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Leila Rasheed: Beachcombing Your Imagination

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Beaches. Shorelines. Coasts. Harbours. There’s something about the point where sea and land meet, where solid, reliable earth turns into unsteady, shifting water, that stirs up the imagination. There are lots of beaches, shores and harbours in Empire’s End, of course. The Roman Empire and its neighbours sat around the Mediterranean Sea like knights at a round table. Ships have carried humans, animals and things back and forth across the Mediterranean for centuries. Their journeys make a spider’s web of stories strung from shore to shore to shore.

I grew up in Benghazi, which is on the south coast of the Mediterranean Sea. We had picnics on the beach, eating sweet watermelon that farmers sold out of pick-up trucks along the roads. I remember how the beach was studded with lumps of crude oil and cuttlefish floats, and my mother tells a story of how we once started to sink in quicksand while walking along it. In Empire’s End, Camilla sets sail from the same coast when she travels to meet the Emperor of Rome. Wild animals, oil and wine travel over with her.

Later, I lived in a small town on the coast of southern Italy. In the days of Imperial Rome, this was where Emperors went on holiday. In winter you can see the storms heading in from the sea long before they reached you, and beachcombing brings up driftwood, scraps of plastic, sea-glass, shoes and once a dead goat. In summer, Indian and African traders walk up and down selling sunglasses and granita to Italian sunbathers. The web of journeys and stories is still being spun.

And then there are the wind-clawed British cliffs where Camilla finds herself at the start and end of the novel, so different from the sunny harbour where she leaves her childhood behind. Although Britain looks wild and uncivilised to Romans like Camilla, people who travelled here long before them have left their mark on the landscape. And people who come to the same shore centuries afterwards, on their own journeys, find traces of Camilla there.

Harbours, coasts, shorelines and beaches. What will wash up on the edge of your imagination?

Beachcombing for stories:

If you live near a beach, go for a walk on it and see what you find (go with an adult if you are a child – the sea can be dangerous). Any three objects you find there could spark a story. A shell, a plastic bottle, a shoe? What might they have to do with each other?

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a beach. Right now, I live as far away from the sea as you can get, in England, and yet there are miniature shores and coasts all around me. A canal, a river, a pond or a lake – even a puddle will do, if you use your imagination. Watch the rain trickle down the windows, have a bath, fill a sink. You can just fill a bowl with water and watch the ripples. There’s something magical about the movement of water that allows the mind to drift off into memories and imagination.

Wherever you find your beach, take pen and paper with you. Give yourself the gift of time, and write down the first few images, memories, thoughts, words or ideas that pop into your head. They don’t have to be good; they don’t have to make sense. The sea washes up what it washes up, and so does your imagination. You’re just collecting the shells and sea-glass that you find.

When you have a few thoughts scribbled down, try making shapes or patterns with what you have collected. Could this memory belong with that character? What if we followed this idea; where might it lead? Before you know where you’re at, you’ve doodled a few words… then a few more… and a poem or a paragraph is somehow storying itself out of the sea.

Empire’s End: A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed was published 2 January 2020 by Scholastic

Empire’s End is currently included in our Roman Empire and Roman Britain curriculum collection (January, 2020)