Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Naive Avengersthon - 24. White Dwarf

A Shallow-friendly episode opens at Tor Point observatory in Cornwall: six months ago Dr Richter (Keith 'Autloc/the Speedlearning waiter in The General' Pyott) hypothesised that a wandering white dwarf star has entered our solar system to destroy life on Earth. The government made him keep quiet. (They were just as good at doing that in 1962). Now he's just made a crucial observation that disproves his theory.

This is a Malcolm Hulke script, so rather than murdering everyone else to preserve his reputation, Dr R is himself murdered. The government are keenly awaiting the result of a replacement observation, and consequently Steed is busy asking Cathy for exposition about white dwarfs. He then packs her off to Tor Point in the guise of an astronomer. Cue light relief at the vegetarian guesthouse run by Miss Tregarth (Constance 'Gladys Bowman' Chapman). Was this the germ of the idea for the Nut Hatch? George 'some character' Roubicek is also around, as Richter's son.

At Tor Point, Dr Rahim (Paul 'Jacko' Anil) asks permission to make some observations of his own on the dwarf. Prof Cartright (Philip 'Borusa 83' Latham) grants it, and shortly afterwards Rahim is found dead at the eyepiece, just like Richter.

Cathy returns to London to report to Steed and there's rather a good scene where they consider the advantage someone might derive from knowing that the world isn't going to end, but that the government is about to announce that it is.

The plot doesn't conceal this information from us, so neither will I: that 'someone' is crooked financier Maxwell Barker (George A 'Mr Griffiths' Cooper, playing the part like Harold Wilson's evil mirror universe counterpart), who knows about the government's upcoming announcement because his brother, honest civil servant Henry Barker (Peter 'Dr Warlock' Copley) has confided in him. When stocks plunge on the news, he and his associates will be able to make a killing.

Fortunately, Steed and Cathy are able to trick Maxwell Barker's astronomer confederate into revealing himself. One quick shoot-out at the observatory later and we can finish on a comedy astrology/astronomy mixup back at Steed's.

I had to watch this episode four times (the most so far) before I felt I completely understood how Maxwell Barker and his friends could be sure that the dwarf wasn't going to put an end to the Earth. And even then I missed the explanation of how Cathy is able to make his confederate believe in the climactic scene that doom is on its way. (Thanks to the recap at Dissolute for explaining it to me).

It's a clever story though, because most of the villains' plan is shown to us very early on; what really keeps us guessing is how Hulke is going to unmask them without actually having the world come to an end.

Apart from Cathy's exposition about white dwarfs, the astronomy is a bit wobbly - the astronomers use a lot of technical terms in ways that make no sense, and if the white dwarf did have, as shown, about 1/30 the apparent size of the moon, there's no way that no other telescope would have picked it up. I'm not sure in fact that it wouldn't have been visible to the naked eye in daylight.

Also the astrology isn't right either: although Hulke remembers that the astronomers were talking about Mars currently being at opposition, and has the astrology book in the final scene repeat the phrase, astrologers don't talk about Mars being 'at opposition'. They'd say 'Mars is in opposition to the Sun' because astrology uses a system centred on the Earth.

Updated to say that Hulke was probably mistaken in assuming that stocks would plunge on the news that the world was going to end. At the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, markets were rising strongly - it seems that stock prices acquired an implicit qualifier of 'providing civilisation doesn't end' and business continued as usual.

Come to think of it, they always have that qualifier, it just only becomes visible at certain crucial moments.

Updated again to say that another way of looking at it that stock prices are actually an equity/cash ratio. If the world ends, stocks aren't worth anything, and neither is cash. The prospect of the end of the world would only affect stock prices if you expected one to lose value, but not the other. Given the received wisdom that the only things to hold value after the apocalypse will be tinned food, medicine, weapons and ammunition, that seems unlikely.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) is properly best known for its superb chapters on financial crashes and the Crusades, but there are other interesting bits, particularly 'Popular Follies of Great Cities' on catchphrases, proto-memes if you will.

One of the phrases Mackay mentions is 'Walker!', used derisively to mean 'yeah, right!' He describes it as 'uttered with a peculiar drawl upon the first syllable, and a sharp turn upon the last.' So imagine my pleasure to find it used in A Christmas Carol (1843) by the urchin who Scrooge (post-reformation) orders to go and buy the prize turkey:

'Walk-ER!' exclaimed the boy.

'No, no,' said Scrooge, 'I am in earnest.'

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

In a pig's snout they're maiden ladies

If you think the two old women in Vieux Carré are 'maiden ladies' you aren't paying attention. Mary Maude has a son called Buster, and is alternatively addressed as Mrs Wayne. A lady she may be, a maiden she definitely is not.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Just as with the Campbell Dodgson post, I find myself wishing James Burke was up for making another series of Connections - it's fairly well known that a certain then-actor, having impacted me by playing not only Adrian Mole but also the Whizzkid in Doctor Who 25.4 Greatest Show in the Galaxy, subsequently moved away from acting to focus on the field of mental health nursing.

What's not so well known is that he's now symbolically crossed my path a third time: I shall refrain from saying how, not because I have any cover left to blow but because it just doesn't seem right. Suffice it to say that if you had a certain attribute in common with me, and lived in a certain area of the country, and were progressing along a certain care pathway, you would find yourself crossing his path a fourth time.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Re-reading The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell. We did this for English O level 30 years ago and I liked it so much I stole a copy from the school bookroom, which I've read so many times that it's falling to bits.

At the stage where the mutiny is just beginning, I turn a page from the right-hand half of the book and it comes away from the binding, and has to be gently placed on the left-hand pile. Eventually a page is reached where the binding still holds - but this point is gradually advancing through the book. Currently it's at the bit where Fleury is coming up with his plan to rescue Lucy from the dak bungalow.

Although I've read it so many times, this is the first re-read in about 15 years, because I went off it when I found so many of the episodes were fairly straight transcriptions from contemporary accounts of the Mutiny (I recommend the Christopher Hibbert book if you want them direct). I know Farrell openly acknowledges this in the afterword, but it still put me off.

I've come back to it because I recently re-read Farrell's first major novel, Troubles, which is to the Irish war of independence what Siege is to the Indian one, and it reminded me of how much I like his style. Like all my favourite authors he recycles plot elements: Faith and Charity (no hope...) from Troubles resurface in the 'foolish, pretty Misses O'Hanlon' in Siege, and the encroaching vegetation in the palm court has its parallel in the encroaching clutter of possessions in the Residency.

I also got hold of his unfinished Hill Station, feat. Dr McNab and Miriam from Siege. It was nice to see them again, and interesting to see Farrell continuing to play with the church controversies he made use of in the former book.

Now pursuing The Singapore Grip, the other of his three major novels - and still wondering if Fleury and his spaniel Chloe owe anything to Flory from Burmese Days and his spaniel Flo...

Updated to say that I caught up with The Singapore Grip, and liked it up until the blatant French Lieutenant's Woman ripoff on the penultimate page, at which point I threw it across the room in disgust and never found out who survived and who didn't. But I noticed the litter of possessions from the Residency reappearing in the abandoned possessions on the road to the Singapore quayside.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Jan Dyson and Thawpit

And while I'm on, the 'bottle Thawpit' that Jannie adds to her shopping list in Towards the End of the Morning was a proprietary stain remover - actually carbon tetrachloride, long since banned as highly toxic and possibly carcinogenic, so I hope she used to keep it out of Damian and Gawain's reach.

Pooter and Kinahan

It appears that the 'Kinahan' that Pooter sends out for when he has a cold was a kind of branded whisky. That explains his chagrin when Sarah comes back with the own-label version for 2/6 (2d back on the bottle) and plonks it on the table in front of his friends.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Campbell Dodgson, and something not a lot of people know about him

It seems that not only was Campbell 'the second master objects to this' Dodgson indeed related to Charles Dodgson, as I half suspected anyway, but also that, 30 years after Babbacombe when he was Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, his chauffeur had a cookery-obsessed son who the world would come to know as Len Deighton.

Or to put it another way, Campbell Dodgson's chauffeur was Len Deighton's father.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

'Wasn't even the best drummer in The Beatles'

The quote about Ringo not even being the best drummer in The Beatles is widely attributed to John Lennon, and almost as widely corrected to in fact being a Jasper Carrott joke from 1983.

But I've just heard it today in Radio Active, the 80s Radio 4 comedy, series 1 episode 5, first broadcast October 6th 1981.

So either JC borrowed the joke from them, or he wrote it himself prior to that date, let them steal it and then refrained from using it himself for another 2 years.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

'"Ulster 71" Paintings'

If you've any familiarity with GB stamps you'll recognise these as the first decimal commemoratives. I'd turn the page in Collect British Stamps after poring over the first decimal definitives, and come across these with their muted colours and vaguely foreboding name.

About 35 years later it's occurred to me to look up what 'Ulster 71' actually was. I'd assumed it was some kind of innocuous art show, but it was actually the 50th anniversary celebrations of Northern Ireland, unfortunately organised just as it was all kicking off over there. Described by one search result as 'Ulster's ill-timed jubilee'.

It seems these are 3 paintings by Northern Irish artists. Sadly, the Northern Irish government didn't like these stamps when they previewed them, and asked for them to be scrapped and replaced by one with a picture of the Ulster 71 Exhibition, or 'a factory', but it was too late.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

First use of the pound sign

Anyone who, like me, has spent a cross half hour looking for the first historical use of the pound sign (£ - the stylised L used to represent pounds sterling/GBP) will find the best answer on the Royal Mint Museum site.

The earliest example they know about is from January 1661, and it was apparently in common use by the time the Bank of England was founded in 1694.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Women and bagpipes

This thing about how women found playing the bagpipes supposedly had their fingers cut off.

Isn't it based on a misunderstanding of [William Laird Manson, The Highland Bagpipe, 1901, p.165] the story about the girl who learnt some of the secret tricks of the Mac Crimmon pipers, and told them to her sweetheart?

The point being that in that story at least, they cut her fingers off for giving away their secrets, not for transgressing gender norms.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Fine films my sagas would make

I spent some time a month or so ago assembling a detailed Dodgson timeline from the various bios - it all leads up to Saturday, June 27th 1863, which along with the next 2 days was ripped out of his diaries.

Having had lots of face time with Alice and her sisters since March 1863, CD had become more and more confident, and in the days preceding Sat Jun 27 he mentions that he'd asked Mrs Liddell (her mum natch) to 'send the children over as usual'.

None of the Liddells are mentioned again until Dec 2 1863! My reading has always been that he'd worked himself up to the point of considering proposing to Alice as soon as she was old enough - something that wasn't all that unusual in the Victorian era, creepy as it sounds now.

Dodgson was or wasn't a child molester in the same way that eggs are and aren't bad for you according to the most recent edition of the Daily Mail. If you try and approach him solely through that question you won't understand him at all.

I've always thought that Dodgson v Mrs Liddell would make a fantastic film. It'd have the Oxbridge tradition factor that made The Masters so popular, the draw of a man and woman facing off in a power struggle, and the added titillation factor of the 'Filthy Peedo Controversy.' And then you can fast forward to 10 years later in 1875, when the Liddells vainly hoped that Alice might marry Prince Leopold, then studying at Christ Church.

And throw in Cakeless, the satire of the whole thing written by the luckless student John Howe Jenkins, who paints a very telling picture indeed of 'Kraftsohn' objecting to the marriage of 'Ecilia' to 'a Prince, the youngest of his race.' - and was sent down for his pains.

In fact JHJ could probably be the narrator. This film writes itself!!

(Apologies for the roughness. I need to post this to a forum and I want it up on my own blog first in case of tiresome disputes)

(This interesting post may tell us what happened to JHJ after he got sent down. (I love the interlocutor's theory that Dodgson wrote Cakeless himself - but even if it was true, this story is complicated enough already.))

I should also add that Mrs Liddell - Lorina Liddell we should really call her - seems to have been aware of the draw her adorable children constituted. I happened to read a review of a new Dodgson bio in the FT last weekend that has her and the Dean going out to dinner leaving John Ruskin to play with them, and having unavoidably come back early, LL commenting 'How sorry you must be to see us, Mr Ruskin!'

I'm noticing a surprising number of readers for this post (in fact it's quite surprising when any of my posts get a hit) - so I'll take it upon myself to recommend further reading of the various Lewis Carroll biographies.

  • If you're only going to read one: pick one of these three quite factual treatments: Derek Hudson is a solid treatment and probably the most 'popular' of all the ones I'll mention here, but rather old now. Michael Bakewell has a more modern perspective. Ann Clarke is in the same territory as Derek Hudson, but pays more attention to how Alice and Mrs Liddell might have perceived events, and as such might well appeal more to readers of this post.
  • If you're ready to read widely: as well as the above bios, Donald Thomas and Morton N Cohen allow themselves to speculate more freely. If it came to a choice between those two I'd keep the MNC book, because it's more exhaustive, and also because MNC keeps Lewis Carroll centre stage when DT prefers to switch to covering late 20th century moral panics.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Sylvie and Bruno

He thought he saw a Banker's Clerk
Descending from the bus:
He looked again, and found it was
A Hippopotamus.
'If this should stay to dine,' he said,
'There won't be much for us!'

If you're still reading this blog then you're probably familiar with that verse, or one of the others from the same poem, and you may well know that it's by Lewis Carroll. But it's quite possible you've never heard of Sylvie and Bruno/Sylvie and Bruno Concluded which it comes from.

I've become completely fascinated by this book, which is the Carry On Dick of Lewis Carroll's works - if COD hadn't just been a pile of crap, but additionally no-one had ever heard of it except hardcore Carry On fans.

Michael Bakewell's bio describes it as 'like a wrecked treasure ship', and herewith the best net remarks on it I've found so far - http://mural.uv.es/anma/failure.html.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Big thinking...

I've put the Big Thinker to work generating an index of the Naive Avengersthon posts for your convenience.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Ones Who Stand In The Lobby At Omelas

I write down all my interesting dreams in a notebook, and I give the best ones titles. Early this morning I dreamt one that I immediately entitled The Ones Who Stand In The Lobby At Omelas:

I'd been invited to the opening of this massive skyscraper designed by an utterly wanky architect who always put whimsical things like rubber ducks or teddy bears on the very pinnacle of his buildings. In this one, it had a massive pillar base so the 'ground floor' lobby was like 50 storeys off the ground.

I'm mingling with all the yacking hipster cunts at the reception in the lobby, when apocalyptic floods break out all across the Earth. All the others flee into the main part of the building, but I just stand there as hordes of desperate survivors come stampeding up the stairs from outside and press themselves against the impenetrable lobby doors. They're all just getting crushed to death and everyone is drowning outside.

I could open the doors, and there are lifts, which I could send down to rescue more people, or I could go down there myself.

Or I could go into the main part of the building and survive luxuriously, but I'd be shut in the building with hipster cunts for the rest of my life. And they'd taunt me for not acting in accordance with my principles.

If I let the hordes in, there wouldn't be enough food, and everyone would die anyway, including me.

So I'm just standing there in front of the interior doors, looking at all these refugees dying, and unable to decide what to do.

There isn't a punchline I'm afraid, I woke up, which was just as well as I'd still be standing there otherwise.

Friday, January 23, 2015

LotR and DW

People from the excellent BBC Radio 4 production of Lord of the Rings (1981, repeated 1987 and 2003 and available on CD) who have also been in DW:
  • Peter Howell (Saruman) - The Mutants (The Investigator)
  • Jack May (Théoden) - The Space Pirates (General Hermack)
  • Patrick Barr (Gamling) - The Moonbase (Hobson)
  • Gerard Murphy (Narrator) - Silver Nemesis (Richard)
  • Stephen Thorne (Treebeard) - The Daemons (Azal), The Three Doctors (Omega), The Hand of Fear (male Eldrad)
  • David Collings (Legolas) - The Robots of Death (Poul), Mawdryn Undead (Mawdryn)
  • Donald Gee (Radagast) - of course Monster of Peladon (Eckersley)! and also The Space Pirates apparently
  • Michael Spice (Háma) The Talons of Weng-Chiang (Weng-Chiang), The Brain of Morbius (Morbius voice)
  • Philip Voss (Lord of the Nazgûl) - The Dominators (Wahed)
And honourable mention to:
  • Pauline Letts (Ioreth) (Barry Letts' sister, it seems) ubiquitous in BBC radio drama for several decades
  • Peter Woodthorpe (Gollum) - one or more voice parts in Radio 4's Whatever Happened To... Susan Foreman (1994)
Not Doctor Who but still genre:
  • Peter Howell - also played the Professor in the Prisoner ep The General
  • Jack May - in the Avengers ep The Secrets Broker, and went on to a secure berth in The Archers
  • David Collings - Silver in Sapphire and Steel
  • Michael Graham Cox (Boromir) - also Boromir in Ralph Bakshi's animated LotR
  • Peter Woodthorpe again - also Gollum'd for RB
  • Marian Diamond (Galadriel) - one of the motorcycle enthusiasts in the Avengers ep Build A Better Mousetrap
Not Doctor Who, or genre, but deserving honourable mention - the 1986 Radio 4 production of The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen:
  • Peter Woodthorpe as the postillion
  • John Church (Gaffer Gamgee) as King George and God
(thanks to a certain Zoner for the Philip Voss information)