Monday, 30 December 2013

Great Books of 2013: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Fourteen years into the 21st Century, it seems that some of the most interesting new work in historical fiction is concerned to make sense of the century that preceded it, from the perspective of our increasing distance. A frequently cited, if arbitrary, convention holds that any novel set sixty years or more before the time at which it was written counts as "historical fiction." That now includes both World Wars, and even the early stages of the Cold War. Writers of my generation and the next have the luxury of a backward glance that was denied to those who may have been considering their work in progress at the turn of 1913 and 1914.

Two of this year's releases seem to me to stand out as offering bold and refreshing new perspectives on the turbulent century that gave birth to us.

The first is Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (Doubleday), which follows the life (or lives) of Ursula Todd, born on a snowy evening in 1910.



Ursula undergoes a number of traumatic experiences, ranging from a complication at birth, through a childhood swimming accident and the Spanish Flu epidemic, to the London Blitz, any one of which could have claimed (or perhaps does claim) her life.

A mobile canteen in the London Blitz. Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

"Darkness falls" at the end of each of these episodes yet, in each case, this is followed by a revival of fortunes, a near-miraculous rescue or recovery, each one giving rise to a different set of choices and possibilities. She is given the chance to "live again," but not so much to learn from her mistakes as to explore, as none of us has the chance to explore in reality, the potential implications of alternative paths taken. Its true themes seem to me to be the contingency of history, and the role that chance plays in any human life, but, at each stage in the development of the narrative, one is so caught up in the story that its central conceit fades into the background, only to re-emerge when "darkness falls" again. It is the most thought-provoking novel I have read for some time, and probably the only one which manages to describe both the London Blitz and the Allied bombing of Berlin (in both cases meticulously researched) through the eyes of a single character.

Bomb damage in Berlin, 1945. Photo: Imperial War Museum (image is in the Public Domain).

The second is Meike Ziervogel's Magda (Salt), probably the bravest work of historical fiction I have ever read. Brave in that it takes, as its central character, the personality of Magda Goebbels.



Although German-born, Ziervogel has stated that this was a novel she could only have written in English, and it is, to my mind, inconceivable that such a novel could have been published twenty, or even ten, years ago. Perhaps the distance that makes it possible also makes a work (or works) such as this necessary? Joseph Goebbels and other members of the Nazi hierarchy have only very minor roles in the story, but Magda's viewpoint is not the only one we see.

The Goebbels family in 1942. Photo: Bundesarchive (image is in the Public Domain). Harald Quandt (in Luftwaffe uniform), Magda's son by an earlier marriage, was not actually present - his image was inserted later.

Her mother, interviewed by a Soviet officer in the aftermath of the war, comments on her childhood, whilst Magda's own daughter reveals her hopes, fears and naivety in the pages of a diary which reads, somehow, as a frighteningly distorted mirror-image of Anne Frank's. The novel does not attempt to make Magda Goebbels a truly sympathetic character, but it does seek to explore her psychology, the dynamics of her family, and the way in which dysfunctional relationships in one generation replicate and mutate in the next. The focus is very much on the personal rather than on the political, and is all the more disturbing by virtue of this.  Magda Goebbels may have been a monster, but here she is shown as a very ordinary, a very human monster, and most of us have met people (albeit in far less extraordinary circumstances) who are not so very different. "I was haunted by a recurring image," Ziervogel has said in an interview (www.theguardian.com/books/2013/sep/19/magda-goebbels-not-booker), "a long, pitch-dark shaft, at the top of which I was hovering. I knew that I had to get down there, deep inside myself, to access a historical truth." It is certainly not a light read, but it is short, succinct, and as deeply memorable as it is profoundly humane.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Great Books of 2013: The Struggle for Freedom in Historical Perspective

In the year in which the world said goodbye to the great icon of the struggle for freedom in the modern age, it seems appropriate to turn to the history of societies more remote from us in time for perspectives on this recurrent aspect of the human experience. Nelson Mandela managed to find a way forward in the struggle for freedom in his own country which also respected the natural human desire for peace and reconciliation, and conquered the desire for revenge which springs just as naturally from the darker recesses of the human psyche. Few leaders, historically, have been so successful.

Two of this year's historical fiction releases caught my eye as providing insights into the struggle for freedom, both of them taking their examples from the ancient world. Both, also, focus on regions and periods that are only sparsely documented, giving their authors free rein for the exercise of their literary imagination, using fictional rather than historical protagonists.

In T.E. Taylor's Zeus of Ithome (Crooked Cat Publications), the struggle for freedom is that of the people of Messenia (a corner of south-western Greece) against the Spartans in the 4th Century BC.



                      Messenia from the summit of Mount Ithome.

The protagonist, Diocles, is not, by training or inclination, a warrior, but a peasant, who has known nothing but a life of servitude. He becomes an outlaw when he goes to the aid of a friend who is attacked, killing the assailant, a Spartan. Fleeing into the wilderness in fear of his life, he is befriended by an older compatriot whose agenda is much more explicitly political. Diocles does not really choose the struggle for freedom (more than anything, he cares about his family and his sweetheart), rather it chooses him, and he is forced to follow the path of the warrior as his only hope of being reunited with those he loves. The book follows his progress as he learns to fight and forges alliances prior to returning to liberate his homeland. Since Diocles is barely more than a child at the beginning of the book, the story is as much a Bildungsroman as it is a war narrative: Diocles inevitably learns as much about himself as he does about the world around him.

The city of Messene, established as the capital of Messenia at the end of the conflict described in the novel. Mount Ithome, sacred to Zeus, is shown in the background.

Brennus of Garrigill, the protagonist of Nancy Jardine's After Whorl, Bran Reborn (Crooked Cat Publications), by contrast is a mature man, born to be a warrior, his whole identity tied up with that status even before the struggle for freedom begins.



The struggle for freedom in this instance is that of the Brigantian people of northern Britain, faced with the northward expansion of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD. This is also, in a sense, a Bildungsroman, but it deals with a very different stage in the protagonist's development. The "Whorl" of the title is a battle, one that has already been fought and (by the Britons) lost. Badly maimed in the battle, Brennus finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being dependent on a woman, Meaghan, the elderly healer who tends his wounds. She, in turn, become dependent on him, but this is a role for which he is ill prepared. With a significant price upon his head, he is also forced to adopt a new and humbler identity as Bran, a simple farmer and trader. When a stranger arrives with unwelcome news, his world falls apart completely. This novel is the second of a trilogy and, if the first, The Beltane Choice, (set against the same background of conflict between Romans and Britons) is a meditation on the theme of love, this one is a meditation on the theme of defeat, and on the possibility of resilience in the face of it.

Stanwick, one of the strongholds of the Brigantian people.

An Iron Age bronze relief in the form of a horse's head, from Stanwick.

Both novels offer an engaging human perspective on conflict, subjugation and resistance, from the point of view of ordinary people, rather than that of the great actors on the historical stage. Both, also, provide fascinating glimpses into events and circumstances about which the history books have little to tell us.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com. Kindle Edition only 77p/99c until Sunday 29th December.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Gifts and Greetings for Saturnalia

As promised, here are some of the specific gifts that were offered for Saturnalia, together with the greetings that accompanied them. They are taken from the 14th book of Epigrams by the poet Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis - 40-c104 AD), the full text of which can be read in English translation at www.tertullian.org/fathers/martial_epigrams_book14.htm. He lists a total of 223 possible gifts, each with an appropriate greeting to the recipient.

The greetings find parallels both in the messages that we write today in Christmas cards, and in the jokes that are found in Christmas crackers. Some of the gifts are valuable, others trivial, and humour clearly played a part in the choices made.

XVIII Nuts

Nuts seem a small risk, and not likely to be attended with much loss, yet such risk has often robbed the young of honour.

XXV Combs

Of what use will be this piece of box-wood, cut into so many teeth, and now presented to you, seeing that you have no hair.



XXXIX A Night-Lamp

I am a night-lamp, privy to the pleasures of the couch. Do whatever you please. I shall be silent.



XLIV A Wooden Candle-Stick

You see that I am a piece of wood. Unless you are careful of the flame, a great lamp will be made out of your candle-stick.

LXIX A Priapus of Pastry

If you wish to appease your hunger, you may eat this Priapus of ours. Even though you consume every part of it, you will not be the less pure.



LXX A Pig

The pig fed on acorns among foaming wild boars will afford you a merry Saturnalia.



LXXII A Sausage

The sausage which comes to you in mid-winter came to me before the seven days of the Saturnalia.

LXXIII A Parrot

I am a parrot, and am taught by you the names of others. I have learned of myself to say "Hail Caesar!"



CLXXIX Minerva in Silver

Tell me, fierce maiden-goddess, why, since you have a helmet and a spear, you have not also an aegis? "Caesar has it!"



Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Casting Light on Saturnalia: The Pagan Origins of the Modern Christmas



There is nothing in any of the four gospels to tell us that Jesus was born in December. Medieval theologians simply considered it likely, on the basis that God's plans must surely be perfect, and that a perfect plan would have the son of God conceived during the feast of the Passover, at the same moment in the calendar as his eventual sacrifice. The placing of Christmas at this time in the year, however, had another advantage, in that the new Christian festival could slip seamlessly into the place formerly occupied by the Pagan festival of Saturnalia.

The Month of December, from a 17th Century copy of a chronography of 354 AD. It shows a comic mask hanging above a table with dice.

Saturnalia honoured the god Saturn, whose temple in Rome stood on the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, directly below that of the city's chief god, Jupiter "The Greatest and Best."

The Temple of Saturn in Rome. Photo: Sailko (licensed under GNU).

It was supposedly a festival of joviality, during which serious business was suspended, masters waited on their slaves, and men of all classes donned the conical felt "liberty cap" of the freed slave. Eating and drinking played a key role: it was the custom to sacrifice a suckling pig, of which the god consumed only the bones and fat.

Statue of a Dioscure with a pileus, or "liberty cap." Photo: Carlomorino (image is in the Public Domain).

The Roman writer, Macrobius, whose life straddled the turn of the 4th and 5th Centuries AD, tells us that the festival was originally held on a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, and that this fell on the day before the winter solstice. Julius Caesar, however, added two days to the month of December, placing Saturnalia sixteen days before the Kalends, whilst the later addition of the Sigillaria extended the festivities to seven days. Macrobius shows us the conversations at the dinner parties that took place between twelve friends over the course of the seven days. He does not, however, show them waiting on their slaves, or even dining with them. Instead, having agreed with Seneca on the humanity of slaves, and on the importance of treating them humanely, they proceed to discuss the finer points of Virgil's Aeneid, whilst course after course arrives on their table, as if by magic! One wonders whether the "spirit" of the Roman Saturnalia, like that of the Victorian Christmas, was honoured as frequently in the breach as in the observance.

Sigillaria was the occasion for gift-giving, as described by the Roman poet, Martial:

"Now, while the knights and the lordly senators delight in the festive robe, and the cap of liberty is assumed by our Jupiter; and while the slave, as he rattles the dice-box, has no fear of the Aedile, seeing that the ponds are so nearly frozen, learn alternately what is allotted to the rich and to the poor. Let each make suitable presents to his friends. That these contributions of mine are follies and trifles, and even worse, who does not know? Or who denies what is so evident? But what can I do better, Saturn, on these days of pleasure, which your son himself has consecrated to you in compensation for the heaven from which he ejected you? Would you have me write of Thebes, or of Troy, or of the crimes of Mycenae? You reply, 'Play with nuts.' But I don't want to waste even nuts. reader, you may finish this book wherever you please, every subject is completed in a couple of lines."

Image of dice-players, from the Osteria della Via di Mercurio, Pompeii. Photo: Wolfgang Rieger (image is in the Public Domain).

Gifts listed include a sausage, a parrot, a pastry phallus and even "a barbarian basket ... from the painted Britons" but, then as now, some gifts were unwanted. Catullus's thank-you letter to his friend, Calvus, is hardly effusive:

"If I did not love you more than my eyes, most delightful Calvus, for your gift I should hate you ... for what have I done, or what have I said, that you should torment me so vilely with these poets? Great gods, what a horrible and accursed book ... you have sent to your Catullus, that he might die of boredom the livelong day of the Saturnalia, choicest of days."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.

You might like to look at these posts by my fellow authors participating in this seasonal blog-hop:


  1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
  2. Prue Batten : Casting Light....
  3. Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk  - Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  4. Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
  5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars. Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810/12
  6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
  7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
  8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark? Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
  10. Pauline Barclay  : Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
  11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
  12. David Pilling  :  Greek Fire -  Plus a Giveaway Prize!
  13. Debbie Young : Fear of the Dark
  14. Derek Birks  : Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
  15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
  16. Tim Hodkinson : Soltice@Newgrange
  17. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
  18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
  19. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
  20. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times
  21. Christina Courtenay : The Darkest Night of the Year
  22. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
  23. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
  24. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
  25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
  26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
  27. Lucienne Boyce : We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
  28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
  29. Sky Purington  :  How the Celts Cast Light on Current American Christmas Traditions
  30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Great Books of 2013: Sideways Glances at the English Landscape and Village Life

At this time of the year, I generally take a look back at those new books (mostly, but not exclusively, historical fiction) that have impressed me over the past twelve months. Inevitably, it is a somewhat eclectic list, driven by my personal tastes and limited to those books which I have so far got around to reading (those still sitting on my shelf "to be read" include Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch).

Two of this year's books stand out, in my mind, as explorations of aspects of the English countryside and traditional village life that can all too easily be sanitised and romanticised in fiction. The authors of these books, however, approach their subject matter with a subtle, original and nuanced sensitivity.

The first is Jim Crace's Booker short-listed Harvest (Picador), set in an unspecified time and place, but very clearly located within a familiar English rural milieu.



No identifiable towns or cities, monarchs or specific historical events are referred to. It matters little that the way of life and the language feel like they should belong in the 16th or 17th Century, whilst the central issue hanging over the heads of the characters (the enclosure of common land and the displacement of people in favour of more profitable sheep) seems to belong more to the 18th Century.

Fields near Watford Gap (photo: Stephen McKay, licensed under CCA). Jim Crace has described an epiphany moment, driving through this landscape and sensing it as being "absolutely drenched in narrative."

The real matter of the book is timeless. Communities are shown as inward-looking and suspicious of newcomers; characters allow innocent outsiders to be held up as scape-goats for crimes rather than see their guilty neighbours punished for them; they persecute refugees even down to the very moment when they themselves become refugees. The English village of the 16th Century had its pillory; the English city of the 21st Century sends bill-board vans to drive around the streets with racist slogans, telling immigrants to "go home." It is the similarities, rather than the differences, between past and present lives that are emphasised in a book that is fundamentally political - an "anti-pastoral" novel, as Oliver Neto describes it in The Oxonian Review (www.oxonianreview.org/wp/an-anti-pastoral-novel).

The Elizabethan Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire (image is in the public domain). Map-making plays an important symbolic role in Crace's novel.

The second book is Kristina Carlson's Mr Darwin's Gardener (Peirene Press), a book set in a very specific time and place (the Kent village of Downe in 1880), but with a similarly focussed gaze on the dynamics of a small, inward-looking community.



Charles Darwin, the village's most famous resident, is never a character on Carlson's page (and even the eponymous gardener is just one of many vividly sketched characters), but the changing view of the world that his theories represent, with the attendant loss of all the comfortable old certainties, hangs over the characters as surely as brutal economic realities hang over those of Crace's un-named village.

The village of Downe in 1886 (the image is in the Public Domain).

Heroes and villains are not a feature of either work. Flawed humanity predominates, with characters in whom we can all to readily (and often disconcertingly) catch glimpses of ourselves. The style of narration in the two books could hardly be more different. Crace narrates in the first person through the character of Walter Thirske (himself an outsider in the village), whilst Carlson flits like a songbird, from the branch of one view-point to the bough of another, in gloriously successful defiance of all the "rules" of creative writing.

The imaginative way in which language is used is, for me, a big part of the enjoyment of these two books, both of which I will read again and again. Crace has hinted that, if the story has a "location" at all, it lies within the Forest of Arden, and makes free use of the Shakespearean rhythms of iambic pentameter:

"Our humour ripens as the barley falls. It's safe to spread the gossip noisily, it's safe to bait and goad, Who's sharing wives? ... which blushing youngsters are the village spares?"

  "The village is aflame, but not with fire ... The air was swarming with anxieties ..."

Carlson's prose poetry (translated into English from her native Finnish by the mother and daughter team of Emily and Fleur Jeremiah) is altogether more free and modernist, but no less evocative for that:

"Edwin lopes along the road, picking his nose.
Jackdaws caw in the steeple:
grey morning! grey day! grey village! grey people!
the man's loping! like a dog! big dog! heavy paws! long muzzle!
the woman's flinging grain! to the chickens! the chickens, chickens, chickens! destined for the pot!"

Nicholas Lezard has compared Carlson's writing style to that of James Joyce (www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/25/mr-darwins-gardener-carlson-review), but Mr Darwin's Gardener is a much easier read than Ulysses, let alone Finnegan's Wake.

I am much the richer for having read both books, but should either be thought of as a work of "historical fiction"? It very much depends on how one defines the term. Real historical people and events lurk in the background of Carlson's book, but there they remain, in the shadows (some of the names are those of real villagers, but they are ordinary people about whom history tells us little, and whose personalities Carlson is consequently free to invent). On Crace's page, real historical people are nowhere to be found, not even in the darkest shadows.

Contrasting his project with that of Hilary Mantel, Crace himself has eschewed the stricter definitions of what "historical fiction" is. "I don't want facts," he insists (www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/aug/16/jim-crace-interview). "I want to make things up, and to dig deep into traditional storytelling to produce a tale that illustrates the subject matter I care about."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.




Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Man of "Bold Temerity:" The Military Career of Quintus Petilius Cerialis

Quintus Petilius Cerialis, one of the most remarkable Roman soldiers of the 1st Century AD, seems to have been born or adopted into a well-connected aristocratic family in around 30 AD. When he came of age, his father - whether natural or adopted, arranged for him a marriage that would change his life - to Flavia Domitilla the Younger, daughter of the successful general and future Emperor, Vespasian.

Cerialis had the misfortune, in 60 or 61 AD, to lose a legion, the IX Hispana, whose commander he was in Britain. Rushing to the defence of Colchester when it was besieged by Boudicca and her rebels, his 6000-strong force was massacred, almost to a man, somewhere on the fields of Suffolk or Essex, and he was lucky to escape with his life. The loss of a legion might have been considered careless, but his "bold temerity" (as described by Tacitus in his Annals) was certainly considered preferable to the undue caution (some would say cowardice) of Poenius Postumus, the camp prefect of the II Augusta, who kept his men safe within their fort at Exeter. Postumus committed suicide, Cerialis was advanced.

By the time of Nero's assassination in 68 AD, Cerialis's wife, Domitilla, had died, possibly in childbirth (their daughter may or may not have been the Christian saint of the same name), but his connection with her father was undiminished. Taken as a hostage by the Emperor Vitellius, Cerialis escaped "in the guise of a peasant," joined up with Vespasian's forces and played a key role in their capture of Rome.

These were perilous times, however, for the Roman Empire. In northern Britain, a faction of the Brigantes took advantage of the chaos of the "Year of Four Emperors" to overthrow their Queen, Cartimandua, and rise up against the Romans. In Germania, similarly, a native prince, Civilis, who had served in the Roman army, staged a rebellion, centred around the modern town of Nijmegan in the Netherlands. Vespasian appointed Cerialis to lead the Roman force against Civilis.

The Conspiracy of Civilis, as portrayed by Rembrandt in 1661. The rebel leader is shown, anachronistically, in the robes and crown of a Carolingian prince. (Image is in the Public Domain).

Civilis captured the flagship of Cerialis's river-fleet, and laid siege to the Roman garrison town of Xanten.

Replica of a Roman river-ship of the Classis Germanica in Mainz. Photo: Martin Balumann (licensed under GNU).

Xanten, a reconstruction of the gate. Photo: Bernd_B (licensed under CCA).

Xanten, a reconstruction of the walls. Photo: Magnus Manske (licensed under GNU).

Conscious of an earlier Germanic rebellion, in which four legions had been lost, Vespasian had equipped Cerialis with overwhelming force. The assurances of success that Civilis had received from the Prophetess Veleda (whose story I shall tell on another day) counted for nothing.

Under Nero, a rebel commander in these circumstances could have expected torture and public execution. Vespasian, however, was keen to establish a new set of precedents. Like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, he understood the value of magnanimity in victory (although, in common with them also, he exercised it selectively). Cerialis was authorised to negotiate peace with Civilis. The terms of this peace are not known, but both Civilis and Veleda appear to have escaped with their lives.

The Prophetess Veleda, as imagined by Charles Voillemot. Image is in the Public Domain.

Cerialis was ready for the next challenge of his career, as Governor of Britain from 71 AD to 74 AD, and he would go on, ultimately, to achieve the highest office in Rome below that of Emperor, serving as Consul in 83 AD, alongside Vespasian's son, the Emperor Domitian.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from www.amazon.co.uk and www.amazon.com.