“So many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it.” – Author Margaret George discusses The Confessions of Young Nero

“I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.”

WHAT: A mother’s deadly ambitions. A boy who would be sovereign. A name that would be infamous. This is the epic tale of Nero’s rise to power, a thrilling story of survival, betrayal, love, and the struggle for the Roman empire that would change history.”

WHO: Margaret George writes biographical novels about outsized historical characters: Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra, Mary Magdalene, Helen of Troy, and Elizabeth I. Her latest subject is covered in ‘The Confessions of Young Nero’ and ‘The Splendour Before The Dark’. Her novels have been ‘New York Times’ bestsellers, and the Cleopatra novel was made into an Emmy-nominated ABC-TV miniseries.

Margaret especially enjoys the research she has done for the novels, such as racing in an ancient Greek stadium, attending a gladiator training school in Rome, and studying the pharmacology of snake poison.

MORE? Here!


Why Nero?

Why Nero? It’s because I think of all the Roman emperors, he seemed more like a person that you know. He seemed very modern. He reminded me of so many people I know personally who want to be artists. How many people do you know like that? Children want to go to film school, they want to become playwrights, they want to write novels, they want to play music and their parents say “No, I really think you’d better go to law school”.

So he was very modern in that way. It just happened that the law school his parent wanted him to go to was being the Emperor. That’s not something you can refuse by saying, “Well I don’t care to go to law school, I don’t want to be a doctor.” When that happens, most parents usually say, “All right then, go off to New York and if you don’t make it in five years, you’re going to come crawling back and we’ll see about law school.”

In this case, so many people were killed to make Nero Emperor, it was kind of his destiny. He couldn’t opt out of it. That was what really made him so interesting to me. It made his character alive in a way that say, Septimius Severus or even Julius Caesar or any of those people, who didn’t have that other side, couldn’t be. That is where I got the idea of the three Neros from. The Augustus one that did his duty, the artist in him and, last of all, the third one that had to facilitate the other two.

I feel as if I’ve known a lot of Neros in my life, maybe I’m sort of a Nero too because I was lucky that I could write novels and make a living as an artist, but so few people can.

Of course, this was a real life story so it wasn’t up to me to come up with a plot for the sequel that was as good as the first one, because history itself has provided me with that plot. It was a tragedy, of course. I must be drawn to tragic figures because when I think about it, Mary Queen of Scots was executed, Cleopatra and Nero committed suicide, Helen of Troy caused a war where many people were killed, and I’ve written about all of them. Life is sad even if you’re an emperor.

I like to write novels that cover a whole life. I think that you can’t understand the adult until you’ve met their younger self. The modern thing is to do just a slice of the life. When I started out I wanted to write about Henry VIII. At the time most of the books and plays just focused on a small part, usually the Anne Boleyn part and / or the Thomas More part – but I thought, “you can’t understand those out of context, you have to know the person, how he grew up, what formed him, you can’t just leap into the middle of his life.” That’s what people do now, because of space, I think, which is understandable, but I think you wouldn’t know the grown- up Nero until you knew the child.

How did you find writing the story in the shadow of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels?

I am thankful that ‘I, Claudius’ is told from Claudius’ point of view. Thank goodness Robert Graves didn’t get to do too much about Nero, because I find myself, especially from the mini-series, I just can’t get out of my mind the images I have of the actors that played those roles. Livia will always be Siân Phillips and of course, Caligula will always be John Hurt to me. Had there been a continuation with a grown-up Nero, I would certainly have had trouble in battling that image in my mind.

[DL: It’s interesting that neither you or Robert Graves haven’t got very much nice to say about Seneca.]

Neither of us do, do we? You know there’s such a difference of opinion about Seneca. He’s rather a mystery. It’s the old problem – stay within an institution and try to improve it, work from within and do what you can, don’t desert the field— or do you quit like Thomas More and say, “I just can’t have anything to do with this.” Seneca chose the first path, though he’s criticized a lot for that. You can make a case for the fact that he tried, he didn’t desert the ship. But you can also make a case that he stayed because he was getting so fabulously rich from serving Nero.

Is rehabilitating the reputation of Nero the ultimate act of iconoclasm?

I found that people are the most resistant to rehabilitating Nero. More so than they were to Henry VIII, which is kind of surprising because Henry was so much closer to modern times. What I found in some of the reviews, and some of the comments, is that people really prefer the villain. I have a friend who’s trying to rehabilitate Richard III, but it’s really hard because that colourful kind of villain is so attractive. Even in my Mary Magdalene book, Maureen Dowd in the ‘New York Times’ said that we prefer the golden-haired reformed prostitute because she’s so visual, she’s so easy to identify with. The disciple is not as interesting.

I was a little naïve in thinking that I could change many people’s judgment about Nero. I can see now how entrenched these ideas are about him. Public Broadcasting System recently did a programme, a kind of rehabilitation, called ‘The Nero Files’ and I braced myself. In it forensic scientists examined the case against the crimes of Nero and concluded was that he didn’t do a lot of these purported things and we can prove it by scientific evidence, for example, that plant-based poisons, which is what they had in the ancient world, worked slowly and could not cause someone to drop dead instantly, as Britannicus did. I wonder if many people watched the show and if some were convinced.

[DL: There is, of course, one crime that Nero’s associated with which is his kicking to death of his Empress Poppaea and her unborn child. She is perhaps the most famous victim of domestic abuse in history…]

Many modern historians don’t think that happened, and even the ancients fudged about it. But even if it wasn’t really true, it is so much in the popular mind that there had to be a version of it in the novel that involved Nero, but was involuntary. I couldn’t just get away with the modern view that she was ill and she had had a miscarriage. I had to acknowledge the belief that blamed Nero. But the only way to answer it, without being accused of just dodging the whole thing, was to have it happen but have it be an accident.

I say in my author’s afterword that Nero was not known to take physical action against people, striking them or abusing them. So it’s out of character if he did that, especially to his wife whom he loved very much, and they both wanted children. There’s even a papyrus, a poem written in Egypt afterwards, about Nero and Poppaea and their love, and no mention of his injuring her.

One of the problems of being a historical novelist is that a real historian can say here are the theories: one, two, three, four and he can lay them all out for the reader. But, if you’re writing a novel it has to be consistent, and you can only choose one, just one, not a list of alternative theories. So, that’s the way I handled it.

Other famous events in his reign you really cannot get away from, such as the fire in Rome and his killing Agrippina— those things really happened. The only way I can handle those them is to try to give the reasons they happened, not pretend they didn’t.

Do you have a role in selecting the narrators of the audiobook editions of your
novels?

Long, long ago when they still had cassette tapes, I would preview tapes for books from the library for a long car trip, because if I didn’t like the sound of the narrator I knew I couldn’t stand listening to it for hours. Sometimes the narrator just isn’t right.

After a certain point in my publishing career, I got the right to select the readers and that makes such a difference. If someone doesn’t sound like Nero or doesn’t sound like what I think he sounds like, I think that it just won’t capture the spirit of the book.

[DL: Why was Susan Denaker, the reader for the poisoner Locusta, so noticeably an American? Steve West, the reader for Nero, only once gives his new-found Americanness away with his pronunciation of ‘herbs’.]

I really wanted the main characters to be British – because everybody knows—ha ha— that the ancient Romans spoke with British accents. At least they do in all the movies! I think Susan sounded like an older, canny woman, the other two proposed readers sounded either really spacey or weird or else way too prissy to be like I pictured Locusta— a wise, older, and very level headed and practical person, so I hope it wasn’t too jarring that she had a different accent.

Since Peter Ustinov is unavailable, who would you cast to play your Nero?

People think of Nero as so much older than he really was. Every time I give a talk and I say, “you know he didn’t live long – he died when he was 30”, people are shocked. They had no idea. I’d like the young Robert Redford, but the current actor I came up with is Joe Alwyn. He’s 28, he looks like the young Nero, and of course, he’s British so he has the right accent.

I thought it was brilliant Zeffirelli cast ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with actual teenagers. You get older actors playing teenaged parts sometimes and it just feels ‘off’. Since the death of Luke Perry, ‘90210‘ has been back in the news. But the actors playing teenagers in it were not teenagers. One woman was 30 and Luke Perry himself was 26 so I think that if you really want to get the real Nero, you had better ask an actor who is that age, and so Joe Alwyn is my choice and I hope he is available! If he’s not taken up with Taylor Swift! But yes I think he’ll be perfect but we’ve got to do it right away or he’ll soon be too old.

[DL: Is there anything in the works to bring the novels to the screen?]

No not yet. I do have an agent in Hollywood who is working very hard to find a way of bringing it to the screen because the streaming services, like Amazon and Netflix and now Apple, are budgeting billions of dollars to bring out new series. So I’m hoping that in this climate there will be an interest in Nero because of course, a mini-series offers so much more scope than a two-hour movie. I don’t see how you could get Nero’s story into a traditional 2-hour movie format.

Did Nero’s rule produce any lasting achievements?

Ah, that’s a good question. I’m not trying to dodge this, but let me frame it a little, and consider whether anybody has real lasting achievements. It’s very rare because often the person’s accomplishments, at least within a couple of centuries, get superseded or wiped out. Nero had great diplomatic success with that treaty of peace with Parthia. That lasted 50 years.

Longer term, I would say the beginning of urban planning is his lasting legacy. He was the first one to tackle this, as he had a clean slate after the devastating Great Fire of Rome, so he had an opportunity to put green space in the rebuilding plan of Rome. He also dictated that the new streets had to be a certain width. They had to have fire fighting equipment in each house and the walls had to be at least a yard apart with no more common walls, and they had to build with a certain kind of stone that was fire resistant. Of course, people grumbled about these restrictions but he could mandate them because he was the emperor. Today we accept the necessity of city planning, but it was a radical idea then.

I have a new issue of ‘National Geographic’ examining planning cities – what did China do wrong in the last 30 years and Los Angeles in the last 15 years? How do you shape urban spaces in cities? How do we learn from past mistakes so that we have pleasant places to live? I’d say that urban planning is Nero’s one legacy which he would be very surprised about. He was proud of it but it came to him by accident because of the fire. It’s not that he set out saying, “I think I will redesign a city.” He was too focused on a different kind of art.

I would also say perhaps preparing the way for Hadrian was a legacy. Nero was a bit ahead of his time. Later, Hadrian could grow a beard and be a Grecophile and be gay, be all kinds of things that Nero did and was pilloried for.

If you could possess any one item associated with Nero, what would you have?

I would like to have his very own cithara, I could have it enthroned in some kind of shrine because none have survived from his time, and it was a very difficult virtuoso instrument to master. I’ve seen statues of Apollo holding it and that way it’s like 3D; you can walk around it and see how big and boxy and bulky it was but I’d like to see the real thing.

I do have some things from Nero’s time. I have coins which I have collected and I do have some jewellery from that era that is wearable. That I love having because I know someone wore it when Nero was emperor. I have learnt so much about history through my coin collecting. I did it with Cleopatra too.

If you could ask Nero any question what would it be?

I assume by your question that that means he’d have a retrospective vision. Because if he knows what’s happened since I would ask him for an honest appraisal of his art. Would he make the same choices knowing how posterity has painted him? To answer he would have to know how posterity painted him.

In the book I have him saying, “Do I care enough to throw everything over for my art?” If he cannot know what happened after his life, I would still ask him toward the end of his life: if you could go back and do it all over again, will you throw everything over for your art?

You’ve got a one way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family, you’re not coming back, when and where are you taking them?

I’m never coming back? Then I would go to England at the time when Hadrian was building his wall, and it would be okay for me to stay there because my ancestors were all there, so I’m going back to my roots. That’s one reason I want to go, seriously, but the Roman Empire in Britain fascinates me. It’s odd that Britain ever was in the Roman Empire, but it was for 400 years, so it’s a bit like the EU and Britain. Were they ever really and truly in their hearts, part of it?

I’d like to see Roman Britain at its height. I want to live in one of those heated villas but that’s so far from Rome it’s almost a mythological place. I remember my father saying years and years ago when I was writing Henry VIII, that I ought to do a novel about the end of the Roman Empire in Britain because they just upped and left and it must have been very strange to have this suddenly happen for both sides. So that’s what I would do but I’d better take some warm clothes.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the library of Alexandria. Which do you pick?

I wouldn’t take the library of Alexandria because I’ve spent so much time in libraries lately, I need a change of scene. And I’m sure I’d have a great time with Hadrian and his entourage, but I would choose the Julius Caesar campaign. Now I hope, because I’m being magically transported back in time, this would mean that I could keep up with the rigors of the campaign as I would be a ramped up version of myself.

I became fascinated by Caesar when I saw him through Cleopatra’s eyes as I was writing about them. He’s such an extraordinary character and I am curious about his genius on campaigns. But he also had the trait of being easy going and tolerant of his soldiers. When some of them ran away in a key battle, he grabbed them by the shoulders, turned them around and said calmly, “the enemy is this way.” He was unique and I would just like to watch him in action.

Also, his campaigns were the beginning of Europe, when it was wild and untamed. I would like to experience that moment in time. When Augustus, (Octavian) and Antony split up the Roman Empire, Octavian got the bad part, he got Europe, and Antony got the rich part, the Eastern part. How things have changed!

What are you working on now, what’s next for you?

I would love to stay in the ancient world and as I said I really am drawn to Britain and Roman Empire Britain. I haven’t quite decided who is calling me to go there. I hear a few voices, but I’m not sure which one is absolutely the loudest–or the most beguiling. So I will demur on that until I know for sure.

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“I’m sure the circa 2008 red was distinctive because I had no expectations at all, yet it startled me.” – Author Kevin Begos discusses Tasting The Past

“Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.”

After a chance encounter with an obscure Middle Eastern red, journalist Kevin Begos embarked on a ten-year journey to seek out the origins of wine.* What he unearthed is a whole world of forgotten grapes, each with distinctive tastes and aromas, as well as the archaeologists, geneticists, chemists-even a paleobotanist-who are deciphering wine down to molecules of flavour. In his Tasting The Past we meet a young scientist who sets out to decode the DNA of every single wine grape in the world; a researcher who seeks to discover the wines that Caesar and Cleopatra drank; and an academic who has spent decades analyzing wine remains to pinpoint ancient vineyards. Science illuminates wine in ways no critic can, and it has demolished some of the most sacred dogmas of the industry: for example, well-known French grapes aren’t especially noble.

Kevin Begos is an award-winning writer in the fields of energy, science, wine, the environment, and everyday people. He’s been a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and was a Correspondent for The Associated Press. Among the many titles in which his work has been published are A Field Guide for Science Writers, Scientific American, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Tablet, and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1992 Kevin conceived and published one of the first ever electronic books. The archive of papers from that pioneering project, undertaken 18 years before the invention of the iPad, are now held at the Bodleian Library.

*In the time since Kevin’s first encounter with the mysterious red in a Jordanian hotel room, Cremisan wines have been brought to wider attention through the critical praise of iconic restauranteur Yotam Ottolenghi and his sommeliers.

Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor & the Search for the Origins of Wine was published in June 2018 by Algonquin Books. To find out more click here.


Why Tasting the Past?

I hoped to evoke three things: my original quest for a wine that I was never able to taste again; then my search for ancient grape varieties; finally an allusion to Proust.

This is the story of an encounter that became an obsession. At what point did you know for certain that you were actually writing a book?

2014, when I saw that the Cremisan wine could be part of a larger narrative.

Where was wine first produced?

At the moment evidence points towards the Caucasus Mountain region about 8 to 10,000 years ago, but there are vast areas along the Silk Road to the East that really haven’t been properly explored. The Chinese may have drunk a different type of wine even earlier.

If I could meet anyone from history, I’d like to meet the nameless individual who constructed the first shelf – the first artificial surface atop two brackets. What made them think of a shelf? What did they use it for? How did others react to the innovation? Is there a similar figure, lost in the mists of early wine technology and culture whom you would like to encounter?

The person who realized that some vines were self-pollinating hermaphrodites that always produce grapes. I’d call that the first domestication.

What’s the single worst / most disruptive thing to happen to wine since phylloxera?

The Napa Valley? OK, I am being bad. But I think that mad yet very successful focus on just a few French grape varieties influenced wine markets around the world, and not in a good way.

You’re castaway on a desert island. You have with you eight bottles of wine. What are they and why?

  1. The Cremisan Jandali/Hamdani white, because it connects me to the Cremisan red I will never taste again.
  2. COS Pithos Bianco, a complex orange/amphora wine from Sicily that suggests what the Romans might have drunk.
  3. Anything from Alaverdi Monastery in Georgia. Beautiful wines, and they are making heroic efforts to save local native grapes.
  4. Loup D’Or from Deidre Heekin. Her wines are often wildly surprising, and this one uses hybrid American grapes.
  5. “Our Wine” Rkatsiteli from Georgia. Gloriously primitive winemaking.
  6. Taylor Fladgate 20 Tawny Port. Because I love port but won’t have a fabulously expensive older bottle on hand when I get stranded (see next note).
  7. A pre-phylloxera bottle of Lafite Rothschild. Because I sold everything to buy it and became a castaway.
  8. A Rhone Syrah, because I love Syrah and find so many surprises among producers there.

Honestly, was the Israeli/Palestinian, pre-commercial vintage of Cremisan wine you encountered at the start of your journey any good or were you sampling with rose-tinted tastebuds?

I’m sure the circa 2008 red was distinctive because I had no expectations at all, yet it startled me. Their winemaker then had been at Cremisan for many decades, and others say he really knew what he was doing.

On the day you come to supreme power what’s the first law you’ll decree in relation to wine?

Everyone has to try an unfiltered amphora/orange wine at least once.

You published one of the first e-books, Agrippa (1992). It’s kind of like hearing that President Grant was issued a $20 speeding ticket in 1872. How did you one go about publishing an e-Book in the late 20th century?

I did it either very badly or fabulously well, opinions differ. In the beginning, I didn’t have the faintest idea how to create an e-book. An idle comment turned into a wild obsession, then a few programmers/hackers made it happen, notably John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore, and one person who chose to remain anonymous.

What’s next for you?

Either a medieval poet or Darwin and orchids.


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“It’s too easy to depict the women as the only victims of the ambition and cruelty that pervaded the dynasty.” – Author Guy de la Bédoyère discusses Domina

“Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature…”

Notorious. What other word can encompass the lives led by the women of the Julio-Claudian dynasty? As Rome morphed from a Republic to an Empire under the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero their wives and mothers took centre stage. With varying profiles of courage, ruthlessness, and skill women such as Livia, Octavia, as well as the elder and younger Agrippina, emerged as the true backbone of the dynasty. Their stories are familiar from the pages of I, Claudius. The various and nefarious paths each woman took to power are chronicled in Guy de la Bedoyere’s Domina, a behind-the-scenes tour of the machinery and chicanery that really made the Roman Empire tick.

Guy de la Bédoyère was born in Wimbledon and studied Archaeology and History at the Universities of Durham and London. Starting in 1998 he appeared regularly on the Channel 4 archaeological television series Time Team. That same year he became a freelance writer and broadcaster. In addition to his many respected studies of the Romans, especially during their occupation of Britain, Guy has published books chronicling the lives and friendship of the diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.

Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome was published in September 2018 by Yale University Press. To find out more click here.


Why ‘Domina’?

Domina was the formal name for the female head of a household. Indeed, it comes from the word for a house, domus. The senior women of the imperial family were addressed by that title though some were also called Augusta if they had been given that title (not all empresses were). Domina covers all of them.

Roman women ran the household, many of which were staffed by people held as slaves. Why are we still surprised that Roman women knew how to successfully manage, manipulate, and tyrannise?

Roman history is completely dominated by accounts of men and written in terms of their lives or careers. There are no ‘lives’ of the empresses, for example. Roman women, especially powerful ones, were subjected to a great deal of stereotyping by Roman historians who either depicted them as women of great honour and purity, or as duplicitous and immoral schemers. These were rhetorical devices that were used by them to depict their husbands and sons in a good or bad light. Extrapolating the truth is very difficult and perhaps now impossible.

What is clear is that while women were able to operate outside the ‘system’ because they held no office, they were also restricted by having to work through men. There is no doubt that this led to a certain amount of subterfuge and lateral approaches. Those who were most successful were also the most vulnerable and liable to terrible retribution. But it is important to understand that the men of the dynasty suffered equally hideous fates too. It’s too easy to depict the women as the only victims of the ambition and cruelty that pervaded the dynasty.

The book details many of the objects created to enhance the image of the Julio/Claudian dynasty. If you could pocket one, even if you needed a very big pocket, which would it be?

I already have it. It’s the silver cistophorus coin of Claudius and Agrippina the Younger made at Ephesus in 51. There they are with their heads beside each other in the manner of joint rulers. It was unprecedented and never repeated. It shows how far she had managed to get. I was so fascinated by the coin I purchased it. It inspired the book.

Did Agrippina the Elder live up to the hype? Would she have made a good Augusta?

Agrippina the Elder was dealt a terrible blow when her husband Germanicus died in 19 in Syria. That destroyed any chance she had of becoming an empress unless she had been allowed long enough to survive into her son Caligula’s reign. Again, what is the truth? Tacitus was keen to depict her as a victim and as a woman of great dignity. It would seem that in some respects he may have been right. Germanicus and she would have been celebrated by the mob had he been made emperor. But for all we know he could have descended into despotism like their son Caligula. Who knows what Agrippina would have turned into?

Might the stupendous fabric of the Roman system have resisted yielding to the pressure of its own weight for longer if women had been woven in directly and able to exercise power in their own right, rather than through an occasionally pliant male?

Again, this is completely speculative and with so many factors involved it is impossible to say. The rise of the Severan women in the third century and then certain women like Galla Placidia in the fifth show that under certain circumstances women could gain even more remarkable power than the Julio-Claudians. But the Roman world was a militarized superstate and it depended on military leadership to survive. The women would have had to be prepared to lead armies. Agrippina the Elder showed that some women came close to being able to do that.

I’m guessing there’s a copy of ‘I, Claudius’ somewhere on your bookshelves. Are there any contemporary novelists (who use ancient Rome as their setting) there too? Who do you esteem and recommend?

In all honesty, I do not read much fiction and especially not ancient fiction. The real story is quite compelling enough. In fact, had a novelist invented the Julio-Claudians and their story he or she would have been laughed at for writing something so implausible. The little ancient fiction I have read usually contains the odd quite significant error that makes them totally implausible.

You’ve got a one-way ticket to the Roman Empire for you and your family. When and where are you taking them?

Funnily enough, not Rome. It would either be Pompeii and the chance to see the faces of the people who lived in the houses I have visited there, and to smell the place, or it would be Lullingstone Villa in Kent. I know Lullingstone very well. The setting is little changed and I’d love to see the original house as a living home with the people who lived there.

You’ve got a solo return ticket for either a year on campaign with Julius Caesar; a fortnight with Hadrian and his entourage at Tivoli; or a day in the Library of Alexandria. Which do you choose?

Who could resist the chance to take time out at Tivoli? It’s the Roman world in miniature with fabulous buildings and doubtless visited by interesting people, but most especially because of Hadrian. I’d like to meet him. He’d have been mesmerized by tales of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

Will there ever be anything as good as Time Team on telly again?

Was it really that good? There’s a lot of rose-tinted spectacles going on with Time Team. It was great fun to be on and a privilege to participate in. I saw some remarkable places and met some very special people. But it was around for too long. The experience became repetitive and began to turn into a dog-day afternoon, especially on dud sites where we scrabbled around for a story. In fact making TV programmes is generally very boring and I got very bored of it.

On the whole I avoid TV like the plague now. The thought of hanging round all day on set is too ghastly to contemplate. Time Team was very expensive to make and those days are long gone. There will certainly be nothing like it again, at least not in our time, because the budgets do not exist to make shows like that. As for ‘as good’ I’m sure that as time moves on later generations will find plenty in their own lives that is just as good, even if it’s completely different. All things must pass. And Time Team is past – forever.

What’s next for you?

Perhaps I should think about selling one of my 1970s Honda motorcycles before I do anything else! I’ve been writing books for over thirty years. That is what I mainly do now, but with an increasing sense of uncertainty about where books and publishing are headed. I have two books on the boil at the moment, one a survey book of life in the Roman army from original sources, and one about how the Romans became rich and what it did to them.

I have lecture tours in Australia and New Zealand in 2020. After that, who knows? I travel a lot with my wife and we are enjoying seeing our granddaughters grow up. I’m 61 now and keen to make the most of being fit and well and having the time to do things I haven’t an opportunity to do before. Mick Aston was only five years older than I am now when he died. Robin Bush, Time Team’s archivist, was only six years older than I am now when he went. Tragedies like that are a lesson not to sit around waiting for the ‘right time’ to do something. As Mr Micawber said in David Copperfield, ‘something will turn up’.


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“Male relations in this period were generally more physical. For warmth as well as protection, powerful men would routinely share a bed with their underlings.” – Author Benjamin Woolley discusses The King’s Assasin

“George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine.”

The rise of George Villiers from regional obscurity to the heart of the Jacobean court defied logic. A meteoric royal favourite, the young gallant enraptured James VI & I. Britain’s first Stuart king even declared that he wanted the beloved courtier to become his ‘wife’. For a decade, Villiers was at the king’s side – at court, on state occasions and in bed, right up to James’ death in March 1625.

As Charles I’s reign dawned Villiers’ star was reaching its zenith. Villiers had groomed the shy and awkward Charles to don the very public mantle of monarchy. Villiers’ tempestuous relationship with the late king, his closeness to Charles, and their not-so-private clashes with the old King over Britain’s place in Europe led many tounges to wag. Was George Villiers more than a spectator at James’ deathbed? Almost immediately a parliamentary investigation was launched. Scurrilous pamphlets and ballads circulated London’s streets. But the charges came to nothing, and have since been relegated to a historical footnote.

In The King’s Assasin Benjamin Woolley reexamines the evidence and plots a course through the murky Jacobean interplay of hubris and vulnerability with that flare for historical narrative, intricate detail, and big personalities familiar both in print and on television. Woolley is the author of the bestselling The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr John Dee. His first book, Virtual Worlds was shortlisted for the Rhone-Poulenc Prize and has been translated into eight languages. His second, The Bride of Science, examined the life of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter.

He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC on subjects ranging from the fight for liberty during the English Civil War to the end of the Space Age. He has won the Arts Journalist of the Year award and an Emmy for his commentary for Discovery’’s Three Minutes to Impact. He lives in London.

The King’s Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I was published in August 2017 by Macmillan. To find out more click here.


Why George Villiers?

I first encountered George many years ago, researching another story. I found a long-forgotten transcript of a notebook written by a member of parliament. It was one of very few eye-witness records of a secret trial of this extraordinary figure who had become a favourite of King James. The notes were fragmentary and difficult to piece together, but despite this I caught glimpses of a character so beguiling, so mischievous, so charismatic, so besotted by his friends and despised by his enemies that I could not resist.

How accurate is Alexandre Dumas’s portrait of George Villiers in The Three Musketeers?

Of George, Dumas wrote: ‘At thirty-five…he passed, with just title, for the handsomest gentleman and the most elegant cavalier of France or England. The favourite of two kings, immensely rich, all-powerful in a kingdom which he disordered at his fancy and calmed again at his caprice’. That is a pretty accurate summary (though he was not exactly a favourite of Louis XIII – indeed, he made several passes at the French king’s his wife, which did not go unnoticed). Dumas also noted that he ‘lived one of those fabulous existences which survive, in the course of centuries, to astonish posterity’.

Did James VI & I and George Villiers have a physical or a platonic relationship? Does it matter either way?

Male relations in this period were generally more physical. For warmth as well as protection, powerful men would routinely share a bed with their underlings. But I believe James and George’s relationship to have been carnal. This is a complicated issue, as the boundary between physical intimacy and sex has shifted over the centuries. James undoubtedly doted on George, and wrote of his ‘dog’ with deep affection. The intensity of their relationship was revealed by their frequent bust-ups. After one, James fantasised about George becoming his ‘wife’. Following another, George recalled their first night together at Farnham Castle, ‘where the bed’s head could not be found between the master and his dog’.

Can George Villiers role in government be thought of as that of a proto-Prime Minister, a signpost to later first ministers managing both parliament and the executive?

One point of comparison certainly holds. Parliament became his political nemesis. Despite being a dominant figure in government, parliament proved impossible to manage. For a while, he was a favourite of MPs, hailed as ‘St George on Horseback’ for standing up to the Spanish. But leading up to James’s death in 1625 and following a series of military disasters, they turned against him. It led to the charges that he had murdered the king, as well as abused his office. Efforts by James’s heir Charles to defend George led to the antagonisms between crown and parliament that culminated with the Civil War.

Did George Villiers have a vision or public policy agenda beyond his own ambition?

George’s political vision has generally been underestimated. I think Dumas has something to do with this, fixing a not entirely undeserved image of him as a dandy and libertine. But as he matured, he developed a strong vision of national renewal, culminating with ambitious (and ultimately disastrous) efforts to put Britain at the heart of a new global order, built around an alliance with Europe’s Protestant states that would challenge the dominance of the Spanish and Holy Roman empires. It was this vision that led to him falling out with James, who was much more cautious and conciliatory when it came to foreign affairs.

Did James VI & I die unaided?

Big question. In 1625, while the king lay on his sickbed, apparently recovering from a bout of malaria (common in England at the time), George administered a ‘potion and plaster’ which led to a sudden and catastrophic deterioration in the king’s condition. No one knew what was in the medicine, and the only person who claimed to have tasted it before it was administered (the standard method of checking for safety in the era before phase 3 drug trials) was the man who had mixed it on George’s behalf. That much we know from the royal doctors who treated the king during his final illness and (reluctantly) testified before the secret House of Commons committee set up to investigate the episode. A toxicologist I consulted was fairly certain that the potion was a poison—he even identified the toxin. Others are sceptical, and there is certainly room for doubt. What we do know is that George interfered at a vital moment, and the outcome was one that enabled him to put into place the policies James had been so fiercely resisting in his final months.

How seriously should high Anglicans, such as The Society of King Charles the Martyr, take the accusation that Charles I was a patricidal regicide?

After George had given James the unauthorised ‘potion and plaster’, a delegation of royal doctors had gone to Charles to protest, begging him to intervene. He refused. Following his succession, Charles also issued pardons and pensions to the doctors who had turned a blind eye. It was certainly a suspicion among MPs that Charles was involved. Two were arrested and had their houses searched for implying it might be the case, precipitating a parliamentary crisis.

Did Francis Bacon have any genuine esteem for George Villiers, or were his motivations simply venal?

More sexual than venal. Accused throughout his career of being a ‘sodomite’ (then a capital crime) and a ‘pederast’, Bacon was certainly infatuated by George. But he had to tread carefully to avoid upsetting the king, who was notoriously jealous. He nevertheless became devoted to George, becoming a loyal mentor and advocate, and offering advice on statecraft at a crucial moment in the favourite’s rise. He also cut a pathetic figure when George spurned him.

Was the Royal College of Physicians a force for good in the early modern period about which you write?

No. Another of my books, The Herbalist, about the radical medic Nicholas Culpeper, shows how corrupt the College had become by this time. Medical practice was based on the notion that health was determined by a balance of four bodily ‘humours’, a theory formalised by the Roman medic Galen in the second century AD. One of the leading members of the College, William Harvey (who was at James’s bedside in his final moments and became close to Charles following the king’s death) is rightly hailed as one of the greatest figures in medical science. He performed a series of experiments disproving the prevailing assumption that blood seeped through the body like sap in a tree by showing its circulation, pumped by the heart. His discovery made a nonsense of the notion of humours, yet Harvey was one of the College ‘censors’ who expelled any physician who questioned Galen’s theories.

The College also enjoyed a monopoly over medical practice throughout London and the suburbs, which they used to restrict the number of doctors who could practice. This ensured demand and fees for their services were kept well beyond the reach of most ordinary people. In 1625, London was hit by one of the worst epidemics of the plague in recorded history. Nevertheless, while James lay sick at his country retreat, more Fellows of the College were at his bedside than in all of London.

What are you currently working on?

A history of Black Bile – the ‘humour’ associated melancholy.


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“I’d have to go to the Ordovician, about 470 million years ago, to see giant straight-shelled cephalopods–the planet’s very first monsters, who ruled the seas long before dinosaurs evolved!” – Author Danna Staaf discusses Squid Empire

“Cephalopods are not aliens from outer space, but they are the closest we’ve got. They’ve been on an independent evolutionary path from ours for over five hundred million years.”

Before there were mammals on land, there were dinosaurs. And before there were fish in the sea, there were cephalopods―the ancestors of modern squid and Earth’s first truly substantial animals. Cephalopods became the first creatures to rise from the seafloor, essentially inventing the act of swimming. With dozens of tentacles and formidable shells, they presided over an undersea empire for millions of years. But when fish evolved jaws, the ocean’s former top predator became its most delicious snack. Cephalopods had to step up their game.

Many species streamlined their shells and added defensive spines, but these enhancements only provided a brief advantage. Some cephalopods then abandoned the shell entirely, which opened the gates to a flood of evolutionary innovations: masterful camouflage, fin-supplemented jet propulsion, perhaps even dolphin-like intelligence.

Squid Empire is an epic adventure spanning hundreds of millions of years, from the marine life of the primordial ocean to the calamari on tonight’s menu. Anyone who enjoys the undersea world―along with all those obsessed with things prehistoric―will be interested in the sometimes enormous, often bizarre creatures that ruled the seas long before the first dinosaurs.

Danna Staaf is a freelance writer and science communicator with special expertise in cephalopods. Her writing has appeared in ScienceKQEDEarther, and io9, and her first book, Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, was named one of the best science books of 2017 by NPR. She holds a PhD in biology from Stanford University and has spoken at dozens of venues, including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the main Google campus in Mountain View, public libraries, universities and schools at every grade level. She lives in San Jose with her husband and an unruly collection of kids, cats, and plants.

Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods was published in November 2017 by University Press of New England. To find out more click here.


Why cephalopods?

Seriously, you have to ask? All right, fine: Cephalopods are not aliens from outer space, but they are the closest we’ve got. They’ve been on an independent evolutionary path from ours for over five hundred million years. They’ve arrived in the modern world with features that seem incredibly weird to us–elastic tentacles, color-changing skin, suction cups and ink sacs–as well as features that are astonishingly convergent. An octopus eye, for example, has an iris, a lens, and a retina just like yours. Unlike yours, it has no blind spot, no color vision, and it can detect the polarization of light.

Without cephalopods, we would have just one kind of nervous system to study. A mouse, a frog, and even a fish are all so closely related to humans that you could say we all have the same kind of brain. Comparing our brain to an octopus’ brain, however, illuminates a great deal more about how nervous systems work, helping us ask new questions and look for new answers. If you’re at all interested in weird stuff, nothing beats cephalopods for raw coolness. If you’re just interested in humans and how we got to be the way we are–still, nothing beats cephalopods for a truly comparative system.

Cephalopods are remarkably intelligent. Should we feel bad about eating them?

My first impulse is to say “yes.” But that’s too glib, and I’m not into making people feel bad. I am a vegetarian, and I don’t eat cephalopods for the same reason I don’t eat cows or chickens or tuna. I don’t think they need to be considered separately from other animals in that regard. For a lucid and compassionate take on this topic, check out Barbara J. King’s “Calling Team Cephalopod: Why Octopuses Could Never Disappoint.” (link: https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2018/03/08/591530441/calling-team-cephalopod-why-octopuses-could-never-disappoint)

What advice would you give to a James Bond supervillain wanting to know which deadly cephalopod species they should restock their lair’s plunge pool trap with?

Blue-ringed octopuses. Despite their small size, these are the only cephalopods that have caused documented human deaths. Their venom contains a potent neurotoxin that can kill a grown human. But then I’d also say to this hypothetical supervillain: don’t bother. Don’t bother yourself, and don’t bother the poor blue-ringed octopuses. They only bite people when they feel really threatened–they’d much rather camouflage themselves and hide–and it’s shoddy supervillainy to make a bunch of innocent octopuses feel threatened all the time. Anyway, you know what’s more deadly than even a blue-ringed octopus? Water. Yeah, all the water that’s already in your plunge pool, because people can’t breathe it. Way more people die by drowning every year than by bites from any kind of wild animal. And with all the time you save by not trying to maintain a finicky venomous animal in a salt-water aquarium, you can get on with some really super supervillainy.

Why is it a big deal that nautiluses are being added to the endangered list?

Nautiluses are the only living cephalopods that still have external shells, and people have been collecting these shells and turning them into jewelry or simply displaying them for hundreds of years (at least). But eventually demand outstripped supply and now many populations of nautiluses are nearly gone. At one location in the Philippines, fishers have to set out a hundred traps to catch a single nautilus, in the same place where their grandparents would catch several nautiluses in each trap. The 2017 inclusion of nautiluses in CITES, the treaty that protects high-profile animals like elephants, is the first legal protection these strange, beautiful cephalopods have ever had. Keeping nautiluses around gives us a living window into 500 million years of evolutionary history–and also preserves the most laughably awkward yet astonishingly efficient swimmers on the planet.

If you could vacation in and around a prehistoric sea, when and where would you go?

I’d have to go to the Ordovician, about 470 million years ago, to see giant straight-shelled cephalopods–the planet’s very first monsters, who ruled the seas long before dinosaurs evolved! The arrangement of the continents was so dramatically different back then that it’s hard to describe exactly “where” I would go. This was pre-Pangaea; most land was glommed together in the southern hemisphere so I guess I’d plop myself somewhere in the watery northern hemisphere and hope for the best.

To be clear, “best” means that I would get to see Cameroceras, a horizonal ice-cream cone over twenty feet long, close enough to count its tentacles, look it in the eye, and find out whether or not it had a beak. Does that mean my vacation would be cut short by entering the digestive system of the earliest giant cephalopod? Maybe, but time machines are notoriously unreliable, and death by Cameroceras could be a better end than trying to make it back home.

If you could Jurrasic Park an extinct species of cephalopod which would you bring back to life?

Nice verbing! I’d bring back one of the heteromorph ammonites for sure. The heteromorphs were a bizarre and diverse group of cephalopods with external shells that lived in the Cretaceous. Most ammonites had spiral shells that looked superficially similar to modern nautilus shells, but heteromorphs broke all the rules. There were heteromorphs with corkscrew shells and totally straight shells, with shells bent like paper clips and shells twisted into knots. No one really knows how or why their shells grew in such strange shapes. I’d probably pick Nipponites, because seriously, friend, what are you doing with a shell like that? (link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nipponites)

You’re an expert writing for a lay audience. What’s the biggest tip you have for someone attempting to persuade others of the value of their particular field of specialist study?

Let your enthusiasm show.

You write about the individual scientists who inspired you in your early career. Who are you most excited by today? What are they working on?

Last summer I visited Robyn Crook’s lab at San Francisco State University and was completely captivated. (link: http://crooklab.org/) She and her students study pain in cephalopods, which might sound awful, like poking squid with sticks. But in fact, they were able to use noninvasive techniques to find the first evidence that cephalopod anesthesia actually cuts off sensation, instead of simply immobilizing the animals–a pretty important thing to know for ethical research! Crook is the one who turned me on to the idea of cephalopods as the only truly comparative systems for vertebrates. Since the perception of pain evolved separately in cephalopods, they provide an opportunity to study the evolutionary roots of this sensation, the ways in which it’s useful and the ways in which it can be problematic.

I’m also fascinated by the work of Bret Grasse and his team at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. (link: http://www.mbl.edu/cephalopod-program/) Grasse pioneered the aquaculture of pajama squid and flamboyant cuttlefish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and now he’s working with a tremendous array of cephalopod species at Woods Hole to make them available for all kinds of research. I admire his team’s focus on the welfare of the animals, and I can’t wait to see what unexpected discoveries will come from scientists being able to work with so many cephalopods that were considered too finicky to handle before. It may seem weird to make such a big deal out of these “niche” animals, but we should remember that modern neuroscience grew almost entirely from breakthrough research on the giant axon of squid. Cephalopods really do offer unique research opportunities, not just in neuroscience but in robotics (all those flexible arms!), medicine (all those arms can regenerate!) and more.

Where is the best place to go diving with cephalopods?

One of my fellow squid scientists once saw six different cephalopod species while snorkeling off Okinawa–so that’s now on my dream dive list! I’ve always wanted to see the giant cuttlefish matting off Southern Australia, too, and then there are the sites off Seattle where you can see giant Pacific octopus (just don’t try to hunt them, link: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/20/magazine/the-octopus-that-almost-ate-seattle.html). One of my favorite cephalopods to watch underwater is the Caribbean reef squid, which can be seen in many places throughout the Caribbean, even just snorkeling. They’re relatively easy to find and follow around, so scientists use them for a lot of the most interesting research on cephalopod communication and social behavior.

Whats next for you?

I wrote a couple of essays for an anthology coming out in October called Putting the Science in Fiction: Expert Advice for Writing with Authenticity in Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Other Genres (link: https://pages.e2ma.net/pages/1887808/9576). It’ll have lots more useful information for that Bond supervillain! I’m also finishing up a novel set in a post-sea level rise future where squid racing has replaced horse racing as a high-stakes, high-adrenaline jockey sport. And of course, I’m always writing short science stories here, there, and everywhere.


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EIFF: “Swimming With Men” (30 June ’18)

“Fun performances and sweet turns of narrative … Swimming With Men is a comedic success”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

Imagine The Full Monty, in Speedos. That’s the long and short of Swimming With Men. But despite some predictable setups, Oliver Parker’s new film is charming, sweet, and genuinely quite funny, mostly due to a delightful-as-ever performance by Rob Brydon. It is not a rush-to-the-theatre type of film, but as a nice way to spend an hour and a half, it does not disappoint.

Brydon plays Eric Scott, a bit of a loser who finds himself out of step with his own life. His accounting job is a monotonous waste of his time and talent, and he is growing apart from his wife Heather (Jane Horrocks) due to his own jealousy at her success as a local politician. The only place he finds peace is in the local pool, where he meets a motley crew of men who have banded together as a synchronized swimming team. Led by the charming Luke (Rupert Graves), the men decide to incorporate Eric into their routine, and so begins a series of amusing training sessions and actually quite impressive swimming stunt work. Played by various British comedy talents such as Adeel Akhtar, Daniel Mays, Thomas Turgoose, and the excellent Jim Carter, the team is a fun group to watch, and their onscreen chemistry is a highlight.

The story is a classic one, where Eric finds not only his own worth in his connection to these men, but the worth of self-expression and all that; credit again to Brydon that he makes this simplistic path far more pleasant than predictable. Charlotte Riley is notably fun as Susan, a swimmer who is drawn into being the team’s coach, and gets them good enough to complete in the international men’s championships in Milan for a rousing, very fun finale. The film is quite sweet, but not without its conflicts, as old habits, lost loves, and personal differences come to derail some of the team’s momentum over and over. But overall, this is an agreeable and satisfying film with something to say about male friendship and trust, which is very well suited to Brydon’s charm and talent as an Everyman with real presence. One scene of his in an elevator late in the film is a particular standout; perhaps it’s a shame he does not get more to do over the course of the film.

Parker’s aesthetic choices are unexceptional, yet liven up when the men are in and around the pool, a clever reflection of the freeing possibilities of the team and their routines. Some sequences are filmed quite creatively, especially the hypnotic boredom of Eric’s office and certain dreamlike shots of the men twirling and floating around underwater.

(Outside of the film itself, it is an intriguing coincidence that this year’s 71st Cannes Film Festival featured a French film called Le grand bain [or Sink or Swim], directed by Gilles Lellouche and starring Mathieu Amalric, which seems to have the exact same plot. Perhaps synchronized men’s swimming has become the choice cinematic metaphor for rethinking the mechanics of team-based masculinities of today.)

For Brydon’s commendable turn in the lead role, plus some fun performances and sweet turns of the narrative, Swimming With Men is a comedic success, and well worth a rainy-day watch. (So, perfect for Scottish audiences.)

This enjoyable film brought the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival to a close, and my coverage ends with it. It has been a truly fun and informative time watching and waxing about all these films and seeing film history made-in-Edinburgh. I hope my writing has been useful and thank you for reading!

 

Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Swimming with Men at the EIFF

 

EIFF: “Piercing” (30 June ’18)

“A trippy, entertaining, & masterfully nightmarish romp.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

For a completely bonkers, aesthetically anarchic, sonically and visually unnerving nightmare thrill ride, Piercing has a lot of humor, heart, and fabulous artistry beneath its hood. The film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, creator of well-liked arthouse horror The Eyes of My Mother, and based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, the mind behind some of Japanese cinema’s most twisted and depraved screenplays. This film is very much in the same vein, but swaps its Japanese influences for Italian Giallo and a charming 70s setting. While it is revoltingly violent and demented, somehow everything in Pesce’s film just works, and it is a truly outstanding genre film.

Piercing continues a pleasing trend in many of the films this year: performers who traditionally fill supporting roles getting a shot at the lead. Take, for example, Kelly Macdonald in Puzzle, Natalie Dormer in In Darkness, Nick Offerman in Hearts Beat Loud, Rob Brydon in Swimming With Men, Steven Ogg in Solis. And now, Christopher Abbott as Reed, the enigmatic, bizarre focus of Pesce’s surreal tale. Abbott has turned in fascinating, unsettling, always capable performances in films like Sweet Virginia and Tyrel, (plus his lead role in the small James White), and it is lovely to see him stretch out as the protagonist in a film so odd. He is joined by the always entertaining Mia Wasikowska, and the charming Laia Costa, all of whom get their share of fascinating chances to shine and bend the audience’s minds.

The film follows Reed as he decides to take some time away from his wife (Costa) and child, so he can indulge his twisted murderous fantasies. He meticulously plans to lure and dispatch an unsuspecting prostitute, and in true jet-black humor fashion, Pesce has the camera follow Reed around the room he has rented as he walks through the steps of exactly how he will administer the necessary sedatives, do the deed, and dispose of the body. The clincher is, Pesce includes all the implied sound effects of the execution, and as Reed mimes the sawing, hacking, and gruesome handling of the various parts and bits, the squelches and drips are heard in full. This is a stylistic highlight, yet Piercing features many more sequences of filmmaking just as delightfully twisted. 

Wasikowska plays Jackie, the prostitute he eventually lures into his plan, but needless to say it does not go according to plan. The story twists and turns with gleeful insanity, with Reed and Jackie taking it in turns to torment the other with horrifying weapons and substances. It all spirals into hallucinogenic madness, perfectly contrasted against remarkable production design and music. Delirious grotesqueries are frequently performed on and around plush 70s interior design, while stupendously odd themes from classic Giallo films play above them. The film intermittently cuts to an uncanny miniature set meant to evoke the heights and depths of the New York City skyline, evoking a maze or a puzzle akin to the disorienting content of Reed’s story. 

It’s a trippy, entertaining, masterfully nightmarish romp, with an unlikely balance of class and cruelty, harrowing scenes and hilarious horror, and a hellishly sadomasochistic partnership for the ages in Abbott and Wasikowska’s characters. If you enjoy stylish craftiness and chills down the spine, plus some captivating costume work and musical dexterity, pick Piercing, and have fun with it.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

 

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 30 June)

Go to Piercing at the EIFF