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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. 

Opera and ‘Opera’

Is it entirely coincidental that, at a time when I’m working on ‘Opera’, the next novel in the Cassandra Fortune series, I’m going to more opera than usual? No, of course not. The opera in ‘Opera’ is Tosca, Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ (according to musicologist Joseph Kerman) set in Rome on 17th and 18th June 1800. The dating is precise because the plot is impacted by specific events, in particular the outcome, for some time in doubt, of the Battle of Marengo then taking place far to the north. The date of events in ‘Opera’ is precise too, though opera and novel have more in common than that. Both have a political backdrop of democracy under siege by the forces of repression and wealth, both have an arch-villain and a courageous heroine. I’m off to see ENO present this later in the summer.

It was a very different Puccini work which I went to see last Friday. Gianni Schicchi is a comedy, though its central character appears in Dante, the eponymous 13th century nouveau riche nobleman who is condemned to Hell for impersonating a dead man in order to acquire his property (including an ass). The company, St Paul’s Opera, is based at a Clapham church. It was set up by Patrician Ninian and others (who have since moved on) with the specific aim of offering accessible opera while encouraging and supporting aspiring young professional singers. Some of the finest were singing last week. It was, as it always is, a sell-out.

Friday evening was perfect, sunny and warm. The gates opened at a quarter to six and we sat, sipping wine and chatting before a pied piper, Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis, appeared walked through the gardens to summon us to the first musical performance. This was of sacred music in the Eden Gardens, sung by many of the company who were to appear later in the opera.

We returned to our food and wine and, unfortunately, missed the second small performance, a string quartet playing, among other things, an old favourite of mine Night Music from the Streets of Madrid by Boccherini.  So we were determined to hear the third, a selection of aria from Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi, sung by some of that evening’s principals. Then it was everyone to the grassy area behind the church where the main event was to happen. Every part of the evening had, so far, been a delight and so was the buzz as folk drank up, gathered their jackets and walked down to the amphitheatre. What a joy it was to be part of a happy crowd of people again, all anticipating more fun to come.

The seating was in small blocks, with gaps between, just as the tables in the picnic area had been. The evening took place entirely outside, but social distancing was still in evidence. Not in the production, where the newly cold body of Buoso is surrounded by his grieving (and greedy) relatives, who, when the will is discovered, are forced to turn to the wily parvenu, Gianni Schicchi, to retrieve the situation.  As the sun set and the strains of ‘O mio babbino caro’ rang around the hushed churchyard, for a short time everything was right with the world. Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa singng the same.

Jericho

JerichoBookFairCanalReaders of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will already be familiar with the alternative reality Jericho, the canal basin where the Gyptians live in Northern Lights. In real life Pullman has been an advocate in support of the residential boaters fight to save the Castlemill Boatyard in the actual Jericho from property developers. It’s that bohemian, formerly working class quarter of Oxford, bounded by the Oxford Canal, Worcester College, Walton Street and Walton Well Road. On Sunday it was host to the Jericho Book Fair, the very first post-lockdown book fair in the country, the organisers claimed. I went along.

Though raining on the way up and an absolute storm on the way back to London, JerichoJerichoBookFair itself was dry and plenty of people came out. There were lots of interesting stalls (I managed to buy as many books as I sold, including a 1956 Penguin Classics original edition of The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham and a more recent volume of Euripides). Oxford University Press were there, Blackwell’s Books and several other presses, as well as the Oxford Indie Book Fair.

I was on the Claret Press stand, which was also manned by fellow author Steve Sheppard, JerichoBookFairSteve(below) writer of one of my favourite comedy spy novels A Very Important Teapot. Steve lives in nearby Bampton and has just finished writing the sequel, Bored to Death in the Baltics, which involves herring, apparently and will be published in September. He had foregone the pleasure of umpiring for his local cricket team to come along and talk about books. Sylvia Vetta, another Claret author, was on the Oxford Indie Book Festival stand (she is one of its organisers) but we had time for a chat. Sylvia’s most recent novel Sculpting the Elephant is set, in part, in Jericho where one of the main characters has an antiques business.

The band started up which got the place buzzing, a regular ‘coffee run’ to a local hostelry was established and, as lunchtimeJerichoBookFairPloughSign approached, various purveyors of food arrived.  We, on the other hand, headed off along the canal towpath to walk to Wolvercote and The Plough Inn, a walk of about an hour. We had worked up quite an appetite before we came upon a sign to our destination thoughtfully provided for folk doing just as we were. The Plough is an unusual pub in that it has its own library, which seemed very appropriate, (as well as providing good pub grub at modest prices and real ale). We sat outside, eating, drinking and watching the muntjac playing before returning to the Fair, where things were in full swing.

JerichoBookFairMeCroppedKaren, the young lady from Ghana doing work experience with Claret Press, looked like she was enjoying herself and sales were being made as people were swaying along to a set by a quartet playing guitar, banjo, mouth organ and drums. There was much chat about books, what people liked to read, what they were reading at the moment and what could be found on the other book stalls at the Fair. I did a final swing around the other stalls (spending even more money. but buying only useful things, of course) before it was time to start packing everything away and heading off to the little village of Kennington for an early supper.

Well fortified with curry and wine (save for our driver) we eventually set off, leaving the cityJerichoBookFairstalls of dreaming spires behind, to return to the Great Wen. It was on the outskirts of north London that we encountered a torrential storm, with cars aquaplaning across the traffic lanes and drivers electing to drive in single file around roundabouts. Anyone familiar with London drivers will realise just how severe the weather conditions must have been to prompt such behaviour. Nonetheless, I arrived home, tired but happy, as they say, and only a little wet from my dash to the front door.  I look forward to repeating the experience next year, when I want to go inside St Barnabas Church and explore the area rather more.

You can find all the Claret Press books on their website where they are available for purchase here .

Clapham Book Festival 2021

clapham book festivallogo2Clapham’s quirky and much-loved literary festival is back for 2021, taking place on 16 October. It will feature events in a variety of formats, including literary walks and livestreaming of events as well as the usual live author discussions. This year will also see a number of online literary events during the summer and autumn in the lead up to the event in October, which will be delivered in partnership with Time & Leisure Magazine.

Paula Johnson (Society of Authors, Associate Director Royal Society of Literature, Royal Literary Fund Trustee) has put the programme together, and will include literary walks, author talks, and will feature highly acclaimed authors including Sir Michael Morpurgo, and a host of new and established local authors.

Says Paula: “Bringing back the Festival after a year of lockdown, our programme kicks off at 2pm with guided walksAnnemarie Neary author pic around the literary sites of Clapham led by local authors, including the novelist and award-winning short story writer Annemarie Neary and crime fiction writer, Julie Anderson. Clapham has a long and illustrious literary history and this is a unique way of exploring it, but ticket numbers are limited so be sure to get yours early. Although we cannot be sure what level of restrictions will apply in October, if any, the walks will take place regardless of all but the strictest of lock-down circumstances.”

At 5:30pm, Sir Michael Morpurgo will be at Omnibus Theatre. The former children’s laureate, multiple award-winning author and creator of the world famous War Horse, will be discussing his new book When Fishes Flew and his life and work. This is a perfect event for all ages. At 7:30pm, Ben Macintyre, historian, biographer and columnist for The Times Ben Macintyre USE - credit Justine Stoddartnewspaper, will be discussing his most recent book Agent Sonya, a biography of Soviet agent, Ursula Kuszinsky and trading stories of legendary spies with local author and broadcaster Simon Berthon.

Come and meet the authors and have your books signed (authors’ works will be on sale at Omnibus thanks to the support of partner, local independent bookshop Clapham Books). There will also be live streaming of both performances, for those who cannot attend in person, with a copy of the author’s book included in the ticket price. Tickets for both types of event will be on sale at the start of September via Eventbrite, as well as for the literary walks.

The Book Festival will also be presenting a series of live author events and discussions online in partnership with TimeElizabeth Buchan author pic & Leisure Magazine. This is a new departure for the Festival. It will bring high quality author interviews, often with local authors or writers connected with Clapham and south London to a wider audience all year round. Panel discussions and conversations are planned. The first of these, with best-selling local author Elizabeth Buchan, whose new book Two Women of Rome was published in June, will be taking place on 28 July.  Elizabeth will be discussing her work, the settings for her books and the importance of history in her books. This is a free event to inaugurate the programme but please register at  Eventbrite here.

Australia 1992

…is the name of a free exhibition currently to be seen at Tate Modern. I went along to see it by chance, mainly because a friend let me know that she’d be up in town at relatively short notice, but I was very glad that I did.  I learned a lot, saw some fabulous art and appreciated again what a disaster colonialism was for just about everybody but Europeans ( particularly, but not exclusively, us Brits ).

Eddie Mabo1992 is an important year in Australian law and history because the High Court of Australia delivered a landmark ruling known as the ‘Mabo decision’. This overturned the legal concept of ‘terra nullius’ – land belonging to nobody – which was used to justify taking over the land, occupied for thousands of years by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, that subsequently became known as Australia. Eddie Koiki Mabo was a Torres Strait Islander, a Meriam man, who, along with other Islanders, filed a claim in the High Court for native title to portions of Mer Island. After ten years, on 3rd June 1992, the High Court found for Eddie, who had died of cancer five months earlier.  3rd June is celebrated as ‘Mabo Day’ in the Torres Strait Islands and there is an ongoing campaign to make it a national Australian holiday. This exhibition looks at artworks inspired by the relationship between land and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, sometimes created in response to land disputes and colonialism.

I was unaware of the sheer number of different groupings of Aboriginal people and Islanders in Australia, somethingAiatsis Map of Australia one sees at the very start of the exhibition on the Aitsis Map. I had understood a little about the connection between the Aboriginal people and the land, a reciprocal and custodial relationship. They do not ‘own’ it in the European sense of dividing and apportioning pieces of land, but have an ongoing cultural connection with it, which underpins their history, spiritual beliefs, language, lore, family and identity.  This is inherent in the art of contemporary artists like Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Dale Harding and John Mawurndjul ( I loved his woven female ancestor ).

I was also unaware that there was an Aboriginal flag!  It is red, black and gold and can be found in Gordon Bennett’s Possession Island ( Abstraction ) 1991, a reflection, from a different perspective, of the British history paintings depicting the raising of the Union Jack on the ‘virgin’ land. It is also, briefly, in the tall man, 2010 of Vernon Ah Kee, a video installation of great power which depicts in ‘documentary’ style the events on Palm Island, of Queensland, in November 2004, following the death in police custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee a local man. The police station, police barracks and local court house were burnt down.

a preponderance of aboriginal blood 2005 by Judy Watson born 1959

I was particularly impressed with Judy Watson’s series a   preponderance of aboriginal blood, 2005, above. This is a series of  reproductions of official documents and letters from the  Queensland State Archive, including electoral enrolment  statutes which excluded people with ‘a preponderance of  aboriginal blood’ from voting. It’s astonishing that these forms of institutional racism and discrimination continued until the 1960s. There were also some fine photographs from Tracy Moffatt in her Up in the Sky series from 1997 capturing the heat, dirt and poverty of an outback town, with references to the scandal of the ‘Stolen Generations’ which saw aborigine children removed from their parents and placed with white families. Although not displayed in any narrative order, these pictures clearly tell a story about that town and the people in it.

This exhibition is FREE and runs until Spring 2022. It is well worth seeing, though booking is, currently, required.

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.