Girding up for 2022

2022Gird up your loins‘ is one of those recognisable phrases, but one can’t quite remember where from. In my mind it’s close to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place‘, although I know that’s Lady Macbeth exhorting her husband to be bold and resolute. Both mean to prepare for the task ahead. In fact it’s from the Bible, where it’s used on a number of occasions, mostly in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we find ‘Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to end for the grace that is to be brought unto you.‘ from 1, Peter, 1:13. So, it’s about getting ready, bracing oneself for the future.

Which is what so many of us are doing at the beginning of a new year and I’m no exception. It’ll be a busyThe Controlling Idea year ahead. Despite the COVID prompted cancellation of several events outside of London which I was to attend, I’ll still be busy on zoom, starting with a discussion on 17th January for Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Libraries. ‘The Controlling Idea’ is a series of discussions sponsored by my publishers, Claret Press, about books which have been made into films and the first is about Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is where I come in, as an expert guest, talking about Whitehall and the structure surrounding the security services, it’s where Opera is set, after all.

Opera_CoverIn addition, I’ll soon be finalising Opera for the last time, for publication in September, going through the final proofs, the front and back matter and so on. There is a publicity schedule to be agreed with Claret Press too, including an online book tour and dispatching review copies, plus all the events around a book launch, including talks for libraries, book clubs and societies and, COVID permitting, an actual book tour of real bookshops. It’s exciting. Especially as Claret has a new distributor. We are already talking about flyers being handed out at Westminster and Vauxhall Cross Underground stations – an idea originally for the publication of Plague which got completely derailed by the initial outbreak of COVID. Of course, at the same time, I’ll be continuing to publicise Oracle and Plague.

Then there’s Clapham Book Festival 2022 to think about too – the first planningclapham book festivallogo2 committee meeting is later this month when we hope to be able to discuss the potential programme for the event. A date for your diary is 15th October, our flagship Festival day, though we’ll be planning events around it, probably including another literary walk in Clapham and some events online with our media partners Time & Leisure magazine before and after the Festival Day.

And of course, there’s the next novel, but that, as they say, is another story.

By the way, the derivation of the ‘Gird up your loins‘ phrase relates to managing the long, desert garments worn in the Middle East. Wearers would have to hoick these up and wrap them around their thighs, tucking the ends into their belts or girdles so as to leave their legs unencumbered, if they were about to do something strenuous, wet or difficult. It makes sense when you think about it.

The RBKC Libraries event is Free to attend and you can register HERE.

2021 Books

It’s Christmas Eve, when people write about the books they’ve read, before stepping away from social media and the internet to return to more traditional pursuits, like acrimonious family gatherings and eating and drinking too much. I’ve never really been one for the first of those though I’ll participate with enthusiasm in the others, but, for what it’s worth, here are some book recommendations from me. I confess to a bias towards crime and mysteries and to not reading as much as I should and would like to. Warning – not all of these were published in 2021.

HagSeedFirst, Hag-Seed by Margaret Attwood, one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings of Shakespeare plays and published back in 2016. I’d been keeping it in Spain to read there but, given that I’ve always been writing when in Spain I’d never got around to reading it.  I have now and I’m very glad I did. Set in a Canadian Correctional Facility this is both utterly different to The Tempest and absolutely true to it. It manages to be a recreation as well as a commentary on the play via the means of a ‘play within a play’ something very Shakespearean in itself. It is criminally easy to read ( within a 24 hour period for me) and is also funny! An absolute must read.

Second, a discovery, of the Laidlaw books by William McIlvanney (Laidlaw, TheLaidlaw Papers of Tony Veitch and Strange Loyalties). Written in the 1970s and 80s and recognised as the precursor to that wave of amazing Scottish crime-writing talent which followed – think Ian Rankin, Val Macdermid, Denise Mina and many others – these show a many-sided Glasgow, from aspiring suburbs to crumbling tenements through the eyes of Jack Laidlaw, philosopher cop and almost as hard as nails.  McIlvanney is a true heir of Raymond Chandler, the prose jumps out at you and slaps you round the face, before sliding slowly away, drawing you ever further in after it.

Third, The Manningtree Witches (2021) a book I recommended in a recent ‘Books for Christmas’ article for Time & Leisure magazine). This is the debut novel of poet A.K. Blakemore, already winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize. The language is exquisite and earthy and follows the fate of the the manningtree witcheswomen at the centre of the first village witch trials during the English Civil War in 1645. Focusing on Rebecca West, daughter of the fearsome and belligerent Beldam West and the arrival of young Matthew Hopkins, the man who will become the Witchfinder General, we are treated to a rich portrayal of the fault lines exposed in a rural village during a period of famine and war.

Fourth, historical crime – though I’m not sure Stuart Turton is that bothered about historical accuracy when it intrudes upon the story. More power to his elbow, The Devil and the Dark Water (2020) delivers a shipload of entertainment. Set in the seventeenth century, on a Dutch East Indiaman, it’s a study in how fear can be used to exact revenge and is completely gripping (the denouement is as twisty and as  convoluted as anything in Agatha Christie ).

Finally, a  small collection of excellent police procedurals, each with an engaging set of complex characters andSaltLane a fiendish mystery to solve and, because it’s important to me, a strong sense of place. William’s Shaw’s Salt Lane (2018) the first of his Alex Cupidi series is set on Romney Marsh and the area around it. Aside from being a cracking crime novel it tackles difficult issues, like immigration, refugees and rural poverty. These crimes are grounded in modern reality with immediacy and authenticity, I will certainly read more.

Finally to Scotland and Barry Hutchison (writing as J D Kirk) gets away from the Glasgow-Edinburgh corridor and takes us to the Scottish Highlands with DCI Jack Logan. I read the first three (A Litter of Bones, Thicker Than Water and The Killing Code) in quick succession and was thoroughly entertained, the characters are well drawn and appealing and humour runs through-out.

Any or all of these would be good to curl up with while other family members indulge in a post-prandial snooze.  Merry Christmas to all!

Wrapping

Opera_CoverPromos and packaging have been centre stage for me this week as I’ve wrestled with writing a tag-line (helped by Claret Press) for Opera, received the cover (with thanks to brilliant in-house designer, Petya Tsankova) and helped design a new social media banner and video. Never, it seems, has the wrapping of a book and its accompanying promotional images been more important than now.  I’ve only just finished writing the book (and still await more edits) yet already we move on to what it’s wrapped in.

Given the arrival of social media an author has to feature their latest book on their Facebook and Twitter banners, plus have some items to post on Instagram (and I haven’t even scratched the surface of TikTok, Snapchat and all those newer media). GIFs are the latest ‘must have’ Claret tells me and I’ve been exploring exactly what those are (technologically) and how they are created.

Here’s my banner, set out in the same format as those for Plague and Oracle, with the book cover andHeaderFooterV10 two other images set against an atmospheric background and with the tag-line in bold. This was the tenth version! Others were rejected as ‘too feminine’ and ‘insufficiently threatening’ (see the images below). I had to choose between the Downing Street sign and Big Ben too, because both weren’t needed, so I went for night and the Christmas tree, with the addition of a smoking gun! Readers of Plague and Oracle will know that each book takes places over a fixed period of time and they follow one after another, with about a month in between. OperaHeaderFooterV5 does the same, so its events happen during the fortnight before the Christmas holiday.  It was only when we were playing around with the designs that the tag-line ‘Truth Never Dies’ finally emerged, though it seems particularly appropriate at the moment. GIFs will be my next challenge, but a couple of mini-MP4 videos have already been produced, building on the ‘smoking gun’ imagery (these are being kept under wraps, but see below for my Instagram post). All part of the package pre-release of the book and for distribution to the book bloggers who will review it and post reviews on social media. Animated pictures, whether on Instagram or other SM have beenHeaderFooter shown to have greater impact and attract more attention than non-animated content – including the attention of the algorithms which determine which posts get shown first when a hashtag is used. Good news therefore for publicists.

OperaInstagramClaret and I will sit down in the New Year and agree a full publicity strategy, including pre-release publicity, whether or not to use NetGalley again (probably not), whether or not to have an online book tour (probably) and, COVID permitting, a schedule of actual bookshop signings. Publication date has been agreed as 5th September and both ebook and paperback versions will be available for pre-order in Spring. The author events with libraries, online and in person, are already being arranged. And, with Claret Press about to sign with a new distributor, this time my book will be launched into bookshops across the UK. All good news.  So here is the design for my Instagram feed. Maybe next week I’ll be back to editing.

Hogarth and Europe

One of Tate Britain’s big shows this winter, Hogarth and Europe looks at the ever popular eighteenth century artist in the context of the changing society of the time and the similarities with artists across Europe. I went to take a look last week.

This isn’t a small show and it includes ceramics as well as prints and paintings. It includes the well known standalone paintings, like The March to Finchley and The Gate of Calais ( aka O The Roast Beef of Old England ) as well as the series paintings (and prints) so there’s A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and Marriage a la Mode. There is the famous 1745 self-portrait of Hogarth himself, with Pug, and a selection, less widely seen, of his portrait paintings which would have been what brought in the money during his lifetime, like that of the Cholmondely family, right. There wasn’t a lot of his work which I hadn’t seen before, although the portraits of his two sisters were striking, the family resemblance between then and with their brother very evident.  That said, there is always more to be found in his very full frames and this exhibition draws attention to particular aspects not focused on before.

The eighteenth century was a time of huge change. Peace and stability in Europe brought economic prosperity, expanding trade with other parts of the world and significant scientific and social innovation. Cities were growing exponentially and, while there were massive disparities between the lives of the rich and the poor, there was also opportunity. Artists no longer depended on their traditional sponsors, church, state and aristocracy, but painted for the new, rising middle class ( something Simon Shama’s Embarrassment of Riches documented so enjoyably in regard to Holland ). Hogarth was one of them and he campaigned vigorously for the Engravers Copyright Act of 1735, otherwise known as ‘Hogarth’s Act’, which gave artists the rights to their own work.

The exhibition prompts you to look at the familiar scenes with a social historian’s eye, picking out that fine, oriental china cluttering the Squanderfield’s mantlepiece, noticing the French furnishings, the French and Dutch old masters on the wall in The Marriage Settlement, the exotics – the black slaves, the Italian castrato singer, the French dancing master – in later Marriage paintings. Whilst seeing his black characters, usually unfree, I hadn’t noticed before the way that Hogarth often positions them (not just household slaves, but in street scenes too) as a counter to white immorality. 

I confess that I’ve always found Hogarth’s social commentary ‘satire’ somewhat heavy handed andWilliam_HogarthGinLane unfunny, though chock-full of detail, but I acknowledge its originality and influence. He was very famous during his lifetime mainly because so many of his ‘morality’ works were turned into prints (he studied, originally as an engraver). He has also been a major influence on later artists and the word ‘Hogarthian’ has come to represent many a teeming, rambunctious and satiric scene. This exhibition shows that, while his European contemporaries were painting scenes of the city, like him, they were far less assured in their social commentary and much less irreverent and satirical.  Some, like Canaletto, were content to capture (very beautifully, it must be said) what was before them.

William_Hogarth_-_A_Rake's_Progress_-_Plate_8_-_In_The_MadhouseI appreciated the charitable work he did, with other artists and musicians, notably Handel, in supporting the Foundlings Hospital but I hadn’t understood that his preoccupation with the materialism and moral decline of ‘modern’ society was also fueled by his own history. His father got into debt and was imprisoned for a time, leaving the young Hogarth and his mother to provide for the family. The Madhouse final scene from Rake was only a metaphorical step away from the debtor’s prison where Hogarth senior had been incarcerated.

So, an exhibition worth going to if you want to learn more about William Hogarth and a chance to see him in a European context.  It runs until 20th March 2022 and costs £18 to enter (full price).

Reading

OperaTheEndLast Friday the revised manuscript of Opera was sent to Claret Press, so please allow me a merry little dance (or a maniacal jig, more like) of pleasure and relief. I’d worked hard on it while in Spain, completing a whole rewrite, including a restructuring – I thought it was too flabby – and this won’t be the end of the story, there will be more edits still to do. I may have missed infelicities caused by the structural changes as well as potential for improvement (there is always potential for improvement, groan). The final proof reading edit is still a long way off yet, but the manuscript has gone. Yippee!

I have also been given a date for publication, the beginning of September next year. I’d hoped that itOpera_Cover_HiRes might be out in Spring, but the delay is unavoidable, to give Claret’s new distributors time to get it into book shops. I’m already discussing back cover blurb and tag-lines (we have arrived at the former but not the latter) and the cover design is almost done. The New Year will see us formulating a promotion and marketing strategy for events in the run up to and following launch.

Maybe next year, with the third Cassandra Fortune book, I’ll finally get to have a real life, physical book launch? Also, Omicron COVID strain permitting, I might get to do physical book tours (I’ve already got some events lined up). It’s strange to think that with this, my third traditionally published novel, I might get to experience what is normal for a new book.

dfw-ja-r-cover-midOn that note, a quick look back at Plague (published September 2020) and Oracle (published May 2021), was prompted by my receiving my Public Lending Rights statement recently. Despite libraries being closed for much of the year ended June 2021, Plague has been borrowed many times (Oracle wouldn’t have made it into libraries by then) but I was surprised to see that Reconquista, my earlier novel set in 13th century Al Andalus was second most frequently borrowed. That book and its sequel, The Silver Rings, are also selling again. When I began working with Claret Press I was told that there’s nothing that sells one’s first book like the publication of one’s fourth (or fifth, or sixth) and these sales, though small, seem to bear that out, even though they aren’t crime fiction.

But the real up-side of getting the manuscript off is that I am, for a short time at least, at leisure to read.

I have a pile of books waiting for me which is already toppling, it is reaching such heights, (see right) but I’ve been adding more to it recently and some are still on their way. All to be read before the next edit. Participation in a recent UK Crime Book Club Quiz on Scottish crime fiction showed me just how much of that I haven’t read, smething I’ll try to remedy with some of William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw books and Quintin Jardine’s Skinner series, plus some JD Kirk.  Then there are the historical crime books, like Stuart Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water and one or two non-crime books which I missed first time round which made the best seller lists like Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. My favourite, recently consumed, is The Manningtree Witches by A.K.Blakemore. You can read what I thought of that, together with some other book recommendations for the Christmas break in Time & Leisure magazine.

I am looking forward to reading them all!

Black Friday and other stories

OracleCassiequoteVBGreyAll the published writers I know (except one) accept the need to promote their books, whether they are contractually obliged to do so, as a traditionally published author, or understand that they must get themselves and their book out there as a self-published author. Only those established enough to command a hefty advertising and promotion budget within their publishing house can sit back and even they can’t relax. Sir Michael Morpurgo, who is as established as they get, was on the road promoting his latest book at the Clapham Book Festival in October.

There are a plethora of ‘Black Friday’ deals being unleashed upon the general public this week and it’s no99pposter exception, with Christmas around the corner, in the book world. The ebook of Plague has been reduced to 99p online across stores (and on the Claret Press website) and I am publicising that at the same time as organising ‘giveaway’ competitions for free copies of Oracle within online book groups, like The Motherload.  It happens also to be six months since Oracle came out, so there is a bona fide reason to do the giveaway, aside from Black Friday.

TheMotherloadBookGroupFor a small publisher like Claret this is a neat way to get free advertising. For example in this ‘giveaway’ via Facebook of three books ( at cost and with postage of approximately £3 per book ) Oracle’s cover and blurb, as well as some quoted reviews, has reached 174,000 people in the last twenty four hours. Mostly these are via Twitter but the Club itself has 12,000 members.  At time of writing over eighty people have ‘entered’.

When the three winners’ names have been drawn out of the hat I will send each of them a signed copy,OraclePostcardimage complete with Oracle postcard and  message congratulating them, hoping that they enjoy reading the book and asking, if they do enjoy it, if they would pass the word on, by way of a review or a post in the Facebook Book Group and/or on Goodreads. If they do so this will generate more publicity. Oracle is, of course, readable as a standalone novel, but it may also encourage some folk to buy Plague, especially given its reduced price.

To that end I am appearing as a writer guest tomorrow night in the UK Crime Book Club’s Pub Quiz (Only not in a Pub). I don’t know what sort of audience there’ll be – the Club has over twenty thousand members – though I know there’s a Noir at the Bar tomorrow night so there’s quite a lot of competition.  It’s the ‘Thank Andrew’ edition, because November includes both Thanksgiving and St Andrew’s Day, with the focus on U.S. and Scottish crime fiction. I have been madly mugging up on both and realising just how much good crime fiction there is out there that I know nothing about. Wish me luck with the Quiz, I hope I don’t make a complete fool of myself ( preparing for a Select Committee hearing was never as nerve-wracking ).

Once I get the latest version of the manuscript of Opera off to Claret ( which is imminent ) I will be taking advantage of some Black Friday deals myself. 

Sherry Week

InernationalSherryWeek21The word ‘sherry’ is derived from the name of the the town of Jerez in Andalucia, southern Spain, formerly spelled Xeres and pronounced ‘sheres’. This year International Sherry Week, a celebration of the town’s most famous product, ran from 8th to the 14th November and I happened to be there for much of it.

And, this year, the biennial Copa de Jerez 2021 coincided. An industry conference, promoting sherry but also hosting discussions about the latest in the world of sherry production, marketing and the rules governing it, it includes a competition for chefs and sommeliers from across the world, the winners being the most successful at pairing sherry and food. This competition has been going for six years and is getting a very good reputation. The entrants come from the best restaurants in Europe. This year the UK’s entry was a team from The River Cafe – Mattia Mazzi was the sommelier and Vincente Raffone the chef.

It’s a high pressure competition, with national heats, before the grand final in the Teatro Villamarta in Jerez and it’s all done against the clock. This year’s judges include Josep Roca, the sommelier and co-owner of the triple-Michelin-starred El Cellar de Can Roca, London restaurateur José Pizarro, Quique Dacosta, owner and chef at his eponymous three-starred restaurant, Andreas Larsson, named the World’s Best Sommelier in 2007, Peer Holm, President of the German Association of Sommeliers and leading Spanish food critic, José Carlos Capel. Not an easy bunch to impress.

The winners were the Belgian team of sommelier Paul-Henri Cuvelier and chef Fabian Bell of Paul de Pierre in Maarkedal, who also won the awards for best sommelier and best chef. Their menu began with mackerel, dashi, chorizo, artichoke, pak choi and lovage oil, paired with Fino Viña Corrales from Bodegas San Francisco. For the main course, lamb, hazelnut, celeriac and sesame purée, zucchini flower stuffed with Manchego, shiitake mushrooms and rosemary-infused potato confit was matched with an Oloroso from Bodegas Gutierrez Colosia. The pud, of pear in tobacco and spice syrup, lemon cream and goat’s cheese ice cream, accompanied by Medium Old Harvest from Bodegas Ximénez-Spinola sounds amazing. Actually, the whole meal sounds amazing.

Please note, I wasn’t invited to any of this – the photos are from the PR. Yet this didn’t stop me from tasting, though not the super dry finos and manzanillas, for me the Autumn is a time for amontillado or, my current favourite, oloroso. (N.B. readers should note that my favourite changes from day to day.) So, meeting friends before going to lunch – a cafe solo and an oloroso goes down very nicely thank you. Some ice cream and a coffee after lunch, what better to accompany both than an oloroso ( though Pedro Jimenez poured over good vanilla ice cream is a delight ).

I was also pleased to discover that the ‘international’ element of Sherry Week was going strong with over 1,750 tastings world wide, including in Vancouver, Sydney, Colombia, Greece and in the UK.  So here’s a shout for The Tapas Room in Peckham, Ambiente Tapas, York, Bar44bristol, Bar Estaban, Crouch End, Rincon Bar Espanol, Richmond, Curado Bar, Cardiff, to name but a few. Now where did I put that bottle of Palo Cortado?

Clapham Book Festival 2021 – farewell

PosterA4CLAPHAM BOOK FESTIVAL 2021Back in February, when the whole of the UK was in full lockdown, the death rate was still high  and who knew what the future was going to bring, the CBF management team met via zoom to decide what, if any, kind of Festival would be possible in 2021. The 2020 Festival, planning for which had already begun last year, had had to be shelved and no one knew if the same fate would befall any attempt at a Festival for 2021. Nonetheless, with a vaccine roll-out already underway and the promise of better things to come we decided, tentatively, to go ahead. 

We hedged our bets – there would be only two live ‘in person’ events at Omnibus Theatre and those would be livestreamed too, there would be two literary walks taking place outside on Clapham Common and two events online via zoom, hosted by new media partners, Time & Leisure magazine. Everything was uncertain. Omnibus was planning to be open again in Summer, probably with social distancing, but couldn’t be sure they would be. Even if they were, would people be willing to sit in a room with lots of others for an hour or more? We also didn’t know if there would be an audienceCBF2021MacintyrePosterV2 for zoomed author interviews, people might have had enough of zooming during lockdown. And would people be interested in walking round Clapham Common?

On Tuesday last the final event of the Clapham Book Festival 2021 took place. A fair-sized zoom audience watched and took part in a fascinating discussion about spying and espionage between Ben Macintyre, whose new book Agent Sonya is a biography of an amazingly successful Soviet spy based in the twentieth century Cotswolds and Simon Berthon, second world war historian and modern thriller writer. Ben was erudite, knowledgeable and witty and was asked insightful questions by his interlocutor and by members of the audience. It was a tremendously enjoyable hour, appreciated by all who attended and it ended the Festival on a high. 

The showcase day on Saturday 16th October was also a success, even with necessarily reduced audience numbers. The literary walks were a sell-out and, after rain in the early morning, the weather was benign. I enjoyed doing mine and was only annoyed that I couldn’t also go on the one led by Annemarie Neary ( the times overlapped ). We have already received requests to repeat CBF2021NearyWalkPosterV2these and may do so at, say, Easter 2022 as a way of maintaining the Festival’s profile across the year.  Sir Michael Morpurgo was a delight for children and adults alike and Ed Stourton spoke authoritatively and amusingly about broadcasting and journalism from world war two to the present day. Feedback was uniformly positive at 100%, which is astonishing. In retrospect I think there was a real desire, not to say craving, for a return to good quality, local bookish events and the Book Festival met that need.  The livestream option wasn’t called upon.

The first zoom event, with Brixton author Rosanna Amaka, drew a relatively small but committed audience for an interesting discussion about her much praised debut novel The Book of Echoes and her approach to writing it. Both zoom events were successful in their own way, as was the ‘dry run’ in July with local, best-selling author Elizabeth Buchan. We will be doing more of these in 2022 and hope to continue with the £5 a ticket approach and to build up a regular audience.

For now, we’re doing sums and making payments and, it seems, we’ve covered our costs. Lots of books were sold ( I know I’ve acquired some new readers ) and enjoyment was had. Onwards to next year!

The Ben Macintyre discussion is now available and you can watch it here. Donate the ticket price if you can, via the Donate button on the Clapham Book Festival website

The Great Picture Book of Everything

In 2017 The British Museum staged an excellent exhibition of Hokusai paintings and drawings ( I wrote about it here ). Earlier thisHokusai Book week I returned there for a second exhibition of Hokusai work, this time focusing on his drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything.

These small drawings, one hundred and three of them, have only survived because the Book, which would have been produced by wood block printing, was never published. The technique, which is illustrated within the exhibition, involves a original drawing being placed over a block of wood which is then prepared by removing all the wood which does not correspond to the lines of the drawing. The block is covered with ink and paper pressed onto it, thus transferring the drawing onto the paper, a process which can be repeated many times. Woodcarvers were apprenticed for ten years before they were qualified and it looks to me like an art in itself.

Hokusai The-Great-WaveAs an example of the production process there is a section on the print known as The Great Wave, for which Hokusai is probably most famous. There are many thousands of versions of this picture, called Under the Wave off Kanagawa ( first published 1831 ). Woodblock prints were inexpensive in nineteenth century Japan, costing approximately the same as two dishes of noodles and the blocks would be used to produce thousands of images. They frequently wore down, creating different versions of the same image and when new blocks were created, these too could differ from the original.

The Book drawings are remarkable for their intricacy and fine detail, as well as the energy of them and distinct characterisation ofHokusai India_China_Korea their subjects. They are also remarkable for their subject matter. Between 1639 and 1859 Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns who forbade the Japanese people from travelling abroad. Yet in producing the drawings, between 1820 and 1860, Hokusai depicted peoples from foreign lands as well as characters from Indian and Chinese mythology ( see right, figures of India, China and Korea ).

Some of them are absolutely stunning. There was a wonderful picture of an elephant,  ( which begs the question, how did he know what an elephant looked like? ) some exquisite renderings of Japanese and Indian myths (including dragons and the demon known as the Nine-Tailed Fox ) and more prosaic but perfect scenes of everyday life. One I particularly enjoyed was that of four men, type-setting, publishing and printing (left, below ).

Hokusai PublishingThat said, I realised early in my visit that I would have to buy the catalogue, because it simply isn’t possible to stand for long enough in front of these small pictures to really enjoy all their detail and subtlety – too many other people are trying to do the same. Besides, it’s a book and I can’t resist book buying. The exhibition is in Room 90, one of the rooms used for small exhibitions of prints and drawings at the rear of the Museum ( beyond Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt and up the stairs ). Entry is only £9 for adults and, even with timed tickets, it was getting crowded when I visited.

More than one of the drawings left me marvelling at their modernity. The drawing of Virudhaka Destroyed by Lightening couldHokusaiVirudhaka_killed_lightening have come from the pages of a modern comic/graphic novel or a Roy Lichtenstein work ( Kerpow! ). All they would need would be primary colours. Others depict interior scenes or verandas in a way which reminded me of Degas, with an asymmetrical picture construction. I look forward to many happy hours with my catalogue, really appreciating these drawings in full detail, but, as an enticing taster, this exhibition was wonderful. It runs until 30th January 2022 and the book costs £20.

Zooming

RosannaAmakaimageSo to the last two events of the 2021 Clapham Book Festival.

Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking with Rosanna Amaka about her stunning debut novel ‘The Book of Echoes‘ (Doubleday, 2020). The session was hosted by Lucy Kane of Time & Leisure Magazine, media sponsors of the Festival. Rosanna is a long-time resident of Clapham and Brixton and much of ‘Echoes‘ is set in Brixton in the 1970s. It was fascinating to learn about how she began to write the book, beginning with the character of Michael, the young man growing up then, expanding to include Ngosi, the young Nigerian woman, finding her way from her village to the United States and, eventually, Britain. Only after having developed these two characters did she light upon her narrator, an ancestor of both of them who opens the book. Rosanna read from the very start of the book, written in the words of the narrator, a pregnant slave woman. It is a very powerful opening.

Rosanna began writing the book twenty years ago, in an attempt to capture the Brixton community which she knew and had grownBookofEchoes 9781784164836 PBB.indd up with. It was, she saw, gradually disappearing as the area became ‘gentrified’ and property was priced out of reach of the ordinary person. The older generation was leaving for the Caribbean, from whence they, or their parents, had arrived in the 1950s. Thus ‘Echoes’ was born. She tried submitting to agents and those publishers who accepted unrepresented submissions, but to no avail, so the book was put aside ( taken out and considered every so often ) while she got on with life.

Twenty years later she took it out dusted it off and submitted again, this time with success.  The book was short listed for the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize 2020, the People’s Choice Award and the Historical Writers Association Debut Crown, prizes, she told us, she hadn’t even known it was entered for ( it was only when the RSL contacted her to ask her to confirm her age that she knew she was up for that one ). It has not, she assured us, turned her head. Her latest manuscript is currently with her agent, Rosanna didn’t want to say too much about it, but we can look forward to another book soon.

CBF2021MacintyrePosterV2Ben Macintyre is rather more prolific than Rosanna, but then he has been writing for many years and with much success as the author of a series of histories and biographies about the world of espionage. I much enjoyed reading his last but one book, ‘The Spy and the Traitor‘ a biography of Soviet spy and double agent Oleg Gordievski. It read like a thriller, with the tension rising as Gordievski was extricated from the U.S.S.R in an operation reminiscent of James Bond. John Le Carre called it ‘the best true spy story I have ever read.’ I haven’t yet read ‘Agent Sonya‘, his latest, a biography of Ursula Kuczynski Burton, the Soviet spy, but I’m looking forward to hearing him talk about that and his other, award-winning books on Tuesday 2nd November in the last event of the 2021 Clapham Book Festival.

Short listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Galaxy British Book Award Macintyre regularly hits the No. 1 Bestseller spot and his ‘SAS Rogue Heroes‘ is the book behind the BBC series ‘SAS Rogue Warriors‘. He should be fascinating to listen to in conversation with Clapham author Simon Berthon.  At under £6 a ticket this is a snip at the price, one would normally pay a lot more to see and hear him, so get your ticket now from Eventbrite.

The Clapham Book Festival will then be over for 2021, but we plan to continue with the zoom events throughout the year, with the help of Time & Leisure Magazine. I’ll be posting about future events here and on the Clapham Writers site. Here’s a little video made by SW Londoner Magazine about this year’s Festival. https://www.swlondoner.co.uk/entertainment/28102021-video-clapham-book-festival-returned-this-month-with-sir-michael-morpurgo/