Extra added fun

My day as an extra for the filming of Outland was a blast, despite the long periods of waiting, standing up all day and the awful sunburn. As we were taking part in a faux Pride March, my friend Julie was my tv girlfriend for the day. I’m told we make a cute couple. 🙂 See pictures here!

Lessons in Language: Toe to tow

I was in Beechworth recently – enjoying a spot of fine food, excellent wine and a luxurious B&B called Freeman on Ford. It was all very wonderful, made more delightful by Beechworth’s generally intact historical architecture and cheerily promoted link with Australia’s most famous bushranger, Ned Kelly.

It was while partaking of the Ned Kelly tourist walk that I heard tour guide Daniel Goonan talk about Ned’s exploits as a boxer. Goonan referred to boxers having to ‘toe the line’ or ‘come up to scratch’, referring to the way that 19th century bare knuckle fighters had to come up to the central line drawn in the ring – the line or ‘scratch’ – before beginning the bout.

After the tour, I chatted to Goonan and his colleague at the Beechworth Visitor Centre about the etymology of both expressions, and we discussed their boxing origins at length. We also discussed spelling.

‘Toeing the line’ is another of my language bugbears. According to my dictionary, ‘toe the line’ means ‘comply with authority’. These days, I often see it in print as ‘tow the line’, which annoys me. Tow it where?

Actually, to stick pins in my own pomposity about this, I thought the term derived from military usage – ranks of soldiers having to line up, toe to the line, in precise ranks. Of course, just because the Beechworth historical experts say it’s a boxing term doesn’t mean they are necessarily correct. The Wikipedia entry on the subject (and we all know that this is an utterly reliable source of information) refers to its origins variously as foot-racing, the military and the British House of Commons.

Nobody, however, is suggesting it is or was ever spelled as ‘tow’ in this context.

Coming ‘up to scratch’ is a whole other matter. My dictionary lists this as ‘up to the required standard’, which I suppose you would want to do as a boxer or risk a broken nose. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that it’s a sporting term dating from 1778 but how it transformed from being at the starting line to being of a high enough standard to compete isn’t covered. However, English for Students has attempted a more comprehensive reply, with reference to boxing and knockout punches, and who am I to disbelieve them?

As much as I love etymology, it can be frustrating. Many words and particularly expressions are in use in the vernacular long before they are ever written down. As a result, people often try to reconstruct the origin of words by deciding what seems likely or logical, rather than by tracing the actual route the words have taken. When it’s all just words in the air, until someone pins them down on paper (or screen) that’s not always possible. Remind me to tell you about the Australian expression ‘Buckley’s or none’ one day.

In the meantime, I’m going to hunt up some more of that excellent Beechworth beer and wine, and drown my linguistic sorrows.

So you want to be in pictures?

On Friday 26th November, I will be going to Catani Gardens in St Kilda to participate in a fake Gay Pride March for the purposes of the new ABC comedy, Outland. It’s the TV series being made from the short film by John Richards which did the rounds of the queer film festivals a few years ago, and in which I had a small role!

If you’d like to be part of a crowd scene in an Australian comedy about gay SF fans, check out how to join in and I’ll see you there!

Review: Agora starring Rachel Weisz

As a lifelong bibliophile and Egyptophile, it’s inevitable that I’ve long harboured an affection for the ancient Library of Alexandria and her erudite librarian, Hypatia.  When I saw their story was being told in a new film, I was very excited. The ancient library brought to CGI life! The awesome teacher, philosopher, astronomer and librarian Hypatia breathing and being awesome for the world to see! Hurrah!

Then, of course, I remembered how it all turned out in history, and there was a little less yayness. Philosophers generally don’t fare well in ancient history, as you may recall.

But off I went to see Agora (named after the pubilc gathering place for discussion, announcements and denunciations) with a certain amount of trepidation. The film stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia and was directed by Alejandro Amenabar.

It’s certainly a handsome film. Fourth century Alexandria has been created in Malta and the CGI computers and it’s hard to see where the set ends and the technology begins. It also has a terrific multicultural cast who all do a creditable job of bringing the period to life.

The story occurs at a time of great social turmoil (well, when isn’t it a time of great social turmoil…) where followers of the new faith of Christianity are still persecuted, though no longer fed to lions. There are regular clashes between followers of old Roman gods, Judaism and Christianity – and as these faiths clash, there is of course the inevitable oppression, discrimination, violence and “my god is better than your god” slanging matches. Which leads to the inevitable bloodbaths. Those who govern Alexandria are left to find ways to manage the city between all these violently clashing ideologies and sometimes unhelpful directions from the Emperor back in Rome.

Against this backdrop, Hypatia teachs philosophy, fraternity, science and reason. Her determination that everything must be questioned and tested and questioned again naturally comes up against a host of people who prefer blind faith.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to note that these conflicts lead to the sacking and burning of the library in a scene that made me cry. To see the loss of all that knowledge and art because of superstition and intolerance is hard – it’s harder still to see it knowing that this sort of thing goes on in my own lifetime. And not just in developing countries. There are regular, ugly calls to ban books, to silence debate, even vilely to declare that certain groups of people ‘deserve to die’, from all kinds of people of all kinds of faiths in all kinds of societies.

There’s a lot more of the story from that point, however, as Hypatia salvages what she can and continues to teach and to question the universe. We watch her slowly evolve a theory of the movement of the planets, starting with the then accepted Ptolemeic ideal of the Earth as the central point and heavenly bodies moving in perfect circles around it, towards a heliocentric theory – but only if she continues to challenge the basic precepts of knowlege and never to take anything as… well, scripture. Obviously, the respite can only last so long.

Agora is a film that champions reason over blind faith. The fact that 1600-odd years later, humanity is still seeking a philosphy of reason in the face of blind faiths that choose violence and oppression over debate and acceptance is kind of depressing.

I’m not sure I enjoyed the film – I found a lot of it very distressing, because its issues are still today’s issues – but I think it was a film worth seeing. Rachel Weisz is a terrific Hypatia, and Alexandria looks pretty cool. When its library isn’t on fire, anyway.

Read about Agora at IMDB

Words are like oxygen