Friday, March 25, 2005

Hippie Mysteries!

Remember hippies? They dressed in beads and fringes and they painted flowers on their cars and said 'Far out!' and 'Peace, man!' a lot. Well, before there were hippies there were beatniks. Beatniks wore black turtleneck sweaters, and drank espresso and discussed philosophy and read poetry and said 'Cool, Daddy-O!' In the 1950's and 1960's San Francisco was one of the most famous homes of beatniks and hippies.

One of their favourite meeting places was the famous City Lights Bookstore in a part of San Francisco known as North Beach. City Lights Bookstore is still there today – in 2005 – and it's hardly changed. You can still buy beatnik and hippie poetry and even see some beatniks and hippies. Most bookshops have categories like Best Sellers, Mystery & Crime, Children's etc. City Lights Bookstore does have a children's section, down in a musty basement right between Lesbian Literature and Muckraking. And guess what? They had a copy of The Pirates of Pompeii!

Here is a picture of me (in sunglasses and a turtleneck) holding that famous volume of hippie/beatnik literature in front of a door which is labelled I AM THE DOOR. I went with my brother Dan last week and we wandered around for a happy hour. At one point Dan saw a copy of a book called STEAL THIS BOOK by a hippie called Abbie Hoffman (a man). Dan tried to steal it, but the staff got very upset and he had to put it back... (Just joking! *hee*)

Just outside City Lights Bookstore is the famous Transamerica Pyramid. And that interesting green building to the right of it is owned by movie director Francis Ford Coppola. There is an Italian restaurant called Café Zoetrope there. Coppola also owns a vineyard in the Napa Valley.

One day I would like to own a vineyard. Or maybe a bookshop. One day I might even write some Hippie Mysteries.

I love San Francisco (never call it 'Frisco') and I would move there like a shot if it weren't so darned far from Italy and Greece and the British Museum. Also, it has all those pesky hills!

Still, maybe one day...

[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. I have also written some Western Mysteries (set in the Wild West) and the Roman Quests series, a follow-on from the Roman Mysteries set in Roman Britain.]

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Roman Mysteries in San Francisco

I wasn't planning to do any events while on holiday in California last week, but when San Francisco Latin teacher Bill Jennings sent me a cheerful email saying how much he liked my books, I couldn't resist. I offered to come speak at Convent of the Sacred Heart Elementary School and he accepted. He even put up pictures of the school on his great BLOG so that I could find it more easily.

A week of 80 degree heat had just ended and it was raining on the morning of Friday 18 March when my husband Richard and I took BART from Fremont into San Francisco. We found out that Sacred Heart Convent School for Girls is in one of San Francisco's most beautiful areas, the quiet residential area called Pacific Heights. The building is so beautiful and famous that it is listed in most guide books.

The lucky girls who attend have daily stunning views of the San Francisco Bay with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. When we arrived we were warmly welcomed by Anne Wachter, the gracious head teacher of the school. She let Richard choose a spot at the end of the salon to sit and paint a watercolour. Then she took me across the street to Herbst House where I met Latin teacher Bill Jennings and his charming students.

For about 45 minutes I told them how I came up with the idea for the Roman Mysteries and how I get ideas from Garfield cartoons, my family and the Cambridge Latin Course. The girls were a fab audience and laughed in all the right places. I look forward to hearing from some of them and want to give a special hello to Catherine, who introduced my books to Mr Jennings. As her reward, she will receive a FREE copy of The Colossus of Rhodes, only just out in England and not due out in America for at least a year.

Maximas gratias tibi ago, Magister Jennings!

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Colossus of Rhodes!

FAIL! No straddling!
by Caroline Lawrence (author of The Roman Mysteries)

OK. Let's get one thing straight.

Fun though that might have been: sailing underneath and looking up as you entered the harbour. He probably stood in a sanctuary on a hill behind Rhodes Town where he could have been seen for miles.

Before I tell you some TRUE facts, let me correct some common misconceptions about Rhodes and the Colossus. (BTW, Colossus just means a "colossal" or "massive" figure.)

1. He did NOT straddle the harbour.
[They didn't have the technology]
2. He did NOT wear nappies/tunic.
[He would have been nude]
3. He was NOT based on Statue of Liberty.
[It was based on HIM!]
4. He is NOT still standing today.
[He was toppled, & later chopped up for scrap & carried away]
5. He did NOT have a big old beard.
[unlike this early cover version (left) for The Colossus of Rhodes]

Here are some TRUE facts about the massive statue and the island of Rhodes.

FAIL! (too small)
(I get most of these facts from Pliny the Elder, who wrote about the Colossus in his Natural History, book 34, section 18. You can check these facts in the Loeb edition, which has Latin on the left hand page and English on the right.)

I. It represented the Sun god (fuit Solis colossus)
II. It was built c. 292 BC by the sculptor Chares of Lindus
III. It probably had spikes on its head, representing rays of the sun.
IV. It was 105 feet high (LXX cubitorum altitudinis)
[The Statue of Liberty from her heels to the top of her head is 111 feet high. ]
V. It only stood for 66 years...
VI. ...then was toppled by an earthquake.
VII. Even in chunks on the ground it was considered one of the 'Seven Sights'
VIII. Few people were tall enough to circle the thumb with both arms. [Did you know your arms outstretched roughly equals your height?]
IX. People could walk around inside the hollow parts on the ground.
X. There were hundreds of other colossi in Rhodes Town, the capital city of the island.
XI. There was a colossal statue in Rome based on this statue of the sun. [It was originally a statue of Nero but after his death the head was changed!]
XII. The Flavian Amphitheatre was called the Colosseum after the Roman Colossus nearby.

YAY! Ben Lloyd-Hughes is "Floppy"
Here are some more surprising facts about Rhodes.
I. It was a base of slave trading in Roman times
2. It had a population of small deer...
3. ...imported upon the advice of an oracle...
4. rid Rhodes of an infestation of snakes!
5. A Greek poet called Apollonius came from Rhodes
6. He wrote an epic poem about Jason called the Argonautica
7. The walking bronze giant Talus in this poem might be based on the colossus in the Argonautica
8. In the 1st century AD a young Roman began to write his own Argonautica in Latin verse
9. His name was Gaius Valerius Flaccus (Flaccus means "Floppy")
10. He appears in the Roman Mysteries TV series and books

You can enjoy an exciting mystery involving a trip to Rhodes, the slave-trade and a thrilling fight atop the Colossus if you read The Colossus of Rhodes or watch season 2 of the Roman Mysteries TV series.

Marco Polo Mansion in Old Rhodes Town, where I stayed during my 2003 research trip

[Roman Mystery 9 - The Colossus of Rhodes - and Roman Mystery 10 - The Fugitive from Corinth - are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Greeks as a topic in Key Stage 2. The glossy BBC Roman Mysteries TV series did adaptations of both these books.]

Read a Classicist's review of The Colossus of Rhodes book/TV and The Fugitive from Corinth TV episode.

Monday, March 14, 2005

A visit to Amphora Wines

Early one Thursday morning we leave an icy apartment (broken boiler) and a cold grey city (London mid-March). Twelve hours later we are banking over the San Francisco Bay where the temperature is in the high 80's and dry. Hallelujah!

The weather is still beautiful for a weekend trip up to Cloverdale, where my sister Jennifer and her husband Dave have a weekend 'cottage'. Surrounded by ancient oaks, pines and redwoods, the house is a work-in-progress but has a guest barn, pool, patio and hot-tub. It also has stunning views over the Alexander Valley.

My brother Dan and his wife Meredith join us and on Saturday we do an impromptu wine tour of the nearby Dry Creek Valley. In the course of a perfect afternoon we visit seven fabulous vineyards: Fritz, Lake Sonoma Winery, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards, Preston, Bella, Raymond Burr Vineyards, and Amphora. Each of these wineries has something special to offer. Fritz gives us a warm welcome and a stunning ruby Carignane. Lake Sonoma Winery has amazing views over vineyards and olive trees on the surrounding hills, startlingly green after last month's rains. Here we eat a picnic lunch under a white canvas parasol. Ferrari-Carano looks like a villa in the middle of Tuscany; it also has stunning cellars and formal gardens. Preston Winery has its own home-grown olives for sale, also a great Barbera. The tasting at Bella Vineyards takes place in a smooth, hobbit-like cave blasted deep into Lily Hill, whose grapes (growing overhead) contribute to a memorable Zinfandel.

Raymond Burr was a famous actor. He appeared in an American TV show called Perry Mason. Europeans might know him better from the classic Hitchcock film, Rear Window, in which he played the baddie! We get the warmest welcome so far at his winery, Raymond Burr Vineyards, where we are encouraged to sit at a table in the shade and drink our wines as we read about his life. Here is one of my favourite quotes from the info sheet about him. 'By some coincidence, and not a little skill, the Raymond Burr Cabernets are very like the man: big, full of gusto, complex and jubliantly alive.' We are very 'mellow' by this time and I buy a 1999 Cabernet described as sleek and focused, black cherry, black currant, vanilla and chocolate... Who could resist?

It is late by now, after 4.00 pm, but I really want to go to a Winery called Amphora. Why? Because of the name, of course! We have no clue what it will be like.

The sun is sinking in the west and the light is golden as we turn off the main road and take an unpaved, straight road which dips and then rises like a roller coaster. There are vineyards on either side, bare and twisted, like tiny charred scare-crows. Later I have a close look and see the first pale green grape leaves blossoming in the blackened vines.

As we approach a ramshackle white building with several outbuildings and tanks, I remark that it doesn't look very impressive. 'Don't worry,' says my brother Dan. 'A lot of the best wineries in Napa look like this.' He hops out of the car to see if it's open and a few moments later beckons us down.

We find two other couples sitting at a wooden picnic table covered with a white cloth. They are enjoying wine so dark it's almost black in the warmth of the late afternoon.

The owner of the winery, Rick Hutchinson, appears. He is a round-headed man with an indelible grin. He wears glasses and a baseball cap with the name AMPHORA on it. Rick is of indeterminate age; could be anywhere from 30 to 60 years old. At one point he jokingly claims to be 86 but later shows us his driver's license; he's not quite 50.

'Why did you call your winery Amphora,' I ask, as he guides us into his tiny cellar. 'Did you study Latin at school?'

'I barely finished high school,' he laughs. 'A few years ago I took some pottery clases. One of our assignments was to copy an ancient form of vase. I saw some amphoras in a book and fell in love with their shapes.' Rick gestures towards a wall covered with photos, mostly of pretty young girls in shorts treading grapes, their legs stained pink. (You can read a fun article about the female treading HERE)

Among the photos of pink-thighed girls are some photos of various amphoras he's made. I can see now they're not ancient because they are finished with an attractive marbled glaze. Ancient amphoras were never glazed, as far as I know, because they had to breathe.

His cellar or cave (say it with a French accent) is a cramped space with a wooden counter on one side and dozens of oak barrels the other. Each barrel seems to have a different provenance; I notice one from Hungary. Crowded along the wooden counter are his five wines: a spicy, purple Zinfandel, a beefy Cabernet Sauvignon, an indecently earthy Merlot, a seductive Syrah and an irresistable Petite Sirah. You are supposed to just sip a little of the wine when you are tasting, and then toss the rest into a 'spit bucket'. At Amphora Winery we see no spit bucket. Rick is drinking along with the rest of us. When he wants to try another wine he just chucks his dregs out the doorway, towards the couples sitting at the picnic table.

Rick's wines really are fabulous. They have something different about them. Later on we discover what the secret ingredient is: Rick Hutchinson. When we move up a dusty slope to another shed to taste from the barrels of wine from the 2004 harvest, Rick dips a hollow glass tube into the barrel, sucks on it until it is full of purple wine, then siphons a little off into each of our glasses. He sips from his own glass before pouring the extra back into the barrel! 'Never mind,' he grins. 'Human pathogens don't survive fermenting wine.' He is telling us stories and flirting with some pretty girls who have just arrived and he has us in stitches. 'This 2004 Zinfandel,' he says, 'is like a high-school student who has just graduated but hasn't yet decided where to go to University. It still has its whole life ahead of it and it's not quite sure how it will develop.'

This naturally brings us to a discussion of the film Sideways which is bound to come up. 'I didn't particularly like the film,' admits Rick, 'but I loved the seduction scene on the porch, where Miles and Maya are discussing wine. I've played both parts. I especially like what Maya says about how wine is always developing and changing...'

Then Rick leaves us to attend to some very pretty women, one of whom has a chihuahua in her purse. He really reminds me of a satyr, a grinning cheerful bon vivant who especially loves women and wine. Earlier, he had told us about seven beautiful undergraduates from Berkeley who came to tread grapes for him one afternoon and became so enthusiastic that they shed every stitch of clothing. Later, as a thank-you present to Rick, they painted their naked bodies and rolled on giant sheets of artist's paper. This image will become the label for Rick's latest wine, Seven Sisters, under his new Kylix trademark. I can't wait to see that one.

Believe it or not, I haven't told you the best bits about Rick Hutchinson; he's definitely going to be a character in a future book and I wouldn't want to spoil it for you!

P.S. You can find out more about Amphora Winery at

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

California here we come!

Hmmmn. The life of a writer is pretty dull. Outside that is.

Lots of exciting stuff is happening early every morning between me and my keyboard. I haven't enjoyed writing a book so much since I was working on The Pirates of Pompeii. And coincidentally this book (The Sirens of Surrentum) is also set at the Villa Limona and has one of my fave characters: Felix!

We are off to California tomorrow for two weeks holiday with my family. Of course I will take my laptop and continue to disappear to Sorrento for a few hours every morning.

One of my fans (you know who you are) has requested an... erm... baby picture... so here is a very exciting photo of me and my little sister Jennifer and my brother Dan! We were a bit younger then.

I just realised that I have always been a bit bossy like Flavia and that Dan is easy-going and likeable like Jonathan and my sister is cute and good with plants and animals just like Nubia.

So where did Lupus come from?

Answer: we all have a little Lupus inside us!