Sunday, 19 November 2017

Roman sea-borne trading and the port of Ostia by Alison Morton

The Romans were organised, truly organised in complex ways not seen again until at least the 18th and 19th centuries. Trade was vital to Ancient Rome. The empire cost a vast sum of money to run and trade brought in much of that money. The population of the city of Rome grew to over one million and demand for more and different goods and services to build and maintain a high status lifestyle fuelled trade from further and further afield.

Roman trade routes map (ORBIS, Stanford Uni)

In addition to the 80,000 kilometres of first class roads (as at c. AD 200) built primarily for the movement of military forces, used by the imperial courier service, for government administration and lastly for trade, sea routes crossed the Empire through the Mediterranean from Spain, France and North Africa to Syria, north to Britannia and east to the Black Sea.  They supported trade between a network of coastal cities - Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage. These cities were serviced by a road network permitting trade within their respective hinterlands. River transport was not so widespread as the major pan-European rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, were military frontiers, not the core of the Empire.

The Romans built lighthouses, harbour complexes, docks and warehouses to further sea trade and make it secure. The Roman navy (classis) tried with varying success to keep the Mediterranean Sea safe from pirates. Although the navy was instrumental in the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean basin, it never enjoyed the prestige of the Roman legions. Romans were a primarily land-based people, and relied partially on other nationalities such as Greeks, Phoenicians and the Egyptians, to build and man their ships. Partly because of this, the navy was never wholly embraced by the Roman state, and deemed somewhat "un-Roman". Unlike modern naval forces, the Roman navy even at its height never existed as an autonomous service, but operated as an adjunct to the Roman army.

Trade was facilitated by a single official currency and no complicating customs dues. Trade developed in complexity and reach  as peace became more established and with more trade, prosperity increased. When the Empire disintegrated in the late AD 400s, overseas markets disappeared, supply and distribution routes became unsafe and trade collapsed. The Mediterranean Sea became a dangerous place for merchants as there were no powers to control the activities of pirates who marauded as far north as the English Channel.

What was acquired from where?
The Romans imported a whole variety of materials: beef, corn, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine. The main trading partners were in Spain, France, the Middle East and North Africa. Britain exported lead, woollen products and tin. In return, it imported from Rome wine, olive oil, pottery and papyrus.

Bireme (Creative Commons)

Ostia, Rome's port
The most important sea port was Ostia situated at the mouth of the River Tiber and only 15 miles from Rome. According to an inscription, the original castrum (military camp) of Ostia was established in the 7th century BC. However, the oldest archaeological remains so far discovered date back to only the 4th century BC when Rome fought several naval actions. The traditional birth date of the Roman navy is set at ca. 311 BC, when, after the conquest of Campania, two new officials, the duumviri navales classis ornandae reficiendaeque causa, were tasked with the maintenance of a fleet. The most ancient buildings currently visible in Ostia are from the 3rd century BC, notably the castrum. From this point on, Ostia starts to play an important role as a military harbour. When Rome installed a new naval magistracy in 267 BC, one of the officials was permanently based in Ostia. Traders and artisans settled in Ostia to make a living in and around the harbour.

Goods could be quickly moved to Rome in barges up the River Tiber after slaves had unloaded and transferred cargo from merchant ships. The Romans built the world's first dual carriageway, via Portuensis, between Rome and Ostia. In 68 BC, the town was sacked by pirates. During the sack, the port was set on fire, the consular war fleet was destroyed, and two prominent senators kidnapped. This attack caused such panic in Rome that Pompey the Great arranged for the tribune Aulus Gabinius to propose a law, the Lex Gabinia, to allow Pompey to raise an army and destroy the pirates. Within a year, the pirates had been defeated.

Ostia was further developed during the first century AD under the influence of Tiberius, who ordered the building of the town's first forum. Temples, bathhouses, a theatre, shops, warehouses, construction yards, workshops, guilds became an integral part of the town.

Ostia Antica forum (author photo)

With the expansion of the physical city and the demands of the population of Rome, traffic on the river became ever more congested. Manoeuvring became impossible on the 100 metre wide river and silting exacerbated the problem. To guarantee a consistent supply of corn for Rome, the emperor Claudius started to build a new harbour (portus) in 42 AD two miles north of Ostia on the northern mouths of the Tiber.


Two curving moles were built out into the sea. Between the moles, on an island formed by sinking a large merchantman, a four-storied lighthouse was built. This harbour became silted up and around about 110 AD the emperor Trajan enlarged the new harbour with a huge land-locked inner hexagonal basin still visible today. Its form was hexagonal in order to reduce the erosive forces of the waves. The harbours were connected with the Tiber by canals.

Hexagonal basin (Uni Southampton)

The new Trajanic harbour was described as 'Portus Ostiensis' and the council and magistrates of Ostia also controlled the daily life of Portus. The harbours of Ostia continued their function as a major port as can be seen by traces of the many corn warehouses. This development took business away from Ostia itself which acted principally at that time as a river port only and began its commercial decline. One can only imagine the wrangling between the established guilds, merchants and city councillors in old Ostia and the up and coming traders of the modern, specifically designed new Portus.

Ostia and Portus grew to 50,000 inhabitants in the 2nd century, reaching a peak of some 100,000 inhabitants in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Portus was critically important for supplying the ever-growing city of imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean.  It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.

Roman port litho, Seewesen by Walter Muller, 1893

Ostia was to play a major part in the downfall of Rome when Alaric the Goth captured it in AD 409 knowing that this would starve Rome of much needed food. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).

Ostia Antica chandler’s floor (author photo)

Today Ostia Antica in an outstanding site for tourists and students alike and noted for the excellent preservation of its ancient buildings, magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics (

Portus is the centre of an exciting project led by the University of Southampton ( In 2014, a new canal and town wall at Ostia was discovered. In 2016, the Portus Project launched a series of online ‘tours’  (Click the menu bars at the top right to start).

I shall be following the project with great interest…


Alison Morton is the author of the Roma Nova thriller series.
More at

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Lost Words - Celia Rees

‘Once upon a time, words began to vanish. They disappeared so quietly that almost no-one noticed. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conkers – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words are becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.’

It is this perceived loss that is so eloquently addressed in the current exhibition at Compton Verney by writer, Robert Macfarlane, and artist, Jackie Morris. In this magnificent exhibition and in the wonderful book that they have produced, they draw attention to the danger that these words might be lost to children forever and they endeavour to make good the damage, conjuring back these lost words by the magic of their painting and poetry.

I grew up in the 1950s  and  was lucky enough to be one of the last generation to enjoy a ‘wild childhood’, free to roam woods and parks looking for conkers, pick blackberries in the hedgerows, wade in brooks and ponds looking for newts. I was intensely aware of the passing seasons and what they would bring: the conkers and turning leaves of autumn, bryony beading the hedgerow; the prospect of snow in winter, watching robins and bluetits feed in the garden; snowdrops, celandine and coltsfoot promising spring and the summer to come. We were free to be out all day, only returning when hunger called us home. We were in tune with the world around us: the plants, trees, birds, animals. We took it for granted. I saw ‘the elm tree bole in tiny leaf’ and knew what the poet meant, but that life has gone with the elm trees themselves.

Today’s children rarely go out unsupervised, some rarely go out at all. This exhibition is a response to the shocking research findings that British children are more familiar with Pokemon characters than British wildlife and, as  Robert Macfarlane points out in his article: Guardian - Badger or Bulbasaur - have children lost touch with nature?, all the centuries long associations that native flora and fauna have acquired through legend, myth, folklore and story are lost, too.  

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris explore The Lost Words from Acorn to Wren. Each bird, plant or animal is shown in the same way. No matter how humble or ordinary, each is reverenced in  an icon: a numinous depiction in gold leaf and exquisite jewellike water colour. It is then  shown within the wider context of its natural world and then, finally, by its absence. This last is particularly powerful and poignant. Starlings are shown by an empty wire,  raven and heron by a fallen feather, the magnificent otter by a line of paw prints. An achingly eloquent expression of loss and impoverishment, both to the world: if this creature had never been, or if we were to lose it, how much poorer would we be? And to the individual: if you don’t know something is there, then it does not exist for you and your world is somehow diminished. 

Jackie Morris’ pictures are accompanied by Robert Macfarlane’s acrostic poems or ‘spells’.

My companion at the exhibition, friend and fellow writer, Linda Newbery , observed that:

'Robert Macfarlane's 'spells' are clever, striking and energetic - not a lazy phrase to be found. As well as being acrostics they also use a formal patterning of repetitions and echoes which makes me think of the Welsh 'cynghanedd' found in Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's especially lovely to hear Robert Macfarlane reading them aloud - they are meant to be spoken, after all.'

Should green-as-moss be mixed with
blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold
you'd still fall short by far of the -
Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and
gloss of starling wing.

The two artists make a powerful conjuring.  Not least, because they invite the viewer, child or adult, to go out and do something. To look. To learn.To draw, paint, write what you see. Jackie Morris’ sketch book, watercolours, gold leaf and burnisher are there. As are Robert Macfarlane's pens, pencils, notes and notebooks.

There are drawing and writing materials, paper, crayons and pencils, so young visitors can take inspiration and make their own books. Robert Macfarlane's desk is in the last but one room. When I went in, a child was sitting on a little chair, leaning on this desk, hard at work with crayon and pencil. I'm sure that both the artist and writer would smile to see her there, and consider part of their work done, for the exhibition is an inspiration, an invitation, not just to admire their work, but to go outside and pay attention. 

The Words are not lost, they've gone into  hiding and are still there, waiting to be re-discovered. This exhibition invites us to do just that. Like all great ideas, it is simple.  It contains its own solution. It is no mystery. All you have to do is go out and see what’s there in front of you and around you. To look. Not just down at the ground but up at the sky; not just in the countryside but in every park, garden, on every road, alley, avenue, canal, stream, river and urban wild space. It’s all there. We just have to notice and teach our children to notice. Take a photo. Look it up. There’s bound to be an app...

If you can't get to the exhibition, you can buy the book: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, published by Hamish Hamilton. It is beautiful and would make a handsome Christmas present for anyone. 
Celia Rees


Friday, 17 November 2017


How does one start to hunt for plants? My own love of plants began with Cecily Mary Barker’s picture-and-verse Flower Fairy books, Yet the works are not pure fantasy: Barker’s charming fairies, first appearing in 1923, were based on drawings of real children in her sister’s kindergarten, while the detailed flowers and settings are painted with meticulous, botanically-accurate skill. The Flower Fairies taught me- and no doubt many others – to find and identify common plants, even though some of those flowers are rarer than they used to be.

However, Barker’s pretty fairies - still hovering around today – can surely only charm a very particular young audience. There’s space for bolder books about the history of the plants and stories for older boys and girls who would welcome tales of adventure.

I was very pleased to come across JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by fellow History Girl Sue Purkiss.

Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story.  Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and most interestingly naughty. Bored, and not allowed to attend school, he can’t resist devising tricks that shame his stern widowed Aunt Constance and horrify her genteel guests.

As a character, Jack is immediately likeable - and trouble! When he accidentally damages a priceless object, Constance summons her  brother, Uncle Edmund, insisting that he take responsibility for his young nephew.

Uncle Edmund refuses; not only is the scholarly bachelor unused to children but he is about to depart on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to accompany the expedition so Uncle Edmund reluctantly agrees, while Aunt Constance, unable to face any more disobedience, agrees despite the dangers.

From this point on Jack and his uncle  and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the Great Plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals, “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who brings death to any intruders in the Hidden Valley. Moreover, Jack soon realises that an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition’s food supplies and stirring up problems with local villagers.  Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne who accompanies the party, and whom Jack has begun to admire?  

Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skillfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.

However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other.

Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting. Gradually, Jack sees the burning passion that lies behind Uncle Edmund’s search, and his desperate hope that the plant will bring him fame, fortune and the approval of the influential Sir Joseph Banks when - and if -  they ever return to London.

Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than endless tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy-hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts and inheritance.

One of the particular reasons I enjoyed JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY was that, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a much wider world with all its interweaving histories.

Penny Dolan
ps. Years after the Flower Fairies, my gardening interests led to a set of children’s stories based on the history of British gardening, written for re-telling at RHS Harlow Carr gardens.

NB. Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title:  as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss:                                                                  

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Guy Fawkes - and an awful lot of light bulbs... By Sue Purkiss

We've just had some friends staying, and as we drove one day from Cheddar to Wells, Rosie noticed a sign warning that roads would be closed in a week's time because of the carnival.

"What an odd time of year for a carnival!" she said. "What kind of carnival is it?"

"Oh," we said, with a touch of understatement. "The carnival's quite a big thing in Somerset..."

Here, to explain, is a post I wrote a few years ago. For some reason, the carnivals are a week later than usual - so if you want to catch one, you still can.)

You've probably all heard of the Carnival of Venice. But down in Somerset, we have a carnival of our own, and this is its season. It starts in Bridgwater, close to the 5th November, and then it travels in succession to Weston Super Mare, North Petherton, Burnham on Sea, Shepton Mallet, Wells and Glastonbury. For the evening of carnival, the town centre is closed, and no matter what the weather, the route is lined with crowds of people, watching as upwards of fifty brilliantly lit carts (called 'floats' in other places) roll through the streets, drawn by tractors. Each cart has a theme, which is illustrated by performers - some have a tableau, but most have dancers, all gorgeously costumed and made-up (Strictly, eat your heart out!). The music's loud and the lights are dazzling - a cart may have 22,000 light bulbs.

Perhaps it all sounds a touch excessive - but this is a tradition which began over 500 years ago, deeply rooted and much treasured. It began when James 1 ordered his subjects to celebrate the discovery and punishment of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators by lighting bonfires all over the land. The towns of the south west, staunchly protestant, set to with alacrity. In Bridgwater, they built a huge bonfire right in the centre of town. To start off with it was built out of an old wooden ship (Bridgwater is a port), with 100 tar barrels to get the flames leaping. (Eventually they ran out of ships and had to collect wood, like everyone else.) There were special fireworks called squibs, attached to long sticks, and a hundred 'squibbers' stood in line in the High Street and let their squibs off as a triumphant finale.

The townspeople streamed through the town to the bonfire, many of them dressed in masks and costumes. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope, and anyone who'd managed to get on the wrong side of the Bridgie populace were slung onto the fire, and there was merry-making till the early hours. Eventually, in 1880, the merriment tipped over into a riot. The town dignitaries cogitated. There was no question of banning the carnival: instead, they formed a committee (what else?), which decided that henceforth there had better be a procession, which would wind through the town so that everyone would be able to see it, and the high jinks would not be concentrated in one small area.

And so began the formation of the carnival clubs, rejoicing in names such as the Masqueraders and the Gremlins. Each cart costs thousands of pounds, much of which is raised from sponsorship. The clubs spend the whole year raising money and building the cart; to do this they need costume makers, make-up artists, electricians, mechanics, tractor drivers, artists, painters, carpenters, sound engineers and more besides. Friendships are formed, marriages are made (and possibly broken); whole lives are lived within the ambit of the club. Thousands and thousands of pounds are raised for charity. After the carnival, the floats are dismantled and it all begins again - as you travel through Somerset, you may see the remnants: a giraffe grazes in a field near Glastonbury, a camel and a dinosaur gaze at each other from opposite sides of the M5.

In 1685, the Bridgie people were still staunchly protestant, as were many others in the south west. But now, unfortunately, the king, James 11, was not. The people of Bridgwater, along with many others from the south west, took part in the Monmouth Rebellion - also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion - and they paid a severe price for it at the Battle of Sedgemoor and in its aftermath. Presumably during the three short years of James' reign, the great bonfire was not lit on the Cornhill: and presumably when James was deposed and William and Mary came to the throne, the merrymaking was even more heartfelt and more riotous than before.

But perhaps Bridgwater's finest hour came in 1938, after Britain and France had shamefully let down Czechoslovakia by signing an agreement at Munich which allowed Hitler to invade unopposed and take the Sudetenland. Shortly afterwards, there was a by-election in the town, and it was won by an independent candidate, a journalist named Vernon Bartlett (left) who fought the election on a single platform: opposing the Munich Agreement, standing up to Fascism and defending Czechoslovakia. His victory sent a clear message to the coalition government; once again, Bridgwater had stood up for what it believed in. During the war, the carnival did not take place, but one William Henry Edwin Lockyer walked the route each year. The tradition was kept alive, and it continues.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Of Ships and Churches

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Churches can be a fascinating reflection of their local community and history. I have grown up visiting churches in the North of Jutland (Denmark) and taking for granted that in each church, there will be at least one model ship suspended from the ceiling.

In a community where almost every family made their living from the sea, mainly from fishing, the sea and its dangers were part of life. In Skagen, fishing was done from the beach until the harbour was built in 1904. On the west coast, fishing from the beach continued for much longer and there are still small communities like Lønstrup, where fishing boats are still winched on and off the beach today.

Lønstrup Boathouse
The North Sea is big and dangerous and without modern navigation tools, engines or weather forecasting, many persished at sea. This was the same for fishing communities the world over, of course. But here it has been integrated into the churches. The ships are there as a reminder that every family has lost members to the sea, that many may have loved ones at sea even as some sit in church. Perhaps they are also a form of thanksgiving - a reminder that the sea provides food and - for some - prosperity.
This is Skagen's Kirke:

 As one might expect of such a grand church (by local standards) it has a sophisticated interior. And some smart ships. Here is one of them:

Råbjerg kirke
But the ships are in all the coastal churches (and right up in the north, almost everywhere is on the coast). This church is in the middle of a dune, grass and farmland landscape, not far from the west coast. It has an interesting history of its own; it stands alone because the village around it had to be abandoned during a bad spell of shifting sand. But the church endures, solitary and charming. It underwent major restoration in 1931 and is now on a busy summer route to the beach so, for a few weeks a year, it has plenty of visitors:

The interior is low ceilinged and beamed and painted the traditional white. And of course, there are beautiful model ships suspended down the middle of the church:

It is impossible not to know you are in a coastal community when you sit in the churches here and look around. (For copyright : all photos are my own, taken summer 2017)

Follow me on Twitter at @jensen_ml

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The World’s First Novel by Lesley Downer

One day, a little over a thousand years ago, a Japanese court lady picked up her writing brush. In those days Japanese noblewomen lived in seclusion. The only men they could expect to see throughout their entire lives were their fathers, brothers, sons and, if they had one, their husband. The woman - no one knows her name but she has gone down in history as Murasaki Shikibu - was a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court.
Lady Murasaki at her desk
by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1865) 1858

Some time around 1006 - sixty years before the Battle of Hastings, a couple of hundred years after Beowulf and a couple of hundred years before Chaucer - she started writing a story to entertain her mistress, the empress. Like the sultan listening to The Thousand and One Nights or the readers of the instalments of Dickens’s novels, the court ladies clamoured for more.

Murasaki Shikibu was unlikely ever to have a love story of her own, so - perhaps a bit like Jane Austen - she dreamt up the ultimate man and fleshed him out. Prince Genji, the result of her imaginings, was handsome and charming, but also kind-hearted. He was human and flawed. As she told his story he developed and changed and grew older. He suffered terrible losses and tragedies. What Murasaki wrote was amazingly modern, all about relationships and character and feelings. It is moving and gripping and spellbinding and reads like the freshest of page turners. It was the world’s first novel.

In The Tale of Genji Murasaki recounts Genji’s adventures, travels, love affairs and tragedies. A breaker of hearts and fatally prone to falling in love, he’s an adept in the arts of perfume mixing, poetry writing and calligraphy. In his society court ladies keep themselves hidden inside their palaces. He exchanges poems with women he’s never seen and decides if they’re worth meeting on the basis of their handwriting and the quality of their poems. It’s a world quite Proustian in its delicacy and beauty and eternal leisure.
Ox carts - The Tale of Genji
by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 - 1891) 

This was a society with a very different ethos from our own. Women were never openly seen by men. Noblewomen lived in vermilion-painted palaces (the aristocracy were the only people who counted, as far as Murasaki was concerned) and when visitors called, they received them hidden behind screens. When the women went out they trundled around the tree-lined boulevards of the capital, Heian-kyo, in magnificent ox-drawn carriages, hidden from view, though they made sure there was an exquisite silk sleeve dangling gracefully out of the window so the passing crowd could imagine just how beautiful and cultured the hidden lady was. There was much standing on tiptoe and peeping through lattice fences, not just by the men, trying to catch a glimpse of these elusive creatures, but also by women, when someone like Prince Genji passed by.

In The Tale of Genji men regularly enter ladies’ palaces at night, make love to them in the pitch dark without ever having seen their face and leave at daybreak. The servants, being well trained, studiously ignore the intruders though they are well aware of who they are, as each man wears a distinctive perfume which he has mixed himself.
Spot the lady - hidden behind the screens
Tale of Genji by Kano Hidenobu (late 17th/early 18th century)

Some of the most memorable episodes in The Tale of Genji are humorous. At one point, Genji hears about a princess who lives all alone (apart, of course, from her maids, who don’t count). One day he happens to hear her playing her zither with such skill he assumes she must be very beautiful. He sends her poems, but she is so shy she doesn’t answer, which only piques his interest further. Finally he sneaks in. There is a delicious scent of sandalwood emanating from her clothes, surely evidence of extraordinary beauty. But when he wakes up the next morning and finally sees her he discovers that, far from being beautiful, she has a huge red nose and, worse still, wears very old-fashioned clothes. He’s so horrified he doesn’t even send the customary morning-after poem until evening. But in the end his tender heart is touched and he takes her too under his wing.
Heian Shrine, Kyoto, modelled on Heian Palace 
(794 - 1227), which Lady Murasaki knew.

The early part of the tale is full of stories like these, poignant, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, detailing Genii’s youthful indiscretions and misadventures, at the end of which he has gathered a brood of women who each live in an apartment in his palace. But as Genji gets older, the story gets darker; in all it is some 54 chapters and 1000 pages long. He suffers, he has terrible failures and disasters and in the end loses the person dearest to his heart - Murasaki, after whom the author is named.

By the time I sat down and read the whole novel I’d been living in Japan for several years. I knew Heian-kyo, Genji’s and also Murasaki’s city, very well. It exists like a ghostly presence underlying the streets of Kyoto, its modern name. The vermilion buildings and green-tiled roofs of Heian Shrine are an exact replica, scaled down a little, of the imperial palace that Murasaki knew, which stood until 1227. In spring the gardens, lake and delicate pavilions are swathed in clouds of cherry blossom. And you can still imagine the ox carts with their huge wooden wheels rumbling up and down the long straight streets of the City of Purple Hills and Crystal Streams, as the poets called it.

The Tale of Genji suffuses Japanese culture and Japanese society. It features in everything from art to the incense guessing game, and episodes from it form the plots of many Noh plays. It enormously coloured the way Japan looked to me. Japanese, I should add, are usually amazed to hear that I’ve read and love The Tale of Genji. For them it’s like Beowulf, so difficult that they too can’t read it in the original and rely on modern Japanese translations.
Lady Murasaki might have glimpsed
yamabushi mountain priests like these from
 the window of her oxcart as she passed
Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto (first built 656 AD) 

As a postscript, if you’re inspired to read The Tale of Genji, you should borrow, buy or steal the Arthur Waley translation. Scholars will tell you it’s not impeccably accurate. Waley took liberties, he changed details. If what you want is a precise, perfectly accurate translation, you could try Edward Seidensticker’s version or Royall Tyler’s magnificent two volume set with copious footnotes and a very interesting introduction. But if you read either of those you won’t be swept off your feet and fall madly in love with Genji and be transported away and unable to stop reading. For that you’ll have to go to Arthur Waley.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel,The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

Monday, 13 November 2017


For some time now I've been hailing the Stuarts as the new Tudors. Last year saw a number of publications set in the seventeenth century, among others we had Linda Porter's excellent Royal Renegades on the children of Charles I, Andrew Taylor's hugely successful The Ashes of London, a thriller set during the Great Fire and my own The Girl in the Glass Tower, about Arbella Stuart who might have been England's first Stuart queen.

The trend shows no signs of abating with the publication of several more intriguing works of both fiction and non-fiction including the winner of the 2017 HWA Debut Crown, Beth Underdown's brilliant debut novel The Witchfinder's Sister, a beautifully written and chilling story woven around the Manningtree witch hunts.

Another dark offering comes in the shape of Katherine Clement's The Coffin Path, an eerie and compelling gothic ghost story set in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors. Other seventeenth century set fiction includes Jemahl Evans's This Deceitful Light, which continues his English Civil War series with great aplomb and Deborah Swift's Pleasing Mr Pepys, which shows explores the drama and intrigue of Pepys's world through the eyes of his wife.

In non-fiction Benjamin Woolley's fascinating portrait of the Duke of Buckingham, The King's Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I, not only charts the rise of James I's most successful favourite but also explores the accusation made by a doctor at the King's deathbed that Buckingham had a hand in his benefactor's demise – all very juicy stuff indeed. Looking forward the immensely talented Leanda de Lisle has a new biography coming in January: The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr, which is every bit as thrilling as its title suggests. 

If you're looking for Christmas presents for friends and family who have read everything there is to read about the Tudors, then look no further.

Elizabeth Fremantle's The Girl in the Glass Tower is published by Penguin.