Magical Mystery Tour

Caroline Lawrence, author of the popular Roman Mysteries books, explains how the ancient world first grabbed her attention.

I am ten years old, perched in the shady branches of a mulberry tree in Bakersfield California, trying to escape the baking heat of summer. I am reading a Nancy Drew mystery story. I like the idea of physical clues and of interviewing witnesses. Was this my point of departure? Not yet. 

I am eighteen, reading a book in a chilly bare room of a Swiss guesthouse. It’s my break and I’ve wrapped a blanket around my chambermaid’s uniform. The initial plan had seemed good. For our gap year, my friend and I would work for three months in a Swiss guesthouse, improving our French and our skiing, while earning enough money to travel around Europe. The reality proved different. We have been sent to a tiny resort in the part of Switzerland where they only speak Schweizerdeutsch, a German dialect no good to man nor beast. The cost of living is so high – and our pay so low – that we can’t even afford lift tickets up to the slopes. Trapped in snowy isolation, unable to understand my fellow-workers or even the television, I write home pleading for books. My parents come to the rescue. Knowing we plan to go on to Greece, they send E.V. Rieu’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and Mary Renault’s historical novel, The Last of the Wine.

Homer’s Iliad, with its grand passions and violent gore and petty bickerings, seems unbelievably contemporary. The gossiping goddesses on Mount Olympus remind me of the ladies at my hairdressers. Could people who lived that long ago really have been so ‘modern’? I am intrigued. Was this my point of departure? Almost.

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