New Ancient History Magazine

Originally posted on New at LacusCurtius & Livius:

aw-issue-vii4--66e One of the covers of Ancient Warfare. Perhaps the new magazine will look like this.

Karwansaray, the publisher of a/o Ancient Warfare, has plans for a new magazine on Antiquity. You may wonder: don’t we have many magazines about Antiquity? The surprising answer is that they are quite rare. Archaeologists have journals about their perspective on the ancient world. There are magazines about the classics. There are magazines about the ancient Near East. There are magazines about Greece and Rome. But magazines about the ancient world are pretty rare.

So the general idea is to make something that connects all ancient regions and all kinds of scholars. Like Ancient Warfare, it will be lavishly illustrated, journalistic, bimonthly, and devoted to a theme. “Thrace” and “creation stories” come to mind, but of course everything else is possible. Unlike Ancient Warfare, it may be 60 pages or a…

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An Excursus Into The Cartograpia . . .

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I’ve been delaying writing another update on this as I have been keen to see how the launch of The Nowhere Legion progresses on Amazon. Unlike Smashwords, where sheer volume often seems to overwhelm new launches in an indiscriminate way, sales here seem much better in terms of receiving reviews and downloads. This has been a pleasing change. My initial strategy at Smashwords had been to launch each Section of The Nowhere Legion to drive interest and also move that interest over to the plays I have there. This never really happened. Sales were and are sluggish. Interest faded over time despite the launch of the subsequent Sections and no knock-on effect could be seen regarding the plays.

Amazon on the other hand has been much more interesting since I launched the novel about 6 weeks ago. I am seeing a definite split between the UK sales and the USA sales with the former far out-stripping the latter. I have no idea why this is so but another (very successful) Roman fiction author on Amazon has suggested to me that the Late Roman period is just not that familiar for readers in the States and that may be putting them off downloading and reading the novel. I hope this is not true – if it is, then I fear that market may never open up for me and that is shame. I wonder however if it is more to do with reviews? I have so far gained five 5-star reviews in the UK but only one in the States. If perhaps reviews pick up over there, I may see downloads pick up as a result. Time only will tell!

I am also opening up publicity moves today: the first is the publication of The Navigatio – a 10,000 word short-story, again set in the Late Roman period. It will be enroled in the kindle lending program so potential readers can download it for free on certain days. I hope this will allow them to get a feel for both my writing and the themes I am developing here. That may help readers in the States look into The Nowhere Legion. The other move is to now include at the end of that novel the opening Prologue and part of the first Chapter of the work I am currently writing: Hadrianople: The Fall of the Eagles. This is a more ambitious work than The Nowhere Legion and covers the events which led up to the fatal battle of Adrianople in 378 AD in which  the emperor Valens fell along with two thirds of the eastern Roman field army. It is a much bigger work and covers a larger geographical area than The Nowhere Legion. I am about 10% into it at the moment and plan to finish it late in 2013. By now including it at the back of The Nowhere Legion, readers will become aware of my next work and will hopefully look forward to it! This will allow them to invest in my writings and help build an audience for when it is published on Amazon. The difference between my writings and much of the other Roman fiction here on Amazon is that the latter are often serialised novels revolving around the same central character. I lack that hook and drive and need to show readers what work is coming up to keep them interested in me, I think!

I have been very happy so far with the response to The Nowhere Legion – and a little taken aback, it must be said! Over the last 2 weeks or so, I have seen about 150 downloads and might expect in about 2 weeks’ time (once the novel is finished) reviews begining to appear – however, one online forum suggested that you should expect 1 review for every 150 downloads so maybe I am being a little optimistic here . . .

Research for Hadrianople proceeds apace. I am deep into Blemmye and Aksum history and culture at the moment and fleshing out the details of Book One of the novel. These events are mired in religous and military conflict and pick up on many of the themes openend up in The Nowhere Legion.

However a particular dillemma is raising its head here: the events in The Nowhere Legion take place in 365 AD whereas Hadrianople covers 378 AD – and part of me as a writer is keen to place some of the characters in the first novel as supporting characters in the second. A sort of weaving together a consistent historical fabric. But I wonder if it will come across as too contrived however? Time will tell!

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In What Flesh Do Skins Inhabit?

The Nowhere Legion

It has been a long time since I have updated this blog and my only feeble excuse is a job in which the shift patterns were brutal and the embarkation on a long writing project which left me little time to devote to this. I know – it is not much of an excuse. In the year in which this blog has been silent, I have finished ‘The Day After Yesterday’, written ‘Ithaka’ and now finished ‘The Nowhere Legion‘. The good news is that ‘The Day After Yesterday’ is now in early rehearsals with Theatre Found and may see production in late November or early December. ‘Ithaka’ also was staged as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Five Minute Theatre Festival last year – which means I am now an officially produced playwright!

While I had been labouring with ‘The Day After Yesterday’. I had been starting up and chipping away at a Late Roman novel entitled ‘The Nowhere Legion’. This was launched as a weekly or so serialised story over on the Rome Total War mod site, TWC, under that rubric of an AAR. Just to explain, a traditional AAR is where the player of a RTW campaign game writes up short narrative excerpts which detail the style of play or the events inside the campaign world. The writing usually focuses on things like which army moved where, or what spy killed which general, or what enemy force invaded such and such territory, and so on. The AAR is a sort of diary of how the player runs the game on a fictional level. Now I have been writing these AARs for a couple of years now and exploring the medium as a writing genre in its own right. I soon moved out of the constraints of the format and used the gaming convention instead to illstrate my story. In other words, I reversed the dynamic. In my AARs you would read about a story and the ‘ingame’ shots were done in Custom Mode which allowed me effectively to use the RTW game as an illustrating tool. I soon found an audience for this style of writing and so with the launch of The Nowhere Legion, I was building up a weekly readership within the AAR community while at the same time encouraging that readership to give me feedback on the story itself.

A video of part of the climactic battle can be seen here!

It is rare in any writing medium for a writer to receive feedback and support in the writing process itself – and so I was especially grateful to those AAR readers who critiqued the work and also encouraged me in my attmpts to self-publish the work.

In a curious move from the playwriting, I have now dipped deep into the self-publishing world both at Amazon where the novel is now launched for the kindle and over at Smashwords where I have also serialised the first 4 parts of The Nowhere Legion and also published both my plays and a sort of manifesto to them!

What I will be doing over the following weeks is seeing how viable the whole self-publishing move is with the novel as that will allow me to see where I develop my next work – ‘Hadrianople’: a novel climaxing in the brutal battle in Thrace which saw the eastern Roman army and its emperor annihilated.

At the moment, the novel has been out on Amazon for a week and garnered 2 five-star reviews. I am giving myself a 3 month window here to see how it develops along with what kind of marketing strategies I need to drive it. This is a new world for me so it will be interesting to see what I can learn here!

I have emerged after a long silence and will blog in more detail later – but for now I really only wanted to kick-start this again as a way of framing the launch of the novel!

The Dissident Landing

It is fairly obvious I have spent too much time in an Eastern European theatre world – there are no surprises for guessing that! Throughout a key period, I was either reading and studying Polish and Romanian theatre or spending time there immersing myself in the theatres of Kantor and Grotowski; Serban and Purcarete; the plays of Witkacy, Sorescu, Grombowicz, Mrozek, and others, or just wandering around old theatre spaces and seeing old posters on the dressing room or barroom walls. That world, that legacy, of a martyred theatre, a wracked body, cast out by the State, is indelibly printed in me now. So it is no surprise also that the plays I am drawn to here back in Britain and the dramas I find stumbling off my pen are also in some ways echoes and reflections of a theatre aesthetic rooted in a broader European view – a view which is never anchored in the domestic, the familiar, the naive. These theatre worlds are half way between the surreal imaginations of a child hiding under a bed in the dark and the light of a prison cell in all its chromatic  nakedness. It is a theatre world not afraid of a deep intellectual examination, a rigour, if you will, of a world which perhaps only ever occupies the space of a single mind – the author’s mind. There is a fierceness in these writings and stagings which demands an equal commitment from an audience who are there to witness almost as a privilege these odd gambols. Drama is perhaps elevated to the level of philosophy – and indeed all early philosophy was dramatised dialogue – and is not afraid to wear those clothes as a challenge and even a disdain.

These thoughts drift around in me now. I am roughing out a new play on the page – the ideas are tumbling out and again I seem to be writing a stage world unconnected to any expected diegesis. There is a lost shore cluttered with the detritus of a forgotten civilization. Characters wander knowingly through this obscene wreckage – an old woman in a shawl attempts to remember her past, the lover whose passion matched hers, marking the spot where they consummated an heroic love, forgetting the details, swearing like a trooper, finally realising how he was butchered and burnt on the same spot even as an old telephone rings and rings; a beggar pushes a pram through the wreckage as crowds hurry past, uncaring, while he exhorts them all to stop and pause, to gaze upon the innocent face of his child in the pram, and when finally a gentleman does step out from the endless crowds to gaze upon that unmarked face in the pram, this beggar exacts a brutal price for such a pleasure; a woman drifts apart from another and then haunts her even as the other moves on into the arms of a lost lover, drifting into her bed in the night when she is absent; a writer unravels his words in the vain hope of erasing his stories and the characters in them who have now tumbled out into the world; and so on . . . This play, The Day After Yesterday, is still in a rough form but I have the smell of it – the shape and taste as it were of it. I can see this shore, that wreckage which populates it, and half-see the odd characters who stumble and push their way in it. I know the beggar with the pram and that innocent child in it will recur again and again in the scenes – colliding with the other characters but do not yet know why – or indeed the horrible significance of that child and its face. I know that each character has lived before in the pens of other writers now long since dead – Homer, Seneca, Sophocles, for example, but that now they live in a world which has long since forgotten them and their fates so now they are refugees of sorts, searching, struggling, killing, to make a new existence, a new fate now all their own. I know that underneath the little scenes which collide against eachother, that sea in the distance mourns with an elegiac tone and that brittle light falls on them all alone on that lost shore. And finally I know that only in the theatre can this world, these characters, find a truthful place. The rest is still to be found.

I read recently a short description for a new play. It went something like this: Bob has been away from his family for some time. They have forgotten him.  A tragic event has made him finally return. One long night sees Bob and his family uncover a dark truth which has explosive consequences for all concerned. I am lying of course. There is no such new play arriving at a stage soon – or to be more accurate perhaps that description in some way sums up most new plays in some form or another. It is a generic drama – it promises a gripping story, a familiar environment, a twist, possible violence, and of course some swearing. Incest will no doubt rear its head – or at least the hint of it – and no doubt also the young innocent in the family herd will inevitably end up either being maimed or indeed do the maiming. Whether it is a comedy or a tragedy remains to be seen. OK, I am being flippant. Of course I am. That story or description is indeed a powerful one and one which does – in one form or another – occupy so much theatre in Britain today. It is the domestic reared up to the level of ‘tragedy’. It is Ibsen in the end in a t-shirt and jeans.

No matter how tough or rigorous the writing of that story, though, or the inventiveness of the staging, the power of the actors, and so on, it remains at the end of the day a story rooted in the familiar. We – the audience – identify with the setting either on a personal level or at the least on a generic level. It touches us as a place we can anchor ourselves in and therefore allows us to empathise with the characters. The world itself springs no surprises – only the actions of the characters in it.

I wish I could write in that genre. I really do. My flippancy above is only really barely disguised jealousy. However, all those years spent abroad in Poland and Romania deep in those theatre cultures have left me an orphan from that theatre. I imagine a strange poetic space adrift with lost characters and can only imagine the stage as the ideal and only locale for their expression – I imagine a domestic ‘tragedy’ and need only knock on the nearest door to find it. Perhaps that makes me an orphan from theatre here. A vagabond even. Perhaps I find kinship with these lost characters because on a deep symbolic level they are acting out my own exile. I am being glib though. What I really believe is that somewhere in theatre is a place where a strange poetic space can collide with a rigorous almost fierce debate (a place where a beggar pleas for someone – anyone – to look into his old pram and gaze upon the unspoilt face of his child) and open up a new horizon. A horizon both beautiful and unknown.

If anything, the most powerful experience for me in theatre is always that moment when the curtain rises or the first lights open to reveal . . . In that moment of hanging suspension when anything can happen, I find myself always holding my breath – almost willing a new universe into being. I am almost always disappointed but no matter what comes next on the stage it is almost always worth it just for the first moment when my breath pauses and I almost see that lost shore and that wreckage of a play that has not yet had the courage to come into being . . .

Did I mention I had read too many Eastern European plays??

Reflections and Whispers

It is the old envelopment of skin and word which  haunts the theatre – that moment in which both coalesce into a seemingly irreducible whole but which is also and always a void; a break; a schism. The veil we raise up and reach out to is nothing but a treacherous surface which glimmers even as we  touch it  – and even pull away some of that silver onto our own skin. We know deep in our hearts it is false and yet in such falsity perhaps only the most important truths may stand. It is a veil in which and through which the body stands whole deep in the words which are spun about it. Out there stands a completeness we will always lack and yearn for.

I write long speeches and creates dialogues in which characters debate unrealistically – lost in a world which perhaps only ever reflects back upon itself – and yet it is the skin which stands as a testament to those words. The body emerges like the surface of a subterranean creature from a sea, its flank glistening with words, sloughing off language. We all know – those of us who work in theatre – that the body itself is a treacherous surface however. It is a thing to be broken apart, probed, delved into so that the mind underneath can be exposed; it is a reflection upon which we pour our own desires regardless of what or who owns that body; it is an empty space, finally, also, mapped out, written on, erased – all in the same moment of watching – listening – which is the prime moment of the theatrical act. We watch and listen and out of that duality, that oscillating desire, stands the body as a site which is fought over.

It is this tension and this primeval moment which – truth be told – underpins much of the characters I write. Their echoed thoughts and self-serving actions perhaps are enmeshed in this net – almost as if each character is already aware of her or his falsity in that distant historical world I always place them in. They argue with a fierce modernity while stumbling around cracked columns or decaying frescoes filled with mythic heroes. They murder and mutilate other bodies aware that to do so is not an act of violence but rather an artistic gesture – an aesthetic act – divorced from real pain or consequences. I remember writing a line for a character which went as follows: ‘Horror is an aesthetic and through repetition becomes banal.’ This character is already preparing himself and those about him for an act of violation which involves the unseaming of his own skin to reveal the words written on the underside.

It was the Greeks who first realised the fascination of horror – not in the act itself but rather in its retelling and its consequences, its impact on those bodies around them. Bodies which were both personal and political – and in fact to be honest perhaps blurred that boundary or distinction. Tragedy is the first and the last redoubt of the body. It is broken or mutilated by the solitary act and therefore stands before those other bodies as a testament to our own fragility and provisionality.  It is in our mirrored eyes, our trembling bodies, that tragedy roots. Not in the act itself. We shiver before the blind Oedipus both as individuals and as parts of a corporeal polity – and are rendered fascinated and appalled by a single act which shrives us all apart.

Tragedy shreds the body. It renders each skin broken apart. It elevates a single moment onto a cosmic stage and therefore allows us a greater vision and existence than that mundane world we inhabit this side of the stage. And as always tragedy is rooted in the family – Lear and his daughters, Phaedra and her adopted son, Orestes and his mother, and so on – these are all bodies wired into, sown up in, a broader political world which shatters from the impact of that solitary decision. Tragedy can only ever be the echoing or reflecting impact of an action which breaks the skin – never that breaking itself. It is in that moment when the personal soma (that Greek word which means ‘prison’) cracks asunder into the wider somatic screen of the chorus and the audience. It ripples out there. Or it is nothing more than domestic violence wrapped up in a newspaper headline.

But the body politic no longer exists, some would say. That cohesion which the Greeks understood is now a thing of the past. Taboos, moral strictures, are all broken now and we live in a fractured world. Each audience finds unity no longer in itself as a reflection of a wider polity but instead as a temporary whole in that moment of the event itself – it coheres provisionally around the staging it has come to see. Tragedy therefore no longer exists in the manner in which the Greeks understood it. Violence whether onstage or off echoes around and into the auditorium but no longer as a collective ripple. Each of us reacts differently now and there is no longer the guarantee of a collective response. That does not however invalidate tragedy as an aesthetic. Or at least I hope it does not. Tragedy exists among us as a commonplace now in the tabloid culture but it is not the tragedy of old. It is merely accident or violence dressed up in borrowed clothes. Tragedy today is a beggar who jigs and jibbers but does not truly understand what words trail him.

Tragedy is an act which breaks the skin and liberates bodies – I cannot stress the plural enough here. When we read of a car accident and are told it is tragic I hear the beggar mouthing words, when I see a wave crash into a shore full of people and hear a commentator describe it as tragic, I see the gambols of a fool, when a friend tells me that so and so has lost his partner and how tragic that is, I wonder not on his pain but on how common and everyday that is. These tragedies break no skin because they were and never will be rooted in a deeper metaphysical core. Tragedy is an aesthetic not a real thing. It does not exist out there. It is purely and inevitably a fundamental theatrical act – a body breaking apart as the first act in a ripple of bodies shivering asunder. It is that first split in the mirror onstage which allows us to glimpse another skin in ourselves. It is pain and blood but only ever painted blood and simulated pain – which is perhaps why the Greeks in their wisdom never bothered to show the actual act itself – almost as if to do so would be so very tiresome and distracting.

Recently I saw two interesting pieces of theatre at the Arches – both were thematically linked around the issue of domestic abuse. It struck me that perhaps so much of the modern stage now is dominated with this sort of investigation and that in some way this is our Greek moira; that our family pain and tragedy is now rooted in the broken and dysfunctional home, the domestic space which always harbours dark and forbidden fruit.  Perhaps in my own writing, I have avoided that mirror and moved in quite the opposite direction – to a more abstracted realm where myth and history collide around willed bodies. If so, I wonder that I follow tragedy through the shards of our modern world into a purer realm. For to be honest, it only takes a single moment in watching a domestic ‘tragedy’ onstage to realise that it never happened to me and therefore has no value. Whereas in that space outside the specific, what we see happen to those characters may happen to all of us as a potential. The plays at the Arches were inert plays simply because they acted within themselves. Nothing more.

Tragedy is never so inward looking – unless of course it is another Oedipus achieving a moment of insight . . .

Shards and Fragments

I am always amused by the phrase which can emerge sometimes in readers’ reviews of plays – ‘judicious editing’ or some variant along those lines. It raises the issue of what cuts and where? How is that impression arrived at? And so on. I think what lies behind these comments is the larger concept that drama as a written medium exists primarily in the spoken domain – and that domain has rules and structures which outweigh and overrule the written. The key one for example being that character, action and narrative exist within a certain tension which must be finely balanced or judged – that too many words which do not serve a dramatic purpose are thus seen as superfluous. This is often vindicated in rehearsals where some lines simply do not work and hold up the action or the story – and so on. These are the lines which will be then ‘judiciously cut’. This is an aesthetic in which language – words – remain as a tool to illustrate character and story – that in some ways, words themselves are supportive to larger aesthetics.

There is an odd irony in all of this, though. The theatre is the last public domain in which an audience assembles to hear the word clothed in flesh; in skin. That the body is incarnated through words – be they poetic, political, subjective or abstract. It is the pleasure on an almost primeval level to that most profound act – of listening to the body speak out there. We assemble to imagine and experience the world of another and it is through language that we peer into that realm.

It is – for me anyway – a pleasure above or beyond those issues bound up with story or character – and that particular bugbear of contemporary theatre – action.

Words, language, a spinning of ideas vocalised into a new subjectivity, that sublime experience of seeing words manifest – these are the pleasures of theatre. In my world anyway. I remember writing a short scene in which a Senator finds himself in a room full of silent, cloaked, figures – he is there to hire them as assassins but is unsure of their skill. He talks too much. They remain silent. He pours out his plan. They demonstrate their skill on him with a mock kill. Always remaining silent. Eventually, this Senator is suitably impressed and hires them. However, he of course is their unknowing victim and is killed a second time but for real. Virtually the entire scene is just this Senator’s monologue to the assembled cloaked figures (who are also masked) as he struggles both with his own conviction to hire them to kill another Senator and his need to convince himself that they are as good as he has been told. In one moment, he says –

My enemy will feel such fear and see it also as did I – and yet, perhaps, such a death is too much? Can revenge have limits, I wonder? Perhaps his transgression, now so long ago it has lost its imprimatur, was not so abominable after all? There is the matter of decorum it must be said. This death is a cosmic death and perhaps exceeds the style permitted to those who feud?

What struck me when I re-read the scene with a view to editing was the word ‘imprimatur’ – as a writer it flowed from the pen both as exactly what this self-obsessed character would say and also as a wonderful word in its own sound – that the shape, the taste, of it in the mouth was right. Then I wondered whether it was a word suited to the theatre – a live medium unlike the written word where the audience does not have the liberty to re-read something unusual and pleasurable for the sake of it. This word was perhaps a word best left to the page and not the stage. I kept it in, of course, more out of the perverse pleasure of using a word that perhaps has rarely been used on the stage – after all, perhaps that is the real power of theatre – of making us hear words and language we do not normally hear anymore in unusual and unsettling circumstances? What really struck me though was that I was even thinking in those terms at all. In pushing characters into unusual fables and tortures, it should follow that their words, their language also, should twist equally out of the normal.

As readers of plays, I expect we all have that moment of hesitation when we turn a page of a new work over and see that block of text filling the next page – of a monologue which sits heavy, glacial-like, dominating the page without let or relief. Reading that block is like reading a piece of prose with no paragraphs in it – there is a certain unrelieved monotony wherein our ability to visualise stage action freezes – caught in that torrent of words. The reader in us shivers then and is already unconsciously expecting spaces in it that should be cut or edited. And as always in the theatre, if we look to find something, we invariably will.

Yet that monologue, that falling wall of words, is not alone on the page. It has a skin. That skin shimmers with these words as a mirror trembles with reflections. Language is speculative in the purest sense of that word. It is not something which echoes a literary or dramatic style – naturalism for example – or an aesthetic – a stage where character and action order words. Language has its own pleasure and release. Poetic language; words shorn of some naive subservience to a reality which follows conventions; a language which is regarded as perhaps the reason for the very existence of theatre itself.

Words are not necessarily indexes to thought in any psychological sense – which is its own narrative after all – and therefore should not automatically inscribe action as a corollary. That eternal triangle which sits so easily on the stage (character>action>narrative) tips around and around and within it swirls always those tumbling words. But perhaps another form of drama allows those words out and into a space which bends the character into a new emotional and subjective world – a stage in which language leads rather than supports. If one cuts judiciously one is also censoring. That censorship is never just the words, it is always also the body which clothes them. Editing a speech is cutting the body back.