I wanted to write about Canada, especially the border region between the newly-emerging Union of American states and Canada at the time of the American Civil War. Then I realized I needed extensive research on the period. But that is a book for the future.
So I have to fall back on future ideas - now, that sounds like that daft movie Back to the Future, doesn't it? Never mind. I have always been fascinated by the story of Pompeii. I have vivid memories of pictures in the old illustrated weekly Picture Post of Vesuvius' last eruption in 1944. Now I plan to write a historical fiction for middle graders based on life in this city.
Founded by Greeks around 8BC, nestled under the shadow of ancient Mount Vesuvius and fronted by the famed Bay of Naples, Pompeii was the vacation place of choice for wealthy Romans. It was a thriving, prosperous city whose streets were lined with elegant houses and large, equally elegant villas.
Pompeii was home to a variety of people. The wealthy employed slaves to cook, clean, run their errands and otherwise keep life flowing smoothly. Sculptors were in great demand and the city was noted for its beautiful friezes. Artisans' shops sold jewellery, leather goods, and kitchen wares. There were bakeries, taverns and cafes. There was a huge arena for amusements, there were the public baths so beloved of the Romans, and of course there were the brothels.
Then in AD79, all this changed in the blink of an eye when Vesuvius erupted. According to Pliny, who saw the first great eruption from across the Bay of Naples, a great column of superhot gas, ash and various rocks shot high into the air like the trunk of a pine tree, then fell down to earth as it cooled. First the fine ash fell, then the rocks. People still had time to flee the city; many heeded the warning but many either were not worried or did not have the means to evacuate. The choking gases made breathing difficult for those who remained. Perhaps they felt, poor souls, that this first great eruption meant the mountain would now calm down. Alas for their hopes, next day more superhot poisonous gas and lava poured down the mountainside and buried the city and all who dwelt in it under millions of tons of volcanic ash. Poor Pompeii was left abandoned for nearly two thousand years until in 1748 a group of artifact-seeking explorers began to dig there. How stunned and overjoyed must they have been to find so much of life in that ancient city had been preserved under all that ash.
Last year we were most fortunate to have an exhibition of recovered items from Pompeii at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. I hope you enjoy these photographs I took. The loaf of bread, the dog with collar and chain - poignant reminders of life
My niece took her three children to visit Pompeii two years ago. I had to laugh when she told me they trekked up Vesuvius and when they reached the crater rim she was disappointed not to see bubbling lava. "I don't know what I expected." she wrote.