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Sidekicks [May. 25th, 2016|05:38 pm]
My reading group has been discussing sidekicks. Although we are a library-based reading group, we are anomalous in that what we read is graphic novels / comics. Whether because these are more expensive than the average paperback or for some other reason, the library isn't able to supply us with multiple copies of the same thing. So instead of all reading the same book and discussing it at a single meeting, we take a theme, and read whatever we can find that is relevant to it, either from the library's collection or from our own, rather richer, resources: people are immensely generous about lending out their comics. And for the past several sessions we have been looking at sidekicks, which has proved immensely more rewarding than I expected. Worth trying to pull together some of the discussion notes I've been jotting down...

I closed my previous post with the question 'Who puts a 16 year old boy in the line of fire? and only as I typed it realised how neatly it brought me into this topic. Because superhero comics do, that's who, it's a motif that we take so much for granted that - well, as I say, I wasn't expecting how much we would find to say about it once we stopped to look at it. Louise asked, yesterday, "Why is it that when we talk about sidekicks we always come back to Batman and Robin?"* Because they are the classic model of hero plus sidekick. Who, having decided that, given their particular abilities, what they need to do is put on a skin-tighht costume and fight crime (OK, I do see that that's a big leap of the imagination right there) would follow on with the decision that what they really need by way of an assistant is a keen but not otherwise qualified child companion? But Robin is very far from being the only Boy Wonder: there's Kid Flash, Speedy, Bucky Barnes, Young & Kid MarvelMiracleman**...

The reader is indoctrinated, in other words, to treat the sidekick as no more absurd than the rest of the narrative, because however problematic they may be, they are so convenien to the storyteller. They serve two obvious functions: they give the hero someone to talk to (the confidant of French classical drama)
and they give the reader someone to identify with, either a) as a younger character for younger readers or b) as a non-super character for non-super reader. I thought I'd summarised that pretty neatly, until I discovered that Neil Gaiman had put it better in his introduction to Rick Veitch's BratPack: "Innocent kids out there swinging from tall buildings with their vigilante mentors so the kids reading would have someone to identify with, so the heroes could have someone to explain the plot to".

BratPack was my one piece of dedicated reading around the topic. I suspect that I have seen it around but not actually read it: it's very unpleasant, in a MAD magazine sort of way, and I would probably have shied away from it. To be fair, it's deliberately unpleasant, taking as its point of departure the death of Jason Todd, Dick Grayson's replacement as Robin whose life or death was the subject of a readers' poll. Denny O'Neil, Batman editor at the time, is name-checked in BratPack's radio host Neal Dennis, who conducts an acual phone-in poll on whether the kid sidekicks of the local superheroes should live or die - and the vote for extermination is implemented by Doctor Blasphemy. The recruitment of replacements allows the narrative to use the fresh viewpoint of the new sidekick to look at the 'heroes', all of whom are grim and gritty in the way that only immediaately post-Watchmen characters could be. But BratPack does also have something to say about what sidekicks are for, whick is [redacted]SPOILER

Sidekicks don't have to be kids. An adult sidekick can also add the possibility of identifying with someone who is, like the reader, not super-powered. The obvious starting point is Doctor Watson: but who else? On the basis of discussion in the group, I need to return to Bryan Talbot's Grandville series, to consider the character of Ratzi. Who is superman's sidekick? Is it Jimmy Olsen, Superman;s pal, or is he part of supporting cast?? If the sidekick is the non-super companion, is Clark Kent Superman's sidekick? Sometimes the alter ego Yis genuinely without powers, like Don Blake (for those who read Thor back when) or Mike Moran or, in the case of certain iterations of Captain Marvel, Rick Jones, serial sidekick.

And if we weren't now coming in to London, we could compare these to Peter Parker, who integrates the two aspects, hero and alter ego, in one.

* We also keep coming back to Britten and Brülightly, but they are pretty much a one-off.

**And look how well that turned out!*** Which leads to the question whether it is possible to write sidekicks straight any more, or whether there will always be a layer of irony? Or, if not irony as such, some form of self-consciousness, awareness of precedent, interpretation, something?

***We didn't, in fact, spend as long as we might have considering how well MarvelMiracleman turned out, because so many of the group hadn't read it, and those of us who had tried not to spoiler them. It was a surprise, and a useful reminder, that even in this brave new world in which comics are not ephemeral and remain available, there are exceptions.

SPOILER D'uh! They are just there to sell merchandise.
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We're on the train [May. 25th, 2016|04:03 pm]
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Just leaving a wet and rainy Northallerton, and I have a large tumbler of sauvignon blanc ("they don't teach them about portion control," says durham_rambler, and how right he is).

Anything we have left undone is going to have to stay undone - no, wait, I wish it were that simple. If there is anything the builders need us to have done which we have not done, they will either have to do without or do themselves. I wish I found this reassuring. Boss builder saw us off with a cheery "Don't worry about anything!" surely among the most alarming words in the English language, second only to "We are pleased to announce an upgrade!"

But we are on our way, and not sorry to be leaving building and decorating behind us for a bit. We have a week in London, with a curious double focus: it just so happens that GirlBear's birthday coincides with the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. It always does, of course, but this year we will be celebrating a significant birthday and commemorating the centenary of the battle. Actually, the main activity around the Battle of Jutland will be taking place in Orkney, and I can't claim that I wasn't tempted, but it wasn't really possible, because, on the one hand, birthday! and on the other hand this is what we will be doing tomorrow.

There is a project to install a paving stone at or near the home of everybody who won a VC in World War One, and one of these is Jack Cornwell, who was durham_rambler's grandfather's cousin. Wikipedia version here and Charles Causley's version of the story on Google Books. It's clear that the ceremony is going to be in patriotic and mode, and any reflection of the 'Who puts a 16 year old boy in the line of fire?' will be kept strictly to ourselves.
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Home thoughts [May. 24th, 2016|11:37 am]

From the attic, where I am hiding work, I can hear hammering from the basement, where quasi-resident builder is damp-proofing walls (yes, this has been done before, and yes, it is being done again, and oh, well, once every thirty years is probably fair enough).

Interesting tearing sounds emerge from the spare bedroom, where decorators are removing wallpaper.

Outside on the scaffolding there is silence, because nothing is happening. Again. But the scaffolders promise to be here first thing tomorrow. durham_rambler is very keen that there should be no scaffolding on the house while we are away in London, and we depart early afternoon tomorrow: I see no hope of it being removed by then, but with luck we should at least know that removal is happening.

We had a discussion with boss builder on Saturday morning, and he agreed that work should not start on our bedroom until it has been completed in the spare bedroom. I feel much better knowing that when we return from our week away, there will be a bed for us to sleep in.
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#cat_photo_of_the_day [May. 21st, 2016|09:09 pm]
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With thanks to Gail-Nina, The Topiary Cat.
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News from the home front [May. 20th, 2016|10:29 pm]

The news from the home front is that the front of my home is still covered in scaffolding. It should have been removed on Wednesday, but scaffolding contractors are free spirits, apparently, and not constrained by other people's timetables.

Nonetheless, behind the scaffolding the work has been done, and there is much repaired woodwork and shiny new paint, and this is progress. At the back of the house, the work is almost complete, although we still have a bright orange plastic barrier on the back steps, to stop us falling off while railings are under construction (actually, railings are currently at the conceptual stage, but railings man tells builder he has no problem with our concept; he just doesn't seem able to talk to us about it).

So it's good news that the external work is almost complete. I can't even claim that it's bad news that the builders have come indoors, because I do want the work to be done. Just, there are days when I have to keep reminding myself of that, and today has been one of them. Our almost-resident builder is no trouble, runs on weak coffee (no, not just weak compared to mine, seriously weak), gets on with the job, cleans up after himself, is less messy than I am - and I still feel a weight lifting when he leaves and we have the house to ourselves. But today was special.

I had forgotten that when I last posted on this subject I said: "Meanwhile, I am reluctant to start clearing what remains of my kitchen until I know when redecoration and reinstatement are to start: which probably means it will have to be done in a hideous rush when it does happen." That's not exactly where we are, but it's accurate about the area of conflict.

We've said from the start that we wanted to prioritise work on the kitchen, and that we would prefer to redecorate the three rooms one at a time, so that we always had somewhere that was habitable, and somewhere to put things that had to be moved from the room currently being worked on. We know our limitations, we have a lot of clutter, and this seemed like a workable approach. The boss builder has smiled and nodded and said yes, and yet somehow here we are with the decorator due to arrive on Monday to start work on all three rooms, the kitchen still very much in a state of flux and, for perfectly sound reasons to do with tackling rising damp in the wall common to the kitchen/dining room, builders at work in the dining room as well.

As of yesterday evening, our understanding was that regular builder would be in today to reinstate the skirting board that had been removed in the spare bedroom, and we then had the weekend to clear all movables out of the spare bedroom, ready for the decorator to start stripping wallpaper on Monday morning. We would also need to continue clearing our bedroom and the kitchen, so that by the time we leave for London on Wednesday (had I mentioned that we're off for a week in London?) the builders and decorators would have a free hand.

We returned from the swimming pool this morning to find our builder removing plaster in the dining room while his colleague chipped off the tiles from the wall in the kitchen. And, they informed me, the boss had visited in our absence and cleared much of the stuff out of the spare bedroom. I went up to have a look: he had indeed moved many boxes and random objects, and piled them up on the landing, which was not where I had been planning to put them (and blocking access to the chest containing the clean towels, not to mention a small bag of books for which I had actually negotiated a home).

When the dust in the kitchen had settled sufficiently for us to make coffee, I felt a bit better about this, but still not happy. I'm very uneasy at how little control we have over what happens, and how little we can rely even on what we are told will happen. I can see us returning from London to find no single room in which we can actually sleep, not to mention cook.

Despite which, I think we have to spend the weekend, as we intended, clearing the rooms to be decorated, and finding places to stow the things we remove from them. Then we'll see how things go next week. But I'm seriously considering locking all the doors and taking the keys with us when we go away.
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Mais, le lendemain matin... [May. 17th, 2016|09:43 pm]
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When I wrote about our day in Pau, I said that the next morning was another story: and that story is all about the shopping. Sometines this is a good thing.

Pau's organic market is held on two mornings a week, Wednesday and Saturday, and by a lucky chance, this was a Wednesday. The market is held in the scruffier part of town, in a cavernous old market hall where the stalls looked rather lost: but we walked round, buying good things for our picnic lunch and making hard choices, and it didn't look so sparse after all.

If I were a braver photographer, I'd have taken a photograph of one of our fellow-shoppers, a gentleman wearing a light purple pullover, clutching a deep orange potimarron (one of these), and a small bouquet of bright green herbs. Since I almost never photograph people, here are some carrots:

Organic carrots

We lingered by a stall selling organic wine long enough to pick up a leaflet, with a map. "Don't buy here if you can go to the domain," said the vendor, "You can taste the wines there."

We drove out of town past a mural, a picture of a man wearing a beret and holding an umbrella: "le dernier manufacture de parapluies artisanales de Béarn" - I hadn't previously thought of umbrellas as a craft product, but why not? This might be the business it was advertising.

Our route now took us into the hills and vineyards of the Jurançon. We made a not very satisfying stop at the Cave in Gan (easily identified by the giant bottle outside): they were perfectly pleasant, and let us try whatever we wanted, but since we didn't know what we wanted, that wasn't as much help as it might have been. Instead we headed for Domaine Tinou: down the road, and then up a smaller road, and on until the vines appear on the slope above you to the right: then turn into the farm drive, ring the bell and eventually the dog's barking brings M. Hondet (he was already producing wine here in 1964, when he converted to organic, so he can be forgiven for being a bit deaf). When we told him we'd piucked up his leaflet at the Marchŕ Bio in Pau, he said, "Ah, you've met my son!" and ushered us into the barn where we tasted some delicious wines, from the lean dry white to the luscious gokden sweet wine, not forgetting a light and refreshing rosŕ. We couldn't bring them all home with us, but we did our best.

I would have liked to spend longer exploring the area, but it began to rain, and back on the road we found ourselves nearing Oloron Sainte-Marie before we knew what had happened. Another time we will spend longer getting to know the Jurançon - and the Madiran - but right now we located our B&B, which was on the Place Saint Pierre:

Place Saint-Pierre

a sandy oval bordered with plane trees, a quiet place to picnic in the shade - except that it is also adjacent to the primary school, and serves as a handy playground for the children who are waiting for afternoon school to begin. Perhaps the bench we had chosen marked the goal of their football game? But being well brought up French children, one of them paused, retrieving the ball, to wish us "Bon appétit!"
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Food and wine and food-and-wine [May. 16th, 2016|10:17 pm]
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I thought I had written about the food fair in Bishop Auckland, but maybe not. Ah, well. Anyway, one of the things I bought there was some stewing veal, and yesterday I took it out of the freezer and made a blanquette de veau. It's a dish I haven't made in a long time (I don't manage to buy veal very often) and I was pleased with how it came out, the sauce all lemony and buttery, the meat sweet and tender. Since it's classic old fashioned French cuisine, I wanted a classic French wine to drink with it, and chose a bottle that we had bought at the Maison des Vins in Gaillac: the Domaine Philémon Perlé (information about the producer in English, and I wish I'd known about their Jurançon Noir, I don't remember seeing that). My only hesitation was that it might be too light, and I'm glad I didn't check the website which recommends serving it as an aperitif or with fish, or I might have been dissuaded from serving it with the veal. It was light and fresh, and the almost-fizz indicated by the name 'Perlé' accentuated that, but it had enough flavour, a good balance of fruit and acidity, to go well with the veal and its sauce.

Sometimes I wish I had asked the internet before deciding which wine to serve with what. D. brought us a bottle of Brana's Harri Gorri, which was particularly welcome as we had not been very successful in buying Irouléguy when we were there (short version: the domain we wanted to buy from was harvesting on the day we called, and too busy to sell; the local supermarket doesn't sell local wine and the Cave Co-op's wines are unimpressive. We bought some, but grudgingly). Harri Gorri</a> (can't say that name too often) is much more elegant than we are accustomed to in an Irouléguy (I don't know how it manages that when it's 50% tannat, but it does), and would have been much happier with the following night's lamb stew, as the Wine Society's website suggests, than with whatever I served it with (don't remember). Then again, the Brana website says serve with game or grilled meat, which suggests something chunkier. It also uses the word "empyreumatique" which was new to me, and I had to look it up (show-off winespeak for the toasty flavours associated with oak, it says here).

One more bottle of Basque wine, this one from the other side of the Pyrenees, On the last day of our holiday we had made the most of our last chance to stock up at a Spanish supermarket. Choosing a last few bottles of wine with no better guidance than whether I liked the label, I picked an elegant little bottle of Beldui txacoli. All the text on the label was in Basque, so there were no clues about how to serve it. Eventually I opened the bottle and tasted it. At cellar temperature it was a little flat, almost musty, and I opened a bottle of red to drink with the chicken. But served chilled to accompany cheese and grapes for dessert, the txacoli's dullness was transformed into a subtle oxidation, an almost sherry-like edge. So that was all right. And oh, look, you can visit the vineyard...
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News from Stockholm [May. 14th, 2016|10:37 pm]

The news from Eurovision is that somehow a clever little song has found its way into the contest, representing Sweden. durham_rambler was so shocked that he phoned in a vote for it.

I'm still lamenting the absence of Belarus: but the video on the Eurovision website doesn't show the extraordinary lighting effects that so impressed me in the semi-final - no, not that Ivan appeared naked, and not even the wolves.

Actually, forget the songs, this year's show is all about the lighting. Italy, wearing sparkly dungarees, in a flooded garden, Ukraine's beatiful tree of light...

If Germany is channeling some manga that I ought to recognise, would someone let me know, please? No hurry, though, I'm not planning to stay up for the voting.
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Woody sez... [May. 10th, 2016|11:04 am]
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If I hadn't already booked tickets for Woody Sez, we would have been in Sunderland last Friday, to hear Bryan and Mary Talbot talking about their new book, The Red Virgin, a life of Louise Michel.

Because that's how life goes: you wait years to be entertained by a biography of a left-wing hero, and then two come along together.

Woody Sez is a show about Woody Guthrie, of course. I keep wanting to say it's a one-man show, because that's the format, though there's a cast of four, and while David Lutken devised the show and plays Woody throughout (from the age of three onwards), the other three performers play everyone else, and many - many - instruments too. They are Eleanor Brunsdon, Ruth Clarke-Irons and Will Wolfe Hogan (according to the website for the current UK tour, since the flier handed out at the theatre wasn't giving that sort of information).

Likewise, it wasn't until I started writing this that I realised the show isn't new: this Guardian review was published in January 2011. Then again, a show about Woody Guthrie doesn't get old. I didn't learn much about Guthrie that I hadn't already known. I suspect the text relies heavily on his own writing, which seems a good choice for what is essentially a celebration, and a showcase for the songs - and what else would you want it to be?
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Out [May. 8th, 2016|06:32 pm]
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We were up early, while the morning mist was still hovering over the railway embankment. But by mid-morning the sun was out, so we went out.

First to the Botanic Gardens, where the cherry blossom is out:

Cherry blossom garland

Then down the lane to the woods, where the bluebells are out, and particularly splendid this year. weegoddess, I was thinking of you - and can you see who else was out for a walk in the bluebell woods?

A walk in the bluebell woods
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