The Language of Music

David_Butt_Philip_Masterclass_Flyer_FrontIn particular the language we use when we talk about singing.

On Thursday night in south London there was a singing Masterclass at St Paul’s Opera, given by David Butt Philip (Royal Opera House, ENO, New York Metropolitan, the Vienna Statsoper) to five young singers, the opera stars of tomorrow. Hector Bloggs (baritone), Alex Akhurst (tenor), Anna Marmion (soprano), Fiona Hymns (soprano) and Martins Smaukstelis (tenor) have all begun their performing careers, at St Paul’s Opera, among other places. They sang, respectively, Donizetti ( Come Paride Vezzoso from L’elisir d’amore ) Bizet (Je croix entendre encore from Les Pecheur de Perles), Mozart (the first Queen of the Night aria from Die Zauberflote) and Puccini (Mi chiamano Mimi from La Boheme – Fiona and Parigi e la citta from La Rondine – Martins ).

DBP apologised from the outset because he was suffering from laryngitis and would be singing less than was his usual practice, nonetheless he was able to demonstrate – in every register – how improvements could be made. They most certainly were, each singer adapting their original performance as DBP took them through each piece, sometimes line by line (and not letting them get away with anything). It was fascinating to watch and listen to.

He was equally interesting afterwards, talking about singing. During the Masterclass he had encouraged one singer to ‘almost forget the text’ and to ‘sing through the words’ – this singer had a history in choral music and had been taught to enunciate every word clearly, which wasn’t necessarily the right thing to do in opera. The next singer, of Bizet, he encouraged to ‘use the vowels’ to add resonance and drama – this was Bizet after all ‘it’s romantic music’. The next he encouraged to shorten the vowels and stress the consonants, using a more glottal sound to create slight breaks in emphasis, this was in the Mozart. On more than one occasion he added ‘Sing on the body.’

So how far does the language in which the singer was singing impacted upon the sung presentation – the glottal German, the liquid Italian and so on – and how far it was technique, regardless of language? DBP replied that it was a balance, of course the language impacted, but it was also about the degree of legato (singing in a smooth, even style, without any noticeable break between the notes) most suited to any particular piece or phrase within a piece. He defined ‘singing on the body’ as always having the sound produced supported by the diaphragm.

So this led to a brief discussion about how we  describe singing. A teacher of the violin can suggest a student holds the bow differently, or places their hand higher up the neck of the violin. A teacher of guitar might ask her student to play higher up the frets. But a singing teacher can’t tell their student to ‘raise their larynx’, the human body isn’t quite the same sort of instrument. The beginner can be told about posture and learn how to control their breathing when singing, but, at this level that has already been mastered. So instead we use metaphor. More diminuendo on a long held high note, then returningDavid_Butt_Philip _Fundraising_Gala_Image_Eventbrite to the crescendo, was described as the ‘luxury version’. ‘Don’t be polite, don’t apologise for the note’ signified not to sing it lightly, not giving it due sound, but to sing it loudly, the quality of loudness being needed in a theatre. Also, ‘complete the note’, indicated holding it for as long as necessary. Easily understood, though less easy to define.

It was such an interesting and enjoyable evening. David Butt Philip will be returning to St Paul’s in a Gala concert on 24th March raising funds for the Opera, to enable them to fund young artist’s bursaries and reach out to local schools. At £30 a ticket, to see four remarkable singers, it’s a snip.

For myself, I move onto a different type of performance next Monday, at the first Live Brixton Book Jam since COVID.bookjam-banner-7-mar-22 It’s at the Hootananny, 95 Effra Road, Brixton, SW2 1DF and doors open at 7.30 pm on 7th March, where I’ll be appearing alongside William Ryan, Ashley Hickson-Lovence, Leo Moynihan, West Camel, Paul Bassett Davies and Paul Eccentric. It’s free to attend and there’s booze and books on sale. If you’re in south London why not come along?

Post-Festival blues (or greys)

FlamencoTeatroIt will take a while for the complex rhythms of flamenco to leave my head. The interlacing of voice with the clapping of hands, the stamping of feet and various musical accompaniments, but especially the guitar, has been ubiquitous for me over the past nine days. From wonderful professional performances by masters of their art to the joyous dancing of the students of the schools of flamenco on Plaza Belen before an appreciative, local crowd, it has been a delight. This morning’s grey south London has nothing to compare with the vibrancy and colour of Jerez de la Frontera, where the scent of orange blossom is already in the air.

FlamencoDanielCasaresTwo amazing guitarists were the bookends to our festival this year. We began with Salvador Gutierrez in the converted 16th century church of the Sala Compania. He played a loose and fluid form of flamenco guitar, often varying completely from the melodic into atonality and jazz, only to return to the melody later with supreme artistry. Our festival was closed by Daniel Casares, (left) whose recordings I will seek out. His playing was more traditional in style but he too ranged widely, interweaving with the light and liquid flute of a flautist whose name I didn’t catch and who isn’t credited on the official programme. This was a very informal type of show, with people climbing up on to the stage from the audience to join in. I’ve attached a clip below (starts after five seconds).

FlamencoManuelLinanIn between we were treated to some remarkable dancing. Manuel Linan, darling of the Festival, was back at Teatro Villamarta with a new show Pie de Hierro. Named for and dedicated to his father, who was injured in a road traffic accident which curtailed his career as a bull fighter, but who placed his own heavy expectations on his youngest son, Linan; this complex and difficult relationship is explored in terms of conformity and rebellion, tradition and personal expression. Linan likens this to his relationship with flamenco. There’s a full interview in Lavozdelsur here. It was a highly personal show and very different to the wonderful ensemble work in Viva! or the clever Reversible. The dancing was, as ever, exquisite and powerful at the same time and David Carpio, a long time collaborator with Linan, admirably represented the father/tradition figure in song. A duet between two guitars, one electric, one flamenco, extended the metaphor of duel and dialogue. It was wonderful too.

Javier Fergo

Less personal, but also excellent, was Alfonso Losa, dancing at the same venue with Concha Jareno. The stage pictures of them dancing separately, but in absolute unison, will stay in the memory for a long time. The sensuality on show, with minimal physical contact, was remarkable and totally unlike another pairing, that of Olga Pericet and Daniel Abreu at the Atalaya Museum. That was born out of flamenco but had moved a long way away from it, into the realm of modern dance, atonal white noise and strobe lighting. The artistry was breathtaking, though sexy it wasn’t. This was the second part of an ongoing work which Pericet began developing some years ago and which she aims to complete in 2023, inspired by the famous guitarist Antonio De Torres.

FlamencoPlazaBelen1Much more laid back (though probably not for the participants) was our Andalucia Day morning in Plaza Belen watching the students of the various flamenco schools strutting their stuff. Everyone got their turn in the spotlight and everyone received applause from the predominantly local crowd sitting in the amphitheatre and standing near the stage (proud relatives included). Then we all went off to eat venison at an open air cinema. Perfect.

Official photography is by Javier Fergo (unofficial by me and Helen Hughes). Here’s a bit of very fine guitar to send you away happy.

https://player.vimeo.com/video/683044321?h=3ccd97151c

Festival de Jerez 2022

FestivaldeJerez2022In 2020 I managed to get to the wonderful flamenco Festival de Jerez, two weeks before Spain locked down for the first time in the pandemic. Before vaccines, before masks, before all the mayhem and death. The UK locked down about three weeks later. In 2021 it was a low key, local affair, rescheduled to May and I missed it – the first time for over a decade – because travel was still difficult. Now Festival 2022 is up and running and I’m going.

There is so much to look forward to. There’s a new venue, the Palacio de Atalaya, which houses the poetically named Museum of Time. That’s a museum you really want to be in at midday when the massive clock collection (and there are some truly exquisite timepieces) chimes twelve. We’re seeing the fabulous Olga Pericet, a dancer who I have wanted to see for years but who we’ve always managed to miss,Museo-de-los-Relojes-Jerez-1 before heading off for gourmet tapas. Then to the Sala Compania, a 16th century church converted into a performance space, in the evening for Angel Rojas Dance Project, the Madrileno’s latest show. Sunday and it must be Miguel Linan, an old favourite, in the Teatro Villamarta with his latest show Pie de Hierro. Another of our favourites, Jerezano singer David Carpio, is appearing with Linan as an invited guest. I booked tickets in November, shortly after they were put on sale and the only ones available were up in the gods, which is where we are, but at least we got some.  Linan is becoming a noticias-nacionales_olgapericet-ojocriticosuperstar of the Festival and of flamenco in general and he regularly collaborates with Carpio, good news for both. Then on Monday to the Sala Compania again for a more intimate performance and the Malagan guitarist Daniel Casares. It’s with the guitar that we begin, in the same venue on Wednesday with Salvador Gutierrez.

There’ll be more besides; meeting up with old friends, convivial food and drink (given daytime temperatures of 22 degrees quite a lot of this might be done outside in the blossoming tree-lined squares of the old town). No Carnaval this year, either in Jerez or its more famous Carnaval cousin, Cadiz, as both events have been moved to June, mainly because of COVID. These are street events, drawing huge crowds so itjereztower makes sense to hold them when it’s hotter and the virus less pervasive, though it will be a strange experience, especially in Cadiz, where the Carnaval has been held in February for as long as I can remember. But that’s something else to look forward to later in the year.

The Festival has already begun and friends there tell me that the city is still relatively quiet. Usually the whole place resounds with music and crowds of flamenco lovers from around the world fill the bars and restaurants day and night (and the performance venues). This year might be a little different and maybe restaurant tables will be easier to come by. Every cloud…

I’ll be posting pics in my Insta account. For more on the Festival de Jerez go to The Story Bazaar website and use the Tag Festival de Jerez.

Neither ‘Opera’ nor an opera…

SPOprogramme… but the singing of songs. St Paul’s Opera, Clapham, presented the Big Birthday Bash last Friday and great fun was had by all, as much on stage as in the audience.

It was a cold and windy night, with temperatures forecast to be sub-zero, but the windows of the church were lined with candles casting a warm and welcoming glow. Once inside we took a programme, found ourselves an unoccupied pew and fortified ourselves with wine. The church began to fill, many of the faces familiar,  until there was a good audience, ready and waiting to enjoy themselves.

SPOTeresaOpera and classical favourites, mostly ‘big tunes’, formed the first half of the evening’s entertainment, followed by cabaret and show tunes in the second.  Two Australians, a Greek and a Latvian as well as those native to these British Isles formed the company for the evening, several prize-winners among them. The singers were current and former members of SPO, clad in their shiny best (and that was the baritone’s black satin suit).  A theme reflected in the audience by SPO super-fan Teresa, in her sparkly rainbow biker jacket. Puccini and Rossini formed the backbone of the first half, spiced with Lehar, Bizet, Leoncavallo and Strauss with one Mozart piece to add a touch of the sublime. It ended with Brindisi, the famous drinking song from La Traviata. Post interval ( more wine, that song was prophetic, and meeting yet more friends and neighbours ) there was Offenbach, Britten and Bernstein, plus Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein and Sondheim.

SPOTriciaHighlights? There were many. Lyric tenor Martins Smaukstelis singing ‘Maria’ from West Side Story – ‘knocked it out the park’ said my American neighbour; the aforementioned Mozart ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Cosi fan Tutti sung by Tanya Hurst, Alexandra Dinwiddie and Louis Hurst and birthday girl and SPO co-founder Patricia Ninian singing ‘Glitter and be Gay’ from Candide.

The performers were clearly having as much fun up on the stage as the audience were in the pews and there was even a sing-along-chorus to the Hippopotamus song (‘Mud, mud, glorious mud’) lead by Louis Hurst.  A grand finale and then it was time to go home (although there was a birthday party afterwards). This concert-goer, although invited, had to leave.

For anyone interested Tricia Ninian will be speaking at the next Clapham Society meeting at OmnibusSPOFinale Theatre on 21st February about establishing this favourite local opera company from scratch. Unfortunately I’m unable to attend, but I will be going to the the Masterclass at St Paul’s by David Butt Philip (Sydney Opera, the NY Met and Wiener Stadtsoper) on 3rd March – tickets £10. He will also be performing a Gala concert with some friends, Lauren Fagan, Stephanie Wake-Edwards and David Shipley, all alumni of the Royal Opera’s Young Artist Programme. This takes place on Thursday 24th March, tickets £30. I imagine that all these events will be very popular, so buy early.

Meanwhile I’m heading south for more music, this time flamenco. The 25th Anniversary edition of the Festival de Jerez begins on Friday so that’s where I’m headed. I suspect I might blog about it.  See below for some earlier versions (including videos) on The Story Bazaar site.

2018 Festival Round Up                 Camerata Flamenco Project                     Lamento

Peru – a journey in time

PeruYesterday I went to the British Museum to catch the Peru exhibition before it closes on 20th February. This relatively small but very interesting exhibition is in the Great Court Gallery (above the Reading Room) and is organised in conjunction with the Museo de Arte de Lima. It brings together artefacts from the BM’s own collection with those from Peru and elsewhere to reveal the history, beliefs and culture of a series of South American societies and peoples from BCE to the sixteenth century arrival of the conquistadors.

My knowledge of such societies was restricted to Schaffer’s 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun, numerous bloodthirsty films and cartoons from childhood, the wonderful Royal Academy exhibition of the 90s on the Aztecs (from a different part of south America completely) and,Peruheaddress perhaps most personally, the Palacio del Conde de los Andes in Jerez de la Frontera, which belonged to the last Viceroy of Peru. This exhibition has expanded it enormously, covering as it does the period between 2500 BCE and the 1500s, tropical forests, arid plains and, above all, the Andes, a  geographical region centred on Peru, but including Argentina, Bolivia, Columbia and Ecuador.  I was completely ignorant of the people who lived at Chavin de Huantar (1200BCE) who made the remarkable gold headdress and earrings (right). Theirs was a site of pilgrimage to an oracle. In southern Peru archeologists discovered the funerary goods of the Paracas people (900BCE) who were followed by the more famous Nascas (200BCE-600CE) with their amazing and huge geoglyphs, which can only be seen in their entirety from the sky.

Kneeling Moche warrior holding a club and a shieldIn northern Peru the Moche people (100-800 CE), fabulous ceramicists (see figure of a Moche warrior, left), concentrated along the coasts and river valleys, while the Wari (600-900CE) developed in the Ayacucho region and expanded to cover the southern highlands and the northern coast. Then, between the 10th and 12th centuries the Kingdom of Chimu dominated, its capital Chan Chan having a population of up to 75,000 people. In the central Andes the Inca empire emerged in about 1400, expanding its territory throughout the region, via a system of roads and waterways between diverse cultures and communities. This included the creation of the mountain fastness which is Machu Pichu, or ‘ancient mountain’, including about 200 polished stone buildings, as well as terraces and pyramids. Though this was not the Inca capital, which was at Cusco.

The Incas were eventually deposed by the Spanish, led by Pizarro and a brutal repression of indigenousMachu_Picchu ways of life followed. It is Pizarro’s first encounter and subsequent relationship with the Inca Emperor Atahuallpa which features in the aforementioned play (and film). The exhibition included artefacts from the colonial period, though not many of them.

What I found fascinating about the peoples living in these regions was that they developed art and technology (the roads and waterways across the Andes for example) without a system of writing. Rather they used a system of khipu to transmit information knotted textiles. I imagine that they also had an oral tradition of storytelling, most ancient societies did, but, because these stories were never written down these would have been lost. Peru felinesThey certainly had complex belief systems, centred on nature and the land, as shown by the exquisite ceramics in the form of felines and serpents (see left). It also included blood sacrifice (back to those childhood bloodthirsty yarns) with any prisoners captured during wars being slain as a sacrifice to the gods of the land. One funerary robe included no fewer than seventy four human figures in its border and central pattern, each of them carrying a severed human head. Ceramics and musical instruments were decorated with similarly gruesome patterns. The exhibition includes a number of sculptures of captured prisoners, roped and awaiting their fate.

If you get the opportunity, do visit this exhibition before it closes. It isn’t huge, but leave yourself plenty of time, there’s a lot to absorb. Entry costs £17, with some £14.80 concessions.

Drainage Plans

MinetLibraryLambethArchivesBoring, right?

Not at all. Drainage plans show the internal division, into rooms and areas, of a building and are often based on the original architect’s plans and submitted to the local Planning Authority. They are then retained by the council for a period and, if you’re lucky, archived. Who knew?  Not me, certainly, until I visited Lambeth Archives last week. The friendly and helpful archivists there steered me in this direction and I am so glad that they did.

The building I was interested in was, in fact, several buildings, belonging to the South London Hospital for Women and Children on Clapham South Side, close to Clapham South tube station. The facade of the 1930s building (architect Sir Edwin Cooper) is stillSLH1970 there, fronting a Tesco store and apartments. This has been extended to incorporate another ‘wing’ which was in the extension plans for the 1930s but never built, replacing one of the original old houses, Preston House, of which the hospital was comprised.

The Hospital was founded in 1912, following a campaign by two female surgeons, Maud Chadburn and Eleanor Davies-Colley. They both worked at what was then known as the New Hospital (now the Elizabeth Garrett SLHSitePlanwithDeepSheltersAnderson Hospital, founded 1872) on the Euston Road, the first hospital in the UK to be staffed entirely by women. But by the early years of the century demand hugely outstripped the ability of this hospital to cope and so the South London was proposed. An astonishingly successful fund-raising campaign began and properties at Clapham South were purchased and converted. The hospital opened its doors in 1912.

My interest in the hospital was rather more recent. Within my own memory, the northernmost buildings were part of the 1930s building, with Preston House still standing, adjoining, to the south, ‘South London Hospital for Women’ inscribed on its frontage. This building incorporated the Chapel, mortuary, ‘dead house’ and path labs and, while these functions remained roughly the same,sthlondonhospital6_orig the inside of the buildings altered radically between 1912 and 1935 (when the Cooper building was built). The archivist provided me with an Ordnance Survey map and a large bundle of drainage plans, covering those for the original conversion of private houses to hospital, through various extensions, to the 1930s plans. I had to put them into some sort of order and understand how they fitted together. Fortunately for me they were dated (though what the plans showed, exactly, wasn’t always immediately clear).

I don’t know what I’d expected from drainage plans, lots of indications of pipework, I suppose, focusingGrounds ofSLH showing 'new' south wing and rear on how the water and waste drained away to the sewers. There was some of that, but there was a lot more as well. There is water throughout a building, especially a hospital and it has to drain away, so the plans covered all the floors, even the fourth, showing all the ‘water features’ sinks, baths, sluices etc.. I was pleased to see that even the servants rooms had hand washing basins, although they didn’t have en suite bathrooms. Those were communal at the end of the corridor.

LambethArchivesThere was also a staff dining room or canteen and a School of Nursing. The grounds included gardens, a tennis court and, from the 30s again, a block providing nurses’ accommodation, including sitting rooms and a recreation area. I recall walking past the block along Hazelbourne Road on my way to and from the tube every morning when I first moved to London. How I wish that I had taken photographs, but camera phones weren’t invented then. Nonetheless, the plans gave me lots of information and I’ve begun to build a picture of what life there may have been like.

The South London Hospital for Women and Children may have become a little sad at its end, with budget cuts and an unknown future, but it was still staffed mainly by women until it eventually closed and even today stirs a great deal of affection in those who knew it. I’ll be talking with some of them soon.

Crime Fiction Series

TimeandLeisureCrimeSeriesarticleI recently wrote a piece for Time and Leisure Magazine recommending the first books in a number of crime fiction series, each series running to between three and thirteen books at time of going to press. A good series is a fine thing in deep mid-winter, especially when one isn’t going out so much and I know crime fiction readers, in particular, are always on the look-out for ones they haven’t tried yet.

The other prompt for the article was my completion of Opera, the third in my own series and thoughts of what would come next. Will there be a book four, or five? There certainly could be, there’s quite a cliff-hanger at the end and I am, only now, beginning to see what might happen next (in fact, it begins to seem inevitable). Would Claret Press want another Cassie Fortune? Even if they do, will that be what I write next, or do I want a break from her? Do I want to write something else?

Maintaining quality within a series isn’t easy, keeping a freshness is even harder. In ‘detective’ crimeThe Cassandra Fortune Mysteries fiction the puzzles must differ and the twists must be new, or at least fresh. The contexts and locations can change (at least I can send Cassie anywhere, she isn’t tied to a place or one type of job) but there’s a risk that, in trying to introduce new thrills, dangers and surprises a story can become too contrived, or unbelievable. There is also a delicate balance to be struck, readers want some more of the same, as well as something different.

Many lovers of Plague didn’t like Oracle as much, they found a classic ‘country house’ murder mystery rather than a diabolical big city mastermind causing the deaths of many.  Others preferred the second book. The two books were very different.  Opera returns to London and is, I hope, a mix of the two styles. Our protagonist, too, is back to her more sympathetic best, but somewhat wiser.

Characters familiar to the reader of earlier books in a series still have to be drawn clearly and the best of them grow and change, think of Rebus, or Morse. Otherwise they become boring to write about too. Famously, Conan Doyle grew tired of Sherlock Holmes so killed him off before being forced to resurrect him ( but then, Sherlock Holmes didn’t change, he was fixed in his character ). Other authors have complex reactions to their characters, Dorothy L Sayers even fell in love with her protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey.

Cormoran and RobinSome of the most addictive crime series are linked by an ongoing and developing relationship, often of a romantic nature. So, when, if ever, will Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott get together? The same goes for Dr Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson (I haven’t read all the books in this series yet). Readers are attracted by the crime puzzle and stay with the series to follow the relationships. Having killed off my potential romantic lead in my first book (and there are readers who still haven’t forgiven me for doing that) and made the central relationship of the next two books as being between two people who can only destroy each other, precludes that from happening to Cassandra.

I’m not tired of Cassie Fortune yet, she has a lot of lessons to learn and at the end of Opera she is beginning to learn them. But there are other considerations.

If you’re interested in the article recommending crime fiction series, you can access it here.

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.