Temple

ToA7In Aethiopica, an ancient novel by Heliodorus, a central character who is a priest of the Egyptian goddess Isis, describes Delphi as where the divine can be found, a natural fortress, beloved of Nature. Other ancient writers commented on its hidden aspect. It’s certainly true that the mountain itself seems to protect the sanctuary, denying the visitor any faraway view, hiding the site until the traveller rounds the last craggy outcrop and sees the Temple nestling in a bowl of the mountain, the harsh, grey granite rising up behind. It must, in the days of its full splendour, have been a truly stunning sight. The marble of its many buildings reflecting the sunlight and glowing golden at dusk as the pilgrims climbed the paths to the Temple, to petition the Oracle of the God Apollo for answers, the last rays of the sun glinting in the gold which topped many of the monuments. It’s still fairly impressive now.

Delphes JeanClaudeGolvin1As Nico, an employee of Delphi Museum and a character in my novel, says ‘The temple ruins you’ll see today date back to 320 BCE. It’s the sixth Temple of Apollo to stand here, ‘though the site has been sacred for millenia.’ The Sacred Way, the stone pathway which zigzags across the mountain slope, rising towards the Temple Terrace, is a relatively modern addition, in the 5th and 6th centuries CE and, though this is the route followed by modern visitors, the Temple site BCE would have had several entrances and paths and sets of steps between paths, not unlike those in the town of Delphi today.

The buildings within the complex were closely packed together, you can imagine how this was from Jean-Claude Golvin’s watercolours included here. Golvin was an archaeologist as well as a painter and his pictures are based on the ruins found on the sites, plus quite a lot of scholarly speculation. Above you see the walled complex, the huge Trsy2boundary walls constructed in the sixth century BCE. The square addition of the Roman Agora is on the right and the ancient Amphitheatre is directly behind the massive Temple itself. The Temple was the heart of the sanctuary, its Terrace packed with monuments, statuary and other offerings to the God. Many of the box-like buildings you can see on the slopes below it were Treasuries, belonging to city states, islands, countries, where their special offerings were stored.  The Treasury of the Athenians, which features in ‘Oracle’ is the best restored. Originally dedicated after the victory at Marathon the restoration took place in the early twentieth century with money raised from the modern city of Athens.

But Apollo wasn’t the only God honoured here. There is the Sanctuary to Athena, which can be seen in the largerDelphes JeanClaudeGolvin2 version of Golvin’s watercolour. This stands at the bottom right of the picture (right) just beyond the Gymnasium – you can see the long running track – and plunge pool.  This was where athletic members of the public would work out and train. The Sanctuary Stadium, where the Pythian Games were held, is much higher up the mountain, its edge can be seen in the top left hand corner of the larger picture. It is from the Stadium that my heroine looks down on the precinct – ‘It was easy to understand why this place had been sacred for so long’ she says. ‘It was so still, a sense of the divine so near to the surface. It had astonishing drama and beauty.’  And it still does.

Yet the history of the precinct is one of rivalry and dispute, even in a place dedicated to the God and overseen by ToA2various forms of a council representing, at least nominally, all of Greece. There was a decided element of outshining the competition, with cities and other dedicatees, building ‘bigger and better’ than their fellows. Not least of the rivalries was that between Athens and Sparta, as you would expect, but there were others, often reflecting the political tensions of the day. In all there were three Sacred Wars for the prize of virtual overlordship of Delphi, dominating the council, and more than one political enemy was flung from the top of the Phaedriades cliffs as a blasphemer (planting evidence of stolen goods which had been dedicated to the God was a common trick).

If readers of this blog would like a more detailed, but still digestible, history I can recommend Michael Scott’s ‘Delphi’ (Princeton University Press, 2016). If you prefer bite-size chunks, but with far less erudition, keep reading this blog.

More on Delphi               The Mountain of the house of the God                        Crime Scene           

‘The mountain of the house of the god’

ParnassosMount Parnassus, at over eight thousand feet high, is one of the highest and largest mountains in Greece and it towers over the Gulf of Corinth. Its name means the mountain of the house of the god and that god is Apollo. Believed by ancient Greeks to be the centre of the world, Delphi and the area around it on Parnassus has been a place of habitation since Neolithic times. It was already old when the Hellenic Apollo arrived to wrestle with the Pytho, the snake of the Goddess Gaia, the Great Mother and to take over the sanctuary.

It’s a few hours drive north from Athens and its worth navigating through the traffic choked outskirts to the motorway and into the mountains around the Gulf of Corinth to sit outside as the sun sets, on the terrace of a Delphi taverna absorbing the stunning view. The mountain slope, covered in cypress and pine trees, falls away sharply and the resinous perfume of the pines blends with the scent of wild herbs upon which bees feast to make the marvellous Parnassus honey.  As goat bells sound, the river valley, over sixteen hundred feet below, winds its way to the plain andToA2 the glint of sea on the horizon.

On one side of a low ridge in the mountain’s skirts lies the ancient Temple of Apollo, which is really a precinct of temples and buildings, including an amphitheatre, gymnasium and stadium, all set on the slopes around the massive Temple itself. The site has been a centre of worship since the Early Bronze Age (so about 3,000 BCE) and the Temple site is fabulous, very atmospheric, especially when there’s a mountain mist. It’s tucked into a fold of the mountain so that you don’t see it until you’re on top of it. It must have been a magnificent sight, marble reflecting the sunlight, as hundreds of pilgrims queued along the Sacred Way to ask their question of the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, famous throughout the Mediterranean world.  

ParnassusTrailThe mountain is a great place for walking, with many accessible trails and much of it, about 36,000 acres, designated as a National Park.  Some of its flora is of protected species and birds of prey, wolves and boars are not uncommon. There are plenty of viewpoints and small walker’s lodges to aim for. You can walk to the ancient Corycian Cave where people have lived since Neolithic times or trek across to stand at the top of the Phaedriades, huge cliffs called the ‘shining ones’ which tower above the temple site.  Or visit the Castalian Spring at the foot of the Phaedriades, where the PythiaParnassusSnow bathed in ritual purification before she entered the Temple and became the Oracle of the God. I like that this place was dedicated to Gaia the Great Mother before it passed to Apollo and that it was a woman, or women, who spoke with the God’s voice even after Apollo took over. I’m not sure I’d have fancied the ritual outdoor bathing in non-summer months though, it can be cold this high up. In Winter Parnassus has its ski centre, the largest in Greece with sixteen ski-lifts. Athenians flock their for the winter sports. 

Apollo isn’t the only god associated with the mountain. His cousin, Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre, ruled the Temple in the winter months, when Apollo was said to be away ( getting to Delphi in winter in ancient times must have Mont_Parnasse,_par_Edward_Dodwell,_BNF_Gallicabeen very difficult, so the Temple, in effect, shut down until spring came ). Parnassus was also said to be the home of the Muses and it was the supposed presence of these semi-deities which prompted some nineteenth century French poets to give the mountain’s name to their literary movement, Parnassism. This was a reposte to Romanticism, calling for a return to classicism and classical forms. Primarily, though not exclusively, influential among poets it was particularly strong in Paris and the place south of the Seine where the poetry readings were held was commonly referred to using the mountain’s name. This subsequently became the Parisian district known as Montparnasse. In the early part of the twentieth century this area became the vibrant artistic hub of the French capital, migrating from Montmartre, which had, by then, become more establishment. So the ‘mountain of the home of the god’ is also a Parisian suburb, noted, today, for its tower and its huge cemetery, where many famous writers are buried.

 

Imagined Worlds

Fiction is a product of the imagination even if its narrative is set in a real place, which exists in the real world. Many fictions aren’t, of course, especially if fantastical or science fiction. Their created worlds are often detailed and frequently accompanied by a map.

LON_MAPMy fiction is very much located in real places – place is very important to me. So ‘Plague’ is a novel of London, it couldn’t really take place anywhere else. So much so that I have created a ‘Walk of the Book’ – there’s a free leaflet showing you how to visit the locations which feature in the book and walk the course of the ‘lost’ River Tyburn, if you’re ever in London and want to do a city walk. You can find it on the Welcome page of this website.

Although the action took place mainly in SW1 – the ‘postcode of power’ – a map was included at the beginning of the book so that a reader who was unfamiliar with that area could see how the locations, some of them very famous, some much less so, lay in relation to each other.

‘Oracle’ is set in Delphi, somewhere much less familiar to most people, unless they happen to have visited there. Its geography is unusual in that the town of Delphi clings, vine-like, to the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus and has as many stepped alleyways as it has hairpin roads and some truly dramatic and spectacular views. So this place is very, very specific.  I have written before about one of the locations of the book, the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside Delphi town ( in Crime Scene )and will be writing about another, the ancient Temple of Apollo site, in future, but this article isn’t about either place, but about how place is represented in books, particularly about maps.

My assumption, partly because I love a map, is that such a thing is helpful at the start of a book, especially if the location of the tale is unfamiliar. But then, I prefer toMap_of_Delphi read physical books, an object which is in my hand and which I do not look beyond. Many people don’t read this way, they use Kindles or similar devices which link to the internet. So there’s plenty of software available, Open Street, Bing, Google or OS, which will find them a map on their device.

A part of me also thinks that I should, as a writer, be able to create the world of the book so successfully in words that a map isn’t needed. Many readers of ‘Plague’ commented on how vividly the locations were drawn and, how, in future, they would walk the streets of SW1 with a rather different view of them to that they had had before. This is great to hear for the writer, but it adds weight to the idea that the writing should be all the reader needs. It should make them feel that they are in that place, but also gives them sufficient understanding of where specific places are relative to each other. So, if that’s the case, isn’t having a map being a lazy writer?

I couldn’t really decide, so I did what I often do now, I asked readers. In this instance the members of UK Crime Book UK Crime Book ClublogoClub. I explained my dilemma and asked their opinion.  This prompted many comments ( one hundred and forty two people contributed ) overwhelmingly in favour of maps. Some fellow writers disagreed, however, saying, for example ‘I prefer to have my readers follow where I take them.’ and ‘If a book needs a map to make sense of the story or plot then the story/plot isn’t clear enough.’ Some readers gave maps the thumbs down too e.g. ‘Don’t like a map and timeline etc. It complicates and distracts from just naturally drinking in the narrative of the book.’ but the vast majority were in favour.

In particular they welcomed the clarification a map provided of where places were in relation to other places, with comments like ‘Not everyone has a geographical memory, or any idea where sites are in relation to each other. I’d appreciate a map like this.’ or ‘Maps are great! And descriptions don’t necessarily give a picture LordoftheRings of where everything is in relation to everything else.’

I even discovered, during the discussion, that there is another book which is set in Delphi, called ‘A Spartan’s Sorrow’ by Hannah Lynn, the second in a series reimagining Greek myth, from the perspective of Clytemnestra and it’s published this week. Those classical stories resonate for ever. But the debate about maps also prompted some reminiscences about first encountering maps in books. The map at the front of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books, for example, or ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, which are true works of art. Indeed, this Autumn, HarperCollins will be publishing a new version of the books, including all of J.R.R.Tolkien’s original maps, drawings and painting (as reported in the Guardian ).

Those readers who responded to my question about maps will be pleased, mainly, to learn that there’s one in ‘Oracle’ and I’ll be talking about the novel with Samantha Brownley at the UKCBC on 13th May ( see Events ).

‘Oracle’ Art

Given the antiquity of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the cultural influence it has had over the millennia it’s not surprising that large numbers of visual artists have been inspired by it.  Followers of my twitter feed will know I have been collecting and sharing images of Delphi, the Temple of Apollo and the various historical or mythical beings who came there, drawn or painted by famous artists.  So, we’ve had Gustave Dore’s Dante and Virgil encountering the Erinyes or Furies (left), Edward Lear’s water colour of the Phaedriades, the massive cliffs which loom over the Temple site and William Blake’s illustration for ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ showing ‘The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods’.

I’ve come across plenty of works, from ancient times onwards,  which portray events or characters from Greek drama set at Delphi. On Greek redware (right) for example, showing the sleeping Erinyes being roused from their Apollo-induced slumber by the vengeful spirit of Clytemnestra, urging them to hunt down her son, and murderer, Orestes ( from Eumenides by Aeschylus ). Later paintings include Orestes being pursued by the same furies by, among others, John Singer Sergeant, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, John Flaxman and Franz Stuck, until we’re up to date with John Wilson (after  Bouguereau).

So popular did the image of this pursuit become that cartoonists soon created their own versions, like that in Puck magazine (1877) or in Punch (left). In this instance it is the Rt. Hon. John Bright MP who is in the Orestes role, being pursued by the vested interests which he opposed through the Anti-Corn Law League. It was Bright, famous for his oratorical skills among other things, who coined the phrase ‘Mother of Parliaments’. He is also credited with first using the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’ to illustrate the pointlessness of certain activities (in Bright’s case this meant getting the House of Commons to consider Parliamentary reform – ’twas ever thus).

As figures of terror and myth the Erinyes feature strongly across the ages. Wenceslas Holler etched them in the seventeenth century (right) and they have re-emerged in modern day gaming ( though with a rather different, sexy, look which speaks to who it is who plays those games rather than any mythological authenticity ). Naked the furies may have, traditionally, been, but not looking like a set of pouting, come-hither dominatrices.

The Pythia, or priestess of Apollo who spoke, as the Oracle, with Apollo’s voice is also a favourite subject in paint and in sculpture.  Eugene Delacroix showed Lycurgus consulting her, John Collier made her a hooded, pre-raphaelite religious perched high on her tripod or three-legged stool (left).  Note the gases swirling upwards from the crack in the floor of her underground room, the inhalation of which led to her madness and prophecies.  No such crevice has been found at the Temple site, but, as a character explains in the book “geologists have found that two geological fault lines cross beneath Delphi, with fissures under the Temple itself which allow small amounts of naturally occurring gas to rise to the surface. Rock testing showed ethane, methane and ethylene − formerly used as an anaesthetic − to be present. These would create a calm, trancelike state and, if a lot was consumed, a form of wild mania.”

I will be posting more of the images I have found – of the Erinyes, of characters from the Orestia and of Delphi and the Temple of Apollo in the coming weeks on my twitter feed and Facebook page.  Look out for some of those mentioned above, as well as works by Klimt, Claude Lorraine and others in the run up to the publication of ‘Oracle’ on 5th May.

A most intrepid civil servant

That’s my heroine, Cassandra Fortune, according to Claret Press, my publishers. They are referring to my her as ‘the world’s most intrepid civil servant’.

There are plenty of real life intrepid civil i.e. non-military, servants of the Crown. The employees of the security services, for example, or holders of high profile positions like the Director of Europol. Policemen and women serve society in a civil capacity and there are lots of real as well as fictional police heroes and heroines, though, technically, they aren’t civil servants. The publishers are playing on the popular and entirely erroneous assumption that ‘civil servants’  are faceless ‘pen pushers’. I can personally attest to the fact that that stereotype is very far from reality.

There are plenty of civil servants in literature – see, for example, the entire oeuvre of C. P. Snow, various characters in the novels of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and A.S.Byatt, to name a few. But fictional civil servant detectives? Well, Cassie wouldn’t be the first.  They are more rare, though they do exist.

Natasha Cooper, former Chair of the Crime Writers Association had Willow King, at the Department for Old Age Pensions, who first appeared in Festering Lilies in the 1990s. Agatha Christie, no less, wrote a series of short stories featuring a retired civil servant named Parker Pyne in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). I’m sure there must be others and there are probably real civil servants who are more intrepid, though they may not meet with murders and villains with such regularity as Cassandra does.

This started me thinking about the professions and jobs of fictional detectives. Aside from police and associated professions, including Private Investigators, what do fictional detectives do for a living?  Amateurs, by definition, many belong to the ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’ detective category, individuals of independent means who are intrigued by mysteries and/or spurred on by a love of justice.  This covers many ‘early’ detectives, like Poe’s  Auguste Dupin or  Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey. From a quick hunt around my memory, there are plenty of writer or journalist detectives, whose job requires them to find things out, I suppose, but also former forces people, like Dr Watson or Sax Rohmer’s Nayland Smith the sleuth in his Fu Manchu novels. Academics feature but also psychologists and psychiatrists.  Lawyers too, in part I suppose because of their association with crime and the law, e.g. like Kate, in Sarah Vaughn’s best-selling Anatomy of a Scandal (2018)

There is a modern trend to go for something different. So we have Jimmy, homeless veteran and PTSD sufferer who is the hero of Trevor Woods’ Debut Dagger winning The Man on the Street (2020). Hetty Wainthropp, the working class retiree from Darwen in Lancashire, who first appeared in David Cook’s Missing Persons (1986) is another such unusual character.  Personally, I would like to see a Tesco’s check-out female investigator, who teams up with the assistant from the local chemist to solve crimes.  Or maybe a teacher, or a local authority drainage engineer? Ordinary people.

My heroine, Cassandra, is ordinary, though she’s intelligent, quick-thinking and brave, all attributes which don’t require a private income, a silver spoon or a university degree (though she has one of those).  And yes, she is intrepid and a civil servant, though not the first.

Second Time Around

…and things are more familiar. The activity which accompanies publishing a crime fiction book was new to me with Plague, but this time, with Oracle, it’s less so. There are fewer decisions than last time because much has already been determined, Oracle will be consistent with Plague, in size, in print, in design.  It even has approximately the same number of pages.

I’m having fun choosing, and helping create, some of the promotional images and these days such images come in various forms – Facebook banners, Instagram posts and Twitter headers – and some come with animation.  The one on the right is an Instagram post, which uses a photograph of the Treasury of the Athenians at the Temple of Apollo, Delphi, as well as a copy of the cover and its tagline – ‘Blood calls for blood’ on a background of a full moon rising above a hillside. There is an animated version of this too.

As I did for the launch of Plague, I’ve uploaded a new Facebook and a new Twitter Header, using the new banner shown below, which also now lies beneath my email signature.  This includes the same images as the Instagram post, with the addition of a rather wonderful artwork by Gustave Dore. The engraving is one of the French master illustrator’s pieces for The Divine Comedy, Canto IX ( 1867) and it shows Dante and Virgil encountering the Erinyes, or Furies. It is entitled ‘Megaera, Tisipone  and Alecto’, so I would imagine this might get used quite a lot ( it’s also out of copyright ). I’ve always been a Dore admirer and I’m not alone. As the Tate’s exhibition on Van Gogh showed, the Dutch painter loved Dore’s work and collected it, basing some of his own compositions on Dore engravings. This image appears in the banner, with the others, set against a background of black, with a wisp of blue/grey smoke curling across it and the tagline, which is in red this time. Very dramatic. I think it’s eye-catching. I just hope that the book isn’t mIstaken for a vampire novel (because of that tag-line). A number of early readers of Plague thought, from the blurb, that it was about a pandemic.  No fear of misunderstanding the title this time, the blurb makes reference to the ancient oracle, but who knows what else people with think of.

There are some differences too, in part because I’ve learned from experience. So, for example, there’s an Oracle postcard to send out with review copies (last time I exhausted my personal stock of notelets). Claret is having the ARCs printed at the moment and I’ll be looking to take receipt of boxes of books in the next week or so.  The other, more exciting thing is that readers are telling me that they’re waiting for the book to come out ( the virtue of having a series ). Also, it seems, there are a lot more media events – interviews, talks, blogs, podcasts – than last time.  In part, I suspect because I have more media contacts now (and I’m good value i.e. or the most part, free), but also because I’m no longer an unknown.  That Oracle is ‘the further adventures of…’ helps.

If any of the readers of this post has a book group which enjoys crime/mystery books and wants an author to come along and chat, let me know, I’m already doing some of these around the country (via the magic of the internet).  You can find out about them on the Events page of this web-site.

For more on Oracle                            Adieu to Delphi                   Crime Scene                Myths & Legends                     Zemiology                    Art and life – again!

 

Crime Scene

My new crime thriller Oracle is set in Delphi, Greece, close to the ancient Temple of Apollo half way up Mount Parnassus.  The crimes happen during an international conference taking place at the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside the town of Delphi. The ECCD is a real place, which I visited at the end of last century when I attended a conference there.

The Centre was founded in the 1970s, as a way of taking forward the modern Festivals held at Delphi in the 20s and 30s which were, in turn, a revival of the Festivals and Games held here in classical times.  Now the Centre is home to the Delphi Academy of European Studies which hosts symposia on European subjects, puts on performances of Greek drama ( in the ancient Theatre as well as the new, purpose built one ) and has an excellent collection of modern art. You can read more about it here.

It has a stunning and scenic position, high up and looking down to Itea on the Gulf of Corinth.  The Conference Centre and Guesthouse nestle among the cypress trees on the mountainside and there are private suites (one of which is occupied, in the novel, by a government Minister and his party).

Aside from the view and the nearby ancient Temple, I remember its fine, confident modern architecture, using local stone as well as concrete and lots of glass – making the most of those spectacular views.  My heroine, Cassandra, occupies one of the rooms in the Guesthouse (left) above the restaurant on the ground floor.

It was November when I was there and the weather wasn’t kind – it was mostly raining, but the mountain peaks were snow covered.  As I sat in that same restaurant with a storm raging outside and the lights flickering, briefly, a fellow conference goer suggested that it would be a tremendous place for a murder mystery. Over twenty years later, when Claret Press suggested that I write one, the ECCD and the beautiful ancient temple nearby immediately sprang to mind.

So it was Delphi, not London, which was the setting which I thought of first, but it soon became apparent to me that my first book, introducing the recurring character of my detective and her associates, should be set where most of the books would be taking place and that was London.  From there on it had to be Westminster and Thorney Island, places which I knew very well, having trodden the streets there for years.  Thus was Plague born. At the end of Oracle it is where Cassie returns to for the third book in the series, Opera, although I confess that I do have a yen to take her off to Rome at some point in the future, another city which I know very well.

I should point out that the title of this article is misleading, however. The ECCD is not, in fact, the scene of the crime, although it is there that both murderer and victim(s) meet.  And that, I’m afraid, is all you will get out of me about the plot.

Oracle (Claret Press) will be published on 5th May 2021.  It will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon and via the Claret Press website.

Adieu to Delphi

Sad as I am to leave beautiful Delphi (though it’s under deep snow at the moment I am told) I have, at least temporarily, waved goodbye to Oracle, which is now in the hands of the publishers and their book and cover designers. The manuscript has been proofed, the front cover tag-line and back cover blurb have been agreed and the internal design created, again by Petya Tsankova, so it’s consistent with that of Plague, which Petya also designed.

Like the earlier book, Oracle takes place over a few days, so that is how the book is divided up. My sketch of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi ( see below ) is featured on the named ‘day’ pages as the sketch of the Palace of Westminster was in Plague.  It looks good.  This time, however, the book has a ‘Praise for’ section at the front, ( squirm – it’s what is done ). At the moment this contains endorsements and complimentary review remarks about Plague.  As we approach publication day these will be augmented by what I hope will be complimentary reviews and endorsements of Oracle.  I also get an ‘About the Author’ at the back, so Claret Press must be pleased with me.

Already the promotional schedule of events is being formulated ( there are two events in place already, with the UK Crime Book Club and Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, see the Events page ).  The manuscript will go up on NetGalley during March, for a limited period only, to attract reviews and test reader reaction.  Any revisions will follow and Advanced Review Copies will be produced and despatched to various ‘experts’ and to reviewers for newspapers, magazines and blogs. Quite a lot of the publications which reviewed Plague are anxious to follow up with a review of Oracle and, I’m pleased to say, there are plenty of readers out there who tell me that they re anxious to read it too. Publication day will be 5th May.

I’m very pleased to have the help of a number of ‘experts’ with Oracle, as I had on Plague.  These include Maro Nicolopolou, Head of Conferences and Artistic Programmes at the European Cultural Centre at Delphi, below (and a lover of detective fiction) and Sharon Hartles, zemiologist, of Strathclyde University and the Open University.  Maro has already been of inestimable help in directing me to all the changes at the Centre since I visited it back at the turn of the millenium and to the changes in the town.  This is so important given that the trip to Delphi I had planned for last year had to be abandoned because of COVID.  I’ll be writing about the amazing Centre and its conferences and performances later. Sharon has introduced me to the new discipline of zemiology and Oracle is probably the first time it has featured in a novel (see earlier post here).  She’ll be sure to put me right if I have erred.

So, a break from the actual writing then, until I begin on Opera, but not a break from work, with lots of activity around getting Oracle absolutely ready for publication and for its promotion and still doing lots of events for Plague.  I’ll be writing more about Oracle in the coming weeks, but here’s a photo of what Athens looked like earlier this week.

For articles on Oracle so far          Art and life – again!                Myths and Legends

For Valentine’s Day?

It’s Valentine’s Day on Sunday and the media company who do the promotional images for Plague had a Valentine’s Day version in the series relating to topical dates and days.  Now, we all know about star-crossed lovers, but I’m not really sure that either of Cassandra’s ‘romantic’ relationships fits this bill. ‘A plague on both your houses,’ Mercutio cries as he lies dying, which is probably the closest Romeo & Juliet comes to Plague.

The romantic element in Plague is… umm… somewhat complex and cautionary. How else to  describe it without spoiling the plot? So the tagline I offered for the Valentine’s banner was suitably equivocal. Rather like Cassie when it comes to making decisions about her romantic life. A number of readers have found her indecision, not to say, vacillation, hard to credit.  There is, however, no clear winner in terms of who had ought to gain her favour.  In retrospect I think I made one of those characters much too sexy.

It’s refreshing, however, to consider Plague as something other than a mirror to real life shenanigans in government. Last week’s COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism discussion for Claret Press has sparked quite a lot of interest and not a few compliments. There were lots of good questions on the night and there have already been plenty of views of the recording.  If you missed it you can see that on the Claret Press YouTube Channel here.

More excellent questions arose after Politics & Prose for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, which I’ve written about before on the blog. The tech didn’t quite work as well as it had on a previous occasion for the Libraries but those watching seemed to enjoy it and it was good to place Plague in context as a ‘Westminster thriller’. It’s available for a limited period on YouTube here.

There are a couple more Plague events lined up for March and some in the pipeline for April.  The first is for The Thorney island Society & Friends of St James’ Park and the Green Park on 9th March. I will have to be on the top of my game as far as the historical aspects of Plague are concerned, I suspect the members of the Society know as much, if not more, than I do. It will be interesting to see if they find any of the Palace of Westminster aspects surprising. This talk is all about what inspired Plague, the history and the place. Tickets are £10 (£7 for members ) and are available here.

Already the events are being organised for promotion of Oracle, the publication of which draws ever closer ( I have finally agreed with the publishers on the publication day of 5th May ).  That book will be up on NetGalley soon for early review and there will be ARCs going out. Yet I have another book to write!

For more on the events which I have been speaking at recently take a look at the Events Page ( many are still available on YouTube ) or read about them  at

Politics & Prose          The Circumlocution Office           Going Underground

The Circumlocution Office

Let me take you back in time.

Back to Sunday, 21st January 1855 in a Trafalgar Square deep in snow, where about fifteen hundred people are gathering. They’re meeting to protest at the mismanagement and needless loss of life in the Crimean War, but can’t help larking about and they pelt passing traffic (and pedestrians) with snowballs. The police ask them to stop, but the protesters pelt the police too.

What begins in laughter escalates into a full scale riot and troops are called. Yet these protesters are representative of public opinion in regard to the war.  Enthusiastic support among a populace worked up into a war fury by the press at the war’s beginning had turned to amazement and shock as disaster after disaster was reported by war correspondents like William Howard Russell for The Times and the photographer Roger Fenton.  Not just military mismanagement – the Charge of the Light Brigade in the previous October came to symbolise that – but the failure to provide troops with the most basic necessities of life and the dreadful death rate resulting.

Florence Nightingale, quite aside from the assistance her hospital gave, was a first rate data gatherer, a medical statistician who documented the privations and resulting medical conditions of the troops, far more of whom died from disease, malnutrition and neglect than on the battlefield. These logistical failures were partly because of difficulties with distance and terrain but also because government positions were filled by placemen unqualified for their role and supplied by contractors who had got their contracts because of their connections, not because they provided the best goods and services.  Money was made, stipends were paid but the servicemen were not supplied with what they needed.

Like many others the novelist Charles Dickens was angered by this. Dickens fans will recognise the name of this article as belonging to the government office in his Little Dorrit, where Arthur Clennam goes to discover the details of William Dorrit’s incarceration in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The Circumlocution Office was Dickens satirising the parlous state of what passed for the civil service in those days. Totally dominated by the Barnacle family  (a not so subtle metaphor on parasites clinging to the ship of state) it is ‘0ne of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer.’ You can read Chapter 10, in which the Circumlocution Office features here.

In late 1854 and 1855 the press turned against the government and Parliament passed a vote demanding a full investigation. Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister, resigned on 30th January 1855. 

In fact, the sorry state of government civil services had been noticed earlier and a report commissioned by none other than Gladstone in 1853. The resulting report, by Northcote and Trevelyan, recommended the establishment of what is now the Civil Service and what the historian, Lord Hennessey calls “the single greatest government gift from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century; a politically disinterested and permanent civil service, appointed on merit and with core values of integrity, propriety and objectivity.”

That’s what Britain still has. There are some service failures today – nothing is perfect – but these are often driven by politicians not civil servants, however much politicians seek to blame them (sometimes aided and abetted by the press). We touched on this in last night’s panel discussion on COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism, but we ran out of time before we could discuss why cronyism is so damaging to public service provision and so destructive of human lives. This article is by way of a reminder;  January 1855 is where we were. Let’s not go back there.

The discussion was fun to do, especially for such a serious subject and, I am told, is generating lots of good feedback (and some book sales). Thanks to everyone at Claret Press for organising and to fellow panellists, Vicky Pryce and Dr Emily Barritt.  The recording is available on YouTube HERE.