Last Thursday was incredibly exciting for me, because I had the opportunity to hear one of my favourite authors of all time speak. The occasion was also an exciting one; it was the relaunch meeting of the Birmingham and Midlands branch of the Classical Association. The branch actually has a long history, as it was founded over a hundred years ago, but in recent years things have been a bit on the quiet side. Thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of, among others, Elena Theodorakopoulos of the University of Birmingham’s IAA and Joanna Johnson of Solihull School, the branch is now back up and running, with an exciting program of events including a planned sixth form conference in March next year.
So what better way to begin a period of exciting new activity than by inviting one of the great popularisers of classics to speak? I refer to none other, of course, than Lindsey Davis, best known as author of the Falco books. I should own up here that I can’t remember precisely when I started following Falco’s adventures, of which there are now twenty, but it was early on enough for me not to have to read more than half a dozen or so to catch up. Although I’ve been a fan for that long, I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Davis herself speak before, and discovering that this was going to be happening in a lecture room two floors down from my office felt too good to be true.
I’m glad to report that it wasn’t too good to be true, and that I had a thoroughly pleasant evening and enjoyed myself immensely. It would be churlish to try and report absolutely everything that was said in the talk and subsequent Q&A session, especially as I wouldn’t do it half as well as the original, but I did want to pick out a couple of themes that struck me. The first was the importance that Ms. Davis’ early experiences with classics had in eventually making her think of Falco as a character, and of the continuing significance of intellectual curiosity in the Falco books. Those of you familiar with them will know that they often take place in a particular area or focus on a specific topic (Ode to a Banker looks at publishing, for instance; Alexandria takes on the politics inside a library; and one which now escapes my mind demonstrates a keenly researched interest in Roman medical theory). The initial hook seems to have come from a number of different directions – the Rosemary Sutcliff novels The Eagle of the Ninth and the Lantern Bearers (both set in Roman Britain, neither of which I have read yet); hearing Barry Cunliffe give a talk at her school’s archaeology club about the site he was digging and how he thought it might turn out to be quite significant (it turned out to be Fishbourne Palace). So an early engagement with people who found the period exciting, whether through actual hands-on experience or through creative storytelling, provided an important foundation for what was to come.
The second thing that struck me was how contemporary material and Ms. Davis’ personal experiences informs her writing without making it anachronistic. Walking the tightrope between modern and ancient sensibilities is a tricky thing to do – one of the questions asked about whether she feels pressured to sanitize the Romans, and the answer was no, but there are ways around it. The Falco novels contain no long and drawn-out scenes depicting explicit gruesome violence, for instance, although they take place and Falco reports his response to the results, often with considerable disgust. But at the same time, personal material and emotional responses feed into Ms. Davis’ writing, and that ability to effectively combine the two results in the nuanced and very personable characters of Falco and his friends, family and adversaries. Indeed, the characters are so real that apparently the actors playing them in the recent Radio 4 play adaptations (which, incidentally, are brilliant) have on occasion come to argue with her about what they’re supposed to be doing! (I once played Titus Caesar in a readthrough of The Silver Pigs and Shadows in Bronze. I also played a kitten. Long story.)
I found myself interested by what Ms. Davis had to say, inspired by her determination to get out of a civil service culture where she felt the glass ceiling was actively working against able women, and challenged to actually get around to reading some Rosemary Sutcliff at long last. The opening meeting of the Birmingham and Midlands CA branch has set a high standard, and I’m looking forward to future events.