Sunday, 5 February 2012

Postcards from Northumberland

It's a year now since we came here...

Some of my favourite places in South Northumberland...

Lambley Viaduct

Tynedale between Hexham and Corbridge

Autumn Glade near Devil's Water, Hexhamshire
Hexham Abbey
Milecastle 42, Hadrian's Wall
Home (in the trees on the left)

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Eagle (of the Ninth) & Roman Military Studies

At long last, on YouTube, the trailer for the forthcoming film The Eagle, based on Rosemary Sutcliff's classic novel The Eagle of the Ninth. Now we just have to wait until February to see the film itself. Comments so far seem dominated by the (questionable) acting abilities of the star, Channing Tatum, who plays Marcus Aquila*. I'm more interested in how faithful the film is to the novel, although really bad acting by the star might just sink it.

*LatinGeek note: full marks to whoever is responsible for Aquila being pronounced correctly.

I've recently discovered History of the Ancient World, a splendid source of academic articles about the ancient world. There are frequent headsy-upsies on Twitter (@historyancient). The website appears to make freely available articles from a few years ago that were first published in learned journals not accessible to non-academics. Anyway, there's one from 2002 by Simon James about Roman military studies in Britain which I found riveting.

There's quite a lot at the beginning about the development of Roman military studies in Britain during the 20th century, including the rivalry between historians and archaeologists (fascinating in a not-very-edifying way), and how changing attitudes to the study of war and violence have influenced Roman military studies. But the most interesting part is later on, where we get to more recent developments and the question is asked: Was there such ever such an entity as The Roman Army? And the author makes a startling comparison between the Roman military and the Georgian Royal Navy (he could have been writing that just for me, as both fascinate me). Read on...

Writing the Legions: The Development and Future of Roman Military Studies in Britain by Simon James. Archaeological Journal, Vol. 159 (2002)

New Historical Fiction for 2011

The historical fiction goddess Sarah Johnson (Reading the Past) has just posted on the Historical Novel Society website a list of historical fiction to be published in the USA in the first half of 2011. I compile a list of HF published in the UK for the same period for the same webpage. But I'm behindhand as usual, still waiting for some of the big UK publishers to make their catalogues available. If you're reading this, Sarah, that's my excuse and I hope to get my list to you soon!

Meanwhile, here's a sneak preview of novels from the UK list so far, set in my favourite periods:


M K Hume, Prophecy: Clash of Kings, Headline (novel about Merlin)

John Stack, Masters of the Sea, HarperCollins (latest in Roman naval series)

Mark Keating, The Hunt for White Gold, Hodder & Stoughton (second in 18th-c pirate series)


Christian Cameron, King of the Bosphorus, Orion (latest in Tyrant series set post-Alexander the Great)

James McGee, Rebellion, HarperCollins (Bow Street Runner goes on dangerous mission to Napoleonic Paris, 1812)


Robin Blake, A Dark Anatomy, Macmillan (murder mystery set in 1740 Lancashire)

R S Downie, Ruso and the River of Darkness, Penguin (latest in Roman sleuth series set in Roman Britain)

Russell Whitfield, Roma Victrix, Myrmidon (sequel to Gladiatrix, further adventures of a female gladiator in ancient Rome)


Patrick Easter, The Watermen, Quercus (crime novel set in 18th-c London Docklands)

Anthony Riches, Fortress of Spears, Hodder & Stoughton (latest in Roman army series set on Hadrian’s Wall, 3rd-c AD)

Imogen Robertson, Island of Bones, Headline Review (Cumbria 1783: one body too many found in a tomb leads to discovery of a past that won’t stay buried)


Justin Hill, Shield Wall, Little, Brown (tumultuous events from the death of Ethelred the Unready to the Battle of Hastings, first of a series)

M C Scott, Rome: The Coming of the King, Bantam (second in series takes spy to Judea in pursuit of man bent on destroying the Roman province, 1st-c AD)

Stella Tillyard, Tides of War, Chatto & Windus (two young women in London and Spain during the Peninsular War)

Christopher Wakling, The Devil’s Mask, Faber (young Bristol lawyer uncovers deadly secrets in the aftermath of the abolition of the slave trade)


Elizabeth Chadwick, Lady of the English, Sphere (struggle for the English crown between Henry I’s daughter Matilda and his widow Adeliza who is Matilda’s stepmother)

Diana Gabaldon, Lord John and the Scottish Prisoner, Orion (latest in 18th-c crime series)

Ben Kane, Soldier of Carthage, Preface (first in Punic War series)

Kate Quinn, Daughters of Rome, Headline (2 sisters in Rome in AD69, Year of the Four Emperors)

Julian Stockwin, Conquest, Hodder & Stoughton (latest in naval series set during Napoleonic Wars)

And not one, but two novels about Hereward the Wake:

Stewart Binns, Conquest, Penguin, February

James Wilde, Hereward, Bantam (first in series), June

Friday, 24 September 2010

Bletchley Park: Alan Turing & Enigma

The mansion at Bletchley Park

Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, was Station X, the home of the Government Code and Cipher School set up by Winston Churchill during World War II. It is now a museum and a tribute to the vital work that went on here which is reckoned to have shortened the war by two years and to have saved thousands of lives. Churchill quickly realised the importance to the war effort of code-and cipher-breaking, and his famous "Action This Day" order ensured that the operation was set up with all speed. Later, he paid tribute to the loyalty and integrity of the Bletchley workers by calling them "the geese that laid the golden egg but never cackled".

Top mathematicians such as Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman were recruited to find ways of breaking the complex and ever-changing ciphers generated by German Enigma and Lorenz machines which were used to transmit messages between German High Command and their armed forces. Turing and Welchman, building on work done prewar by Polish crypto-analysts, were instrumental in inventing the Bombe which decrypted Enigma messages thousands of times faster than the human brain, whilst Colossus, the world’s first practical electronic digital information processing machine - a forerunner of today’s computers, was developed to deal with messages from the more complex Lorenz machines. Station X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park by Michael Smith is a good overview of what happened here.

Today, thanks to the splendid efforts of enthusiasts and computer experts, there are at Bletchley Park functioning rebuilds of both the Bombe and Colossus. See here (for more on the Bombe rebuild) and here (for Colossus).

Whilst the top boffins at Bletchley Park were all men (this was the 1940s after all), the actual work with the machines was mainly done by women who were recruited for their intelligence and quickness of mind. Gordon Welchman paid tribute to two of his assistants, Miss Rock and Miss Lever, by paraphrasing Archimedes thusly: "Give me a Lever and a Rock and I will move the universe."

Alan Turing's office in Hut 8

Block B contains the main exhibition including several Enigma machines and the Bombe rebuild, as well as a very striking statue of Alan Turing made of slivers of slate.

Alan Turing Statue in main exhibition Block B

No photo can do justice to this magnificent tribute to Alan Turing by sculptor Stephen Kettle. Kettle has shown a seated Turing studying an Enigma machine. The detail is breathtaking - the shoelaces, for example, are composed of 200 individual pieces of slate! It's worth visiting Stephen Kettle's website where he shows close-up photos of the statue and writes about the thoughtfulness and detail that went into its making.

Alan Turing, the father of computer science,

was perhaps the most interesting and the most tragic of the many geniuses who presided at Bletchley Park during World War II. The most brilliant mathematician of his generation, he should have been regarded as a war hero for his vital work at Bletchley but his life ended in undeserved disgrace and death in 1954 at the age of only 41. Whilst working on computers at Manchester University, he was convicted of a homosexual act (this being illegal at the time) and he chose chemical castration over a prison sentence. But the side effects of this and the concomitant destruction of his ongoing work for Bletchley Park's successor GCHQ, led him to take his own life by means of an apple laced with potassium cyanide. There's surely some symbolism here to do with knowledge and lost innocence, and I wonder if Turing chose an apple with any of this in mind.

Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma is probably the definitive biography and the author has generously supplemented it with a comprehensive website devoted to Alan Turing.

2012 sees the centenary of his birth and this website outlines a programme of commemorative events.

There's so much else to see and do at Bletchley Park (do see the website for details), you really can't do it all in a day, so tickets (valid for as many visits as you like in a year) are wonderful value.

Please support this stirring part of our heritage - visit soon and often! Bletchley Park receives no funds from government and relies on Heritage Lottery grants and the generosity of the general public to carry on its task of restoring and preserving the many historic buildings on the site (from wooden huts to a mansion). On our recent visit it was good to see the restoration of Hut 8 (where Alan Turing worked on Naval Enigma) with a reconstruction of Turing's office and other rooms dedicated to the sailors from HMS Petard who gave their lives retrieving vital Enigma code books from a sunken German U-Boat, and to the valuable war service of homing pigeons which is a lot more interesting than it sounds - there really were Hero Pigeons of World War II!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Rules for Writing Historical Fiction Set In Classical Times

As an addendum to the previous post and in the manner of An Awful Warning, here's a re-post of some rules which originally appeared in Solander, oh, a long time ago.

Rules for Writing Historical Fiction Set In Classical Times
Sarah Cuthbertson

I. Your Greek male characters must be philosophers, pederasts or homosexuals (but see Rule V). NB re Spartans: for 'philosophers' read 'stoics'. Your Greek females must be priestesses, nymph(omaniac)s or poets of the Sapphic persuasion. NB Spartan women should be wives/mothers/daughters who invariably instruct their menfolk to return home from war with their shields or on them.

II. Your Greek characters must always be witty, eloquent, learned and wise. (But see Rule X subsection v). Your Romans, though intellectual pygmies with no sense of humour or irony, can be relied upon to use the ablative absolute correctly when quoting Virgil or Cicero (which they must do at least once during any novel in which they appear).

III. Civilian Romans of either sex must (except for your Hero/Heroine) be any combination of decadent, fat, sleazy, grasping, politically corrupt or sexually depraved. They must be either bald (male) or afflicted with a high-rise hairdo (female). They must wear togas in all circumstances, however impractical (even the women). They must always consume (preferably to excess) stuffed dormice and braised lark’s tongues at least once during any novel in which they appear.

IV. Commissioned officers in the Roman Army must be anal-retentive control freaks with arrested libidos that can only be jump-started by comely Barbarian captive maidens. Such officers must always say, “The Roman Army is the greatest war machine the world has ever known” at least once during any novel in which they appear.

V. All Greek soldiers are Noble Heroes. All Barbarian warriors are Impassioned-But-Hopelessly-Disorganised Heroes. All Roman legionaries are Plundering (or Blundering) Rapists. The Plundering (or Blundering) Rapists must always win. (There’s a lesson here somewhere).

VI. Barbarians must always be portrayed as politically-correct Noble Savages, especially if Celtic. They must embrace sexual equality and be in total harmony with Nature and the Mystic Elements. They must always lose the battles but win the moral high ground (whatever that is), especially against The Greatest War Machine The World Has Ever Known. That’s probably the aforementioned lesson (see Rule V).

VII. In battle against Greeks and Romans, Barbarian chariots always have scythes on their wheels, never mind that blades would do more damage to themselves than to the enemy. Britons must paint themselves with designer woad before going into battle. This is not optional.

VIII. Your Hero must find slavery, crucifixion and gladiatorial combat Morally Repugnant.

IX. Despite the evidence of Cicero, Pliny the Younger and various Roman tombstones, slaves are always ill-treated except of course by your Hero (see Rule VIII). Revolting slaves are invariably idealistic, selfless proto-Communists who want to change the world. They are never just people who want to go back where they came from.

X. Miscellaneous Rules

i. Roman roads never have bends in them. Therefore they must always be described as “arrow-straight” (NB for the sake of variation, “spear-straight” is an acceptable alternative).
ii. Christians are always Persecuted, usually by lions.
iii. Jews are invariably Stiff-Necked. Sometimes they are also Biblical (or Apocryphal).
iv. Druids are usually to be found looming out of Celtic mists to incite rebellion. Some of them are women.
v. All doctors are both quacks and Greeks.
vi. All Roman emperors are devious psychopaths with speech impediments who marry their sisters, appoint their horses to the Senate, fiddle while Rome burns and die from eating poisoned mushrooms (or dormice or larks’ tongues - see Rule III).

Novels Set In Roman Britain

I did this list for an archaeology forum but thought it might be fun to post it here. I've asterisked my personal Top Ten. Do let me know if I've missed any.



Island of Ghosts (Sarmatian cavalry on Hadrian’s Wall, late 2nd century. Plenty of atmosphere and authenticity)*

Dark North (North African troops in Britain in the reign of Septimius Severus)


Legions of the Mist (what happened to the Ninth Legion, but probably not)


The Silver Pigs (first Falco mystery, partly set in 1st-century Britain. Wryly amusing with lots of authentic detail)*

A Body in the Bathhouse (Falco is sent to investigate murder around Chichester and Fishbourne Roman Palace)


Hadrian’s Wall (set in 4th century. Implausible characters doing implausible stuff and the subtitle A Novel of Roman England doesn’t inspire confidence in historical accuracy)


Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (USA: Medicus)*

Ruso and the Demented Doctor (USA: Terra Incognita)*

2nd-century mystery series about an army surgeon based in Deva who becomes a reluctant sleuth. Perceptive, atmospheric and often wryly amusing.


The Little Emperors (Britain and the fall of the Roman Empire)

Roman, Go Home! (Roman noble and British princess at end of Roman Britain. Nice touch of humour in Roman Empire-British Empire parallel, if I remember rightly.)


Aurelia Marcella mysteries set in c. 100AD on the road to York – Aurelia runs a mansio.

Get Out Or Die, A Bitter Chill, Buried Too Deep


The Eagle and the Raven (from Caradoc to Boudica via Cartimandua, historical romance.)


Claudius (Claudian invasion of Britain, the one with the elephants)

Hero of Rome (Boudica again but from Roman side for a change)


The Bridge of Sand (set during the governorship of Agricola, c 80AD, with Juvenal (yes, that Juvenal) as a junior army officer sent on a mission)


People of the Horse (Boudica, again but not too much romance)


Empire: Wounds of Honour

Empire: Arrows of Fury.

Roman military adventure series set on Hadrian’s Wall late 2nd century


Boudica, Queen of the Iceni


Libertus mysteries set in Roman Gloucester in late 2nd-century:

The Germanicus Mosaic, A Pattern of Blood, Murder in the Forum, The Legatus Mystery etc.


Roman military adventure series of which the first 5 are set during and just after the Claudian invasion:

Under the Eagles, The Eagle’s Conquest, When the Eagle Hunts, The Eagle and the Wolves, The Eagle’s Prey

Lots of thud and blunder, effing and blinding. Spawned imitators (see RICHES, JACKSON)


Dreaming the Eagle, Dreaming the Hound, Dreaming the Bull, Dreaming the Serpent Spear (highly original take on Boudica, with lots of shamanic dreaming and complex relationships)


The Mistletoe and the Sword (Roman soldier and foster-daughter of Boudica. Good mix of adventure and romance)


Imperial Governor (Boudica story from Suetonius Paulinus’s point of view. Solid soldierly stuff; author even made me sympathise with Suetonius)*


Eagle of the Ninth (quest to find Eagle standard of the “lost” Ninth Legion, soon to be a film)

The Silver Branch (Carausius)

The Lantern Bearers (end of Roman Britain. Full of atmosphere and impending tragedy)*

The Mark of the Horse Lord (gladiator on quest to Caledonia, 2nd-century, I think. Dark and moving.)*

Frontier Wolf (cavalry adventure on Hadrian’s Wall and beyond, 4th century)

Outcast (boy cast out by tribe, sent to Rome as a slave, struggles to get back to Britain)

Song for a Dark Queen (Boudica, from both British and Roman perspectives. Absorbing, elegaic)*

These are billed as children’s fiction but all of them make satisfying reads for grown-ups too, especially The Mark of the Horse Lord, Song for a Dark Queen and The Lantern Bearers (which foreshadows RS’s masterpiece, Sword at Sunset - written for adults – the definitive Arthurian novel, in my view).


The Gods Are Not Mocked (Druid priestess and Roman lover in time of Caesar’s 55BC invasion)


The Dark Island (Romans vs Caratacus. Brutal but affecting – great sense of “being there”)*

Red Queen, White Queen (Boudica)


Three Six Seven: The Memoirs of a Very Important Man (end of Roman Britain through the eyes of someone who doesn’t see it coming)


Cast Not The Day (4th-century Britain)


The White Mare and The Dawn Stag (Tribal resistance to Agricolan campaign in 1st-century northern Britain, romance/fantasy.)

The Boar Stone (4th-century, same area, same genre)


The Horse Coin (Boudica-lite, but interesting)*

Good sources of titles: (searchable database by title or period)

Steven Saylor’s website:

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Master of Historical Fiction by Allan Massie

I've just come across this essay by Allan Massie. He's no slouch at historical fiction himself, having written novels about Roman emperors, the Dark Ages and WWII, amongst others. But the master he refers to in his title is Sir Walter Scott, whom he makes the starting point for this stimulating piece in the May 2010 issue of Standpoint.*

Massie offers some interesting points about the value of historical fiction and why novelists and readers are attracted to it, in addition to its undoubted entertainment value:

Scott wrote at a time when interest in history as a means of understanding the contemporary world was being born. He contributed to this and stood also on the threshold of one of the 19th century's most significant features — the development of history as an academic study. The father of academic history, Leopold von Ranke, insisted on the autonomy of the past and sought to recreate it "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" ("as it actually was"). This is the aim, or at least an aim, of the serious historical novelist, who sets out to offer more than entertainment. In Wolf Hall, for example, Mantel evokes the revolutionary decade of the 1530s, and her hero, Thomas Cromwell, is an emblematic figure precise ly because he represents a new way of thinking. Mantel uses him to show how a new England will take shape.

Why do novelists turn away from the present day to the past, and sometimes, like [Robert] Harris, to the now far distant past? There is evidently no single reason. The writer may have become fascinated by some historical figure, as Mantel with Cromwell or Adam Foulds, whose The Quickening Maze was one of the six on the Man Booker shortlist, with the poet John Clare. Obsession with a particular period — the First World War, for instance — may suggest the theme for a novel. The author may wish to explore the past for its own sake, or to use it to point up the present. Harris's Cicero novels certainly offer a vivid picture of late Republican Rome, but Harris has worked as a political journalist, and these books are also an examination of the nature and craft of politics, all the more effectively so for being divorced from immediate political concerns.

The past is more manageable and easier to grasp than the present. It rewards brooding, whereas the contemporary world shifts and defies reflection.

Massie makes another point, using a favourite novel of mine, Alfred Duggan's The Cunning of the Dove, which a dear friend introduced me to:

The past is, as L. P. Hartley said, another country where they do things differently, and exploring this difference is one of the things that may attract the novelist. There is a fine moment in Alfred Duggan's novel about Cerdic, the first king of Saxon Wessex. Duggan has him as a Romanised Briton who, after misfortunes and adventures, becomes leader of a Saxon war-band. Early in the novel, he is reading Ovid in the courtyard of his father's villa when word comes of a Saxon raid. He puts down the book and picks up his sword, and observes, casually, "I think that was the last time I read a book." In that brief observation, the reader has a moment of illumination, catching the transition from Rome to Barbarism. This is something the novelist can do better than the historian.
But if the past is that other country, it is also a place that in certain respects is much like ours. Human nature does not change, though ideas and practices do. People are always subject to the same emotions: love, hate and fear. The Seven Deadly Sins offer the same temptations, and men are driven by ambition, idealism or the desire to exercise power, in any and every age. By turning to the past, free from the busy distractions of the present, the novelist gains the advantage of perspective.

Massie also comments on dialogue in historical fiction, a bugbear of mine, for so few historical novelists seem to get the right balance between archaic and modern without sounding stilted and sometimes comical. Not even the Master got it right, seemingly:

He also failed to solve the problem of finding the right language for his characters to speak, so that they express themselves sometimes in what one might call ersatz medieval — "zounds" and "gramercy" — and sometimes as 18th-century ladies and gentlemen transported back in time. The result, especially in the works of his imitators, was what has been called "tushery" or "Wardour Street English". His real distinction is to be found in the Scottish novels, more generally, in what Carlyle identified as his ability to remind us that historical figures were men and women of flesh and blood, not abstractions, and that events in the past were once in the future. This is something Robert Harris does successfully in his two Cicero novels, Imperium and Lustrum.

*Standpoint is a magazine I'd never heard of before, but it sounds well worth a read. Here's what its website says about it:

Standpoint is a monthly cultural and political magazine published by Social Affairs Unit Magazines Ltd, a subsidiary of the Social Affairs Unit (Registered Charity No. 281530). Standpoint’s core mission is to celebrate our civilization, its arts and its values — in particular democracy, debate and freedom of speech — at a time when they are under threat. Standpoint aims to be an antidote to the parochialism of British political magazines and to introduce British readers to brilliant writers and thinkers from across the Atlantic, across the Channel and around the world.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Rosemary Sutcliff Blog

Anthony Lawton has alerted me to his blog about classic historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992), to whom so many of us owe our fascination with history. Please go there for all the latest links to Rosemary Sutcliff, her books - and of course the forthcoming film of her best-known novel, The Eagle of the Ninth.

Anthony, by the way, is Rosemary Sutcliff's godson and cousin.

See also this blog on Rosemary Sutcliff.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Rome: The Emperor's Spy by M C Scott

As a child in the first century AD, Sebastos Abdes Pantera, son of a Roman auxiliary soldier, witnesses an anti-Roman Judean rebel being taken alive from a tomb in Jerusalem. Decades later we meet Pantera again as he arrives in Coriallum (modern Cherbourg) after a stint as a spy in Britannia, during which he went native in the turmoil of the Boudican revolt. No sooner has he landed than he's recruited by the Emperor Nero to discover the missing details of a prophecy that Rome will burn - and then stop it happening.

Sweeping through three contrasting and vividly imagined parts of the Roman Empire - Gaul, Alexandria and finally Rome itself - this epic historical thriller is ablaze with intrigue, treachery, murder and chariot-racing, and is peopled by characters of a depth and complexity not often found in this genre. Some of the characters are from Scott's Boudica series, which will please fans of these novels but won't, I'm sure, disadvantage those who haven't read them. Integral to the plot is an unorthodox take on St Paul (as he then wasn't) and the beginnings of Christianity. I've no idea how plausible this theory is, but it works in the context of the story and the author provides a copious note on the matter for those who want to pursue it.

Rome: The Emperor's Spy marks a welcome return to the punchy style of Scott's contemporary crime novels. The vigorous, well-paced story is satisfyingly wound up, yet there's enough in the way of loose ends and unfinished business to make this reader look forward to the next in the series.

The author's website is here.

Friday, 11 December 2009

National Petition for Libel Reform

I don't usually jump on bandwagons but a while ago, I was shocked to discover from Dr Ben Goldacre's* Bad Science blog that certain unscrupulous 'sciency' types are using English libel law to silence their critics. A campaign called Sense about Science was started to persuade the government by petition that the law had in effect become a form of censorship and therefore needed reform. Sense about Science has now joined forces with English PEN and Index on Censorship to set up The Libel Reform Campaign, a more powerful and urgent campaign to preserve our much-cherished freedom of speech. This website gives shocking examples of how our libel law is being abused.

Please read the National Petition for Libel Reform statement on the website and sign it if you feel strongly that this type of legal abuse constitutes a real threat to one of our fundamental freedoms.

*Ben Goldacre is the author of Bad Science, a book whose title speaks for itself.