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…
I know… no blog posts for ages, and then two in a row. But just in case anyone’s missed the publicity so far… Eboracum Roman Festival is coming very soon, and it’s going to be spectacular.
There’s a splendid programme of events for all ages, and much of the festival is freely open to the public. Clicking here will take you to the page where you can book for the things that aren’t. There’s also more detail about individual events on the Facebook page.
I’ll be around over the weekend, sharing the Novelists’ Table with fellow-scribes including SJA Turney, and giving a talk on Saturday afternoon in York Explore – the library and archive centre. Come and say hello, enter the draw to win a free book, and admire my lovely nearly-new Roman shoes, of which I’m very proud!
Judith Starkston takes a good look at the current state of fiction set in the ancient world for the latest edition of Historical Novels Review. This is technically a members-only publication but the many writers who chipped in with our opinions are allowed to leap the fence and go public!
As writing is usually a solitary occupation I was fascinated to see what the other contributors thought. Hopefully you will be too – just click the slightly wobbly photo of the magazine cover below (sorry) to take a look.
Many thanks to Judith, the HNR team and all my fellow-contributors.
I don’t post much on the Net about my family, partly because it’s of little interest to anyone else and partly because I like them and want them to carry on liking me. Today is an exception, because family matters have been much on my mind of late. And the question of how family matters become history. And how all of history is really the version we choose to tell of the stories of everyone’s families.
It’s almost two years since my father died. My mother has now moved to a new home, taking all the items she wishes to keep and washing her hands of the rest with admirable practicality. Their house has become home to another couple, and I guess we’ve all moved on. But then there’s the Stuff. That’s moved too, but only from my parents’ home to ours.
I have to admit that some of the things in that photo are ours (including the book on the right) but not all. Most of the Stuff consists of items that have been carefully collected over the years but which take up far too much space for my mother to house them. Or indeed anyone. I know much of it has to go, and that if we keep only the important things, Downie Towers will feel less like a junk shop. The problem is, how do you judge what’s important?
Some decisions aren’t too difficult. A bulging manila envelope found inside the “Old Photos” suitcase (my mother is very good at labelling) turned out to be full of the hair I’d had cut off when I was thirteen. That went in the compost bin, where it caused further consternation because every time anyone lifted the lid it looked as though one of us had buried a human head in there. I must ask my sister what she did with the collection of her own baby curls that came back to haunt her via the Royal Mail. My brother was spared, because by the time he arrived my mother seems to have lost interest in the preservation of body parts. I suppose we should be grateful there were no teeth.
There are books. There are photos: too many albums to count. There are postcards from family holidays, some sent by generations long gone. More books. There are records of the purchase & sale of houses, and the documents from Dad’s work as Executor for his own father. And more books. Proudly-preserved details of the achievements of children and grandchildren. Yet more books. Letters my generation was never intended to read, and which my sister and I chose to burn. The Guest Book from when my parents ran a Bed and Breakfast. Still more books. One of them held a folded place-marker I vaguely remember making, bearing the word “Daddy” in wonky crayon. I burned that, too. What else do you do?
In fact, what do you do with any of this stuff? It’s been here for months and I know that’s partly because I’m both sentimental and a terrible ditherer. It’s also, perhaps, something to do with being an historical novelist. These aren’t just Things, they are Sources, and it’s hard to throw away sources even though I know I’m never going to write a novel about mid-twentieth century Britain. At least, not yet.
But the truth is, we have to make some choices. There is no such thing as ‘doing nothing.’ Inertia is effectively a decision to hand over large chunks of space in Downie Towers to the preservation of somebody else’s treasures.
I guess we siblings will divide all the photos between us. None of us has much idea who some of the people were, but comments like “Related to Nanny???” on the back of the pic below mean we dare not part with it.
And then we come to the books. Hundreds of them. Books, for my Dad, were a route to freedom. Books were what lifted him from being an eleven-plus failure, a boy who left school at thirteen, to being a man with a belief that most people could understand anything if they put their mind to it for long enough. Books made him a man who was awarded a Doctorate in political history at the age of sixty-five, after studying on top of a full-time and very demanding job. Books were what made him a man who in his eighties, despite poor health and failing eyesight, sat at his desk every morning to translate New Testament Greek simply for the love of doing it.
So I’m working through the books very slowly. The easy ones – the volumes on cricket, the annual editions of Colemanballs – have found homes, either with family and friends or with the charity shop. The few items the Library can use have gone there. I’ve snaffled most of the Ancient World items, and one day I might even read them. Books that are worth money are slowly being listed for sale. Last weekend there was an historic moment when our dining table reappeared from under the boxes of books I knew were only valued at 1p on Amazon but were too good to throw away. Surely a needy student somewhere must want a battered biography of Asquith, or an out-of-date textbook on constitutional law, or the memoirs of the wife of an Archbishop? What about those old paperback classics – the yellowing, tatty Thomas Hardy and James Joyce we were chucking out because we have Dad’s (pristine) editions?
In the end Husband despaired of me ever finding a student with these very special needs, and phoned the local charity bookshop. The organizer came that afternoon, filled a couple of carrier bags and tactfully confirmed that the rest of what was there was, basically, rubbish. So I went and did something else while Husband took them all up to be recycled. Because it was too painful to think about books which had been so proudly and carefully acquired over many years going to the tip.
It’s not all negative. When he wasn’t translating Greek, Dad’s mornings at the desk were spent writing his memoirs – 1000 pages of typescript that we haven’t yet got around to reading because we’re overwhelmed with Stuff. Maybe we need to crack on with sorting out the Stuff. Because then we’ll have time to find out how Dad himself wanted to be remembered. From a book. Of course.
In Roman times a basic marching camp could be built in less than a day – often by men who’d already carried heavy kit for many miles through hostile territory, and now needed somewhere safe to bed down for the night.
Building a Roman fort in the twenty-first century is going to take a little longer. These days, even big men with swords have to negotiate the complexities of land ownership, planning permission and Health and Safety. Besides, these men (and women) are aiming to create something much better than a rectangular ditch with a few tents inside it. Park in the Past have a vision of not only a full Roman military fort but an Iron Age village beside a lake, set in a beautiful area of the North Wales countryside that’s open to all.
It’s a hugely imaginative community project that’s working to give new life to a former quarry site near the aptly-named village of Hope, near Wrexham.
There’s lots of info on their website, and the site really is as stunning as their photos. It’s not yet open to the public but I was lucky enough to join a preview tour, and was bowled over not only by the potential, but by the way nature is already beginning to flourish, and reclaiming this former industrial site.
Some of the guiding lights behind the project are the people who run Roman Tours in Chester and the city’s annual Saturnalia shenanigans. They also organised my one and only close encounter with a Roman emperor a while back:
The man with the gold wreath on his head is Domitian, exercising the power of life and death over brave gladiators. He was aided by a lot of cheering and booing from the crowd.
Friends 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…
…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
What did the people Caesar called “Britons” call themselves?
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).
…and can now reveal that the answers are as follows:
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.
We don’t know.
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.
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.
Here’s the same thing 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.