Suppose a part of Ancient Rome survived?

Portrait of Alison MortonFriends who followed the Blog Hop a couple of years ago will have met my writing friend Alison Morton. Alison’s created a gripping alternative thriller world, where her 21st century Praetorian heroines survive kidnapping, betrayal and a vicious nemesis while using their Roman toughness and determination to save their beloved country. Unfortunately, their love lives don’t run as smoothly. If you haven’t visited Roma Nova, now is a good time to start because…

Picture of Nova Roma box set…for a limited time only, there’s an e-books box set available. It contains the first three books ­­– over 1,000 pages of action adventure and alternative historical thrills in three novels which have 140 five star reviews on Amazon between them.

INCEPTIO – the beginning: New Yorker Karen Brown is thrown into a new life in mysterious Roma Nova and fights to stay alive with a killer hunting her… “Breathtaking action, suspense, political intrigue” – Russell Whitfield “Grips like a vice.  Excellent pace, great dialogue and concept.” – Adrian Magson

PERFIDITAS – betrayal: Six years on, where betrayal and rebellion are in the air, threatening to topple Roma Nova and ruin Carina’s life. “Sassy, intriguing, page-turning … Roma Nova is a fascinating, exotic world” – Simon Scarrow

SUCCESSIO – the next generation: A mistake from the past threatens to destroy Roma Nova’s next generation. “I thoroughly enjoyed this classy thriller, the third in Morton’s epic series set in Roma Nova.”
– Caroline Sanderson in The Bookseller.  Historical Novel Society indie Editor’s Choice Autumn 2014

The box set is now available at a special price of $5.99 on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, and Nook

Grab it while you can!

A grand day out with the Celts

  1. How many people can you fit on a war chariot?
  2. What did the people Caesar called “Britons” call themselves?
  3. Since you’ve finished with that character in your story, can I kill him in mine?

These are the kind of questions that  have been bandied about over the summer by the team putting together a collection of interlinked tales to form A Year of Ravens – a novel of the Boudican Rebellion (of which, more when it’s published – hopefully mid-November).

Meanwhile, I’ve been to the British Museum:

Display board advertising Celts exhibition at British Museum

…and can now reveal that the answers are as follows:

  1. Three or four, but only if two of them are quite small, everyone is good at balancing, and you don’t actually go anywhere or fight anybody.
  2. We don’t know.
  3. Yes – but not as horribly as you’d intended.

I have to say that whatever they called themselves, I’ve always found the ancient Britons much harder to grasp than the Romans. Not only were the all the written records made by their conquerors, but our notions of who they were are overlain with a lot of  ‘Celtic’ material that either comes from a different place or a different time.  The debate about who the Celts were, or are, often engenders more heat than light.

The arguments faded into irrelevance, though, as I stood and gazed into what – for me – was the star  exhibit: the wonderful Gundestrup Cauldron. It’s a massive silver vessel covered with pictures that are the stuff of dreams, or nightmares: in one famous panel, little figures march forward as if they’re on a factory line, waiting to be hauled into the air and dunked into a mysterious pot of some sort. Above them, a line of figures who have (presumably ) survived a dunking ride away on horseback. I’ve seen photos many times but to see the whole vessel and all its staring gods and warriors and wild animals was just fantastic.

While the exhibition has the REAL ones of these, there are some nice reproductions to see for free – and photograph – in the Museum of London.

Bronze horned helmet and ornate bronze shield cover

It’s hard not to conclude that Celtic artists were having more fun than the Romans and Greeks working at the same time.  The Celts seem to have been unconstrained by any rule that things had to look like what they were supposed to be.  Here (again from elsewhere in the British Museum) is the back of a mirror with a swirly design.

Back of bronze mirror

Here’s the same thing upside down.

Same mirror upside down

Another face looking back, in a less than flattering way? Or is that just imagination? Maybe another reason why we find the Celts so hard to pin down is that they were deliberately enigmatic.

Nothing enigmatic about bling, though. There was a LOT of neckwear on show. Here’s one of the torcs that didn’t make it into the display.

Torc made with twisted gold wire

The exhibition carried on past the Roman withdrawal and down the centuries, with some gloriously detailed medieval manuscripts. Frankly some of what we now think of as Celtic looks suspiciously Viking and a few of the creations from recent centuries seemed to say as much about the times of their creators as about the ancestors they were depicting.

As I neared the exit I was regretting the fact that I couldn’t photograph any of the best Celtic-influenced contemporary art and design when I realised I already had some of it dangling from my very own ears. Here it is.

Silver earrings with woven knot design






The library of illegible books

Big news in recent weeks, as Ruso and Tilla have mentioned on their Facebook page. (They must be reading my mind.) It now seems someone’s found a way to read the charcoal ink on the scrolls that were burned to a crisp by Vesuvius almost 2000 years ago. There really is a chance that Herculaneum’s ‘lost’ library could be recovered, although it’ll be years rather than months before we find out what’s on many of the hundreds of documents that are too fragile to be unrolled.

Pic of Dulwich Public Library
Slightly irrelevant, but this is where I was working on Friday. Imagine if all the books were carbonised and we had to guess what was inside them.

All of which got me thinking: what would we LIKE to be in there?

In the past I’ve always said I’d like to find something – anything – written by Britons themselves about their history. Or indeed about anything at all. It would be good to have some opinions that weren’t those of the occupiers. Sadly, given that the British tribes relied on an oral  tradition, that Vesuvius blew up only a few decades after the invasion and that the Romans weren’t all that interested in what barbarians thought, it’s not likely.

Second choice would be a book I only found out about recently. It really did exist, but only quotations remain. Friends who’ve read Ruso’s and Tilla’s first adventure may recall Ruso’s failed attempts to write a Guide to Military First Aid: a book he envisaged as small enough to fit in a man’s pack and useful enough to provide some comfort when a medic wasn’t available. So I was delighted to discover that there really was a book by one Rufus of Ephesus whose title is variously translated as “For the layman” or “For those who have no doctor to hand”. The dates of Rufus’s life are unclear so it just might be early enough. Could a copy of Rufus’s helpful advice be sitting amongst the scrolls, waiting to be deciphered?

Third choice… hm, I bet most of us who try to reimagine the ancient world are conscious of gaps in the evidence that we’d like filled. For instance – I am tired of guessing at how much things cost. I know there are price lists and pay chits but they’re often from later periods and they’re scrappy.  I’d also like some menus for ordinary people, preferably with suggested quantities to go with the ingredients. And could somebody please confirm exactly what women wore underneath?

All of this reminds me of an essay question from Uni days. I’ve just looked it up and it turns out to be a quote from Anthony Burgess (he of the Clockwork Orange) – “is there one person living who, given the choice between discovering a lost play of Shakespeare’s and a laundry list of Will’s, would not plump for the dirty washing every time? – Discuss.”

Call me a philistine, but I’m going to be pretty disappointed if we just end up with a few more versions of Homer and the Aeneid.

Any other ideas? What would you like to find – real or imaginary? What questions would you like answered?

Medicus II on library shelf
OK, I admit to looking while I was there. And there was one. Thank you, Southwark Libraries. I did put it back properly afterwards.



New website, very old gate

Thanks to lovely Stuart, chief shepherd at 3Sheep,  for the revamp of the website. He’s now handed it back to me and I’ve been doing my best not to break it. If anything either doesn’t work or doesn’t make sense please be kind enough to tell me and I’ll see if I can mend it, or at least break it in a new and interesting way.

The gateway on the front page is, for those who care about these things, all that remains of the north gate of Milecastle 37 on Hadrian’s Wall. Here it is again, looking much smaller than it really is in an old photo I’d be ashamed to publish, except for one thing – the chap on the right.

Drawing Milecastle 37

His name, I discovered later, is Alan Whitworth. He was working for English Heritage. The object in his hand is a drawing-board and he was drawing the Wall.

Yes. That Wall. All of it. When we met him he had five miles left to go.

I’ve thought about this encounter many times when I’ve been struggling with archaeological drawing. It’s not a job I enjoy. It’s slow, painstaking, awkward, and surprisingly easy to get wrong. I can’t begin to imagine what personal and professional qualities would be required to record a wall seventy-three miles long. To be honest I had begun to wonder whether we’d misunderstood what he said – surely nobody would take that on? But no, we hadn’t, and here’s the evidence.

Blog tour: My writing process

Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.

Judi’s answers can be found here.  Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.

1.      What am I working on?Cover of TABULA RASA

The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.

Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.

3.      Why do I write what I do?

Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.

4.      How does your writing process work?

I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.

Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.

What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.



Can I try that question again, please?

One of the perils of combining a haphazard approach to research with a terrible memory is that I often recall useful things that I read a long time ago, but it’s impossible to quote them because I no longer know where they were. Worse, I sometimes wonder whether they really existed or whether I made them up for a story. So when someone asked me the other day whether doctors in the ancient world really did perform post-mortems, I was appalled to find myself in a minor panic, mumbling that I was pretty certain they did, and anyway, um,  surely they must have done…

Shelves crowded with books about Romans and Ancient Britain
The answer is probably in here somewhere. Or perhaps not.

My companion was very polite, but given the number of post-mortem examinations in the Ruso stories, he can’t have been too impressed. So it was mightily reassuring to rediscover this in Vivian Nutton’s “Ancient Medicine”:

“The best picture of what the average healer did may be gained from the papyri of Graeco-Roman Egypt, which extend mainly from the second century BC until the sixth century. They show us healers at work, summoned to carry out inspections of those injured in an affray or dying in suspicious circumstances, prescribing, running a family hospital, even writing their own books.”

So that’s where it was. Page 11.

That passage brings me to a great question  asked by Jane Finnis at the Heffers Classics Festival: “What lost document from antiquity would you most like to find?”

My answer at the time was that I’d like to find something – anything – by the Druids, in the hope of balancing the information we have from the Roman authors. Sadly, as Manda Scott observed, since the Druids didn’t have a written culture the chances of that happening were slim. She cunningly suggested rediscovering – amongst other things – the entire contents of the lost library of Alexandria.  Much too late, I’d like to revise my own answer:

The book I would most like to find from antiquity is one that definitely existed, but is known to have vanished by the year 850. It was written by a doctor called Rufus and was a “large compendium of self-help medicine designed for the layman (‘for those who have no access to a physician’).” (Nutton, p. 7)

Wouldn’t that be fascinating? I must have read about Rufus’s DIY medical book years ago, but it had drifted out of memory. Perhaps the idea wasn’t entirely lost, though. It seems G. Petreius Ruso’s attempt to write a Concise Guide to Military First Aid wasn’t quite as original as I thought.

The un-stately home

Not a trip into ancient history this time, but a visit to the relatively modern  Calke Abbey, It isn’t really an abbey but a house, built in 1704.

Front view of Calke Abbey stately home

The outside is deceptive. Unlike many properties in the care of the National Trust, this one has been left pretty much the way they found it in the 1980’s. Which in some places was splendid…

Room crammed with gold-framed paintings and elegant furniture

While in others…

Room with spartan furnishings and damp peeling wallpaper

The owners of the house were great collectors, and there are rooms full of things in glass cases that I’m certain didn’t want to be collected, or indeed shot in the first place. Below: this brings a whole new level of meaning to “go and tidy your bedroom!” (There is a bed under there. Honestly.)

Iron frame bed barely visible under junk including stuffed stag heads and antlers

As Dolly Parton famously remarked, “You wouldn’t believe what it costs to look this cheap.” The decay on display has been painstakingly and expensively halted in its tracks so that,  as the website explains, “With peeling paintwork and overgrown courtyards, Calke Abbey tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house estate.” I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the result far more interesting than the usual stately-home displays of ancestral portraits and china.

The estate was owned by one family but in its heyday would have required armies of staff to maintain it. Back stairs and tunnels were provided so that the place wasn’t cluttered up with servants going about their business. This one, leading to the brewing house, must have been a daunting prospect before the arrival of electricity in 1962 (no, that is not a typo. 1962).

Long dimly-lit brick tunnel

Staff tunnels aren’t a new concept – they’re still discovering new tunnels under Hadrian’s splendid villa at Tivoli.

But while Hadrian famously never forgot a face, Calke’s servants were so invisible to one of their masters that it’s said he was unable to recognise any of them. When, in the occasional fit of rage, he would fire one of them, the offender would merely scuttle off down the back stairs and return to work, leaving the master none the wiser and still with a full complement of staff.

I’d thoroughly recommend Calke Abbey for a day out, but if geography prevents, there’s a splendid virtual tour here.

Fiction and Fakery

I was going to start this post with the Goebbels quote, “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” Unfortunately it turns out that Goebbels probably never said it. According to this site, what he actually said was, “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it…” Of course he may not have said that either, since I’ve only picked it up from the Internet, but it suits my purposes.

This is all by way of introducing a marvellous article by Charlotte Higgins in Friday’s Guardian. It begins thus (and this IS a genuine quote, copied and pasted):

In 1747, the sensational discovery of an ancient chronicle redrew the map of Roman Britain and gave us place names we still use today. There was only one problem. It was a sham. 

You can enjoy the rest of the article  here.

The antiquarians of the day were taken in, and despite what seem (with retrospect) some obvious blunders, De Situ Britanniae (On the Situation of Britain) was not exposed as a fake until a hundred and twenty years after its  alleged discovery.

Its author, Charles Bertram, drew on ancient sources to make his work convincing, and there’s no doubt that he intended to deceive. Whereas writers of historical fiction are honest folk who draw on ancient sources in order to weave new tales in and around the accepted ‘facts’…er, it’s all sounding rather similar, isn’t it? Except that reader and writer usually agree on the rules of the game. We all accept that much of what’s inside the book is made up. While we ‘believe’ in Marcus and Esca and their attempts to regain The Eagle of the Ninth, we all know they’re simply an invention of Rosemary Sutcliff’s imagination. However… I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve assured me that the Ninth Legion really did vanish in Scotland: something that now, in the face of evidence discovered long after the book was published, seems highly unlikely.

Sometimes we believe what we want to believe.  And sometimes an invention is useful.  It is, after all, very handy to have a collective noun for the range of hills that stretches up the spine of Britain. And the fact that it sounds remarkably similar to the Appenines, which stretch up the spine of Italy, might suggest a Roman source. Or an inventive mind…

CONVOY – Caroline Davies tells stories from the Second World War

I have to admit that poetry makes me nervous. I approach it with caution, afraid of revealing yet again that I just haven’t got what it takes to appreciate this sort of thing. But when Caroline Davies passed some of her poems about the Malta convoys around our writers’ group, even I could see that here was something special. I’m delighted that Cinnamon Press thought the same thing, and they’ve now published the whole collection.

Cover of CONVOY

CONVOY weaves together the stories of the men who risked desperate odds to get supplies through to Malta during the Second World War, and of their families back at home. It’s a vivid and moving series of accounts. But I wasn’t sure why Caroline had chosen to write it. After all, the War was history before she was born. There was only one way to find out, so I asked her.

 Caroline – Even as a child I was aware that my taid (my grandfather), was involved with the supply of Malta by sea during the war.  Although I didn’t know any of the details I took it for granted that everyone else must be aware of how important the defence of the island was. (Me – Malta was a vital strategic base for British forces.) I can remember being shocked that other people seemed to know about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain but not the Malta convoys. A large part of my motivation for writing this book was to reclaim that forgotten history.

 Me – Are all the poems based on real events and real people, or are any of them fiction?

Caroline – In many of the poems there is a mixture. Where there is a man’s name in the heading, be it Captain Thomas Horn, or PB ‘Laddie’ Lucas, or Tom Neil then the events and the people are real but what I’ve had to imagine was how they felt about what was unfolding around them.  A number of the poems are complete works of my imagination especially the ones written in a child’s voice, that of my mother. Overseas Posting is based on a single remark by one pilot about how he coped with others being posted missing so the name in that poem is fictitious.

Me – Have you had any responses from people who were involved?

Caroline – The majority of them are no longer alive to respond and those who were in their twenties during the war will now be into their nineties. There are two poems in the book which are based on an incident in Tom Neil’s Onward to Malta. He is very much alive and well and so after some hesitation I did send him the poems to read. He was utterly charming about them whilst protesting that he hadn’t done anything special during the war.

There’s more about Tom Neil on Caroline’s blog, here:

I’ve mostly had contact with people who like me, are the children or grandchildren of those involved. Paul Lazell whose Dad, Bill, was with the Royal Artillery sent me his father’s diary to read and that provided the basis for one of the found poems in the book.

Me -As someone who usually has at least 100,000 words to play with, I’m impressed by the way the poetry weaves together many stories with few words. With such a large number of ships and a complex series of events, how did you choose what to put in and what to leave out? Did you end up cutting much of what you’d written?

photo of CarolineCaroline – I suspect I probably should have cut more than I did despite all the good advice from my main critical reader, Katy Evans-Bush. The choice of what to leave in was largely governed by deciding to follow individual men, like Roger Hill who was involved in the Operation Pedestal convoy – the attempt to get fifteen merchant ships to Malta. At one point I did have ambitions to follow the fate of every single ship but as my publisher Jan kept reminding me I wasn’t writing a comprehensive maritime history.

One of my men only has six lines in Operation Pedestal. During the editing process I decided these could be cut, only to dream that night of a seaman trying to reach a life-raft which is getting further and further away from him. Needless to say he was reinstated into the poem the next morning.

Me – Were there any stories that you’d like to have put in but which didn’t fit?

Caroline – Plenty. There were various people involved with the RAF; Group Captain Woodhall who was the fighter controller on the island and George Beurling, one of the fighter pilots who shot down twenty seven planes in fourteen days about whom there were many stories.

My focus however was on what was happened out at sea on board the ships. In this regard I would have liked to have included a incident involving Captain David MacFarlane, master of the Melbourne Star during the Pedestal convoy. She kept being left behind or in the words of her captain “we were nobody’s baby”. A merchant ship on its own without any protection from naval vessels was much more vulnerable. Every time MacFarlane steered to take position astern (i.e. behind) one of the destroyers, their hoped for escort would zigzag and pull away.   Finally he is given permission to take up station on one of the warships when the Ashanti comes alongside and tells him to turn around as the main body of the convoy is astern of them. McFarlane says that he is quite happy where he is and back comes the stern reply ‘I am the Admiral’.

Me – One of the book’s strengths is the restrained nature of the language – the events are narrated with emotion but without sentimentality. Was that a deliberate choice, or does it echo the tone of the accounts you read?

Caroline – At the back of my mind whilst writing the poems was the idea that they had to sound as if the men themselves were telling the stories.  In their accounts and interviews they definitely understate the dangers involved and there’s plenty of black humour. One of my critical readers did suggest that perhaps in places it was a little too impersonal and I did have to work on getting more emotion into the poems.

Me – What surprised you most during the research?

Caroline – There were two aspects that surprised me. The first was how attached I became to many of the men and of course I couldn’t have written any of it without them. The other thing was how difficult emotionally it was at times to write, especially about the Operation Pedestal convoy in which so many ships were lost. In the end the only way I got that written was to go off to North Wales for a week’s writing retreat and just make myself finish it.

Me – I’ve heard it said when people are talking about the Second World War that we have become softer nowadays, and that ‘you couldn’t get people to do that now.’ You have a foot in both camps, so to speak – do you think it’s true?

Caroline – People are still the same underneath though, aren’t they? I don’t think the current generation of young people is that different from the young men and women at the end of the 1930s and if called upon to make the kinds of sacrifices that had to be made during the war I know they would rise to the challenge.


I’m grateful to Caroline for taking the time to answer, and for agreeing to let me put up a couple of the poems on the blog. I asked for the first one especially, because I love the bleak humour.

Extract from Operation Pedestal

 From a pilot on board H.M.S. Furious

Sir, why are the armourers

taking the ammo out of my Spitfire?

Looks like cigarettes they’re putting in?

That’s right.

Someone was worried about weight

preventing us taking off.


Fags don’t weigh much I suppose.

Indeed. Malta is short of smokes

as well as everything else.

It’ll do morale a power of good.

That’s kind of us, Sir.

I hope the Germans

and Italians don’t know.

What if they do? You couldn’t hit them

even if you had ammunition.

I would like to be able to try, Sir.


Christmas 1941

After three months of dodging the bombing

the Ajax is moored upstream

at the head of Marsa creek.

The bombs still come every day.

Her crew take shelter in the caves.

One watch on board.

She’s hit on Christmas Eve.

The bomb passes clean through her bow.

No explosion. Just bubbles of water.

The Chinese greaser first back on board.

No matter how hard he searches

he can’t find what he seeks.

No sign of the crate. Not a single feather.

A lingering rank chicken smell from the corner

where they’d been fed. Given water.

A hole in the ship’s side instead of

the New Year’s dinner. He takes it personally,

this intervention of the Luftwaffe.

On their unmarried mothers, sons and daughters

he calls down curses. Until this moment

he hadn’t fully seen the point of this war.

© Caroline Davies

Cover of CONVOY

CONVOY is available from