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Back in the Trenches Again

Boots and old sun-hat

It’s hard to believe that we used to expect to capture a whole holiday with one roll of film that might hold 36 shots. I’ve had several trips away this summer and now even my computer is groaning at the prospect of downloading all the photos. (Who knew there were SO MANY Greek statues?) So a post about Greece will have to wait. Meanwhile, closer to home:

Three people standing on a wall

A pic from the weekend of the Alderney Literary Festival last year: standing with fellow-writers Jason Monaghan and Simon Turney on the wall-walk of The Nunnery – a set of buildings that may well be the best-preserved Roman fort in Britain. As we shivered in the March wind I had no idea that I’d be back the following year bringing pyjamas, sunglasses and a trowel. This time I had the honour of being able to tag along with the archaeology team investigating the Nunnery and its surroundings.

The easiest way to reach Alderney is by air: meet the new plane. It’s bigger than the old plane.

Small Dornier plane with AURIGNY logo

A glimpse into the cockpit revealed this warning on the dashboard.

Notice saying NO ACROBATIC MANEUVERS INCLUDING SPINS APPROVED
NO ACROBATIC MANEUVERS, INCLUDING SPINS, APPROVED

I wasn’t sure whether to be reassured by this, or worried that anyone thought the pilots might need to be told. Anyway, thanks to their self-restraint and the kindness of Isabel Picornell-Garcia (whose many talents include archaeology as well as organizing literary festivals) I made it safely to the island and thence to the Nunnery.

High stone wall with gateway to courtyard within

Part of the Nunnery complex has just been refurbished as a hostel, and it’s a gloriously peaceful beachside retreat for groups of birdwatchers and heritage enthusiasts.

My own birdwatching efforts were not wildly successful:

Stony beach with 2 ducks barely visible
“Hunt the duck.”

Birds or no, the picnic table on top of the wall is a delightful spot for dining.

Beach with fortifications built on rocky outcrop in the sea

The peace of the view is relatively modern: these buildings have had many incarnations in the past, and most were military.

Information board detailing past uses of the buildings inc Roman, French Revolution and Napoleonic, and German occupation in WW2

The one thing the Nunnery may never have been is… a nunnery.

The German occupation in the Second World War left a vast amount of concrete all over the Channel Islands: there are bunkers built in to the Nunnery complex itself and another one just outside.

Concrete bunker with ruined door

Their remains are a poignant reminder of the captive labourers who were forced to build them.

Rusted iron door with handle

How to disfigure a perfectly good fort: knock a hole through the wall so you can roll your anti-tank gun down onto the beach. (Initially I’d hoped to go back and get a shot without the cars, but in fact they give a good idea of the scale.)

Wall of Nunnery fort showing concrete insertion for doorway

Speaking of beaches…

Table overlooking beach

Longis Bay is the best natural harbour on an island where much of the coast looks like this

Rocky cliffs

No wonder everyone who has controlled Alderney over the years has wanted to guard Longis Bay.

The outer wall of the Nunnery on the side that faces the bay is no longer there – or rather, it’s no longer where it should be. It’s collapsed onto the beach, where it now serves as a breakwater and a handy place to secure some of the boats that still land there.

collapsed wall with mooring ring

The back of the beach is walled with more German concrete. It was put there to withstand human invasion but may now be protecting the land behind it from the encroachment of sea and sand.

Beach with solid concrete wall behind it

The week I was there, the archaeologists were checking out some interesting-looking blobs on the geophysics plot of a field just up the road. There’s an Iron Age site on the hill nearby…

Clearing on top of low hill
Good site, bad photo – sorry. But hopefully it shows that the Iron Age people who made their pottery up here had a great view of the bay.

…and we were very close to a site where a wealth of Roman and Iron Age material turned up only last year. Proving that you can never be sure what’s there until you dig, the team shifted at least a metre of golden, wind-blown sand from beneath the turf and found… not burial cists, but Roman walls. Plus a massive midden containing thousands of limpet shells. Apparently limpets don’t taste great, but if you are hungry enough you probably don’t care.

I’m not going to publish pics of the archaeology because that’s best left to the professionals – if you want to see what we found, check out the Nunnery page on Facebook, and also Jason’s blog (he’s an archaeologist as well as a writer.) But as a taster, here’s one of the first shards of Samian pottery that turned up.

Shard of orange pottery with patterned surface

I don’t know what everyone else thought when that appeared, but I was mightily relieved to see confirmation that there was something interesting down there and we weren’t just using our buckets and spades to dig a huge and very hot hole in the sand.

At one stage the buckets and spades weren’t sufficient. No sooner did we wish for a mechanical digger than it came trundling in through the gateway, demonstrating one of the advantages of working in a very small community. The driver lowered the bucket into the trench and lifted out a massive stone with all the delicacy of an Edwardian tea-drinker using silver tongs to select a sugarlump.

The dig went on for another week after I had to leave, and more of the site was revealed – including the splendid paved area you can see on the Facebook page. Everything’s been recorded now, and the digger has returned to backfill the trenches while the professionals go off to write the reports.

As often happens, the excavation raised as many questions as it answered. Clearly there’s a lot more waiting to be discovered about Roman Alderney.

 

 

 

 

 

Kindle bargains for UK readers, and a free book draw for everyone else

UPDATE – WE HAVE A WINNER!  Thanks so much to everyone who entered the “Win a signed copy”  draw. It was great fun reading your messages and especially the entertaining offers of bribery (which of course I resisted)!   Congratulations to G Goldschmeid, whose name was first out of the hat – please check your email as I’ll need to know where to send your copy of “Terra Incognita”.

We intUK Cover of MEDICUSerrupt this broadcast to bring you news of rock-bottom bargain prices through July for UK Kindle versions of MEDICUS (the first Cover of Memento Moribook in the series) and MEMENTO MORI (the latest). 99p each! Yes, really! I think the recent sun here must have gone to somebody’s head. Whatever the reason, if you buy from Amazon.co.uk, you may wish grab one or both while you can.

Meanwhile for readers elsewhere who can’t access the UK bargains – a free book draw!  The prize will be a signed copy of whichever book in the MEDICUS series you choose.

There’s a reminder of what the books are here. If you choose anything but MEDICUS itself, it’ll be an American edition hardback – MEDICUS  will be a UK paperback because that’s what I have in the stock box.

How to enter – simply leave a comment below before midnight on Sunday 8 July, stating which book you’d like if you win. (This is also running in my newsletter, so if you sign up for that you could enter twice.) Please remember – this is only for people who live outside the UK.

So, hopefully, something for everyone!

Queen of the Castle

I’ve always thought of Parracombe as a peaceful and picturesque little Exmoor village, but when William of Falaise (relation of the more famous William the Conqueror) moved in sometime after 1066, he decided he needed a massive wooden castle to keep the natives in order.

The site is now called Holwell Castle and there’s a great view of it across the valley from Christ Church, where an information board helpfully explains what all the lumps and bumps are.

Green hillside with earthworks beyond trees
SPOT THE MOTTE

In case that shot from the churchyard isn’t entirely clear (and to be honest I was confused at first) here’s a close-up.

Close-up of earthworks with arrows drawn on the photo

RED – the MOTTE.  Anyone looking out from the castle keep that was built on top must have had a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.

BLUE – the ramparts of the BAILEY, which had a wooden palisade on top to protect all the buildings inside. You can still see (but not on this photo, sadly) the flattened rectangle of ground where a large hall once stood.

YELLOW – this is where you have to imagine a massive wooden gatehouse.

The site is on a private farm so you can’t usually visit, but yesterday afternoon we seized the rare chance of a guided tour. Fortified with the tea and cakes being served in the church, a large group of people set off in the sunshine to explore the earthworks in the company of an archaeologist. As I know next to nothing about the Normans, I hope I haven’t mangled his explanation too much.

The wooden structures are long gone but the earthworks, which were probably dug by reluctant locals, are brilliantly preserved.

Man standing in deep trench Here’s part of the ditch that surrounds the motte, and although it’s silted up over the last thousand years, it’s still far too deep to see out of. (Note the lone model for scale and the absence of Large Group of People – they really were there, but it seems a bit rude to post pictures of innocent bystanders without their permission.)

William and his followers would have reached the motte via a drawbridge, but modern commoners have to scramble up the side.  It’s a lot steeper than it looks.

View down the valley from the top of the MotteThe reward at the top: a temporary elevation to Queen of the Castle and a grand view of the valley and some dirty rascals down inside the bailey. You can just see the church on the right.

AND… as if that wasn’t a perfect enough afternoon (cake, countryside, sunshine, good company, archaeology) this was how the day drew to a close. Wow.

Seagulls silhouetted against sunset

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eboracum 2018 – Romans and beyond

 

Display board announcing Eboracum Roman Festival

To begin at the beginning…

Model sheep on 'green' roof of portacabin over station Left Luggage sign
Somebody needs to notify Little Bo Peep about this… In the background: part of York railway station. Train is my favourite way to arrive in the city, especially since the station is built over a Roman cemetery, some of which is probably still down there under the platforms.
City wall-walk with York Minster on the horizon
From the station area it’s a grand walk along the walls toward York Minster. As I haven’t yet worked out how to record video on the new camera, please imagine the Minster bells ringing out across the city.
Sign saying Nether Hornpot Lane
No, I don’t know why either, but York is full of this sort of thing.
Quaint narrow street with scaffolded cathedral at the end
York Minster – a new addition to the Downie Towers collection of Famous Landmarks Seen Through Scaffolding (Nimes amphitheatre, the Trevi Fountain, the Parthenon…)
Statue of Constantine apparently pointing at the scaffolding
Constantine, who was first proclaimed emperor here in Eboracum, explains the scaffolding to a visitor.

 

Medieval black and white timbered house
Not Roman, but interesting…
Sign saying Barley Hall and announcing an exhibition of costumes from Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall costumes! Obviously I have to go in now, even if it isn’t Roman.
Banqueting hall with ornate tiled floor
Wow. Barley Hall is a much-restored building and many of the contents are reproductions. As a result, instead of looking like a museum, it looks and feels like a fresh and comfortable home.
Windows 'glazed' with translucent strips of horn
A window ‘glazed’ with strips of animal horn. I’ve heard of horn-glazed lamps before (the Romans had them) but never seen the real thing. It feels very smooth and strangely plasticky to the touch.
Man's and woman's outfits, 16th century
Here they are! Just two of the Wolf Hall costumes on display. Fans of the series will be able to project Cromwell (Mark Rylance) and Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) onto those blank white faces.
Model of vegetable stall with trader and customer
A quick diversion to the Jorvik Centre to discover that almost everyone in Viking York was slightly out of focus – witness this trader trying to sell fuzzy vegetables to a blurry lady. The Jorvik Centre displays are excellent but I have no idea how to work the camera in low light.
Gruesome display of offal with a (model) rat on the table
Be glad this is out of focus: it’s the butcher’s. And yes, that grey thing with a pointy nose and a tail up on the chopping-block is indeed a rat. This is the sort of thing that makes the Jorvik Centre fine family entertainment. (Actually my favourite item on display was a very old sock with holes in it – made by naalbinding, for anyone who’s interested in textile production. There’s a good photo of it on the Jorvik Centre website.) But when, you ask, are we going to get to the Romans? Well, this is how they were looking on Friday night…
One tent up, lots of kit piled up on the grass.
…because anything involving camping always starts with a big heap of poles and plastic boxes in a field.
Sign saying "Meet the Roman authors here" outside half-timbered building
By Saturday morning even the writers had got organized, although I wish I’d pulled the banner up straight before taking this picture.
Three men in Roman military outfits
Ben Kane chatting to a couple of Roman soldiers who’d travelled from a city way beyond the bounds of the Empire – Los Angeles.
A miniature statue of the Emperor Augustus and a large pebble with a face drawn on it.
Followers of LJ Trafford‘s Facebook page will already know statue Augustus and stone Tiberius, who regularly feature there. This is one of their rare public appearances.
Author and man in Roman uniform talking over bookstall
Here’s LJ Trafford herself, talking to Graham Harris, festival organiser.
Man and bookstall
Paul Chrystal cunningly brought something to appeal to those who had only come to the Festival because some Romanophile had dragged them along. In amongst the Classics and Ancient History was, “Pubs in York.”
Two men talking over a bookstall
Harry Sidebottom is a little fuzzy around the edges here but you have to admit that the offer of “Any Hot or Soft Drink and a cake, £2.50” has come out very nicely.
Man holding up two books.
Alex Gough. In focus (!) along with the splended “Watchmen of Rome”. Yesss!
Woman and bookstall.
Penny Ingham, whose “The Saxon Wolves” I’ve just read and very much enjoyed, with its depiction of Roman Britain falling into ruin.
Jane Finnis, Romanophile and Yorkshirewoman, whose Roman-era murder mysteries are set practically on the doorstep.
Man holding up book,
Another of Yorkshire’s finest – Simon (SJA) Turney, looking very proud of his latest book, “Caligula” – as well he should.
Bookstall in front of mullioned window
The Hospitium is probably the most splendid location in which I’ve ever set up a bookstall.
Six women in Roman or Ancient British clothing
Thanks to LA Hambly (in white with red stripe) there was a Romano-British Fashion Parade. The tags around our necks aren’t jewellery, they’re our passes in and out of the Museum Gardens – handmade by Sandra G-Neville (right).
Clay tablet threaded on string
Too late, I found out they also got us discount in the local pub.
Emperor in purple robes escorted by Roman troops
At the command of the Emperor, the troops marched around the streets of the city. (If you’re keen on marching photos, there are more in last year’s blog post.) Here they are returning to base camp…
Roman soldiers with bottles of water.
…where they were very glad to down plenty of water. Marching is hot work.
Woman blowing bellows on hot coals
Meanwhile somebody was getting dinner ready.
Two people playing a board game
Other people were playing games
Roman artillery
Or admiring weaponry
Or watching this military scribe at work. I’m sure he and Albanus would have had a fine time discussing the best types of sealing wax and where to buy pens.
Roman saddle with four horns.
Re-enactor Sara Parkes explained this Roman-style saddle to me. Unlike modern saddles, it fits several sizes of horse. It’s also very comfortable and easy for the rider. (As someone with a talent for falling off, I was pleased to see there’s a wide choice of things to cling onto.)
Man talking across a table laid out with helmets, etc
This chap was explaining something as I passed. Perhaps someone had asked him why there was a disembodied arm on the table in front of him.
Wooden loom with weaving, threads held down by clay weights.
Once you’d got this loom set up, you would hope not to have to move it until you’d finished weaving. Because although it packs down into a box, all those weights holding the wool in position  (which are the only thing between you and an almighty tangle) have to be removed for transit. Thanks to the lady from The Roman Military Research Society who took the time to explain it to me.
Man and a woman in Roman and British costumes
On the right: Medicus Anicius Ingenuus of the IX Hispana legion. I failed to learn the name of the British lady on the left, even though she was kind enough to give me some very useful tips on Naalbinding (one of the ways people used to make socks before knitting was invented).
Papyrus scroll written on in Latin.
And here’s my absolute favourite item of the weekend: the Medicus has copied the writings of Celsus on the subject of surgery onto this papyrus scroll so that he can carry it with him on his travels with the Legion. I’m sure if he and Ruso were to meet, they would have a lot to talk about.

 

 

 

 

 

My Dear Hamilton

Nobody could accuse us of being stuck in the past here at Downie Towers. Well… not in the very distant past, anyway. Today we’re venturing into the daringly modern times of the eighteenth century, where events turn out to have some even more up-to-date parallels. I’m delighted to welcome Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, authors of the bestselling America’s First DaughterWoman in red dress - cover of My Dear Hamilton, to talk about their latest book, My Dear Hamilton.

Me: Can I get an embarrassing confession out of the way at the start? Having failed to pay attention in history lessons, when I first heard the title I thought you must be writing about Emma, lover of Lord Nelson. Of course I feel silly now.  News of the hit musical has reached us even down here in the depths of the West Country. But in case any other Britons are wondering –  “My Dear Hamilton” is the story of another woman altogether. Can you tell us a bit about Eliza Schuyler Hamilton and why she deserves to be better known?

Stephanie and/or Laura (see how seamlessly they blend together?): Ah, it makes sense that British readers might want to forget our Hamilton, because he was an American Founding Father–probably known as a traitor to your king, if King George stooped to notice him. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t just a pamphleteer and scrappy American soldier, but also the economic architect of America’s modern financial system. And he didn’t do it alone. He had at his side a remarkably intrepid, loyal, and strong wife–Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, one of America’s most important and longest-living Founding Mothers.

Me: Thank you! What is it about Eliza’s story that you think will resonate with modern readers?

Photo of Laura Kamoie
Laura

Stephanie and Laura: Our modern political world is ugly–and due to the nature of social media, we’re all constantly exposed to rumor, gossip, and various villainies. Eliza’s vulnerability was supercharged. As the wife of a firebrand who clashed with more or less every other Founding Father, Eliza found herself the victim of newspaper attacks and public opprobrium when her husband confessed adultery. In addition, the Hamiltons believed they were caught up in a tangible and immediate fight for the integrity and preservation of the American union, and we were surprised at how many times their fears and struggles seemed to mirror things going on in the modern political arena.

Me: Given my ignorance about Alexander Hamilton, let alone Eliza, should I read up on the history before I open the novel?

Stephanie and Laura: No advanced reading required! We’ll fill you in and fully introduce you to Eliza’s American revolutionary world–including Alexander. But we always encourage readers to learn more after they’re done and provide resources for them to get a head start.

Me (cunningly hoping to pick up a few tips): I’m guessing there was a LOT of research – how do you decide what goes into the book and what ends up on the cutting-room floor?

Stephanie and Laura: That’s the hardest part of the job. Especially with someone like Hamilton who wrote so much and did so much, and Eliza, who accomplished so much in her own right and lived so very long. In the end, we focused on those things that most shaped or were shaped by Eliza’s own lived experience. We wanted to center her, not her husband, and that often helped us determine what stayed and what had to go.

Me (now I’ve picked their brains about that, moving on to something else that fascinates me as a writer…): How does a writing partnership work? Do you write alternate chapters? Work together? Do you always agree, or do you move forward by arguing?

Photo of Stephanie Dray
Stephanie

Stephanie and Laura: We have complementary writing strengths and we’re well aware of them, so we tend to dole out sections to each other based on what we each do best. But we also write to a deadline, so when one of us falls behind, the other takes up the slack and if one of us can’t make a scene work, the other one comes to the rescue. We swap chapters constantly, and edit freely. We debate and disagree sometimes, but we don’t really argue because we always start from the premise that the other person has a point. If we do come to an impasse, we talk it out and inevitably come up with a third solution that is better than either of us originally envisioned. That’s one of the most magical things about our partnership!

Me: How about “Hamilton” the musical  – what do you both think of it?

Stephanie and Laura: We’re huge fans and think Lin-Manuel Miranda made some absolutely genius storytelling choices!

Me: Many thanks to you both for taking the time in a busy launch week to stop by and chat. In the time-honoured way I’d like to end by asking: what are you both working on now?

Stephanie and Laura: We’re working on a project on women of the French Revolution together, and Stephanie is embarking on her next solo project featuring the Marquis de Lafayette!

Me: Excellent – we can look forward to learning some more history the easy way! Meanwhile I’d like to wish My Dear Hamilton every success. I’m off to read the copy I bought here.

Banner showing soldiers and My Dear Hamilton cover

Curses, Miracles and ‘Tilla Speaks’.

The launch of a new book is always a grand excuse for wandering around the internet pontificating on things, and I’m grateful to the hosts who’ve kindly let me loose on their websites. It’s been a delight writing the articles, and here’s the current publication schedule.

6 Marchopening chapter of MEMENTO MORI previewed on Assaph Mehr’s Egretia.com

15 March

A Gang of Doctors Killed Me” – medics and miracles in the ancient world on Helen Hollick’s “Discovering Diamonds” review site.

Carving of moustachioed face on temple pediment at Bath

Bathhouse Theft in Ancient Rome: Victims seek Revenge.” Crimes and curses in Roman Bath at the Crimereads.com

Curse written on lead sheet seen by lamplight

 

17 March – MEMENTO MORI faces The Page 69 test – and finds Ruso rescuing a man who didn’t need to be rescued

30 March – an interview with Tilla at “The Protagonist Speaks

Date tba – I’ll be visiting Writers Read   http://whatarewritersreading.blogspot.co.uk/

 

 

MEMENTO MORI – the new book is out today!

I’m delighted to say that MEMENTO MORI, the story of Ruso and Tilla’s trip to Aquae Sulis (Bath) should be available on both sides of the Atlantic today! You can read the beginning here and listen to Simon Vance reading part of the story here.

This is what it looks like in the US:

Cover of Memento Mori, US edition

and here’s the British edition:

cover of Memento Mori

The small print – The UK is just ebook at the moment but paper copies should be out very soon. Someone’s just asked about Australia and I’ll be checking that later today. Meanwhile, off to celebrate!

MEMENTO MORI is almost here!

Cover of Memento Mori, US editionNot long now till Ruso and Tilla’s latest adventure goes public!  It’s the story of their fateful trip to the busy shrine at Aquae Sulis (Bath) and you can find out more here

…or listen to Simon Vance reading an excerpt from the book at Tantor Media.

On the left is Bloomsbury’s beautiful US edition. The British edition will follow soon – the cover design is still under wraps but I promise it will be worth waiting for! Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know when it’s being released – if you’d like to join them, please sign up here.

 

Graphic of sculpture women discussing launch date of Memento Mori
If you too would like to receive occasional “News from Downie Towers” please sign up here.

 

 

Coping with the party season, Roman-style

The season of partying has begun! Io Saturnalia!

“No need to rush: the guests won’t be here for ages.”

…although to be honest I’ve never been terribly confident about social occasions. Nothing illustrates my lack of prowess so well as the time I turned up to a party to find the hostess still in her dressing-gown with a towel around her hair.  And that was in my home country. How much harder must it be to fit into a society where you don’t have the language?

It was certainly a problem for the highly mobile population of the Roman empire. What if you were a Greek-speaker trying to make good in the big city? Or indeed, a Latin-speaker who had moved east and now found all your neighbours chatting away in Greek?

Time to hire a language teacher and practise a little conversation.

Happily for us, some of those ancient conversations have survived. Originally written in Latin and Greek side by side, the “Colloquia” cover all sorts of situations the student is likely to face. Many are obviously for schoolchildren (there’s a lot about washing your face in the morning and saying ‘hello’ to the teacher) but amongst the others are “asking a banker for a loan,” “preparing for a lunch guest,” “afternoons at the baths,” “winning a lawsuit,” “going out to dinner,” and “getting ready for bed”. There are also handy suggestions for acceptable excuses.

The Colloquia give a fresh and delightful insight into the everyday life of the empire, and I’ve just been reading them in Eleanor Dickey’s splendid translation.* They’re full of things that newcomers might have found useful to know, including what to say when things went wrong, such as,

“I haven’t got anything to drink – I asked for wine and nobody gave me any.”

Once the wine is supplied, there’s advice on how to toast one’s fellow-guests and how to thank the host at the end.

Of course not everyone was a partygoer. Someone coping with a relative who had over-indulged might want to say,

“Is this the way to behave when you are a respectable father?”

statue of naked man on couch with cup

 

The following is aimed at slave-owners, but could be useful for parents too:

“Since you were slow to do your job, none of you may go out tonight. And be quiet – I’m going to punish anyone whose voice I hear.”

The passage about lunch reveals how a Roman guest could, unlike me, turn up at the right time every time – even though timekeeping relied largely on sundials and what was, in Britannia at least, an unreliable sun. The invited guest tells his host, “Just send a slave round when you want me to come. I’ll be at home.”  

If only we still did that. Admittedly few of us have servants these days, but a simple phone call would save all that hanging around clutching drinks and making polite conversation while frantic preparations go on in the background. And no hostess would need to apologize for slipping away to put her clothes on.

*”Stories of Daily Life from the Roman World – Extracts from the Ancient Colloquia” by Eleanor Dickey, Cambridge University Press, 2017   ISBN 978-1-316-62728-0  http://www.Cambridge.org  – Highly recommended!