Getting behind the scenes at the British Museum

Hidden deep inside the British Museum are staff with PhDs in history, archeology etc. They're the ones who put the things in the public display cases.

The professionals who know what they're talking about lurk within rooms behind locked doors. If you'd like to meet them, do what I did: walk up to the information desk at the front of the atrium and say something like, "Could you please direct me to everything you have from the Aegean island of Samos, dated 520 B.C. plus or minus ten years?" (Choose your own exotic question here, but mine worked.)

The nice lady at the information desk smiled and did her best with what for her probably amounted to Mission Impossible, though as she put it, my request was more interesting than telling people where to find the toilets. After ten minutes she gave up and said, "You need to talk to the Study Group." The capital S and G were clear in her tone. She picked up the phone and arranged an appointment for me to see the duty officer in Greek and Roman Antiquities.

She directed me to an obscure, anonymous, locked door at the end of a long wing. There isn't a secret knock, but it feels like there should be. Instead, I rang the bell, and after explaining the purpose of my existence was let inside.

I had some fun trying to explain why I was there. "I'm writing the second book in a series of historical mysteries, and my hero, who happens to be the elder brother of Socrates...yes, I know he had no known siblings, that's why it's called on a mission for Pericles when he discovers..." Eyes glaze over as I disclose the devious plot. I won't tell you what Nicolaos discovers, 'cause that would be spoiler city, but the nice man at the BM knows. " for historical accuracy I need to look at anything you might have from Samos circa 520 B.C. or thereabouts."

Here's how the system works. The BM holds an awful lot of stuff in storage. If you have a decent reason for wanting to see something, and if a responsible adult from a recognized university or museum is willing to write a note certifying you're not prone to dropping delicate 2,500 year old ceramics, then with a week's written notice they will (for free!) have someone pull what you want out of storage and send it to one of their three study rooms deep within the inner bowels. There you get to study whatever it is you requested, in person, without any glass cabinet in the way. Very cool, and a phenomenal service.

Gary finds The Horse!

I went to the British Museum today, with the express purpose of absorbing every item in there dated between 480B.C. and 440B.C. in the Greek section.

Why the tight restriction? Because my first novel of detective Nicolaos in Classical Athens opens in 460B.C.

You'd think that'd narrow the scope to a managable level, wouldn't you? But I left with only 223 photos because I couldn't fit more in the camera at high resolution, and there are still things I haven't seen properly.

After I gave up trying to squeeze more bits into the camera, I wandered through the nearby section on the Hellenistic Period, which can't help my stories but is fun. That's a time from about 320B.C. onwards, long after the fall of the Athenian Empire, when greek culture had spread everywhere. The Hellenistic Period is all very interesting, but by then my characters have been shades in Hades for at least eighty years.

So there I am wandering about, when I come to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (as you do). I pass by most of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus until I stop dead at the sight of The Horse.

Only the forepart has survived, but this thing is huge. I'm 6' 3", and I wouldn't make it halfway up the neck. The statue is about four times larger than a real horse.

What got me so excited is that a super-sized marble statue of a horse plays a prominent part in one of my scenes, and this beastie is precisely like the one I imagined for the book. Even the size is right for what I wanted.

Now the question I'm asking myself is, did I invent my horse statue from whole cloth, or did I subconsciously insert this one from my memory? I've been through the BM plenty of times before. I know I've seen this statue before, but I don't remember it!

Gary meets Andrew Grant!

You may not have heard of UK thriller author Andrew Grant, but that's only because his first book has yet to appear in stores. Next year, when it does, you'll know it.

Here's how good he is: when he sent round queries looking for a literary agent, an amazing 80% offered to represent him. Most unrepresented writers would kill for a 1% yes rate. When his agent went out with his ms, six publishers wanted his book.

To top it off, he's an extremely nice guy. It's just not fair.

That's Andrew on the left...the good looking one.

Andrew and I met for dinner while I was in London. The topics of conversation were writing, writing, and writing: the joys of writing a second novel, self-promotion, the care and feeding of one's agent, and our mutual writing histories, which have some remarkable similarities despite our different backgrounds. We both reached a point (I will forbear from the term midlife crisis) where we both decided that this was it, rearranged our lives, and wrote a book. Where we differ is that he has a publication date, and a deadline for his second ms.

Stay tuned for EVEN, the first of the David Trevellyan books by Andrew Gant.

Gary meets Anneke and Bill (at last!)

Many months ago, a naive and somewhat rejected amateur writer called Gary was wandering around inside a place called Second Life, an online virtual world, when he ran into a goth girl called Anneke. Anneke was a writer type too, and she told him about an in-world magazine looking for stories.

So Gary wrote a short story that he submitted to the magazine, and they accepted it. That was his first ever sale! (He'd won prizes before this, but never a sale.)

Before he submitted, he sent the story to Anneke to see what she thought. Anneke likes critiquing stories, and she has a natural talent for it. What is most amazing is, not only does she have the ability to improve someone else's story, but she can do it in English. Anneke is Dutch. Astonishing!

And so a habit developed. Every single thing I've written since then, Anneke has checked before I submitted. Every time, she's said something that improved the story. For my short stories that probably didn't take too much of her time, not enough that I feel guilty about it in any case. But then she read my novel end to end and sent me a perceptive and very useful critique. Wow! I fixed the ms as best I could.

Her own writing, in English, her second language, is very good indeed, far better than most native speakers could achieve. I hope one day she submits some of her own fiction somewhere.

In the course of time I met another writer friend of Anneke's. Bill Kirton is a Real Writer. Bill has written plays that people have actually put on. He's had piles of short stories published, and two novels, with more to come. He used to teach creative writing (and Fench) at university. It's scary how much he knows about how to deliver a gritty, tight, solid story.

Bill, a professional, offered to read my novel. He sent me a brilliant critique that pointed out important weaknesses, most of which I'd semi-realized were there but hadn't known enough to know they were weaknesses. I fixed the ms again, as best I could.

I owe Anneke and Bill a lot.

There was never the slightest chance we'd ever meet of course, because Anneke is in Amsterdam and Bill is in sunny Aberdeen. But then I announced I was visiting Europe, so we agreed to converge on London. Which we did, and I, for one, had a wonderful time meeting friends I never expected to be with in person.

I'll have to update this later with a photo; they're all on Anneke's camera.

Bill, the ultimate gentleman, insisted on paying for lunch. He also gave Anneke and I signed copies of his latest book, Rough Justice. I read it that night. Of course I already had a copy of his first book, Material Evidence, on the shelves at home.

What I like about Detective Chief Inspector Carston of the Cairnburgh force is he's a regular guy who just happens to catch killers for a living. Not a trace of detective eccentricity to be seen, but plenty of realistic characters and a murder you can believe in.

Travel Rules of the Gendarmes

After carefully observing the gendarmerie of Paris for some days, I believe I have deduced the rules of how they are expected to move about:

  1. Turn on the siren. This most important of rules applies to all but the most trivial situations. Being late for lunch is not trivial, especially in France.

  2. Have many people in the car. Two is far too few. Five gendarmes looks more impressive to the people watching you whiz by with siren blaring.
  3. Everyone in the car should look earnestly in the direction of travel. This rule must be especially important because I have never seen it broken. I expect this is to give the impression that where they are going is more important than where they are.

  4. Never use one car when three, four or five will do. Convoys of cars, sirens blaring, many men in each car, all looking forwards with intense, earnest expressions. Egads! Whatever it is, it must be important. But why does it happen several times every hour?

  5. As soon as you arrive at your destination, stand around and do nothing much. I deduce this rule from the fact that gendarmes are only seen in one of two states: either rushing about in cars, sirens blaring, or else standing about doing nothing much, often in impressively large groups (I guess that's why they need all the cars) and wearing piles of dark blue armor and armed to the hilt. As far as I'm aware, no one has ever observed them doing anything other than these two things.

Roman Wine Review: Carenum

Welcome to the third and last of the reviews of wine made in the ancient Roman style by Tourelles Winery in Provence.

Carenum is really, really nice. I would happily buy more of this.

Carenum is a sweet, white wine. The label says it is made from late harvested grapes, which is highly believable. It has the intense flavor associated with wines in which the water content was reduced prior to making the vintage.

My wife Helen thinks Carenum tastes a bit like sherry. This is the only one of the three Roman wines which she more or less vacuumed down.

Carenum has had quince added to it, as well as grape juice that's been concentrated by boiling. That gives you a much stronger grape taste than you get from the previous two wines, for which their added spices were a dominant factor.

You could easily serve Carenum in an anonymous bottle at a dinner party and get away with it. Your friends would assume it was a sweet desert wine, which fundamentally, is exactly what it is.

Highly recommended.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Mulsum and Turriculae.

Who was the most powerful man in Athens?

It depends on when you're asking about, but the common answer is Pericles.

During the Golden Age of Athens, the guy more or less making the decisions was Pericles. But this does not mean he was in charge. Athens was a direct democracy, so the citizens voted on every single issue. Pericles' power was his ability to persuade the people to see things his way. When he expressed an opinion in the Ecclesia - the Peoples' Assembly -it practically always swung the vote.

Though we call him a statesman, Pericles was, technically, a military man. Year after year he was voted by the people to be one of the ten strategoi, which means Generals. You'll never guess where we get our word strategy.

(I've noticed some common questions leading people to this blog, so I'm making it simple for searchers by answering the questions directly.)

A Bill Gates Story

Travis commented on the earlier post that Bill Gates would not have had to wait in line at the Eiffel Tower, which is true enough. But there was a time when not even Bill could escape the same treatment meted out to mere mortals.

I used to work at Microsoft, for 14 years in fact. I was not present at the evening I'm about to describe, but I know some of the people who were there and I'm sure this is true...

Once when Bill Gates was visiting Sydney years ago, a group went out to dinner, including Bill. This was in the days before the famous pie-in-the-face episode in Belgium, after which the security guards appeared and he became much more cautious, and reasonably so. Before the pie, it was perfectly normal for Bill to wander about with the staff.

At some point in the evening the group decided to go to Bondi RSL. (RSL stands for Returned Services League, which is a veteran's association that operates many clubs which are effectively community centers.) I have no idea what they were thinking - an RSL club is not exactly the place you expect to find a group of ultra-geeks - but that's what they did.

So this bunch, including BillG, walk into the local RSL.

Now it's a rule of all RSL clubs that you have to be properly dressed to get into the bar, out of respect for those who've died defending the country. "Properly" means trousers (not shorts), a shirt or polo shirt, and shoes (not loose sandals). So far so good, but the final, immutable, non-negotiable rule is that men must wear a tie.

Bill is not wearing a tie, as usual.

The man at the desk refuses to let them in.

An argument ensues, probably with the Australians in the group embarrassed that their guest Bill Gates is about to become the first billionaire ever to be thrown out of an RSL. At some point someone points to Bill and says, "You do know who he is, don't you?" The nice man says (correctly) it doesn't matter who he is, he's not getting in without a tie.

This problem happens frequently at such clubs, and they have a simple solution. The man pulls out a used tie - they keep a few behind the desk - and hands it to Bill. Bill puts it on. If it was like the pre-loved ties I've seen it would have been a grotty, unwashed piece of material, but that doesn't matter because he's wearing a tie. So in they walk.

Which just goes to prove sometimes even the wealthiest man on the planet gets treated like the rest of we mortals.

Roman Wine Review: Mulsum

The second wine in our series of genuine (sort of) Roman wine from Tourelles is Mulsum, a red.

Mulsum tastes like a really nice cough mixture. You know the type I mean: you take a swig to stop your cough so you can sleep at night, and then you take a bit more because it tastes okay.

I'm not using good winey language, I know; I should have said something like, "This wine has a strong, perhaps almost pungent, aftertaste, reminiscent of nuts and pepper," but what I'd really be saying is this tastes like a nice cough mixture. (I can feel any offers of a regular column in Wine Monthly slipping away with every word I write.)

Mulsum is a "normal" red wine to which has been added honey, cinnamon, pepper, thyme, and other spices in lesser amount. I'm guessing the honey and cinammon gives Mulsum the initial smooth taste, almost like a modern wine, and the pepper and thyme deliver the cough mixture finish.

You could probably serve Mulsum at a dinner party in an anonymous bottle and many people wouldn't notice, or at least, not comment. The finish might raise a few eyebrows, and I can imagine someone saying, "This is interesting, what is it?" At that point you could reveal your wine's fascinating provenance from Provence (how's that for alliteration?).

Mulsum was used in Roman times as their equivalent of an aperitif. It would do fine for the same purpose today. The winery suggests drinking it with duck with figs, small quails (of course you cook quail at home, don't you?), spicy dishes or Roquefort.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Carenum and Turriculae.

The Bill Gates Connection

Yesterday we visited the Eiffel tower. This involves standing in queues for well over an hour. While standing there a man behind us said to my wife, "Your husband looks just like Bill Gates." He was from Peru and wasn't a techie.

I find this amusing because in the bio on my web site I mention I look somewhat like Bill Gates. I've had numerous experiences where people have confused me for Bill. Yet I can't help feeling no one believes me when I say this. So I'm logging this incident as proof that the most unlikely people, when seeing me in real life, might wonder if I'm Bill Gates. Unfortunately Bill's bank manager has never suffered this confusion.

Roman Wine Review: Turriculae

There is a winery called Tourelles, in Provence in Southern France, which makes wine in the old Roman fashion, with a wine press that duplicates Roman design, using the methods described by Roman writers, and adding the same ingredients as the Romans put into their own wines. It's probably as close as anyone can come today to making a wine that a woman or man of 2,000 years ago might sip and find familiar. This is all just very cool.

I visited them recently and tasted and bought bottles of their three Roman vintages. I've never been a wine critic, and I'm probably beginning with a challenge, but here for better or worse are Gary's Roman wine reviews, which I'll post in tasting order.

First off is Turriculae, a white wine with some interesting ingredients.

Turriculae is like no modern wine. The first taste is a surprise, courtesy of the fenugreek. Yep, that's right. Fenugreek. You probably know it as something you put in your curry, but the Romans added fenugreek to their wine. In fact the word fenugreek comes from Latin: foenum graecum means "Greek hay".

As the flavor of the fenugreek dissipates there is a salty aftertaste. That's because Turriculae is 2% saltwater. Saltwater, like, from the sea.

Ahh, they don't make wines like they used to.

This may sound yukky, but after a while, it grows on you. The second night my wife and I drank Turriculae, it tasted nicer than the first, and keep in mind that for hundreds of years wealthy, sane people within the Roman Empire bought this stuff and enjoyed it, so there must be something to it. It's all a matter of fashion and what you're used to.

Romans added seawater as a preservative (the salt), as well as for taste. It's known that the Greeks too sometimes cut their wine with seawater, and they too added spices, so my guess is Turriculae is as close as we can come to duplicating the taste of a Greek wine. (As far as I know, no one is making Classical Greek wines the way this winery is making Roman ones.)

There is no way you could pass off Turriculae as a modern wine. If you served it to friends at a dinner party in an anonymous bottle, the first person to take a swig would clutch their throat and choke; not because there's anything wrong with the wine, but because the taste is so very unexpected.

You might try to pass it off as a liqueur from an exotic locale: "I picked up a few bottles of this while passing through Gallia Narbonensis. Do have a splash, it's quite different."

If you get away with it you then can have fun when you reveal to your friends what they've drunk and what's in it, plus you get to show how erudite you are with the joke about Gallia Narbonensis. (It's the name of the Roman province that included Provence).

As you can probably tell, although it was way cool to be drinking Turriculae, I would not walk through ten foot snow drifts to drink any more. But that's only me, and since I dislike all liqueurs and spirits, and Turriculae reminds me a little bit of a liqueur in taste, someone who likes that kind of thing should try it. In fact, everyone should try it at least once if only so you can say you have.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Mulsum and Carenum.