Writing Portfolio


The Labyrinth of Osiris

There are various ways by which one can hear that an author that you like has died. Sometimes, you read a short article about his or her passing in the paper on the way to work. Sometimes there will be something on the Today programme. In one case I have received notification of a favourite writer’s death by email because I subscribe to a website devoted to his works.

In the case of Paul Sussman, however, notification was received by way of picking up a copy of his fourth and (as it turns out) last novel, The Labyrinth of Osiris, in a charity shop and noting from the author blurb that he died last year. He was 46.

I only came across Paul Sussman by chance a few years ago after working my way through a thriller by another writer that, although OK in itself, appeared to have been written with a view to cashing in on the success of The Da Vinci Code (it concerned a secret about the early history of Christianity which was being concealed by the Vatican, who were in cahoots with the Mafia). At the end of the book was an advert – on the lines of ‘if you liked this, you might enjoy this’ – for another author who shared the same publisher. Intrigued, I looked for it in my local library and thus did I find The Last Secret of the Temple by Paul Sussman.

It was a superb read – a refreshingly intelligent, complex and fast-paced thriller that combined a murder investigation, archaeology, the Nazis and the present-day conflict in the Middle East. There was not one protagonist but two, both of them more believable than Professor Langdon. Both were cops, one Egyptian (Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police) and the other Israeli (Jerusalem-based Arieh Ben-Roi), and they ended up being forced to work together to uncover a secret that could hold the key to peace in the Middle East. The novel looked even-handedly at serious issues such as racial hatred, religious fanaticism, morality and power, and did so without resorting to bias, sentimentality or treating the reader like an idiot.

Sadly, I didn’t follow this up with any more Paul Sussman’s books as they did not appear to be on the library list and his wasn’t a name that was readily available on the shelves of Waterstone’s or W.H. Smith’s. But when I saw that copy of The Labyrith of Osiris, I knew that I had to buy it.

I finished reading it today, and do you know what? It’s brilliant.

The story begins eighty years ago when a man disappears near Luxor, his body being found in the early 1970s. It then jumps to a murder of an investigative journalist in present-day Jerusalem – in the Armenian Cathedral of all places. Arieh Ben-Roi starts to investigate, and it’s not long before he contacts his old friend in Luxor to ask for some assistance from the Egyptian end. Yusuf Khalifa, meanwhile, has been trying to investigate some mysterious well-poisonings out in the desert while trying to come to terms with a family tragedy.

At just over 750 pages, it’s a big book and Sussman didn’t flinch from dealing with some big issues. Over the course of their investigations (which are of course connected), Ben-Roi and Khalifa encounter sex-trafficking, anti-capitalist protests (both of the online and direct-action varieties), cover-ups and multi-national corporations acting as though they’re above the law. On a more personal level, the demands of family life and the enduring power of friendship feature heavily. There are so many threads that at times you’ll wonder how they’re all going to come together.

And there’s history, of course – the novel is littered with references to ancient Pharaohs and the Arab-Israeli conflict (although this isn’t as central a theme as it was in The Last Secret of the Temple), and the likes of Herodotus and Howard Carter briefly get drawn into the plot. Then there’s the litany of Arabic and Hebrew slang that requires a glossary at the back.

As well as this, Sussman treats the reader to portraits of two great cities – Jerusalem and Luxor – both depictions going beyond what the tourists see and showing us what life is like for the people who actually live there, in stark contrast to some thrillers set in interesting locations that seem to have copied a lot of the descriptive stuff from a guidebook (as he worked on archaeological digs in the Valley of the Kings, Sussman’s take on the redevelopment of Luxor in recent years is particularly interesting).

The pace was unrelenting, although as I got to within a hundred pages of the end I felt the need to slow down as I didn’t want the story to end. It’s a novel that requires time for the reader to absorb everything, but it’s also one that you just can’t put down.

If you’re looking for some intelligent holiday reading this summer, I highly recommend this book. 


Canterbury Cathedral

Being a keen historian, I happen to like visiting cathedrals – although it occurred to me not so long ago that I’ve never been to the one at Canterbury. Visiting said cathedral was therefore at the top of our itinerary when we went to stay with my aunt and uncle in Kent recently.

With its gothic towers, the cathedral truly dominates the city, and this can be seen as you approach it through the narrow lanes. We were clearly not alone in wanting to visit it on a warm Saturday, for Canterbury was truly heaving with tourists from a variety of countries.

After passing through the main gate, we walked around the outside of this spectacular building before making our way inside, getting to see some work-in-progress on redoing the lead roof-tiles and the remains of the old medieval monastery in the process.

Inside, it’s as magnificent as it looks on the outside. The perpendicular nave is breathtaking and makes the tourists look tiny. After marvelling at this, I wandered through the choir to the high altar, took a look at the Archbishop’s chair (or, to give it its proper title, the Cathedra Augustini) before exploring the side-chapels with their wonderful stained-glass windows. The one dedicated to St Anselm is particularly impressive.

One thing I like about cathedrals is the silence – the air of peace and quiet that pervades throughout these buildings, in stark contrast to the bustle and the noise in the streets outside. The noisiest the interior got was when someone started  to play one of the organs (or maybe play some organ music on the speakers) – nothing loud, just a quiet background hum that seemed appropriate for the building.

A key point of any tour of Canterbury Cathedral is the spot at which Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170 by four knights who thought they were carrying out Henry II’s orders, having apparently overheard that famously short-tempered King ask who would rid him of that tiresome priest (or words to that effect). This particular part of the cathedral looks nothing like it did in Becket’s time – the whole building was extensively rebuilt after a fire several years after the murder – but the exact spot where he was killed is still commemorated. The jagged sword effect above it lends a suitably gruesome air.

In the Middle Ages, Becket’s martyrdom made Canterbury one of the top pilgrimage destinations in England, which in turn inspired Chaucer to write the Canterbury Tales (there’s a distinct parallel between medieval pilgrims and modern-day tourists but that’s a thesis for another time). His shrine, located behind the high altar in what is called the Temple Chapel, was cleared away during the Reformation – it was said that Henry VIII’s men needed 26 carts to carry all of its gold and treasures away. Today, the spot is marked by a simple candle and you can still see the indentations in the floor where generations of pilgrims knelt before the shrine.

Next to where Becket used to be buried is the tomb of the Black Prince, who lived in Canterbury and requested that he be buried in the cathedral. The cathedral’s only other Royal tomb is opposite, and it’s Henry IV – he who usurped the throne from the Black Prince’s son. Rather unusually, Henry’s alabaster effigy shows his fingers missing from his hands. I assumed that this was because some opportunistic souvenir-hunters had over the years helped themselves, but one of the catherdral’s excellent guides was on hand to point out that this may in fact have been deliberate; this is believed to be an early example of an effigy that shows and accurate portrait, and it is thought that Henry may have lost his fingers as a result of the serious health problems that plagued him in later years (no, not the plague – he had a skin disease that may have been leprosy).

Henry IV, of course, was the King who believed that he would die in Jerusalem but ended up dying in the Jerusalem chamber in Westminster Abbey.

Not far from Henry’s tomb is a memorial to the people of Canterbury who died during the Second World War, when the city was targeted by the ‘Baedeker’ raids. Parts of the cathedral were damaged by bombs, but like St Paul’s the main cathedral itself was not seriously harmed, thanks mainly to groups of fire-watchers who patrolled the roof and dealt with incendiary bombs as they fell.

Sometimes it’s the little details that make for a fascinating experience, and at Canterbury Cathedral there are so many little details that it probably takes several visits to fully appreciate it. After reading various memorials, another guide showed us a part of the precinct that was rebuilt with American money, and to show their gratitude the stonemasons (even today, several stonemasons are employed by the cathedral, as are dozens of carpenters) carved a donkey (to represent the Democrats), an elephant (the Republicans) and an eagle (the US) into one of the pillars. Who knew?

Back in the present, our guide took us to what was the monks’ Chapter House which is adorned by two wonderful stained-glass windows that tell the story of Canterbury Cathedral by way of showing scenes from the lives of several key protagonists in its history, from St Augustine to Becket to the Black Prince to Simon Sudbury (another Archbish who met a gruesome end) to Henry VIII to Thomas Cranmer (sensing an ongoing theme with regards to brutally-killed Archbishops here) and ending with Queen Victoria, who commissioned the windows.

Now St Augustine is an interesting character, although he is not to be confused with The Confessions of St Augustine (which was written by another saint called Augustine). As well as being famous for bringing Christianity to what would eventually become England, Augustine is the key to explaining why Canterbury, rather than London, is the city with an Archbishop. Back in the late sixth century AD, Augustine was the man chosen by the Pope to go and convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. Kent was the first part of the British Isles he landed in, and its king, Ethelbert (or Aethelberht), had his capital at Canterbury. King Ethelbert duly converted and allowed Augustine to establish a cathedral, apparently on the site of an old church from Roman times. Augustine, of course, got to be the first Archbish. Our guide had a slightly different take on this story, which highlights the role of Ethelbert’s wife, Queen Bertha. She was already an openly-practising Christian before Augustine showed up, and is believed to have done much to ensure that he got a favourable reception.

Outside, we were shown the old water tower and the herb garden, and were informed that the grass on which we were standing was once the spot on which the ‘necessarium’, which had a small stream of water running all the way through it, stood. Nice word. It should be used more often.

By now, we were done with the cathedral for the day, so we wandered out into the town and looked for somewhere to eat.


Beside the seaside

A couple of weekends ago we were down in Kent visiting relatives. Saturday saw us taking in Canterbury and Whitstable, while on Sunday the weather seemed perfect for a trip to the seaside.

The car park for Dymchurch beach, located slap-bang next to a Martello tower, was full up, with people trying all sorts of innovative ways to leave their cars without blatantly box anyone in. Everyone paid at the meter, though (we lucked out as someone was leaving as we turned up).

The Martello tower serves as a reminder of the various anti-invasion schemes that have left their mark on the Kentish coast, which is littered with reminders of the past. Nearby Hythe is one of the old Cinque Ports, the Royal Military Canal passes through these parts and in addition to the Martello towers, of which there are several, Dymchurch has a redoubt that was built during the Napoleonic Wars but was later used in both World Wars (even today, it’s still owned by the MOD).

Defence these days is more a question of sea-defences, and Dymchurch’s sea wall is are brand new. The town itself is a mixture of pubs, beach-themed newsagents and fish-and-chip shops which we decided not to trouble ourselves with – being on the beach was the priority here.

On the beach, the holiday-makers who’d crammed into the car park were more spread out. Sandcastle-making and beach cricket are as popular as they were when I was a kid, I was pleased to note. And we weren’t the only ones with folding chairs and a tartan car-rug.

Several people had decided to top-up the sunburns they’d obviously been working on the previous day, and while doing so they happily showed off their rather dubious-looking tattoos. The best (or worst) was the man who had the word ‘LOSER’ tattooed across his stomach. People can be very strange sometimes.

I continued my habit of swimming in any available body of water with a dip in the English Channel. After a couple of hours, the tide started to come in. We retreated back to the car and decided to see what Hythe had to offer.

Well, the shingle beach was certainly a lot quieter, with kayaking and sea-fishing being the activities of choice. We walked along the prom in the sun, wondering about what it would be like to live in one of those houses that overlooks the beach and seeing how the sea-fishers were doing. We considered getting something from an espresso-stand operating out of the back of an Ape van, but thanks to the weather we opted for some ice cream instead.

All is well at the English seaside. And yes, I do like to be beside it.