In episode six, word nerd and crypto-cruciverbalist David “DA” Astle joins us to discuss our first non-Discworld novel: Dodger! Published in 2012, it’s set in Victorian London and is heavily inspired by the work and style of Charles Dickens, and also that of Punch magazine co-founder Henry Mayhew, author of London Labour and the London Poor – both of whom appear as characters!
In the first quarter of Queen Victoria’s reign, a young woman falls from a carriage during a London storm – followed by two threatening men. Out of a nearby sewer grate springs Dodger, street orphan and accomplished “tosher” (sewer scavenger), who fights them off before Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew happen by and take the woman to safety. Dickens enlists Dodger’s aid in investigating their mysterious charge, who is clearly on the run but refuses to speak of herself or those coming after her. Dodger will need to be sharp as a razor and to have all the luck the Lady of the Sewers can give him in this adventure – but will he be the same Dodger when it’s over?
In a spot of time travel, we leap forward to one of Pratchett’s last books. More serious than many of his other works, though still light in tone and written in a very Dickensian style – including chapters! – Dodger is quite a departure for Pratchett in many ways while still remaining essentially Pratchetty. (Pratchettesque?) What do you think of Dodger? Let us know! Use the hashtag #Pratchat6 on social media to join the conversation.
We return to the Discworld for our May 8th episode, though we are going slightly out of order to read Eric, the first illustrated Discworld book! And who better to discuss it than an illustrator? So we’ll be joined by Adelaide-based artist and comic book creator, Georgina Chadderton (aka George Rex)! This one is recorded hot on the heels of our April episode, so by the time you read this we may have already asked for your questions, but even if you missed that callout you can still join in on social media with the hashtag #Pratchat7.
Show Notes and Errata:
- You can find David Astle online at davidastle.com, itself a haven of word puzzles and anagrams, and he’s on Twitter as @DontAttempt (a joking translation of his cryptic crossword-maker initials, DA, which some see as proof of difficulty!). His latest work is David Astle’s Gargantuan Book of Words, which is available now through publishers Allen & Unwin, but watch out for Rewording the Brain and 101 Weird Words and Three Fakes, appearing in 2018. You can also catch him on the wireless on ABC Melbourne.
- The “interrobang” is the combination of a question and exclamation mark (‽, or more often ?! or !?), used to indicate a question asked with excitement or otherwise strong emotion. [Square brackets] (or just “brackets”, since round brackets are parentheses and curly brackets are braces) are most often used in journalism, where they indicate something that’s been left out or changed inside a quotation to improve clarity. David describes the pilcrow (or “paragraph mark”) in the podcast, but in case you’re wondering, it looks like this: ¶
- The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are…well, they’re teen-aged mutant anthropomorphic turtles, trained as ninjas by a mutant anthropomorphic rat, who live in the sewers of New York and fight for justice. They originally appeared in 1984 in a gritty, black-and-white comic book parody written and drawn by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They were quickly picked up by a licensing company and became a toy line and a very popular cartoon, followed later by a less popular series of live-action films. They were recently re-imagined in big-screen CGI form by Michael Bay – seemingly the fate of everything liked by children in the 1980s.
- Terry dressed up as William Brown, the protagonist of Just William and its sequels by Richmal Crompton (like Terry, an incredibly prolific author), for the “26 Characters” exhibition at the Story Museum in Oxford. The photos aren’t available on the museum’s web site – the point was to visit to see them, after all! – but versions of many (including Terry’s) are featured in this BBC interview with photographer Cambridge Jones about the exhibition. The museum’ site has audio interviews with all the featured authors recorded during the photo shoots in 2014, including Terry talking about his own school days. Listeners of this podcast might also particularly enjoy the interviews with Neil Gaiman (who chose Badger from Wind in the Willows), Philip Pullman (Long John Silver from Treasure Island) and Terry Jones (Rupert the Bear), but they’re all great.
- It’s worth clarifying that Just William takes place when it was written, in 1922 – considerably after the time of Dodger. Tom Brown’s School Days, on the other hand, was written in 1857 and is set in the 1830s – so around the time of Dodger. There’s a stark contrast between Dodger’s life and that of Tom Brown…
- A “flâneur” (via French for “stroller” or “loafer”, from the Old Norse verb flana “to wander with no purpose”) was a “gentleman stroller of the streets”: a person of leisure who would walk through a city just observing what went on around them. It’s uncertain if Dickens would have described himself as one; the word dates back a century or two earlier in France, but wasn’t popularly used in a positive sense until Walter Benjamin used it in discussions of modernity in the early twentieth century. (Oscar Wilde described himself as “a flâneur, a dandy” in De Profundis, but only when lamenting how he had wasted his life.)
- Nicholson Baker is an American writer who loves newspapers as much as footnotes. He’s best known for his non-fiction, including the award-winning 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper in which he investigated the loss or destruction of thousands of books and newspapers during the “microfilm boom” of the 1980s.
- The small, dog-like creature from The Dark Crystal is Fizgig.
- Laphroaig whiskey is distilled in Port Ellen, on the southern coast of the Isle of Islay in Argyll, Scotland, near the bay that gives the whiskey its name, Loch Laphroaig. It is now owned by Japanese whiskey giant Suntory.
- The Wombles are a group of vaguely mole-like intelligent creatures who live under Wimbledon Common, invented by Elisabeth Beresford for her children’s novels, first appearing in 1968. They are very familiar to Australians of a certain age because of the BBC-commissioned stop-motion animated television series, whose theme song emphasised the Womble’s forward-thinking policy of reuse and recycling: “Making good use of the things that they find, things that the everyday folk leave behind.” Less familiar to Australian listeners will be the novelty pop group formed by Mike Batt, or the related live-action Womble film Wombling Free, featuring short-statured actors – including Kenny Baker and Jack Purvis! – in Womble costumes, with voices provided by the likes of David Jason and Jon Pertwee! Aside from “making use of bad rubbish”, one of their most endearing features is that Wombles choose their name by throwing a dart at a map of the world; hence they have names like Great Uncle Bulgaria, Tomsk, Orinoco and Adelaide.
- For those not familiar with Oliver Twist, Fagin is the criminal mastermind who sends the Artful Dodger and other children out to steal things for him in return for minimal food and shelter. He is a deeply unsympathetic character, essentially keeping the children enslaved. Even in Dickens’ day, Fagin – who was constantly referred to as “the Jew” in the novel – was seen as anti-Semitic. Dickens protested that he had no hatred of Jewish people, but he was being realistic, because “that class of criminal was invariably a Jew”, but towards the end of his life Dickens came to realise the harm he was doing in perpetuating such a stereotype. He not only revised the last 15 chapters of the book, but removed all racist signifiers from his performance of the character in his public readings.
- The Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia (and the Russian empire, which at the time included much of Eastern Europe) were at their worst in the 1880s, after the period in which Dodger is set, but there were sadly many earlier examples as well. Solomon Cohen never says exactly where (or indeed what) he fled from, but it may have been the Odessa Pogrom of 1859.
- Onan is a minor figure in the Bible best known as the source of the term “onanism”, a euphemism for masturbation – though that’s not entirely true to the source material. In the Book of Genesis, Onan’s brother Er is slain by God for generic wickedness and had no children, so their father Judah orders Onan to marry Er’s widow Tamar and give her children. Onan does marry her but during sex, knowing that any children will be heirs to Er and usurp his own inheritance, he chooses to “spill his seed upon the ground” – a crime for which he too was slain by God. It was really rough being in the Bible before Jesus came along.
- PTSD is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a relatively common psychological disorder affecting people who have experienced trauma – usually violence, and especially interpersonal violence – without the time or opportunity to heal psychologically. It was poorly understood prior to the 1970s, but pretty clearly fits the symptoms ascribed to soldiers returning from war throughout history.
- The pilot episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and by this we mean the aired pilot, not the unaired pilot) was actually relatively true to the rest of the series; with the big exception being Buffy’s powers. While she kept her super strength and highly tuned intuition, somewhere between episodes 1 and 2 she apparently lost the power to jump (fly?) over a fence about three times her height.
- The classic “Penny Dreadfuls” were cheap mass-produced serial fiction magazines of the Victorian era, usually of the ‘orrible murder or supernatural thriller variety; they filled a niche later occupied by comic books, and cost a penny (hence the name). Hugely popular in Dodger’s time, many were rewrites or outwrite plagiarism, but they nevertheless made household names of popular historical and fictional characters including Dick Turpin, Varney the Vampire, and Sweeney Todd, who first appeared in The String of Pearls: A Romance in 1846.
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill is a hugely rich comic book series spanning multiple volumes in which characters from a huge number of works of Victorian fiction are brought together. The titular league features Mina Harker (from Dracula), Alan Quartermain (from King Solomon’s Mines), Dr Jekyll, the Invisible Man and Captain Nemo, amongst others, as they deal with a war between criminal elements and then an invasion of Martians (drawn from The War of the Worlds). The series is so dense with references both big and small that companion volumes have been compiled uncovering them all.
- Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has become probably the most popular version of the Todd story (not least thanks to Tim Burton’s 2007 film adaptation), and is based heavily on Christopher Bond’s 1973 play of the same name, which gave him a backstory – including being transported to Australia – and made the character a little more sympathetic, transforming his story into a modern revenge tragedy. The original London cast of the musical included Angela Lansbury as Mrs Lovett, Sweeney’s accomplice and encouragement. (In the podcast, Ben confuses her with Mrs Miggins, the proprietor of a similarly suspicious pie shop in classic historical sit-com Blackadder the Third.)
- Penny Dreadful the television series was a gory sexy gothic horror co-produced by Showtime and Sky, weaving a new narrative around characters taken from Frankenstein, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide and predominantly British and Irish folklore. It ran for three seasons with an all-star cast including Eva Green, Timothy Dalton, Billie Piper and Josh Hartnett. Ben loved it more than he probably should have.
- Asterix is the protagonist of the long-running Asterix & Obelix series of comic albums created by French cartoonists René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Set during the Roman Empire’s occupation of Gaul – a region of Western Europe bigger than France, populated by Celtic peoples of the La Tène culture – it imagined a single small village which held out against the invaders through judicious use of a magic potion, brewed by their Druid, which gave them super strength. The main character, Asterix, was very small but a shrewd warrior, assisted by his enormous, dim-witted but big-hearted friend Obelix, who was permanently super-strong due to drinking an entire cauldron of the potion as a baby. A key feature of the books are the names which pun on common cultural suffixes of the era, which have been translated into many languages.
- “Bedlam” was a nickname for Bethlem Royal Hospital, a psychiatric hospital whose name became synonymous with the barbaric ways in which the mentally ill were treated in the Victorian era.
- “Nits” is the common name for headlice in Australia and New Zealand, thankfully rarely encountered these days except in primary schools.
- Augusta Ada King-Noel(née Byron), Countess of Lovelace, aka Ada Lovelace, was an English mathematician and writer. She was also a poet, but she is most remembered as the first computer programmer: she was a friend of Charles Babbage, and while translating a French transcript of a speech Babbage gave about his Analytical Engine, annotated it with notes which included an algorithm of her own design to make the machine calculate Bernoulli numbers. Sadly Babbage’s Analytical Engine was never completed, but just as it is now recognised as perhaps the first computer, her algorithm is now recognised as the first computer program.
- The Tenniel in the book is indeed Sir John Tenniel, the primary political cartoonist for Punch (and therefore well known to Mayhew and Dickens), and most famously the illustrator for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. The eye injury referred to was accidentally inflicted by Tenniel’s father when they were fencing, when Tenniel was 20. Tenniel gradually lost his sight in that eye, but not wanting to make his father distraught, never revealed how serious the injury was.
- A “growler” was a second-hand “clarence”, a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage named after Prince William, Duke of Clarence, and introduced into London around 1840. Once sold by aristocrat owners, clarences were often used as cabs, and were known as “growlers” because of the sound they made on London cobblestoned streets.
- Pratchett did indeed have plans for a Dodger sequel, saying at New York Comic Con and in an interview with the AV Club in 2012 that he’d love to write one “if he was spared”… The final scene of the book, in which Dodger is working with Serendipity as a spy in Paris, is a good indicator of the direction that book may have taken, but any notes for it would have been lost as per Terry’s instructions, when his hard drives where destroyed by a steam roller after his death.
- Some later editions of Dodger – including Ben’s – include a “Bonus Scene” in which Dodger visits Sweeney Todd in Bedlam. (We cut our short discussion of the scene for time, and because David and Liz hadn’t read it.)
- Cloacina was indeed a real Roman goddess, and like many was assimilated from another culture – in this case, Etruscan mythology. She was specifically the goddess of the Cloaca Maxima (“Greatest Drain”), the main sewer channel in Rome, construction of which was said to have been started and finished by two Estruscan Kings of Rome. Sometimes also seen as “a protector of sexual intercourse in marriage”, she was later known as “Venus of the Sewer”.