Tag Archives: postaweek2011

Of Caves and Monsters

31 Dec

Something a little arcane to end the year: an unimportant little theory that I’d like to share, namely that the decor of Tiberius’ dining-room-in-a-cave at Sperlonga was influenced by Etruscan tombs.  If that means nothing to you, I won’t be offended if you don’t read on.

(By the way, the date should be on this, but just in case, for referencing purposes it is 31st December, 2011.)

Dinner at Sperlonga

The first and only time I was in Aberdeen, I remember looking for a place to have lunch and stumbling across a Frankenstein-themed bar.  The decor was dark and gloomy with plenty of chains, and the menu was full of dishes and cocktails which referenced vampires, zombies, and monsters of all kinds.  It seemed to be a fairly popular place, with the student population especially.

It’s not only Scottish students who see the appeal of dining with monsters.  Domitian and Hadrian both gave pride of place in the grotto triclinia (dining rooms) at their villas to scenes of Scylla consuming her own personal menu of Odysseus’ sailors.  They lifted the idea from the most famous grotto triclinium at Sperlonga, the same cave where, in 26AD, Sejanus saved Tiberius’s life when the roof came down during dinner.

The Sperlonga sculptures, discovered in 1957, are a gift to ancient historians and art historians, not only because of the quality of the four sculptual groups (Scylla attacking Odysseus’ ship, the blinding of Polyphemus, the theft of Palladium, and Odysseus with the corpse of Achilles) but because they provided what a historian loves best, controversy.  Starting with what the statues depicted (since they were found in pieces), and progressing to where they were placed, who placed them there, why and when, the discovery of the statues sparked years of learned arguments, some of which are not settled even now.  There is still no consensus on the date of the statues to within less than a century.

The link with Tiberius is a given – it was the grotto at his villa, after all.  But whether he put the statues in before the rock fall, as a background for his dinner parties, or afterwards, when the cave seemed more sinister to him, is not as easy to answer.  A major argument for the statues’ being placed in the caves after the accident is that scenes of people being eaten and monsters being blinded is not appropriate to decorate a dining room – “not while we’re eating, thank you.”  Grottoes, including grotto triclinia, were supposed to be peaceful places where nymphs frolicked with Dionysus.

That might have been the Greek conception of caves, but across the Adriatic Sea caves had a different place in mythology and in the psyche.  For Etruscans and other natives of Italy, caves were the place where the living world met the underworld.  In beautifully decorated tombs such as the Tomba dell’ Orco you find monsters like Cerberus and Polyphemus and celebrity shades like Agamemnon and Ajax, in scenes both Homeric and non-Homeric.  Demons of the underworld and the god of death occur frequently in these late Etruscan tombs.

It all sounds rather intimidating and would have no bearing on the question of the Sperlonga statues, except for one other feature of Etruscan tombs, probably the most common of all: banqueting scenes.  Too many tombs to mention feature scenes of symposia, either with mourners honouring the dead or with the dead enjoying themselves in the underworld.  These feasts by no means always appear in tombs that also feature monsters and violence, but there are certainly incidences where they do.  There seems to be no contradiction, in the Etruscan mind at least, in having a party, complete with dancing girls and plenty of wine, within sight of hideous and frightening monsters, and of reminders of their own mortality.

If the Sperlonga grotto  followed the Etruscan / Italian conception of the role of caves, the argument that the statues wouldn’t be appropriate for a dining room looks pretty weak.  The influence of the other peoples of Italy on Roman culture is so completely accepted that it doesn’t bear mentioning.  The civilisation that gave Rome the gladiatorial games for which the modern world now remembers them, may well have also bequeathed the idea of a connection between caves, feasting and death, and allowed for the development of dark, monstrous grotto triclinia.

This kind of dining room chimes well with Tiberius’ character, of course, which probably lent itself more to scenes of graphic violence than to frolicking nymphs.  This was an emperor with a nasty streak a mile wide and a disposition that would make Gordon Brown look sunny.  So the triclinium at Sperlonga was probably a stylish (though none too safe) place to bring friends for a dinner party not in spite of the scenes of violence and monsters, but because of them.  Add a few aptly-named cocktails and the students of Aberdeen might feel right at home.



28 Dec

I’m just back from a family Christmas.  One of the things that makes Christmas christmassy is playing board games.  You never look at one for 11 months of the year, and then, when there finally is (usually) something decent to watch on the TV, you dig them out.

This year it was Scrabble.  I was up against a Scrabble ace (she claims her neices always beat her – they must be world champions) and two teachers, including an English teacher.You’d probably expect me to hold my own at Scrabble, given that, as a writer, words are the tools of my trade.  It turns out Scrabble isn’t like that, though; it’s all about tactics.  I had played the game before, but too long ago to remember properly, and I thought it was all about coming up with long words.  It’s nothing of the kind.  It’s coming up with anything that is a real word, provided you land on a double / triple score square.  My best score (30-odd) came from adding two letters to make “it”, “in” and something else with an i, while my longer words struggled to score in double figures.  I came last in the first game, third in the second, and won the third, albeit with a lot of heavy hints from the Scrabble ace.

The most interesting thing to my mind, however, was not who won (although I wasn’t completely indifferent), but the way being observed by your competitors makes you unsure about how to spell the simplest of words, or even they are words at all.  The dictionary flew round the room as if we were playing pass the parcel, as people checked whether “cog” started with a c, and if “id” is a real word.  (It is, but meaning a part of personality, opposite to ego, rather than short for “identification”.)

It’s a good job we only played three games, otherwise my confidence would have deteriorated so far I would never have been able to write another blog post again!

Cwrtnewydd Scribblers Anthology 2011 – A Way with Words

20 Dec

The Cwrtnewydd (no, I can’t pronounce it either) Scribblers Anthology, A Way with Words, has just been released, and it contains my short story “A Recipe for Summer”, which is very good, if I say so myself, and nothing like as twee as it sounds.  The anthology has sold out its first print run but they’re doing another.  Check out the Cwrtnewydd Scribblers homepage for updates.


Update: This anthology is now available as an ebook on Amazon priced at 77p. And it turns out Cwrtnewydd is pronounced court-NEW-with.

Advent Ambition Achieved

19 Dec

I have finally finished John Stott’s magnum opus, The Cross of Christ, and very good it was too. The final chapter was rather surprising, too. Meanwhile, I managed to wolf down two books by Jeff Lucas, because his stuff is considerably lighter than Stott’s (and I don’t think he would be offended by my saying so).

They were called Helen Sloane’s Diary and Up Close and Personal: What Helen Did Next. They deal with the everyday tribulations and frustrations of a twenty-something Christian singleton. Any resemblence to Bridget Jones is entirely deliberate. The first book was absolutely amazing. The second wasn’t as good, and at first I thought it was going to be a real let-down, but it got going after a shaky start. The first one was still much more fun and, importantly, more believable as well. I would thoroughly recommend it – not just for Christians, but also for anyone who wants to know what the day-to-day business of being a Christian and a real person is like.

My favourite quotes from Helen Sloane’s Diary:
“I can’t pull off skinny jeans. Well, more accurately, I can’t pull on skinny jeans – not past my knees, anyway.”
(about a flag-waver in church) “I’ve read that the army of God is terrible with banners. She’s terrible with a banner.”

I saw at the end of the book that Jeff Lucas has a blog. “Great,” I thought, “more of his ascerbic yet helpful wit!” No, just a list of when he’s appearing and where he has appeared on his book tour. He might be surprisingly good at writing the inner life of a 27 year old woman, but he’s not quite caught up with the modern world when it comes to the definition of a blog.

Defraging the Year

9 Dec

You may be aware that Scotland has a lot of weather. A lot of weather. We don’t just have North Sea oil wealth, we are also rich in rain, hail, sleet and snow – although, contrary to popular belief, we do get some of the more pleasant kinds of weather, too.

The trouble with weather in Scotland is not so much the type or the quantity, it’s the distribution. We can and do get snow in June, warm sunny days in November, and rain just about anytime with only a few minutes’ notice.

This year has been a particularly apt example of the uneven distribution of Scotland’s weather, which led some colleagues and me to a helpful conclusion: you could make a perfectly good year of weather out of 2011 if you could just rearrange it, so what we need is a defragmenting machine.

In computers, you use a defraging (defragmenting) program to rearrange things stored on the memory into a more sensible pattern, in order to save space. We could do the same for weather, moving all the sunny days together to make a decent summer and putting all the snow and sleet in deepest winter where it belongs. If we can only work out how to defrag time we will have four defined seasons full of perfectly acceptable weather. But I think ‘Hurricane Bawbag’ could go straight into deleted items.

Fact Checking

6 Dec

I experienced a wee bit of disappointment reading The Cross of Christ the other day. It’s not that it failed to be insightful or that I thought the opinions in it were invalid, it was a ‘fact’ contained on p368.

The author, John Stott, cites a Paul Tournier citing another man called Pierre Rentchnick, talking about the effects of being orphaned on a man’s psychology. He gives a big long list of examples, including Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon, but starting with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Now I know off-hand that Alexander was no orphan. He could only become king because his father had died, obviously, but that was when he was 19 and very much an adult. His mother, Olympia, used to write him long letters when he was off conquering the world. (One day I will, I promise, write a piece about Alexander for my ‘Ancient History – just the best bits’ series, but it’s daunting because it’s impossible to do him justice.)

I quickly checked up on Julius Caesar too, and his father died when Julius was 16 and just about to enter public life, which I don’t think counts, either. He, too, was to all intents and purposes an adult in that society.

It’s not important, or course – one small fact wrong, and who knows who even made the original mistake with all that citing going on, but it made me think: How often have I relied on someone else’s work, blithely citing them and assuming they’ve checked? How often have other writers built on shaky foundations this way? Not a comforting thought.

By the way, Stott also uses the word ‘authoress’, which is so dated I’d never even heard it before. My new word for myself? 😉

An Advent Ambition

27 Nov

Today is the first day of Advent. You may recall that, way back in Lent, I started reading John Stott’s magnum opus The Cross of Christ. I did read it for the whole of Lent but didn’t finish it. After that, life got in the way, other things were more urgent, and I was only getting through it at a pace that would have embarrassed a snail.

The approach of Advent changed that. I am now determined to finish it by Christmas, and you can hold me to that. I’m already in the final section, about how it applies to real life, so it shouldn’t be too hard. Tomorrow I will be starting on the thorny problem of the authority of the state from a theological point of view. It’s heavy stuff, but I think it’s fairly appropriate as we prepare to celebrate that other great theological mystery – the Incarnation – at Christmas.

(By the way, in the time that I’ve been reading his book, Dr Stott has died. All the more reason to make good use of what he left behind, I think.)

An Apology to Posters of Comments

23 Nov

I seem to have had too much faith in the automatic systems of WordPress.  I have never checked my “spam” comments, simply believing my dashboard when it tells me it has “protected” me from x spam comments.  Today, out of curiosity, I looked at the 5 that were still in the queue.  Three were spam (although two were cunningly disguised), one I couldn’t really interpret, and the final one was a perfectly nice, relevant comment.  Oops.  I’ve approved it now, but if that sample is anything to go on, up to 20% of the automatically deleted comments could be non-spam.  (And yes, I know that’s statistically dodgy because it’s too small a sample, but you see my point.)

So, if you have posted anything to this site which was not spam, and it never appeared, please accept my apologies.  I’ll try and be more diligent in checking my spam queue in future.

Writing on Water

20 Nov

Writing on Water - Earlyworks AnthologyThe poetry and flash fiction anthology Writing on Water has just been published by Earlyworks Press.  It’s £8.49 including postage and you can buy it using the link above.  I have a small piece in it, called “Laser Eye Surgery” (which, incidentally, I have had.  It’s well worth it and you can read more about it in my Suite101 article).

The rest of the work in the book looks great, from my quick flick through.  There’s a touching piece about the elephant in the room (Sarah Cluderay) and a quirky little poem called “Vote of Thanks” (Phil Powley), as well as a Christmas poem, “Christmas Cards 2010” (Christine Collette).  That’s just a selection of my favourites from the ones I have read so far, but I have only dipped in.  It’s worth considering as a Christmas present for a literary-minded aunt, or similar.

Constant Corriecraving, or The Awkwardness of Almost Strangers

18 Nov

I have a problem. It doesn’t blight my life but it does create regular moments of social awkwardness. I pass the same guy on the way to work most days, and sometimes on the way home, too. I don’t know him, I know nothing about him, but obviously I recognise him since I’ve seen him several times a week for years. You’d think we’d have struck up an acquaintance over the years. We haven’t. In fact we are condemned to what the Meaning of Liff dictionary would call ‘corriecraving’, without the relief of ‘corriedoo’.

It’s not just him, though. There are all the people who wait at the same small station as me every morning and get the same train to the same destination. I know most of them by sight but etiquette demands that I pretend not to, and we are only permitted to talk to each other when the trains are disrupted.

I once broke this law. In a fit of high spirits after receiving some good news I cheerily wished one of my fellow passengers good morning. Did this break the ice? Did I then have a companion to greet each morning? No, it just made things worse, because then I had to see this incomplete stranger every morning with the added awkwardness of knowing that I had once wished him a cheery good morning. Luckily for me, he soon moved away.

As for my corriecraving companion, that problem should soon be solved, too, since I’m leaving that place of work. Not because of him, of course, but it won’t be one of the things I’ll miss.