Books: The free hoarse men of the Acropolis

Tom Holt, best known for his comic fantasy novels, once penned a witty historical 'trilogy' portraying the Ancient Greeks as vainglorious, argumentative dirt-farmers, with Aristo- phanes as villain. Here he explains the genesis of The Walled Orchard, at last in paperback identity' novelist. He'd prefer to write about two characters alone in the dark. Jan Dalley met himMultiple literary prizewinner David Malouf would hate to be pigeonholed as another 'Australian identity' novelist. He'd prefer to write...
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Once upon a time, there was a little lad who went to the University in search of enlightenment; and, of course, he found it. He learned that pre-decimal pennies can be made to fit in an electricity meter if you file the edges into a heptagon; that newspaper stuffed into the pockets of the common-room pool table can give you a whole day's entertainment for the price of a single game; that it's possible to live for the week before the grant cheque arrives on five tea bags, a pound's worth of industrial-grade cheddar and a packet of wholemeal flour. In his spare time he read about the dawn of democracy in fifth-century Athens, and while doing so was afflicted with a Theory.

Seductive, this theory: that democracy arose not out of the yearnings of the human spirit, but a set of economic circumstances unique to a bunch of Dark Ages dirt-farmers and unlikely ever to occur again, the implication being that theories of democracy, founded on our current perceptions of its origin as a natural stage in human evolution, are based on doubtful premises.

There was a slight problem - in spite of 2,000 years of scholarly attention, we don't know enough about the ancient Greek economy to get our money's worth out of a postcard. No worries, thought the lad, I'll just reconstruct the whole thing from first principles.

Having sweet-talked the University and mugged the British Council for pounds 3,000 (big money in the early Eighties), the lad snuggled down in the library and started to read. He read about agriculture - about manure (in French), about the geology of Attica (in German, though he couldn't read German), about bits of broken pot dug up in unexpected places (in archaeologists' English, which nobody understands) - until he reckoned he could calculate, down to the nearest 1,000 medimnoi, the amount of food that could have been grown in the hinterland of Athens using the farming techniques of the day. Pausing only to calculate the population of Athens in the fifth century and factor in such details as the Egyptian wine trade and the vexed issue of nitrogen-fixing lupins, the lad drew his final conclusions and wrote his thesis. I shall quote it in full:

"Did Economic Factors Significantly Influence The Development Of The Athenian Democracy?"


He solved the problem of how to explain to the University and the British Council what had become of their time and money by sneaking out of town in the early hours of the morning, muffled up in a big scarf and pretending to be a Russian sailor, and ran away to London to seek his fortune. There he studied hard and became a lawyer, thereby saving his much-abused sponsors the trouble of punishing him. Eventually he sawed through the bars of the legal profession and for the time being at least is still at large, but that's another story.

At some point in all this, I started writing novels. I'd had my first book published when I was 13, but applied literary criticism from my schoolfellows had put me off (complain all you like about your bad reviews, but cold custard down the back of the neck says more than Auberon Waugh ever could) and had moved on to other, less hazardous childhood pursuits, with the triple-six mark of Child Prodigy branded on my forehead. For a short while in my middle teens I did reviews for the TV section of The Stage, until the NUJ found out I was under age and applied more cold custard (I exacted a terrible revenge on them years later: I married the General Secretary's daughter). Ten years later, for my own amusement, I started putting together a sequel to E F Benson's "Mapp and Lucia" series, taking up the story in 1940, when Benson died. Through a combination of luck and shameless nepotism I managed to get the first six chapters of this effort in front of an editor at Macmillan. The rest is bibliography. When I shinned down the drainpipe out of Academia, I'd written two Lucia books and a comic fantasy novel of my own. "Sui generis," my editor called it, which is Latin for "get it out of your system" - bear in mind that this was the early Eighties, when one Terry Pratchett was still making his living by telling people how safe nuclear power is. After law school I went to work for a firm of solicitors in Somerset, where there isn't much to do in the evenings except watch the box, hate your neighbours or write books.

Four years' worth of undigested Athenian agriculture was still sloshing about inside my head, a vast clot of useless technical detail about every aspect of life in the City of the Violet Crown, from the price of sausages down to what you'd put on your feet as you slipped out to the loo in the middle of the night. The sui generis stuff was doing better than anticipated (they'd sold one) but my editor was hinting that something a bit more mainstream might go down a bit better. I resolved to write the Great Athenian Novel.

Unlike everything before or since (I hate writing, as opposed to having written, which is the best feeling there is) I enjoyed writing The Walled Orchard. I'd chosen a first-person narrative and was using my own esprit de l'escalier voice. My narrator was a comic dramatist - the earliest intentionally funny writing that survives in the Western tradition is Athenian comedy - which gave me the scope to write a fifth-century Hawkeye Pierce, a man fending off the hatefulness of his times with wisecracks, a very Greek reaction. I put him through the Peloponnesian War; the Spartan invasion, the devastating plague that hit Athens so hard that victims' families stacked dead bodies in strangers' doorways because they lacked the energy to bury them, the perversion of democracy during the war and its self-destruction after it. In case that wasn't enough, I lumbered him with a horrendous marriage and a loathsome arch-enemy (Aristophanes). I really tortured that poor guy. It was fun.

My editor, peering nervously round the enormous typescript, suggested splitting it into two volumes and rounding it off with a third to make a trilogy. I agreed, because I wanted to write a sequel carrying forward the political debate a couple of generations into the reign of Alexander the Great. I'd already beaten up democracy and oligarchy, which only left monarchy still standing. Volume One, Goat Song, was greeted by mouth- watering reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. The critical reception for Volume Two, The Walled Orchard, was even better. The sales, however, were poor. Volume Three was cancelled by popular demand. Cold custard, again.

By this stage, the sui generis stuff was fitting nicely into a revival of the ancient genre of comic fantasy. I moved to another publisher and concentrated on trying to write pure comedy; a few years later my new editor held the ladder for me as I went over the wall from the legal profession. True, the pessimism that made The Walled Orchard such fun has lately started to resurface in my comedies (I've come to love undercutting the comedy, punishing my more ambivalent characters by giving them the happy endings they deserve) but I haven't been tempted to try the mainstream again, not even in the marginal form of historical fiction. I've preferred trying to nudge my own genre nearer to orthodox comic writing by dispensing with the traditional heroic-fantasy parody elements and using more familiar icons, such as fairy tales.

Comedy, I've always felt, is the knight's move; it approaches obliquely what serious writing tackles head-on, but it has the ability to jump gleefully over barriers that stop serious writing dead in its tracks. That combination suits me. Its difficulties are challenges, and its unfair advantages would be hard to do without.

Except I still want to do Alexander and finish my attempt at proper joined-up writing. Ten years of writing comedy, I feel, has taught me techniques and insights that I'd probably never have discovered if I'd carried on writing deliberately unfunny. In particular, the Alexander theme is one where the ludicrous and the tragic are so hopelessly fused together that a straight approach would never get there.

One final irony. Not long ago, I read The Other Greeks by Victor Hanson. It's a marvellous book by a passionate scholar, and it tackles the issues I thought I'd dealt with back when I was living with the German geology and the French manure. Having read it, I think I may have been wrong; which is to say, I may have been slightly right. At first, this possibility gave rise to a certain amount of perplexity and intemperate language, until I reflected that if I'd been right back in 1985, in all likelihood I'd now be spending my days in a suit behind a desk in a solicitor's office doing death and taxes, instead of staying in bed till ten in the morning and wearing scruffy trousers with no pockets. The hell, therefore, with Mr Hanson and the sum of human knowledge. I was wrong, and I don't care who knows it.

8 'The Walled Orchard' (including 'Goat Song') is published by Warner, pounds 6.99.