Nine Worlds and me!

I am HERE. I will be here until Monday. Come find me in the bar of SEE ME TO THINGS. Specifically:

Saturday, 6:45pm, ‘”Witness Me!” Recognition and Intersubjectivity in Mad Max: Fury Road’

Sunday, 3:15pm,’Transformative Shakespeare: Fanfiction and Beyond’

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Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

The Ghostbusters team in from of the Ghostbuster's car

I ain’t afraid of no ghost!

Ghostbusters is officially the most fun I have had in the cinema for a very long time. It may not be the cinematic masterpiece that was Fury Road last summer, but it is hilarious from start to finish whilst also delivering on an appropriate amount of genuinely scary ghosts.

I was a real fan of the original Ghostbusters films and I am not generally in favour of remaking great films just to rake in more cash, but ever since the success of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot I have been wholeheartedly in favour of films and TV that take something I loved from my childhood and update it in genuinely interesting ways – specifically, to make it relevant to a new generation and to improve on things that now stand out as problematic in the originals. So when I heard that this was to be an all female Ghostbusters, I was interested. As much as I have great affection for the original films, they were uncomfortably misogynistic. The fact that we are expected to root for Venkman’s (Bill Murray) stalking of and aggressive sexual advances towards Dana Barrett (Sigourny Weaver) – his client – and find Louis Tully’s (Rick Moranis) stalking amusing… this is deeply disturbing to the 2016 eye, and extremely uncomfortable for a female viewer.

Rebooting this classic film franchise in a way women can enjoy without these unpleasant undertones was a stroke of genius.

Against the Backlash

Naturally, the film has attracted a lot of sexist backlash. I won’t dwell on the attention-seeking misogynists who have tried to tank the film before it even came out, they’ve had quite enough attention as it is. But I will say that I’m inclined to agree with @Lumetian on Twitter, that ‘MRA Horror is my new favourite genre‘. Whilst not actually a genre in itself – films like the dramatic cinematic masterpiece, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the science-fiction comedy, Ghostbusters, really have very little to do with one another in terms of genre – the sheer levels of horror exhibited by so-called ‘Men’s Right’s Activists’ at the very existence of these films is turning out to be a very good indication that the film will be a quality piece of entertainment.

As a fan, I was excited for more Ghostbusters; as a woman, I was excited that the wrongs of the past were to be corrected and that I would get to watch a science-fiction/fantasy film where the heroes were all women.

Race and Representation

Which is not to say that I had no reservations – as others have pointed out, it’s a very white cast and whilst the three white women on the team are all scientists, the black woman, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) is a working class woman who, from the trailer, was presented as having no professional skills beyond wise-cracking street sense. Note, however, that Leslie Jones herself defended this on Twitter, noting that an MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) worker had contacted her to thank her for representing people who perform this kind of role. Privilege and oppression remain multi-sided, and representing working class people as heroes is also important. The issue comes from the fact that white people are more likely to be represented as professionals and scientists, whereas black people are far more likely to have roles as working class people. Why couldn’t one of the white women have been an MTA worker, after all?

I was pleased to see that the role did have a lot more to it than appeared from the trailer. Patty shows herself to be very knowledgeable about the city, and not simply in a ‘streetwise’ manner, but in actually knowing a lot of historical information that becomes crucial to fighting ghosts and solving the film’s central enigma. This doesn’t completely erase the problematic aspects, and as a white person myself I’m not best placed to comment on whether Patty’s character constitutes ‘good’ representation or not, but overall my feeling is that she’s better than no representation at all and I appreciated that the film promoted a wonderful comedian like Leslie Jones.

It’s worth noting that Leslie was slighted by the fashion world, where designers refused to provide her with gowns for the red carpet simply because she isn’t a ‘sample’ size. After she called this out on Twitter, designer Christian Siriano stepped up to the plate and provided her with a stunning red gown. Without doubt, it is Leslie and Christian who have come out of this looking best, but as a rising star she should never have had to be in this situation. Basically, I mostly just want to raise pom-poms for Leslie right now.

Representation of Men

In the run up to the release there was a lot of noise made about the prospect of supposed ‘reverse sexism’. It’s feminism 101 to point out that sexism is institutional, widespread, and historic – it simply isn’t possible for men to experience ‘reverse’ sexism against their background of massive privilege. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that individual men cannot be objectified, misrepresented, or stereotyped in ways that hurt both men and women. Prejudice is never good.

I’ve addressed elsewhere the question of whether Chris Hemsworth‘s character, Kevin, is shown as objectified in the trailer. The answer, by the way, is no. Objectification is the reduction of a person or character to an object: lack of characterisation, focus on body-parts rather than the face or actions of a character, absence of agency or self-directedness, existence purely for the visual pleasure of the viewer and other characters within the media presented. This wasn’t exhibited in the trailer, but there remained the question about how he would be treated in the movie as a whole.

It is worth noting that Kevin is a caricature, but he is not a stereotype. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character like him in film before. Kevin is extremely handsome and not very bright. He is nonetheless very likeable and characterful. He is clearly meant as a counterpoint to stereotypical representations of female receptionists in film and TV – beautiful but unintelligent, an object of attraction – the ‘sexy lamp‘ as characterised by Kelly Sue DeConnick – a character that could be replaced by a sexy lamp with no detriment to the plot. As a send up of this, Kevin is hilarious, and yet Kevin himself is neither a stereotype, nor a sexy lamp.

Kevin cannot be a stereotype because men have never been presented ubiquitously in this manner. Nor is there any evidence that he is intended to present men in general or to be a realistic representation of a man. His characteristics are exaggerated to a pants-wettingly funny extent, and it’s quite clear that the famously handsome Chris Hemsworth (best known for playing the superhero, Thor) is having the time of his life in this role.

Nor could Kevin be replaced by a sexy lamp. Despite his incompetence as a receptionist, Kevin displays an interesting character with a life independent of the women in the film and undertakes agentful action that affects the plot. Kevin is an actor for whom being a receptionist is his day job, he plays competitive hide and seek, he dabbles in graphic design. He is exaggerated, but rounded.

I’ll admit to being a little uncomfortable with how often other characters comment on Kevin’s handsomeness – this is not, it has to be said, something that men say about other men very often. However, I think that’s kind of the point. As a caricature of how women are frequently shown in film, we see how strange and uncomfortable behaviours are that are completely accepted when directed at women.

I was also uncomfortable with Erin Gilbert’s (Kirsten Wiig) attempts at flirting with Kevin in the workplace. However, in stark contrast to Venkman’s sexual advances towards Dana Barrett in the original, Gilbert’s colleagues call her out on her behaviour and no romantic relationship results from her advances. Sexual harassment is not endorsed or normalised by the film, and that is the key.

Beyond the representation of Kevin, there are a whole host of male characters, each with different personalities. Far from the MRA-nightmare of a film that presents all men as Evil, men have individual personalities, mostly neither good nor evil, just different. Yes, the bad guy is a man, but his representation is no different from the representation of bad guys as alienated loners to be found in umpteen million other films in this genre.

Entertainment Value

Overall, this had everything I wanted from a Ghostbusters film. It was extremely funny. Melissa McCarthy as Abby Yates, Kirsten Wiig as Erin Gilbert, Leslie Jones as Patty Tolan, and Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman were all hilarious in very different ways. I’ll admit that early in the film I found there wasn’t enough to differentiate Yates and Holtzman, who seemed to be competing for enthusiastic maverick, but this swiftly changes as Jillian Holtzman becomes one of the most delightful and unique characters I have had the pleasure of seeing in film. She expresses a wild side quite unlike Abby’s and her dual-wielding proton-pistol fight sequence is a real crowning action moment for the film.

But as well as laughs, action, and the social awkwardness we expect of the loveable outsiders the Ghostbusters should be, the film also delivers genuine scares. The ghosts achieve the otherworldliness of the originals surprisingly well, delivering a higher level of imagination and quality than I expect from modern CGI. I’m rarely actually scared by horror, but I jumped several times in response to spooky goings on I didn’t see coming. Right from the opening sequence the ghosts are frightening and visually captivating.

I had the pleasure of seeing this in 3D at the IMAX, and I would say that if you’re able to watch it in 3D (the medium is not suitable for everyone) it’s worth doing so. This is a film that does 3D well.


If you still have any concerns that this film is in some way a snub to the originals, lay them to rest. All of the original team who are still with us make an appearance as a part of a series of delightful cameos – look out for Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Annie Potts, and Ernie Hudson, as well as Sigourney Weaver who appears as part of the credits sequence (which you should definitely stay for). Moreover, Dan Aykroyd was an executive producer of the film. This movie is 100% endorsed by the old crew and for me it felt to be very much in the spirit of the originals.

I thoroughly recommend this film for an evening of fun and guaranteed laughs. Treat yourself!

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Review: Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

Cover art for Foo's Assassin

Cover art for Fool’s Assassin

I’ve been saving this one. It was released whilst I was still completing my PhD, and though I had read all the other Robin Hobb books I could get my hands on as they came out, this one I saved.

As you’ll know, if you’re a regular reader, I was done with my PhD a while ago, but I held back from starting on this almost superstitiously. I had put it on too high a pedestal. I had waited too long. I’d struggled a bit with the later Rain Wilds Chronicles books and was worried Hobb would somehow have lost her touch with Fitz and the Fool, my very favourites.

And I’d simply fallen out of the habit of reading fiction. Or at least, fiction that I had not read before. When you’re ill and depressed and stretched thin for years you only risk your pleasure hours on that which is trusted and easy. I trusted Robin Hobb, mostly, but I wasn’t up for as harrowing a journey as the Soldier Son trilogy. Nor did I want to mar this new series with my depression.

But, emboldened by the fact that my mother has recently started reading the Livership Trader books, I embarked on this new journey.

Fitz and the Fool

I say ‘new’, Fitz and the Fool are hardly new characters, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone introduce themselves to Robin Hobb with this book. Not because it is bad – far from it! – but because it is so far down the line into the rich world she has created, and one could not possibly feel the full impact of the novel’s events without knowing the story of Fitz and the Fool from their beginning in Assassin’s Apprentice.

Fitz and the Fool is the fifth trilogy set in the world that we are introduced to with Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book in the Farseer trilogy. Although one might read the Farseer Trilogy, The Tawny Man Trilogy, and Fitz and the Fool without the other books set in this world, the rich interconnectedness of world events and cultures is at the heart of these series, and I honestly recommend reading them all.

To stick to just these characters, though, Fitz is the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, who had been crown prince before the revelation of Fitz’s existence caused him to retire to a quiet life with his barren wife, Lady Patience. Fitz, meanwhile, was trained as an assassin – to be a tool for the Farseer crown, instead of a danger to it. Possessed of both the royal magic, the Skill, and the forbidden animal magic, the Wit, Fitz lives a turbulent life, events swirling around the possibilities created by his existence. Having been tortured and beaten to the point of death, Fitz survives and continues to serve his king and country in secret.

The Fool, who had once played the role of fool to King Shrewd, was Fitz’s companion since childhood. He reveals himself to be a White Prophet – one who sees the forks of possible futures and works to nudge the world onto a better path, using his Catalyst. Fitz is the Fool’s Catylist.

In book three of the Tawny Man trilogy, they travel to Aslevjal, the icy island where a dragon lies trapped in ice. It is the Fool’s belief that restoring dragons to the world is vital to shifting it into a better path. Together, they free the slumbering dragon, but not before the Fool is captured by a rival ‘White’ and tortured to death. Using their connection and the skill magic, Fitz brings the Fool back from death, but he can no longer see the future. He has lived beyond any possibility he ever imagined.

In fear that remaining with his Catalyst he might undo all their good work, the Fool leaves Fitz to return to his homeland for answers as to what it means for a White to outlive his prophecies.

Fitz, meanwhile, returned to his childhood sweetheart, Molly, who has believed him dead – beaten to death – all these years, and who had raised his child, Nettle, along with Fitz’s own foster-father, Burrich, who had become her husband. Finally reconciled, when last we saw Fitz, he was living a life of peace with Molly and Patience in Withywoods, the estate his father had retreated to before he was assassinated.

Fool’s Assassin

It is so difficult to discuss this book without spoiling it utterly, for there is so much that I did not see coming and which I would spoil for no one. The tale begins many years on from Fool’s Quest. The Fool has kept his word and never seen Fitz since, but aside from this, he has lived a contented life with Molly at Withywoods, watching her children grow up and avoiding life at court and the dark politics that plagued most of his life.

We begin at Winterfest, which Fitz has always enjoyed. A mysterious stranger comes with a message that she will give only to Fitz. Fitz tells his steward to seat her comfortably in his study and offer her food and accommodation, but says he will talk to her in the morning – he has kept Molly waiting too long already. Meanwhile several minstrels arrive unannounced and are marked as curious – Fitz cannot sense them with his wit sense, but he is distracted from them when Molly is taken ill. As he looks after her, the messenger who waited in his study flees and is killed, her message undelivered.

The incident is strange, but Fitz puts it from his mind when no further answers are found. Molly continues to show signs of age that Fitz does not. A skill-healing many years ago has left his body continually repairing itself. At 50, Fitz lives in the body of a man of 35. Molly does not. True sadness comes to him as, though she had experienced an early menopause, Molly becomes convinced she is pregnant, and it seems increasingly obvious she is losing her mind.

To say more would be to spoil things utterly, but the consequences of Molly’s apparent phantom pregnancy will echo through the rest of the book. Especially when a second messenger arrives at Withywoods years later, with a dire, cryptic message from the Fool…

My Thoughts

Ah… how to discuss this without spoiling everything? I will say that the novel starts a little rocky. Fitz and Molly in domestic bliss never really sat right with me. Of course it was to be longed for, throughout Fitz’s difficult life, but it is hardly the stuff of an epic fantasy saga. The first chapter or so does ring a little uncomfortable in places as Fitz and Molly share married couple banter that doesn’t ring quite true for me. However, the novel soon settles and finds its feet and tone.

It is an unusually structured book. Much of it remains gentle, and yet no less gripping. After a little awkwardness, even the domesticity works for it. Fitz as a family man and a father is truly a pleasure to read. Especially as he so longed for a family and children when he was alone with his wolf those many years. There is one particularly long chapter in the middle which would stand out as a structural faux pas in the hands of anyone but a master. Fortunately, Hobb is that master.

As with Hobb books of old, I found myself staying up deep into the night, and towards the climax even reading until the sun began to rise again. It also made me cry for old pains and childhood struggles and that deep connection I have always felt for Fitz as a character.

Hobb continues to demonstrate her unique mastery of the first-person style of story-telling, embedding us so deeply in one person’s perspective that we are as surprised as they when someone does or says something that shifts their point of view… and yet one can see upon reflection all the hints and tiny events that showed that other characters were going about their own lives thinking things the main character did not expect all along.

I loved this book. When I finished it, I immediately ordered the hardback of the next book and downloaded the Kindle sample to read until the physical book arrived.

The only minor niggles I have are that Fitz’s gender essentialism and  reading of women as soft mother figures – Molly, in particular, remains always something of a fantasy for him; the girl with the red skirts as he had idealised her – is not sufficiently challenged. Whilst Hobb’s works contain many challenges overall, and the genderqueer or non-binary figure of the Fool still means so much to me, it’s depressing to read a book where characters continually affirm that such and such an aspect is particular to women, or particular to men, and not see these comments challenged at all. It renders all the female characters slightly less real, for there is not a one that feels like me.

Despite this, I feel not only that Hobb is back to form, but she has brought me back to reading. I find again that not only do I hurt when Fitz hurts, but I heal when he heals, and that is truly sepcial.

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Apocalypse Allotment No. 4: Today I was the Apocalypse

A garden gate, choked with nettles.

Hi, nettles, hi!

As you can see, I have a problem. A nettle problem. See, the nettles believe that it is time for nature to reclaim a land abandoned by humanity, but, uh, it’s not abandoned yet. This bit of land is mine. I already claimed it. And they are preventing me entering my allotment with ease.

What’s more, they are not my only problem. I have mentioned before my greatest foe, cooch grass, and its lieutenant in evil, dandelions, but here be also thistles and dock leaves and all manner of things I don’t even have names for that want to crowd out my plants and make my allotment, well, less pretty.

Usually I fight these battles with brute strength and a garden fork, but as I have continued to be ill (I don’t have Captain Trips, I swear!) and the year is marching on, I decided to use a tool of darkness in my fight for the light and my right to paaaaarty. I caved. I applied weed killer.

I know.

The weed killer I used was a cheap Sainsbury’s own brand glyphosate. If the apocalypse has already happened where you are, you can loot the expensive big name brand Roundup, but you can get the same thing for several quid cheaper by going off-brand, if human laws are still in effect where you are. If you’re going to do this, here’s what to do:

Using Glyphosate

Firstly, wear gloves. We’re going to be spraying poison on plants and it’s not great for humans either. If you get any on you, wash off with water, but not any water you are planning to put on plants. (Do I need to say don’t swallow it? DON’T SWALLOW IT, IT IS POISON. And, in general, follow the directions on the side.)

Secondly, wait until your weeds have proper-sized leaves. Glyphosate works by entering through the leaves and poisoning down the plant into the roots. It is inert when it hits the soil; so, don’t worry, you’re not salting the Earth – other things will grow there again once the plant demon you are fighting is dead.

Wait, also, for a calm day. You want the weed killer to go only on the plants you want dead, not your precious seedlings or carefully nurtured rhubarb. Wind can carry glyphosate to places other than your intended enemy.

Then spray directly onto the leaves of the plant you want dead.

I… used a lot of the stuff today. I did the nettles that are trying to block off my gate, and all the nettles along my fence – I dug those bastards out the old-fashioned way a few years ago, but nettles are like weaponised cooch grass – they have longer, tougher roots, and these went all the way under the central path that runs between the allotments where I couldn’t reach them. So they came back. The only way to destroy them completely is either to leave nothing behind or poison the roots.

I also sprayed many dandelions, much cooch grass (especially that growing between my paving slabs where I can’t dig it up) and the weeds that had started to grow again on my painstakingly de-weeded paths.

Part of the reason I’m doing this is to make my life easier. It’s all very well to be 100% organic, but it’s not possible for everyone, especially if the apocalypse comes on you at the wrong time of year and you need to clear ground fast. In a survival situation you do what you gotta do.

The other reason is that I want a nice looking allotment, damn it. I’m tired of people looking down their noses at me over the fence *mutters something about ‘come the apocalypse!’* and I want a nice looking plot to cheer me in harsh times. Killing the weeds in my paths is so much easier that trying to dig them out again and again and again.

As a result of using weed killer, today I finally got to put my bark chips down on my paths.

My cleared paths, covered with red bark.

My cleared paths, covered with red bark chips.

I’m quite pleased with how it turned out, although I this used the whole bag I had, so I will clearly need more if I ever manage to clear the other paths.

These paths have been partially lined with weed control fabric – ideally I would fully line them, but in the apocalypse allotment, we make do with what we’ve got – then covered with bark chip.

Interesting aside: if you leave your bag full of bark chips on the ground for a couple of months after you get it, ants may nest in it! I discovered quite a few ants, and their eggs, inside the bag. Sorry buddies, this stuff was bought with a purpose – I used the bark chips anyway. I expect the ants will relocate their eggs. I’m always disturbing ants down my allotment. There’s not a lot you can do about it; they don’t generally harm the plants, and I’m not going to let them stop me from growing in the space I have to grow. I’ve heard you can pour boiling water on them, but a) that’s easier when you have electricity (something we will lack in the post-apocalypse future), and b) wtf with the boiling water? They aren’t hurting me!

Anyway, weed killer is tackling my nettles and helping prevent my paths becoming overgrown again.

Why does that make me the Apocalypse?

Well, what we regard as weeds are part of complex ecosystems. Insects and spiders and all sorts of tiny little animals, many of them beneficial, like to hide in weeds. These animals can be important for the soil, or for birds. Weeds can provide shelter for butterflies and solitary bees and all kinds of good things. Not to mention that variation in plant life is itself beneficial. At the very least, it would be better to pull these plants up and compost them, rather than making them shrivel into useless poisoned dead things, like the zombies that stalk the land.

I killed a valuable habitat today in the name of expediency – not to mention all those ants I displaced!

It’s… not my proudest allotmenteering moment, but I have been ill, and I really wanted to make a go of it this year, both for me and my dreams of a bountiful harvest and an allotment I can be proud of, and for you, and this blog series.

So… I am become death, destroyer of nettles.

On a more positive note…

How the Allotment is Doing

The allotment is doing pretty well. In addition to planting the onions and garlic I told you all about in No. 2, I also planted some carrots and spring onions a couple of weeks ago, which I didn’t have time to write up.

Carrots and spring onions are super easy to grow.


For carrots, what I do is to mark a line with my trowel, no more than a couple of centimeters deep, and then place one seed every inch where I want the plants to grow. Now, the standard advice is just to ‘sow thinly’ (which just kind of means roughly sprinkle in a line) and then ‘thin’ the seedlings out later, but with carrots the major issue is carrot fly. Carrot fly are attracted by the smell of carrots, which is emitted when you bruise the leaves. I don’t like to take my chances with carrot fly, so I prefer not to have to thin, which would disturb the plants and potentially attract the insects.

Carrot fly damage

Carrot fly damage

What is carrot fly? PESTILENCE, that’s what. More accurately, what we’re worried about are the grubs, which burrow through your carrots leaving a network of tiny holes that you will have to cut out, greatly reducing the productivity of your crop. I would rather risk slightly fewer carrots than getting more carrots, most of which I can’t eat.

A few weeks after planting my carrots well-spaced, and they are beginning to sprout!

Three carrotd and a thistle.

Three carrots and a thistle.

The first thing you notice, once you start growing things from seed, is that nearly everything starts off with two little leaves and is nigh on indistinguishable from anything else. However, within a short period of time, the seedlings grow so that you can notice differences. Carrot seedlings (as shown above) are marked by the two initial leaves being particularly slender. When they start to grow their next leaves, these are more like tiny little hands. By contrast, the thistle that is invading my nice line of carrots above has round little leaves with points on the edges. That is going to have to go before it gets any bigger, but THIS I will weed by hand. I cannot risk weed killer so close to my baby carrots!

You might also notice that the stems of my carrot seedlings are purple – this is because I am growing purple carrots! Although orange carrots are the norm in our supermarkets as they have been bred to be large and sweet, carrots actually come in all kind of colours. I’m growing purple because it will make me smile, but you may prefer to grow traditional orange for its larger tubers.

I am also companion planting my carrots with spring onions and chives; this is, again, to keep away the carrot fly. As the flies are attracted by the smell, the strong, oniony smells of alliums are thought to mask the smell of the carrots.

Spring Onions and Chives

Unlike onion onions, spring onions and chives are always grown from seed, rather than from sets. The seeds are small and black – spring onion and chive seeds look identical, so if you intend to harvest seed later in the year, be sure to label your packets carefully!

Like carrots, I cut a shallow line in the soil with my trowel. Unlike with carrots, I then sprinkle the seeds roughly – ‘sow thinly’. I don’t mind if I need to thin these later. You can either eat the waste plants or move them elsewhere without attracting anything nasty. In this case, I have planted spring onions down the middle of the bed between the carrot rows, and chives at the edge of the bed.

Here are my spring onion seedlings:

Spring onion seedlings

Spring onion seedlings

Like carrots, the first spring onion leaves are long and slender. Unlike carrots, they are tubular in shape, tapering to a point, as the leaves will continue to be as they grow.

The chives I have only just planted today, so I look forward to seeing how they turn out!

Onions and Garlic

Meanwhile, my onions and garlic are getting on apace!

Onions and garlic.

Left: garlic. Right: onions.

They look to be doing well in terms of numbers of leaves, which is important for the eventual size of the bulb. Around about now (May) the bulb will stop adding leaves and will focus on fattening up – this is why it’s important to get onions and garlic in early to maximise the number of leaves they can put out. You can tell the onion from the garlic as onion leaves are tubular, like spring onions, whilst garlic leaves are flat, more like grass, but centred around a single stalk.

Considering how unwell I have been, things are going well, and I have every hope we are heading for a good harvest, despite my miniature apocalypse of weeds.

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The Apocalypse Allotment No. 3: Rhubarb

A magnificent rhubarb plantOne of the joys of adopting an allotment for your post-apocalypse life is finding plants the previous owners have planted that you can take over with a minimum of fuss. I was particularly lucky in that my apocalypse allotment came with rhubarb! Not all that surprising, considering I live in Yorkshire, home of the Rhubarb Triangle. Whilst rhubarb is native to Siberia, it does very well in the rich soils and cold wet winters of Yorkshire. And as my internet handle, ‘Rhube’, is short for ‘Rhubarb’, growing rhubarb is not only a delight, but a must!

Rhubarb is a striking plant with wide green leaves and thick, tart edible stems. The stems are mostly pink, and tend to be pinker the less sunlight they see. Rhubarb can be ‘forced’ by keeping the plant in darkness (or near darkness) so that the stems grow fast, tall, and neon pink, making for the tastiest, tenderest, pinkest eating. I’ve tried it for the first time this year, and let me tell you – it works!

Forcing Rhubarb

Rhubarb with a pot over it

Forcing Rhubarb

Rhubarb farms keep rhubarb in massive, dimly lit barns, but in the apocalypse we don’t have that luxury (or the need for quite that much forced rhubarb!). The small subsistence farmer can achieve the same results on a more manageable scale by placing a large tub or other container over the plant just as the leaves begin to poke from the soil.

To the right, you can see that I have used a very large plant pot, but you could also use an up-turned bin or other container. As you can see, my rhubarb patch is very large, and I was never going to be able to force the whole clump, so I’m just covering one section. These photos don’t really reflect scale, but that is a very big plant pot. Rhubarb grows very big. Note also that I have weighed down the pot with rocks, this is partly because the weather is very wind here, but also because rhubarb grows fast and tall, and I don’t want the rhubarb forcing the pot off itself too easily.

The result, within a couple of weeks, was very pink stems, ready to be picked!

Forced rhubarb

Note how much greener and larger the leaves are on the unforced patches of the clump. It’s perfectly possible to pick and eat unforced rhubarb (and I intend to!) but the forced stuff is pinker, less tough, and more flavourful. I mean, all rhubarb is pretty flavourful, but if, for instance, you want to make bright pink jam, instead of muddy brown jam, forced rhubarb is the way to go.

Finding Rhubarb

By May you’re not going to have any trouble figuring out if you have rhubarb in the land you’ve usurped, but in February, March, and early April you could easily miss it. Rhubarb becomes completely invisible in the winter months, retreating below the soil and lying dormant in its massive roots. This is what rhubarb looks like just as it begins poking through the soil:

Baby Rhubarb

Keep an eye out for the small, wrinkly green leaves. These leaves, which start out tiny and tightly packed, will inflate into the huge leaves seen above.

Separating Rhubarb

As mentioned above, my patch is huge and old. The advantage of finding rhubarb someone else planted is that you can pick it as soon as it’s ready. If you’ve looted* a rhubarb plant from a store, you need to give it a year to establish before you start harvesting. It’s much better to check out what other people have left behind and take over a plot with an already established clump. Every year I harvest more rhubarb than I can possibly eat – this is a plant that will give you plenty to trade, or to preserve in jams for the winter!

The disadvantage to having an old, well-established rhubarb clump is that the clump gets pretty crowded. The large flower spike shown below looks impressive – good enough to frighten a triffid!

Rhubarb with a flower stalk


Unfortunately, a rhubarb that is flowering is a rhubarb that is diverting energy away from growing those lovely edible stems. The rhubarb plant grows this when it’s getting too crowded and wants to spawn young somewhere else. The reality is that the seeds are likely to  fall around the plant and make it more crowded. It’s basically not ideal all round. If you see a flower spike, break or cut it off at the base. Sometimes it will just snap off, but rhubarb plants are tough, and you may need shears.

The best solution to overcrowded rhubarb is to split up your clumps every five years, preferably in early spring when the plant is dormant or just starting to grow. I’ve had my allotment for five or six years now, and I don’t think the old guy who had it before could have had the strength to split this stuff up, so it had gotten waaaay overcrowded in my clumps. I had to do something about it.

Here’s what you do: loosen the soil all around your rhubarb with a fork, then, if possible, lift up the whole clump. This was not possible with my ancient clump. Rhubarb roots are huge and all tangled up. Some of the roots were nearly as thick as my wrist. I had to just lift it up as much as I could, and then move on to step two.

Step two is to get a spade and chop your rhubarb down the middle, or wherever is convenient to split it up. I wish I had taken photos of this, but it was some of the toughest physical labour I have ever engaged in and I was kind of busy. I also made the  mistake of trying to separate my rhubarb using only a fork. Don’t do that. Use the sharpened spade you keep around for decapitating zombies. The fork got stuck. Me and my friend used feet and hands and fork and everything wrestling the clump apart. It was hard work, let me tell you!

I had two friends who had wanted rhubarb of their own for years, and I don’t have room in my allotment for more rhubarb – my rhubarb is already overcrowded! So I separated off two chunks, which they took and put in some mud. A lot of mud. Rhubarb needs a lot of space, and if you do decide to grow it in a pot, make sure it is a HUGE pot. I still had a clump left over, which, because I had nowhere to put it, I left on the surface of the soil to… deal with later. Two weeks later, it looked like this:

A tangled ball of rhubarb roots, still growing

I have neglected this poor thing to high heaven, and it’s STILL GROWING. Friends, this is a survivor. Keep this thing in your land just for inspiration, tbh.

General Rhubarb Care

Rhubarb doesn’t need a lot of looking after, it’s pretty hardy. It comes from Siberia, for God’s sake! The main thing is it likes a lot of water. Look at it. It’s HUGE. But at the same time, it has giant roots and can survive dry periods pretty well. If you live in a desert climate… no, OK, this isn’t going to work, but rhubarb is ideal for temperate or cold climates.

Keep it watered. Pull stems from the moment they look long enough until June. Don’t pull too many stems at once – make sure you leave the plant enough leaves to photosynthesise with – and it will keep on producing for you. There will be stems on into the summer, but if you stop pulling in June you allow the plant to top up its energy reserves for the winter.

You’ll have a great crop of rhubarb for use in pies, crumbles, jams, and even just eating raw with sugar. But remember – the leaves are poisonous, so only eat the stem!

*Remember! Only loot after the world has ended!


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Review – Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War posterCaptain America: Civil War is fun, and if that’s all you expect from it, you’ll probably have a good time. The plot is reasonably coherent and well-paced – certainly in comparison to Age of Ultron, and even The Winter Soldier.

That said, in a film with twelve superheroes, there are only two women heroes (Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff and Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff), with Sharon Carter playing a minor role that cannot really be described as superheroic. Both Ant-Man and Spider-Man, neither of whom appear on the poster, get more screen time and action than her. Sharon, although she does have some agency, is largely relegated to Steve’s love interest and an uncomfortable substitute for Peggy.

If the film passed the Bechdel Test, I must have blinked and missed it.

Black men have a reasonable showing, with both Falcon/Sam Wilson and War Machine/Rhodey playing roles that matter to the plot, and with the addition of Black Panther/T’Challa taking a central role. T’challa is everything I could have hoped for. Thoughtful and regal in a way that believably marks him as royalty, Chadwick Boseman cuts an elegant and powerful figure that effectively evokes the panther without ever being animalistic or overly literal.

Falcon and War Machine both remain ever-loyal side-kicks to their white male counterparts, and I wish more could be given over to them to differentiate their characters. Whilst Clint/Hawkeye remains the least central of the Avengers, he has a family and complex relationships with the other characters. I really wanted the film to make Sam into more than Captain America’s black friend, Rhodey into more than Iron Man’s black friend, but the two stick to following what their designated white counterpart does, despite the fact that Rhodey and Tony have differed ideologically in the past. Rhodey gets a little more development with what happens at the end… but the form of that developement is (not to spoil anything) not exactly ideal.

Of course one is limited in what one can do with such a large cast of characters, but then… this is part of why I’m not really a fan of these big team movies. They tend to be a sprawling mess where no one gets enough development and what little there is is largely monopolised by the white men. From this point of view, Black Panther’s character arc is the stand out exception. I also enjoyed the development of Scarlet Witch’s character, and especially her relationship with Vision. And we get far more of the Steve and Bucky relationsip (Stucky fans will be pleased! So much more screentime for the angst than in Winter Soldier!). As films of this type go, Civil War is a resounding success, but I’m still left feeling like I wanted more from Bucky and more of Scalret Witch and Vision. These are characters and actors with much more to give than they are being allowed.

Which brings us to the other characters who are roped in to make it feel like a ‘war’, taking up further screentime: Ant-Man and Spider-Man. Again: two more white men. Two more white men whose own films have been talked about exhaustively as taking film slots that could have gone to female superheroes. Paul Rudd is great as Ant-Man, but I would still rather have had the Wasp. And Tom Holland is a fantastic Spider-Man, but, as most aptly put by notabadday (referencing the Spiders Georg meme):

“average superhero gets 3 films a day” factoid actualy just statistical error. average superhero gets 0 films per year. Spiderman Georg, who lives in a cave & gets over 10,000 each day, is an outlier adn should not have been counted

What is Spider-Man doing in this movie when you could have given a bigger role to Sharon Carter, or put Pepper Pots back in a suit (the fact that her absence is frequetly lampshaded helps little), or called on Maria Hill, Sif, or built up any number of the women from Agents of SHIELD? It’s exhausting how Marvel go to the same white male superhero pool over and over again when there’s really no need. Enough with Spider-Man. I like Spider-Man, but I’d like a woman of colour to break up the white male monotony more.


The plot, as I have said, is fine, although the initial disagreement between Steve and Tony could have been more convincingly motivated. The inciting incident of the film is a bomb going off in the wrong place because Wanda/Scarlet Witch is not able to move it far enough away to prevent civilian casualties. The UN proposes an Accord to institute international oversight for the Avengers. So far, so reasonable. Steve has been all for public oversight in previous films – he was totally against Nick Fury’s secretly building a fleet of airships and totally in favour of airing all of SHIELD’s dirty laundry. So when Steve comes out against this, it’s a bit… out of character.

Later in the film he is given ample reason to feel ‘right after the fact’ – the Accords are manipulated incredibly easily into imprisoning Wanda without trial and ordering a shoot-to-kill on Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier based off a low-resolution photograph that is leaked to the press. It would have been so easy to engineer the split after Bucky becomes a target, when Steve has real, character dirven reasons to resist an oversight that is clearly flawed and endangering his friend. I don’t really understand the thought process that went into this ordering of events.

This was never going to be a particularly deep film, but it would have been much more interesting if the audience’s sole reason for sympathising with Steve at the beginning wasn’t just that… he’s a nicer guy than Tony? Going off the rails to protect his friend, or free Wanda, are much more compelling reasons. The film did feel a bit like it was floundering to establish exactly what Steve’s motivations were.

However, if you’re just in this for some cool fights and witty one-liners with a side-order of feels, this film delivers. The fight choreography is good and the big team vs team battle is particularly satisfying and dynamic. I would have appreciated slightly fewer fights, more character driven story, and more women (especially women of colour), but as this style of film goes, Civil War was above par and certainly an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

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Games of Thrones, Season 6, Episode 1 – aka, why should I bother?

Game of Thrones, Season 6, promo imageI adored Game of Thrones when it first came out. I had been excited for years before it came out. But even I approached this season with trepidation. I’ll be blunt (trigger warning: rape mention) I’m talking about the rapes. The extra rapes. Rape where sex was consensual in the books (i.e. the rape of Cersei by Jaime (who hates rape and saves Brienne from rape what even?)) and the rape of Sansa, which had previously been Jayne Poole (which was also bad, but… many people were invested in the story of Sansa’s quiet, feminine strength and… it was problematic OK?)).

Our amazing show, which gave us so many amazing female characters in so many different roles that we’ve never gotten to see women play before and all together, not just one or two and… it was amazing, and where it then went the last two seasons left a lot of people feeling betrayed.

What’s more, last season was weak overall. I talk about this at length in my review of Season Five. I know a lot of people who bailed afterwards. I knew I wouldn’t, but as the new season approached… I wasn’t sure why.

But I watched it, and… I was more than pleasantly surprised.

The following is not a review – I’ve not the energy for that – but rather, it is a minimally spoilery list of reasons to watch this episode and hope that things are turning towards the light. (I mean, not for the characters – those fucks are gonna suffer, you know that, right? – but for us as viewers who need things to get a bit less rapey and sexist.) I make it for the sake of saying ‘You may be worried, but these things happen and they are the good things you probably didn’t think would happen‘:

Things are going to get better for Sansa.

Brienne is gonna be FRIGGIN’ AWESOME.

Dolorous Edd is pretty cool. I just like writing that sentence, ngl.

Tyrion and Varys politically analyse Meereen. You know you want it.

Daenerys. Is not a white saviour to anyone (in this episode). Which is good. She’s taken down a lot of pegs. But she’s also pretty awesome. Which is also good.

Sand Snakes. Are snakey. And even if their characterisation last season was lack luster, they certainly make a statement.

Arya. Is on screen and therefore awesome. But also blind and suffers physical consequences for this.

Nakedness… happens. But not in the way you expect it to.

I mean, the first two points were the most important to me, and they satisfied exactly what I needed to make this episode worthwhile, but the other stuff is also good.

And no, I’ve not told you anything about Jon Snow. As is right and proper. Watch the episode if you wanna know about that.

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Officially a Doctor

Me in my graduation robes

I graduated on 22 January 2016, and am officially Dr Ro Smith, a doctor of philosophy in philosophy, passed with no corrections.

Apologies for not posting about it at the time, I didn’t have any photos myself and only just got some through!

I hope everyone is appreciating my sparkley graduation shoes. And the silliest bonnet. I wanted to keep the silliest bonnet.

If you donated to this blog or to my Go Fund Me last year when I was in need, you helped this happen, and I am incredibly grateful to you. I would not have made it without you.

There was a long time – a very long time – when I really stopped believing that I would get here. I had been so ill and poor and depressed for so long. I’m still not physically 100%, and mentally… well, that’s a process, and a long one, which isn’t entirely about the PhD.

Neverthless, I’m really proud, and grateful. I did it. I was capable of doing it, after all. And I did it well. There were a tiny number of typos. That was it.  The examiners said in the end that they would accept it anyway. Typos and all. (I did correct the most glaring typos, though – the photos at the top of my blog are not a lie, I really have had green hair, and red hair, and many other colour hair.)

And so many members of my family came up for me. My dad came from Australia, my mum, two sets of aunts and uncles, my step-dad.

I wish I had been thinner. I wish I had had suitable smart clothes to wear that I could still fit into (the dress I am wearing was more low-cut than I would have liked and didn’t exactly have a graceful fit). I wish my hair looked better – I had fried it in my attempts to go back to blonde for graduation. Maybe one day when I’m better off and thinner I will rent the gowns again and get it professionally done. Still, it’s great to have done it at all.

It is very strange to have it done. I’m still temping at the moment. I need to publish before applying for academic jobs and I’m… honestly not read to leave my city, yet. And most well-paying jobs I am qualified for would involve that, even if they weren’t in academia.

I’m tired, and I’m still ill a lot. And I want to get serious about my writing. I want a first draft of a novel this year.

I also want to relax. I’m getting back down the allotment (you might have noticed). Which is something I was really sad to not be able to give enough time to the last few years. I always promised myself ‘When the PhD is done…’. And it’s important in terms of exercise. I was down there for four hours today. It’s hard to get such good, prolonged exercise doing anything else.

I want to paint and not feel guilty about it. I want to choose craft projects for reasons other than ‘It will be quick’ and ‘I can give it to someone else as a present because that is the only way I can afford presents’.

I’ve bought material and a pattern for an ambitious Daenerys cosplay this year. Still a lot of work in getting that done, though.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the things I want to do, but I’m trying not to do that. Trying to unlearn my habits of continuous anxiety and guilt.

But hey, I’m a ‘Dr’ now, and that’s something. Some kind of validation of my existence and ability and intelligence. Not the only way such things can be validated, of course, but… something I needed to do, for me. Yes, I had something to prove to myself, and to the world. And maybe that’s not terribly healthy, but I needed to do it.

It’s strange and surprising to find that I have done it after all.

Me in my grad robes, closer up.


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The Apocalypse Allotment No. 2: Planting and Paths

The Apocalypse Allotment on Judgement Day

The Apocalypse Allotment on Judgement Day

Things move fast in March, and I don’t just mean the new suped up zombies. You’ll find there are a number of things you’re trying to get done at once, but it’s OK to take things a bit at a time.

This week I have been digging another bed, planting alliums, and digging up my old paths. In an ideal world I would do all my digging and ground preparation first, then plant my plants in a carefully staged order. But this isn’t a perfect world. This is the apocalypse.

The important thing is not to sweat it. You don’t want to plant everything at once anyway. As far as possible you want to move in accord with nature, but nature, as we have learnt to our cost, is an unpredictable bastard. Planting things progressingly throughout the season is a good way to hedge your bets. I planted a few alliums (onions and garlic) last week, and a few more this week, as I cleared another bed. What you can plant will depend in part on the time of year and in part the conditions you are working with.

Digging Up Paths and Making Plans

Clearing beds for planting is important, but do not neglect the paths between your beds. If you have the time and the strong young bodies to do it, clear the whole area you plan to farm first, then set out where you want your beds and paths. If it’s just you against a harsh world, you’re more likely to need to do your digging in stages and plant as you go.

Give some thought to where you want to plant what. Blueberry bushes like marshy areas, but a lot of plants don’t. If your ground is of mixed condition, check which plants have specific needs and plan to plant them accordingly. The back of your looted* seed-packets will tell you what conditions your plants like.

'Beds' by Bart Everson

‘Beds’, at ‘At Wise Words Community Garden in Mid-City’ by Bart Everson

You may want to consider raised beds. These are beds raised off the ground and encased by wooden borders, which offers some protection against pests. For example, the feared carrot-fly can only jump 60cm high. A high enough raised bed will neatly defeat them. Most raised beds do not reach so great a depth, but still provide some protection.

If you lack the building materials and time needed to construct a raised bed, fear not! I’m just digging in the dirt, but my beds are still raised a little off the ground. This is because the soil of a path is compacted for walking on, whilst the beds themselves are ‘turned’ as described in my previous post, not merely to ease eviction of roots, but to loosen the ground and improve the structure, so that plants are better able to stretch out their roots without obstruction.

Note that you want to avoid walking on your beds, and factor this in when you’re planning your layout. I’m short and don’t have a particularly impressive reach, which is important for weeding as well as harvesting. It’s important not to lean or step on the soil of your beds as this will destroy the soil structure. For this reason, my beds are not too broad – just wide enough so I can comfortably reach the middle from both sides. However, if you want larger beds, you can get around the issue by using a plank of wood and laying this on the soil to spread your weight over a larger area.

However wide your beds, you will want to dig up your paths as well as your beds as weeds growing in from the paths will seek to take back your carefully cleared soil. Remember: it’s survival of the fittest, and weeds are very, very good at what they do. Give them no quarter.

Make no mistake: no matter what you do, most of the time you spend gardening will be devoted to weeding, but a little hard work at the start of the growing season can save you a lot of time and heartache later.

As I’m working an allotment that pre-existed the End, some of the work has been done for me. Nevertheless, it is suffering neglect. In previous years I had laid down weed-control fabric over supposedly weed-free paths, then put bark chips on top of that. Bark chips both make your allotment look nicer and help discourage weeds. They biodegrade harmlessly and make a good mulch. However, over the years loose soil has combined with the bark chips to create a surface layer in which weeds have taken hold:

A path, bare of its covering, and the weed-control fabric stripped off it.

A path, bare of its covering, and the weed-control fabric stripped off it.

The weed-control fabric still afforded me an advantage in that, in pulling it up, I also stripped away the majority of the weeds ebedded in the surface. You can see above a comparison of the stripped path with the weed-control fabric I pulled off this and several other paths. Most of the grass that had taken over the paths has come away on the surface of the fabric. Incidentally, the righthand fabric is the plastic kind, whilst that on the left is of a more papery, fabric-like material. You can see how the one is more weed-infested than the other. Go plastic, baby – when money no longer has meaning, loot the best!

I then gave the path the same treatment I give my beds – digging it up and sifting out as much of the weed-root as I can. This will turn and raise the soil. Once you’ve done this, walk along the path, compacting it:

A path, before and after compacting

Before and after compacting

Here (below) shows a comparison with a bed and path I dug at the same time. On the right, the path has been compacted, but the bed hasn’t. It’s good to do beds and paths at the same time as otherwise soil from the bed is likely to fall down onto the lower plane of the path.

Before and after of a bed and path, side by side.

Before and after of a bed and path, side by side.


Ideally, I would have gone on to remove the weeds from the weed-control fabric, relay it, and cover it with bark chips after having done this. However, the light was fading, and you never know what lies waiting in the dark! I will return to complete this later. In the fading light, I moved swiftly on to planting my alliums.


An allium flower head.

An allium flower head.

Alliums are the family of plants that includes onions, garlic, spring onions (scallions), chives, shallots, leeks, and the like. They are oniony tasting; usually with layered, edible leaves; and their flower spikes produce a delightful sphere of blossom (although, if you are growing to crop, you should nip the flower and stem off as soon as they start to form).

Apocalypse farming is all about finding the balance between high-yielding, practical crops, and those with the flovour to keep your mood up in difficult times. Alliums provide a perfect solution. Onions can be used in almost any dish, adding flavour, nutrition, and bulk. One might question growing garlic where you could have a bountiful crop of potatoes, but I submit that the humble garlic can elevate even the simplest dish into something worth eating, and should not be ignored!


Garlic is super easy to plant. Just take a clove and stick it in freshly turned soil, root-end down, and gently firm the soil around it. Plant cloves about 10cm/4in apart. The tip should just be poking out. Try to keep the skin intact as this protects the clove. Don’t plant any cloves that show signs of mould or damage – they are likely to fail and may contaminate the soil with fungus or disease. Fortunately, garlic bulbs provide plenty of cloves to choose from. If you’re pushed for space, choose the fattest cloves, as they will likely produce bigger bulbs.

Garlic bulb and clove

Garlic bulb and clove

I’ve chosen Arno – a white-skinned, largeish, medium flavoured variety. You can plant garlic from a supermarket – and I have done so! – but varieties available at gardening centres are likely to do better. This is because supermarket garlic is likely to have been imported from a different climate. Garlic adjusts well to different environments, and gardeners say that cloves saved from last year’s harvest often do better, as they have adjusted to the soil. However, a bulb grown in Spain whose cloves are planted in the North of England (say) will be more vulnerable to rot in the damper, colder conditions.

The main danger with garlic is rot. This will be less of an issue in warmer climates, but in Yorkshire, I always find I lose some of my bulbs.

Ideal time for planting garlic is the late Autumn – tradition has it that it should be planted on Halloween – but if the Apocalypse happens on you in late winter or early spring, you can still grow garlic! The bulbs my be a little smaller, and garlic likes a little frost to get it started, but it will work, and I promise you it is worth it!


Onions can be had in seed form and in ‘sets’, which are bags of small bulbs; you want to loot the latter. Onions can be grown from seeds, but it takes longer and, tbh, you needed to start earlier. Gather seeds this year for sowing next year; hit the ground running likea zombie with onion sets, for a reliable apocalypse harvest. Good advice on growing from seed in the UK can be found here.

Onions are exactly the same as garlic, except that you should plant them six inches apart. A rough estimate is fine – don’t get too hung up on exactitude –  but if you crowd them too much your onions will be smaller and more likely to ‘bolt’. ‘Bolting’ means going to seed early, and for your purposes results in the plant devoting its energies to flowering, rather than producing the nice fat bulb you want to eat.

I’ve gone for a mixture of red and white onions – Red Barron for the red, Sturron for the white. Sturron is the variety I won first prize for a few years ago, so I know it can grown big! If that was all I wanted, I could stick with them, but I’m growing red onions for flavour and variety. A more varied diet is better for you, as well as tasting good!

My garlic and onion beds

My garlic and onion beds

Once planted, lightly water the beds. Too much water can lift the bulb free of the soil, but don’t wory if this happens, just push it back in. Once watererd, you are good to go. Water onions regularly when it’s dry and feed them every couple of weeks. Apart from that, they basically look after themselves until harvest time in July and August. You’ll know when to harvest because the leaves will flop over and turn brown.

And that’s it! I was hoping to get some planting done on Easter Weekend, but the weather wasn’t with me. Tune in again for my semi-regular apocalypse allotment adventures!

*Only loot in a post-apocalypse situation. If the world hasn’t ended where you are yet, pay your dues.

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‘A Receipt for a Novel’, by Mary Alcock

I enjoy celebrating women’s voices on World Poetry Day, as they are so often forgotten. A few years ago I recorded Aemelia’ Lanyer’s fiery ‘Eve’s Apology’; this time, I’m going for something a bit more lighthearted. ‘A Receipt for a Novel’, by Mary Alcock satirises the tropes and conventions familiar to readers of her time in gothic novels. Many of them are still with us, and her wry humour can provide delight even today.

Alcock was a poet, essayist, and philanthropist. She died at just 57, and her neice, Joanna Hughes, collected her works after her death. Her work received little critical attention, although I hope you’ll agree that this poem reveals a lively and engaged wit.

I’ve provided both a recording and the text below:

A Receipt For Writing A Novel

by Mary Alcock

Would you a favrite novel make,
Try hard your readers heart to break
For who is pleasd, if not tormented?
(Novels for that were first invented.)
Gainst nature, reason, sense, combine
To carry on your bold design,
And those ingredients I shall mention,
Compounded with your own invention,
Im sure will answer my intention.

Of love take first in due proportion
It serves to keep the heart in motion:
Of jealousy a powerful zest,
Of all tormenting passions best;
Of horror mix a copious share,
And duels you must never spare;
Hysteric fits at least a score,
Or if you find occasion, more;
But fainting fits you need not measure,
The fair ones have them at their pleasure;
Of sighs and groans take no account,
But throw them in to vast amount;
A frantic fever you may add,
Most authors make their lovers mad.

Rack well your heros nerves and heart,
and let your heroine take her part;
Her fine blue eyes were made to weep,
Nor should she ever taste of sleep;
Ply her with terrors day or night,
And keep her always in a fright,
But in a carriage when you get her,
Be sure you fairly overset her;
If she will break her boneswhy let her:
Again, if eer she walks abroad,
Of course you bring some wicked lord,
Who with three ruffians snaps his prey,
And to the castle speeds away;
There close confind in haunted tower,
You leave your captive in his power,
Till dead with horror and dismay,
She scales the walls and flies away.

Now you contrive the lovers meeting,
To set your readers heart a beating.
But ere theyve had a moments leisure,
Be sure to interrupt their pleasure;
Provide yourself with fresh alarms
To tear em from each others arms;
No matter by what fate theyre parted,
So that you keep them broken-hearted.

A cruel father some prepare
To drag her by her flaxen hair;
Some raise a storm, and some a ghost,
Take either, which may please you most.
But this with care you must observe,
That when youve wound up every nerve
With expectation, hope and fear,
Hero and heroine must disappear.

Now to rest the writers brain,
Any story that gives pain,
You now throw in no matter what,
However foreign to the plot,
So it but serves to swell the book,
You foist it in with desperate hook
A masquerade, a murderd peer,
His throat just cut from ear to ear
A rake turnd hermita fond maid
Run mad, by some false loon betrayd
These stores supply your writers pen,
And write them oer and oer again,
And readers likewise may be found
To circulate them round and round.

Now at your fables close devise
Some grand event to give surprise
Suppose your hero knows no mother
Suppose he proves the heroines brother
This at one stroke dissolves each tie,
Far as from east to west they fly;
At length when every woes expended,
And your last chapters nearly ended,
Clear the mistake, and introduce
Some tattling nurse to cut the noose,
The spell is brokeagain they meet
Expiring at each others feet;
Their friends lie breathless on the floor
You drop your pen; you can no more
And ere your reader can recover,
Theyre married and your historys over.

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