Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Steven Pressfield & Steven Saylor on Historical Fiction

Recently at the Getty Villa in California, a discussion took place between Steven Saylor and Steven Pressfield on Historical Fiction: The Ancient World in Modern Literature. Here's a video presentation of it - and very interesting it is too, whether you're a reader or a writer (or both). Steven Saylor calls ancient historians like Livy the first historical novelists and explains why. Steven Pressfield maintains that while research is useful, it's often "the stuff you make up that's most convincing".

Roma, Steven Saylor's novel about the early history of Rome is just out in paperback and the latest instalment of his Roma sub Rosa mystery series, The Triumph of Caesar, will be available any minute now.

Steven Pressfield's most recent novel of ancient times is The Afghan Campaign, which is about Alexander the Great's attempt to conquer that graveyard of empires. No prizes for getting the parallels. His latest novel is Killing Rommel.

Monday, 28 April 2008

And Finally...

Some memories from the St George's Day fun at Tatton Park in Cheshire during the family gathering that rounded off our little holiday

Piglets at the Home Farm: there's always an awkward one!

Morris Men (and Morris Women - whatever next?)


Dancing round the Maypole (there's a token boy in there somewhere)

and a proper Punch & Judy show, complete with wife-and child-battering

And here we all are, round the table at the de Trafford Arms, Alderley Edge, Cheshire

What We Did On Our Hols: Part Two

Here are some photos of our rambles around Vindolanda and the central sector of Hadrian's Wall

On the Roman Wall looking east toward Great Chesters (Aesica)

The Museum Garden at Vindolanda: temple, shop and house

Memorial to all the Roman army regiments that served at Vindolanda

Ian with the first piece of wall he excavated at Vindolanda in 2001

Northumbrian shepherd with his old dog, Meg

Looking toward Barcombe Fell

Just south of the Wall near Walltown Crag

My dream cottage: Low Fogrigg by the Chineley Burn

Matfen Parish Church

Grave of Ian's maternal great-grandparents in Matfen churchyard

The Cuthbertson family farm, Rose's Bower, Great Whittington, Northumberland

What We Did On Our Hols: Part One

I had a splendid time in York with my chums. We visited the Yorkshire Museum,which had an exhibition called The Fingerprints of Time all about dating artefacts by various methods which were explained so that we could enjoy guessing the ages of various things from meteorites to a Kit-Kat bar. We didn't do at all well (don't ask).

Then it was off to magnificent York Minster where we explored the Undercroft, looking at the remains of the Roman legionary fortress and basilica and of the Norman cathedral that preceded the current building, finishing with a model of the rescue of the great central tower which was in danger of collapse in the late 1960s.

A denizen of York looking distinctly unimpressed at being talked down to by Constantine the Great

Passing Betty's Cafe Tea Rooms (no time for a Yorkshire Fat Rascal and a cup of tea this visit), we arrived at Melton's Restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious meal. Just look at the menu! I had Whitby smoked salmon, bubble and squeak with poached duck egg and white chocolate parfait with rhubarb compote.

Next day was the Historical Novel Society Conference (see previous post) and the day after that Mondeo Man arrived to whisk me off to Northumberland for a few days.

We stayed at the splendid Battlesteads Hotel, Wark, which is a few miles north of Hadrian's Wall in barbarian country. Not really - it was very comfortable and quite civilised, really. The food was scrumptious, using locally-sourced produce (the black pudding at breakfast was out of this world - but really out of Walton's, the Wark butcher's shop). We discovered that the proprietress is a chocolatier and she just happened to have made a batch of chocolates for sale whilst we were there. Say no more!

When we weren't busy filling our tummies, we found a great many things to do. For a start, we visited the Roman fort of Vindolanda to get the latest news on the current excavations (the remains of two fine granaries in the stone fort and some interesting developments in the civilian township).

The aim for this and the next few years is to "attempt to address the specific question 'was there a great divide between those who lived inside and those who lived outside the walls of the Roman fort at Vindolanda in the 3rd and 4th centuries?'". They seem to be doing very well indeed, despite the weather.

We also visited three historical homes: Wallington Hall, Cragside and Cherryburn.

Wallington Hall was the home of the Northumbrian Blacketts, who built it in the Palladian style, then it came through marriage to the Trevelyans, family of the historian G M Trevelyan. Highlights are the walled garden and the house's central hall which is decorated with the

pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott's murals depicting the history of Northumberland from Roman times to the Industrial Revolution.

G M Trevelyan's uncle was Thomas Babington Macaulay, historian, Whig politician and author of The Lays of Ancient Rome. Part of his library is at Wallington.

William Bell Scott: Building the Roman Wall

Cragside, near Rothbury, was built by the industrialist William Armstrong (1810-1900), shipbuilder and armaments manufacturer in Newcastle upon Tyne. The library at Cragside was the first room in the world to be lit by electric light using the incandescent bulbs invented by Joseph Swan of Newcastle. Armstrong invented all manner of domestic mod cons for his country home, including a dishwasher, rotisserie and lift, all powered by hydroelectricity generated on his estate. The gardens are magnificent, glorious with rhododendrons and there's an enormous rock garden and miles of paths to walk.

And finally, rather less of a stately pile is Cherryburn, birthplace of Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), the engraver best known for his History of British Birds. There's a museum with portraits and items associated with Bewick, a print shop showing how Bewick made his blocks from boxwood and printed the engravings. There's also a shop selling prints made from his original blocks.

Behind the museum is the cottage where he was born and from there you can walk down to the South Tyne and wander along the river banks where he roamed as a boy learning to observe the
the local wildlife with all the fine attention to detail he brought to his later work.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Historical Novel Society Conference, York, 12 April 2008

Here's a brief report and some photos from the Historical Novel Society Conference which took place 0n 12 April 2008 at the National Railway Museum in York, surrounded by vintage locomotives, some of which were being put through their paces on the tracks outside, complete with authentic sound effects.

Appropriately enough, one of the speakers was Andrew Martin, a native of York who writes historical mysteries set on the Edwardian railways starring Jim Stringer, the Steam Detective: The Necropolis Railway, The Blackpool Highflyer, Murder at Deviation Junction, The Lost Luggage Porter and the latest, Death on a Branch Line. Andrew's father was a railwayman and Andrew grew up at the end of the age of steam, recalling with pleasure the free rides to London he took as a boy, for the pure pleasure of going on a long railway journey. He is also fascinated by the details of life in Edwardian times, from the tweed suits that even workmen wore, and the elegant language so rarely found in speech today ("and so he kept silence.")

Suzannah Dunn spoke of her novels about various Tudor women including Anne Boleyn (The Queen of Subtleties) and Catherine Parr (The Sixth Wife). Her forthcoming novel is The Queen's Sorrow, about Mary Tudor. She was billed as "not a historical novelist" but it turned out that what she meant was that she didn't do the stilted dialogue and heaving bosoms style of historical fiction. Her characters talk in modern language and this serves to reflect how modern people like Anne Boleyn were. You can read more here and see if you agree.

Crème de la Crime is a newish publisher of crime fiction. Its founder, Lyne Patrick, told us all about setting up a small independent publishers with only a few permanent staff, including herself, the rest of the work being undertaken by freelancers. Crème de la Crime recently introduced a historical crime strand and two of its historical authors were at the conference: Gordon Ferris, whose latest novel

The Unquiet Heart

set in ration-book London and defeated Berlin, was launched during the conference lunch and Roz Southey, author of Broken Harmony, set in 18th-century Newcastle with a musician protagonist. Roz was on an after-lunch panel discussing what the future holds for historical fiction, along with Sarah Bower, author of The Needle in the Blood (beloved of book bloggers, including Woman in Black author Susan Hill - and me) and Russell Whitfield,whose first novel Gladiatrix was published in March. The conclusion: more Ebooks, more from small independent publishers like Snowbooks (Sarah Bower), Myrmidon (Russell Whitfield) and Crème de la Crime (Roz Southey) who are giving the big boys a run for their money.

At the same time as this, another panel featuring Melinda Hammond (author of romantic historical novels such as A Rational Romance and The Belles Dames Club), Jude Morgan (see below) and Mary Sharratt, author of The Vanishing Point and A Light Far Shining, a forthcoming novel about the Witches of Pendle, talked about writing women back into history and concluded that this was happening already, and not before time either.

Jude Morgan spoke next. He used to write historical mysteries set in the 18th century under the name of Hannah March. His detective was a man and Jude told an amusing story about a reviewer who said he couldn't get on with the novels because Hannah March couldn't write men convincingly. Jude Morgan now writes fictional biographies. His first was The King's Touch, about Charles II, which was followed by Indiscretion (a stylish Regency tale of love and the impoverished Miss Fortune), Passion (Byron, Shelley, Keats and the women who loved them), Symphony (Berlioz and his muse) and his latest,

An Accomplished Woman

An Accomplished Woman (a witty homage to Regency romances and Jane Austen). His next novel is about the Brontë sisters and is due out early next year.

The last speakers were Elizabeth Chadwick, author of early medieval historicals, and Alison King, who's an akashic consultant. After explaining what an akashic consultant is (someone who can, apparently, tune into an ethereal level where she can communicate with the dead), she and Elizabeth did a session, demonstrating how tuning into the akashic records has helped Elizabeth research the real-life characters in her recent novels about William Marshal (The Greatest Knight, The Scarlet Lion) and his father (A Place Beyond Courage). Personally, I wasn't convinced by either the idea or the demo, but who knows?

And finally, some photos of the day here.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

More Travels in Britain (but not on TV)

On Thursday I'm off on some travels of my own in Britain (or at least England). First stop is

to stay with good friends whom I haven't seen for far too long. We shall enjoy some good old chinwags on matters bookish and historical, and attend the Historical Novel Society Conference at York's National Railway Museum. Then I shall be whisked off by

Mondeo Man

for a few days along

to enjoy some invigorating fresh air and scenery and of course, a visit to

too see if they're managing the excavations OK without us (who am I kidding?).
Finally, we'll be heading southward to

in deepest Cheshire for a family gathering, then home.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Melvyn Bragg's Travels in Written Britain

A new series by Melvyn Bragg is always a TV treat here at Cuthbertson Acres. On Sunday night on ITV1 we watched the first episode of Travels in Written Britain in which Melvyn guided us around God's Own Country (the North of England, of course) to the acompaniment of readings from writers inspired by the landscapes, from the Venerable Bede to Catherine Cookson in the Northeast by way of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the Lake District and W. H. Auden in the North Pennines. Oh and Daniel Defoe, who disliked the countryside, as did most people of his time, apparently.

But it wasn't all Eng. Lit. Lord Bragg, himself a native of Cumbria, showed us that Britain also belongs to the ordinary people who have shaped our landscape - farmers, miners, fishermen, workers in factories, shipyards and quarries, mothers, wives and children: people who rarely wrote anything down but whose voices can still be heard in ballads and folk songs as well as in books written by reformers who wanted to improve the often appalling working conditions of the poor.

The programme features the earliest known writing by a woman in Latin: the closing salutation and signature in the famous birthday invitation found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda near Hadrian's Wall. The writer was Claudia Severa, the wife of a Roman army officer and you can tell her untidy hand at the bottom of the second leaf below from the more elegant scribal hand above it.

There are reiver ballads from the lawless Debatable Lands on the English-Scottish border (including the rousing Lock the Door, Larriston which is featured in the programme), the extravagant Cursing Stone of Carlisle, and an exquisite poem about dry-stone walls by the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson.

There are 3 more episodes: on London, Scotland and the Midlands. I wish there were more (what about Wessex, the West Country, Wales, East Anglia and the South East?), but it seems that ITV doesn't have a great deal of money to make documentaries on this scale, alas. There doesn't appear to be a book of the series, either. I wish the BBC would poach Lord Bragg - they would give him an 8-part series and a book. I know they would. It may be a question of loyalty, or televisual politics, who knows?

Oh, and I see that Melvyn Bragg's latest novel, Remember Me, the fourth in a loosely autobiographical sequence, has just come out. This is a must-read for me - I enjoyed the first three which chronicled the life of a boy growing up in working-class postwar Cumbria and making it to Oxford. And as if all this wasn't enough, he continues to present the arts programme The South Bank Show on ITV and the ever-excellent history-of-ideas series In Our Time on BBC Radio 4.

Monday, 7 April 2008

New Roman Detective: R. S. Downie's Ruso

I'm not a big fan of crime novels but I do love Roman Britain, so I couldn't wait to get my mitts on Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by R. S. Downie, the first Medicus Investigation, when it came out in 2006 (as Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls in the UK and Medicus in the USA). I was lucky enough to review it for the Historical Novels Review and here's what I wrote:

Britannia, 117 AD. Having just joined the hospital staff at the Roman legionary fortress of Deva (Chester), world-weary surgeon Gaius Petreius Ruso examines the murdered corpse of a young woman dredged up from the river. Then a ‘barmaid’ goes missing from Merula’s establishment. If this indicates a serial killer at large, Ruso doesn’t want to know. Saddled with the debts of his dead father and home-improvements-obsessed stepmother in Gaul, he needs to finish writing his Concise Guide to Military First Aid and obtain a speedy promotion. But all he’s gained up to now is the useless, broken-armed slave-girl he impulsively rescued from a passing merchant.

So far, so Lindsey Davis, you might think. Perhaps, but this novel more than holds its own in the Roman detective stakes. Grounded in solid but unobtrusive historical knowledge, it has memorable characters, a satisfying mystery and a vivid sense of place. Downie also treats us to some inspired comic dialogue and a running joke showing the Roman military medical service as an NHS-in-microcosm, complete with bean-counting bureaucrats and literal-minded clerks. An engaging début, set fair to become a popular series.

Ruso and the Demented Doctor (Terra Incognita in the USA), the second in the series, came out in March and I'm delighted to report that it's even better than the first. Ruso and Tilla, now his housekeeper, accompany a detachment of the Twentieth Legion from Deva to Coria, a fort on the northern frontier near Tilla's tribal lands. Trouble naturally awaits: a Roman soldier has been murdered, the fort's doctor confesses (but he's as mad as a bucket of frogs), a sinister native with antlers on his head is making mischief - and the Governor is about to pay a visit. So Ruso the Reluctant is roped in to do his least favourite job, with no help from Tilla who's been reunited with various relatives - and an ex-boyfriend.

It's a good, complex mystery tantalisingly played out, but what makes it shine, for me, are the characters and the setting. Coria (modern Corbridge) is a frontier fort with a shanty town attached. Here live the garrison 'wives' and girlfriends, merchants on the make and natives who are beginning to see that the Empire might have something to offer them after all. The interactions between conquerors and conquered are handled in a way that makes them both true to their time and real to us across all the centuries that separate us. And Downie is skilled at showing us the texture of her characters' lives and circumstances. Mainly they rub along together, Roman and native, but when those Britons who haven't come in from the cold get rebellious, everybody gets the shivers.

Ruso, wry, humane and recently divorced, who can't get far enough away from his troublesome family in Gaul and Tilla, torn between Ruso and her tribal loyalty, are shaping up to be a great double act in both head and heart. And each of them has an intriguing past that's being gradually revealed. I for one can't wait to meet Ruso's stepmother, Arria!

R. S. Downie (Ruth Downie in the USA) has a blog (wherein, amongst other things, she explains the Mystery of the Confusing Titles and Author Names). And here's an interview I did with her in 2006 for the Historical Novels Review:


Watch out: there’s a new Roman detective prowling the mean streets of Roman Britain in R S Downie’s first novel, Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls. His name is Gaius Petreius Ruso and he’s a medical officer in the fortress of Deva (Chester), home of the Twentieth Legion. Round about the time that Hadrian succeeds Trajan, he reluctantly turns detective when the drowned body of a young woman is brought to his hospital. Then, against his better judgment, he rescues a slave girl from her abusive owner. And that’s just the start.

The early chapters of the novel won Solander’s very first competition – for a romantic historical. So how did it turn into a crime novel?

To be honest I didn’t plan a thing,’ says Ruth. ‘The competition only asked for the first three chapters so I lifted some back-story from a novel I’d been trying to write for years, and cheerfully set up situations I had no clue how to resolve. I had no idea that people would suggest it was worth continuing. The shift to crime wasn’t something I had considered, but a publisher and an agent who showed interest both suggested it. There was then a long hiatus while I couldn’t see a way forward – until I read a book about the modern slave trade, and saw ancient parallels that I could work with.’

Ruth’s interest in Roman Britain was kindled when she read visited Hadrian’s Wall and read a tantalising caption in a museum: ‘Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, but were allowed to have relationships with local women.’

‘There had to be a story there! As for the British aspect – it’s not hard for us to imagine being part of a wealthy and powerful society which wasn’t at ease with its own decadence, but the fascinating twist during the Roman period is that we weren’t the powerful ones. We were the colonised.’

For some years Ruth has been a regular volunteer at the Whitehall Villa excavations in Northamptonshire. When it comes to research into Roman times, she feels you can’t beat hands-on archaeology, as long as your characters don’t become as obsessed with pots as you do! ‘For me, the attraction of archaeology is that you’re looking at leftovers from the lives of ordinary people. You find pottery with the maker’s finger-marks in it, or an animal bone with a knife-cut across it that suggests it’s the remains of somebody’s dinner. That’s both inspiring and humbling. Those people must have had joys and worries that seemed overwhelmingly important at the time, and now they’re forgotten. Mind you, I often think that if they could see the loving care with which we excavate their rubbish, they would find it very funny.’

Ruth didn’t always want to be a novelist, but reading was an important part of her childhood. ‘My Dad was studying for a degree when I was small, and in the winter everyone wanted to be in the room with the paraffin heater – so reading, being a silent occupation, was keenly encouraged. I have a degree in English, the straight Beowulf to Virginia Woolf kind they gave you back in the days of handwritten essays and full grants. Afterwards I was too much of a wimp to teach – or do anything where you have to be brave or articulate – so I did a secretarial course. You learn a lot about organisations when you work at the bottom rather than the top, and being able to think and type at the same time has come in very handy.

‘I took Creative Writing evening classes about fifteen years ago to keep myself sane while studying double entry book-keeping. Some of us have met regularly ever since, and we’ve all learned from each other. Along the way there’s been the occasional published short story and travel article, some scripting work for a video production company, and a couple of practice novels best forgotten.’

Ruth has also won a BBC story competition judged by Fay Weldon. ‘Competitions are great’ she says, ‘because they give you a reason to write and you know you won’t get a rejection. If they don’t like your work it usually just disappears, as mine often has. However I was once lucky enough to get the Writers’ News Winner of Winners award. The occasional prize is not only encouraging but it also shows your family that you really are doing something useful at the PC and not just avoiding washing up.

‘I entered the BBC competition because my friends did, all trusting that there would be so many entries we would never have to be on TV. The day before filming I managed to injure my foot and spent the shoot hobbling around trying to keep the crutches out of sight. Fay Weldon was lovely and the BBC folk were kind and patient, but I’m definitely not destined for a career in television.

‘The BBC then decided there might be some mileage in a follow-up programme, and filmed the finalists talking about their writing. I could hardly say that I’d got stuck halfway through Medicus and was thinking of burning it and studying archaeology instead. So I said I was going to finish it. “Fine,” they said, “If the programme goes ahead we’ll come back next year and see how it’s going.” Having just failed a significant job interview, I had plenty of time. All through the winter I kept writing, quite unaware that the BBC had decided not to go ahead and they weren’t coming back at all. If I’d known that, I’d now be hunting for a job to fund an archaeology degree.’

One of the delights of Medicus is its wry, dry humour. I wondered if Ruth finds it easy to do humour that both appeals to the modern reader and rings true to what we know about the Roman sense of humour/satire etc? Did she research much about Roman humour? ‘Not as such, but many Roman writers were deeply gifted at insulting people and Pompeii had prolific graffiti scribblers. Humour is a dodgy business anyway – I wrote something I thought was extremely funny the other day and nobody noticed.’

She chose Chester as the setting for the first Medicus novel because she wanted a lively Army base. ‘When you walk through the centre of Chester you are actually walking the streets of the legionary fortress. It’s a wonderfully evocative place.’

The National Health Service, with its tortuous bureaucracy and officious officials, appears as a running satirical gag in the novel. Did her publishers want it changed for overseas readers? ‘No,’ says Ruth. ‘Nobody seemed to have a problem with it. I think similar situations occur in all big organisations. There are conflicting priorities, and there are people who worm their way into positions of power. Actually I have great sympathy for administrators – I used to work in Local Government finance – so maybe Priscus is playing out my megalomaniac fantasies.’

Ruth plans her novels before she starts to write – then she realises the plan is rubbish and rewrites it. Later she realises the novel is rubbish and goes back to redo the plan. And so on. She wishes she were a disciplined writer. ‘But I do worry regularly about writing – does that count?’

Finally, I ask Ruth which historical novelists have influenced her. ‘Lindsey Davis is of course the queen of the Roman whodunit, and discovering Falco was both a joy and a relief. My characters from the ancient world had been using modern dialogue and humour because that’s how people are, but until then I had wondered if it was really “allowed” in a historical novel. Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow, Manda Scott and Robert Harris all combine convincing settings with a gripping story. But naming people is risky – I haven’t read all their books and I’ve probably left somebody out.’

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Sunday Stuff

Recently I found some nifty little gadgets on draft blogger that you can add to your layout if you use Blogger (apparently you can tell you're on draft blogger if the little red B logo on your dashboard is blue). Actually there seem to be thousands of gadgets but I've chosen one or two to add to my sidebar just for fun. One of them is the daily Shakespeare quote, which of course makes me look frightfully clever (an illusion). Another is the Video Bar, which I've just put up. It plays your favourite You Tube snippets so you can share them with blog-chums. It seems to work OK but let me know if it doesn't.

Victoria Wood winning Baftas

I've chosen some snippets from Victoria Wood TV shows, including the fab Freda and Barry song which never fails to double me up in stitches (in a good way). Also a spoof of a scene from an early episode of that venerable TV soap opera Coronation Street with Ena Sharples, Martha Longhurst and Minnie Caldwell sitting in the snug of the Rover's Return enjoying their milk stouts and gossip. You'd probably need to be as ancient as me to appreciate this (Corrie began in the 1960s), and hail from Northern England, preferably Manchester or Salford: "By 'eck, Ena Sharples, you weren't behind t'mangle when they 'anded out t'stair rods."

The Weird Sisters of Weatherfield

I bought a sonic screwdriver* to celebrate the new series of Doctor Who which started last night and wasn't it fabulous? I'm not a big fan of Catherine Tate but she's shaping up to be a sparky partner (name of Donna) for the Doctor and promises to add a new dimension and depth to the relationship. And what about those cuddly (if repulsive when you knew what they were "made" of) monster-ettes? Genius. And next week the Doctor and Donna are in Pompeii! My cup runneth over.

*Only kidding: I bought it to dismantle my oven door.

On the other hand, as far as spring in England goes, our weather cup currently runneth over with rain, wind and snow. Here's a photo of our back garden this very morning. Six inches of snow and we call it April.

And here's a small tree elf we found on a recent and very wet walk in the woods:

And - well, I'll go t' foot of our stairs, as they say in The Street - here's a whole family of them, and the dog!

Daddy Elf, Mummy Elf, Little Girl Elf, Grandpa Elf and Labradoodle Elf