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The Hermit Option
Recently a journalist sent me an email in which she politely complained that I'm 'impossible to contact'.

It turned out that what the journalist meant is that I cannot be contacted by phone. And that's true. Journalists like phone conversations. They happen quickly, are spontaneous, and there's always the delicious chance that the interviewee might say something monumentally stupid. On the other hand, questions sent by email get measured, thoughtful replies and the entire exchange can take days rather than minutes. I like email.

My friends have long ago discovered that when I'm working, ringing phones don't even count as background noise. So they use email, and receive a reply at a time when I am able to give them my full attention. Also, the only way to stop salespeople calling on a phone is not to have one, or turn it off. So to save frustration, potential vendors should note that I have applied options A and B to landline and mobile respectively.

So yes, I'm impossible to contact. Unless you want to send me an email or facebook message in which case or do the job very efficiently. If the matter requires a phone call, I'll make it from my side. But special offers (ending soon!) are unlikely to get a response, because unlike sales calls, sales emails can be swiftly filtered into the bin.

Of course, the hermit option only works if you don't mind being cut off from instant communication from friends, family and society at large. I can live with that, because I live mainly in the first century BC in any case. Your mileage might vary.

I recently completed a book where the timeline of events was constructed from fragments from various ancient sources, cross-referenced with dozens of modern scholarly papers and different reference books, including a prosopography, the senatorial fasti and a specialized work which I could only get in the original Spanish. It's just as well that my journalist did not contact me as I tried to figure my way through that lot. My response to the interruption would probably not have been fit to print anyway.
Ancient history, modern controversy
Back in Augustan Rome a young man was planning to write a history of the past century. A wiser writer discouraged him, saying 'there are many hot coals beneath those ashes'. By this he meant that many of the burning issues of the recent past were still too controversial for a dispassionate analysis.

He could have saved his breath. Even two thousand years later ancient history has hot topics aplenty waiting to burn the unwary author. Take the Vascones, for example. These are a tribe who inhabited north-west Spain at least a generation before Augustus.

What archaeologists call 'continuity of culture' in the architectural remains might lead one to assume that the descendants of those people live in the area today. In later Latin the 'v' sound shifted to a 'b' and in modern English we change the 'ones' ending to a simple 's' (e.g. Latin Scipiones= English Scipios). Apply the above to 'Vascones' and we get 'Basces', or 'Basques'.

And just like that you are plunged into a debate about the Basque country, who the original inhabitants were and whether the modern Basques were the original Vascones. Ancient history, meet red-hot modern nationalist sentiment.

In the same spirit people write to me with passionate views about whether ancient Macedonians were Greeks. This has less to do with antiquarianism than that the modern country called Macedonia aggressively promotes its links with Alexander the Great (who actually conquered those bits of the place his father did not annex). Many Greeks feel strongly about this, rather as the French might feel if the Italians suddenly adopted Napoleon as their own.

And there's the question of whether the defenders of Masada in Judea were Zealots (freedom fighters) or Sicarii (a nasty bunch of proto-terrorists with a penchant for murdering their fellow Jews). This matters a lot to some people.

So if you think anything a millennium or two away is 'ancient history', think again. After all a nation defines itself by the values and the lessons that its history has taught. Meddle with that history at your peril.

As the modern writer Falkner once remarked 'The past is not dead. It's not even past'. Hot coals, indeed.
Just my type
Like many a writer I have something of a love-hate relationship with the keyboard on my computer. In my job I regularly write several thousand words a day, so the keyboard is an absolutely essential part of my life. It's where the rubber meets the road, so to speak - the point at which my thoughts take a concrete, material form. Because it is so important, I made sure that my keyboard was the best I could get. Staying with the road analogy, I know about things like key-press distance for the same reason that a truck driver knows about engine compression rations.

However, this is not to say that my keyboard is perfect - far from it. There are things about it that really bug me. For a start, because it is a high-end keyboard, it has a whole row of buttons along the top for things like opening folders on my computer, doing searches, loading my web home page and a host of other things that no keyboard has any business doing. It has the traditional qwerty arrangement, because I've been typing on one of those since I first used a typewriter as a trainee journalist more decades ago than I care to remember. I don't touch type, because I've never needed to, but most of the letters on the keys wore down to indecipherable smudges a while back, so I might as well be doing so. Occasionally I get one of my hands into the wrong position and everything typed by that hand comes out one letter out of position. So 'position' comes out as 'oisutuib'.

My pet bugbear is the caps lock right next to the letter 'a'. One day I intend to track down and do something painful to the designer who forces me to go baCK AND RE-TYPE QUITE A lot of text once I've noticed the problem. The thing is, I usually type looking mainly at my notes with occasional glances at the keyboard to check the position of my hands. So if something goes screwy on the screen, I might only notice it a paragraph later. Which is annoying.

While I can generally type at slightly over a word a second, I'd happily adjust my typing technique for some of the redundant function buttons to be put in a better place on the keyboard and made to do something useful. How about a single key for 'ph' for example? Or another for 'st'? There are a number of phonemes which are basically combinations of letters that I would be able to quickly adapt to hitting as a key while I'm spelling the word in my head.

If I were asked what I would most want from a keyboard, I'd say not to know that it exists. Once or twice a day I fall into a perfect rhythm where I'm not aware that I'm typing at all. The words just form on the screen as though I'm thinking them there by something like telepathy. Then I hit that accursed caPS LOCK ...
The modern ancient historian
Back in the olden days - 'twas about 5 BC, I recall - I once needed to check how Caesar used the word 'amicus' in his writings. So I pulled on my coat, attached bicycle clips to my trouser legs and cycled down to the Ashmolean museum, where they had a single (of less than a dozen in Britain) concordance of Caesar. A concordance, for you people living in the AD era, is a dictionary listing alphabetically every word Caesar wrote, and telling you where and in what book that word is to be found. I spent a happy morning with Ceasar's campaigns at one elbow, a notebook at the other and the concordance in front of me. The concordance was actually three books, each not much smaller than the single mattress in our guest bedroom.

But as I say, that was BC - Before Computers. That experience of almost a quarter century ago was brought back to me last week, when a similar task came up - in this case to determine whether Caesar used different words to describe the pilum and the javelin. This being AD - After Digital - all it took was to call up Caesar's works from my digital library, run a word search through the English text and compare it to the original Latin. It turns out that Caesar often used the word 'hasta' (spear) for both the pilum and javelin. It has been translators who specified the difference.

Not only did this take twenty minutes rather than a morning, but I did it at home while sipping coffee. And unless the Ashmolean has changed dramatically, sipping coffee in the reading room would probably have had me sent down on manslaughter charges for giving the librarian apoplexy.

Again, the other day I needed to look at the Etruscan town of Volterrae. Using google street view, I walked the modern town, and then called up archaeological reconstructions from an academic website. Then using a mapping program I examined a 3D model of the terrain, and checked on ancient references to Volterrae in the Perseus digital archive, which also had pictures of various Etruscan artefacts.

A quick email to a colleague produced a set of fifty pictures of specifically Roman remains, and one aspect which interested me particularly - the Roman theatre outside the town - was described in excruciating detail in an academic paper from the JSTOR digital archive. In short,in a morning I was able to achieve more, while sitting in a small mining town in the interior of British Columbia, than I could once do in a week at Oxford University. The fibre-optic cable that wriggles in through my basement connects me not just to the modern world, but the ancient one as well.

After this blog, the next task is to welcome students to my current course. The Russian student will be abed by now, while the Australian should be starting tomorrow's breakfast. The English students will be having dinner, while we North Americans are somewhere between morning coffee and lunch. This means that on our online forum we will have a conversation which rolls through 24 hours along with the planet. But first I'll have my own morning coffee (without milk as my wife currently has me on a strict diet). After staring out at the vista of mountains and forest for a while one of us will remark 'time to get back to the world'. The After Digital world, that is.
Making it up
Many things seem pretty easy until you actually have to try it. That's certainly the case with writing fiction. I'll confess that in the past I have considered it as rather the equivalent of playing tennis without a net. After all, why spend an afternoon in the library chasing down an elusive fact when you can just invent stuff wholesale. It's fiction, right?

Then I was asked to try actually writing some of the stuff. Historical fiction, based in the Roman Republic. The task I set myself was to be as accurate as possible. That is, based on what is known, the events of my story had to be entirely possible, based on factual detail, and never contradict reality. The result, I discovered, was rather like playing tennis with two nets.

On the one hand there was my bunch of fictional protagonists, and on the other the actual geography and chronology of real people and places. So to get person A to town B in a certain amount of time, I needed to check sailing conditions for that time of year, and then discover what sort of roads would take my character inland. Then I had to make sure that the real historical figure I needed my character to interact with was indeed there at that time, and check where he went after that.

Weaving fiction into a known set of historical events was great fun, and had an unexpected bonus. That is, because I kept strictly to the facts wherever possible, a lot of the fiction took care of itself. Events and people slotted neatly into my timeline simply because they were in that timeline to start with. And time and again I was spared the task of inventing a fictional character, group or event because research turned up a genuine historical person, group or event that was doing pretty much what I wanted anyway. Hooray for historical imperatives!

Anyway, the fiction has now been written and tied up with a pretty pink bow and sent off for editing. In another month I'll sit down and take a look at it with fresh eyes and make sure it is ready for publication. By then you'll be able to see and read more about it on this site and elsewhere. Don't worry. I'll supply the links.

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