Friday, 14 August 2015

Mary Renault

Everything I knew about homosexuality as a teenager, I found out from reading Mary Renault!
This was a good thing, because in the pages of Mary Renault's novels about Ancient Greece, gay men were generally sympathetic, well rounded characters. Though I do remember reading The Persian Boy when I was fourteen (about Bagoas, the Persian eunoch who was friend to Alexander the Great) and hoping that my gran didn't try to read any of it over my shoulder!
The books, by the way, mostly came from the school library - we had a very good school librarian, who introduced all sorts of interesting literature to the mix. So I read the Alexander books, and The Last of the Wine (which included Athens under siege and Socrates), and her wonderful stories about Theseus The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. Later I found the audio book of The Bull from the Sea, narrated by Michael Yorke, who will always be the voice of Theseus for me now (though it was a pity the story had to be abridged so much - one of my favourite scenes, where the girl bull leapers go down to try to catch the escaped bull before Theseus gets there, was missing).
This year at Hay Festival, there were two talks about Mary Renault which I wasn't able to get to, by Bettany Hughes. She talked to Hannah Critchlow on May 24th and Tom Holland and Peter Stothard on May 25th.
I did manage to get my hands on the free handout paper for the Festival, though, with her article in it. The Daily Telegraph, sponsoring the Festival, put out an issue every day it was on, and this one also has an original short story by Neil Gaiman called Click-Clack the Rattlebag.

So this is what the school librarian was putting into my eager little hands at secondary school: "What she gets right is the sheer peacock-gaudy, drug-saturated, hardcore sensuality of this time and place. Cutting-edge science now tells us ancient warriors would indeed consume vast vats of liquid opiates and a ferocious honey-mead, retsina and wine cocktail. There was cannibalism. Girls and boys did oil one another with rose and saffron-scented olive oil. Renault heard and smelt the ancient world many millennia after it had died and decades before it was resurrected by contemporary technology."

She was a nurse during the Second World War, too, so when she wrote about wounds, she knew what she was talking about. Her books were one of the reasons I studied Greek Archaeology at university - because I'd already been to Athens, and Crete, and on campaign with Alexander.
And through the magic of literature, I can go back whenever I want, to listen to the girl playing the double-flute while languid lovers toss the dregs of their wine onto the tiled floor to try to make the initial letter of their lovers' name.

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