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ORBIS, the Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, is pretty damn amazing:

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

That means you can plan your epic adventures as per the ancient world. What the hell are you waiting for? For me to get to Alexandria from the nearest Roman settlement Lindum (Lincoln) it would have taken about 56.5 days. Pirates might well have made that more – or just killed me outright.

(Via Medieval POC on Tumblr.)


Life & Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum


So, I finally managed to get to see this much talked-about exhibition at the British Museum. Though I’d never visited these two archeological sites in Italy, I have spent a fair bit of time reading up on them during research for Drakenfeld. There are very few places that give a near-perfect picture of daily life in the ancient world, as so few are preserved so immaculately. (I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog doesn’t know what happened at these two ancient sites in 79AD, so we’ll continue with that assumption! If you don’t then, um, spoilers. Or something.)

At these exhibitions – or at least ones I’ve been to at the British Museum – it seems as if the curators want to take visitors through a narrative, which I actually quite like. It’s better than just turning up somewhere and sifting through a pile of very lovely remains. The curators have gone to painful detail in order to allow audiences to understand what it was like to live in Pompeii and Herculaneum – and to show us that there are many similarities between modern and ancient cultures. They are like us, the exhibition reminds us, which of course makes the final part of the narrative so potent. That could have been you.

After getting a general overview of where these sites are to be found, and the kind of people and nationalities of those who lived there, we’re presented with modern representations of a dimly lit Roman atrium. Portraits, busts, mosaics and various items found in an atrium, all of which come from Pompeii, are on display. Branching out from here are further sections – cubiculum, triclinio and horto, and the trinkets found within. I’m reasonably familiar with these kinds of items, having hit the Met Museum in New York before, and the British Museum’s Roman sections a good few times. That said, what’s lovely about this exhibition in particular is the arrangement and context. This was life. This is what they did. This is what they used. Here’s the smutty statues they owned. I won’t go into detail on the items, because that sort of ruins the magic in some ways, but I’m always impressed by the level of sophistication of Ancient Rome. From their engineering to the sublime craftsmanship and ornate jewellery, there’s a level of attention to detail that stands up well against comparative items today – so they must truly have been things of awe and beauty 2,000 years ago.

But from here, once life is established, it proceeds through to death brought by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Bring reminded of the facts, the statistics, and of the sheer intensity of these eruptions, is humbling enough – and then of course we see the resin and plaster casts taken of the hollows in the ash. Families huddled together. Children cowering. Babies in the ‘pugilist pose’ as their tendons retracted after exposure to extreme temperature at the time of death. Their ghosts captured forever.

And then through to the gift shops, in which the amount of Roman tea towels, penis necklaces and books is mind-boggling. Not to mention the centurion rubber ducks.

Go there. It’s a brilliant exhibition. Entertaining, fascinating and humbling. Newspaper reviews here, here and here.

Image above taken from this Italian website.


PBS Arts: Off Book — Bad Behavior Online

“The internet is a powerful tool for communication, but it can sometimes be a double-edged sword. As most of us have seen or experienced, the internet can bring out the worst behavior in people, highlighting some of the cruelest and most hurtful aspects of humanity. Issues such as bullying online and trolling have garnered a lot of attention recently, prompting questions about who does, and should, regulate the internet, and what free speech means online.”


Wallander, Writing Misery

I’ve very much enjoyed the new season of Wallander, on the BBC. I prefer Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Kurt Wallander over any of the international versions. What’s more, this adaptation is visually beautiful. The unusual shots, the strange colour tone, the wonderful vistas – it’s immensely pleasing to the eye.

I am a big fan of Henning Mankell’s books, on which the series is based, and Branagh seems to fit the character perfectly. He might be a bit too handsome and lean, but in terms of the psychology, he’s there. There was an interesting interview a while ago where he talked about that misery:

And I felt as though my skin was sagging. I felt as though the gravitational weight of Wallander was starting to have an impact.’ When filming finished on the first season, Branagh had to recuperate. That is, undertake a burst of exercise, of stretching. ‘I felt as though I had to uncoil from this preoccupation with dark matter. And two weeks after I’d finished I felt about three inches taller and six inches slimmer.’

I wonder, though, why Wallander’s misery is so engaging. It goes way beyond feeling sorry for him – I remember reading one of the books years ago and the level of misery thrown at Wallander almost became comical. Maybe with crime series the audience has surrendered itself to expecting a certain level of blood and gore, yet that’s still not really what Wallander’s about. The gore is not dwelt upon, yet the mood remains intense and heavy throughout. When there is violence, it’s used sparingly but powerfully (I reckon there’s another blog to be written on that topic).

Is the appeal of such misery simply rooting for someone to do well in life? Is it the search for where someone’s breaking point can be found? As someone who creates characters, I find it difficult to create genuine Wallander-scale misery. Sure, bad things can happen to your characters – a relationship breakdown, loss of career, and so on – but this is something else entirely. This is relentlessly depressing, remarkably bleak stuff, yet it’s so engaging. It’s not merely misery for the sake of it, either – the misery is compelling, meaningful and conveys a sense of direction for Wallander’s character.

But how can such a depressing character be so successful? There’s no wish-fulfilment here, no happy endings for him. Where’s the appeal in this? I’m not sure I understand myself, but I would say that a lot of it is down to that part of the craft of writing that can’t be explained – both from Henning Mankell and the screenwriters who bring such misery to life (apparently Mankell has worked closely with the screenwriters). I find the new series irresistible, for its cinematography, acting, but most of all knowing that I’m going to be dragged into a dark place for a while. Such drama makes us feel something profound.


C. S. Lewis on Media Distortion

Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often and gravely deceived by school-stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey, the Kalevala, Beowulf, or Malory. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probable but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life’ …

Via Brain Pickings.


John Updike on Criticism

From the introduction of his 1977 book Picked-up Pieces, John Updike offers six rules on good reviewing (which, unfortunately assume the author is male):

My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio- fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

Whether or not it’s a good or bad trend (and being an author I’m bound to mention this point), I suspect too few reviewers of science fiction and fantasy fiction really seem to put much effort into point 1. Perhaps that’s because genre critics are fascinated with taxonomy and heritage, and end up trying to compare the book to others, rather than examining it in isolation. Maybe that’s just the nature of genre, though.

(Via Brainpickings.)


Roman Vindolanda

Roman Vindolanda is well worth your time. Just south of Hadrian’s Wall, it was a frontier fort and village, occupied for over 300 years. It’s constantly spurting archeological treasures, such as the famous Vindolanda Writing Tablets, which are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in the UK, and the oldest one written in Latin by a woman – anywhere. The museum is excellent, though doesn’t permit photographs unfortunately. I was so inspired, I very nearly bought a replica Roman helmet and sword. Very nearly.


On Private Writing

I’ve recently discovered Day One, a journal app for iPhone, iPad and MacBook. And because of Day One, I’ve also rediscovered the joys of private writing.

One of the things that I lost over the years, as a novelist, was the pleasure of unpublished writing. Now, of course, the joys of being published far outweigh that – I’m not even going to pretend otherwise. Having an audience of people who actually want to look at the things you put down on paper, that’s amazing.

But there’s a lot to be said about writing solely for myself.

I downloaded the app as an experiment in nature writing. One of the books I enjoyed so much last year was Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, which was a posthumous collection of observations and reflections ironically not intended for publication. As a result, they were very raw and honest, which came together as an utterly fascinating piece of literature. Inspired by that, I’ve started making my own broad sketches, thoughts of the natural world and so on. Sure, I used to have a writer’s notebook, but these days I ended up just firing emails to myself as reminders of thoughts – hardly ideal. And if I’m honest, even then I was conscious and hopeful that my writing might one day see publication in one form or another, that what I was writing would find an audience. Not so with using the Day One app.

Perhaps I grew out of reflection to some extent – or at least reflecting in quite the same way as I used to. Publishing deadlines probably do that to a writer. But the Day One app seems to fit so nicely into a busy life – I can make notes on the go, sync it in the cloud with my other devices, so I can pick it up and continue that line of thought at home. It inspires inward thought, and I don’t have to arse about with pen and paper while I’m at it.

And the important thing for any of these pieces of writing is that they are not for publication. Unlike a writer’s notebook, I never intend for any of these sketches to be seen by anyone other than me. Unlike a blog or Twitter, they’re not out there in the hope someone stumbles across them. It’s very liberating. It’s something of a relief, in fact, to be writing without the angst or the worry. It even seems a brief countercultural statement in an age where everyone likes to punt out a piece of writing online. Sure, this is all self-indulgent nonsense, but isn’t that what private writing is about?