Monday, November 07, 2005

HBO's ROME - bytes

Instead of just reviewing the new HBO/BBC series ROME, I am going to list some soundbytes from recent reviews which I thought were relevant:

'...from the animated graffiti in ROME's opening credits, we’re plunged into a city at odds with the usual pristine, white-marble image ... the metropolis is grubby with backstreet brothels and gambling dens, candle-strewn street shrines and grass growing between the cobblestones.'
Ian Johns The Times 3 Nov 2005

'...if your Latin is better than mine, I imagine some of the graffiti would repay close attention.'
Thomas Sutcliffe The Independent Thurs 3 Nov 2005

'And the women? Naturally they were either drips who conveniently die in childbirth or are juicily poisonous harpies like Polly "oh my tunic's fallen off again" Walker, a mean mutha a la Angelina Jolie in Alexander.'
Laruskha Ivan-Zadeh METRO Life Thurs 3 Nov 2005

'I did find running around the garden with a whip, trying to beat up my children quite difficult...'
Polly Walker (who plays Atia) The Times Knowlege

'Some of the writer’s choices do baffle me. Why play up the obscure character of Atia, and leave out completely Marc Antony’s future wife Fulvia, one of history’s most extraordinary femme fatales? Why fail to mention that Servilia is Cato’s half-sister? But, all storytellers have to make their own choices and find their own way through this maze of dramatic material.'
Steven Saylor (author of The Judgement of Caesar) on his website

'The BBC has not only sold this series on sex and violence, but now, in the way it has edited and cut the first episodes, it has made sex scenes more important than the senate scenes ... I’m really pissed off with the BBC for bringing down my first three episodes to two and, in doing so, taking out much of the vital politics.'
Michael Apted (director of HBO's ROME, quoted in The Sunday Times 6 Nov 2005

'If you overlook the scourgings, the gladiator fights, the rapes and the crucifixions, [the Romans] were gentility itself. They even invented a water-soaked sponge on the end of a stick because there was no such thing as lavatory paper...'
The Times Mon 7 Nov 2005

'Conventions in real Rome were so very different from ours. A Roman citizen transported to the television armchair would be puzzled by the lack of real animal slaughter and real human death footage on the screen.'
Christopher Howse The Daily Telegraph Thurs 3 Nov 2005

'...some critics believe that the closest likeness to a genuine Roman stage production is the coarse innuendo of Frankie Howerd’s Up Pompeii (1969).'
Adam Sherwin The Times Tues 18 Oct 2005

The attitude towards slaves – treated like objects – is dead-on but unusual in a contemporary presentation of sympathetic characters.
Mark A. Perigard The Boston Herald

'Has anyone ever thought of casting Italians as ancient Romans?'
A.A.Gill Sunday Times 6 Nov 2005

'...there is no character in the ROME series truer to the emotional life of Caesar's times than Tony Soprano, the eponymous mobster in the long-running American TV series... they have created a fine and compulsively watchable series; but as a portrait of of late Roman republic it is only the second-best drama HBO has made.'
Tom Holland (author of Rubicon) The Sunday Times 23 Oct 2005

P.S. from 2014: I tried to get Anglo-Italians cast as characters in the TV adaptation of my Roman Mysteries. I failed, but it's still a fun watch. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Whistlejacket and Roman Horses

by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries

Yesterday, (26 September 2005), I went to the final day of an exhibition in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (the one facing Trafalgar Square). The exhibition was called Stubbs and the horse. I was doing 'research' for my twelfth book, The Charioteer of Delphi. I don't know much about horses so I have to learn fast!

I always get the audio guides to exhibitions like these and I am never disappointed. This one had a special 'family guide' which was narrated by a 'stable boy' and had lots of horsey sound effects and birds twittering in the background. I loved it! Here are some fun facts about Stubbs and horses.

George Stubbs was born in 1724 and he was at his height about the time of that Jane Austen wrote her first draft of Pride and Prejudice.

Stubbs was one of the first artists to really study the horse. He took dead horses and hung them from his stable roof and injected their veins with wax and then drew and drew and drew.

In the late 1800's grooms dried horses by rubbing their hair the wrong way with straw and with cloths.

Stable boys had to get up at 5.00am in the winter and 2.30am in the summer! They only got to go home for a few days a year (probably around Christmas) and they also got May Day off.

Horses don't like having their faces rubbed.

Stubbs' Whistlejacket in London's Nat'l Gallery
Stubb's most famous painting is a stunning life-sized oil painting of a horse called Whistlejacket.

Whistlejacket was a fiery palomino whose grandfather was an Arabian stallion. Whistlejacket was the name of a cocktail popular during the time. It was made of treacle and gin!

Near the final stages of painting Whistlejacket's portrait the horse caught sight of the canvass and tried to attack it. He thought it was another stallion.

Whistlejacket was very nervous like many racehorses and he didn't trust most people. He did like his groom, however: Simon Cobb.

Whistlejacket is now more famous than his owner, Lord Rockingham.

All the horses at that time have their manes combed to the right. The Romans also considered this a sign of beauty in a horse.

Racehorses are often nervous and for this reason they like another animal around as a companion. Stubbs painted a famous racehorse called Dungannon with his 'friend' – a sheep! Some horses had goats and famous Arabian stallion would not be separated from his pet cat.

Stubbs went to Rome and saw a Greek statue of a lion devouring a horse. He based lots of paintings on this statue. (The paintings are quite terrifying but there is no blood)

He also did several paintings of the scene from Greek mythology where Phaeton, Apollo's son, drives the chariot of the sun across the sky with tragic results. The chariot of the sun is based on the Roman quadriga or 'four-horsed chariot'.

I am trying to decide on a name of my horse in The Charioteer from Delphi. I have a long list of names of Roman horses. Here are just a few:
Ferox (Hotspur)
Frunitus (Jolly)
Galata (Helmeted?) a rare mare
Gallus (Cockerel or Gaul)
Garrulus (Chatterbox)
Gemmula (Jewelette) a rare mare
Glaucus (Grey)
Halieus (Fisher)
Hiberus (Spaniard)
Hipparchus (Chief)
Hirpinus (from Hirpina, region in Campania)
Icarus (mythological boy who flew and fell)
Inachus [a river in the Argolid]
Incitatus (Bounce) Caligula's favourite!
Indus (river in India)
Ingenuus (Free-Born) [horse of Scorpus, a famous charioteer]
Italus (Italian)
Iuvenis (Laddy)
Kynagos (Hunter)
Lampas (Fiery)
Laureatus (Receiver of the Laurel Crown)
Latro (Thief)

I was going to choose the name Hirpinus because it is found on a Roman 'chariot beaker'. Then I said the name out loud and burst out laughing. (Say it out loud and you'll see why!)

I will not use that name. I am now thinking of either Sagitta or Pegasus.

[The Charioteer of Delphi and all the Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. In 2007 and 2008, the BBC produced a TV series based on the first few books. Some regions can view season one on iTunes.]

Monday, July 25, 2005

Poison in the Garden

It is July 2005. The middle of a beautiful balmy British summer.

The book I'm currently working on – The Sirens of Surrentum – has a lot about poison. Luckily I live in one of the greatest cities in the world – London – so last week I left a phone message with the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden to ask if they had anybody who could tell me more about poisonous plants known to the Romans. I know all the names but I don't know what they look like. Or smell like. Or taste like. (Actually that last one might not be strictly necessary!)

The curator, Rosie Atkins, returned my call and was very charming and helpful. After a short chat about hemlock, rhubarb (leaves extremely poisonous, stems completely edible) and the trade route from China to Rome via India, she encouraged me to come round and have a look for myself.

St Mary's Battersea
So I do. It's a half hour walk along the river via Albert Bridge and the Boy on a Dolphin sculpture. I love walking in London, especially beside the river. When the sun is shining Londoners are so cheerful and you see amazing snapshots of life. Yesterday I saw a just-married couple spilling out of St Mary's Battersea and – on my way back two hours later – an ambulance taking someone away from one of the houseboats moored beside it. Today I see two beer-bellied men fishing beside the river, assorted joggers, dog-walkers, bike-riders, and four boys cheerfully molesting a stuffed-toy rabbit before tossing it in the Thames. I also see a young dad crouched down beside a pushchair. For more than a minute he remained absolutely still, staring at his little boy's sleeping face as if he wanted to imprint it on his memory forever.

ancient Yew tree
The Chelsea Physic Garden is the second oldest botanical garden in England, after Oxford. It was established by the Society of Apothecaries who have a funky image of Apollo on their crest. It's a bit like a secret garden in the heart of Chelsea between the Thames and the Royal Hospital.

I am just in time for the 4.00pm tour. Christine, our guide, is a volunteer, like almost everyone who works here. She takes us around and makes a special effort to point out poisonous plants the Romans would have known.

We see acanthus, tansy, rhubarb, agapanthus, oleander, and a magnificent yew tree with its fatal red berries.

"Deadly Nightshade"
Deadly nightshade has fatal dark-blue berries. If you eat them or their juice you will die, but opticians used to use its juice to dilate the pupils of the eye. It's also known as belladonna ('beautiful woman') because Italian women use this juice to make their eyes look big and dark and liquid.

After the tour has ended, Christine helps me find some hemlock. The specimen in the garden isn't very healthy but I get a good sense of it's height and the hollow nature of its stem, and the little spray of white blossoms.

Everyone at the Chelsea Physic Garden is so helpful and erudite. Christine herself mentions two books which feature poison (Hartley's The Go-Between and Dorothy Sayer's Strong Poison) and she also quotes from two poems: one by Auden called Roman Wall Blues, and one by Houseman that ends like this:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up;
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
-I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Curiously enough, I mention old Mithridates in The Sirens of Surrentum...

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. The BBC TV series is available on Amazon Prime in Europe and the UK.]

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Script Secrets

I guess when you've done four or five screenwriting courses the principles start to become pretty familiar. And if they aren't familiar, then there's something wrong.

Still, I gained a few new (or forgotten) insights from Bill Martell who has just finished doing a weekend screenwriting course sponsored by Raindance.

Here are my twelve most memorable gems from the weekend:

1. Movies are not reality. They are waking dreams (or – in the case of horror – nightmares) that we share with other people in a big darkened room. They are fulfilment of our deepest fantasies and fears.

2. 'Shlock Shock' is a term invented by Bill Martell. This is when – at a very tense moment – the author/director pops in something to make the audience jump! But, phew! It was just a cat (or similar). Then, as the audience breathes a sigh of relief, the real horror or shock appears.

3. In both film and books, a popular protagonist is often the 'geeky kid' persecuted and ostracized by others. He eventually discovers he has special powers and as a result suddenly takes on a burden of huge responsibility. Examples? Harry Potter, Spiderman, Luke Skywalker, Forrest Gump, Batman, maybe even young Vito Corleone in Godfather 2.

4. Genres are like types of food. Sometimes you're in the mood for Chinese. Sometimes you crave Mexican. Sometimes nothing but pizza will do. In the same way, sometimes you're in the mood for a Romantic Comedy. Or a Heroic Epic. Or a tense Thriller. Some genres mix, but others don't. Just like sweet and sour sauce does NOT go on Mexican food! In my opinion two genres which do NOT mix are Historical Fiction and Fantasy, whereas Historical Fiction and Detective Stories DO mix. (That's why there are at least ten authors making a success of it.)

5. My mentor John Truby says that your hero will have a desire and that the opponent will be standing in the way of that desire. Martell says that nine times out of ten, the opponent has the desire and your hero tries to block it (!) eg. In My Best Friend's Wedding, Cameron Diaz is the opponent. Her desire is to marry Dermot Mulroney. As soon as Julia Roberts finds out about this, she tries to thwart Cameron and get Dermot for herself. In Die Hard, it's only when Bruce Willis discovers the opponent's plan that he leaps into action to block it. Hmmm... I'll have to think about this one...

7. John Truby says your most interesting characters change. Someone else said that in the real world people NEVER really change. Martell has an interesting solution: Your character doesn't change, he simply returns to the person he was before he was wounded by what John Truby would call the GHOST, the event from the past which haunts your hero.

6. Truby talks about the hero's PROBLEM/NEED. Martell talks about plot conflict (= Truby's PROBLEM) and emotional conflict (= Truby's NEED). Martell says the character must solve their emotional conflict (NEED) before they can tackle the plot conflict (PROBLEM). For example, in My Best Friend's Wedding, Julia Roberts emotional conflict (NEED) is to realise she is being selfish in preventing her best friend from marrying the delightful woman he loves. Only then can she solve the plot conflict (PROBLEM) by figuring out what her new relationship with Dermot will be when he's married.

8. The leap-frogging technique of plot structure is one used by J.K. Rowling. You have three different plot lines.
plotline 1: Harry battles the Dursleys as he comes to terms with his true identity.
plotline 2: Harry battles rival house of Slitherin in Quidditch etc...
plotline 3: Harry battles Voldemort as he learns to become a powerful wizard.
One scene might deal with plotline 1, the next with plotline 2, then plotline 3, then back to 1, 2, 3 and so forth. With variety of course.

9. One way to make a character likeable is to have them commit an act of minor mischief, by – say – breaking a small rule we have always wanted to break...

10. Touchstone and Twitch. Give character a positive object (a touchstone) that tells you about their character. For example, Nubia's flute represents her lost family, and shows how much family means to her. Or give them a negative object (the twitch) that reveals their weakness. Like Lupus's wax tablet, which reminds us he cannot communicate in the normal way. These 'objects' also give your character something to do with his or her hands.

11. Do everything you can to make the audience feel they are right there with the characters, discovering what they discover, experiencing what they experience. Use any and every means but do not be obvious. Be subtle.

12. In writing dialogue, make sure you the writer don't have the characters respond exactly as you know they should. Be careful of 'psychic characters' who know what someone is going to say and have the perfect answer ready. Season dialogue between characters with misunderstandings, confusion, jumping to conclusions...

Finally I'll leave you with a quote by John Ford: "A good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones."

But as authors we should strive for all great scenes and no bad ones!

(for more info on Bill Martell's SCRIPT SECRETS go HERE)

Friday, June 24, 2005

A Day of Roman Luxury

It's our final full day in the Bay of Naples. The last day for me to glean any last minute goodies for Roman Mystery number 11, Sirens of Surrentum.

I want to explore Baia more, and the amphitheatre at Pozzuoli, but am not sure I can face taking bus, train, metro and pullman to get there. That's Plan A. But it's going to be hot today. So we opt for Plan B, the 9.30 hydrojet from Sorrento to Ischia and from there a ferry to Pozzuoli. If it's impossible to get the ferry to Pozzuoli, we will explore Ischia and I might go to one of the thermal baths there (Plan C). The guide book mentions a neoclassical spa built on the ruins of a Roman bath.

Ischia is a volcanic island, bubbling with hot springs and hot mud. Some of the town names even have the word terme in them from the Latin word thermae meaning 'warm baths'. The baths at Baiae were so opulent that when travellers found their remains they thought they were temples to the gods. They were actually Temples to Pleasure.

Our hydrojet is fast but even so we don't arrive at Ischia Porto – the port town of this little island – until 10.45. I take one look at the rusty ferry to Pozzuoli and decide to go with Plan C, ie. stay on Ischia and try out one of the spas. I know from my guide book that the baths I want are in the next town and that they close at midday, so when a dark Italian with oily, slicked-back hair says 'Taxi? You want taxi?' I negotiate a fee to the Termi Belliazzi at Casamicciola Terme.

On the way, between my broken Italian and his broken English, Pepe the taxi-driver tells me the baths I have chosen aren't very elegant. 'You should try Negumbo or Poseidon's Garden,' he says. But I let him know I'm interested in all things Roman and so he shrugs and settles back to drive. Actually he hunches forward to drive; all the taxis on Ischia are micro-taxies and Pepe is a big man.

We arrive at the Terme Belliazzi about ten minutes later and once I have established that I can have a look at the Roman baths underneath before a massage, Richard goes to a sunny square to do a watercolour.

This spa is like something out of a Fellini movie. I am taken past cublicles and through the half-closed curtain I can glimpse old men wrapped in sheets and moaning softly. On the black and white marble floor are buckets of mud and plastic sheets smeared with mud.

A man called Antonio takes me down to the Roman baths. It is very hot and steamy down here. He shows me where the hot water bubbles up out of the ground and the hoses that now transfer it up to the baths above us. I notice the same vaulted roof as the modern building above.

Antonio also shows me the modern sauna and jacuzzi, both of which are carved from stone and look very Roman. Then I am taken back to the vaulted room with cubicles. I have gathered that I can have a massage with either Antonio or a woman called Rosa. As I have to get totally naked the choice is not difficult.

Rosa is a tanned, cheerful brunette who keeps taking my arm with a firm grip and guiding me here and there. I sense it's going-home time and she wants to go home, but there is no way a man is giving me a massage! As I am undressing she asks if I want 'fango'. I have been hearing this word all morning and now she shows me a contraption above the massage-couch. She pulls a lever and out comes a giant worm of grey mud! This is fango.

'Si,' I reply bravely. 'I'll have the fango.'

Once I am naked I have to climb up onto the pile of mud on the plastic sheet. I do so. Wow! The mud is warm and very slippery. I help Rosa smear it all over and then she wraps me up in the plastic sheet with a cloth sheet around it and I lie there for ten minutes, enveloped in slippery, squelchy, warm grey mud. It is very sensuous!

Every so often Rosa comes in to mop my face, which is sweating. Then, after ten minutes she negotiates me off the couch and hoses me down with mineral water. (Boy am I glad Antonio is not doing this; talk about a 'squirmy'). In the cubicle is also a bathtub full of mineral water and once I am sluiced off I get into that for another ten minutes.

I can tell by the silence outside my curtained cubicle that most people have left this spa. I reckon it's almost twelve. Rosa comes in and asks me once again if I want Antonio to give me my massage. 'No, you please, Rosa,' I say in Italian, and add by way of explanation: 'I'm from England.' (She probably wants to get home to her kids; Italian schools broke up last week...)

Rosa nods cheerfully, takes me to a clean cublicle next door and proceeds to give me a vigorous full-body massage with lemon-scented cream. In Roman times it would have been scented olive-oil of course, but I imagine the luxurious establishments in Baiae would have specialised in hot mud treatments, after all, Baiae is situated on top of sulphurous fumaroles, too.

I give Rosa a nice tip and my last copy of one of my books in Italian, dedicated to her three children. I leave the baths feeling very smooth and relaxed. No wonder rich Romans spent so much time there.

Richard is in a café finishing a nice watercolour of the little park opposite. The owner of the cafe wants him to do a portrait of his son. As payment in advance he gives Richard a bottle of cheap Spanish red wine. Hmmmn.

We get another micro-taxi to take us to various places. Philippe – our new taxi-driver – shows us Negumbo, the spa with turquoise pools of hot water (you go from pool to pool, getting hotter and hotter) and also the Villa di William Walton, where musical recitals are held. After a decent pizza lunch in Casamicciola, we catch a bus back to Ischia Porto.

I want to see the house where The Talented Mr Ripley was filmed and hey! there's Pepe! He knows where the Mr Ripley house is but first he shows us the Roman acqueduct. Yup. It's a Roman acqueduct. Then on to the Palazzo Malcoviti, where Dicky Greenleaf and Marge 'lived'. It's a different colour now but I recognize it. Pepe was actually one of the drivers for the film crew and tells us that 'Anthony Minghella is a very nice man.' I tell him that Minghella's family sells ice cream on the Isle of Wight. Pepe did not know that! Finally Pepe takes us to the foot of the Castello Aragonese. We find a cool shady place to sit, with a view of the castle, and while Richard does another watercolour, I shmooze a local bookshop and have a pistachio ice cream.

We catch the 5.20 hydrojet back to Sorrento and I make my last research stop: the Hotel Bellevue Syrene. This four-star hotel perched on Sorrento's cliff has Roman reproduction rooms and is built on the foundations of a Roman villa, like that of Pollius Felix. I can't see the foundations, of course, but a handsome receptionist called Mehdi kindly agrees to take us down to show us the Roman rooms. These are reserved for wedding parties and there is one about to arrive any minute.

The Roman rooms of the Bellevue Syrene are superb. Replica frescoes and mosaics were done at the beginning of the 20th century. The setting and landscaping is magnificent, too. If they ever make a Hollywood blockbuster of one of the Roman Mysteries and have a wrap-party (or whatever they call it) afterwards, then this is the place to come!

Richard and I have drinks on the terrace with its Roman-like columns and arbour, gazing out over the blue Gulf of Sorrento in the cool of the evening. Our cocktails cost as a much as dinner but it's worth it for this moment of sybaritic luxury. After all, tomorrow it's back to London!

P.S. The Sirens of Surrentum ended up being my fave book of the series, along with The Pirates of Pompeii and The Man from Pomegranate Street. All three are very romantic, but The Sirens of Surrentum is the most 'grown-up'!

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Amalfi Paradise

Note to self: never attend any event with the word 'folkloric' in it. What was I thinking? The Naples song and dance evening, held in the attractive basement of a Sorrento nightclub, was pretty dire. Granted the singers and dancers were mostly young and enthusiastic, but it didn't clang my gong, as Jonathan says at the beginning of The Sirens of Surrentum.

So I was dubious about whether to sign up for the 'Amalfi Coast' tour. I figured we could get the little SITA buses and just hop off and on. However, after our struggles and disappointments with these buses, I was beginning to wonder if a guided tour mightn't be better after all. Then, coming into the station one hot morning after a recce to an archaeological museum, I see the queues of people for the Amalfi buses and immediately phone Julia, our rep, to book the last two places on the tour.

And I'm glad I did. The little bus comes at 7.45 on the dot. It is sparkling clean and our tour guide for the day is lively and sparkly, too. Her name is Luciana and although she has by her own admission been giving this tour daily each summer for eight years (!) she still manages to be enthusiastic and charming. Better yet, our driver Giovanni drives very slowly and carefully. This is the same coastline that had John Steinbeck clutching his wife in the back of an Italian taxi and weeping with terror. And though one of my recurring nightmares is plunging off a road just like this, I am never once afraid.

Of all the days we have been here, today has the most perfect weather. It is clear and calm and we have the road to ourselves. One good thing about being up in Sant'Agata: we get a head start on all the other day-trippers. Being a movie buff, I am looking for locations from The Talented Mr Ripley and A Good Woman , both fairly recent movies that were filmed on location. I am not disappointed. The setting is really breathtaking and I recognize several places from the films, especially A Good Woman.

We cruise through Positano and Praiano, with the Siren islands always on our right, and reach Amalfi by about 10.00. We are given the option of an hour's boat cruise for an extra 10 euros and we all reckon it will be worth it. It is. Julia meets us with her coachload and as we sail up and down the coast, she and Luciana take it in turns to point out the homes of celebrities like Sean Connery, Sophia Loren, Gore Vidal (well, he just sold his) and Richard Branson's Palazzo Sasso, a villa in the hills of Ravello. That's just the kind of thing I want to know: who lives where!

The Romans didn't get here until the 4th century AD, so I can relax a bit.

After our boat trip we are given a free hour in Amalfi. Richard and I opt to sit in a cafe and watch the tourists go by as we sip an espresso (him) and a premuta di limone (me). That's the Italian version of a citron presse: pure lemon juice in a tall glass with ice. You add your own water and sugar.

After our break we take a winding road up to Ravello and stop at a restaurant in Scala for lunch. Although it's a touristy package lunch it is absolute bliss. Our busload gets the best tables, in the shade with a panorama and a half, because we are first. Yay, Giovanni!

We have salad and a choice of grilled swordfish or aubergine pasta with lemon cake for dessert. It's a magical hour overlooking the majestic mountains to the northeast and the fertile gorge below us. Richard and I are sitting with Peter and Rosemary, whom we have got to know a little already.

Then on to Ravello. It's up in the mountains with no access to the sea, but with heart-stopping views over the Gulf of Salerno. We visit the Villa Rufolo with its lovely gardens. There are concerts here almost every evening in summer and in one cloister we stop to hear the haunting sound of a pianist practising his Schubert. Suddenly he breaks off to play something jazzy – more Benoit than Bach – so we sit in a cool spot surrounded by lavender and geraniums, and let him serenade us for five minutes.

Then under a shady parasol in the sunny square for iced coffee. This really is iced coffee! It's sweet espresso frozen and churned into a kind of sorbet. Delicious and reviving and refreshing. I now know why Richard Branson and Gore Vidal have chosen to invest here. I too have fallen in love with Ravello.

Afterwards everyone on the tour says this was their favourite part of the week. For us it was certainly the most relaxing. We are back at the hotel by 4.00, in time for a cooling dip in the pool and a chance to snooze or read a book.
We try to catch a SITA bus at 7.45 down to Capo di Sorrento for my interview, but the bus never comes so we splash out twenty euros for a taxi.

The reporter had better be there!

He is. And he asks all the right questions. Vincenzo interviews me for about an hour, takes a photo of me and Richard with a friend's mobile phone and promises to send a clipping of the article to my Italian publisher. I'm not even sure which paper it will be in but hey! any publicity is good!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Villa di Pollio Felice

ruins of the villa of Pollius Felix in Sorrento
Today is midsummer and I plan to devote the whole day to visiting the Villa of Pollius Felix on the Capo di Sorrento. Also known as the Villa di Pollio Felice and sometimes the Bagni della Regina Giovanna (in Italian). I dubbed it the Villa Limona when I put it in my history-mystery books for kids, The Roman Mysteries. Many experts think it was the villa of a rich Epicurean named Pollius Felix, mentioned by Statius in several of his poems (e.g. Silvae 2.2) In another blog post I tell how I first discovered this magical place. 

model of the 'Villa Limona' at the George Vallet Museum
In the morning Richard and I catch the 7.20 SITA bus to Piano di Sorrento and find the Georges Vallet Museum with its superb model of the villa. We take tons of photos and sketches and translate the Italian commentary. I will use my photos of this model as a basis for a detailed plan and sketch in book 11, The Sirens of Surrentum. Richard, as usual, will work his artistic magic with my sketches and notes.

We board another SITA bus to Sorrento's Marina Piccola and are just in time to catch an 11.00 am hydrofoil to Capri. It passes right by the Villa of Pollius Felix, so more photos are snapped.

Capri is stuffed to the gills with tourists, so we have a quick (but delicious) salad in the Grand Marina and catch the 12.00 boat to the Blue Grotto. What they don't tell you is that once at the Blue Grotto it costs another eight and a half euros to get a little rowing boat to take you in. It is a great - if quick - visit, because of the queue of boats packed with people waiting their turn. The entrance to the grotto is tiny, (hence the rowing boat) and once inside the blue is luminous. Rather like the blue of an LA swimming pool lit up at night.

We are the last people aboard the 14.00pm hydrofoil back to Sorrento. I snap more photos of the ruins of Felix's villa and we're back in Sant'Agata by 16.30 for a quick dip in the lovely pool of the Hotel Delle Palme.

Richard is exhausted, but I am determined to do a kind of pilgrimage to the Villa Limona. The climax of Sirens takes place on midsummer's evening of AD 80, so what better day to make my pilgrimage than midsummer's eve 2005?

I catch the 17.55 SITA bus from Sant'Agata, disembark at Capo, and am down at the Villa of Pollius Felix by 18.30. It is great to see the ruins with the model fresh in my mind and I immediately see what I should add or change. After a good hour's wander, I sit happily on the north east corner of the foundations and read some of Pirates while eating a picnic dinner of olives, marinated white beans (a local specialty) and water. For dessert I have a juicy orange. Yum.

There are only a few other people around the villa ruins: a man down on the lower rocks, two scuba-divers in the secret cove (!) and some English women wandering through, so I feel the villa was properly mine.

Here's a spooky fact: in AD 80 there was a full moon on 21 June, midsummer's eve. Guess what? Today there is a full moon on 21 June! What are the odds?

I watch the sun set, as yellow and juicy as a lemon, and bid my beloved villa goodbye. Oh, how I would love a time machine to travel back to AD 80 and see what this villa and its owners really looked like!

Back up at the Bar del Capo I have a few minutes to spare before the last SITA bus back so I find the 'boss'. His name is Antonino. I give him a copy of Pirates in English and also one in Italian, dedicated to his three daughters. He is delighted and takes me onto the terrace to introduce me to Vincezo, a reporter for the local paper. I have to get my bus but promise to come back tomorrow for dinner at 20.00, when Vincenzo will interview me.
Pollius Felix gives a banquet at his Surrentum villa
On the bus back a huge full moon, orange as an apricot, rises over the mountains. A wonderful end to a productive day.

[The 17 books in 
The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests is a four-book series set in Roman Britain. You can watch The Roman Mysteries on Amazon Prime.]

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Trick to Pompeii

The trick to Pompeii is not to get there early, but to get there late.

Aim to arrive around 5.00 pm as the hoards are leaving. Get an audio guide and you will have two and a half hours to wander undisturbed in the cool of the evening.

There are also moonlight tours of Pompeii now, though these are difficult because the guided ones don't end until 11.30 by which time it's probably too late to get back to Sorrento.

On Monday we arrive at the site around 5.30. I have two objectives:
1. See the exhibition about ancient food, De Gustibus
2. To make a pilgrimage to the House of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, famous to all those who have ever studied (or taught) Latin using the Cambridge Latin Course.

The exhibition is disappointing, just a few display cards about Roman food in Italian and badly translated English, and a little bed of herbs that were known in Pompeian times. None of these are new to me except sparrow-grass: asparagus! But theres a nice fresco of a cockerel on one of the boards and that's one of the things Im collecting for this book. Does he have blue feathers?

We also see a lovely pomegranate bush in bloom. There was one at Baiae, too. They have orange-red trumpet-shaped blossoms this time of year. Must work that in.

Richard is fading fast so I leave him by an ancient fountain and turn off the Decumanus Maxiums to run five blocks north up the street which leads from the Stabian Gate. There I find the villa of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, the banker. It is gated off but the marble lararium is close enough for me to be able to reach through the iron bars and brush its smooth marble surface with my fingertips. I can see the atrium and the impluvium, planted round with pink and white oleanders in bloom. I cant see the dog mosaic but perhaps it is in Naples now.

On the way back we see another delightful dog mosaic (above). It is very dusty so we pour the last of our bottled water onto it to bring up the colour.

Earlier in the afternoon we visited the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis. This magnificent villa, belonging to the Emperor Nero's floozy and wife, was only unearthed in 1974. It is pretty much completely standing. We were the only people there except for the usual clutch of fonctionari relaxing in the shade of a tree. There are columns, frescoes, a wonderful mosaic that looks as if it comes from the 1960's and a huge swimming pool which botanical archaeologists can tell was planted round with oleander and lemon trees.

We find the private baths of the house and an amazing column painted with a fish-scale design I have never seen before. This reminds me of Aubrey Beardsleys Art Deco designs. What an amazing place!

Caroline Lawrence at the Villa Poppaea at Oplontis in 2005

Monday, June 20, 2005

Epicureans vs Stoics in Naples

The Sirens of Surrentum
It's our second day in Italy. On our last trip we missed the National Archaeological Museum of Naples so this time I'm determined to make it. After all, it has some of the best artefacts from Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabia and Oplontis.

We get a SITA bus, then the Circumvesuviana, then the metro to Cavour. We have got the artecard which allows us free travel and free entry to a few museums and sites, plus discounts. We use it to gain entry and for a discount on the audio guide.

One of the things I want to see are mosaics and/or frescoes of cockfights, which symbolise violence and decadence. The first room we enter, on a kind of mezzanine half way up the sweeping marble stairs, has two superb mosaics of cockfights from the House of the Painted Columns in Pompeii. One (below right) shows two cocks facing off with a table behind them. On the table is a pouch of money for the winner, the palm branch of victory and a caduceus, the symbol of Mercury, god of commerce, thieves and gambling. On the other mosaic (below left) a dwarf hands the palm of victory to the victorious cock. The loser lies dead, beak impaled in the sand!

Two mosaics from the Museum in Naples
In the same room was one of several delightful 'cave canem' mosaics I know about. It was great to meet this delightful dog in person.

The famous Alexander mosaic was there, too, taking up one entire wall, and some wonderful frescoes of ducks and hippos. The famous secret cabinet was open, too, so I saw lots more cocks! Apotropaic of course.

so-called Seneca
There were some magnificent bronzes from the House of the Papyrii, including a bust of a philosopher who might be Seneca (right). One of the themes of book 11, The Sirens of Surrentum, is Epicurean philosophy vs the Stoic philosophy. After the loss of his faith in book 8, The Gladiators from Capua, Jonathan is considering which to follow. It is handy that Pollius Felix was a known Epicurean. I also saw my old friend Vespasian. Two of them in fact. You can recognize his stubborn, bull-necked face anywhere. Titus's head is usually rounder, less cube-like.

There is also a fascinating exhibition on Roman food, though I didn't really learn anything I didn't already know. We run into some Welsh tourists who got a tour from Sorrento which took them to Solfatura, the bubbling volcanic mud, and then onto the Naples museum. If I had it to do over, I would definitely book that tour. The coach is as quick, if not quicker than metro, train and SITA, and a whole lot easier, I imagine.

But the National Archaeology Museum of Naples is superb... so get there any way you can! 

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Baths of Baia

The Sirens of Surrentum
It is mid-summer of 2005. I am on the Bay of Naples to research my most romantic Roman Mystery, The Sirens of Surrentum. It has taken me three days to find an internet cafe here in Campania and it's not even an internet cafe, just a video/DVD shop with a computer by one wall. Plus it's down in Sorrento, not in the hill village where we're staying. Our package tour has put us in a little village 'only seven kilometres' from Sorrento. Problem is it takes ages to get the bus down to Sorrento. That's what happens when you book cheap last minute holidays sight unseen. Anyway, the Hotel Delle Palma in Sant'Agata is a very charming three star hotel with pines, palms, magnolia and plane trees. Our room has a balcony overlooking the pool and a bit of the gulf and Capri. (Later on I discover there IS an internet café, only a hundred metres from the hotel!)

Saturday is our day to explore Baia. It is quite a journey. We catch the little SITA bus from Sant'Agata at 7.10, the circumvesuviana train at 7.40, the metro from Naples-Garibaldi at 9.00, chang trains at Napoli Campi Flegrei to catch the train to Pozzuoli at 9.30 and finally arrive at the Archeobus stop at 10.00am.

pool at the Hotel Della Palma in Sant'Agata near Sorrento
There is so much I want to see here: the site of ancient Baiae (modern Baia), ancient Cumae, where the Sybil lived; Misenum, from where Pliny first saw the volcano erupting; Pozzuoli, with its Flavian amphitheatre and underground Roman city... But my next book is mainly set in Baia so we go there first. The Archeobus is a little bus that makes a circuit of all the major sites to the west of Naples, those around the Campi Flegrei (burning fields), so called because of all the volcanic activity.

We have been standing at the busstop about 10 minutes a gentleman with a cane politely informs us that "the archeobus is finished". Apparently they have stopped running it.

The man tells us to get a little bus which they call pullman. He will show us. Presently the little SEPSA bus comes and we go with the gentleman as far as Lago Lucrino. The Lucrine Lake was the site of Agrippina's house. Agrippina was the mother of Nero and one spring evening in AD 65 he decided to have her murdered. After his botched plan to drown her in a collapsing boat (she swam to shore), some fishermen picked her up and brought her here, where Nero's hitmen finished the job with their swords. The Lake – which was once famous through the Empire for its oysters – is now little more than a stagnant pool, but there is a restaurant on the shore called La Nimphea which overlooks the lake and puts me in mind of Agrippina's Villa.

It is after 11.00am and boiling hot. We haven't had anything to eat, so we dive into a shady cafe for peanuts, espresso and water. Suitably refreshed, we ask the waiter when the trains to Baia run. "Every ten minutes" he assures us in Italian. We go to the little station across the road but when we ask about il prossimo treno per Baia the handful of travellers just shrug.

so-called Temple of Diana at Baia
So we stand in the beating sun to catch another pullman. Mercifully it comes after five or ten minutes and we pile on.

It is only luck that we get out at the right place; the busdriver has no clue where the ancient baths are. But we spot the brown sign with its white letters. A short but exhausting climb up the hill brings us to the site entrance.

These ruins on the hill overlooking the pretty blue bay are of opulent baths. There were many baths complexes here in Baia. The so-called Temple of Diana, a dramatic half dome, that we passed on the way up are baths. So is the Temple of Venus.

From up here we can clearly see the train station of Baia. Its tracks are rusted and wildflowers grow profusely around it. 'Every ten minutes', indeed! This station hasn't been used in at least five years...

The site is hot and deserted. We explore the terrace of an opulent villa and the baths surrounding it. We see the odd black and white mosaic, a headless marble statue in a niche, a patch of frescoed wall with Pompeian red and the even more expensive Egyptian blue. Much of the site is roped off and it is obviously well-off the beaten track. I am hoping we will be able to see the so-called (again) Temple of Mercury.

The Temple of Mercury was a huge dome, as big as the Pantheon and pre-dating it, built in the time of Augustus. It was either the apodyterium or frigidarium of this bath complex. I tend to think the latter as it is the outstanding feature of the baths and this is where people would mainly congregate. I have seen pictures and know it will be amazing. But will we have access? Poor Richard is pouring with sweat, even though he's wearing his straw hat, and he follow me without complaint, occasionally stopping to mop his brow with a handtowel borrowed from the hotel.

I lead him past ruined porticoes and down scrubby paths fringed with fennel, quince, chamomile, dill, sage and other herbs. At last we arrive and it seems to be open! Next to the rectangular entrance is a vault which was once one of the rooms of the baths. And here is something I have never seen in my life; a fig tree growing UPSIDE DOWN from the roof of the vault. It is green and healthy and bearing a good crop of figs. What a marvel!

Then we enter the rectangular room and go through a narrow passage and emerge into another world.

Caroline in the so-called Temple of Mercury
Here is a great dome with a circular open skylight at the top and four rectangular openings on its sides. From somewhere a breeze is funneled through the openings and carresses us with delicious coolness. The high dome amplifies our whispered exclamations and makes them echo. But the most amazing thing is the sunlight which pours almost straight down through the skylight onto four feet of green water, caused by bradyseism or flooding. The surface of the water, barely rippled by the breeze, throws a huge trembling golden disc back up onto the inner surface of the dome.

Then we see the fish swimming in the murky water: huge gold and white carp, languidly drifting through the dark water and avoiding the sunlit patches. A flutter of wings makes us look up to see a dove fluttering through one of the openings. The breeze blows, the water plops, I want to stay in this magical place forever.

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans, Greeks or Egyptians as a topic in Key Stage 2. Season One of the TV series is available in Europe and the UK on iTunes.]

Monday, June 13, 2005


I never go to proper writers' workshops these days. Instead I go to screenwriting weekends put on by the great London organization called RAINDANCE.

They have brought over some great Hollywood screenwriters in the past couple of years, including my idol John Truby as well as Mark Travis and Chris 'Hero's Journey' Vogler. One of the best weekends was given by David Freeman. If Truby provides the recipe for a good story, then Freeman provides the garnishing and condiments.

Here are some of his techniques for what he calls 'Scene Deepening':

1. Emotional pathway (character)
One character runs a gamut of emotions quickly in one scene.

2. Emotional pathway (scene)
The tone of a scene changes as we watch it.

3. 1 Statement, 2 Reactions
A character says something that gets two (or more) different reactions from the people with him.

4. Character A doesn't realize she's causing character B pain.
But we the audience see it clearly...

5. Crossing the 'dramedy' line. (a good thing)
In a dramatic scene throw in some comic relief or laughter, in a funny scene slip in some drama

6. 1 Scene, 2 Universes
Two characters are in such different emotional/mental places that it causes tension

7. Scenes with painful moments
Or as James Marsters says about the creator of Buffy: 'Joss makes his living denying people what they want'.

8. Scenes with words that are emotionally difficult to say.
eg. 'I love you', 'I'm leaving you', 'He's dead!'

9. Z expresses A's state-of-mind
A minor character knowingly or unknowingly expresses what major character is thinking/feeling.

10. SQUIRMIES. Uncomfortable moments that make you squirm.
Ask yourself: what would really make people squirm in my story?

Freeman has lots more but that's just a taster.

Why am I telling you all this?

Flavia in Sorrento
Well, because in the book I'm working on now, The Sirens of Surrentum, there are going to be lots of delicious SQUIRMIES! Even the first line is a squirmy, especially for 9-year-old fan Nick.

Flavia Gemina and Jonathan ben Mordecai were kissing. They had been kissing for some time.

Nick would like to direct his own version of the Roman Mysteries but emailed me to say this:

You know the 11th book, Flavia and Jonathan kiss? Is it possible cut it out? It's just my friends Harry and Sophie will be playing those two and they will not want to kiss!

Sorry, Nick, but that is only one of many SQUIRMIES you and your actors will have to get used to!

Finally, I'll leave the last word to David Freeman: THROW UNEXPECTED THINGS AT PEOPLE ALL THE TIME.

OK, Dave. If you insist...