A Crime Writer’s Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
A plot for a murder mys-tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
Two eager sleuths in a plot for a murder mys-tree.
On the third day of Christmas…
Three bent cops, two eager sleuths, in a plot for a murder mys-tree.
On the fourth day of Christmas…
Four sudden deaths, three bent cops, two eager sleuths…
On the fifth day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
Five red herrings!

Right, let’s fast-forward to twelve before we all die of thirst.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
Twelve likely suspects,
Eleven deadly motives,
Ten baffled boffins,
Nine bloodstained letters,
Eight unknown poisons,
Seven secret ciphers,
Six guns a-smoking,
Five red herrings!
Four sudden deaths,
Three bent cops,
Two eager sleuths,
In a plot for a murder mys-tree.

That’s my next novel sorted, then!

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Happy Saturnalia, everyone

However you spend your December holiday, enjoy! I send you all my very best wishes. If we were back in Roman times, we’d be marking the midwinter solstice with Saturnalia – a time of partying, gift-giving, and eating and drinking. In fact quite a lot like our modern Christmas. And we’ve passed the shortest day of the year, so the darkness will start to shorten now.

And here’s hoping for a happy and successful New Year for us all too. The Roman god Janus, with his two faces so he could look forward as well as backward, is a happy symbol for the turn of the year. 2018 has been good for me on the whole and I’m hoping for more good things in 2019. Among other projects, I’m planning to finish my next, much-delayed, Aurelia Marcella mystery…don’t laugh, I mean it this time. Call it my first New Year resolution!

See you in 2019!

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National Poetry Day

Calooh! Callay! Hip hip hooray!
Today is National Poetry Day.
The pundits say one could do worse
Than pen a line or two of verse.
But if originality comes hard,
Then here’s another way to be a bard:
You just create a poem that combines
A mix of other poets’ deathless lines.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
Among those dark satanic mills.
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Beware the jabberwock, my son!
My love is like a red red rose,
Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree.
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
And is there honey still for tea?

That’s twelve lines done. Stick two more on it
And there you go, a blooming sonnet!

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Tarantulas, friends or foes?

Last week I made friends with a tarantula. Jane with tarantula

I’m not making it up, honest. I held a live tarantula in my two hands for several minutes, and survived to tell the tale. Richard and I were visiting Bugtopia, an unusual kind of zoo which specialises in creepy-crawlies of all sorts. From butterflies to scorpions, from centipedes to spiders, there’s a huge selection. Many of them, like the giant tropical butterflies, you can see free-range, in an enormous glasshouse full of plants; others are in cages on view in the warm jungle-type atmosphere. But the best thing, the reason we went, is that visitors can arrange to have hands-on contact with some of the creatures.

In a quiet, dim room, we were the only two visitors for a presentation by one of the zoo’s staff. She was knowledgeable and entertaining and definitely, I felt, a safe pair of hands. She brought several specimens out from their cages to meet us, starting with a couple of cockroaches, impeccably clean although in the wild they prefer dirty places where they can scavenge food remains. Then a stick insect who, unlike the sedentary specimens I remember from school, crawled up my jacket, apparently wondering if I’d make a good tree.

Jane and millipedeNext a millipede; cute and friendly; a relatively small one, who’d have made me a bracelet if she’d chosen to wind round my wrist. The largest millipedes can be as long as your forearm, and no prizes for guessing which animal has won a Guinness Book World Record for having the most legs of any creature on the planet. 750!

Tarantula close-upFinally came the tarantula. I’ll admit I was quite uneasy about this one. I remembered – do you? – that scene in the very first James Bond film, “Dr. No”, where Bond has a tarantula planted in his bed and has to lie still while it crawls up his body. But our spider turned out to be a peaceful pussy-cat. She was a Mexican Red Rump, though as she’s recently shed her skin she wasn’t showing any red. Our instructor passed her carefully to Richard, reassuring us that tarantulas don’t deserve their fearsome reputation. They do NOT kill people. Their bite is unpleasant and may be painful, but not deadly. They are reluctant to attack people anyhow, unless seriously threatened, preferring to escape if they can. If they can’t, they give a series of warning signals, lasting several minutes, indicating “Keep back, I’m a scary monster.” They rear up into a threatening position showing off their fangs; then many of them – including the one we met – follow that up by shooting off bristles from their backs towards their opponent. You wouldn’t want one in the eye, but it wouldn’t kill you, and neither would the weapon of last resort. the less-than-deadly bite.

Eventually I felt reassured enough to take our spider in my hands, watching her warily. She was as good as gold, calm, alert but barely moving. I think she was at ease. I definitely was. I felt I’d made a friend, not endured an enemy. And the whole experience was truly fascinating.

Of course, being a mystery writer, I’ve realised there’s a problem. (A fly in the ointment?) I’ve always assumed that if I ever needed a poisonous spider as a murder weapon in one of my stories, I’d just introduce a tarantula, no explanation necessary because everybody knows. Only in this case what “everybody knows” is wrong. So I’ll have to find another venomous arachnid. There seem to be several candidates: black widow spiders, brown widow ditto, Australian funnel web…how about a crime set in Sydney?

Hmmm. More research needed, I think. Though it absolutely won’t be hands-on!

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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.


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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