Monthly Archives: February 2016

Writing Sex & Hull Uni LGBT Month 2016

Sarah Walton_Hull signing

Philip Larkin called Hull ‘the end of the line.’ That’s set to change as Hull will be the 2017 City of Culture. The writer in me found a creative home in this misty peninsula cut off from the mainland. My heart warms when I get off the train to see the bronze statue of the poet, set to rush for a train, coat flapping behind him.




Larkin statue

My mentor and PhD supervisor, Martin Goodman MC’d the evening, which opened LGBT history month on Hull University campus. It was novel to sit looking out at the audience. Through the years of my PhD I have attended many a Larkin Centre event. Dr David Bagchi, my second supervisor and one of the historical experts on 4th Century theology essential for achieving plausibility in Rufius, was in the audience.



Ed Hurst, PhD student interviewed me. I was surprised to find out after the interview that it was his first Larkin Centre interview. His chatty, informal style instantly put me at my ease – although he wasted no time cutting to the chase and asking about writing ‘sex’ in Rufius. Click here for clip about writing sex in fiction:

Sex in Rufius_Interview

It was the first time I had read from Rufius. Although I was comfortable talking about the process of writing and researching the novel, I was nervous about pulling off the character of Rufius – somehow a woman being a man who’s being a women seemed a tall order. I imagine some of the comedy was lost, but the audience laughed at the comic bits, which was encouraging.

The audience questions were interesting. Dr Philip Crispin (who had years before delivered his version of Rufius when the novel was in progress) asked about the role of women in the novel, and in the early church. There’s evidence to suggest women has roles of teachers and were influential in the early Gnostic Christian tradition, and although the novel is not didactic (I stripped out the narrative voice as much as possible), some women who belong to the ‘Ophite’ sect (the Snake People in the novel) have high status roles in the story. This certainly appears to be the case from the surviving literary evidence.

Fellow author, Dr Brian Lavery asked, “do you think Rufius will send Daily Mail reader heads spinning?” I joked, “I hope so!” I think the really dangerous element in the novel is Rufius, a rogue with highly questionable ethics by modern standards. The danger comes from putting him in the position of hero, or anti-hero. Rufius would be delighted I’m sure if he made Daily Mail readers’ heads spin. I can imagine what he’d call them, but let’s not lower the tone – you can read the book for that.

Here’s a link explaining Ancient Roman sexuality and the meaning of the Latin word, cindaedus. 

sw & ed hurst interview 2

After the interview, Ed thanked me for writing the novel, and said that reading Rufius had given him light relief from some tough news he’d received that week, which gave the effort and long hours of writing extra meaning. Now the book lives and breathes and as Rufius finds his audience, I realise how Rufius might give back a little of the magic that I took from books as a child.

It was a first to sign copies too – I’m usually in the autograph queue. Rufius wishes you all happy reading, by Bacchus!

Writing Rufius has been a labour of love, and I am deeply grateful for the patience of Martin Goodman, my mentor and to Barbican Press for taking a punt on a novel partly inspired by a curious Latin insult.






Sali Hughes’ Make Up Bag .V. Ancient Roman make up bags

Sali Hughes is as straight talking in person as she is in her Guardian column. Rufius noted instantly that her eyebrows were perfect – although, unlike Rufius, Sali has not plucked them smooth and drawn them on with thick black kohl. More on what was in Sali’s make up bag later …

Sali Hughes







Sali joined the Lewes Literary Society on a windy February evening. She looked stylish in her print coat (which she kept on as it was chilly) and signature red lipstick. All Saints Church was packed with a younger crowd than usual.

woman ancient make up

Keeping up appearances in Ancient Rome was a controversial mission. Today the Italian word for make up is ‘trucco,’ meaning ‘trick.’ I think Sali would agree that make up is magic! As she said, ‘not everyone is pretty, but everyone can be beautiful.’ The philosopher Seneca thought that wearing cosmetics led to the decline of the Roman morality. There are no texts written by women indicating the female attitude towards cosmetics at the time, but if Sali had been around in the 4th Century, Rufius would have undoubtedly been a fan!

Sali read from the intimate introduction to her hit 2014 book, Pretty Honest. We are taken into the bedroom of her grandmother as Sali’s young self is inspired by the ritual of making up watching her grandmother apply her make up at her dressing table.

Pretty Honest is an apt title as Sali’s popularity is largely due to her honest approach to beauty editorial. Unlike some columnists, she doesn’t get paid for reviewing a product or accept what I used to call ‘industry bribes’ when I had a college job for an industry beauty column in the 90s – and she avoids the irritating pseudo-scientific codswallop spewed out by big brands that doesn’t serve to tell the reader anything about the product. Sali tests the products she reviews on friends or herself if it suits her skin type. Her approach is ethical and readers can sense it in her writing. Sali’s presence carries that honesty in the direct manner she answers questions.

She clearly explains the complexity of the beauty industry – and how the big brands have pressurised China to stop testing on animals, which she is against. On age, she’s delightful. For the older women she advises us to be bold, daring and embrace the lipstick – she’s not a fan of gloss for adults. To the teenagers, she advises no foundation – ‘you’re as lovely as you will ever be.’

make up pots 2

Like Sali, Ancient Roman women as well as cinaedi liked strong red lips. Bromine, beeswax, beetle juice with a touch of henna puckered up their lips. I wonder what Sali would make of those ingredients!

Sali is so much more than a beauty columnist, but as often happens when someone achieves fame for one thing, their other equally excellent achievements pale into comparison. Long before her famous Guardian column, she has been an opinion columnist for UK newspapers and magazines.

Rufius was as impressed too. He was more interested in what Sali had to say about women’s products than her comments on male grooming. Cinaedi plucked every whisker on their faces, as well as their eyebrows, which they painted on thick and black.

EGYPT - DECEMBER 11: Make-up was in common use in Ancient Egypt and focused particularly on the eye, in order to replicate the appearance of the sun god, Re. Kohl eyeliner was frequently used to achieve this effect. It was made of powdered antimony, burnt almonds, black copper oxide and brown ocher. Granite kohl pots like these were used to mix the ingredients together. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Rufius was enthralled when Sali opened her make up bag in response to a cheeky request from the audience. Several red lippies, a Clarins body moisturizer, eyebrow pencil, concealer all came out and were put in full view on the table – in much the same way as Rufius’ body slave, Apollinos organised his master’s boudoir ready for the morning ritual of plucking and face painting in Rufius.

As a boy Rufius stole his mother’s cosmetics, but as a man he sent his slaves to hunt out the best foundations and eyeliners and application techniques around the Empire. That Egyptian diva, Cleopatra started the fashion for smoky eyeliner, which Rufius took up when he was exiled in Alexandria.

Like Sali, Ancient Roman women would have carried a compact mirror made from polished metal or mercury in their make-up bags. Wealthy women (and cinaedi) bought expensive make up palettes to match.

Beauty masks were as essential as they are today, made of a mix of sweat from sheep’s wool, placenta, excrement, animal urine, sulphur, ground oyster shells and bile. More appealing ingredients used in beauty treatments were rose water, eggs, olive oil, honey, anise, almond oil and frankincense.

Like Sali, who carried a mascara in her make up bag, Ancient Roman women liked their lashes long and lush – and used burnt cork to achieve the Eastern look they coveted.


Sali’s eyebrow pencil wasn’t quite bold enough for Rufius. He prefers to paint his eyebrows on with soot and antimony – applied using a rounded stick, made of ivory, glass, bone, or wood.



By the end of the evening, Sali had a new fan. Rufius was getting his toga in a twist in anticipation for Sali book-in-progress, which is promised to be part autobiography, part beauty journal. In the meantime, Adam from Waterstones (who afterwards told me Sali’s male grooming tips were spot on), readied books for Sali to sign.


Rufius is itching to buy a ticket to win a hamper of cosmetics Sali generously offered to Lewes Literary Society as a Christmas gift. Anything is better than the pong of his face whitening foundation made from marl, dung and lead – I do wish he’d use my Channel products instead!



Andante Travels in the Ancient World – Author Interview

RUFIUS – on sale today: Buy here

Source: Andante Travels Blog

Sarah Walton joined us as a guest in Pompeii a few years ago. During the tour, she was in the process of writing a novel and promised to let us know if it was ever published. We’re very pleased to announce that her new historical novel Rufius goes on sale today!

We recently spoke to Sarah about her new book, her writing process, and the writers who inspire her…

Author Interview - Sarah Walton


1. What can readers expect from Rufius?

Although Rufius has been classed as literary fiction, it’s a fast paced action novel. The backdrop is epic: the fall of Paganism and the rise of Christianity. The story starts in the port of Alexandria a quarter century before the inter-faith massacres and destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by Nicene Christian mobs in 391 AD. Much of the library, as well as the museum, was housed in the Serapeum, one of the most important pagan temples of the ancient world.

The reader arrives on a boat with Rufius Biblus Catamitus, the new director of the Scriptorium, sent to hunt out heretical books. Rufius, a learned and fleshy satyr, adds the comedy. This novel gets right up close to ancient Roman sexuality, which was oriented along the axis of ‘active’ and ‘passive’, rather than the modern poles of gay and straight. Ancient Romans would have called Rufius a cinaedus. Far from the hard, muscular Roman ideal, cinaedi wore make-up, curled their hair, plucked and painted on their eyebrows. Rufius could be thought of as an ancient Roman version of transgender. The laws that condemned these men became more severe under the Christian emperors, but Rufius is having none of it. He’s not ashamed of wearing his mother’s cameo brooches on his toga, and he’s not going to stop talking with a lisp because of a bunch of jumped up bishops!

But Rufius cannot hold back the rising intolerance of a society in the grip of religious revolution. In 390 AD, a law was passed condemning effeminate men to public burning. His orientation, once accepted even in its emperors – Julius Caesar was hounded by rumours that he was a cinaedus throughout his political career – puts Rufius’ life, and his household, in danger.The climax of the novel takes the reader into the thick of the street riots and the orgies of destruction orchestrated by the Bishop Theophilus. I won’t spoil the end and tell you what happens to Rufius.

Rufius would appeal to readers with a love of the “classical” world, an interest in the battle for orthodoxy in Christianity, and a curiosity about ancient Roman ideas of sexuality.

2. Where did you first find your inspiration for the book?

My inspiration came from the Askew codex in the British Library. Coincidently, at the same time, the Moscow Library of Foreign Literature was undertaking a fresh translation of the mysterious sentences which have stumped scholars since the codex was purchased by Dr Askew in Georgian London. I mused with Dr Nersessian (the curator of the manuscript) that the mysterious sentences which have defied translation might be Christian mantra – along the lines of Hindu or Buddhist mantra. We agreed that it was plausible for early Gnostic Christians to have used mantra to achieve gnosis (self-knowledge). Having been brought up a Catholic, I was compelled to understand why this book, with female teachers and positive role models for women, had been condemned. Who were the people who held this book sacred? In the novel, the Askew Codex is sacred to the Ophites. It could equally have belonged to another of the many groups of Gnosticism, such as the Valentinians.

It was during those long days in the Oriental Reading Room, poring over the Coptic manuscript that Rufius first spoke to me. I had a strange experience as I repeated the Gnostic words. I found myself transported to a scriptorium in my imagination and there – hobbling between the bookshelves with a codex in hand – was a fat, old librarian in a toga. The atmosphere was thick with doom. “Take the book, and run,” he shouted in a camp, urgent voice to a young scribe. Rufius’ voice followed me back out of my vision and stalked me until I wrote his story.

3. Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Rufius was not my first attempt at writing fiction, but it was a novel that posed a huge challenge. The extent of my knowledge of Ancient Rome was Carry on Cleo and schoolgirl Latin. To write this novel I undertook a PhD, infiltrated the Classics community and immersed myself for five years in the everyday clutter of ancient Roman lives – from favourite recipes to remedies for genital warts.

4. Tell us a little bit more about you – what’s your background?

I read literature and linguistics for my bachelor degree, and studied literature at universities in France and Spain. In the early ‘90s I co-founded a dotcom and went to Silicon Valley to follow my other love: digital technology. I now advise government and businesses on digital. To write Rufius, I undertook a PhD, specialising in ancient Roman sexuality in literature.

5. Are there any writers that inspire you?

Umberto Eco and Hilary Mantel for historical fiction, and Steven Saylor for the fiction of Ancient Rome. My favourite new writer is D.D. Johnston. I love everything by Hemingway, Haruki Murakami, and Jeanette Winterson. If I had to choose one book to pack for a trip it would be Calvino’s Cosmicomics.

6. If I was to find you with your nose buried in a book, what is it likely to be?

Yourcenar’s The Memoirs of Hadrian.

7. You travelled with us to Pompeii – what did you think of the tour?

The Pompeii tour was fantastic. There’s a lot of material in the novel that was directly inspired by walking through the streets of Pompeii, sitting in the stadium, as well as the visit to Paestum. Aeson (Rufius’ lover) loses all his money in the stadium betting on a gladiator fight. I remember sitting on the marble steps and imagined a full stadium–the roar of the crowd, the blood splattered arena. The Andante tour made it feel like we had been transported back in time, which makes the job of a novelist much easier.

As Andante tour guides are academic experts, they not only brought the past to life in a fun fashion, but conducted erudite conversations over dinner which stimulated ideas, perhaps not dissimilar to an ancient Greek symposium. Our tour forged lasting friendships.


8. What can we expect from you next… do you have a second book in mind?

The next two novels are underway. The Hostess Detective is a crime novel based in the ‘90s demimonde. The other novel was inspired by reading the letters between Pope Damasus of Rome and Saint Jerome. It’s the story of Saint Jerome’s writing of the new Latin Bible, which takes the reader on a tour of fourth century Rome, Antioch, the Alexandrian Library and Jerusalem – his entourage of wealthy, anorexic matrons in tow!