I wish I kept a diary. Then I could date the occasion (I think sometime in 2006) when I had a personal brush with royalty. Sort of. In a way. My dealings with Cleopatra go back to 2005, when my agent rang to tell me that Kingfisher Books had invited me to write about Cleopatra for children of about 9 or 10. This book was to take the form of a diary written by a child (to give the child’s eye view) and would be very lavishly produced and illustrated in full colour throughout. One half of the book would be the diary, written by me and the second half would be full of proper historical, factual information that students of the period might want to know. The second half, it was made quite clear, would NOT be my responsibility, but researched and written by someone else. This is a picture of the hardback (which led to one of the best emails I ever got in my life: So sorry we can’t send you a colour proof of the cover but we’re having a bit of trouble embedding the jewels. Yes, those emeralds and rubies you can see at the top and bottom of the picture are in fact very authentic-looking bits of plastic which give the book the kind of glamour its subject would have appreciated. The paperback, which appears on the 15th of this month, is less dazzling but perhaps more child-friendly and also shows off the wonderful artwork by M.P.Robertson.
My first impulse was to wonder why a story so full of sex and death would be suitable for 9 year olds and then I thought: why not? They’re as interested in both subjects as anyone else. My second thought was a panicked question: what on earth do I know about Cleopatra? Well, I’d seen the George Bernard Shaw play so I knew about her arriving wrapped in a rug and being unrolled in front of Julius Caesar. I’d read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and knew the speech . “The barge she sat in like a burnished throne” etc. But most clearly of all, I knew Elizabeth Taylor in yellow chiffon (when in Egypt) and gold from top to toe (for Rome and her triumphal procession) wearing more viridian eye shadow than any eyelid should be required to carry and with black eyebrows like small caterpillars over each violet eye, fainting with desire in the arms of the slightly square but very delicious Richard Burton. Of course I agreed to write my part of the book at once. I couldn’t resist.
My editor and also the chief writer of the other half of the book, and the person who was in charge of sending me all the research notes I needed was the excellent Alison Stanley. At a certain point (oh I wish I’d kept a diary) Alison emailed me proposing a meeting. We could either meet in Manchester, where I was living back then, or I could come down to London to the Kingfisher offices, or I could come to her house in Windsor. Her husband, Roger Judd, was assistant organist at St George’s Chapel, a post he held for more than twenty years. Well, which would you have chosen? Of course I accepted Alison’s kind invitation.
Alison and Roger have moved since then but at the time they lived in a house known as Marbeck, after the first organist and choir master John Marbeck who took up his post at St George's in in 1551. In those days, the choristers used to live and work in the same house as their master. Next door to Alison and Roger’s house was Vicars' Hall which is said to have been the venue for the very first performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. I couldn’t believe I was going to have lunch in such a place.
The fun started when Alison and I walked in past the guard at the gates of Windsor Castle. Alison greeted this soldier, complete with busby, by his first name and he just waved us through. I don’t remember anything about the editing, though we must have discussed the book, I’m sure. I remember a very delicious lunch - how come I can ALWAYS remember meals? - and then a private tour of St George’s Chapel which, because I was with Alison, meant we could go up to the organ loft and look down at the whole Chapel. I was shown the small hidey-hole with a view over the nave from which Queen Victoria witnessed the marriage of the Prince of Wales in 1863,when her mourning for Prince Albert prevented her from appearing in public. Every member of the Chapel staff whom we met was kindness itself and showed me things not generally seen by the public, such as a kind of filing system for clerical robes and other accoutrements: a chest -of- drawers made up of many very wide , thin drawers in which fabrics could lie flat until they were needed. Anyone who’s been to St George’s Chapel will know how beautiful it is. This link,http://www.stgeorges-windsor.org/worship-and-music/experience-st-georges/st-georges-panorama.html if you click on it, will take you to some virtual tours. I loved being there and I’m still grateful to Alison for making that possible. I’m also grateful to her for making the second half of my book a really terrific resource for anyone studying the clever, sexy, dangerous and tragic queen of Egypt whose lustre is undimmed, many centuries after her death. Shakespeare, as usual, said it exactly: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.