Friday 19 March 2021

Classics Club during Covid by Caroline K. Mackenzie

Caroline K. Mackenzie tells the story of her Classics Club and how it has provided her with companionship and inspiration during lockdown.

Classics Club began with an odyssey around the art and archaeology of Greece and Rome (Image: The Caryatids of the Erechtheion in Athens).
This image appeared on my flyers as a visual ‘amuse-bouche’.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

A couple of years ago, I decided to set up a ‘Classics Club’. I had moved to a new area and thought it would be a good way to meet new people and share my love of the ancient world. The village has a lovely Pavilion, next to the cricket pitch, and this seemed an ideal venue: not too large to be impersonal, but spacious enough to feel like a classroom. I resolved that, even if no-one turned up to Classics Club, I would still happily spend Monday mornings there with my books in the tranquil surroundings.

The first term was to be a series of lectures on Classical Art and Archaeology. I had just completed an MA on this subject, so my research was fresh in my mind and I was keen to share it. I printed some flyers and set about distributing them. Local businesses were brilliantly supportive and displayed my flyers on notice boards, included them in e-newsletters and generally spread the word. This also gave me the perfect excuse to visit every local coffee shop and pub, leaflets in hand: much coffee and cake was consumed en route, all in the name of marketing.

If you have read my previous post (A Latin Lexicon) you may already have gathered that I am rather fond of coffee and cake. So it seemed natural to include these as part of Classics Club (not least as I liked the alliteration). I hoped it would be an incentive for people to try out Classics Club and would make meeting at the Pavilion a more sociable event.

Classics Club before Covid.
Coffee and cakes were the secret to keeping the numbers up!
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

For the second term, we planned a smaller reading class which would allow more group discussion and an in-depth look at some of the wonderful Classical literature. Homer’s ‘Iliad’ seemed the perfect place to start. However, after just a few weeks, the pandemic had taken hold and all group meetings had to be abandoned. What were we to do? Zoom came to the rescue.

We had a rather bumpy first session - I kept losing my internet connection so constantly moved around the house until I ended up sitting on the bedroom floor in half-darkness to avoid screen glare. However, everyone was very patient - the thrill of actually being able to ‘see’ each other after the abrupt confinement to our homes gave us the drive to persist. Within a few weeks we had settled into our new routine, and Homer led the way.

Coffee and cake or ‘dainties’ (to borrow a popular translation of Homer’s word for ‘nibbles’) were now ‘bring your own’. However, holding the class online meant that members from further afield could join us, even from abroad. We tackle about 300 lines of Homer a week and even at this steady pace we run out of time to discuss all that we should like to. Homer is such a rich quarry of material, with his observations on the frailty of humanity seeming as urgent and relevant as ever. Not only does Homer bring reassurance but also much needed escapism. We have had some hilarious debates about our favourite characters (mine’s Hektor: I even named my rescue cat after him) and we can’t decide whether to love or hate Achilles, with his arrogant swagger and shameful treatment of Hektor’s corpse.

The longevity and popularity of Homer’s work may largely be thanks to the skill and sensitivity with which he examines human emotions and experiences: hope, fear, love, friendship, family and, of course, death. The poet even seems to have known (or at least hoped) that his work would be immortalised when his leading lady, Helen of Troy, delivers this telling line as she bemoans her ill-fated affair with Paris, the cause of the Trojan war: ‘On us two Zeus has set a doom of misery, so that in time to come we can be themes of song for men of future generations’. That line fills me with delight every time I read it, sending a shiver down my spine: I can’t help wondering, ‘What would Homer have thought of us (three generations in one group no less) discussing his poem 2,700 years later, via Zoom?’. It’s certainly a new twist on the ‘oral tradition’.

Achilles, star of the ‘Iliad’: petulant Mummy’s boy or heroic role model?
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Perhaps just as important as celebrating Homer’s legacy, Classics Club during Covid has provided an anchor to the week - for me, there is a comforting routine to our regular Monday morning meetings which set me up for my week of teaching (one to one Latin and Greek tutoring, much of which is based on Homer’s works and stories). The group has formed firm friendships and this last year feels almost like a rite of passage - the unique experience of having travelled together through every line of the ‘Iliad’ in such unprecedented times. Homer’s compelling narrative of tragedy, drama and, at times, comedy is beautifully framed by his famous similes depicting the power of nature. In many ways, his narrative has reflected our experiences through the pandemic - the losses we have suffered among family and friends, our finding comfort in those close to us, and our longing to be outdoors among nature for peace and reflection. One of the ‘Iliad’s’ best-known phrases ‘Before the Greeks came…’ seems ironically reflected in our own words (heard rather frequently these days) ‘Before the pandemic came…’.

One of our group was even inspired to create a Classics Club logo, pictured below. It depicts Hektor and Achilles in action, with the Trojan horse behind them, and incorporates the lovely diagonal composition that was a favoured technique of the Greek sculptors and artists. The grapes are a nod to the wine which the Homeric heroes frequently drink and offer to the gods and are also reminiscent of Homer’s epithet for the sea as ‘wine-dark’. Framing the image are the words ‘Classics Club’ in English, Greek and Latin. The Greek version means ‘Greek club’ and the word for Classics in Latin should strictly also be ‘Greek’ (Graecus) but we thought we should give the Romans their due, hence ‘Romanus’. The Greek word for club also means ‘companionship’ and the Latin one is literally ‘a circle or group for conversation’. Both these descriptions fit our group rather well. We also had a competition to compose a motto for our class to accompany the logo. The winning entry was: ‘legere, loqui, libere’, the Latin for ‘To read, to discuss, to enjoy’.

‘legere, loqui, libere’. Classics Club logo: © Lang.

The future of Classics Club

Before Covid, Classics Club had also had some fun days out together. We attended lectures at the British Museum and combined these with tours of the Greek and Roman galleries. Of course, all trips have had to be postponed for the time being but we are looking forward to some more Classical adventures in due course.

Classics Club visit to the British Museum - the rain didn’t keep us away.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

I have also promised the group a party. As soon as we are permitted, Classics Club will reunite in the Pavilion where I shall ensure the wine is flowing as abundantly as the Homeric hexameters.

In the meantime, we shall shortly be setting sail with Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, arguably the sequel to the ‘Iliad’, but an epic that can be enjoyed in its own right (and it is actually my favourite of the two works). In due course we shall return where we began, to the picturesque Pavilion, in the manner of ‘ring composition’ (a narrative framing device favoured by Homer whereby an episode begins and ends symmetrically). But for those Classicists further afield, I shall also be running a parallel class on Zoom.

As I type this, Classics Club ‘online’ is approaching the end of its first year, so it seems rather appropriate that we are just embarking on the concluding books of the ‘Iliad’. It has been quite an odyssey (forgive the pun). Our meeting next Monday will fall a day before our first birthday - I think I shall put a candle in my slice of cake…

Free lecture on Lullingstone

The final lecture of Classics Club pre-Covid was about Lullingstone Roman Villa in Kent, the subject of my first book and also my first ever blog for the History Girls: Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa. Last week I delivered an updated lecture on the same topic hosted by my publisher, Archaeopress. So by way of offering you a slice of Classics Club (without the cake, I’m afraid) I attach a link below in case it is of interest. P.S. If you watch the talk you will find a code for a 25% discount on both my books.

An evening with Archaeopress: ‘Culture and Society at Lullingstone Roman Villa’. 
Click here to watch the recorded lecture: An Evening with Archaeopress: Caroline K. Mackenzie

Classics Club - new classes starting soon!

I shall be starting a new Classics Club reading group on Monday 10th May 3pm GMT. We shall be reading Homer's ‘Odyssey’ over the course of the year. Meetings will be via Zoom every week for 1h30mins. The first hour is a presentation of the text by me followed by 30mins discussion. Cost is £10 per session. For more information or to reserve a place, please get in touch:

Twitter:  @carolinetutor
LinkedIn: Caroline K. Mackenzie


First, thank you to Mary Hoffman and all the History Girls.

Thank you to our local Pavilion and its committee for providing Classics Club’s first home. Looking forward to coming back to you soon! (Hopefully we won’t take as long as Odysseus to return home.) Thank you also to all the local businesses who happily displayed my flyers (and for the delicious ‘dainties’).

Thank you also to everyone at Archaeopress, especially Patrick Harris.

Last but certainly not least, huge thanks to all the members of Classics Club for your support and friendship, particularly all of you who have joined me throughout lockdown.

Friday 12 March 2021

A Balkan story by Mary Hoffman

As you may be tired of hearing, I moved house in December (yes in midwinter, in the middle of a pandemic and just before Christmas). Our books and CDs went into storage until we could get shelving installed. This has happened over the last few weeks and the books have started coming home; we are having them delivered in three batches, of which the third (CDs) arrived this morning.

Naturally, being us, we had brought with us crates of “emergency books and CDs” which have kept us going (thanks Hilary Mantel, Susanna Clarke and numerous crime writers for your long and/or absorbing works). But when the publicity department at Windmill Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House) got in touch to ask if I would like review copies of Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy, I jumped at the chance and they have helped me through many a week.

I first read these three books in the 1980s, when of course I also watched the Fortunes of War series on TV, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Harriet and Guy Pringle. That comprised both the Balkan and Levant trilogies in a masterpiece of compression, but Windmill have dropped the omnibus title and re-issued the first three books under their original titles: The Great Fortune; The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. The first book came out in 1960 but begins on the way to Bucharest in autumn 1939. It wouldn’t have counted as an historical novel then but it does now.

Harriet and Guy have married in the summer, after knowing each other for a matter of weeks and are now on a train to Rumania, where Guys teaches English for the British Legation, unable to enlist as he has terrible eyesight. The first two books are set in Bucharest, where the young couple adjust to marriage, war and the complex political situation around them. All the books are told in the third person but very much from Harriet’s point of view and it is a very particular one. 

She knows no-one but Guy in this city which is so alien to her, but he has been teaching there for a year. There is an annoying, ever-present Rumanian student called Sophie, who had wanted Guy to marry her to give her a British passport and is thwarted by his suddenly being rendered no longer nubile. There are other students with many claims on Guy, other Legation men, like Inchcape and Dobson, and a British White Russian prince, Yakimov, who will be important throughout the trilogy.

Harriet soon realises that her relationship with her new husband can never be exclusive; he is all things to all men (and women), relentlessly gregarious, hopeless about time, cowardly about confrontation, unable to think through the consequences of his generous gestures. But everyone loves Guy and Harriet is no exception.

I was struck this time round by how Harriet has nothing to do in the first two books. She meets friends for coffee and cakes or dinner and goes for walks but her life revolves around when Guy is going to come home, like a patient dog. That makes Harriet sound pathetic, but somehow she is not. She is politically ignorant but very interested. And she’s a feminist, even though she wouldn’t recognise the term.

Soon after arriving Bucharest, the Pringles are told by a man called Woolley, who regards himself as the leader of the English colony, that “the ladies must return to England.” Harriet immediately asks who has given the order and Woolley prevaricates but tell her he has sent his own “lady wife” home “as an example.” Harriet’s reply, “I never follow examples,” is both true and a gauntlet thrown down in the face of all the stuffy old gammons she encounters.

The older men mansplain to her or ignore her; the younger ones fall in love with her. And Harriet can be soft-hearted, especially towards animals. It’s Guy who makes them take in first Prince Yakimov, who is a penniless sponger, and then more dangerously Sasha Drecker, his Jewish student whose wealthy father is imprisoned as a result of a German sting and who has deserted from the army. But Harriet, who does not shirk confrontation, lets them stay because they have nowhere else to go.

                                                                     Bucharest, Rumania

As the war progresses, there are shortages in Bucharest: nothing to buy in the market, nothing edible in the restaurants. Inchcape is attacked and badly beaten, the Pringles constantly worry about whether it’s safe to stay, Guy’s name is on a list of men wanted by the Gestapo.

After another poor dinner in a restaurant with a friend of Guy’s, they return to find their apartment ransacked and empty with no sign of Sasha (Yakimov had already decamped). The next day Harriet leaves for Athens and the second book ends with her meeting Prince Yakimov there. He has a sort of a job and a little money and Harriet surprises herself by being pleased to see him.

In Athens the pattern repeats itself. Guy comes to join Harriet and at first there is a lull, a sense of safety and plenty but, as Germany declares war on Greece, the truckloads of soldiers depart optimistically for the front and their broken survivors return. Guy is denied work by inferior men but is still always busy. It’s Harriet who has a job, working in the information Office. 

                                                            The Erechtheum in Athens
Food becomes in short supply. There is a heart-breaking scene when Harriet invites friends to lunch and has nothing to give them but potatoes. Thinking everyone has had enough, she puts the platter on the floor and a friend’s dog clears it in one swoop of his tongue. There is an anguished cry from the kitchen and Harriet is stricken with remorse; that could have been a meal for the servant.

Even Sasha turns up in Athens but there is to be no happy reunion, as he thinks the Pringles have betrayed him. That is typical Manning, to re-write what could have been a happy scene as a much more nuanced meeting between complicated individuals. The trilogy ends, as the second book did, with the Pringles escaping again, this time to Egypt, which is where the Levant trilogy begins. I do hope Windmill will bring those books out again too.

                                                                         Olivia Manning

(I should like to dedicate this review to Ronald Pickup, who played Prince Yakimov so brilliantly in Fortunes of War and who died just as I finished reading the Balkan Trilogy)

Friday 5 March 2021

'Mighty Hills of Water' by Karen Maitland


Plaque marking the flood of 1606/7 in
Kingston Seamore Church
Photo: Anthony Wood
Fact is not truth – that’s something both the historical fiction writer and readers know well.

My new historical thriller The Drowned City, is set in the aftermath of a 17th century disaster when a storm-surge or a tsunami devastated the west coast of England and Wales. The bare facts are these –  In January 1607, on calm, clear day, a gigantic wave swept up the Bristol Channel. It thundered inland as far as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles from the coast, destroying whole villages and leaving 2,000 people dead or missing. 200 square miles of agricultural land were flooded with seawater, so that even when the water receded, the fields were poisoned with salt. The Welsh coast was hit even harder than the English side, particularly the town of Cardiff. At its height, the wave is estimated to have reached 25ft, over 7.5 meters, travelling at a speed of around 38 miles per hour. 

Christmas Flood 1717 that struck the coasts of
Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia

The historical facts about this terrible disaster are chilling. But facts don’t convey the truth of the experience of being caught up in such an event. Thankfully, I’ve never personally experienced a tsunami. The nearest I came was some years ago when I was sunbathing on a beach on Greek island and I saw a long black shape speeding over the mirror-calm sea towards us. No one moved, we all just stared, trying to work out what this thing was, then everyone seemed to realise the danger at once. Adults ran, shouting, to drag children out of sea. Others grabbed possessions and we scrambled up the sand to higher ground as the large wave raced up right the beach at our heels. The wave was only few feet high and did no major damage apart from carrying off towels, bags and anything else people had abandoned as they fled. But that small experience, helped me to understand why according to the eyewitness accounts of the 1607 tsunami, people simply stood and watched as the monstrous wave charged towards them, unable to interpret what they were seeing until it was far too late. 

US army medics moving a wounded solider into
8225th MASH unit, Korea 1951
Photo: Stewart/US army

In one episode of the American TV series MASH (1972-1983) set during the Korean War (1950-53), the characters were interviewed by a famous reporter. Instead scripting this episode, the actors were told to respond to the questions put to them giving the answers they thought their own character would make. Several of the actors later said that in researching their characters they had talked to war veterans about their experiences in Korea. One unscripted answer given to the reporter by the actor William Christopher who played Father Mulcahy has stuck in my mind for years.

“When the doctors cut into a patient and it’s cold – the way it is now – steam rises from the body, and the doctor will warm his hands over the open wound. How could anyone look on that and not feel changed?”

You couldn’t invent a detail like that. You know when you hear it that someone had actually witnessed that first-hand.  It that kind of truth which conveys more about the conditions the surgeons were operating under, than the fact that each 200-bed MASH unit was treating 400 injured people every day.

2004 Tsunami, Ao Nang Province, Thailand
Photo: David Rydevik, Stockholm, Sweden

I felt that same moment of truth when in the course of researching my novel, I read the non-fiction book Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry about the aftermath of the 2011 disaster which struck the north-east coast of Japan, killing more than 18,500 people.  It is a remarkably moving and beautifully written book, and learned a lot about the search for bodies and the problems of survival afterwards. But one account told by a mother on finding the body of her little daughter after her school was engulfed by the wave, conveys more of the truth of the human experience of that terrible event than any of those numbers of dead or financial cost of the devastation.

"I rubbed the mud from cheeks and wiped it out of her mouth. It was in her nose too and in her ears. But we only had two small towels. And soon the towels were black. I had nothing else so I used my clothes … But there was muck in her eyes, and there were no towels and no water and I so licked Chisato’s eyes clean with my tongue… but I couldn’t get them clean, and the muck kept coming out." From 'Ghosts of the Tsunami' by Richard Lloyd Parry. Pub. Jonathan Cape, 2017.

Facts are important for understanding what happened, but it is the little details, these truths that only someone who experienced the event could know, which turns a report into a story we can fully connect with.


The Drowned City
by K.J. Maitland is published 1st April 2021, Headline