by Catriona Mills

Random Weirdness from Girls' School Stories

Posted 23 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been marking all afternoon, so I have an abundance of headache and an absence of energy.

But, thankfully, I also have an abundance of girls’ school stories, including May Wynne’s The Term of Many Adventures.

I should think it was a term of many adventures!

In this one book alone, the schoolgirls deal with mysterious gipsies:

With friends who don’t know enough not to accept mysterious jewelry from mysterious gipsies (honestly, you’d think they’d never read a school story):

With curiously co-ed adventures in late-night archaeology:

With furious working-class Irish villagers, who aren’t pleased that the girls broke into their house and, to quote the ringleader, “made it fit to live in” (113), spoiling most of the furniture and breaking the rest in the process:

And a mysterious man of unspecified ethnicity, in a turban:

It’s a miracle the girls had any time for classes at all.

From May Wynne’s The Term of Many Adventures, illustrated by Roberta F. C. Waudby. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Sons, n.d.

Why, Oh Why? A Reprise

Posted 22 August 2008 in by Catriona

This brief dialogue, which I’ve just exchanged with the television during the ABC’s airing of Cards on the Table, sums up my attitude towards these current adaptations of Agatha Christie novels:

RANDOM CHARACTER: Why would she do that?
ME: She didn’t. Now I’m bored.

And yet the adaptation of Cards on the Table was doing so well up to this point. It was beautifully set-dressed, relatively faithful to the plot, and fairly well acted (excluding the woman playing Anne Meredith; she’s fine in this, but she was dreadful in Rome, as Cleopatra, and that’s all I can see when I’m watching this.)

But then it all went to hell in the last ten minutes.

Frankly, I’m fairly impressed that they managed to make such hay out of such an intricate and carefully organised plot with so little time left.

I suppose that’s a compliment of sorts.

And, as I type this, Poirot has just outed the murderer and his “regular bridge partner” Mr. Craddock, who “practise for hours with the door closed.”

And I thought Nick was being far-fetched with his comment about lesbian Nazi nuns.

(On the plus side, this post is bound to turn up some interesting Google results.)

Strange Conversations: Part Thirty-Six

Posted 22 August 2008 in by Catriona

While watching the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table:

ME: This is an extremely clever book. I hope they don’t muck around with it too much.
NICK: Don’t worry; I’m sure there’ll be lesbian Nazi nuns any minute now.

Strange Conversations: Part Thirty-Five

Posted 22 August 2008 in by Catriona

This conversation brought to you by an unusual burst of humility on my part.

ME: But it’s outside my alloted role, and there’s a name for people who move outside their alloted role.
NICK: Heroes!
ME: I don’t think so. Beowulf was a hero.
NICK: Yep.
ME: Well, he didn’t move outside his alloted role. He went out and died at the hands—if you’ll excuse the metaphor—of the dragon in the final part of the poem because it was his responsibility as king. Well, it wasn’t his responsibility to die, but it was his role to fight the dragon.
NICK: Right.
ME: So I dispute your definition of the word “hero.”
NICK: Well, in that case, I’m going to play some Diablo.

You just can’t argue with game-bound geeks.

Is It That Time of Year Again?

Posted 22 August 2008 in by Catriona

Where the storms begin?

So I’m always being terrified by thunderbolts that come from nowhere?

And I keep getting caught in the rain, because I always forget how quickly tropical storms can come up out of nowhere?

And I forget to check BOM before I put a load of washing on, and then suddenly, out of a clear blue sky, it’s bucketing with rain?

When it can be pelting down in the front garden and still sunny in the back garden, as it is now?

When the lightning is so close that I feel the fillings jump in my mouth and I wish that my bed were higher off the ground, so I could hide under it?

Is it that time of year already?

I love that time of year.

More Random Weirdness from the Bookshelf

Posted 21 August 2008 in by Catriona

These are all from Peter Haining’s compilation of The Fantastic Pulps, which I bought today.

What I love about this first one is that the illustration, by John Newton Howett, is from an Edmond Hamilton story called “The Indestructible Man.”

Not unless he can find some way to work around that knife sticking out of his back, he’s not.

(Oh, I know he might not be the man of the title. Just go with the joke.)

This one’s lovely, though: a Hannes Bok illustration for Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Devotee of Evil.”

(He looks, from this angle, rather like a devotee of the kind of dancing that used to frighten me way back when Nick still dragged me to Goth clubs. But it’s a beautiful image.)

Apparently, Ray Bradbury was a fan of Hannes Bok: I can see why.

But this: this is the jewel of the collection, I think.

This is a H. W. Wesso illustration for a John W. Campbell story, “Piracy Preferred.” (But preferred to what? That’s what I want to know. Alas, the story isn’t included in the collection.)

It’s an indictment of the prevailing attitude to pulp artists that someone capable of this type of work doesn’t get their own Wikipedia page. Sure, Hannes Bok has a page, but Wesso’s work is a gorgeous example of the classic sci-fi art that I love. I would think there’d be some room for him on Wikipedia, surely?

(All taken from The Fantastic Pulps, edited and compiled by Peter Haining. London: Gollancz, 1975.)

I've Been Book Shopping!

Posted 21 August 2008 in by Catriona

Despite the fact that it’s Thursday night, I’m exhausted, and we haven’t organised dinner yet, despite the fact that Nick’s had two colds in a row and is apparently self-medicating by playing Diablo very loudly (and currently killing something that squeals horribly when it dies), and despite the passive-aggressive anti-smoking prats this afternoon, I’m perfectly content.

Because I’ve been book shopping.

We had a relatively small book sale in the department this afternoon, run by one of my M.Phil. supervisors (who knows perfectly well that I’ll buy almost anything in book form, and so kept putting tantalising books directly in front of me).

Mind, I was well behaved: I only bought half a dozen. (The two that I bought for Nick don’t count, despite the fact that they’ll all go on the same shelves.)

But I couldn’t turn down Victorian Feminism, could I? It’s not the most recent book but, as I keep telling students, that’s why MLA isn’t an author-date method of referencing: not everything goes out of fashion. (Plus, I mainly read the bibliographies of these books, anyway.)

And I certainly wasn’t going to turn down a lovely, shiny copy of Dr Johnson’s Women; even if it is a little early for my research, it’s bound to be fascinating. Dr Johnson’s high opinion of Charlotte Lennox might even induce me to finally get around to reading The Female Quixote, which I’ve owned for years and, I suspect, have never even opened.

There’s no way I could go past The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction. Sure, the essays manage to more or less completely skip the Victorian period, bouncing from Anna Clark’s “The Politics of Seduction in English Popular Culture, 1748-1848”—covering, at least, the beginning of Victoria’s reign—to Derrick Price on How Green Was My Valley (1939), but it’s still fascinating. And Price’s work on romanticised Wales makes a nice companion piece to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s work on the forcible traditionalising of Scotland in The Invention of Tradition.

I’m sure the title of Root of Detection: The Art of Deduction before Sherlock Holmes explains why I bought that one, to go with my numerous other books of Golden Age detective fiction—although this one offers quite a different interpretation of “Golden Age,” since the first offering is a piece from Herodotus’s Histories.

(Mind, I’m a little worried by the blurb, which describes the collection as containing “a little surprise from the novel by Mrs. Henry Wood published over a hundred years ago, the source for her celebrated play, the ineffable East Lynne.” Partly I’m worried that, in a book published in 1983, the play of East Lynne—“Dead! And never called me Mother!”—is considered better known than the actual novel. But mostly I’m just surprised to hear a novel called “ineffable.” “Little known”? I would have accepted that. “Overblown melodrama”? Sure. “Unintentionally hilarious”? Absolutely. But “ineffable”? That’s a little odd.)

I’m going to say little about the lovely little hardback—in a fabulously 1970s, bright-yellow, Gollancz cover—called The Fantastic Pulps, because I’m going to copy some illustrations from it into another post in a moment, as a counterpart to the terrifying cactus of The Quatermass Experiment. But I will say that having looked at the front matter, I now want some of the author’s other compilations: The Wild Night Company (Irish tales of fantasy and horror), The Clans of Darkness (Scottish tales of fantasy and horror), The Magic Valley Travellers (oddly enough, Welsh tales of fantasy and horror), and, of course, The Penny Dreadful. Bless you, Peter Haining. Your obsession with pulp enriches us all.

But my favourite find for today is, alas, a work in two volumes, of which only one volume was available. But, better only volume two of Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines than no volume at all.

There’s something so intrinsically Victorian about a two-volume work detailing the early lives of fictional characters. And, yes, it’s intensely romantic, in its way, and the prose is a little overblown.

But Clarke was a true Shakespearean scholar, who produced a Shakespearean concordance in 1844-1845, in a period when most women were discouraged from reading large sections of Shakespeare’s work. (Of course, her concordance may have referred to the bowdlerised texts: I’ve not seen it, and I don’t know. But that doesn’t negate the scholarship behind that sort of undertaking.)

She published The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines in 1850, and there’s a fascinating feminist impulse behind the extraction—albeit in heavily fictionalised form—of the education, training, and development of characters who so often are simply pawns for the more powerful characters, as with Katharina, or sacrifices on the altar of tragedy, as with Ophelia.

Of course, married lady though she was, she was also a Victorian woman, and she doesn’t answer the question that always intrigues me: why was Juliet’s nurse so keen to influence her charge’s—horrifyingly early, by modern standards—sexual experience?

Had it been a Victorian text, I’d argue that it critiques the way in which the system of domestic servitude brings people of different social classes into close communion with one another. Nineteenth-century texts so often present the working classes as either sexually depraved or, at best, less restrained than the middle class and the aristocracy. Since the latter were doubly restrained by social convention and by the obligations of primogeniture (so at least you had to be sure who your first-born son’s father was), the clashing of the two classes within the home throws up some interesting tensions that, had the play been written four hundred years later, might prove thought-provoking.

Of course, I can’t be sure Shakespeare’s intending any such thing. In fact, I’m fairly certain he’s not.

But I would really like to know why the nurse is seemingly so fascinated with Juliet’s marital experience.

Today's Life Lesson

Posted 21 August 2008 in by Catriona

People who walk up to where I am legally smoking, sit down next to me, and then loudly point out to each other the “No Smoking” signs several metres from where I am legally smoking irritate me intensely.

I feel that’s a valuable lesson.

Not learning it might have led to social confusion and some ill-judged friendships.

Victorian Fantasy with Mad Scientists: What Could Be Bad?

Posted 20 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been uninspired lately, or tired, or still fighting off this cold that I seem to have passed on to everyone else, or secretly eaten up with remorse that I didn’t kill more kobolds at last week’s D&D session, or something.

I don’t know quote what, as the list above indicates. But I haven’t been my usual effervescent self (oh, yes: I am humble. I’m famous for it). I haven’t thought of anything interesting enough to blog about and I haven’t been reading as much, either.

That, though, I blame on the avalanche of marking that’s descended.

But I have been re-reading, recently. Re-reading is something of a divisive issue in this household: Nick doesn’t do it, much, whereas I don’t see any reason to deny myself the pleasure of, for example, Pride and Prejudice just because I happen to have read it before. (Re-watching television and movies is an even more divisive issue and, since those are common activities, I’ve had to resign myself to a period of inactivity before Nick will agree to re-watch something.) But re-reading I can do on my own.

And, sometimes, you’re just not in the mood for a new book, no matter how good at looks, or how fond you are of the author, or how long you’ve been waiting for it to be published.

Sometimes, you want familiarity. You want characters whom you’ve met before, situations that are familiar, nuances that you missed the first or second time around.

Or, at least, I do.

So lately I’ve been re-reading the Girl Genius series of graphic novels. The seventh trade came in from Amazon last week—many, many weeks after we originally ordered it—and the complex plot of the last couple had largely escaped me in the months since volume six came out. A refresher course seemed appropriate.

Girl Genius comes from Studio Foglio, although it doesn’t look as though their website’s been updated for a while. I’m not terribly familiar with Phil and Kaja Foglio’s other work, though I gather their other well-known series is XXXenophile, described on the Wikipedia page as whimsical alien erotica—and, no, I’m not linking to the Wikipedia page. You can search for it if you like, but bear in mind that the cover they offer is not suitable for work. It’s not tentacle porn (thank heavens!) but it’s not suitable for work. Or for young children.

Girl Genius, on the other hand, has its own website, given its existence as a web comic. I’ve not read the web version, because I find sequential web comics a little annoying, and prefer to wait for the trades.

So far, I’ve read the first seven trades, and don’t like to contemplate how long I have to wait for the eighth volume.

What I really enjoy about it, though, is the fact that the mad scientists, the “Sparks,” are completely and utterly insane. They can’t help it: it’s just the way Sparks work. At one point, the townspeople are uncertain whether or not to accept a new Spark—said to be the heir to a famous, long-lost dynasty—and are convinced not by her ability to create extraordinary machines, but by her tendency to blow things up and then shout, “I meant to do that!”

And Agatha Heterodyne herself, the Girl Genius of the title—well, okay: she spends a lot of time running around in her bloomers and is about as pneumatic as you’d expect of the heroine of vaguely Victorian melodrama. But she’s also tough—physically, emotionally, and intellectually—and talented in a number of fields that female characters still don’t often explore, especially not the science-fiction and fantasy narratives: she’s a scientist, a mechanic, an inventor, even a resurrectionist when she needs to be.

I’d written earlier in this post that it was rather odd that I enjoyed this series so much when steampunk isn’t really my cup of tea.

But I went back and deleted it when I remembered that the books are sub-titled “Gaslamp Fantasies”: according to the Wikipedia page, Kaja Foglio coined the term as more appropriate to the work than the usual “steampunk.” And it’s true that the Sparks are concerned with far more machinery, though the “clanks” are fabulous: the wicked Heterodynes of old, about whom we have only received tantalising snippets, also created the Jagerkin, fanatically loyal but vicious monsters with heavy Romanian accents and an obsession with hats, and there are also the constructs, Frankenstein’s-monster-style humanoids, some convincingly human and some nightmarish.

There are also miniature mammoths.

I don’t know why, but they seem to be sold as a tasty treat. On a stick.

And a cat created to be Emperor of All Cats, so that he could mobilise his people as silent spies and saboteurs: it works brilliantly, apparently, until they fall asleep or see something move.

But, honestly, you saw my point once I mentioned the miniature mammoths, didn’t you? Or maybe the bloomers?

But there’s so much more to this series, which ensures I couldn’t not read it.

Like the fact that the Heterodyne boys have become the stuff of legends in the eighteen years since they disappeared, so the world is full of dime novels inconsistently recounting their adventures and travelling Heterodyne shows that specialise in melodramas ranging from the violent to the raunchy, depending on the audience. In fact, the whole series plays with the mutability of narrative, including short pieces at the end of the trades that range from Agatha’s adventures as a full-blown Heterodyne—before she herself is even aware of her heritage—to the James Bondian adventures of Trelawney Thorpe, Spark of the Realm, to the fan-fiction of a young girl supposedly telling Heterodyne stories to her brothers but unable to resist putting herself into the narratives.

There are shades here of the great celebration of imagination that is Alan Moore’s third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen trade.

Really, I can’t resist anything that has at its heart a passion for melodrama and the mutability of imaginative story-telling.

And when you throw in vaguely Victorian robots, imaginary European cities, sentient castles, and fanged monsters who insist that any plan that involves killing anyone who sees you killing people and then losing your hat is a bad plan?

Well, I don’t know how anyone could resist.

Sunset, Again

Posted 18 August 2008 in by Catriona

It’s been a long day followed by a lovely sunset, so why not combine the two in a transparent attempt to make it look as though I’m updating my blog?

Live-blogging Doctor Who: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Posted 17 August 2008 in by Catriona

And we’re back on another Sunday night, for one of my favourite episodes of the season. So far, I’ve been sitting here becoming increasingly annoyed by partisan Olympic coverage (and by the emphasis given to the Olympics in the news bulletin). I realise that the coverage is certain to be as partisan (albeit with a different focus) in every other country that competes, but I still find it annoying.

Oh, well: Nick and I have been amusing ourselves by shouting, “That’s un-Australian!” at the television when any suitable opportunity offers itself. We didn’t stop when the Olympic coverage stopped, either.

We make our own fun.

But on a Doctor Who note, I completely forgot last week to upload my should-be-traditional picture of one of Nick’s items of memorabilia.

Let me make up for that now:

I realise that if you look closely, you’ll see that the sky is apparently upside down, but that’s because I had to flip the image. After all, there’s nothing quite so cool as a Dalek-themed oven glove.

And we’re back to images of the medal winners, so we must be close to the actual episode starting.

And, given the Agatha Christie angle, I don’t promise not the shout “book title!” if the opportunity arises. But, of course, none of you are actually in my living room, so the shouting won’t bother anyone but Nick. And he’s used to it.

Nick’s decided we need to watch Double the Fist purely because it has a brief appearance by Bruce Spence. Is that a good enough reason to watch it? I think not.

Hurray! English country house. And the Doctor pointing out that he can smell the 1920s. But Donna punctures his pretensions, again. I do love Donna.

Professor Peach? Why not just call him Professor Cannon Fodder. (Okay, that’s a spoiler, but not much of one). I’m with Donna; I’d like to go to a party in the 1920s.

Ooh, my favourite joke: “But why didn’t they ask . . . Heavens!”

Book title!

Last time I heard that joke, I laughed hysterically and ran off to get the book, so Nick could share the joke. As a result, I completely missed the giant wasp. I’ve missed it this time, too, because I was blogging. It reminds me that, no matter how many times I watch Twin Peaks, I’ve never actually seen the bit where Laura Palmer’s body is discovered.

Dear lord, Felicity Kendall looks good—she’s had some work done, I think. But she looks fabulous.

Oh, I think the son has an inappropriate relationship with the footman. Well, inappropriate for the period.

DONNA: All the decent men are on the other bus.
DOCTOR: Or Time Lords.

And Agatha Christie. She fooled the Doctor once . . . but it was a good once. I do like the image of the Doctor and Donna geeking out over Agatha Christie.

I said, when we heard that Agatha Christie was going to be in the programme, that I really hoped it was about that strange period when she disappeared. But I didn’t have high hopes, because the estate has always kept a tight lid on that time. It’s not mentioned in Christie’s autobiography (whoops, the Professor’s body has just been discovered) and her daughter kept a tight rein on treatments of those events—not surprising, especially since her father came under suspicion. But I’m pleased that they picked this angle on the episode.

Donna is the plucky young girl who helps you out, Doctor? Oh, dear.

Oh, there’s no Noddy? What a shame. I’d have liked to have met Noddy having tea with Big Ears.

The Doctor’s really playing with fire, the way he keeps telling Donna she’s plucky. And I like Agatha puncturing his pretensions; I found it a little disturbing how much fun he was having last week, while everyone was dying.

So the Reverend was in his room, and the son had a pre-arranged meeting with Davenport. The young girl whose name I’ve already forgotten was in her room with a gun, for no apparent reason, and Lady Eddison’s husband was reminiscing about the Can-Can. (I love that two-layer flashback.) Hey, the Colonel was in the theatre owner in Talons of Weng Chiang! Cool! Lady Eddison was drinking heavily and privately.

No alibis! Cool.

The Doctor went to Belgium to find Charlemagne after he’d been kidnapped by an insane computer? I’d love to see that episode. And David Tennant with a bow and arrow? I know a young Robin Hood fan who is probably enjoying this episode.

Nemesis? Book title!

I’m in awe of the sheer quantity of hair that Catherine Tate has. And the lovely colour.

So Lady Eddison had a mysterious illness after her return from India, did she? I wonder if that will prove relevant?

Ack! Giant wasp! I don’t blame Donna for screaming—I’m not good with insects myself, and this one is six-feet tall. But at least she scares it away—I do like Donna. I also like those recessed bookshelves in this room. I wish I had some of those.

Cat among the pigeons? Book title!

Dead man’s folly? Another book title!

Whoops, this housekeeper’s for the chop. Nick thinks she had time to get out of the way of that, but then Nick’s never had to escape from a gargoyle.

They do it with mirrors? Book title!

Of course, the Doctor would think that the giant psychotic wasp is wonderful. That’s the Doctor for you. (On that note, the scene where everyone opens their bedroom doors is one of my favourite scenes.)

Appointment with death? Book title!

Cards on the table? Book title!

Oh, poor Agatha. She’s so sort of beaten down in this episode, so lacking in self confidence. It shows a good sense of the period in her life, the fact that the dissolution of her marriage came at the same time as her mother’s death, when she had to pack up an enormous Victorian house alone and had a nervous breakdown. All that background permeates this episode.

That’s a neat toolkit. I’m not a jewel thief, but if I were, I’d have a kit like that. With the red-velvet lining and everything.

Whoops, the Doctor’s been poisoned. Nick tells me (Sparkling cyanide? Book title!) that people thought this was over the top, but no more so than the removal of radiation from his foot in “Smith and Jones”—and I liked it.

“Harvey Wallbanger? How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?”

“What’s that?”
“Too salty.”

“Campdown Races?”

Love it. There’s always room in Doctor Who for a bit of farce.

Donna, the Doctor’s quite, quite mad, but I think he would have told you if he’d actually poisoned the soup. Or maybe not.

Oh, dear—Roger’s face down in his soup with a carving knife in his back. Poor Roger. And poor Davenport. On a lighter note, I love that sunburst mirror on the back wall, the copper one.

DOCTOR: I’ve been so caught up with giant wasps that I’d forgotten . . .

It’s the brilliance of Tennant in this role that he can pull of that line.

Endless night? Book title!

Aha! The accusing parlour. When I have a house of my own, I’m totally having an accusing parlour. I feel it would come in handy.

Crooked house? Book title!

Donna cracks me up in this scene: sitting in the background with a bowl of grapes, completely unable to guess the murderer even when almost all of the suspects have been eliminated. I’m not good at guessing the murderer, either—that’s how I judge a bad detective novel. It’s one in which I can spot the killer.

Is it just me, or is the Firestone rather ugly? I’m not sure I’d want to wear it every day.

So the girl whose name I’ve forgotten is a jewel thief, the Colonel can really walk, and Lady Eddison had an illegitimate child? Too many motives! Even with Roger dead.

The idea that a well-brought-up English girl would have an affair with a young man whom she knows is actually a giant wasp is . . . rather odd.

Taken at the flood? Book title!

Maybe it’s just because I’m not that keen on insects, but I’m not sure even a great, life-changing love would survive the revelation that he’s actually an enormous, metamorphic, alien insect. Does that make me shallow?

Doctor, you do have to be careful about saying things like “Donna Noble, it was you . . .” when everyone’s in the accusing parlour.

The moving finger? Book title!

Nick thinks that this episode is more dramatic than usual because it’s focalised through Donna’s perspective. But I’m not entirely convinced by that argument—especially since Donna isn’t in all the key scenes. But I’ll leave in there; we can debate that perspective in the comments thread, if you like.

So it was the Vicar? Typical. It’s always the vicar. Actually, was there ever an Agatha Christie novel in which the murderer was the vicar? I can’t recall one off the top of my head.

Honestly, the man’s been a giant wasp for three days, and he’s already calling us “you humans”. It seems that his inheritance came with a healthy dose of arrogance, didn’t it? And a touch of xenophobia.

I mentioned before how this episode seems to rely on a knowledge of Agatha Christie’s state of mind when her first marriage broke down, and that seems to come to the fore here, where she’s driving along muttering “It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault” and actively contemplating suicide. That all seems more plausible if you know what state she was in at the time, though the breakdown of the marriage is probably sufficient.

Death comes as the end? Book title!

(And my favourite joke of the episode?
DOCTOR: “Murder At The Vicar’s Rage.” Needs a bit of work.
I like the consciousness of playing with the book titles.)

Donna’s killing of the wasp and the Doctor’s perfunctory disapproval of it seems a little . . . odd, though. The Doctor’s made a point of having a no-kill policy, and it does seem as though there should have been more fallout from Donna’s actions. Not that I can see what else she could have done.

Agatha Christie the best-selling author of all time? Well, except for Daphne Farquitt.

And that’s “The Unicorn and the Wasp.”

Next week, “Silence in the Library.” Steven Moffat! Hooray!

Disturbing Etymologies

Posted 17 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, recently. At one point, a Klatchian prince is given an honorary degree from Unseen University, a Doctorum Adamus cum Flabello Dulci, which he translates as “Doctor of Sweet Fanny Adams,” a slightly more obscure form of jingoism than that of the people shouting “towelhead” at him in the streets or assuming he’s going to attempt to buy their wives.

But last time I read this, it made me realise that I didn’t know the origin of the term “sweet Fanny Adams.” I knew that when people say “sweet F.A.” these days, they don’t usually mean Fanny Adams, but I didn’t know where the phrase had originated.

So I looked it up, in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, of course, and found one of the most disturbing etymologies I’ve ever come across.

In 1867, a young girl called Fanny Adams was assaulted, murdered, and dismembered in a hop garden in Hampshire. Someone was tried and hanged for the murder, a twenty-one-year-old solicitor’s clerk.

So far, fairly nasty. But then the Royal Navy adopted the term “sweet Fanny Adams” as a synonym for tinned mutton, with what Brewer’s describes as “grim humour.” (Do you think so, Brewer’s? I’m partial to black comedies myself, but that’s a little grim even for me.) It came to mean something worthless and then to mean “nothing at all.”

It’s worth repeating: that’s one of the most disturbing etymologies I’ve ever come across, including Elliot Engel’s argument about the origins of the phrase “break a leg.”

Brewer’s does note, though, that “F.A.” is now frequently assumed to expand into the kind of phrase that you wouldn’t use in front of your mother. But while the “four-letter words” aren’t often used in what is still known as polite society—fascinatingly, Brewer’s notes under “Four-letter Words” that the Oxford English Dictionary didn’t admit the two most objectionable of these words into their pages until 1972—they’re still preferable to the actual origins of “sweet Fanny Adams.”

Why, Oh Why, Do I Keep Watching Adaptations of Agatha Christie?

Posted 15 August 2008 in by Catriona

They always disappoint me.

I had thought, back when I bewailed the unnecessary Nazis in At Bertram’s Hotel—173 days ago, apparently—that the Poirot adaptations were more accurate than the Miss Marple ones.

But now I’m watching After the Funeral, and I’m not so sure.

So far, they’ve already removed one of Richard Abernethy’s siblings, making the unreliable nephew George the son of Helen, instead of her nephew.

And they’ve disinherited him, for no reason.

They’ve removed another of Richard Abernethy’s siblings, making Susan (now Susanna) and Rosamund sisters instead of cousins.

And they’ve made Cora’s late husband an Italian instead of a Frenchman. She’s Mrs Gallachio (or something along those lines: I haven’t seen the actual spelling) rather than Mrs Lansqueset.

And they’ve introduced the theft of the deeds of Enderby, Abernethy’s house, making its sale impossible, which adds an apparently unnecessary sub-plot.

Oh, dear: now George has just woken up on a park bench being licked by a Labrador (not a euphemism) and Susanna is haranguing a congregation on the subject of foreign missions. I think I miss the Susan who was a keen businesswoman, planning on opening her own emporium to capitalise on her own and her husband’s strengths.

I don’t think I need to mark that as a spoiler, because I doubt this is going to follow the book’s plot too closely. Susanna, for example, is unmarried, and apparently both inappropriately involved with her cousin George and also planning on sailing to Africa to pursue her work with foreign missions.

So far the most interesting point in this adaptation., from my perspective, is the fact that George Abernethy is Michael Fassbender, who was a Spartan whose name I’ve forgotten in 300 and the fallen angel in Hex. But that’s not why I’m interested in seeing him. Rather, it’s because the name Fassbender has reminded me of Ruth Rendell’s Put On By Cunning, in which the plot turns on the fact that “fassbender” is, apparently, the German term for a cooper. (At least I think it was German; it sounds German. I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.)

It’s made me think that at least I might be able to wile away the time during the programme thinking of slightly better crime fiction.

And yet Christie really is very good.

So why? Why on earth do they make these changes?

I would have thought that Christie’s plots were ideally designed for adaptation to the television. They’re cunning, but she prides herself on setting everything out for the reader, for all she may employ sleight of hand to draw the reader’s attention away from the main points.

So why these broad, sweeping changes? And, something that irritates me even more, the minor changes, like adjusting Mrs Lansqueset’s surname? It seems so unnecessary.

I once went to see Troy with Nick and a friend. I gave up on the film at the point at which (spoiler! but it’s a bad film) Menelaus died. But, after the film, I pointed out that Menelaus’s death was the point at which the whole thing became thoroughly absurd, but our friend disagreed, saying it was liberating: “You didn’t know what was going to happen next!”

I admire that kind of optimism. But I can’t put it into practice myself.

Why, oh why, if you must write plots involving Nazis, murderous nuns, or drunken, disinherited gamblers, do do you not present them as brand new mysteries? Why tell us it’s Christie, and get all our hopes up?

Oh, I know: saying that it’s Agatha Christie brings in a certain audience who, by the time they realise the plot’s gone haywire, are already committed to watching the rest of the programme.

But it disappoints me every, every time.

Life in the Back Garden

Posted 14 August 2008 in by Catriona

I was trying to get a closer look this morning of the pair of lovely birds that our ragamuffin batch of mynahs was harassing; I have no idea what type of birds they are—and my inept Googling for Queensland birds with green tails and bright blue eye markings brought me no useful results—but they normally restrict themselves to hanging out in the palm trees. This time, they were bailed up in the bushes outside my study window, and it was unusual to see them so close.

Mind, the selfish things were more concerned with not being attacked by the mynahs, who outnumbered them four to one, than they were with holding still for me to take a photograph, so I didn’t manage to snap them in the end.

I had to settle for taking a picture of the blue-tongue, when he emerged to sun himself.

Blue-tongues freak me out a little; I’m not actually scared of them, or of any lizards, though I have a healthy Australian fear of snakes—and that’s the problem, really. Blue-tongues look far more like snakes than any self-respecting lizard should, especially when all I see is the inappropriately orange tail disappearing behind a box in the laundry, and freak out slightly.

You can’t really blame me: Australia has how many of the world’s most poisonous snakes? Almost all of them?

But when the lizard is in the garden, I’m not scared of him.

In fact, I hope his return means that we’ll soon be joined for the summer by our awesome water dragons—who make my day by throwing themselves off the roof, or climbing down the mulberry tree and then throwing themselves down the yukka as though it were a slide, or coming and lying on the verandah at my feet when it’s raining, or haring across the garden on their back legs, or occasionally wandering into the living room looking for insects.

And our bearded dragon, who’s a little less interesting, because he’s slower and closer to the ground, but who’s still nice to have around.

And our geckos, who are the great joy of my life. I don’t think people who were raised in the North can actually appreciate how strange it is to a Southerner to have these little pink lizards running freely through the house. I adore them—and am grateful that the primary insect-killing role in the house is taken by them and not, as in N.S.W., but huntsmen spiders.

We’re a lizardy household. And better that than spiders the size of teacups.

The Sheer Joy That Is Monkey, Expressed in Random Quotes

Posted 14 August 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been watching episodes of Monkey while waiting for Nick to get back from the concert. Monkey fills me with a deep sense of uncomplicated joy; I loved it as a child so deeply that it still makes me happy every time I watch it.

I like the way the programme is thoroughly relaxed about cross-dressing: Tripitaka is clearly a woman, and isn’t fooling anyone; Sandy’s just turned into a female form, meaning the actor is wearing a dress and heavy make-up; and the Boddhisatva who regularly turns up is often in her female incarnation, in which she’s the same actor, but in a dress.

I love the music.

I’ve even got a soft spot for Sandy, the chronically depressed water demon.

(I don’t like the second Pigsy, though—the first one was much better. I’m also not a big fan of the horse-dragon once he learns how to turn into a man; I find it makes the idea of using him as a horse a little . . . disturbing.)

I also find it hilarious, as in these quotes from an episode about a unicorn demon.

Tripitaka to Monkey: “You’re always hitting everybody too quickly.”

The Unicorn King to Pigsy: “You should take the form of a man, occasionally, as I do. You’d still be ugly, but I find people are more receptive.”

And after Pigsy’s transformation: “You really are . . . not quite so revolting now.”

Sandy’s self-image: “I won’t keep reminding you; I’m no eel! I hate the brutes; they’re all slimy.”

Pigsy flirting fairly ineptly, with the help of a flower: “The petals are a little droopy, but it made me think of you.”

Monkey: “Pigsy, you’ll regret this!”
Pigsy: “I know I will.”

And my absolute favourite quote of the episode:

The Unicorn King: “We unicorns could take over the entire world. It’s only because we’re mythical and nice that we don’t.”



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