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Tiberius and his cucumbers

Tiberius CaesarThe Roman Emperor Tiberius has had a pretty bad press these last two thousand years. Even if you don’t believe everything you read in Robert Graves’ I CLAUDIUS, you can’t ignore the ancient writers who were Graves’ source material. They tell how Tiberius committed every type of crime and indulged in every sort of perversion. He murdered anyone who displeased him, sexually abused children…oh yes, and neglected the government of his Empire. Well, he was an absolute ruler and, as Lord Acton remarked, “All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Modern historians, though, are asking how many of these dire reports are actually true, and how much was exaggerated or even invented by writers who were hostile to Tiberius or his family. That’s another story, and not for today. Because I’ve come across at least one good thing that Tiberius is credited with. His gardeners invented the greenhouse.

The Romans were enthusiastic gardeners, and grew a wide range of plants, especially vegetables, that we still cultivate today. Tiberius, it seems, was very partial to cucumbers, and insisted on having fresh ones for his table all year round. Even in a Mediterranean climate this posed a challenge to his gardeners in winter-time, and with the added problem of working for a master who had a short temper and powers of life and death…not surprisingly, they found a way to deliver what he wanted.

They used to grow their cucumbers in large carts that could be wheeled outdoors in sunny weather and brought inside again at night or when it was cold. Not a complete answer, because long cold spells might mean the plants were kept indoors for days on end and would fail from lack of light. So the gardeners covered the carts with translucent panes that let in light but kept out the worst of the chills, and the plants could be outdoors even in cold weather.

The covers were made of selenite, a form of gypsum which was soft enough to be easily cut into very thin sheets, yet hard enough to serve as quite large panes. Why not use glass? They didn’t have the technology to make large clear panes of glass; they did manage small opaque glass windows for richer folks’ houses, but these were expensive and perhaps more fragile than the mineral sheets. Whatever the reason, the selenite covers proved a good practical solution.

Mind you, not all Roman gardeners’ ideas about cucumbers was so sensible. They believed that soaking the seed in milk, or in honeyed wine, would make the resulting fruits extra tender. Harmless enough, but how about this? They advised that women shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the cucumber beds, as sturdy plants’ growth would be stunted. And if a woman was having her period, one writer claimed that “just her look will kill immature young ones.” What a load of…er…manure! Probably an excuse by frightened gardeners whose plants weren’t flourishing. “Sorry, master, but the mistress came by yesterday and since then…”

Never mind, the covered-cart idea was passed on by several ancient writers on gardening as a workable technique. I suppose the cucumber-houses were more cold frames than true greenhouses, but they were a start. So next time you tuck into a mixed salad or toy with a thin cucumber sandwich, spare a thought for Tiberius and his gardeners, laying the foundations for a new technique.

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Fortune-telling, Roman style

Roman temple

The old jokes are the best, aren’t they? I remember a radio spoof on Shakespeare’s famous…the one that superstitious actors call the Scottish Play. Macbeth meets the three witches and the dialogue goes:
Macbeth: “Greetings, ladies. I want to ask you a question.”
Witches, in chorus: “Yes, we can.”
Macbeth: “Can you really foretell the future?”

It’s human nature to want to know what’s going to happen next. The Romans certainly had plenty of ways of trying to find out. They took omens very often and very seriously, observing the flights of birds or the innards of sacrificial animals, to discover whether the gods would favour this or that war, journey, or building project. They consulted sacred oracles in grand temples or spooky caves. Or maybe they visited a cheaper professional fortune-teller who claimed to find glimpses of the future within the pages of a book. Such a weird and wonderful tome was the ORACLES OF ASTRAMPSYCHUS. Nobody knows who wrote it (certainly the book’s claims to having been consulted by Alexander the Great are pure marketing invention) but it was extremely popular, and was re-worked for Christian rather than pagan readers in later centuries.

Here’s how the book works. You desperately need the answer to a particular question? Then pick a query that most nearly matches your own from a list of 92 numbered questions. There’s plenty of choice: many of the topics would be familiar today, dealing with money, love, travel, family, business. “Will I sail safely?” “Am I going to marry my girlfriend?” “Will I inherit from my parents?” There are also, and more interestingly to history geeks, questions that reflect specifically Roman anxieties. “Will I be a senator?” “Am I going to be sold?”

Having chosen your question, pick a number between 1 and 10 and add this onto the question’s list number. Then, through a series of ingenious lists and cross-references, the fortune-teller (acting for the gods or the Fates of course) will guide you to one of more than a thousand possible answers. It’s very cleverly constructed. The responses are appropriate, some good and some bad, and the method looks convincingly random.

Let’s test the oracles. I’ve got a copy here (English, not Greek,) and I promise I won’t cheat. I’ll ask, “Will I have a long life?” which is number 44 on the list. Add to that, let’s say, 7, making a total of 51. Check this out in a “table of correspondences,” where each possible chosen number has another, different number alongside it. 51 = 41. (Don’t ask…) and 41 means not a single answer, but a group of ten numbered answers, called a “decade”. Each decade of answers is numbered 1 to 10 and now, finally, I can discover what I need to know in decade 41 by finding the number I first thought of, number 7.

So, “Will I have a long life?” Answer from 41.7: “After a time you’ll succeed and grow old.” That’ll do nicely. Success in the future, and also long life! What more could a writer ask for?

So the oracle must be true, mustn’t it?

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Mad Dogs and Dog-walkers

“Oh to be in England, now that April’s there.” Oh really, Mr. Browning? I expect it was easy to rhapsodise about April in England when living in sunny Italy. I prefer T. S. Eliot’s comment, “April is the cruellest month.” (I don’t think he was primarily talking weather; but I find his WASTE LAND hard going, to be honest. OK, call me a Philistine…many have!)

According to the calendar I should be waxing lyrical about sweet little showers alternating with warm sunshine, and gentle breezes fanning me as I enjoy blissful walks with my dog Rosie through the trees behind our house. Well I’ve got a good imagination, but not THAT good.

Rosie and I still go walking every day, squelching along muddy paths with a group of friends, canine and human. It’s just as well their company is great, because the weather’s been horrible all week: autumnal mist and drizzle alternating with wintry gales bearing rain and sleet.

So here’s my take (with apologies to Noel Coward) on April, and what it’s really like being a dog-walker now.

Mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.
The cricketers don’t care to,
The footballers don’t dare to.
Athletes and tennis buffs gaze out through their window-pane,
But we just put a mac on
And crack on.
When thunder rolls over eighteen holes
There is not a soul in view,
Yet dogs abound in the woods around,
And their dripping owners too.
For dog-folk don’t mind a soak
Though friends tell us we’re insane,
Yes, mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.

Mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.
The smallest lop-eared rabbit
Deplores this foolish habit.
Badgers and moles regard wet days with immense disdain,
They stay safe underground for
A downpour.
Every cow will head for a nice dry shed,
Every horse will find a stall,
But canines tramp through the cold and damp,
And they just don’t care at all.
And why we’re so full of cheer
Is something we can’t explain,
But mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.

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Albert Einstein was right

Albert EinsteinOf course he was. I’m certain of it.

“Oh, and you’d know, would you?” I can just hear my sceptical friends mocking. “You, a writer of historical fiction, have the nerve to applaud a genius in physics, about which subject you understand…maybe enough to fit on a very small postcard and still leave room for your signature?”

Well, no, I don’t understand the higher reaches of physics. Even the lower reaches. But scientists who do understand consider Einstein a genius, and that’s good enough for me. More than a century ago he formulated theories about space and time, matter and energy; “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” to quote a different kind of genius. Many of Einstein’s ideas seemed fantastical at the time. Yet many have been proven and are now accepted as true; resulting in (among other things) the development of nuclear power, the discovery of cosmic black holes, and the proof of gravitational waves, which three physicists in the US have just got the Nobel prize for detecting.

And anyway I’m not talking about physics. I’m talking about something even more important.

Imagination.

Einstein wrote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I was bowled over when I first read these words, coming from one of the greatest scientists of all time. As a fiction writer, I know how essential imagination is; I’d call it one of my most important tools, to be used with care but very often. My novels, set in the long-ago era of Roman Britain, need to be rooted in fact, in “all we now know and understand”, but not limited to that. Our knowledge of Roman times is patchy, ranging from pretty good in some things to virtually non-existent in others. I study what facts are known, because I want to get the historical background right when I’m trying to describe what life was like for people living two thousand years ago. Then, when the trail of facts runs out, I need imagination.

Einstein’s words brought home to me that great scientists aren’t limited to “all we now know and understand” either. These days we’re encouraged to think of scientists as being somehow different from other workers: tied to facts, they construct theories that grow logically, step by step. fact by fact, making a framework like scaffolding supporting a building. So, we conclude, probably there isn’t room for imagination?

Some scientists may conform to this stereotype, but not Einstein. Part of his genius was that he was not limited. He was prepared to think outside the box, as we’d say now. He believed we all should be. And his words should be posted on the wall above every writer’s desk. Correction: posted in every place of work, from lab bench to shop counter, from assembly line to tractor cab, from mineshaft to kitchen to tv studio.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Everywhere.

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Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday

tin of plum and apple jam

…But never jam today. A good cynical comment on the promises made by the powers-that-be. Who first said it? I’d always assumed it originated in World War 1 with that prolific author, Anon, who was probably a soldier.

Actually it dates back to 1871, when Lewis Carroll sent Alice venturing through the looking glass. There she met the White Queen, who propounded the rule about never having jam today. Alice, characteristically, objected: ‘It MUST come sometimes to “jam to-day.”‘ ‘No, it can’t,’ said the Queen. ‘It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.’ Weird logic, but the message got through!

I associated “jam tomorrow” with World War 1 because my father, who wasn’t even a teenager by 1918, remembered a comic music-hall song about plum and apple jam. This confection was shipped out to the troops in industrial quantities, literally, by businessmen like Thomas Tickler from Grimsby. He had a Government contract to supply tins of it, or do I mean tons of it, to the front line. It made him a million pounds.

I’ve tracked down the song my father remembered, and even found a 1917 recording of it by Fred Hilton. (Isn’t the Internet amazing?) It’s called, you’ve guessed it, “Plum and Apple”, and each chorus includes a complaint about the monotonous fare, plus a suggestion for military HQ:

“If we’d used these tins of jam, you see,
As shells for our artillery,
We’d have won this war quite easily
And be in Berlin today.”

I promised in my last post to find out when jam originated. Answer: surprisingly early. The story begins in the era of the Crusades. No, I don’t mean we should picture Richard the Lion Heart sitting down to jam sandwiches with Saladin! But this was when sugar started to become available, if not exactly cheap, in western Europe. The Arabs had grown sugar cane for centuries in their Middle Eastern homelands, and brought the plants with them as they expanded into North Africa and Spain. When the crusaders conquered the Eastern Mediterranean lands we now call Jordan, Syria and Israel, they learnt that sugar was not only a delicious sweetener but also a lucrative export. Using it to preserve fruit and make jam was the next step.

Soon jam was valued as a delicacy in its own right, but a luxury one. Joan of Arc is said to have eaten quince jam before every battle, to give her courage. Catherine de Medici took it with her when she married Henry II of France….along with forks, also ice cream. Mary Queen of Scots, her daughter-in-law, introduced marmalade into Scotland. Other jam-lovers have included Nostradamus, who wrote a treatise on it, Voltaire, and Marie Curie.

Then once the New World was opened up, sugar plantations multiplied, and jam spread (sorry!) to become something we can all enjoy. My favourite kind is home-made raspberry, from our own home-grown fruit. What’s yours?

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Did the Romans make Jam?

A friend asked me this the other day, and I was delighted. I’ve been ambushed recently by that pesky nuisance, Real Life, which has kept me away from my blog and my books. Now at last, hooray, an excuse for some research.

I didn’t know off the top of my head whether the Romans made jam. But I’m a historian by training, so I gave the stock historian’s answer. “I don’t know…but I know where to look it up.”

Roman pottery

There are some excellent modern books on Roman cuisine, but the only surviving text from Ancient Roman times that deserves the name cookbook is On Cookery by Apicius. It’s fascinating, a mixed collection of recipes and notes. It’s meant rather as an aide-memoir for cooks than as a blow-by-blow “How to make…” instruction manual, because it lists ingredients and methods but very few quantities. Foods it covers range from familiar to exotic: from pork to parrot, from duck to dormouse.

But there’s no jam. At least not jam as we know it.

Of course they wanted to preserve all kinds of fruit, and Apicius lists various liquids for steeping or pickling them in. Wine, vinegar, honey, brine and even boiled rainwater are all there in his pages. But the aim was to keep the fruit fresh as fruit, so it could be enjoyed out of season. Jam-making started like that I suppose, but soon people valued the resulting sweet concoction as a delicacy in its own right. True, some of the Romans’ preserved fruits may well have turned out soft, sweet and squidgy, and could even have been used as spreads or decoration on puddings. That’s why some jam-makers claim the roots of their craft in Roman days. But they are pretty tenuous roots.

Having delved this far, of course I want to know when real jam was first made, and where. That’s what I love about research – one interesting trail leads on to another. The answer here surprised me. It hinges on when sugar became widely available and not too expensive. But when that was…I’ll do some more delving and post what I find soon, always providing that pestilential Real Life doesn’t interfere again.

Meanwhile back to the Romans. I can’t resist reflecting that everyone who’s ever endured Latin lessons probably remembers this famous – or infamous – piece of ??Latin verse on the theme of jam. And if you’ve managed to escape Latin lessons, don’t panic. Read it aloud to take in its full…er…well just read it aloud.

Caesar ad sum iam forti,
Pompey aderat.
Caesar sic in omnibus,
Pompey sic in at.

I wonder if there are any more verses?

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BOUND BY MYSTERY…three winners

It was so good to see all the comments for my first blog post, about winning a free copy of the BOUND BY MYSTERY anthology. Many thanks to everyone. I put all the names in a box; couldn’t find a hat, except an aged shower cap which seemed a touch undignified. The first three names I pulled out are Linda Newman, Taff, and Georgina. Congratulations! Could you email me your postal addresses please – contact me direct through my email address on the homepage of my website – and I’ll get the books off. I hope you really enjoy them.

Commiserations to everyone else, but keep in touch, and try to persuade/cajole/browbeat your friends into joining too. Books needs readers, a blog needs contributors. So I’m Looking forward to plenty more comments.

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A Desk with a View

As promised, I’m bringing you the view from my office window. I work upstairs, and can look down into our back garden. And in the back garden is our new bird table. The star visitor there this summer isn’t a bird, it’s a grey squirrel. He comes almost every day to forage for bird food, and we love watching his antics.

squirrel hanging by tailsquirrel on bird tableYet if I’d posted these images four years ago, say during my last series of blogs, I’d have been committing a criminal offence and risking a £5 fine. Grey squirrels were regarded as such pests that a law of 1937 required landowners to notify the authorities if they spotted one on their land. Amazingly, this legislation was only repealed in 2014. Well, I’m safe now.

It’s a sort of game we play with our squirrel. He tries to snaffle all the bird food, and we try to stop him, which isn’t easy, because his gymnastics put Olympic athletes in the shade. Having a tail helps, of course, along with strong rodent teeth and a very persistent nature. It took a while till we found a peanut-holder that he can eat from in small amounts, but can’t bite through to pinch all the nuts in one glorious binge.

Now several people I’ve told about him have said, a touch wistfully, “Pity it’s not a red squirrel.” True, there are no red ones in our woods, or in most of Britain nowadays. Since the greys were imported (originally as exotic novelties) from the USA in the 1800s, they’ve flourished here and out-competed their red cousins. Not deliberately, but naturally, because sad to say they carry squirrelpox, a virus that doesn’t harm them, but kills the reds if they contract it. They’re also known to be destructive, stealing birds’ eggs in spring and chewing trees, sometimes destroying them.

And probably most telling, the reds are prettier than the greys, and thanks to the likes of Beatrix Potter, they’re still thought of as our “natural” squirrels, while the greys are villified as “invasive non-natives.” Emotive language in this age of globalisation. All in all, I reckon they get an unjustly bad press.

First, no-one denies greys are not native to Britain, but so what? That goes for
several other common wild creatures. Rabbits were brought here by the Romans, or if you think that’s too long ago to matter, how about wild muntjac deer, first imported from China early last century. Who cares? Should we condemn any creature simply and solely for not being a native species? I don’t believe so.

Secondly, yes, the greys do steal eggs and attack tree-bark. The reds do this too. Indeed in the 1800s red squirrels themselves were regarded as serious pests, slaughtered in their thousands in woods and forests all over the land. Now they are rare, so it’s their grey contemporaries that get killed, and it’s justified “to protect the reds.” If all the greys were killed, would that protect the forests? I don’t believe so.

So I’m happy to have a grey squirrel in our garden. He’s cute and resourceful, and he’s welcome. Am I right?

Do have your say, and don’t forget that comments posted before midnight this Thursday automatically put their posters’ names into the prize-draw hat for a free book giveaway.

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Who wants to win a free booK? Well here’s your chance!

Welcome, everyone, to my new blog. Yes, I’m back after four years away. I’ve missed you, my friends in the blogosphere. Have you missed me? No, of course you haven’t. Too bad, I’m here anyway, and to soften the blow, I’m giving away some books.

I’ll be posting about a mixture of topics. Books of course, mine and other people’s; writing, ditto, and guest posts from other writers; history, especially ancient Roman. Then how about “shoes and ships and sealing-wax, and cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.” in my last series of blogs I certainly covered shoes (if you count Wellington boots,) and ships (the voyages of Pythias the ancient Greek explorer.) This time…who knows? I daresay pigs with wings will turn up. Oh yes, Walrus, they do exist; how often have I been watching some politician strutting his stuff on tv, and observed porkers looping the loop joyously in the background?

First of all I’m offering the chance to win a free book. Three chances, actually, as I’ll be giving away three copies of BOUND BY MYSTERY, the amazing anthology that Poisoned Pen Press brought out earlier this year. The 30+ stories are a real mixture, with settings from all over the world and periods from modern to ancient. One of the latter is a story of mine, WILD BY NAME, WILD BY NATURE, set in Roman Britain, like my novels, and tells of the night when innkeeper Aurelia Marcella has a surprise celebrity guest, a famous gladiator.

I’m delighted to be part of this book. Some of my very favourite authors are in it. And I love short stories. They’re fascinating to read and fun to write, the ideal form for mystery ideas. They are a subject I’ll be returning to in a future post. Which are my favourite short stories? Which are yours?

Meanwhile, winning a bumper bunch of them needs no big brain-teaser, just a prize draw. Everyone who posts a comment on my blog between now and midnight on August 31st is automatically included. Your names will be put into a hat or mug or dustbin – whichever container is suitable – and three winners will be drawn out on September 1st, and announced here. Then I’ll need your snail-mail addresses, and the books will be on their way.

Watch this space. I’ll be with you again before the end of the month., because I want to show you the view from my office window, which has been keeping me entertained all summer long. When I need a break from writing, (only very very rarely of course!) I look out and…I can spy with my little eye, something beginning with S.

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