A Horrible History Quiz

Whether you love history (as I do) or don’t (and if so, why?) here’s something to test your “little grey cells”. Just for fun, no prizes! Check back next week for the answers.

1 Was this battle won in a train station? (8)

2 Prime Minister who got the boot (10)

3 Elizabethan courtier with a cloak…and a bicycle? (6, 7)

4 Victorian explorer who translated the Karma Sutra… before or after marrying Elizabeth Taylor? (7, 6)
5 “Turbulent priest” who was murdered…while waiting for Godot? (6)

6 Could this Beatle be a descendant of the man who helped navigators find longitude (8)

7 Town’s football team that would have been supported by a Roman general (10)

8 What mediaeval queen’s name was the answer that helped the first person to win a million in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (7, 2, 9)

9 Name two US Presidents whose surnames are also English towns (10, 7)

10 And another US President who sounds like he bowled for Yorkshire (7)

11 British Prime Minister who liked a cup of fragrant tea (4, 4)

12 If Louis XIV drank whiskey, what kind might he have enjoyed? (7)

13 And what would be an appropriate tipple for an Emperor? (8, 6)

14 This ship went down – because the princess got up? (4, 4)

15 Happy rock sounds like a recipe for a Victorian Prime Minister (9)

16 Bad result of disorganised postage in pre-war Berlin? (7)

17 City that would welcome the Trojan whose philandering started a war? (5)

18 Revolting peasant in 1381 who might be useful decorating a bathroom? (3, 5)

19 Which redshirted revolutionary liked a biscuit? (9)

20 And finally a naval battle…fought in a London square? (9)

Good luck!

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Home thoughts – from home

April garden blossomsLockdown is treating us relatively kindly this Easter. Our garden is blooming, and the woods where I take my one permitted walk each day are a blaze of colour too, with birds going bananas on almost every tree. Yesterday it all reminded me of a favourite poem, Robert Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad.” I remembered it from schooldays, and I recited it to myself and the dog (but I don’t think she was paying attention.) And I wondered: What would Mr. Browning make of our present weird situation?


Spring garden border“Oh to be in England now that April’s there.”
Would Robert Browning wish that now, with lockdown everywhere,
And troubles piled on troubles? Why yes, it’s my belief
He’d still recall the magic of the greening brushwood sheaf.
For the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough,
In England, now.
And after April, even though
There’s yet more grief,  Browning would know
You still can see the blossoms on the clover,
And hear the wise thrush sing his songs twice over,
To prove that still, in spite of everything,
You can’t lock down the spring.

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Anyone know any Roman jokes?

We may have to be physically isolated just now, but thank the gods for the Internet. I reckon it’s time to share a smile or two. “Now is the time,” as the old saying has it, “for all good men to come to the aid of the party.” Does anyone else remember, as I do, bashing out that sentence time and again as a practice piece when learning to type? I was taught old-school touch typing and here I am to prove I can still do it…give or qake the occasional mistoke.

And now IS the time for all good people to come to the aid of each other and raise a smile. And as I’m hooked on Roman stuff, I’m asking: does anyone know any Roman jokes?

Here’s one for starters:
Where does Julius Caesar keep his armies?
Up his sleevies.

OK, OK…I still have to smile, and I thought it was the height of wit when I first heard it. Mind you, I was only nine years old at the time. In fact now I come to think of it, most of the Roman jokes that have lodged in my memory come from schooldays, where we all learned Latin as a matter of course, and they aren’t really originally Roman anyway. But they still raise a grin, for me anyway. Have my tastes improved at all? Read on, intrepid surfer, if you dare…

One or two at least purport to be in Latin. How about this bit of doggerel, which I discovered at the ripe old age of twelve? As you’ll know if you’ve encountered this antique ???gem in your own mis-spent youth, the trick is to read it out loud:

Caesar adsum iam forti,
Pompey aderat.
Caesar sic in omnibus,
Pompey sic in at.

I’m sure I must have read many adult examples of Roman jokes while researching for my Aurelia Marcella novels The Romans certainly had a sense of humour, and so I hope do my books. Why is it then that it’s mostly the silly ones that have stuck?

I do know one authentic original joke though, mentioned in Mary Beard’s book Laughter in Ancient Rome. I can’t remember it word for word, but here’s the gist:

A king on a royal progress through his kingdom spotted in the crowd a man who looked so like him that they could have been twins. He beckoned the stranger over. “How remarkably alike we are, my good man. Did your mother work at the Palace at some time?”

“No, Your Majesty, never. But my father did.”
Not bad, is it?

Here’s one more bit of silliness for anyone who’s still reading this:

An Ancient Briton walks into a Roman tavern and the barman won’t serve him. “You’re not properly dressed,”he says. “We expect our customers to at least wear a tunic, but all you’ve got on is a pair of sandals and a lot of blue skin paint. Get out of here now!”

“All right, I’ll go,” the Ancient Brit says sadly. “But won’t you just give me one for the woad?”

So you think you can do better? Prove it. Drop me a note tablet, or better still, a comment, with your own contribution.

And keep smiling!

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A Crime Writer’s Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
A plot for a murder mys-tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
Two eager sleuths in a plot for a murder mys-tree.
On the third day of Christmas…
Three bent cops, two eager sleuths, in a plot for a murder mys-tree.
On the fourth day of Christmas…
Four sudden deaths, three bent cops, two eager sleuths…
On the fifth day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
Five red herrings!

Right, let’s fast-forward to twelve before we all die of thirst.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true-love sent to me
Twelve likely suspects,
Eleven deadly motives,
Ten baffled boffins,
Nine bloodstained letters,
Eight unknown poisons,
Seven secret ciphers,
Six guns a-smoking,
Five red herrings!
Four sudden deaths,
Three bent cops,
Two eager sleuths,
In a plot for a murder mys-tree.

That’s my next novel sorted, then!

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Happy Saturnalia, everyone

However you spend your December holiday, enjoy! I send you all my very best wishes. If we were back in Roman times, we’d be marking the midwinter solstice with Saturnalia – a time of partying, gift-giving, and eating and drinking. In fact quite a lot like our modern Christmas. And we’ve passed the shortest day of the year, so the darkness will start to shorten now.

And here’s hoping for a happy and successful New Year for us all too. The Roman god Janus, with his two faces so he could look forward as well as backward, is a happy symbol for the turn of the year. 2018 has been good for me on the whole and I’m hoping for more good things in 2019. Among other projects, I’m planning to finish my next, much-delayed, Aurelia Marcella mystery…don’t laugh, I mean it this time. Call it my first New Year resolution!

See you in 2019!

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National Poetry Day

Calooh! Callay! Hip hip hooray!
Today is National Poetry Day.
The pundits say one could do worse
Than pen a line or two of verse.
But if originality comes hard,
Then here’s another way to be a bard:
You just create a poem that combines
A mix of other poets’ deathless lines.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
Among those dark satanic mills.
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Beware the jabberwock, my son!
My love is like a red red rose,
Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree.
There’s peace and holy quiet there,
And is there honey still for tea?

That’s twelve lines done. Stick two more on it
And there you go, a blooming sonnet!

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Tarantulas, friends or foes?

Last week I made friends with a tarantula. Jane with tarantula

I’m not making it up, honest. I held a live tarantula in my two hands for several minutes, and survived to tell the tale. Richard and I were visiting Bugtopia, an unusual kind of zoo which specialises in creepy-crawlies of all sorts. From butterflies to scorpions, from centipedes to spiders, there’s a huge selection. Many of them, like the giant tropical butterflies, you can see free-range, in an enormous glasshouse full of plants; others are in cages on view in the warm jungle-type atmosphere. But the best thing, the reason we went, is that visitors can arrange to have hands-on contact with some of the creatures.

In a quiet, dim room, we were the only two visitors for a presentation by one of the zoo’s staff. She was knowledgeable and entertaining and definitely, I felt, a safe pair of hands. She brought several specimens out from their cages to meet us, starting with a couple of cockroaches, impeccably clean although in the wild they prefer dirty places where they can scavenge food remains. Then a stick insect who, unlike the sedentary specimens I remember from school, crawled up my jacket, apparently wondering if I’d make a good tree.

Jane and millipedeNext a millipede; cute and friendly; a relatively small one, who’d have made me a bracelet if she’d chosen to wind round my wrist. The largest millipedes can be as long as your forearm, and no prizes for guessing which animal has won a Guinness Book World Record for having the most legs of any creature on the planet. 750!

Tarantula close-upFinally came the tarantula. I’ll admit I was quite uneasy about this one. I remembered – do you? – that scene in the very first James Bond film, “Dr. No”, where Bond has a tarantula planted in his bed and has to lie still while it crawls up his body. But our spider turned out to be a peaceful pussy-cat. She was a Mexican Red Rump, though as she’s recently shed her skin she wasn’t showing any red. Our instructor passed her carefully to Richard, reassuring us that tarantulas don’t deserve their fearsome reputation. They do NOT kill people. Their bite is unpleasant and may be painful, but not deadly. They are reluctant to attack people anyhow, unless seriously threatened, preferring to escape if they can. If they can’t, they give a series of warning signals, lasting several minutes, indicating “Keep back, I’m a scary monster.” They rear up into a threatening position showing off their fangs; then many of them – including the one we met – follow that up by shooting off bristles from their backs towards their opponent. You wouldn’t want one in the eye, but it wouldn’t kill you, and neither would the weapon of last resort. the less-than-deadly bite.

Eventually I felt reassured enough to take our spider in my hands, watching her warily. She was as good as gold, calm, alert but barely moving. I think she was at ease. I definitely was. I felt I’d made a friend, not endured an enemy. And the whole experience was truly fascinating.

Of course, being a mystery writer, I’ve realised there’s a problem. (A fly in the ointment?) I’ve always assumed that if I ever needed a poisonous spider as a murder weapon in one of my stories, I’d just introduce a tarantula, no explanation necessary because everybody knows. Only in this case what “everybody knows” is wrong. So I’ll have to find another venomous arachnid. There seem to be several candidates: black widow spiders, brown widow ditto, Australian funnel web…how about a crime set in Sydney?

Hmmm. More research needed, I think. Though it absolutely won’t be hands-on!

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Tiberius and his cucumbers

Tiberius CaesarThe Roman Emperor Tiberius has had a pretty bad press these last two thousand years. Even if you don’t believe everything you read in Robert Graves’ I CLAUDIUS, you can’t ignore the ancient writers who were Graves’ source material. They tell how Tiberius committed every type of crime and indulged in every sort of perversion. He murdered anyone who displeased him, sexually abused children…oh yes, and neglected the government of his Empire. Well, he was an absolute ruler and, as Lord Acton remarked, “All power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Modern historians, though, are asking how many of these dire reports are actually true, and how much was exaggerated or even invented by writers who were hostile to Tiberius or his family. That’s another story, and not for today. Because I’ve come across at least one good thing that Tiberius is credited with. His gardeners invented the greenhouse.

The Romans were enthusiastic gardeners, and grew a wide range of plants, especially vegetables, that we still cultivate today. Tiberius, it seems, was very partial to cucumbers, and insisted on having fresh ones for his table all year round. Even in a Mediterranean climate this posed a challenge to his gardeners in winter-time, and with the added problem of working for a master who had a short temper and powers of life and death…not surprisingly, they found a way to deliver what he wanted.

They used to grow their cucumbers in large carts that could be wheeled outdoors in sunny weather and brought inside again at night or when it was cold. Not a complete answer, because long cold spells might mean the plants were kept indoors for days on end and would fail from lack of light. So the gardeners covered the carts with translucent panes that let in light but kept out the worst of the chills, and the plants could be outdoors even in cold weather.

The covers were made of selenite, a form of gypsum which was soft enough to be easily cut into very thin sheets, yet hard enough to serve as quite large panes. Why not use glass? They didn’t have the technology to make large clear panes of glass; they did manage small opaque glass windows for richer folks’ houses, but these were expensive and perhaps more fragile than the mineral sheets. Whatever the reason, the selenite covers proved a good practical solution.

Mind you, not all Roman gardeners’ ideas about cucumbers was so sensible. They believed that soaking the seed in milk, or in honeyed wine, would make the resulting fruits extra tender. Harmless enough, but how about this? They advised that women shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the cucumber beds, as sturdy plants’ growth would be stunted. And if a woman was having her period, one writer claimed that “just her look will kill immature young ones.” What a load of…er…manure! Probably an excuse by frightened gardeners whose plants weren’t flourishing. “Sorry, master, but the mistress came by yesterday and since then…”

Never mind, the covered-cart idea was passed on by several ancient writers on gardening as a workable technique. I suppose the cucumber-houses were more cold frames than true greenhouses, but they were a start. So next time you tuck into a mixed salad or toy with a thin cucumber sandwich, spare a thought for Tiberius and his gardeners, laying the foundations for a new technique.

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Fortune-telling, Roman style

Roman temple

The old jokes are the best, aren’t they? I remember a radio spoof on Shakespeare’s famous…the one that superstitious actors call the Scottish Play. Macbeth meets the three witches and the dialogue goes:
Macbeth: “Greetings, ladies. I want to ask you a question.”
Witches, in chorus: “Yes, we can.”
Macbeth: “Can you really foretell the future?”

It’s human nature to want to know what’s going to happen next. The Romans certainly had plenty of ways of trying to find out. They took omens very often and very seriously, observing the flights of birds or the innards of sacrificial animals, to discover whether the gods would favour this or that war, journey, or building project. They consulted sacred oracles in grand temples or spooky caves. Or maybe they visited a cheaper professional fortune-teller who claimed to find glimpses of the future within the pages of a book. Such a weird and wonderful tome was the ORACLES OF ASTRAMPSYCHUS. Nobody knows who wrote it (certainly the book’s claims to having been consulted by Alexander the Great are pure marketing invention) but it was extremely popular, and was re-worked for Christian rather than pagan readers in later centuries.

Here’s how the book works. You desperately need the answer to a particular question? Then pick a query that most nearly matches your own from a list of 92 numbered questions. There’s plenty of choice: many of the topics would be familiar today, dealing with money, love, travel, family, business. “Will I sail safely?” “Am I going to marry my girlfriend?” “Will I inherit from my parents?” There are also, and more interestingly to history geeks, questions that reflect specifically Roman anxieties. “Will I be a senator?” “Am I going to be sold?”

Having chosen your question, pick a number between 1 and 10 and add this onto the question’s list number. Then, through a series of ingenious lists and cross-references, the fortune-teller (acting for the gods or the Fates of course) will guide you to one of more than a thousand possible answers. It’s very cleverly constructed. The responses are appropriate, some good and some bad, and the method looks convincingly random.

Let’s test the oracles. I’ve got a copy here (English, not Greek,) and I promise I won’t cheat. I’ll ask, “Will I have a long life?” which is number 44 on the list. Add to that, let’s say, 7, making a total of 51. Check this out in a “table of correspondences,” where each possible chosen number has another, different number alongside it. 51 = 41. (Don’t ask…) and 41 means not a single answer, but a group of ten numbered answers, called a “decade”. Each decade of answers is numbered 1 to 10 and now, finally, I can discover what I need to know in decade 41 by finding the number I first thought of, number 7.

So, “Will I have a long life?” Answer from 41.7: “After a time you’ll succeed and grow old.” That’ll do nicely. Success in the future, and also long life! What more could a writer ask for?

So the oracle must be true, mustn’t it?

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Mad Dogs and Dog-walkers

“Oh to be in England, now that April’s there.” Oh really, Mr. Browning? I expect it was easy to rhapsodise about April in England when living in sunny Italy. I prefer T. S. Eliot’s comment, “April is the cruellest month.” (I don’t think he was primarily talking weather; but I find his WASTE LAND hard going, to be honest. OK, call me a Philistine…many have!)

According to the calendar I should be waxing lyrical about sweet little showers alternating with warm sunshine, and gentle breezes fanning me as I enjoy blissful walks with my dog Rosie through the trees behind our house. Well I’ve got a good imagination, but not THAT good.

Rosie and I still go walking every day, squelching along muddy paths with a group of friends, canine and human. It’s just as well their company is great, because the weather’s been horrible all week: autumnal mist and drizzle alternating with wintry gales bearing rain and sleet.

So here’s my take (with apologies to Noel Coward) on April, and what it’s really like being a dog-walker now.

Mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.
The cricketers don’t care to,
The footballers don’t dare to.
Athletes and tennis buffs gaze out through their window-pane,
But we just put a mac on
And crack on.
When thunder rolls over eighteen holes
There is not a soul in view,
Yet dogs abound in the woods around,
And their dripping owners too.
For dog-folk don’t mind a soak
Though friends tell us we’re insane,
Yes, mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.

Mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.
The smallest lop-eared rabbit
Deplores this foolish habit.
Badgers and moles regard wet days with immense disdain,
They stay safe underground for
A downpour.
Every cow will head for a nice dry shed,
Every horse will find a stall,
But canines tramp through the cold and damp,
And they just don’t care at all.
And why we’re so full of cheer
Is something we can’t explain,
But mad dogs and dog-walkers go out in the pouring rain.

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