Category Archives: Non Fiction



A snake came to my water trough…” DH Lawrence

A morning stroll over gentle Elsie’s Peak for magnificent views of the curling Atlantic surf, down to Cape Point, proved I hope the most auspicious introduction to Cape Town. Since among the leathery, yellow green Protea plants and bright tipped wild flowers my hostess suddenly stopped dead. Not three feet away a bejewelled puff adder pulled its fat gold-black body across the dry earth right in front of us, back into the secret scrub. It sent an electric thrill through us both, at a vital touch of danger in paradise.

Despite the student riots that week then and the burning cars at Cape Town’s University, UTC, with demands for free Tertiary education from the much criticized administration of President Jacob Zuma,  in a ‘Fees must fall’ campaign, the press reports of 60 rapes a month in the nearby district of Phillipi, or ‘those stories’ of Africa that always keep you sharp, or vaguely nervous, so far my touristy experience of exhilarating Cape Town has been of a coastal paradise. If with twinges of guilt at joining the beautiful and select in what sometimes feels like a manicured Urban Golf Course, over yet another glass of delicious South African wine. Along the well mettaled roads, among the smartly streaming cars, afternoon traffic jams and many signs of considerable wealth are the black Big Issue sellers, the fly by night traders, the beggars, the corrugated township huts and those already lost to ‘tik’, Crystal Meth. Yet in the Pick and Pay supermarket at Constantia, black, white and colored pensioners were having a very jolly time at a local get together.

That sense of a paradise though, troubled or not, was confirmed today by a visit to one of Cape Town’s true jewels in her glittering and always colourful crown, the lovely Botanical Gardens at Kirtstenbosch. Opened in 1913 on farm grounds that once belonged to that very incorrect Empire builder, Rand Lord and chairman and go founder of De Biers, Cecil Rhodes, the sculpted beds, scented walks, manicured lawns, ragged gorges and winding forest paths, nestling in the haunches of mighty Table Mountain, are where the wild and well-watered find a perfect harmony.

Rhodes, who planted the Camphor Avenue here, now grown to deliciously shadey proportions, is so iconic, like History itself perhaps, good or bad, that I was surprised to find he died at only 48, with the probably apocryphal words – “so much to do, so little time”. When you know a little more of South Africa’s rich and anguished history, how recent Apartheid was and how recently abolished too, you cannot help but think how much has been done and lived through in so little time. How even that pales into insignificance too though in terms of the gigantic sweep of Geological Time you can glimpse at Kirstenbosch.

They’ve expended much time and great skill too developing the National Botanical Gardens, with its various beds, Arboretum and Concert Lawn, stocking it with a cornucopia of those rare plants that make the Cape quite unique as a botanist’s treasure chest. The gardens boast two and a half thousand species of indigenous plant. Though the likes of Rhodes are hardly figures happily talked about now, with a “Rhodes must fall campaign” too, and that militant trend much criticized and feared too by many white South Africans towards the ‘de-colonialisation’ of African history and culture, echoed in recent protests at Oxford University too, by seeking to remove signs like the Neo Classical Rhodes Memorial. Indeed, just today, Rhode’s statue at UTC was removed, to little concern from white friends here.


‘Sweet waters’ is the original name for Cape Town, and that astonishing cloud topped monolith, six times as old as the Himalayas, is the City’s secret and its true mystery. You can feel it when that bank of cloud that locals call the Table Cloth spills off the mountain’s edge, like the beginning of some Olympian banquet. Up there it clings to the defiantly hardy plants and the indefatigable shrubs, ensuring three times the normal condensation, so constantly feeding the myriad springs that rush down its slopes towards the chilly sea. It is part of the reason for the astonishing variety of flora and fauna at tranquil Kirstenbosch and the lushness of Cape Town too.  “I’ve never seen so many birds feeding together” said the guy with the shotgun Camera, as butterflies, Canary, long tailed Sugar birds and dazzlingly flourescent Sun birds darted, dipped and feasted around us.

There is something else at Kirstenbosch that might make it a microcosm for the whole of South Africa too, part of the fence and hedge established in 1660 right across indigenous cattle routes by the settler and Commander of the Dutch East India Company Jan Van Riebeeck. The very early beginnings of Colonialism and Apartheid. You half expect Donald Trump to burst from the foliage. Except that appalling and unnatural division enshrined as a social ideology and in Law by the Afrikaaners only in the twentieth Century is ostensibly gone in South Africa, and at Kirstenbosch what remains are a new explosion of well labeled plants, flaming choral trees and magnificently curling and splitting trunks – saffron, wild fig and giant mahogany. Ominously identified too in the Garden of Extinction are the 1500 species now in danger on our impossibly small Planet.

I was really won over though by Kirstenbosch’s brand new ‘reptile’. The “Boomslang”, or tree snake, is what they call the brilliantly designed little walkway now curling through part of the canopy, like the city twisting about the giant mountain, and opened in 2014. According to one knowledgble white old timer, who comes here every week, the walkway has increased the Botanical Garden’s visitor rate by 60%. As we listened to the strange quack of mis-named Egyptian Geese, he told me too about the Jan Smutts gorge above us, the famous Boer general had taken up his beloved mountain at the age of 80 to meet the British, who had used the nascent cable car. He was informed and friendly, also telling me how he had played with snakes as a child. In such serene surroundings then I voided wearing my Liberal credentials too heavily when he started talking about ‘them’ having no idea of design, over a book recently produced about Table Mountain and the ‘ugly’ Xhosa name on the cover. I found it rather beautiful.

The day before I had invited myself up to that visual banquet among the Gods, taking the slick modern revolving cable car to the top of Table Mountain. So among tourists as multi-cultural as you can imagine, with many from China, we had all looked down, not only at the city’s astonishing views, but the forbiddingly arid splodge of Robben island, lying ominous in the turquoise bay. It was of course where Mandela spent eighteen of his 27 incarcerated years, breaking rocks in the limestone quarry. In the Press meanwhile the Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the well respected Indian Finance Minister, had just announced new funds for Tertiary education. The recent corruption charges leveled against him have now been dropped. Meanwhile, today protests in Pretoria again turned to violence, with calls for President Zuma to resign. Perhaps, with opposition voices crying  ‘not on our watch’ this is a critical moment for South Africa.

The country’s challenges remain vast, with only 1% growth, perhaps a 35% unemployment rate and 738 corruption charges pending against Zuma alone. Though he has just withdrawn opposition to the release of the ‘State capture’ report  which may expose the true levels of corruption. The white Jewish journalist John Matison, who worked for Mandela, is not alone in saying then that the likes of Zuma have morally bankrupted Mandela’s vision of that Rainbow Nation, if beyond the symbolism, and with such vast differentials, it ever really existed.

You would not think that dream dead strolling through the sweet smelling Camphor walk at Kirstenbosch, nor visiting the ever popular Robben Island gateway Museum. Where wall plaques testify so movingly to the spirit that endured so much and yet answered hate, intolerance and fear with dignity and forgiveness. So creating a conscious monument not just to oppression but the vital possibility of human hope. That lies not just in the hands of blacks but all South Africans, and perhaps most especially reformists whites in positions of huge economic power. It is precisely the problem of easy ‘de-colonialisation’, too though, or a few wearing T-shirts like ‘Kill the Whites’, since it invites a pointless and dangerous forgetting.

Yet life’s stings are everywhere too, and I was still in search of my African adventure and our auspicious, if secretive friends. So stamping my feet loudly, I left the path in Kirstenbosch and set off across a little stream, then climbed one of the many stepped earth walks that ring the gardens toward the wilder edges of the mountain. There it was, one of the Lords of Life, as DH Lawrence put it in his poem The Snake, just to my left and making off fast through the tangled tree roots. Perhaps four feet long, it was only a juvenile, yet with the strong yellow brown markings of the Cape Cobra, barely flexing its hood in warning at my ignorant passing.

The thrill at that living reality was the same as the sight of our puff adder, and the gorgeous, intense vibrancy everywhere here. Where, again in Lawrence’s words, you would be a fool to miss your chance, or have any pettiness to expiate. As for old and lost arguments, there are still those voices that cling to some kind of fighting nostalgia about what happened in South Africa, but they are generational and will pass away, in the great sweep of time.

Of course there is another presence in Kirstenbosch now though, among the memorial benches to passed locals who loved the place, a little bust of sweet faced Nelson Mandela – ‘Madiba’. He opened a walk here flowering with pepper bark trees, ‘Mandela’s Gold’ they named the flowers in his honour, their bright yellow buds filled with a pointed purple magic. The pepper bark is a traditional healing plant here and that was always Mandela’s triumph. It was not just his though, but De Klerk’s too, though the astonishing inspiration of Mandela remains both his courage and then suffering, but that he could rise from it all speaking of reconciliation. It is far more than that though, like laying careful walkways and tending well watered gardens, so trying to map the future with a Constitution that is universally admired and will hopefully prevent Zuma copying the pattern of so many African leaders.

Never tempt the fates, nor the snaky auspices, but there is something about friendly, vivid Cape Town though and that joyous and dignified voice of Mandela too that makes this place still potentially so visionary, not just for Africa but perhaps the endangered World. Now we all need to hear the voices. Whatever that future holds there are few more serene and inspiring places to contemplate it all than in the magical gardens of Kirstenbosch.

The photo shows the new “Boomslang” walkway at Kirstenbosch national botanical gardens, Cape Town, South Africa.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community, Culture, Education, Environment, Non Fiction, Uncategorized


Since Phoenix Ark is partly the record of things as they really happen, in fact and fiction, and stories that seem to follow, like perhaps being one of the few writers talking about 16th Century London and Shakespeare with the odd distinction of really came close to the Black Death, in the story about Eric York in the Grand Canyon, just a note about the pretty Dorset town of Beaminster and the recent tragedy. 

I drove up on Monday in the rain, to hear that the tunnel on the A3066 had collapsed. That day the friend I’m staying with had been told about a missing local couple, as people started to worry about a crash.  On Tuesday it suddenly appeared on the Internet and in The Huffington Post, that a car had been found at the tunnel, buried in a heavy mud slide. A body had been found. With respect to the families in Beaminster, we won’t say any more, except perhaps that at least the older couple were together. Since they were missing for a week though, the case is being referred to the IPPC, The Independent Police Commission.



Leave a comment

Filed under Non Fiction, The Phoenix Story, Uncategorized


Did we tell you the one about meeting the actress who played the poisoner who Livia employed in I Claudius, in a chemist in the Oval, complimenting her on her talent and the wonderful series, then deciding not to buy any medicine that day! From the frayed temper in reply to a blog about another I Claudian, Derek Jacobi, and the Earl of Oxford theory today, perhaps emotions run deep. We do want to stress then undying admiration for real writers, poets, and actors, especially Derek Jacobi, so point out that disagreeing with his thoughts on Shakespeare’s identity, in his programme about Richard II, has nothing to do with our appreciation of his huge talents as an actor. So we invite him to tea, to dispute the Oxford theory, or even better to hear about research here into the story of Edmund Shakespeare in Southwark. No poison will be even contemplated.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Language, Non Fiction, Poetry, The Arts


In responding to searches on Phoenix Ark’s website, we have noted interest in the article on Drue Heinz and the CIA. The story of Allen Dulles features prominently in the new thriller The Godhead Game by David Clement-Davies, A Game of Secrets, A Hunt for Skulls, A Battle of Spies, available as an eBook via, but here is some of the factual research that helped to inform the story. Drue Heinz was one of Manhattan’s grandest dames for many years and a massive supporter of the arts, but sadly not Phoenix Ark Press. On the other hand, we have never asked!


It turned up in a World War II visitor’s book, from an aristocratic home, on a hill in Switzerland, with sweeping views to Mont Blanc. There a glamorous American heiress, and a Swiss Baron, banker, and notable art collector, lived out the war in grand style, and with a considerable taste for adventure. Among their more permanent guests was the painter Balthus. They were also intimately connected with a celebrated spy – Allen Dulles – first Civilian Director of the CIA. The hostess of the house would help Dulles retrieve the Ciano diaries from Mussolini’s favourite daughter, Edda. As part of an American East Coast elite, she was at least an informal agent for the OSS, forerunner to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services. As for Dulles, still said to be a romantic hero at the Agency, and a committed lady’s man, the be-spectacled, swashbuckling, but famously discrete lawyer had crossed into Switzerland, via Lisbon and Spain, as the borders slammed shut on the eve of Operation Torch, the allied invasion of North Africa. He was armed with a banker’s draft for a million dollars, and a virtually free hand, as Berne OSS station chief. That he cherished, and fully exploited, culminating in his work over Operation Sunrise, for German surrender in Northern Italy. His all important Swiss escapade is touched on, fictionalised, but largely avoided, in the film The Good Shepherd, starring Matt Damon. Dulles certainly believed in something that seems to have gone into decline, operatives fully enagaged on the ground, and culturally educated and well informed, rather than doing much second hand, perhaps nowadays down the net. He once famously said that all you really need in life is ‘a little bit of courage’.

Dulles had worked for the State Department, became a lawyer with Cromwell and Sullivan, and was a member of Yale’s infamous Skull and Bones Society, initiate to Presidents and security gurus, alike. In Switzerland he set about building a spy network that saw his intelligence gathering reach Roosevelt’s own desk. Since he had turned Lenin from the American Legation door in Switzerland, in 1918, he would never make the same mistake again, and worked with many. He also contacted every American living there, to ask for help, in what he described to Washington as a ‘somewhat distorted world’. It was the kind of world where agents still wore red carnations, or proffered a pack of Camel cigarettes, rather than Gauloise, to establish their allegiance to Free France, or Vichy. One that saw the British and Americans in touch with Admiral Canaris, employer and lover of Mata Hari, as head of the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence. Until Canaris fell, after the attempt to assassinate Hitler, and the Abwehr were abolished. Canaris was effectively replaced by Walter Schellenberg, who mounted two machine guns on his desk in Berlin, and later settled in Switzerland to write The Labyrinth. One of Allen Dulles’s greatest coups though was securing the help of the heroic Fritz Kolbe, who the British had turned away from ‘the shop’, and whose reports were validated in London by none other than Kim Philby, already working for the Soviets. Actually Dulles was too acute to sign his name in a visitor’s book, although his daughter Joan, and troubled wife Clover Todd, both appear in 1944. As does a patient of the psychologist Carl Jung, who, though he never came to the house, Dulles also consulted in Germany, and had his own OSS code number. There too came Dulles’s station replacement in Berne, Robert P. Joyce, and General Barnwell Legge, American Legation secretary. Legge was heavily criticized in a recent military controversy on the internet, for his involvement in preventing downed American airmen escape, under threat of Court Martial, probably because Dulles did not want their Swiss operation compromised. Also for failing to correct conditions at the scandalous camp at Wilmeroose, although one subordinate called him a caring man.

In a very ‘Special Relationship’, British Intelligence were at the house too, many times. In the person of George Younghusband, military number two at the British Legation, and the Colditz escapee Pat Reid, famous for his escape-themed board game, and for so successfully telling The Colditz Story, after the war. Reid never wrote about his time in Switzerland though. More specifically, on the British front, there is Henry Cartright, head of MI9 in Switzerland. MI9 dealt with escape routes out of Switzerland, although the role of MI6 has been little written about, in terms of the use and significance of information that debriefed escapees must have provided to intelligence networks, for attacks on Germany. Cartwright was a world War I escapee himself, whose best seller on the subject was avid Nazi reading in WWII, for obvious reasons. That house was watched closely by the Swiss Police too, reported for high antics, and for harbouring ‘a nest of spies’. Its owners were friends with the head of the Berne police though, and so probably protected, in the semi neutral atmosphere of smoke and mirrors diplomacy. One affected in Switzerland by the changing winds of war.

Soon after the war though, they received a grateful card from the British Legation, commending the couple not only for hospitality, but for their invaluable help to British and American escapees. It makes a family visitor’s book a very important historical document, as are unseen papers on Hitler and Edda Mussolini. Perhaps significantly, they received no such commendations from US Services, since spying rarely stops. The question still remains though as to how much their Brit guests were aware of the depth of their American connections, because the house’s true significance is testified to by a meeting in 1945, still a mystery, that involved a visit by colonels at the heart of SHAEF, The Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and ETOUSA, American Theatre of Operations, during Operation Overlord. They had helped covertly in a war that would see Nazi scientists smuggled to America too, in the battle for the A-Bomb, under Dulles’s Operation Paperclip, and herald the triumph of American world hegemony, in more ways than simple military victory. If information is power, cash rich America certainly won the covert war, because America soon had vast reserves of European files transferred to Washington. Incidentally, some 6000 secret papers relating to Switzerland, and designated Safehaven, remain closed.

There is one rather surprising name in the visitor’s book too though, on an evening in 1943 – Drue Mackenzie Robertson. She is actually Drue Heinz, future wife of the Baked Bean and Ketchup Multi-Millionaire, Henry J Heinz. She was a doyenne of New York Society for many years – writing letters to the New Yorker in 1944, so she may have been back in the States by then – but also became a celebrated patron of the literary arts. One the flapping Phoenix Ark could certainly do with a little help from – for our love of stories, real and fictional! She is publisher of The Paris Review, established the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, and her foundation endows the Drue Heinz lecture series in Pittsburg. At the Carnegie Museum of Art, her foundation also funds exhibitions at the Heinz Architectural Centre, and supports The Lincoln Centre Review. Having endowed a chair of American Literature at St John’s College, Oxford, and involved with Hertford College too, Drue Heinz has long been at the very epicentre of American Arts and Culture, but also influential in the UK. In 2002 she was made an Honorary Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature.

Born Doreen Mary English, Mrs Heinz clearly had a taste for theatrics earlier on, and as an actress, earned a small part in the movie Uneasy Terms, in 1948. It is all a long time ago, and many lives have passed in-between, so distance affords both mystery, and admiration, for a now grand old literary lady. But what of such tantalising ‘skull and bones’ in her cupboard, and was Drue Heinz really part of the OSS too, America’s Office of Strategic Services, or only linked by association? The term spy became a very moveable feast during the war, but it is an open secret that some of the most fertile areas of unwritten intelligence history are neutral territories, and Switzerland is no exception. Drue Heinz was there that night in Switzerland, 67 years ago, in 1943, and her signature is on the visitor’s page too, below her second husband, Dale Wilford Maher. As a graduate of the US Cavalry School and military attaché, Maher is a dead ringer for a spy, and signs himself ‘Master of the Five by Five”. That entry rather bemused this excited researcher, until, last year, one of the obvious links sprang fully armed from the pages of history, to validate a remarkable story, worthy of a movie, or a very stylish spy novel. ‘Five by Five’ was official Nato parlance for the best quality wireless transmissions, namely ‘reading you loud and clear’.

These people based at the American Legation then, and guests at a private home, were sending back radio reports, as Dulles himself began nightly transmissions from Switzerland, which in a coming technological age changed the cloak and dagger style of British dominated spying. It was the dawn of a new era, and they specialised in American style code words, like ‘Fatboy’ for Herman Goering. Stationed in Berne, in his beautiful flat in the Herengasse, Dulles’s own rather charming code name was Mr Burns, so you might take another glance at the satirical cartoon The Simpsons. To underline the personal touch, that Dulles would stamp all over the CIA, he called the technique for an operative communicating with a plane overhead by radio, ‘J-E Operations’. It came from the initials of Dulles’s daughter Joan, and his sister Eleanor. Despite British fears, Dulles’s work never compromised the greatest British coup though, in his supposedly ‘gung ho’ and open door approach. A coup embodied in the Enigma project, and Ultra transmissions, concealing the fact Britain had cracked and could read all German messages at the start of the war. British archives, although still closed, reveal a wireless transmitor was installed in their own Swiss legation in 1943.

Dulles, whose obsession would soon become the Soviet threat, and who encouraged later assassination programmes, out of the no-holes-barred tactics learnt in defeating the Nazis, notably had shares in the American Fruit Company, and has a rather more suspect role after his heroic war effort. Allied propaganda was one of his specialities in Switzerland, and as a master of dis-information, he was to be involved in a Mind Control programme, and Operation Mockingbird – perhaps he liked Harper Lee – the CIA’s attempt to directly influence the American media. Another visitor to that house would be Captain Tracy Barnes, a so-called ‘Jedburgh Agent’, and code named ‘Trick’, who would later turn up in the Cuban ‘Bay of Pigs’ debacle. It was of course Cuban bedeviled Kennedy who said of the CIA that he would like to scatter the organisation ‘to the four winds’. But what of Drue Heinz, whose Wikepedia profile is rather thin? Tantalizingly, that evening Drue Heinz signed herself in appealingly Mata Hari vein, for such a sparkling Manhattan hostess-to-be – “Queenie – the Striptease Queen!” The intense passions and fortunes of war, and such heady Swiss excitement, may have been too much for some. Dale Maher died in 1948, and his forwarding address on the internet is simply listed as ‘The State Department’. Drue Mackenzie Robertson married Henry J. Heinz II in 1953, becoming his third wife, and so perhaps beginning her powerful and passionate role in fiction and the arts. A passion fully shared by Phoenix Ark Press, although admittedly with a sometimes sceptical eye on other literary powers that be.

If you enjoyed this article, which is exclusive and under copyright, you can donate to building a little writer’s publisher:

Phoenix Ark Press errors: If anything is factually wrong in any articles on the Blog, please write to us direct, and we will enadeavour to check and correct.

Leave a comment

Filed under America and the UK, Education, Non Fiction, The Arts, Thrillers


Phoenix Ark Press are delighted to announce the publication of Leonardo’s Little Book of Wisdom, compiled and introduced by the historian Foreman Saul, who is profiled below. An essential guide to the Master’s life wisdom and wit too, this unique selection, from the translation of Leonardo’s notebooks by Jean Paul Richter, will lead you through a genius’ insights into science, painting, nature, religion, God, love and death. Interspersed with Leonardo’s mostly humorous prophecies, it brings the man to life in a vivid new way and is done to celebrate the Discovery Channel’s coming forensic series on Leonardo’s painting and, of course, the National Gallery’s ground-breaking exhibition in London this autumn. What better way to walk through life than in the company of a true giant?

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Culture, Education, Non Fiction, Science, The Arts

Marathons, Moore and Krishnamurti in Rome

It’s the Roman marathon today. Big plastic inflatable gates, sponsored by Pepsi and Adidas, are wobbling in the breeze and spring sunlight near the Piazza Espagna, as thousands run the yellow tape lined course, to cheers and claps, and officials handing out soaking sponges, to cool brows along the cobbled course. Roman tourists though seem only partly interested, with so much to see, and as the bells ring out, it has a decidedly scrubbier and more relaxed feel than London or New York. Last night’s amazing super moon has gone, and today spring Rome is beginning to open up and blossom. On the internet Michael Moore is twittering his over easy attacks on the US action in Tripoli, without answering the question of how murderous or mad Gaddafi is, or what should be done to stop more killing. How do you think clearly if you always have the same bad guy?

I stayed in bed reading a little gem of a book, Freedom from the Known, by Krishnamurti. It takes up the essentially Buddhist theme of opposites in thought, and a freedom from them, to perceive without fear or judgement, and to really try to know yourself and the world. Essentially to close off or go beyond the over rational mind, above all dictated by what we call knowledge, which too often is simply to commune with the dead past. A very good lesson for Phoenix Ark! Rome is a place where the past is ever present, but actually, since the thread of 2000 years is so clear, that continuity liberates into the immediate and the present.

I thoroughly recommend Krishnamurti. Without arrogance, with a simple and honest insistence, he addresses the interconnections of everything, in a very short and readable little book, and so the responsibility to see clearly, yourself and others. He is wonderful on fear, on pleasure and pain, and on the approach to what might be called ‘God’, though without the structures, prohibitions and neuroses of religion. It’s a wholeness of connection really, that beyond the veil of words, tries to get back to the experience of something truly life-giving, love and joy. It also breathes out something else – peace.

But being in the so-called ‘eternal city’ I should quote something he says, though from a book that is very much not about quotations. ‘Sorrow and love cannot go together, but in the Christian world they have idealised suffering, put it on a cross and worshipped it, implying that you can never escape from suffering except through that one particular door, and this is the whole structure of an exploiting religious society.’ DCD


Filed under Non Fiction


‘How come some people don’t wash?’ said Santiago disapprovingly, looking at some grubby, foot-sore Roman pedestrian, as we sped down the LungoTevere out of Rome, and towards the wine dark sea. ‘Perhaps they haven’t got a shower!’ someone else suggested, humanistically. We weren’t on the way to bathe in the Mediterranean, we were on the road to dip our historical imaginations, if that’s not too much of a mixed metaphor, in the astounding ruins at Ostia Antica. Ostia means mouth, and the city grew up as a feed port to Rome, on the estuary mouth of the Tiber, before it fell into terminal decline around the 7th Century AD.

What is it that really fires an historical imagination though? For me, as a ten-year old boy, I remember it was the small, significant detail, which so vividly captured the ancient every day. Hence goggling at the ruts in the cobbled pavement at Pompey, where chariot wheels had scored deep grooves into the thoughtless stone. At Ostica Antica it was sitting on a simple loo seat, a perfectly rounded half-hole in a slate of marble, inside low stone walls, long before our flushed, taken-for-granted days of Thomas Crapper. Or leaning on a bar counter, in a perfectly deserted alleyway, where once Romans and Ostians would have stopped for wine or beer, or perhaps a wild boar sandwich.

Actually, at Ostia, it is far more than the significant detail, or even a sudden encounter with a floor mosaic, a half statue, or a fresco. I think wandering around yesterday was the most magical experience of ruins I’ve ever had. The remains of the city are huge, and what is most delightful is that in early March at least, almost completely deserted. Romans, most of the year, are making for the sun worshipping sands of Ostia’s big beeches, now 3KM away, after centuries of tidal retreat. Perhaps they should build a temple to King Canute. Most visitors to Ostia Antica too still stick to the central via, past the wonderfully preserved theatre, and up to the impressive capitol. So I jumped off the beaten track and picked my way through abandoned mill houses, villas, shops and weed-strewn streets, trying to summon back the vanished inhabitants, washed and unwashed. I had an encounter with the ‘Gods’ too, among the sun-brushed pines, in an open field, ringed by pilasters and edged by a main road, where unregarding cars add an electric buzz to the mystery. There stood the temple of Attis, fronted by goat-hoofed statues of the God Pan, proving it’s all about the piping, and behind a gate, the Egyptian war Goddess herself, who, with her starry crown, looked like a recumbent version of the Statue of Liberty. Ate she is, after the Romans adopted her, and in Mark Anthony’s murderous, revenge summoning curse in Shakespeare, following Julius Caesar’s murder.

But apart from the spiritual side of Roman life, it is of course Roman civic utility that is most in evidence at Ostia. Hence the huge apartment complex, the Villa of Diana, built around a central fountain and courtyard, where Mr and Mrs Roman lived in the closest proximity. It is the equivalent of a modern city housing estate, without the concrete horrors and the drug dealers, perhaps. But beyond the temples and administrative buildings, the magnificent Capitol, and the all important theatre, what really dominates Ostia are the Baths of Neptune. Built, I think, after Hadrian, the bath complex, one of several, is huge, still containing the most astounding mosaics, and there all Ostians became not only the great washed, but the very fit too, since the Frigidarium, Tepidarium and sweating hot-houses were bounded with Gymnasia for sport and exercise. They also contain public toilets, since most Roman houses did not have private loos, or bathing facilities. Senator, priest, patrician and plebeian must at times have rubbed shoulders there, sitting in windless splendour to shoot the breeze, do the business, or wonder where it was all leading. Quite rightly Santiago would ask that all important and still unanswered question later: ‘Were they Unisex?!’ Filthy man. ‘Marcus,’ I heard an imagined voice whisper though, as I turned for home in the glowing evening light, ‘you know that fellow may be an awful Pleb, but he really is very smart and clean.’ ‘Ah yes, Tullius, but then he comes here every day because, quite naturally, he doesn’t have a shower.’ DCD

Leave a comment

Filed under Non Fiction

Protected: Changing my mind, and being a ‘rebel’ publisher, by just speaking out and telling the truth.

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Enter your password to view comments.

Filed under Non Fiction, The Phoenix Story