To begin at the beginning…
The first half of June’s looking pretty busy with a rush of events up and down the country at which I’ll be showing off my now not-so-new Roman shoes.
Heading north for the Eboracum Roman Festival in York – a spectacular event for all ages. I’ll be in the Authors’ Tent in the fine company of Alex Gough, Ben Kane, Brian Young, Harry Sidebottom, Jane Finnis, John Salter, Penny Ingham, and Simon (SJA) Turney. Quite a few of us will be in costume, although possibly some of the guys dress like that all the time.
I’ll be taking the shoes to visit the library in the pretty North Devon town of South Molton. We’ll be starting at 6 pm, it’s £2 a ticket and there will be nibbles. Hopefully we’ll all have finished eating before I start discussing Roman medical prescriptions.
The shoes head north again to Milton Keynes. While the town is only 50 years old this year, the site it’s built on has a long heritage, and I’ll be joining friends to celebrate it at their Festival of History. There’ll be loads to see, and it’s free! I’ll be somewhere in a big tent with some Roman archaeology (and some books, obviously).
A visit to the island of Alderney has been on my bucket list ever since we saw our friends’ holiday photos, so there was dancing and singing here at Downie Towers when an invitation to the Alderney Literary Festival arrived. Below are a few photos of my own, along with some random thoughts about the festival – which was fabulous.
Alderney is a small island, so obviously the ‘new, big’ plane was never going to be terribly big. It’s super-comfortable, though, and nearly everybody gets a window seat.
Here’s the Island Hall, where most of the festival happened – one of many beautiful buildings in the town of St Anne. Something I sadly failed to photograph was the modern finale to the Bayeux Tapestry, created by islanders and on display in the Library around the corner. It’s so good that it’s been displayed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, where they’ve kept a replica.
Most of my photos of the festival itself are blurry shots of speakers in the distance and lots of backs of heads in between. However… please welcome some of Joyce Meader‘s highly entertaining display of military knitting through the ages. Here’s Joyce demonstrating an adjustable knitted dressing-cover for keeping bandages clean. The lady next to me is examining what I think was a knitted eye-patch.
The picture of the WW2 WAAF knitted knickers (3-stitch rib, with gusset and proper elastic) has been removed by the censor and I failed to get a decent shot of the green woolly long-johns or the one-size, shrink-to-fit socks, so here is a pair of military knee-warmers instead.
Obviously not every festival speaker offered handcrafted goods, but all offered memorable moments. These included:
Imogen Robertson‘s description of the process of creating a novel as making lots of very small decisions – very cheering to those of us who are strangers to the “flash of inspiration”.
Jason Monaghan‘s account of the battle of Cambrai: the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry suffered terrible losses and the news reached home during Christmas week.
Rachel Abbott, the 14th most successful ebook author on Kindle, revealing part of the secret of her success: working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week for months.
Simon Turney illustrating a creature described by Julius Caesar, which appeared to have the head of a cow, the horn of a unicorn and the antlers of a reindeer.
Simon Scarrow describing the complicated mess of World War Two that led to mass starvation in Greece.
I have a feeling the display of a Roman cataract needle in my own talk may have been memorable for some, though possibly they’re now wishing they could forget. Anyway, here’s the moment when, having delivered the ‘author talk’, the author tries to remember what her own name is to sign the book.
I bet TH White never had that problem. Readers of “The Once and Future King” – or “H is for Hawk” – might like to know that this was his house:
Just like the UK, only… not.
There are people on the island, honestly.
Lovely to look at, terrifying to sail around.
One of many defences left behind by previous occupiers, and an unlikely location for a Countryside Interpretation Centre.
Looking even less likely now:
But yes, it really is! A modern photo of the view the German defenders would have enjoyed on a sunny day.
Speaking of occupying forces, here’s Simon Turney (left) defending Rome in the Saturday night dinner debate: “Overpaid, Oversexed and Over Here: what did the Romans do for us?” while Simon Scarrow weighs up the evidence…
…and a nervous Briton keeps smiling while she tries to think what to say in return. (And yes, that torc is completely fake. The instructions for how to make something similar are here. If that link doesn’t work, try Googling “dtorc_obj11236”)
Alderney’s tumultuous history (it lies on a strategic cross-channel route) has left it crammed with interesting sites to visit. This is The Nunnery, a Roman fortlet which has seen many different uses over the years, although none of them appears to have involved nuns. Real Romans built the wall on the right, but not on the left. Don’t ask me how you tell.
The chaps discuss defence tactics while Simon tries out the Roman wall walk. We felt very privileged to be given a tour by Jason as the interior of the Nunnery isn’t currently open to the public.
I think we can all agree this isn’t Roman. It’s next door to the Nunnery…
…and this is the landing-point they were both built to defend.
Peace has now returned to Alderney…
…and I can vouch for the fact that the islanders are incredibly welcoming and hospitable. It was an honour and a delight to spend time with many of them last weekend, and my thanks go to the Alderney Literary Trust and everyone else who helped to make the Festival such a success.
“…because we’re doing the best that we can.” Margaret George, Historical Novel Society conference, 2016.
I’ve never been to the Historical Novel Society conference before, but after last weekend I’m wondering why. It was splendid. If you want to read a well thought-out blog piece about it, there’s one in the Times Literary Supplement. If you want a few photos, some scrappy notes and some Anglo-Saxons banging their shields and yelling, then, dear reader, you are in the right place.
The problem with reporting on writing events is that my photos are often – quite frankly – a bit boring. They’re mostly:
Panels – a row of people behind a row of tables.
Discussions – two or three people looking at each other across a low table.
Talks – one person behind a lectern. Or standing beside a table. Could be anybody, because they’re too far away to tell. On the right: Tracey Chevalier, Richard Lee of the HNS, an illegible screen and the backs of two heads. Luckily the talk was much better than my photography.
The Dinner – lots of people leaning against each other and looking cheerful around a big table.
After the dinner– people standing around clutching drinks and looking very cheerful, despite the absence of tables.
Whilst these sort of pictures are fine if you know the people involved, or if you have always wondered what the person who wrote that hideous torture scene might look like, they aren’t exciting. So, I have vowed to take (or at least show) no more of them.
Although they might get a quote, because some things are too good not to pass on.
For instance, Jo Baker‘s contention that “Books start to be historical when the clothes start to be vintage.”
Melvyn Bragg‘s “History and fiction have been intermingled for ever. Herodotus made up the speeches for his Histories.”
Gillian Bagwell‘s hints on “Giving your writing the reading it deserves” including, Memorize the first line so you can look at the audience. (I’d never thought of that.)
Rory Clements on “Writing the Historical Thriller” – “If you find it easy, you are not putting enough effort in. You could do more.”
Hazel Gaynor on reclusive writers engaging with booksellers – “I’m putting my Brave Trousers on, and I’m going out!”
Carole Blake‘s sage advice to aspiring writers – “Ask around – don’t be so grateful that you accept an offer regardless.”
But where, you may be asking by now, are the Anglo-Saxons beating their shields? Was that them, above? No, there’s more. We’ll get there in a minute. First, I’d like to celebrate the glorious Battle of Fulford tapestry. (Not, as I inadvertently called it on Twitter, “the Battle of Fulford Tapestry,” an otherwise unknown medieval skirmish over needlework). It’s six metres long, it was displayed at the conference by its designer, Chas Jones, and you can find out all about it on this website. You may recognise the style.
And this is how they got those lovely colours for the wool. I tried to turn all the labels around the right way before taking the photo, so with luck you can zoom in and read most of them.
There was, of course, a very fine Gala Dinner on the Saturday night.The guests included Queen Boudica, an elf, a witch, a monk, Tilla (or rather me, wearing her clothes), a gondolier, and Mrs Lincoln. On looking at the photos it’s clear that Tilla enjoyed the evening a little too much and all the photos she took were a bit blurry. This is her best effort at Mary Todd Lincoln, whose splendid outfit won first prize in the costume pageant.
So that, gentle reader, was a very brief roundup of some of the highlights of the HNS conference. In the year that marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, we will leave the final word to Harold Godwinson’s men. Some of whom are women. But as they say about historical fiction, it’s all lies anyway.
I’m delighted to announce that Ruso and Tilla’s seventh adventure, set in the great city of Rome itself, is now available on an e-reader near you! Find out more about it here.
If you live in the USA, Canada or Cambridge*, VITA BREVIS should also be available in a bookshop. (*The fine folk at Heffers Bookshop have arranged a few sneaky imports in time for their Summer 2016 Crime Party on Thursday.)
Paper copies will set sail across the Atlantic before long and, with a fair wind and strong rowers, should arrive in September.
To apologise for the delay, here’s a caption competition! The best caption sent in from the UK or Ireland for the photo below by the end of July wins a signed copy of VITA BREVIS. Friends from elsewhere are very welcome to enter but sadly you will win only the honour of keeping us all amused.
What’s going on here? We need to know!
It’s been a busy few days – first, a long weekend in York, a city crammed with Roman activity past and present. Then down south to spend five days in search of the far more elusive Roman Devon. Finally, with all photos downloaded and all mud washed off, there’s time to update the blog…
The Eboracum Roman Festival was a resounding success and will hopefully be back again next year.
And now, it’s back to the thing that makes all this gallivanting possible – writing the next book.
They say you should put the important information at the top of a piece, just in case nobody reads any further, so here it is –
I’ll be at Calne Library in Wiltshire this Tuesday evening with the irrepressible Ben Kane, author of Roman military fiction and owner of a pair of repro Roman boots that walked Hadrian’s Wall last summer and helped to raise thousands of pounds for charity. You won’t have to donate to come in – just pay £3 for a ticket. Phone 01249 813128 to book.
I’ll be in Bristol Library at 7 pm Wednesday with Robert Low, Mike Williams and Kylie Fitzpatrick, This is a FREE event but you do need to book – 0117 9037200
These are the last two events for this year. It’s been an enormous pleasure to meet so many readers, writers, bookshop and library staff on my recent travels, and to reconnect with real people beyond the desk and the computer (which is not to insult the family and friends here, but it does sometimes seem as though the entire business of writing is a fantasy world that I just make up to fill in the hours while other people are out there doing proper jobs).
We were in some splendid venues, but my plans to take lots of photos were thwarted by a failure to pack the camera. Here, with apologies, are the best of a bad bunch from the phone.
First – on the right, the leg bones of an elephant. I can’t remember which sort of elephant, but a trip to the excellent Eton College Natural History Museum will tell you. It will tell you many other fascinating things too. On the left, me. The photo was taken by Karen Maitland, author of marvellous medieval thrillers and not at all responsible for the fuzziness around the edges. We were there talking about Ancient and Medieval medicine as part of the Thames Valley History Festival, which runs until 17 November.
Next up – Heffers Classics Festival, held in the university Law Faculty at Cambridge. To say I was nervous beforehand would be an understatement, but it was a fantastic day with loads of good speakers – if they do it again next year, I’d very much recommend it.
And finally – this is the Bamfylde Hall at Hestercombe Gardens, near Taunton – one of the venues for the Taunton Literary Festival, being run by the enterprising folk at Brendon Books until 19 November. Luckily I was early, as the local lanes have to accommodate cows as well as cars, and cows do not move very fast.
After this… I really do plan to get some writing done.
Sometimes I can’t believe the amazing places writers get to sneak into. Next weekend I’ll be privileged to be involved in three fabulous events. If you’re anywhere near any of them please do come and join us. I’ve mentioned the first two before, but here they are again –
Friday 1st November – at Eton Natural History Museum, talking Leeches and Prayer with Karen Maitland as part of the Thames Valley History Festival. I’m told the museum has real leeches. I hope they’re deceased.
Saturday 2nd November in Cambridge, talking Romans at the Heffers Classics Festival, an event with Seriously Impressive Lineup. And me.
And now… Sunday 3rd November at the Taunton Literary Festival talking more Romans with Ben Kane and Anthony Riches. What a treat! We’ll be in the Bampfylde Hall in Hestercombe Gardens: just the place for a day devoted to historical fiction. Some of the ticket options include lunch and of course, since it’s the West Country, there’s always the chance of a cream tea.
[*or girl – Ed.]
For those of us who sit hunched over a computer all day, a chance to get out and meet real people is very exciting. I’ll be taking part in several events over the next few weeks so if you’re able to join us, please come and say hello.
16 October – 7.00 pm at Barton Library (Barton le Clay, Bedfordshire) “Writing the Romans” with Henry Venmore-Rowland. Henry is the author of “The Last Caesar” and “The Sword and the Throne,” bringing to life the tumultuous events of AD 69 when Rome had four emperors in one year.
17 October – 7.00 pm at Putnoe Library, Bedfordshire – Crime Through Time. I’ll be discussing the appeal of the Romans and the Tudors with Rory Clements, author of the John Shakespeare series (yes, John is the brother of the more famous William, and a great character in his own right).
1 November, 7.00 pm – “Leeches and Prayer – the Medicine of the Past” part of the Thames Valley History Festival. Join me and Karen Maitland, author of the superb “Company of Liars”, at the Natural History Museum in Eton College – a venue where we are promised real leeches.
2 November – Heffers Classics Festival – in association with Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Such an honour to be invited! (When you see the lineup you’ll understand what I mean.) I’ll be talking about “Stories in Stones” – the tales that have slipped down the gaps of history. That will be the (relatively) easy part. I’ve also agreed to speak for Dido in a balloon debate about who was the greatest character in Classical Mythology. I’m still wondering why I said ‘yes’ to this. Unlike everyone else on the panel, I’m neither a classicist nor an Oxbridge graduate. Surely poor Dido has suffered enough? Details and tickets here.
7 November – UPDATE – the afternoon visit to Honiton Library in Devon is now CANCELLED – sorry! But I will be doing the following visits the week after…
13 November – on a panel at the beautiful Bristol Central Library with the Vikings, two 19th century women, and the British Special Forces. Or at least their representatives – Robert Low, Kylie Fitzpatrick and Mike Williams.