Sunday, 10 December 2017

Suicide by greed: the monsters looming over Venice - Michelle Lovric

Anyone visiting Venice in the last ten years will have suffered the unsettling experience of seeing what appears to be a small ugly modern city moving slowly above the rooftops of the city. The scale is so preposterous and the aesthetics are so ludicrous, compared to the ancient city, that it’s easy to believe that the looming behemoth is a hallucination. It’s not. In fact, you will have just seen one of hundreds of mega-cruise ships that annually pass dangerously close to the Piazza San Marco in order to supply its privileged passengers with their iconic view of la Serenissima. To be fair, most of those passengers probably have no idea of the damage being done so that they may enjoy this fleeting experience. If they did, cruise liners would surely not be swarming into Venice's historic byways like vast white locusts.

The mayor of Venice accuses photographers of using zoom lenses to exaggerate the dimensions of the new generation of mega-cruise ships. That's not at all necessary, as was demonstrated in the 2015/16 exhibition "Venezia e le grandi navi" by Gianni Berengo Gardin, one of Italy's pre-eminent photographers. This video on YouTube (also above) shows with forensic clarity just how the cruise ships tower over the churches, streets, palazzi and inhabitants of Venice. I urge you to look at it before reading on. In the very moving commentary, the photographer describes seeing his first mega-ship as a punch in the stomach, and the phenomenon in general as a visual pollution, and a tangible threat to a fragile city.

I see a sad irony in this maritime incursion. Venice survived every other attempted invasion by sea, including that threatened by the Badoer Badoero’s fleet during the Baiamonte Tiepolo conspiracy of 1310. The shallow waters of the lagoon protected the city for thousands of years, as only Venetians knew the safe, deep channels. Even Napoleon did not bother with a sea-borne attack on the island, preferring a swift campaign of brutal psychological bullying. Instead, Venice has quietly, almost willingly, fallen to a wholly commercial invasion, handing over the secrets of navigation to the big cruise companies. The situation has worsened over the years because of the interessi (financial interests) embedded in Venice’s infrastructure and a tragic, incomprehensible lack of muscularity in the state’s response to the problem.

The impact of mass tourism has without doubt contributed to the exodus of Venetians from their city. The population has decreased by 100,000 in the last sixty years, to just over 54,000 people. Meanwhile, the figure for tourists is reckoned to be 32 million, few of whom contribute anything at all to the policing or cleaning of the city or the restoration of her monuments. Cruisers eat and sleep on their floating hotels, bringing little to the struggling city’s ecosystem apart from their bodies clogging the narrow alleys.

Meanwhile, in 2016, the Europa Nostra programme identified the Venetian lagoon as the first of seven seriously endangered places. The World Monuments Fund placed Venice on its ‘places to watch’ list, precisely because of the impact of mass cruise tourism. And UNESCO has threatened to strike Venice from its Heritage Sites if something is not done soon to remove the cruise ships from the bacino of San Marco and to control the unlimited influx of tourists. In fact, it’s only the threat that’s useful in exerting pressure. The actual removal would eliminate any power UNESCO might have because it seems, from the way the problem's being managed, that the mayor does not care whether Venice is on the list or not.

the logo of the organization fighting to divert
the megaships from the ancient city centre
But Venetians are no longer prepared to be quiet about the cruise liners. There is now a protest movement: NOGrandiNavi. Articulate, frequent, vivid protests by its members - often in colourful flotillas of small boats - culminated in a referendum about the issue earlier this year.
Overwhelmingly, the city voted to stop the invasion by the mega-ships. Sadly, the will of the people has not been translated into action. But that's not the end of the story ...

Barbara Warburton Giliberti
Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Barbara Warburton Giliberti, a citizen of Venice for 40 years, and a teacher of English at the University of Ca’ Foscari. She serves on the committee of  NOGrandiNavi. I was very grateful for this opportunity to raise all the questions that many people put to me.

Can you say exactly what the cruise ships bring to the city? As a result of their berthing here, do churches get restored? Is any domestic habitation improved so that Venetians can stop fleeing their city? Where does the money go?

What the cruise ships bring to Venice? Only problems. Venice makes no money at all from the cruise ships. The passengers clog the town that’s already over-full. The only possible gain could be that some passengers arrive the night before departure and spend one night in a hotel waiting to embark the following day. But very, very few of them do so. There’s been a proposal to make a small charge for each passenger, so as to be able to do some cleaning up, restoration or renovation. That idea quickly died a silent death and nothing at all came of it.

What are the costs paid by the cruise companies?

The costs the cruise companies have to pay are shockingly low, given the profitability of bringing their customers to the most beautiful city in the world. Moreover, these payments are to private companies, not to the municipality. Some time ago VTP (Venice Passenger Terminal) was partially owned by the municipality and partially by the cruise ship companies. Then the mayor was strapped for cash and sold off the public part, which immediately fell into the hands of the cruise companies who are now total owners of the maritime station and the wharves there. They will do everything they can to exploit their investment and to ensure that the monster cruise ships continue to cross the bacino of San Marco and berth at the maritime station. If another port were to be constructed outside the lagoon – at the Lido, for example – there would have to be an international competition and there are very many foreign companies who can do much better work than Consortium Venezia Nuova at much lower prices. So CVN are trying to block the Di Piccoli/Duferco plan for floating wharves at the Lido, the only proposal to have received a positive opinion from the Valutazione dell’Impatto Ambientale, a government committee that evaluates the environmental impact of major public works.

What do the companies actually pay for?                  

Costs of technical/nautical services in millions of euros: Piloting 3.8; Tugboats 5.5; Mooring 1.2; Loading of fuel 1.6; loading of drinking water 1.6; Removal of liquid waste 1.6; Removal of solid waste 0.9; Wharf costs: guards 9.8; security 3.7; Luggage movement 10.9; Food provisions movement 1.2; various 0.5; total 41.8. None of this is paid to Venice, as I have explained. It all goes to private companies with an interest in the status quo.
And what danger and damage comes from the cruise liners? Have there been any studies done on the environmental impact? I understand that shoreline retreat has been found in the canal between Malamocco and Marghera, and that this is attributed to the cruise liners. What else has been discovered?

There are many dangers connected to cruise ships:
a) Erosion of the lagoon itself. With each passage, the very fine silt is churned up and doesn’t have time to settle again before the next tide washes it out into the open sea. There’s no sewage system in Venice: the weeds, algae, mud and microscopic creatures act as a natural filter to keep the water clean. If you get rid of them, then Venice will have to invest in an incredibly expensive sewage system. World expert on marine engineering, Professor Luigi d’Alpaos, says that if we continue at this rate then there will be no lagoon in ten years’ time. It will simply become part of the sea.
b) Erosion and vibration. The vibrations along with wave motion are wrecking the foundations of the Venetian palaces. The huge ships displace such an enormous quantity of water just by being in the water. When they move forward, even if only very slowly, the water rushes in behind them to reach its original level and this has disastrous results not only in the path of the ship but in the side canals as well.
c) There is a supposed ‘Blue Flag’ agreement, on a voluntary basis, where the companies say they will use clean fuel. This is simply not true. They use cheap fuel with a high content of dangerous substances. These substances are emitted as thick, black smoke from the stacks (we have dozens of photos) and cause damage not only to human beings but to the monuments: marble turns into chalk and the next rain washes away yet another layer. There are very efficient filters that can be fitted to the stacks to remove these particles. But, of course, there’s a cost involved. The German organisation NABU has been here many times and has measured the various levels of air pollution. It has emerged that Venice, with no cars, is the fourth most polluted city in Italy. It is as though we were living next to a steel or cement factory. The cruise ships themselves create a dangerous level of air pollution even when they are in the open sea. It is also true that the public transport system in Venice, the vaporetti, should also have filters fixed to their engines (buses in Berlin are obliged to have them, why not here?) but again a deaf ear is turned to that request. With regard to humans, the very fine particles enter the blood stream (the skin and various mucus layers are no barrier at all) and cause heart disease, respiratory diseases, Alzheimer’s, miscarriages.
d) When the ships are moored at the maritime station, the engines are never turned off because they need to produce power for the air conditioning, the lights, the equipment and so on. The residents of that area cannot use cell phones, computers, TV etc. because of the electrical interference. The noise level of keep-fit classes, late-night parties and discoes is a disturbance of the public peace. Some local people have given up on repairing their roofs, which are subjected to continual vibration. Tiles simply fly off.
The sign on the this protest boat reads 'Home is a Right'
e) The cruise liners are monstrous. Venice was built with wooden ships powered by oars in mind, not these 450-meter-long giants weighing hundreds of thousands of tons. Even when the port was built, it was for much smaller ships. No-one imagined this trend for bigger and even bigger ships.

Wherever these ships go - the Caribbean, the Arctic - citizen committees like ours have sprung up spontaneously. All are saying the same things: these ships are too big to come near the land; they are destroying the very beauty the bring people to see.

 To give us an idea of the scale of the problem, how many cruise passengers come to Venice annually?

Here are the figures for the last few years:
2014 488 cruise ships 1,733,839 pax 88 river cruises 16,702 pax total 1,750,541 pax
2015 521 “                  1,582,481 “    89 “                    18,561                1,601,042
2016 529 “                  1,605,660       96 “                    18,670                                1,624,330

To these totals, you must add the Hovercraft statistics
2014    328 ships 91,125 pax
2015    297 ships 85,564 pax
2016    330 ships 93,501 pax

And these figures do not include the thousands of crew who also pour out of the ships. So we are speaking of around 2 million bodies arriving on these vessels every year. These totals must be seen, remember, in the context of Venice’s 54,000 citizens.

The Costa Concordia disaster made real the possibility of a mega-ship grounding and capsizing as a result of human error. Could such a thing happen in Venice? What would be the impact? How long could it last?

The Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the Isola del Giglio in January 2012.
Thirty-two people died.The captain, who admitted a 'judgment error' was jailed
for manslaughter. It took over three years and cost £1.5 billion to remove the wreck.
Photograph by Roberto Vongher, Wikimedia Commons
In Venice, mega-ships like the Costa Concordia come so close to shore. All it would take is a sneeze or a fit of coughing at the bridge, and we would all be in peril.

If there were to be a disaster similar to the Costa Concordia, the results would be even worse. We have asked for a simulation to be carried out to demonstrate that there’s not enough space for the fire brigade boats to point their hoses correctly. We’re still waiting for a reply.

These ships have no brakes. You cannot stop a ship of this size in just a few yards. It would continue to career forward, smashing whatever it came into contact with. And the accidents that do happen get swept very quickly under the carpet. The press is kept well out of the situation. For instance, some time ago, one of the so-called ‘fingers’ (a piece of loading equipment) was crumpled due to a wrong manoeuvre. Fortunately, it was only a finger. Another time, due to extremely strong winds coming down from the mountains, one of the ships lying side on to the wind wrenched a capstan out of the wharf and the mooring was no longer safe.

Some of our protesters are very witty. Above, you see one of our boats playing on the name of the ill-fated Costa Concordia.

And here's a little film 'My Ship will Go On', created by Frullatorio who re-set and re-dubbed the shipping world's most famous moment of impact. 'My Ship will Go on' was shown at the NOGrandi Navi meeting on December 4th. It doesn't really need translation. Suffice it to say that Leo and Kate discuss moving the cruise terminal to Marghera, while one of the ship's officers boasts that there's plenty of room in the channel and that two cruise ships could easily pass at the same time with modern technology. And when they crash into San Marco, one sailor observes, 'Oh well, it was old anyway.'

Tell us about NOGrandiNavi. When was it formed and how does it work?
NOGrandiNavi was formed about twelve years ago. It has no public funding whatsoever. All the work is carried out by volunteers. Over the last couple of years, we have been working in close contact with Ambiente Bene and Venezia è Laguna. Our financial resources come from donations and the sale of small souvenirs (T-shirts, key-rings, shopping bags, umbrellas, caps, banners). We have ‘social’ pizzas or dinners. With our increase in numbers, we’ve started to specialize – mailing list, press office, website, translations, videos, press collection – as many as possible of the newspaper and magazines articles published on any day are made into a file that’s circulated to the mailing list. This specialization stops all the work falling on the same shoulders. We have lawyers and notaries who are members and they do all the legal work for free. 

What do we do? We try to be present at all the meetings where items regarding the lagoon or the cruise ships are discussed. A summary of the discussion is made and circulated to the mailing list. We organise public debates with authoritative speakers, illustrated with power-point or slides. We prepare dossiers of a technical nature that are distributed not only to the mailing list but also to the members of the local municipality, so they cannot say they didn’t know what was happening. We invite NABU to come and check the levels of pollution.

What forms have your protests taken over the years? I see that your latest poster is for an event to deal with the lies that have been told. Very creative use of a cruise ship as a Pinocchio nose!

This poster uses a cruise ship as a Pinocchio nose. It's for a
 meeting in which the committee undertakes to clear up all the lies
that have been told about the cruise liners.
We organize protest marches that are very lively, colourful and noisy. Blockades are set up with our very small boats to delay the departure of some of the ships. We distribute flyers with maps and illustrations of the various areas involved. We have stalls to collect signatures. We’ve been hosted on a radio programme that enabled listeners to ask us important questions directly. We give interviews to television and radio stations from all over the world. We send letters to local, national and European authorities setting out our position and contesting the false information often given by the various lobbies.

We make a lot of noise, and we wake people up on a Sunday, but we are never violent. Our members are aged between three months and ninety and include some extremely authoritative figures: for example, an expert on administrative law and an ex-member of the municipality with an inside insight into its functions. We receive support and help from marine engineers, industrial designers, environmental scientists. But we value all our volunteers. Families come along to our events, bringing children in their strollers. We always provide a safe creche. After all, we are fighting for the future of these precious Venetian children so it’s important that they are part of it.

It is vital for us to stay visible. We have already captured the interest of newspapers and television networks all over the world. Many citizens of Venice take part in our protests. Journalists come to see – and we make sure it’s worth their while: we give them a show.

Meanwhile, many Venetians display their ‘NOGrandiNavi’ posters from their windows and balconies. Here are some other protests:

The 40 Ladroni protest: This protest played on the story of Aladdin and the Forty Thieves. NOGrandiNavi protesters shut themselves inside an improvised floating cage decorated of photographs of individuals who might be said to have certain ‘conflicts of interest’ when it comes to the grandi navi.


The Berengo Gardin exhibition was quite a story at the time. The whole thing had been organized to be held at Palazzo Ducale, all the invitations had been printed and sent out; all the posters had been printed. Then, at the last moment, Mayor Brugnaro found out what the exhibition was about. He immediately withdrew the permit. Not only that, but he also banned all the other Venetian museums from holding the exhibition. There was an uproar, as you can imagine.

However, the Ordine dei Giornalisti promptly offered their offices (near San Polo and dreadfully small rooms) as a temporary measure until FAI (the Fondo Ambiente Italiano – similar to Britain’s National Trust) could prepare the Olivetti shop in the Piazza San Marco to host the exhibition. Can you believe it, but Brugnaro made the tactless decision to come to the opening in San Polo (complete with police escort, bodyguards and entourage) – only to be welcomed with well-deserved disparaging comments.

The Campanile protest (above left). Some protesters bought tickets to the top of the Campanile. They secreted about their persons some tightly folded banners. At the top, they unfurled them.

Diving protest. Each of the brave divers in the picture received a very heavy, punitive fine for breaking the city bye-law that prohibits swimming in the historic waters – no doubt intended as a deterrant. It’s curious, isn’t it how the Municipality imposes such enormous fines on an organisation that is basically crowd-funded? It appears to be doing whatever it can to put pressure on our resources. Ironically on the very same day, the Municipality itself organised a swimming race along the Canale di Cannaregio to San Giuliano. None of those swimmers was troubled with a fine.

How to avoid being fined for swimming in the historic waters? Protesters wearing animal masks affixed a poster to the hull of one of the cruise-liners.

The masks represented animals in danger of extinction – just like Venice. With highly visible
protests like this, passengers can no longer be unaware that the monster ships are unwelcome so close to the city.

We use red smoke to draw attention to our cause. The police say our little boats are ‘a danger’ to shipping, so we make sure we are highly visible – unlike the poisonous emissions of the mega-ships

This past July we organised a referendum – in only 9 hours we collected more than 18,000 signatures (all detailed with name, identity card or similar) and more than 97% wanted the large cruise ships kept out of the lagoon and wanted a total ban on new excavations.

 The mayor refused to accept the verdict saying that he had been elected and he would say what could be done and what not. Another of the services provided that day was a team of ladies who brought round lunch and drinks for the people collecting the signatures; some of the gazebos ran out of voting cards several times and the people waited there in a queue for more than half an hour in the blazing sun because they absolutely wanted to vote. Some of the other stations had planned to open for a couple of hours but the crowds kept coming and they stayed open all the time. Next time we will organise far more stations on the mainland – so many Venetians have had to leave Venice and now live in Mestre, Marghera and the surroundings but are still vitally interested in what happens in Venice.

We’ve made downloadable postcard. Artist Vince McIndoe inserted a hand-painted cruise liner into the background of a Canaletto painting of Venice to show the incongruity of scale and aesthetics that makes the grandi navi so preposterous in a Venetian setting. This shocking image brings it all home. Some cruise liners have up to twenty decks – compared to the usual five floors in a Venetian palazzo. This postcard is designed to be sent to Graziano Delrio, the current Minister for Infrastructure. We don’t know how many he has received. But he’s unlike to share that information with us.

In the last few years, several different proposals have been put forward to deal with the Cruise lines. Can you summarise briefly?

 1. Excavate the existing Contorta Canal to take ships to the industrial area of Marghera, on the coast of the Venetian mainland.
2. Excavate the existing Vittorio Emanuele canal to bypass the historic centre and take boats to a new terminal in Marghera
 3. Floating wharves at the Lido where the mega-ships would berth, either at San Niccolo or the Mose site at Alberoni, with smaller and ecological boats to bring passengers to Arsenale. This is the plan we favour.

What do you say to accusations that NoGrandiNavi's aspirations might cost Venetian jobs?
Of course we don't want to deprive working Venetians of any employment that's derived from cruise tourism. We just want the mega-ships to arrive and leave from a place that's not so perilously close to the irreplaceable historic centre.

In fact, if the Lido plan were adopted, the workforce would double because those already working at Stazione Marittima would remain there for the smaller cruise ships and luxury yachts while new jobs would be created at the new floating berths at the Lido. There would also be an increase in staff necessary to transfer those passengers wanting to visit Venice using the re-fitted, modernised, ecologically friendly motonavi.

The topic of the loss of jobs is only one part of the lobby pressure aimed at influencing public opinion. It is totally false.

 And in November, there was an important meeting …?

Here is the official version: the government meeting itself was perhaps illegal because it is stated that the president must be the prime minister, and this was not the case. Several Ministers who were supposed to be there were not, in fact, there and sent substitutes. At the moment of signing the final document, four of the five present left the room and didn’t sign anything. What is the outcome? Mega ships will continue to cross Venice lagoon and pass in front of San Marco for many years to come. The excavations proposed for the Vittorio Emanuele canal have been squashed. The project for the supposed new terminal in Marghera does not yet exist in a satisfactory form, and even when it does exist, it will have to pass the Committee for Environmental Impact – a hopeless case. The Harbour Master said years ago that the Canale dei Petroli could not accept a mixture of cargo and passenger traffic because of the safety problems and he’s not going to change his opinion in the near future. The whole of the proposed area is subject to the Seveso Directive from Brussels and I can’t see them letting anything as bird-brained as this pass through.

The electric company have been turning a deaf ear for years to the request to re-site a very problematic syphon that needs to be moved if the mega ships are to pass to Marghera; the trade unions are totally against the new Marghera terminal, which will block future development of the commercial port. Several businesses, now working profitably in the area and using the proposed wharves, don’t want to give them up. The only slightly positive aspect is that the proposed new terminal at the Lido, the only one to be approved by the Environmental Commission, is now formally on the table as an alternative. The final result? The NOGrandinavi Committee will need to continue working strenuously to make sure no dirty dealings go unnoticed.

And the new story that emerged later in November?

On November 17th, Senator Felice Casson pointed out to Parliament that the Special Law for Venice was enacted to protect the lagoon, not to encourage and further the expansion of the cruise ship companies and that the meeting earlier in the month was totally out of line.

 What can people do to help?

When we have our demonstrations, we always have stalls where people can buy T-shirts, bags and hats that help finance our activities. We used to have a kiosk but the rent became unaffordable.
Is your merchandise also available online? 
We hope to organise this soon.

Is there anything else people can do to help?

Our biggest issue is the fact that we, private individuals, are battling against organisations that make millions from the cruise ships. Although all of us give our time, energy and services for free, we still need to pay the fines incurred by our divers, the court costs when they are prosecuted, the costs entailed in producing our souvenirs and posters, hiring meeting halls. Donations can be made very easily, by PayPal or credit card via this link

You can join our mailing list. You can make your feelings known by a tweet to @graziano_delrio or on his Facebook page Graziano Delrio, or send an email to the mayor of Venice at

Thank you so much for this interview, Barbara, and for all the time you've given to answering my questions.

Michelle Lovric’s website
Images from the NOGrandiNavi website.
Due to spamming problems, if you'd like to leave a comment about this piece, you need to become a Follower of this website – or you can email your comment to me to post at mlAT (use the symbol)

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Saturnalia Chickens by Caroline Lawrence

Saturnalia chickens by Dr Helen Forte
My first post for this blog was back in July 2011, over five years ago. It was called History Chickens because one of my obsessions is trying to visualise the ancient world and not leave out any detail. I maintain there would have been far more chickens in Ancient Rome than historians usually allow for. 

Although I have never kept chickens, I will always remember something the late A.A. Gill once wrote: It is virtually impossible to hold a hen and not smile.’ 

A white 'Silkie' hen via Wikimedia Commons
Recently at the Roman Society’s conference celebrating 50 years of the journal Britannia, I heard a couple of scholarly talks including one by Dr Naomi Sykes, claiming that in Roman Britain, chickens were so rare that they were cherished as pets rather than used as food (although the eggs were eaten). I didn't understand all the technical stuff, but it seemed plausible. That’s why we find some early and exotic chicken remains at Fishbourne Roman palace near Chichester, the opulent Roman villa that first brought fallow deer to Britain.  

Westbourne House School, Chichester
Yesterday I came out of ‘wribernation to speak to children in years 3 & 4 at Westbourne House School in Chichester, near where the first chickens landed, as it were. Year 3 are reading my book The Sewer Demon, for their Romans topic. Year 4 studied Romans last year.

Sewer Demon display at Westbourne House School
The Sewer Demon is the first of my four Roman Mysteries spinoffs, The Roman Mystery Scrolls.  This short series features a beggar boy by the name of Threptus who lives in the Roman port of Ostia. I told the children how I came up with the characters and their world. I explained how, after writing The Roman Mysteries, I thought it would be fun to write a spin off series with ‘less blood and more poo’ for younger kids. Artefacts like my famous sponge-on-a-stick would feature heavily. And of course the famous multi-seater toilets at Ostia. 

Roman tombstone of 13-year-old Threptus
The hero would be a beggar boy with a heart of honey. I got the idea for his name from a Roman tombstone at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The tombstone was erected for a boy named Tiberius Claudius Threptus who sadly lived only 13 years, 6 months and 22 days. 

I was also inspired by a fan of Italian ancestry with a sweet face named Marco. 

Mark Benton as Floridius in The Roman Mysteries
The beggar boys mentor and sidekick would be the soothsayer, created for the Roman Mysteries TV series by screenwriter Dom Shaw and actor Mark Benton. Floridius is a character I never even thought of, but immediately loved. Because Floridius has a fondness for spiced wine and gambling on the chariot races he is not a particularly good mentor. Luckily, Threptus will help Floridius as much as Floridius helps Threptus. 

One of the best things about Floridius is that he keeps sacred chickens, which gave me an excuse to put lots of history chickens in these books. 

Not knowing the least thing about domestic fowl, I read some books, watched some YouTube clips and called on the services of one of my former pupils, a boy named Ben Udy who kept exotic hens. Working with Ben, we came up with a lexicon of chicken-speak. It would make them fun for parents, kids and teachers to read aloud.

a) Brk-brk, brrrrk (very soft)
b) Wrr, wrrk, brrr (very soft)
c) Wrrroooww (very soft)

a) Buuuuurk! (frog-like croak)
b) Buuurk, buurk-buurk (whiny)

Body language: loosely feathered, ambling inquisitively but not purposefully, stop to preen, cluck gently. 

a) Brp, brp! (when not moving)
b) Bweerp, bweerp, bweerp (when moving)
c) Beweerp!

Bk-bk-bk... (varying repetitions)

a) Bk-bk-bk, B’KAK!  
b) Bk-bk-bk, b’kak!  
c) Bk-bk-bk, bkaaaah! [sometimes forget final K]
d) Bock-bock-bock-bock-bock, begowwwwk! [big ]

a) Bk-bk-bk, BKAK!
nb) BK-BK-BK, BKAK! [small hens]

Ben also told me about Silkie chickens, which have feathers that are as silky as hair. Thus was Aphrodite born, the hen who is like a pet for Threptus along with Felix the kitten. 

Threptus first meets Floridius and his  sacred chickens in the final story in my volume of Mini-Mysteries, The Legionary from Londinium

The sacred chickens go on to feature in all four Threptus books, which we’ve called The Roman Mystery Scrolls, but they really come into their own in the third book of the series, The Thunder Omen, set during Saturnalia. It starts out like this: 

It was early morning on the first day of the Saturnalia, the Roman mid-winter festival of gift-giving, feasting and dancing. It was a topsy-turvy holiday when anything could happen. In the port of Ostia, in a one-room shack behind a temple, eight sacred chickens were dancing on a table. 

Threptus has made each chicken a small conical hat called a pileus. Minimus illustrator and Latin teacher Dr Helen Forte made me a special colour plate showing seven of the sacred chickens plus Felix the kitten. They are all wearing the pileus, the freedman’s cap, to show that normal rules don’t apply.
Dancing sacred chickens by Dr Helen Forte

Long live the sacred chickens... 

... and Yo, Saturnalia! 

Friday, 8 December 2017

'Figgy Pudding and Stir-up Sunday' by Karen Maitland

'Making the Empire's Christmas Pudding'
One of the great delights of moving to a rural village is that many of the traditions which have died out in most towns are still maintained, such as carrying flaming tar barrels from pub to pub or getting up before dawn to dance around the Nine Maidens, an ancient stone circle on Dartmoor, having already climbed up freezing boggy hills in the biting wind. Neither custom is for the faint-hearted, but a slightly less strenuous tradition still observed in our village is Stir-up Sunday. This is the day the women of the community get together to make their Christmas puddings.

Stir-up Sunday is the last Sunday before advent, at the end of November. The name comes the Church of England Book of Common prayer of 1604, in which the Collect for that day begins - 
'Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded …’

Children had their own version of this, for was a tradition for orphans or poor children to go from door to door on this day begging for a portion of the puddings with the song –
‘Stir up, we beseech thee, the pudding in the pot. And when we get home we shall eat the lot.’
Captain of a Destroyer in Scapa Flow
stirring the Christmas Pudding with a 
wooden paddle, December 1942
On Stir- up Sunday all the women bring their ingredients into the church hall and prepare their puddings together, which would once have been a great way for older women to teach new brides the art of pudding making. Each stirrer may make a wish, but if it is to be granted, the puddings must be stirred clockwise in a circle from east to west, which is said to honour the journey the three Wise Men made to visit the infant Jesus.

But in fact, the custom of stirring any kind of food in a clockwise direction has its origins centuries before Christianity. Everything a woman did in the home or in the field had to be done sunwise or deiseil, because the sun was the source of all life. To walk round a building or perform any action in an anticlockwise direction – widdershins – was to work against the sun and strengthen the powers of darkness. It would certainly call down ill-fortune or worse.

There is a tradition in the British Royal Navy that the youngest sailor and the ship’s commander should both be called together to stir the ships Christmas pudding on Stir-up Sunday and that this should be done with a wooden oar or paddle, to symbolise the wooden manager in which the baby Jesus was laid.

The Christmas pudding may have evolved from a medieval dish known 'frumenty' made from cracked wheat, currents or other dried fruit and spices, boiled together with milk or almond-milk or meat stock. This could be served sweet or could have scraps of meat such as beef, mutton or venison added to make a kind of pottage. It was more like a thick soup or stew than a solid pudding. A version was eaten on the fast days before Christmas in preparation for the coming Christmas feast, when it would be made without meat. It was often a frugal way of using up scraps. In the Celtic Christian tradition it was eaten as part of the Christmas feast.

By the end of the 16th century a dish, known as 'plum porridge', consisting of raisins and spices boiled in fruit juices or meat-stock, thickened with breadcrumbs was served as the first course in the Christmas feast. It wasn’t until around 1670, that it became the familiar solid round pudding boiled in a bag, known as 'figgy pudding' or 'plum pudding', the plums being raisins.

The custom of hiding objects in Christmas puddings also has medieval origins in the practise of baking a dried bean into a cake on Twelfth Night, a tradition which was recorded as early as the 1300’s. Who ever found the bean would be crowned king or queen of the final feast of Christmastide and would be able to command their ‘subjects’ to do whatever they wanted to amuse their ‘sovereign’, however bawdy or humiliating. But if the finder accidently split or broke the bean as they found it, they would be obliged to change into the clothing of the opposite sex for the feast. The man would be crowned queen for the night and the woman king.

In later centuries, silver coins were boiled inside the pudding, and if you found one in your slice, it was said you would be blessed with wealth and good fortune for the coming year. Silver, of course, was another one of those superstitions from pre-Christian times, when it was associated with the blessings of the moon. Silver was used to repel evil, demons and monsters. In later centuries this is why they thought some creatures could only be killed with a silver bullet. In certain seafaring communities, such as Hull on the east coast of England, if a trawler man found a silver sixpence in a Christmas pudding he’d carry it in his pocket on every fishing trip to prevent misfortune and ensure a good catch.

Christmas or yuletide was always a time when people would try to discover their fortunes for the coming year by watching how the yule log, a hazelnut or an apple pip burned. Another Christmas custom was to send a girl of marriageable age out to fetch wood from the stack at night in the dark. The next morning, she would count the number of sticks she had gathered. An even number meant she would wed within the year, an odd number that she must wait. And this tradition of Christmas fortune-telling continued with the Christmas pudding. By the Victorian era, in addition to the silver coin, charms were concealed inside the pudding which would foretell the finder’s future. If you received a Bachelor’s Button or an Old Maids Thimble, you’d remain single but be happy during the coming year, but if you found a ring, marriage within the year was certain. A silver wish-bone or horseshoe would bring you good luck and a miniature anchor would pull you into safe, calm waters.

Gunner H. S. Haddow of 15th Scottish Division
in Holland proudly announcing the arrival of
the Christmas Pudding, December 1944
In some areas, of Britain it was the tradition for each household to make 13 small puddings, the last, the Judas Pudding, had to be given to a beggar who must carry it away from the house, taking away any bad luck for the year. Another custom was to retain a small amount of Christmas pudding and add it to the following year’s mixture, so that the pudding was never finished. This ensured that the family would never go hungry. So, if you haven’t made your pudding yet – it’s time to stir up!

Thursday, 7 December 2017

SUGAR MONEY by Jane Harris Reviewed by Adèle Geras + an interview with Jane Harris.

Jane Harris, in her acknowledgements at the end of SUGAR MONEY, tells us of her love for the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and anyone reading this novel will notice the influence. On one level, the book is an adventure story: a dangerous mission, a journey across seas in a rust bucket of a vessel with a rackety and drunken captain; obstacles, perils, dreadful suffering, suspense, and through everything, like a chain of gold, the touching love between two brothers.

Lucien is our narrator. He's a lively, optimistic, chatty teenager and devoted to his elder brother, Emile, who is pining for his own lost love, Celeste. Lucien works for Father Céophas, on Martinique and the two brothers are sent by him to Grenada to bring back 42 slaves,  stolen by the British.

What begins as a typical 'ripping yarn' changes as we progress through the book, into something a great deal darker and the horrors of slave owning are not glossed over. What carries us through is the voice of Lucien which is  the main achievement of this novel. 

Jane Harris is the most astonishing ventriloquist. It's hard enough to write in the first person when the character you're writing about is more or less talking in a language like your own, but here, the mixture is rich and strange: Créole and an unusual Caribbean English which seizes the reader at the start and carries her through the book, enchanted by the humour, the poetry and eloquence  of the young narrator.  This is a case of 'show' rather than 'tell' and only by quoting a passage can I hope to give any of the flavour of the speech.  Here is a passage from quite near the beginning of the book: 

"All at once I became aware that - from his place at the tiller -  Bianco was watching me close-close.  A kind of uneasiness settled across my heart, for I dislike the way his pale eyes seem to stare into my soul. Jésis-Maia! In haste I turn to face the prow.That way I could keep lookout for sharks and make sure that Emile slept safe. I had no fear of the Béké, not one iota, but if he could not get sight of my countenance then that was an added bait and bonus."

This is a full-tilt, richly- patterned and thrillingly exciting story, brilliantly told. 

And now, here are the questions I have asked Jane Harris to answer.

1) The voice in this book is that of a young boy who is also a slave in Martinique a very long time ago. The novel is about slavery, at least in part. Have you had any criticism on account of 'cultural appropriation?' How do you deal with such criticism?

I knew that the notion of cultural appropriation might be an issue from the moment I had the idea for the book. With this awareness, I asked various friends of colour whether they thought I was insane to even tackle the subject and they told me that yes, I probably was insane (ha ha!) but that it wouldn’t matter – as long as the book was good enough. So, I had my task clearly delineated for me from the start: I had to write an extremely good novel. 

My personal opinion is that an author ought to be able to write about any subject. I tend to write about characters on the margins, people who have no voice. I’m not much interested in kings and queens etc. Every novel I write is making a point, even if I don’t wear my politics on my sleeve. I felt there was an important story to be told in Sugar Money and I felt compelled to tell it. However, I never forgot my white privilege and did my best to honour the subject matter.

Only one reviewer so far has seemed to be criticising me for writing about slaves and slavery, albeit in a veiled way. You asked how I deal with it. I suppose I just accept that people have their own opinions or their own reasons for being critical. In sum, it’s up to individual readers to decide whether I’ve written a successful novel or not. 

2) Are you a slow writer? I say this as someone who wanted another book from you the minute I finished Gillespie and I. 

Well, that’s nice to hear! I suppose I am a slow writer. Historical fiction requires an enormous amount of research, not all of which appears on the page – and what does appear on the page has to be carefully hidden. In addition, my first two books were very long, so that took more time. Also, I’m incredibly anal, so I rewrite endlessly. My motto is, you can have it good, or you can have it quick. I’d rather have it good. All good things are worth waiting for. 

Lastly, real life has a habit of getting in the way of writing, ‘the stuff of life’ etc., which (in my case, over the past decade) has caused many delays.

3) The research you've done is eye-watering. Can you tell us a little about that? Do you enjoy research? 

I do love research but it’s time-consuming. I’m thinking of tackling a contemporary book next, just because it will be much easier not to have to carry out the scale and depth of research that I’ve done for the past three books. To write a good historical novel, one has to hold up every word and phrase, every sentence, every fact, every detail, every assumption, every idea, in order to check whether it’s correct for the period. Of course, I accept that it may be necessary to research a contemporary book, but if (say) I live in Manchester and am writing about contemporary Manchester, it’s just obvious that far less research is required. So, although I adore research, I’d quite like a break from it!

4) What does your writing day look like?

It depends what stage of the process I’m at. When I’m actually writing, I start as soon as I wake up (that could be any time between 5am and 8am) and carry on until about 5pm or 6pm, with regular breaks every hour or so to check messages and social media.  

However, I do spend a lot of time promoting my books and so on, and there can be periods of weeks and months when I’m not writing at all. I’m not one of those writers who can write ‘on the road’. I need to be at home, living like a hermit. Most of this year has been spent finished then proofing and promoting Sugar Money, plus organising other aspects of my life, for instance, moving home.

5) Can you tell us a bit about what you're doing next?

I’d love to but – as I said above, other than that I’m hoping it will be contemporary - I haven’t decided yet. 

6) Please tell us about the kind of book you like to read, and/or any writers you admire.

I tend to prefer fiction to non-fiction, and realism to magic realism or fantasy. I love short stories as well as novels and I do like fiction to have a sense of humour, even if it deals with weighty subject matter.   

I don’t really enjoy formulaic, plotty novels. However, I love clever novels that pay some attention to character and narrative, as opposed to the kind of stream-of-consciousness thing I enjoyed when I was younger which now feels a bit lazy to me. 

Having said that, if a non-realist novel is good enough, I can be transported by it, and if an experimental novel is hard-working and captivating enough, then I’m on board. 


Jane’s best-selling debut, The Observations, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and chosen by Richard and Judy as one of 100 Books of the Decade. Her novel, Gillespie & I, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards. Jane’s work is published in 20 territories. Sugar Money is her third novel.