Friday, December 31, 2004

Christmas in Athens - the Ports of Corinth

Monday 27 December 2004

The Isthmus of Corinth
My husband Richard and I are spending the last day of our Christmas research trip in Athens. I so wish we could have another week. In May. To really get a feel for these sites in the warmth. But my due date for The Fugitive from Corinth is late Feb and there are fans waiting to read it.

In the late morning we go to the National Archaeological Museum. It is full of the Greek masterpieces I studied at Cambridge when I was doing my degree in Classical Archaeology. Again I am struck by how many of these beautiful white sculptures or grave steles had traces of bright paint on them! We have arranged for an English-speaking taxi driver to pick us up outside the Museum at a certain time and he is there. His name is Stavros. His family comes from Crete but he is now an Athenian.

Sanctuary of Corinth
We set off on the quick highway for Corinth. I know exactly where I want to go and we don't have much time so this will have to be a fast tour. We do have time to stop and look at the canal. I know I've been here before but I can't remember stopping. Probably because I was about 22 years old and driving a rented Fiat and in fear of my life. Now you can go bungy jumping from here.

At Corinth we whizz through the site in 15 minutes and skip the Acrocorinth. I was there many years ago and will never forget the magic of the place. You hear nothing but the wind and bees and maybe the clank of a flock of goats moving down the hill. And I still remember hearing the distant braying of a donkey from miles away on the plain. I'd love to take Richard there but we don't have time. It will have to wait.

Stavros in Lechaeum, Corinth
Stavros has never been to the remains of the western port of Lechaeum and has to ask a local taxi driver. Clutching a scrap of paper with complicated instructions we finally get there... after a few wrong turns. It would have taken me hours to find this place without a native. Lechaeum is just as I expected it: barren, flat, windswept. The meagre site is fenced off with no access but the remains of a terracotta Roman flue confirm that this is the place.

Helen's Bath?
We drive back towards the eastern harbour of Cenchrea, passing along a flat plain of vines and olives beneath the shadow of the Acrocorinth. We go via the little village of Examilia to Loutro Elenis. This means Helen's Baths and Pausanias talks about a hot springs here.

It is my idea that Flavia and her friends are staying here a mile or two from Cenchrea in a luxury guest house called Helen's Hospitium. Helen is a beautiful Greek widow who owns the hospitium and has designs on Flavia's father, Captain Geminus. As my husband Richard says, Captain Geminus isn't so much a babe-magnet as a matron-magnet. Well, he does still have all his teeth!

ruins of Cenchrea, Corinth
Helen's Bath turns out to be the highlight of this trip. It is beautiful in the golden sun of late afternoon. Mount Onia ends in a spur here so you have olive clad slopes rising behind, a blue sea and bright green pine trees down by the water. With Stavros' help we even find the warm springs, still bubbling out of the hill into the transparent seawater a few feet away.

After Helen's Baths we find the site of Cenchrea. A marble pillar and some clay tiles are fenced off and when I climb a brambly hillock I can see the remains of stone piers going out into the water.

We are an hour behind schedule and I want to take the coast road along the Isthmus – the road Theseus travelled when he first went to Athens to claim his birthright. We find Sciron's Rock but not the Evil Stairs. Later I read in the Blue Guide that the ancient road was much higher.

shrine on the Isthmus of Corinth
We pass Megara, and I can't for the life of my make out the twin "breast-shaped" hills Pausanias speaks of. I convince Stavros to stay on the old two-lane coast road, rather than the fast new motorway. He has never been on this road before. We pass through villages, traverse dry river beds, stop to photograph views. All the time I am scribbling furiously in my little notebook. At one point near Eleusis we see a ship capsized and half-submerged in the bay!

Finally at dusk we reach Eleusis. All the guide books say it's an ugly industrial area and yes, there are too many huge factories and refineries on this lovely stretch of coast, but Eleusis itself has some charming seaside cafes by the ruins. I didn't realise it was this close to the water. I didn't realise that conical needle of rock was so dramatic. Of course it's not open but I can peer through the fence and see the columns and blocks of marble and even the Cave of Pluto. There is always a cave.

Eleusis was of course the sanctuary of Demeter and site of the famous Eleusinian Mysteries. The Mysteries were so mysterious that nobody to this day knows exactly what went on there. It's getting dark now and so we turn back onto the motorway and go home.

Fagopoteion in Athens Kolonaki
On the way back to Athens, Stavros tells us some of his favourite restaurants, places he goes with his own wife. One of them is on a street not far from the hotel. Next door, it turns out, to the zacharoplasteio, Despina, where we bought our Christmas confections. It's called Fagopoteion, which roughly means Food and Drink and it's wonderful. It's full of Athenians – a good sign – and you can just point to the food you want. For the first time we see the wine being drawn from a barrel into copper beakers. We've used up almost all our money but when I ask the handsome owner if he takes cards he says, 'You don't need cards. We're very cheap.' And indeed they are. The whole meal with wine costs only E 20 and it's one of the best we had. If only we'd found it at the beginning of our visit!

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 and 3. There are DVDs of some of the books.]

Christmas in Athens - the Areopagus

Sunday 26 December 2004

Evzones changing guard
Up early and off to explore the Areopagus and look for the Cave of the Furies.

It's beautiful morning and I pass the Parliament and am the only one to witness the changing of the guard. The Evzones manage to look dignified despite their pleated mini-skirts and big pom-pom slippers.

Near the acropolis I hear a priest intoning the service in Greek and realise they broadcast it on a loudspeaker. I hear other services from other churches as I start to climb the areopagus and explore it. Some of this rocky hill is walled off and I can see tantalizing Roman ruins but I can't get at them.

Cave of the Furies? Maybe?
I do see several caves. One on the north slope and one on the south. I also find a cistern. Whether one of these caves was the famous Cave of the Furies or not, it shows that caves could easily be carved into the rock.

Over on the Pnyx, I find a cave with bars called 'Socrates' Prison'. It almost certainly wasn't Socrates' prison but the information board confirms my realisation: 'The cutting of groundwork and even whole rooms into the rocky hills west of the Acropolis, including the Areopagus, is especially characteristic of this area...'

"Socrates' prison"
Nearby, a service is just finishing at the little Byzantine Church of St Demetrios Loubardiaris. At a nearby cafe a group of grey-haired English are discussing the service. They are obviously residents rather than tourists and as they leave I ask one if he knows where the Cave of the Furies was. He thinks on the south slope but he has to go catch up with his friends who are disappearing. I wish I'd asked them sooner.

I order an espresso and croissant but they don't have the latter. So I let the waiter bring me a 'sokolatina'. It turns out to be one of those sculpted pieces of chocolate cake too sweet to eat. And he charges me a whopping E 6.40. I guess it's because this place has a view of the acropolis. Later the waiter runs after me to thrust some euros in my hand and tell me he charged me for two not one, but the damage has been done. I ain't going back there!

Richard's acropolis watercolour
Back at the hotel, Richard has been doing a watercolour of the Acropolis. It's getting windy and cold, but we brave the weather and walk to Monastiraki. Surprise: everybody is eating at some meat restaurants here. It is only 1.00 and yet whole families are crammed round tables at two restaurants between the flea market and the metro. Later a Greek taxi driver tells us these two places are famous for their giro and souvlaki.

We settle for mezedhes with a view of the Temple of Hephaestos. The plate of goodies include rosemary flavoured burgers, grilled pepper, spicy sausages, cheese, olives, chicken, and delicious chunks of cooked but cold potatoes marinated in vinagrette. Absolutely delicious, and much better than leftover turkey. In case you're interested, the place is called Paradosiako Kafeneio.

Richard's getting a runny nose and it's quite cold so we retreat to the warmth of our hotel room for the rest of the day. Tomorrow is our last day and another busy one. We have hired a taxi driver to take us to Corinth and its surrounding sites!

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Christmas in Athens - Brandy in Salamis

Richard's watercolour of Salamis
Saturday 25 December 2004 
Christmas Day

Breakfast at Flocafe at 9.00, just as doors open. It's one of the few places open on Christmas Day and there is soon as steady stream of Athenians coming in. Elegant young women in sunglasses, fathers and sons, young couples... If only it had been this lively at the restaurant last night. A croissant and cafetiere sets us up for the day. In Greece they call cafetiere coffee gallika which means 'French'.

It's a beautiful morning so we walk through the National Gardens to the Anglican Church but decide at the last minute not to attend the service. Instead I suggest going to the island of Salamis. This turns out to be quite an adventure, involving tram, train, bus, taxi and ferry and all the modern Greek I can muster.

We see a new stadium built for the Olympics, and also Piraeus the port of Athens. Piraeus appears in the opening sentence of one of my favourite books, Zorba the Greek. 'I first met him in Piraeus.' I have stolen... er... I am paying tribute to this famous first line by making the first line of book ten very similar: 'I first met him in Corinth' Apparently Kazantzakis wrote this first line in Salamis. Yay!

Piraeus is not pretty, but Perama is downright ugly. Such a shame. It is is in a superb setting. We catch the ferry from here. The big boats run every 15 minutes and a ticket costs less than E 2. Dirt cheap. The port where we disembark isn't much better. We run to the only taverna which seems to be open. Richard has a beer and I have an oily choriatiki. Hey! Christmas lunch! I ask the owner where the cars off the ferries are going. He says many Athenians have villas on this island or go to lunch in pretty villages. He suggests Selinia and points out the bus that will be going there shortly.

Selinia is sublime. Blue transparent water, a blue and white church, and a kiosk that sells batteries. But apart from kiosk man, it's totally deserted. At that moment a businesslike brown dog come up to us and tells us where to go: a little hippy restaurant on the seaside. He hangs around to keep an eye on things while we have our Christmas pudding: big Greek coffees and brandy and a ginger biscuit.

As soon as the sun goes it gets chilly so we move inside and watch a hilarious Greek soap opera for a while.

As the ferry chugs back into Perama a huge almost full moon is rising behind the hills where once Xerxes sat on his throne and watched the Greeks massacre his men at the Battle of Salamis.

We get back to Athens at dusk and wander into Plaka where we find a lively restaurant called Ydria. It's in the Palea Agora square, next to the Roman Agora. All the trees are lit up and it's packed with Athenians. Although the night is chilly all those umbrella heaters make it very toasty. We have one of the best meals yet and I'm surprised by how reasonable the bill is. The waiter brings us a complementary digestif and Christmas sweet. The digestif is clear and it a tiny shot glass so at first I think it's grappa. But as soon as I taste it I know it is mastiha! This is the liquid version of ancient chewing gum made from resin which only grows on the island of Chios. The waiter says I'm the first tourist to guess what it was. However, I should know. One of my main characters in book nine, The Colossus of Rhodes, is always chewing mastic gum like an annoying American tourist.

A great ending to a very different Christmas. We've already decided to make this a regular thing. Next year Christmas in Morocco, to research The Beggar of Volubilis and the year after in Egypt for The Scribes from Alexandria.

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Christmas in Athens - Kerameikos & Sounion

Friday 24 December 2004 
Christmas Eve

I wake up early as usual, around 7.30. It's going to be a beautiful day so I decide to walk up Lycabettus to get some exercise. I have it all to myself. There's a church up here, built into a cave, but sadly it's closed today. The view from the top is breathtaking and another church – the church of St George – is stunning, too. Those lovely white plaster domes and arches that make such pleasing lines...

At breakfast later with Richard I get a nasty surprise. Breakfast is NOT included in the price of a room. So all my haggling for an upgrade has been nullified by the fact that we unknowingly paid E 17 each for three mornings. From now on we breakfast at Flocafe down the hill.

young street musician in Athens
After breakfast Richard and I walk from Syntagma Square along Ermou Street towards towards Monastiraki. It's Christmas Eve and the place is packed with Athenians shopping, begging, busking and talking on mobile phones. Athenian women must have the 'uniform': pointy boots, black leather jacket, any top that reveals some midriff, tight jeans or miniskirt and the three essential accessories of mobile phone, sunglasses and cigarettes. I see a boy about Lupus's age playing a scaled-down bouzouki. And what is it with people dressed like Native Americans and playing pan pipes?

tomb in Kerameikos
At Monastiraki – just past the Plaka – we sip another espresso before visiting the Kerameikos, the ancient cemetary of Athens. Mary Renault has a lovely passage to do with this in my favourite book of hers, The Last of the Wine:

Our house stood in the Inner Kerameikos, not far from the Dipylon Gate. The courtyard had a little colonnade of painted columns, a fig-tree and a vine... The roof had a border of acanthus tiles and was not very steep. If one straddled the ridge, one could see right over the City wall, past the gate-towers of the Dipylon to the Sacred Way... In summer-time, I could pick out the funeral stele of my uncle Alexias and his friend, by a white oleander that grew there. Then I would turn south, to where the High City stands like a great stone altar against the sky, and search between the winged roofs of the temples for the point of gold, where tall Athene of the Vanguard lifts her spear to the ships at sea.

Tassos Bougas - Greek heart-throb
I spend some time trying to get my bearings. For some reason I find it strange that the Sacred Way comes into Athens from the north. But once I accept that fact, everything falls into place. After the peaceful Kerameikos we wander in the busy flea market and buy a Tasos Bougas CD for one of my friends who has a poster of him in her loo. *hee*

Sounion, Xmas Eve 2004
Then we go to the Amalia Hotel and catch the 2.30 tour to Cape Sounion. The drive there is beautiful as is the site. I get a photo of the nearly full moon caught between two of the massive Doric columns. The drive back takes about 90 minutes and the sunset lasts the whole time. Unforgettable.

We told Joanna, the nice customer relations person at the St George Hotel, that we wanted to do what the Athenians did on Christmas Eve, so she booked us a table at a restaurant called Evripos in the fasionable Psiri district near the Plaka. Not fashionable enough, apparently. We arrive at 10.00pm and for a long time are the only ones there. But even by 11.30 there are only half a dozen other couples. There is no choice in the menu, the musicians are not as good as the Plaka guys on Tuesday and there is a power cut half way through so we can't see what we're eating. Just to top it all off the restaurant does not accept credit cards, and this is the most expensive meal we've had so far.

Never mind. Back at the hotel there is a view of the Acropolis. Yay.

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Christmas in Athens - the Acropolis

Richard & puppy in agora
Thursday 23 December 2004

Breakfast on the 6th floor of the hotel with the most magnificent view of all Athens and especially the acropolis, the St George Hotel. One of the surreal aspects of travelling is the music you hear. As we eat our breakfast and watch patches of sun and shadow sweep over Athens and the Saronic Gulf, the soundtrack is the worst of Led Zepplin.

After breakfast we wander towards Plaka and end up in the Roman Agora with its famous temple of the winds. Every site has its watchdogs but this one has puppies! We at the Roman Mysteries support puppies and think they are A Good Thing.

By mid-morning, when we reach the Athenian Agora, the sun is out and it's almost springlike. This is the most amazing site, with the Stoa of Attalos restored by the American School in Athens at a cost of $1.5 million in the mid 50's, when a million was a lot.

Caroline & Richard
Taking advantage of the weather we climb up towards the areopagus, where the climax of my book will take place. I'm thrilled by the boulders and pine trees and the caves. It's really dramatic. And the view down over the Athenian agora is stunning.

Up onto the Acropolis, which is practically deserted. This is great, too, because another dramatic chase will take place here. And the layout of a certain part of the citadel needs to be just right. It is. I buy a fantastic map of the acropolis for only E 2, about £1.40.

A woman guide takes our photo and then tells us all sorts of things we already know. We finally shake her off and go to the museum. It's mid afternoon and getting cold.

Down in the Plaka we have a late lunch. I am starving and really crave a choriatiki, the classic Greek peasant salad, made with cucumber, tomatoes, olives, onions and feta cheese. There is a vegetarian restaurant called Eden and it's nice and warm and welcoming. We have tsadziki and salad and hummus and all are the best I've ever had. Especially the tsadziki, which has tons of garlic. *yum!* Plus a half bottle of retsina; it's very light.

Back at the hotel, we upgrade our cheap Expedia room to one with a tiny balcony and view. Instead of dessert after dinner that night we go to a zacharoplasteio – a sweet shop – and buy some Christmas sweets and a slab of baklava. It goes very well with Metaxa (Greek brandy) back in the hotel room on our balcony with a view of the acropolis lit up at night.

The acropolis at night from our balcony at Hotel St George Lycabettus

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Christmas in Athens - Day Trip to Delphi

Wednesday 22 December 2004

Misty Delphi
Up early for the Delphi coach tour. Booked this through Expedia and it seems to have worked. Only one hitch. We arrive at the Amalia Hotel in Syntagma Square as requested at 7.15am only to be told the bus doesn't go till 8.15. It would have been nice to have that extra hour of sleep, especially as 7.15 Athens time equals 5.15 London time.

Seems to take a very long time to get out of Athens. Marathon somewhere to the north. Thebes over to the right is an unremarkable cluster of buildings on a flat plain. We stop at an ugly cafeteria called Friendly Stop in Levadia. Clouds are gathering and spots of rain dot the window of the coach.

The Charioteer of Delphi
We can't really see Parnassus range of mountains because of low cloud. Three hours after we set out we are finally there, passing through the village just before Delphi. It's called Arachova and I remember it from the book My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart. The heroine is driving a big car and gets stuck in one of the narrow roads when a Greek driver comes the other way. Same thing happens to our coach. What must it be like in high summer when there are dozens of coaches going up and down?

Our guide, Doreen, is great. Articulate and well educated. She gives the tour in English and then French, even though only four of the 18 members of the tour are French. 'It never rains in Delphi,' she says. 'It's Apollo there; the god of light.'

It is raining when we get to Delphi, so we go to the museum. Light, airy, well-labelled. All the museums we will visit will be up to this excellent standard. The masterpiece of this museum is of course the Charioteer of Delphi. I've been to Greece a couple of times before but never to Delphi. I have waited many years to see him and he's worth the wait.

dripping Delphi
God has heard our prayers and Apollo acknowledged our libation. It's stopped raining when we start to tour to the site. It's wonderful. Completely deserted and all the stone and mosaics and walls rinsed clean. Colours are saturated. Water still drips from leaves and the birds of Delphi sing their hearts out.

Doreen provides some useful facts. I've been trying to find out which days the Pythia prophesied. She provides the answer: the seventh day of every month. A one-eyed cat comes up to say hello. You should never pet them. I have a flea bite the next day.

After an hour exploring the site we pile on the coach for lunch at the Amalia Hotel in Delphi. It's unremarkable food but nice to meet some of the other tourists, especially an art teacher from the International School in Istanbul.

This is the book with Delphi in it!
After lunch we pass back through Delphi and stop 20 minutes later in Arachova to 'see how flokati rugs are made'. For those of us who opt NOT to go for the obvious sales pitch, there is nothing to do. No coffee shops open and it's freezing. (This village is 3000 feet above sea level.) I don't think Arachova is all that special. It looks Swiss not Greek.

It takes a good three and a half hours to get back. It's dark and threatening rain in Athens so we go to an Italian restaurant on Loukianou very close to the St George. It's called Codice Blu and it's very cool. The clients are mostly men with grey hair in ponytails wearing black and brandishing mobile phones. The kind of men who aren't afraid to send a bottle of wine back. The music is chill. The food is great. We pay E 17 for a bottle of rose. We would never dream of eating at a place like this in London, but hey! we're on holiday.

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Christmas in Athens - Kolonaki Lights

Tuesday 21 December 2004

My husband Richard and I arrive at Athens airport after the most exciting and prolonged approach I've experienced in some time. It's dusk on the shortest day of the year, and it's been raining, so we opt for a taxi rather than the new metro. It costs E 30 which we discover later is the standard fare. Traffic is very slow, nose-to-nose, but I like the way Athenians have lights everywhere, even coiled around lampposts and the trunks of trees.

I'm here to do "research" for my tenth book, The Fugitive from Corinth, set in May of AD 80. I've already written a rough first draft but this is a "road story" and I want to make sure I've got settings and distance and mood correct before I start my rewrites. The places I need to visit are Corinth, Lechaeum, Cenchrea, Isthmia, Megara, Delphi, Eleusis and Athens.

Our hotel, the St George Lycabettus, is at the foot of a conical hill called Lycabettus in the fashionable wealthy area called Kolonaki. It's a five star hotel I booked through Expedia and very nice. Our room is luxurious but no Athens view. I begin negotiations for an upgrade. (My sister-in-law has given me some tips: 'Be nice. Ask for an upgrade.')

That night we go out without any fixed plan and we end up, of course, in Plaka, the touristy area at the foot of the acropolis. We are lured into a taverna and start with mezedhes (snack) outdoors.

Soon it gets pretty chilly so we move inside. We are about to leave when two musicians turn up and start playing at the almost unheard of hour of 8.30pm. Usually things don't get started until 10.00pm.

The only other people in the restaurant are half a dozen girls in their late teens plus the owner and his wife and a couple of waiters. The musicians are excellent and pretty soon the girls get up to dance. One of them is very good at wolf-whistles and using a lighted cigarette on the floor as a prop. The wife joins the musicians on stage and starts to sing. Not since old footage of Dean Martin have I seen someone singing between puffs of cigarettes!

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series, including The Fugitive from Corinth, are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 & 3. There are DVDs of some of the books as well as an interactive game.]

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Why Do "Research"?

Why do I travel to foreign countries to do research?

My books are set in Italy and Greece, but they're also set in the past - in the Roman world - and things have changed. Haven't they?

In many ways, things haven't changed at all. For example, Italian farmers around the site of Pompeii still use a type of hoe exactly like the ones the ancient Romans used. Athenians still love talking and arguing about politics. They still hang good luck charms from their car(t)s to ward off bad luck. In monasteries and churches built on the site of temples, saints are worshipped instead of gods, but the votive plaques are almost identical. Where once there were roadside shrines to gods, now there are roadside shrines to Mary and Jesus.

Some geography hasn't changed either. I imagine the Doric temple to Poseidon on Cape Sounion is just as breath-taking as it ever was, and the hills of Sorrento just as beautiful, covered as they still are with vines, olives and lemon groves.

But some things most definitely have changed.

Ancient Greeks would never sit down to dinner at 10.00 or 11.00, as they do today. They would dine at dusk, and they'd be up with the dawn. Electricity is something which really has changed social patterns. Women would hardly be seen about, only at the well and heavily veiled. Old people would be a rarity, white hair and beard something to cause stares. Athens would have been a city peopled by men and boys and mules.

The geographical terrain has changed in some places. For example, Ostia Antica is no longer on the coast and the twin hills of Megara are hardly visible under modern buildings and landfill.

Old watercolours on the wall of our hotel in Athens remind me that in ancient times the acropolis would have seemed even higher because the land around was much lower. In the past 2000 years the ground level has steadily risen. Visit the church of San Clemente in Rome and it is strikingly apparent that the deeper you go into the crypt, the further back in time you travel.

Here is another reason to travel: to get a sense of space and relationship. To make a flat mental map three-dimensional.

For example, even though the acropolis does not seem as high today as it used to be, the distance between acropolis, areopagus and agora would have remained proportionally the same: three deep steps. This is one of the things that struck me last week. I was surprised by how the acropolis looked down in the areopagus, which in turn provided a birds' eye view of the Athenian agora. And yet these three important sites are within a few hundred yards of each other.

I was surprised by how steeply the sanctuary of Delphi rises up its green mountain, even though I had read about it many times.

I was surprised by the cave-riddled boulders on the areopagus.

And it was only while chatting with our taxi driver I suddenly realised Athens lack what most other major cities have: a river. Athens has a citadel and springs, but there is hardly enough water here to supply four and a half million people.

Wandering the museums of Athens I am reminded that the statues and temples would have been painted bright colours: red, blue, yellow. I can clearly see traces of paint on almost every marble statue. The bronze statues have eyes of inlaid stone: black, brown, blue, green. One statue of a boy has traces of bright yellow paint on his hair. Some of the kouroi were painted red, to show their ruddy tan. Inscriptions in stone were filled in with red paint to make them easily legible. Smooth funerary vases of marble would have been painted with meanders, palmettos, acanthus and bands of colour.
The trick is to look around with an imaginative and informed eye.

Today, the Parthenon and the other buildings on the acropolis have been cleaned and lit so that they shine like pearls in the night. But they would not have been white in Greek and Roman times. Even the Parthenon would have been brightly coloured. Red tile roof, gold trim, the figures in the pediments coloured as brightly as the pages of a Marvel comic book. The buildings of the ancient world would have been colourful, vibrant, striking. More like Mexico at festival time than the white marble edifices depicted in films such as Julius Caesar and Gladiator.

Another reason to travel is to capture the mood of a place.

I have never been to the site of Lechaeum, the western harbour of Corinth or to Cenchrea, the eastern site. But somehow I felt that Lechaeum should be more industrial and Cenchrea more luxurious. I'm not sure why. Perhaps facts I've read and then forgotten, perhaps intuition. Perhaps a combination of the two. But when I visited Lechaeum yesterday, I was surprised by how much it resembled my mental picture of it. Rather bleak, flat, scrubby ground covered with dried grasses and gorse. Further down by the water a shingle beach.

Waves hiss up in short little gasps. The Acrocorinth looms behind. I can imagine slaves unloading the ships and their cries as they pull the empty hull up onto its cart to transport it across diolkos and the four miles of dry barren stony land. Here in Lechaeum the water is a flat pewter colour, lit by shafts of silver light from a cool sun.

But less than half an hour later, at the eastern harbour of Cenchrea, we find sapphire blue sea and a golden sun. This part of the coast is lush and luxurious, just as I imagined it might be, with dramatic mountains ending in blue water. Olive groves, vines, the scented bushy pine trees that are bright green rather than dark green.

I even find the warm spring which pours from the coast into the sea and terracotta flues that prove the Romans had indeed built a baths complex here. This is the site of the opening of my tenth book and a more idyllic spot would be hard to find.

Today there is almost nothing to mark the two great harbours of Corinth in her heyday, when she was the riches city in Greece. There are just a few columns, some clay roof tiles and maybe a partially preserved mosaic. Nobody comes here. Our Athenian taxi driver had never been to either site and had a job finding them.

But once long ago these places were teeming with activity, colour, noise... If I can just look with my writer's eye and see the ships docked in the harbour, the quayside, the sailors in their one-sleeved tunics, the patrons in their togas or mantles, slaves, beggars, buskers, priests, even the occasional veiled woman... If I can just see the colours they wore, the jewellery, the faces... If I can just try to imagine the scent of incense, fermenting wine, open sewers, donkey dung, sea water, pine resin, roasting meat... If I could hear the cries of stall holders, children, the bray of donkeys, cocks crowing, the clank and baaing of sheep, the clatter iron-shod hooves on packed earth or stone road... The taste of resinated wine, coarse bread, olives, nuts, dried figs, mastic gum, honey cakes, fresh fish, meat roasted after the sacrifice...

There. An innkeeper drawing wine from a barrel into a copper beaker. Or there. A fishmonger's stall. Put the fisherman in a tunic and the inneeper in a mantle and you are back in Roman times. That man driving a truck with three big chunks of Pentilic marble; just make it a mule cart...

Sometimes my instinct or research fail me. From all the guide books, I imagined Theseus's journey round the isthmus would be one of terrifying drops down to waves crashing on razor sharp rocks. Instead, the old coast road winds sedately along at sea level almost the whole way. The part of the region between Megara and Eleusis called Kaka Skala (Evil Stairs) is hardly frightening today.

My guide book says the ancient road was high up on the cliff, but I need to be here to see where. At least I find a dramatic rock which could well be Sciron's Rock. And a shrine on the cliff above which is already in my first draft...

Another surprise: I have only ever seen pictures of Delphi baking in the dazzling sunshine. However, on the day we arrive it is swathed in cloud, cool and green and misty. At first I am disappointed. Then I have an idea. It occurs to me that maybe Nubia, the girl from the desert, has never been in the clouds before. For her, Delphi could be a cloud city, mysterious, numinous, magical...

So that's why I travel. To get a sense of mood, and place. To bring a 2-D image into 3-D. And once again I am reminded why I write historical novels. Until someone invents a time-machine, carefully researched and creatively imagined books are the best way for us to visit the past.

[The 17+ books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans and/or Greeks as a topic in Key Stages 2 and 3. In some countries you can watch season one of the BBC TV series based on my books via iTunes.]

Monday, December 20, 2004

A Christmas Tale - The Hero's Journey

This is a talk I gave at St Mary's Church, Bryanston Square, London, on Sunday 19 December 2004.

Here's a Christmas quiz for you:
Which famous story has a character whom we first meet in a kind of shed, who is persecuted by men in authority, has a special affinity with children, is gentle and meek, performs healing miracles, whose message can be summed up in the words 'be good', who sacrifices his life to save another's, who dies, is resurrected to joyful cries of 'he's alive!', reappears dressed in white, promises to be with his friends always and who finally returns to the heavens from whence he came?

The famous story is the 1982 film E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

Think about it: Eliot first meets ET in a shed-like garage, finds he's being hunted by scientists who want to "dissect him or something"; ET is "seen" only by children, at first. In one scenes he heals Eliot's cut finger by touching it. He tells Eliot's sister to "be good". He and Eliot become so empathically linked that when E.T. starts to die, Eliot sickens, too and so E.T. cuts the link to Eliot – essentially his life support – and allows himself to die, thereby saving Eliot. But when E.T.'s "family" come back from space his heart begins to glow again and he comes alive again. (Think of those pictures or statues where Jesus is shown with a glowing red heart!). Before E.T. leaves, he touches Eliot's forehead with his finger and says, "I'll be here". Then he ascends into the heavens, leaving a rainbow-like star above.

E.T. was directed by Steven Spielberg, who is of course Jewish and had no conscious intention of re-creating the Christ story. In a recent interview, Spielberg told the story of how some Jewish kids who played extras on the film said to him, "This story's about Jesus!"

"No, it isn't," said Spielberg, then paused, frowned and added, "At least not consciously."

Isn't that amazing? That one of the highest-grossing films ever made tells the Jesus story, but the director wasn't even aware of it?

Martin Scorsese, another film director, came up with one of my favourite quotes: He said, "I have a hard time telling the difference between going to the movies and going to church."

Scorsese, a New York born Catholic, directed such films as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and the controversial Last Temptation of Christ. I think Scorsese means that when you've seen a good film you come out of the cinema feeling inspired, encouraged, warned, loved, and with a renewed sense of awe for God's love and grace.

That's how some films make us feel, and I'm not just talking about so-called "religious films" like The Passion of the Christ or Ben-Hur. Many secular films can inspire the sort of feelings we'd like to have when we leave church on Sunday.

I won't bore you with films that have inspired me, because that's very subjective. But I will mention a book called How Movies Helped Save My Soul by Gareth Higgins. It's a Christian film-buff's affectionate look at some of his favourite films. I don't agree with all his choices but it's a thought-provoking and entertaining book.

In the forward to this book, Tony Campolo says: "Gareth Higgins... finds messages in movies that God wants us to hear – messages that are either seldom heard from church pulpits or, when preached, are expressed with insufficient drama."

Campolo is saying that movies sometimes reach the parts that church can't!

Why is it that movies often transmit God's message much more powerfully than sermons?

I think it's because of the huge power that stories have in our lives.

Jesus knew the value of stories. He illustrated almost all his teaching with parables, which are stories.

C.S. Lewis, author of The Narnia Chronicles, wrote a lot of essays on Christianity. Then one day he had a revelation about the power of story from Tolkien and he never wrote an essay on Christianity again. He realised that stories are far more powerful than even the most beautifully presented argument. And stories can reach more people.

If written stories are ten time more powerful than essays, movies are a hundred times more powerful than written stories. You could argue that movies are the most powerful way of storytelling ever invented. I love reading, but scenes I remember from books just can't compare in power with the scenes I remember from films.

As a writer, I'm deeply interested in story structure. Recently I've been doing some screenwriting classes with an organisation here in London called Raindance. Every so often they bring over some of the best Hollywood Screenwriters to give weekend screenwriting courses. Recently I attended one by Christopher Vogler, who used to work for Disney Studios in the 70's. Shortly after he left film school, Vogler read a book that changed his life. It was a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces by a man called Joseph Campbell, an anthropologist who studied myths from different cultures. Campbell noticed that people from different parts of the world – without contact with each other – told very similar stories.

In other words, the human mind – or heart, as the Hebrew speaking writers of the Old Testament would say – has an inbuilt sense of meaningful story. A scientist would say the human brain has been hardwired. A psychologist like Jung would talk about "archetypes of the collective unconscious". A Christian would say God has planted the truth in our hearts.

As Vogler read Campbell's book, he identified 12 steps common to every hero's journey and realised it could provide powerful plot structure. His revelation was confirmed when he was invited to an early screening of Star Wars. With a shock of recognition, he realised that George Lucas had been reading Campbell, too. Vogler left Disney not long after that screening of Star Wars, and for the past 25 years he's been teaching these 12 steps of the hero's journey, which are now foundation material for any would-be screenwriter or writer.

These steps are not found in all stories, but they are found in what I call "Myth-based" stories. (The word myth comes from the Greek word mythos which means "story" and you could say myths are the most basic stories.) I'm going to use the term "Myth-based" for modern books or films that follow the same steps as the myths of ancient cultures. A recently published book by Christopher Booker claims that the first recorded story, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, is essentially the same story as most James Bond films!

Myth-based stories are usually hugely successful across the world because they are based on steps common to humankind. Examples of modern Myth-based stories are Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, The Sword in the Stone and The Polar Express.

I'm going to tell you the 12 steps from the 1977 film that started it all, Star Wars.

1. The Hero's World
The story often opens by showing the world the hero inhabits. Often it is not the hero's real world but he doesn't know that yet. He is restless. He feels there is something more. In this world there are sometimes clues about another more important world, a world where he has a destiny. Often the hero's father is absent. Luke Skywalker is a perfect example. He longs to fly jets and fight the evil empire. His parents are dead, so he lives with his aunt and uncle, but they don't really understand him.

The Herald - the herald is not one of the steps, but rather an archetype. He is usually the one who introduces the next step in the hero's journey. In Star Wars the Herald is R2D2 a little droid with a holographic message on his hard disc.

2. The Call to Adventure
In Star Wars, the holographic message by Princess Leia is the Call to Adventure. "Help me," she says, "you're my only hope." The Caller usually asks the hero to leave his world and go on a quest to save an object or person of great value. Lord of the Rings seems to contradict his, because Frodo's goal is to destroy the ring, not bring it back. But think about it: if he succeeds, then he will save Middle Earth.

3. Refusal of the Call
The hero has been longing for this chance to seek his fortune and go on a quest, but like all of us when faced with such a choice, he is reluctant to leave his comfort zone. Despite his dreams and longings, his initial instinct is to refuse. Luke tells Obi-Wan: "I can't get involved! It's not that I like the Empire. I hate it! But there's nothing I can do about it right now."

4. Meeting the Mentor
This step can come earlier. The mentor is another archetype, a wise teacher or wizard who is not always around but comes when most needed. The relationship of Mentor to hero can be that of wizard to apprentice, parent to child, teacher to student, doctor to patient, God to man. The Mentor can even be electronic: a TV or computer. This character's function is to prepare the hero to face the trials awaiting him. He may offer advice, guidance, give objects of power or even a swift kick in the backside... But the Mentor can only go so far with the hero. Oh, and nine times out of ten the mentor is a man with a beard. Think about Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Star Wars. However, the mentor can be a woman, like Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

At this point in many stories the Mentor often gives the hero a talisman. The talisman is an object of value which shows the hero he is chosen. Frodo gets the ring, Dorothy gets the Red Shoes, the boy in The Polar Express gets a gold return ticket. Luke gets his father's sword. The sword this is the most common talisman of Greek Mythology. In the Greek myth, Jason also gets his father's sword. Jason's mentor is his mother Aithra, who leads him to the rock under which it is hidden.

5. Crossing the Threshold
In films this is the turning point between Acts I and II, often called the point of no return. It's at this moment that the story really gets going. In Luke's case, he decides to go with Obi Wan after discovering his home has been burned by the Empire. Crossing the Threshold is often a visually stunning moment in movies. Think of how Dorothy crosses the threshold from black and white Kansas to technicolour Oz. Often at this point the hero encounters Threshold Guardians who try to stop him or her from crossing the Threshold. My favourite Threshold Guardian is the old bridgekeeper in Monty Python's Holy Grail. He stands by a terrifying chasm and each of King Arthur's knights must answer five– I mean three questions before he is allowed to cross:

Old Bridgekeeper: "Stop! Answer me these questions three, ere the other side ye see... What is your name? What is your quest? What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"etc...

Many Myth-based stories have several thresholds, each crossing becomes more dramatic. As far as structure, after this point the steps are slightly movable.

6. Allies, Enemies, Tests, Training & Oracles
Once across the first threshold, the hero encounters new challenges and tests. He often make enemies and allies and he begins to learn the rules of the special world he has just entered. According to Vogler, this scene often takes place in Western Saloons or Seedy Bars. In Star Wars, Luke encounters tests and makes allies in the cantina at the spaceport called Mos Eisley. According to John's gospel, Jesus' first test was at the wedding in Cana. I wonder if it was a rowdy crowd…

7. Approach to the inmost Cave
The hero finally reaches the place where the object of the quest is hidden. Often it is the headquarters of the hero's arch-enemy, the most dangerous spot in the Special World - the Inmost Cave. It doesn't have to be underground but it is often confined and dark. Reaching it often involves crossing several more thresholds. In Star Wars this step comes when Luke and his friends are sucked into the Death Star, and end up in the garbage crusher in the detention area. This is called "out of the frying pan into the fire".

8. The Supreme Ordeal or Visit to Death
This is where the fortunes of the hero seem bleakest and most hopeless. Sometimes he comes face to face with his mortality. In Greek myths the hero literally goes down into the underworld. In some stories – like ET and Buffy – the hero actually dies.

9. The Reward
Having beaten the monster and survived death, the hero takes possession of the thing he has been seeking, the Reward. It could be an actual elixir or treasure, or it could be some special knowledge that leads our hero to greater understanding of – or reconciliation with – the hostile forces. Most often however, it is a person, as in Star Wars, where the reward is Princess Leia. Remember, that was Luke's original goal. She knows how to access other files in R2D2 so that the good guys can destroy the Death Star and save the Universe.

10. The Road Back
But the hero is not safe yet. If he has not had reconciliation with parents/gods/hostile forces, they may come raging after him. This is often the beginning of Act III in a movie or screenplay. In Star Wars, Luke and friends are tracked and pursued by The Grand Moff Tarkin in his Death Star to the fourth moon of Yavin, a lush jungle world where the rebel base is hidden.

11. Resurrection
In many stories the hero's ultimate test involves him being willing to sacrifice his own life. His death (or near-death) is followed by resurrection. This is where the forces of darkness get in one last shot before they are defeated. It is the hero's final exam. Often it is the love of an ally that saves the hero or brings him back.

12. Return with the Elixir
In the final step of his journey the hero returns to his world, but his journey will be meaningless unless he returns with some elixir, treasure or lesson learnt. You could say that in Star Wars the elixir is the plans to the Death Star. But the real elixir is Luke's knowledge of who he is and what his capabilities are: he is a Jedi Knight. The hero has come full circle but now he looks different and usually has new powers, too.

If you are not familiar with Star Wars IV there is another hugely successful film based on this same mythic structure: The Matrix.

1. The Hero's World
Although the first scene is like the opening scene of Vertigo, (a chase across rooftops which resemble waves of the sea), we first see Neo when he is sleeping in front of his computer. This is his world.

2. The Call to Adventure
The computer screen says WAKE UP NEO. then... FOLLOW THE WHITE RABBIT... then KNOCK, KNOCK. NOW. Neo soon meets the Herald, his soon-to-be ally and lover, Trinity.

3. Refusal of the Call
Neo gets a phone call at work and follows the instructions for a while, until he is asked to go up the outside of a skyscraper onto the roof. "This is insane," says Neo, dropping the phone. "I can't do this..."

4. Meeting the Mentor
Neo's phone call was from his Mentor, Morpheus. The mobile phone was the Talisman. Neo's refusal means he does not Cross that particular Threshold. But he is given another chance.

5. Crossing the Threshold
Trinity calls Neo and asks him to meet her by the Adam Street Bridge. Note that it's called the ADAM street bridge and that Trinity says to Neo, you already know what's at the end of that road. Following Adam's choice is the road mankind has taken but Christ offers us another road. This is when Neo Crosses his first Threshold. The next Threshold Neo crosses is when he takes the red pill. Having crossed this terrifying Threshold, Neo discovers the world he knew was a construct, and completely different from the real world.

6. Allies, Enemies, Tests, Training & Oracles
After Crossing the Threshold, Neo meets some allies... and some enemies: the evil Agents. He also undergoes training. He learns more quickly than any of the others and this strengthens Morpheus' belief that Neo is The One. Finally, Neo visits an Oracle who tells him he must make a choice which will involve sacrifice.

7. Approach to the inmost Cave
As in many Myth-based stories, the quest is to save the life of a friend or ally. To do this, Neo must go to the heart of Enemy Headquarters to rescue Morpheus.

8. The Supreme Ordeal (or Visit to Death)
Neo is shot and killed by Agent Smith. He has sacrificed his life for Morpheus and his friends.

11. Resurrection
Trinity's faith in Neo and her belief that he is The One brings him back... stronger and better. He is saved by the love of an ally.

9. The Reward
After a stunning battle, in which he uses his newfound powers, Neo rescues Morpheus.

10. The Road Back
Neo simply returns.

12. Return with the Elixir.
New improved Neo is indeed The One. He looks different and has new powers. He can now fly and do other cool stuff and we know he will lead his people to freedom from The Matrix.

In the 1930's, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were dons together at Oxford. They were both Christians and both writers, and they met regularly with others to discuss various aspects of writing in a literary group called the Inklings. On one occasion, Lewis, Tolkien and another friend were up all night discussing Myth and its relation to Christianity. Tolkien and Lewis both loved ancient myths, particularly the Greek and Norse myths. But Lewis disapproved of Tolkien using myths in the books he was writing. He called them "lies breathed through silver" and suggested that a Christian shouldn't use so-called pagan stories.

But Tolkien argued that pagan myths point to the truth of Jesus Christ.

This was a huge revelation in Lewis's life and he suddenly realised that the "story of Christ is a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference: it really happened." In other words, myths prepare us for the story of Jesus.

The Twelve Steps in the Story of Jesus.

1. The Hero's World
The gospel writer Mark and Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ, begin when Jesus is an adult. Jesus seems to be the ordinary son of a Jewish carpenter in Nazareth.Then one day the Herald comes. 'And so John came, baptising in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...' This Herald is someone known to Jesus. His cousin John, called the Baptist.

2. The Call to Adventure
As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.'

3. Refusal of the Call
The moment Jesus comes up out of the water and hears God's voice, he realises what he probably never consciously dared to think: he is the son of God, the Messiah. He may have suspected it before, but I don't think he knew for sure. This is a HUGE revelation and he needs a month in the wilderness to wrestle with the implications. I don't know if you could call this a refusal, but he certainly has a struggle. It's interesting that Satan, the Threshold Guardian as well as supreme enemy, challenges his revelation. "IF you are the son of God", he says repeatedly, "then prove it by doing such-and-such."

4. Meeting the Mentor
Although angels ministered to Jesus in the desert, Jesus' mentor is God the Father speaking through the Holy Spirit. In a way, the Holy Spirit is also a sort of talisman, something given not just to Jesus but to all of us to equip us for our journey.

5. Crossing the Threshold
Jesus returns from the desert and begins his ministry. He Crosses the Threshold when he comes out of the desert across the Jordan into Galilee. Just stop to think how many people in the Bible crossed rivers. Crossing a river is a symbol of baptism. When we are baptised, we cross a threshold from our old life to a new life.

6. Allies, Enemies, Tests, Training & Oracles
As soon as Jesus leaves the wilderness and crosses the Jordan, his ministry begins. He meets and calls his disciples, he is opposed by religious leaders. Various people prophesy about him. He undergoes many tests and trials. He teaches, heals, casts out demons, forgives, and performs many miracles. Miracles like the raising of Lazarus must have given him courage for the Supreme Ordeal. At times, he must have wondered whether he was mad to think he was the Son of God. He was human, after all.

Perhaps Jesus' hardest Test was the night in Gethsemane. Here again he had a chance to Refuse the Call. But he didn't. He went forward, across another terrifying threshold when he let Judas and the Temple Guard lead him away.

7. The Approach to the Inmost Cave
For Jesus there will be an actual cave, and a literal visit to the underworld. That journey which so many heroes took in the Greek myths, Jesus did in reality. According to 1 Peter 3.19-20 he went to the underworld for three days and preached to the spirits of the unsaved. But that is still ahead. First he must face

8. The Supreme Ordeal or Visit to Death
Jesus submits to torture and crucifixion. Films like The Passion of the Christ give us some idea of the agony he went through. But we can never really grasp the horror of his mental and physical anguish.

11. Resurrection
After three days in the cave – in the underworld – Jesus is resurrected.

10. The Road Back
Galilee was never Jesus' real home. He returns to his real home when he ascends to heaven.

9. The Reward
Just as the reward in most Myth-based films is rescuing a person or persons, so Jesus' reward is rescuing us from Death. Holman Hunt's famous painting The Light of the World shows how Jesus becomes a sort of Herald to knock on the door of our life. We can Refuse the Call if we wish. This image reminds me of The Polar Express. The conductor on the train holds a lamp and invites children to join. But he never insists. The Conductor says this: "The thing about trains... it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on."

In that film, the Conductor is like Jesus, The Hobo Ghost is like the Holy Spirit and Santa is like God the Father.

12. Return with the Elixir
Finally there is the return with the elixir. Remember how the hero often looks different and may have new powers? The elixir in the Story of Jesus is salvation for everyone, Jesus reconciling God and Man outside space and time.

This is the life arc of Jesus. Within this arc there are other journeys. In Jesus' case there is never a real refusal of the call, only a struggle with it, as in the desert after his baptism and in the Garden of Gethsemane after the full revelation of what he's called to do. Interestingly, Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ considers what would have happened if Jesus HAD refused that final call and taken the easy way. But even in that film Jesus knows at the end what he must do.

Think of all the other stories that occurred that first Christmas. Mary's call, Joseph's, the Wise Men, the Shepherds...

I once heard an interview with Anthony Minghella. He said every character -– no matter how minor you the author consider them to be – is the hero of their own story.

Some of us are being called to go into places which are spiritual deserts to bring the love of God to those who don't know him. This is our Call to Adventure. God did not plant this mythic structure in our hearts just to prepare us for the Story of Jesus. He also planted it because he's calling each of us to be heroes on the journeys in our life.

One of my other favourite quotes is from the chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He said: "Why did God create man? Because God likes stories."

J.R.R. Tolkien said an amazing thing. "...only by myth-making ... by becoming a 'sub-creator' and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall."

When Christopher Vogler came to London earlier this year, he described how he had problems getting through customs and got very depressed. Suddenly he realised: "These people are just Threshold Guardians."

Our lives are like the Hero's Journey. Stages of our lives are like the Hero's Journey. In fact we can have a dozen per day. For some of you, getting to church this morning might have involved Threshold Guardians, Allies, Tests and Trials. Be encouraged. Look for your mentors and allies. Recognise if you yourself are a mentor. Be alert for the threshold guardians and don't be afraid of them. Remember that every death is followed by resurrection. Let God equip you. He has given us armour and weapons. He has given us divine and human mentors. And our talisman is a person, The Holy Spirit.