Archive for the ‘How we see the past’ Category

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Blog tour: My writing process

April 1, 2014

Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.

Judi’s answers can be found here.  Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.

1.      What am I working on?Cover of TABULA RASA

The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)

2.      How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.

Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.

3.      Why do I write what I do?

Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.

4.      How does your writing process work?

I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.

Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.

What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.

 

 

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Can I try that question again, please?

January 13, 2014

One of the perils of combining a haphazard approach to research with a terrible memory is that I often recall useful things that I read a long time ago, but it’s impossible to quote them because I no longer know where they were. Worse, I sometimes wonder whether they really existed or whether I made them up for a story. So when someone asked me the other day whether doctors in the ancient world really did perform post-mortems, I was appalled to find myself in a minor panic, mumbling that I was pretty certain they did, and anyway, um,  surely they must have done…

Shelves crowded with books about Romans and Ancient Britain

The answer is probably in here somewhere. Or perhaps not.

My companion was very polite, but given the number of post-mortem examinations in the Ruso stories, he can’t have been too impressed. So it was mightily reassuring to rediscover this in Vivian Nutton’s “Ancient Medicine”:

“The best picture of what the average healer did may be gained from the papyri of Graeco-Roman Egypt, which extend mainly from the second century BC until the sixth century. They show us healers at work, summoned to carry out inspections of those injured in an affray or dying in suspicious circumstances, prescribing, running a family hospital, even writing their own books.”

So that’s where it was. Page 11.

That passage brings me to a great question  asked by Jane Finnis at the Heffers Classics Festival: “What lost document from antiquity would you most like to find?”

My answer at the time was that I’d like to find something – anything – by the Druids, in the hope of balancing the information we have from the Roman authors. Sadly, as Manda Scott observed, since the Druids didn’t have a written culture the chances of that happening were slim. She cunningly suggested rediscovering – amongst other things – the entire contents of the lost library of Alexandria.  Much too late, I’d like to revise my own answer:

The book I would most like to find from antiquity is one that definitely existed, but is known to have vanished by the year 850. It was written by a doctor called Rufus and was a “large compendium of self-help medicine designed for the layman (‘for those who have no access to a physician’).” (Nutton, p. 7)

Wouldn’t that be fascinating? I must have read about Rufus’s DIY medical book years ago, but it had drifted out of memory. Perhaps the idea wasn’t entirely lost, though. It seems G. Petreius Ruso’s attempt to write a Concise Guide to Military First Aid wasn’t quite as original as I thought.

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The un-stately home

September 27, 2013

Not a trip into ancient history this time, but a visit to the relatively modern  Calke Abbey, It isn’t really an abbey but a house, built in 1704.

Front view of Calke Abbey stately home

The outside is deceptive. Unlike many properties in the care of the National Trust, this one has been left pretty much the way they found it in the 1980’s. Which in some places was splendid…

Room crammed with gold-framed paintings and elegant furniture

While in others…

Room with spartan furnishings and damp peeling wallpaper

The owners of the house were great collectors, and there are rooms full of things in glass cases that I’m certain didn’t want to be collected, or indeed shot in the first place. Below: this brings a whole new level of meaning to “go and tidy your bedroom!” (There is a bed under there. Honestly.)

Iron frame bed barely visible under junk including stuffed stag heads and antlers

As Dolly Parton famously remarked, “You wouldn’t believe what it costs to look this cheap.” The decay on display has been painstakingly and expensively halted in its tracks so that,  as the website explains, “With peeling paintwork and overgrown courtyards, Calke Abbey tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house estate.” I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the result far more interesting than the usual stately-home displays of ancestral portraits and china.

The estate was owned by one family but in its heyday would have required armies of staff to maintain it. Back stairs and tunnels were provided so that the place wasn’t cluttered up with servants going about their business. This one, leading to the brewing house, must have been a daunting prospect before the arrival of electricity in 1962 (no, that is not a typo. 1962).

Long dimly-lit brick tunnel

Staff tunnels aren’t a new concept – they’re still discovering new tunnels under Hadrian’s splendid villa at Tivoli.

But while Hadrian famously never forgot a face, Calke’s servants were so invisible to one of their masters that it’s said he was unable to recognise any of them. When, in the occasional fit of rage, he would fire one of them, the offender would merely scuttle off down the back stairs and return to work, leaving the master none the wiser and still with a full complement of staff.

I’d thoroughly recommend Calke Abbey for a day out, but if geography prevents, there’s a splendid virtual tour here.

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Fiction and Fakery

July 22, 2013

I was going to start this post with the Goebbels quote, “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” Unfortunately it turns out that Goebbels probably never said it. According to this site, what he actually said was, “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it…” Of course he may not have said that either, since I’ve only picked it up from the Internet, but it suits my purposes.

This is all by way of introducing a marvellous article by Charlotte Higgins in Friday’s Guardian. It begins thus (and this IS a genuine quote, copied and pasted):

In 1747, the sensational discovery of an ancient chronicle redrew the map of Roman Britain and gave us place names we still use today. There was only one problem. It was a sham. 

You can enjoy the rest of the article  here.

The antiquarians of the day were taken in, and despite what seem (with retrospect) some obvious blunders, De Situ Britanniae (On the Situation of Britain) was not exposed as a fake until a hundred and twenty years after its  alleged discovery.

Its author, Charles Bertram, drew on ancient sources to make his work convincing, and there’s no doubt that he intended to deceive. Whereas writers of historical fiction are honest folk who draw on ancient sources in order to weave new tales in and around the accepted ‘facts’…er, it’s all sounding rather similar, isn’t it? Except that reader and writer usually agree on the rules of the game. We all accept that much of what’s inside the book is made up. While we ‘believe’ in Marcus and Esca and their attempts to regain The Eagle of the Ninth, we all know they’re simply an invention of Rosemary Sutcliff’s imagination. However… I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve assured me that the Ninth Legion really did vanish in Scotland: something that now, in the face of evidence discovered long after the book was published, seems highly unlikely.

Sometimes we believe what we want to believe.  And sometimes an invention is useful.  It is, after all, very handy to have a collective noun for the range of hills that stretches up the spine of Britain. And the fact that it sounds remarkably similar to the Appenines, which stretch up the spine of Italy, might suggest a Roman source. Or an inventive mind…

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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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Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

April 12, 2013

1-H&P BannerI  love the British Museum more every time I visit.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by the same volcano AD 79, in but in different ways, so that different kinds of things survived in the buried wreckage. Now the British Museum has cleverly put items from the two together to give a vivid picture of Roman life in these towns, which were  unusual only in the horrifying way in which they died.

Husband and I have been to both sites in the past but most of what we saw yesterday was new to us, largely because the Herculaneum museum was closed when we were there and the Pompeii material is housed in Naples. Naples is not the place to venture if you have naively booked a hire car, you only have a long weekend and you have never driven in Italy before. We’ve seen photos, of course. I’ve read books. You can walk through both towns on Google Street View. So while I expected to admire and enjoy, I didn’t expect to be terribly surprised.

Well, silly me.

1-H&P Mummius Max 1

The first surprise was the social mobility. We all know that Roman slaves could be, and often were, freed. They could build up wealth of their own and their children would become freeborn Roman citizens in their own right. What I hadn’t realised was how often it happened. On the engraved list of  male citizens in Herculaneum (there would have been about 500, from a population of 4-5000), over half of them are freed slaves. On the right is one of them: Lucius Mammius Maximus. He became a wealthy benefactor of the city and this statue was put up in the theatre.

Until now it hadn’t occurred to me that the faded figures in the background of some of the frescoes (yes, there are whole walls on display!) were not faded by time and volcanic action, but because they were painted that way. They are of course the slaves, waiting in case the main subjects need assistance with whatever they’re doing, which is sometimes private in the extreme. Where slaves have to appear in the foreground (serving dinner, for example) they’re often disproportionately small.  Playing ‘spot the slave’ is a good game. And interestingly, much use of the written word in both towns is in contexts where only slaves would see it. The labelling on amphorae, for example. They might be slaves, but they were not ignorant.

While we’re on social mobility – how cheering it is to see evidence of women running businesses and owning wealth in their own right. Makers of ancient-world movies where young women are incapable even of doing their own clothes up, please take note.

Apologies for the dearth of pictures from now on. Photography is not allowed in the exhibition itself. So you’ll have to imagine what’s inside here…

1-H&P Reading Room

The second surprise was the Stuff. So much of it. So ornate. Roman society was, as curator Dr Paul Roberts pointed out, all about power, and display of wealth and status. That’s why you would have your strongbox displayed in a prominent place in the house, not cunningly hidden from burglars. Harry Enfield’s ‘look at my wad!’ character would have fitted in very nicely. That’s why you would have beautiful silverware on display, and lovely fountains playing to help you and your guests relax in the garden. Meanwhile, back in the tiny, stuffy kitchen, the slaves would be fetching water with buckets,  and the toilet, used for dumping all sorts of waste, was right next to the cooking-hearth.

The third surprise was about that well-known painting of a man selling the loaves of bread that are stacked up around him. I’ve always wondered why he seemed to be sitting cross-legged on a kind of platform, and handing the bread down, instead of moving about behind a counter like a normal shopkeeper. Apparently he isn’t a normal shopkeeper. According to the blurb, there’s an election approaching, and he is handing out bread to the citizens. It’s not an illustration of everyday life at all. It’s a campaign poster. Now it makes sense!

Beyond the surprises, there was an accumulation of cheering details. When you write historical fiction you spend many fruitless hours pondering the practical ways in which people used to live.  It’s long been obvious to me, and surely to anyone who thinks about it, that normal Romans would not be gadding off to the baths every time they needed a wash. And they weren’t. To my relief, the kind of washing-bowls that I’m sure I must have written into the books (or implied, at least) did exist. There was one on display. Ditto chamberpots (one with two natty extensions on the rim for comfort). There was a useful-looking cooking pan with six little dips in that might have held poached eggs or cakes, and the mystery of what stoppers were made of is finally solved. Amphorae could be sealed with plaster but what of bottles that had to be regularly opened and closed? Wood, fibre or cloth, apparently. Phew. It’s unlikely to appear in a book but it’s nice to know.

Oh, and dormice. I know every fictional Roman banquet has to include dormice, but they really did eat them. You could even keep them in a special pot with built-in feeding bowls while you fattened them up.

The most thought-provoking exhibits, though, were not – for me – the famous plaster casts of the dead. They are shocking, but I have seen them before. What really brought the disaster home to me were the collections of once-useful items that the victims had chosen to take with them, and which were rendered irrelevant in the face of the catastrophe. A soldier died on the beach at Herculaneum wearing his military belt, his sword and his dagger. Many people had grabbed jewellery and coins. One girl had a collection of good-luck charms. People took keys to doors that ceased to exist when they did. Most moving of all, I found, was the set of surgeon’s instruments that had been neatly stored in a protective case, so that the owner would be ready to help someone when needed.

1-H&P outside the BMSeeing for yourself:

The British Museum site has the info and there’s a promise of an iphone/Android app coming soon. Meanwhile if you’re thinking of going – do book.  It was packed. There are other events happening in conjunction with the display, so check out the events page for a chance to see Robert Harris and/or Lindsey Davis, amongst others.

1-H&P shop

For those in the UK who can’t get there, the Museum are doing a live event screening in cinemas around the country on 18 June. If you can’t get to that… well, you could drop some very large hints to your loved ones that the catalogue would make a fine present…

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