Monday, 5 March 2018


by Philip Womack

Part Seven: Achilles

It is time, now, to think about Achilles. 

Nobody knows what his name means. His mother, the sea goddess Thetis, tried to make him immortal when he was a baby, by dipping him into the river Styx. Whether he cried or not is not recorded; what exactly Thetis was thinking is not recorded either. She must have been distracted, as she simply lowered the child into the black waves, holding him by the ankle; this meant, of course, that this untouched part was vulnerable.

Like so many of the heroes, Achilles was sent away to be schooled by a centaur, Chiron, in the mountains and the woods. The young Achilles loved these days more than anything. When he stood on the beach at Troy, and looked at the smoking ruins of the city, it was Mount Pelion that he remembered. When he lay with Briseis in his tent, it was the centaur's horsey flank that came back to his mind. He loved racing across the broad plains, faster than the deer. He loved sitting up into the night and looking at the stars, whilst the centaur would tell him their names and meanings, and would teach him how to strum the lyre. He loved the sad, strange songs that the centaurs sang, sounds and meanings that no human could ever capture.

He always knew he was going to be a fighter. It was inside him, like a song that was about to be written. Or it was like an ache, that could never be healed. 

When the call came for the Greek armies to muster at Aulis, Achilles's mother sent him to Scyros, to be hidden among the princesses. He did not want to go, but he loved his mother, and she wept.

But still, though he had promised his mother he would not fight, when Odysseus came looking for him, Achilles could hardly help himself: the glittering of the swords spoke to him in a language he understood. He knew what he was doing when he caught the ball thrown to him. He had known from the moment Odysseus had entered the room.

Everything so far has been building up to Achilles. Every link in the chain leads up to this person, this name, this sword, these hands. Hands that could stroke the cheek of a corpse, and hands that could help an old man down from a mule; hands that could slay fifty sons.

When the Greek armies neared the city of Troy, and could see it rising up above them on the hill, Achilles leaned forwards on the prow, and laughing, held his thumb and forefinger out, and squinted between them. And with a tiny movement, he crushed the towers of Troy.

Who can understand Achilles? Who can understand that mixture of laughter and life, of love and war, of tenderness and brutality? Who can understand a man who sings mournfully  outside his tent, and tends to his beloved's body, and yet at the same time is a machine made for killing?

Watch this man: watch his fierceness, his passion, his energy. Watch how he carves out a space for himself in the middle of the battle: how he seems to be untouchable, but only because he's moving so fast and anticipating everything that might happen. Watch him, and watch his pride, and most of all, watch his anger. 

The anger of Achilles is the cause of the fall of Troy: the final link in the chain.

Monday, 26 February 2018

The Arrow of Apollo reaches 60 %

Good news: THE ARROW OF APOLLO, which I'm raising funds for with the publisher Unbound, has reached 60 % of its target. Onwards!

You can read more about the book here. This week is World Book Week, and I'm visiting a school every day except Wednesday,  so my Trojan War series will return next Monday.

Monday, 19 February 2018

5 Top Tips for Crowfunding Your Novel

5 Top Tips on Crowdfunding

By Philip Womack
Training an animal to talk
Hello everyone. As some of you may know, I’m crowdfunding a novel. It's called The Arrow of Apollo, and I'm doing it via Unbound.

We started at the end of October 2017. It’s been an easy ride so far - I’ve only lost five fingers through typing so many emails and the doctor says that the hypothermia is fairly normal, so - hanging in there, thanks.

After four months of crowdfunding, I think I’ve got it pretty nailed down, and so thought I would share some tips if any of you out there are thinking of doing the same. All you need is willpower, a torch, some thick gloves, and a willingness to try anything.

1. Wait in dark alleys near train stations after 5.30pm.

As those hardy office workers hurry home from their sensible jobs doing things like media training and Google, you can jump out at them armed with your laptop open ready at the pledge page. Passers by will be so keen to get home that they’ll sign up to anything. Slanting rain is great for this. Hail - a bonus.

2. Mail shots.

Buy a crossbow. Failing that, a bow and arrow will do. (You can whittle one from the wood outside your tent if you need to.) Print out a thousand or so flyers. Shoot them into people’s letterboxes. People will love this new and quirky method of delivery and will talk about it with all their friends. You'll hear them roar with acclamation as you trundle by, holding your crossbow casually yet menacingly  like some dude in The Walking Dead. You’ll triple your pledges, easy.

3. Training animals to talk.

This one takes a little bit of time and effort, but it’s so worth it, even despite the bites and the mild rabies. Find some animals - a husky will do, or a stray cat, or even a spider. I myself found a mildly irritated badger quite amenable.

Teach them how to talk. This can be done with a mixture of reward and chastisement. What worked really well with Boris the Badger was some fish I’d scrounged for my own supper from a large bin behind the railway station. I went hungry, but, you know - you’ve got to suffer for your dreams.

After a year and a half you will have been able to make your chosen animal talk in rudimentary English. The animal can then be used to spread news of your pledge page. Plus there is the fact that it’s a freaking talking animal, and if people are running away, well then at least they’ll remember you as a tiger races after them roaring “Crowdfund my book! Only £50 for dinner and your eternal soul!”

4. Using the occult.

I find this one particularly effective. Write down the names of all the people you want to crowdfund your book in your own blood on the surface of an ancient mirror bought in a shop that isn’t there any more. The captured souls will simply flood in. As you reach your last dying breath, you can delight in the knowledge that you’ve finally reached 100 %.

Warning: this blog is not to blame if by doing so you accidentally call up a vengeful spirit and cause the crops to fail and blacken.

5. The good old fashioned way.
Make a list of everyone you’ve ever met since before you were born. 

Make a list of all your relatives, even the dead ones because they might have some living relatives.

Then make a list of all your parents’ friends, and all your old teachers, and those fun people you met once in South Africa, and that guy you thought was hilarious when you had to do your speeding course and you shared that joke about that amusingly shaped pickle. Don’t forget exes - they’ll be delighted to hear from you after all these years, even despite that restraining order.

Inscribe their names lovingly in your best calligraphic handwriting  on bits of coloured paper chosen to reflect their personality, add a fact only you know about them, buy a leaf blower, and whoosh the notes all up towards the stars.

Good luck everyone!


The Fall of Troy: Part 6

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques Louis David
by Philip Womack

Part 6: Iphigenia at Aulis

If any link in the whole great chain of the Trojan War could have been broken, it should have been this one. This, in truth, was the weakest one, and there were many moments when it might have gone the other way.

The Greek fleet should have stayed on the beach. The men should have been left to grow bloodthirsty and restless.  And then what might have happened? Agamemnon would have been killed at night in his tent by a rebel soldier. His brother, Menelaus, would have had to step in to take control. Being weaker, he would have been unable to control the unruly mass of Greek princelings, and they would have formed factions. 

Menelaus indeed would have been challenged, and then would have met his death, in a duel with Ajax or Achilles, a spear through his flank. Released from their oaths, the chiefs would have fought for the high kingship, or would have dispersed back to their plains and mountains.

And Helen would have grown old in Troy, and would not remember Sparta. She would have, like her mother in law, many children, who would grow up speaking the Trojan tongue, which she would master. Her weaving would become like that of her sisters in law, only, because of its slight strangeness, would be more highly valued. She would weave of her own gods at first; and then what she saw around her; and then her children breaking horses.

Thirty years later, a boat would land, and, wading into the surf, would come a proud man, black curls wet with salt water, seeking alliance and marriage: Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who had fought for his kingdom from Aegisthus. Helen would hear the Greek sounds in his mouth, and would remember the rude halls and the beard of her husband, and would stutter a greeting to him, forgetting the words for "drink" and "rest". 

The Trojans would be more powerful than ever, and perhaps it would be their ships that sailed to Greece, and their poem that lasted for ever.


But that is not what happened. Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, was playing ball with her attendants when the news came. Achilles was to marry her. Achilles, most handsome, most brave, of all the Greek fighters.

Her mother, Clytemnestra, who had become perhaps a little too friendly with her cousin Aegisthus, did not sense  that anything was wrong. If anything, she was pleased - with Iphigenia out of the way, she would more easily install Aegisthus in Agamemnon’s place. She would not go, of course; she would stay in Mycenae, and see to the affairs that she had already started to view as her own.

When Iphigenia arrived at Aulis, she saw the marriage tent set out, its cloths hanging heavy. She was given a drink of water by a ragged woman - the only woman she would see.

Inside the tent would be Achilles, nervously polishing his sword hilt. She wondered where the rest of the women were, why nobody was throwing flowers or nuts, why there was no singing. She wondered where her father was. The ragged woman lifted the tent flap, and shoved her in. Inside was airless and dark, and Iphigenia moistened her lips.

Some say that the Greeks almost went through with the mock ceremony. Some say that the king's daughter was led to Achilles at the altar, and that he took her hand, and that she saw in his eyes what was about to happen; and she was butchered where she stood, with Agamemnon looking on in horror. But that is not what happened.

It was done quietly, foully. She did not know what happened to her. She entered the tent, and stood alone in the dark, and a man, who did not know her, and who had been found from the barbarian north, and who would go back home and drink himself to death, knocked her on the head with a club. 

And that was enough. Her bridal wreath came loose, and lay in the dust by her long golden hair.

Agamemnon could not look at her body. The priests placed her on a pyre. It burned long, and when the smoke died away at dawn, Agamemnon felt something brush his cheek. 

Across the sea, the billows grew higher, and the white sails of the Greek fleet swelled outwards. 


Friday, 16 February 2018

The Necessary Angel by C K Stead: review in The Spectator

I've written a review of C K Stead's THE NECESSARY ANGEL for The Spectator in which I muse on what literary fiction might be. Read it here.

Tatler weddings piece

Here's a link to an article I wrote for Tatler on asking the father of the bride before marrying.

Monday, 12 February 2018

The Fall of Troy: Part 5

Paris and Helen escaping the Court of Menelaus (Kauffmann)
by Philip Womack


Part 5: The Trojan War

Menelaus woke from the feasting of the night before with a dry throat and a creeping sense of unease. He rolled over, reaching for the pitcher that lay by his bed. Once he had quenched his thirst, he sat up, scratched his belly, and listened. 

There was shouting in the corridors. Something had gone wrong. His first thought was that those Trojans had attacked his men in the night. He groped for a sword.

Somewhat blearily, he made his way along the corridors to the women’s quarters, maids and serving boys ducking out of his way as he went. None would give him a straight answer.

In Helen’s room he found some of her women; one or two were holding their hands up in despair; some were tearing at their hair; others were fruitlessly combing through chests and looking behind couches. Helen's combs were there; her fine dresses were there; the bronze bowl in which she kept her scented water was there, newly filled for her morning refreshment.
But of Helen herself there was no sign.

The rooms that the Trojans had been using were now empty. They had left nothing behind them, except a couple of maids with swelling bellies.

Menelaus snapped a spear in half, and flung the sharp part into the ground, where it stuck.

Another of the threads in this great and complex tale was woven before Helen got married to Menelaus. All the kings and princes of Greece had wanted her hand. Her father, Tyndareus, was presented with a rather tricky problem. How could he stop those who didn’t win her from tearing off each other’s heads? Ajax the Greater, in particular, was not somebody whom you would want to come up against if he bore a grudge against you. The way that he cracked open his nuts was particularly menacing.

It was Odysseus, of course, who came up with a solution. Helen would choose her husband: and all the other suitors would swear an oath. They would protect the winner from all harm.

Into the fog of Menelaus’s mind came the memory of Odysseus, dark haired, with his pointed chin and his clever eyes. Menelaus had never  liked him, but he had to admit that he was sharp. The oath had been a good idea.  And now that the worst had happened, it was time to call in the favour. Helen, his wife, had been stolen away by a miminy-piminy Trojan, a prancing, preening ex-shepherd: he could not stand for it. The heroes would have to come to his aid. And he would mount an expedition to retrieve her. He ordered the smiths to get to work.

The best horses were chosen, and messengers galloped out across all Greece. Menelaus and the rest of his court began to make their way to the palace of his brother, Agamemnon, the High King of all the Greeks.

They found Agamemnon playing dice with a smooth young chap called Aegisthus, whilst his wife, Clytemnestra, sat by the side, pouring them cool drinks. A little girl called Iphigenia clung to her mother’s skirts, watching the warriors with their flashing armour stamp into the courtyard. They paused in their drinks, and looked up, and gathered by the look on Menelaus's face that he was not here to pay a social call.
The links in the chain were forged. Agamemnon set up camp at the Port of Aulis, and went out hunting with his men, and found many fine deer, including a beautiful hind which they chased all day and caught as the sun set. Menelaus was surprised to find that those suitors who had sworn the oath were not all that keen to fulfill it. Odysseus himself pretended to be mad, until they placed his baby son in front of a plough he was pulling.  Achilles was hidden on an island filled with girls; they found him when they threw a ball at him, and he caught it by bringing his knees together. The others came, reluctantly or not, leaving their farmlands and their own wives and children, all at the behest of their High King, and an oath they'd sworn years before.

Eventually they all gathered, at the port of Aulis. There were other reasons why they wanted to attack Troy: she was rich, and had many acres of fertile plains; she had access to trades and to cattle, and there were many townspeople who could be enslaved, and whose gold could enrich the halls of the Greeks. Ajax the Greater was tickled by the idea of adding to his flocks, and went about boasting about the time he'd bested someone who'd fought someone who'd once had a drink with Hercules.

By the time the last king arrived, and they were encamped with their armies around the ships at Aulis, the men as well as the chiefs were beginning to think that this was actually a noble war, with a noble aim. 

They were all ready. The ships were drawn up, their black hulls bare on the sand. The provisions were being loaded. The men were being told tales of honour and glory, of the heroic generations before them, and the deeds that they would achieve when they got to Troy. The blare of the trumpet filled the skies. 

 There was only one problem. There was no wind. And so the great fleet of the Greeks sat in the still harbour at Aulis, and the men grew bored and began fighting among themselves, and the kings and chiefs began to think of their halls and their hunts. 

Menelaus came to Agamemnon. "What can we do? We can't march over land." 

Agamemnon was more decisive than his brother, though he was not always right. He called his chief seers together, and ordered them to inquire into the causes of the calm. If only, Agamemnon thought privately, to stop the men's petty fights, which were beginning to become troublesome. 

Soon enough, after much peering into entrails, the chief of the seers, Calchas, came to Agamemnon. "My king..."

"Get on with it," said Agamemnon.

"You killed a hind." 

"I have killed many."

"This hind, my king, was sacred to the goddess Artemis."

Agamemnon sat up straighter. He could feel a pressure on his temples.

"For the fleet to sail to Troy, you will need to propitiate her. And Artemis is not a kindly goddess. In place of the deer, she demands..." The old priest's voice faltered. "Your daughter. Iphigenia."

The wine from Agamemnon's goblet spilled over his robe, and nobody could ever get out the stain.

NEXT WEEK: Iphigenia at Aulis.