Monday, 23 April 2018

THE ARROW OF APOLLO CHARACTERS: IULUS

 CHARACTERS
The Arrow of Apollo by Philip Womack

IULUS

Iulus is also known as Ascanius; he is the first son of Aeneas, by his Trojan wife, Creusa. In myth, he is led out of Troy by his father. All sorts of things happen to Iulus: in Virgil's Aeneid, he is largely the cause of the war between the Latins and the Trojans, when he shoots a pet stag belonging to one of the Latins.

He's also meant to be the original founder of the line of the Julians, which of course continues on into Julius Caesar and his great-nephew Augustus, hence endowing the Julio-Claudians with divine heritage (as Venus is Aeneas' mother) and with a direct link to their mythical past. It is rather like our own Queen Elizabeth II, who is, naturally, descended from the god Woden.

In The Arrow of Apollo, Iulus is Silvius's elder brother: rather arrogant, he teases his little brother, and has been given his own town of Alba Longa to rule.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Thursday, 5 April 2018

THE ARROW OF APOLLO: CHARACTERS: Lavinia

Latinus offerring Lavinia to Aeneas
The Arrow of Apollo by Philip Womack

2. LAVINIA

The second wife of Aeneas (his first, Creusa, having perished at Troy), Lavinia was the daughter of King Latinus, a native Italian. She was betrothed to Turnus, a local chieftain; but there was a prophecy which stated that Lavinia should marry a stranger. Hence, when Aeneas arrived, Latinus gave his daughter to the settler. Naturally, there was trouble, and the second half of the Aeneid deals with the war between Aeneas and Turnus. The poem ends with Aeneas killing Turnus (as the Iliad ends with Achilles killing Hector); there were various continuations of the story in later times,  including a 13th book of the Aeneid in which Lavinia and Aeneas get married;  but there is very little in the texts about Lavinia herself.

Virgil describes her as blonde; she is also the subject of an omen, when her hair catches fire, promising future glory. The late, lamented Ursula Le Guin wrote an interesting account of her, Lavinia, in which Virgil is projected backwards in time and sees his subject - he’d got her hair colour wrong, of course.

In THE ARROW OF APOLLO, Lavinia is fleshed out. She is the proud queen of a new, bustling city; she is a healer; she has privileged contacts with divine creatures. She advises Aeneas, being a diplomatic bridge between the new settlers and the original inhabitants,  and runs the palace household - including her stepson, Iulus; her son, Silvius; and his friend, the half-Carthaginian Elissa. 

HELP FUND THE ARROW OF APOLLO ON UNBOUND


Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Literary Review Children's Book Round Up April 2018

I've rounded up some of the latest children's books for Literary Review. The piece is available here.

The books reviewed are: Landscape with Invisible Hand by M T Anderson
The Ice Garden by Guy Jones
Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy
The Invasion by Peadar O'Guilin
Hari and His Electric Feet by Alexander McCall Smith (illustrated by Sam Usher)
A Lion is a Lion by Polly Dunbar.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

THE ARROW OF APOLLO: CHARACTERS: Aeneas

Aeneas fleeing Troy (Barocci)
THE ARROW OF APOLLO by Philip Womack

Characters

1. AENEAS

Aeneas was a Trojan prince. His father, Anchises, was a first cousin of Priam, King of Troy; his mother was the goddess Aphrodite, who at one point during the fighting pulled him off the battlefield, veiled in mist. When the Greeks eventually attacked at night with the Trojan Horse, Aeneas rallied his men and fought hard; when it became apparent that the city was lost, he collected a group of survivors, including his son Iulus, and took them on a long journey around the Mediterranean.

Along the way he had many adventures; including meeting Helenus, another exiled Trojan prince, who had founded a city. Aeneas' love for Dido, Queen of Carthage is well known, and its tragic outcome matter for much music and art.

When the Trojans finally reached Italy, they entered into a war with the local Latins, which they eventually won; Aeneas married a Latin princess, Lavinia, with whom he had a son, Silvius.

Aeneas is an important figure in THE ARROW OF APOLLO, providing advice to Silvius, and also relating to the general theme of fathers and sons. He is deeply protective of Silvius, a half-Latin, half-Trojan boy, who represents the future of his new state.

In art Aeneas is usually depicted leaving Troy, carrying his father on his back and leading his little son by the hand, representing the virtue of duty for which he was renowned. Virgil's great poem, The Aeneid, is not only one of the most beautiful things in existence, but is also a clever riff on its predecessors, The Iliad and The Odyssey: Virgil was moulding a new hero, for a new time. In THE ARROW OF APOLLO, Aeneas is ageing. Will he be able to let his son take up new challenges to keep the city safe?

Monday, 19 March 2018

The Homecomings: The "Nostoi": The background to The Arrow of Apollo

The Trojan War itself lasted for 10 years. The story of how the siege was eventually won is famous: the horse that was built and left on the shore as a gift; that was dragged into the rejoicing city; and that in fact was a devious trap, full of Greek soldiers, who slipped out at night and caused carnage.

There are many other stories in the Trojan Cycle: such as when Achilles fought Penthesilea, the Queen of the Amazons, and fell in love with her as he killed her; or when Memnon, Prince of the Dawn, arrived from Ethiopia with his army. Achilles himself was killed by an arrow in his ankle, so they say, shot by Paris.

After the siege finished, there were many horrors: Hector's son Astynanax killed; Priam's daughter, Polyxena, was called for as a sacrifice by the hungry ghost of Achilles; Ajax the Greater went mad and slaughtered sheep; the Trojan Women are enslaved. But some Trojans did escape: notably, prince Aeneas, who went on, after many travels, to found a city in Italy.

And then the Greeks went home. Some say that Menelaus, stopping at Egypt, was shocked to discover that Helen had been there all the time, and that the Helen in Troy was simply a phantasm. Others say that was a fiction, made only to save Helen's reputation. But one by one they reached home, and went back to the business of their farms and towns. 

Two homecomings were more famous: Odysseus, whose travels made the matter for another epic poem; and Agamemnon. 

When King Agamemnon returned home, it was not to be greeted joyfully by Clytemnestra. She had been nursing revenge in her heart all this time; and so, she, with the help of Aegisthus, slew her husband and his concubine Cassandra. Agamemnon's son Orestes returned later; and with his sister Electra, they too took revenge on their mother and Aegisthus. 

This is where The Arrow of the Apollo picks up the thread: years later, when Orestes is getting old; he has settled his debt with the Furies, and he has a son, Tisamenos. And Aeneas, too, had a son, Silvius: myth and legend do not record much about them, and so there is a satisfyingly blank space where a writer can fill in a story. 

The stage is then set for The Arrow of Apollo: taking place at the end of an era of gods and heroes, and looking forward to a new age. 

Monday, 5 March 2018

THE FALL OF TROY: Part Seven

THE FALL OF TROY
by Philip Womack

Part Seven: Achilles

It is time, now, to think about Achilles. 

Nobody knows what his name means. His mother, the sea goddess Thetis, tried to make him immortal when he was a baby, by dipping him into the river Styx. Whether he cried or not is not recorded; what exactly Thetis was thinking is not recorded either. She must have been distracted, as she simply lowered the child into the black waves, holding him by the ankle; this meant, of course, that this untouched part was vulnerable.

Like so many of the heroes, Achilles was sent away to be schooled by a centaur, Chiron, in the mountains and the woods. The young Achilles loved these days more than anything. When he stood on the beach at Troy, and looked at the smoking ruins of the city, it was Mount Pelion that he remembered. When he lay with Briseis in his tent, it was the centaur's horsey flank that came back to his mind. He loved racing across the broad plains, faster than the deer. He loved sitting up into the night and looking at the stars, whilst the centaur would tell him their names and meanings, and would teach him how to strum the lyre. He loved the sad, strange songs that the centaurs sang, sounds and meanings that no human could ever capture.

He always knew he was going to be a fighter. It was inside him, like a song that was about to be written. Or it was like an ache, that could never be healed. 


When the call came for the Greek armies to muster at Aulis, Achilles's mother sent him to Scyros, to be hidden among the princesses. He did not want to go, but he loved his mother, and she wept.

But still, though he had promised his mother he would not fight, when Odysseus came looking for him, Achilles could hardly help himself: the glittering of the swords spoke to him in a language he understood. He knew what he was doing when he caught the ball thrown to him. He had known from the moment Odysseus had entered the room.

Everything so far has been building up to Achilles. Every link in the chain leads up to this person, this name, this sword, these hands. Hands that could stroke the cheek of a corpse, and hands that could help an old man down from a mule; hands that could slay fifty sons.

When the Greek armies neared the city of Troy, and could see it rising up above them on the hill, Achilles leaned forwards on the prow, and laughing, held his thumb and forefinger out, and squinted between them. And with a tiny movement, he crushed the towers of Troy.

Who can understand Achilles? Who can understand that mixture of laughter and life, of love and war, of tenderness and brutality? Who can understand a man who sings mournfully  outside his tent, and tends to his beloved's body, and yet at the same time is a machine made for killing?

Watch this man: watch his fierceness, his passion, his energy. Watch how he carves out a space for himself in the middle of the battle: how he seems to be untouchable, but only because he's moving so fast and anticipating everything that might happen. Watch him, and watch his pride, and most of all, watch his anger. 

The anger of Achilles is the cause of the fall of Troy: the final link in the chain.

Monday, 26 February 2018

The Arrow of Apollo reaches 60 %

Good news: THE ARROW OF APOLLO, which I'm raising funds for with the publisher Unbound, has reached 60 % of its target. Onwards!

You can read more about the book here. This week is World Book Week, and I'm visiting a school every day except Wednesday,  so my Trojan War series will return next Monday.


Monday, 19 February 2018

5 Top Tips for Crowfunding Your Novel

5 Top Tips on Crowdfunding

By Philip Womack
Training an animal to talk
Hello everyone. As some of you may know, I’m crowdfunding a novel. It's called The Arrow of Apollo, and I'm doing it via Unbound.

We started at the end of October 2017. It’s been an easy ride so far - I’ve only lost five fingers through typing so many emails and the doctor says that the hypothermia is fairly normal, so - hanging in there, thanks.

After four months of crowdfunding, I think I’ve got it pretty nailed down, and so thought I would share some tips if any of you out there are thinking of doing the same. All you need is willpower, a torch, some thick gloves, and a willingness to try anything.

1. Wait in dark alleys near train stations after 5.30pm.

As those hardy office workers hurry home from their sensible jobs doing things like media training and Google, you can jump out at them armed with your laptop open ready at the pledge page. Passers by will be so keen to get home that they’ll sign up to anything. Slanting rain is great for this. Hail - a bonus.

2. Mail shots.

Buy a crossbow. Failing that, a bow and arrow will do. (You can whittle one from the wood outside your tent if you need to.) Print out a thousand or so flyers. Shoot them into people’s letterboxes. People will love this new and quirky method of delivery and will talk about it with all their friends. You'll hear them roar with acclamation as you trundle by, holding your crossbow casually yet menacingly  like some dude in The Walking Dead. You’ll triple your pledges, easy.

3. Training animals to talk.


This one takes a little bit of time and effort, but it’s so worth it, even despite the bites and the mild rabies. Find some animals - a husky will do, or a stray cat, or even a spider. I myself found a mildly irritated badger quite amenable.

Teach them how to talk. This can be done with a mixture of reward and chastisement. What worked really well with Boris the Badger was some fish I’d scrounged for my own supper from a large bin behind the railway station. I went hungry, but, you know - you’ve got to suffer for your dreams.

After a year and a half you will have been able to make your chosen animal talk in rudimentary English. The animal can then be used to spread news of your pledge page. Plus there is the fact that it’s a freaking talking animal, and if people are running away, well then at least they’ll remember you as a tiger races after them roaring “Crowdfund my book! Only £50 for dinner and your eternal soul!”

4. Using the occult.

I find this one particularly effective. Write down the names of all the people you want to crowdfund your book in your own blood on the surface of an ancient mirror bought in a shop that isn’t there any more. The captured souls will simply flood in. As you reach your last dying breath, you can delight in the knowledge that you’ve finally reached 100 %.

Warning: this blog is not to blame if by doing so you accidentally call up a vengeful spirit and cause the crops to fail and blacken.


5. The good old fashioned way.
Make a list of everyone you’ve ever met since before you were born. 

Make a list of all your relatives, even the dead ones because they might have some living relatives.

Then make a list of all your parents’ friends, and all your old teachers, and those fun people you met once in South Africa, and that guy you thought was hilarious when you had to do your speeding course and you shared that joke about that amusingly shaped pickle. Don’t forget exes - they’ll be delighted to hear from you after all these years, even despite that restraining order.

Inscribe their names lovingly in your best calligraphic handwriting  on bits of coloured paper chosen to reflect their personality, add a fact only you know about them, buy a leaf blower, and whoosh the notes all up towards the stars.

Good luck everyone!

HELP CROWDFUND PHILIP’S BOOK, THE ARROW OF APOLLO, ON UNBOUND.


The Fall of Troy: Part 6

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques Louis David
THE FALL OF TROY
by Philip Womack

Part 6: Iphigenia at Aulis

If any link in the whole great chain of the Trojan War could have been broken, it should have been this one. This, in truth, was the weakest one, and there were many moments when it might have gone the other way.

The Greek fleet should have stayed on the beach. The men should have been left to grow bloodthirsty and restless.  And then what might have happened? Agamemnon would have been killed at night in his tent by a rebel soldier. His brother, Menelaus, would have had to step in to take control. Being weaker, he would have been unable to control the unruly mass of Greek princelings, and they would have formed factions. 

Menelaus indeed would have been challenged, and then would have met his death, in a duel with Ajax or Achilles, a spear through his flank. Released from their oaths, the chiefs would have fought for the high kingship, or would have dispersed back to their plains and mountains.

And Helen would have grown old in Troy, and would not remember Sparta. She would have, like her mother in law, many children, who would grow up speaking the Trojan tongue, which she would master. Her weaving would become like that of her sisters in law, only, because of its slight strangeness, would be more highly valued. She would weave of her own gods at first; and then what she saw around her; and then her children breaking horses.

Thirty years later, a boat would land, and, wading into the surf, would come a proud man, black curls wet with salt water, seeking alliance and marriage: Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who had fought for his kingdom from Aegisthus. Helen would hear the Greek sounds in his mouth, and would remember the rude halls and the beard of her husband, and would stutter a greeting to him, forgetting the words for "drink" and "rest". 

The Trojans would be more powerful than ever, and perhaps it would be their ships that sailed to Greece, and their poem that lasted for ever.

HELP SUPPORT THE ARROW OF APOLLO by PHILIP WOMACK on UNBOUND

But that is not what happened. Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, was playing ball with her attendants when the news came. Achilles was to marry her. Achilles, most handsome, most brave, of all the Greek fighters.

Her mother, Clytemnestra, who had become perhaps a little too friendly with her cousin Aegisthus, did not sense  that anything was wrong. If anything, she was pleased - with Iphigenia out of the way, she would more easily install Aegisthus in Agamemnon’s place. She would not go, of course; she would stay in Mycenae, and see to the affairs that she had already started to view as her own.

When Iphigenia arrived at Aulis, she saw the marriage tent set out, its cloths hanging heavy. She was given a drink of water by a ragged woman - the only woman she would see.

Inside the tent would be Achilles, nervously polishing his sword hilt. She wondered where the rest of the women were, why nobody was throwing flowers or nuts, why there was no singing. She wondered where her father was. The ragged woman lifted the tent flap, and shoved her in. Inside was airless and dark, and Iphigenia moistened her lips.

Some say that the Greeks almost went through with the mock ceremony. Some say that the king's daughter was led to Achilles at the altar, and that he took her hand, and that she saw in his eyes what was about to happen; and she was butchered where she stood, with Agamemnon looking on in horror. But that is not what happened.

It was done quietly, foully. She did not know what happened to her. She entered the tent, and stood alone in the dark, and a man, who did not know her, and who had been found from the barbarian north, and who would go back home and drink himself to death, knocked her on the head with a club. 

And that was enough. Her bridal wreath came loose, and lay in the dust by her long golden hair.

Agamemnon could not look at her body. The priests placed her on a pyre. It burned long, and when the smoke died away at dawn, Agamemnon felt something brush his cheek. 

Across the sea, the billows grew higher, and the white sails of the Greek fleet swelled outwards. 

NEXT WEEK: Troy.

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Necessary Angel by C K Stead: review in The Spectator

I've written a review of C K Stead's THE NECESSARY ANGEL for The Spectator in which I muse on what literary fiction might be. Read it here.

Tatler weddings piece

Here's a link to an article I wrote for Tatler on asking the father of the bride before marrying.

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Fall of Troy: Part 5

Paris and Helen escaping the Court of Menelaus (Kauffmann)
THE FALL OF TROY
by Philip Womack

PART 5: THE SUITORS OF HELEN

Part 5: The Trojan War

Menelaus woke from the feasting of the night before with a dry throat and a creeping sense of unease. He rolled over, reaching for the pitcher that lay by his bed. Once he had quenched his thirst, he sat up, scratched his belly, and listened. 

There was shouting in the corridors. Something had gone wrong. His first thought was that those Trojans had attacked his men in the night. He groped for a sword.

Somewhat blearily, he made his way along the corridors to the women’s quarters, maids and serving boys ducking out of his way as he went. None would give him a straight answer.

In Helen’s room he found some of her women; one or two were holding their hands up in despair; some were tearing at their hair; others were fruitlessly combing through chests and looking behind couches. Helen's combs were there; her fine dresses were there; the bronze bowl in which she kept her scented water was there, newly filled for her morning refreshment.
But of Helen herself there was no sign.

The rooms that the Trojans had been using were now empty. They had left nothing behind them, except a couple of maids with swelling bellies.

Menelaus snapped a spear in half, and flung the sharp part into the ground, where it stuck.

Another of the threads in this great and complex tale was woven before Helen got married to Menelaus. All the kings and princes of Greece had wanted her hand. Her father, Tyndareus, was presented with a rather tricky problem. How could he stop those who didn’t win her from tearing off each other’s heads? Ajax the Greater, in particular, was not somebody whom you would want to come up against if he bore a grudge against you. The way that he cracked open his nuts was particularly menacing.


It was Odysseus, of course, who came up with a solution. Helen would choose her husband: and all the other suitors would swear an oath. They would protect the winner from all harm.

Into the fog of Menelaus’s mind came the memory of Odysseus, dark haired, with his pointed chin and his clever eyes. Menelaus had never  liked him, but he had to admit that he was sharp. The oath had been a good idea.  And now that the worst had happened, it was time to call in the favour. Helen, his wife, had been stolen away by a miminy-piminy Trojan, a prancing, preening ex-shepherd: he could not stand for it. The heroes would have to come to his aid. And he would mount an expedition to retrieve her. He ordered the smiths to get to work.

The best horses were chosen, and messengers galloped out across all Greece. Menelaus and the rest of his court began to make their way to the palace of his brother, Agamemnon, the High King of all the Greeks.

They found Agamemnon playing dice with a smooth young chap called Aegisthus, whilst his wife, Clytemnestra, sat by the side, pouring them cool drinks. A little girl called Iphigenia clung to her mother’s skirts, watching the warriors with their flashing armour stamp into the courtyard. They paused in their drinks, and looked up, and gathered by the look on Menelaus's face that he was not here to pay a social call.
The links in the chain were forged. Agamemnon set up camp at the Port of Aulis, and went out hunting with his men, and found many fine deer, including a beautiful hind which they chased all day and caught as the sun set. Menelaus was surprised to find that those suitors who had sworn the oath were not all that keen to fulfill it. Odysseus himself pretended to be mad, until they placed his baby son in front of a plough he was pulling.  Achilles was hidden on an island filled with girls; they found him when they threw a ball at him, and he caught it by bringing his knees together. The others came, reluctantly or not, leaving their farmlands and their own wives and children, all at the behest of their High King, and an oath they'd sworn years before.

Eventually they all gathered, at the port of Aulis. There were other reasons why they wanted to attack Troy: she was rich, and had many acres of fertile plains; she had access to trades and to cattle, and there were many townspeople who could be enslaved, and whose gold could enrich the halls of the Greeks. Ajax the Greater was tickled by the idea of adding to his flocks, and went about boasting about the time he'd bested someone who'd fought someone who'd once had a drink with Hercules.

By the time the last king arrived, and they were encamped with their armies around the ships at Aulis, the men as well as the chiefs were beginning to think that this was actually a noble war, with a noble aim. 

They were all ready. The ships were drawn up, their black hulls bare on the sand. The provisions were being loaded. The men were being told tales of honour and glory, of the heroic generations before them, and the deeds that they would achieve when they got to Troy. The blare of the trumpet filled the skies. 

 There was only one problem. There was no wind. And so the great fleet of the Greeks sat in the still harbour at Aulis, and the men grew bored and began fighting among themselves, and the kings and chiefs began to think of their halls and their hunts. 

Menelaus came to Agamemnon. "What can we do? We can't march over land." 

Agamemnon was more decisive than his brother, though he was not always right. He called his chief seers together, and ordered them to inquire into the causes of the calm. If only, Agamemnon thought privately, to stop the men's petty fights, which were beginning to become troublesome. 

Soon enough, after much peering into entrails, the chief of the seers, Calchas, came to Agamemnon. "My king..."

"Get on with it," said Agamemnon.

"You killed a hind." 

"I have killed many."

"This hind, my king, was sacred to the goddess Artemis."

Agamemnon sat up straighter. He could feel a pressure on his temples.

"For the fleet to sail to Troy, you will need to propitiate her. And Artemis is not a kindly goddess. In place of the deer, she demands..." The old priest's voice faltered. "Your daughter. Iphigenia."

The wine from Agamemnon's goblet spilled over his robe, and nobody could ever get out the stain.

NEXT WEEK: Iphigenia at Aulis. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

Tatler Weddings Special

I have a piece in this month's Tatler Weddings Supplement, about whether or not a prospective groom should ask his fiancées father's permission first. Have a look at the sumptuous print edition.

The Fall of Troy: Part 4

THE FALL OF TROY: Part 4
By Philip Womack

Paris could get used to his new surroundings in the palace on the citadel of Troy. There were maids who giggled at him and fetched him whatever he liked. There was a fine set of armour, and a new bow. His brothers - so many of them - seemed like a good lot, at least, the ones who liked dancing and feasting; Hector, on the other hand, was rather a brooder, and was always glowering at him for spending too much time polishing his armour, and not enough time practising with it.

As he sat one night mulling over his wine, it occurred to Paris that Aphrodite, having offered the most beautiful woman in the world to him in the form of Helen of Sparta, had not been particularly remiss in arranging a meeting.

“You’ve been boasting about it long enough,” said one of his brothers, throwing a date at him, which Paris caught with a lazy, panther-like movement. “Why don’t you do something about it?”

So it was that Paris set out from Troy, a few days later, on one of their great ships. Ahead of him was a faster boat, which would bring news to those savage, pale-skinned Greeks, that a great Prince of Troy was coming to visit them on diplomatic relations, to discuss trade routes, and some minor skirmishes between warring factions of cattle raiders in the islands. He had supervised the loading of the ship himself: beautiful, highly-bred horses broken by his brothers; silks from the furthest  East; golden tripods; carved cups; jewelled swords; ox-hide shields; and a glittering diadem. That he kept in a box in his cabin.

Having never before been on a boat, Paris spent most of the journey below decks, clutching his stomach and behaving in a rather un-princely fashion. So it was much to his relief that eventually they reached the shores of Greece. They had to make a long journey overland, and as they processed the villagers and farmers lined the roads and watched them. These found the Trojans  amusing - particularly as Paris travelled on horseback, with two men on either side of him carrying a tent to protect him from the sun.

Eventually, Paris’s chief scout came galloping back, breathless with news. “We are here, my prince. The palace of the Spartans is around the next bend of the road.” Paris took a last swig of his favourite wine, and then, as they rounded the curve, almost spluttered with laughter.

There were some small, shabby buildings, and a big stone house. “That is the palace of the King of the Spartans?” he scoffed.

“It is, prince,” said the scout.

And Paris, felt that he would easily be able to persuade Helen to come with him, away from this shabby, grotty place, where pigs troughed outside the palace gates, and chickens scuttled in and out of doors.

A man came out. He was squat, and ugly, and wearing a kind of tunic, and no adornments whatsoever. Paris assumed he was a slave, and stared down at him loftily.

The man glared back at Paris in an impudent way. “I, King Menelaus of Sparta, welcome, you Prince Paris to my palace. Please, come in and eat.” The ways of guest friendship were important, and so the Trojans were led in, settled, and fed, before any questions were asked.

Paris could hardly contain his disdain. This was King Menelaus - a poor chieftain, scrabbling around with some ill-kempt soldiers? Why, the man even poured his own drinks! As one of Paris’s slaves filled up his horn, a group of women, veiled and quiet, entered the room, and one of them took her place by the side of Menelaus. The boor did not even turn to look at her.

We have been thinking about causes, and about consequences. And there is another cause of the Trojan War, which took the form of an egg. Zeus, the father of all, had fallen in love with the mortal Leda, and had come to her in the shape of a swan. Leda later, in what we can only imagine must have been quite a surprising fashion, gave birth to two eggs. Out of one came the demi-gods, Castor and Pollux; and out of the other hatched two mortal sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra.

Helen had not wanted to marry Menelaus; she was won, in a contest, and he treated her as if she were another of his many prizes. It was true that she did not like this palace, and she did not like the Spartan men; and as she wove, endlessly, in the shady halls, she found that she sought for new things to show in her weaving, and her eyes were beginning to grow dull. 


But when she took her veil off, and Paris caught her eye, she did not see a means of escape. She saw a foppish, luxurious youth with oiled hair, whose scent thickened the air, and who also seemed to have coloured his eyes like a woman. To Helen, Paris was a sign: that there was another world, another way. He seemed to bring new life into that dull hall, and when the Trojan women that he’d brought began their dances, she clapped her hands, and her eyes lit up as they had not done for many months.

Paris stayed a week; and then another. He told her the names of the stars in his language. He showed her how to make the oils that made his hair shine. He wore his finest armour for her. He shot birds out of the sky with his arrows. Menelaus, who was generally busy, did not notice that his wife was beginning to change, and that sometimes she smiled.

Many historians and mythographers blame Helen for the Trojan War. Some say she was seduced; some say she was taken by force. We cannot, of course, ever know. We do know that one night Paris went to his chest, brought out the diadem, which had been made for a queen of Troy, knelt to Helen, and gave it to her. We know that he trained a monkey to bring her nuts. We know that on the night that they left she had sipped from the craters of wine, and so had he. We know that they slipped away in the shadows, with only a couple of Helen's maids, and if Helen, once they had got onto the ship, and were sailing away from Troy into a future filled with bronze and iron, noticed that Paris was a little bit spoilt, and complained when things were not to his liking, and did not seem all that keen on being brave, we do not know if her mind began to change, and if she started to long once more for her boorish but solid husband.

We do know, of course, that she saw a story, and the shape of it; and that when she sat down to weave again, it was her own figure that began. And from Olympus, Aphrodite, who had been enjoying a new kind of lotion, remembered Helen, looked down to earth, and sent a dove to sit on her shoulder.

NEXT WEEK: WAR BEGINS

Monday, 29 January 2018

THE ARROW OF APOLLO hits 50 %

Jubilations today, as the funding for my latest project, THE ARROW OF APOLLO, reaches 50 %.

You can read more about it here, on the Unbound website. It's a classically based children's novel, set when the heroes of the Trojan war have settled, and their children must face new dangers. 



The Fall of Troy: Part 3

Waiting for the result: By Rubens
THE FALL OF TROY:
Part 3

By Philip Womack

It was almost midday. The sun was getting too hot, and Paris was beginning to feel hungry, and wasn’t sure whether eating in front of three powerful goddesses might not count as disrespectful, when finally Hermes, who had been arbitrating between Hera, Aphrodite and Athene, announced that they had decided in which order they would be presented to be judged. 


Hera’s peacocks displayed their tail feathers, and clustered near their mistress. News of the judgement had spread far throughout the hills and plains of Troy, and many minor deities had appeared to watch, the tree nymphs rustling and clutching each other with anticipation, and the river gods poking their weedy heads out of the spring water.

It must be said that Hera, the queen of the gods, was beautiful, in rather a stern way, and some even said that she was strictly speaking more beautiful than any of the others. 


As she approached Paris, the folds of her dress crackled, as if to remind him of the power of Zeus. A golden diadem gleamed upon her head, and as she adjusted her long purple robe, her golden bangles clattered together. It was as if a mountain had taken female form.

Paris gulped. Hera did not smile at him, but simply touched him on the forehead.

Suddenly he was no longer on the hillside, a poor shepherd, but sitting on a high golden throne. Below him were arrayed all the kings of the world, their crowns in their hands, and below them all the princes and lords, all hailing him as their High King. 



All around him his domains stretched, full of fat cattle, tin mines, merchant ships, potteries, forges and farms. They stretched further than he even imagined.  A dark man with a red spot on his forehead laid a huge diamond at his feet. A woman, with long black hair, dressed in fawnskins of a sort he’d never seen before, and with feathers in her hair, put a strange animal’s pelt around his shoulders. An Emperor from the east with a long pigtail opened up his palace full of dragons for him.

And then he saw everything. Bronze statues that moved; huge, stepped palaces full of ingots; a giant stone sphinx; enormous stone heads; even a herd of elephants with rubies glinting on their foreheads. He saw things he did not even understand: things that flew, and moved quickly, belching steam, and things that hummed and crackled. He felt it all rush through him.

Paris, who had only known the wealth of sheep and hides, of wooden drinking cups and fat wineskins, had seen the ships bringing treasure and silks to the shores of Troy and its citadel, and something stirred inside him.

Was not all this for him? Did he not deserve all this as his right? He lifted his palm, and fifteen high kings fell prostrate; he stood from his throne, and the fur clad lords of the north knelt to him, and the horse-taming queens of the plains, and the empress from the southern islands who wore a snake around her neck.

He did not want it to stop.

But it did, as suddenly as it had begun, and when he came back he looked into Hera’s dark eyes, and almost gave her the golden apple there and then.

Hermes coughed, and Hera drew back with a satisified grin, the peacock squawking, and Athene took her place. Hera believed she had won, and withdrew with as much grace as she could muster, but her peacock nipped Athene’s owl as it swooped past. The owl, put out, ruffled its feathers, and settled on a rock.

Athene knew that Paris was at heart rather a silly young man, who fancied himself as a fighter, and so she said, “Hera offers you kingly power. I offer you more.” And she touched him lightly on the forehead.

Now Paris was riding in his chariot, leading his army into war against the clamouring barbarians, and he could feel the landscape inside him. He could tell how many fighters they had; where the plain turned into mountain; how their horses would founder at the ford. He was at the forefront of the advance, and he was like a comet through the night.

He won, his men streaming through the gates of tall cities. They poured their drinks on the ground for him, and yelled his name, and gave him women and cattle. And there was more. When he looked at the stars,  he knew each of their names, and he knew when the sun would turn black, and how to navigate between the most dangerous straits; he knew the habits of the hawk, and where the bear sleeps.

He felt this knowledge in him, and something more tugged at his mind. He didn’t really like fighting, it was true, preferring to shoot arrows from a distance. But to know all these things, and to have the world come to him and call him the best fighter, the most intelligent strategist; this was better, wasn’t it, than simply to be loved for power?

Once more Hermes cleared his throat, and Athene withdrew. Athene never smirked, but there was a slight crease in her forehead that those who knew her would tell you meant she was well pleased.

There was only one goddess left. Aphrodite. She had not even bothered to comb her hair, and she was looking, if truth be told, a little flustered; her doves were sulking, and her nymphs, cowed by Hera’s commands, had not been in attendance to help her.

Aphrodite looked into Paris’s inmost heart, and she smiled. She knew that this rather foolish young man did not want battles, or power. She knew that he liked to oil his beard and to look at his reflection in the forest pools, practising pouts to catch the eye of a pretty youth or maiden. Aphrodite smiled secretly, reached out her gentle hand, and touched Paris on the forehead.

And what Paris saw this time was a stone room, with a simple divan in it, and a bearskin rug on the floor, and a table set with a jug of wine and two cups, and a plate of grapes and pomegranates, and, eating a grape, popping it into her mouth, was a woman.

Helen, Queen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus, the most beautiful woman, not just in the world, but in all of time and space.

There was no need to think any further. The sounds of the soldier’s clashings, of the diamonds pouring on stone, of the acclamation and the glory, all faded away, and all there was, was the feel of Helen’s soft hand in his, and her calm, intelligent eyes on his, and then she smoothed the hair away from his brow, and said his name.

If we are looking for causes, we have already pointed the finger at Peleus and Thetis forgetting to invite Eris to their wedding; at the apple that she threw down; and at the judgement Paris was forced to make; but really, perhaps the cause of the Trojan War was this: a hidden look, a secret smile, and a hand grasping an elbow after a feast. Maybe there were no gods, or judgements, or goddesses; maybe all it was can be telescoped down to a single, fatal glance across a hall.

Paris had already made his decision. He knelt, and profferred the apple to Aphrodite, who took it slowly, enjoying every moment, her doves cooing to each other with delight.

The other goddesses, who had sworn on the Styx to abide by his judgement, disappeared in a huff. Athene in particular glared; she had always thought Aphrodite the most irritating of her divine relations.

Paris was left alone with Aphrodite. Aphrodite tidied her hair, acknowledged her prize, yawned, called her doves, and departed. When she got home to her cool mansion on Olympos, she placed the golden apple carelessly in an alcove, where soon it was forgotten, although she always made sure that if Hera came by it was placed to its advantage.

King Priam, meanwhile, had heard about this contest on the borders of his kingdom, and had made haste to see it. And there was no doubt, when he saw Paris, that here was one of his sons. There was nothing for it but to embrace him, and restore him to his place. But when Priam brought him back to the citadel of Troy, Hecuba, though she smiled outwardly, knew that the end was near. 


The flame that she had tried to quench  was burning still.

NEXT WEEK: Helen of Sparta. 


Read Parts One and Two here.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula Le Guin: In Memoriam

Everybody who has read Ursula Le Guin will remember the first time they chanced upon her. I was 12 or so, snug and safe in the library that looked down onto the old stone courtyard and the river Arun below. Opening The Wizard of Earthsea and being thrust wholly into that fully developed fantastical world was like entering through a portal: into somewhere that the reader wished, wholeheartedly, existed. To know the true names of things seemed a wondrous power, but one that was entirely within reach; and so I would look at stones, and trees, and beg them to reveal themselves, and long for the hawk to come down from the sky to my wrist, as it did for Ged, her mage-hero.

I have always used her when teaching creative writing: even today, re-reading the opening of the novel for perhaps the 100th time, I saw something different; that Duny, who would become Ged, or Sparrowhawk, is part of the landscape he lives in: he's described as a weed, and he roams the small island of Gont, testing its boundaries, ever alive to the notion that there might be more - a whole other world of islands, and a more dangerous and exciting world of magic. I try to keep the book alive, as fewer and fewer read it now. Its themes - of ambiguous power, of dangerous metamorphoses, of the evil that can come from one's own heart - are timeless. Here was a wizard school where things really mattered.

Encountering her as an adult, her fiction was always wise, well-wrought and thought-provoking. The twin planets in The Dispossessed, one a kind of communist world rapidly descending into totalitarianism, and the other a big mess, do more than any lecture on politics to show how different systems work. This book is one I always recommend when people say - well, what's the use of fantasy? The answer to which question is, of course, why need there be a use to anything? But the kind of people who want an answer to that question can find it in The Dispossessed.

She was an eloquent, elegant critic; a passionate defender of fiction and fantasy; a tireless worker. I never met her, but I did once dream about her, sitting in the top of her house, at her desk, working.

The world of letters gained a great deal from her contribution; and there are none to fill her place. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

THE FALL OF TROY: PART 2

Paris by Desmais
THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS: I
by Philip Womack

About fifteen years before King Peleus was marrying his sea-goddess wife Thetis, and Eris threw down that famous golden apple among the goddesses, in a large, tapestry-hung chamber in one of the topmost towers of the citadel, Hecuba, Queen of Troy, gave birth to a little boy. 

It was an easy birth; easier than any of her many other sons and daughters had been. Some of them were out breaking horses on the plains below the walls, others were washing clothes in the river, and the younger ones were scampering about the room as she lay with her new son tucked into the crook of her arm. She rather liked him: he had a gleam in his eye that she'd not seen before.

But that night, after the nurses took him away and placed him in his cradle, she dreamed.

It was not unusual for Hecuba to dream: but this one was particularly vivid, and it woke her up, gasping, sweating, panting with fear. Instead of a boy, she had given birth to a flaming sword.

She ran through the halls, her yawning maids pattering after her, and went to wake the seers from their sleep. Being seers, however, they had already seen her coming, and so they were prepared, heads bowed, to deliver the sad news. Hecuba asked them to wait until Priam, the King, was there. Kings do not enjoy being woken from their slumbers any more than the next man; and so rather crossly he paced around the room, hands clasped behind his back, hoping that they would get on with it.

Eventually, after much consultation, the chief seer threw back his hood, and said, “The flaming sword is your new son. This boy, my lord, will destroy your city.”

They could not kill him: he was their own son, after all, even though they had so many others, some of whom had crept in, and were listening, hanging off the stairs and railings like so many monkeys. So Priam and Hecuba did what most kingly parents would do in such situations, and after a night and a day of discussion, and with much sorrow, they sent him away with a shepherd, with some firm instructions to abandon him.

(They might have taken note from others who tried to abandon babies with prophecies hanging over them: it never works, and it always comes back to bite you on the nose when you’re least expecting it.)

The shepherd, who was at heart rather a kind man, reluctantly left the little boy by himself on the hillside, where he might be devoured by wolves or die of exposure. That night he could not sleep. And so as soon as dawn broke he returned to the hillside, and to his surprise, found that the boy was still there, finger in his mouth, gurgling. A bear had given him milk - or so the story went. Much relieved, the shepherd took him home in his backpack, and named him Paris.

The boy grew up, ignorant of his princely blood, into a fine, long-haired young man, who would search all night for a lamb, and could set bulls to fight against each other, and could hurl a spear further and with better aim than anyone who lived in the villages around the foothills of Troy. He also had rather a liking for fine clothes, and would run his fingers with enjoyment through the materials that traders brought from the coastal cities.

Because he was such a fine young man, and because they knew anyway what was going to happen, he came to the attention of the gods; and they saw that he was honest, and could judge a dispute well. And also, perhaps, because gods like symmetry, and they had noted that just as Achilles was being born, the man who was to kill him would be making his great decision.


So it was that, one afternoon, much to Paris’s surprise, when he came wandering down the mountain path with a belly full of meat and a wineskin on his back, he found a young curly haired man, much his own age, sitting lazily on a rock with a smirk on his face, a stick in his hand, and a winged helmet on his head; and behind the young man, were arrayed three women. A peacock was pecking at the earth; perched on a tree was an owl; and a pair of doves was glaring angrily at the owl.

Those who have met gods know that there is a power about them which makes the air tremble.

Paris felt it; he pulled his cap off his head, and knelt down at their feet.

Hermes - for that was the curly-haired young man - looked Paris up and down, as if to say, well, you’ll do. He yawned. It was especially tiring being the messenger of the gods, and he had had a lot to put up with keeping Athena, Aphrodite and Hera from tearing into each other on the journey here; not to mention the birds, who had done everything they could to slow things down by trying to peck each others’ eyes out. Fortunately, he had a pocketful of corn from Demeter, and he’d been using it to keep the peace; the goddesses he’d left to themselves. He could feel the tension crackling between them, like the lightning bolts that Zeus would throw when he was in a temper.

 “You’ve been called up,” Hermes said to Paris. “Go on, you can look at them. You’re meant to.”

Gingerly, Paris stood. The three goddesses spread out into a line, like dancers, ready to prepare themselves.

“What do you want me to do?” said Paris.

“Easy,” said Hermes, and threw him the golden apple.

When he had read the message, and understood, Paris bit his lip and put down his wineskin. He would have to make a decision. How could he choose between these three divine beings? Hera was the queen of the gods. Aphrodite - whose glance alone was enough to make him quail - commanded desire. And Athene's weapons glittered brightly. And what, whoever he chose, after all, was going to prevent any of these goddesses from making sure that he never went bull-fighting again?

NEXT WEEK: PARIS MAKES A CHOICE

Read Part 1 Here.

Philip Womack's seventh novel, THE ARROW OF APOLLO, which takes place after the Trojan War, is now raising funds on Unbound.

Monday, 15 January 2018

THE FALL OF TROY: Part 1

The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis by Cornelius van Haarlem
The fall of Troy is one of the most important events in myth and history. Its causes and consequences ripple backwards and forwards through time and space. You could draw a line from pretty much any character in Greek myth and find a connection towards someone who had fought and died in that war.

I have always been interested in connections and causes: and in the following weeks I will be exploring the main events that led up to the Trojan War.

You could say, then, that it began with an apple. A golden apple, thrown down onto the grass during the wedding of the sea-goddess Thetis, and her mortal husband, Peleus. Thetis had not wanted to marry Peleus: but he had grappled with her as she changed forms, like Proteus, from snake to fire and back again; and so the gods were called, and the wedding celebrations began.

But in the bustle of preparations - one could not say, necessarily, that they were happy -  Peleus and Thetis  forgot to invite one god. The original wicked fairy, Eris, the goddess of strife, was passed over. The gods, careless, feasted and drank, and gods can feast and drink with the best of them. One guest - a young nymph, perhaps, yawning as she longed for her bed, unable to leave before her divine mistress decided it was time to go - picked up something pretty and golden that had rolled towards her feet.

It was an apple, gleaming and golden, and on it were inscribed the words: “To the most beautiful.”

Goddesses are not known for their modesty. Dignities will be stood upon, privileges invoked. The minor goddesses and nymphs bowed out of the way, as, flashing to the fore, the queen of the goddesses herself stood forwards. Two peacocks pecked at her feet; a diadem flashed upon her forehead; proud and haughty she did not even have to glance at her husband Zeus, the king of the gods, as she knew that he would give the apple to her.

But her husband hesitated. And what was this - Aphrodite, the goddess of love, in a dress embroidered with dolphins, long hair falling down her white arms, was looking as if she might have an interest in the matter. And even Athene - so dear to Zeus’s heart, having sprung out of his own head - was adjusting her helmet and looking at herself in the reflected sheen of her warrior’s shield. Concealed behind a nearby tree, Eris watched all, and laughed. She had picked the apple herself, and had inscribed those fatal words with her long fingernails. She lazily picked up a grape from a bunch held by an attendant, and strolled off, delighted with the conflict she had caused.

Zeus, looking at his wife, his daughter and the primal goddess of love, could not bear to be the judge. Choosing between these three mighty goddesses would bring untold strife to the calm mansions of Olympos. Zeus was not a god who enjoyed conflict, and, although he was not necessarily known for his tact, did tend to spend rather a lot of time mopping up after his own mistakes. Sighing - because he, after all, knew what was going to happen, even if nobody else did - he decreed that a mortal man would be found who would be arbiter; and he, Zeus, would wash his hands of it, and go back to enjoying his wine with Ganymede.

Laughter began again in the wedding, and the guests returned to their carousing, glad that the strife had been put off - for now. Peleus and Thetis were joined in marriage beneath the leaves of a broad oak; and the Fates, who were attendant in their white robes, spinning, whispered of the son that would be born to them: the mightiest warrior of all the Greeks: Achilles. The three goddesses retired; and plotted.

NEXT WEEK: The Judgement of Paris

THE ARROW OF APOLLO is a novel that takes place after the fall of Troy. Have a look at the funding page on Unbound here. 





Monday, 8 January 2018

The Other Book: A Ten Year Anniversary

Ten years ago yesterday, on the 7th January 2008, my first children’s novel was published by Bloomsbury. It was called The Other Book - a dark, strange tale of a magical tome and the bloodline of Merlin and his sorceress bride Vivien, set in a Sussex preparatory school - and it duly appeared on the shelves (and, largely, stayed there). Also first published in 2008 was a certain other children’s author, to whom I will return later.

I had been counting down the days, quite literally, marking them in my diary with fervent exclamations. On that day, I thought, my life would change; on that day I would become what so many wish, for reasons usually unclear, to become: a published author. I’m not entirely sure what I did expect - a bottle of champagne from my editor, perhaps; or a card, or even an email. But the day went on as days usually do, and no email, card, or champagne appeared. It was the first moment of reality. Your book enters the world, and, for the most part, the world shrugs and turns back to looking at cat videos.

In the ten years since, the things that have changed are, mostly, to do with the inescapable rhythms of life, and of earning a living. The things that I, and many other writers do, are manifold, necessary, often dull, and, crucially, take you away from the actual act of writing (itself, I am aware, a very privileged thing.) I wish, however, that I had known then, when my first book burst, in its gorgeous gold and red livery, into the world, what I know now (but then again, who doesn’t.) Would things have been different? Sometimes I like to think so; other times, I am not so sure. One thing, though, will never alter: at a dinner party, if asked that terrible question - “What do you do?” - if you reply that you are a writer, the first question will always be, “Have you written anything I’d have heard of?” My answer used to be self-deprecating; now it veers towards the sardonic.

When The Other Book crept into view, I had no notion of the children’s book world: I was not on Twitter (embryonic, then); not in any children’s book groups or associations; I did not know any other children’s authors; I had not spent years building up a profile or engaging with other people in the industry. I did not know what it meant to publish a children’s book, or to be a children’s book author.

I had no idea of the “market”, or of the things that people do to sell books. I was, in other words, entirely unprepared. Looking back at my journal recently I was amazed to see that in 2008 I only gave a couple of talks - one to a library, where I sold no books; and one to a school who had booked me to talk to a group of three year olds. My book was, very firmly, for the 11+ bracket. Nothing I have done since has been more terrifying.

When I see debut authors appearing now, they often seem, to me at least, to have been trained, or to have had access to a kind of toolkit: they spring up, fully formed, giving talks, tweeting, blogging, and all the rest, with beautiful book following beautiful book annually. Even now I have no idea how these things work: what to say on Twitter, what to write about on this much-neglected blog. The only thing I ever wanted to do was write books - jagged, mysterious children’s books -  and to hope that those books found readers.

The publishing world moves to invisible currents. Since that first novel was published - to the kind of review that said “promising”, or “shows potential” - I have published five more, with three publishers. Each novel was a labour of love and hope, sweat and anxiety; each one bore on its shoulders the same weight and dreams; and each one did find some readers who loved it. None, however, has yet crossed the barrier into the general consciousness.

I have always received good reviews - one hopes that one grows better as a writer, after all. When I look at the first pages of The Other Book now, I wince: there are so many things wrong with it (I even sometimes use it as an example of how not to start a children’s book with my students.)

With The Liberators, in 2010, I touched some kind of nerve: the book was set after the financial crash, and saw a young boy battling a cult who wanted to bring chaos to the world. Readers enjoyed it; it was reprinted; for a few moments it seemed like it might have broken out into general view. I remember a friend joyfully texting me a picture of a pile of copies he’d seen in a bookshop in Vienna.

Whilst many enjoyed it, there were those who thought that its hero was too privileged, and his world of boarding schools, artists, bankers, civil servants and London townhouses too remote from the general reader. I have never understood this complaint, because what is fiction for if not to open a window onto a different life?  What is interesting about this is that I never heard this point made by children, who simply read, and absorbed, and were thrilled.

After The Liberators, a hiatus ensued. One thing that is not generally known about the publishing world is that writers are quite dependent on the people who actually work at the house: if your contact moves, then it can leave you stuck. My editor left Bloomsbury; a new one came along; and I, having no contract, and being inexperienced in the ways of the book world, decided not to take what now appears absolutely sensible editorial advice on a manuscript, and instead tried to sell it elsewhere. The result was a lost MS: “Cave”, set in a co-ed boarding school on a hill which is besieged by ecological terrorists. My agent thought it was great; my lay readers thought it was the best thing I’d written: publishers however were not so sure, and though I was called in for meetings, it was usually to say: “we’d love you to do something, but this isn’t quite it”, and the book was rejected everywhere.

What does a writer do when faced with rejection? Start again, of course, with the glimmer of a new, better book in your mind. I returned to the things I loved as a child, and particularly to the depths and weirdnesses of Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps overly enthralled by them, I began work on another MS, which was to become The Broken King, published 4 years after The Liberators. It underwent many revisions, many false starts: it was intended to be the first part of a trilogy called “The Darkening Path”. I had ambitious plans. It would be cosmic, reaching through time and space and touching on the mysteries of the universe. Readers loved trilogies, didn’t they?

When The Broken King was published, I had not realised quite how arduous it would be to write parts two and three in, effectively, about six months each (whilst also dealing with what amounts to a full time job, and a growing family); I am still not sure that the sequels were the best that they could have been. And whilst the trilogy did find enthusiastic readers - the early reviews from children were superlative, and there were of course those who noted the echoes of Alan Garner - it did not touch the hearts of enough people. On occasion I receive messages from children who are obsessed with The Broken King: but, to coin a phrase, fine messages butter no parsnips.

Again, one returns to things one loved as a child: so The Double Axe was born, from the myth of the Minotaur. What if, I thought, the Minotaur had been a convenient fiction for other, darker purposes?   How would this story work from the point of view of one of Minos’s other children?

Once more, there were ambitious plans: for an interlinked series of up to ten novels, each revisiting a particular myth. Several large publishers were interested in the concept; but there was no firm offer, and in the end, I settled for a one book deal with a small publisher. They wanted to get the book out before the final part of The Darkening Path,  so I had a rather absurd situation in which people were expecting the end of a series, and in fact were reading the beginning of another. (Even now, my Wikipedia entry records The Double Axe, erroneously, as part of The Darkening Path trilogy.)

The book - which I considered my best, the sharpest, the most stylish, the one that, at last perhaps, was really beginning to know what it was doing, the one that received the kindest reviews, from readers, reviewers, and other children’s authors - was published, was briefly lifted by some generous praise; and then drifted, lost on the bewildering currents of fashion.

So many factors influence a children’s book’s reception: do librarians like it? Does it fit into a curriculum? Can it get onto a table in Waterstones? And sometimes all those factors need to come together for a book to fly: and most of the time, they don’t.

I’m now onto my seventh full length work of fiction, which, for various complex reasons, and a combination of happy chance and dogged industry, I have decided to crowdfund with Unbound. The Arrow of Apollo is now, after two months, 40 per cent funded, and with it I hope to bring an enjoyment of myth and classics into schools, as well as providing an epic and exciting story. You can see more about it here.

I have learnt much over the past ten years. Festivals, talks, school visits, are the life-blood of the children’s author, although there have been as many humiliations as triumphs. At a windy, cold children’s festival in a tent full of hay bales, about to start a reading, I overheard a lady in the front row say to her daughter: “That man’s going to read us some nice Roald Dahl!” I hated to disabuse her. I’ve driven hundreds of miles to speak to 7 adults and a dog, and not had my travel expenses reimbursed. Nobody bought a book (not even the dog.) I was due to give a creative writing workshop in a library in East London: after waiting for ten minutes, the only other person in the room was  an old lady who wanted somewhere warm to sit where she could eat her peanuts.

Does all of this help to sell books? The jury, as they say, is still out.

I have learned that good reviews do not sell a children’s book. I have learned that publishers have many other books to deal with apart from your own, and many pressures on their time, and a budget that is often directed to something else, and that there is only a small window during which your book will be promoted (if it is even promoted at all). I have learned that disappointment is embedded into writing fiction: I have spoken to authors whom I consider wildly successful, who have won prizes and had film deals and have sold half a million copies or more: they shake their heads, purse their lips, and say their careers are hanging on a thread. What hope then for those of us hanging on by even more slender threads?

Of the other children’s authors who were first published in 2008, the one I referred to at the beginning of this article was a certain unknown called David Walliams, whose books now don’t just corner the market: they swamp it. Celebrities are everywhere in children’s book writing, and the message that sends worries me. Must writing now become part of your “brand”, like launching a scent or a line of underwear? Why bother continuing with the manuscript you’re plugging away with, when you know it won’t receive a tenth of the publicity or attention that some C list comedian or supermodel’s ghost-written debut will?

Well. The only thing that one can do - the only thing that I will do - is to keep writing: keep rethinking, revising, reworking. I don’t think I will ever be able to prevent myself from writing. I will always feel fond of The Other Book, despite its many faults; and those faults are partly what make me want to continue. Recently, a student I taught at Royal Holloway stopped me in the corridor: he remembered me from a visit I'd made to his school (my old prep, Dorset House): he'd become obsessed with the book, and mentioned a scene where the hero, Edward, lays the body of a dead raven onto a the tombstone of a knight. The student's connection to my writing touched me deeply: that image had been the genesis of the book, and to know that it had found its resonances in someone else's mind was thrilling.

I will never want to give up the joy of composition; the delirious rush when a hodge-podge of ideas comes together into a whole, like flecks of paint onto a canvas: the music of words on the page. The perfect book is always in the back of my mind, dappled in shadow, its brief glimpses beautiful and unattainable, as furtive and shy as a unicorn. I hope that one day, I will manage to find it.

Or rather, I should say: I hope that I wil never find it: as surely, once it had been written, there would be no point in writing any more.






Friday, 5 January 2018

The Arrow of Apollo hits 40 %

Great news - The Arrow of Apollo, which I am raising funds for on Unbound, has now reached 40 % funded. Thank you so much to everyone who's contributed so far. Onwards and upwards!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Interview with Holly Black for Books for Keeps

I've interviewed Holly Black about her new book, Cruel Prince, for Books for Keeps. Read it here.

Books of the Year: 2017

I have written elsewhere about my children's books of the year, and have been reviewing more children's books than usual this year; most of my reading has been to do with the children's literature course I've been teaching, and I have enjoyed revisiting Lewis Carroll, J M Barrie, C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, J K Rowling and others, and developing and tracing connections between them.

Here, then, are my three fiction choices for 2017:

Missing Fay by Adam Thorpe

A compelling, sensitive novel about the disappearance of a schoolgirl. Both intelligent, emotionally charged and gripping, Thorpe surely ranks as one of our best novelists. 


House of Names by Colm Toibin

Though it is difficult to turn the marbled horrors of Greek Tragedy into fiction, Toibin makes a good stab at it with this, in which Euripidean uncertainty treats the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and Orestes, with shades of the Troubles in the background.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman's light touch imbues these icy, strange stories with new life, smooth and wry.

A book I managed to finish this year (all 1,000 pages or so of it) was Robert Tombs's magnificent The English and their History: a book which anyone with an interest in history or the way things have unfolded should read, all told in lucid, flowing prose. I've also been enjoying the Penguin Monarchs series, with a lively biography of Queen Victoria by Jane Ridley, and Tom Holland's evocative account of Athelstan. I look forward to more of these this year. 

I also recommend Bruno Bettelheim's study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, which has provided meat for much debate; and Patrick Leigh Fermor's account of his walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts, a book I have been meaning to read for years, and which I finished on New Year's eve, sitting before a fire, and about to set out on a journey.

Those of you who pay attention to my Books of the Year will remember that I have been reading Pepys for about ten years: I am still reading Pepys, though I have now got beyond the Great Fire. It's an excellent companion in the small hours: not much can be wrong with a world in which Pepys can be pleased with buying a new coat, or eating a particularly fine pie.