Archive for the ‘In the news’ Category

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Writing – a spectator sport ?

November 21, 2013

A friend recently sent me this link to news of MASTERPIECE, a “reality show for writers” soon to be broadcast on Italian television. I read the article with mounting amazement, wondering, who on earth would go in for something like that?  And then I remembered.

It started with a conversation over the wine and peanuts one evening at a friend’s dining-table, when someone said, “Is anybody going in for this BBC thing?”

“This BBC thing” turned out be a competition called END OF STORY. Half a dozen famous writers had each written half a short story and the public were invited to submit their own endings. Someone did note that the small print obliged entrants to take part in a TV programme, but there was no need to worry: it was a national competition so the chances of that happening to any of us were infinitesimally small. Several of us agreed that finishing someone’s story seemed like a fun thing to do, and then we moved on to the business of the evening: the struggle to write something fit to be read aloud in response to whatever writing exercises this month’s leader had brought.

I had completely forgotten about END OF STORY when the phone call came. I was on the long-list for the Fay Weldon group! I had won a mug, a t-shirt and, better still, lots of kudos! The excitement of this news was slightly tempered by the memory of the small print, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. TV appearances were like accidents. They only ever happened to other people.

Until the next phone call.

Day later I was in Glasgow, one of a row of shell-shocked wannabe writers seated on chairs under studio lights.  Cameras were poised to catch close-ups of our reactions as the panel of judges delivered their verdicts on a screen in front of us. Professional writers, we were told, must expect to have their work critiqued. They were treating us like professionals. It was too late to point out that I didn’t really want to be a writer after all: that despite the encouragement of a very patient agent, my attempt at a novel set in Roman Britain was headed for the bonfire. That I’d decided it was time to stop wasting time with words and find something useful to do with my life.

I’m told I looked very calm, but that may have been something to do with the painkillers. It certainly wasn’t the Buck’s Fizz on offer in the dressing-room. I’m still not sure whether that was a sign of the BBC’s generosity or its need to get us to relax in front of the cameras. Either way, I’d turned it down.  I had enough trouble walking in a straight line as it was: earlier that week I’d managed to fall off my own shoes and crack a bone in my foot, and had to lurch into the studio on crutches. Maybe that’s why I didn’t run away.

After it was over they took each of us into a side room and asked, “How do you feel?” Since then I have watched hundreds of people being asked this question in front of cameras and to my amazement they all seem to know the answer. Whatever I managed to stammer evidently wasn’t interesting enough to broadcast. What I should have said was, Stunned. We contestants had begun to feel that we were all in this together, but now three of us had been eliminated. I wasn’t one of them.

 Setting up for filming at the foot of stairs.

Somebody’s bum looks big in this, but for once it’s not mine. Made it down the stairs on one crutch!

 Two of the objections to the idea of a ‘live’ writing contest are that writing is neither easy to do with an audience, nor very interesting to watch. Mercifully the BBC had thought of that, so the putting together of words was firmly in the past by the time we got anywhere near the cameras. However, being a professional writer involves all sorts of things that are nothing to do with writing. In the interests of entertainment and education, the producers came up with new challenges for us.

By some twist of fate the one who hated having photographs taken was sent for a professional photo shoot.  The one who was in the slough of despond because not only was her novel headed for the bonfire but she’d just failed an interview for her own job was to be given… an interview! I don’t think they filmed the moment when the production crew thought I’d done a bunk down the back stairs on my crutches, but it would have made good telly.

Finally we got to meet Fay Weldon, whose story we’d all attempted to complete, and who was both kind and generous with her critiques.  And then it was all over. I was alone on the way to Euston with a fresh challenge: how to manage an overnight bag, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of champagne and a crutch.

Endofendofstory

It’s all over. Still hoping they don’t film my feet. Only wearing those sandals because nothing else will fit round the bandage. (Yes, that is Big Ben outside. The finals were filmed in London.)

 Six END OF STORY programmes went out on BBC3 back in 2004. As I understand it, the twin aims were to encourage writers and to entertain viewers.

Did they succeed?

They certainly encouraged me. Shortly after it was all over they rang to say they were thinking of making a follow-up programme about the finalists. Could they send a camera crew round to ask about the writing?

Now the writing, as you’ll be aware if you’ve been paying attention, was on the road to destruction. (Destroying stalled novels was so much more fun in the days when we had paper. I had enough failed drafts in the bottom drawer to make a merry blaze.) But of course I still couldn’t say that to the lovely people at the BBC. They had pushed me through the streets of Glasgow in a wheelchair when the crutches got too much, and been enormously kind about my terror of interviews. So when two chaps turned up with a camera I burbled vaguely about working on a Roman novel. “Great!” they said. “We’ll be back in January to see how it’s going!”

I did my best to keep smiling.

Did they entertain the viewers? Maybe not as much as they’d hoped. It wasn’t until January had slipped into February, February into March that I began to look up from the frantic efforts to produce something – anything – to talk about next time, and to wonder if they were coming back at all. By the time I realised there would be no follow-up programme, the first draft of the Roman novel was almost complete.

That book later became the first in the Ruso series. The sixth should be published next year. The one contestant with whom I’ve kept in touch is also still writing.

My best wishes go to all the brave contenders on MASTERPIECE. I have much to be grateful for, and I hope it works for them as well as the BBC’s rather more restrained approach worked for me.

As for that foot injury – not even the humiliation of falling off my own shoes was wasted. Ruso suffers a broken metatarsal in rather more heroic circumstances at the start of the third novel. Believe me, those scenes on crutches were written with feeling.

For more thoughts on MASTERPIECE, here’s a debate in the Guardian. Anyone else care to comment?

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Meanwhile…

October 17, 2013

WhCover of The Secrets of Life and Deathile I’m busy talking, two friends will be sending their new books out into the world this month. Good luck to Rebecca Alexander, whose debut THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH has just been launched by Del Rey. My copy hasn’t arrived yet but I’ve read some of the early chapters of the book that Rebecca’s working on at the moment, and they’re gripping.

Cover of Perfiditas

Alison Morton’s PERFIDITAS comes out today – the sequel to INCEPTIO. What would have happened if Rome had never fallen? Well, Latin homework would have been a whole lot easier. And we’d never have heard of Edward Gibbon. But that’s my take on it, not Alison’s. Hers is far more creative. Find out more – including what Simon Scarrow and Sue Cook say about PERFIDITAS – here.

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Ham Hill

September 17, 2013

To my shame, I knew next to nothing about Ham Hill until it appeared on the news a couple of weeks ago.  Turns out it’s by far the biggest Hill Fort in the country, and it’s day-trip distance from our house.  So last week, prompted by this link sent by a couple of kind readers, I abandoned the desk and headed over there to catch the site tour on the final day of the dig.

For proper pictures and text written by people who know what they’re talking about, I recommend the official website… but these are the photos that came back to Downie Towers last Thursday.   There is no ‘establishing shot’ of the hill because it’s too big – the ramparts are almost three miles long – but here’s one of the main digging area. The circle is the ‘drip channel’ for rainwater around an Iron Age round house.

Wide shot of cleared excavation area

Iron Age burial practices remain a mystery: it seems our ancestors’ bodies were often moved about after death – or rather, parts of them were. Although there was no mention of the ‘mass slaughter’ reported in the press (maybe that was elsewhere on the hill?), the site has no shortage of skeletons and a couple more skulls were found in a boundary ditch  (near the mechanical digger in the photo) not long before we arrived. There seemed to be very little attached to them in the way of bodies. Here’s one of them being carefully excavated:

Excavating a skull

As the old joke goes, “A large hole has appeared in the ground.  Police are looking into it”. Or in this case, visitors, who are learning that these pits were probably created for grain storage. I’ve heard of these things but never seen one before. It’s said that if you fill it with grain and seal the top with clay, the grain on the outside sprouts in the damp and the carbon dioxide thus produced preserves the grain in the middle.

That’s the theory, but by the time the archaeologists got to the pits on this site the grain was long gone: they had been back-filled with earth in antiquity and had odd items in them that appeared to be offerings. Two contained curled-up skeletons of young women.

As I said, Iron Age burial practices are a mystery.

Grain storage pit

Ham Hill has been inhabited for thousands of years, and this beautiful flint arrowhead would have been ancient even in the Iron Age.

Flint arrowhead

Modern archaeology involves a lot of paperwork. Below: another day at the office.

Digger sitting in wheelbarrow

The site is being excavated because it will soon vanish into this…

Deep quarry with heavy duty yellow truck looking very small

…which might seem a shame, but they need the Ham stone for repairing ancient buildings – presumably, ones like this in the nearby village…

Old stone house in nearby village

…so it’s all in a good cause.

Many thanks to the Ham Hill excavators for a fascinating tour, and here’s the link to the ‘proper’ website again, where you can find out lots more.

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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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Prima Donna Downie

July 8, 2013

This weekend I’ve been chatting with the lovely Rob Cain from “Ancient Rome Refocused” via the miracle of Skype. Rob will be podcasting my ramblings at some point  – if he can edit them into something sensible – but in the meantime something he said set me thinking. It was the very simple question:

Where do you write?

The answer to that was once, “The bedroom. When the children have gone to bed and Husband is downstairs watching TV, I turn on the computer, get the corkboard of out from under the bed so I’m sitting beside pictures of Roman sites, and get on with it.”

These days the ‘hobby’ has been promoted to ‘work’ and it gets a whole spare bedroom to itself. For some reason I assumed that as well as providing space for more bookshelves, this would also make me a more productive writer.

We’ve moved house a couple of times recently, and in the previous (temporary) house I wrote in a little room with a big view.  A glance out of the window would allow me to keep an eye on the the traffic and the occasional horse on the main road, and beyond that I could have written daily reports on the roaming of the local cattle, the extensive prowlings of a black cat, and the odd bit of excitement – a fox,  deer, a runaway ball pursued down the hill by the clattering steps of a lad in football studs, or the arrival of another huge caravan to be eased round the tight corner down in the village.  People used to ask, “How do you ever get anything written?” and I began to wonder myself. Were these happy distractions holding me back? Was my subconscious pining to offer me 3000 words a day while my outer self gazed out of the window?

Perhaps not. The new study/office/room is much more professional. Admittedly there’s a wardrobe, because it’s also the spare room, but it also has space for far more books. The perfectly pleasant view – a wall, a hedge, a flowerbed, the car – holds few distractions.

I miss them. In their absence, I have started to notice that I really don’t much like yellow walls.  Or yellow-and-green curtains. Or that black shelving. And surely the plot would resolve itself much more easily if I moved those boxes of papers back to where they were before? Thinking of paper… why hasn’t the postman been? Is it raining out there? Is it going to rain? My feet are cold. Maybe I’ll just go and work on the sofa, where’s it’s warmer.  Maybe I should give up for a while and paint the walls? I’ll be SO much more productive afterwards…

And then, watching Andy Murray power his way to the men’s singles title yesterday at Wimbledon (I had to mention it) I remembered that I am very lucky to have a room at all.  I bet Andy Murray doesn’t decide he can’t train because he’s distracted by the view, or he doesn’t like the curtains, or it’s a bit chilly this morning. I bet he just gets on with it. And so shall I.

Just as soon as I’ve painted the walls.

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A sad loss

June 20, 2013

We woke this morning to the news that James Gandolfini had died. It felt like losing an old friend of the family.

We came late to The Sopranos in our house. We missed the start of the first episode and it was a while before we realised that behind the violence and the overweight men swearing at each other, there lay a sharp script complemented by marvellous acting.

As the stories unfolded, I couldn’t help wondering whether the Mafia is a spiritual descendent of ancient Roman ancestors. Roman society was deeply hierarchical: everyone was dependent upon someone higher up – apart from the Emperor, who was at the mercy of the gods and sharp knives. In the absence of a police force or a public prosecution service, you hoped that in return for your loyalty, your superior would also be your protector.

The brilliance of the Sopranos script was that we saw behind the façade of the Great Man. We saw a character who could terrorise his business associates but couldn’t control his children, and was paralysed by the impossibility of ever pleasing his ghastly mother. We sat in on Tony’s secret visits to his therapist, who of course could never do much to resolve his problems because he could never tell her the truth. Yet when the therapist was the victim of crime it was Tony, her powerful ally, who administered justice.

It was wonderful writing and Gandolfini, a man with the body of a bear and the innocent grin of a child, was ideally cast.

Rest in peace, James Gandolfini.  We remember your work with great pleasure, and – as Tony Soprano would have wanted – with respect.

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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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Oh Deary

February 16, 2013

Terry Deary’s views on public libraries made alarming reading this week. Others have replied far more cogently than I could, so if you want a proper response, Julia Donaldson’s article in the Guardian is a good place to start.

Still, if Deary’s comments re-ignite the debate about public libraries, it won’t be a bad thing. We need to continue that debate while there is still a service to discuss. What we’re currently suffering is a haphazard dismantling of a fragmented service as small local battles are fought – and often lost – all over the country.

I worked in a public library for twelve years. I’ve seen the good that libraries do. If you can afford to buy all your books and have internet access, maybe you don’t need to go to one, but for goodness’ sake, why wouldn’t you? Libraries have far more books than most of us could ever afford, they’re (usually) warm, they’re friendly and safe, and they’re full of people who love to read! What’s not to like? (And yes, I know bookshops used to offer most of this. If you still have one that does, you’re very lucky.)

Conversely if you have no money of your own to buy reading material – and many people, especially children, haven’t – where else can you go? Even 50p at a charity shop is beyond some budgets. “The Internet!” is not an answer if you’re six years old, you have several brothers and sisters and everybody wants the computer at once.

Nobody’s saying the Library service doesn’t need to change in the light of the current upheaval in the book trade. But we only got to where we are by a long struggle. Abandoning all that hard-won ground now would be a dreadful mistake.

A while ago I did some digging around to find out the story of just one local library in my area. Some of the arguments may sound familiar:

1850

The Public Libraries Act gives boroughs the power to open free public libraries

1893

(No rush, as you see) –  a letter in the local paper gives twenty reasons why a library would be a Good Thing, including, “Because for young people of both sexes a Public Library affords some place to which they can go, instead of loitering aimlessly about the public streets.”

1899

The Council vote against a Public Library, despite popular support which claims that, “The poor people here are very fond of reading,” and, “The people of this town… have been unfairly handicapped in the pursuit of knowledge by the absence of such an institution.”

The local papers are divided:

“The speeches of the members proved… that many of them know nothing at all about the question.”

“The decision was a wise one… while there were so many costly necessities, in the shape of loans for drainage, water supply and street improvements looming.”

“The public will always clamour for anything they can see a chance of getting for nothing.”

1905

Mr Carnegie (founder of the Carnegie Trust) offers £3000 towards the cost of a library. This sparks a public meeting, at which -

“Mr Pile said they should put every opportunity of improvement in the way of the young men of the town.”

(Cheers)

“Mr Dadds said that public libraries were a failure nearly everywhere.”

“Hear, Hear!”

“What did they read in these libraries?”

“Rubbish!” came the reply.

(There may be something in this. For a fee, the local subscription libraries were offering titles like, “Miranda of the Balcony,” “Maid with the Goggles,” “Further Adventures of Captain Kettle,” “Iris the Avenger,” and “Mrs Erricker’s Reputation”.)

1914-18

The Great War interrupts everything,

1925

There is a hold-up acquiring the land. The Carnegie Trustees want to see some action.

1933

A local campaigner points out that “no one with a leaning towards culture would oppose a free library” and finally…

1934

Hooray! The Library opens, after forty-one years of campaigning.

It’s still open now.

Long may it remain.

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Stuffed thrush with rotted fish-guts, anyone?

February 11, 2013

(I’m guessing that if you’ve got past the title of this piece, you have the sort of constitution that will cope with the rest. You have been warned!)

Mosaic from Nimes  showing birds and wine amphora

Mosaic from Nimes

 “Say the word and he’ll produce a fish out of a sow’s belly, a pigeon out of the lard, a turtle dove out of the ham, and a fowl out of the knuckle.”*

In the light of Trimalchio’s boast about his cook, I’ve been consulting one or two ancient sources to see if the entrepreneurs who’ve sold us horsemeat masquerading as beef might find inspiration for some new offerings.

It’s fairly well known that a trip back to the classical world yields some unusual birds for the table -  ostrich, crane, flamingo, peacock… but there aren’t really enough of these in western  Europe to do anything on an industrial scale. The substitution of bear steaks for wild boar doesn’t work for similar reasons, even though they allegedly taste the same.

I don’t think we want to talk about eating dormice, or flower bulbs, or electric rays, even when deep-fried with chips, but snails might be a bulk option. They must be relatively easy to collect and fatten up in milk. Transport costs would be minimal because, thanks to the Romans, we already have the right variety living here. I’m not sure how they could be disguised as something with universal appeal – they certainly don’t appeal to me – but doubtless somebody out there can fix it.

Grape juice fermenting in large open jar

Fermentation, Roman-style

While we’re on the subject of reducing costs, owners of vineyards near the coast might like to add some seawater while making the wine. Lovely. And of course if it’s too dry, they can sweeten it with a little grape must, boiled up in lead pans.

Grapes on vine

Nowhere in Apicius’s famous cookbook did I find any mention of eating horses, but I did find evidence for the ongoing struggle between producers and consumers. Along with handy tips on how to restore fish sauce which is smelling even worse than usual**, how to clear cloudy wine and how to produce something that “everybody will think is Liburnican oil” is a tip for rescuing tainted honey. Apparently if you mix one part of tainted honey with two parts of good, you will make it “good for sale.” And how do you know whether you have tainted honey? Put a wick in it and light it. If it burns, all well and good. If it doesn’t… well, you know what to do.

Mosaic from Nimes showing fish,  fancy cups and flagon

All of which calls to mind the menu at one of our local restaurants, which proudly offered an exotic-sounding dish followed by the words,  “Enjoy it first – then ask how it is made.”

* The Satyricon, Book XV, 70

**Hard to imagine, as it was made from fermented fish-guts.

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Damnatio Memoriae

November 1, 2012

We don’t often venture to comment on the news here at Downie Towers, but current attempts to erase the name of Jimmy Savile from public display put me in mind of this:

Bronze Roman corn measure

Bronze Roman corn measure (‘modius’) found at Carvoran. Now in Chesters museum near Hadrian’s wall.

The focus is somewhat awry, but that’s not why you can’t read the top line of the lettering. It’s been deliberately defaced. The name that’s missing is that of  the emperor Domitian, a vicious tyrant  who by the end of his reign was so paranoid that he had polished walls installed in his galleries so that he could see the reflection of anyone trying to creep up behind him.  Nonetheless, he was murdered.  Afterwards the senators “even had ladders brought and his shield and images torn down before their eyes and dashed upon the ground; finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated.”

You can read the rest of  Suetonius’s marvellously gossipy biography of Domitian here. And there’s a better-focused photo of the modius here.

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