Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Top Eleven Westerns 2003-2013

A recent article in The Atlantic (How the Western was Lost and Why it Matters) suggests that Gore Verbinski's poorly-received The Lone Ranger might be the final nail in the coffin of a dying genre, the Western.

But what is a "Western"? Can it even be encompassed by the term "genre"? Is it not bigger than that?

The American Film Institute defines a Western film as one "set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier."

The above-mentioned article talks about the "timeless pleasures" Westerns provide: "tough guy heroes, action set pieces on horseback, adventures in magnificent landscapes, good triumphing over evil..."

For me, a Western is any movie, TV show or book which depicts an individual or small group battling to survive in some kind of frontier. Ideally, it will include two or more of the following ingredients:
a) horses
b) revolvers
c) Native Americans
d) deserts
e) outlaws

Is the Western really dying? Using the above as my criteria I have chosen my top eleven Westerns films or TV shows from the past decade, viz: 2003 - 2013. I have listed them from oldest to newest.

montage of my fave Westerns 2003-2013 by Richard Russell Lawrence

1. Firefly (TV 2002-2003)
This short-lived, much-loved Joss Whedon television show was a great example of a Western set in space, the "new frontier" in the tradition of Star Wars. It has all five of my ingredients (though Native Americans are only glimpsed in a crowd scene in episode one.) Probably the wittiest of my eleven choices. Certainly the most fun.

2. Open Range (2003)
This is the only Western on my list that involves cattle or cowboys, which are absolutely NOT necessary for a Western. Open Range was laudable in its attempts to go for realism (e.g. a horse is killed in a shootout) and for the sublime Robert Duvall, but was bleached to bones by the blazing brilliance of the Deadwood sets, costumes and characters.

3. Deadwood (TV 2004-2006) 
The best of the lot. The first few scenes of this magnificent, misguided HBO TV series made me jump to my feet and yell "THAT's what it would have been like!" Deadwood is probably responsible for the past decade's mini-revival (or death throes!) of the Western genre. It is the quintessential Western, pitting loner misfits against the wilderness, greedy men and their own fatal flaws. Why "misguided"? It could have run for years but creator Milch sank it with expletives in an attempt to make it feel authentic. This goes to show what a minefield of political incorrectness the Western genre can be. 

4. The Proposition (2005)
Here's a great example of a Western set in Australia, but it totally works. Brutal, mysterious and with Ray Winstone. What's not to like? The opening gun battle is like nothing I've seen on film before and the story has more twists and turns than The Sixth Sense.

5. Seraphim Falls (2006)
With nods to The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, this is an overlooked gem. The action ranges across mountains and deserts and features a surreal cameo by Angelica Huston as a Snake-oil Saleswoman. I don't care if the critics panned it. I loved it.

6. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Cormac McCarthy's book faithfully transported to screen by the Coen Brothers. A "modern" Western with sagebrush dry humour and a world-view as bleak as the West Texas desert.

7. Breaking Bad (TV 2008-2013)
The best TV show of the decade, I'm calling this a Western on account of its stunning desert landscapes and (New) Mexican cartel drug lords scarier than any Comanche Indians. As with many later Westerns, the protagonists are the outlaws. Plenty of desert sunsets, shootouts and showdowns. And did I mention the New Mexico desert?

8. Meek's Cutoff (2010)
I found this film infuriating when I first saw it on account of its "lack of ending". I stomped home to look up the background history of the real pioneers it's based on. That was when I realised the genius of Kelly Reichardt's approach. The life of an American settler was in constant limbo with no knowledge of what the next day or even hour might bring. Reichardt's constrained screen aspect mimics the blinkered viewpoint of seeing the world through the tunnel of a "poke bonnet" and the muffled dialogue of the men frustratingly conveys how much women were sidelined. An encounter with a Native American is fraught with misunderstanding and confusion. Haunting, unforgettable and stripped of all romance, Meek's Cutoff is probably the most realistic "taste" of the West the way it was.

9. True Grit (2010)
No film could do justice to Charles Portis' masterpiece, but the Coen Brothers give it their best shot. My perfect True Grit would have John Wayne as Rooster with the 1969 screenplay, including its better-for-film upbeat ending (written by Portis) but with Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie and the set dressing of the 2010 version.

10. Justified (TV 2010 - still going!)
This barely squeaks by on my criteria, having very few horses, no desert and no Native Americans, but Raylan Givens – a beautiful US Marshall in cowboy boots and hat and with an itchy trigger-finger – is a fabulous Western hero. Although Elmore Leonard's story is supposed to be set in Eastern Kentucky, it's actually filmed in and around Santa Clarita, Hollywood's iconic Western backlot.

11. Rango (2011)
Not really for kids, this decidedly creepy animation is packed with references to other Westerns and popular movies. I have listed nearly two dozen on my Rango Cheat Sheet. By making the characters animals rather than ethnic groups, Gore Verbinski neatly avoids many of the "hot buttons" that weigh down The Lone Ranger... and threaten the entire Western genre.

So my thought is: No, the Western is not dying. We are certainly not in the right Zeitgeist, but if well-written and conceived, a story of men or women on the frontier with six-shooters and horses can still be hugely satisfying.

Finally, there are some great Western books being produced. A few of my recent favourites are St. Agnes Stand by Thomas Eidson, Boone's Lick by the great Larry McMurtry and Robert B. Parker's Appaloosa (much better than the film). I myself am trying to revive the genre among children with my tales of a half-Sioux, half-white 12-year-old Detective in Virginia City, Nevada Territory: The P.K. Pinkerton Mysteries. Just out is The Case of the Pistol-packing Widows.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Messalina's Story by Mia Forbes

(detail from Death of Messalina by Georges Rochegrosse)
So here I am, my back pressed up against a cold, dark corner. It seems strange that something so utterly horrible could happen in such an entrancing place such as this, the Gardens of Lucullus. The walls resplendent with glittering mosaics and plants of exquisite colours drooping lazily over every surface: this is a place of life and nature and beauty, not of death. Many will say I have brought this upon myself...

Being married off to your ugly, fifty-year-old second cousin when you're fifteen is not fun. There were a few perks to marrying Claudius, mainly becoming Empress of the Roman Empire when I was twenty one, but really! It was ridiculous for everyone to expect me to stay with that stammering, cowardly, ancient idiot. Even though the senate offered me the title of Augusta, Claudius turned it down and Messalina Augusta has such a lovely ring to it! I've been so good to him, providing him with an heir, our son Britannicus, and yet he never did anything to quash the salacious rumours, although not entirely unfounded, that made me the subject public mockery.

Luckily for me though, I've always been able to sway him easily to exile or execute people who might pose a threat to the succession to the throne of our little Britannicus when Claudius finally packs it in. However, during last year's Secular Games, Agrippina decides to show up. Of course she just has to bring little Nero, who is very mean to my son, barging into his horse during the boys' Troy Game (I hate to think what he'll be like when he grows up) and they stole all of my – I, I mean Britannicus' spotlight. Although I do have an impressive line-up of Imperial ancestors, I am not descended directly from Augustus and although her pedigree is definitely not obvious (you should see her: crudely slurping mulsum like a common plebeian!) Agrippina is. This meant she could have been competition. Naturally, I did what any ambitious mother would do, I sent assassins to poison Nero, but that didn't work.

Whilst my situation with Agrippina was getting worse and worse something happened that forced all my problems out of my besotted mind. I met Silius (cue dreamy sigh). Good-looking, dignified, smart: he was perfect. Oh, apart from his wife, but I soon sorted that out (cue forced divorce). Desperate for his love, I showered him with every gift known to man or God. Slaves, canonizing him emotionally and officially, magnificent statues! I can see know that I bought his 'love' and that no one would ever love me, not even my mother, who is now trying to persuade me to kill myself. How nice.

Claudius had to go to Ostia for one boring function or another a few days ago and after comparing him, a feeble, slimy (quite literally; he has the disgusting habit of drooling) old fool, to Silius, a prestigious and highly attractive man, I had to escape. I got married. It was absolutely crazy, but I did. Just like that! Boom! Married! To Silius, which in effect meant I was divorcing Claudius, a dangerous move, I should have had the foresight to realise. I got too caught up. In the impassioned-red flammeum, Silius' crooked grin, in the rude songs sang jauntily by complete strangers who thankfully but unbelievably didn't recognise me as they walked beside us and in the desire I felt to get away from Claudius permanently. But the thrill was disastrously ephemeral.

I found out during my wedding that my own men, my friends and my assistants in the schemes to make Britannicus' accession smooth and simple, had betrayed me. They ran off to Claudius and told him everything. When I heard I panicked, realising the danger I had selfishly put my family in and, taking my children with me, I travelled to Ostia on the back of wagon. It was hardly fit for a slave, let alone an Empress and the young future Emperor and crowds gathered along the Via Ostiense to vulgarly jeer at us. I expected and wanted Silius to follow me, declaring that he'd protect me and that we could run away to a distant province. But he didn't...

I caught sight of Claudius' returning company. By the angry blaze in his usually dull, watery eyes I knew that all my efforts to persuade him that I was innocent in any apparent crimes were to be in vain, but I had to try. I reiterated over and over that I was the mother of his children, whom I knew he would never harm, and at first I thought I had succeeded in influencing him into forgiveness because instead of flying into a rage as I thought he would, he remained calm, sitting in his lectica. He should have been riding a horse like any dignified, powerful Emperor would instead of reclining in a gilded litter, being carried by slaves. He posed an unthreatening sight, if it wasn't for the fury in his eyes, the like of which I had never seen in the usually insipid, impervious man. He didn't bellow at me; he didn't order a guard to strike me down; he just ordered me, in a measure voice, to await a hearing with him at the Gardens of Lucullus.

He probably sent me here as a reminder of all the allegedly punishable things I've done in my all too short life. I couldn't resist these magical pleasure gardens -1 had to have them for my own. Silius helped me force t|ieir owner, Asiaticus, an ex-consul and friend of Claudius, to commit suicide. I suppose that may have been a little extreme, but this vast oasis of serenity was so appealing to me: a place of excitement, beauty and happiness in a life that was full of shameful scandals and empty of love and compassion. Flowers bloom with the thought of adoration and devotion, fountains pour hope and dazzling, brightly painted frescos were bursting with the buzz of wonder encircling the natural universe, full of so many creatures that my problems seemed insignificant.

Before, as I walked in the gardens, its beauty reflected onto all the surroundings and occupants, making them too angelically radiant. Today it is still a beautiful place, but in contrast everything looks dull and dismal, especially now that I know my audience with Claudius will never come. In the atrium I can hear my mother, who has returned to be with me after many years apart, meeting two officials sent from my husband. She warned me that executioners would come. I will die with dignity. I will not give Claudius the pleasure of hearing that I begged to for his mercy. My mother's advice was that I kill myself, but I can't... I can't bring myself to tear open my delicate porcelain skin and watch the issuing blood stain my life until there is none left.

The two men have come in now. The youngest, shortest one is shouting at me, screaming that when I die no one will remember or miss me and that I will be subjected to damnatio memoriae. He is throwing disgusting names at me, but there is no use in crying or retaliating. All I can do is stare blankly at him as a shrink slowly down the wall, hoping to fall into nothingness. The large officer grabs me and drags me to the centre of the atrium by my long obsidian hair so my head is hovering over the impluvium. In the reflection of the water I can see my dappled face, my beauty distorted with my fear, for my children and for Silius, although I know deep down that he won't care about my fate. My mother is quietly chanting a prayer in a choked voice whilst the man standing beside me draws his gladius. The smell of flowers permeates the room, but the sweet fragrance is masked by the cruel occasion. The stone floor is cold beneath my knees and my mouth is dry. I close my eyes and bow my head, in preparation, not in prayer, for no God could save me now. My mother's chanting stops. I hear the swing of a sword.

This sophisticated short story by Mia Forbes of Nonsuch High School took second place in the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012 in the 14+ category. Mia has chosen to tell the story of the Emperor Claudius' third wife: Messalina. Bene fecisti, Mia! Well done! 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Last Pythia by Ruby Osman

die regi; tecta pulchra misera domus cecidit
"Tell the king: the fair-wrought house has fallen."

She sits on the stool.

Below her lies a chasm. A thin, hissing crack, which darts to and fro beneath her feet and off into the dark corners of the room.

She sits on the stool.

The stool itself is a sturdy affair. Knarled and knotted, but it supports its burden with pride. Its embellished feet encircle the chasm.

She sits on the stool.

In a hand she holds a simple dish, filled to the brim with clear spring water from some far off or sacred land. She doesn't understand why. She doesn't have to. The other hand clutches at a laurel branch. The force she grasps it with leaves imprints in her hand.

She wears the clothing of a virgin. It is of no importance whether she is or not. She may be young, old, rich, poor. She may be a worthy counterpart of Galen, or she may not even be able to write her own name. It is of no importance. She is a wolf in sheep's clothing, if you may.

Her dress is cut from a deep red fabric, the kind normally reserved for that of nobility. It is not a light fabric and its weight guides her spine into a gentle curve. An unkempt forest of hair frames her face, casting dark shadows onto her features. Her air is not one of grace or elegance, but of omen and myth. She bathes rarely – once a month at the Castilian Spring – and years in the darkness has given her skin a deathly pale hue.

And yet why then, do so many flock to see this single woman? From all corners of the Empire, people rush to consult with this one village girl. Generals, farmers, writers, they are all the same under her gaze. And even then, it is not her they really seek. They are wishing to talk to the rocks deep in the chasm, they are wishing to consult with the sacred Kassotis water she holds in her hand, or they await a reply from Apollo's spirit, which flows through her veins. They have all come to see the Oracle.

For nine months of the year, the doors of her shrine are thrown open to the world. Pilgrims wind their way up her path, sporting laurel branches and sacrifices. To them, she is but a middle-man to the gods. Yet still, in her honour, they slaughter their animals and climb the harsh slope.

She is not aware of what goes on outside; of the waiting, weary queues. She holds no concept of how these people arrive at her stool. She may've done, years ago, as a child, watching exotic men and women traipse their way through her village, drinking from their fountains, sleeping in their inns. She may have watched them give a sigh, or a resigned smile, as their eye was drawn to the looming hill, the final step of their journey. But now, years of being that final step, have erased her childhood memories. Her days are now rigorous, exhausting, but still a strictly followed routine - for she is in contact with Apollo, and it is through her prophecies that the world's decisions are made.

Apollo non habet asylum, nec corona laurorum. 
"No shelter has Apollo; nor do the sacred laurel leaves."

She is asked the question. It isn't repeated. It is not expanded upon.

The lucky pilgrim waits.

Sometimes the answer comes quick, for others it is an eternity of suspense. She takes a heavy breath and begins:

The chasm's smoke seeps through her, through any opening, nestling in any crevice of the body. Its wisps soar down her throat, into her chest, then down into her arms and legs, teasing her fingertips. She feels it dancing throughout her body, diving and sweeping, settling finally in her lungs. The voice she speaks in is not her own, nor does anyone recognise it as any mortal's, but is rasping, yet melodic, barely intelligible to the questioner, but crystal clear to the girl herself. When she finishes, though, she will not remember what words she has just given, what sound or destructive advice she muttered; she will retreat, exhausted, until the next visitor. She doesn't know how this happens to her - what divine or spiritual influences are at play. All she knows is that, when that question is asked, she is taken over. Words tumble from her mouth, confused yet powerful, they rush for air, they rush to be noticed. Warmth and content spreads through her body. Any famine, death or plague can be forgotten whilst she's in this state. For her, the words flow out like warm honey, and each one is individual and enunciated, each is a story in its own.

Of course the mere pilgrim cannot be expected to decipher these cryptic rants. This task is divulged upon two male priests. It is their job to translate. To twist this heap of mismatched words into sense, a sense that will keep people coming back. Because, although this woman may be a messenger from the heavens, she is still but a village girl. In some ways they are jealous, their potential overshadowed by a virgin on a hill, their work left unappreciated.

None of this occurs to the girl. As she sits upon her stool, she never wonders who might come next or what stories the priests are spinning. She never wonders what choices are being made under her name, or who has died or felt pain from her prophecies. Her days are filled with constant questions, so she fills her nights with silence. No questions. No answers. It works.

fontes nunc tacuerunt, vox quoque.
"The fountains are now silent, the voice is stilled"

But now even she is starting to notice the change. The visitors seem just a little less frequent, their sacrifices not quite as plentiful. The priests seem cautious, they slip from the Empire's Latin to their mother tongue from time to time. Her role remains the same though.

She is staring at the wall. She has stared at this wall thousands, if not millions of times before. There are only a few bricks without chips or cracks. The mural is fading, taking its legends with it too. She wonders whether it used to be like this. Today there have been four visitors, and it is nearly the eighth hour. Two came together. And one was a pregnant woman from the village. The final one had come from Dacia though. That was something at least.

She hears a clunking from outside. Once, twice. Another time. Getting slightly louder with each 'chink'.

She recognises the sound, she thinks, but without knowing what it is. Now her ignorance begins to vex her.

The memory begins to creep back in. Cautiously tip-toeing its way back into her mind. Its still wrapped in a blanket of haze though. So are all her memories.

She remembers it being magnified. It was magnified, and uniformed. The chink of the metal of a thousand men, the sound weaving its way up her path to taunt her ears, its creators marching on. The chink of the metal of a thousand men went on to rape, pillage and plunder all she held beloved, just so they could call the ravaged land their own – but this is not her memory. For these events are of long ago – centuries maybe. They are from an oracle before her. It was that woman, not her, who heard the chink of the metal of a thousand men, who, whilst shrouded in her temple-blindfold, had slowly, over months or years, learned of her homeland's 'joyful' addition to the Empire, to Rome's sprawling, all-consuming territory.

So now the girl sits in the dim silence, with the daylight fading and the 'clinks' working their way to the summit of the hill. Past the priests. Into the shrine. Down the stairs. Into her room.

In their hands, the soldiers hold a decree. Whether the decree is real or not is of no importance, because they also hold the swords. Emperor Theodosius has ordered the closure of all pagan temples. Emperor Theodosius has ordered the closure of her home, of her livelihood; he has ordered the closure of all she can remember, and all she is known for.

For a last time, the power spreads through her. She allows the fumes to envelope her. A deep final breath. This time her words are clear. She speaks them in the soldiers' tongue – not consciously, she only speaks what flows. She doesn't remember her last prophecy, she only remembers those ending words, as the soldiers begin to drag her away.

est finis
"It is finished."

She no longer sits on the stool.

Ruby's atmospheric story about the final days of the Delphic oracle won first prize in the 14+ age category of the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012. 14-year-old Ruby is a pupil at Sancton Wood School, Cambridge. Bene fecisti, Ruby! 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Anxiety of Fidelity by Marina Macklin

The Anxiety of Fidelity in Roman Love Poetry
From the Desk of Corinna: Reflecting On Her Affair With Ovid

I have thought to set it all down in writing, to immortalize a different account of what happened back then, an account that I could dictate, not one dictated to me and of me. It seemed a sort of golden time, when life teetered on the edge of something heartbreakingly incredible, when teenage roses might burst forth into astounding, earth-shattering beauty that would last only for a few ephemeral days before fading away into the swirling leaves of autumn. But that autumn came, and love was not true, or perhaps love was not love. In any case, that man who wrote such pretty poems to my beauty and charm left on an autumn wind, and I fell forward into the rest of my life, immortalized in verse but tethered to the uncomfortable remnants of a very earthly existence.

He wrote what he wrote, he said what he said, he spoke of Cupid stealing away a foot from his lines, that god of love's exacting of mischief; he expressed that anxiety of fidelity that surely stalks behind the happy steps of all lovers. But I never did. I never had the chance to write my own account, and I hope to remedy that herein. My old daily journals have proved true to time, and I can still vividly remember the emotions that I described in such great detail in those days.

After he published the first poem, after he sent his maidservant Nape to my window with tablets professing love, I wrote this: "Will this man ever cease writing poetry to me? His elegies are flattering, his attention is welcome, but I have begun to fear that never will I be able to free myself from the attention that follows each published poem. I have read every one, unhealthy for my ego though it might be."

He had then decided that was perfectly appropriate to address a poem to my husband. Looking back, that particular book of poems only elucidates further the inconstant nature of Ovid. He talked to me for weeks only about my husband's loose hand in relation to my conduct in our marriage (and outside of it), and then he decided to switch his view and accuse my husband of being far too jealous. He wrote of how my husband prevented me from "loving my lover."   I know now that he was simply a maker of excuses; a man that had to find reasons for things that I could not fully explain. Even now, I ask myself, would it have been so difficult for him to understand that, perhaps, I simply could not maintain a charade of this magnitude, even if my husband already knew, even if he, my lover, thought that I had no shame? But therein lay the problem, I can see it now, clear as day: 1 did have shame; it had simply lost itself in his eyes, in his slow but burning smile, in his youthful arms. I might not have been able to write poetry dedicated to these things as he once wrote poetry dedicated to me, but I still felt these things, that passion, just as he did! Yet my instinct was to murmur, "No" every so often. For he was just a baby, really. My husband might have been ancient and dry and lifeless in comparison, but I was still married to him, not to Ovid, that man I loved, and I knew that this was a fact I could not change.

I could never fully ignore, thought I might have been able to cast it from my mind for short and blissful periods of time, the measure of hypocrisy that took root in his poetry: his inconstancy of position, his fear of my further infidelity juxtaposed with his inability to see how my affair with him was infidelity in itself. As I read my old journal, I can see a change in daily entries that had once concerned themselves with the household, the gossip, and the interesting whispers that floated around Rome like leaves on a windy day. That little book, intended to keep an account of my day to day goings-on, became a reflection of the core of my life at that point: that illicit relationship that somehow became the very opposite of illicit, that public renown, that public shame that was somehow not shameful, but still managed secretly to shame me to my very core. And it revolved around that man, about whom my younger self simply could not make up her mind.

My very reaction to his eleventh poem could not illustrate my mixed feelings more fully. After its publishing, I wrote, "He has written another poem, of course. It is his eleventh. It seems he has realized how his poems have brought attention upon me. How is it such a shock to him that the young men of Rome find me intriguing, and not solely for my personal charms but also for the notoriety that his poems of love have given me? In this latest poem, he spent his verses regretting every pretty phrase and lovely metaphor with which he feted my beauty and allure. He has entirely made up his mind that this new renown will lead me to infidelity!  Yet he remarks too that I still hold him in my power, that only I can stir the poetry in him. I cannot say for sure how I feel about this." Our relationship was constantly haunted by the low hum of a threat on the horizon: ironic, perhaps, considering our very relationship itself was a threat to the traditional values of love. We were never married to each other; I had a husband; the affair still managed to be very much a public one; and yet he still worried about the attentions I paid to other men. Oh yes, I was never the most faithful of women, that I will readily admit. But, you see, I will readily admit it. I would never subscribe to some pretence of virtue; I would never pretend that I had always been faithful. He rather crucified me for that, of course; he wrote those poems, he made sure that Rome knew all about my doings. But he already knew I was an unfaithful woman; after all, I had cheated on my husband with him, hadn't I? But he, I never knew about him. I never really knew if he held himself to the standard that he lambasted me with in that poem, that standard that engulfed him with jealousy when it threatened to deprive him of me, yet was of no concern when it gave me to him and released me from my husband. Oh, but there were rumors. I never asked him forthrightly, and I rue that now, for if I could only know whether or not he remained faithful, oh it would be such a relief. He wrote poems about other women later, of course, but that was after he had gone from my life, half willingly and half defiantly, caught in some fit of jealousy and, though he would not care to admit it, confusion. For ultimately he was confused: I betrayed the fidelity inherent in love simply by loving him, yet he could never accept it as a betrayal; he could never see the anxiety that my infidelity had surreptitiously brought into our relationship, the anxiety that would ultimately bring about our love's demise.

This is the second time that the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition international category winner has been Marina from Highland School, Virginia, USA. Last year as an eleventh grader, she wrote an epistolary tale based on the letters of Pliny the Younger, entitled Letters to Procula. Now in her last year of high school, doing Honors Latin, she used book 1 of Ovid's Amores as her primary source. Bene fecisti, Marina! For those who are interested, here is a translation of the eleventh poem referred to in Marina's story. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mount Vesuvius by Megan King

I woke up and watched my young sister Marianda sleep; peaceful and quiet, like I once did until my father died. My mother was awake and dividing the left over bread from last night's meal into three pieces.

She looked across at me and gave a half smile; I could see the tiredness in her eyes. The sleepless nights were creeping upon her and she was lost without my father - but still she smiled. Careful not to wake Marianda, I joined my mother at the small broken table. The bread had gone stale, but it was food.

I wrapped some bread in a clean bit of cloth and decided to go out and collect some firewood, when I returned it home to my mother I headed straight for the market square.

As I passed the grand houses, owned by the wealthy, I could see the desperation in the dawn callers' eyes. They would wait outside these mansions until the patrons were ready for them to enter. I was a humble man, a man with pride - like my father; I would not beg or rely on the rich.

I reached the town centre; where I set up my stall. I sold handmade jewellery, carved from wood I found near the olive groves.

It wasn't a busy day but I had made just enough money to buy a loaf of bread from the bakers. I made my way along the street: via dell' Abondanza and turned down the dark alleyway until I reached the small building where my mother, sister and I lived.

I entered the cold room and found Marianda and my mother sitting at the table, sewing a blanket with left over material from some curtains they had made earlier. I placed the bread on the table, found a knife and cut it carefully. This bread was to last us until the following night at least.

After we had eaten, we climbed into our small beds and slept.

Once I had woken, I ate a small portion of bread and made my way to the stalls. As I passed the morning streets of Pompeii I felt a minute shake in the ground. I stopped for a moment and looked at the ground to see if there were any cracks until I was forced to move on by a fierce man crashing into the back of me.

I had made the same amount of money as the day before, but deciding whether to buy cheese or bread wasn't the first thing on my mind. The possibilities of why the earth shook lingered around my brain.

I arrived home and found my sister, Marianda, playing underneath the yellow, evening sky; I beckoned her to come inside the house so that we could eat.

I placed the food on the table and served our evening rations. Whilst mother and Marianda ate their dinner, I nibbled on small scraps. I was curious as to why the earth was shaking so much, and what was to come.

As my mother and sister were sleeping, I crept outside and found a large flat stone that I could write on. I decided to write down my observations, whilst sitting under the snow white moon light. The air was bitterly cold.

Once I had recorded my thoughts and observations, I snaked my way back into the house. I once again climbed into my bed and slept for a few moments until I was awakened by a loud roar and stagger of the ground.

The pots smashed on the stone floor and the surface of the rotten table soared to the ground and split through the middle. I hurried my sister and mother down the cool stairs and out onto the street, where many others gathered. Few bricks crumbled and pots and pans smashed, but there was no severe damage done to the long row of houses.

Once the growling of the earth had stopped, my family along with many others made our way back into the evacuated houses. Many were full of relief and few overpowered by curiosity.

For the next two hours we dreamt hesitantly, tossing and turning, until finally the morning sun glistened in the horizon. We gathered around the table and ate our breakfast.

Following my usual routine, I made my way to the town centre. I noted that there were less tourists gathered in the streets than ever before so I decided to ask the fairly old lady who owned the store next to me for answers.

Her reply was unclear, but there was some sort of fear in her voice as she spoke. She mentioned the previous earthquakes, but she didn't give me a direct answer or solution. Fewer tourists meant less money as far as I was concerned, and it certainly proved when I set out to purchase my usual loaf of bread from the bakers.

I was welcomed back by my mother's voice and yet another shake of the earth. My sister crouched in the dingy corner of the room, playing with some beads. I slumped down beside her and enjoyed some moments of silence with her.

I could not afford much bread to the lack of customers, so we had even smaller portions than usual. I preserved some bread for the next morning and instead filled myself up on water. We all sat in near silence underneath the light of the moon that peered through the window, and watched the small candle light flicker until it was time to sleep.

I dreamt about a volcano, and the horror that came with it. I pictured its mouth spray out lava and black smoke. I could almost feel the intense heat and I could almost hear the sharp rocks smash to the ground until...

We were again awakened by a jolt in the earth and we evacuated the building. The growling was louder and more deafening and the movement was more extreme.

Just as the rim of the golden sun touched the edge of the horizon, a large black cloud emerged and hovered in the sky. It came from the mouth of the volcano. As the minutes passed it grew larger and deeper in colour. It covered almost all of the once orange morning sky.

All of the town gathered in the streets and gazed up at the giant that hung above us. It looked like a layer of soot and ash had coated the sky. The whole population of Pompeii was dominated by fear and overcome with confusion.

I saw my sister, Marianda curled up on a large rock, I walked over to her and tried to reassure her but no matter what I said or what I did, I knew that she was old enough to understand that not every story has a fairy tale ending.

My mother was nearby so I went to comfort her but no words could escape from between my lips. Everyone in the city knew what was about to come.

A hail of ash rained down and painted the city the same colour as the sky. That hail soon turned into a blizzard and I could hear the whimpers of children, women and men echoing and bouncing from each piece of black pumice. I carried my sister over to my mother and we held one and other tight.

Grey was the only colour I could see, both the sky and land was covered in it.

The deafening screams and cries soon faded as the air became thinner and thinner. Blackened rock and molten lava rained down upon the city. I grasped my family, the two most important people in my life tighter and held them close to my chest. I would not let go.

My shirt was wet with sweat and tears. Their silent cries echoed around my ears. The whole town was now black and disguised by the layer of debris and rock. I felt them slip away from my grasp as I went into a deep sleep which I could not fight.


The blackness slowly turned into a bright white light, I felt my soul escape from my body. As I floated upwards I watched Pompeii, the once lively city full of tourists fade beneath my feet. I did not feel anything or hear anything or after a while see anything, but when I reached the climax I saw a ghostly figure walk towards me. It grew from a small speck, into a blur, into a man, and then finally into my father.

I walked to him and reached out to hold him; he moved closer to me. We held each other for what felt like an eternity until we finally let go and walked down a long, white path.

My mother and sister's souls - I still cannot find them, but I know that they are somewhere between heaven and earth and I will not rest in peace until I find those who were and still are closest to me.

Another moving entry in the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012. 12-year-old Megan King from Stockport Grammar took 3rd place among extremely stiff competition in the 11-13 year old category. Well done, Megan! I loved your story. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

To Kill An Emperor by Sophie Littlewood

It's cold, and I shiver involuntarily as I wait in the darkness that is night. My cloak is thin, I know, but it helps me to run. I always agree to meet on grounds that I know. A trap is always possible. I must choose my clients carefully.

I hear the soft stride of a woman long before my sharp eyes see her. She stands, facing me, confident. But she may have the wrong person. Or choice.

"Locusta? And if so, should I run or talk?"

I nod to her first question. I know not who she is, but she has a faint sense of humour that I am proud to hear. Her talk is not naive, but it weighs with burdens of thought and reality.

She means to come, I believe.

Perhaps she has thought this through.

"I assume I can trust you."

"My lips are sealed unless yours leak my secrets. You understand you will not live if you tell my trade."

I am always to the point. It fazes some, but most are too entangled in the enormity of this small talk to care.

She nods. Then takes a breath, more nervous than emphatic.

"I need you to kill the emperor."


I considered her request for sometime afterward, like I always do. I am not as heartless as people might think, and though money comes paramount, I am killing someone in the process.

However, this time, what confused me more than whether to assassinate the most important man in the empire, who was my client. Motives do not interest me normally, but I could not help but wonder who would risk death to kill someone so obviously hard to kill.

I was not at risk, she had assured me. And for the moment, I was inclined to believe her. Whoever she was.


We meet again, in a few days. This time, she comes to my workshop.

"Have you considered it thoroughly?"

I nod.

"I will take you up on your request."

It was hard to resist the temptation of asking her name, but I resisted, as I always did. Temptation is my weak spot. Resisting is not.

"I want my son Lucius to succeed him. I thought poison – one that will not act too quickly, so as to uncover the plot, but not one that will be too slow, either. My son is in the emperor's favour at the moment. If the poison bides its time he will surely change his mind, and his son will inherit the title."

"In that case, poison is a good idea"

She has thought this through. Poison will work, I am confident.

"How soon do you wish for him to be gone by?"

A difficult question, but I feel I know her well enough to know she could handle it.

"Soon. Narcissus is away – only he can, and will, stop me."

"Fine. I suggest poison. I can prepare one that will not work too quickly, but during that time he will be delirious and confused. How do you intend to administer it?"

"Food. I can make sure he has drunk plenty of wine beforehand. That way, it won't need tasting."


"Halotus, who tastes the emperor's dishes. He is aware, and sure to avoid the mushrooms that I plan on poisoning. And I will ask Xenophon for his loyalty."

"A doctor?"

She nods. I inadvertently smile. A doctor always helps.

"When the truth comes out that the emperor has be poisoned, they will try everything to force the poison from his body. They may use a feather to encourage him to vomit. I will tip the feather in poison. Hand this to Xenophon, and in acting to help the emperor, you will aid the death."

"When will you be ready?"

"I can prepare everything for two days."

She swallows, perhaps now only realising she cannot turn back.

"I will be ready in two days'

She nods once more, and leaves.

One name stays in my mind.

Agrippina, wife and niece of Emperor Claudius.


The weather has only got grimmer. It foreshadows the disaster that will ensue if I continue through... This has gone too far. I could... No. This is the highlight of my little known career. I calm myself, unsure of what to do. This is the first time I have felt fear in a long time.

I know I can trust Agrippina, but I can hear a slow and dreaded stride as she approaches me. I hear no guards. She is alone.

She raises her right hand and nods.

I raise my left as a reply.

My hand pulls a small leather bag from a pocket inside my cloak.

No words.

She takes it and walks away.

And once she is out of sight, I turn and return to the workshop.


But not out of mind.


The rumour spreads like fire. I hear of it soon enough, and I believe I have feigned shock and grief to the right level. After all, one does not want to attract attention for being unsympathetic or too emotional.
I know that I will be a suspect and likely be taken for questioning, but I was summoned quicker than I expected, due to Agrippina's fears.

I come innocently, like every time before this one.

I have a private audience with her. It takes less than ten minutes. I talk loudly about how I could not have murdered the honourable Emperor Claudius as she barely listens and replaces the pebbles in my bag for the denarii we agreed on. The walls were thin; I was not taking any chances.

We walk to face the guards, Agrippina with her hand resting on my shoulder.

"Let her go. I am satisfied she had nothing to do with the honourable Emperor Claudius' death."

Everyone remembers to call him honourable now. Death is equal. He died from poison, the poison that I had conceived, and the poison I had handed to Agrippina, in powder and on feather. I had prepared it with care and caution. Though irony cannot have its toll, caution is necessary even when preparing poison. But I could have licked my fingers.

Can it matter to whether I kill an emperor or a beggar? Death is the same to everyone.

Except I am paid more for the first.

I nod, for the last time, to Agrippina, and walk away.


Neither Halotus nor Xenophon were sentenced. Agrippina had kept her word. But now my name was out, and I had suffered for it. Prison and execution.

"I have orders from the honourable Emperor Nero to release you."

I look up.

Soon, I am talking to the result of my hard work.

Like mother, like son:

"I need you to kill Britannicus."

I nod, listening.

[Based on Tacitus' account of the murder of Emperor Claudius (Annals 12.64)]

Another 12-year-old girl from St John's College School takes second place in the popular 11-13 age category of the Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition 2012! But see how different Sophie's story is from Lucy's. I love this one, too. Well done, Sophie. Well, done St. John's College School, Cambridge! 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Story of a Slave by Lucy Johnson

I write this in the precious hours left of my life. I don't really understand, because my knowledge of Latin is so small, which is why I write in my own language. They keep mentioning the word 'crucify'. I don't know what they mean, but I do understand that this was always the risk – I understood when I first set off, when I first ran away. This is what happens to all runaway slaves. But I should start at the beginning, that night in the desert when my whole life changed forever. The night they came.

The whole camp was asleep, except for me and the camels. I nibbled on the last of the dates from the last evening's meal, our last meal, although we didn't know it then. Stars crowded the sky, so that there was barely a single patch of darkness where the light didn't penetrate. The stars were comforting, and I leant back against my favourite camel, and fell asleep by the dying remains of the fire.

I woke to the screams of my family and friends, the roaring of the fire burning through the tents and the strange noises from the frightened camels. There were men shouting in a strange language (which I discovered later to be Latin). Everyone was running around, and the strange men were grabbing us as we tried to run. One of my brothers tried to fight, but one of the men had a sword. When everyone saw him lying in the sand, they were quiet, and allowed themselves to be shackled in the line. That was when I realised that my baby brother was still in the inferno that used to be the tent. I cried out, but one of the men smacked me across the face and I was silent, watching the flames die down as they rounded up the last of the camp, shackling women in one line and the men in the other. Then we had to run. They rode horses, and we had to run behind them. I lost all track of time, and the number that were left behind to die because they couldn't keep up. Then we had to get on the ship, and stay in the hold. We had to sleep, eat, drink, and spend our lives shackled together.

Finally, we arrived at a small port, from which we walked to Rome. To the slave market. We had all been given a name, mine was Domillita. I stood up on the wooden platform, wearing nothing but the chains and the parchment price tag. We were told that we would be beaten if we didn't look straight ahead all the time, or if we made eye contact. I heard voices, saw people coming in front, staring at us, opening our mouths to look at our teeth, examining us. I saw two girls wearing cloaks, walking along with a man who I assumed was their father. They whispered to him and pointed at me. He handed some money to the slave dealer, who unshackled me and pushed me towards them. One of the girls took my hand, and the other wrapped her cloak around me. They led me into a white building. There was a pool of water in the middle of the first room, and small coloured tiles all over the floor, making a picturing of a man wearing a lion skin cloak, and holding a club. One of the girls was chattering away, but I didn't know what she was saying. The other girl seemed to notice, and stopped her sister's chatter. She pointed to herself. "Thalia," she said. Then she pointed at her sister "Octavia." Then she pointed at me. "Domillita." I whispered. The girl smiled, and I smiled back.

The next day, they started to teach me Latin, using Pliny's Natural History. The city we were in was called Rome. The room with the water was the atrium. There were many rooms that led off from the atrium, including the triclinium, were we ate. They showed me the whole house, and told me what everything was. Then they took me to the baths. I loved the hot baths, and the steam room, because they reminded me of my home in the desert. The girls were really kind too me. They told me that their father was one of the only honest and respectable bankers in Rome, so they were quite rich.

They had a lot of slaves, but they didn't treat me like the rest of them. If they had, I would never have saved their lives. But that comes later.

Their brother, Septus, didn't like me. I could tell that from the day I first met him. He was tall and slim, but his arms and face were covered in scars, and one of his eyes had a scar going straight through it. No-one told me how he had got them, and I didn't want to find out. He always sneered at me, never smiled, and I was scared of that disfigured eye. The other slaves didn't like him either. The cook was especially scared of him, after he beat her really hard for something small and unimportant.

A few days later, everything changed.

I woke up one morning, and the girls were gone.

I had overslept, and my initial thought was that they had gone to the baths leaving me to sleep. But midday meal came and went, and still they had not come back. I got permission to go into the city, and that was when I saw them. The men who had killed my brothers, taken my mother and father and sold them to the Romans. And they had some slaves in tow - some of them looked well cared for, which I thought was rather strange. Then I saw why. Most of these slaves were freeborn, taken from their homes, right here in Rome! And I saw Thalia and Octavia, walking mutely along behind them.

I knew that runaway slaves were executed. But I knew that if I stayed, I would never see Thalia and Octavia again. I had heard the men talking - they would spend the night here. So I went back to my master's house. That evening I told my master what I had seen, but I didn't know the Latin words. I think I said something like:

"M-master, I think I know where Thalia and Octavia are. The... The Slave-men have...t-taken them and... and they w-will l-leave in the.... At first Might."

"What do you mean the slave men? Anyway, they will be back by tomorrow morning. They will have gone to Dina's house. Now, leave me in peace." He replied. I went up to the bedroom. That evening, I was fiddling with one of Octavia's ivory hair pins, when Septus walked in.

"Stealing, are we?" he sneered.

"N-n-no," I stammered. "J-just... p-p-playing."

"Do you know what happens to thieves?" he asked, ignoring me. I shook my head.

"This happens." He pointed to the scars on his face with one hand, and I didn't see the other hand, the one with the birch rod in it, come round and strike my back with such force that I almost cried out. He struck me so many times, and when he finally went away, I lay on the bed and cried.

In the morning, the girls did not come back. In the morning, 1 left the house, without permission. In the morning, I ran away.

I followed the line of marching slaves at a distance. They walked all the way to Ostia, though it took them the whole day to do it. They walked through the city, and I followed, not knowing what I was going to do, but knowing that I had to do something. Then I realised that they were heading to the harbour. They were going to sail away! So I just cried out; "Thalia! Octavia! What is going on?" as if I didn't know.

"Domillita!" they called back. Everyone in the square was watching now, so I had to say something.

"But you are freeborn? What is going on?" The crowd in the square gasped, and all of them stared at the men, who shifted nervously. Then the magistrate came, and the men were locked away, and all of the children were given a couple of gold coins because of the way they had been treated. I hid from the magistrate, because I was scared he would know that I was a runaway slave. We hired a cart back to Rome. When we reached the house, I knew something was wrong. There was a magistrate and a soldier coming out, accompanied by my master and Septus.

Septus pointed at me. "There she is! That's the runaway slave! Get her!" the soldier ran forward and grabbed my arm.

Thalia and Octavia pleaded with their father, but it was no good. I was taken away, to this place, and in the morning, I will die.

By far the greatest number of entries for the 2012 Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition were from children in the 11-13 aged bracket, so 12-year-old Lucy from St John's College School Cambridge did extremely well to win first place. And deservedly. I love her story. She has taken some inspiration from my Roman Mysteries but that's OK. I always get ideas from other writers. So did Shakespeare. I love that she puts herself into the mindset of a freshly-captured slave and shows us how objects like an impluvium or mosaic might have appeared to someone from another culture. She also uses a very effective technique of having a brave hero be misunderstood and treated unfairly. This always engages our sympathy because we want justice. Finally she had the courage to end the story in an unexpected way. Well done, Lucy! Bene fecisti! 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My Last Three Days by Adam Stanley

12th March 44BC

Dear Calpurnia,

It's been many days since I last saw you, that brisk morning just before you left for Pompeii. Since you left, I have done little except wander the Gardens of Lucullus in search of the source of my torture. I was shocked when I realised that Rome was dying. I often feel as if I have given birth to this city and its ever growing decadence worries me greatly, to the point where sleep eludes my stretched mind. I returned each day to the same garden, my nightmare has become an obsession. Even now, no matter how hard I think the solution remains hidden, basking in the shadow, taking some sadistic pleasure out of my suffering. On each return I leave fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into inspiration and give this drowning city the rescue it deserves.

Perhaps I should describe to you the vision which burns my eyelids whenever they shut. I see from the eyes of a bird, a Wren I believe. In my beak I carry a sprig of Laurel which dances and pirouettes with each silent, rhythmic stroke of my wings. I fly, with grace and beauty like no other straight into the senate house – might I add that the detail of inside is exquisite as if this could all be real! I see a few men, who all face away until I tear the sprig of Laurel into shreds and let each torn piece rain upon the crowd gathered below. The look of absolute horror is strangely amusing, that is until I see a pale face amongst the chaotic screams of terror. The man looked as if something inside of him had died or was dying or was so ill that what little hope of survival had been sacrificed. It was only when I once again went to the Garden of Lucullus and saw in the crystal water of the central pond that same pale face. I had finally realised that man was me.

It was only yesterday that I revealed to Spurinna that the nightmare had so badly affected my mind and his reaction, my Calpurnia, is what drove me to record my activities and musings so that the truth could be told to you In the most direct and sincere way. Tomorrow I am to sacrifice to the gods and hope that in return for my loyalty, I receive favourable omens. Without them, I am sure to last only a few more days. As I write this down, rain pours from heavens and drowns any hope I might have of seeing you again. The moon crests a junction between two clouds and cast the shadow of our home across the street. It feels as though the divines sign their name in untidy handwriting, condemning my soul to an eternal void.

The flickering of my torch at night has kept me lucid and as before I will sit before its soft glow in despair, as I feel I will never understand how to keep Rome afloat. I have found myself to be as featureless as the ocean, as shallow and unoccupied as a far off bay, my mind a listless wreck with no hope of salvation. I drift in and out of my nightmare and let the unintelligible whispers of the night carry me off. Where? I cannot possibly say... But what can be said is that if Rome could see the state of its leader then all hope would be lost.


13th March 44BC

Dear Calpurnia,

A moments peace was once what I dreaded but now I warmly invite it to sit with me just a little longer. Today I revealed to the fellow senators and to the people of Rome that I had an idea. Finally, the idea I had searched for, the ambition I needed to give my emaciated mind a fresh burst of life had sprang forth from the most unlikely place. During my wanderings in the Garden of Lucullus I began to notice a small flower bed so densely populated by small purple and white daisies that the thick canopy obscured the ground itself. The little flowers began to lose their beauty, their lives folded over by the sheer weight of so many others.

When I observed my favourite patch today something was different. When the rain came last night a large purple flower had erupted forth and taken what was so densely populated and toppled the balance. It seemed that the gods willed and permitted such a capitalisation and it was then that I realised the solution lay not with well-crafted words or futile alliances but with the willingness to take what is rightfully yours. Once again the solution lies along the path of war but it is not without justification I equip both my mind and body with sharp, glistening tools. The tools of a master craftsman.

All this happened before the sacrifice and left me with some sublime elation. This stupid vulnerability, a crease in the fabric of my mind revealed too much to the senators I was now conspiring against. Why is ambition so becalmed? It beckons me to walk on its path yet I know that it will shatter under my feet and drag me under like a rough sea that thrashes an unwitting ship and shrouds it in its salty cloak before ripping it from the surface and hiding it within its bowels.

When I was told by Spurinna that my life would not extend beyond the Ides of March my greatest fears had been realised. I had hoped that I would be able to see you again and discuss the content of these letters in a comical tone, but the harsh readings of a corpse on a slab has opened up a premature death for me and like a boat without a bottom my heart sinks lower and lower. The realisation that I will never see you again has caused my mind to spiral deeper into my own nightmare and obsess about the power I need to save my dying city.

When Spurinna told me such things, I could do nothing but laugh. It appeared to the others as a laugh of disbelief but really, I laughed out of despair and delirium as I regarded my failure to protect the true nature of my ambition. I have seen the way Marcus Junius Brutus talks about me with Gaius Cassius Longinus and a handful of other senators. I heard the word 'Liberatores' being used but I don't yet understand its meaning or gratuity. I am left with only two true friends; Marcus and you. Assuming of course that you still love me despite the nightmares, despite me waking to false dawns only to find the landscape distorted by the steady trickle of tears. I am safe knowing that no matter where I am, your reaching is always upon me.


14th March 44BC

Dear Calpurnia,

I am now truly hated by my fellow senators. They all know I want rid of them and I'm sure they want rid of me. All I wanted was to unite the great nation of Rome and heal its sickness. Why has my own mind betrayed me? I sit here in front of my dimming lamp attempting to trace the lines of my ambition back to my shattered heart. The soft, melancholy glow of the full moon illuminates the ink that soaks through the fibres, the pulp of vegetation that holds the bulging enigma of my final three days.
My betrayal is inevitable and with only Marcus to watch my back I have little hope of survival.

Tomorrow I take a leap of faith, a plunge into the darkening abyss where I will meet the gods and ask them why they place such a curse upon me. This curse, this inability to drive out the terrors which haunt every dream and lurk behind every corner and every closed door in my mind has incapacitated me and left me ripe for the picking. The 'Liberatores' bear down on, the sharp blade of Brutus is what I fear will strike the final blow.

He was a man I thought was my friend has ruined my life. Rome will surely die without the idea the gods sent me. I must speak with Marcus before I am sent away and I must unveil to him what has torn my soul in two so that he can pursue my goals without his own mind collapsing like mine has. I have little time to waste as the night creeps on and my shoulders itch with the nascency of flight. It is certain that I will never see you again unless the heavens hold the promise of the preacher and there is indeed, a place where you and I can rest at long last.

I have drunk deep from the fountain of life until my body cannot take another drop of the poison. I leave you my heart, etched onto these pages as a series of black lines drawn from the depth of my suffering. As I take flight you become a nest to me, somewhere I might rest in your comforting presence whilst I watch Marcus use my idea and wield it like a true warrior. None will dare block his path, except Brutus of course but he will be carved from his throne and cast into the pages of history as a murderer and a fiend. From the idea that infected me springs hope, from my grief comes love for you and from my ambition only the painful end of a knife.

I have learned all too well that ambition can take one to sublime heights or harrowing depths and often they are one in the same. Vale uxor mea!


In this impressive short story in the form of three letters, 15 year old Adam Stanley imagines what thoughts might have filled the mind of Gaius Julius Caesar during his last three days on earth. Adam is from Cheadle Hulme School and this story took third place in the 2012 Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Risky Escape by Aya Kodmani

As the first spark of sun entered the sky, my eyes shot open, today was Wednesday, This day, like every day, I had to fill up my water pail and drive the horses to their stables, 1 hurried down the steep staircase, with the horses' dull brown leathery reins and out of the door, heading to the gravelly horsefield.

The surrounding city was silent now except for a few of the early working farmers, milking the cows and goats, and their wives cooking and churning the creamy thick lemon yellow butter.

I tied up Lupus and Nubia (our horses) and patted their soft, silky hazelnut coats, After that, I led them a long way from the field, into the wooden boarded stable, They happily trotted in through the loose-
hinged door, eager and hungry to eat their morning meal of mouth-watering hay.

I grabbed a hard wooden pail, skipped to the little river and scooped a clean fresh pail of water. By now, the sun was scorching down on my pale light skin. As I headed back to my house, I could hear the noisy chattering children charging out of their thatched cottages, like excited bulls heading for the ring, hoping to meet their friends on the way to the market.

Suddenly, I noticed the sky was darkening. Great, thick, gloomy clouds seemed to appear in the huge sky and partially covered the mid-day sun. I heard crackling sounds. 1 started running as fast as my legs could carry me, back to tell father that Mount Vesuvius was rumbling. A layer of thick, grey, puffy soot up to three feet high fell onto the hot stony ground

"Father, Father!" I puffed. "I’m pretty sure 'Mount Vesuvius is erupting!"

My father immediately rushed off to get the big wooden boat out of the shed I followed, out of breath. He carried it with my help, onto the old cart, which had four, large, iron wheels.

Father quickly called for my mother, and of course my two sisters, to hurry into the wooden cart. We all sat on the edge of the cart feeling frightened of the monstrous mountain, the wind was rapidly blowing
like a tornado.

My father was speedily hitching up Lupus and Nubia to the cart. When we were all ready, father steered the rocking cart towards the turbulent, rough, angry sea.

When we arrived near the water's edge it was so windy that Cleo and I had not enough strength to drag the boat onto the sandy shore so, my mother gave crying baby Flavia to Cleo, and she, father and I  shoved and pushed and shoved again until finally the boat slipped into the shadow water, with us jumping and leaping into the boat that tossed against the choppy waves.

As we all sailed away, I looked back at the huge volcano covered with laughing flames and cackling lava bursting out of Mount Vesuvius. As I turned to tell Cleo to look hack at Pompeii, we saw poor slaves and farmers choking on big, heavy puffs of thick, dusty grey smoke. Some were being submerged with ash, others were being hit by painful, rocky, hard pumice stones and all were suffering from the heat.
"Aren’t you so glad that we escaped that big moment of terror? Don’t you feel so bad for those poor suffering people? I find it so sad!" I said solemnly.

"Yes, I agree. It's very sad. Imagine if we were those terrified people!" replied Cleo.

"We're lucky, aren't we?" We both agreed at the same time.

The End

No prizes for guessing why I love this winning entry of the 2012 Golden Sponge-stick Writing Competition by 8 year old Aya from Pembridge Hall School for Girls. But a prize for Aya in the shape of a Golden Sponge-stick Trophy! 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Golden Sponge-stick Winners 2012

the coveted trophy
(guest post by Jeremy Pine)


This year’s competition attracted 200 entries nationally and internationally. Again there was a very wide range of schools and colleges competing. Many thanks to regular participants who keep the life blood of the contest pumping. Popular storylines continue to feature slavery, the Roman army, gladiators and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Yet each year it is a revelation to witness how these well trodden paths are imaginatively retraced. Other innovations such as murder plots involving the emperor and Ovid’s love poetry showed meticulous historical research and heightened drama.  Fresh literary blood has also raised the energy, humour and creativity of the sponge stick enterprise and it is this youthful enthusiasm which is its golden heartbeat.

Prizes:  The allocation reflects the very popular 11-13 age category.

Under age 9 category winner :

Aya Kodmani, Pembridge Hall School for Girls

11-13 age category:

Winner: Lucy Johnson, St John’s School, Cambridge

2nd: Sophie Littlewood, St John’s School, Cambridge

3rd: Megan King, Stockport Grammar School

Commended: Jacob Freda, Bristol Grammar School

14 and above age category:

Winner: Ruby Osman, Sancton Wood School, Cambridge

2nd: Mia Forbes,  Nonsuch High School, Cheam

3rd: Adam Stanley, Cheadle Hulme School

Best International entry:
Marina Macklin, Highland School, Virginia, USA

Prizes for schools :

St John’s School, Cambridge (winner of Golden Sponge Stick school award)

Commended :  George Abbot School, Guildford, Norwich High School for Girls  

Special thanks :

To all the participating schools and pupils (whether you won on this occasion or not), Burgess Hill School for Girls, Barbara Johns (Head of Classics), Caroline Lawrence, Lorna Robinson and the iris project, Friends of Classics, Association for Latin Teachers, The Classics Library, JACT, Oxford University Classics Outreach, Cambridge University School Classics Project, Classical Association (for funding the prizes). Much love and thanks to my family, Carol (my mother) and my brothers, Neil and Robert for their continual encouragement.

Finally, one of this year’s winners, Jacob, wrote a story called ‘pater.’ I dedicate the youthful spirit and vision of this competition to my own ‘pater’, Malcolm, whose love of learning and the Classics inspired me and also to the teaching gifts of my sister, Lisa.

Caroline says: And I would like to thank Jeremy Pine for all the time and love he put into setting up and judging this competition. I will post some of the winning entries here over the next few weeks. Watch this space. To see some winning entries from this year – and from previous years – go HERE