Thursday, 16 March 2023

Girl Racer: recreating the world of the Circus Maximus by Annelise Gray

My childhood reading obsessions were with books about ponies. I had a whole shelf devoted to them – the Jill series by Ruby Fergusson, an assortment of titles by the prolific Pullein-Thompson sisters. If I’d known about the Flambards trilogy by K.M. Peyton at the time, that would have been on there too. Pride of place in my collection, though, was given over to a dog-eared copy of National Velvet by Enid Bagnold, the tale of a girl who wins a wild horse in a village raffle and dreams of riding him to victory at the Grand National. 

It now has a home on the shelf above my writing desk, the lodestar and inspiration for my Circus Maximus series, which follows the adventures of a horse-mad Roman girl called Dido, whose dream is to be break into the all-male world of charioteering and compete at the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world. 

In conjuring up the historical setting for Dido’s adventures, my other literary inspiration, besides National Velvet, is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, the tale of a young Roman soldier’s quest to discover what happened to his missing father’s lost legion. As well as being a riveting adventure story, I’m in awe of the way Sutcliff brings the bleak landscape of Roman Britain to life but in a way that never feels like she’s borrowing on cliched tropes about the ancient world. 

That was my aspiration with the Circus Maximus series. Plenty of research underpins the novels, but I hope the reader never feels that they’re having a history lesson. Instead, by immersing them in the period, I want them to feel as if they are right there besides Dido and her fellow characters, smelling the same scents in the air, feeling the noise coming up through the ground as the vast Circus crowd roars and stamps its feet in anticipation. The ultimate goal is to make people think I know what it’s like to drive a chariot, even though – a little to my regret – I never have.

To that end, much of my background research prior to writing the series was into the world of chariot racing, ancient Rome’s favourite sport. I drew from a tapestry of different sources – literary, artistic and archaeological. Written eyewitness accounts from the time provide a glimpse into the build-up to a race – the charioteers drawing lots to see which of the Circus’s twelve starting gates they will be allocated; stable-hands and grooms holding harness, plaiting manes and trying to soothe their four-legged charges; the horses’ hot breath puffing through the gates. Thanks to inscriptions in honour of winning teams, we know the names of hundreds of horses who raced at the Circus and even their colour and sometimes their breeding.

No actual Roman racing chariots survive from the ancient world, but little model replicas – such as this one currently held by the British Museum - assist with their reconstruction and demonstrate how much smaller, flimsier and more dangerous to drive they would have been than the cumbersome vehicles seen in the classic film Ben-Hur. Meanwhile, mosaics from North Africa, where many of the best horses and drivers began their careers, give us close-ups of the uniform of the charioteers, their coloured tunics denoting which of the four big racing factions they represented – Reds, Blues, Whites and Greens.
Mosaic from the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome depicting a charioteer and horse from each of the four factions

Curse tablets buried under the track at ancient circuses and inscribed with spells wishing a gruesome death on teams from particular factions - demonstrate how fierce the rivalries were between supporters. That hostile tribalism, particularly between the Blues and Green factions, is much in evidence during all three Circus Maximus books and plays a key part in determining the course of Dido’s life. 

Of all the evidence I drew on in writing the books though, my favourite are the games tokens that were found in the grave of a young Roman girl from the fourth century. Six little ivory discs, with an image of a horse on one side and a victorious charioteer on the other, they were buried with the girl alongside a doll with jointed arms and legs and plaited hair. One theory is that the tokens were keepsakes from a day at the races, and it’s a poignant image, that idea that maybe this girl loved going to the Circus and her family buried it with her as mementoes of a happy day. From my point of view, it’s always seemed unlikely that amongst the quarter of a million people who could fit into the Circus Maximus on race day, there weren’t at least a handful of girls – young Velvet Browns of the past – who longed to be down on that great track themselves, competing for glory, hearing their name on the crowd’s lips. That’s an image I always hold in my head as I write Dido’s story. 

You can watch Annelise Gray's video on Roman Chariot Races by clicking here.

Annelise Gray was born in Bermuda and moved to the UK as a child. She grew up riding horses and dreaming of becoming a writer. After studying Classics under Professor Mary Beard, she earned her PhD in 2004 and has worked as a historical researcher and as a Latin teacher. Her debut children’s novel, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death (Zephyr Books) was longlisted for the 2022 Branford Boase Award and named as a Children’s Book of the Week in the Sunday Times. There are now two more titles in the Circus Maximus series, Rivals on the Track and Rider of the Storm, which was published on World Book Day this year.

Author website:
Twitter: @AnneliseGray
Annelise Gray's books are available online and from bookshops, including The Rocketship Bookshop, Salisbury

Friday, 10 March 2023

Ghost signs: messages from the past by Matthew Wainwright

The high street was another matter: now that the day was underway it was a crawling, heaving, swelling mass of life. Horse-drawn omnibus carriages rumbled constantly to and fro, overflowing with passengers, advertisements in bold letters plastered over every available surface. 
Out of the Smoke - Chapter 15

Advertising, in one form or another, has been around since the dawn of civilisation. From political messages inscribed on a tablet in ancient Egypt, to interactive video screens on the streets of present-day Tokyo, people have always tried to get their messages across to other people in the most effective way possible.

The Narmer Palette: It possibly depicts the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms in Ancient Egypt.

You could argue that the Victorian era was a boom time for advertising. The middle classes were becoming more well-off, which meant they had money to spare for all kinds of things that would make their lives easier. And this meant that companies had a growing market to appeal to.

In the 19th century you could find adverts everywhere: in newspapers, in magazines, in books, on the sides of omnibus carriages, and on the sides of buildings. The average person in a Victorian town centre of any size was bombarded with colourful images and slogans wherever they went.

Street advertising in 19th century London
Watercolour by John Orlando Parry, "A London Street Scene" 1835, in the Alfred Dunhill Collection

Virtually all of these adverts have now disappeared, except where they are captured in drawings and photographs or preserved in museums. But if you look a little more carefully, you may just see the echoes of some of these adverts on the buildings around you …

Stroll through just about any medium-sized town or city in England, and you will see a jumble of different kinds of buildings. Some of these buildings are new — all glass and steel — and others are old, built of red brick. On the sides of some of these buildings, if you look carefully, you might just see something called a ghost sign!

A ghost sign lurking behind some more recent advertising ...

Ghost signs are … well, just that: they’re the ghosts of old advertisements, originally painted directly onto the sides of buildings and now faded — sometimes almost to nothing.

Can you spot the ghost sign ...?

The earliest record of a painted advert is from 1803, when a German visitor wrote about a sign advertising razor blades in Ludgate Hill — which means that ghost signs are a window that enables us to look over 200 years into the past!

Ghost signs can tell us the kind of shops and businesses that were around in an area, what people were most interested in, and what business wanted people to buy.

A ghost sign advert for an estate agent in South London

They can also tell us about the language that people used: instead of advertising a cafe, for instance, you might see ghost signs talking about a ‘dining room’ or a ‘coffee and dining room’. It’s a fascinating insight into the way people spoke, recorded right there on a wall for everyone to see!

I love things like ghost signs. They’re a reminder that history isn’t just in the past: it’s all around us, right there for us to see. If you take a moment, stop and look at your surroundings, you’re sure to find something that someone has left behind. My advice is: look up. You’d be surprised what you might see on the side of a building or perched on a roof!

Writing challenge

Imagine a child living 200 years in the future. They come across a ‘ghost sign’ left over from today! 
  • What is the sign they find? Is it an advert for a game or a film, or perhaps for a new book? Is it a shop sign?
  • What do the surroundings of the sign look like? Is it still a town or a city, or has it become something completely different?
  • How would that child feel about the sign, and what would they think about the people who made it (us)?
A modern painted sign in London that might become a ghost sign one day ...

Write a short scene of the child discovering the sign. Describe the sign and its surroundings, and write what the child thinks and feels about the sign. Happy writing, and keep time tunnelling!


Matthew Wainwright is an author of historical fiction for children and teenagers.

Out of the Smoke is available at all good bookshops and online.

You can find out more about Matthew and his books on his website.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Clean Water for London? by Jeannie Waudby

I visited the fascinating London Museum of Water and Steam, to see how clean water saves people from disease.
We all know now what it’s like to go through a global pandemic. As Covid 19 spread around the world, it wasn’t immediately clear what we should do to stop it. Now we know the virus is mainly spread through the air droplets from an infected person’s nose or mouth. Throughout history, people have been faced with epidemics and the difficulty of trying to prevent them. For my last book, I researched the 1848 epidemic of cholera in London. Thousands of people died from this devastating illness, but at that time they didn’t understand how it was spread. People thought the disease was caused by bad air, or ‘miasma’. It’s easy to see how terrified everyone must have been and why they thought that the stink from the river was making them sick. They were right to think the river was the problem, but not because of the smell. The water in the Thames was contaminated by cholera-infected sewage.
A doctor called John Snow identified the source of a deadly cholera outbreak to a pump in Broad Street.

John Snow suspected that dirty water was the problem. In 1849 he wrote a paper querying whether water could be transmitting cholera, but he faced a lot of opposition. Many people, even officials, were convinced of the bad air theory. Others were keen to blame cholera on poor people. It wasn’t until 1854 that John Snow was able to prove his water theory. He followed the trail of people who fell ill with cholera, and discovered that the first person to catch it was a woman who had fetched water from a pump contaminated by cholera-infected nappies. It was only in the mid 19th century that germ theory came to be understood so that helps explain why people resisted this for so long.
Other diseases could be spread in water – for instance the deadly outbreak of typhoid that came from a poo in a well.

Many people got their water from stand pumps, wells or rivers but as the 19th century progressed more and more Thames water was pumped into buildings.
The problem was that as London rapidly expanded, the river was becoming more and more contaminated by sewage and industry. It even came to be known as ‘the big Stink’. Eventually the Thames was so dirty that the Chelsea pump could no longer be used and in 1838 a new one was built in Brentford – the Kew Bridge Waterworks where the museum now is. The water was lovely and clean here because it was still mostly countryside, and at first the river water was pumped directly as it was. This pump used steam and was enormous. It’s still in the main block now.
Soon after building the Waterworks, it was decided that the river water should be cleaned up before pumping it to Londoners’ homes. So a system of filter beds and reservoirs was created around the site. By 1848 all waste had to be discharged into street sewers. Unfortunately, these emptied into the Thames and unfortunately, when it rains heavily this still happens today.
It’s very interesting to see all the different pumps that have been rescued and restored at the museum. Pumping water went from wind power to steam to electricity. There is still a pump working away to supply water to Londoners but now it is underground. Almost certainly, some of the electricity will come from wind energy.
Writing Challenge

Clean water is a necessity of life. We are mostly made of water and we call our earth ‘the blue planet’ because so much of its surface is water. Poets have always written special poems to things, people, ideas or places that they love. This kind of poem is an ‘ode’. Can you write an Ode to Water? First make a list of the things you love best about water. Each one can become a line of your poem.

Here is my list:

Pushing my hands through blue swimming pool water

Raindrops on cobwebs

Wet pavements

Ice-cold tap water in winter

Soft dark green pond water
Jeannie Waudby is the author of YA thriller/love story One of Us. She has recently completed a YA novel set in Victorian times.

Girl Racer: recreating the world of the Circus Maximus by Annelise Gray

My childhood reading obsessions were with books about ponies. I had a whole shelf devoted to them – the Jill series by Ruby Fergusson, an a...