Sunday, 9 September 2012

Walking and Hiking

I like walking.
I've just come back from walking some the Ceredigion Coastal Path (visible on the left side of the photo above.)  It was stunningly beautiful: gorse and heather; the sea on our left the colour of jade, dappled with blue-slate cloud shadows; red kites and kestrels over the cliffs, gray seals in rocky bays, an adder sunning itself on the path.  Of course, it rained all day once, and some of the descents were mud ski-runs--but nothing's perfect.  The Welsh coast in sunlight in so near perfection that you're unlikely to see anything better on earth.
We did about fifty miles over five days, which is walking for wimps,  particularly when you consider that we were staying in comfy B&Bs and had our luggage shifted from one of these to the next by a luggage transfer service.  You walk; you arrive and have a cup of tea; you go out to dinner in the local pub; you sleep well and get up in the morning to a large breakfast that sets you up for another day of walking: what could be more pleasant?  The proliferation of long-distance footpaths (and luggage transfer services) in the past twenty years shows that I'm not the only one who thinks so.  Local councils like them because they bring people into the area for days at a time, and these people spend money on B&Bs, pubs and local attractions; walkers like them because there's always a new one to try out.
Walking for wimps is a great British tradition, and one that sets the UK apart from the United States.  In the United States they don't walk for recreation: they hike.  It's much more energetic.  Fit young people carrying enormous back packs yomp across glorious national parks, camping in the wilderness and covering at least a couple dozen miles a day.  It's admirable, but it requires rather more of the hiker than a my 10-mile-a-day walk, let alone the usual gentle loop through the countryside with a pub-stop halfway.
Actually, I think that's a pity: it means far fewer Americans walk.  Of course, in most of the United States streets and cities are laid out in such a way as to actively discourage walking.  Shops are inaccessible except by car; footpaths outside parks nonexistent; private land is fiercely defended and trespassers really will be prosecuted.  It's very different from Britain, where the public right of way (the dotted green lines of that other great British institution, the Ordnance Survey maps) gives everyone free access to the (green-belt protected) countryside.
A few years ago we did in walk in Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, which was one of the most stunning I've ever done.  An easy track through the forest brought one to a magical little beach, where a natural rock arch plunged into the turquoise water of Lake Superior, and a little waterfall provided a natural shower.  From there another easy track led along the top of the Pictured Rocks National Shoreline--a magnificent series of cliffs, arches, and pillars in multi-coloured layers of stone.  Then came another beach, and a level trail back through the forest (where blueberries and raspberries grew wild in abundance) to the carpark.  The whole circuit was officially nine miles; I think this was a crow-flies figure, and the real figure was closer to twelve, but still, it was a walk even wimps could easily do over a day, with breaks for picnics, snacks, and swimming.  We did it in August, in beautiful weather.  The National Park which enclosed this gem was packed with campers, all three enormous campsites full (we know this, because we tried and failed to find a place).  We met only two other people  on the cliffs.
This is undoubtedly the premier walk in the state, probably the best within a five hundred mile radius: in Britain it would've been packed--like Dovedale, say, or Snowdon on a Bank Holiday.  While it was wonderful having it to ourselves, I find it very sad that others weren't enjoying it as well.  Walking, in my opinion, is a much better option than hiking.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

What to do about the next book

It's been over a month since the last post.  The reason for this is simple: I've been writing.  The bad news is that I haven't been writing the book I should have been writing.
I'm sorry!  I know most of my readers enjoy my historical fiction.  I enjoy researching it and I've loved writing it, but for the past few years I seem to have been running into the sand, and I finally got irretrievably stuck.
Perhaps it was a mistake to change period?  My training is as a classicist, and that is still the period I love most.  I did feel, though, that I was getting stale, recycling some of the same material from book to book, and that I needed to challenge my brain with a completely different period--hence the English Civil War.  I did like my two Civil War novels, but I don't think they're as good as the best of my classical books.  On the other hand, I don't feel my last few classical books were as good as my best, either, which is why I made the change in the first place.
I should spell this out: I have always done my very best with every book I've written.  When a book is not as good, this isn't because I've cut corners or failed to invest the time and energy it needed: it's because I was unable to make it any better.  Sometimes there were structural elements pulling in different directions, sometimes I couldn't get the plot quite right, sometimes the lightning just failed to strike where it was needed--but the failures have never been down to will and commitment.  If any readers have been disappointed, I can only apologize and say that I did the best I could.
My last published book, A Corruptible Crown was particularly demotivating: the publishers cut it by ten percent to save printing costs.  Now, I don't think my words are holy writ; in fact, I believe that most books, including mine, benefit from cutting.  In the past I've been happy to cut: Dark North is only about three fifths of its original length.  A Corruptible Crown , however, was not a fat book--it was quite pared down to begin with--and my publishers weren't pretending that the cuts they made were to improve the novel: they were made explicitly to save money.  I suppose even so about 30% of what they did improved the book and another 20 or 30% was neutral.  That did leave, however, 40 or 50% of the cuts being into red meat--things which were in the book for a good reason, and which caused damage when they were taken out.  I know that they, like all publishers, are struggling with the harsh economics of printing in an increasingly digital world--but for me this was, as I said, extraordinarily demotivating.  Why should I sweat and struggle to make a book as good as I possibly can, if the publishers are willing to cut it to a Not-what-it-should-have-been?
My first response to this was to e-publish a couple of fantasies that I'd written to unwind, liked a lot, but failed to sell.  (No printing costs!  I can put in as much or as little as I like!)  They earned very little, but the books got more stars and more reviews than the printed ones.  I still didn't feel like tackling the next historical, so I wrote a couple more.  Then I started another historical, intended to finish off the 17th C. themes I'd dealt with in the two civil war novels.  I did a lot of research, embarked on it--and got stuck on chapter two.  I then wrote nothing for about a year--which was unprecedented for me, and depressing.
Now, as I said, I'm deep in another novel and happy as a cow in clover--except, as I said, it's not a book I should be writing, it's another bloody fantasy, and probably destined to go straight to Kindle.  It's different from the last ones, it lets me play around with different viewpoints and some fun ideas--but it's not what I wanted to write or what my small band of followers wanted to read.
So, if you're a member of that small but elite band--I'm sorry!  Maybe after this I'll be able to do a proper book again.

Saturday, 14 July 2012


The literal sense of 'overwhelm' is to submerge or sink.  'Save me, O God, for . . .I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me!'  The past week I've been overwhelmed both literally and in the more common metaphorical sense of experiencing more things than I can process at once, as I have just learned to scuba dive.

It is something I'd wanted to do for a long time, but the reality was vastly greater than my imaginings.  To begin with, I hadn't anticipated the exhiliration of descent: one sinks slowly beneath the waves and keeps breathing!  It defies millions of years of evolutionary history, and the shock is glorious.  Then there's the weightlessness: one hovers mid-water, rising and falling with a breath, flying in a way otherwise experienced only in dreams.  Finally there's the world undersea--and here I was particularly lucky, because I was diving in the Red Sea, where the coral gardens form one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.

This is where the metaphorical overwhelming comes in.  Normally arrival in a new place is exhausting and enlivening at the same time.  The ordinary is replaced by the unfamiliar, and the mind races, tracking everything--landscape, buildings, plants and animals, smells--comparing them to the familiar ones at home.  Time seems to pass more slowly as attention speeds up.  Descending underwater for the first time, however, there is so much that is new and strange that the mind can't process it.  The landscape is stranger than anything in Star Wars: pinnacles which bulge out overhead, covered in multi-coloured fans and corals like exposed brains, swarming with jewel-like fish, so many of them that at first it seems impossible to sort them.  Everywhere one looks is something extraordinary, and the mind is overpowered, unable to distinguish between the commonplace and the exotic, the significant and the trivial, released into a child-like wonder at everything.

By the end of the week I was beginning to make distinctions again: those fish are common, but that one is unusual; look under that ledge, there might be lionfish! I suspect that with experience I'd start to feel as expert as some of the other divers I met--but I very much doubt I could ever feel jaded.  They certainly didn't: the woman with 656 dives in her log seemed just as enthusiastic as me with my 7 or 8.

Diving in the Red Sea is popular--probably too much so, for the safety of the reefs.  I was told that there used to be corals close to the beaches, but that they were all killed by the process of building all the tourist hotels which now make Hurghada and its environs a 60 km long building site.  Now divers go out to the reefs by boat, and six or seven dive boats frequently moored at the same spot--even in these days when tourism in Egypt is suffering.  All along the coast are hotels with swimming pools, shops selling souvenirs, restaurants and bars.  Most of the guests at these hotels don't dive, but for those who do diving is readily available, and not all the operators are as responsible and careful as those who introduced me to the world underwater. (For the record--since one of the pleasures of blogging is being able to acknowledge debts--I am very grateful to Regaldive, to the Divers' Lodge at Hurghada, and to my able instructor Reda Elshishtawy, who took the photographs.) One does worry about how well these marvels can survive, between the pressures of climate change and the careless minority of sightseers.  Their loss would be inestimable, like the destruction of a great museum or superlative cathedral--worse, because we would have records of the art works lost, but the reefs are living things which could never be restored.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

A song of unsung heroes

I've recently added a new item to the list of sites I check every day.  It is, to my surprise, the Olympic Torch Relay.  When I first looked at the route it was taken and saw that it was going to go everywhere, I thought that this was overkill; what was more, I thought that it would devalue the whole enterprise, because--as W.S. Gilbert put it in The Gondoliers, 'If everyone is somebody, then no-one's anybody.'  If you have 8000 torchbearers what's the distinction worth?

I was quite wrong.  I love the relay.  In part it's the pictures: the torch abseiling down bridges, riding steam trains, crossing Hadrian's Wall, up the summit of Snowdon and over the Giant's Causeway, like some stupendous campaign to persuade people to visit Britain.  Most of it, though, it's the torchbearers.  It's true that some of them are the usual suspects--B-list celebrities, the nominees of corporate sponsors and the relatives of IOC members--but most of them are people who have made a difference in their local communities but who we would never otherwise have heard of at all.  Many are sportsmen and women--but not the sort who win medals.  They are, instead, the people who make sport work: PE teachers, coaches in local football or rugby, the secretaries of running and cycling clubs, people who put in long hours of effort for no money and little recognition.  There are schoolkids, too, who put in hours training and show huge sportsmanship, but are never going to win anything outside their hometown.

Other torchbearers--the kind I find most inspiring of all--are ordinary people who have shown extraordinary courage or generosity.  They have raised thousands of pounds for charity, worked with disadvantaged children, set up support systems for families dealing with crippling diseases.  Some have had the fortitude to cope with some of those same diseases, and are carrying the torch despite Parkinsons, or MS; carrying it in wheelchairs or on crutches.

Every day uncovers uncelebrated stories.   A Josephine Loughren who carried the torch yesterday loved running, but gave up half of a lung to help her sister, who had cystic fibrosis. Lucy Gale, a hired car driver, came across a car accident on a railway line, and, in the two and a half minutes available before a heavily-laden freight train arrived, managed to get both cars and drivers off the line, saving, certainly, their lives, and, possibly, the lives of others in the passenger train that would have been derailed if the freight train had crashed.  Mia Rathband, daughter of PC David Rathband who was blinded in the line of duty and killed himself, ran blindfolded in honour of her father.

The Torch Relay is on the BBC website, and it's a strange experience to go from the rest of the news, which is, almost by definition, bad, to this bald account of altruism and quiet heroics.  I don't dare read it in public, because I cry too easily.

The torch arrives here in Coventry on the 1st of July.  There will be a celebration in the park across the road, and I will certainly be there, cheering.

Monday, 4 June 2012


Ancient cities were fond of pageants and processions.  Athena, Demeter, Dionysos, Zeu, Isis--they all seemed to have liked  elaborate parades.  Statues of the gods would be dressed gorgeous draperies and carried throughout the city, accompanied by handsome young horsemen got up in their best on neighing steeds; priests in magnificent robe;, musicians playing lyres, flutes, sistra; celebrants crying 'euoi, euoi!' or 'ite Bacchai, ite Bacchai', as the case might be; sacrificial cattle with gilded horns, garlanded with roses or ivy; incense and offerings.  Hellenistic kings paid for floats on wheeled carts, showing scenes from mythology or of battles where they'd defeated their enemies; crowds would be showered with coins, or flowers, or nuts and sweetmeats. The Rhodians, and other naval powers, went in for naval processions, with their magnificently decorated ships processing past the cheering crowds on shore. The Romans were as eager as the Greeks: their triumphal processions were probably the most elaborate of all ancient pageants, and were so intoxicating to the triumphing generals that a slave had to be appointed to whisper in the victorious ear, 'Remember that you are mortal!'

When the Roman Empire went Christian, the processions carried on, though the excuse for them switched from gods and glory to God's glory: North Africans used to celebrate saints' days by processing round the churches, drinking heartily at each, a kind of sanctified pub crawl which drew occasional criticism from their bishops.  Byzantine basileis and medieval kings eagerly seized any excuse for show and display, and Renaissance geniuses contributed mechanical contrivances, playlets, and painted backdrops; gunpowder allowed fireworks.

It all seems very jolly, but recent experience has left me wondering how much the average woman in the street actually saw of all this cheerful vainglory.  We went down to London yesterday to watch the Diamond Jubilee river pageant, but the crowds were so thick I couldn't even see the river.  I did just about glimpse the queen, because the royal barge was tall enough that the top was briefly visible through binoculars as it departed downstream.  All the rest--the flotilla of rowboats; the barges of bells and musicians; the fire brigade's working boat imitating a moving fountain, the Dunkirk little ships--was hidden behind a wall of backs.  I only know about them because I looked at the BBC website afterwards.

I'm not really sorry I went, though.  It's something, to be able to say 'I was there' at what may prove to be the monarchy's last hurrah, and there was entertainment in looking at the crowds--the girls with the union jack lipstick; the children waving flags; the people in the queen and Prince Charles masks; the man opening a bottle of beer against the curb.  A brass band emerged twice from a private party on a moored boat and played 'Rule Britannia', 'Land of Hope and Glory', and 'God Save the Queen', which the crowd sang lustily.  I just wonder how many people at, say, Augustus's triumph, saw no more than the top of the model of the Pharos going slowly past above a sea of heads.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Netherlands

I've just returned from a weekend in the Netherlands.  Every time I visit that fortunate country, I'm struck afresh by what a nice place it is.
The first time I visited was in March 1984.  I had two very small children in tow, one in a pushchair and one in a babysling.  I was amazed and delighted by the Dutch response: they liked small children.  In restaurants, instead of frowning or saying 'we don't admit children', they would ask 'May we give the little boy an ice cream?' (yes!)  I did a lot of travelling on trams and buses, and not once did I carry the pushchair onto the bus: if there was no one else waiting beside me to pick it up and carry it carefully aboard, a passenger would leap off the tram to do the office, grinning at the suspicious toddler and trying to talk to him.  It was no wonder, I thought, that the Dutch grow up so sensible and well-adjusted.
I've been back several times since.  I've even read up quite a lot of the history for the stalled next book. (Now I know where they get it from: they were founded by a guy who was in favour of religious toleration despite living in the 17th C., and they had the most developed social care in the world, with a comprehensive system of welfare back in 1650--which, pace the right wing, was a Golden Age economically as well as culturally.) Every time I go I'm struck by:
1) bicycles! They seem to outnumber cars ten to one.  All the civic amenities that other countries build only for cars the Dutch build for cycles as well: parking at station and in city centres, tracks and roads, etc.
2) public transport.  Trains and buses are frequent, cheap, and reliable.

3) cleanliness.  The air and water are so unpolluted that during the last visit--to South Holland--I saw in the city centres, breeding wildfowl that included crested and little grebes, white storks, herons, tufted ducks, coots, moorhens, barnacle and greylag and Canada geese, as well as a couple of exotics and ubiquitous mallard.
4) the way everybody speaks perfect English. It's uncanny. I don't speak perfect Dutch.  I speak some French, a bit of German and modern Greek--but nothing of it as well as everybody spoke English.
5) how livable it all seems.  In fact, the question I'm always left with after I return from the Netherlands is why other countries aren't more like them.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Conventions that suspend reality: 1 Injury and illness

There are some conventions in popular fiction that are so well-established that we don't even notice how much they defy real-life experience unless we sit down and think about it.
My favourite is the knock on the head.  There are any number of books, films and television programs where the hero is knocked on the head, and, after a spell of unconsciousness, climbs to his feet, defeats the bad guy, and gets the girl--or, alternatively,  where he knocks a couple of bad guys on the head, who get up a bit later, rub their skulls, and set off in hot pursuit.  Nobody blinks at this--despite the fact that in real life we regard being knocked unconscious as a very serious matter, one that requires a trip to hospital and an X-ray and bed-rest.  We know very well that head injuries are dangerous, but we do not apply that knowledge to the world of fiction.
Of course popular fiction has a strange attitude to illness and injury in general. Try to imagine James Bond catching a cold!  Infected cuts, conjunctivitis, piles, diarrhea and the other ills that flesh is heir to are, I am sure, found far more frequently in real life than in fiction. Even more interesting is the way characters are unimpeded by injuries which I, for one, would find disabling.  I have to take the evening off if I have a tooth out, but some heroes can scale a cliff after being shot through the shoulder--and, of course, operatic sopranos and tenors can sing gloriously while suffocating to death or dying of tuberculosis.
There are, of course plenty of books that deal honestly with injury and illness and make every effort to get medical details right.  What is strange is that the books which don't get away with it so easily.  The world of these books is, after all, ostensibly our own--but we don't apply our own rules to it, and usually don't even notice that omission.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Vindolanda tablets

Now that Mary Beard's 'Meet the Romans' series has, alas, ended, I've been reflecting on her achievement in making epigraphy--one of the driest disciplines--not merely exciting but televisual.  It is unusual, and she and the BBC both deserve credit for it.

It is not ever thus.  A couple of years ago 'Time Team' held an audience vote to decide the most important find from Roman Britain.  I don't remember all the items, and, indeed, so un-memorable was the winner that it's already disappeared from the first four or five pages of Google.  There was the bas-relief from the Antonine Wall, I remember, the one that proudly proclaimed the (short-lived) Roman expansion into Scotland, which is now in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  I think the Medusa head from Bath was on the list as well, and the beautiful Ribchester cavalry helmet, and the sculptures from the Temple of Mithras in London--all beautiful objects, and if you're not familiar with them, google them and have a look.  What struck me at the time, though, was that the most important Roman find wasn't even on the list.

I can see why 'Time Team' didn't like them.  I have to admit that they don't look like much.  You can't even read them in their natural blackened state: the texts only emerged when they were photographed using every available trick of light and filtering; when they did emerge, their cursive scrawl was so hard to read that at first some people doubted whether they were even in Latin.  Nonetheless, few historians would deny their enormous significance.

To begin with, until they were found it was thought that--as their discoverer, Robin Birley put it-- 'the prospect of ink writing from the Roman period being found in Britain was. . .impossible.'  There were inscriptions, some graffiti, a handful of references in Roman texts, but actual Roman documents?  They would surely have rotted away in the damp climate!  It's counter-intuitive that waterlogged soil, sealed from the air, can actually preserve wood and leather.

Next, there's the form of the tablets: thin sheets of wood, scored down the center and folded.  There had been a couple of obscures references in Roman texts, but not enough to shake the view that Romans generally wrote on papyrus or not wax tablets.  The Vindolanda finds were the first indication that in northerly climes the Romans normally wrote on wood.  More and more tablets have turned up in other sites, now that archaeologists know what to look for--though none as well-preserved or as rich as the finds from Vindolanda.

The main thing that makes the Vindolanda tablets so important, though, is what is written on them: a  glimpse into Roman life on a border fort that we simply couldn't have obtained any other way than time travel.  Letters of recommendation; letters of complaint; lists of supplies, with prices.  There's an 'intelligence' report about the local British warriors, dismissing them contemptuously as ill-equipped 'Brittunculi'--a sneering diminutive.  There is a letter to an ordinary soldier from his family, saying that they've sent him socks, two pairs of sandals, and two sets of underpants--'subligariorum duo'.  Underpants!   Now we know what all those stern centurions wore beneath their tunics! This is the only Latin reference to them!

The letter I love most, and perhaps the most famous of them all, is an invitation to a birthday party.  As Birley points out, it would be remarkable anywhere it was found, because it contains the earliest writing known to have been penned by a Roman woman: while the main text has been penned smoothly by a scribe, Claudia Severa has added a note in the corner in her own spiky handwriting: 'Sperabo te, soror.  Vale, soror, anima mea, ita valeam, karissima et (h)ave.'--'I will expect you, sister, Farewell, sister, my soul, as I hope to prosper, dearest, and greetings'.

You still get plenty of textbooks telling you that Roman girls didn't go to school and that few of them outside the most aristocratic circles would have been able to read : here we have a woman on the far fringe of the Roman Empire,  the wife of the prefect of a mere auxiliary cohort--a man who was himself probably the first in his family to obtain the citizenship--sending gushing personal notes to her friend.  Its mere existence puts that notion of female illiteracy in doubt.  Beat that, you marble statue-hunters!

Friday, 27 April 2012

Mary Beard on the Romans

When some new author or television presenter boasts that he or she will show us Antiquity as never before, usually there are two possibilities: one, that they're a crackpot; two, that they're about to present information that classicists have known for yonks but which the general public might still find surprising.  Mary Beard's new series on the Romans comes the closest I've ever seen to delivering on the initial promise. I'd seen a lot of the stuff she was presenting the other night, but some of it was delightfully new.

I've walked past that building next to the white marble wedding cake of the Victor Emanuel monument; I knew from the bricks it was ancient, but I hadn't realized it was an insula--a Roman apartment block.  I knew that the ground floor of an insula was the best place to live, and that the higher up you went the more uncomfortable it got--Juvenal had told me that--but I hadn't realized how small the upper rooms were.  Dr. Beard lay down on the dusty floor to show how little space the tenants must have had, and then suggested that whole families might have shared it--that perhaps a Roman woman had given birth there. With that image she brought a whole world to life.

Wonderful woman. Some of the commentators on the series have remarked on how great it is to see a middle-aged woman who isn't glamourous and who evidently cares much more about her subject than about her looks and her clothing, presenting a prime-time television series.  Yes.  It is is.  It's also great to see a proper classicist on the screen--particularly one from Newnham, my old college (Yay!) Dr Beard is heavily reliant on  epigraphy, which is one of the least glamourous--or at least, least televisual--of disciplines. In any museum the inscriptions are usually stacked up along the walls or in the basement, while the glamourous objects--statues, jewellery, weapons--take pride of place in the glass cases in the middle of the room.  Deciphering the things takes time and effort.  Usually they're fragmentary; always they're written without breaks between the words and often with unfamiliar letter forms or abbreviations.  They are not exciting things to look at.  I like them, but usually I skim them, picking up whatever I can get easily and abandoning the rest.

Of course, inscriptions tell you all sorts of things that objects can't: people's names, their occupations, what they cared about, how they died.  Scholars have been using them for years and years, but even to other scholars Inscriptiones Graecae Selectae is mostly dry as dust. It is to Mary Beard's credit that she can sift through this information and find just the bit that will connect to a wide audience and make the people come alive.  Oh, she exaggerates and sometimes over-eggs the pudding, but better eggy pudding than dust!  It's to the BBC's credit, too, that they've trusted her to make the stones speak, even if they do resort to gimmicks occasionally.

I don't want television much.  Actually, I suppose this is the only series I've watched this year.  Pity there aren't more like it!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Bad Guys

At the moment I'm doing quite a lot of childminding of my four year old grandson.  Like most small boys, he loves to set up bad guys which are resoundingly vanquished by good guys. At the moment, both the good guys and the bad ones are robots.  The bad robots look the part, but there isn't really much in their behaviour to distinguish them from the good ones: both sides are loyal to their own and ferocious toward their opponents. There is some token pretence of 'evil plans' (usually for world domination) on one side, but that's just an excuse for a lot of blam blam blam!

I hope that as my grandson grows up he'll find this Manichaean dichotomy a bit limiting.  I find fiction a lot more interesting when the good guys have to work at being good--that is, struggle to make moral choices in a difficult world--and I like my bad guys to be intelligibly bad.  A certain amount of moral ambiguity is almost required for literary fiction, but  I like it even in the stuff I read purely for fun. I don't mean that I want to root for the bad guy, a la American Psycho, but I want the bad guys' motives to be understandable. In too many novels and films they're like my grandson's bad robots: they're bad because the good guys need somebody to fight.  Blam blam blam!

Modern authors have come up with various ways to denote a character as bad.  At the moment the most popular is to make him an Islamic terrorist. (Fifty years ago he would have been a Communist spy.) Then there are serial killers. Real serial killers do exist, of course, but I'm sure fictional ones outnumber them ten to one.  Terrorists and serial killers have two advantages: they are automatically evil, and they automatically make your hero, however grubby, look good--because anybody looks good next to a terrorist or a serial killer.  OK, I can enjoy a book where the evil terrorist plot is thwarted or the killer caught--but there's always a certain uneasiness mingled with the pleasure.  I have been invited to disengage the sense of moral discrimination and sympathy which governs my ordinary life; real problems and real sufferings are being used to generate excitement without any attempt to understand their causes.  This may or may not be immoral--but it's certainly unrealistic, and, on the author's part, lazy.

Some authors--I'm thinking of Patricia Cornwall and her ilk, here--not only rely on serial killers, but use another substitute for motive: sexism.  Sexism and racism are certainly real and abominable, but in the real world they're normally negative: the victim doesn't get the job, the promotion, the contract; in a crisis they don't get the trust and support a white man would expect.  It's rare for somebody to actively work to ruin an innocent purely on the grounds of sex or race when that innocent isn't threatening any of their own interests: for one thing it takes effort; for another, it's illegal. I know it happens, when the perpetrator is crazy enough--but it isn't common.  Cornwall seems to have at least one sexism-motivated plot against the heroine per book.  Again, unrealistic and lazy--and boring. I stopped reading her because of it.

George Bernard Shaw once said that he tried to give the best speech in every play to the villain.  He wanted to make that villain's opposition intelligible, to deepen the moral dilemma and make the hero's choices more fraught and more dramatic.  If the bad guys are just robots, then the good guys are, too.

Friday, 13 April 2012


Herculaneum is the best-preserved of all classical sites--at least, if there is a better-preserved site, I don't know about it.  (If someone out there does, please, tell me!  I'll get there ASAP, camera at the ready!)  Look at that ceiling!  Probably you can't make them out, but the impluvium is ringed witha decoration of little bronze dog-heads.  Look at the remains of the paintwork; look at the wooden partition, charred but intact, which once screened off the back of the courtyard! Where Pompeii was buried in ash and debris, which collapsed the roofs of its buildings, Herculaneum was encased in hot mud-flows, which set like concrete, preserving the city as it was in the moment Vesuvius erupted--even to the price of different sorts of wine.

It is, therefore, a bit odd that Herculaneum tends to be treated as Pompeii's poor relation.  It's true that it isn't as big.  In Pompeii you can wander  for miles; in Herculaneum you're confined to about sixteen city blocks, since that's all that's been excavated.  Sixteen blocks, though, is about as much as any normal tourist can cope with at one go, and there's more to see in a smaller area, so you'd think tour companies would prefer it.  You'd think, too, that the modern town of Ercolano would view it as a gold-mine, and be proud of it.  There is so much continuity.  Looked at from across the ruins, the modern and ancient towns seem to blend together.

Alas, modern Ercolano has little interest in ancient Herculaneum.  Arrive at the city on the Circumvesuviana railroad--the most convenient way of getting there from Naples or the Sorrentine Peninsula--and you will not find a single sign to direct you to the ruins--which are only about a ten minute's walk away down a hill.  When I visited with my mother, she could not find a single shop or kiosk in the town which stocked postcards; she was so annoyed that she went and complained to the tourist office--which didn't have any postcards, either. A local volunteer, who happened to overhear her complaint, lamented the attitude of the town authorities--he said he had regularly complained about boys playing football in the fragile ruins, but nobody had taken any action to protect them.  He, like the guards we met on the site, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but one sensed he was close to despair over the attitude of his fellow-citizens.

My mother was trying to buy her postcards in the town because the shop at the archaeological site was closed.  So was the onsite  museum.  So were many of the best buildings in the town.  The suburban baths, which I visited the last time I was in Herculaneum, were closed as unsafe and propped up with scaffolding--that was where they found the bodies of the ancient dead, a very moving and evocative place.  There were numerous placards about the site entrance referring to the money donated by (mostly American and British) foundations for conserving the site, but there was not, actually, much to show for their efforts, and one did wonder whether the money was being siphoned off.  The problems the Neapolitan region has with corruption are, of course, notorious.

The House of the Gladiators at Pompeii collapsed last year after heavy rains, and many other buildings, there, in Herculaneum, and throughout the rest of Italy are threatened with the same fate.  Sufficient funds for conservation weren't provided by the previous government, and it's unlikely that the present austerity government will be more generous.  My advice to any one who hasn't seen Pompeii or Herculaneum has to be, go now.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Museo Nazionale Romano

Stunning, isn't she?  She's a sea-goddess, 1st C. AD, and she's in the Palazzo Massimo of the Museo Nazionale Romano.  The Museo Nazionale should have been on my A-list for things to see in Rome, but, misled by guidebooks (which are always insufficiently impressed by Roman stuff) I'd put it at the top of the 'B' list instead.  I hasten to add, however, that it's a museum I've long been eager to visit, but haven't been able to before:  it was closed for renovations. (Well, most of it.  I did get to the epigraphy section, which had some really neat stuff--but classical inscriptions are, admittedly, a minority taste.)

The renovations are a success, but the museum as a whole is still a mess.  It's spread out over four or five different sites, some of which are still closed; the building which is prominently labelled 'MUSEO NAZIONALE' is not, in fact, the main one, but there's nothing to tell you this on the entrance, and buying a ticket does not entitle you to a plan showing you where the rest of the museum is.  Even when you find the Palazzo Massimo there's nothing at the entrance to tell you what is where.  Luckily, I knew what I wanted to see, and immediately asked the guards where I could find the frescoes from the domus Liviae.

 They were on the second floor.  Keeping them company were a host of other Roman frescoes and mosaics.

It was not quite the best collection of ancient painting I've ever seen--I'd give that honour to the Archaeological Museum in Naples, which has the pick of Pompeii and Herculaneum--but it was very, very good.  I had it all to myself, too: in the forty minutes or so I spent there I encountered only one other visitor.

The lovely sea-goddess was on the first floor, and similarly ignored. The ground floor, however, was busier. I can only guess that the tourists didn't know there was more to see upstairs.

Museums in Italy (and in Greece and Turkey, for that matter) often do seem rather to frown upon tourists, in a way that to someone from the north of Europe seems downright bizarre.  Enter even a regional museum in England and you'll be confronted with a shop and a cafe; you'll have multi-lingual audio-guides thrust at you; there will be a 'childrens' trail' and a list of events. Italian museums, in contrast, make a point of hiding even the lift: ask for it, and a member of staff will escort you through two closed rooms to a broom cupboard. Frequently the museums are closed altogether, for long periods of time. (The one in Herculaneum, for example.)  I suspect that English museums get to keep the profits from their shops, cafes, and events, to defray their costs, and that Italian ones don't.

Friday, 9 March 2012


I will not be writing this blog next week. I am off to Italy for a week, setting out on Tuesday.

I've been before, of course--as a classicist, how could I not?  After four visits to Rome I still haven't managed to go to all the things on my top-ten A-list.  I doubt I'll manage them this time, either: we're only in Rome for a day, this time, not long enough to hit Hadrian's villa, and as for the Via Appia Antica, one really has to do that on a Sunday, when it's closed to traffic.

The impetus for this visit is my 83-year-old mother, who has lost none of her wanderlust with age.  In a casual chat she lamented the fact that she had never seen Florence or the Bay of Naples, and it didn't seem to me that there was any reason for her to put up with that situation.

I've been to Florence three times.  I remember the first occasion most vividly: I drove there with my fiance--as he was then--on a holiday from Paris, where we were living at the time.  I left the car parked in a row with other cars, and returned awash with the glories of the Renaissance to find that the whole row of motors had been towed away.  (The police were very understanding of our foreign stupidity, and let us off the parking fine, though we still had to pay the tow charge.)

The Renaissance is not really my period, though Florence is hard to resist.  I'll feel more at home, though, in the Bay of Naples.  I've been to Pompeii and Herculaneum before, too--twice--but I can't imagine getting tired of them.  On my first visit I was too excited even to take pictures, and grinned so hard that at the end of the day my whole face ached.  I was calmer second time around, but no less enchanted.

Picnic in Herculaneum

We wandered through the ruins marvelling
at frescoed ceilings, bowls of painted fruit,
medusa-headed fountains and mosaic floors--
then settled in a garden where we ate
salami sandwiches on benches in the shade.
Beyond us stood the bath-house where they found
the huddled bones of the all the city's dead.
Vesuvius rose above us, hazed with blue.
In the garden, pomegranates grew.

The men and women who resided here
like us, and like Demeter's daughter, knew that fruit:
the tree that loves the water, loves the sun;
the biting sweetness of its seed upon the tongue
and taste that binds to death when dark has come.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

World Book Day

As an author I feel obliged to take note of the first of March, though I know that no comment I could make will be half as impressive as the celebrations at my grandson's school, where the children are arriving dressed as their favourite fictional characters. (I mean, really, what words can compete with the faces of a lot of excited four- and five- year-olds?)  Still, the occasion offers a chance to reflect on the craft which has engaged me all my life.

Like most authors, I read a lot, at least when I'm not writing myself.  (I'm supposed to be writing now, but the latest book is stuck--again--so I've been giving it a break and loading up the Kindle.)  I enjoy books of many different types:  literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy, murder mysteries, popular science, poetry--everything, really, except romances, which I just don't get. (They seem to me nothing but improbable obstacles to an inevitable outcome.)

When it comes to style, though, I can't seem to arrive at any conclusions about what I like.  I know what my principles are when I'm writing. Never use a long word unless it really adds something that isn't there in the short one; never use a Latin word when an Anglo-Saxon one will do; whenever possible use a verb instead of an adverb, a noun instead of an adjective;  look for ways to cut, rather than expand, descriptions; if a metaphor feels strained dump it, and so on.  When I'm reading, though, I'm inconsistent.  I condemn some books (high-brow and low-) as over-written, word-heavy, too elaborate.  Persicos odi, puer, apparatus! as the poet Horaces says, 'Boy, I hate these Persian gewgaws, these interwoven crowns can never please me.'  I recently read Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie; after the first chapter I found the dense, vivid language wearing, and by the end I was skimming paragraphs, only stopping to read them through if it looked as though something was actually happening.  How much better, I thought, was the limpid prose of, e.g., Andrew Miller's Pure, everything in its place and every nuance counting!  Yes, I told myself, simple, clear prose really is better . . .then I remembered how much I love the verbal extravagance and inventiveness of Neal Stephenson or Michael Chabon.   I certainly can't claim them for the simple and limpid school, but I absolutely love the way they write.

I'm on firmer ground with fiction's other ingredients. I like it when characters have distinctive voices, so that you know who's talking before you reach the 'X said'. I like characters who aren't too simple, and I like to be shown, rather than told, what they're like.   I like books that have a plot--not necessarily an action-packed one, but there should be a conflict which is resolved somehow at the end.  I don't like epics; I want what I read to have a beginning, a middle and an end--but that's a matter of taste, not an aesthetic judgement.

There are times when being an author myself prevents me from enjoying something I otherwise might.  This happens most often when there are holes in the logic of a plot.  I try very hard to avoid these when I'm writing, with the result that I notice them at once when I read them.  No, I think, the timing doesn't work; or Why does she think that? Nobody would think that! or Why the hell does the bad guy bother?What's in it for him?--and then I can't read any more of an otherwise entertaining author.  There are other times, though, when being an author myself means I enjoy something most people miss.  Patrick O'Brian, for example, had a mastery of narrative which was extraordinary: he could make time speed up or slow down, move from breathless action to long weeks of calm without jarring; convey details in dialogue or slip into first-person narration through journals and letters without once slowing the momentum of the book--all without calling attention to himself.  That's real writing.


Friday, 24 February 2012

Moelwyn Mawr

Going up mountains, or trying to, is the normal holiday ambition. (I know, it begs the question whether the practice can indeed be called normal!) In the summer it can be simple: the weather's good, the weekend's free, so we throw a suitcase into the car, add a bag of supplies for the dog, and head off to Wales or the Lake District (the dog can be presumed to have hopped into the car by herself as soon as she saw the suitcase.)

In the winter it's a bit more complicated.  Free weekends are at a premium, so the booking has to be made in advance, and the weather taken on trust--and, of course, the weather in Wales and the Lakes is never trustworthy.  Sometimes it seems to take a malicious pleasure in teasing you.

The first time we attempted Moelwyn Mawr was last Spring.  It was a beautiful sunny day when we set out, walking from Tanygrisiau, up through the slate quarries and ascending an easy grassy slope.  Alas, as we went up, the hillfog came down, and when we struggled on to the summit all that was visible was hill, fog, and one departing hiker.  We told each other it was bound to lift soon, and stood about for about twenty minutes looking stupid and waiting for the show to start.  It didn't.  We sighed and started down--and when we were about halfway, the hillfog shredded and the mountaintop smirked at us against a blue sky.

We tried again last weekend, staying in a lovely little eco B&B called Bryn Elltyd, right at the foot of the Moelwyns.  The forecast, however, was for heavy rain.  We set out anyway, and within the hour the rain stopped; a little later the sun came out. We walked up the Croesor valley noticing all the reasons we like to go to Wales.  Then we turned onto the path towards the mountain, telling one another that this time we might  make it after all.

As we approached the pass, however, the skies lowered, the wind got up, and then a blast of stinging snow swept up behind us.  At six hundred metres, where the path to the summit diverged, the top was covered in cloud, with more snow threatening in the west.  We sighed, skirted the summit, and came down past the slate mines, the dog hauling dangerously on the lead and making frantic endeavours to chase sheep all the way.

It cleared, of course, by the time we reached the bottom.  Moelwyn Mawr triumphed again.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Cave Canem
It doesn't really look a very savage dog, this one: the crouched front and raised tail suggest play, not attack.  It lies on the threshhold of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, as it probably did in life. The casts of its cousins, preserved in the volcanic ash, have been found alongside the remains of their masters.  Dogs were everywhere in antiquity.  Most of them would have been working dog-- guard dogs, ratters, hounds for hunting--but some were indeed kept purely as pets.  'Noisy dogs', Homer calls them, but wrote one of the earliest, and most touching, anecdotes of this interspecies affection with the incident of the dog Argos, who alone recognizes his returning master Odysseus, and dies wagging his tail.

The world of the past was harder on animals than the present age, however. A medieval verse recommends disposing of all dogs at nine years old:  'And when he is commyn to that yere, have hym to the tanner, For the best hownde that ever bikke hade, at 9 yere he is full badde.' One recalls, too, Chaucer's Prioress, where a reluctance to see a pet beaten provokes comment: 'Of smale houndes hadde she hat she fedde/with rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed,/but soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,/or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte/and al was conscience and tendre herte.'  The early Muslims were also hard on dogs, considering them unclean animals.

Unclean, of course, they are.  A dog encountering something really foul on the ground will either roll in it or eat it, and when you try to remedy their uncleaness with a bath it's like the martyrdom of St. Sebastian: the creature crouches there, eyes cast up to Heaven--'If it be thy will, o Lord!'--while buckets of warm water drench its innocent head.  They are messy, proverbially shameless, can be noisy, and never happier than when chasing some small helpless furry thing.

I like dogs.  Cats, too, but dogs more, probably because dogs like humans more.  An animal behaviourist I once read declared that really they're attached to being fed, not to their owners, but this I found simply annoying. I've seen dogs refuse treats when they fear their owners are about to leave; kennels will tell you that they can go off their food for days, or develop ulcers, waiting for their people to return. They are pack animals, and it makes perfect sense for them to have a strong emotional attachment to other members of their pack.  I suppose the commentator wanted to avoid the kind of sentimental anthropomorphizing many people indulge in, but I think he fell into the opposite error. A dog is not a 'furry person', and it does not have the same kind of mind and emotions as a human--but that does not mean it has no mind or feelings at all.

To me, this is really one of the most fascinating things about dogs, about animals in general. They are not human; they do not think or feel the way we do, their senses, brains and bodies are entirely different--but we can still communicate.  When my dog comes into my room at eight in the morning, puts her nose over the side of the bed, and makes steam-kettle noises, I know exactly what she wants.  When she sees the hiking boots taken out of the cupboard, she understands what's about to happen, and is delighted by the prospect.  I have this alien being in the house, and I talk to it every day.      

Friday, 10 February 2012


One of the great regular pleasures of my life is singing.  I'm a member of the University of Warwick Chorus, where I sing second soprano with more enthusiasm than skill.  It's a big chorus--about two hundred people--and for a modest annual subscription we get skilled directors and a brilliant accompanist to rehearse us and the joy of performing great music with full orchestra and professional soloists at least three times a year.

This term's project is Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem mass, one of the most thrilling in the repertoire.  I bought it on CD long before I got the chance to sing it, and have put it on in the background when I'm trying to write something particularly stirring (which is an abuse of good music, I know, but it helps.)  This is the second time our chorus has performed it, which means I have to struggle less and can enjoy it more.  It is a fantastic piece: ominous and electrifying, exhilirating and magnificent.  I always think the 'Dies Irae' (above: does the link work?) ought to be booming in the background while the alien fleet blows up the Earth, or the armies of Mordor advance.

That, actually, is rather odd, because the destructive force we're singing about is supposed to be the Christian God of love and justice.  Verdi, however, was apparently agnostic as well as a composer of operas: he went for drama, not theological precision.  For a vision of hope for the afterlife one would have to look somewhere like the final duet of his Aida, where the pagan lovers die locked in an embrace, singing 'O terra addio'--'O earth farewell, farewell vale of sighs . . .our wandering souls fly to the realm of eternal day'. (We got to sing Aida, too, a few years ago: a concert performance, but with real opera singers for the principals. Very much appreciated, by us, anyway.)

Of course, part of Verdi's take on the Requiem is conditioned by the words:  he's included the 'Sequence'--the medieval Latin poem that begins, 'Dies irae, dies illa,/solvet saeclum in favilla/teste David et Sibylla' . . .'Day of wrath, that day the age dissolves into ash as testify David and Sibylla.  What trembling there will be when the judge shall come to investigate everything thoroughly!'

Does that sound like good poetry to you?  Me neither.  'As testify Dave and Sybil'! The Sequence clatters--short three-line stanzas all with the same rhyme: aaa bbb ccc--and the sentiments are those of a self-absorbed whiner: 'I know I've been bad, but save me!  I don't care what happens to the rest of the world!'   'Day of wrath' is a good phrase, certainly, but it was actually taken from the office itself: 'Dies irae, dies illa, dies calamitatis et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde . . .libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna, in die illa tremenda'--'Day of wrath, that day, day of calamity and woe, great and bitter day. . .deliver me, o Lord, from everlasting death on that terrible day'. Not a pretty idea, but magnificently expressed.

I suppose that the Sequence is better than, say, the 'Stabat mater', a poem whose Latin is so barbarous and ugly that I'm surprised the Catholic church didn't quietly drop it in the sixteenth century out of pure embarrassment.  Nonetheless, it isn't surprising that composers since Verdi have mostly omitted the Sequence. Gabriel Faure, composing a Requiem only thirteen years after Verdi, sets only the Office itself, and others have copied him, occasionally including biblical texts or poems instead. (Brahms, of course, sets nothing but biblical texts in German, most wonderfully.) It would be a shock, actually, to find the Sequence in a modern setting of the Requiem.  I cannot be sorry, though, that Verdi (and Mozart) decided to use these sorry verses.  In their hands, the wretched words set my hair on end.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Big Roman Buildings

After posting about Ravenglass, I looked up more about it on the web. (Yes, probably I should have done that before posting, but I reserve the right to blether.)  I discovered that it used to be called Glannaventa, and that it was garrisoned by, first, the Aelian Fleet, and, later, by a rather dim-sounding lot of auxiliaries called the Moroni. I also discovered that it claims to be the tallest surviving Roman building in England.

This last is clearly wrong.  Here are two pictures of Roman buildings which seem to me to be taller.  The upper one is Wroxeter Roman baths (a city bath-house is naturally going to be taller than the one at Ravenglass, which was, after all, only a little bitty auxiliary fort at the back of beyond). (It, too, survived through being used as a barn--but isn't the hypocaust nice?)  The lower picture is me a few years ago in front of the Multi-angular tower at York, part of the renovations to the city wall undertaken for the time Septimius Severus was in residence. (I wrote about him in Dark North)  (It wasn't a barn. It was kept up as part of the city wall.)  I strongly suspect that some of the Saxon Shore forts are taller than Ravenglass as well (I mean, Portchester is actually intact!)
Everything's relative, though.  None of the Roman buildings in England is a patch on the beautiful sites of Italy, Greece, or Turkey. (Above is the Pantheon at Rome.)  If I queried English Heritage, I'd probably find they meant that Ravenglass was the tallest surviving military building in the North of England.

We have a Roman fort here in Coventry, which I now designate the tallest Roman military building in the south-central West Midlands.  The bank must be a few feet high.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Getting Started

'But, for the time being, here we all are,/Back in the moderate Aristotelian city/of darning and the eight-fifteen, where Euclid's geometry/and Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,/and the kitchen table exists because I scrub it. . .The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.' (W.H. Auden, 'For the Time Being')

My agent has advised me that writing a blog would help to sell my books.  I am sceptical, but suppose that it wouldn't hurt to blether on for a little while once a week or so.

Here I am, then, at the new year, soaking wet at Ravenglass Roman Bathhouse, having walked across the moor in the rain.  Ravenglass, for those who don't know it, is on the Irish Sea, on the western edge of the Lake District.  The Romans built a string of forts down the coast from Hadrian's Wall, presumably to defend against raids by the barbarian Irish.  Ravenglass fort is nothing but ditches and mounds in a green field, but the bathhouse stands, as you can see, taller than head-height.  It owes its preservation to being used as a barn (I think) throughout the Middle Ages.  (Many of the best preserved Greek and Roman ruins are intact because of similar degradations.)  I imagine the Roman auxiliaries shedding their armour with a sigh of relief as they made their way into the steam room; alas, I had another trudge and a train ride before a chance to get warm again.

I've written two books set in Roman Britain, mostly near the Wall, so the promise of Roman fortifications does unfailingly drag me out of my way, even in the rain.  At present, though, I'm struggling with the 17th C.  I don't have any immediate intention of revisiting the period, but the old stones still make my heart beat faster.