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 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.

A Salutary Tale

SundayTimesdebaucheryheadlineToday’s news media is full of stories about the casual misogyny and sexually predatory culture of the Palace of Westminster ( not just the Commons, though that features more often than the Lords ). This isn’t new. When I was writing Plague (Claret Press, 2020) I was taken to task by one of the readers of an early manuscript. She commented on my depiction of a male dominated, testosterone fuelled, hard drinking place, in which women MPs were treated as decorative, or routinely verbally abused and female civil servants and Parliamentary researchers ‘fair game’, saying it was incorrect to such a degree that no one would believe it in the twenty-first century. I begged to differ.

If you haven’t read Plague, be prepared for some spoilers, courtesy of the newspapers.

Of course, not all male, or female, MPs and Peers behave in such an ante-diluvian fashion, but there is aSunday Postdebauchery significant minority who do, as recently confirmed by the current, female, Attorney General, and witness the recent resignation of Neil Parish. The Palace is an unique and strange workplace, with MPs often far from home and under tremendous pressure, from their peers as well as the Whips. There is many an decent, family man (and they do tend to be men, but this isn’t exclusively male) in his constituency who lives a rather different life in Westminster. The ready availability of alcohol (or the stimulant of your choice) doesn’t help either. Catherine Bennett’s article in today’s Observer newspaper lists some examples from the Tory benches (see here).

Believe it or not, television in the chamber and the increasing number of women in Parliament has meant some improvement. Gone are the days when there was no debating cut-off time and the bars would be open (and full) until one or two in the morning, when MPs would spill out (sometimes quite literally) into the chamber to vote. It was a very tough woman who survived in that environment, though they have to be tough today too – witness the torrent of abuse poured on an MP like Diane Abbott. One of my villains is an MP who routinely regards women as prey and another a Lord who aids and abets him.

Cover_Template.inddBut back to Plague. We have been here before, when the media, or those parts of it more interested in fact than propaganda, reported on the scandals around PPE (and other) contracts handed, without competition, to cronies and the special ‘VIP lane’ of government procurement. There have been successful court cases branding the behaviour of the government unlawful.

The syphoning of money from the public purse into the pockets of cronies and allies via large government contracts is one constituent part of my villain’s modus operandi. My publishers even made a podcast programme about it COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism, which is still available, because the parallels were so obvious. Said villain has made a fortune in the City, he talks about the power of money and the super wealthy using the City to launder ill-gotten gains and buy up property. One of his international associates is a Russian oligarch in London.

Thus far the only other major element in the crime plot of Plague which hasn’t made the headlines is the murders (no one would want that to be real). Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on my heroine’s view of the Palace of Westminster when considering this weekend’s stories. I suspect there’s more to come.

Whitehall lay in front of them. At its far end, she saw the Palace of Westminster. The Elizabeth Tower was still shrouded in scaffolding, obscuring the clock face. Green netting was wound around the west face of St Stephen’s Porch. What else enmeshed the Palace and those within it? Had the corruption already taken hold, bringing its odour as surely as the subterranean Tyburn, flowing beneath it, brought the stench of putrefaction?

The opera…

… is Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini.In my forthcoming thriller, Opera, characters go to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to a Gala performance. So, not only have I been seeking out performances of Tosca (see Shivering in the Park with Tosca  ) but also imagesTosacSarahBernhardt2 connected with it.

To begin with the original play, La Tosca, by Victorien Sardou, which premiered in 1887, starring Sarah Bernhardt as the diva. Bernhardt often appeared in Sardou’s historical dramas and they were always promoted using posters by Alphonse Mucha, usually depicting Bernhardt herself. But here she is (left) standing over the prone body of the evil chief of the secret police, Baron Scarpia, on a postcard. Postcards like these were relatively recent innovations and very popular at the time.

Bernhardt toured with La Tosca, across Europe and the Americas, to great acclaim, but today the play has largely been forgotten, other than as the original upon whichTosca_poster(1899) Puccini’s opera was based. The first performance of the opera was in 1900 in Rome and the poster was by Adolfo Hohenstein who also designed the stage sets. It is very much in the Art Noveau style of Mucha and features the same scene as the Bernhardt postcard, a scene which was to feature again and again in images of the opera. The pious Tosca sets candles at the head of the Baron, whom she has just killed ( in self-defence, as he has just tried to rape her ) and places a crucifix on his chest.

When Tosca was first performed it wasn’t that well received by the critics, although the public loved, and continues to love, it. This divergence has continued, to an extent, with the American musicologist Joseph Kerman calling it a ‘shabby little shocker’ in the 1950s. Its continuing success with audiences, conductors and performers has, to an extent silenced the nay-sayers, but it is sometimes still regarded as too florid, melodramatic and insufficiently high-minded.

ToscaNakedMany of the more modern images are explicit about the subject matter and the link the opera makes between sex and death (see left). The dagger is a recurring motif, as is blood – red is the most popular colour. The Castel Sant’Angelo appears too. Tosca herself, as in Bernhardt’s time, is often the the central image, although other posters prefer to concentrate on Scarpia, like that for Florida State Opera (right). Only a few depict Cavaradossi, the hero. Ordinarily one might say that this is an example of ToscaFloridaState ‘the devil has all the best tunes’, except that in the opera itself, it is the tenor arias, belonging to Cavaradossi, which are most memorable.

So, aside from a performance occurring in Opera what else does Tosca have in common with my book? First, the action of it, like the opera is set in close to ‘real time’ and in ‘real places’. Tosca was unusual for an opera in that it was set on specific days, the afternoon and evening of 17th and the morning of 18th of June, 1800. In it, the forces of repression, including Baron Scarpia, believe that Napoleon has been defeated at the battle of Marengo, on June 14th, only for news to arrive that, in fact, there was a rearguard action and Napoleon prevailed. Good news for Cavarodossi, the democrat and his lover, Floria Tosca. There is an ongoing battle in Opera, but it isn’t of the traditional sort.

Opera is also about democracy under attack and it too involves the world of spies and secret police. My heroine, Cassandra has to confront her own Baron Scarpia. More on the parallels in a later post.

Opera will be published by Claret Press on 5th September 2022.

Gift Box

PrincessMary'sBox1A metal box, that’s all it is. Not precious metal either, probably brass, at least that’s how it looks when polished, though bits are silver in colour, so it could possibly be tin or another alloy. Approximately 130 centimetres across, 85 from front edge to back and 30cm/1 inch deep, it would fit in a uniform pocket.

On the lid is a portrait in relief of a young woman’s head, hair swept up , within a wreathe of laurel and flanked by a scrolled letter ‘M’ on each side. This represents Princess Mary, the then seventeen-year-old daughter of King George V who launched an appeal in October 1914 to raise money for the ‘Soldiers and Sailors Christmas Fund’, or so the advertisements in the British press of the time described it.

PrincessMary'sBox3£152, 691 was raised and manufacturing of the boxes began. Although originally meant for ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’ on Christmas Day 1914, this was widened to include anyone serving, wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day. About 400,000 were distributed before or at Christmas, though the tally eventually reached 2.5 million, although many of those weren’t distributed until 1920, after the war was over. ‘Serving’ is appropriate, as I remember, as a child, a  ‘christmas box’ was something given to tradespeople, postmen, anyone who had served you well during the year preceding.

The British class system meant that officer’s boxes were made of silver, while other ranks received brass boxes, although, as the numbers grew and the money ran low, later boxes were made from tin or alloys. The design on the lid was the same for all the boxes, featuring military weapons, an axe and a sword across the top, pikes down the sides and, just to prove that Britannia ruled the waves, two gun ships across the bottom. At the four corners and in line with the image of Princess Mary to the side are six shields, each bearing the name of an ally. France and Russia take pride of place with the princess, while Belgium, Japan, Montenegro and Servia (Serbia) are in the four corners. The last two, plus Belgium, probably represented the initial theatres of the war. Above Princess Mary is a shield bearing the words PrincessMary'sBox2‘Imperium Britannicus’ and below her a lozenge bearing the inscription ‘Christmas 1914’.

The tins contained, typically, an ounce of tobacco, a packet of cigarettes in a yellow, monogrammed wrapper, a cigarette lighter, a Christmas card and a photograph from Princess Mary. Some also contained chocolate and sweets. Needless to say the contents has long since disappeared, but it probably brought some pleasure to its recipient.

The box was given to me recently by a friend, a soldier who had served for years at the Embassy in Islamabad. Pakistan is, I am told, full of such remnants of empire, military memorabilia from bygone ages available to buy in the bazaars for very little. It was a very lovely gift, a small piece of history, with many resonances, some tragic and heroic, some less laudible, like Britain’s colonial past, but I was very grateful to receive it.

Nights on the town

From Brixton to Pimlico, I’ve been having some unusual writerly fun out and about recently.

BrixtonBookJamAllFirst at the famed Brixton Book Jam held at the Hootananny, Brixton. I’d never been to the Book Jam and was surprised when a friend and fellow writer remarked on how scary it was. The Hootananny is, I discovered, a live music venue, a big room with a full height stage, sound system and spotlights. Suddenly I understood what she meant. On a freezing Monday night in March it seemed very daunting. There was a mixed line-up of writers. I got there early and sat chatting to one of the most experienced performers, Paul Eccentric and his wife Donna Ray. They were live Festival veterans (seven Glastonburys) on the poetry circuit, Paul being half of the Antipoet. The other half, a bassist, came along to watch.

The really enjoyable part of appearing was the chatting with the other writers in the Green Room off to the right of the stage, a Hootananny Brixton GreenRoom fabulous side room wall-papered with posters of previous performers. It’s terrifically nostalgic and much time was spent spotting bands we recognised or knew from more youthful days. Zelda Rhiando, herself a published writer and the organiser of the Jam, was there to calm our nerves and point out the beers in the little fridge and the bottles of wine. I swore not to touch a drop before I went on.

I was not, I discovered, the only one with nerves, yet all of us were used to discussing books, our own and others’ in public. It was that high stage, the single mic and the coloured spotlights (which ran the whole spectrum) which looked so terrifying. The hall was filling up and Zelda said we were off. The first writer’s hands were shaking as he waited at the foot of the stairs to the stage. I was on fourth, to end the first set before the interval and I managed. I even got a laugh at my wry comment at the beginning about my cardigan. Phew, it was over. A big glass of wine later I was back in the Green Room to support the others. Ashley, West and Zelda were all  tremendous.

Millbank1Brixton Book Jam was not my only interesting night on the town. Only three days later I attended the first meeting of the London chapter of the Crime Writer’s Association since before the pandemic. Held in the fantastic Morpeth Arms on Millbank a great group of fellow scribes chatted books, publishers, contracts, remuneration and anything else we fancied. Then Anthony, intrepid manager of the pub, asked if we would like a ‘tour’. A tour of what? It transpired that the public house had used to stand adjacent to the notorious Millbank Prison and that, beneath the ground, elements leading to that place still existed. Down steep stairs and beyond the barrels and machinery we entered a long corridor with archways on one side. The corridor had once been open to the air, the dividing line between prison and pub.

At the end of the corridor was a dark arch leading to a tunnel. This was the route used to bring convictsMillbank2jpg out of the prison down to the prison hulks moored on the Thames. They would then be removed to the transportation ships bound for Australia. The pub was, Anthony informed us, one of the most haunted in London. But the writers’ imaginations were already hard at work and one of us was already speculating aloud about a crime plot using the tunnels. This is, I guess, the sort of thing that happens when a group of Crime Writers gets together. I’ll be looking forward to the next meeting.

Writers appearing in the photos on this blog are, from the top, left to right, Just Dennis, Paul Eccentric, Leo Moynihan, Paul Bassett Davies, me, Ashley Hickson Lovence, West Camel and Zelda Rhiando. Subterranean we are Victoria Dowd, Matthew Ross, Jonathan Rigby and Anne Coates. The hands belong to Vaseem Khan. Thanks to Katie Allen for the multiple pic.

The Art of Stonehenge

The British Museum’s blockbuster Spring exhibition is ‘The World of Stonehenge’ and it is superb. Covering not just the enormous and iconic Wiltshire monument itself, but the society which built it and those which preceded and followed it, I found this informative, surprising and I’m going back to see it again.

Stonehenge8I hadn’t appreciated the level of sophistication of the dwellers in this land from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago. The world-view of the earliest, revolving around nature and the seasons, like many hunter-gatherer people, was shared across northern Europe. Of course, until about 6500 BCE and the rising of post Ice Age sea levels, the UK was part of the landmass of that continent. Although subsequently an island archipelago, the peoples who lived here had regular contact with their counterparts on the mainland. This can be seen in their art and craftwork, but also measured by their DNA. One of the most striking examples of this was of the Amesbury Archer. Bones belonging to this man, buried with his bow, were DNA tested. He was originally from the southern Alpine region, though he had lived in southern England for most of his life. Near his grave is that of another, younger man who shares the first’s DNA and is likely to have been his grandson. This man was born and lived most of his life in the Alps, but he was clearly in Amesbury when he met his end. A family visit? Or did the grandson come to live with his grandparents?

Some of the earliest artefacts, the axe and maceheads dating from 3000 to 3500 BCE, are some of the mostStonehenge3 beautiful. Perfectly carved and turned stones, with elaborate patterning, these weren’t to be used for everyday, but were ceremonial and included in burials. I was fascinated by one aspect of that early culture, that ‘art’ lay in the act of creation, not, or not only, in the item produced by it. Thus, things did not have the same value as the ability to create them, which seems an eminently sensible value system to me. There is also a wonderful, finely wrought golden collar from this era. Gold was used, not because it had any intrinsic value, but because it was the colour of and reflected the light from, the sun.

Stonehenge7The exhibition explains, through artefacts, how that culture changed, with the introduction of farming and a concentration on animals and other aspects of nature as a commodity. Art was still relatively fluid, in that stone carvings were made outside and weren’t ‘finished’ objects, but people added to them all the time. This is also true of Stonehenge itself. The landscape in which it was built was already crossed by ceremonial ditches and banks and, after the great sarsen stones were raised, carved on mortice and tenon principles ( see photograph, left)  it was added to years later with blue stones brought from Wales, over 220 miles away.

The delicacy and beauty of some pieces reminded me of another exhibition at the BM, pre-pandemic, Stonehenge2on Troy. This exhibition places the British pieces in that cross-cultural context, with a collection of armour, roughly contemporaneous to the Illiad and not dissimilar to that worn in ancient Greece (though the helmets look more like Janissaries). There were also exquisite golden drinking bowls and fine copper horsehead artefacts (the horse featured strongly as did the snake, the bird and the sun and moon ). This was a culture close to nature, even when that nature was largely tamed.

One of the most surprising as well as the most beautiful items was the so-called Nebra Sky-disc, showing the night sky, its stars and the positions of the sun and moon at three different times, with the disc itself having three different horizon lines to align with the actual, depending on Nebra_Sky_Disc_hero_1920x1320the time of the lunar month. This shows a level of sophistication in understanding of the movement of the stars and planets which is reinforced when one sees how many barrows and henges were aligned with sun and, or, moon. The exhibition ranges across many of these, from Denmark, Ireland, the islands of Scotland as well as Wales, Spain, France and elsewhere in England. It also shows how the sea began to play a greater and greater role in the culture of the people living here, as trading took place and the sea itself became a place to worship. There is a recreation of the remarkable Seahenge discovered in the saltmarsh of the Norfolk coast and which, incidentally, features in the crime fiction of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books.

The exhibition gives visitors a look into an ancient, but far from unsophisticated world. It runs until July and costs £22 or £25 (with donation) to enter and the accompanying book is pretty good too. As I’ve said, I’ll be going back again.