Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Day at Hay

The Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival is a big event here in Britain, so I was thrilled to be invited back.

Last time I went, in 2007, I met Peter Falk after our train broke down. This time the trains are OK. I am waiting to change trains on the platform at Newport (Wales) when I see a tall, good-looking guy dressed all in black standing on the platform. It is Anthony Horowitz, mega-successful children's writer by day, writer of Foyle's War TV series by night! He just about remembers me from some World Book Day events we did two years ago and we have a nice chat about movies and plot structure. We do a little dissection of Star Trek on the train, but then I have to get off at a place called Abergevenny while he goes on to Hereford, where a driver waits to take him to a posh hotel.

I get a taxi at Abergevenny, and it drives through the green Black Hills. Very scenic. £32 later we arrive at a beautiful stone building set among fields of green and sheep. Hey, I'm in a posh hotel, too! Peterstone Court. This is a billion times better than the B&B I stayed in last year, where the owner sneered at me because I couldn't figure out how to use the shower in the room. The staff here at Peterstone Court are lovely and I have a magnificent room with views and a big separate bathroom, almost like a suite. 'Is this mine?' I say. Apparently it is. I say a silent thank you to Orion's brilliant new publicity manager, Nina.

Emboldened by my luxurious surroundings, I order a Campari soda (it's 6.00pm) get a manicure in the spa downstairs, chill out in their 'relaxation room', then go outside to find a river running through woods at the bottom of the hotel's garden. It's a beautiful summer evening. Everything is brilliantly green and fresh. The brook babbles, the birds sing, sheep lift their heads to look at me. Sometimes the countryside is almost as nice as London!

My publicity director Nina arrives later with another Orion author, Marcus Sedgwick, and we have a lovely dinner in the hotel. Marcus's book My Sword Hand is Singing has been shortlisted for a bazillion awards. Kudos. We discuss movies, vampires, vampire movies... Back up in my room I tweak my powerpoint presentation, have a bubble bath and sleep like a fluffy rock... Until birdsong wakes me at 4.30am. Ah, the countryside.

Peterstone Court Hotel has wi-fi in the library only, which is actually quite nice. It makes checking your email a kind of social experience. A quiet sense of companionship as people tap away at their keyboards in the book-lined walls on leather sofas. I have breakfast with Marcus - delicious Welsh rarebit with bacon and lashings of Worcestershire sauce, the modern equivalent of ancient Roman garum. I show him some of my powerpoint show on my laptop and he says he talks about the same things when he visits schools: mythic structure, the hero's journey, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

A Hay driver comes and gets Nina and me; Marcus did his event yesterday and is back off to London. It's cold and grey today, raining hard. We arrive and scamper through the rain to the Green Room. It's not green and it's not a room. It's a big white marquee, like almost all the other 'buildings' at Hay. A lovely lady called Sophie takes us through the hub of activity that is Hay's central command centre to the venue for my talk.

It's a massive marquee with a lofty roof and seating for a bazillion people. Apparently Stephen Fry and David Frost can fill it but when I come out to do my talk it seems pretty empty. The rain is drumming on the roof and the wind makes the sides shudder. I have almost 400 people in my audience, but they seem a small crowd in this vast space. After my talk I sign copies of my new book, The Man from Pomegranate Street. It is literally hot off the press. I haven't even had my author's copy yet.

I sign for over an hour but then am hustled to the make-up tent to be made ready for Hay on Sky with Mariella Frostrop. I'm on the show with Anthony Horowitz and poet Roger McGough. They are both v. funny and witty. Earlier, we all chose three books we would take on holiday and are presented with copies of two of them. Anthony chooses a biography of Gordon Brown and a hot new children's book called The Ask and the Answer, because he loved the previous book. I choose Tom Holland's Millennium (in order to appear scholarly) and Myth and the Movies. Later, Anthony and I do a trade. (Not that we won't read the books we wanted) He takes Myth and the Movies and I take The Ask and the Answer.

Then it's off to the Discovery Tent to try something new: a 'live audiobook'. I read a passage from The Gladiators from Capua and kids aged 6 and up provide sound effects: bloodthirsty crowd, lions roaring, water organ, trumpets... It's fun! Then a bit more book signing, then back to the Green Room for a power nap. Ain't going to happen. It's buzzing in there. My friend Robert Muchamore arrives with his entourage. He is here to promote his latest book, Eagle Day. I'm a big fan and have a ticket for his event at 4.00. He kindly promised me a lift all the way back to London. (He asked his publishers for a car to take him to and from Hay... and got it!)

His talk is great and gets all the required laughs for his edgy vocabulary and dry humour. I know he'll be at least an hour signing books so I go back to the green room to do some literary celeb-spotting. I run into the gorgeous and witty Jasper Fford on his way to a panel talk. I wish I could go hear him but if I do I might forfeit my lift home. I see lots of guys in orange in the green room. I also offer a fellow American my umbrella, and discover she is Irma Kurtz, a famous agony aunt, promoting her book Growing Old Disgracefully.

Robert and his lovely publicity manager Sarah arrive back at the tent and pretty soon we are driving through the green Welsh hills in a BMW with cream leather upholstery and a wonderful driver named Barry with half a case of Cava each in the boot. (That's how they pay you when you do an event at Hay-on-Wye) We discuss movies, writing and David Lean, who is an old passion of Robert's and a new one of mine. A gourmet meal at Burger King - first time I've eaten there in my whole life, I think - then home, Barry!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Mystery of the Latin Pillow

Or: The Curious Case of the Classical Cushion
by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries

It all started when a keen fan from Tasmania asked me to translate a cushion in her house.

This happens a lot.

Not necessarily being asked to parse a pillow, but I am often asked to help with Latin homework, compose mottoes and translate inscriptions.

Top Fan Julia had a tapestry cushion with Latin on it.
She diligently copied down the Latin and sent it to me:

Si vis me flere, Dolendum est

Telephe vel Peleu male si ipsi

dormitabo aut Mandata

on satis est pulchra

Ridentibus adrident, ita


The Latin looked extremely dodgy so before launching in on a translation, I did what any self-respecting scholar should always do first: I googled it. Sure enough, a search of si-vis-me-flere took me straight to several pages of chat about these pillows. It seems to be a few verses from Horace’s Ars Poetica, but badly garbled.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus AKA Horace was a poet who lived in the time of Julius Caesar and the first emperor Augustus. He is most famous for his Odes and Epodes and for coining the phrase Carpe diem! or 'Seize the day!' His Ars Poetica, 'The Art of Poetry', was actually a letter to a friend, written about 20 BC. A hundred or so years later, the orator Quintilian was the first one to call it the Ars Poetica. The Oxford Classical Dictionary describes it as ‘a most puzzling work … [saying] little that is worthy of Horace.’

So here we have an obscure passage from an obscure Latin treatise. The passage from which the pillow phrases are taken comes about a hundred lines into the letter. If you look at the cushion you can see phrases have been chopped and changed, words have lost initial letters or dropped out altogether.

Here is the non-garbled version:

Non satis est pulchra esse poemata: dulcia sunto
Et quocumque volent animum auditoris agunto.
Ut ridentibus adrident, ita flentibus adflent

humani vultus. Si vis me flere, dolendum est

primum ipsi tibi: tunc tua me infortunia laedent,

Telephe vel Peleu; male si mandata loqueris,

aut dormitabo aut ridebo: tristia maestum
vultum verba decent; iratum, plena minarum
ludentum lasciva, severum seria dictu.

And here is a rough translation:

It’s not enough for poems to be beautiful: they must be persuasive
and able to lead the soul of the hearer wherever they want.
As we grin among those who are smiling,
so we tend to well up around those who weep.
If you want me to cry, you yourself must first feel anguish
Then your misfortunes will move me, O Peleus or Telephus;
if you speak inappropriately, I will doze off or laugh out loud:
sad words require a mournful expression,
angry ones need a face full of menace,
Naughty words suit a playful mood,
serious words go with sober topics.

(By the way, Horace names Telephus and Peleus as examples of mythic characters tragic tales to tell. Telephus was a son of Hercules, famous for a fresco from Pompeii that shows him suckling from a deer. He had a miserable life which included suckling from said deer, being a beggar, almost sleeping with his mother, suffering for many years with a would not heal, etc. Peleus was a prince from Aegina – the island near Athens – and had to become an exile after accidentally killing his brother. Although he later became father of the great warrior Achilles, several tragedies were written about him.)

According to several online discussions, the guilty fabric is manufactured in China. But in the guise of cushions, upholstery, wall-hangings and curtains, it has found its way all over the world: Australia, Germany, Norway, Chile, Oxford, South Yorkshire and Tasmania.

I was at Alderley Edge School for Girls (Greater Manchester area) last week to talk about my series of books set in ancient Rome, when the librarian Ruth pointed at the heavy curtains in the hall. ‘Look!’ she said. ‘Latin curtains!’ I stepped closer and peered at the letters. Sure enough, it read: ‘Loqueris 
Si vis me flere…etc.’

If someone asks you to translate their cushion, and you recognise some of the words I’ve been talking about here, tell them it's garbled but that it says something like: ‘If you want to be a poet, laugh with those who laugh and cry with those who cry.’

How on earth a Chinese manufacturer got hold of the random and rather obscure piece of Latin poetry remains a mystery.

P.S. Someone has recently translated another piece of Latin gobbledygook – the famous lorem ipsum text filler – into English.

[The Roman Mysteries are perfect for children aged 9+. Carrying on from the Roman Mysteries, the Roman Quests series set in Roman Britain launched in May 2016 with Escape from Rome.]

Monday, May 18, 2009

Hadrian's Tweet

Euge! Yay! I’ve just heard I won the Hadrian’s Wall Twitter Writing Competition! This is very timely because I'm just in the middle of writing a spin-off of my Roman Mysteries series, a YA novel called Brother of Jackals where the main character grows up in Vindolanda (near Hadrian's Wall).

The competition was part of a promotion by Hadrian's Wall Heritage Ltd to publicise The Living Frontier, a series of dramatic re-enactment events during the spring half term holiday of 2009. The challenge was to tweet about Hadrian’s Wall in 140 characters or less.

I immediately thought of W.H.Auden’s delightful poem, Roman Wall Blues.

Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W. H. Auden

So here was my TWEET (With apologies to Auden) in exactly 140 characters:

Mater: Finally @ Hadrians Wall. Lice in tunic. Cold in nose. Rainy, cold, grey. Nice local girls; bunkmate Piso worships a fish. Send socks.

The last is a reference to the famous Vindolanda tablets wherein a chilly-toed legionary begs his mum for socks.

My prize is a funky Roman iPod nano. Those clever Romans! Gratias ago (thanks) to the competition organisers.

I visited Hadrian's Wall for the first time last year, courtesy of Cogito Books. Must go back to watch some re-enactment events soon! You should, too!

P.S. You can 'tweet' me at
P.P.S. Tweet Hadrian at

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Storytelling in Star Trek

Narrative techniques used by the makers of Star Trek

Apart from the fact that one character is called Nero and another Tiberius (kind of) the new Star Trek film really doesn’t have anything to do with ancient Rome or The Roman Mysteries. So why a blog entry about it?

Because I love thinking about the craft of storytelling and Star Trek is an example of Hollywood storytelling at its best. Here are some of the tools the screenwriters used to make it fun, exciting and emotionally satisfying.

Caveat Lector: Spoilers adsunt!

1. RE-BOOTING - By invoking time travel, the makers of the franchise have pulled a brilliant coup. They've literally re-booted the whole series. The writers have taken the characters many of us know and love and by changing events in the future which affect the past they have given them the chance to start a whole new raft of adventures.

2. BREAKING THE RULES - In every sci-fi film ever made we all know that if you go back to the past and meet yourself, then the ENTIRE FABRIC OF THE SPACE TIME CONTINUUM will disintegrate. This film pulls a masterstroke by saying actually it's OK. This means wise old Spock can be a mentor to hot-blooded young Spock. This gives us potential for new set-ups and pay-offs we have rarely seen before.

3. RESPECTING & REFERENCING THE PAST – The original Kirk was randy and brash. The original Spock was logical and conflicted. Bones was a compassionate pessimist. Checkov had trouble pronouncing V’s. The film makers give nods to all these well-known traits of the characters we love, often in funny and clever ways. New fans won’t necessarily get the references, but old faithfuls will nod in approval.

4. HERO’S JOURNEY - The plot follows the classic steps of the Hero’s Journey, as articulated by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler and others: the Hero’s World, the Call to Adventure, the Refusal of the Call, the Mentor (Pike: ‘I dare you to do better’), Crossing the Threshold, Collection of Allies, the Training, etc… However, they aren’t afraid to abbreviate steps in order to keep the pace clipping along. The Training is dealt with in two seconds by the title: THREE YEARS LATER, then jumps to a scene which shows us how brilliantly Kirk has combined skills he learned with his rebellious think-outside-the-box nature.

5. SINK OR SWIM - By taking young recruits and promoting them very quickly we get both a VERY YOUNG CREW and also the SUSPENSE that comes with characters possibly out of their depth.

6. DRAMEDY - The term ‘dramedy’ is applied by some screenwriters to a tense scene is tempered or relieved by humour. This is done brilliantly in many places in the new Star Trek film, but especially in the scene where Kirk has trouble imparting life-or-death-info because his fingers and tongue are swollen by an injection. Bones: ‘You have numb tongue?’ This scene also works brilliantly because the funny obstacle also adds suspense.

7. ARCHETYPES – the film makers use some of our favourite archetypes from myth and legend. The Hero – Kirk - who serves and sacrifices. The Mentor – Pike, who tells the hero his capabilities and calls him to adventure. The Sidekick - Bones - who supports the hero and acts as his conscience. The Trickster or Funny one – Scotty – who does the impossible. The Wild One – Spock – the ally with a wild side who often starts out by battling the Hero. He is destined to become a Sidekick, but not in this story.

8. SCENE DEEPENING – stuff going on in the background adds depth to a scene. E.g. the lugubrious alien in the Iowa bar scene between Kirk and Uhura gives a delicious and funny depth to the scene.

9. SET-UPS & PAY-OFFS – ‘I might throw up on you,’ says Bones to Kirk soon after they meet. ‘I might throw up on you,’ says Kirk to Bones a few scenes later. (Sadly the set-up of a prize beagle transported into space is never paid off.)

10. SUBTEXTS & REVEALS - Whoa! Who's Uhura dating? It's unexpected but not too unexpected. Because they did set it up and for a few scenes there was a nice little subtext. (Subtext is when a character is hiding something and we sense it on an unconscious level. This gives a nice depth to characters.)

11. KEEPING ACTION SCENES SIMPLE - Even in a highly advanced society, nothing gets the pulse pounding like fist-fights (I counted four) and cliff-hangers (at least three). They are also a lot easier to follow than complicated Transformer-esque battles, etc.

12. USE OF SYMBOLS – to name just a few:
1. THE PHOENIX - Kirk is born out of flames, like a Phoenix. Also, the escape pod is expelled from the mother ship as he is expelled from his mother.
2. THE MOTORCYCLE - Put a guy in a leather jacket and on a motorcycle and it says: Rebel without a Cause.
3. THE UNIFORM - Kirk does not put on his Starfleet uniform until the very last few scenes, by then he's earned it.

However there were at least FIVE THINGS that didn’t work.

1. OLD SPOCK - When Kirk is sent to the ice planet and just happens to meet Spock – HUGE coincidence - this should be a powerfully moving moment, but isn’t. This might have something to do with Leonard Nimoy’s mushy diction: a case of bad false teeth.

2. NERO - We are not really interested in the villain or his motives. The attempt to give him a backstory of his own doesn’t really work. Villains are very hard to get right. My favourite villain of all time is probably The Mayor, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

3. LINGERING NEAR A BLACK HOLE – come ON! Everyone knows when a black hole starts you have to skedaddle!

4. NO REVELATION FOR THE HERO - My mentor John Truby talks about establishing your hero’s need at the beginning. This is something in the hero that needs to change near the end, as the hero has a revelation about himself. Kirk’s need is to be less of a brash rebel and more a team player, Spock’s is to control his repressed human anger. Neither of them have a clear moment when they realise their need and then show that they’ve changed, (though there are hints). I think if these beats had been clearer the end of the story would have had more impact.

5. FLAT ENDING – the famous Star Trek monologue combined with the theme song at the very end of the film should have been a transcendent moment, but it was just kind of… flat. Why? Possibly the structure (see previous flaw)... but who knows? Will have to think about it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Watch the Roman Mysteries

Another chance to catch up on the CBBC TV series!

You can watch it today and every weekday from 1.00 to 1.30pm on CBBC. Missed an episode? You can catch up on iPlayer up to a week after.
(left: Velislav Pavlov)

The stories are not quite the same as those in my books, but the series still gives a great idea of the 'look' of ancient Rome and the four main characters are pretty much as they are in my head. Here are some of my other favourites:

I. Admiral Pliny, played by Simon Callow
II. Titus Tascius Pomponianus, played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths
III. Susannah bat Jonah, played by Liz May Brice
IV. Delilah, played by Sana Kassous
V. Pliny the Younger, played by Mark Wells
VI. Domitian, played by Duncan Duff
VII. Mendusa, played by Valentina Mizzi
VIII. Melissa, priestess of Apollo, played by Claire Agius
IX. Brutus, scary member of the vigiles, played by Velislav Pavlov
X. Marcus Artorius Bato, played by Tom Harper
XI. Gaius Valerius Flaccus (AKA 'Floppy'), played by Ben Lloyd-Hughes
XII. Floridius, dealer in sacred chickens, played by Mark Benton.
(Floridius is such a good character that I am currently writing a Roman Mysteries Mini-Mystery about him. You can see him in the clip below making the hand gestures, then pointing and grinning...)

Oh, and if you can't see the TV series, you can buy the DVDs of both seasons on

Enjoy it!