Ancient and Modern

Just got back from holiday. I did something amazing this year – voluntarily went to sea on an actual ship! I’m not a good sailor, but the Aegean was relatively calm, and the ship lovely and comfortable. We flew to Istanbul, cruised through the Aegean, visiting Lemnos, Izmir, Skiathos, Delos, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete and Nauplia, and ended the tour at Athens. It was a wonderful, and rather luxurious, way to cram in a lot of history in the space of two short weeks.

One reason for this particular visit was that I really wanted to see Ephesus, because there are some scenes set there in this novel I am writing. ┬áIt is a wonderful site. Most of the ruins there are Roman, dating to the first century AD, and some of the places we visited would have been known to St Paul, St Luke and their colleagues in the early church. For example, here’s the road that leads down to the harbour that the apostles would have sailed from. What harbour? OK, it has long since silted up.

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The tour company, Voyages to Antiquity, always have visiting lecturers on the ship. Dr James Morwood and Dr Thomas Mannack, both from the University of Oxford, were on board, and taught us a lot about the Classical Greek and ancient world we were visiting.

And we discussed this lady; Artemis of Ephesus, who vexed St Paul considerably, and who appears in my story:

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There has been much discussion about the rows of bead-like objects she has slung around her torso. Are they breasts? bull testes? eggs? Dr Mannack is convinced they are dates. Which makes sense, as Artemis was a goddess of fertility and fruitfulness.

Also on the tour I was looking out for details about modern Turkey. It was important to try Turkish tea, for example, and to see the landscape and describe how people are dressed.

While lounging on deck, I learned a lot about the more recent history of the region by reading Louis de Berniere’s novel Birds Without Wings, which is set in the declining Ottoman empire of the early 20th century, and explains much of the animosity between the Turks and the Greeks – a distinction which the Ottoman people would not have made. For example, I learned that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the “father of the Turkish nation” was born in what is now Thessaloniki, which belongs to Greece. Was he even Turkish at all? Well, that depends…

Our last day on the Turkish part of the trip was spent in Pergamon; the home of: a famous library, the first books on parchment, and the second century AD physician, Galen. He makes a cameo appearance in my story. Here’s the Asklepion, or hospital, of Pergamon, which we understood was something like a modern spa resort, with baths, massages, medical treatments and some psychological therapies too.

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I learned so much. What a fantastic way to research a novel!

Poetry Book Fair

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Yesterday was a wonderful poetic day in London. The Poetry Book Fair, masterminded by Charles Boyle, put on a great show at Conway Hall. There were dozens of poetry presses there with their books – from Bloodaxe and Picador to the tiny hand-made publishers. I got to talk to a few of the ones in between; Kirsten Irving & John Stone from Fuselit, Todd Swift from Eyewear, Helena Nelson from HappenStance, Maria McCarthy from Cultured Llama, and Karen Mosman from Two Rivers Press.

But the biggest shout out has to go to Adele Ward and Mike Fortune-Wood at Ward Wood, who have a decent number of other poetry books on their list, but kindly donated their half-hour reading slot to four of us from the Royal Holloway MA course. Ward Wood publishes the “Bedford Square” anthology of new writing from the course every year. It was a delight to share the stage with Sarah Nesbitt (and baby), Caroline Squire and Lavinia Singer. Also great to see such a lovely, and quite distinguished, audience at our reading.

And then in the evening, we decamped a few yards up the road to the Square Pig and Pen pub, where the readings continued.

As for the poets; well Hilda Sheehan and Bethany Pope were among the Cultured Llama readers. Christopher James was excellent for Arc Publishing, and do look out for Penny Boxall‘s book from Eyewear which is due out next February. What I liked about James and Boxall in particular was the quirky range of subjects they tackled. James on the Age of Hats was great, and Boxall, on three shipwrecked sailors who were all called Hugh Williams, inspired. They both get my WIST (Wish I’d Said That) award.

There are pictures on the Poetry Book Fair site of the rows of poetry book stalls and of some of the readers., proving that poetry publishing is lively, healthy and diverse. The photo above is one that Charles Boyle might not have known about; there was a Book Fair Fringe going on, in the cafe in Red Lion Square, just outside the venue. This is Nicholas Murray, reading from his collection from Melos; “Of Earth, Water, Air and Fire – animal poems”.

I WISH there were at least two of these events every year!