Monday, March 29, 2010
I’m becoming a big fan of the Companion Chronicles. In a way they’re like Doctor Who full-cast plays-lite, but in that way they become a challenge for the writers and the actors to entertain and divert within the limits of the genre. The Glorious Revolution did that extremely well, thanks in part to Frazer Hines’ performance(s). Transit of Venus was beautifully written and, again, as a pure historical, it surmounted the limitations of the brief quite well. Ringpullworld by Paul Magrs was likewise extremely clever in its conceit and possibly the most sophisticated of the range to date. It was very Magrs-like, as you can guess from the title, unconventional, a bit bonkers, and surprisingly well-suited to a Turlough play. Both writer and director (Neil Roberts) zeroed in on the heart of the conflict—Turlough’s feelings on incarceration and the play’s overall dilemma in regards to freedom—which is, rather bafflingly and charmingly, centered around a universe in a tin of beans. Magrs brings out hidden depths in Turlough and makes him funny and sympathetic, with Mark Strickson’s help, of course. Alex Lowe is also wonderful as Huxley . . . I won’t give away his role but I will say it makes a wonderfully meta-fictional tale. Strickson’s Davison is quite good but his Tegan is pretty hammy.
The Company of Friends is four short plays for four of the Eight Doctor’s companions who haven’t been exclusively in his range before (like Charley and Lucie). I was cautiously thrilled at the foursome and the plays surpassed my expectations, for the most part. The first one stars Lisa Bowerman as Benny Summerfield. This was, to be quite correct, my first experience with Benny ever—I’ve never read any of the books with her or listened to any of her solo audios. I thought the play started out quite slowly, especially regarding her opening monologue, but I quickly warmed to Bowerman. Lance Parkin’s story was well-plotted and full of danger as well as revelation; Venhella’s misplaced activism to free TARDIS-es from Time Lord oppression was amusing. However, I felt it ran out of steam slightly in the last ten minutes.
Fitz is one of my friend Lori’s favorite companions, and while I thought he was okay in the handful of books I’ve read with him as a companion, I never really got it. By contrast, Fitz, as played by Matt DiAngelo and written by Stephen Cole, lives up to all his potential in his play. I think this was probably my favorite play of the four; it really used the audio medium superbly and was hilarious. It showed Fitz’s weaknesses as well as his strengths and gave him a lot to do, almost more than the skeptical and disapproving Doctor (though Paul McGann is clearly having fun playing “The Construct”). Fenella Woolgar has a wonderful part and plays it for all it’s worth; the story’s twists and surprises make it perfect for the time slot.
I fell asleep during Izzy’s play. This shouldn’t necessarily be a comment on the quality since I was tired and listening to it on a coach; nevertheless, it feels like the weakest of the four to me. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with Jemima Rooper’s characterization (though, as others have said, it didn’t quite tally with the one I had from reading the comics—and I’m hardly an expert!). The beginning of Alan Barnes’ play is superb and, like Fitz’s before it, quite funny and full of actors who are relishing their parts. Again it’s quite meta-fictional and reminiscent of “By Hook or By Crook,” sort of; yet it feels a bit lightweight in comparison to the others.
I was really quite perplexed by the inclusion of Mary Shelley as a companion, though apparently it was written or said elsewhere that the Eighth Doctor travelled with her for an extended period of time. At first I found Jonathan Morris’ play quite disappointing. While Mary herself is obvious companion material, being the beauty to the Doctor/monster’s beast (in a manner of speaking), the other writers/groupies hanging around Lake Geneva in the famous year that produced a lot of the world’s extraordinary art (1816) seem rather cardboard and not terribly well-researched. (Though the Doctor telling Byron that his clothes are Byronic is amusing.) The upside of Mary’s story is its atmosphere and the interactions between the Doctor and Mary. Mary essentially meets two versions of the Doctor, and Paul McGann is acting his socks off as both of them. It all ties together rather nicely when you think of the Doctor in the TV Movie seeing Frankenstein on the morgue TV (and as Lance Parkin points out, the Doctor doesn’t react to the monster but to the woman’s scream).
I hope they do more of these. They weren’t 100% perfect but they were really enjoyable.
I like Jason Armstrong’s style of art; it reminds me of Dan McDaid. The fact that vril is at the heart of the storyline tickles me. More evil Nazis abound as do apes; parts of this seem to anticipate “Silence in the Library.” Though Mignola is consciously making an effort to pay tribute to “yellow peril,” it comes uncomfortably close to being played straight rather than subverting. I’d be interested in seeing where this is going and what plans Mignola has for Lobster Johnson.
And now for something completely different.
The Umbrella Academy is a really strange one. It made me think of Arthur C Clarke at first, but then it went off in some strange directions indeed, and it’s been hard for me to wrap my head around it. It involves a genius in the future plucking seven strangely-birthed children and raising them to their full, superhero-esque, potential. The narrative jumps, though, and we see the consequences of these children some twenty years later, rather than their (probably) X-Men-like upbringing. One of them went into the future and got stuck there and is still a child. One of them went to the moon and became known as Spaceboy. One of them got married and raised a family. One became a crime-fighter by profession, one is a weird sort of junkie. The final one didn’t have any specific talent, other than playing the violin. She is presented as the villain of this piece for whom there is no redemption. Which seems a little harsh, considering the author is in My Chemical Romance.
Gabriel Ba’s art is interesting and ultra-modern, but I must say I prefer James Jean’s covers. I think what I like best is the chimp named Pongo.
Yet again with the apes.
Robert Bloch’s introduction in Seed of Destruction was condescending at best. Fortunately the volume was a strong start for the series that, as I said before, seems to carry the horror torch where Maturin and Lewis would have taken it were they writing in the twentieth century. Mignola cites Jack Kirby as a major influence, and the period of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s seems to be a favorite of Mignola, worked over and over. The first volume sees the “birth” of Hellboy (manifestation is perhaps a better word), which starts us off at the traditional place, the beginning. All of the motifs you might come to expect are here: lots of corpses, anthropomorphic monsters (I keep waiting for Hawthorne-style horror), gore, myth, and lots of evil Nazis. Among the Nazis is the mysterious and gas-masked, looking for all the world like a plague-doctor, and the recurrent butch S S woman. (Speaking of which, a possible criticism of Hellboy is that, for all the low-key heroism you might find in the eponymous hero, there isn’t much in the way of a female role model. Liz Sherman, Professor Corrigan, Alice are all sympathetic and on the good side, but they really don’t have all that much to do.)
I’m getting ahead of myself. There are far too many Gothic influences in Hellboy to mention, but some of Mignola’s best artwork are surreal collages hearkening back to medieval tapestries and nineteenth-century daguerreotypes. I loved Abe Sapien’s origin story (so PT Barnum, somehow), and it only occupied half a page! Rasputin as a Nazi collaborator with an agenda to bring Ragnarok is rather Indiana Jones and quite satisfying when taken in that frame of mind! It’s strange to think that the opening story is rather simple by comparison to the later ones!
Mignola dedicates Wake the Devil to “Dracula and all those other vampires I have loved.” It’s a natural choice that volume 2 should venture into realms vampiric—a page spread on a museum fo vampire relics reminds me of Lloyd Rose’s City of the Dead and more concretely, the Orlando Ripley’s Believe-it-or-Not. Unfortunately it’s watered down slightly with the return of the evil S S woman, Ilsa Haupstein, the tail end of whose story I caught earlier in volume 7. Her allegiances are torn between a vampire lover and Rasputin her master, who leads her to spend some unpleasant time in an Iron Maiden (images from Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, or is it the other way around?). Hellboy’s response to a skeletal vampire’s dissertation on Vladimir Giurescu’s vampire ladies (definite shades of Carmilla in the drawings) is “Kiss your ass goodbye, freak!”
This story also introduces the homunculus (later named Roger) which is a very bizarre, Frankenstein-esque concept that gives me the willies. I always recognized it in terms of Mr Sin from “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but according to this, it’s “an artificial person made from blood and herbs, stewed in a jar and incubated in horse manure . . . sort of a medieval test-tube baby.” Baba Yaga makes her first horrible appearance, a floating head in a jar ends up in South America: it’s all par for the course. Perhaps most importantly, for those of us like me and Benicio del Toro, who thought Hellboy was wearing goggles on his head, this volume shows that they are actually horns he ripped off.
I think I may not be alone in saying that I enjoy the shorter Hellboy stories—they have a symmetry and a simplicity to them. The Chained Coffin and Others collects some of these. “The Corpse” is basically a re-telling of the Irish folktale called “Teig O’Kane," but it’s important in that it introduces Alice (the baby) and the changeling, both of whom will reappear in volume 9 (and 10, it is presumed). I really like “A Christmas Underground,” it’s visually stunning, very sad, and makes for a melancholy, ghostly Christmas atmosphere to rival Chimes of Midnight. It has a bit of the flavor of Cupid & Psyche in it, as well. “The Chained Coffin” is very important for Hellboy’s origins, is quite disturbing, and ends with the wonderfully off-the-cuff, “Abraham Sapien dreams of fish.” “The Wolves of St August” brings Prof. Corrigan to the fore (rather Benny Summerfield-like) with a gory werewolf tale. Mignola says he’s particularly fond of the girl with the wolf’s head; I agree, it’s a striking image. The whole thing brings to mind Marc Platt’s Loups-Garoux; the fight scenes highlight what Alan Moore calls Mignola’s “slab-black shadows.” “Almost Colossus” is Roger the homunculus’ story.
The Right Hand of Doom is another collection. “Pancakes” is a bit of fun about a very small Hellboy; possibly my favorite story of all. I even think Milton would have enjoyed the joke (speaking of which, Mignola should illustrate the graphic novel version of Paradise Lost!). “King Vold” is highly cynical and because of that, a short, elegant tale. I also really like “Heads,” which is again, quite elegant and takes us to Japan. Mignola has perfectly adapted the courtly Japanese inking style. Chimpanzees show up yet again (Mignola and his apes!) in “Box Full of Evil,” which nevertheless has a wonderfully creepy scene with a “hand of glory,” “the hand of a hanged man, dried, dipped in wax, made into a candle.”
Conqueror Worm brings back the Nazis, but at least it’s all timed to Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry and prose. It’s also the first outing, as far as I can tell, for Lobster Johnson. Unfortunately it proves no blonde Germanic ladies are to be trusted, they all turn out to be S S women. There’s another ape (a gorilla wired up like Kong) and a mysterious figure not unlike the Shade from Phantom of the Opera; this is a strange thread in the story, but ultimately the one I liked the most. The mysterious man confirms out belief in what we like best about Hellboy: “free will.” This adventure sees Hellboy quitting the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense.
Skipping far ahead is The Wild Hunt, which is very Tolkien-esque in its ambitions. The Wild Hunt, with Herne the Hunter at is head and the quarry of giants, quite appeals to me. Gruagach, a supernatural being with a grudge against Hellboy (he was the changeling in the earlier story), is revealed to have had a tragic, romantic past; eat your heart out, Kopit/Yeston. The Wild Hunt is wonderfully Arthurian, and the twist at the end is well worth reading 9 volumes for. Queen Mab and Morgan Le Fay vie for Hellboy’s attention; Mignola retells the Merlin legend about the red dragon and the white dragon, but he replaces the Welsh with “the Britains.” Hmph. I hesitate to say too much to spoil this one.
I think this benefits from being read in sequence. I also think I need to get hold of the movie, just out of curiosity.
I digress, but in any case, Dreams from My Father not only made me feel good, reading into the realm of politics and race relations that, these days (not always so) I delve so little into, but it was a genuinely entertaining read. The book was published long before Obama’s presidency, and his writing is eloquent like his speech-making. I found it slightly irritating, the first thirty pages or so, with a few tortured turns of phrase that seemed to be self-conscious and perhaps self-congratulatory; fortunately, as the book went on, I got this feeling less and less and settled into his prose account which, he himself notes, is memoir, political and social document. The book has lots of ground to cover, not least because Obama’s parents, grandparents, and close associates have complicated geographical backgrounds. It’s telling how ignorant I am that I didn’t realize until I read the book that Mr Obama was born in Hawaii and that his peripatetic upbringing gave him a global perspective from an early age. Particularly this resonated with me: He [my grandfather] will infect my grandmother with the great peripatetic itch that had brought both their forebears across the Atlantic and half of a continent so many years before.
It’s a wise decision to include the biographies of Obama’s mother’s parents; I personally am fascinated with their story on its own and their relevance to the “American dream” is important in the context of the overall purpose of the book. The book does want to go full circle, keeping the readers as starved of facts on Obama’s father in the opening as the writer was when he was a boy. Its settings are almost as diverse as a novel’s might be: Hawaii, Indonesia (Obama’s mother’s second husband was Indonesian), New York, Chicago, Kenya. We can identify strongly with Obama in all his guises: a child yearning for his father’s presence, then disappointed when his strong-willed father comes to visit; one of a handful of black students in high school, working out how to respond to that racial?ethnic?constructed? identity; at University in Occidental, reacting like a pinball to the stimuli of politics, disillusionment, drugs, alcohol, relationships; threadbare on exchange in New York City; the idealistic odd man out in a community without hope in Chicago in the 1980s; and finally experiencing the context of family, and Africa itself, when he returns to his father’s birthplace and meets all his relatives. He’s a good guide through this menagerie; like The Times says on the front cover, “Thoughtful, moving, and brilliantly written.”
Obama mentions The Autobiography of Malcolm X among other texts; I have to say I was reminded of this book while reading Dreams from My Father, as well as (rather too predictably, I imagine) books like Nella Larsen’s Passing, Chester Himes’ If He Hollers, Let Him Go, even The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. One of the main points of the book is the trickiness of being biracial in America; of being a black American in Africa; of finding nowhere to fit in and no clue about how to act. On one hand, it makes it easily indentifiable: very few people are totally comfortable in their own skin, and by admitting to his youthful attempts to fit in with different groups, Obama seems to be indicating to us that it’s okay to be confused about identity, in a wider sense. But thinking back to Malcolm X, thinking of the part of that book that most resonated with me: a young, white, college-going girl went to one of Malcolm X’s talks. Afterwards, in tears, she approached him and asked, “What can I do?” What could she do to help? And he replied, with some sadness, “Nothing.” Because I have never experienced (and am unlikely to ever experience) the trials of discrimination and racism that Malcolm X, or Obama, or even, for example, Sherman Alexie in his books from the American Indian perspective, went through, I sometimes feel a bit wrong-footed. Would people laugh at me or scorn me for trying to identify with something that I am unlikely to know, at least in that context?
Yet, I don’t think that’s what Mr Obama would like me to take away from his book (never mind the other books mentioned). I admire the author’s ability to look at family members objectively, particularly the actions, personalities and his imagined motives and feelings for his mother, one-time stepfather, siblings, grandparents, and father. It shows a generosity and empathy of spirit as well as keen observation and detachment; these qualities combined, I think, make him a good writer of memoir as well as a good politician. He could have easily presented his mother’s actions—taking her children far away from the US and living in Indonesia—as selfish rather than presenting them as part of his learning experience (as well as hers). In Chicago, doing thankless work as a community organizer, the aware and incisive Obama still feels like he’s got a lot to learn: He’d meant here in Chicago; but he could also meant here in my shoes, an older black man who still burns from a lifetime of insults, of foiled ambitions, of ambitions abandoned before they’ve been tried. I asked myself if I could truly understand that. I assumed, took for granted, that I could. Seeing me, these men had made the same assumption. Would they feel the same way if they knew more about me? I wondered. I tried to imagine what would happen if Gramps [a white man] walked into the barbershop at that moment, how the talk would stop, how the spell would be broken; the different assumptions at work.
I’ve always felt lucky that I grew up in as diverse a place as I did. Though I might joke that Albuquerque High School was a ghetto, I did go to my good friend’s quinciñera, and in University I had friends who were San Juan Pueblo, Navajo, and Vietnamese (how’s that for a mix?). New Mexico is supposed to be the Tri-Cultural State, and it is a genuine mix of people with different ethnic backgrounds; you wouldn’t be able to escape the Hispanic or Native American references or influences even if you wanted to. Since then I have gone on to live and work with with Indian (from India this time), Chinese, Lithuanian, Polish, Turkish, Irish, Welsh, and English students. I’ve found out that southeast London is one of the most culturally diverse areas I’ve ever experienced. My point, I think (!), is that growing up in a diverse community and continuing exposure to enclaves of diverse people has benefited me in, not so much a color-blindness, but rather appreciation of difference. If that makes any sense. In a way, I think that’s what Obama himself experienced growing up in Hawaii.
I’m getting off-track. I’m making this review more about me than the book itself. I guess that does give you a sense, however, of how personally the book affected me. If I have any particular criticism of Dreams from My Father, it’s only that the first few pages seem to set up an expectation of an easy solution, or a “moral,” which the book doesn’t—cannot—deliver on. Obama’s relationship with Africa is still ambivalent after his trip to Kenya, and his experience in Chicago didn’t produce any so-called revelations: he did, after all, opt to go to Harvard for his law degree rather than continuing in his organizing work there. He is surprisingly un-empathatic on the subject of religion, which is refreshing I must say. I personally enjoyed the stories of his mother’s parents, and his years growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, the most, but the book as a whole was well worth reading.
I don’t think it’s often you get to feel you know the President the way I felt after reading his book.
-Hellboy: Darkness Calls &
-Hellboy: The Mole (Free Comic Book Day) I'm unsure about Hellboy. I've never seen the films. I've read three volumes before these two (completely out of sequence, which doesn't help). Mike Mignola's imagination is both sweeping and utterly macabre, and as Jane Yolen points out in her introduction to the former, he taps into worldwide mythology (specifically gods, demons, and creatures of the occult) in a way that is laudatory (perhaps carrying the torch of the Gothic tradition started by Matthew Lewis?). She likens Hellboy to a Tolkien hero who must suffer eukcatastrophe, citing him as more human than those who surround him in his feelings of guilt and loyalty. It's perhaps a very limited sphere, however, so I can't go in entirely for it.
-Catwoman: Crime Pays Two of the Catwoman solo titles were among the first comics I read in recent years, so it's quite natural I went back to them. Catwoman/Selina's voice is well-written here, and the last volume probably achieves its goals of feminist reboot. The story is completely ludicrous, filled as it is to the brim with fake Batmen and obscure evil-doers from the DC Universe (Lex Luthor? Yawn!). It surely belongs in The Black Casebook. Much as I was intrigued by the Joker chatting Catwoman up, it didn't seem in character somehow. The original covers by Adam Hughes, however, are fantastic.
-Captain Britain and MI13: Secret Invasion is not a genre I would normally go for; it's Marvel, first of all, and secondly I'm not sure that patriotic superheroes aren't passe. I did want to read this particular title, though, as it anthologizes the first 4 issues of Paul Cornell's revamp of the series, work that he is obviously quite proud of. The infamous use of Gordon Brown coordinating with the British superheoes is telling in contrast to the nationwide mourning of Captain Britain (Cornell and Leonard Kirk have teamed up to give us visions of a real Britain: Muslim men, teenage yobs, OAPs, middle-aged people in a corner shop). I knew absolutely zero about this range and was confused at first; however, I quickly got what was going on, at least enough to follow along. Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom, our erstwhile heroes, are rather bland; however, their colleagues Spitfire (in the 1940s "what ho" there vein, though she has the same tailor as Jean Grey), the Black Knight (dressed in leather like Eccleston and conflicted and charming), and Fazia Hussain. Fazia is a special case; Cornell has talked about her in several interviews because she's rather unique, an Essex Muslim woman doctor superhero!! Seriously, though, she's the most engaging because she has the most personality: a combination of self-doubt and a bit of hero worship. Oh, and there's a Skrull who looks like John Lennon. To find out what a Skrull is, you'll have to read it yourself!
-Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere Everyone tells me I should read Neil Gaiman, though I was duped into thinking this was his original work rather than a graphic novel retelling of . . . a novel. I'm not sure what contribution Mike Carey did in adapting it, then, though Glenn Fabry (whether with lots of help from Gaiman's descriptions or not) has created a visually arresting world. And the costumes! Wow, the costumes! Poor Richard Mayhew is plucked from his normal Londoner life by a compassionate act much in the same way Rose changed her perspective by taking the Doctor's hand when he said, "Run." In peripheral ways, Neverwhere is similar to Fables (or is it hte other way around?) but via Narnia and Hogwarts. Demons clearly ripped off from Gaiman's subterranean villains here, though the London Below also looks like the Court of Miracles from Hunchback of Notre Dame. There are some great characters here, including the Marquis de Carrabas and Hunter ("You take blame very readily. That's a saleable skill at the floating market"). The witty London doubling (the floating market takes place in Harrods and on HMS Belfast; clearly it's a book you can appreciate much more if you know London's geography) is a bit like New York being the Tenth Kingdom in T10K, but I digress. It was interesting.
“Lunch with M.” by John Colapinto absolutely stole my imagination, as it detailed the life and job of an anonymous Michelin Guide reviewer named, for the purposes of the article, Madame M. As a writer and a gourmande, I have always wondered what it would be like to be a restaurant reviewer (it’s something I indulged in when I wrote for Noticias, 2003-6). However, the prestigious Michelin Guide is in a league all its own, and its reviewers are shrouded in secrecy, discouraged from telling even their own families what they actually do and not well-paid (though they aren’t in it for the money, obviously). They eat two meals out a day, usually, and have to immediately go home and write reports for hours on end analyzing every aspect of their meal. Not just anyone can apply; you have to have a degree in cookery or hospitality and understand cooking as a science (which I can’t do, which is why I’m not a good cook). You have to be a taster (as opposed to a super taster and a non-taster). It’s a lonely life in some ways since you are discouraged from eating with anyone else. Obesity is, necessarily, a hazard of the job. Michelin the institution is now without reproach; Bernard Loiseau, the chef and owner of La Côte d’Or, killed himself in 2003 after he lost won of his Michelin Guide stars.
“Spit Cake” by Mimi Sheraton described the baumkuchen and the author’s love affair with it; sniffily she asserts she’s not really into desserts but this one has captured her eye over the years. It’s a tree-cake that supposedly tastes as good as it looks. http://www.knoechelmann-online.de/images/upload/Baumkuchen.jpg
“Reds” by Evan Osnos was a fascinating article on Donald St Pierre Snr and his ASC Fine Wines Company, founded in Beijing in 1996, and its role in creating a trend in China for red wines, until recently not drunk there.
Anthony Lane is one of the New Yorker’s film critics and usually I can’t stand him. But I liked his “improvisation” on Eggs. “To the improviser, home from a day’s toil, the eternal conundrum—which came first, the chicken or the egg?—is no debate at all.”
“The Taste Makers” by Raffi Khachadourian acknowledges its debt to Charlie and Chocolate Factory as it follows the chemical experts who make artificial flavorings. Like the Michelin article, it’s not something you think about, and it offers a wonderful glimpse into this strange world. In 2006, for example, Jelly Belly produced ice cream sandwich-flavored jelly beans. People responded to the taste as actually ice cream sandwich when the jelly bean was colored brown with a white inside, rather than when it was just white. Astonishingly, I learned from this article that “Coca Cola is primarily a citrus beverage,” with lemon, orange, and lime oils as well as vanilla, cinnamon, and corn syrup as flavorings. Like the Michelin article, this interviewed a particularly engaging woman in the field (this brilliant woman could taste and identify roughly 20 chemical compounds in a citrus taste-testing in the field).
Calvin Trillin’s article on poutine, a Canadian national joke/national dish, fascinated me as it got me thinking about chip butties and other similar terribly-bad-for-you foods that accompany a night out drinking. I have since consulted a Canadian who corroborated that it is well-known if not omnipresent (it consists of fries—not as thick as chips but not as thin as McDonalds fries—cheese curds and gravy).
“Pilgrim’s Progress” by Jane Kramer really appealed to me because here was a woman obsessed with Thanksgiving dinners and recreating them (sometimes several times a year!) in exotic climes like Paris, Umbria, and Morocco (currently she has cooked Thanksgiving in 7 different countries). It made me think back to the memorable Thanksgivings I have spent in the UK and the one I spent in Albuquerque with some of the international students, trying to give them an authentic Thanksgiving. The only question I had at the end was how this woman could afford to cook so many expensive dishes in such vast quantities all the time.
Even though "Aspic" by Judith Thurman takes place in a garret in a Victorian house in London in the early 1970s, it feels totally foreign to me—what person in their right mind attempts to cook a wedding breakfast for 30 when “there wasn’t a dish on the menu that I had ever even tasted”?
I admire Adam Gopnik’s candid desperation at the piles of cookbooks mocking him as a so-so cook with aspirations to be better, in “What’s the Recipe?”
Food, and our social and personal relationships to it, fascinate me.
And I love the cover: it’s a pumpkin pie! Though I desperately want pumpkin pie every time I look at it.
I shouldn’t have started with the second volume, though I’ll grant you that. The main characters are Maggie and Esperanza “Hopey” (Colombian and Scottish, as it turns out), a pair of girls out of high school, drifting, on the periphery of the punk scene in LA in the 1980s. (Hopey plays bass in a punk band, Maggie is in and out of jobs.) Around these two is a colorful kaleidoscope of characters, all in various degrees crazy, and living in the mostly-Hispanic surburb/barrio of Hoppers or Dairytown. Colorful in personalities, but not literally: Hernandez’ is a magnificent style in pen and ink that presages manga and hails back to the graphic design of the 1950s. I really admire his ability to capture expression, body types, in the narrative and really marry the drawings to the script. He was largely self-taught, coming out of the LA punk scene himself, and his work is just amazing (hence why Love & Rockets is now considered a modern classic).
The world of Hoppers really plays around with time, which is how we get a look into female pro-wrestling from the 1960s at the beginning of the book, and end with a surreal trip by battered mystic Izzy to Mexico in some indefinable period. Because Maggie’s aunt Vicki is an ageing wrestling star, we see a lot of the stories of Vicki and her rival and Maggie’s friend Rena (Queenie). A particularly poignant one involves India Chala, “The Little Monster”: “Ever since she was very young, she always had her share of humiliation, even from her own family. She was put in carnival sideshows to help out the family financially because that’s all they felt she was good for.” Through the wrestlers we meet Maggie, Hopey, and Izzy, and eventually their friends in Hoppers, “locos and locas.” It’s a tangled web these kids weave, all the way from 18 to the older generation, such as Terry Downe, Hopey’s bandmate and sometimes-lover. (Actually, give Hopey any girl and she’s likely to “j’g” her. The lesbian fetishists are in for a field day.)
I identify in some ways with Maggie (Locas 8:01 AM begins with Maggie strutting in her underwear in front of the mirror, examining all the weight she’s gained) and in a weird way, the land where words like “Tia” and “Holmes, eh” (TERRY: What’s a tee-ah?”) are bandied about feel familiar, a lot like . . . well . . . home. The scenes of Dairytown look just like downtown Albuquerque. The multiculturalism is expressed in a totally unsentimental way:
DANITA: Maggie, how come you Meskins always gotta look like you wanna get revenge on somebody?
MAGGIE: That’s ‘cause we get ourselves stuck in shitty jobs like this one.
This volume sees the return of Ray D., my favorite character if I’m honest, who got out of Hoppers, pretending to go to University when he was actually living the artist’s life in the big city. Ray is level-headed, artistic, smart, and I’d like to think a fair bit of Hernandez is in him. Problem is, he likes Maggie who likes both Hopey and a cholo she knew from her childhood in Dairytown, Speedy Ortiz (who’s dating her younger sister Esther!). “Hoppers hasn’t changed a bit since I was gone. These guys would kill their best friend over a girl . . . or drugs. Whichever is more important to them.” Ray is the only one who seems to care about the self-destructive element of his own neighbourhood, which comes to a head in La Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy Ortiz. It’s Esther who starts the Dairytown/Hoppers war by “having a boyfriend on both sides.”
This all takes place while Hopey, Terry, and their band (at that point called La Llorona) have “gone East.” As can be expected with their volatile personalities, it all goes to Hell in a handbasket really quickly. Hopey manages to befriend Texas, the drummer from another band, and they keept the car and try to find food and shelter on their way West. Just when things are looking their darkest, Hopey’s eccentric friend Penny shows up—married to a millionaire (her real name is Beatríz Garcia), she has waaaaay more money than sense, though at least Tex and Hopey benefit from her hospitality (with major consequences).
Just when Maggie and Ray finally get together, Vicki takes her niece on tour with her. Maggie tries to use the time on tour to find Hopey (in the days before the internet and cell phones) and Vicki hightails it to Vegas to get married! By the time Maggie is back in Hoppers, she and Ray are a genuine item. Possibly my favorite story is Boxer, Bikini, or Brief, where Ray tries to paint Maggie (“I’d sure like to do a full body portrait. Actually I’d love to do an ‘odalisque’ of Maggie, but I’d likely get slapped or laughed at for just mentioning it.”) Tear it Up, Terry Downe is a really sad story that charts how first Terry, then Hopey got passed off from one drug dealer to the next, and explains some of Terry and Hopey’s devotion to each other, and rather anti-social behavior!
There are some really fun ventures into alternate styles with Lil Ray and the Gang clearly influenced by Dennis the Menace and The Adventures of Maggie the Mechanic more of a Marvel superhero comic. And the conclusion of the tale, rather predictably, sees Maggie choosing Hopey over Ray. Alas.
A final consequence is that I really, really wanted to draw some comics of my own after reading this.
Contrastingly, Batman: The Black Casebook was pretty disappointing. It’s a collection of odd stories that Grant Morrison used as inspiration for his Batman: R.I.P. arc. They are from the ‘50s and ‘60s and while some have a glimmer of curiosity, rather in tone like The Daleks’ Masterplan, overall they’re a bit embarrassing really! Especially in the case of Batman- Indian Chief (1954) and Batman Meets the Bat-Mite (1959).
I liked Kitsune Tales by Andi Watson and Woodrow Phoenix, with beautifully stylized art and a traditional (though rather bloodthirsty) story about the kitsune (fox/trickster) spirit. I enjoyed the Omake (sort of gag strips) by Laura Howell (I’ve seen her adventures of Gilbert & Sullivan before somewhere; it’s delightfully weird) and Joanna Zhou (her Carlos & Sakura strips were very funny). Ground Zero- The Woge and New York Stories by James Romberger didn’t really seem like manga to me—distinctive and sort of manic, reminding me of Bill Sienkiewicz’s art.
I didn’t quite know how to react to the “Boys Love Story” and “Girls Love Story” genres. Snowfall by Rainbow Buddy was sickeningly sweet and rather pointless slash fiction, in my opinion. White, on the other hand, by Sofia Falkonhelm (for some reason there’s a theme with winter!), was stunningly drawn. Friction Between by Niki Smith was a domestic, rather subtle, “Girls Love Story.” I loved the art of A Dream in Garden by Xia Da and In Manoa by Zhu Letao, but the stories were a bit removed and flat.
Apocalyptia seemed to be the order of the day, with the best example of this genre being Shari Chankhamma’s Ed & Ecchi, a sort of V for Vendetta-like tale with a really cute kitten! It was quite interesting to see the results of the Manga Jimon Competition; Ramen Jimon by Michael Kacar, who was only sixteen when he wrote and drew it, was a rather amusing dissertation on ramen noodles! Darumafish by Gillian Seing Ying Ha, which won first place, was beautifully drawn in a distinctive, watercolor-like style . . . the story was okay.
My favorite piece was Moonlight by Chi-Tan and Chie Kutsuwada. The art wasn’t the most fantastic I’ve ever seen, but it had a clever script involving a ghost!
I Saw You . . . Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections is much more my style, but then it ought to be: Jamie got it for me for Christmas after we’d worked together on Passion. In contrast to the manga book, not very many of the artists in this are particularly accomplished, but their art is eloquent in that it’s narrative and tells a story. Story, in my opinion, was what some of those manga lacked. The book is long enough and varied enough that it’s a smorgasbord of different styles and different responses to “real-life missed connection ads posted on Craigslist and in local papers around the country” (ie the US). I actually found it really inspiring from an artistic perspective. Plus, I was psyched out by the number of accomplished female comic artists.
You’d be surprised at how many thoughtful variations there are on the theme, and many of them impressively expressed in either 1, 2, or 4 pages. Dan Archer’s tale turns out to be a plea for the identity of his father. Joan Reilly’s winter self wishes for the confidence and beauty of her summer self. Kenny Keil’s clever one-page strip interprets “We exchanged smiles” literally. He also contributed the slightly longer and totally wacko story about Grog the Cave Man and missing his long-dead cavewoman! Indigo Kelleigh’s is thoughtful and poignant and beautifully shows the eloquence of minimalist script. “Looking for My Print Pal” by Matt Leunig has a similar twist: “After a bit, we realized we were both homeless.” “I Was Not This Guy” by Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe contains the classic argument, I think, that goes through sane people’s head when they consider posting “I saw you” ads: “You’re acting like a creep. Seriously. Posting something like that on Craigslist is borderline stalker behavior.”
I love Kelly Tindall’s for its graphic simplicity and bold style. Shout outs to Jon Adams and J. T. Yost who accomplished a lot of exposition in single-panel stories (I should also mention the latter is one of several risqué entries in the collection that made me wonder if I should be reading the book in a public place!). In a bit of poetic justice I’ll conclude with Dan Mazur’s meeting of two people with the help of John Philip Sousa’s ghost!!
Yes, this is definitely a collection to pick up if you’re at all curious about a) “I saw you” ads; b) contemporary comics artists; c) love bitter and cynical or neurotic and romantic; d) any combination of the three. I will now trawl the artists represented and see if any of them want to contribute to The Terrible Zodin!
Silent as the Grave is, at 500 pages, too long, even for a debut novel. It’s hampered by a very slow beginning, and I can’t imagine Deanna Raybourn’s editor would let her get away with the first fifty pages—in my opinion, they could be lopped off and the book would be much more of a success. Once it gets going, however, the heroine and narrator Julia is a rather endearing combination of the well-intentioned but stupid and a somewhat keen-witted protagonist, with compassionate tendencies. Sherlock Holmes, she is not, nor is her cohort, Nicholas Brisbane, with any pretensions to official sleuth status. But the sensation that is crammed into the novel! Sapphic love! Bare-chested knuckle fights in a Gypsy camp on Hampstead Heath! Absinthe! The second sight! Prostitutes of both sexes! Aristocrats with syphilis! Anti-Semite doctors! Arsenic-wielding laundresses! A fresh-faced sixty-year-old French courtesan who reminds me rather strongly of Mrs Finn in The Pallisers. Cross-dressing, compassionate medical students, Tower ravens, and the hint of Hungary!
The first thing that struck me about Julia—besides the somewhat obvious allusion to the unconventional Marches in Little Women by virtue of her maiden name being March—was her modern-ness. She flinches at the thought of what’s conventional to Victorians and what we, too, being modern, would flinch from. However, this quality fades somewhat as you get further into the novel, and the period trappings are allowed to speak for themselves, rather than be noted with a wink. Silent in the Grave at first reminded me of The Devil’s Protection, an entertaining but transparent Regency romance that more or less inspired Between Tyrants and Slaves, a juvenile creation of my own. Mostly the connection was made through the Byronic qualities of both the male leads in these stories, and though Julia (and by extension, Raybourn), was more mature about her attraction to Brisbane than Geneva was to What’s-his-Name in The Devil’s Protection, the inevitable conclusion is drawn. To Raybourn’s credit, she subverts expectations by the end of the book, of course quite rightly encouraging readers to go on to the sequel.
Julia’s multitude of relatives, introduction to whom takes up the first part of the book, is designed for verisimilitude, but I found many of them quite boring. They improve, but it’s difficult to give them much depth when there is Julia, Brisbane, and the mystery to discover. As Morag, Julia’s reformed prostitute lady’s maid, remarks, it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Julia, with her money, status, title, family, youth, beauty, and good health—that is, until the twist at the end, which is the finest part of the book (I have to confess I had strong suspicions, confirmed, about the murderer, which is seldom the case when I read these things). (“But whether Julia to the task was equal / is that which must be mentioned in the sequel,” she quotes from Byron, in epigraphs that are very Victorian but quite annoying, frankly, I must remember not to do such a thing in my own work!)
Speaking of my own work, Brisbane in many senses brought to mind my own long-discarded novel, The Romani Cinderella. I was pleased that Raybourn had done her research regarding Gypsies as they play a large role in the book (interestingly enough, Julia catches Brisbane at a moment of indiscretion when he is delirious and half-dreaming, a device I have used many times in fiction). I wondered if maybe Brisbane was also influenced by Erik from Phantom by Susan Kay, and without adding too many spoilers, Julia doesn’t make the explicit comparison with Heathcliff, but Raybourn, by mentioning Julia’s fondness for Wuthering Heights, does.
With no disrespect, and though I have an affection for this book, it did hearten me to an extent, because it reminded me, as I have said, of my own (unpublished) work and suggested that there might yet be hope for me.
It’s a weird thing to hear grown men refer to each other as “love” here, but it does happen. Much more commonly, though, it’s something someone will use to refer to a young (ish) woman. “Love,” “lovey,” “chook,” “chicken,” and so on . . . I don’t mind so much being referred to as “love.” It’s better than “hey you.”
In “Silence in the Library,” Professor River Song uses the psychic paper to contact the Doctor. In it, she signs “x.” X is a kiss, literally, and I always signed Valentine’s cards to my family members with XOXO. Kiss hug kiss hug. Donna gives this as evidence that the Doctor’s being approached by an old flame, but he maintains “everybody” writes “kiss.” It is something that I quickly learned to be true: e-mails and greeting cards are signed off with “x,” even if it’s between two heterosexual girls. The rules get a bit murkier between friends who happen to be different genders. But it’s just a sign of casual affection; like “love,” nothing is meant by it. At first I held out against using the “x” in correspondence. I wanted to keep it special for someone who I really did want to kiss!
But I caved awhile back. I sign off my editor’s notes in TTZ with “x.” I wrote it on my Christmas cards and I text it to certain people. I resist using “xxx” because that looks like triple porn to me! But if you take it like it’s meant, it’s lots of affection, lots of kindness, goodwill.
So, dear readers,
I promised you one on pub life and clubbing. One question I have yet to answer is how British women don’t die of exposure and frostbite when clubbing. We have a street in Swansea, to which I’ve alluded before, that was described to me when I first arrived as “going on holiday.” It’s called Wind Street, pronounced “whyynd,” as in the long and winding road (it doesn’t really wind and it’s not very long). It’s one of the older sections of the town that didn’t get bombed out during the Swansea Blitz, and therefore retains its cobbles and an older, 19th-century-style architecture. (One of the oldest extant buildings in Swansea is the Cross Keys pub, also in my Dylan Thomas poem, which is a medieval building and is thought to have been an inn/public house since the 16th century or so.)
Nigel Jenkins has written a very good passage about Wind Street’s contrasts in Real Swansea. At heart, for the architecture-lover, there’s a sense of sadness that such historic buildings are now being used to house humdrum chain pubs like Walkabout and Revolution. But that’s the raison d’être for Wind Street: it’s a street of pubs, clubs, and restaurants, no more, no less (there is one newsagent, ie, corner store). Once all my housemates had arrived in 2006, they all wanted to go to Wind Street. I went with them, even though I didn’t have clubbing clothes and it’s not really my thing: I thought it was worth giving every experience a try.
It still isn’t my thing. In the dead of winter, girls wear the tiniest things they can possibly find on the heels that wobble the most. They don’t wear coats; they have a small purse big enough for money and phone. They take taxis back and forth. Last year when I went to a leaving party in Wind Street (it must have been January or February) I got mocked because I was wearing several layers—I had walked and it was cold. So sue me. I haven’t developed the years of thick skin to insulate my body from the freezing temperatures as you totter from pub to club and back again, all night.
But back to the night in 2006. I think during the course of the night we were in three or four clubs. We mostly sat around drinking because it was too crowded to dance. Because I wasn’t much of a drinker, I didn’t know what to order other than gin and tonic or glasses of wine. So the girls got me on to Alkopops, which are very sweet drinks whose flavor conceals their high alcohol content and whose cheapness makes knocking back a few quickly a viable option. Which is what I did. This isn’t a story that ends in tragedy, as I didn’t actually get screamingly drunk. I just felt sick and woozy and didn’t have much fun that night. I like to be able to talk to people if we’re not going to dance (and I’m not a very good dancer so I rarely do that). If you can’t talk, in my opinion it gets excruciatingly boring (in addition to horrendously expensive). Even though, as I said, I wasn’t really dressed for the occasion, I got chatted up and even touched. I personally draw the line at being touched. “Sure, he’s just being friendly,” said Claire, my Irish housemate. Years later, I went for a night out in a small pub just off of Wind Street. The clientele was older, though my friend had taken me there because they played fabulously cheesy ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s music. For awhile, I really was enjoying myself; we were dancing quite nonsensically with each other. Then there was this slimy git who wanted to dance with us (again, singling me out . . . why?). And then there was the touching and the pawing and the squeezing and the kissing. I got out and left.
Maybe I’m a puritanical American. I know even in Albuquerque we have downtown pub crawls where a similar, though much less frenzied, civilized movement from wine bar to pub takes place over the course of a night. Maybe my teetotal background has given me an unfair view on the whole thing. I know that Wind Street is a big chunk of the city’s economy, and that it’s students who help to fund the whole thing. Without the party-hearty philosophy of the students, Wind Street would be in trouble (though weekends always see it thriving and there are always hen and stag parties*). So I suppose it’s a symbiotic relationship that has its good and bad points. But I’m not the only one who sees a disturbing trend toward alcoholism in British youth culture. They keep revising how alcohol units are measured and I often see studies come up in the news about alcoholism and violence. It’s all a bit different to the way it was in France, but that’s another story (and another neurosis).
And this isn’t to say I don’t like going to a pub with friends. I’ve had pleasant enough evenings in the No Sign Bar on Wind Street. I’ve had some very enjoyable evenings at the Uplands Tavern, especially hearing new bands play. (And being served by a guy who looked like David Tennant, but again, that’s another story.) My friend (male) Adi used to drag us to a pub quiz that took place every Sunday. Pub quizzes are another of those uniquely British institutions. They can be great fun and relieve, I find, the monotony of your average pub-going experience. They are basically rounds of trivia that pit teams against each other. Each team is trying to get the most answers to the questions right. Simple premise. You pay a certain amount to enter the quiz, and the winner gets the pot. (Or in our case, the time when we won, we got a certain number of free drinks.) They can be great fundraisers: I helped with point-recording at a village pub quiz in Rushden in 2007 when I was staying with a HOST** family. I would slaughter the competition in a Doctor Who-themed or literary-themed pub quiz, but most of the time I flounder because there are so many sport and pop cultural questions. C’est la vie.
Over the years, I’ve had the Mickey Smith taken out of me (gently) for having developed a taste for cider (though I’ve yet to be truly uncouth and have blackberry cordial mixed with cider). I like a glass of good wine (though to be fair I didn’t develop a taste for wine until I was about 19). But sometimes, especially in summer, nothing satisfies like a cold pint of Strongbow. (Oh dear, I’ve become a cider advert.) It can be quite nice to have a lovely little pub lunch in a location like Rhossili in Gower, or on the Pembrokeshire coast. I guess, like everything, it’s all good in moderation. I just can’t relate to people who want to finish every evening with a night at the pub, or spend all weekend doing a bender. Or getting terrifically sloshed at a wedding reception (I’ve seen enough results of these at work). I’m not trying to be overly critical; it’s all about the social occasion and “having a laugh” with friends and I know it has a long tradition and historical precedent. It’s just the assumption that this is all I’d want to do with my free time that irks me.
Look at that, I ended up being a Cranky Yank!
*Hen and stag parties=bachelorette and bachelor parties
**HOST is an organisation that matches up international students in Britain with host families who will let them stay en famille for a weekend, or over a holiday like Christmas or Easter. The student decides how far s/he is willing to travel (and how much they’re willing to spend on getting there) and that’s all they’re liable to pay, except for a small fee when they sign up. It depends entirely on the generosity of the HOST families. I’ve been on two, one to Shropshire and one to Hertfordshire, and made lifelong friends.
Well, it seems I have more to say on Wales than I thought. (Though I’m sure the only person who’s surprised is me!)
There’s so much to say about Swansea (and it’s even a small city)—I’d advise if you’re curious you can’t go wrong with Nigel Jenkins’ Real Swansea. And Cardiff—even though technically speaking Swansea and Cardiff are bitter rivals, I ignore all that because I love Cardiff. I love the Bay area, with its modernistic buildings (where the Torchwood hub is/was), the Norwegian Church, the Doctor Who Exhibition. I like the Hayes and the Forbidden Planet and the Rummer’s Tavern and Howell’s (which will always be Henrik’s from “Rose” to me); it’s all Doctor Who territory, from the National Museum of Wales (which I love) to St David’s Shopping Centre to St John’s Church. I like Cardiff market with its superb Welsh cakes and the second-hand book shop. I didn’t see Cardiff Castle for a long time, but it was well-worth the trip.
But there’s a lot more to Wales than the southeast. (Now I feel like I’m on the Welsh Tourism Board. Well, they could do worse than hire me!) There’s the whole section of the Marches in the Wye Valley. I love Chepstow, Tintern—beautiful little places, especially in the autumn (just over the border is Ludlow, one of my favorite places in the world). And what self-respecting bibliophile can pass up the chance once in their lives to visit Hay-on-Wye (or as it’s known colloquially, Way-on-Hye), the book town?!
Some of the names in the Brecon Beacons have always sounded a bit sinister to me, like something out of Tolkien, Black Mountain, Crickhowell. But it’s a lovely forested area with wild ponies on the hillsides. Off the beaten path (well, sort of; Rough Guide to Wales mentions it) is the chapel in St. Patricio in mid-Wales where, to quote myself,
The church there is on an isolated hill and is remarkable for several reasons.
It has a gorgeous rood screen carved of Irish oak, 15th century, that survived
the Reformation. There is also a haunting image of a skeleton with an hourglass
and scythe. It is medieval and is seeping through the Reformation’s attempts to
whitewash over it. There is also a copy of a 1620 Bible in Welsh, and the
baptismal font is 10th century (!). There is also a very old pilgrimage well at
the bottom of the hill with a presumably medieval Maltese cross carved as a
marker in stone.
Further north and west, the places have stranger-sounding names: Porthmadog, Tremadog, Betws-y-Coed, Beddgelert (all with interesting stories behind them; Google them). There’s the unforgettable fantastical folly, Portmeirion (a bit overpriced, but well worth it if you are a fan of The Prisoner—and a Pertwee story was filmed there, though I can’t remember which one it was). Harlech Castle is one of the more interesting of the ten billion castles in Wales; the poem I wrote about it was published in Borderlines. Conwy is also a nice castle town, but my family and I were in agreement that Caernarfon is the best castle in Wales. I’ll quote myself again,
The castle is another of Edward I’s, built on the roman site of Segontium.
In medieval times, Constantine himself was thought to have been born in
Segontium, hence one reason Edward modelled the castle on the Theodosian
walls of Istanbul. Edward fancied himself a second Constantine and dragged his pregnant queen to Caernarfon to give birth to the “Welsh” Edward II hence why the first son of a king is the Prince of Wales. But we’ll be modern and conjecture that Edward’s power-hungry leanings resulted from his childhood as a princeling whose father was bullied by the Baron de Montfort, allied, as it happens, to the Welsh.
The movie Gladiator is also partially inspired by Caernarfon because Maximus, Spanish-born pretender to the imperial throne who was declared Emperor by his British troops, launched his attack from Segontium in 383 A.D. The castle itself
is dramatic, full of high towers reached by steep spiral staircases. It’s very well-preserved and a lot of fun to climb around in. It also houses the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
The Church of St Brynach is also an out-of-the-way place to visit, with the 10th century Great Cross in the churchyard, the 5th century Maglocunus stone inside the church, and the “Bleeding Yew” outside. Further south and west are the mysterious and ancient Preseli Hills, from which come the bluestones at Stonehenge; I wrote a poem about Pentre Ifan (that hasn’t been
published). Also in this area is Britain’s smallest city, St David’s, a lovely spot.
There’s a lot more to see of Wales than that, but I think that gives you some idea why I’m so enamoured of the place. Though the Cranky Yank will remind you that it’s traditionally got a lower standard of living and a poor economy, which is okay for visitors but a somewhat depressing past to struggle out of!
Sorry, I got a bit sidetracked by the literary there.
Of the English people I’ve met, most have an amused disdain for the Welsh; they think the accent is “annoying,” and in general I don’t know that the Welsh, outside of Wales, are taken seriously for much of anything. Dannie Abse says in his poem “Case History,”
‘Most Welshmen are worthless,
an inferior breed, doctor.’
He did not know that I was Welsh.
Then he praised the architects
of the German death-camps—
did not know I was a Jew.
He called liberals, ‘White
and continued to invent curses.
I’m not suggesting that most English people would even go as far as to accuse the Welsh of being lazy or slow! But the conflict between the two nations has a very long history, going back to the Middle Ages and earlier. As you’ll know from reading earlier parts of this series, southeast Wales was visited by the Vikings; much earlier, some Roman forts in north Wales were among the last of the British areas to be abandoned by the Romans in A.D. 41 (ish). (The Gower in particular has a truly remarkable pre-historic record culminating with the discovery of the truly ancient Red Lady of Paviland, but I won’t go into that now.) So it’s safe to say the land has been in demand down through the ages, and the princes of Wales had many Braveheart-like freedom battles between them. I think the conflict reemerged to a certain extent during the English Civil War, and it’s never really gone away. Interestingly—and tying it back to Dylan Thomas—he never spoke Welsh, though he had west Wales Welsh relatives who did, as his father was a schoolteacher and at the turn of the century, to be as English as possible was the rule for getting ahead in society. It’s a strange thing, I know someone of a certain generation from Cardiff whose accent is very southern rather than Welsh, while her husband is from the Valleys and sounds quite Welsh; I wonder if schooling gave her the accent of good breeding?
I’m sure you know that Scotland, in its government, always seems to be on the brink of deciding
whether taking total economic and governmental liberation from the UK is a viable option. Wales has Plaid Cymru, a party with the same ambitions for Wales, but the nationalist element is, as has been pointed out to me, not quite to the same scale. But, as my friend Jo says, it’s best not to reval your English accent on England/Wales rugby match days. On the other hand, though, for reasons I’m at a loss to explain, the Welsh have always been extremely friendly to me, more so (in general) than I have found in the rest of the UK (though my sample area has not been large, and I suppose London doesn’t count as you expect people there to be quite cold to everyone). Not uniformly, as is obviously the case with my encounter with the yobs, but I have found them to be a very generous and welcoming people.
I met quite a few very kind ladies when I was involved in an all-female choir when I was a student. They were mostly older ladies. You will find, too, that the stereotype of the proudly-voiced choirs of Wales to be true. I think many of the hymns, both in Welsh and English, survive only because of the choirs these days. I have committed several to memory simply by having sung them so much, such as “Gwahardiad” and “Watching the White Wheat” and the music of Karl Jenkins, which is truly an experience I’m unlikely to get anywhere else in the world. (I had to fake it with the national anthem.) In general, Wales has a tradition of its own dissenting church, whether that be Baptists or Methodists or some other nonconformist tradition (incidentally, there is a tradition of Welsh-speaking Presbyterians in the Khasi Hills in India because of Welsh missionaries there in the early 19th century). However, I have since learned that such churchly devotion was not without its drawbacks; the Bible-bashers/thumpers of the Rhondda were, at least in the 1950s-70s, strait-laced and puritanical chapel-goers.
Wales’ patron saint is St David, and St David’s Day is March 1st. It is, to an extent, a bit of a holiday; it’s not a bank holiday to be sure and it’s kids who get the most out of it. Girls go around in “traditional Welsh dress” (to me it looks like Mother Goose—tall black hat, dress, apron, and shawl). We all eat Welsh cakes and wear leeks and daffodils. You’re supposed to wear red (the symbol of Wales is the red dragon, which goes back to a prophecy that involved Merlin). I would imagine you’d drink some kind of Welsh liquor (Penderyn whiskey, perhaps, if not Brains beer). You might eat Welsh rarebit (a bit like a Ploughman’s, which is a meal based around cheese) or laverbread (a specialty of the Swansea area, which is local seaweed cooked in bacon grease with bacon) or indeed Caerphilly (a wonderful cheese). You might have bara brith (a sweet tea bread; “bara” in Welsh means bread). Or you might just go have a curry, because Indian restaurants in
Swansea are everywhere!! Mmm, peshwari nan . . .
When I was accepted to do my MA at Swansea University in 2006, I have to admit I didn’t really know where Wales was. Was it part of England? Was it a separate country like Scotland but part of the United Kingdom? What was it like and how big was it? Were the Welsh like the English? Here is what I would have told myself then that would have helped me cope a bit better (not that I had a hard time, but it’s always easier with hindsight).
Wales juts out to the west of England, a bit north of Devon and Cornwall and just over the Bristol Channel from, well, Bristol. It isn’t a very big place, relatively-speaking, and much of it is rural and not highly populated (like New Mexico, in fact). The population is centered around the capital city, Cardiff, which is ironically one of the most Anglicized places in Wales, which is also home to the Welsh Assembly Government and a host of other interesting things, and is where all the money goes. Swansea is the second city, an hour west of Cardiff, and there, too, the New Mexico parallel holds, as Swansea has until recently been the more working-class of the two though Cardiff claims all the artistic and cultural superiority (just as Albuquerque and Santa Fe parallel; nyeh to Santa Fe).
I know south and eastern Wales pretty well by now, but the north is more of a mystery to me. Though throughout Wales all the signage you encounter will be bilingual, few people in south Wales speak Welsh on a regular basis (it gets more “Welsh-y” the further west you go); North Wales is where you should go for more bonafide Welsh speakers (and a peculiar accent all their own)—though this is a generalization and there are always exceptions. The Welsh accent is difficult for me to describe; sing-song-y, yes, but slightly different in each region and full of a vocabulary unique to its origins. I suggest for a taste of it you read Richard Llewellyn’s excellent (and I’m told, very accurate) book How Green Was My Valley, about the Rhondda in southeast/mid-Wales at the end of the 19th century.
Of course, if you’ve watched Torchwood, you’ve got a pretty good concept of the Welsh accent (and in general, the Welsh national character) from Rhys, Gwen, and Ianto. Rhys is written very typically Welsh, and I love Russell T Davies for writing him that way—his best and worst points were exposed in “Children of Earth” along with Ianto’s and his family’s. If you know of Rob Brydon, Gavin & Stacey, Tom Jones, Rhys Ifans, Ioan Gruffud, Shirley Bassey, Bonnie Tyler, Anthony Hopkins, and so on, you’ve also encountered Wales through the filter of show biz. Catherine Zeta-Jones comes from Mumbles, but you have to strain pretty hard if you want to hear her Welsh accent (at least on TV; maybe when she comes back to the Mumbles area it becomes prevalent once more?).
I will leave off the Welsh pub/club culture that is shown in Torchwood for when I talk about pubs and clubs (hopefully) later, but I will share an interesting insight. In May 2007, when I had been living in Wales for nine months, I went on a touristic trip around the UK with my mom and sister. I asked our tour guide (very southern English, very posh) about all the drinking in Wind Street (we’ll ge there) and its prevalence in Wales (though I haven’t had the experience to know whether it’s the same everywhere in the UK). He suggested it might be down to rugby! Why rugby should influence drinking culture more than football (ie soccer) I don’t know. But rugby is big in Wales. I have never been to a match, and while I’ve been coerced to watching some on TV (my Wisconsin counterpart Al loves rugby and this is some common ground, at least, that he shares with his girlfriend Jo; he likes American football to some extent but not soccer/football), I just can’t drum up any enthusiasm for it. I’m not a sport(s) fan anyway, though I did see years’ worth of soccer games that my sister played in, from age six on up through middle school, and I saw some of her basketball games as well (and have sat through American football games because she played in the band . . . you see what lengths I go to in order to support her?). I admire rugby players’ ability to run around in tiny shorts and with funny old-fashioned, medieval-style cowls on their heads and dive into “scrums,” but that’s the most I can say on the subject.
On the strange flip side of the national obsession with rugby is the bardic tradition in Wales. It is ancient, and though by bard you may understand me by the Druidic/semi-invented tradition that now forms the National Eistefodd, I have a more general meaning in mind as well. I like the G K Chesterson quote that goes, “The Irish are the race that God made mad / for all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.” Indeed, I think Ireland and Scotland have a remarkable historical record for producing great writers and poets in such geographically small areas. But Wales, too, seems to abound, for its size, with poets of every description, and poetry and the bardic tradition have a populist tone, too, as you will find when you read impossibly complex Welsh poetic forms on the gravestones of ordinary folk. Welsh is a difficult language to learn from an English or Romance language perspective; it has an ancient-ness inherent in it, as evidenced by how many of Tolkien’s place names come from Welsh roots (Breton in north-eastern France is the same and the two share some similar vocabulary; in Perros-Guirec they loved us in the Celtic bar because we came from Wales). The poetic forms we were taught during the MA (our tutor is Welsh and a proponent of forms, including the old Welsh ones) were diabolical, but I’m especially proud of my Doctor Who englyn.
Still, most people are hard-pressed to name any Welsh authors, except perhaps Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas has become a huge part of my life, firstly because I decided to do my MA in Swansea, which is his hometown (the Uplands where I live is where he lived as a child; the Tav is one of the places where he used to drink). Dylan (yes, we are on first-name terms; my friend Martha and him are “involved”) is famously to have said “Swansea is the graveyard of ambition,” which isn’t actually true—which makes people think that he had a world-weary dislike of his hometown. Actually his feelings were ambivalent, a similar state for many of us who have lived here: “the lovely, ugly town” (updated by a modern Swansea poet to read “the pretty, shitty city”). I admit I didn’t read much of Dylan before I came here; by now I’ve been able to form an opinion, and for the most part, I really like his stuff. It is unlike anything else you are likely to come across, and if you’ve lived in Wales, a lot of it will resonate.
I also owe a lot to Dylan because I work in one of a few “museum”-type environments devoted to his memory, and a lot of important events in my life have happened in and around this place. I’ve met lots of important people through the Dylan Thomas Centre. The first poem of mine that was ever published talked about how a woman in Killay thought Dylan was a “drunken sot” and didn’t deserve all the hype; to each her own. I also have him to thank for winning the Rev. Eli Jenkins’ Five and Country Senses Award last year. Wind Street seems to have a ghost of Dylan (I mean this figuratively!) in it; maybe that’s why the poem appealed to them, as the “steps to nowhere” are in this street. In any case, I’ve since discovered a lot of other talented Welsh poets such as Idris Davies, Dannie Abse, Peter Finch 0:-), Jeremy Brooks, the surreal Selima Hill, R. S. Thomas, Nigel Jenkins, and so on. I think in general it’s Americans who admire Dylan Thomas the most (though there are tons of European, Asian, and Australian tourists who come through the DTC)—without them, I’m afraid to say his memory might have been allowed to decay even more than it has.
I have a Wilton Cake Decorating Certificate Level One, so I know how to make roses, tulips, leaves, clowns, etc, out of buttercream (though one look at the ingredients in professional buttercream is enough to make you sick . . . still, it accounts for how cake decorators and bakers don’t die of overeating, and the recipe itself gives you the right consistency between stiffness and malleability). However, I do despise the traditional English hard icing which you can find, as I said, on Christmas cakes as well as wedding cakes and cakes shaped like Daleks (ie, any commercially-available cakes like those from the bakeries of Tesco, Sainsburys, etc). My friend Jo makes spectacular cakes with a buttercream icing recipe she got from her grandmother, but she’s the exception to the rule. I really enjoyed sculpting shapes out of hard icing for Christmas fairy cakes, but I found it very difficult to actually eat any of these cakes as the icing makes me want to barf.
We’ll get to the cupcake/fairy cake/butterfly cake debate a bit later. We’ll start with that most classic of English cakes, the Victoria sponge. Named, of course, after the Queen, this cake (also named a Victoria sandwich or just a plain sponge) is a light yellow/white cake sandwiched in the middle with jam, sometimes with cream, and usually left unadorned on top (though the variety I ate yesterday had a creamy, not quite buttercream icing). It is a staple in any kind of gathering where a pudding (ie, dessert) is needed. Madeira cake, for all its exotic name, does not contain the wine nor does it come from Madeira—it is simply a lemon-flavored sponge. Almost as ubiquitous, though quite different in makeup and ingredients is the crumble, which is similar to the more American-styled dessert of the cobbler (or crisp, as in apple crisp).
Our friend Mr Kipling (who makes the French Fancies my friend Julie so adores; see the last entry) also makes commercially available some other favorite British treats, such as the Bakewell tart. I’ve never had one that I can recall, I just remember the colourfully branded box from Tesco. If you’ve seen Love Actually, you may recall Keira Knightley’s character trying to bribe her husband’s best man with a piece of banoffee pie (if memory serves correctly, at least!). I have a recipe for banoffee pie, which is one of two cakes I made for my 22nd birthday. Many people at the party had never heard of banoffee pie before, and I thought maybe it was an American recipe after all. However, according to Wikipedia, it’s a 1972 recipe from East Sussex. I think it’s delicious—bananas, toffee, cream, and condensed milk—and apparently it’s a favorite in India as well.
A curious and rather beautiful cake I’ve always aspired to make the Battenburg (history unknown) which is covered in marzipan and has a lovely checkerboard pattern achieved by two differently colored cake batters sandwiched together. One of my published poems, “Kardomah Waitress, 1900” mentions a Dundee cake, a Scottish fruit cake. I have never eaten one. It’s similar, I understand, to Christmas cake or fruit cake. I found it very funny when people started calling Christopher Eccleston “Eccles-cake” when referring to him in a Doctor Who context, and it was only after I had my first Eccles cake (in a bakery in Chester, rather strangely) that I understood exactly what that referred to.
It is an aphorism to this day that if you get two of my work colleagues and myself together, eventually we will always talk about tea and cake. We even started singing a cake musical at one point. The central debate started not long after I had begun working there about the difference between a cupcake, a fairy cake, and a butterfly cake. The short answer is that now a cupcake and a fairy cake are the same entity. In the past, an American cupcake and a British fairy cake were the same, and a British cupcake was like a pound cake, smaller in size but with roughly the same ratio of ingredients. This is why there is such confusion today, and which is why my colleagues have insisted that they are two different things. By the way, in case you think a fairy cake is a bizarre terminology for a muffin-sized or cup-sized cake, think of the logical extension that diminutive folk should be able to eat small-sized cakes. (That or else we’d have to start calling them “infant-cakes” or “baby-cakes,” which conjures up entirely the wrong idea!) A butterfly cake, on the other hand, is a curious variant wherein the cupcake (or fairy cake!) is baked, the top half is scooped out and cut in half, then the hole is filled with cream or jam, and the “wings” are stuck back onto the cake with frosting. I have never eaten or made one of these; they live in mystical legend.
Not long before we both set off back to the UK, my friend Patricia and I made a traditional English trifle in her air-conditioned house in Albuquerque. This is layers of sponge cake (or lady fingers), soaked in Madeira or sherry, with fresh fruit, custard, and a ton of whipped cream on top. It is a lovely desert and not nearly as overwhelming as it looks; it is a good one for the spring and summer. I also have a recipe for “Bad Girls’ Trifle,” which I haven’t tried yet. Of a similar principle, I suppose, is sticky toffee pudding, which I believe I first encountered as a flavored tea! It is a moist sponge cake covered in a rich and very sweet toffee sauce. And the winner for the silliest-named British cake is the spotted dick pudding. I remember I had just recently come to Swansea and my Irish housemate Claire and I were eating at a pub (I think the Rhyddings) with her mother, examining the menu. We looked at each other over this dessert and she said, “No, I’ve never heard of it either.” It is, in fact, a steamed suet pudding with custard; no one knows how the “dick” in the name came about.
The Arctic roll, while not exactly a cake, is still worth a mention here, as its popularity boomed in the 1980s, then it disappeared, only to be reintroduced in 2008 (after the “economic downturn”) whereupon its sales shot up. I have had one myself (a simple Swiss roll/jelly roll type cake with ice cream in the middle), and they are enjoyable.
ME WANT CAKEY-CAKE!
The first British biscuit I think I ever knew were rich tea, which World Market and an independent purveyor of all things Anglo-Irish, Bally Dun Imports (no longer around), sold in Albuquerque. At the time, I thought the name for them was the brand (hence I called them McVities biscuits rather than rich tea), therefore proving once again that both sides of the Atlantic easily confound brand names and nouns. I really liked these McVities, though one should understand that they are only meant to be eaten with tea (or dunked in tea)—they don’t have any tea in them.
Much later I learned of digestive biscuits and their close cousins Hobknobs (mentioned, I believe, in Jacqueline Rayner’s Winner Takes All). The former are powdery, oaty biscuits and the latter are oaty, crumbly cakes that taste as if they’ve been flavored with honey (though I have no idea if they have). They make one feel virtuous and therefore I tend to eat a lot, therefore defeating the whole healthfulness imbued in them by the oats. Chocolate digestive biscuits have one side covered in chocolate, either plain (dark) or milk. The name digestive, by the way, comes from the early variety thought to have been endowed with antacid properties (due to the baking soda/soda bicarbonate). I don’t know that they help me digest, but I like to eat them.
Custard crèmes and bourbon crèmes are extremely common biscuit varieties. If they did what they said on the tin, the former would really be called “vanilla cream sandwiches” and the latter “chocolate cream sandwiches”—in taste they remind me somewhat of E L Fudge cookies from Keebler. I remember one of the first impressions I had of J was that he looked down on custard crèmes as inferior to bourbon crèmes!
A personal favorite that I’ve recently found are fruit shortcake biscuits, which are somewhat similar to rich tea in the cookie base, but lighter and filled with bits of dried fruit and dusted with caster (granulated) sugar. Again, one is convinced by the presence of the fruit that they are somehow better for you than other biscuit varieties. I also have a passion for ginger nut biscuits, which are basically like ginger snaps and have a very strong ginger taste.
The varieties go on and on. Jammie dodgers, rich tea fingers, wagon wheels, Penguins, Tunnocks tea cakes, Tunnocks caramel wafers . . . I’m sure some of our British readers can name some favorites I’ve never even heard of. There are regional variations (I’m sure I can’t count a Welsh cake as a biscuit; it a cake . . . but by that logic, is a fig newton a cookie or fruited cake or a biscuit??). My flatmate Radha’s favorite biscuit/cookie is the Oreo, which has made a killing here in Britain since being slyly placed on the shelves in the second half of 2009. My very Welsh friend Julie has a positive lust for French Fancies, but whether these count as cakes or biscuits I’m not sure.
As you can see, I’m just dithering now. Time for a biccie.
It amused me very much in September during the Swansea Regenerations when I learned that Paul Castle (who edits Shooty Dog Thing, which was the inspiration for TTZ, of course) revealed that his first source for the word “chav” was the Doctor Who episode “New Earth.” ME TOO! The reason this amused me is because Paul is English! The word “chav” has been around for a few years now, and according to one definition in urbandictionary.com, the word derives from Chatham in Kent. I don’t know if I believe that, as Urban Dictionary’s definitions of “chav” are more akin to what I personally held to be a “yob.” “Yobs,” I venture, are what I encountered on the night train back from Cardiff.
Let’s back up, though. In the context of “New Earth,” when the snooty-nosed Lady Cassandra jumps into the body of Rose Tyler, she despairs because she’s become a chav. I remember in spring 2006 when the US was getting our year-late Christopher Eccleston episodes. I was trying not to be too spoilered by the concurrent series 2 in Britain with David Tennant and Billie Piper, but I did find myself on message boards that had members (Americans, primarily) asking, “What is a chav? What is Cassandra talking about?” I found out this was in context to “New Earth,” but it remained mostly a mystery until I finally saw the episode in question in December 2006.
We discussed definitions, Paul and his friends and I, and we decided that the closest equivalent to “chav” is “trailer trash.” Cassandra meant, presumably, that Rose was trashy, uncultured, lower class, a bit of a loafer, low income, homogenous, common, unintelligent, unambitious. At least, these are words I associate with my definition of chav. Even at the time the question was bandied about those message boards in spring 2006, there was some pondering as to whether the term actually applied to Rose.
Rose lives in council flats. Until she joined up with the Doctor, she worked in retail—a lowly “shop girl.” Her accent and culture is, to an extent, “common” (here we run into the thorny territory of British classism which is alive and well, and which I might discuss at some point, but not now). There are certain aspects to the way Rose dresses (no, really!) that would seem to strengthen this chav thesis—her big hoop earrings, her mawkish eye makeup, her totally artificial bleach-blonde hair. J and I once discussed whether Steven Moffat’s suggestion that Rose once (off-screen, of course!) drank cheap cider from plastic bottles on the swing set, a very chav thing to do. I would suggest that her mother Jackie is more chav-tastic than Rose is, but interestingly, the definitions on Urban Dictionary seem to put the garden variety chav as male.
My very Welsh friend Julie complains constantly about chavs and their particular geographical distribution across Swansea and surrounding areas. As far as I can make out, these chavs call each other “mush.” Otherwise they exist purely to antagonize her.
The word “yob” occurs in tandem in tabloids with “happy slappy” and “ASBO.” That was the first place I heard it, though according (again, and perhaps dubiously) to Urban Dictionary, the word has existed since the 18th century. To me, it has always suggested a violent, unruly teenager bent on wreaking havoc in a social setting just for the hell of it. This is where the “happy slappy” people come in, who (this is documented) go around attacking unsuspecting people for no reason. This presumably gets them an Anti Social Behaviour Order—a mark of pride among their clan.
The people on the train weren’t quite “yobs” and I don’t know if they were quite “chavs” either—they were certainly drunk and acting totally stupid in a way that could have easily and quickly escalated into harassment or senseless violence. But we’ll get to the UK drinking culture later.
He also brought up the word “snog,” which, as he noted, sounds much dirtier than what it actually is. Also the word “chuffed,” which I don’t particularly like, and the word “knackered.” I know why that word is used to denote being bone-tired or exhausted: the knacker’s yard is where worn-out old horses went to be turned into glue (pleasant?). However, for a long time I thought it meant to be “knocked up,” so you can imagine my confusion. Along those lines, I think to “fall pregnant” has much worse connotations than to “get pregnant.”
I know I had more to add to this list, but I can’t remember them. Can you think of some? I like the fact that “mad” here has to do with your state of sanity rather than how angry you are, and that to be “pissed” (drunk) does not mean the same as to be “pissed off” or “p.o.-ed” (angry).
I’m sure you know that I love Doctor Who. I love it a lot. I could chart this fondness from childhood like so many other fans, and the fact I was inculcated with the show from birth onwards. The case-in-point, I suppose, is that I still quite like “Time and the Rani.” Everyone else thinks it’s a terrible story, and there are a lot of things wrong with it. Still, I know all the scenes, dialogue, nuances, special effects, music by heart, so it’s inconceivable for me not to dote on it. (I think J has a similar thing going with “Remembrance of the Daleks,” which he knows in frightening detail, but in his defense it’s an inarguably strong story.) I could also probably go into psychoanalytic detail about why it, like a few of my obsessions that have lasted my whole life long, fascinates me to such a passionate degree.
The point is, it’s impossible to be a “Cranky” Yank Doctor Who fan in Britain. You walk into shops and see Doctor Who birthday cards for five-year-olds. In Marks & Spencers, your friends can get you Cybermen bath salts and washcloths for Christmas. The Doctor Who Annual is in every bookshop window. Small children can be heard in snippets of conversation talking about Daleks or Slitheen. You can debate with your friend’s 11-year-old about the Pertwee era and how it fares against the example of David Tennant. You can go to the Doctor Who Exhibition because it’s within practical distance of you (especially if you’re in Wales). RTD is a well-known name and Swansea-ites are justifiably proud of him, and very proud of Torchwood. You can find Jelly Babies in every corner shop. You can see old police boxes in London and even the specific Doctor Who one in Earl’s Court. You can go to whole shops full of themed merchandise. (There must be comparable places in the US but I wouldn’t know where to find them.)
It wasn’t always like this—the cult status described by J in his article in TTZ5 makes it perfectly clear how un-cool Doctor Who was for years. Still, at least if you dressed up in a sweltering coat, hat, and long scarf as I did one summer in a sci fi costume contest, people would probably know you were supposed to be Tom Baker. It’s changing in the US, though, as Doctor Who has gained the respect and status its writing has always suggested it deserve. But I do recommend any fan, if they are able to, to visit Britain for an experience of how truly ubiquitous the show can be over here. Maybe, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll even see it in live broadcast.
You’re born in the UK and you spend the next few years in a pram. After that, you’re put on a leash (or as they say here, a lead). I know such things have existed from at least the age of Rubens, but I like to think I speak for all Americans in saying at least we don’t put toddlers on leashes! I’m being facetious, of course, and while it’s not a widespread practice, I was rather shocked the first time I saw it.
When you’re three, you get sent to nursery school. At four, you get sent to reception. (A very strange title for an educational age group bracket, in my opinion!) From ages four to six, you are in infant school (which seems a strange name since you are really an infant when you are a baby—though I wonder if it comes from the French enfant, which just means child?). At five, you start your Year 1 (whereas when you’re six in the US, you start first grade). From age seven to ten, you are in junior school. All of these composite years are referred to as primary school, a rough equivalent to the American elementary school, with kindergarten thrown in there somewhere. Confused?! Just wait. And this is also when your uniforms start! It’s true that some American schools use uniforms (typically what we call private schools, or Catholic schools) and I confess the idea grates on my sense of independence. Of course I had to wade through dozens of students at my high school in low rider jeans (even though we had a dress code of sorts) so maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. I find the rebelliousness hinted at in the subversion of the old school tie in principal laudatory, but in practice utterly ridiculous. I’m also quite creeped out by the fact so many clubbing girls in fancy dress are school girls with really short skirts (but we’ll talk about that more when we talk about pubs and clubs).
At age eleven, and when you start Year 7, you go into secondary school (which is, more or less, middle school). This lasts until you’re fifteen, or at Year 11. (Try reconciling this with the year system as used in Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels. Sink me if you’re not even more mind-boggled.) When you’re fourteen, you start something at the end of your secondary school years known as the GCSEs, which is your General Certificate of Secondary Education. (I always get the letters reversed and I always get this confused with A-Levels.) This is kind of like a high school diploma. Education is compulsory to age sixteen, at which point you can opt to go on into sixth form (Years 12 and 13, known sometimes as “lower sixth form” and “upper sixth form”—aaaaahhh!). Then you take tests to get your A-Levels.
I’ve heard that term batted around in countless British films and TV series. Rose had no A-Levels but got the bronze in gymnastics (which fortunately enabled her to save the Doctor’s life). Jesminder’s mum in Bend in Like Beckham was praying that her daughter would get acceptable A-levels so she could go to University. I don’t mind saying it makes filling out British job application forms very difficult for me, as I don’t have any GCSEs or A-Levels to note. I have a high school diploma, I have an SAT score (I can’t remember what it was, unfortunately, except that the English score was 800). I have an ACT score of 29 (which was almost high enough to get special commendation but not quite). I took Advanced Placement tests in English, French, US History, and World History (the English test, I smugly note, was a 5/5 and was a piece of cake as I recall). What this means to the average interviewer I’ve no idea.
You don’t have to go for an A-Level, you can get qualifications in GNVQ (I think, with my MA, I am NVQ level 7) or International Baccalaureate (that brings back memories of everyone busily studying in France for their Bacs). After A-Levels, when you go on to University, you generally do a three-year degree (again, I wonder if the fact my BA took four years reflects unfavorably on me—though it was often a joke at UNM that it was five-year school). It’s also confusing that a public school is actually what Americans think of as a private school and with it comes the connotation of old boys playing cricket, Eton, etc. Also, there are some religious-affiliated schools, such as the Church of England school for which I interviewed for a position. Fees (ie tuition) for BA and beyond degrees are, even allowing for the exchange rate, much more affordable than those in the US (unless you happen to be an international student in which case they are doubled or sometimes tripled). Oh, and by the way, the system is totally different in Scotland. :-P
Beyond those somewhat circumscribed circumstances, I don’t know much about the life of the typical British child. I assume s/he watches CBeebies (and if s/he has any taste, The Sarah Jane Adventures). All the small children I’ve met, either as friends’ children or whatnot, haven’t had much to say to me other than Doctor Who stuff when we found out we were both fans. I’ve known people who are either primary or secondary school teachers, and I used to work for a company that liaised between lecturers who did courses and secondary schools that went on the courses. That enabled me to learn a little bit more about the British school system (and rather randomly call up J’s old primary school to learn who their inset coordinator was!). When Donna Broome marries the Bostonian actor Geoffrey in Broome Stages, they eventually grow apart and even though they are an itinerant acting family, she prefers to have their son educated in Britain rather than “the American system.” I always wondered why!