentary accompanying the story, they said that they considered casting a woman as the member of the mining ship crew who is frightening and murdering colonists - but the Powers that Be at the BBC vetoed the idea, saying that they thought it was "kinky" to have a woman doing that sort of thing.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Galileo's Dream

When I went to Kim Stanley Robinson's Kaffeeklatch at WorldCon last year, he talked a bit about his recent book, Galileo's Dream. He said that he'd got to a stage in writing where it was a hard slog, and not enjoyable any more - but then he started writing under a canopy in his garden, and being outdoors in pleasant surroundings made it fun again. He said that Galileo's Dream had been written like this, and he'd had a lot of fun doing it.
It shows in the writing - and you can also see how much KSR likes Galileo as a character.
He's irrascible and stubborn and annoying - and fascinating and fun to be around too. And a genius, of course.
The Renaissance isn't a period I ever liked overmuch - I usually much prefer the Middle Ages - but this book takes you right inside the workings of Renaissance Italy, with Galileo's struggles to find a new sponsor (the authorities in Venice not being so generous as he had anticipated when he showed them his telescope), and also right into the household of Galileo, with the students and his mistress and his poverty stricken brother and the problem of what to do with his little girls when they grow up. And all the time, he's working on mathematical problems, and spending sleepless nights observing Jupiter and the four moons. I learnt a huge amount, quite painlessly, about the way the Vatican worked, and the arguments between the different scientists and theologians, and Galileo's relationship with his daughters who he sent off to be Poor Clare nuns. He even includes actual letters and documents from the time - he must have done a huge amount of research.
Being Kim Stanley Robinson, of course, this is not a straight biography (though I think I would have read it if it was). A mysterious stranger gives Galileo the first idea to experiment with telescopes (and there isn't even a name for them yet), and at various times in the book he is whisked away to the very moons of Jupiter that he is observing, and into the far future, where he is acclaimed as "the first scientist" and drawn into the politics of the four moons. All the technology is seen from Galileo's point of view, and has to be explained to him in terms a Renaissance man will understand, but he grasps the basics very quickly, and hungers to know more.
Readers of other KSR books will recognise certain things which also appear there - like the characters with extreme longevity, for instance. Some of them have managed to wangle their way into Galileo's household as servants, where they are protecting him as best they can, while the mysterious stranger from the opening scene is trying to manipulate Galileo's life in a way that will best serve his needs in the far future.
So, this was great fun, and I learned a lot - and I'm going to be reading more about Renaissance history in future because of this book.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Dance the Dark Morris

I came across a picture of this morris dancing troupe on Facebook, and instantly thought of Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith, where the Dark Morris is danced to bring on winter.
In fact, this troupe is called Mythago Morris, after the book Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock - which is just as impressive! Mythago Wood, in the book, contains archetypes of legends throughout human history, and the deeper into the wood you go, the older the archetypes get.
This picture comes from website, and shows them dancing at a Beltane celebration.
It's not surprising that they're asked to dance at Pagan celebrations - according to their website they base their dances around British myths like Herne the Hunter, the Green Man, the Rollright Stones, Ceridwen's Cauldron and the Knuckerhole Dragon. They're based in Sussex, and they dance in the Border Morris style.
It looks like great fun!

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Art of Travel

In my researches for The Secret of Saynshand (silkpunk adventure in China and Mongolia), I've just come across a gem of a book, which tells everything a traveller needs to know when they're going on an expedition. It was written in 1872, by Francis Galton (himself a seasoned traveller in Darkest Africa) and the subtitle is "Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries".
A lot of it is very sensible advice, about pitching tents, drying your clothes over a camp fire, and so on, but there are parts of it that are, to modern eyes, quite hilarious.
Like his section on allowing women on the expedition, for instance:

"Natives' Wives - If some of the natives take their wives, it gives great life to the party. They are of very great service, and cause no delay....for a woman will endure a long journey nearly as well as a man, and certainly better than a horse or a bullock." He goes on to quote a Mr Hearne, an American traveller of the eighteenth century, who recorded the words of a 'savage' chief: "'Women,' said he, 'were made for labour: one of them can carry or haul as much as two men can do. They also pitch our tents, make and mend our clothing, keep us warm at night; and in fact there is no such thing as travelling any considerable distance....without their assistance.' And 'though they do everything, are maintained at trifling expense: for, as they always stand cook, the very licking of their fingers, in lean times, is sufficient for their subsistence.'"
So, they work harder, and you don't even have to feed them properly! Isn't that great?
He goes on to add, in a more general way: "It is in the nature of women to be fond of carrying weights; you may see them in omnibuses and carriages, always preferring to hold their baskets or their babies on their knees, to setting them down on the seat by their sides."

Friday, 8 May 2015

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Earthsea on Radio 4

I've just finished listening to the last of the six episodes of Earthsea, and I was glad to see that all the first three of the books in the series were adapted. They were pared down to the essentials, but still had the power I remember from first reading them.
The Farthest Shore gave me nightmares about death. This time, it was just terribly sad to see Sparrowhawk lose his powers to heal the world.
There are short stories that Ursula le Guin wrote about Sparrowhawk, and I wish she'd written more of them. She created a wonderful world, and I was glad when she returned to it years after the first trilogy to turn women into dragons. But the first three stories were the best, and this was a very good adaptation.
I wonder what Ursula le Guin thinks of her character being given a Northern British accent.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Goodbye Grace Lee Whitney

Grace Lee Whitney, best known to Star Trek fans as Yeoman Janice Rand, has died, aged 85.
She was only in the first eight episodes of the original series, after which she was replaced by a succession of different women for Kirk to take an interest in (this being the sixties, after all). But she was brought back in several of the films. This picture is from The Corbomite Maneuver, where she's been heating the coffee with a phaser while the power is down.
I remember seeing her at a Star Trek Con in the 80s - I don't remember which one, but it may have been in Birmingham. She talked about her struggles with alcohol addiction, but all that seemed to be behind her. She seemed to be having a great time at the Con, and she also sang Star Trek related songs, which I think she may have written herself. One was "USS Enterprise is coming round again" (this was before Next Gen had come out).

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Trowelblazers - Jane Dieulafoy

Here she is, on a card in a series of famous explorers from 1885. The image is taken from Look and Learn.

I first found out about Jane Dieulafoy at a talk at EasterCon called Trowelblazers - mostly about female archaeologists, pioneers in the field who had been forgotten about.
She was an explorer, archaeologist, photographer, journalist and novelist. In archaeology she is best known for her excavations at Susa. Archaeological technique was in its infancy at the time, and she devised new techniques, monitored trenching excavations, mapped and labelled meticulously, and directed the efforts of hundreds of local men who were employed to dig the sites.

Here's a picture from Archyfantasies blog, of Jane at the excavations in Persia.

But her adventures had started before that. She also counts as a Woman Warrior. At the age of 19, she married Marcel Dieulafoy, who volunteered for the Engineering Corps on the French side in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Jane went with him, dressed in a soldier's uniform, and became a noted sharpshooter.
After the war, they travelled the Middle East, and excavated at Susa, sending several artefacts and friezes back to France. Two rooms in the Louvre are named after her, and the Lion frieze she sent back is displayed there. The French government made her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1886 for her contributions to French archaeology.
While in the Middle East, she cut her hair short and wore male clothing for convenience, because it was difficult for women to travel freely in that region at the time. When she returned to France, she just carried on wearing men's clothing - which was illegal in France at the time. She, however, got special permission from the government.
She died in 1916.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Memory of Whiteness

I'm slowly working my way through all the Kim Stanley Robinson titles I can find.
This one starts off with a mystery. Someone wants to kill the Master of Holywelkin's Orchestra, an 11 metre high conglomeration of instruments played by the Master from a control room half way up the tower. The Orchestra is about to go on a Grand Tour of the solar system from its home on Pluto, and the action moves slowly inwards from world to world.
But it's not just about a murder plot - the creator of the Orchestra, Holywelkin, was also a genius mathemetician who transformed physics and made it possible for all the little scattered colonies of the solar system to exist, so the story is also about the nature of reality, and the importance of music.
I think my favourite character was the journalist who wrote for a musical magazine, who becomes part of the entourage of the Orchestra and a friend of the Master. He also becomes part of the security efforts to keep the Master safe, on various worlds.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015


I've been listening to Earthsea on Radio 4. To my delight Judith Adams, who adapted Ursula le Guin's story, has taken The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan and mingled them together. Sparrowhawk and Tenar are telling each other the stories of their childhoods, so you get bits of both books put together. It's extremely well done, and I'm really enjoying it, so much that I think I shall have to revisit the Earthsea books very soon.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Engraved on the Eye

I like diversity in my SF - what's the point of leaving the planet if you're only going to encounter what you're familiar with already?
I'd heard of Saladin Ahmed, but not read anything of his, until I got a chance to download a free ebook of his short stories, called Engraved on the Eye.
There's quite a mixture here. It's fun to visit an Arabian Nights fantasy world for a change, and he also has stories set in a future Middle East, and a funny super villain story. There's even a Muslim Wild West story. I enjoyed them all, and will be looking out for his novels in future.
He has a website at

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Big Elfquest Gatherum

I first came across Elfquest in the 1980s, when I saw the novelisation of the comics on a stall at a Star Trek convention. I enjoyed it, and after that I looked out for the comics, and started buying the Blood of Ten Chiefs anthologies, which are also great fun.
I never did get much further in the story than the Go-Backs, though I'm told that they did find the High Ones space ship in the end. The Wolfriders, for those who are unfamiliar with the story, are a tribe of elves who are forced out of their forest home, and find their way to another group, the Sun Folk, who live in a desert. Cutter, the leader of the Wolfriders, then begins a quest to find all the other scattered elves of the World With Two Moons, and find out what happened to their distant ancestors the High Ones. It's quite different from superhero comics, and good fantasy comic stories are quite rare. This one also has a wide range of good female characters (and Winnowill, who is a wonderful villain!), and that rarity in comic books, a happily married family with children - Cutter, Leetah of the Sun Folk, and their two children Ember and Suntop.
Occasionally I go down to Booth Bookshop's cellar, where the SF is, and the last time I browsed there, I found I book I had not suspected to exist - the Big Elfquest Gatherum. It's a sort of encyclopaedia of Elfquest knowledge, interviews, artwork and so on, and it's fascinating. I hadn't realised the effort Richard and Wendy Pini had put in to trying to get an animated film or TV series off the ground - though reading the struggles they went through, I'm glad we never got the live action film made with children on the backs of large dogs (a serious suggestion by the studio they were dealing with at the time!) or the cartoon series where they wanted to make Leetah's skin lighter because they didn't want to be seen to be endorsing mixed marriages!
There's also information about the Beauty and the Beast graphic novels that Wendy Pini did the artwork for. I used to have the one where Vincent paints an oil painting of Catherine, and I recently got the one where Vincent has to help Catherine's soul move on after death - both of them are beautiful, and quite a different style to the Elfquest elves.
And, it seems, there is more Elfquest out there - stories I was never aware of before, but which I'll be looking out for in future.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Widdershins: Piece of Cake

This is the fourth Widdershins comic book to come out - and I now have the full set, plus a pin for The Royal Society of Bounty Hunters, with smoking pipe logo, which I've clipped to the cape of my Sherlock Holmes coat.
Each story has been a little bit different, but they all centre on the magical town of Widdershins. This one starts in 2013, as an amateur cook heads for a baking competition in the Hotel Gula (which means throat in Italian) - only to find herself imprisoned in a time travelling gluttony spell. The link to previous books is one of the Victorian servants of the hotel, sister to the bounty hunter of previous stories.
It's nice to see a black lead character whose colour is incidental - she's a baker of delicious cakes, first and foremost. Other characters include a pair of cocktail making con artists from the 1920s, a gay chef from 2032 (whose sexual preferences are also incidental - he's first and foremost a chef and antagonist to our heroine) and a cookery book writer from the 1950s, all kidnapped by the insatiable hotel.
It's all great fun, and a satisfying read.
Kate Ashwin, writer and artist, has a website at

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Celtic Goddesses

I picked up this book, by Miranda Green, because of her qualifications in archaeology, listed on the back, and I was not disappointed. In fact, it was first published in paperback by the British Museum Press, in 1997. This is a look at the archaeological evidence for the Iron Age and Roman era goddesses and a look at what their worship reveals about Celtic society and the position of women within that society at the time. It also delves into the myths that have survived, from Ireland and Wales principally.
It's not fluffy, New Age-y stuff - but it's not overly dry and scholarly either. It's aimed at the general public as well as students of the subject, so there's just enough detail along with a good bibliography for those who want to do further study.
It contains some photos I've never seen before, and covers Gaul as well as Britain, touching on the sexual roles of various goddesses, and their links with the land as goddesses of sovreignty, goddesses of war, and more. The last chapter follows the transformation of some goddesses (like Brigit) into Christian saints.
I highly recommend it.

Friday, 24 April 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness

Radio 4 at the moment are celebrating the life and work of Ursula Le Guin.
There was a documentary recently which interviewed her on the occasion of her 85th birthday, and included comments from several well known authors who said that she had been an influence on their work. One of them was Neil Gaiman.

This was followed by a two part adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness, which is about an envoy of the Ekumen, a grouping of around 80 planets, as he makes first contact with Gethen, or Winter, a new world which they are inviting to join them. His presence upsets the political situation on the planet forever - the nations have to deal with the idea of actual beings from other worlds, and put aside their differences to work together if they want to be part of the Ekumen.
But the story is also about gender. The inhabitants of Gethen only become male or female for a few days every month, and they can become either male or female at that time. The rest of the time, they're asexual adults. The famous phrase that's always quoted is "The King is pregnant."
This is difficult to convey on radio, where voices are either male or female, but I think the adaptation did it well, giving Estraven, the main character from Gethen who befriends the envoy, a low female voice. Genly Ai, the envoy, is a man - male all the time, something the inhabitants of this world consider to be perverted.
It's a thoughtful, intelligent work of science fiction and I think they did a pretty good job of adapting it for radio.

Next, they're adapting Earthsea. I'm not sure if they're doing just the first book or the whole first trilogy (I love the Tombs of Atuan, so I hope they do that). In a way, this is a straightforward "boy goes to wizard school" story, but I remember the first time I read it - or rather devoured it. I spent every spare moment immersed in the story - I think I lived on the island of Roke for a while! Young, arrogant Sparrowhawk unleashes something terrible on the world during some magic that gets out of his control, and he has to spend the rest of the book dealing with the consequences of that, and hunting the Shadow down.
I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Ex Machina

The local cinema were showing Ex Machina a few weeks ago, so we went to the afternoon showing. The Young Man was expecting it to be something along the same lines as The Machine, which is also a film about an artificial intelligence in a female robot form - but this was quite different, and quite a bit creepier. Partly, I think this was due to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house/research lab, remote home of the computing genius who had built Ava, the AI. This was actually filmed at the Juvet hotel in Norway, which is a spectacular location - and strangely, an article about the hotel came up on my Facebook page on the evening after we'd seen the film. The film rests on the performances of the three leads - the young programmer, his boss and Ava. The only other character who is on screen for any length of time is the Oriental girl who acts as the boss's servant, and she never speaks.
It's intelligent, adult SF, and it really makes you think.
I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Thunderbirds Are Go!

The first, double length, episode of Thunderbirds was shown over the Easter weekend, and I'm sure we weren't the only Convention goers who retired to their hotel room at 5pm to watch. With our hearts in our mouths - had they got it right?
We'd seen the documentary a couple of days before, and it looked as if the show might be in safe hands, with the chap from Weta obviously a big fan of the original series, and taking great pains with the Thunderbirds ships.
And there was a huge sigh of relief as we realised that they had been faithful to the original while updating it with a light touch. They even have the palm trees bending back for the launch of Thunderbird 2.
No sign of the Thunderbirds hats - or even Parker's chauffeur's hat -but that's fair enough. Who wears a hat while piloting an aircraft anyway? And Lady Penelope has lost her cigarette holder and gained a pug dog. There's also a new female member of the team, who gets a cool new ship (and has a guilty secret....).
The only thing that isn't quite right, and it's a pity to say this because the voice actor was so clearly enthusiastic in the documentary, is Brains. He just sounds weird.
I suppose that doesn't matter so much to the actual target audience, which is not a fifty-something person who remembers it when it first came out, but today's young TV watching generation.
I really hope the series succeeds, because it's good to have a family of characters whose main aim in life is to rescue people, rather than blowing stuff up and shooting people.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy

We were too tired to do much at the end of the last day of Dysprosium. Our brains were full! So the Young Man sent out for a Chinese (the Blossom Garden in Abbey Wood is quick to deliver, and very tasty), and we slumped in front of the DVD of Guardians of the Galaxy.
What a fun film. Lots of special effects, of course, and action sequences, but also those quiet little character moments that make the audience sympathetic to the characters, especially from Rocket, whose cynical wise-cracking exterior hides a good heart.
I have to say, when I first heard that this movie was being made, my first thought (not following the comics at all) was: "A talking racoon with a big gun? Riiiight!" But Rocket was great, and his friendship with Groot was lovely. And StarLord had just the right amount of character development from irresponsibility at the start of the film that you believed he really would risk almost certain death to save the galaxy by the end.
And though it was nice to see Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan in action roles, I did kind of get the feeling that they were only there so that the two girls could fight together at the end - and if that's the case, we haven't really moved on from the days of The (British) Avengers in the 1960s, when the bad guys nearly always included one woman so Emma Peel would have someone to fight at the climax.
I'm looking forward to the second film, though.