For those who still prefer – and will always prefer! – to hold a real book in their hands Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists (Mariana de la Mar 1) is now available in paperback format from Lulu.com.
“What Book Would You Visit?” asks Charles French on his WordPress blog –
A great question, and I suppose any novelist answering it will have created at least one story, one world, of his own that he already lives in in a very real sense and would give his left arm to visit in reality. For me, of course, that would be Mariana’s world.
But there are many other books, many universes created by other writers, I would love to visit.
Given that visiting is quite different from moving to, living in, then of them all I think I would choose Ian Watson’s Whores of Babylon. For those of you who don’t know the book, here is an excellent review of it. I am going to quote the whole thing (with Kanti’s permission), but you can click to the original here if you prefer:
WHORES OF BABYLON by Ian Watson (reviewed by Kanti Burns)
The situation, the setting, seems simple enough at first. Out in the Arizona desert, the city of Babylon (ancient Babylon, with the Tower of Babel and The Hanging Gardens) has been rebuilt. The date set is quite late – not the heyday of Babylon, but 323 BC, when Alexander the Great lay there dying.
A theme park? No, it is serious sociology, organised by the University of the Future at Heuristics (yes, really). American (and other) volunteers are trained and taught ancient Greek and arrive in Babylon as Greek tourists. But they are there to stay. There is no way out unless you leave – as a tourist – within a month. Otherwise, you learn Babylonian and you stay.
Was the autumn of a culture marked by vast, capricious building projects? By exercises in archtectural metaphysics, designed to stem the tide of time? […] Was Babylon the psychic salvation of the American Dream, or the very symbol of its decay?
Very reminiscent of J.G. Ballard!
Yet when Alex Winter, our hero, descends from the hovercraft outside the Ishtar gate, though the experiment has only been under way for about five years, everything is old, everything is ”normal”, and, weirdly, the people seem to have been there for ever: they are people of the ancient, not the modern world.
Alex arrives in the same batch of newbies as the beautiful Deborah, falls in love with her, and wants to ‘enjoy’ Babylon with her. However, she adapts fast to the utterly different way of life while he is still being the all-American boy-tourist, and after a couple of days she drops him as an embarrassment to be with.
Searching for her, he meets and makes love to the rich and aristocratic Thessany at the Temple of Ishtar, goddess of love and fertility; and when he gets into debt it is Thessany who pays his debts for him, and thus, as it turns out, purchases him. He becomes her slave. Unable to adapt, to believe what is happening, he is forced to submit by two arrogant but very adaptable women, Deborah, who treats him with complete disinterest, and Thessany, who, while seeming to be his friend, buys him, and has him whipped and branded – and goes on sleeping with him. They are the whores of Babylon. But he, the cynic, has become by the end of the book a true Babylonian, too; and he adores them both.
Actually, Alex is all along very effeminate. A real man would adapt to what was, after all, very much a man’s world. The opening lines of the book are: When Alex was thirteen, he and the other kids in his age group used to fight with knives. Every Saturday morning for months on end they practised single combat, and pairs, and two-against-one. Alex hated it. The blades were made of stiff rubber but the bruises were real. This sounds like the opening of a TG sissy-boy story, and I’m surprised that in Babylon he doesn’t get castrated, a perfectly normal procedure in this world. Still, at the end of the book he is still hardly more than a boy and after being whipped and branded, what else can happen to him? But that will come in the still unwritten sequel.
Yet what is happening? It is too real to be artificial, but it is not quite real: there are anachronisms. For instance, Alex finds a cassette – which everyone but him refers to as a strange “scroll”. And when Alexander (yes, Alex meets his namesake, Alexander the Great) quotes the Greek philospher Eratosthenes, General Perdiccas mutters “Not born yet.” “Never mind,” responds the King.
On the other hand, Alex gets to watch Euripides’ Andromeda, a lost play of which only a fragment is extant. Impossible if this is artificial.
I think we can safely say it is time travel. Nothing else fits. Most of the population are native ancient Babylonians. Then there is a small group of time-travellers, some aware, some unaware. Of the characters in the book, Alex and Deborah are unaware on arrival, though she becomes aware later, I think. The substitute Alexander the Great and a few of his closest associates are aware. Thessany is probably a native. Unusually for me, I cannot decide whether I identify with Thessany or with Deborah, the American girl who becomes a priestess in the Temple of Marduk.
Alex, on the other hand, is, while not gay – quite the contrary – a complete wanker with an obsessive urge to interfere, and deserves all he gets. But even he quickly comes to understand that not all is as it seems, or rather seemed when they first arrived – this is from near the beginning of the book:
All of a sudden Alex really saw these people in the street, not just witnessing them but experiencing them.
What if the slaves ran away? Would soldiers hunt them down in the desert, using dogs to track and spears to chivvy? Could one escape across a state line from Babylonia into America and be free again?
America didn’t yet exist. America was unknown. Any state line was a fault line in time, behind which Babylonia had slumped into the past, had submerged itself like a whale sounding deep into the abyss of history …
Great writing and a great book.
So why would I want to go there? Probably because it is neither the one nor the other, or rather because it is both, the present very much alive and kicking but implanted in the remote past. I suspect that at first I would react and behave as Alex does, but (having read the book!) would settle in quicker. I would want to explore the ancient city, getting to know people and trying to sort out the time-travellers (like Deborah and Alex) and the natives of that world (like Thessany) – yes, I would certainly want to meet and get to know all three of them. Then, after a year or two, I would want to travel to other cities, other countries. If “America didn’t yet exist”, then Alexander the Great’s world did, and from Babylon I could travel on east and visit Persia (on the Silk Road!) and India (Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro!), then turn back and head west and explore ancient Israel (Jerusalem!) and Greece (Athens!) and Britain (the Druids!) in the late 4th century BC.
Then come home and write some wonderful novels.
This was to be just a visit, wasn’t it???
In this short extract from The Undeparted Dead, Mariana, who has just had all her hair cut off and her head shaved (scraped!) by the local hangman, and spent the last few hours locked in the pillory (like the girl in the picture above, only as I say Mariana had had her head shaved first) reflects that people in a cage-coffin or on a scaffold or even in her position, in the pillory, become invisible once the excitement is over.
More time passed. Another hour? I had no idea.
Lady Helen and Barbara and the two men came out. They mounted their horses, Barbara deep in conversation with Lionel, and rode off the way they had come.
Not even a glance in my direction.
Without my hair, I was no longer a person, just a thing, like part of the pillory. When a person was in the process of being hanged or caged, that was interesting. But when you passed by a silent scaffold or cage on the roadside, did you notice whether it was bare and empty or bore a shrivelled, blackened thing that once had been a person?
At least I hadn’t been shut in a cage high up in the air and left to die. Though I could easily have been hanged for stealing that gold anklet. I was lucky there, and had Barbara to thank. How many times now had she saved my life? And how would I ever repay her?
Ah! Here came Blanche!
But she walked straight past just like the others had. And her men followed her.
“Many-towered Camelot” Tennyson called it:
All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.
Who was “he”? Lancelot, of course, darling of the ladies – in this case the unfortunate Lady of Shalott. And what or where was “Camelot”?
I am, at least by birth, a West Country man (I was born in Bournemouth, which was at that time in Hampshire) but I have to say at once (and risk offending an awful lot of people) that the claims of South Cadbury “Castle” on Cadbury hill to be the site of the City of Camelot are the least well-founded of all. Excavations there have revealed Iron Age earthworks and superimposed on them a substantial fifth or sixth-century fortress or redout with walls composed of wooden stakes. Inside was a small village of wattle-and-daub huts. There are the remains of some stone walls and the foundation trenches of what seems to be a small cruciform church that was never actually built, but these belong to the time of the “abortive burh” of Ethelred the Unready, who set up a fortified mint there at the beginning of the eleventh century and then abandoned it; maybe it was abandoned when Canute succeeded Ethelred as King.
Camelot? I don’t think so.
On the dust jacket of Alistair Moffat’s Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, I found the following remark, which is very much to the point: “Historians have failed to show convincingly that King Arthur existed, for a good reason: they have been looking in the wrong place, in Wales or the West of England.”
We must look elsewhere.
Carlisle is the choice of Norma Lorre Goodrich, author of two very original books, namely Guinevere and King Arthur. While I suspect that Modred (and maybe even Arthur himself) was half-Pictish, I cannot go along with her location of the whole saga in northern Scotland. Alistair Moffat (quoted above) is another supporter of the Scottish claims; however, he places Arthur and company in southern Scotland among the P-Celtic (i.e. Welsh)-speaking Gododdin and locates Camelot at Roxburgh, with its great castle, outside Kelso in the Border Country. “In a brilliant campaign, fought mostly in Scotland, Arthur defeated the Picts to the north and the Angles to the south. He halted the tide of invasion for a generation and gave Celtic Britain a breathing space to regroup and for parts of it to survive.”
Now the problem here is that Arthur was not fighting the Picts and the Northern Angles, who were anyway at war with each other. His enemies were the Saxons and Southern Angles who were spreading like a pest over south-eastern England.
I agree that Wales and the west of England is the wrong place to look. I suspect that Scotland is also the wrong place.
We need to look in the east, where the invaders were to be found in strength. Only there would defeating them have had any real purpose or effect; anywhere else would have been mere skirmishes. At the Battle of Badon, fought in 516 or 518, Arthur defeated a great army of Saxons. They were driven back, and as a result large areas were cleared of Saxon settlers for at least as long as Arthur was Guledig (War Lord and de facto High King). But what large areas exactly?
Only one historian has really addressed this question: John Morris, in his magisterial three-volume work The Age Of Arthur.
In Vol I, Roman Britain and the Empire of Arthur, he tells us that after the Battle of Badon, the population of certain areas such as Essex, “was either removed or subjected to such great restraints that it was unable to bury its dead with normal grave goods or in normal cemetaries.” The evidence for this is that while in Kent, for instance, and Suffolk and Norfolk, burials continued from the fifth century into the sixth century without interruption, in Essex there were fifth-century and later-sixth-centrury burials but no evidence of burials during the early sixth century. Norma Lorre Goodrich is quite wrong when she says, in King Arthur, that “Arthur could not have won his battles in England, because [historians] know from the several manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the Saxons conquered England in King Arthur’s lifetime and that it has been English territory ever since” as though they never lost a battle, never suffered any setbacks. In fact, as Geoffrey Ashe points out in The Quest For Arthur’s Britain, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while it ignores the Anglo-Saxons’ defeats, sheds a little light by the petering out of their victories. […] Archaeology is consistent with a major Saxon retreat early in the sixth century …”
On the subject of the site of Camelot, John Morris points out in The Age Of Arthur that many places “preserve in recognisable form the names they bore in Roman times” (e.g. Londinium – London, Lindum – Lincoln, Glevum – Gloucester), and continues: “A similar origin must be sought for Camelot, represented as among the most important of several cities where Arthur held court. Nearly all the others were large towns of Roman Britain, Chester, York, Gloucester and others, set down in their medieval spelling. Camalot, the more usual early form of the name, is therefore plainly a medieval spelling of the Latin name of a large Roman town in Britain. The only town with such a name is Camulodunum, Colchester. [In Essex.]
“Colchester had obvious advantages as a political centre in reconquered Britain. It was well sited to observe and to intimidate the two most formidable English territories, East Anglia and Kent. Easy roads linked it with the British north and west; and shipping from its harbours might reach Europe without approaching too closely the coast of English Kent …”
And so it is Colchester/Camulodunum that I take to be Camelot in my novels The Undeparted Dead and (the forthcoming) Colum’s Day. This is Blanche (in The Undeparted Dead) speaking of Merlin:
‘This is the very area in which Arthur and Merlin flourished. Forget all that nonsense about Camelot being somewhere on the Scottish border or in Scotland, or over in the west of England, near Avalon. Camulodunum, the city of Camulos, a Celtic god, which Arthur knew as Camelot, lay in the heart of the territory occupied by the invaders, the Angles of East Anglia and the Saxons of Essex and Middlesex and Sussex. This, the Deben, the Orwell, the Stour, the Colne, the Blackwater, the Crouch, the Thames itself, was where they were flocking in and had already settled in their tens of thousands during the misrule of Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus. And it was from his fortress, his city, of Camelot, with its great Roman Walls – the walls we still see there today – that Arthur fought and overcame them and sent them fleeing back across the North Sea whence they came, not from the top of some bare hill hundreds of miles away. The forests and marshes around here were home to Merlin for many years, and the Island of Canvey, on the Thames estuary was his place of seclusion, his retreat …”
This map of medieval Colchester clearly shows the Roman Wall all round the city, as it would have been in Arthur’s time. And the photo below shows a section of that same wall, much of which is still standing today.