Writing Rufius – The Open University

I was delighted when Jessica Hughes, Lecturer in Classical Studies at The Open University and editor of Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies wanted to publish an essay about the process of researching and writing Rufius. Read ‘Writing Rufius’ in issue 7. Below is an excerpt about my inspiration for Rufius.

Askew Codex
Pistis Sophia – The British Library

Inspiration for Rufius

The idea, or rather a seed of an idea, was ignited by days spent poring over a Gnostic Christian manuscript, commonly referred to as the Pistis Sophia, in the British Library in 2004 – which resulted in a voice and the images of the characters whose handwriting scribed the Coptic (Egyptian written with Greek letters) [1].  Whilst procrastinating, I had made a random search of the British Library catalogue when I should have been researching another novel, The Hostess Detective. The search results came up with a manuscript called the Askew Codex MS 5114. This ignited my curiosity. I contacted the curator of the manuscript, Dr Nersessian and requested access to the book. He asked me why. As I knew nothing about the book, I said I was doing research on ‘Gnostic Christian Goddesses’ (the key words I used in the search).

I became fascinated by several sentences in the manuscript which scholars had failed to translate. With a Coptic dictionary compiled by one of the translators and a splattering of undergraduate ancient Greek, I undertook to make my own translation of these sentences. My BA was in Linguistics and I could see that the sentences did not present the expected syntax and that the groups of vowels were often repetitive. The Moscow Library of Foreign Literature was also undertaking a translation of the Askew Codex into Russian and we made contact. By this point I’d come up with the theory that the ‘sentences’ which often proceeded rituals, led by a resurrected Jesus on the Mount of Olives preaching to his disciples, were a form of Christian mantra along the lines of Hindu or Buddhist mantra – and that these groups of sounds had no semantic meaning, but were repeated in order to take the devotees into a trancelike state, or prevent the mind from ‘thinking.’ Dr Nersessian agreed that the mantra idea was plausible.

“All of a sudden, I was no longer in the British Library reading room, but in an ancient scriptorium….”

If these ‘untranslatable sentences’ were early Christian mantra, I wondered which people held this book sacred – how did they use this mantra, and for what end? The writings in the manuscript have been attributed by scholars to early Christian Gnostic groups – suggestions include the Valentinians, the Ophites and, the Sethians, to name a few. Fiction benefits from simplification and so I decided on the Ophites (called the ‘Snake People’ in the novel). I set out to recreate the Ophite group. In fiction, unlike history, one aims at delivering an emotional truth, or a truth that historical speculation alone cannot reach – I wanted to ‘show’ the emotional and experiential spiritual relationship of a group who held these writings sacred; it mattered less which group I chose. The Moscow Library of Foreign Literature invited me to present a paper on how I would do this, which prompted longer hours with the manuscript to ponder how these ‘mantra’ might have been incorporated into ritual practice.

It was after a long day in the Oriental Reading Room in 2004 that I had a vision: the novel, its atmosphere, its urgency and required pace, its main two characters – in a snapshot. Guessing at the pronunciation of Greek letters – αοι αοι αοι (aoi aoi aoi) – I repeated them in the fashion my experience of Buddhist and Hindu meditation had taught me. All of a sudden, I was no longer in the British Library reading room, but in an ancient scriptorium: scrolls were stacked on shelves and between rows of writing desks, and a fat man in a toga rushed towards me with a scroll in his hand saying, ‘take the book and run’. An atmosphere of urgency and impending doom – and smoke filled the scriptorium. He was shouting at a youth in a tunic, who replied: ‘I’m not leaving you’. Love filled the space between them.

Then I was back in the Oriental Reading room with a sensation like jetlag, as if I had travelled a vast distance. My imagination brought something back with me – the voice of Rufius. Read More 

Rufius TONY
Actor Tony Leonard as Rufius – The Marlborough Theatre

Thanks to The Open University and to Jess for making the editorial process such fun. Jessica’s own research is fascinating – you can follow her tweets about art, religion, myth, votives and Italy on Twitter – @jesshughes61

The Complete Writing Course – Groucho Club

When I was young(er) and lived in Soho (on what was then the only cheap street left), I enrolled on The Complete Creative Writing Course, which novelist Maggie Hamand had just set up. So it was great fun to teach the class at The Groucho Club where I’d sat and scribbled back in the 90s. It made me realise how far I’ve come – and how much I owe to the mentors and teachers I’ve had along the way. It also reminded me how we are perpetual students – I learn so much from teaching. Thank you everyone :)


To find out more: The Complete Create Writing Course – highly recommended.

RUFIUS – London Launch

What a launch! Martin Goodman, friend, mentor and Founder of Barbican Press (publisher with the balls to back a novel partly inspired by an obscure Latin insult and an even more obscure Coptic manuscript) and I were delighted that Gay’s the Word Bookshop was up for a party. Rufius was very excited to be launched in London’s oldest gay bookshop – although it’s taking him a little bit of time to understand the modern sexual paradigm. He’s still insisting he’s not gay – he’s a cinaedus.

Watch Chris Green as Rufius – YouTube

Chris Green plays RUFIUS – Book Launch, London

There was a queue outside the bookshop that set off butterflies in my stomach. Rufius was in lights in the window and I heard his voice again, the voice I’ve come to think of as a friend (the type who gate-crashes all the best parties, is a terrible influence but masses of fun): “Oooo, an audience! We’ll give them a show, by Bacchus!”

IMG_1970Olivier award-winning actor, costume chameleon and the first Rufius, Christopher Green (aka Tina C & hip hop grannie, Ida Barr) would step into Rufius’ toga for tonight’s reading. Martin, Chris and I agreed the order of play in a café at the end of the street over a quick gluten-free dinner. Stomachs lined, off we went to Gays the Word.

Animal-free Circus Ringmaster, Richard Peacock greeted me with an enormous bunch of tangerine roses and I had a taste of what it must be like to be a superstar. I felt a little over-whelmed by all the attention, but like Rufius I’m no stranger to playing the hostess. I felt held as friends piled into the little shop as well as members of the public. Uli and Jim were wonderful and so supportive. What a perfect location to host the launch of a novel about the destruction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria – surrounded by what those bishops would certainly consider heretical books. Being a published novelist has been a dream since the age of 13 years of age. Nothing will replace the thrill of holding Rufius in my hands for the first time last year. If that was the birth, this was the christening … which Rufius reminded me comes from pagan origin, possibly a Babylonian ritual.

Rufius was as delighted to see the Petrie Museum crew arrive with Egyptologist John J Johnston at the helm, followed by the ever glam Helen Pike and delightful V&A fashionista, Daniel Milko. Leslie who I’d staggered up Vesuvius with after far one glass of wine too many the night before arrive next, grabbing a handful of copies and demanding signatures. Rufius was in his element – I signed from both of us! Then the cameras were upon me as The Love Shaman, my dear friend, Katuishka Borges played camera woman. I wasn’t sure she’d make it as she’d just arrived back from six months in the Amazon filming the tribes who are losing their land to corporate greed. I introduced her to James Thornton, CEO of Client Earth, the law company with just one client: Earth.

The funniest comment of the night had to be from digital consultant and diver, Diane who I worked with on Digital Identity at the Cabinet Office:

“I thought you’d written a management book – but this is far more interesting!”

Well, I guess that’s the thing about identity – digital by day, ancient papyrus by night is a bit confusing! Although the internet and the Ancient Library of Alexandria have more in common than meets the eye. The internet is the only store of knowledge since the Great Library of Alexandria that has a mission to be fully comprehensive. Let’s hope it stays that way and doesn’t fall foul to fascism and selective dogma as did the libraries of the post fourth century ancient world.

After wine and nattering squashed tight amidst the shelves of so many authors I admire, Martin gave the cue to hit the stage.

Gays MartinAfter Martin’s fine introduction, I stepped on to the little stage at the front and looked out across the packed room. So many faces, so many friends – I was filled with gratitude to know such a wonderful bunch of talented, kind, fun people. It was a delight to see eminent economist and Director of The Quest, Alan Mulhern at the back of the room who has been a huge support. Novelist and one of my PhD examiners, D.D.Johnston had come up from Gloucester University where he is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing (for writers, his Online Writing Tips Video Blog is brilliant). It’s always a joy to see him. For laugh-out-loud-funny and erudite, read DD’s novel THE DECONSTRUCTION OF PROFESSOR THRUB. It’s one of my favourite books.
I gave a swish of my tango tailfin – dress designed by Phoebe Serenity Brown from BlackKat Creations – and told the tale of the inspiration for Rufius.

Rufius was getting impatient (as he’s always the star of the show) and so I introduced Christopher Green. WOW! What a performance. Watch Chris Green as Rufius YouTube


An enormous heartfelt thank you to Uli and Jim at Gay’s the Word, Chris Green, Barbican Press, BlackKat Creations and everyone who came along – you’re beyond fabulous!

Gays window

Waterstones with Brighton’s Erotic Poetess

brighton-waterstones-in-conversationPenny la Pousse was all flirt & fluff as she greeted guests for Rufius’ debut at Brighton Waterstones. As part of the novel was written in the window seat in the bookshop’s travel section, Rufius was right at home. And he rather liked Penny’s dress too – a purple velvet number covered in fuchsia flowers. It was fabulous to see so many Brightonian friends – as well as my wonderful publisher, Martin Goodman from Barbican Press who delivered an eloquent introduction.


Penny formally introduced me with a poem that raised the temperature in the room . Rufius was impressed as were the gentlemen in the audience. I was delighted to see Julian Stevens, Brighton’s talented goldsmith. Rufius is also a fan of his jewels and I was wearing a palladium and blue zircon ring Julian had designed ten years ago based on one of my scribbles. Also Miles from Jefferson Jackson; style queen, Denisa; Toad from 70s Punk band Johnny Moped and local artist Jana Solfronk.

Penny asked what the novel is about. It’s an illicit love Story set in 4C Alexandria, and I then explained why it is described as an illicit. Rufius is a cinaedus, Latin for an effeminate buggeree. Far from the hard, muscular Roman ideal, cinaedi wore make-up, curled their hair, plucked and painted on their eyebrows. They could be thought of as an ancient Roman version of transgender. The laws that condemned these men became more severe under the Christian Emperors. Rufius falls in love with a rent boy called Aeson. However, the affair between Rufius and Aeson is not illicit because of the age gap (in Ancient Rome it was acceptable for young boys who showed physical signs of manhood to be taken as lovers), but because the older man was taking the ‘passive’ or receptive role. The moral judgement is directed towards Rufius’ gender deviance and so Rufius is free of the moral tension that we see in Nabakov’s Lolita – for my aim was to present Ancient Roman sexuality through the Ancient Roman lens (not filtered through a modern sexual paradigm).


“That reminds me of my poem, Red Knickers about men dressing up in their wives’ underwear. Is that a bit like Rufius?” asked Penny la Pousse.



Ancient Romans didn’t wear lacy red knickers, but I’m sure Rufius would have loved a pair! Through the lens of modern Westerners, Rufius presents as transgender – cinaedi wore make up, jewellery and dyed and curled their hair. Ancient Romans accepted the third gender until the rise of Christianity. Orthodox Christians outlawed the third gender and in 391 AD and men who presented as women were condemned to death by public burning.

I then did a short reading to introduce the Waterstones audience to Rufius.

Penny switched the topic to slavery. We talked about the culture of slavery and how Rufius’ family unit included his slaves, who all took the family name of Biblus, as well as the economic implications of slavery. For example, Ancient Romans invented the steam engine, but didn’t commercialise it as they had slaves and so the economics didn’t stack up. Talk of slaves Penny got excited about her poem about S&M and she did a wee reading.

Modern S&M roles are likely as close as Modern Westerners get to understanding (experientially speaking) the Ancient Roman sexual paradigm through our own lens. Modern Homosexual culture still has a sense of the active/ passive framework for defining sexual behaviour – Gaydar, the gay matching website, used to allow you to note whether you were active or passive and to indicate that to potential partners. The closest modern mainstream heterosexual culture gets to it is in the discourse about ‘who wears the trousers’ in a relationship. The ancient Roman sexual paradigm was very much about control and domination. They had strict guidelines about who was active (rich, noblemen) and who was passive (women, slaves and post-pubesent girls and boys). A man like Rufius who chose the passive role would have been ridiculed (as was Julius Caesar who was rumoured to be a cinaedus). However, before the Christian era, cinaedi were accepted to some extent.

Penny, whose poetry is infused with sex – or rather the promise of it, asked me about my experience of writing sex from the perspective of a cinaedus in Rufius. Here’s a short clip on writing sex in fiction.

Penny shifted the conversation to a more serious aspect of the novel: “But it wasn’t just sex those naughty Bishops wanted to control was it?”

Indeed it wasn’t. In the fourth century we see Christian extremism sweep across the Empire. We discussed the fall of paganism, the burning of books, heresies; destruction of libraries and temples. I finished up by reading an excerpt that demonstrates the clash between Theophilus (the Archbishop behind the destruction of the Serapeum which housed a vast chunk of the Ancient Library of Alexandria) and Rufius – which shows the clash between Christianity in its most fascist form and paganism.

Watch Chris Green reading chapter 36 at London Southbank Centre back in February  for a Polari event.

A big thank you to the lovely staff at Waterstones for their support :)

Poseidon blows his conch shell for Polari on Sea – Hastings

Sea shanties, sailor boys and undiscovered horizons set a racy tone for the Sirens of Polari on Sea.


Newspaper Hastings Polari on Sea




Arts Council funding means Polari is back in Hastings for another cracking Spring season of LGBT words and voices. The line up was very grand with Stella Duffy headlining and Juno Dawson and Fergus Evans … and the rogue of my novel, Rufius Biblus Catamitus.


Thanks to charismatic cultural commentator and Polari Ringmaster, Paul Burston, Rufius and the slaves were all fuss getting the sedan chair ready to shoot down the coast and give a reading. But what to read? Rufius was dead set on the sex chapters, but I was not certain that was such a good idea …

Me_Polari on Sea

I was first up, which was a relief as my voice, which I’d lost since Halloween (receiving the costume prize at Halloween Polari as Medusa I’d couldn’t even muster a croak). So, what did we read? As it was a Polari crowd, I gave in to Rufius’ nagging and read from chapters 28 & 29. They are the only explicit sex chapters in the novel and I was uncertain whether or not to include them as it is not a pornographic book. After much deliberation, I decided to keep them as they demonstrate the ancient Roman sexual paradigm, which is very different to ours. Seeing the sex from Rufius’ perspective and then from his rent boy’s point of view (Rufius is written in 1st person, present tense from the view point of three characters) serves to whip off the glasses of our own cultural ideas about sexual norms and takes the reader into the minds and bodies of the characters.

It was my goal that Rufius didn’t simply satisfy the standard stereotype for a cinaedus (an effeminate buggeree), but that the novel showed the messiness and idiosyncrasies of sexuality – as Rufius says: “One’s sexuality is as individual as a fingerprint.” Academics assume all cinaedi fancied manly men, which is logical, but as in real life human sexual preferences are not defined according to strict categories, Rufius likes adolescents on the cusp of manhood, those youths who will become hairy men, manly men like Aeson.

It’s not the easiest thing to read an effeminate man, so I asked the audience to imagine me first as a fat, Roman in a toga with full make up and pencilled on eyebrows, and secondly as a gorgeous ephebe. I told them when to switch.

Fergus Evans

Next up was Fergus Evans, whose poetry takes the listener deep into the slow motion reality of the layers of awareness that constitute a single moment. Moments in cars having hand jobs in the rain, watching a river and the constant chatter of the brain as one peers out of oneself at the world. His description of the river, the intricate details observed in a moment of sexual intensity evoked the richness of ordinary things and pulled the audience in with him. By the time the break came round, we were lulled into a deep stillness.

The lovely Mike Puxley and Wendy Quelch had come along – and we drank wine served by the gorgeous Lorna Lloyd and chatted about Fergus’ powerful reading.

Juno Dawson

After the break ‘Queen of Teen’ Juno Dawson set the tone swiftly by commenting that her piece would be in keeping with the ‘hand job’ theme of the evening! Juno writes award-winning teen fiction. The audience was invited to step back in time to first fumbled sessions and self-conscious teen angst as her characters mused over their sexual and gender identities. Juno was wearing a greyhound print dress – two Italian greyhounds face to face. If anyone wondered, it’s from H&M and they also do tee-shirts (I had to ask as I have to have one – Blue & Moon will love it).

Juno, Wendy and I chatted about teen fiction and how it’s changing, the increasingly diverse ways young people can define themselves. Rufius, as you can imagine, is delighted at the increasingly tolerance, and confidence that can offer to young people in the throws of defining their sexual and gender identities. The teenagers in Rufius lived on the cusp of an age in which Christian extremism narrowed and condemned diversity of expression, so it seemed fitting we shared the stage. Juno’s books are a hugely important part of modern Britain’s blossoming of freedom of expression – as well as being extremely entertaining.

Stella 2

Stella Duffy – what a star! I was honoured to be on the same line-up.

Stella read from her novel-in-progress, London Lies Beneathset in the 19th century about a South London family, whose men are sailors. Stella, herself native of Camberwell, tells us a story within a story as grandfather recounts to his young grand daughter his memories of the night he was caught in a storm on board ship, of how he was set with the fever and to avoid infecting the crew, they put him on a small boat for the night pulled behind the ship. The ship’s doctor came to help him, but he was past the aid of medicine. He doesn’t tell his granddaughter of how the doctor gave him the only other remedy he could: how he passed on his body heat and they made love in the night. He refrained from telling her, as all sailors do, of the discovery of the closeness that arises between men at sea for months, away from wives and families – with only the bodies of men for company and comfort.

Rufius is also a huge fan of Stella Duffy’s Theodora, so we had to give her a copy of Rufius. Stella said she’d wondered when she was researching Theodora who would deal with the material about the fall of the Serapeum. Rufius and I hope Rufius will give her a good ride – and perhaps some of the enjoyment I received from reading her novel about Empress Theodora, upwardly mobile yuppy of the 5th century, an actress and reputed prostitute who rose to fame and married Emperor Justinian.

Paul & VGLee

Paul & Stella








Me & Anney K

Thanks to Paul Burston, the fabulous VG Lee and to poet, Anny Knight for the photos (especially the infamous Printworks’ spiral staircase shots)

Buy copy of Rufius on Amazon

Historical Fiction Workshop – Hove Library

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 22.34.49Brighton and Hove libraries have many literary groups and do a lot to support writers. I’ve been to a number of workshops myself over the years and so was honoured to be invited by the lovely Roger Bluff to deliver a workshop on historical fiction writing to the Hatchery Writers. See Ann Perrin’s blog for more information about the group.


If I achieved one thing in this workshop, it was that the group left with the confidence that they could write historical fiction.

Rufius is my third novel, although my first published. It nearly didn’t get written due to the challenge of history. It was my belief back in 2003 that historical novelists of the classical period were historians, or with knowledge of that magnitude and schoolgirl Latin and Carry On Cleo were not enough. Of course research was required – and in my case, research was extensive (I did a PhD). However, what I learnt about historical fiction writing was this:

  1. It is the novelists’ decision about their departure from the history
  2. The most important thing is the ‘story’
  3. To draw the reader in is nothing particular to historical fiction, but the usual use of the senses: smell, sound, touch, sight, taste

All historical fiction is anachronistic as it is displaced in time and often in language. However, authentic historical detail is necessary whether a writer is aiming at ‘the appearance of authenticity’, like Alan Massie and Steven Saylor, or whether one is writing anachronistic historical fiction like Evaristo’s brilliant novel, The Emperor’s Babeor Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World. But the way in which authentic details are incorporated does not mean that anachronism should be avoided. On the contrary, Evaristo and Ransmayr’s books draw the reader into the world of the novel just as effectively as those writers who aspire to an appearance of authenticity, or plausibility. In Ransmayr’s novel for example, the death of the Emperor is ‘announced by megaphone to the silent empire.’ Within the world of this novel, the mixing of modern technology and ancient history works. As long as the author is consistent with their approach, anachronism can add to the atmosphere and the story.

My thesis dealt with the choices novelists make when deciding where to position what I have called the ‘Pivot of Authenticity’ in fiction: the relationship of the author with history. If you would like to read more about my theory of composition in historical novel writing, please email: rufius.catamitus@aol.com.
Rufius will email you the relevant extract of my thesis (it’s accessible and jargon is explained).

The best way to learn is to write. After talking about my inspiration for writing Rufius (sparked by an ancient manuscript in the British Library), and different approaches to writing historical fiction taken by authors, I suggested a writing exercise.

As we were in Hove, we used old photos of the Palace Pier in the 1900s (before the fire) to give us a springboard into story. I asked the group to not worry about the history of the period, but to describe from the perspective of the character, or narrator of their story, the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and smells experienced.

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 22.32.15

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 22.36.31After 20 minutes of scribbling, we shared our work. I was very impressed with the standard. We had a broad range of stories from philandering husbands hot under the collar in old-fashioned coats, to childhood memories of bathing huts – and one remarkable piece by Matthew merged Sci-Fi with historical fiction as his character was chucked out on the Palace pier through a worm-hole. Brilliant pieces, all of which deserved to be worked on more fully. It was no surprise that some of the writers were published or had won early acclaim for their work already.

Afterwards the lovely Hatchery writers took me to a Hove café to continue our conversation about historical fiction. I was very happy that they got so much out of it and have invited me back to teach again.

A productive & fun morning – a special thank you to Hatchery Writers secretary, Roger Bluff

Buy copy of Rufius on Amazon

Lewes Waterstones – RUFIUS launches on home turf & Shakespearean actor, Peter Faulkner

Shakespearean actor Peter Faulkner stepped into Rufius’ toga for the Lewes Waterstones Launch of Rufius in March. Before I launch into the detail, watch the talented Peter as Rufius in this clip – Video of Peter Faulkner as Rufius

FullSizeRender-2sarah light hands in prayer

The front room of Lewes Waterstones was packed with people squashed and standing behind the seats for the Lewes Launch of RUFIUS. A big thank you to the Waterstones team for the PR. I was honoured to see the poets John Agard and Grace Nichols in the crowd. It had been John’s idea that I approach Waterstones. If you want to see John perform his brilliant Columbus Monologue, he’ll be at Brighton Festival in May.

Waterstones bill board











FullSizeRenderRufius and I were honoured that the Mayor of Lewes, Cllr Susan Murray and her consort, Cllr Robert Murray attended in ceremonial chain. Lewes is blessed with a mayor who supports the arts – as well as being a strong advocate for the environment. Robert asked the question I am often asked – is that a real statue on the front cover? It certainly is – imported from Israel. Here’s a blog about the creation of the cover. I handed it over to the audience to see if anyone recognised the statue. A lady in the front row shouted out, ‘Hercules!’ She wasn’t a classicist as I had suspected. Even though it’s Hercules’ posterior on show instead of his front, it is a famous statue.

Rufius cover newFarnese-Hercules-Roman-copy-by-Glykon-after-the-4th-century-bronze-original-by-Lysippos-3rd-century-CE

After an introduction to the inspiration of the novel, and my vision in the British Library in 2004 sparked by the Askew Codex (commonly known as the Pistis Sophia), I moved on to the facts (or what we can deduce from what survives) of history. Eunapius’ Lives of the Philosophers and Rufinus’ Ecclesiastical History are the two surviving accounts of the riots leading up to the destruction of the Temple of Serapis (which housed a vast chunk of the Great Library of Alexandria) in 391 AD. Both the Christian and Pagan accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum by the Nicene Christian mob were in such stark opposition to each other that I took the liberty of assuming neither were accurate, but that the truth lay somewhere in between.

Askew Codex






I showed the audience a fragment from a 6th century Alexandrian World Chronicle (held by the Moscow Library of Foreign literature) showing images of the Bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus who was behind the riots, and the gold-diademed Priests of Serapis, the guardians of the Temple of Serapis and responsible for setting the grain taxes. It was the god Serapis who was believed to make the Nile flood annually, and as Egypt’s grain was essential to feed the Empire, it was a very wealthy institution. Money was at the root of divinity in 4th century Alexandria it seems.

theophilusserapispriest of serapis







Rufius was by this time itching to speak, and so I introduced the cinaedus, the anti-hero of the novel, and explained the laws that became more severe under the Christian Emperors and in 390 AD resulted in a law condemning cinaedi (effeminate men) to death by public burning. This period of Christian extremism not only resulted in the destruction of temples, heretics, books of mathematics, astrology and heresy, but also the condemnation of men of non-normative sexual and gender orientation. Men like Rufius would have suffered, but Rufius manages to keep his sense of humour!


In this extract Peter Faulkner reads from Chapter 1 – Rufius has just arrived in Alexandria and stepped off the boat. He’s not happy as he’s been blackmailed into exile from Rome by the Archbishop of Rome, Damasus (now Saint Damasus, or Damasus the Ear-tickler, or Damasus the Butcher as history has also recorded him on account of his extortion of Roman matrons’ fortunes and the massacre of Christians who followed his opponent in his fight for the papal throne).

Watch Peter Faulkner’s fantastic delivery of Rufius here.

After that we had more questions about Ancient Alexandria, my vision in the British Library reading room, and the destruction of the Great Library, as well as a book signing. The lovely Angela Whitney who has been a great support during the writing of the novel was first in line. Thanks to Jana Solfronk for the pen (I’m not used to book signings!)

Sarah & Angelapen

Thanks to Caroline Deakin for photos

Petrie Museum – a florist, an astronomer, a writer, a curator and an actor choose their Objects of Desire

groupAncient Egypt sprung to life among glass cabinets and mummies at London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology for LGBT history month. The glittering Helen Pike M.C’d, and the ever flamboyantly erudite John J Johnston interviewed an artist, an author (me with Rufius in tow), an astronomer, a curator and an actor (as the Egyptian God, Horus).

Interviewees were asked to choose their favourite ‘objects of desire’ from the collection to discuss how the artefacts inspired their work.


Florist and artist Lauren Craig chose the lotus flower. The lotus flower was used widely in Egyptian art and John explained its significance to the Ancient Egyptians. Lauren elaborated on how she incorporated the lotus flower into her work, and how she loved the smell, which is not typically sweet. John and Lauren discussed how lotuses were used in ceremony and how ancient Egyptians incorporated them into wig bands.

lotus flower

lotus in hairbands





Next up was astronomer Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, where he informs the public and press about all aspects of astronomy, cosmology, astrobiology, planetary science and the history of astronomy. Marek’s book, The Intimate Universe: how the stars are closer than you think, is a curated tour of the most fascinating phenomena and discoveries in astronomy, revealing how we are inextricably, inspirationally linked to the cosmos.








Marek’s object of desire was an ancient iron meteorite from 2500 BC. It was fascinating to learn about how ancient Egyptians were using iron during the Bronze Age, not an earthly metal, but iron fallen to earth from the heavens as a meteorite. He showed an image of two pots, which were reproduced from meteorite iron ore by a contemporary artist who used the same tools ancient Egyptians would have used.

Daniel Milco, V&A curator and fashonista wove a silk path connecting Ancient Egyptian fashion to twentieth and twenty-first century catwalks. The fine pleats of an Egyptian dress clearly influenced fashion designers 5000 years later.

Daniel described how Egyptian pleats have been copied again and again throughout history, right up to modern twentieth century ‘Cleopatra at home’ versions of the pleated skirt that are almost identical to the their ancient counterparts as we see in the image below – with a wrap over effect to boot.


pleated skirts





John talked about the fairly new idea in Egyptology of pleats in ancient garments representing wings. However, Daniel put up some modern images, that clearly demonstrated the winged motif recreating itself in modern design (RHS).

wingswinged jacket modern







I blame Rufius for our objects of desire being a selection of ancient phalloi. Wilfully phallocentric as ever, Rufius chose a ludicrously outsized phallus (collection mark UC33601) from 4th century Alexandria. Made from terracotta (Nile silt), it is a solid model of a procession carrying a large phallus arising from what may be its seated owner at the rear (in a Bes head-dress); two Bes figures face forward at the front beneath the head of the penis, two robed priests in the centre and two at the rear. There is red and white coating in patches on the surface, so it was likely painted.







Some of the smaller Phalli may very well have come from Rufius toybox. The Ancient Roman world was awash with phalli. I remember that on my research trip to Pompeii, I was struck by the familiarity of the Roman town with its stadium, gymnasium, and theatre, but the images of phalli etched into walls on almost every street corner were utterly foreign. Naples Museum has a room dedicated to phalli of all shapes and sizes, hidden away for many years when they were thought too obscene for the eyes of the impressionable public. Although these Alexandrian phalli may well have come from Rufius’ toybox, scholars do not know for certain their ancient function. Ancient dildo? Or something more lofty, and spiritual? Being a devotee of Bacchus, no doubt Rufius would have favoured a hedonistic function.

frankie howardrufius cartoonrufiusAgora_Carry on Cleo inspiration








The playful John J Johnston flashed some images of the filmset reconstruction of the Alexandrian Agora which inspired the set of Carry on Cleo, and Frankie Howard in 70s TV series Up Pompeii, as an introduction to talk about Rufius’ representation as a cinaedus. John was concerned I might take offence, but very much to the contrary, I confirmed that I had all those 70s drama queens in mind (including Kenneth Williams) when I wrote Rufius. I imagine Rufius’ voice sounding as Stephen Fry might do if he did an impression of Kenneth Williams, but with a lisp (cinaedi lisped).

John, an expert in Ancient sexuality made the point that many depictions of cinaedi in the primary literature were not only ridiculed figures, but that their only lot in life was thought to have been of lowly status, including the role of prostitute. Those roles are certainly present in the literature, but I noted that we also have the likes of Julius Caesar described in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars as being accused of being a cinaedus and dressing effeminately, which interested me. Julius Caesar, for all the jibes about being a cinaedus was the emperor after all. A cinaedus, if he admitted to it as Rufius does, could not enter the Senate and wear the thick stripes of a senator on his toga, but what if he were born into money and was the sole inheritor of a fortune? The Ancient Romans were materialists, money talked, and so with the construction of Rufius’ character, I played with that possibility of him as a financially independent cinaedus, with many of the freedoms that money would have brought in Ancient Roman society.


John finished with a question about Antinous, Hadrian’s deified lover. We discussed how we cannot know for sure from the ancient sources whether the relationship was sexual, but like Marguerite Yourcenar in her Memoirs of Hadrian, in Rufius I have taken the sexual nature of their relationship as a given. Rufius includes a number of references to the Imperial lovers – as well as the temples dedicated to Antinous, which Hadrian had constructed all over Egypt and the Empire after his tragic death.

I reminded John of our conversation at Durham University’s Romosexuality conference. John had informed me that nobody knows exactly how the temples of Antinous were destroyed. In Rufius the image of Temples of Antinous burning along the Nile stylistically represents the destruction of paganism. Thanks to John for answering my naïve questions in the early stages of my research. I was flattered he referred to me as a historian. I joked more along the lines of an ancient historian – like historical novelists, if they didn’t know what happened, they made it up!



Lastly, but mostly was the actor and documentary film producer, Robert Eagle (by night Rob is a rather raunchy drag performer) – who wow’d the audience dressed as Horus with his falcon head and human body (and fabulous blue nose, white face paint and feather headdress).





Rob’s object of desire was a tatty looking piece of papyrus, however, what a fascinating item of filth object it turned out to be! (which is why Rob admits to loving it). It is an interesting take on the myth of Horus (uncle) and Set (nephew), who were blood relations. Rob elaborates that the papyrus gives us an insight into sexuality. John billed the papyrus as the world’s oldest ‘chat up line.’ In it is an encounter between Horus and Set.

papyrus rob






The background to the myth is that Horus and Set have been warring for about 80 years (John makes the point that Egyptian chronology is cyclical at this point) for the throne of Egypt. Set suggests to Horus – let’s have a break from battle, spend a night together, put it all to one side and we’ll get drunk.

Horus and Set






Rob goes on to describe their sexual encounter that night. In some versions of the story, there is a rape being planned, but in this version they both quite enjoy it. John and Rob discuss the incestuous occurrences of blood relations having sex.

The chat up line flattered Horus’ muscular thighs and beautiful buttocks and although  homosexuality was not particularly acceptable to ancient Egyptians, clearly from this story of seduction, the gods were up for it!

Rob also talked about the way myths change over time. He used his drag persona as an example and how each time he performs, he uses our own cultural myths and changes them to suit the needs of the performance – giving those myths his own take.

After the show, we loitered between the glass cabinets and sipped wine. Rufius it seems had sparked the interest of the audience and I found myself signing copies (including one for the lovely Razzle Dazzle blogger, Jon Delores), before we retired to the infamous ‘Green Room’ for more wine (by Bacchus!) Things started to get heated when Horus peeled off his feathers … we’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

A big thank you to the Petrie Team for such a fab LGBT evening of Egyptology!


SML Polari Sbank LGBT Line Up_2016Last month saw the feted Southbank Polari gig that every UK writer, aspiring or otherwise wants to have a spot at. Rufius has taken me to some interesting places over the years, including ancient Roman latrines and Pompeii brothels, but Paul Burston’s Literary Salon that brings together famous, unknown writers (and now infamous cinaedi), hailed ‘the edgiest literary salon in the UK’ is top of my list. Tonight we survey the Thames lit up by the silly wheel which throws suitably pink lights over the river and onto the stage.

Polari founder, Paul Burston, hailed as one of the most important commentators of our generation, ever the showman was in top hat for the occasion. I’d arrived with Christopher Green (aka Ida Barr and Tina C) who would appear as Rufius, and my good friend and internet text guru, Frode Hegland who had demoted himself for the evening to play cameraman. All the videos of the evening can be seen on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/user/MrPaulburston/videos




SML Jennifer_pOLARI sbank 2016First up was expert in ancient sexuality, Dr Jennifer Ingleheart, Senior Lecturer in Classics at Durham University who I first met during my research for Rufius back in 2012 at the aptly named Romosexuality Conference. Jennifer entertained the audience with the references to the exalted Greek love of Plato’s Symposium, making the links with the ways in which books like E.M.Forster’s Maurice helped to forge today’s homosexual identities by referencing Plato. She did not hide her delight to move on and spin us through the racy poetry of Martial and the even more explicit lines of Catullus, making the point that Roman literature ‘with its more materialistic spirit’ confronts the reader with the grosser side of love. When we got to Teleny (rumoured to be anonymously penned by Wilde), the audience were asked, in true academic style (this is after all LGBT history month) to reference their handouts where we were confronted with an image of the God Priapus and his ludicrously large phallus. The academic tone was maintained as the connection was made with the novel in question:

‘But my lips were eager to taste his phallus – an organ which might have served as a model for the huge idol in the temple of Priapus, or over the doors of the Pompeian brothels, only that at the sight of this wingless god most men would have – as many did – discarded women for the love of their fellow men.’ (Teleny, p.118-19)

SML David Clarke_Polari Sbank

Next was the poet David Clarke whose LGBT history was closer to home as he walked us through a series of poems, some personal about his own gay history. David’s poems have appeared in magazines including Magma, Tears in the Fence, Iota, Anon, Under the Radar and New Walk. His pamphlet, Gaud won the Michael Marks Pamphlet Prize. David blogs here. 


SML Chris Green RUFIUS Polari Sbank 16Paul then introduced Olivier award-winning performer Christopher Green, who really needed no introduction as the crowd was wolf-whistling before he hit the stage. In signature bubble-gum pink suit, he looked very much the celebrity hypnotist that he has recently written a book about. Overpowered was inspired by an artist in residency at the British Library. As Chris is a man who takes his research seriously, he underwent training to become a qualified hypnotist himself. He declared he is most proud of hypnotising the Duchess of Devonshire’s chicken!

WATCH Chris hypnotise the polari audience here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hc3Uw72TZ_I

SML Chris Green & Sarah Walton_PolariDuring the break – always a raucous affair at Polari – I was pleased to see my old school friends, Abi and Leanne in the audience. Abi was in my Latin class and we reminisced about Mr Hannis, our Latin teacher, who I have failed to find on social media. Although I’m not convinced he would be impressed that his legacy is a novel about a curious Latin insult.


Sarah Walton_Polari Sbank 2016

As it was LGBT History Month I talked about the background to my debut novel, Rufius, and then passed the mike to Chris Green who was going to play Rufius. I was brimming with excitement at the thought of seeing my favourite character in the novel brought to life by one of my all time favourite comic actors. I’ve long been a fan of his hip-pop pensioner, Ida Barr and knew Chris would make an amazing Rufius. I think you will agree, Chris makes a fabulous Rufius.

WATCH Chris Green as an outrageous Rufius here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTww8SjH9-o

(Scroll through to 6 minutes in YouTube if you want to get straight to Rufius. The first 6 minutes are me talking about how the ancient Romans viewed their antics in the bedroom!)


Jonathan Harvey, the headliner of the evening needed no introduction – his writing has been entertaining Coronation Street fans, TV sitcom, Gimme Gimme Gimme, and the landmark play, Beautiful Thing. He had the audience in stitches with a reading from his latest novel, The Secrets We Keep as the main character poses as a cleaning lady in the house of the woman she suspects was having an affair with her ex-husband … the only clue to his whereabouts is a jar of jellybeans in the fridge!


WATCH Jonathan Harvey and ready yourself for a good laugh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-dINfFSmQU


For an academic view of the POLARI LGBT EVENT (wither Razzle Dazzle), read the erudite Jon Dolores’ blog:




Mick Jackson addresses Lewes Literary Society

Mick Jackson signing SMLMick Jackson wanted to be a poet from a tender age. When his teacher asked him the usual question about career aspirations, he got laughter. He tells the audience packed into All Saints Church for the monthly Lewes Literary Society talk that he ‘did dreadfully at school.’ Thankfully his spirit was not broken by a teacher who failed to take him seriously and Mick followed words and rhythm into music. He was singer in a band called The Screaming Abdabs in his 20s.

In his early 30s he secured a place on the feted University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA where in 1991 Malcolm Bradbury was a tutor. Without getting into the politics of the value of creative writing courses, he says, ‘it gave him 1 year to think about his writing.’ This luxury is one I agree is of immense value.

Shortly after that Mick Jackson declares that he ‘became interested in tunnels.’ I chuckle at his delivery and reflect that his years of entertaining audiences have given him both stage presence and an ability to hold and entertain a crowd.


Signposted to the fabulously wealthy 5th Duke of Portland who had built a network of tunnels under his house, he began research (which included exploring those tunnels) for The Underground Man. His first novel won several prizes and was translated into many languages.
Mick reads from The Underground Man, which is written in 1st person journal form and delivers a fictionalised version of the 5th Duke of Portland’s descent from eccentricity into madness. The chosen excerpt has us in stitches as we visualise the aging Duke, who has taken up the hot and cold treatment of jumping directly from a hot to cold bath, running naked down the corridor to the distress of an unsuspecting maid.

I’m delighted that Mick gives an insight into his creative process as this has always fascinated me – partly I suspect because I did not grow up in the years when creative writing was on offer at school as so retained its ‘magic’ as a dark art available to only the chosen few. So when I started to write as a child I always wondered what proper writers did to produce the words on the page, and how long it took them, whether they needed to edit or if it just landed on the page fully formed. I now know, having interviewed bestselling authors, that everyone is unique. Perhaps one of the benefits of not learning how to write gives writers this freedom to forge their own method.

It takes 4-5 years for Mick to complete a novel. He usually goes through numerous edits. I have noticed that unless a writer is able to be financially secure the whole length of their novel writing, if they write genre fiction, or if little research is required, 5 years is a standard duration for a novel to come to fruition. That is how long it took me to write Rufius.

After the success of The Underground Man came Five boys. That was followed by a book of short stories, which Mick tells us felt like light relief after the long haul of novel writing. Haruki Murakami has commented that he often cannot surge straight into another novel and will oscillate between novel and short story writing. The Widow’s Tale was written at record speed for Mick, taking him just 1.5 years.

Then came his latest novel – Yuki Chan in Brontë CountryOriginally a screenplay and then developed into a novel, for Yuki Chan in Bronte Country, Mick interviewed many young Japanese people.

Yuki in Bronte Country

Set in Howarth, which is the only place in England where there are signs in English & Japanese due to the hoards of Japanese tourists who descend by the coach load to trudge across the Bronte country. It fascinated Mick that an entirely different culture to ours has such an interest in our culture, or an element – or rather, a mythologised element of it.

Mick drew together seemingly disparate and unrelated subject matter into a cohesive whole. The Bronte sisters, spirit photography and artificial snow melt together in Yuki Chan in Brontë Country. Mick found a place for his interest in the myths of well known people, spirit photography – ghostly shadows hovering over people in the pictures, which was popular in Victorian and Edwardian England, as well as artificial snow inspired by a chance meeting with a Japanese physicist.

Yuki, his cynical heroine, isn’t interested in the Brontës. She imagines them so bored in their country house that they dream about giving up novel writing and becoming highway women, pinch their father’s gun and hold up a stage coach.

As Mick had threatened to ask the audience questions if they did not have any for him, there were plenty of questions – ranging from his residences at the Booth Museum and London’s Science Museum, to whether he had visited Japan (which he had not). All of which he answered with the same relaxed good humour and erudite eloquence that he had delivered his talk.