“Flippant answer is no guns. For an adventure story, this really makes a difference.” – Author Adrian Goldsworthy discusses Vindolanda

“There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.”

“(1st hand) Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you sister. Farewell, sister my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.”

Sometime between the years 97 and 103 AD, the wife of one senior Roman officer dictated an invitation to a birthday party in the far north of the Roman province of Britannia. Under her secretary’s formal message she added her own, heartfelt postscript.

19 centuries later, this everyday example of life on the Roman frontier inspired British historian and novelist, Adrian Goldsworthy, to spin a yarn. To the slender threads provided by such miraculously preserved writing tablets as Claudia Severa’s invitation, he has added the steadily accumulating wealth of archaeological evidence documenting the Romans in Britain. Goldsworthy brings his readers to the borderlands, two decades before the first builder sucked his teeth, shook his head, and told the Emperor Hadrian that his proposed wall “was gonna cost ya.”

Goldsworthy, a celebrated academic with several shelf-benders to his credit, is also the author of two previous novels – both set during the Napoleonic Wars. His latest novel, Vindolanda, takes its title from the Roman Fort to where Claudia Severa’s invitation was sent. Vindolanda is the first adventure for Titus Flavius Ferox, centurion of Legio II Augusta and a man torn between two worlds. His grandfather was one of the great chiefs and war leaders of the Silures, the tribe living in what is now Goldsworthy’s native South Wales. The young Ferox was sent away as a hostage, to be educated and raised as a Roman, and was made a citizen and later commissioned into the Roman army. Years later he returns to the province of Britannia, oathsworn to the emperor of Rome, but still in his heart a warrior of his own people.

Vindolanda was published in June 2017 by Head of Zeus. To find out more click here.


Why Vindolanda?

First and foremost because of the writing tablets discovered there. When you read something like the invitation to her birthday party sent by Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina it lets you glimpse something of ordinary life nineteen centuries ago. These two women were married to Roman army officers, and if it was not for this and a few other tablets we would never have known they existed. Instead, we can read as they ask about each other’s health and families, and plan visits.

It is all very human, very normal, reminding us that these were people just like us – even if they came from a very different society with very different attitudes. When I first read the tablets many years ago, I could not help wondering about these people and wanting to know more about them and their world. So the novel is an imagined version of this. It’s an adventure story, not meant to be a searing examination of the human experience, but a good story in a world that seems real. I think of it as a Western, but set in Britain at the end of the first century AD. It’s about a frontier, and all the people brought together in a place like that.

If you could plug one gap in our knowledge of Roman Britain what would it be?

The first instinct of a historian is to wish for more written sources. So little of the literature from the ancient world has survived that one of the commonest phrases writing about it is always ‘well, we don’t really know.’ Roman Britain is worse than many other areas, with just a handful of accounts. It would be nice to have the missing pieces of Tacitus’ Annals and Histories even more to have detailed narratives of more of Roman Britain’s history. Vindolanda is set at a time when we know next to nothing. We probably never going to find anything like this, but you can wish.

Still, that’s a modest ambition compared to the big missing piece in almost all of the Roman Empire’s history, because we only really get the Romans’ side of the story. The peoples who lived in Britain in the Iron Age did not write anything down. To have stories from their point of view, of what it was like when the Romans turned up on your doorstep and did not go away, would be truly wonderful. Short of a time machine, that’s never going to happen, so as a novelist you do your best to guess.

What’s the most unexpected item ever found from Roman Britain?

I’ll have to say the writing tablets themselves. We were used to inscriptions on stone, but no one thought we would be lucky enough to find something like this. Since then, some have turned up at other sites, notably in London and Carlisle, and more keep being found at Vindolanda. There was a rich haul in last summer’s excavations, and no doubt there will be plenty of surprises once they are deciphered.

The unusual conditions at these sites allow preservation of things you simply don’t get elsewhere – the wood, leather etc. There are more Roman shoes from Vindolanda than any other single site in the rest of the empire, but one thing that stands out is how fashions were the same throughout the empire. All these everyday objects do suggest that people from opposite ends of the empire dressed in a similar way, ate and drank similar things, and maybe laughed at the same jokes or hummed the same tunes.

Double entry bookkeeping or the steam engine – which might have done more to transform the fortunes of the Roman Empire?

Well, of course, in Alexandria they made a working steam engine, but never seem to have thought of it as anything other than an interesting experiment. The Romans were of their time, used to doing things in set ways, relying on human or animal power. On the other hand, there was progress in technology and some very sophisticated uses of water power. For a while, there was a tendency to underestimate the accomplishments of craftsmen in the Roman period, so that it has taken archaeological finds to demonstrate for instance that carriage was pretty much as sophisticated as anything in the eighteenth century.

Rome was huge and lived in a world without serious economic or military competitors on the same scale, which did not encourage rapid innovation. Even so, its problems had more to do with political instability than economic failure. From the third century AD onwards the Romans just keep on fighting civil wars until the empire rots away and vanishes in Britain and the West. That this process went on for centuries shows how strong and complacent the Romans had become.

What did silphium taste like?

No idea. We don’t really know what it was. A problem generally about food from the ancient world is that even if we have an idea of ingredients, we never get the sort of really detailed recipes a cook would want.

What’s the biggest adjustment required transitioning from writing fiction set in the Napoleonic period to Roman times?

Flippant answer is no guns. For an adventure story, this really makes a difference. You can plausibly have a character point a pistol or musket and tell two or three others to drop their weapons and do what they are told. That’s less convincing if all he has is a sword. However, the really big difference is the wealth of information. For Wellington’s army, you have a host of personal accounts, letters, diaries, etc, and they are written by junior officers and sometimes ordinary soldiers. These tell you about the little details of life on campaign, as well as the battles and skirmishes. You can describe a uniform with confidence, even include jokes and slang that were doing the rounds at the time of the story.

None is this is available for the Roman world, so you have to guess and invent or lift from other periods. Time and again someone would ask me how I came up with the idea for an incident in one of the Napoleonic stories and how on earth did I think of it. Usually, the answer was that it was true. I may have made it happen to one of my characters, but that was what they really did. You cannot do that to anything like the same degree with a story set in AD 98 in Roman Britain. So writing the two sets of stories has been very different, which has been nice. Hopefully someday before too long I’ll complete the Napoleonic series as well as keeping Ferox busy.

The snow that falls on a battlefield settles on the fallen rather than the damp ground – where do details like that appear from?

That sort of thing comes from accounts from other eras, and looking at film and pictures and what you see around you. I have always had a interest in most of history, with a particular fondness for military history. My mind seems good at remembering the obscure – and less good at something like remembering a phone number. For Vindolanda I have lifted bits and pieces from other periods and cultures to fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. I’ve seen horses close up to the one in front so that its tail helps waft the flies away, so there doesn’t seem any reason why the Batavian’s mounts in the story would not do the same thing.

One thing that is important to me in both Vindolanda and the Napoleonic series is that there is a sense of humour running through it. Partly this is because I find a thriller or adventure story without humour rather dull, but mainly it’s because all the soldiers I have known and read about have laughed a lot. The humour is often quite black, but it helps them to cope. So to me, to make the story and characters plausible the characters need to joke and laugh.

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

So many choices. It would be something to see Rome at its height – both the grandeur and the squalor. Some the slums probably resembled the poorest areas of Calcutta than our imagined city of gleaming marble. I suspect the smells would be pretty overpowering. Be nice to see an army base and see how close we have got to the reality from the archaeological remains – or Hadrian’s Wall. Still, if you wanted a holiday, perhaps just a comfortable villa somewhere.

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?

As a historian hard to resist a library, although an archive somewhere less famous or at an army base might provide fascinating if less dramatic information. Hadrian was probably tough to be around, and I suspect you would spend most of your time listening and saying how right he was. Caesar had charm, and giving my interests seeing the real Roman army in action would answer a lot of questions. It would be a grim business though.

What’s next for Flavius Ferox?

A new novel, The Encircling Sea comes out on 1st June. Without giving too much away, this takes Ferox to the far north and across the sea, and features some old and some new enemies. I’m finishing off the third novel at the moment and that will be out in 2019.


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“I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while.” – Author William Taubman discusses Gorbachev

“A true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics.”

“At 33rd Street you pass the Empire State Building, which for many years was the tallest building in the world and is still a VERY tall building indeed. But when you pass it in a car there’s this phenomenon – a kind of parallax phenomenon – that any building that’s nearer it, or even a person, will seem taller because you can’t gauge it’s full height until you get a bit of distance. And if you get a good run of green lights on 5th avenue and you look out of the back of the taxi as you go down and down and down the Empire state building rises and rises and rises – like a rocket. It actually goes up and up and up as all the buildings close to it are revealed to be so much smaller.”

Stephen Fry’s comparison of the emergence of Oscar Wilde from his 19th century milieu as being like the emergence of the Empire State Building on the New York Skyline might also stand for Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Gorbachev was born in the Stalin years. He lived through the Soviet Union’s decades of turmoil and decay. He rose from the humblest of origins to become one of the most revered and yet reviled statesmen of the 20th Century. Fry’s summary of Wilde’s reputation – “The best of his age and getting taller and taller with every decade which comes” – might also stand for the man who led the Soviet Empire to its peaceful dissolution.

William Taubman is the Bertrand Snell Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Amherst College. His biography, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Taubman is also the author of Stalin’s American Policy: From Entente to Détente to Cold War, and co-author with his wife, retired Amherst College professor of Russian Jane Taubman, of Moscow Spring. He has received the Karel Kramar Medal of the Czech Republic and the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times was published in September 2017 by Simon & Schuster. To find out more click here.


Why Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?

Gorbachev changed his country and the world, although, it must be added, he changed neither as much as he wished. All political leaders have power—by definition. But some, like Soviet leaders, unencumbered by the rule of law, constitutional constraints, or a free press, have more than others. Moreover, Gorbachev used that power in a way that was unique; No other Soviet leader would have done what he did. And that uniqueness cries out for biography–to try to explain how his character helps to account for what he did.

If Plutarch were to parallel the life of Gorbachev, whom among his contemporaries outside the Soviet Union might he select?

The two American leaders to whom I most often compare Gorbachev are Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Since the two of them were so different (an arch-conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat), how can Gorbachev resemble both? Reagan and Gorbachev shared a commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. But in addition, personal similarities (including some striking parallels in their marriages to Nancy Reagan and Raisa Gorbachev) created personal chemistry that, in turn, led them toward major agreements that ended the cold war.

I explore such similarities in my book, but recently Jack F. Matlock, Jr., American ambassador to Moscow during the Gorbachev years, confirmed them. I was describing my impression of Gorbachev during the eight interviews my wife, Professor Jane Taubman, and I had with him over the course of ten years: he was warm, natural, informal and with a sense of humor. Lacking similar exposure to other world leaders, I told Matlock, I couldn’t compare Gorbachev with them, but I doubted many of them came across the same way. “There’s at least one such leader who did,” Matlock replied. “Ronald Reagan.”

As for Gorbachev -Obama parallels, I’d list the following: Both were highly educated and thought of themselves as intellectuals; both were deeply devoted to their wives; both tried to reserve supper time for dining with their families rather than politicking; both wanted to carry out radical reforms in their countries; both failed in the end to achieve their grandest goals owing to the fierce political opposition they faced.

Nixon and Reagan occasionally met off camera during the latter’s presidency – is there any evidence Gorbachev once had / or is having a similar direct input into the thinking of his successors?

On the contrary. Gorbachev initially praised Putin when the latter assumed the Russian presidency in 1999-2000 and supported him for reelection in 2004. But they have since become estranged and have rarely, if ever, met since Putin was elected again in 2012, Gorbachev seemed closer to Dmitri Medvedev, who served as president between Putin’s second and third terms, but he evidently had no direct input into Medvedev’s thinking either.

Has Gorbachev found a meaningful role beyond the Kremlin?

After being forced out of power in December 1991, Gorbachev established a foundation, the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies (also known as the Gorbachev Foundation) which, in addition to charitable endeavors, has sponsored conferences and publications on issues domestic and international. He has also chaired Green Cross International (an ecological organization), and the World Political Forum. He has commented regularly on political issues, and in 1996 he ran for the Russian presidency, but received less than one percent of the vote.

The portrait you paint is of a true believer coming up through an undergrowth of hacks, cynics, and hypocrites. Might Gorbachev have found more success if he had been more cynical?

Gorbachev was brilliantly successful at rising through Communist party ranks to become Soviet leader–successful because although he was a true believer and an honest man, he also knew how to maneuver and play the game of bureaucratic politics. He was equally adept at using his power as party general secretary to browbeat his more hardline colleagues into supporting radical reforms that transformed the Communist system. But Gorbachev wasn’t nearly as skillful at playing the new game of electoral politics (Boris Yeltsin turned out to be more adroit), and he shrank from using force to hold the USSR together when that might have discouraged restive ethnic minorities from breaking away.

Wasn’t the ultimate problem, for anyone trying to maintain the USSR, the inescapable reality that, despite everything, so many Soviet citizens simply didn’t want any part of it?

It is true that by 1991 many Soviet citizens did not want any part of the USSR. Not only non-Russian republics, but many Russians, too, preferred national sovereignty and independence. Since then, however, many Russians have missed their inner empire (the USSR) and their outer empire in Eastern Europe, and hence have strongly supported Putin’s efforts to resurrect Russia as a great power.

The role of China is relatively peripheral in the story you tell. Is that something later authors are likely to revise as new sources and perspectives become available?

Many observers have wondered whether Gorbachev could have been more successful if he had adopted the Chinese model of reform: if had prioritized radical economic reform while maintaining authoritarian political rule (as the Chinese did when they crushed the massive demonstrations in Tiananmen Square). But if Gorbachev had done so, he would not have been Gorbachev, the man determined to democratize the USSR.

At least one recent book, Chris Miller’s The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR, argues that quite a few Soviet experts tried to direct Gorbachev’s attention to Chinese economic reforms, but that powerful interest groups (central ministries in Moscow, the collective farm lobby, and the military-industrial complex) were strong enough to resist such reforms, whereas in China, weakened by the effects of the Cultural Revolution, they were not.

In his biography of Scott of the Antartic, Ranulph Fiennes urges armchair historians not to take the catty carping in primary sources – such as expedition diaries – too seriously, lest what is safely and quietly vented into private journals be mistaken for a precise record of the moral and material situation. Is there a similar danger with the testimony of close aides to public figures – after all no man is a  hero to his valet?

During pre-Gorbachev Soviet times, it would have been impossible to interview Soviet leaders or their close aides. Post-Soviet Russians who write memoirs or give nterviews became much freer to tell the truth, but only as they remember (or choose to remember) it.  Many of them have long-standing scores to settle, which they do with more relish than regard for the facts. In that sense, documents now available in archives provide an important corrective to memoirs, which in turn check them. In the case of certain former Gorbachev aides who had become his mortal enemies (such as Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s chief-of-staff who joined conspirators in the anti-Gorbachev coup-attempt of August 1991), I was careful to use only selected bits of his testimony which had the ring of truth.

Does Gorbachev consider himself to have been a success?

One of Gorbachev’s greatest admirers, the late Soviet historian Dmitry Furman, wrote that for Gorbachev to have resorted to force and violence to hold on to power would have been “a defeat” since it that would have gone against his principles. In the light of those principles, Furman continued, Gorbachev’s ”final defeat was a victory.” Well, it certainly didn’t feel that way to him at the time.  Later, when he seemed depressed, friends assured him that he had given his people freedom, and that if they had made a mess of it that was their own fault.

Gorbachev’s latest book, published in 2017, is titled, I Am Still an Optimist. He still insists he is happy. If so, that is because he rightly believes that he laid the foundations for eventual democracy in Russia—by sponsoring the first free elections since 1917, by establishing a genuine working parliament to replace the rubber-stamp Supreme Soviet, and by turning glasnost into virtually free speech. How long it will take for Russia to be more fully democratized is another matter. Gorbachev himself has said that it may take “decades,” even “the whole twenty-first century.” But in 2011-2012, when demonstrators swarmed the streets of Moscow protesting against what they called rigged elections, Gorbachev couldn’t contain his basic optimism, his hope that the march toward a freer country had begun again.

What (or perhaps who) will your next big project focus on?

I’m not entirely sure what my next project will be. I’m thinking at this point that I may leave Russia behind for a while and that, together with my brother, Philip Taubman, former New York Times correspondent and editor, I may write a book about the late American Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.


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“I’m not keen on speculation.” – Author James Shapiro discusses The Year of Lear

“I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation?”

Was Shakespeare an Elizabethan English or an early British Jacobean playwright? Was he a fully fledged European, forged in the classical, moulded in the renaissance? Was he a proto-American laying the groundwork for the intellectual and political revolutions fermenting across the pond? Rhetorical questions will tend to take centre stage in Shakespearean studies, while concrete answers will sink the over-confident scholar beneath a tide of uncertainty and lack of material evidence.

James Shapiro is the preeminent walker of those fine lines between what we know, what we think we know, what we are yet to know, and what we would like to know about the inscrutable Swan of Avon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Shapiro has degrees from Columbia and Chicago. He has strutted his professorial stuff in the US and abroad, serving as the Samuel Wanamaker Fellow at the restored Globe Theatre, London. Shapiro is the recipient of more laurels, prizes and plaudits than Katharine Hepburn got Oscars. His critical treatment of the Oxfordian Theory (that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare) has been described as “decisive.”

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear was published in October 2015 by Faber & Faber. To find out more click here.


Why 1606?

Why not 1606? It was a year in which Shakespeare was working on three extraordinary tragedies –Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra – in the immediate aftermath of a failed terrorist attack (the Gunpowder Plot), during an outbreak of plague that reached Shakespeare’s doorstep.

Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays after James VI and I came to the English throne. Why do we tend to think of him as an Elizabethan playwright?

I am as guilty as the next person for speaking of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan, but after 1603 he was
Jacobean – and English subjects (as far as King James was concerned) now British ones. Shakespeare’s career (from now on as a King’s Man), and the political and religious concerns of his audience certainly shifted once a Scottish King succeeded the last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth.

As a ruler (and as a man) did James VI and I confirm, alter, or refute his English subjects in their anti-Scottish prejudices?

That depended on which subjects you asked. The Gunpowder plotters might have offered one answer; those who profited by James’s reign another; English courtier displaced by new Scottish favorites yet another. There were very few Scots living in London under Elizabeth, so I’m not even sure how deep anti-Scottish sentiment ran.

Shakespeare used his history plays (on both British and classical themes) to reflect the concerns of the paying punter. Your work unpacks the social, cultural, and political content subtly packaged by Shakespeare. Did the early Stuart establishment share your sense of Shakespeare’s value as a political weathervane?

I’m not quite sure there was a Scottish establishment in the modern sense you suggest. I’m not entirely sure that King James and those in his immediate circle – who saw many of Shakespeare’s plays staged at court – fully grasped their full range of historical and political concerns. I’m not sure I do either, for that matter. So I don’t quite know with confidence, nor did they, which way that weathervane pointed.

Original pronunciation is helping to clear a fresh path in performances between texts and audiences. Has OP any academic value to scholars?

I’m of two minds about OP. Yes, from a narrowly academic perspective, OP offers a fresh way of hearing the plays. But why stop with pronunciation? Why not other aspects of original staging – natural light performances in the afternoons, bear-baiting next door, nobody showers for weeks before entering the theater, urinating in the corner of the theatre, paying a penny for admission, real weapons used in stage combat, sumptuary laws in place concerning what playgoers could wear, etc. Why privilege pronunciation over other aspects of original performance?

Most scholars agree that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but is there anything to suggest that he took an active role in editing them for print? Could Shakespeare have had any role preparing the First Folio, eventually published 7 years after his death?

There is no evidence whatsoever that Shakespeare was involved in preparing his plays for publication in the 1623 Folio. But that hasn’t stopped speculation. I’m not keen on speculation. I tend to put myself in the camp that believes that Shakespeare wrote primarily for the stage (from which he earned a living) rather than the page (from which he earned little besides our infinite gratitude centuries later).

If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?

Why are some of your plays – like The Comedy of Errors – so short, and others, like Lear and Hamlet, so much longer, impossible to stage in two or even three hours?

If you could take credit for having written one line of Shakespeare’s (and get away with it) which would it be?

One line is not much to brag about. But I’d take any of them.

You’re working on a new book. What can we look forward to?

I’m writing about Shakespeare in a divided America. The history of Shakespeare in America is markedly different from that in England, Ireland, Germany, etc. As Shakespeareans increasingly turn to a global perspective I thought it a good time to focus on the local. The book should be out before the next presidential elections here.


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“If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.” – Author David Damant discusses The Luck of the Devil

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“I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot.”

Vienna, May 1931. The Baron Bretzenny is a worried man. His banking house is bust. It seems nothing can prevent the Bank Bretzenny from becoming just another casualty, lost amid the global wreckage of the Wall Street Crash. As one of Vienna’s foremost public atheists, the Baron literally hasn’t got a prayer. Then a mysterious visitor offers the Baron a way out of his troubles… but at what price?

The Luck of the Devil is the coruscating debut comedy of financial guru turned scribbler, David Damant. Damant is at once both a respected elder statesman in the realm of finance, a pioneer of Modern Portfolio Theory in Europe, and also a keen observer of his fellow creatures, their vanities and profanities.

At his London club David has, in addition to the world premier of The Luck of the Devil, arranged for a performance of the melodrama Maria Martin and the Red Barn, as well as more than a dozen operas or parts of operas, each directed by the celebrated Jamie Hayes. These have included Dido and Aeneas (starring Jean Rigby), the second act of Tosca (Sue Bullock & Robert Hayward), the essential scenes from Don Giovanni (Robert Hayward again), and no less than four performances of Offenbach’s Not In Front Of The Waiter.

A browse of his social media profile reveals that David’s interests include food, wine, opera, history, and conversation – he has even, on suitably rare occasions, been known to allow his interlocutors to get a word in… although never the last one.

The Luck of the Devil was published in March 2017 by 49Knights. To find out more click here.


Why the Devil? Why an Austrian banker? Why the interwar years?

I had been revolving in my mind for some time the idea of a Faustian contract in which, unusually, the Devil has to ask for help. After the stock exchange crash in New York in 1929 the trigger for the serious depression on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of the Viennese bank the Creditanstalt in May 1931, so I thought that an Austrian banker in trouble at about that time would need money and would provide the basis for the plot.

I then added the idea that the Roman Church was about to issue an Encyclical saying that the Devil was no more than a psychological construct – something that the Devil would not like at all – and he needed human help to stop the Encyclical – the name of which Ad Deliramentum Expellendum was crafted for me by an expert in Papal Latin. I have portrayed the Devil in an fairly honourable light (accepting his standpoint as the Father of Evil).

LOD 3You’ve been involved in dozens of productions down the years. How did those experiences shape The Luck of the Devil?

Except for one play before this one, all the productions I have been involved with since 1987 have been operas in whole or in part. But operas are drama so I suppose that I learnt a bit from those productions. A greater influence was P G Wodehouse, who used to construct his novels as though they were plays, with the scenes balancing each other in the sense of what happens in each, and the various characters given balanced appearances – one cannot introduce a big character and then drop that character half way through. So I followed that rule in my play.

You’ve not written a play before, but you have written on financial matters, history, music etc. How have your previous endeavours informed this one?

Writing so much taught me to write clearly……in any case a lot of what I wrote in the financial world had to be translated, or anyway read by those who were not native English speakers – so I had to be clear. A lot of writing these days is not transparently easy to follow, My aim is always to have the reader (or the listener to the play) able to concentrate on the ideas which I (or a character) is expressing, and not have to work out from the language what the point might be.

When I thought of writing the play I read quite a lot of other plays to get the structure in my mind, and was pretty dismayed by the sordid or unhappy nature of the plots – failed marriages, hopeless careers, children and parents at loggerheads etc etc.

The drama centres on a banker who has run out of money and needs bailing out. Where did you get such an incredible notion from?

See the answer to Question One. If this question is sarcastic, see my answer to Question Five.

Your own background is in banking and the city. Bankers aren’t massively popular at present. What can they do to improve their public image, and what should us non-bankers always bear in mind about the sector?

The general view of bankers is completely unbalanced. The main reason for their unpopularity is the financial crash, which was caused not by them but by the Central Banks keeping interest rates too low, by the Regulators not checking on balance sheets, and by the Chancellor (Gordon Brown) stating frequently that he had abolished downturns. What does one expect bankers to do in such an environment? Sit on their hands with all that cheap money and refuse mortgages?

Of course bankers have behaved badly in specific areas, but one does not attack the game of football because FIFA was corrupt, or attack athletics because many athletes take drugs, The financial system is a tremendous asset to this country – we have a great talent in that area – but I cannot see the image improving much. Most people do not understand the enormous value of efficient capital markets in using everyone’s savings more efficiently, and of attracting vast amounts of business to this country…… another difficulty is that the salaries seem so high. I see that several football managers earn more than £10 million a year. But people understand football.

LOD 2Do you believe in the Devil? Is he abroad in the world of men?

I believe that the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in my play was right (originally). The Devil is no more than a psychological construction in the mind of the human race, but has even so some importance as part of the human psyche. Jung said that if the Christian religion was not true, it had to be psychologically valid, since otherwise it would not have succeeded, and the Devil is part of that analysis. Incidentally, the real Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna in 1931 was Cardinal Pifl……..

What makes for good theatre?

This is a matter beyond my sphere of expertise. Chekhov stands out, and is of great interest in any attempt to answer your question.Often very little happens in a Chekhov play until the middle of the second act, when they all meet and decide not to go to Moscow. Yet his plays stand out as an amazing analysis of the human predicament. Note that the plot is merely the skeleton on which the real drama is hung. That is why so many films of great novels miss the point. They can tell the story, maybe a good one, but miss the dimension which make the whole thing a great work of art.

Wuthering Heights is the extreme example. Shakespeare is in a different league from everyone else – one can only be astonished at his genius. Incidentally, it seems clear to me that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It is impossible to imagine that he could have been in and around the London theatre scene for so long without anyone noticing the difference between his plays and his mind in conversation, not to mention having to wait whilst he rushed off the get input from Bacon or Lord Oxford. Also the comments by Ben Jonson and others.

What has been the response to The Luck of the Devil thus far?

The response is enthusiastic by those who have read it, but not many have read it outside my circle. Those in my circle are probably amazed that I have written a play at all. All profits from the first printing of the first edition went to a Charitable Trust.

LOD 1What’s next for The Luck of the Devil?

I have sent it to the BBC as it is perfect for radio. As regards a second play – Wodehouse when talking of novels always said that the second one was the real test of a writer, and no doubt the same is true of plays – I have started on a plot dealing with the incompetent bureaucracy of Heaven, where Stalin on arrival is not recognised (he uses his real name Josef Vissarionovitch Dzhugasvili) and is given the wrong papers, so that he is very nearly through the Pearly Gates, much to the delight of Satan.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading The Luck of the Devil?

This is not an easy question. Any reference to the Devil brings to mind the Charles Williams piece The Devil’s Gallop, which the more ancient of your readers may remember as the theme for Dick Barton, Special Agent on the BBC, which was succeeded by the Archers (the Archers have never been the same since Squire Lawson-Hope sold the village). But the Gallop is for a melodramatic Devil, and for my play we need something more sophisticated. Handel’s Zadok the Priest would do, since the long and restrained build up is full of tension, relieved by the triumphant ending.

If the play were to be made into an opera, I think that Gilbert and Sullivan would have done it rather well. I can imagine that Sullivan’s music for the Devil would have been excellent, and Gilbert would have loved the plot. Or even better Offenbach – we have put on his Not in Front of the Waiter four times at my club. His humorous wit is sophisticated and some of his music might also do for background music when reading the play.


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“I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.” – Author Ian Ross discusses The Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command

“I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling.”

When a treacherous act of murder throws the western provinces into turmoil, Aurelius Castus is ordered to take command of the military forces on the Rhine. But he soon discovers that the frontier is a place where the boundaries between civilisation and barbarism, freedom and slavery, honour and treason have little meaning.

At the very heart of the conflict are two vulnerable boys. One is Emperor Constantine’s young heir, Crispus. The other is Castus’s own beloved son, Sabinus. Only Castus stands between them and men who would kill them. With all that he loves in danger, Castus and a handful of loyal men must fight to defend the Roman Empire. But in the heat of battle, can he distinguish friend from enemy?.

Ian Ross was born in England, and studied painting before turning to writing fiction. After a year in Italy teaching English and exploring the ruins of empire reawakened his early love for ancient history, he returned to the UK with a growing fascination for the period known as late antiquity.

Ian has been researching and writing about the later Roman world and its army for over a decade. His interests combine an obsessive regard for accuracy and detail as well as a devotion to the craft of storytelling.

The Mask of Command (Twilight of Empire IV) (published by Head of Zeus, December 2016). To find out more click here.


Why the age of Constantine?

The Roman era is always going to attract the imagination, I think: perhaps it’s the combination of the recognisable and the very alien, or just the sheer scale of the empire and the drama of its history. The early fourth century is probably rather less familiar to many people, but it was a fascinating period, simultaneously gloomy and ornate, sophisticated and brutal. The empire had been through tremendous upheavals and was in a process of transformation; it was still a resolutely Roman culture and society, but the old certainties of the classical world were gone. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to sense the gathering storms of the empire’s collapse, so there’s a sort of background of darkness that makes the action stand out in even greater clarity.

I’ve always been drawn to periods of revolution and change, and the possibilities of viewing this very volatile era through the eyes of a man caught in the midst of it, not knowing what the future might bring, were compelling. We also have a reasonably good idea of the main events of the time, and a cast of extraordinary historical characters!

Did your research include much travel? Are there places where the visitor can catch a glimpse of the world your characters inhabit?

I’ve tried to visit all of the main sites I write about in the books, yes – an advantage, as I find travel sharpens the imagination greatly. My research so far has taken me from Scotland to Turkey, but this book is mainly set on the north-west frontier of the empire, along the lower Rhine and its hinterland. In Cologne (Colonia Agrippina in the novel, Castus’s centre of operations) you can see the remains of the Roman praetorium, or governor’s palace – and an extraordinary stretch of old sewer tunnel beneath it, which found its way unexpectedly into the novel! In Trier the audience hall of the imperial palace still stands, an enormously impressive building, while in nearby Mainz you can see full-size replicas of the smaller type of Roman river galley.

Downstream at Xanten there’s an entire Roman legionary fortress, with some excellent reconstructions. Often it’s the smaller finds that draw me, though – those glass cases in museums filled with everything from kitchen implements to dice, bits of armour to votive figurines; the things that people of the distant past would have handled in their everyday lives.

When did you first “meet” the hero of the novels, Aurelius Castus? When and how did he first appear in your mind’s eye in roughly the form he takes in the novels?

Castus appeared to me very quickly; I found I could picture him distinctly almost from the first moment I started thinking about the story. I wanted a protagonist who fitted with the era, rather than a sort of superhero figure, but someone with the depth to develop and remain central to the successive stories. Castus is a traditionalist, fiercely loyal to his own rather idealistic sense of the empire and the emperors, and he has a blunt and straightforward view of the world that often makes him clumsy in social situations. But he has a strong sense of ethics and honour, that throws him into conflict with the more duplicitous morality of the times.

The later Roman Empire was a complex and often murky place, with emperors rising and falling, and murderous conspiracies and treacheries on all sides; and I like having a central character who’s rather out of his depth among the intrigues, but with the willpower to battle through them. A just man in an unjust time, perhaps.

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Where did Castus learn to fight i.e. where did you learn to write authentic battle accounts and war stories?

I’m glad you find them convincing! I would guess it’s safe to say that few, if any, people today know what the actual experience of fighting hand to hand in ancient battles would be like, so authenticity is hard to judge. We have accounts from the period, some very vivid, that can tell us how Roman soldiers fought, how their formations were arrayed, and how particular clashes developed. There are reconstructions and re-enactments that can tell us even more. But beyond that it’s a matter of imagination and a sense of empathy, I think: we all know what fear and shock feel like, what adrenaline does to us, and fiction can build on that knowledge and take it somewhere new.

All novels are about empathy in that sense, about imagining the experiences of somebody else doing something entirely unfamiliar, and when that person is living in an historical era the imagination has to stretch that bit further. So when I’m writing these scenes I’m trying to evoke the sense of action and speed, the sense of danger, but keep everything focussed on the experiences of the individual man, Castus himself, who actually feels quite at home in the violent world of the battlefield!

Castus is the hero, but he is not the narrator. Did you ever consider telling the story in the first person?

I didn’t really, no – Castus is a man of relatively few words, and his taciturn nature wouldn’t really suit a narrator’s role. He’s always going to be at the centre of the story, although I have increasingly used other character’s perspectives alongside his own. In this book, there are viewpoints from Fausta, the emperor’s wife, and a certain rather dangerous eunuch as well; I often find it appealing to write from the perspective of people very dissimilar to myself.

220px-p1070865_louvre_tc3aate_de_fausta_ma4881_rwkYou’ve been researching the period for over a decade. What’s the greatest liberty you have taken with your sources in order to tell the story?

I’ve always tried to take as few liberties as possible with the historical facts – which isn’t actually all that difficult, as our sources tend to be pretty scanty for this period, and there’s plenty of leeway for interpretation! But I haven’t deliberately changed anything so far, and only start inventing things once I reach the furthest borders of the evidence. With the new book, The Mask of Command, I’ve had to be a lot more inventive though: the historical record tends to follow Constantine quite exclusively, and in this book my story leaves him in the eastern provinces and heads back west to the turbulent Rhine frontier.

We know there was some sort of war with the barbarians, and the emperor’s son Crispus claimed a victory, but beyond that things get a bit hazy. So my reconstruction of events is necessarily speculative, although almost everything that happens is at least based on something recorded from the surrounding era. More generally, though, I’ve never found the facts of history – or what we can establish of them – to be a hindrance in storytelling. It’s a lot more fruitful, I find, to try and build a story around the surviving fragments of the past, with all their awkward gaps and contradictions, rather than trying to bend history into a new shape that fits the ideas I already have.

Which novelist of the Roman Empire have you most tried to emulate, or is there one you’ve tried hard to avoid?

There are plenty of great writers around at the moment producing stories set in the ancient world, but I think with my own books I was trying consciously to reach back to works from a previous generation, the sort of thing I read when I was younger, and perhaps more impressionable! Rosemary Sutcliff would be obvious choice – mainly her novel for adults, The Flowers of Adonis, which is fabulous. Also Mary Renault, Wallace Breem and Alfred Duggan, and Robert Graves of course. I’ve tried to capture something of the subtlety and detail of those writers, and combine it with the more action-driven sort of narratives that we’re familiar with today.

If you could meet one of the historical personalities featured in the Twilight of Empire series who would it be?

There are quite a few! Fascinating as it might be to meet Constantine himself, I doubt he’d reveal much beyond his public persona. Actually, it would be more interesting to meet his wife: Fausta plays a significant role in the novels, but she’s a shadowy historical figure, the daughter, mother, and wife of emperors, but perhaps very conflicted in her allegiances. No doubt she could give an illuminating insider’s view on what was really happening in the imperial court! Maxentius, who appears in the third book, would be fascinating too, I’m sure: the pro-Constantine propaganda portrays him as a monstrous tyrant, but he was very popular at the time, and I suspect he was a lot more sympathetic than he often appears.

The Mask of Command is the 4th book of the series. What’s next?

There are going to be six books in The Twilight of Empire series, covering a period of about thirty years. I planned them, rather roughly, before I started work on the first, and I’ve just finished the fifth. Despite all the planning – I try to plot everything out in as much detail as I can before I start a new project – things do always change once I’m into the writing process, so the story can always develop in unexpected ways. But you can expect further challenges for Castus, a lot more conflict and imperial intrigue, and some dramatic new locations too.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Twilight of Empire IV The Mask of Command?

I never listen to music when I’m actually working, as it’s too distracting, although when I’m in the planning and preparation stages I sometimes do: anything from Holst to medieval Sicilian music, whatever helps to summon a certain mood. But if anyone wanted a musical accompaniment to reading the book, I’m sure the soundtrack to Gladiator would be quite suitable!


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“I sensed that if I could draw solace from these two stories, then so might an audience.” – Author Mark Farrelly discusses Soho Lives

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“I hope Patrick is not revived. I much prefer him to be a cult that only a small number of us know about. In this sense he is the literary equivalent of “Withnail and I”. Pass the secret on – but not too loudly.”

Soho Lives is a collection of two hit solo plays exploring the extraordinary lives and losses of two great Soho writers, Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp. Greeted with huge acclaim since their debut productions, Mark Farrelly’s plays offer actors and audiences laughter, heartbreak, and an urgent, passionate reminder that the only thing that ever matters is being true to yourself.

Patrick Hamilton (1904 – 1962) was a shooting star playwright and novelist. His stage thriller Rope made him a hit on both sides of the Atlantic by the age of 25, and the play was later filmed by Hitchcock. Patrick repeated his success with the Victorian chiller Gaslight, while his highly regarded novels include Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, Hangover Square and The Slaves of Solitude. His output – witty, cynical and beguilingly empathetic of all those “battered silly by life” – was cut brutally short by the loss of his battle with chronic alcoholism.

Quentin Crisp (1908 – 1999) was variously a rent boy, artist’s model and full time layabout. Shunned and beaten by London society for his flamboyant effeminacy, he concentrated simply on Being, and spawned a philosophy which enlightens to this day. After being portrayed by John Hurt in the classic TV film The Naked Civil Servant in 1975, he became an unlikely international treasure. Moving to New York in his seventies, he spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen ‘How to have a lifestyle’. Asked to give a young fan some life advice, he replied: “Remember – you don’t have to win”.

Mark Farrelly is an actor/writer. He was born in Sheffield and graduated with a double first in English from Jesus College, Cambridge. His West End credits include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opposite Matthew Kelly at Trafalgar Studios. Mark is a veteran of numerous arts festivals and a regular favourite at the Edinburgh Fringe. He has performed his two hit solo plays, The Silence of Snow: The Life of Patrick Hamilton, and Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope over one hundred times. Mark’s latest project is as writer and co-star of Howerd’s End, celebrating the centenary of comedy legend Frankie Howerd.

Soho Lives: Two Solo Plays by Mark Farrelly (published by 49Knights, March 2016). To find out more click here.


Why Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp?

Though I didn’t consciously know it at the time, they deeply mirrored aspects of my own life journey. Patrick’s personal life was a perpetual, drink-sodden mess (just read the highly autobiographical Hangover Square for a sense of this febrile fragility). I wasn’t in that league, but my personal life was certainly dysfunctional a few years ago. Around this time, me and my girlfriend of fifteen years split up, and I was truly on my own for the first time in life.

Horrifyingly, I found that adulthood could be postponed no longer (it seems that human adolescence now stretches to the age of 40). That’s where Quentin came in – the great guru of loneliness and laughing in the face of adversity. I was understandably drawn to Quentin’s story because it’s the tale of a man sitting in a flat on his own thinking life is over, which was very much me in 2012 /13, but then eventually things change and he ends up being the toast of New York.

I sensed that if I could draw solace from these two stories, then so might an audience… because we’re all suffering aren’t we? It’s a big part of what life is. The trick, as Quentin knew, is never to try to deal with it like Patrick – by running away.

Joining the two Lives is Soho. What was Soho like in their day and did Hamilton and Crisp ever meet there?

Soho (at least until recently) has always been what you want it to be. It’s a cipher for everyone’s inner ideal of a sanctuary from the harshness of life, but also a metaphor for the danger we like to flirt with in our younger days. So, for Patrick, it’s initially a boozy bolthole, a safe haven, idealised as a realm of “bottley glitter”. Later, as Patrick’s worldview darkened in the shadow of Hitler, Soho becomes a feeding ground for human sharks… conmen, narcissists, and also suicidal depressives.

Quentin likewise saw Soho initially as a refuge, hiding in what he called “layabout cafes”… until a “rough” or the police hassled him, angered by his brazen selfhood. Later he withdrew from it, and it existed only as a memory: “Soho used to be a more exciting place. You used to be able to get your throat cut on a really big scale”.

Did Patrick and Quentin ever meet? Unlikely. But I like to think they once unwittingly brushed past each other. Like so much of human interaction – almost connecting… but somehow never quite managing it.

Why have the novels of Patrick Hamilton dropped off the radar, and is he due a revival?

I suspect they dropped off the radar because there aren’t that many of them. He only wrote twelve books. The early ones are apprentice works, the later ones are blighted by the alcoholism that killed him at 58 (“I’ve been battered silly by life”), so for me that leaves only five flat-out great novels. They also have a narrowness of focus, compared to say E.M. Forster (another man who ‘only’ produced five great books). I hope Patrick is not revived. I much prefer him to be a cult that only a small number of us know about. In this sense he is the literary equivalent of Withnail and I. Pass the secret on – but not too loudly.

Quentin-Crisp.jpegDo John Hurt’s much celebrated portrayals of Quentin Crisp make it easier or harder for another actor to play him?

It didn’t really affect me. There have been thousands of Hamlets so I knew the world could cope with two Quentin Crisps. John Hurt (a great portrayer of victims, of whom it was rightly said “he suffers so well”) played to the hilt the bizarre upward inflections that Quentin sometimes spoke in. I deliberately toned this down for a solo play, as it would have become a bit annoying. So, at the wise encouragement of my superb director Linda Marlowe, I allowed some of my own voice to come into it. After all, the whole point of Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope is to encourage people to have the blind courage to be themselves at all times, however tough it is. Quentin said: “I simply refuse to bevel down my individuality to please other people”. Please dwell on what a great statement that is.

How do you go about researching your biographies, what sort of people do you meet, and what’s the single best insight you’ve gained?

The best research for writing a biographical piece is to have lots of psychotherapy. Find out who and what you are, what’s really going on beneath your behaviour patterns and your unexpressed wishes. Deeply explore why you are drawn to your subject, and what that says about you and the wider human “condition”. You’ll likely discover that your subject is what Jung called your shadow… some split-off, disowned part of yourself that you abandoned as a child in the face of criticism and aggression.

And now the soul burns to reconnect with all its parts. You’ve grown exhausted of listening to those dismal voices in your head, that embalmed Normal Bates gag reel of guff that keeps telling you that life is hopeless, you’re a failure and so on. It’s just a ghostly echo of everyone whose negativity you co-opted as a child, and you’ve spent years vainly trying to find the dimmer switch.

If (and it’s quite a big if) you are able to do this, then everything else will flow. Your reading, meeting surviving relatives, creating something of value… it will happen, though not necessarily in the manner you expected. The best insight (beautiful word) I had was when meeting Frances Ramsay, Quentin’s octogenarian niece. She said that whenever she was with Quentin, he would introduce her to his friends as “My niece Frances. She comes from real life”. And there it is. Quentin was an alien. Gloriously ironic that knowing yourself very deeply makes you an alien. And it does. Ninety percent of people I’ve met are phonies, imposters. I should know – I used to be one too.

14702423656_ac23f53089_k.jpgIf you had the chance to take Patrick Hamilton and Quentin Crisp to dinner where would you go and who would you also invite along?

Even after all my experience (I’ve played both men on stage over 100 times) I don’t know whether they would “click”. It would certainly be an interesting speed-date. I think we should go to the Garrick Club. Patrick (rare for him) felt at home there, and Quentin would, even today, raise eyebrows with his appearance. I would like no other diners present, I would want them all to myself. However, if I could freely subvert the known laws of space and time then I would like to be joined by Tim Welling, my dear friend who committed suicide in 2012. He helped me in the early days of these projects, and was one of the few people I’ve met who, like Quentin, was entirely himself regardless of who he was with or where he was. I miss him deeply.

You’re next project is a play about Frankie Howerd. If you’ll let us peek over your shoulder at the portrait while it’s still in progress, what’s emerging on the canvas?

I’ve realised that Frankie is the archetype of the human condition – nervous, haunted, hunted, desperately trying to keep the plates spinning before the whole lot disastrously crashes down. Of course, as Frankie’s partner of 40 years, Dennis Heymer, knew, letting the plates crash down might be a very good thing, but Frankie could never take that Rubiconic risk. This meant that he created a brilliant, brave, timeless form of stand-up comedy, but had the classic unhappy inner life. His act was a band-aid solution to the problem of being Frankie Howerd.

Next year is Frankie’s centenary, and we’ve never had a big comedic anniversary like this that I’m aware of. I think it’s extremely healthy for people to have proper goodbyes in life. I realised this when I went to see Monty Python at the O2 in 2014: we, and they, were getting a chance to say goodbye formally, and that’s very healing, allows you to move on in life. Two big romantic relationships of mine ended without a proper goodbye (“closure”) which did me a lot of damage.

So the play (Howerd’s End) is partly about how to let go properly. Dennis lived on for seventeen years after Frankie died in 1992, was often found clinging to the grave weeping, never came to terms with the loss. So what he and the audience have to learn during the course of the play is how to let go of Frankie. After all, one day we’ll have to let go of ourselves.

Above all: I want the play to be bloody funny. We’re apt to make our clowns very dark for the sake of drama. Every stranger I’ve spoken to about Frankie grins and says “Oh I loved him”, and so although I certainly want to provoke a few tears, I also want the audience to ride big waves of happiness. I asked Barry Cryer about this. He wrote for Frankie, and said that he’d seen a TV biopic about Frankie that “was so bleak you’d never have guessed Frank was a funny man”. Well, exactly. The world in 2016 is a pretty dark and frightening place, bombs seemingly going off by the hour… and I think we could all do with a damn good laugh. I know I could.

How important has your time at Edinburgh been for the development of both scripts?

Invaluable. Edinburgh is a brutal forcing house for new projects, and if you can survive it, possibly even get good reviews and interest from producers, then you’ve done very well indeed. There are three thousand shows in Edinburgh every year. When I first appeared there in 2002 it was one thousand. Gives you some idea of what you’re up against. Edinburgh to me is like the painting of the raft of the Medusa… thousands of egos fighting over a small bit of attention. It’s actually quite unpleasant, and when I performed there in 2014 I stayed away from much of the craziness by retreating, Quentin-style, to my room and listening to meditation tapes to remember how beautiful and special it is to be alive, because you can easily forget that in Edinburgh in August.

What’s the one thing anyone contemplating bringing a solo show to Edinburgh needs to consider?

Money.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Soho Lives: Two Solo Plays?

For Patrick, a selection of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald (he adored These Foolish Things).

For Quentin, complete silence, which was the soundtrack to many years of his life in Chelsea (“If I want anything, it’s peace. Quiet. The opportunity to stay in my room and just stagger on”). Then after you’ve read it, listen to Open All Night, Marc Almond’s beautifully dark album from 1999. It’s truly atmospheric, evocative of a lost Soho that probably never existed, and I think Patrick and Quentin would especially appreciate track 3: Tragedy.


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“No murderers at dinner, please, no politicians, and I think no soldiers if their talk would all be of blood and battles.” – Author Christopher Redmond discusses Lives Beyond Baker Street

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“People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric.”

Like insects trapped in amber, preserved in situ for all time, the cast of characters who populate the environs of 221B Baker Street offer a glimpse into a vanished milieu. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote what he saw. The canonical Sherlock Holmes stories are filled to bursting with charmers and charlatans, machiavellians and muddleheads inspired by, or taken directly from, the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In March 2016 MX Publishing will be setting 800 Sherlockian period portraits in a single gallery, a biographical dictionary to accompany fans as they journey in company with Holmes and Watson.

Canadian author Christopher Redmond is a Sherlock Holmes expert of exceptional standing. His Welcome to America, Mr. Sherlock Holmes (1987) chronicled Conan Doyle’s 1894 tour of America, while his In Bed With Sherlock Holmes (1984) examines the sexual elements in stories of the great detective. Arguably Christopher’s most important contribution thus far is his A Sherlock Holmes Handbook (1993) which went into a second edition in 2009.

The editor, past and present, of leading scholarly journals focused on all things Holmes, Christopher is also a founder and guiding genius behind Sherlockian.​Net – the web portal about Conan Doyle’s most famous creation.

Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries
(published by MX Publishing, March 2016
). To find out more click here.


Why the lives of Sherlock Holmes’s contemporaries?

Most people who are interested in the original Sherlock Holmes are interested in the world in which he moved, and the people around him. Most of the characters in the Holmes stories may be fictitious, but they are convincing portrayals of how people lived and behaved in that era. Standing just behind them (and, surprisingly often, making brief appearances in the stories) are the real people of the 1880s and 1890s. I wanted to introduce them to readers, in more depth than the footnotes in an annotated edition can do.

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Each biography is a paragraph long. How on Earth do you go about scaling down the great and the good to fit that frame?

Of course it means leaving out lots of details and many accomplishments, but it’s always possible to summarize who an individual was and what he or she did. I was constantly asking myself: what would an encyclopaedia say about Willam J. Burns? How would I tell my grandchild the story of Nelly Bly? What’s the elevator pitch for Sir Thomas Lipton?

Lives Beyond Baker Street is going to contain the lives of names who remain household even today, but who’s the who in there who’s been most unfairly overlooked?

That would be Bertha (Ringer) Benz, the wife of automotive engineer Karl Benz, who drove his prototype car 120 miles cross-country in 1886 to demonstrate that it worked, and invented brake linings during her trip. Without her efforts at marketing and technical improvement, the “100-horse-power Benz car” mentioned in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories would never have existed.

What kind of sources have you been using?

My introduction to the book lists a number of Sherlockian sources that have helped me identify people I should include. General information about them came from reference books and, primarily, online reference sources. I have to acknowledge constant use of Wikipedia, which contains a mountain of information about both well-known and obscure historical figures; the hard part is knowing which details to pull out and how to combine them into a narrative that’s interesting and doesn’t waste words.

Why only 800 biographical sketches? Or why so many?

I set that as the target early in the project, when I thought that each biography could be limited to 100 words. Eight hundred paragraphs each 100 words long would make 80,000 words, which I thought was a reasonable size for a substantial book. Unfortunately I rarely was able to stick to the 100-word target. I did manage to write exactly 800 biographies, if my count is correct, although one reviewer has already said that he thinks there are 806.

Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate, especially North Americans?

People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric. Discriminating readers admire his dedication to sheer logic, pure reason, at the expense of emotion and human frailty. And, to justify my book a little further, the Victorian age in which his life is set has a great appeal because we see it as stable and reasonable, a time when inventors and reformers were making life a little better every year.

How did your own love and fascination for Holmes begin? Does it extend to Conan Doyle’s other work?

I read Sherlock Holmes as a young teenager — most people did in those days — and never really grew out of my enthusiasm. I have read most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s other books but don’t often return to them.

Conan Doyle wrote the original Sherlock Holmes stories, inspiring others to take up his characters and carry on writing where he left off. Sir Arthur was the first Holmes writer, but is he still the definitive and best?

Yes indeed. Of course he is the definitive author because he is the one who created the character and his immediate setting, his Watson and Mrs. Hudson, his Baker Street sitting-room and magnifying glass and all the rest. Any subsequent Sherlock Holmes is based on the original, either trying to match it or deliberately varying from it. And ACD is the best author of Sherlock Holmes because of his brilliantly clear, simple, straightforward and yet imaginative style, which has not been equalled and is infuriatingly hard to imitate.

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If you were having a dinner party, and could only invite two of the figures profiled, who would you invite?

I can eliminate many of the 800 immediately: no murderers at dinner, please, no politicians, and I think no soldiers if their talk would all be of blood and battles. I would love to dine with Caroline Otero, but perhaps that meal should be tête-à-tête rather than with a party! So perhaps I’ll choose Anthony Hope Hawkins, who wrote some of the Victorian era’s other popular adventure fiction including The Prisoner of Zenda, and music-hall star Bessie Bellwood, who was known for her uninhibited repartee. That should keep the conversation lively.

What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries?

I don’t have a close relationship with music, and I don’t play anything when I’m reading or writing, but perhaps it would be pleasant to hear something by one of the composers or performers mentioned in the book. I wonder if there are any recordings of Sir Charles Hallé’s orchestra, which Sherlock Holmes himself supposedly heard in concert.


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