La sonida del mar

Or the sound of the sea. There is nothing quite like that ever repeating, calming background pulse of water falling upon sand. Or indeed the fierce cacophony of wind whipped breakers on rocks or cliffs.  Last week I was enjoying the former.

Twenty minutes drive from Jerez de la Frontera is the sherry town of El Puerto de Santa Maria. It sits at the mouth of the Rio Guadalete, although it would be more accurate to say that it sits upon the river delta, because there is as much sea and marsh as land.  Nonetheless the river is in part enclosed here as it runs into the Bay of Cadiz. The town is an old one, it was from here and from Sanlucar de Barrameda that Columbus set sail in the seventeenth century and El Puerto was already old then.

It has its medieval castle and ramparts and many familiar bodega-style buildings, although these are largely symbolic today. It also has a smart central shopping area and a grand Plaza de Toro ( the people of El Puerto are keen on the traditions of old Andalucia and old Spain ). There are plush modern suburbs, like Vista Hermosa, full of large villas built in the traditional style each surrounded by private gardens, often rented out to officers from the American Naval Base at Rota. There are also holiday apartments, in Las Redes and at El Manantial, owned in part by locals, but favoured too by visitors from Madrid and Sevilla.

El Puerto is much more of a holiday destination than Jerez, with its many beaches which, like all Spanish beaches, have names (see above). There is the town beach, with children’s play areas, soft golden sand and tiled promenade with gardens, Vista Hermosa’s beach, beyond what had used to be the Club 18 -30, which has been raised and is about to be replaced with a five star hotel; and there’s a glossy marina called Puerto Sherry. The Spanish Olympic Yachting Association sails out of here and, on the day when I visited, there were some rather expensive, ocean-going yachts moored behind the lighthouse mole.

There were some rather expensive bars too. Sotavento is superbly positioned just where the marina meets the Bay (see photos, courtesy of Deborah Powell) with a view across to Cadiz and one pays a premium for the location. When we visited there was the bonus of a tall ship. The people frequenting the bars along here are, largely, wealthy holiday makers and yacht owners, Spanish and foreign. The locals work in them. They were, however, extremely welcoming of Thai and Goa, Deborah’s two labradors. We sat and watched the sun set and the lights of Cadiz begin to glow.

Twenty four hours later I did the same at El Manantial, half a mile further north, a beach which lies up against the perimeter of the aforementioned naval base. On that occasion I was with my friend from Jerez and her three dogs. She has a beach-house there, where there were few foreigners, but plenty of Spanish folk enjoying the last of summer, once the ‘tourists’ have gone back to the city. The beach bars are few and far between, though the clam sellers (and sellers of sweets and snacks) push their gaily coloured carts along on the hard sand, crying their wares. Much less smart. And soon they too would pack up and leave, the season having finished. The beach would become much quieter, the bailiwick of locals only.

Again I watched the sun set and the lights of Cadiz twinkling on the horizon, before heading back to a Jerez still celebrating the Vendimia (with a ferris wheel in Plaza Arenal!). Two beaches, both in El Puerto and so close to each other, but so different. In both there was the sound of the sea.

Conservation and conversation

London is a wonderful city in which to live, a trove of treasures to be discovered. I’ve lived here for over thirty years, yet I’m still finding interesting places new to me, sometimes close to home. Ten days ago I found myself in Stockwell.

Stockwell is a place I usually pass through, on the number 88 bus or on the Northern or Victoria lines going into town. I almost never stop there. Yet there I was, consulting my map and clutching my trusty notepad (plus a jar of homemade plum jam). I was there to interview the broadcaster and journalist Ed Stourton of Radio 4  for Time & Leisure Magazine. It was somewhat daunting, to be interviewing the man who had interviewed so many famous, and infamous, people and whose voice had formed part of the backdrop to my mornings for so many years. Stourton was a main presenter on Radio 4’s Today Programme for a decade – as well as The World at One and The World This Weekend, both of which he still does on occasion.

He had, very kindly, invited me to interview him in his home and, determined not to be late, I was ridiculously early. So I wandered towards the address I had been given and discovered, for the first time, Stockwell Park or the Stockwell Conservation Area.  It received that designation in 1973 and covers the old Stockwell Green (the 15th century manor house which formerly stood there has links with Thomas Cromwell) and the later 19th century developments of Stockwell Crescent and the roads running from it. Built primarily in the 1830s the surviving buildings are elegant early Victorian villas with gardens. They were built to different designs, which distinguishes them from the smaller, ‘pattern built’ south London Victoriana elsewhere (like some of my beloved Clapham).

I wandered, happy, around curving crescents and through quiet, tree-lined streets and found St Michael’s Church of England church (consecrated 1841) and a blue plaque marking the home of Lillian Bayliss, Director of the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells theatres and founder of the forerunners of the English National Opera, the National Theatre and the Royal Ballet. The whole enclave was a delight and so very near to the busy Stockwell Road which runs directly into the City. I never knew it existed.

When I arrived (on time) Ed and I had coffee in his beautiful garden and talked about his life in broadcasting – from the Cambridge ‘Milk Round’ and an ITN traineeship, to Channel 4 News at the very beginning (Stourton was a co-founder), Washington and Paris for C4 and the BBC respectively, his love of radio, admiration for George Orwell and enjoyment of la france profonde, specifically the foothills of the Pyrenees. His views on current standards of journalism were more optimistic than I thought they might be, taking the view that the ‘no truth’ culture would pass, reality being very hard to avoid. He cited the initial success of Nazi propaganda, something he’d researched for Auntie’s War; The BBC During World War Two (Doubleday 2017) which ultimately failed.

He was an amusing and engaging companion with a fund of stories, how he got into the besieged city of Sarajevo, for example, or being in Soweto when Nelson Mandela was released. I came away with a wealth of material and the interview will appear in Time & Leisure October edition ( plus a longer version in their on-line version ) I’ll share a link when it’s published. Why not come along to hear him speaking with Simon Berthon, fellow broadcaster, at the Clapham Book Festival on 16th October or, if you’re unable to get to Clapham, buy a ticket for the livestream of that event. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.

Shivering in the park with Tosca

ToscaatCrystalPalace2On a grey and somewhat chilly Bank Holiday Sunday English National Opera, with the full ENO orchestra and chorus and soloists David Junghoon Kim, Natalya Romaniw and Roland Wood were at Crystal Palace Park. So were we.

Part of ‘South Facing Festival’ this was the first time this music festival has taken place and it showed. In the information provided to concert goers and in provision of refreshment at the site. So, there wasn’t a clear message that the gates would open at 5.30 pm, yet the show would not begin until 7 pm. A crowd of people were milling around at the entrance at 5.20, all a little bemused at the lack of urgency in letting people enter. We were there and then sat around for an hour and a half, waiting. It did allow us to grab a prime spot, however, with a very good view of the stage.

Despite a promise of ‘a carefully curated line-up of some of the UK’s top street food traders‘ we had small choice – aToscaatCrystalPalace3 couple of burger joints, a pizza place, churros and sushi – with long queues, which meant people walking back to their places bearing food after the performance had commenced. There were bars aplenty, unfortunately they sold only hugely overpriced cans – of beer, of wine and of gin & tonic. No draught beer, no bottles of wine. And no bringing your own drinks with you. We knew this, so didn’t try, but others clearly did not and had their goodies confiscated at the entrance. Given the lack of choice and the prices charged this left a sour taste in a lot of mouths.

So did some of the ticketing information. We’d gone for the cheap seats in Zone C ( blankets on the grass at the back ). Others had paid a premium ( £60 ) for Zone A. In one instance £240 for four seats, the man arguing heatedly with a steward clearly believed, only to be told this paid for entry to Zone A and he would have to pay even more for Zone A with seat (and there were no such tickets left). He and his family had to sit on the grass at ToscaatCrystalPalace5the back of Zone A, only a few yards from where we sat. They weren’t pleased and understandably so.

Whoever organised this was clearly focussing on making as much money as they could. I estimated over a thousand people were there on Sunday, each paying a minimum of £35, many paying more. The food and drinks outlets would also pay the organisers for their pitches. Yes, opera is expensive and the local council would be paid for use of the park, but, if you’re offering a superb musical experience, then why not allow people to enjoy the whole evening, not just the performance. 

But this was the ENO so the playing and singing was sublime. I had forgotten what a full orchestra, live, sounded like and Puccini was a wonderful way to be reminded. The performance was ‘semi-staged’ and the ENO had circumvented the potential pitfalls ( Tosca shot Scarpia and, at the end, herself, in the absence of a stage on which to set a dinner table or a set of battlements to leap from ). Inevitably some of the subtleties went missing -if you didn’t know about the political sub-plot and the news from Marengo, it would have passed you by completely.

The music and singing were absolutely ENO standard, that is, world class. They had bought their A game. Kim was a lyricalToscaatCrystalPalace9 and powerful Cavaradossi who reached those high notes with ease. Romaniw was empassioned and exquisite – even in a park and with an audience this big, you could have heard a pin drop during ‘Vissi d’arte‘. At the end, everyone was on their feet and clapping and cheering ( and booing Scarpia, who was an excellent Roland Wood ). Though there were also folk beginning to clear away their things – it was cold by this time. The group to the immediate right of us had brought duvets, they were snug.

Tosca is also the opera in ‘Opera’, a performance of which my heroine attends with a Greek diplomatic party ( the Greeks from previous book, ‘Oracle’ ) but that one is at the Royal Opera House ( of which more in a future post ).

Jam-making and manuscripts

PlumJam1Last weekend I submitted the manuscript of Opera to Claret Press. Then I went and made some jam.

I’d had a major wobble about the ending towards the end of last week and rewrote it, now I’m worrying that it’s not written well enough. In truth this doesn’t matter, because the editing process means that submission is just the beginning and I’ll have ample opportunity to consider it again. I’m sure that those more experienced or more skilled than myself are able to produce a manuscript which is almost, typos and a few infelicities aside, completely ready for publication. Their manuscripts would be almost perfect. As yet I can’t, so my aren’t.

Opera is the sixth book that I’ve written, the third to be traditionally, commercially published (by Claret Press), beginning with The Village back in 2014. I’ve learned a lot since then, not least how very unglamorous a job writing is andOpera_Cover_HiRes what extremely hard work. It’s a business, an industry and many of those toiling within it do so for very little reward and recognition. As with any industry the larger entities, the Hachettes and Harper Collins, will have greater reach and a higher profile ( placing their books on supermarket shelves for example ) and the big corporate vendors, the Amazons and Waterstones will also skew the market towards those books which get the publicity and the coverage. As my friend and fellow Claret author, Steve Sheppard, says in the note in his latest novel Bored to Death in the Baltics, he ‘ought to have tried to become a celebrity first, as this would have made selling it (the book) so much easier’. 

Another of the things I have learned about is the creative process, or, at least, how the creative process applies in my case. So I know that there comes a point in the making of a book when I, the writer, need other input.  As ever this will come from my husband, who has an uncanny knack of spotting plot holes, very useful to a writer of crime/mystery stories, but also from a trusty band of beta readers, some of them writers themselves, who are ‘critical friends’. So the manuscript of Opera has also gone to them.  Their feedback will inform the editorial process too. But the major input will be from my editor.  So far, I’ve had two, Gina Marsh on Plague and Madeleine Simcox-Brown on Oracle: both were excellent in different ways and, of course, there is the over-arching input from Katie Isbester, the Editor-in-Chief.

PlumJam4I have come to genuinely enjoy this process, though it sometimes isn’t a comfortable one. People get passionate about a work, there are disagreements and I, like any writer, am possessive about my stories. I expect to know them better and know what’s best for them, despite evidence to the contrary. But for now I have a moment’s respite, maybe a fortnight, maybe longer. I can sit back, read other books, do the garden, catch up on all those jobs… and make more jam.

Bored to Death in the Baltics will be published by Claret Press in September 2021.

 

This Turbulent Priest

Becket5Yesterday to the British Museum during the last week of the exhibition Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint which ends on Sunday. It’s an interesting exhibition which follows Becket’s upbringing, fairly meteoric career ( from Cheapside immigrant merchant’s son to the Archbishopric and Lord Chancellorship of England ) to his eventual death and subsequent canonisation. I reread Murder in the Cathedral in preparation and the exhibition ends with lines from that verse play.

The objects on display were sometimes exquisite – the beautiful reliquaries – some times interesting – the documents and carvings – and often both – the illuminated manuscripts. They illustrated the story of Thomas Becket, or, as I was taught at school, Thomas a Becket. This was an individual with a will to power, a very clever and subtle man who, itBecket1 seemed to me and my companion, also sought martyrdom as the ultimate step, a translation into immortality. Everyone knows the story, or has seen the film and recognises the famous quote ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’, although this is, without explanation, changed to ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ in this exhibition. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, though I’m afraid it prodded my cantankerous side. So no, I don’t accept that Henry II is mainly known for this feud and the resulting death of Becket. Henry II was a tremendously successful king, the first English Plantagenet, who reigned over the Angevin Empire – England, Wales, Scotland, much of Ireland and most of France – for thirty five years. He maintained a large and sophisticated royal court and introduced legal changes, including the use of juries, which eventually became the basis for the English Common Law. Some historians see him as laying the foundation for a unified Britain. I understand that this is an exhibition about Becket and therein its focus must lie, but no, Thomas Becket story isn’t the only, or even the main, event for which Henry II is remembered.

Becket2British Museum curators shouldn’t, in my view, be saying it is because, aside from anything else, it will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Three young people, unknown to me, but who went round the exhibition at approximately the same time as I did, clearly took away this ‘story’ without its context. Henry might not be a popular, or even a colourful, character, by all accounts he was a choleric and sometimes harsh individual, but he also inherited a cash-strapped and exhausted land, following the war between Stephen and Matilda ( Henry’s mother ). Just because he isn’t particularly likeable doesn’t mean his role in history should be limited to his role in a martyrdom. In my humble opinion, it’s bad history ( even if it is good story telling. ) The richness and complexity of life, even life in the past, is reduced in this way. Rant over.

That quibble aside, this was a good exhibition, taking in the legacy of the murder and subsequent canonisation as wellBecket4 as the murder itself.  I was intrigued to find out about the broken sword and the depiction which showed this, as well as a chunk of skull falling to the flagstones of the cathedral floor. It’s interesting that these small, if gory, details survived and thrived in later representations of the scene. I was surprised by the far-flung examples of the Becket cult – stone carving from Sweden, a reliquary from Norway, reference in a parchment from Italy. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, the Church stretched across Europe and its saints were promoted widely.

One last point, I discovered when reading the preface to Murder in the Cathedral that sections of the original verse play which were not used in the final version performed eventually found their way into Burnt Norton as part of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Now I have to read those again.

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint runs until 22nd August.

Dear Voyager…

RyanairFlightphotoThe airport wasn’t crowded (no queues at Pret for the in-flight sandwich) though that may have had something to do with the hour – it was 5 a.m.. That’s the downside of my Ryanair flight to Jerez, the only flight available. There’s no public transport at that time in the morning either, but Pepe, my cabbie from Congo, was fun to talk to on the way. The cab from south London wasn’t cheap, but then the flight tickets were, so…  My flight, on time and comfortable, was far from full.

The bureaucracy was a pain, but not too much of one. A Spanish Document Control complete with QR Code was the result of my completing the required online form and, given that I am doubly vaccinated, that was the limit of it going out. There was a little additional business at the Spanish airport, but not much. Once there, the sun shone, friends whom I hadn’t seen for ten months awaited and my little flat was as lovely as it ever was. PatioWriting

The State of Alarm in Spain was ended sometime before the Emergency COVID measures were lifted in England, so the wearing of face masks isn’t obligatory in either country and nor is social distancing, though it is strongly encouraged in Spain. Most Spaniards choose to wear face masks, outdoors and in, except when eating and drinking. People without them are oddities and looked at as such.  I was, however, pleased to see they were no longer worn on the beach.

Returning to the UK is more problematical, with much more documentation needed e.g. the Vaccination Passport, certification of an authorised and negative test taken 48 hours or later before returning and Plateroswithmasksevidence that a PCR test has been booked for one’s return. I had organised these last two before I’d left the UK and the arrangements worked well, especially the Antigen Test with Zoom, which I did when there in collaboration with a nurse who was online, somewhere else in the world. This method was considerably cheaper than any other that I’d found and entirely acceptable to the UK authorities. 

I didn’t think I’d caught COVID, I had no symptoms and I was staying in my own home, mixing with people whom I knew. Nonetheless I was, I confess, a little anxious while I waited the twenty minutes or so for the test to work. So what, I reasoned, even if I have it, I just have to stay in this beautiful place for a couple more weeks, but, of course, self-isolation isn’t that much fun anywhere, so I was pleased when the test result was negative.

I needed to complete a Passenger Locator form too ( that took rather longer than I’d anticipated ), at least I received theSunset at ElPuerto code which successful submission generated on my phone.  Rather more than a fellow traveller on the return journey had managed. He was in transit only through Stansted and hadn’t completed the Form but the Ryanair people insisted.  They turned another woman away, who had failed to take a test. Her excuse was that she had planned to take one at the airport – it didn’t work,  Jerez airport is very small, without any testing facilities. Other airports may offer this service, but she really should have checked.

So, my advice to a voyager is, take this seriously, ensure everything is arranged before you go and then do what you have arranged. If you do, it’s relatively plain sailing. 

Ditch your coat and get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep and direct your sandaled feet, to the sunny side of the street. Can you hear a pitter pat, that’s the rain in dear old London, a double vax is so neat, on the sunny side of the street. Why not walk in the shade, when the town’s on parade, no need to be afraid, this rover’s crossed over. A Day Two test and all that, will await until you’re home and, don’t forget it’s sweet, on the sunny, sunny side of the street.

With apologies to Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. Here’s Dinah Washington singing the real thing.

 

 

Truth lives on…

Opera noun, Italian, feminine  1 work: 2 task, job: 3 artistic creation: 4 action, deed, handiwork: opere buone goods deeds: opera lettararia literary work: opera musicale opera: opera lirica opera.

Opera is, of course, also the title of my current work-in-progress, the third in the Cassandra Fortune series. As yet, it is nowhere near complete, even though it’s been written. Quite apart from matters of plot, of tension, surprise and revelation – the stock components of the crime thriller/mystery – there’s the theme to explore. In Plague it was power, in Oracle, justice, this time it’s truth. This is why Opera is set in the opaque world of secrets and the secret intelligence agencies, of smoke and mirrors where disinformation and deceit are the stock-in-trade and real truth, both in terms of fact and of understanding, is hard to find.

My heroine, Cassandra, has been a seeker of truth from the start, tracking down the killers in Plague, while attempting to get back to a position of power, mainly because she wants to have some impact and do something meaningful, but also because she cannot stand being on the outside, without knowledge of what is going on. She achieved her aim and landed a plum job working for the Prime Minister, but, in Oracle she learned that this wasn’t enough and she would have to address certain matters arising from her past if she wanted to escape them.  Thus she sets out, at the beginning of the third book, to find out the truth of what happened at Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ), her former posting, when she was forced to leave it. Until now she had believed her dismissal was because of her own failings, but begins to see that there may have been other forces at work.

Thus Opera opens with Cassie going to visit her former boss, Angela Kayser, whose retirement paved the way for the shake-up which resulted in Cassie’s being made to move on. Angela, as head of GCHQ, is the modern equivalent of the Pythia in Oracle, the priestess of Delphi who listened to the voice of the god Apollo and delivered his message to the listening supplicants. GCHQ provides signal intelligence and information to the government and armed forces of the UK, monitoring voices from the ether and interpreting their messages, just as the Pythia did (though without the psychotropic gases). Cassie sought guidance from the Pythia and in Opera she seeks it from Angela. Both provide answers couched in riddles.

That’s all I’m about to disclose about the plot, though Cassie has to follow a labyrinthine trail of clues, often unsure of the direction they are taking her in and shrouded, like Plague‘s lost River Tyburn, in darkness. Set, once again, in London, its main locations are Whitehall, Number 10 Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster, but Opera also takes in some of the less well-known and quirky gems of central London and, of course, the Royal Opera House. Needless to say, individuals from her more recent past also resurface, seeking revenge.

The title of this post, by the way, is from Friedrich Schiller’s ‘On the Aesthetic Education of Man’ (1795) and it sits, in its entirety – ‘Truth lives on in the midst of deception’ – on the frontispiece of the novel, together with the definition of ‘opera’.

Christmas in July

LondonChristmasLights3…is what I’m experiencing as I edit Opera.

The three books in the Cassandra Fortune series take place, successively, across four months from September to December (with a one chapter addition in January). So Opera begins on Monday (all the books begin on a Monday) 12th December and concludes on Christmas Eve.

There had always used to be, and probably still is, a special atmosphere in Whitehall during the pre-Christmas period. On one hand there’s a hurrying to get business done before everyone leaves for the holiday (and the Houses of Parliament usually rise a week or more before Christmas) but, on the other, there’s an anticipation of the holiday, with office Christmas lunches, Christmas parties and a general relaxation. Anyone who has worked in an office at Christmas time will recognise the latter.

There is also a specific London element, with the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square and the decorative lights along theLondonChristmasLights2 major thoroughfares and in shops, pubs and public buildings. The carol concerts at St Martins and St Johns, the pantomimes in theatreland, the ‘Christmas show’ at the National Theatre (I have seen many over the years) and at least one, often two, productions of The Nutcracker ballet. All this contributes to the backdrop against which Opera takes place.

Plague took place during the late gasp of sunny London summer, Oracle in the storms of November in the spectacular, snow-tipped mountains of Greece. In Oracle it is a grim, cold, wet December back in the city. Car headlights reflect in wet roads and puddles in the late afternoons, the bright colours of Christmas lights inside cafes and shops are smudged behind windows streaked by rain. The wind buffets down Whitehall and whips along the river as people hurry between buildings, collars raised, brollies blown inside out, clutching their briefcases and papers. Hooded and cagouled tourists wear determined smiles as they wander from Abbey to Palace to park and parade ground. This is a place and time I know.

LondonChristmasLightsEach book is organised on a day by day basis. Plague runs over ten days from Monday 9th September to Wednesday 18th with a final chapter on Friday20th. Oracle begins on a Monday in November with six days in Delphi and two more, a week later, in Athens. Readers say that they like this aspect of the novels, making events seem more real and immediate as well, I am told, as pacey. Opera is no exception and a lot happens in ten days, as, I hope, readers have come to expect.

For the moment I am busy recreating that pre-Christmas London. Cassie and Daljit meet in pubs which pump out the instantly recognisable Christmas pop tunes, there is an office Christmas lunch (at the Natural History Museum) whichLondonChristmasLights4 gives our main suspects an alibi – but wait, who arrived when and who was late? The Palace of Westminster becomes relatively deserted as Members head off to their homes and constituencies and it turns into the haunt of the permanent staff and the tourists, who, while the Houses aren’t sitting, get let into the Chambers.  N.B. For anyone who hasn’t visited the Palace of Westminster, the Christmas recess is a good time to go, there are generally fewer tourists than in the summer months.

For me, it is Christmas in July.

The Real Thing

thekissI know nothing about sculpting, though I like looking at sculptures. So I found Tate Britain’s exhibition, The Making of Rodin, fascinating, focusing as it does on HOW Rodin went about creating his works. Outside the exhibition is a version of The Kiss, but the show itself begins with a bronze, the only bronze sculpture in the exhibition, the rest are in plaster. This is The Age of Bronze, the figure of a young Belgian soldier named Auguste Ney and it replicated real life so perfectly that Rodin was accused of making the cast direct from Ney’s body rather than modelling it. Rodin refuted the allegations of ‘cheating’ with a passion, having photographs taken of Ney to demonstrate the differences between the subject and the sculpture. Thereafter he was to move away from the conventions of classical sculpture, with its ideal of human beauty.

Rodin worked by modelling in clay, then casting in plaster and dipping the resulting casts in plaster slip or ‘lait deabattis_2 platre‘, which softened the sculptures, smoothing their angles and filling their craters. But a perfect finish was not what he was after and he left seams visible between joints as well as gouge and nail marks. Multiple casts of a single piece, or part of a piece were made and used in a variety of ways ( see the Giblets or abattis laid out in one vitrine, arms, legs, torsos originally to be part of The Gates of Hell, but used for many other works ). He reworked his casts, remodelling parts of them, with elements being used in any number of larger works, dismantling and reassembling existing sculptures in endless combinations. So The Head of a Slavic Woman appeared in multiple works, repositioned and rotated. The Son of Ugolino moved from prone point of death to an aerial figure. 

ThreeShadesRodin took repetition to another level when he included multiple casts of the same figure to form a sculptural group. So The Three Shades consists of a single figure, originally to represent Adam, presented in a group together (see left). He also changed the scale of pieces and the exhibition has some truly large versions of elements of other sculptures, Rodin was said to be particularly fond of the undulating surfaces created by enlargement. We see the head of one of the Burghers of Calais, but twice the size, a massive version of The Thinker and a super large plaster version of Balzac. The versions of this last sculpture are particularly illuminating, showing a nude figure in various sizes and a head in various forms, plus the dressing gown (so accurately represented it seemed that the fabric would fold in your hand), which were used to inform the final work.

There are some of Rodin’s drawings in the exhibition too. The exhibition guide tells usrodindrawing that Rodin used drawing to study movement and the internal dynamics of the body, asking his sitters to move around the studio. The works on show are all of impersonal female nudes in graphite and watercolour and they are full of movement. I liked them a lot. As with his clay sculptures, Rodin would use the sketches again and again. The drawings on display are annotated with his notes, rotating the pages around to show the figures differently depending on aspect. The other element I admired was his use of antique artefacts –  a very modern concept – though Rodin used the real thing, not copies, thus effectively negating the work of the original potter, or ceramicist (not so admirable).

burghersofcalaisOne room contains a life-size ( i.e. bigger than actual life ) plaster model of his famous Burghers of Calais, such a fabulous and powerful sculptural group, the bronze version of which stands outside the Houses of Parliament. This made me want to go and see that sculpture again, but the plain white of the plaster version somehow renders the self-sacrificing burghers even more exposed than their bronze equivalents. Other rooms are dedicated to works depicting the Japanese actor and dancer Ohta Hisa – Rodin made over fifty busts and masks of her face – and Helene von Nostitz, his aristocratic German friend. 

The exhibition made me think about the ‘real’ and how an imperfect representation of it could illuminate a greater truth. Rodin sometimes deliberately removed part of a sculpted body, a lower limb or a hand as well as making marks on the surface. This reminded me of Henry James’ short story The Real Thing, which prompts similar ruminations, though from a completely different perspective. I also speculated how a sculptor might have a different view of the human body to the rest of us. Rodin was a lover of women, the exhibition acknowledges his numerous relationships and one wonders how his day job impacted upon how he saw and reacted to his lovers, particularly Camille Claudel, a fellow sculptor. 

An engaging and, for me, fascinating, exhibition, it runs until 21st November at Tate Modern and tickets cost £18. 

Roman Remains

bust-nero-emperor-2000x1794As readers of Plague will know London hosts many a Roman remnant, from the baths beneath the West End to the Temple of Mithras underneath the Bank of England, but on Friday last I went to see those currently on show at the British Museum in the exhibition Nero: the man behind the myth

This is one of the BM’s current large exhibitions showcasing their collection of Roman art and artefacts, together with pieces from Italy, Paris and other parts of the UK. It certainly tries to challenge the pervading image of Nero, the callous and brutal Caesar who fiddled while Rome burned, who persecuted the Christians, committed incest and matricide and kicked his pregnant wife to death. Only some of this is true. Nero certainly persecuted Christians – he blamed them for the great fire which ragedstatue-young-nero-1500x2000 for nine days – but he wasn’t alone in doing so. He did commit murders, at least indirectly – first century Roman palace power plays were brutal and murderous. There is evidence, however, that he cared about the people of the city – he instigated relief efforts after the Great Fire, offering shelter in his own palaces and organising food supplies and he started a very large rebuilding programme soon after. It’s almost certain that he was innocent of initiating the fire.  The plebs certainly thought better of him than their Senatorial ‘betters’, Nero’s is the imperial name most often found in positive ancient graffiti. He improved the road to Ostia, Rome’s harbour where the grain shipments arrived, so as to protect the city’s food supply and insisted that the rebuilt Rome had better standards of housing. So, not all bad then.  

I try and preserve a fair degree of scepticism about the common myths attaching to historical figures, preferring to bust-ugly-nero-1383x2000look at the historical sources. That Nero was ruthless and brutal – well, which Emperor could have ruled Rome for fourteen tumultuous years if he hadn’t been? That he ‘fiddled while Rome burned’ or at least played a lyre, comes from Suetonius and Cassius Dio, historians writing during the age of later emperors and whose interests were served by making their masters look good in comparison. Tacitus, who was actually alive at the time of the fire, places Nero outside Rome when the fire happened. Given the title of the exhibition I was hoping there would be more exploration of how and why myths like those surrounding Nero were formed and how common ‘stories’ sometimes reveal a deeper truth, but that wasn’t where this was going.

It’s also the case that kicking one’s pregnant wife to death was something of a literary trope in the ancient world, as signifying not just brutal cruelty but also how self-destructive mad tyrants tended to be, destroying their own offspring in their rage. So King Cambyses of Persia is said to have kicked his pregnant wife in her stomach and Periander, the Corinthian tyrant, supposedly did the same. Nero, it seems, may have been bad-mouthed in the same way.

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiOne story I’ve come across, though I’m not sure how true it is, is about his meeting with the Pythia of Delphi. Nero toured Greece in CE 66/67 when he granted the Greeks their ‘freedom’ ( largely from the steep taxes Rome imposed upon client peoples ) and took part in the Isthmian Games. Like anyone who was anyone in the ancient world, he went to Delphi. The Pythia forbade his entry to the Temple of Apollo, calling him a matricide and telling him that the number 73 would mark the hour of his downfall. He had her burned alive ( or so Dio Cassius says ) but took her words to mean that he would live until a ripe old age.  In fact he was deposed only a year or so later, by the general, later Emperor, Galba, who happened to be 73 years old at the time ( or so the story goes ). What to take from this, other than not to cross a pythia, I’m not at all sure, but then, all stories about the Pythia tend to show how she was right in the end. Not much consolation when you’re killed horribly. It makes the murder in Oracle look tame in comparison.

And the exhibition? It is about such an interesting period in classical history and the Julio-Claudians were such afenwick-hoard-2000x1335 fascinating bunch, they still exert a celebrity-style, dark and seductive glamour even today, that it’s engaging. Some of the exhibits are exquisite – the jewellery, for example, or gruesome – the heavy slave chains, or the gladiator armour and the visitor forms a more rounded picture of the emperor, much more nuanced than the popular myth would have us believe. A good exhibition, worth visiting, that will make you reassess your understanding of Nero, but prepare to concentrate, there are a lot of coins.

The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 24th October and costs £22 full price entry without donation.