Monthly Archives: March 2016

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.

Meterorite

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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.

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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.

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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.

Antinuous

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!

 

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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!

POLARI – SOUTHBANK: LGBT HISTORY MONTH

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.
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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!)

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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:

http://jon-doloresdelargo.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/priapic-fascination-sword-swallowing.html

 

 

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.

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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.