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.

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Jersey – plus ça change…

i’ve just been enjoying a few days in Jersey, an island which turns out to have hung onto some fine traditions of the past:

1. Stashing cash:

The biggest hoard of Celtic coins in the world was found in Jersey in 2012 – and that’s the ninth hoard from the Late Iron Age that’s come to light on the island. I have to admit this doesn’t look very exciting:

Mass of old coins all stuck together

But as of last Wednesday (they’re still working on it) this is what’s been found in there:

Blackboard list of items found in hoard

You can see some of the latest finds in the museum at La Hougue Bie:

gold items in plastic finds bags

Along with the people who are working on them:

Someone working in a laboratory

The hoard was probably buried at around about the time of the Roman invasion of Britain. Here’s a list of tribes whose coins are in there, with the Coriosolitae showing a strong lead…List of tribes and how many coins they had in the hoard

… which is interesting because they lived just across the water in mainland Gaul.  Jersey, now a major centre of international finance, has clearly been seen as a safe place to store your money for at least 2000 years.

2. Building tunnels:

The Jersey War tunnels, like those on neighbouring Guernsey, are infamous.

Entrance to tunnel with red cross painted above it

They were created during the German occupation in the Second World War, largely by forced labourers working in dreadful conditions. Today they house an exhibition that doesn’t pull its punches about the trials and challenges of living under military rule. Visitors are issued with identity cards naming real Jersey residents, and you don’t find out what your character did in the war until you’ve been through the exhibition. My friends were honoured to find that they’d helped escaped tunnel-workers evade capture, despite the threat of being imprisoned or executed themselves. I was less thrilled to find out I’d been the most notorious collaborator on the island.

Sign in Jewish shop

Notice warning residents not to help escaped American POWs

A tunnel that’s less famous, but far more uplifting, is to be found at the oddly-named La Hougue Bie (It’s pronounced “La hoog bee”. I am telling you this so that should you decide to go, you can ask directions aloud instead of mumbling and pointing at the map like I did.) It’s been there for 6000 years, and nobody now alive knows why. Here’s the entrance.

Stone-lined entrance to tunnel

The  mound above it was built at the same time, but the chapel on top came much later.

Stone-built hill above tunnel entrance with round stone building on top.

This is how you get in – not great if you have a bad back.

Fortunately it opens up into a much higher chamber built of massive slabs of stone, with tall recesses leading off on each side. You’ll have to take my word for this, because the lighting is designed to aid atmosphere rather than photography. Better still, go and visit. It’s stunning.

Very dark cavern built of huge stones

At the equinox, the rising sun shines in through the passage and lights up the chamber.

Looking down stone tunnel towards the light

 

3. Seeing Angels:

After seeing the chamber I wasted several minutes trying – and failing – to see the ancient paintings of angels that are supposed to be still just visible on the walls of the chapel above.  Eventually I gave up and took some photos in the hope that all those splodges would resolve themselves into an angel when I got home.

Old white limewashed wall of chapel

But it turned out they never would, because the chapel is divided into TWO HALVES, and I was staring at the wrong half. Once I’d been pointed towards the other door… an angel appeared! Hallelujah!

Wall with faint angel painted on it

And here are some twentieth-century angels from the glass church of St Matthew:

Angels depicted in glass with lights behind them

4. Enjoying the good life:

Unlike Alderney, Jersey doesn’t seem to have had any Roman military installations. There’s evidence for a temple, but most of the finds from the Roman period seem to be either cash or goodies – beads, brooches, parts of flagons and this:

4th century gaming counter

Which suggests to me that any Romans who did turn up were just here to sell luxury goods or take a holiday. And who can blame them?

Turquoise sea, cliffs and beach

 

 

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Toga Tuesday!

Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire was full of Romans last week. There were soldiers and civilians, and families ranging from toddlers to grandparents. They were wandering in and out of the houses, feeding the sheep, eating, playing, laughing, working, shopping and having their hair done.

Woman in doorway of round house

 

Lady with display of Roman goods

Some of them were even having their photos taken in silly poses:

Ruth sitting on couch with mirror

This splendid family day out was one of the Roman Days that Butser are running every week over the summer holidays, and last week’s theme was Wardrobe and Weapons. Costumes were on offer for anyone who wanted to dress up and the multi-talented Fiona Rashleigh was on hand to create authentic-looking hairstyles from unpromising material:

Plaited hair held in place with pins

The hairpins, the mirror (the one I’m holding in the photo) and much else were made by Fiona’s partner Steve Wagstaff, who crafts replica Roman items that jump off the display crying out, “Buy me! Buy me now!” I’m not sure who made the shoes in the picture below, but more of Steve’s work can be just about seen on the far table.

Some of the photos of visitors in costume will be used to inspire new murals on the walls of Butser’s very own Roman Villa, which is currently being renovated:

Builders' vans outside villa

Here’s what it looked like when we visited back in 2010:

Painted walls inside the Roman villa

Portrait of Peter Reynolds
Peter Reynolds, founding Director of Butser Ancient Farm

Front aisle of villa with row of tables

Olive branch painted on a wall inside the villa

Hopefully the renovated Villa will be open again later in the year. Meanwhile there was still plenty to see and try out, including felt-making (but no photos, because they all came out blurry) and this – weaving a braid from the ends into the middle. Painstaking and highly skilled work. I’m guessing you’d want to choose your partner carefully.

Two women weaving braid

One end of the woven braid

The other end of the braid

These are the farm’s Manx Loughtan sheep, an ancient breed. They’re about to be disappointed when they find out we haven’t brought any food.

Sheep running towards camera

This young chap will soon be off to charm the lady goats at a rare breed farm. Hopefully nobody’s told him that the best brushes for painting murals on Roman walls are made of… goat hair.

Close-up of young goat

And finally, a couple of useful thoughts to take home from a great day out:

Notices on gate - Archaeology is not what you find but what you find out, and Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence

 

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Eboracum 2017 – join the Roman army!

Hoarding advertising Roman Festival

Soldiers address children
Right. Line up, you lot. And get that hair cut! Half of you look like a bunch of girls!
Display of writing materials
Write and tell your Mum you’ll be home in twenty years.

 

Souvenir stall, Roman-style
You’ll travel to distant places and collect exotic souvenirs.
Display of food
The Legion will feed you.

 

Weaver working at loom
The Legion will clothe you.
Centurion with microphone
Our friendly centurions…

 

Soldiers marching
…will teach you how to march.

 

Soldiers marching around arena
and march…
Soldiers marching
and march…
Legionaries in armour
(did we mention the marching?)
Soliders with drawn swords
…and fight.
Soliders surround civilians
And how to round up civilians who make trouble.
Man explaining display of medical instruments
If anything goes wrong, our highly-trained doctors will look after you.

 

Another display of medical instruments with bloodstains
Using the very latest equipment.
Centurion in straw hat. Soldiers
In time, you too may become a Centurion.
Soldier without armour (Graham Harris)
Or a festival organiser
Smartly dressed Tribune and lady
But without the right connections, you will never become a tribune and wear this splendid helmet.

 

Display of archaeology in tent
In the distant future, people like this will dig up your rubbish and display it to the public. Yes, really.

 

Writers talking to people over book displays.
And people like these will write books about you. (L to R – Ben Kane, Sandra G-Neville, ? , Harry Sidebottom, Penny Ingham)
Alex Gough and Simon Turney
Alex Gough and Simon (SJA) Turney
Jane Finnis
Jane Finnis
John Salter and Brian Young in Roman military kit
John Salter and Brian Young
Ruth with books
and another one.

Finally – as a reward for all that marching, people will remember you and your Emperor with parades through the streets of Eboracum.

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Have shoes, will travel

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.

Reproduction Roman shoes

1-4 June

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.

Centurion soldiers and the Emperor marching

13 June

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.

17-18 June

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).

Milton Keynes Festival of History poster

 

 

 

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Small Island

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.

Logo for Alderney Literary Festival

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.

Aurigny Air plane

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.

Pic of Alderney Island Hall

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.

Joyce Meader demonstrating knitted dressing cover

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.

Grey knitted knee-warmers

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.

Andrew Lownie stressing the importance of a good title – Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, does indeed sound a lot more enticing as Henry VIII’s Last Victim.

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:

TH White's house

Just like the UK, only…  not.

Yellow phone box Blue post box

There are people on the island, honestly.

Cobbled street

Geranium envy.

large geranium framing front door.

Lovely to look at, terrifying to sail around.

View of rocky coastline

One of many defences left behind by previous occupiers, and an unlikely location for a Countryside Interpretation Centre.

Concrete bunker set into hillside

Looking even less likely now:

Metal door at entrance to bunker

But yes, it really is! A modern photo of the view the German defenders would have enjoyed on a sunny day.

View over hill and sea from bunker

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…

Simon Turney and Simon Scarrow

…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”)

Me in pseudo-Iron Age clothing

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.

Stone wall with gateway

With the man who knows: standing on a Roman rampart with Jason Monaghan, writer and archaeologist, and Simon (SJA) Turney: part-time Roman, full-time writer.

Ruth, Jason Monaghan and Simon Turney

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.

Simon and Jason discussing the Roman wall walk

I think we can all agree this isn’t Roman. It’s next door to the Nunnery…

Concrete bunker

…and this is the landing-point they were both built to defend.

Sandy bay with blue sea and sky

Peace has now returned to Alderney…

Cattle grazing

…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.

 

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The Trojans are back!

The new novel from seven talented members of the H-team is published today – and as ever, they’ve been weaving old stories together in new ways.

Cover of A Song of War

I wasn’t involved this time (deadlines!) and I can’t wait to find out what the team have done with the story we all ‘think’ we know.  Meanwhile, they’ve been kind enough to drop by and answer a few questions.  The first thing I wanted to know was:

What is it about the story of Troy that’s kept drawing people back to it for thousands of years?

Stephanie: The classicists out there are going to string me up for this, but I see the story of Troy as one of the world’s first soap operas, or at least an ancient version of “Game of Thrones,” sans dragons and white walkers. There’s adultery, gory battles, death, sneaky traps, and tons of other emotional plot twists. Not only that, but the story has been added to over the ages to give it even more tragic layers. It’s also easy for everyone to find a favorite character to root for: wily Odysseus, brave Hector, misunderstood Cassandra, noble Andromache, and so many others.

Vicky: I think Stephanie nailed it. It’s chock full of great stories! But also I think it continues to fascinate because of the surprising depth and complexity of emotions it explores throughout. One the one hand, there is empathy for the defeated–particularly for Hector, who emerges as truly noble–and, at the same time, frustration and exasperation with the devastation that results from Achilles’ unchecked rage. So it ends up being not “just” a battle story, but a moving exploration of humanity and of the costs of war.

Cover of Penguin edition of The Iliad

How did you share out the characters? Was there anyone everybody wanted, or nobody wanted?

Simon: As a general writer of Roman fiction and lover of all things Roman, even the mention of the Trojan war sets me off blathering about Virgil, Aeneas and the founding of Rome by their Trojan forebears. How could I refuse the opportunity to write the tale of a man that might be considered the progenitor of Rome? I think if there was one writer in this book destined for one character, that was me and Aeneas! Plus, he’s cool.

Stephanie: I think we were all in utter agreement that no one wanted to write from Paris’ perspective. He’s an utter punk that we all wanted to kick to the curb at one point or another. For me, Cassandra leapt off the page of possibilities, jumping up and down and shouting, “Pick me! Pick me!” My passion is retelling the stories of misunderstood or maligned women in history, and Cassandra fits the mold perfectly.

Kate: Yeah, pretty much everyone hated Paris. I still remember Libbie cackling like crazy when she realized she’d get to kill him off. Otherwise, we all had our own obsessions in this story; everyone beelined for their own favorite and no one had to arm-wrestle over who got Achilles/Odysseus/Cassandra. A big advantage to having a huge cast of characters, when there are multiple authors involved!

Russ: I was made up to get Agamemnon because everyone hates him and I thought it’d be fun to try and write a story from his point of view (no baddie THINKS they’re a baddie). Agamemnon’s inciting incident for me doesn’t even occur in Homer’s story, it’s (mainly) in Euripides – the sacrifice of his daughter. Whatever the circumstances, that single act will have changed Agamemnon utterly… so for me, that was key to why he acts as he does. In truth, it was a pretty hard story to write in all sorts of ways, but it was fascinating to delve into the black soul of the High King (he insisted on capital letters for his title).

So, definitely ‘Nul Points’ for Paris there. Were you ever tempted to change the story because you really didn’t like the way things went in the original?

Simon: I (and the rest of the crew too, in fact) went a long way to try and rationalise all the magic and myth of the tale, to try and write a realistic, grounded and plausible version of Homer’s tale, while retaining the epic Greekness of the whole thing. Aeneas’ story, for example, is full of ghosts and visits from gods and the dead, and I tried to tweak this to fit the real world. In deciding how mythical we wanted the tale to be, we essentially walked that fine line between history and fantasy. We came down on the historical side this time.

Vicky: Right. As Simon says, we didn’t want to get too mythical or magical–because then it drifts into fantasy–but at the same time we had to make our characters believe in magic and the gods. After all, it wasn’t “myth” to them!H Team logo

Kate: I really would have liked to save Hector, dammit. His death gets me every time.

Christian:  I really wanted to write Achilles.  Despite Achilles’ modern rep as a sort of useless lie-about or a mere sword swinger, I’ve always been fascinated by him, and more especially by his status as the ‘perfect gentleman’ and ‘best of the Greeks’ among such figures as Pericles and Socrates. And, apparently alone, I’ve never really liked Hector, who seems too dense to see how he is being used by lesser men…  So I was happy to get to kill him (ducks… sorry Kate).

Libbie: I would have liked to save Hector, too. I’d counter that he’s a troubled character (as is everybody in “A Song of War”) but he was one of the few men in the story who was a genuinely good person, and who cared about the outcome for others. Overall, I really liked the way we cooperated to represent our world as a diverse landscape, with characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations. In the West, we tend to think of heroes, or even of characters in general, as one particular type of person: white, young, and heterosexual. I really welcomed the opportunity to shake up the way people envision Troy and ancient Greece by showing a broader range of the cultural mix that existed in those places and at that time.

Russ: The thing with “The Iliad” is – so much is actually unsaid. It’s a vast tale with (literally) a cast of thousands … So you can weave stuff in that you want to without actually changing the “facts” as it were. We wanted to keep it real as Libbie and Si say above, but aside from the “no Gods” rule, there’s still massive scope in the story to look at fresh angles.

If you could ask Homer one thing, what would it be?

Kate: Why do so many names in the Iliad begin with P? Priam, Penthesilea, Polyxena, Patrocles, Phoenix, Polites, Paris, Penelope, Polydorus, Peleus, Philoctetes, Phthia . . .

Libbie: I agree! The P names have always jumped out at me. It makes me wonder if there’s some kind of linguistic significance that we don’t understand as 21st-century Americans and Brits, but that would have been very clear to the original audience for these stories.

Vicky: I’d want to know all the different versions of the story that had been sung over time and why he wrote down these particular ones.

Christian:  I’m with Vicky. There were dozens of versions of these stories in the Ancient World; I know at least one in which both Achilles and Hector are cowards; one of the original ‘big names’ was Memnon, Prince of Aetheiopia… an African hero at Troy!  Anyway, so many questions about why Homer (s) chose this particular thread…  My other question (which really burns for me!) is ‘Where did you get the ‘Catalogue of Ships’  The Ship list, in Book 2, is probably much more ancient than the rest, and may contain evidence of the actual Bronze Age world… as opposed to much of the rest, which is 8th and 7th c. Iron Age Greece..how did it survive?  Please tell us, Homer 🙂

Russ: Was your wife really called Marge? It’s a question that has bothered classicists for decades and they need an answer.

If Homer (or Marge) would like to respond, or if anyone has a good word to say for Paris, there’s plenty of room for comments below. Meanwhile, big thanks to the team for taking the time to join me and since it’s publication day TODAY,  I’m off to check the Kindle and get reading!

If you haven’t already, here are some of the places where you can find A SONG OF WAR:

Amazon UK

Amazon USA

Kobo

Ibooks

Barnes and Noble

Friday on the Blog Tour – Hoover Book Reviews

Day 7, and the last-but-one stop on the tour today! Across the water to Detroit and Hoover Book Reviews,  which is a splendid place to browse if you’re on the hunt for contemporary fiction based in the ancient world – and more. (Nip across there and scroll down to where it says ‘categories’ on the right, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Big thanks to Paul Bennett, the man behind it all, for his very kind words about Vita Brevis.