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.
I’ve been musing on Parkinson’s Law. Not the famous one (“work expands to fill the time available”) but another from the same book: Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. “The time spent on any item on the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” (If you’re wondering what this has to do with high heels, fear not: we’ll get there in a moment.)
Here it is in action, in a chapter called “High Finance”. A group of men – this was 1957, remember – meet to approve spending plans. The items on the agenda are:
2. A bicycle shed. Cost: £350. Several members who kept silent because they knew nothing about atomic reactors now feel that they should start pulling their weight. “A sum of £350 is well within everybody’s comprehension. Everyone can visualise a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some £50.”
3. Refreshments at meetings. Cost: £21 a year. “Now begins an even more acrimonious debate… every man there knows about coffee – what it is, how it should be made, where it should be bought – and whether indeed it should be bought at all. This item on the agenda will occupy the members for an hour and a quarter…”
Parkinson’s Law of Triviality was a great comfort to me when I had a job recording the minutes of committee meetings, but only recently did I see its application in a wider sphere. And this is where the high heels come in.
I have to admit to being something of a Facebook addict, and as anyone else on Facebook will know, the political storms over recent months have resulted in furious postings from all sides. Sensible questions, valid warnings and the sharing of genuine news have often been drowned out by the sound of name-calling, and discussions have frequently descended into bitter squabbles involving CAPITAL LETTERS and ‘unfriending’. Sometimes I feel there are crowds of people shouting at each other in my living room.
Have I backed away? Of course not. It’s gripping stuff, and it affects all of us. Many of the fundamental assumptions of Western society have been called into question. People are passionate because this matters. I have enormous respect for my articulate, clear-sighted, committed friends and am grateful to them for keeping me up to date. But have I contributed much to the debate? Er… no. Even though Downie Towers has rung to the sound of my ranting in the kitchen, and the number of comments I have started to type and then deleted would fill a small book.
I feel as though I should contribute. One should do one’s bit. So I click ‘like’ on things that I, er, like, and occasionally manage to get the end of a comment and press ‘post’. In the real world, I vote. Sometimes I sign petitions. I write to my MP. I have even been known to march through the streets in support of a good cause. But I tend not to engage in debate with strangers on the Internet. Like the atomic reactor, I feel the cut and thrust of “live” political debate is beyond me. Some people may feel I should speak up. More people may feel there are plenty of opinions on the Internet already.
And yet I feel I should do… something. Say something about something. So when this came up on the BBC website, I found myself latching onto it like a drowning sailor with a lifebelt. At last, a subject I fully understood. I am, after all, the woman who once broke a bone in her foot by falling off her own shoes. I am the woman who tottered around in agony at her son’s wedding because she had found the perfect pair of shoes but didn’t have the perfect pair of feet. Don’t get into an argument with me about the merits of forcing women to wear high heels, because you will lose. Yes! At last, something I could post on Facebook!
Until I did. And then I looked at it, and thought, dear lord. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and you’re posting about shoes. I deleted it, and wondered what was the matter with me. Then I realised. It was Parkinson’s Law of Triviality in action.
Friends, please feel free to comment. But anything political will be deleted. Apparently I can’t cope.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Many thanks to For Winter Nights, the final host on the Blog Tour!
If you haven’t yet discovered this excellent book blog, now is a good time to nip across there – not only for the chance to win a copy of Vita Brevis, but also to browse a splendid collection of reviews and articles, and to get some ideas for good books to fill those long winter evenings.
In case anyone wants to catch up, here’s the list of people who’ve been kind enough to host the tour over the past week. My thanks to all of them, and also to the fine folk of Bloomsbury UK (you know who you are!) who did all the legwork making the arrangements.
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.
Many thanks to Colleen for hosting the first chapter of ‘Vita Brevis’ today, alongside a whole heap of other bookish goodies – if you’re looking for something new to read, “A Literary Vacation” is a great place to explore.
Today I’m visiting The Worlds of SJA Turney. Simon was one of the co-conspirators on our book about the Boudiccan rebellion, A Year of Ravens, but there are no rebel queens in this piece – I’ve been pondering the difference between writing about Roman Britain and writing about Rome itself.
Not content with living in one world, Simon has several at his fingertips – do take a stroll around his site and find out more.
LATER – and today is the day I take a quick diversion from the tour – Diana Milne of The Review has kindly posted a ‘virtual’ interview from the HNS conference, where I reveal the guilty truth about what I’d write for fun, and there’s a chance to win a copy of VITA BREVIS.
Incidentally, this business of being in two places at once has a long history. Apparently it was one of the skills of Pythagoras, now more famous as a mathematician.