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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Of high heels and trivia

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.)

Spine of Parkinsons Law book

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:

  1. An atomic reactor. Cost: £10,000,000. Most of the committee don’t know enough about atomic reactors to have an opinion, and some don’t even know what one is, so they keep quiet. Of the two people who do know about atomic reactors, one suggests they should change the expensive consultants already employed and go back to the drawing-board.  The other is so daunted by the prospect of having to explain everything to everybody that he decides not to comment. Agreed spending: £10,000,000. Time taken – two and a half minutes.

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.

Pale blue suede women's shoes
We’re nearly at the shoes now.

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.

 

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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

Saturday, final stop on the Blog Tour – For Winter Nights

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.

Blog tour schedule

 

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.

Thursday on the blog tour – Roma Nova

Blog tour day 6, and thanks to the splendid Alison Morton for the invitation to join her love-me*-love-my-character series for a chat about Ruso. (*this part, as an Italian driver once said to my husband when discussing traffic lights, is ‘merely a suggestion’.)
Alison is the creator not only of thrillers but of a whole world, Roma Nova, in which Rome never fell but remains a modern European state – and believe me, you wouldn’t want to mess with it.

Sunday on the blog tour – SJA Turney, plus a brief diversion

 

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.

On tour in my slippers

I’ll be travelling around some splendid blogs run by other people this week, dropping by for a virtual chat or stepping back while other people review “Vita Brevis” or post excerpts. Some will be offering giveaways, too. The schedule’s below, and there might be an additional stop along the way – I’ll post that link if it happens.

The first stop (1 October) is chez John at The Last Word Book Review – just click the type in red to join us.

Blog tour schedule

 

 

 

“We have to hope that our characters will forgive us…”

“…because we’re doing the best that we can.” Margaret George, Historical Novel Society conference, 2016.

Sign out conference hall HNS OXFORD 16

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:Tracey Chevalier giving a talk

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.

In future, any panel that can’t come up to the standard of Paula Lofting and Regia Anglorum‘s “How to Build a Shield Wall” isn’t going to get a look-in.

Photo of re-enactors with shields and javelins

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.

Work in the style of the Bayeux tapestry

 

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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.

Skeins of wool dyed with natural materials

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.

Photo of lady dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln

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.