Books by Philip Matyszak



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Reading in a Time of Pandemic

A while ago I was talking with a commissioning editor who had undergone a financial audit at her publishing firm. While she had commissioned numerous books which had sold well (including one of mine, I'm pleased to say), there were also other books which had not sold so well. In future, advised the auditors in their executive summary, this editor should be instructed to only commission best-sellers.

Which is wonderful advice, if only it were practical. As it is, this is rather like telling someone that in order to become wealthy, one should only buy winning lottery tickets. The thing is, market research and post-publishing marketing can only take a book so far - it either catches the public's mood of the moment or it does not. And the problem with that 'mood of the moment' is that a commissioning editor has to guess what that mood will be up to five years in the future.

So hands up all of you who realized in 2016 that we would now be grappling with a major epidemic that has killed millions and forced major lifestyle changes on hundreds of millions more. (Okay, Bill Gates, you can put your hand down. Anyone else?) If editors had realized this forthcoming situation, what books would they commission to help people get through this catastrophe? Since people suddenly have enough gritty and depressing realism in their lives, perhaps something informative about people in distant times and places, and how they coped with their own challenges? Or something fantastical dealing with magical beasts and the supernatural?

Take a bow, editors at Thames and Hudson, for commissioning 'Lost and Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World' and 'Ancient Magic' - two of my books that are selling particularly well right now.

The Lost City
For the last year or so, I've been consulting with the Dear Villagers computer game folk on a Roman-themed computer game. Unlike some recent Hollywood productions where realism and accuracy have been totally optional (and mostly ignored) these game designers wanted to get things as exactly right as possible.

The result has been - for me - somewhat self-defeating. Instead of engaging with the game's multi-layered puzzles and plot to get to the underlying secret of the Lost City, I found myself wandering around what may be as close to a real Roman community as we can get until someone comes up with a time machine. Looking at the goods on sale in the forum, and then stopping off in a local shrine, crossing the bridge to interview a city magistrate in his home or chatting up the moral-free owner of a local tavern was great fun, as was translating the graffiti on the walls. (I translated them into Latin, that is, and my rotten grammar should give the scribbles a properly illiterate feel.)

Overall, though I got nowhere with the gameplay, and even once killed myself in a totally safe area by leaning over a precipice to look at something below that I consequently saw at really close quarters, I had a wonderful time. Whether debating finiticky details (e.g. should a legionary wear a scarf to stop his armour rubbing his breastbone if he was just out for a short trip?) - to major events, it was great to see the game as it took shape.

So as the final polished product heads for market, thank you Nick and the team for letting me join in this project, and may Mercury, god of merchants, speed your success!
Rites of Spring
Had the pagan Roman empire survived, instead of Easter we would today currently be celebrating the Megalesia, the festival celebrating the Great Mother, Cybele. The occasion was marked by religious plays, and a solemn procession featuring warriors in Phrygian attire, and the castrated priests of the goddess who were known as Galli. There were also chariot races at the Circus Maximus to which the goddess - or at least her statue - was taken so she could also watch the events.

For many Romans the main feature of the festival was competitive dining. That is, people would take turns at inviting their friends to dinner and each dinner was meant to out-do the others in sumptuous fare and exotic foods.

I have a definite fondness for the joys of the table (and lockdowns confining me at home have led culinary experiments in the kitchen and a fast-expanding waistline), so the dinner-party aspect of the Megalesia would definitely appeal to me. However, as a ritual of spring one has to admit that the Floralia, which happened at the end of the month, was considerably more lively than the average religious ceremony.

The festival was basically a week-long drunken orgy in which prostitutes danced naked in public and took part in mock gladiator fights. There were also public games, plays and banquets and a general blowing off of steam at the end of winter. Apart from the ladies of rentable virtue, perhaps our governments should consider something similar once this wretched pandemic is over.
Different times, different styles
Over more decades than I care to remember I must have written several million words, from my first schoolboy essays through terse screeds as a journalist and on to my current profession as a writer of ancient history. During all this time I never thought of my style as evolving, but it definitely has. Recently I had occasion to look up something in my old doctoral thesis, and found myself instinctively reaching for a pen to bring the style of the prose in line with my current preferences.

Young Me had a somewhat telegraphic style, a preference for saying thing as succinctly as possible, never using two words where one would do, and with a fatal fondness for ellipsis. Young Me was also punctilious about grammar and stylistic convention, never ending sentences with a preposition, and taking care not to split infinitives. The result was certainly clean, spare writing – the trouble is that it was also hard work for the reader, because I wrote at my own pace rather than the reader's.

These days I am more laid-back in my approach to grammar - if an infinitive needs to be vigorously split, then split it is. Finishing sentences with a preposition is something I am now comfortable with. The focus now is on the reader. How easy is it to grasp the meaning of the sentence? How clearly does the sentence convey the emotion I want the reader to feel? Can I, as a writer, vanish into the page so that the reader interacts directly with the ideas behind the text and hardly notices how those ideas are being transmitted?

Lately a lot of my books have been converted into audio format, and to the extent that these have worked well, it is because these days I read my text aloud once it has been finalized. Now and then I stumble while reading, or a have to look back in a paragraph to locate the noun referred to by a pronoun. Older Me regards such occasions as errors. Young Me would have paused, checked that the grammar was good, and moved on.

Tempora mutantur, et in illis mutamo sum.
Winter woes
'A perfectly ordinary winter, except the fun parts have been surgically extracted.' That was a friend's description of the past few months. For her, the 'fun parts' include skiing, ice-skating, dinners with friends and meetings in coffee shops. All of which hit Covid like the Titanic hit the iceberg.

For myself I am more than grateful that the same pandemic that has killed so many and wrecked the lives of millions more has left me largely untouched. Definitely I would like to get out to the mountains and sit in a hut enjoying coffee at 6000 feet while the snow swirls outside but not doing so is something I can live with (literally).

Most of the time I'm at the computer (currently researching syncretic themes in sky gods) reading Diogenes Laertius or in the kitchen where I've recently discovered using shortcrust pastry in baking Polish recipes. None of these are disease-affected, and now that hockey has returned to TV the 'fun parts' of my winter mostly remain in place.

It occurred to me that most of my friend's fun has been sabotaged because it involves other people - it's not just her skiing and skating, but doing it with friends. Since I've never actually met some of my friends in the flesh, and Diogenes Laertius is unlikely to infect me with anything other than a passion for stoic philosophy, I have almost the same amount of company as before. This includes cats.

It also occurs to me that the unfun parts of winter remain firmly in place. Shovelling snow off the roof and garden path and scraping ice off the car windscreen remain daily - and solitary - occupations.


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