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.

Peru – a journey in time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drainage Plans

MinetLibraryLambethArchivesBoring, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conservation and conversation

London is a wonderful city in which to live, a trove of treasures to be discovered. I’ve lived here for over thirty years, yet I’m still finding interesting places new to me, sometimes close to home. Ten days ago I found myself in Stockwell.

Stockwell is a place I usually pass through, on the number 88 bus or on the Northern or Victoria lines going into town. I almost never stop there. Yet there I was, consulting my map and clutching my trusty notepad (plus a jar of homemade plum jam). I was there to interview the broadcaster and journalist Ed Stourton of Radio 4  for Time & Leisure Magazine. It was somewhat daunting, to be interviewing the man who had interviewed so many famous, and infamous, people and whose voice had formed part of the backdrop to my mornings for so many years. Stourton was a main presenter on Radio 4’s Today Programme for a decade – as well as The World at One and The World This Weekend, both of which he still does on occasion.

He had, very kindly, invited me to interview him in his home and, determined not to be late, I was ridiculously early. So I wandered towards the address I had been given and discovered, for the first time, Stockwell Park or the Stockwell Conservation Area.  It received that designation in 1973 and covers the old Stockwell Green (the 15th century manor house which formerly stood there has links with Thomas Cromwell) and the later 19th century developments of Stockwell Crescent and the roads running from it. Built primarily in the 1830s the surviving buildings are elegant early Victorian villas with gardens. They were built to different designs, which distinguishes them from the smaller, ‘pattern built’ south London Victoriana elsewhere (like some of my beloved Clapham).

I wandered, happy, around curving crescents and through quiet, tree-lined streets and found St Michael’s Church of England church (consecrated 1841) and a blue plaque marking the home of Lillian Bayliss, Director of the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells theatres and founder of the forerunners of the English National Opera, the National Theatre and the Royal Ballet. The whole enclave was a delight and so very near to the busy Stockwell Road which runs directly into the City. I never knew it existed.

When I arrived (on time) Ed and I had coffee in his beautiful garden and talked about his life in broadcasting – from the Cambridge ‘Milk Round’ and an ITN traineeship, to Channel 4 News at the very beginning (Stourton was a co-founder), Washington and Paris for C4 and the BBC respectively, his love of radio, admiration for George Orwell and enjoyment of la france profonde, specifically the foothills of the Pyrenees. His views on current standards of journalism were more optimistic than I thought they might be, taking the view that the ‘no truth’ culture would pass, reality being very hard to avoid. He cited the initial success of Nazi propaganda, something he’d researched for Auntie’s War; The BBC During World War Two (Doubleday 2017) which ultimately failed.

He was an amusing and engaging companion with a fund of stories, how he got into the besieged city of Sarajevo, for example, or being in Soweto when Nelson Mandela was released. I came away with a wealth of material and the interview will appear in Time & Leisure October edition ( plus a longer version in their on-line version ) I’ll share a link when it’s published. Why not come along to hear him speaking with Simon Berthon, fellow broadcaster, at the Clapham Book Festival on 16th October or, if you’re unable to get to Clapham, buy a ticket for the livestream of that event. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.

This Turbulent Priest

Becket5Yesterday to the British Museum during the last week of the exhibition Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint which ends on Sunday. It’s an interesting exhibition which follows Becket’s upbringing, fairly meteoric career ( from Cheapside immigrant merchant’s son to the Archbishopric and Lord Chancellorship of England ) to his eventual death and subsequent canonisation. I reread Murder in the Cathedral in preparation and the exhibition ends with lines from that verse play.

The objects on display were sometimes exquisite – the beautiful reliquaries – some times interesting – the documents and carvings – and often both – the illuminated manuscripts. They illustrated the story of Thomas Becket, or, as I was taught at school, Thomas a Becket. This was an individual with a will to power, a very clever and subtle man who, itBecket1 seemed to me and my companion, also sought martyrdom as the ultimate step, a translation into immortality. Everyone knows the story, or has seen the film and recognises the famous quote ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’, although this is, without explanation, changed to ‘Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?’ in this exhibition. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, though I’m afraid it prodded my cantankerous side. So no, I don’t accept that Henry II is mainly known for this feud and the resulting death of Becket. Henry II was a tremendously successful king, the first English Plantagenet, who reigned over the Angevin Empire – England, Wales, Scotland, much of Ireland and most of France – for thirty five years. He maintained a large and sophisticated royal court and introduced legal changes, including the use of juries, which eventually became the basis for the English Common Law. Some historians see him as laying the foundation for a unified Britain. I understand that this is an exhibition about Becket and therein its focus must lie, but no, Thomas Becket story isn’t the only, or even the main, event for which Henry II is remembered.

Becket2British Museum curators shouldn’t, in my view, be saying it is because, aside from anything else, it will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Three young people, unknown to me, but who went round the exhibition at approximately the same time as I did, clearly took away this ‘story’ without its context. Henry might not be a popular, or even a colourful, character, by all accounts he was a choleric and sometimes harsh individual, but he also inherited a cash-strapped and exhausted land, following the war between Stephen and Matilda ( Henry’s mother ). Just because he isn’t particularly likeable doesn’t mean his role in history should be limited to his role in a martyrdom. In my humble opinion, it’s bad history ( even if it is good story telling. ) The richness and complexity of life, even life in the past, is reduced in this way. Rant over.

That quibble aside, this was a good exhibition, taking in the legacy of the murder and subsequent canonisation as wellBecket4 as the murder itself.  I was intrigued to find out about the broken sword and the depiction which showed this, as well as a chunk of skull falling to the flagstones of the cathedral floor. It’s interesting that these small, if gory, details survived and thrived in later representations of the scene. I was surprised by the far-flung examples of the Becket cult – stone carving from Sweden, a reliquary from Norway, reference in a parchment from Italy. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, the Church stretched across Europe and its saints were promoted widely.

One last point, I discovered when reading the preface to Murder in the Cathedral that sections of the original verse play which were not used in the final version performed eventually found their way into Burnt Norton as part of Eliot’s Four Quartets. Now I have to read those again.

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint runs until 22nd August.

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’ 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.