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What Do Words Matter?

In his opera Capriccio, Richard Strauss posed the question, is the music in opera based on the words or are the words based on the music? He personified it in the form of two men competing for the love of one woman and left the answer somewhat ambiguous. Yesterday evening I went along to a local church to hear two librettists discuss this and other questions. Very interesting it was too.

Meredith Oakes is a playwright, dramaturge and violinist who is also a very successful librettist, working with Gerald Barry (The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, 1995) and Thomas Ades (The TempestPhiliphensher, 2004), the latter opera performed around the world. She is currently working on a piece to be performed in her native Australia. Philip Hensher is better known as a novelist, twice listed for the Man Booker Prize (The Mulberry Empire, 2002 and The Northern Clemency, 2008) but has an abiding love of opera and produced the libretto to Thomas Ades’ debut opera Powder Her Face (1995). His latest book is A Small Revolution in Germany (Fourth Estate, 2020). The discussion was marshalled by Jonathan Boardman, Vicar of St Pauls, Clapham, where the event took place.

We began at the beginning, how does collaboration between composer and librettist start? For Hensher it was almostPowderHerFace by chance, it was he who suggested the subject of Ades’ first opera, the scandalous divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, which became Powder Her Face. He described the process as a suggestive and seductive one, the librettist leaving a trail of breadcrumbs (words) to entice the composer into following creatively and then to exceed the limitations of those words. Oakes described the process differently, more of a collaboration in joy. She took on the task of writing the libretto for an opera based on Shakespeare which was filled with particular challenges. She described the process as being like ‘walking around a monument, seeing it from different angles and bringing out its different aspects’. Should she adopt iambic pentameter, the verse form used most frequently by Shakespeare? Yet it might constrain or run directly against the meter of the music. Should she use it occasionally, or abandon it altogether? She also had a particular problem in that, in the play the heroine Miranda, daughter of Prospero, says very little. Oakes had to get inside the head of this character and give her more of a voice, bringing out her hopes and fears in order for her to act as a balance within the opera.

The discussion ranged widely. Is the collaboration improved by the composer and librettist being friends? Both theOakesthetempest librettists speaking last night remain friends with the composers they had worked with, but there are some examples of the relationship between collaborators breaking down. So much so in Harrison Birtwhistle’s case that one of his librettists alleged that Birtwhistle had tried to run him down with his car! Gilbert and Sullivan cordially hated each other (though they made a lot of money together). On the other hand there have been some great collaborations between partners, like that between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (though Britten was, apparently, notoriously difficult to work with).

Throughout the conversation was punctuated by illustrations, pieces written in English and set to music across the StPaulsages, by Purcell, Handel, Gilbert & Sullivan and Britten. The young singers, Hugh Benson (tenor), Alexandra Dinwiddie (mezzo-soprano), Edwin Kaye (bass cantate) and Davidona Pittock (soprano) were from St Paul’s Opera, accompanied by pianist Elspeth Wilkes.

Add in some Provencal rosé, a sunny summer’s evening in a churchyard and music in a church with a wonderful acoustic for music. What more could one ask?

‘Opera’ London

BromptonCemeteryStatuaryI’ve recently been out and about looking at the places in London where the third book in the Cassandra Fortune series, entitled ‘Opera‘, is set.  The obvious one, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is not yet open to anyone but ticket holders to socially distanced performances ( though I have a contact there for when it opens more widely ), but there are others, less obvious and, to non-Londoners, perhaps something of a revelation. If ‘Plague‘ was set in places that we all know, even if it took you to parts of those places which are usually closed to view, or hidden, ‘Opera’ will introduce some settings which are less well-known, but, I hope, people may then visit.

I visited one of these last week, just before the heatwave hit.  Cloudy weather notwithstanding, Brompton Cemetery was still a delight to visit. Designed as a ‘Garden Cemetery’ and meant, from its inception, to be a public space as well as a last resting place, the cemetery stretches over a long, rectangular-shaped forty acres on the Fulham Chelsea borders. It has a grand entrance lodge gate at its northern extremity which houses a café, an information centre and exhibition space ( and which will feature in the book ) and which looks down a grand main avenue towards the chapel and colonnade at the far end. BromptonCemeteryMainAvenue

The main avenue is flanked by the grander grave markers and mausolea, this was the most public and therefore the most expensive part of the cemetery to bury your loved ones. The side avenues and circles have their fair share of statuary and raised tombs too, though the still working part of the cemetery to the west is in a lower key. On Wednesday, when I visited, the cow parsley was rampant and allowed to be so, only the edges of the lawns next to the avenues were mown ( except for the railed section of the cemetery which belongs to the Brigade of Guards and which was fully mown with military precision ).  Butterflies and bees were plentiful, the latter possibly living in the cemetery bee hives still kept on the west side of the cemetery.

BromptonCemetery1Brompton is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Victorian cemeteries, which includes Highgate, with its graves of Karl Marx, George Eliot and other very famous people and Kelsall Green with its oft-filmed catacombs. While well known to locals – and a godsend during lockdowns – it is less widely known than these others. Both Kelsall Green and Tower Hamlets ( another Magnificent Seven cemetery ) featured in ‘Plague’. Brompton is owned by the Crown and run by The Royal Parks and includes many military graves, including of Commonwealth service personnel maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and many Czechoslovak, Polish and Russian military burials.  It is also evidence of the diversity of Victorian London, housing as it did and does, the remains of individuals ranging from Chief Long Wolf of the Ogulala Sioux nation to Johannes Zukertorte, Jewish-Polish chess grandmaster and the Keeley and Vokes families, music hall artistes and actors. Other individuals buried here include a Mr Nutkin, Mr Brock, Mr Tod, Jeremiah Fisher and Peter Rabbett – Beatrix Potter lived nearby and was known to walk in the cemetery often, did these names inspire her?

BromptonCemeteryCatacombEntranceThe Chapel at the cemetery’s southern end wasn’t open last week, but the grand colonnade is open all year round. Built in a style aping that of St Peter’s Square in Rome, the Colonnade runs above catacombs, which were fashionable for a brief time in Victorian London ( all too brief, additional catacombs built along the west side of the cemetery were never fully occupied ). The steps down to them are very wide and shallow, mainly because the lead-lined coffins deemed necessary for catacomb interment were extremely heavy and therefore difficult for pallbearers to carry and manoeuvre. The catacombs themselves are not open to the public except on special tours and open days and the locked metal doors, with their sculpted serpentine bas reliefs offer tantalising glimpses within.

If you happen to be in West London and have an hour or so to spare, you could do worse than spend it in this tranquil and interesting haven from the city which surrounds it. I will, most certainly, be back.

All good things…

OracelandPlagueThere are always interesting things happening in the world of books, book festivals and publishing, but right now many are happening as a result, direct or otherwise, of the enforced lockdown and the removal of the usual ways in which books and literature are promoted and supported.  I’ve experienced this myself, with publication of not one, but two books during COVID times. Gone were the signings, the book tours, the attending of literary festivals. My publisher’s idea of handing out the first two chapters of ‘Plague’ in a small, bound leaflet at Westminster Tube station ( the book is set in part in the Palace of Westminster ) was completely stymied by the pandemic. There were few folk emerging for work in Whitehall and even fewer tourists last year and, in any case, who was going to take a leaflet from a stranger which had PLAGUE written across the top?

chatInstead, book promotion has moved even further into the virtual world. I have ‘met’ lots of people online when promoting the books in this way, people who I now think of as friends, even if I’ve never actually met them. I have invitations to Edinburgh, Newcastle and Tamworth and supporters of myself and my books across the globe, not just the book shops of south east England.  I also have a network of friendly fellow authors, with whom I have appeared on panel discussions and other platforms or have coincided online with for other reasons.  And I ‘know’ a host of folk via Facebook, a medium I hadn’t really used at all until very recently, but which, in COVID-times, has provided a host of alternative ‘communities’ for bookish folk – writers and readers.

Plague book tour bannerYes, much of this could have happened anyway, events like blog tours have been going for some time now, though there is a limit on the amount of time available for book promotion and certainly a limit on my publisher’s budget, but the restrictions have been a catalyst, at least for me and, I suspect, many others.  As we become familiar with the technology and comfortable with the zoomed or skyped or livestreamed world new ideas spring up and take root. There are new things afoot in the world of book bloggers with live author chats, discussions between bloggers about books and with book club events – e.g. Mairéad Hearne at Swirl and Thread is hosting launches, Poppy Loves Book Club is hosting a series of online events and the lovely folk at the UK Crime Book Club host regular author chats and discussions and authors reading from their books – to name but three.  These are all offering free events ( as long as you have the internet, of course ).

camera-6209482_1920Some things will never be the same again I suspect. Livestreaming, a lifeline for dark theatres and closed halls, is here to stay for performance generally, reaching wider, more dispersed audiences. Many festivals of all kinds, including Clapham Book Festival, will offer livestreaming alternatives alongside live events. Our partners, Omnibus Theatre certainly plans to do so. All of which is a boon to those who would not be able to attend events like this in the normal course of things, the infirm or elderly, or those living in isolated, or culturally deprived, locations. They can now not just watch but contribute to and take part in events – which would have been unthinkable before. None of the libraries I’ve done sessions for, sometimes structured ‘talks’, sometimes conversations, plan to retreat from these online events, though they will return to providing ‘live’ ones too. Let’s hope that they’re staffed to do so.  Festivals too are going online. And the Clapham Book festival is no exception – more news on that in due course.

The Festival is Back

clapham book festivallogo2And it will probably will never be the same again!

The date for the diary is Saturday 16th October 2021, with a mixed Programme of events, including Literary Walks, lead by local authors, and live author events at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, which will also be livestreamed for those who do not live close enough, or do not wish, to attend in person.

The two headliners for this year are Sir Michael Morpurgo, multiple award winner and former Children’s Laureate and Ben Macintyre historian, reviewer and columnist of The Times newspaper.

Sir Michael is the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, the Prix Sorcieres (three times), the Red House Children’s Book Award (four times), the Blue Peter Book of the Year and many others. He was knighted in the 2018 Honours List for services to literature and charity. He and his wife set up Farms forMichaelMorpurgo City Children in 1976 and the charity now owns three farms in Wales, Devon and Gloucestershire. His most famous work is probably War Horse, which was adapted for the stage and became the most successful National Theatre production ever, being seen by over ten million people worldwide. It was made into a cinema film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, in 2011. He recently presented the Radio 4 series ‘Folk Journeys’ in which he considered some of the greatest songs ever composed.  Sir Michael’s latest book is When Fishes Flew, illustrated by George Butler, to be published this Autumn.

AgentSonyaCoverBen Macintyre is an author, historian, reviewer and columnist for The Times newspaper. His most recent book, Agent Sonya, is a biography of Soviet agent Ursula Kuczinsky, has been acclaimed as a thriller as well as a piece of history.  Both events will be livestreamed and live stream ticket holders will receive a copy of the respective author’s book.  If we are in another lockdown or under other restrictions in force the event will go ahead as a livestream only, or, potentially as a zoom event.

Earlier in the day the Festival goes al fresco, out and about in Clapham. For centuries the home and haunt of writers of all kinds, Clapham has a long and illustrious ( and sometimes less than respectable ) literary history. Join local authors Elizabeth Buchan and, later, Annemarie Neary, on a Literary Walk round the manor.  Elizabeth’s latest novel Two Women of Rome  is published in June ( though her earlier book, The New Mrs Clifton was set in Clapham ) and Annemarie’s The Orphans, is set on Clapham Common itself. The walk takes approximately two hours (although that depends on how muchT&L Media logo Box NEW.eps discussion there is in each group). Ticket numbers will be limited so it’ll be important to book early. We hope the walks can take place in any circumstances but a strict lockdown.

More exciting news is that CBF is now partnered with Time & Leisure magazine and the Book Festival is planning, with the magazine, to offer a selection of bookish author events available online year round. Watch this space for developments. Tickets for all events, online, livestreamed and in person, either in the Theatre or out and about, will be available on Eventbrite.

 

 

 

 

Politics in crime fiction

CapitolRiot3My contemporary crime fiction is set in the world of high politics ( and low sleaze ), of ministers, conferences, lobbyists and business interests. Activists of various kind also feature, particularly in Oracle. In that book a contemporary political issue also impacts upon the plot; the politicisation of the police. This is specifically regarding the Greek criminal organisation Golden Dawn, which formerly styled itself a political party and to which many police belonged in the real world. There are other examples of politics intruding on police work, most notably in the U.S., where former President Trump deployed ‘private’ police forces funded with federal money in cities where demonstrations were taking place ( see pic left ). A ‘defund the police’ movement began as a result of this and of the repeated deaths in custody of black people. So far, so scary.

I’ve been speculating on whether or not this is going to appear more widely in crime fiction. It would be material to any fictional investigation. Can the investigator, police or otherwise, trust the policemen and women with whom they work?  Could those individuals owe allegiance to a different, political, organisation altogether?

To an extent this brings to mind the conspiracy novels of the 1970s, published just as the gloss of 60s idealism wasSerpico tarnished. In the US the Vietnam War, in the UK the three-day week and ‘the sick man of Europe’ made for a more sceptical and hard boiled sensibility.  The Day of the Jackal, The Andromeda Strain, Six Days of the Condor are three crime/conspiracy novels, turned into major films, which spring to mind.  Then there was police corruption, found in crime fiction like Lawrence Block’s NYPD stories, Leonardo Sciascia in Sicily ( long before Montalbano ) or countless Hollywood films, the Dirty Harry movies, Serpico, The French Connection. Is the politicisation of the police going to be something similar?

Then it occurred to me that maybe there were books already out there, it was just that I hadn’t come across them. So I asked, on the Facebook page of one of the UK’s biggest Crime Fiction clubs, for suggestions of crime fiction which involved politics. Now this isn’t quite the same as ‘the politicisation of the police’ I grant you, but I was interested to see what suggestions arose.

First Quinin Jardine’s Bob Skinner series, following Edinburgh’s fictional Chief Superintendent, was recommended as Crime & Punishmenthaving the politics of policing threaded though it (as it happens these also arose during a discussion I had on Sunday ).  Then a series I had never heard of but will definitely try – Ausma Zehanat Khan’s duo detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Khan is a British born Canadian and now lives in the U.S. and her pair are Community Police Officers in Toronto, but the books range across the world. One series I remembered as soon as it was suggested was the Law & Order TV series based on four plays by G F Newman, which were also published as books A Detective’s Tale, A Villain’s Tale and A Prisoner’s Tale. HarperCollins reprinted them in an omnibus edition in 1984. These were controversial at the time, as they depicted a corrupt UK policing and legal system and shouldn’t be confused with the US TV series of that name. The UK series was altogether harder and grittier and caused ructions. As did Newman’s later Crime and Punishment, which involved a criminal bankrolling the Conservative party ( where have I heard that before )?

This is as far as the discussions went – although there were suggestions for other TV series, like the current favourite Line of Duty.  If readers of this piece can think of more crime fiction in which politics features, please don’t hesitate to tell me.

Publication Day!

OracleonphoneheldbywomanatlakeSo ‘Oracle’ is loose upon the world, at first with a tentative snuffling, a rootling, then a leaping and bounding – into reader’s hands, hearts and minds, I hope. There isn’t a launch, not even a virtual one, there are better ways to spend one’s energy and time right now, though I would like to give a heartfelt thank you to all those people who have supported me and the book and congratulated me and wished the book well.

It’s now available on bookshop.org and via the Claret Press web-site ( postage & packing of paperbacks is free, while stocks last ) as well as on Mr Besos’ ubiquitous platform ( which still sells more books than anywhere else online ) and Waterstones.  Both paperbacks and ebooks are available costing £9.99 and £3.99 respectively ( though Amazon alters the price it charges unilaterally, I was surprised to see the ebook up for pre-order for £5.99 at one point – proof that there were pre-orders at any rate ). If you happen to live in south London the book can be found at Clapham Books and Herne Hill Books ( and several other local book emporia ).  It can be ordered from all good book shops.

And I’m busy.  I had great fun this afternoon being interviewed for ‘The Doctor Will See You Now’ by Jacky Gramosi Collins, also known as Dr Noir NewcastleNoir( Jacky founded Newcastle Noir, was instrumental in the Edinburgh Noir at the Bar and most recently, has been deeply involved with Gwyl Crime Cymru, Wales’ first Crime Fiction Festival ). This will be broadcast on Thursday 6th May – it’s free to air and you can find it here, when I get the link. I’ve also been chatting on StreamYard with Sam Brownley of the UK Crime Book Club. I’ll be doing a talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries too, on 17th May. It’s free but you need to register ( tickets from Eventbrite ). I’ve enjoyed preparing for that – it’s all about Delphi, ancient and modern and its myths and literature, as well as ‘Oracle’. In the meanwhile there are a number of events for book clubs and subscribed podcasts and some radio interviews coming up too, the Events page of this web-site will be kept up to date.

OracelandPlagueThere will be some fizz drunk this evening, which is probably my only concession to the traditional response to publication.  Releasing two books in two years, only eight months apart, but into a world wracked by COVID has not been what I would have expected or wanted. Nonetheless, readers seemed to enjoy ‘Plague’ and, I hope, will also enjoy ‘Oracle’ although it is a very different type of book, much more the ‘classic’ murder mystery. I am already hard at work on ‘Opera’ the third in the series, which sees Cassie return to London determined to lay some old ghosts to rest after her experience in Delphi.

If any of you reading this are about to read ‘Oracle’ please do write a review when you have done so, on Goodreads and Amazon or Waterstones, wherever you purchased the book. That will help other potential readers and, if you enjoy reading it, TELL EVERYONE ABOUT IT!  

In the meanwhile, I raise a glass to you all. 

Hurray for book bloggers

OracleCassiequoteVBGreyThis weekend, with three days to go until ‘Oracle’ is published, I had planned to do another ‘run down’ type post.  Something I came across on Twitter, however, changed my mind.  This piece is written in gratitude to all those book bloggers who have reviewed ‘Oracle’ and/or ‘Plague’ before it, or carried articles or other pieces about either of those books.

Anne Cater, doyen of book bloggers, ten years or more blogging and a CWA Dagger judge, as well as of the British Book Awards, tweeted that she was hearing talk that “there’s ‘no future’ for blog reviews.” Her own web site, Random Things, “…may disappear if that’s the case. Instagram reviewing is not for me, so this may be the end?” This is as a result of the rise of Instagram and #bookstagram, currently engaging millions.

I seriously doubt that this will happen. It depends on what publishers and publicists ( and authors ) want.

If publishers want coverage, I suppose, Instagram can offer bigger numbers. This is the equivalent of the billboard, realOraclewithcoffeeandpapers or virtual. It tells you that the book is out there and carries a simple message about it (see above). It’s pure publicity.  This, like a billboard ad, can prompt people into buying. But if a potential reader wants to know more and whether or not the book is for them before they buy, detail is required and the limited length of Instagram posts precludes this. Step forward the book blogger, offering a considered review of a book’s strengths and, if necessary, less strong areas ( though most book bloggers won’t post negative reviews ).

Blog reviews also generate conversation about the book, what did others like or dislike about it, would the character do this or that? An Instagram post is less likely to prompt dialogue of any depth ( aside from saying whether or not a book is good/enjoyable and commenting on the image, which is what I have seen on Instagram when images are not linked to a longer review on a blog ) and more substantial dialogue is what a reader often wants.  Both before they buy and, if they enjoyed the book, afterwards. The experience of a book and its fictional world is amplified and the enjoyment increased by sharing views about it.

booklight-465350_1280It’s also in the wider interests of publishers, publicists and authors to encourage discussion about books, to widen reader’s horizons and engage more people in reading. This is what book bloggers do, sometimes via Blog Tours, or by just posting their own thoughts about what they are reading. And, in the time of COVID, both have been important in drumming up publicity and support for books which would, otherwise, have sunk without trace.

Most books don’t get reviewed in the national press, especially books by unknown or debut authors ( celebrity or big name authors dominate in a brand-led world ). The traditional ‘book tour’ with its author signings and attendance of W.I., Literary Societies or Book Clubs can’t happen. The paid events, like school visits or literary festivals, aren’t happening and even the traditional book launch is banned. All sorts of plans for the launch of my first book had to be abandoned.  Now, I find, I have the dubious distinction of also launching my second book into the COVID restricted world. So I would like to thank all those book bloggers, reviewers and downright good folk who have, at least in a small way, generated some interest in my books.  They do this out of love and take joy in books, they are unpaid and they form a small, warm community online when the physical community can no longer gather.

I’m not going to write a list here, it would be as long as another post, but I will be tagging them all, in the attaching tweet or Fb post and, yes, on Instagram!

Ten Days to Go

OracleontabletbyseashoreSo, it’s just ten days before ‘Oracle’ the second of the Cassandra Fortune books is released on to an unsuspecting world. Actually, it’s not that unsuspecting, as review copies have been out for some time and people are saying nice things about it.  So, Isabelle Grey, author of the DI Grace Fisher stories, whose latest ‘Tell Me How It Ends‘ (Quercus) is set in London in the early sixties said ‘Cassandra Fortune is as fearless and shrewdly observant as any classic action hero , yet also intriguingly able to admit vulnerability. Will the Furies catch up with her in this very modern political thriller set amid the ruins of ancient Greece?’  Jacky Gramosi Collins, aka the famous Dr Noir, described ‘Oracle’ as ‘a text that reminds us of the way the past resonates in the present and the lessons we all need to learn’. Steve Sheppard, author of ‘A Very Important Teapot‘ said ‘Plague was gripping and original, and Oracle is a masterful sequel. The plot keeps us guessing right to the end as the intriguing cast of characters are handled with skill and care.’ ( Steve is a fellow Claret Press author ) and the playwright David Armstrong described it as ‘a page-turner, an engaging and absorbing read’.

Book bloggers like it. For example, Jean M Roberts of The Books Delight, saidModern Ivory New Blog Publish Instagram Post ‘There are more twists, turns and unexpected revelations in this story than the path leading to the Corycian Cave and they will keep readers guessing until the unexpected end’. NetGalley reviews have been favourable too, with plenty of five and four star reviews.  I will, however, be making some last minute amendments, after having received detailed comments from Maro Nicolopolou of the European Cultural Centre at Delphi, for which I am very grateful.

There are a whole host of things happening in the virtual world on or around publication day, 5th May ( some of which are listed on the Events page of this website ). I’m being interviewed by Dr Noir for ‘The Doctor Will See You Now’ on Newcastle Noir TV – I’ll be attending that Festival of Crime Fiction later in the year – which will be broadcast on 6th May. I’m speaking with Staffordshire and Kensington & Chelsea Libraries, as well as several radio stations and with book clubs ( the UK Crime Book Club for example ) and there are a series of regional newspaper reviews in the pipeline, from The Somerset Leveller, The Yorkshire Times, The Lancashire Times, Time & Leisure Magazine and others. I’m also going international on Armand Rosamilia’s Floridian podcast. Needless to say, the writing of ‘Opera’ is being put on the back burner for a short while at least.   

OracleonphoneonplaneAnd in the real, physical, world? Things are gradually opening up but not quickly enough for the traditional book launch to take place and I shall have the dubious distinction of having launched TWO books during COVID restricted life. Unfortunately, though local London bookstores will carry the book, it’s unlikely to get a wider distribution, as my publisher’s distributor has, like so many other businesses, fallen foul of the economic disaster that is COVID. It is available, however, and listed with Neilsen’s so can be ordered from other stores and can be purchased from Bookshop.org, the site which gives more of its profits to independent book shops and publishers, on the Claret Press web-site and, of course, on Amazon. It runs to 274 pages and costs £9.99 for the paperback and £3.99 for ebook.

The company which produces promotional images of ‘Oracle’ seems to be majoring on the holiday market, with images of the book, in its various forms, on beaches and planes. Fingers crossed, for all sorts of reasons, that we can all get to travel internationally again. ‘Oracle’ would certainly be ideal vacation reading, even though it isn’t a hot and sunny Greece it is set in but rather a cold and stormy one.  I suspect that, after all the interviews, talks and other activity I’ll be ready for a holiday – and a return to ‘Opera’ and writing!

 

I speak for the God

DelphicSibylByMichelangeloAt Delphi it was the Pythia who spoke for the god Apollo – ‘prophet’ or prophetess’ originally meaning ‘spokesperson’. At Cumae it was the similarly Apollonian Sibyl and at Siwah in Egypt another sibyl, supposedly of the line of Poseidon and related to Nile, spoke for Zeus-Ammon. The first two were real women and, unusually for much of the ancient world, women who had power. They were actually a succession of women who filled the ‘office’ of Pythia or Sibyl ( although it is said that the most famous of the latter was granted extra long life and lived until very old, shrunken and wizened ). They certainly helped determine policy. As Cicero says of the Delphic Pythia, there wasn’t a important decision taken in the ancient Greek world without consulting her.

My temple guide in ‘Oracle’ explains, ‘All the peoples of the Mediterranean world made precious offerings here, even the Great Pharaoh of Egypt’. Many of the consultations were well documented – people poured over the Pythia’s previous declarations to see how accurate, or otherwise, she was. Anyone of a sceptical turn of mind might think this accounted for the especially ‘cryptic’ nature of her advice which could, therefore, be interpreted in many ways. Her220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_Delphi most famous prediction was probably that given to King Croesus of Lydia ( the Croesus who was so rich that his name became a byword for wealth – ‘as rich as Croesus’ ). Croesus, who had clearly hoped to find favour with the Pythia by sending her vast quantities of gold, was pondering whether or not to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Persia, then ruled by Cyrus. She advised him that, should he do so, he would destroy a great empire. Croesus duly launched his campaign in 547 BCE. After some inconclusive fighting, Cyrus defeated Croesus at Thymbria in 546 and Croesus took refuge in his capital of Sardis. The Siege of Sardis resulted in his capture and the Persians went on to annex Lydia. It was then clear that the empire which the Pythia foresaw Croesus destroying was his own.

The Pythia was right to be circumspect. It was said that when she refused to answer Alexander the Great’s question about how he could conquer the world he dragged her from the temple by her hair and she screamed ‘Now you are invincible!’. He dropped her, saying ‘Now I have my answer.’ At least he did her no lasting damage – it would have been too great a sacrilege. In 67 CE, however, the Emperor Nero, already a matricide, visited the Oracle and was told to get out, his presence offended the God and that the number 73 would be his downfall. Nero had the Pythia burnt alive. He thought the prophecy meant he would have a long reign and die aged 73. In fact his reign was short and he was deposed by Galba who was, at that time, 73 years old, a rather neat fact given the Pythia’s prediction.

CumaeSibylThe Pythia’s fame was assured and she features in drama, poetry, histories and other writings from about the sixth century BCE onwards ( although there was a priestess of legend supposedly at Delphi before then ). The Sibyl of Cumae may not have been quite as well known, but she had her adherents too, especially in the Roman period, and legendary stories grew up around her. The most famous was probably that involving Tarquin, the supposed last king of Rome, and the Sybilline books. An unknown woman arrived in Rome and offered to sell the king nine books of prophesies. Given the enormous sum she asked for them Tarquin refused to buy. She burnt three of them and asked the same price for the remaining six. Again Tarquin refused and she burned another three. Only three books remained, but Tarquin relented and bought them, for the original asking price for the nine. At which point the woman disappeared and the books were stored in the temple of Capitoline Jove on the Capitol. They were burned in a subsequent fire.

The Cumaean Sibyl features in Virgil’s Aeniad and she was visited by the Emperor Augustus. After the fire on the Capitol Tacitus tells us that Augustus ordered that any Sybilline prophecies found elsewhere in the empire should be collected together and sent to Rome where they were held in honour. In legend the Sybil grew very old and, shrivelling in size, was eventually kept in a jar until only her voice remained.

The Sybil at Siwah is less well documented, more of a legendary figure and is sometimes called the Libyan Sybil, but the Oracle there is well known. SiwahLibyanSibyl_SistineChapel too was visited by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt and though history doesn’t record how he treated the people there, it does say he went away content. The Siwah Oracle, wisely, forbade its supplicants from discussing what the Oracle had said, which pre-empted the examination of its prophesies which other prophetic Oracles were subject to. Unfortunately this also means we don’t have the wonderful stories about this oracle that we have about the other two. The legendary Sybil at Siwah was supposedly the daughter of Lamia, herself the daughter of Poseidon, God of the sea ( and she appears in Euripides play, Lamia ).

These prophetic women were in a long tradition. There were originally nine Grecian sybils of legend ( as opposed to real ones ) and many other less formal prophetesses or seers, in Greece and everywhere else. One such was Cassandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy, who, Homer says, foresaw the Trojan War and advised her fellow citizens not to bring the wooden horse inside Troy’s walls. She was, in legend, granted second sight by Apollo, but, when she refused his sexual advances was cursed with never being believed. She appears in drama and literature from ancient times to the present day and, it will not have gone unnoticed, shares a name with my heroine Cassandra Fortune. That Cassandra isn’t a prophetess, but, as a detective, can ‘see’ things which others miss. At least that’s my story.

The three matching images of sybils in this post are painted by Michaelangelo and can be found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

For more on Delphi, the Temple and its history try                     The mountain of the house of the God                 Temple                  Imaginary Worlds 

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.

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