Where did the Romans land?

The Romans first came to Britain under Julius Caeser in 55 BC but the actual conquest and annexation of Britain to the Roman Empire happened under Claudius in AD43. That much we know. What we don’t know is where or when the massive force of four legions and auxiliaries landed. It has always been assumed that it was on the Kent coast, probably Richborough, but the latest thinking is that it happened on the Sussex coast in the creeks of Chichester harbour.

As with so much in the history of this period, I’ve been free to choose a version, and I’ve chosen the second. I cannot offer any evidence, only instinct. Another presumption is that, having landed in Kent, the invaders made battle at the Medway, crossed the Thames, took Colchester and called it a day. Well, that’s not much of an invasion. That’s a bite. With that version, it is left to Vespasian and the Second Legion to conquer all of the rest of southern Britain, but the historians say his glory rests on the conquest of the south west, particularly Dorset. Apart from the Medway, there are no battles on record as having taken place in the east. Funny kind of invasion.

Let’s replace one set of assumptions with another. It is Verica, king of the Atrebates, with his capital at Chichester, who goes to Rome seeking help against the marauding Catuvellauni. If the Catuveallauni, under Caratacus, have taken Verica’s northern capital of Silchester, then the Romans would want to regain that place first. Chichester to Silchester is a straightforward journey. Then three legions head off east to conquer the other Catuvellauni capitals of St Albans and Colchester, while Vespasian heads west to deal with the Durotriges.

As a novelist your prime objective is not truth so much as plausibility (in the hope that they may turn out to be the same thing). But this story only makes sense if you put Silchester (Calleva) at the heart of it, and that is what I have done.

I am fully prepared for new evidence to emerge the day after publication, some stone engraved CLAUDIVS HIC ERAT, perhaps, dug up near Richborough. (Although since Claudius arrived a couple of months after the army he himself could most plausibly have landed in Kent). But I am heartened that those who have objected to the Chichester theory are beginning to come round, including the great Barry Cunliffe. It makes sense of a subtle kind of history, the history that is not recorded in words: central southern Britain survived the turmoil of the next twenty years. The rebellions of Caratacus and Boudicca happened in the west and east. How did the south stay quiet? We need to look at the heir of King Verica: Togidubnus who, according to subtle history, was a man of peace.

And he is the hero of ‘Keepers of the Sacred Place’.


The benediction of Apollo

To think that writing is something that happens at a desk is such a mistake. Today, being Equinox, is the first day of my new season, where writing gets priority (mostly over gardening), and how did I spend it? I went into Oxford, started a course in drawing and met a friend for lunch. ‘Well,’ I thought on the way, ‘what is this if not major procrastination?’

Magical planting at University Museum

Magical planting at University Museum

I took an early bus so that I could detour via University Museum, whose flower beds I visit monthly for inspiration in planting, and to pick up a new sketchpad at Broad Canvas. What could be nicer than kneeling on the floor of an art shop riffling through sketchbooks? I may not be writing but, boy, this is is turning into an artist’s date, as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. Something to stir up the old creative juices. I had a bad night, thanks to the central heating coming on, a really bad night, a really, really bad night, so I did something I haven’t done for a year or more: I bought a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate, under the conviction that it would give me a caffeine shot for the class (no, I didn’t think of coffee). And it was with a piece of chocolate blearing my mouth that I met my mentor in the street, close to the Ashmolean, whom I haven’t seen for as long as I haven’t eaten milk chocolate, and who, yes, I confess, I’ve been avoiding. ‘How’s the book going?’ Bleugh-blare-blug. It’s not only the chocolate; some of the teeth that ought to be in my mouth are still in my handbag (witches of old used to carry their eyes in a pocket – I carry teeth in a bag). Once I could speak, I fobbed him off by asking a question. My story will end with a couple of the slave characters becoming Christian, I told him. That would be right, yeah, in the first century? Absolutely not. After a short lecture in the street about the need for evidence before you make conjectures like that, even if you are a novelist, I smile, in a closed-lips kind of way, and say ‘So I need to rewrite the ending?’ ‘You do,’ he said, with some compassion.

All this was under the gaze of the god.

I found the art class in the basement of the Ashmolean, was welcomed by the ebullient teacher, given my seat, my pencils and rubber and, with a dozen other silver-heads, went back to school. What fun! What terrific fun! School kids were screaming about outside with clipboards but we went into profound silence as, tongue between teeth, we drew museum objects. I had a Greek drinking bowl and, while half of me wondered who had drunk from it, where and when, the other half became overawed by foreshortened ellipses and the play of light on the colour black. We were, our tutor said, ‘in the zone’, the zone of full attention, and learning how to see. I came out two hours later and found myself seeing completely differently. Statues I’d never noticed before jumped out as forms demanding to be drawn. ‘Later, later,’ I promised them, ‘for right now I have a date.’

A friend I haven’t seen since before I gave up eating sweets or consulting my mentor got in touch a few days ago saying she had to see me, and I waited for her outside the museum. While I waited, I drew some flowers in the bed that were the same as those I’d seen earlier at University Museum. And a leaf or two. A party of school children roared up the steps ebbing and flowing around their teacher, clutching clipboards. ‘And here we are at the front of the Ashmolean Museum,’ he said, ‘which is built in the style of an ancient Greek temple.’ A Greek temple, huh? That’s where my story starts. I looked up at it with my very fresh eyes.

‘At the top, over what is called the pediment, is Apollo, the god of music.’ I craned my neck. I took photos. Apollo is the god of my protagonist. I saw that he had his arm raised in blessing over me and the children.Apollo at Ashmolean‘Linda!’ cried my long-lost friend, running towards me. ‘I’m so sorry I’m late!’ Usually when people want to see you, it’s because they want something from you, a listening ear, some advice, a glance over their manuscript. This friend had driven all the way from Lincoln because the gods had prompted her to. She wanted nothing. We walked to the Nosebag for lunch where we went over old times and to my amazement I realised that the sacred place she once established in Leicestershire as a sanctuary and retreat must be very close to Venonis, which is at the centre of my story.

‘Oh darling,’ she said, ‘it was next to it.’

Could it be that during the trip I had there all those years ago, a seed was sown, unbeknownst to me, but very knownst to those who look down on us from the roofs of museums? All I do know is that it  really pays to get out, and that writing isn’t done at the desk. But that isn’t quite true, and now that I’m here, I’d better get on with that new ending (not Christians). And the new beginning (in the Greek temple). And definitely the new middle (at Venonis).


Opening the study door

This year I’ve read and adored The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. Reading an interview with her, I learned that she has a group of people who read her drafts and comment on them.

Now in the traditional school of creative writing, it is bad juju to reveal what you are doing at any stage. I’ve always believed this, even though I can’t stop talking if someone asks me the right question (e.g. ‘how’s it going?’). Given MDR’s success, especially with structure and plotting, I thought I’d try it.

There is a reading group in that geographic location called Wessex which features on no map (Wessex people all know who they are). As my work-in-progress is set in the Iron-Age in proto-Wessex, it seemed apt to approach them for help. They agreed and my writing life changed forever.

I send them 30 pages a fortnight. In that fortnight, I strive to get it right. I can no longer put off decisions (as to whether she is red-head or brunette, he lives or dies) but must make up my mind now. With these mini-deadlines, I feel like a professional. Back pain limits the time I’m at the computer and, with 15 minutes before the wolf howls (see the Howler app), I use it to propel the work along rather than twisting back and forth on my typing chair saying ‘Ummmmmmm…..’. Or, worse, doing online jigsaw puzzles. Emails are building up horribly, like the dust. But this is how the writer should be: writing.

At a car boot sale recently, I bought a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing. (There were several books of interest on that elderly lady’s bench – I wish I’d paused to talk to her, as she sought to rid herself of her life’s enthusiasms). In that excellent book, King recommends the same thing, saying that early drafts should be done with the study door closed but there comes a time to work with the study door open.

Not quite sure how to put the process into action, I wrote to MDR to ask her advice. Here is the answer:

When I’m sending a ms. to a new reader, I usually say, “I can’t fix things if I don’t know they’re broken, so I need you to tell me when something doesn’t work for you, whether it’s clunky dialog, a tangled sentence, or a confusing paragraph. If your eyes glaze over and you stop reading, mark the spot so I can edit it down or cut the passage entirely. At the same time, it’s important for me to know when you liked something, or you laughed, or thought, Hmmm… Never thought of it that way. If one reader hates a passage and another loves it, I will shorten it but not cut it altogether.
I look for different things from different readers. I need some people who’ll react emotionally to the characters and plot. Others help me more with prose, still others are experts on some aspect of the story — legal, medical, technical, etc. I’ve found some readers especially helpful and enthusiastic about reading for me (you can tell who they are by looking at the Dedications to each book). They may well end up rereading a dozen or more times. Other readers may only read once, and I don’t abuse their patience. You can tell from their comments who really enjoys being part of the process.” MDR 2/4/14

I’m beginning to find it difficult to get comments out of my Wessex ladies. Some are too shy for the process, perhaps, too self-conscious or self-effacing. I shall prod them by re-sending that message. Meanwhile, however, and enamoured now of  ‘coming out’, I’m forming a second group, comprising those who are experts in the field (Iron Age archaeology, prehistory, geography etc.) or who write and know clunky dialogue when they see it. I shall be limiting the group to 6 for the sake of sanity.

Anyone interested in joining in? Let me know, along with your lit creds (if I don’t know you already). You can reply here or, if you prefer, email me via Godstow Press (info at godstowpress dot co dot uk).

Genii Loci II – Spirit of Place

Our land is sacred, as the Native Americans taught us and the ancient Britons believed. Once it was peppered with holy places: hills, caves, groves, pits and shafts, but the most common were watery places such as wells, springs, rivers and lakes. The presiding deity varied from place to place. I don’t think the ancient Britons equated one with another as the Romans did, saying ‘What you call Minerva we call Sulis.’ Instead they respected each genius as unique to that place.

In this year of exploring southern Britain, mostly sites along the Fosse Way but also further afield, I’ve been to the wells and streams, baths and springs of Sulis, Coventina, Cuda and many others now nameless.

Now I’m not a full-blown Romantic who can sit down in a sublime landscape and commune with the spirits. At least half of me is of a sceptical bent (it leads to some interesting inner conflicts). However, when I catch myself poo-poohing the concept of elementals, I remind myself that I met one once, and the contact bestowed (bestowed, note, not gifted!) what writing talent I have. But that’s another story. This post is about genii, not elementals.


Inigo Jones’s design for a star in ‘Oberon the Faery Prince’

Shakespeare knew his fairies and spirits. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mustard Seed, Cobweb and the rest are elementals, but Titania and Oberon – they are genii, spirits of the place.

(Eek! As I write this in my hut there’s a great follollop on the floor and I look down to see a frog just landed. But I’m not superstitious, and I don’t think it’s an elemental in disguise, really I don’t.)

I know what a genius loci looks like, but I’m not sure how. In my mind there is an image inspired by votive altars and other less expected sources such as a contemporary drawing of an Inca chief and designs by Inigo Jones for a masque. So, this is how he looks: he has a mural crown (that is, one that is tall and encircles the head, called ‘mural’ because Cybele wore walled cities on her head), and carries a sheaf of corn, a rolled parchment or a sceptre. He is bare to the waist and then skirted. The Inca chief is only close, in that he wears a mural crown of feathers and bears an arrow, but perhaps ideas  for costume amongst natural peoples, as well as ideas for costumes for masque designers, are fed to us from the Otherworld, which is why someone who is particularly clever is called a ‘genius’. It does not mean, and should never mean, someone who thinks up something original, so much as someone who divines a truth by mysterious means (I think Einstein would agree with this).

Inca Chief

Female spirits also have a form that is strangely familiar.

Lady masquer by Inigo Jones.

Lady masquer by Inigo Jones.

Some female spirits of place look after entire countries, such as Eire (from Eriu) and Britannia. They are often shown seated and bearing a bowl, cauldron or horn of plenty with which they nurture the earth. It’s an image which recurs in the Middle Ages as Grammatica.

Grammatica with her medicine bowl, and a faun bearing herbs in one hand and his heart in the other.

Grammatica with her medicine bowl, and a faun bearing herbs in one hand and his heart in the other.

Himself asked me recently, ‘What constitutes place?’ Such a good question for which I have no answer. At the time we were sitting on our plot on the allotments in the middle of Wolvercote Common which is within Port Meadow, itself a part of Oxford, and so on until you get to the Milky Way, the Universe, etc. We decided that there is no genius of the allotments (unless you count Paddy, the top gardener and envy of us all) but plenty of elementals, as well as Spirit Animals:  Buzzard, Kestrel, Betty the Blackbird, Vole and Fox,  presumably lots of fairies such as Mustard Seed, Cobweb, Weed Weaver and Bee the Bumble, if only we had the eyes to see, and then that stalker of nightmares, the Squitch. Wolvercote, and, indeed, Oxford, is a very watery place, water meadow in fact, bounded on one side by the great Tamessa himself (whose holy source is not so far away) but perhaps our nearest sacred spot, other than the Holy Well of Frideswide at Binsey, is the hidden lake near the railway line. Was it once a mere or pool where depositions were made, an honouring of the waters by people who understood their dependence on spirits and elements? Their sense of sacrifice and gratitude seems utterly lost today. But let me not get on to fracking.

Thanks to Jeremy Naydler for his drawing of Grammatica from a 12th c. manuscript fragment.

Genius Loci

‘Mabon’ is the old name for the autumn equinox. It’s a time of poise and balance between the old and the new. Summer is tired and wants to sleep now, while wintry things like fog seep up from the depths. I live a Persephone life, gardening in the summer and writing in the winter. There is always transition time, and the restlessness I feel right now, unable to settle, will have gone by Samhain. Between Samhain (November) and Imbolc (February) is the intense period for writing. Right now the least I can do is blog! Apologies for long absence.

Although it was supposed to be a holiday, I can never travel without a purpose, and so when we visited Lincoln to see family in August, I had to go to the new museum, The Collection, and see the objects deposited in the river Witham at Fiskerton. They even have a bit of the causeway under glass for you to walk on. Museum review: 4 stars.

At Carrawburgh on Hadrian’s wall we stayed close to the farm where I spent holidays in childhood with my great aunt Polly, so we revisited some of my personal sacred sites (where the camera went funny, so no pictures here). Housesteads was a favourite destination of my father’s for our walks. I had no idea it was so far (6 miles), yet my little legs coped somehow. Not this time. Even though I drove there, the climb up to the new visitor centre reminded me very painfully that I have sarcoidosis. I thought I was going to sit down and die on the spot, or at least cough up blood, but I felt drawn onwards. Something told me there was something there I needed to see, and there was.

The Three Cucullati - genii loci. These hooded guys are haunting me.

The Three Cucullati – genii loci.

These hooded guys are haunting me and I’ll do another post on them soon. Once I’d got my breath back, there was the view, even better than remembered.

Housesteads and Hadrian's Wall2 72dpi

Hadrian’s Wall from Housesteads Roman Fort

The final destination was Lindisfarne. We stayed at Budle Bay and went to the island once by boat, once by causeway. The Lindisfarne Exhibition Centre – put on by locals – four stars. There are some amazing quilts there, inspired by the Gospels.

Carpet page quilt by Joan Tunstall of Devon

Carpet page quilt by Joan Tunstall of Devon

Taken while waiting for the boat to take us back to Seahouses

Lindisfarne castle from the harbour, taken while waiting for the boat to carry us back to Seahouses

Weather was fine throughout, until the last day, when autumn came off the sea.

Whitebeam in mist, Budle Bay.

Whitebeam in mist, Budle Bay.

And so home, via Durham and the Lindisfarne Gospels Exhibition (two stars). Two days after we got back, we took off for Cirencester to catch the last of the fine days. At the Corinnium museum, there they were again, this time with Mum.

Three Cucullati with Mother Goddess. Picture from Photo Delusions blog with thanks.

Three Cucullati with Mother Goddess. Picture from Photo Delusions blog with thanks.

Corinnium Museum – 3 stars. I struggle to like modern museums, where the focus is on ‘experience’ for children and the objects take second place. Of all the museums visited recently, Chesters Roman Museum gets 5 stars for its unaltered displays – great cluttered cabinets of curiosities.

Why should museum experience be only for children? Those helmets were heavy!

Auxiliary Fabrica Superba at The Collection, Lindum Colonia. Why should museum experience be only for children? Those helmets were heavy!