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.

I speak for the God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oracle’ Art

Given the antiquity of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the cultural influence it has had over the millennia it’s not surprising that large numbers of visual artists have been inspired by it.  Followers of my twitter feed will know I have been collecting and sharing images of Delphi, the Temple of Apollo and the various historical or mythical beings who came there, drawn or painted by famous artists.  So, we’ve had Gustave Dore’s Dante and Virgil encountering the Erinyes or Furies (left), Edward Lear’s water colour of the Phaedriades, the massive cliffs which loom over the Temple site and William Blake’s illustration for ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ showing ‘The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods’.

I’ve come across plenty of works, from ancient times onwards,  which portray events or characters from Greek drama set at Delphi. On Greek redware (right) for example, showing the sleeping Erinyes being roused from their Apollo-induced slumber by the vengeful spirit of Clytemnestra, urging them to hunt down her son, and murderer, Orestes ( from Eumenides by Aeschylus ). Later paintings include Orestes being pursued by the same furies by, among others, John Singer Sergeant, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, John Flaxman and Franz Stuck, until we’re up to date with John Wilson (after  Bouguereau).

So popular did the image of this pursuit become that cartoonists soon created their own versions, like that in Puck magazine (1877) or in Punch (left). In this instance it is the Rt. Hon. John Bright MP who is in the Orestes role, being pursued by the vested interests which he opposed through the Anti-Corn Law League. It was Bright, famous for his oratorical skills among other things, who coined the phrase ‘Mother of Parliaments’. He is also credited with first using the phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’ to illustrate the pointlessness of certain activities (in Bright’s case this meant getting the House of Commons to consider Parliamentary reform – ’twas ever thus).

As figures of terror and myth the Erinyes feature strongly across the ages. Wenceslas Holler etched them in the seventeenth century (right) and they have re-emerged in modern day gaming ( though with a rather different, sexy, look which speaks to who it is who plays those games rather than any mythological authenticity ). Naked the furies may have, traditionally, been, but not looking like a set of pouting, come-hither dominatrices.

The Pythia, or priestess of Apollo who spoke, as the Oracle, with Apollo’s voice is also a favourite subject in paint and in sculpture.  Eugene Delacroix showed Lycurgus consulting her, John Collier made her a hooded, pre-raphaelite religious perched high on her tripod or three-legged stool (left).  Note the gases swirling upwards from the crack in the floor of her underground room, the inhalation of which led to her madness and prophecies.  No such crevice has been found at the Temple site, but, as a character explains in the book “geologists have found that two geological fault lines cross beneath Delphi, with fissures under the Temple itself which allow small amounts of naturally occurring gas to rise to the surface. Rock testing showed ethane, methane and ethylene − formerly used as an anaesthetic − to be present. These would create a calm, trancelike state and, if a lot was consumed, a form of wild mania.”

I will be posting more of the images I have found – of the Erinyes, of characters from the Orestia and of Delphi and the Temple of Apollo in the coming weeks on my twitter feed and Facebook page.  Look out for some of those mentioned above, as well as works by Klimt, Claude Lorraine and others in the run up to the publication of ‘Oracle’ on 5th May.

Second Time Around

…and things are more familiar. The activity which accompanies publishing a crime fiction book was new to me with Plague, but this time, with Oracle, it’s less so. There are fewer decisions than last time because much has already been determined, Oracle will be consistent with Plague, in size, in print, in design.  It even has approximately the same number of pages.

I’m having fun choosing, and helping create, some of the promotional images and these days such images come in various forms – Facebook banners, Instagram posts and Twitter headers – and some come with animation.  The one on the right is an Instagram post, which uses a photograph of the Treasury of the Athenians at the Temple of Apollo, Delphi, as well as a copy of the cover and its tagline – ‘Blood calls for blood’ on a background of a full moon rising above a hillside. There is an animated version of this too.

As I did for the launch of Plague, I’ve uploaded a new Facebook and a new Twitter Header, using the new banner shown below, which also now lies beneath my email signature.  This includes the same images as the Instagram post, with the addition of a rather wonderful artwork by Gustave Dore. The engraving is one of the French master illustrator’s pieces for The Divine Comedy, Canto IX ( 1867) and it shows Dante and Virgil encountering the Erinyes, or Furies. It is entitled ‘Megaera, Tisipone  and Alecto’, so I would imagine this might get used quite a lot ( it’s also out of copyright ). I’ve always been a Dore admirer and I’m not alone. As the Tate’s exhibition on Van Gogh showed, the Dutch painter loved Dore’s work and collected it, basing some of his own compositions on Dore engravings. This image appears in the banner, with the others, set against a background of black, with a wisp of blue/grey smoke curling across it and the tagline, which is in red this time. Very dramatic. I think it’s eye-catching. I just hope that the book isn’t mIstaken for a vampire novel (because of that tag-line). A number of early readers of Plague thought, from the blurb, that it was about a pandemic.  No fear of misunderstanding the title this time, the blurb makes reference to the ancient oracle, but who knows what else people with think of.

There are some differences too, in part because I’ve learned from experience. So, for example, there’s an Oracle postcard to send out with review copies (last time I exhausted my personal stock of notelets). Claret is having the ARCs printed at the moment and I’ll be looking to take receipt of boxes of books in the next week or so.  The other, more exciting thing is that readers are telling me that they’re waiting for the book to come out ( the virtue of having a series ). Also, it seems, there are a lot more media events – interviews, talks, blogs, podcasts – than last time.  In part, I suspect because I have more media contacts now (and I’m good value i.e. or the most part, free), but also because I’m no longer an unknown.  That Oracle is ‘the further adventures of…’ helps.

If any of the readers of this post has a book group which enjoys crime/mystery books and wants an author to come along and chat, let me know, I’m already doing some of these around the country (via the magic of the internet).  You can find out about them on the Events page of this web-site.

For more on Oracle                            Adieu to Delphi                   Crime Scene                Myths & Legends                     Zemiology                    Art and life – again!

 

Crime Scene

My new crime thriller Oracle is set in Delphi, Greece, close to the ancient Temple of Apollo half way up Mount Parnassus.  The crimes happen during an international conference taking place at the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside the town of Delphi. The ECCD is a real place, which I visited at the end of last century when I attended a conference there.

The Centre was founded in the 1970s, as a way of taking forward the modern Festivals held at Delphi in the 20s and 30s which were, in turn, a revival of the Festivals and Games held here in classical times.  Now the Centre is home to the Delphi Academy of European Studies which hosts symposia on European subjects, puts on performances of Greek drama ( in the ancient Theatre as well as the new, purpose built one ) and has an excellent collection of modern art. You can read more about it here.

It has a stunning and scenic position, high up and looking down to Itea on the Gulf of Corinth.  The Conference Centre and Guesthouse nestle among the cypress trees on the mountainside and there are private suites (one of which is occupied, in the novel, by a government Minister and his party).

Aside from the view and the nearby ancient Temple, I remember its fine, confident modern architecture, using local stone as well as concrete and lots of glass – making the most of those spectacular views.  My heroine, Cassandra, occupies one of the rooms in the Guesthouse (left) above the restaurant on the ground floor.

It was November when I was there and the weather wasn’t kind – it was mostly raining, but the mountain peaks were snow covered.  As I sat in that same restaurant with a storm raging outside and the lights flickering, briefly, a fellow conference goer suggested that it would be a tremendous place for a murder mystery. Over twenty years later, when Claret Press suggested that I write one, the ECCD and the beautiful ancient temple nearby immediately sprang to mind.

So it was Delphi, not London, which was the setting which I thought of first, but it soon became apparent to me that my first book, introducing the recurring character of my detective and her associates, should be set where most of the books would be taking place and that was London.  From there on it had to be Westminster and Thorney Island, places which I knew very well, having trodden the streets there for years.  Thus was Plague born. At the end of Oracle it is where Cassie returns to for the third book in the series, Opera, although I confess that I do have a yen to take her off to Rome at some point in the future, another city which I know very well.

I should point out that the title of this article is misleading, however. The ECCD is not, in fact, the scene of the crime, although it is there that both murderer and victim(s) meet.  And that, I’m afraid, is all you will get out of me about the plot.

Oracle (Claret Press) will be published on 5th May 2021.  It will soon be available for pre-order on Amazon and via the Claret Press website.

The Circumlocution Office

Let me take you back in time.

Back to Sunday, 21st January 1855 in a Trafalgar Square deep in snow, where about fifteen hundred people are gathering. They’re meeting to protest at the mismanagement and needless loss of life in the Crimean War, but can’t help larking about and they pelt passing traffic (and pedestrians) with snowballs. The police ask them to stop, but the protesters pelt the police too.

What begins in laughter escalates into a full scale riot and troops are called. Yet these protesters are representative of public opinion in regard to the war.  Enthusiastic support among a populace worked up into a war fury by the press at the war’s beginning had turned to amazement and shock as disaster after disaster was reported by war correspondents like William Howard Russell for The Times and the photographer Roger Fenton.  Not just military mismanagement – the Charge of the Light Brigade in the previous October came to symbolise that – but the failure to provide troops with the most basic necessities of life and the dreadful death rate resulting.

Florence Nightingale, quite aside from the assistance her hospital gave, was a first rate data gatherer, a medical statistician who documented the privations and resulting medical conditions of the troops, far more of whom died from disease, malnutrition and neglect than on the battlefield. These logistical failures were partly because of difficulties with distance and terrain but also because government positions were filled by placemen unqualified for their role and supplied by contractors who had got their contracts because of their connections, not because they provided the best goods and services.  Money was made, stipends were paid but the servicemen were not supplied with what they needed.

Like many others the novelist Charles Dickens was angered by this. Dickens fans will recognise the name of this article as belonging to the government office in his Little Dorrit, where Arthur Clennam goes to discover the details of William Dorrit’s incarceration in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The Circumlocution Office was Dickens satirising the parlous state of what passed for the civil service in those days. Totally dominated by the Barnacle family  (a not so subtle metaphor on parasites clinging to the ship of state) it is ‘0ne of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer.’ You can read Chapter 10, in which the Circumlocution Office features here.

In late 1854 and 1855 the press turned against the government and Parliament passed a vote demanding a full investigation. Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister, resigned on 30th January 1855. 

In fact, the sorry state of government civil services had been noticed earlier and a report commissioned by none other than Gladstone in 1853. The resulting report, by Northcote and Trevelyan, recommended the establishment of what is now the Civil Service and what the historian, Lord Hennessey calls “the single greatest government gift from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century; a politically disinterested and permanent civil service, appointed on merit and with core values of integrity, propriety and objectivity.”

That’s what Britain still has. There are some service failures today – nothing is perfect – but these are often driven by politicians not civil servants, however much politicians seek to blame them (sometimes aided and abetted by the press). We touched on this in last night’s panel discussion on COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism, but we ran out of time before we could discuss why cronyism is so damaging to public service provision and so destructive of human lives. This article is by way of a reminder;  January 1855 is where we were. Let’s not go back there.

The discussion was fun to do, especially for such a serious subject and, I am told, is generating lots of good feedback (and some book sales). Thanks to everyone at Claret Press for organising and to fellow panellists, Vicky Pryce and Dr Emily Barritt.  The recording is available on YouTube HERE.

And rest…

Phew! I finally get to look forward to Christmas after the whirlwind of activity – talks, discussions, events, giveaways – which has accompanied the publication of my first crime thriller back in September. All something of an eye-opener to this writer, whose adventure books set in 13th century Spain never generated this much activity and interest. Even in a world reduced by COVID I’ve been very, very busy, almost always online. It’s been tremendous fun, by and large, and I’ve worked with and met some great people, online, on social media and, not least, the readers of my book.

I’ve learned what to avoid  – the number of ‘umms’ and ‘ers’ in my delivery when I was talking to my own slides, unable to see myself or others last Wednesday for the Libraries, was excruciatingly embarrassing. Nonetheless, it prompted contact from a U3A crime fiction reading book group who have chosen Plague as their book for March and want me to do a talk for them, which I’m happy to do.  The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster people also seemed pleased, they have asked me to do another talk in January, this time about ‘Politics and Prose’ – political fiction in a time of increasing citizen journalism and social media commentary. That’s something I’ve blogged about in the past ( see Stories of Democracy on The Story Bazaar web-site ). The more one does, the more one is asked to do.

I’m beginning to realise that what works well is behaving naturally, and letting my genuine enthusiasm shine through. I’m definitely more comfortable when interacting, either with other speakers or with questioners.  That is, in part, why the Secrets of Subterranean London discussion worked so well. If you haven’t watched it, you can find a link here and on the Events page.

It is the first in a series which Claret Press hopes to produce and Claret’s number of subscribers increased after the broadcast. The second, on Crony Capitalism, is  scheduled for January and I’ll be taking part, with a well-known economist and an activist ( names cannot yet be revealed but I’ll be writing about them and it nearer to the event ). Siphoning public funds into the pockets of allies and associates is, of course, one of the corruptions taking place in Plague, as Cassie says to the villain on page 246 ‘You’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies…’  Its topicality astonishes me still.

Yet now I’m looking forward to relaxing over the holiday, I need a break and January is already filling up fast. Aside from anything else, I have to completely sign off on Oracle by 31st January and there’s all the work associated with the preparation of a book for publishing – meta data, Netgalley etc. and a whole new round of promotion and publicity to agree.

One piece of encouraging news is that I now have an Italian literary agent. Factotum, or Zecchin, Bellaciccio & Aragno have signed me, and other Claret authors, with a view to selling the Italian publication rights and having Plague ( and the next two Cassandra Fortune books ) translated into Italian. Katie, from Claret Press, told me half an hour before the live broadcast of Secrets, that a representative from Factotum would be watching, in order to decide whether or not they wanted to sign me up. No pressure there then. Fortunately, it worked out well.

But – bring on the mulled wine!

Wishing everyone a joyous and safe Christmastide – the year turns on Monday, as Saturn and Jupiter conjoin closer than for almost 400 years and Spring – Spring! – is on its way. Here’s hoping for a better year in 2021.