Monday, April 25, 2022

Places, the place: Golgotha, Trees Triangle, Three Sisters

In youth I attended a boarding school in a remote Cumbrian village (coincidentally the one where I now live).  The daily cycle of dormitory, refectory, classroom, playing field was starkly constrained and meant my imagination only slipped its bonds when I looked up to the hills and experienced the landscape of the village and its surroundings in a way as inward and intense as that of (one imagines) a medieval estatesman or the monks that had once occupied the priory church.  Nowhere was this connection more vividly expressed than in the school’s compendium of cross-country runs, a psychological geography of a few square miles of Cumbria that invested agony, imaginative liberation, physical escape and ecstatic transports of achievement in afternoon exercise.  The routes’ names – Three Sisters, Triangle Wood, Peck Mill – were talismanic, loathed and embraced.  So it was with the pleasures of memory and discovery that yesterday, in the course of delivering election literature to a remote house accessible only by an obscure bridleway, I found myself retracing the long-expunged route of what was once the legendary lung-breaking Trees Triangle and parts of the practically mythic Railway Ramble.  The names and the places they represented had the power of involuntary memory, but also the dislocation of time.  In boyhood the Three Sisters route was named after a trio of cottages on the road to a neighbouring hamlet. When I returned to the village in adulthood time and housing development had relocated this toponym into the row of fields between the houses and the beach.  The signifier had floated, careless of memory and meaning, several furlongs to the south. 

This, inevitably, made me think of the challenges a historical novelist may face when trying to ensure that a landscape is not only recognisably authentic to the present-day reader but also credibly invested with the memories and associations of the historical protagonists.  No place on earth presents a greater challenge in this regard than Jerusalem - a city razed to the ground in antiquity and entirely rebuilt two centuries before an imperial enterprise devoted to the location and memorialisation of authentic pre-destruction ‘holy places’.   When researching The Judas Case I was unsurprised to discover that the presumed location(s) of the Crucifixion migrated some distance in the Old City between the 4th and 12th centuries – and relocated to the suburbs in the 19th.  The Golgotha of The Judas Case is located with one eye on the Constantinian localisation – and another on the practical and public challenges of conducting executions on what we know was sometimes an industrial scale.  (Spoiler alert – the neighbours are appalled by the noise, the smell and the crowds). 

Thursday, April 7, 2022

The Judas Case - an extract for April

Here’s another instalment in the series of short monthly extracts from The Judas Case. New readers may wish to begin with the one revealed in The Literary Consultancy’s Showcase in March.

In this April extract, veteran spymaster Solomon Eliades is reviewing some case notes:


I sat down beneath the awning and opened the satchel of documents from Yeshua’s file. At the head of each bundle of encrypted messages was the seal of the High Priest and a note in Hebrew explaining that the encryptions were not sorcery, nor did they contain spells for conjuring up the dead, but they were a dialect of koine Greek, known to the Temple Guard, and its use was acceptable in the sight of the Lord. We had found that civilian eyes trying to read a coded despatch would often conclude that it was a necromancer’s spell-book and that the act of touching it would defile his hands. Someone passionate for the Law might risk bringing such a thing to the attention of his local synagogue. Once someone did just that, with catastrophic results. A boy from the village where one of our officers worked saw him hiding a message, removed it from its place of concealment and showed it to his father, who could read a little… Witchcraft, he decided, and brought it to the village elders. They dragged our man to their synagogue, where he was condemned and stoned to death. That’s Galilee: a place where ignorance and stupidity walk alongside righteousness and observance.

First, I took the crumpled sheet that was all that remained of the Baptiser’s file. It began mid-sentence.


ftsman, one of his chief organisers and errand boys. No mistaking him, in any crowd or company. He’s compelling, more so even than the Baptiser. Tall, powerful build. Hair never cut. Forehead like a cliff. Enormous hands. Bad teeth. Not that you’d need a description to identify. He can draw attention to himself by silence and stillness. Three days down in the dust at Machaerus before I came to his attention. Instantly, he’s utterly absorbed in me, as if no-one could be more important. He’s noticed that I keep away from synagogue.

“You hang back. Why? Don’t you want to learn?”

To my astonishment, I find myself telling him. About the synagogue at Kerioth and the day that the soldiers came.

“Three days before they pulled me out, from beneath my parents’ bodies. My mother and my father were butchered for trying to protect me.”

He stood up and he embraced me. A huge, engulfing hug of power and strength.

“I’m sorry for you. And this was when Old Herod, the monster, died?”

“The monster. Yes.”

“Let me tell you what happened to my family when the soldiers came to our Nazareth.” Silence, for a long time. Then he spoke.

“When I was a child in Byblos, I would dream every night – every night, without change – about my parents leaving Nazareth. Which is odd, because I could have no memory of such a thing, I was not even born then. I may have been conceived, but I was not born, so how could I remember it?”

“Perhaps your parents told you stories?”

He didn’t like this. No. The dreams were always the same. “I saw it every time. The soldiers. Their officer taking the women and the young girls aside to the walls by the goat-bield. He had the pelt of a big cat across his shoulders. He took every one of them. Now why should I dream that? Me, a boy?”

I was about to tell him that at least his parents had lived to look after him, but this was not one of his riddles about prophecy. He was weeping. I opened my arms and embraced him.

Later, he told me about his childhood.

“When we were growing up in Byblos, my brother Yehuda and I, the Greek children would mock us for being Galilean. Even our fellow Jews mocked us. And I wondered what sort of wonderful place our Galilee and our Nazareth must be. And I wondered about the welcome we would get when we went back to our own people.”

This was the time, he explained, when the magic started. He found that simple tricks would distract and enthral. Making an egg disappear, swallowing flatbread from the bakery next door, then pulling it out of the ear of the owner’s daughter were ways of turning hostile bullies into a fascinated gang of followers. Soon he had a little band, the children of local craftsmen, who followed him around, agog for the next trick, none of them aware that they were being deceived by someone too smart to let them know the truth.

“Then it all ended the year before I became a man. They allowed us to go back to Nazareth. And I wondered what a welcome we would get when we came back to our own people. We came back to hatred and mistrust. My fellow Galileans mocked my accent – my words were all wrong. The children called me a sorcerer who could bring back the dead to life when I did tricks for them, because everyone knows the best sorcerers come from Egypt. That was when the trouble started; they’d bring dead animals to me. Bring it back, they said. Make it live.”

He’s a child of war, as am I. A child of civil violence, like all of us. But I look at us both and realise that I am the lucky one.


I turned the papyrus. On its back, two scribbled decrypts in another hand.


The followers are still waiting. The group has been paralysed since the Baptiser was arrested. Nobody knows what to do. They’ve established a line of communication into the fortress at Machaerus by which the Baptiser issues orders to his followers. But they’re showing more enthusiasm for arguing about his instructions than for following them. No leader has yet emerged from among the followers, which suggests they are either expecting Young Herod to release him – or else they are waiting for the intervention of God.


They had been disappointed, on both counts.


A group of the Baptiser’s followers has split off, left the area around Machaerus and vanished into the desert. Their leader is one of the Baptiser’s lieutenants – a craftsman called Yeshua. Deductions from the messages carried out of the fortress indicate he was not one of those expecting Young Herod to release their leader. He argued that intervention would come, but not yet, and not in time to save the Baptiser.


A note beneath – Have him watched. The scroll went on to describe arrangements for Yehuda to begin his new mission. This involved getting back his old job as clerk-of-works at a boatyard in Magdala. Apparently he had been a very good clerk-of-works and they were delighted when he returned. I knew Magdala. It reeked of fish. You could smell the place half a day’s journey off.

Then the first of Yehuda’s reports from Galilee.

There’ll be more to come each month until publication in August!

Monday, April 4, 2022


 If you’ve not yet read Gore Vidal’s Julian – stop whatever it is you’re doing, board a plane, hire a car, jump on an e-scooter to your nearest bookshop; hell, catch a wave, hang ten and surf to the usual suspects online, buy it and read it before breakfast.  It is among the finest historical fictions available to humanity.

Refresher:  Vidal fictionalises the life of the Emperor Julian (AD 331 – 363), remembered as ‘the Apostate’, a nephew of Constantine the Great who attempted to stem the tide of Christianisation and revive polytheistic pagan culture.   

The narrative is bookended, years after Julian’s death, by a series of exchanges between two of his friends who argue over and agitate for the publication of the late emperor’s account of his own life.  The fictionalised memoir drives an eye-witness narrative of a period of history that is enthralling and the consequences of which still condition the world we live in today.  Like Julian, Vidal has no high opinion of Christianity (there’s a very good joke aimed at assumptions about ‘heresy’ early on) and when first published in the early ‘60s the novel shook up complacent (& mostly American) ideas about ‘Judeo-Christian culture’ and its seemingly inevitable continuity.

Vidal taught me many things when I read this book, but two stand out:

1:  We should never take on trust any aspect of our own time’s shorthand idea of historical inevitability when we make fiction about the past.  The past is not monolithic – the lives we plunge into are as contested and exposed as our own. 

2: There is much fun to be had with the fictionalisation of lost writings – whether real or imagined – from the past, particularly those with the ‘if only it had survived’ factor. 

 Much later, when writing The Judas Case, I realised that there was a third thing that I’d learned from  Julian.  Vidal prefaced the book with a list of some of the sources, classical and recent, that he’d consulted when researching.   I’ve heard it suggested that this represented a (uncharacteristic) loss of nerve on his part – that he felt the need to justify, outside the fiction, what could be seen as his revisionist portrayal of the history of Christianity.  Personally, I found his bibliography a great stepping-off point for further exploration. 

But this leads to a serious question for the historical novelist – should you ever reveal your sources?  Answers, suggestions and arguments very welcome in the comments below.

I should add that with The Judas Case I have deliberately decided not to provide a bibliography.

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