It is July 2005. The middle of a beautiful balmy British summer.
The book I'm currently working on – The Sirens of Surrentum – has a lot about poison. Luckily I live in one of the greatest cities in the world – London – so last week I left a phone message with the curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden to ask if they had anybody who could tell me more about poisonous plants known to the Romans. I know all the names but I don't know what they look like. Or smell like. Or taste like. (Actually that last one might not be strictly necessary!)
The curator, Rosie Atkins, returned my call and was very charming and helpful. After a short chat about hemlock, rhubarb (leaves extremely poisonous, stems completely edible) and the trade route from China to Rome via India, she encouraged me to come round and have a look for myself.
|St Mary's Battersea|
|ancient Yew tree|
I am just in time for the 4.00pm tour. Christine, our guide, is a volunteer, like almost everyone who works here. She takes us around and makes a special effort to point out poisonous plants the Romans would have known.
We see acanthus, tansy, rhubarb, agapanthus, oleander, and a magnificent yew tree with its fatal red berries.
After the tour has ended, Christine helps me find some hemlock. The specimen in the garden isn't very healthy but I get a good sense of it's height and the hollow nature of its stem, and the little spray of white blossoms.
Everyone at the Chelsea Physic Garden is so helpful and erudite. Christine herself mentions two books which feature poison (Hartley's The Go-Between and Dorothy Sayer's Strong Poison) and she also quotes from two poems: one by Auden called Roman Wall Blues, and one by Houseman that ends like this:
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up;
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
-I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
Curiously enough, I mention old Mithridates in The Sirens of Surrentum...
[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. Season one of the BBC TV series is available on iTunes in Europe and the UK.]