Archive for the ‘Good reads’ Category

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First, drown your ape.

August 15, 2013

Welcome to my corner of the 2013 Wonder of Rome Blog Hop! There are (I think) seventeen of us linking up this weekend to offer blog posts on some aspect of Rome for your enjoyment. As you’ll have gathered, I’m Ruth Downie, and I write a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. Predictably, my choice for the Wonder of Rome is its doctors (even if they did learn most of what they knew from the Greeks).

As part of the Hop I’ll be giving a copy of the Ruso book of their choice to one randomly-chosen reader, so if you’d like to enter the draw, please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch with the winner. (No, this is not a cunning ploy to make you read to the end. I know you have a ‘scroll’ button.)

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

The Ruso books are set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and I’m mightily glad they are. Not only because it’s an interesting period, but – as I discovered when it was too late to change it – I’ve escaped Galen by a gnat’s whisker.

There’s no doubt that Galen (who was born in about A.D. 129) was a marvellous doctor, as he pointed out himself on many occasions.  His influence was such that even in the nineteenth century, German medical students had to pass an exam on his works before they could qualify. But he was prolific. Those of us struggling with deadlines and word counts can only marvel at Galen’s ability to produce vast amounts of prose, and give a quiet sigh of relief at the thought that we aren’t compelled to read it all.

Trephined skull

Surgery has a long history. This hole in the head was created over a thousand years before Rome was founded.

I have, however, been perusing “On Anatomical Procedures” recently. This is how I know that you have to drown your ape. Despatching it in any other way will damage it, thus ruining some of the structures Galen wants you to see as you dissect it.

(It occurs to me now, gentle reader, that you may like to use that scroll button after all. This will get a little gory in places. Crime writers, especially those who write about medics, tend to forget that not everyone is used to this stuff. Sorry.)

The unnecessary drowning of apes is not a cheery topic, and the dissection of living creatures – also recommended by Galen – is even worse. Let’s not even think about… no, let’s not. Yet there’s one practice we accept today that would have been deeply disturbing to the classical Romans. Despite their reputation for cruelty, they would have been shocked at the idea that doctors might routinely learn their trade by taking apart real human bodies. Goodness knows what they would make of CSI or Silent Witness. The medical men of ancient Alexandria had helpfully disposed of criminals this way in the past, but by the time the practice of medicine had spread through Greece and across to Rome, it was much frowned upon. So although Galen managed to examine human skeletons, much of his knowledge of anatomy came from animals.

At least Galen was eager to look, learn, and share his knowledge. Not everyone had such high standards. Rather like the title ‘therapist’ today, anyone in the ancient world could call themselves a ‘medicus’, so it was a case of buyer beware. Martial must have expected his audience to get the joke when he wrote,

Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker. He’s still, as an undertaker, doing what he used to do as a doctor. (Epigrams, 1.47)

Just to make the point – Galen was obliged to prove to some of his colleagues that arteries are not empty channels. Neither, he pointed out, are they full of milk.

Photo of Roman re-enactor in bloodstained tunic explaining medical instruments

He looks friendly enough, but can you trust him?

The medic in the photo was travelling with the XIIII Legion, which was a good sign, since surgeons with the Army or – like Galen – the gladiator schools, at least had plenty of practice. And the best were very good indeed. Anything accessible and mechanical – breaks, sprains, dislocations, cuts, removal of arrowheads from places they shouldn’t be – all these they could cope with.  Some of their techniques were still in use in the First World War, and whilst they didn’t have modern anaesthetics, they were well aware of the effects of opium and mandrake.

I thought I should mention that comforting fact before going on to say that they also had a viable method of dealing with cataracts.

Ready? Peep out between your fingers at the sort of precision instrument they would have used –

Reproduction cataract needle

A modern reproduction of a cataract needle, based on one of a set found in the Saone River in France.

I’m told the less terrifying end could be dipped into a liquid medicine and used to deliver it to the patient, one drop at a time. (This one was made by Steve Wagstaff.)

And here are a couple of examples of real patients from the Roman world, the first one a Londoner:

A pair of collarbones, one broken and mended

According to the Museum of London, the broken half of this pair of collarbones only mended so successfully because someone had strapped it up properly.

The unlucky owner of this bone was buried in Arles -

Photo of badly mended broken bone

Should have gone to Galen?

Dealing with what a doctor could not see or feel was a trickier business. The reason for the spread of disease was much-debated and it’s not hard to conclude that epidemics were kept in check less by medics than by engineers, building aqueducts for fresh water, and sewers the like of which were not seen again in Britain until the great clean-up of Victorian times.

Still, despite everyone’s best efforts, recovery depended on the goodwill of the gods. There are testimonies to overnight cures at the shrine of Aesculapius, and Luke’s gospel tells the story of a woman who had spent all she had on doctors and was finally cured after twelve years of illness by touching Jesus’s cloak.

Photo of clay model of foot

A gift to the gods, in the hope of – or giving thanks for? – a cured foot.

In fact some people were firmly of the opinion that doctors were best left out of the equation altogether. Pliny the Elder, although he recommended plenty of remedies, was appalled by the notion that anyone should attempt to make money out of the sick. “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity,” he observed, adding,  “there is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”

Not everyone was so cynical. Doctors were given tax concessions, although perhaps in an early example of cracking down on tax dodgers, Antoninus Pius later set a limit to how many doctors each town could have.

Of course in the absence of a doctor, the educated person could always consult a medical text. Modern readers eager to shun artificial chemicals in favour of natural ingredients might thrill to some of the remedies of Dioscorides of Anarzarbus:

  • Toothache? Use the sting of a stingray to shatter the tooth
  • Malaria? Place seven bedbugs inside beans and swallow before the onset of fever
  • Earache? Boil up the insides of a cockroach and drop them into the offending ear
  • Bald spots? Burn the hooves of she-goats and smear them on with vinegar (this is one of many remedies, none of them much more appealing)
  • Thinning hair? Stick on a little extra with a dollop of snail slime
  • Inflamed injury? Plaster on the fresh dung of grazing cattle.

To be fair, not all of Dioscorides’ suggestions are as alarming as those listed above. Most involve medicinal plants and in places he’s careful to point out that he’s only reporting what other people have told him. But should you consider trying any of them,  do remember – this was an era in which anyone could call themselves a doctor.

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

Please explore more Wonders of Rome via the links below!

Thanks for stopping by on your way around the Hop. If you’d like to know more about Roman medicine, look out for Audrey Cruse’s “Roman Medicine” or Ralph Jackson’s “Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire”.

Meanwhile there’s much more Wonder of Rome to visit at the links below. All of them should go live sometime today (15 August) – and don’t forget to leave a comment here  by the 19th if you want to enter the free book draw!

David Pilling

Elisabeth Storrs

Gordon Doherty

Scott Hunter

Mark Patton

M C (Manda) Scott

Fred Nath

Brian Young

Helen Hollick

Heather Domin

David Blixt

Alison Morton

Petrea Burchard

Tim Hodkinson

S J A Turney

John Henry Clay

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Last month I didn’t know what a Blog Hop was…

August 12, 2013

…and now I’m about to be in one. Ladies and gentlemen, for your entertainment and edification, this coming Thursday a varied group of writers will be presenting a round of blog posts entitled:

Blog Hop logo August 15 to 19 2013

Goodness knows what will be on offer as to the best of my knowledge, hardly anyone knows what anyone else has chosen to write about, However, rumour has it that there will be book giveaways. My piece will be posted here on Thursday along with links to all the others, and  I’m looking forward to some good reading.

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CONVOY – Caroline Davies tells stories from the Second World War

May 19, 2013

I have to admit that poetry makes me nervous. I approach it with caution, afraid of revealing yet again that I just haven’t got what it takes to appreciate this sort of thing. But when Caroline Davies passed some of her poems about the Malta convoys around our writers’ group, even I could see that here was something special. I’m delighted that Cinnamon Press thought the same thing, and they’ve now published the whole collection.

Cover of CONVOY

CONVOY weaves together the stories of the men who risked desperate odds to get supplies through to Malta during the Second World War, and of their families back at home. It’s a vivid and moving series of accounts. But I wasn’t sure why Caroline had chosen to write it. After all, the War was history before she was born. There was only one way to find out, so I asked her.

 Caroline – Even as a child I was aware that my taid (my grandfather), was involved with the supply of Malta by sea during the war.  Although I didn’t know any of the details I took it for granted that everyone else must be aware of how important the defence of the island was. (Me – Malta was a vital strategic base for British forces.) I can remember being shocked that other people seemed to know about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain but not the Malta convoys. A large part of my motivation for writing this book was to reclaim that forgotten history.

 Me – Are all the poems based on real events and real people, or are any of them fiction?

Caroline – In many of the poems there is a mixture. Where there is a man’s name in the heading, be it Captain Thomas Horn, or PB ‘Laddie’ Lucas, or Tom Neil then the events and the people are real but what I’ve had to imagine was how they felt about what was unfolding around them.  A number of the poems are complete works of my imagination especially the ones written in a child’s voice, that of my mother. Overseas Posting is based on a single remark by one pilot about how he coped with others being posted missing so the name in that poem is fictitious.

Me – Have you had any responses from people who were involved?

Caroline – The majority of them are no longer alive to respond and those who were in their twenties during the war will now be into their nineties. There are two poems in the book which are based on an incident in Tom Neil’s Onward to Malta. He is very much alive and well and so after some hesitation I did send him the poems to read. He was utterly charming about them whilst protesting that he hadn’t done anything special during the war.

There’s more about Tom Neil on Caroline’s blog, here:

http://advancingpoetry.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/thomas-francis-neil-dfc-afc-ae.html

I’ve mostly had contact with people who like me, are the children or grandchildren of those involved. Paul Lazell whose Dad, Bill, was with the Royal Artillery sent me his father’s diary to read and that provided the basis for one of the found poems in the book.

Me -As someone who usually has at least 100,000 words to play with, I’m impressed by the way the poetry weaves together many stories with few words. With such a large number of ships and a complex series of events, how did you choose what to put in and what to leave out? Did you end up cutting much of what you’d written?

photo of CarolineCaroline – I suspect I probably should have cut more than I did despite all the good advice from my main critical reader, Katy Evans-Bush. The choice of what to leave in was largely governed by deciding to follow individual men, like Roger Hill who was involved in the Operation Pedestal convoy – the attempt to get fifteen merchant ships to Malta. At one point I did have ambitions to follow the fate of every single ship but as my publisher Jan kept reminding me I wasn’t writing a comprehensive maritime history.

One of my men only has six lines in Operation Pedestal. During the editing process I decided these could be cut, only to dream that night of a seaman trying to reach a life-raft which is getting further and further away from him. Needless to say he was reinstated into the poem the next morning.

Me – Were there any stories that you’d like to have put in but which didn’t fit?

Caroline – Plenty. There were various people involved with the RAF; Group Captain Woodhall who was the fighter controller on the island and George Beurling, one of the fighter pilots who shot down twenty seven planes in fourteen days about whom there were many stories.

My focus however was on what was happened out at sea on board the ships. In this regard I would have liked to have included a incident involving Captain David MacFarlane, master of the Melbourne Star during the Pedestal convoy. She kept being left behind or in the words of her captain “we were nobody’s baby”. A merchant ship on its own without any protection from naval vessels was much more vulnerable. Every time MacFarlane steered to take position astern (i.e. behind) one of the destroyers, their hoped for escort would zigzag and pull away.   Finally he is given permission to take up station on one of the warships when the Ashanti comes alongside and tells him to turn around as the main body of the convoy is astern of them. McFarlane says that he is quite happy where he is and back comes the stern reply ‘I am the Admiral’.

Me – One of the book’s strengths is the restrained nature of the language – the events are narrated with emotion but without sentimentality. Was that a deliberate choice, or does it echo the tone of the accounts you read?

Caroline – At the back of my mind whilst writing the poems was the idea that they had to sound as if the men themselves were telling the stories.  In their accounts and interviews they definitely understate the dangers involved and there’s plenty of black humour. One of my critical readers did suggest that perhaps in places it was a little too impersonal and I did have to work on getting more emotion into the poems.

Me – What surprised you most during the research?

Caroline – There were two aspects that surprised me. The first was how attached I became to many of the men and of course I couldn’t have written any of it without them. The other thing was how difficult emotionally it was at times to write, especially about the Operation Pedestal convoy in which so many ships were lost. In the end the only way I got that written was to go off to North Wales for a week’s writing retreat and just make myself finish it.

Me – I’ve heard it said when people are talking about the Second World War that we have become softer nowadays, and that ‘you couldn’t get people to do that now.’ You have a foot in both camps, so to speak – do you think it’s true?

Caroline – People are still the same underneath though, aren’t they? I don’t think the current generation of young people is that different from the young men and women at the end of the 1930s and if called upon to make the kinds of sacrifices that had to be made during the war I know they would rise to the challenge.

——————-

I’m grateful to Caroline for taking the time to answer, and for agreeing to let me put up a couple of the poems on the blog. I asked for the first one especially, because I love the bleak humour.

Extract from Operation Pedestal

 From a pilot on board H.M.S. Furious

Sir, why are the armourers

taking the ammo out of my Spitfire?

Looks like cigarettes they’re putting in?

That’s right.

Someone was worried about weight

preventing us taking off.

 

Fags don’t weigh much I suppose.

Indeed. Malta is short of smokes

as well as everything else.

It’ll do morale a power of good.

That’s kind of us, Sir.

I hope the Germans

and Italians don’t know.

What if they do? You couldn’t hit them

even if you had ammunition.

I would like to be able to try, Sir.

——————-

Christmas 1941

After three months of dodging the bombing

the Ajax is moored upstream

at the head of Marsa creek.

The bombs still come every day.

Her crew take shelter in the caves.

One watch on board.

She’s hit on Christmas Eve.

The bomb passes clean through her bow.

No explosion. Just bubbles of water.

The Chinese greaser first back on board.

No matter how hard he searches

he can’t find what he seeks.


No sign of the crate. Not a single feather.

A lingering rank chicken smell from the corner

where they’d been fed. Given water.

A hole in the ship’s side instead of

the New Year’s dinner. He takes it personally,

this intervention of the Luftwaffe.

On their unmarried mothers, sons and daughters

he calls down curses. Until this moment

he hadn’t fully seen the point of this war.

© Caroline Davies

Cover of CONVOY

CONVOY is available from

http://www.cinnamonpress.com/convoy/

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/caroline+davies/convoy/9587810/

http://www.inpressbooks.co.uk/convoy/

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Coming soon… CONVOY

May 16, 2013

This weekend I’ll be talking to Caroline Davies, author of CONVOY, a new collection of poems telling the stories of the men who fought to get supplies through to Malta during the Second World War, and of their families back home.

With luck we’ll have a couple of the poems right here on the blog.

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My Next Big Thing

December 11, 2012

And now, a change of pace. First, a big thank-you to Caroline Davies,  who tagged me for “My next big thing” longer ago than I care to admit. It’s a set of questions that one writer passes to another, giving each of us a chance to blather (sorry, tell the world) about our own current project.

Caroline is a poet. Now I have to confess that collections of poetry are rarely my thing. They tend to remind me of my efforts at wholemeal pastry – very good for you, but heavy going. Not so with Caroline’s soon-to-be published collection, CONVOY. The clue is in the title – it’s the story of one of the Allied convoys that battled across the Mediterranean to take supplies to Malta during the Second World War. I read a draft a while back and loved it. It’s vivid and exciting and humbling, and all the more impressive for being a true story. So that’s Caroline’s Next Big Thing. Here’s mine -

Cover of US edition of Semper Fidelis

What is the working title of your book?

It’s called SEMPER FIDELIS. Thanks to my astounding ignorance, I had no idea when I chose it that this is the motto of the US Marines. I hope they aren’t going to pay me a visit and complain.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s the fifth in a series featuring a Roman Army medic serving in Britain. We usually see the Roman Army as full of tough highly-trained killers, but every one of them was somebody’s son.  I’m at the age where my friends’ cute little babies are donning uniforms, getting tattoos and being sent to countries where other people want to shoot them. Those of us who wait at home for news trust that their commanding officers will do their best to look after them, and it occurred to me that it must have been the same for Roman families waving their sons goodbye as they went off to join the Legions. But what if some of those officers didn’t have their men’s best interests at heart? Would mistreatment be dealt with, or would it be hushed up?

The series is now at the point in history where Hadrian visited Britain, and my characters are under serious pressure to put on a good show.

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical crime.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Someone who knows what they’re doing had better do the casting. Meanwhile I’ll be auditioning George Clooney and Daniel Craig over a long lunch.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Roman legionary medic is under pressure from his comrades to cover up a scandal, and from his wife to expose it.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’ll be published by Bloomsbury in the USA and Canada in January 2013. The UK shouldn’t be far behind.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There are quite a few Roman crime series being published now, but as far as I know, the trend was started by Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m fascinated by the interplay between the occupier and the occupied in Roman Britain, and the fact that so much evidence still lies buried under our feet. I wanted to write the sort of personal stories that have slipped down the gaps of history.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hadrian’s marriage was not made in heaven, and at about the time of the British trip, the Empress Sabina was involved in a mysterious disgrace. Only the flimsiest of details have survived in the records – but of course all is revealed in the book.

Tag time

And now I’m going to tag the Mysterymakers, three writers from the north of England “who love to talk about murder”. First up is a fellow-writer of Roman mysteries who will be familiar to regular readers of the blog – Jane Finnis. Look out for Jane’s Next Big Thing in the next few days, and through her we’ll get to meet the other Mysterymakers. After that – who knows?

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Bring up the Bodies – and do pay attention, please

October 17, 2012

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels seem to divide readers into those who think they’re absolutely wonderful and those who… don’t. As a member of the former camp I’m delighted that she’s won the Booker again. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never actually “read” either WOLF HALL or BRING UP THE BODIES. Instead I’ve enjoyed having them read to me while I’ve been busy doing other things.

The ‘other things’  have to be chosen with care. I once tried a long-distance drive in the company of Ian Rankin’s THE COMPLAINTS, and while the book was great, the  resultant speeding ticket wasn’t.  So now I reserve audiobooks for repetitive tasks not involving dangerous machinery. Thomas Cromwell has unwittingly helped to clear many piles of dirty dishes, and there’s a patch of garden at Downie Towers that I shall forever associate with the terror of young Mark Smeaton in much the same way as many of us can remember where we were when Kennedy was shot.

That, I think, is the sign of a good book.

 

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One for the Brits, one for everyone…

October 3, 2012

Two good things to pass on today.

Good news for those of us in the UK – Jane Finnis’s first Aurelia Marcella novel finally launches here next month. It’s been available as an import from the US for some time, but it’s finally got its very own British edition with a new title (Shadows in the Night) and a fabulous cover which you can see here, along with full details of the launch event in York.

Secondly – thanks to L G Johnson, who recommends  Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome. “The last podcast was actually recorded a few years ago, but it is still relevant, as ancient rome ended quite a while before 2010 :-)  He is quite knowledgeable, very witty, just a lot of fun to listen to.”

The first podcast was recorded back in July 2007 and I’m looking forward to listening to it this evening.

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