Thursday, 6 January 2011

I, Claudius and Claudius the God

I was so enjoying the Radio 4 adaptation of one of my favourite English novels, I, Claudius, thinking that Derek Jacobi was magnificent as Augustus and Tom Goodman-Hill brilliant as Claudius. Perhaps it should have ended, however, as the book effectively does, with episode 5 when, in fulfilment of the sibyl's prophecy, Claudius gains the "gift that all desire but he."

To tack on to the end of it the entire subject matter of Claudius the God (to my mind, a masterpiece in its own right), summarising it in a single episode, is rather akin to staging an abridged version of Henry V (minus its greatest speech) as Act 6 of Henry IV, Part 2. Missing is all the wonderful humour of the correspondence between Claudius and Herod Agrippa, under the pseudonyms of "Marmoset" and "Brigand." Missing, too, is Claudius's insistence, in his later life, on playing the role of "King Log" and, with it, the true significance of the murder (covered all too briefly in the adaptation) of the prostitute, Calpurnia, who has been Claudius's most loyal friend throughout his adult life. For me, his failure (as the most powerful man on Earth) to lift a little finger to protect her marks the moment at which the loss of his humanity becomes manifest. Perhaps that's the whole point: the gods are inhuman, and he is now one of them. But all of this is lost in the adaptation.

But perhaps it's unfair to blame Radio 4 (certainly I don't blame Robin Brooks): somehow these two great books seem to have become elided in the popular understanding, and this has been very much at the expense of the second, unfairly so, I think.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Highlights of 2010

Happy New Year!

I've acted on my first New Year's Resolution by moving my blog from my website ( to here, in order to allow for more interaction.

Naturally, I've been thinking about some of the highlights of the year that has just passed. It's been a great year for archaeology, for historical biography and for historical fiction.

Archaeologically, we have seen both a major new published study of Silbury Hill (by Jim Leary & David Field) and new research on the later (Roman) landscape around the monument. The possible discovery of an ancient timber circle close to Stonehenge remains somewhat uncertain, but an exciting prospect, nonetheless. Excavations at Fonteviot in Scotland have revealed an important Early Bronze Age tomb, whilst at Frome, in Somerset, the largest hoard of Roman coins ever recorded in the UK has been found.

In historical biography, Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra and Helen Castor's She Wolves; The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth both stand out, as does Bettany Hughes's The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life. All three make fantastic use of quite limited and ambiguous evidence to weave vivid tapestries of much misunderstood times. With only a few days to go, however, before the winners of the Costa Prize are announced, I'm rooting for Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne, which goes some considerable way to redefining what historical biography can achieve, combining, as it does, a biography of Montaigne himself with a stunningly accessible analysis of his contemporary relevance.

In historical fiction, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall won the Walter Scott Prize, having previously taken the Man Booker Prize in 2009. It's a groundbreaking work, which uses the present tense in a way that I don't think any writer of historical fiction has ever quite used it before, creating an unprecedented sense of immediacy in the tryst between the present and the past. Michelle Paver won the Guardian Prize for Childrens' Fiction for her Chronicles of Ancient Darkess series, set in the Mesolithic of Finland; a worthy successor to Rosemary Sutcliff, whose works inspired me as a child.

Neil MacGregor's Radio 4 Series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, certainly broke new ground in terms of showcasing the way in which physical objects, whether breathtaking works of art or humble functional tools, can illustrate a broad narrative of human change and development. Standing in the tradition of Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, it is all the more remarkable for its astute and skilful use of an old, rather than a new, medium.

Who knows what 2011 has in store for us? Plenty, I am sure!