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:




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:

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:

(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:


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.


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!


Telling tale of faith vs politics conflict

Rufius grafiti smlBrilliant Review Review by Paul Simon, Morning Star

Source: Telling tale of faith vs politics conflict

IN THIS novel, Sarah Walton comprehensively excavates the sights, disputes and social structures of the port of Alexandria in the quarter century leading up to the inter-faith massacres and wholesale destruction of the city’s famous library by Nicene Christian mobs in 391 AD.

In doing so, she reveals the loosening threads of a society once renowned for its tolerance, dissent and learning through the interlinked voices of three characters.

Kiya is a devotee of the Ophites, a small gnostic Christian sect who are increasingly mistrusted by the growing power of the established church.

Aeson is a member of a street gang whose nickname “Pretty” demonstrates his lowly status. But his beauty gains the eye of the eponymous anti-hero who firstly finances him as his lover and then adopts him as his son.

Rufius Biblus Catamitus, an outrageously transgressive figure, is a learned and fleshly satyr who excites ridicule and respect in equal measure because of his patrician status.

Walton comments in her postscript that, as a rich adult, the social expectations on Rufius were that he would be on top sexually. Yet he is a “cinaedus,” an effeminate buggeree and, according to the author, Roman sexuality was oriented along the axis of penetrator and penetratee rather than the false poles of gay and straight.

Yet in a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant of difference, Rufius’s orientation puts himself and his household at risk. That threat is exacerbated when he becomes the director of the scriptorium — the library — on behalf of the Bishop of Rome to root outheretical works.

But he turns that commission on its head by setting up a book-smuggling sideline and in the process becomes a target for many more dangerous vested interests.

That Rufius nimbly tiptoes his way around the secular, religious and street authorities is testimony to his courage and sharpness but even he can’t hold back the religious pogroms instituted by Bishop Theophilius who is determined to destroy both paganism and other expressions of Christianity, sacred texts included.

In spite of the slowly closing aperture of hope for a tolerant Alexandrian society, stylistically conveyed by the leisurely advance of armed desert monks on the city, this is a novel of pace and humour.

While the comedy in Rufius’s camp asides are occasionally a little wearing, they at least reflect the spirit of a man who will not be anything other than himself.

Having comprehensively established the credentials of both the main characters and the city itself, the last third of the book is a deftly handled account of the accelerating orgies of destruction launched by Theophilius.

The publishers compare Walton’s work to the novels of Mary Renault and, while that is partly true, in her remarkably adroit handling of the intersections between the big questions of faith and politics and the smaller-scale concerns of relationships and identity, there are elements that would not be out of place in novels by Gore Vidal set in the “classical” era. Highly recommended.

Review by Paul Simon

It’s a Book!

Rufius cover new



What a thrill to hold the actual book in my hands! After years of research and gatecrashing classics conferences, I have to resist the urge to cradle it. Rufius would not be impressed with any maternal petting. Instead I cheekily squeezed him in between Vidal’s Julian and Graves’ The Claudius Novels … Catullus within kissing distance on the book shelf.


Classicists will recognise the statue on the cover as the Farnese statue of Hercules … or maybe not, as it’s usually Hercules’ front on show, not his arse. The Farnese Hercules is probably a copy made in the early third century AD from a 4th century BC original. The enlarged copy was made for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (dedicated in 216 AD).

Jason Anscomb, designer extraordinaire from Rawshock Design stretched Hercules’ buttocks, as Rufius is not quite as slim of hip as Hercules. We got rid of the beard as cinaedi were as smooth as boys – facial hair was out. He also erased, at my request, one of the three apples of Hesperides (the collective name for the nymphs of the evening) to make it more suggestive of one of the novel’s themes: ancient Roman sexuality and gender identity. Rufius couldn’t have been further from Hercules who, even in this unusual weary pose with the pelt of the Neamean lion thrown over his club, represents the hard Roman ideal of what a man should aspire to. Pumping iron was commonplace, as it is for the body conscious in gyms today. Not for Rufius. He would have swooned at the mere prospect of breaking a sweat. Cinaedi might be represented as a cross between modern day transgender, flamboyant gay queens of 50s London and the eunuch priests of Cybele – or that’s how Rufius is depicted in the novel.

IMG_7393 (test shot)

Jason did not work from a photo of Rufius. Barbican Press wanted a souvenir of Rufius at their London office and so Martin Goodman ordered a replica of Caracalla’s 3rd century copy. The statue was shipped from Israel to Hassocks where Jason lives on the South Downs. Jason  waited for a sunny day when he could photograph Hercules in natural light. Martin got carried away by his muse and asked Jason if the novel title and author name could be stuck on to the body of the statue – instead of being photoshopped – in order to maintain the contours of the statue’s body. Hence it also needed to be a dry day, so the paper letters wouldn’t turn to mush. Finally the British weather brightened up. The effect of sunlight illuminating the marble is striking.

Thank you to Barbican Press and Rawshock Design for making the cover design process such fun, by Bacchus!

Bernardine Evaristo – Lewes Lit Society

BernardineLewes on a wet November evening was a cosy indoor affair at Lewes Literary Society’s new home. The All Saints Centre was full. John Agard and Grace Nichols were among the poets in the audience. I hadn’t seen Bernardine since I interviewed her in 2012 on a hot summer’s day at Dartmouth House in London. The sunny courtyard had been a perfect location for an interview on her novel, The Emperor’s Babe set in Ancient Roman London – with a fountain trickling water in the background we could very well at have been in an Ancient Roman atrium. Stark contrast to the November storms howling around the Lewes church.


Bernardine started her talk by taking the audience back to 70s Woolwich with the bricks thrown through windows by racist school kids and her grandmother’s difficulty accepting her grandchildren of colour, although she loved them. Bernardine’s father was from Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe and would run down the street after the vandals, walk them to their door and insist their parents paid for the damage. He was a strict man and the only freedom in her teens was the local drama group, where she developed a love of the spoken word and subsequently set up a Black Women’s experimental drama group. Her parents also instilled in her a sense of the political. One can see so clearly how the values and experiences of her childhood have filtered into her work. Her novels deal with race, identity, sexuality and gender with honesty and sharp humour.


I’m pleased Bernardine chose to read from The Emperor’s Babe, one of the chosen texts for my PhD in Creative Writing. It’s a novel which has had a profound influence on me since her agent, Hannah Griffiths handed it to me 15 years ago in the offices of Curtis Brown, and said: ‘you must read this!’

The novel’s first person narrator, a Nubian girl-bride called Zuleika, has an affair with the Emperor Severus when he visits London in 211 A.D. It’s been categorised as a postmodern novel for its playful rewriting of history, and the way Bernardine allows fact and fiction to mingle in the narrative.

When I asked Bernadine in interview whether the reason for the intentional use of anachronism was to make the history more accessible, she replied:

‘I didn’t want it to feel this was a historical novel that was remote, distant, that people couldn’t relate to. Or rather, I wanted them to believe in Zuleika almost as a contemporary figure. I wanted to make it as vivid as if she was a girl living in London today.’

(Dartmouth House Interview with Bernardine Evaristo, London, 2011

As Bernardine notes, although it is unusual for a novel to be written in verse, the poetry is accessible. As I noted in my thesis, if the rapper Puff Daddy and Martial were locked in Dr Who’s Tardis and told to write a novel together, the product might not be so dissimilar to The Emperor’s Babe’s rhythmic language mash-up. We are reminded of the modern poetry of hip hop and rap music by lines like:

‘Puff Daddy Fabius on the tube
and Madd Marcia on caterwauling vocals.’

The novel started as a few poems penned on a residency at the Museum of London. One of the positive outcomes of the residency was that an actor of colour was given the job of acting the part of an ancient Roman tour guide. Prior to Bernardine’s residency, the museum staff had dismissed the idea that there were Ancient Roman Africans in London. Since then, archaeologists have unearthed the evidence. Certainly, London would have been a melting pot of race, reflecting the geographical scale of the Roman Empire.

During the Q&A, Bernardine was clear when asked about the lack of representation of black people at literary events, that it is an issue. As with her books, there’s no meandering about in her answers; she’s erudite, but gets directly to the point. I imagine she got that trait from her father, rather than the English habit of beating about the bush.

lovermanBernardine moves on to read from her latest novel, Mr Loverman about Barry, a 74 year old Antiguan man, married for 50 years to Carmel. Carmel knows Barry has affairs, just not with whom. Barry has another life as a gay man in the closet, in love with his boyfriend of 60 years.

Bernardine’s years in acting are evident when she convincingly delivers Barry’s Caribbean narrative voice. Guyanese poet, Grace Nichols, who was in the audience validated it sounded authentic, and asked Bernardine how she developed it. Friends and an ex, was the reply. Bernardine spends a lot of time listening to how people speak. This is a useful tip for novelists.

We finish with a book signing. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my copy of Mr Loverman along – there’s something personal about having the author’s signature in the front cover. I did however bring a copy of Rufius for Bernardine, to say thank you for a gift she gave me three years ago – I was not confident that Rufius would win the heart of a publisher; she told me, ‘you must believe it will be published.’ I never forgot the force behind her words. A novel, when it is an unformed thing, can plague even an established writer with doubts. Bernardine exudes a rare determination, and it comes across so strongly in her work. There aren’t many novelists who would convince Penguin to publish a novel in verse.


Voices Beyond Boarders

An evening of poetry music and song in aid of Europe’s Refugees

stones sml

Lewes is blessed with a Mayor who supports the arts – Cllr Susan Murray opened the evening in Lewes Town Hall to the haunting sound of the oud melting away in the background, played by Brian Tewson.



Mebrak Ghebreweldi shared her experiences as a child solder and life as a refugee. Her family fled her hometown in Africa, her mother and father grabbing the closest things to them in their rush to get to the mountains to hide until the fighting stopped. Days, weeks, months went by. Eventually they gave up hope of ever going back home, and Mebrak joined the army as a child soldier. She spoke with the heart and strength of a woman who has had to fight for peace in her life.


The poets and musicians who gave their time freely delivered their work with similar passion on themes of love, war, and displacement from one’s home.






john-agardJohn Agard’s poem ‘Little Green Man’ started with the arrival of a little green man at Heathrow Airport bemused with what box he should tick for ethnicity: white, black, but no green. Although he had the audience in stiches, it is a reminder of how daunting British immigration must be.


Pam Hewitt led members of the Russian Choir with anthems of emigrants who fled Nazi and Russian invasions. Norman Baker and his band, The Reform Club sung ‘Give War a Chance’ from their new album, a satirical take on war sung in the voice of a war-mongering British politician who cannot be named (but was quite obviously Cameron). The audience were in hysterics at the lyrics – he’s not entirely left politics.


Grace Nichols, Catherine Smith, and Elsa Hewitt read poems on the theme of love – in addition to a steamy sex scene of martial sex in a Kings Cross hotel.





girl on a planeMiriam Moss read from her novel, Girl on a Plane, a fictional account of her ordeal on a plane hijacked in the Jordanian desert in the 70s. She recounts the moment when Anne, the 15 year old narrator of the story, loses it with one of the young hi-jackers. He asks her to imagine his life as a refugee, forced off land that had been in his family for centuries. The extract drove home the complexities of war. Here’s a great blog post and interview with Miriam:



Dirk and Adam Campbell and Paul Johnson played the ‘Pleasure of Giving’ on the flute, kora and kalamangoni. And Adrienne Thomas rounded off the evening with an Afghan Phasto Lullaby and Blowing in the Wind. Listen here: IMG_9041

All the performances were from delivered with passion, but the delivery that cut to the heart of why were there, and stayed with me long after the evening had ended, was from a woman from Lewes Action for Refugees raising money for Doctors of the World and the International Rescue Committee. She told us about her direct experiences of the conditions in the ‘Jungle’, so called by the thousands of refugees who are encamped in Calais, as it is not fit for humans to live in. Her and her daughter visit to help pick up rubbish and give support to the women in the camp, many of them who throw themselves on to trains, desperate to get through the tunnel to the UK. She spoke of the hideous, toxic conditions and the rising tension in the previous landfill site that only has 6 showers for the growing thousands of refugees who arrive everyday. I spoke with her afterwards. She is not a public speaker and hoped her delivery was clear. It was more than clear – it cut through the politics to the everyday challenges faced by refugees whose lives have been torn apart by war and climate change. The atmosphere in the Town Hall was thick with the horror and compassion, and a will to do what one could to support the cause.

Half way through the evening, £2400 had been raised. Lewes Actions for Refugees needs volunteers to help with anything from counting the donations in the buckets to trips to the Jungle in Calais to help pick up rubbish. Please contact Lewes Actions for Refugees on Facebook.