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A Special Occasion

LaunchPic4The low, autumnal sunlight slanted across the churchyard of St Paul’s Church in Clapham on a beautiful September evening one week ago. Cars drew up to the church’s railings, people walked down the winding path to the heavy church doors and inside there was a buzz of anticipation of good entertainment to come. They were there to celebrate the launch of ‘Opera‘ the third in the Cassandra Fortune series of murder mysteries, together with the music of Puccini and Tosca in particular (the opera in ‘Opera‘). I was at the door to greet them.

Everything was prepared. The lighting was in place (it would be dark during the second half of theLaunchPic5 evening’s entertainment), the sound system was set up, the bar was stocked, staffed and ready to dispense and the Claret Press table was ready with signed books for sale. Programmes were handed out at the door. The church filled, gradually, with local friends, of the author or of the opera company, and with those from farther afield who had come to help celebrate. About a third of the crowd were probably also writers, many of them writers of crime fiction (see Anne Coates, author of the Hannah Weybridge mysteries, with Katie Isbester of Claret Press and myself, right). Other Claret authors, Steve Sheppard and Sylvia Vetta were there as well as reknown Clapham authors like Elizabeth Buchan. Clapham Book Festival friends were out in force, as were the members of the Clapham Writers Circle. In total there were between seventy and eight people in the beautiful church.

LaunchPic12 LaunchPic11    LaunchPic19

The evening began with an introduction, to Tosca and how it fits with ‘Opera‘, as well as reminiscences of his time in Rome, by Reverend Canon Jonathan Boardman, Vicar of St Paul’s. This led into two sublime arias sung by two young, but remarkable singers from St Paul’s Opera, accompanied by SPO Director of Music, Panaretos Kyriatzidis. First Vissi d’arte, sung by soprano Fiona Hymns, then El Lucevan le stelle sung by Latvian tenor, Martins Smaukstelis. I sat in the choir pews beside the altar and watched the faces of the audience. They were rapt. One could have heard a pin drop.

LaunchPic13Grand opera is always intense and these two arias especially so, so a lightening of the mood was required before the interval. This was provided by an ‘interruption’ by a police constable, PC Willis, who had just arrived from the Houses of Parliament (although dressed in pink). Bass baritone Masimba Ushe delivered the sentry’s song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe ‘When all night long, a chap remains…’ in sonorous and amusing fashion. Laughter heralded the interval, when everyone headed to the bar (where the barkeepers were kept very busy).

The second half of the evening was music-less, consisting of a Q & A session between Elizabeth Bergstone, former music broadcaster and Hollywood actress (and narrator of my first audiobook) and myself. Liz and I had prepared a broad outlineLaunchPic8 beforehand and I kept my answers short (as she had told me to, I tend to ramble). People seemed to enjoy it and, after questions from the floor, we ended to loud applause.

The bar stayed open (though it shifted into the church hall) and people stayed to drink wine, chat and buy books. There was quite a queue at the signing table for me to inscribe dedications and sign copies of the earlier books in the trilogy. We had, earlier, decorated the hall with LaunchPic1bunting made of the posters and other images of Tosca which I had been collecting for months before the book was published.

Eventually, folk started to drift away and a small army of helpers swung into action clearing up and returning church and hall to their earlier state. By nine fifteen it was as if we had never been there and everyone was ready for a pint and a curry. We repaired to Clapham High Street and the ever-dependable Maharani restaurant.

It was a tremendous evening – though an awful lot of work – and with very special support from TriciaLaunchPic9 Ninian and the singers of St Paul’s Opera, which made it unique. Many of those who attended spoke or wrote to me, telling me how much they enjoyed it. Plus, my publisher sold lots of my books. It was a spectacular way to launch a title and a very special occasion.

I, and others, will be back at St Paul’s on 14th October for the SPO Autumn Gala ‘Musical Mirth’ which kicks off the Clapham cultural weekend, as the Book Festival follows. on Saturday 15th. But I’ll be blogging about that soon enough.

‘Opera’ is on sale from Amazon at https://tinyurl.com/4u8twmz5 and all good book shops.

Publication Day for ‘Opera’

OperatabletbookcasesToday’s the day and ‘Opera’ is let loose upon the world.  There are, already, plenty of posts on social media – Twitter mainly, but Insta and old favourite, Facebook, too – I haven’t ventured into the unknown territory of Book-Tok or the dragon-lands of Twitch and Discord ( no, me neither ). Kelly Lacey at LoveBooksTours has organised the virtual book tour, which started today on Instagram.  Lots of lovely book bloggers, Bookstagrammers and Goodreads users are tweeting and retweeting about it, mainly congratulations, for which many thanks.

So far, people are saying very good things about the book and getting it’s title out there, something which is especially important to writers with no, or very small, publishers. Print reviews so far are limited to theClapSocNewletter Clapham Society Newsletter (circulation about 1,400) though I know there are a number of print critics who will be reviewing the book. These are in the regional press, or in literary publications, no national dailies ( without a prize listing or a shed load of publisher’s support, i.e. money, that is unlikely ). There are regional and local broadcast interviews lined up too, starting with Radio Tamworth ( Tamworth Books ) on Wednesday and following up with local radio here in south London.

Julie Anderson September 2022 Author Event INSTA & FACEBOOK STORY 1There are plenty of online events arranged and ‘Opera’ and I should be reaching audiences from Devon to the north of England, through regional library networks, like Devon or Staffordshire Libraries. I’ll also be doing some Festivals, live as well as virtual, not just the Clapham Book Fest, which takes place in October, but also Newcastle Noir ( 9th – 11th December ) as well, as, potentially, a number next year. Indeed my diary for 2023 is already being filled with online talks and discussions and live events, some of them for societies and clubs which I have visited before with ‘Plague’ or ‘Oracle’. I never imagined I would be doing quite so much.

Quotes from bloggers reviews include ‘If you are interested in political crime thrillers, this is a series you do not want to miss.’ and ‘I was going to read a bit of this book before I went to bed and ended up staying awake and finishing it.’ Both very good recommendations. A number also ask whether or not there will be a Cassandra Fortune Book IV. If you have enjoyed the series so far I can tell you that I have already mapped out the likely storyline for the next book, but there is something else I will be working on first ( watch this space for more news when it’s ready for the world ).

So, time to thank individuals, from Katie Isbester at Claret Press to my trusty beta readers, Miv, Annette,claretpress Helen and Sue ( they know who they are ). Also to my fellow authors who have been kind enough to wish me well on this Publication Day and to the bloggers and supporters, who, unpaid, contribute so much to the life of books. Finally thank you to my longsuffering husband, who cooks the meals and makes the tea while I am away in my head concocting yet another mystery.

Onwards and upwards!

Artists of Tosca

ToscaPremiereIn April of this year I posted a piece about images of Tosca ( see ‘The opera…‘) ranging from the first performances of Sardou’s play, through to modern productions of Puccini’s opera. Six months later, I have amassed quite a collection of images, posters mostly, for the opera, films of both opera and play and some ‘souvenir postcards’ of both too. I’ll be using them during the launch of ‘Opera’ in a couple of weeks time. The story has inspired some unusual art works from varied artists.

Tosca-PosterSprucePeakArtsThe artist most associated with Tosca, partly because he designed many posters for the Comedie Francais, where Bernhardt performed, and partly because his style is such a good example of Art Nouveau is probably Alphonse Mucha. Even the Hohenstein poster for the opera’s premiere in Rome in 1900 owed much to Mucha’s style. But his is not the only style which was copied and often other artist’s works were rifled for use on the posters. See the use of the Gustav Klimt’s ‘Judith’ in the poster for Middlebury Opera’s production (right) .

Tosca-puccini-polish-opera-posterI found a very striking poster from Poland, probably for a production by the opera company of the city of Bydgoszcz which was very reminiscent of the style of Frieda Kahlo (see left). It drew many comments on social media and divided people, they either loved or hated it.

Another Pole, surrealist artist and illustrator Rafal Olbinski, created a poster for the Cincinnatti Opera production (see below). He produced a series of posters of operas in the U.S. where he lives, often influenced by the works of Magritte. An American acquaintance pointed out that the Cincinnatti baseball team is called the Cincinnatti Reds and red is the dominantToscaRafal colour in the poster. I’m not sure if this was a sneaky subliminal message, but it is certainly surreal and I do not pretend to understand it, though it seems to be trying for an analysis of the opera at a subconscious level – Tosca pulling Cavaradossi’s strings.

Red, and black, are the colours most often used and Tosca herself is the character who appears most often. The film posters tend towards a rather more lurid style, but then they had to compete with other film posters of the time, which aimed to shock and entice an audience into the cinema. Predictably, they tend to focus on the scene in which Baron Scarpia persuades Tosca to agree to his physical demands in return for her lover’s ToscaMovieRossanoBrazzilife, so there are plenty of leering Scarpias and retreating, suffering Toscas, though often clutching a dagger. The Italian ones are even more lurid than the Hollywood ones ( I suspect because Hollywood treated it as ‘high art’ ), but here is a more restrained offering – ‘The tragic love of Floria Tosca and Mario Cavaradossi commemorated in the immortal melodies of G. Puccini’. The director, ‘Carlo Koch’ is actually the noted German art historian and film director, Karl Koch, who undertook the film in 1939, jointly with Jean Renoir, at Mussolini’s invitation. Koch was Renoir’s assistant on Le Regle de JeuTosacEchoChernikConnecticut and Renoir was instrumental in getting Koch out of Germany in 1936. Renoir eventually withdrew from the film, but Koch completed it, together with his assistant, one Luchino Visconti. Incidentally Koch and his wife  settled in Barnet, north London once the war ended.

More modern posters reference the dagger, blood, sex, Castel Sant’Angelo and the twin candles at the head of Scarpia’s body as well as the main three characters. One of the more recent posters turns us back, full circle, to the style of Alphonse Mucha. This is by Echo Chernik, a noted commerical artist and illustrator who regularly adopts Mucha’s style. She created this poster (right) for Connecticut Opera’s 66th Anniversary performance of the opera.

More on Tosca images in a later post.

Tosca Variations

The publication day of ‘Opera’ grows ever closer (5th September) and so does the date of the launch. InToscaPerfumeCasamorati preparation I’ve been collecting and sharing images relating to Tosca for some months and I plan to use them at the launch event. These range from copies of the original posters for the premieres of both the play by Victorien Sardou, in Paris in 1887 and Puccini’s opera in Rome in 1900, through to film posters of the 1970s and modern posters for productions of the opera. In the course of searching for these images, however, I have discovered that ‘Tosca’ is also the name given, presumably in honour of the diva and Puccini, to a number of other items, including several types of perfume, at least two cars and a cocktail.

ToscaPerfume4711The Tosca Eau de Parfum can still be bought today for £16.74 and accompanied by shower gel, deodorant and moisturiser in the same fragrance. There is also an extremely expensive version by Xerjoff Casamorati, available from Harrods – a snip at £81.95 for 30ml (see above). It seems that the original perfume was created by Farina 4711 and vintage bottles are now  traded on ebay and etsy (see left).  The very expensive, bright pink/purple bottle of the Xerjoff is much less attractive, to my eye, but it is certainly distinctive. I have yet to discover why it was designed as it was.

As regards the cars – the Lamborghini Tosca is just what you’d expect, something sleek, elegant andToscaCar1 fast ( and, in most of the images I could find, red, which continues a colour theme found in the Tosca opera posters. More of a surprise is that it is a hybrid with a traditional V10 engine, as well as electric batteries. Even Italian super cars are going green these days. Just as surprising is the La Tosca, a 1955 concept car from Ford. It was designed to be remote controlled, so is driverless and in that is very modern, but it has the sort of design which owes much to aircraft and was thought to ToscaCarV2be ‘space age’ at the time. The pictures of it that I have seen show a car which seems to float above the ground with huge wing fins, a plexi-glass bubble over the passenger compartment and an exhaust which looks like a jet engine. The car is often a bubblegum pink, which makes me think of a sort of very sporty version of Lady Penelope’s Rolls Royce from Thunderbirds.  This was the Ford La Tosca, an actual car, though it was never put into production.

The Tosca cocktail might prove easier to afford, even than the lower cost perfume. It was designed for theTosca-cocktail 2019 production of Tosca at La Scala, Milan and was served in Il Foyer bar there. It is made with the south American spirit, Mezcal, two types of Martini (we are in Italy after all) elderflower foam and, to dress, tomato powder and chilli pepper. If it appeals you can find the recipe here.

I have, however, invented my own cocktail, mainly for the launch event, but also because I rather prefer fizz-based cocktails. It is also more representative, for me, of opera in general. My Tosca themed drink contains 70% fizz (Champagne, Prosecco or Cava, depending on the depth of your pocket), 30% fresh blood orange juice, a sprig of fresh rosemary and a slice of blood orange. The rosemary gives it an aroma and a slightly perfumed taste. Try it.

Reframed: The Woman in the Window

…is the title of a current exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery which looks at the ‘window portraits’ ofTheWomanin6 women through the ages. I went along yesterday and found it informative and interesting. It’s a small exhibition which considers an enduring subject, the presentation of a female likeness looking out of a window, sometimes directly at the viewer, sometimes not. Women have often been represented like this, usually by men, for various purposes, the sacred, the profane, the decorative or the titillating. I was hard pressed to think of more than one or two examples where men were represented in this way.

The exhibition begins in ancient Greece with a tiny, ancient sculpture of a female head (no sign of a body) in what we are told is a temple window. Beside it a Greek wine krator shows a rather inebriated-looking TheWomanin5man climbing a ladder to present apples to a woman in a window, probably a hetaira or courtesan. The fun times in the ancient world give way during the medieval period to the discouraging of looking at women, in the window or elsewhere, for fear of arousal and sin.  In this period the ‘woman’ is the Madonna (see by Dirk Bouts left) in her role as the ‘window to heaven’, a symbolic window at her back. Or the saint suffering for her faith (a striking and slightly unsettling stone bas relief/sculpture of an incarcerated woman pressing her face against the bars of her cell). Moving on to the Renaissance and non-divine women are the subjects again – I was particularly struck by the Botticelli (his ‘line’ is always mesmerising). Through the Dutch interiors, showing women if not through windows then beside them, playing instruments, reading letters; then to the wonderful Rembrandt of an un-named young  woman who leans out of the canvas in all her human glory (see above right).

There was an English interior ‘The Kitchen’ by Isabel Codrington (right) and a  square-jawed Rossetti woman, aTheWomanin4 Degas and a Sickert, but the exhibition didn’t follow a linear timeline, interspersing modern works with the old. Some of these were more successful than others. Some were interesting – the ‘swap’ of poses and locations, between a female photographer and a female prostitute (I cannot remember the name of the photographer, which is annoying). Both women looked very much at home in their new personas.

There was David Hockney’s Rapunzel – the only element visible at the window being the hair, a Whiteread window cast and a real  Bourgeois window frame, looking out onto an abstract view (the viewer looking out, being the substitute for the ‘woman’ in this one). I liked ‘Hand’ by Andrew Jackson (2017) a very paintily photograph with soft, muted, pastel tones in the background, showing a woman, sharply focused, The Womanin1being beckoned forward by a faceless man in a car and rejecting his summons by holding up her palm.  This, like the Codrington, with its dead hen and half drunk bottle of what looks like vodka, was a story in a picture, or many possible stories. There were some beautifully staged photographs, the woman reading a letter (an eviction notice, it is mounted in a frame next to the photograph) which echoed those Dutch interiors and a super Australian piece ‘The Apartment’ showing two women in a domestic scene overlooking an industrial harbour – its perspective was remarkable.

Definitely worth a visit, the exhibition runs until 4th September, so get in quick! It costs £15 (£8 concessions).

City of Music

20220727_212725I know that there is always music to be found in Jerez de la Frontera. Usually it’s of the flamenco variety, but I have, in the past, happened across 13th century song cycles, jazz, classical, modern tribute bands (hearing ‘Radio Gaga’ resounding from the walls of the ancient Alcazar some years ago was quite something) and world music. This summer is no exception with a range of concerts, sometimes free, sometimes charged for, in some spectacular locations. July saw ‘Baile’ a series of flamenco dance performances in the 13th century Claustros de Santo Domingo and ‘Mima’ or Musicas Improvisadas En El Museo Arquelogico in the eponymous  museum. I caught the wonderful jazz trio Nocturno on a sultry Wednesday night playing their own compositions, inspired by the night and Frankenstein. The music was stupendous. I wondered what Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would have made20220727_223311 of it, I’d like to think that, free thinker as she was, she would have enjoyed it as much as the audience did. Afterwards, given the temperature, musicians and audience spent the next hour or so in the Plaza Mercado (the old Moorish market place, which features in my novel Reconquista ) drinking excellent wine.

Two other series continue into August – ‘Viernes Flamenco’, with some tremendous musicians, David Carpio and Manuel Valencia to name but two, again in the Claustros and ‘Noches de Bohemia’, likewise. I was annoyed to have missed the sublime-voiced David Lagos in the latter, but I did catch the Raul Rodriguez Trio with special guest kora player, Sirifo Kouyate. On Saturday evening the set included music 20220730_215349part-flamenco-part-arabian (you could say the first comes from the second anyway), modern rock-style electric guitar and the wonderfully fluid arpeggios of the kora.  These concerts run into the 55th Fiesta de la Buleria de Jerez, a stunning series of gala concerts with the cream of flamenco performers – Manuel Lignan, Gema Moneo, David Carpio, Antonio El Pipa, Manuela Carrasco and more. The buleria was invented in Jerez, it is very rapid and complex, with demanding changes in rhythm for all performers. Guitarists consider it possibly the most virtuosic of the soleas.  Lively and intense, it is also great fun, often performed at parties and as a dance at the end of a show, when all the performers (not just the dancers) join in. With origins in the nineteenth century it was popularised outside of Jerez and other corners of Andalucia in the twentieth century by ‘cross-over’ artists like the guitarist Paco de Lucia and singer Camaron. Still going strong, it is celebrated annually in Jerez, just before the beginning of the vendimia, the wine harvest. This, and the other series of concerts have been augmented by free concerts and dance performances in Plaza Ascuncion, in front of the 13th century church of San Dionysio and the neo-classical town hall.

Then, of course, from September there is the Autumn programme at the Teatro Villamarta. No matter what time of year song, dance and melodies are always to be found in Jerez, city of music. Here is a snatch of a buleria played by a master… watch those fingers.

There’s something fishy going on…

in the village of Loxford, as the village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations and the election ofAlbert_Herring_Flyer_Front_07.06 the May Queen. But there’s not a virtuous maid to be found. Shock, horror! Too many have erred ( being seen ‘out after dusk’, or ‘wearing short skirts’ ). So a King of the May is preferred, the virtuous (and virginal) Albert Herring.

Benjamin Britten’s satirical comic opera ‘Albert Herring’ finds its latest incarnation as St Paul’s Opera Summer opera festival which opened last night at St Paul’s Church, Clapham.  It was great fun.

The church and grounds were pretty in pink, reflecting the opera staging and design ( by Petya Tsankova, the graphic designer who also designs the covers for my books ). It was a gorgeous summer’s evening and the grounds were full with opera-going picnickers.

AlbertHerringPerf3We filed inside, carrying cushions ( those pews can be unforgiving  to the rear end ) to find the colour scheme continued. The musical director and conductor, Panaretos Kyriadzidis took up his position, with pianist Francesca Lauri and the story began.  Florence Pike (mezzo, Natasha Elliott), housekeeper to Lady Billows (soprano, Charlotte Brosnan) was preparing milady’s parlour for the meeting of the May Day committee – Miss Wordsworth (soprano, Anna Marmion), mayor Mr Gedge (baritone, Adam Brown), vicar Upfold (tenor, Peder Holterman) and Superintendent Budd (bass, Masimba Ushe) to choose the May Queen.

Mr G, it is clear, rather fancies Miss W, whereas the vicar has other ideas entirely. The policemen isAlbertHerringPerf1 sensible, if ponderous and all defer to milady, who is ‘overbearingly enthusiastic’ (as described by Britten and his librettist, Eric Crozier). Yet Albert (tenor, Hugh Benson) is decided not upper class, being the greengrocer’s son and neither are his friends, Sid, the butcher’s boy (baritone, Alfred Mitchell) and Nancy, his girlfriend (mezzo, Megan Baker). One of the delights of this opera is the demotic, everyday language which Britten insisted upon. It is used well and wittily – after his night of debauchery which the May King prize money affords him, Albert thanks the shocked villagers ‘And I’d like to thank you all, for giving me the wherewithal.’

AlbertHerringProg1The opera is funny and this production is full of energy, verve and wit. The audience become participants, urged, at specific moments to rise for Lady Billows (as if in church) or to applaud.  There are ‘Missing Person’ handbills circulated and beach balls thrown. Throughout, however, the music is spikily superb. Another great success for St Paul’s Opera and a triumphant excursion outside their usual repertoire. The auditorium was almost full last night and the next two night’s are sold out completely.

The performance was also special because it allowed those young singers who were understudying a part to take centre stage (although some of the singers would be appearing through out). This is all of a piece with St Paul’s stated aim to give the opportunity to perform to as many young singers as they can. They were excellent, as, I’m sure, the others will be too. If you can get hold of a ticket, I urge you to do so.

N.B. Some of the photographs attached to this article are taken from the St Pauls’ website and do not necessarily represent those performing last night. I must also declare an interest – as a supporter of SPO – you can see the cover of Opera in the programme above.

Only connect…

…is the famous phrase in E.M.Forster’s ‘Howard’s End’. I thought of the line yesterday when visiting TateSickertPainting1 Britain’s Summer exhibition on Walter Sickert (1860 -1942). A pupil of James Macneill Whistler, friend of Edgar Degas and member of the New English Art Club as well as founding member of the Camden Town Group, Sickert seems to have been the most connected of painters.  Forster was twenty years younger (1879 – 1970 ) and, similarly, a member of groups, in his case, the Apostles and then the Bloomsbury Group. Forster went on to pre-eminence, rather more than Sickert did, although the visual artist’s influence is felt, as the exhibition demonstrates, on generations of later painters, especially in England.

SickertPainting3The exhibition is also good in showing the young Sickert’s obvious admiration for both his teacher and for Degas. He attempts drawing in Whistler’s style and paints seascapes and urban landscapes and, later in life, attempts the unusual compositional style of Degas. The latter is most evident in the  perspectives in pictures, like Trapeze ( so very close to Degas’ Miss La La at the Cirque FernandoDegaspainting ) and the subject matter – the circus, the music hall and the demi-monde of Paris and London. When considering the paintings, comparisons favour the Frenchman ( and, indeed, the American ) in my view. That said, Sickert  produced some wonderful art, very much in his own style. I especially liked his music hall paintings, where the effects of light and the gilded, glistening interiors of the theatres are captured so well. I also enjoyed his urban landscapes.

I liked that he looked at and painted the audience as often as he painted those performing, especially the Gallery paintings, which show the crowds in ‘the gods’ reacting to those below. 20220704_170357He chose to paint the music hall, rather than the more prestigious venues and concentrated on ordinary urban life, purchasing studios in the 1890s and early 1900s in working class areas the better to draw and paint everyday existence. I also like his way with a single light source, in evidence in the ‘music hall’ pictures but also in little gems like The Acting Manager, a small sketch for a larger painting, found near the beginning of the exhibition.

I hadn’t realised what a writerly artist Sickert was, with his critical writings for various publications and his championing of young artists, including Lucien Pissaro ( son of Camille ), Jacob Epstein, Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis before the outbreak of World War One. He set up the Camden Town Group in the area where he lived and worked from the mid 1900s and these artists, together with others, like Sylvia Gosse, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman created a documentary realist style.  This was certainly the style of his own Camden Town Murders paintings, renamed after sensationalist and prurient newspaper interest in a somewhat tawdry murder. They originally had sadder and more thoughtful names, like What Shall We Do for the Rent? but were depictions of female nudes with fully or partly clothed men. 

20220704_170514I liked the solo nudes of ordinary women, often middle-aged and recumbent in non-classical poses, which, clearly, were influential upon later artists, most notably Lucien Freud. Sickert’s heavy impasto style is a forerunner of Bomberg, Auerbach and Gerhardt Richter. I also enjoyed his later paintings with more use of colour, like Brighton Pierrots and his interest in using photographs and photography in his art. In the twenties Sickert mentored and championed the artists in the East London Group; often untutored, working class individuals with little formal education. He encouraged and showed alongside them.

Unfortunately, I gleaned little about the man from this exhibition. It was onlySickertPainting4 when researching this article that I discovered the generous patron, the committed supporter of the working class and documentary realism, the teacher ( at Westminster, where David Bomberg was one of his pupils ) and, ultimately, the establishment man – he was President of the Royal Society of British Artists and a Royal Academician, though, typically, he resigned his RA status on a point of principle. I had thought of Sickert as a flamboyant, self-publicising former actor, now I think of him as a guiding force, a helping hand to modern British painting. I don’t know why the exhibition didn’t bring that out more. Perhaps there was a reluctance to focus on the man – in the past much has been made of Sickert’s own interest in Jack the Ripper and Patricia Cornwell’s claim that he was the infamous Jack. Perhaps the curators wanted to concentrate instead on the paintings – entirely understandable.

This is an exhibition worth going to, but I suggest that, if, like me, your knowledge of Sickert is superficial, you read a little about him before you go. The exhibition runs until 18th September, tickets cost £18.

Not a red herring…

Albert_Herring_Insight_Event_Flyer_Front_D3… but rather Albert Herring, by Benjamin Britten. This year’s Summer Opera from St Paul’s Opera Company, Clapham. Last night was the ‘Insight’ evening, designed to introduce the opera to those who may not know it and to stimulate discussion among those who did. I learned a lot.

Our guide was Christopher Wintle, emeritus member of King’s College, London and one of the leading authorities on the works of Benjamin Britten. He talked us through the genesis of the opera and it’s journey to full performance at Glyndebourne on 20 June 1947. It was the librettist, Eric Crozier who suggested to Britten that he base his new work on a Guy de Maupassant story Le Rosier de Madam Husson, but set it in the Suffolk which Britten knew well. Britten had already decided to write a comedy, after having written hischristopherwintle serious piece The Rape of Lucretia. Albert Herring a chamber opera in three acts, was the result.

The opera examines the social attitudes and foibles in a small Suffolk village as Albert is crowned King of the May ( the village having failed to find a May Queen, because of an apparent lack of virtuous maidens ). Characters range from Lady Billows, lady of the manor, to her housekeeper Florence Pike. The obviously virginal Albert works at the greengrocer’s and is befriended by butcher Sid and his girlfriend, Nancy. The language is colloquial and sometimes earthy, as the hen-pecked Albert, permanently under the thumb of his mother, decides to kick over the traces ( with a little help from a nip of something strong slipped into his drink by Sid ). Off he heads, with his prize money, for a night of drink and debauchery.

BBrittenThe following morning, with Albert missing, the villagers discover his May crown in the well and everyone is thrown into mourning. In its midst Albert turns up, rather the worse for wear and thanks the village committee for funding his night of pleasure. All are, needless to say, outraged, but Albert carries it off, standing up to his mother in the process.  The opera was an immediate success, receiving performances in the U.S., Copenhagen, Oslo and Moscow. It has since been performed all over the world.

The subject is humorous and light-hearted, but the music is complex and Britten includes references to various other works, including Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. We were treated to a selection of songs, sung by Natasha Elliott (Florence), Rosalind O’Dowd (Lady Billows), Megan Baker (Nancy) and Hugh Benson (Albert Herring) and then a very interesting round table discussion between ChristopherStPauls Wintle, Panaretos Kyriatzidis (musical director of St Paul’s Opera) and Annemiek van Elst (Director of Albert Herring) facilitated by Jonathan Boardman. The evening closed with questions from the audience (which could have gone on for far longer ). Sadly, dusk had well and truly fallen and the evening drew to a close.

St Paul’s Opera Summer performances of Albert Herring will take place at St Paul’s, Clapham from 7 – 9th July. Come along and picnic first in the delightful grounds. Opera tickets £18 – £30, picnic tables £5 – £10.

National Crime Reading Month

NCRM-2022-banner-300x160The Crime Writers Association, in partnership with The Reading Agency, is sponsoring National Crime Reading Month in June. There will be a fabulous launch at Waterstones, Piccadilly on 1st June (I’ll be posting photographs) and a whole tranche of events are already scheduled (see link). It is hoped that more will follow, in local libraries and book groups and the CWA has listed crime writers ready and willing to participate in said events on the crimereading.com web-site.

Here in south London one of the NCRM local Ambassadors, Anne Coates, is teaming up with fellow south Londoner, Alice Castle and myself to produce ‘Sister Sleuths’. Each of us has books set in London, oftenSister Sleuths2 south London – Clapham in my case, where Cassandra Fortune lives, Dulwich, home of Hannah Weybridge in Anne’s series and Dulwich, Herne Hill and Belsize Park, among others, for Beth Haldane in Alice’s. The tales range across the capital, taking in Westminster, Theatreland, Fleet Street and the yummy mummy nappy valleys of south London as well as rather less salubrious locations, like King’s Cross and Elephant and Castle.

As you can see all our protagonists are women, hence the name. Cassandra is a civil servant, Hannah an investigative journalist and Beth an office worker; two of them are single mums. All of them get drawn into investigations by circumstances (though Cassie is more than willing in Plague, in order to get her career back on track).

ClaphamBooksLogoFirst stop on the ‘Sister Sleuths’ tour is at Clapham Books on 8th June, doors open at 6.30pm for a 7 o’clock start, later in the month we’ll be at Chener Books, on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich and, it is planned, more south London venues (details will be available on the Events page of this site). The events will be free to attend and should be fun. Anne’s Hannah Weybridge series which started with a tale inspired by Anne’s real-life journalism in Dancers in the WindChenerBooks is already five books long and Alice’s Beth Haldane (and her on-off boyfriend DI Harry York) has appeared in even more, beginning with Death in Dulwich. I am lagging behind with only two, though that will be increased in the Autumn when Opera, the third Cassandra Fortune is published.

I’ll also be speaking about researching both Plague and Oracle at the Riverside Book Club in Sunbury on Thames on 16th June. It is a long-standing date in the diary, but, as serendipity would have it, now part of NCRM. There will almost certainly be an event near you, across the country. But the idea behind NCRM is to encourage readers to create events for themselves and, at time of writing, the site currently includes over sixty crime writers of different types and sub-genres ( a figure that will grow as June approaches ) who are prepared to participate in these events. The website includes tips and hints on organising and promoting events, together with NCRM literature and templates. So contact your local library or book group and suggest an event. Or come along to one of mine.