What Do Words Matter?

In his opera Capriccio, Richard Strauss posed the question, is the music in opera based on the words or are the words based on the music? He personified it in the form of two men competing for the love of one woman and left the answer somewhat ambiguous. Yesterday evening I went along to a local church to hear two librettists discuss this and other questions. Very interesting it was too.

Meredith Oakes is a playwright, dramaturge and violinist who is also a very successful librettist, working with Gerald Barry (The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit, 1995) and Thomas Ades (The TempestPhiliphensher, 2004), the latter opera performed around the world. She is currently working on a piece to be performed in her native Australia. Philip Hensher is better known as a novelist, twice listed for the Man Booker Prize (The Mulberry Empire, 2002 and The Northern Clemency, 2008) but has an abiding love of opera and produced the libretto to Thomas Ades’ debut opera Powder Her Face (1995). His latest book is A Small Revolution in Germany (Fourth Estate, 2020). The discussion was marshalled by Jonathan Boardman, Vicar of St Pauls, Clapham, where the event took place.

We began at the beginning, how does collaboration between composer and librettist start? For Hensher it was almostPowderHerFace by chance, it was he who suggested the subject of Ades’ first opera, the scandalous divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, which became Powder Her Face. He described the process as a suggestive and seductive one, the librettist leaving a trail of breadcrumbs (words) to entice the composer into following creatively and then to exceed the limitations of those words. Oakes described the process differently, more of a collaboration in joy. She took on the task of writing the libretto for an opera based on Shakespeare which was filled with particular challenges. She described the process as being like ‘walking around a monument, seeing it from different angles and bringing out its different aspects’. Should she adopt iambic pentameter, the verse form used most frequently by Shakespeare? Yet it might constrain or run directly against the meter of the music. Should she use it occasionally, or abandon it altogether? She also had a particular problem in that, in the play the heroine Miranda, daughter of Prospero, says very little. Oakes had to get inside the head of this character and give her more of a voice, bringing out her hopes and fears in order for her to act as a balance within the opera.

The discussion ranged widely. Is the collaboration improved by the composer and librettist being friends? Both theOakesthetempest librettists speaking last night remain friends with the composers they had worked with, but there are some examples of the relationship between collaborators breaking down. So much so in Harrison Birtwhistle’s case that one of his librettists alleged that Birtwhistle had tried to run him down with his car! Gilbert and Sullivan cordially hated each other (though they made a lot of money together). On the other hand there have been some great collaborations between partners, like that between Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (though Britten was, apparently, notoriously difficult to work with).

Throughout the conversation was punctuated by illustrations, pieces written in English and set to music across the StPaulsages, by Purcell, Handel, Gilbert & Sullivan and Britten. The young singers, Hugh Benson (tenor), Alexandra Dinwiddie (mezzo-soprano), Edwin Kaye (bass cantate) and Davidona Pittock (soprano) were from St Paul’s Opera, accompanied by pianist Elspeth Wilkes.

Add in some Provencal rosé, a sunny summer’s evening in a churchyard and music in a church with a wonderful acoustic for music. What more could one ask?

All good things…

OracelandPlagueThere are always interesting things happening in the world of books, book festivals and publishing, but right now many are happening as a result, direct or otherwise, of the enforced lockdown and the removal of the usual ways in which books and literature are promoted and supported.  I’ve experienced this myself, with publication of not one, but two books during COVID times. Gone were the signings, the book tours, the attending of literary festivals. My publisher’s idea of handing out the first two chapters of ‘Plague’ in a small, bound leaflet at Westminster Tube station ( the book is set in part in the Palace of Westminster ) was completely stymied by the pandemic. There were few folk emerging for work in Whitehall and even fewer tourists last year and, in any case, who was going to take a leaflet from a stranger which had PLAGUE written across the top?

chatInstead, book promotion has moved even further into the virtual world. I have ‘met’ lots of people online when promoting the books in this way, people who I now think of as friends, even if I’ve never actually met them. I have invitations to Edinburgh, Newcastle and Tamworth and supporters of myself and my books across the globe, not just the book shops of south east England.  I also have a network of friendly fellow authors, with whom I have appeared on panel discussions and other platforms or have coincided online with for other reasons.  And I ‘know’ a host of folk via Facebook, a medium I hadn’t really used at all until very recently, but which, in COVID-times, has provided a host of alternative ‘communities’ for bookish folk – writers and readers.

Plague book tour bannerYes, much of this could have happened anyway, events like blog tours have been going for some time now, though there is a limit on the amount of time available for book promotion and certainly a limit on my publisher’s budget, but the restrictions have been a catalyst, at least for me and, I suspect, many others.  As we become familiar with the technology and comfortable with the zoomed or skyped or livestreamed world new ideas spring up and take root. There are new things afoot in the world of book bloggers with live author chats, discussions between bloggers about books and with book club events – e.g. Mairéad Hearne at Swirl and Thread is hosting launches, Poppy Loves Book Club is hosting a series of online events and the lovely folk at the UK Crime Book Club host regular author chats and discussions and authors reading from their books – to name but three.  These are all offering free events ( as long as you have the internet, of course ).

camera-6209482_1920Some things will never be the same again I suspect. Livestreaming, a lifeline for dark theatres and closed halls, is here to stay for performance generally, reaching wider, more dispersed audiences. Many festivals of all kinds, including Clapham Book Festival, will offer livestreaming alternatives alongside live events. Our partners, Omnibus Theatre certainly plans to do so. All of which is a boon to those who would not be able to attend events like this in the normal course of things, the infirm or elderly, or those living in isolated, or culturally deprived, locations. They can now not just watch but contribute to and take part in events – which would have been unthinkable before. None of the libraries I’ve done sessions for, sometimes structured ‘talks’, sometimes conversations, plan to retreat from these online events, though they will return to providing ‘live’ ones too. Let’s hope that they’re staffed to do so.  Festivals too are going online. And the Clapham Book festival is no exception – more news on that in due course.

The Festival is Back

clapham book festivallogo2And it will probably will never be the same again!

The date for the diary is Saturday 16th October 2021, with a mixed Programme of events, including Literary Walks, lead by local authors, and live author events at Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, which will also be livestreamed for those who do not live close enough, or do not wish, to attend in person.

The two headliners for this year are Sir Michael Morpurgo, multiple award winner and former Children’s Laureate and Ben Macintyre historian, reviewer and columnist of The Times newspaper.

Sir Michael is the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, the Prix Sorcieres (three times), the Red House Children’s Book Award (four times), the Blue Peter Book of the Year and many others. He was knighted in the 2018 Honours List for services to literature and charity. He and his wife set up Farms forMichaelMorpurgo City Children in 1976 and the charity now owns three farms in Wales, Devon and Gloucestershire. His most famous work is probably War Horse, which was adapted for the stage and became the most successful National Theatre production ever, being seen by over ten million people worldwide. It was made into a cinema film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, in 2011. He recently presented the Radio 4 series ‘Folk Journeys’ in which he considered some of the greatest songs ever composed.  Sir Michael’s latest book is When Fishes Flew, illustrated by George Butler, to be published this Autumn.

AgentSonyaCoverBen Macintyre is an author, historian, reviewer and columnist for The Times newspaper. His most recent book, Agent Sonya, is a biography of Soviet agent Ursula Kuczinsky, has been acclaimed as a thriller as well as a piece of history.  Both events will be livestreamed and live stream ticket holders will receive a copy of the respective author’s book.  If we are in another lockdown or under other restrictions in force the event will go ahead as a livestream only, or, potentially as a zoom event.

Earlier in the day the Festival goes al fresco, out and about in Clapham. For centuries the home and haunt of writers of all kinds, Clapham has a long and illustrious ( and sometimes less than respectable ) literary history. Join local authors Elizabeth Buchan and, later, Annemarie Neary, on a Literary Walk round the manor.  Elizabeth’s latest novel Two Women of Rome  is published in June ( though her earlier book, The New Mrs Clifton was set in Clapham ) and Annemarie’s The Orphans, is set on Clapham Common itself. The walk takes approximately two hours (although that depends on how muchT&L Media logo Box NEW.eps discussion there is in each group). Ticket numbers will be limited so it’ll be important to book early. We hope the walks can take place in any circumstances but a strict lockdown.

More exciting news is that CBF is now partnered with Time & Leisure magazine and the Book Festival is planning, with the magazine, to offer a selection of bookish author events available online year round. Watch this space for developments. Tickets for all events, online, livestreamed and in person, either in the Theatre or out and about, will be available on Eventbrite.





Publication Day!

OracleonphoneheldbywomanatlakeSo ‘Oracle’ is loose upon the world, at first with a tentative snuffling, a rootling, then a leaping and bounding – into reader’s hands, hearts and minds, I hope. There isn’t a launch, not even a virtual one, there are better ways to spend one’s energy and time right now, though I would like to give a heartfelt thank you to all those people who have supported me and the book and congratulated me and wished the book well.

It’s now available on bookshop.org and via the Claret Press web-site ( postage & packing of paperbacks is free, while stocks last ) as well as on Mr Besos’ ubiquitous platform ( which still sells more books than anywhere else online ) and Waterstones.  Both paperbacks and ebooks are available costing £9.99 and £3.99 respectively ( though Amazon alters the price it charges unilaterally, I was surprised to see the ebook up for pre-order for £5.99 at one point – proof that there were pre-orders at any rate ). If you happen to live in south London the book can be found at Clapham Books and Herne Hill Books ( and several other local book emporia ).  It can be ordered from all good book shops.

And I’m busy.  I had great fun this afternoon being interviewed for ‘The Doctor Will See You Now’ by Jacky Gramosi Collins, also known as Dr Noir NewcastleNoir( Jacky founded Newcastle Noir, was instrumental in the Edinburgh Noir at the Bar and most recently, has been deeply involved with Gwyl Crime Cymru, Wales’ first Crime Fiction Festival ). This will be broadcast on Thursday 6th May – it’s free to air and you can find it here, when I get the link. I’ve also been chatting on StreamYard with Sam Brownley of the UK Crime Book Club. I’ll be doing a talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries too, on 17th May. It’s free but you need to register ( tickets from Eventbrite ). I’ve enjoyed preparing for that – it’s all about Delphi, ancient and modern and its myths and literature, as well as ‘Oracle’. In the meanwhile there are a number of events for book clubs and subscribed podcasts and some radio interviews coming up too, the Events page of this web-site will be kept up to date.

OracelandPlagueThere will be some fizz drunk this evening, which is probably my only concession to the traditional response to publication.  Releasing two books in two years, only eight months apart, but into a world wracked by COVID has not been what I would have expected or wanted. Nonetheless, readers seemed to enjoy ‘Plague’ and, I hope, will also enjoy ‘Oracle’ although it is a very different type of book, much more the ‘classic’ murder mystery. I am already hard at work on ‘Opera’ the third in the series, which sees Cassie return to London determined to lay some old ghosts to rest after her experience in Delphi.

If any of you reading this are about to read ‘Oracle’ please do write a review when you have done so, on Goodreads and Amazon or Waterstones, wherever you purchased the book. That will help other potential readers and, if you enjoy reading it, TELL EVERYONE ABOUT IT!  

In the meanwhile, I raise a glass to you all. 

Hurray for book bloggers

OracleCassiequoteVBGreyThis weekend, with three days to go until ‘Oracle’ is published, I had planned to do another ‘run down’ type post.  Something I came across on Twitter, however, changed my mind.  This piece is written in gratitude to all those book bloggers who have reviewed ‘Oracle’ and/or ‘Plague’ before it, or carried articles or other pieces about either of those books.

Anne Cater, doyen of book bloggers, ten years or more blogging and a CWA Dagger judge, as well as of the British Book Awards, tweeted that she was hearing talk that “there’s ‘no future’ for blog reviews.” Her own web site, Random Things, “…may disappear if that’s the case. Instagram reviewing is not for me, so this may be the end?” This is as a result of the rise of Instagram and #bookstagram, currently engaging millions.

I seriously doubt that this will happen. It depends on what publishers and publicists ( and authors ) want.

If publishers want coverage, I suppose, Instagram can offer bigger numbers. This is the equivalent of the billboard, realOraclewithcoffeeandpapers or virtual. It tells you that the book is out there and carries a simple message about it (see above). It’s pure publicity.  This, like a billboard ad, can prompt people into buying. But if a potential reader wants to know more and whether or not the book is for them before they buy, detail is required and the limited length of Instagram posts precludes this. Step forward the book blogger, offering a considered review of a book’s strengths and, if necessary, less strong areas ( though most book bloggers won’t post negative reviews ).

Blog reviews also generate conversation about the book, what did others like or dislike about it, would the character do this or that? An Instagram post is less likely to prompt dialogue of any depth ( aside from saying whether or not a book is good/enjoyable and commenting on the image, which is what I have seen on Instagram when images are not linked to a longer review on a blog ) and more substantial dialogue is what a reader often wants.  Both before they buy and, if they enjoyed the book, afterwards. The experience of a book and its fictional world is amplified and the enjoyment increased by sharing views about it.

booklight-465350_1280It’s also in the wider interests of publishers, publicists and authors to encourage discussion about books, to widen reader’s horizons and engage more people in reading. This is what book bloggers do, sometimes via Blog Tours, or by just posting their own thoughts about what they are reading. And, in the time of COVID, both have been important in drumming up publicity and support for books which would, otherwise, have sunk without trace.

Most books don’t get reviewed in the national press, especially books by unknown or debut authors ( celebrity or big name authors dominate in a brand-led world ). The traditional ‘book tour’ with its author signings and attendance of W.I., Literary Societies or Book Clubs can’t happen. The paid events, like school visits or literary festivals, aren’t happening and even the traditional book launch is banned. All sorts of plans for the launch of my first book had to be abandoned.  Now, I find, I have the dubious distinction of also launching my second book into the COVID restricted world. So I would like to thank all those book bloggers, reviewers and downright good folk who have, at least in a small way, generated some interest in my books.  They do this out of love and take joy in books, they are unpaid and they form a small, warm community online when the physical community can no longer gather.

I’m not going to write a list here, it would be as long as another post, but I will be tagging them all, in the attaching tweet or Fb post and, yes, on Instagram!


ToA7In Aethiopica, an ancient novel by Heliodorus, a central character who is a priest of the Egyptian goddess Isis, describes Delphi as where the divine can be found, a natural fortress, beloved of Nature. Other ancient writers commented on its hidden aspect. It’s certainly true that the mountain itself seems to protect the sanctuary, denying the visitor any faraway view, hiding the site until the traveller rounds the last craggy outcrop and sees the Temple nestling in a bowl of the mountain, the harsh, grey granite rising up behind. It must, in the days of its full splendour, have been a truly stunning sight. The marble of its many buildings reflecting the sunlight and glowing golden at dusk as the pilgrims climbed the paths to the Temple, to petition the Oracle of the God Apollo for answers, the last rays of the sun glinting in the gold which topped many of the monuments. It’s still fairly impressive now.

Delphes JeanClaudeGolvin1As Nico, an employee of Delphi Museum and a character in my novel, says ‘The temple ruins you’ll see today date back to 320 BCE. It’s the sixth Temple of Apollo to stand here, ‘though the site has been sacred for millenia.’ The Sacred Way, the stone pathway which zigzags across the mountain slope, rising towards the Temple Terrace, is a relatively modern addition, in the 5th and 6th centuries CE and, though this is the route followed by modern visitors, the Temple site BCE would have had several entrances and paths and sets of steps between paths, not unlike those in the town of Delphi today.

The buildings within the complex were closely packed together, you can imagine how this was from Jean-Claude Golvin’s watercolours included here. Golvin was an archaeologist as well as a painter and his pictures are based on the ruins found on the sites, plus quite a lot of scholarly speculation. Above you see the walled complex, the huge Trsy2boundary walls constructed in the sixth century BCE. The square addition of the Roman Agora is on the right and the ancient Amphitheatre is directly behind the massive Temple itself. The Temple was the heart of the sanctuary, its Terrace packed with monuments, statuary and other offerings to the God. Many of the box-like buildings you can see on the slopes below it were Treasuries, belonging to city states, islands, countries, where their special offerings were stored.  The Treasury of the Athenians, which features in ‘Oracle’ is the best restored. Originally dedicated after the victory at Marathon the restoration took place in the early twentieth century with money raised from the modern city of Athens.

But Apollo wasn’t the only God honoured here. There is the Sanctuary to Athena, which can be seen in the largerDelphes JeanClaudeGolvin2 version of Golvin’s watercolour. This stands at the bottom right of the picture (right) just beyond the Gymnasium – you can see the long running track – and plunge pool.  This was where athletic members of the public would work out and train. The Sanctuary Stadium, where the Pythian Games were held, is much higher up the mountain, its edge can be seen in the top left hand corner of the larger picture. It is from the Stadium that my heroine looks down on the precinct – ‘It was easy to understand why this place had been sacred for so long’ she says. ‘It was so still, a sense of the divine so near to the surface. It had astonishing drama and beauty.’  And it still does.

Yet the history of the precinct is one of rivalry and dispute, even in a place dedicated to the God and overseen by ToA2various forms of a council representing, at least nominally, all of Greece. There was a decided element of outshining the competition, with cities and other dedicatees, building ‘bigger and better’ than their fellows. Not least of the rivalries was that between Athens and Sparta, as you would expect, but there were others, often reflecting the political tensions of the day. In all there were three Sacred Wars for the prize of virtual overlordship of Delphi, dominating the council, and more than one political enemy was flung from the top of the Phaedriades cliffs as a blasphemer (planting evidence of stolen goods which had been dedicated to the God was a common trick).

If readers of this blog would like a more detailed, but still digestible, history I can recommend Michael Scott’s ‘Delphi’ (Princeton University Press, 2016). If you prefer bite-size chunks, but with far less erudition, keep reading this blog.

More on Delphi               The Mountain of the house of the God                        Crime Scene           

‘The mountain of the house of the god’

ParnassosMount Parnassus, at over eight thousand feet high, is one of the highest and largest mountains in Greece and it towers over the Gulf of Corinth. Its name means the mountain of the house of the god and that god is Apollo. Believed by ancient Greeks to be the centre of the world, Delphi and the area around it on Parnassus has been a place of habitation since Neolithic times. It was already old when the Hellenic Apollo arrived to wrestle with the Pytho, the snake of the Goddess Gaia, the Great Mother and to take over the sanctuary.

It’s a few hours drive north from Athens and its worth navigating through the traffic choked outskirts to the motorway and into the mountains around the Gulf of Corinth to sit outside as the sun sets, on the terrace of a Delphi taverna absorbing the stunning view. The mountain slope, covered in cypress and pine trees, falls away sharply and the resinous perfume of the pines blends with the scent of wild herbs upon which bees feast to make the marvellous Parnassus honey.  As goat bells sound, the river valley, over sixteen hundred feet below, winds its way to the plain andToA2 the glint of sea on the horizon.

On one side of a low ridge in the mountain’s skirts lies the ancient Temple of Apollo, which is really a precinct of temples and buildings, including an amphitheatre, gymnasium and stadium, all set on the slopes around the massive Temple itself. The site has been a centre of worship since the Early Bronze Age (so about 3,000 BCE) and the Temple site is fabulous, very atmospheric, especially when there’s a mountain mist. It’s tucked into a fold of the mountain so that you don’t see it until you’re on top of it. It must have been a magnificent sight, marble reflecting the sunlight, as hundreds of pilgrims queued along the Sacred Way to ask their question of the Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi, famous throughout the Mediterranean world.  

ParnassusTrailThe mountain is a great place for walking, with many accessible trails and much of it, about 36,000 acres, designated as a National Park.  Some of its flora is of protected species and birds of prey, wolves and boars are not uncommon. There are plenty of viewpoints and small walker’s lodges to aim for. You can walk to the ancient Corycian Cave where people have lived since Neolithic times or trek across to stand at the top of the Phaedriades, huge cliffs called the ‘shining ones’ which tower above the temple site.  Or visit the Castalian Spring at the foot of the Phaedriades, where the PythiaParnassusSnow bathed in ritual purification before she entered the Temple and became the Oracle of the God. I like that this place was dedicated to Gaia the Great Mother before it passed to Apollo and that it was a woman, or women, who spoke with the God’s voice even after Apollo took over. I’m not sure I’d have fancied the ritual outdoor bathing in non-summer months though, it can be cold this high up. In Winter Parnassus has its ski centre, the largest in Greece with sixteen ski-lifts. Athenians flock their for the winter sports. 

Apollo isn’t the only god associated with the mountain. His cousin, Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre, ruled the Temple in the winter months, when Apollo was said to be away ( getting to Delphi in winter in ancient times must have Mont_Parnasse,_par_Edward_Dodwell,_BNF_Gallicabeen very difficult, so the Temple, in effect, shut down until spring came ). Parnassus was also said to be the home of the Muses and it was the supposed presence of these semi-deities which prompted some nineteenth century French poets to give the mountain’s name to their literary movement, Parnassism. This was a reposte to Romanticism, calling for a return to classicism and classical forms. Primarily, though not exclusively, influential among poets it was particularly strong in Paris and the place south of the Seine where the poetry readings were held was commonly referred to using the mountain’s name. This subsequently became the Parisian district known as Montparnasse. In the early part of the twentieth century this area became the vibrant artistic hub of the French capital, migrating from Montmartre, which had, by then, become more establishment. So the ‘mountain of the home of the god’ is also a Parisian suburb, noted, today, for its tower and its huge cemetery, where many famous writers are buried.


Imagined Worlds

Fiction is a product of the imagination even if its narrative is set in a real place, which exists in the real world. Many fictions aren’t, of course, especially if fantastical or science fiction. Their created worlds are often detailed and frequently accompanied by a map.

LON_MAPMy fiction is very much located in real places – place is very important to me. So ‘Plague’ is a novel of London, it couldn’t really take place anywhere else. So much so that I have created a ‘Walk of the Book’ – there’s a free leaflet showing you how to visit the locations which feature in the book and walk the course of the ‘lost’ River Tyburn, if you’re ever in London and want to do a city walk. You can find it on the Welcome page of this website.

Although the action took place mainly in SW1 – the ‘postcode of power’ – a map was included at the beginning of the book so that a reader who was unfamiliar with that area could see how the locations, some of them very famous, some much less so, lay in relation to each other.

‘Oracle’ is set in Delphi, somewhere much less familiar to most people, unless they happen to have visited there. Its geography is unusual in that the town of Delphi clings, vine-like, to the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus and has as many stepped alleyways as it has hairpin roads and some truly dramatic and spectacular views. So this place is very, very specific.  I have written before about one of the locations of the book, the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside Delphi town ( in Crime Scene )and will be writing about another, the ancient Temple of Apollo site, in future, but this article isn’t about either place, but about how place is represented in books, particularly about maps.

My assumption, partly because I love a map, is that such a thing is helpful at the start of a book, especially if the location of the tale is unfamiliar. But then, I prefer toMap_of_Delphi read physical books, an object which is in my hand and which I do not look beyond. Many people don’t read this way, they use Kindles or similar devices which link to the internet. So there’s plenty of software available, Open Street, Bing, Google or OS, which will find them a map on their device.

A part of me also thinks that I should, as a writer, be able to create the world of the book so successfully in words that a map isn’t needed. Many readers of ‘Plague’ commented on how vividly the locations were drawn and, how, in future, they would walk the streets of SW1 with a rather different view of them to that they had had before. This is great to hear for the writer, but it adds weight to the idea that the writing should be all the reader needs. It should make them feel that they are in that place, but also gives them sufficient understanding of where specific places are relative to each other. So, if that’s the case, isn’t having a map being a lazy writer?

I couldn’t really decide, so I did what I often do now, I asked readers. In this instance the members of UK Crime Book UK Crime Book ClublogoClub. I explained my dilemma and asked their opinion.  This prompted many comments ( one hundred and forty two people contributed ) overwhelmingly in favour of maps. Some fellow writers disagreed, however, saying, for example ‘I prefer to have my readers follow where I take them.’ and ‘If a book needs a map to make sense of the story or plot then the story/plot isn’t clear enough.’ Some readers gave maps the thumbs down too e.g. ‘Don’t like a map and timeline etc. It complicates and distracts from just naturally drinking in the narrative of the book.’ but the vast majority were in favour.

In particular they welcomed the clarification a map provided of where places were in relation to other places, with comments like ‘Not everyone has a geographical memory, or any idea where sites are in relation to each other. I’d appreciate a map like this.’ or ‘Maps are great! And descriptions don’t necessarily give a picture LordoftheRings of where everything is in relation to everything else.’

I even discovered, during the discussion, that there is another book which is set in Delphi, called ‘A Spartan’s Sorrow’ by Hannah Lynn, the second in a series reimagining Greek myth, from the perspective of Clytemnestra and it’s published this week. Those classical stories resonate for ever. But the debate about maps also prompted some reminiscences about first encountering maps in books. The map at the front of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books, for example, or ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, which are true works of art. Indeed, this Autumn, HarperCollins will be publishing a new version of the books, including all of J.R.R.Tolkien’s original maps, drawings and painting (as reported in the Guardian ).

Those readers who responded to my question about maps will be pleased, mainly, to learn that there’s one in ‘Oracle’ and I’ll be talking about the novel with Samantha Brownley at the UKCBC on 13th May ( see Events ).

Flamenco in north London

So to Sadlers Wells Theatre for the annual Flamenco Festival in north London. This time I had only returned from Jerez de la Frontera the day before and I went to see Santiago Lara and Mercedes Ruiz who hail from that city.  I have written about this married couple before ( see Lamento and The Guitar in Time ) and I listen regularly to Lara’s guitar playing.

On Saturday they were performing with dancers Maria Moreno, from nearby Cadiz, and Eduardo Guerrero, who I have tried to see several times at the Jerez Festival, only to be stymied by the schedule.  Accompanied by rising singing star Maria Fernandez Benitez, known as Maria ‘Terremoto’, and male singers, Emilio Florido and Ismael ‘el Bola’. They were billed as the Gala Flamenca and it was excellent.

Lara was the musical coordinator and he led the musicians on stage, a second guitarist, Javier Ibanez and percussionist, Paco Vega.  The artistic director was Miguel Linan, renown dancer and regular performer at the Jerez Festival ( see Reversible ).  Linan’s choreography is distinctive, although the three dancers were undoubtedly also contributors ( and listed as such ).

The programme began with Morena dancing an alegria. As is always the case with British theatre audiences, while the dancing was well received, there was little feedback between performer and audience until the end of each piece.  This contrasts with watching flamenco in Jerez, when the audience is supposed, even obliged, to clap, shout encouragement and cheer during the performance. I was very pleased therefore when a particularly spectacular series of steps ended with a sweeping flourish and a spontaneous cheer from the audience.  I noticed Lara, who was nearest the edge of the stage, start to smile.  The performance had ‘taken’ and the audience were bound in.

The show continued with a remarkable pas de deux between the young singer,  and Mercedes Ruiz.  Ruiz, dressed in black, male garb performed accompanied only by the singing and her own castanets  and stamping feet. She was outstanding.  The audience was well and truly captured by now, so much so that Ruiz could be playful, making us laugh as well as astounding us with her artistry.  How could anyone top that?

Well, then came Eduardo Guerrero, long black hair flying, in a stunning Cana.  Guerrero’s arabesques were straight out of the Miguel Linan playbook, athletic, fluid and captivating.  What was not was the truly amazing footwork which followed, which had the audience, by now half way to behaving like Jerezanos, applauding and cheering with every flourish.  As a female member of our group said afterwards, he was gorgeous and absolutely commanding ( and the dancing was pretty good too ).

There followed another pas de deux, this time with Moreno and Guerrrero in perfect synchronicity and a final Solea from Ruiz.  All three dancers returned to the stage for a rousing finale and, by the time the stage lights went down, everyone was on their feet and applauding.  At the curtain calls I was pleased to see the recognition of Lara’s stunning guitar playing and Miguel Linan was also invited on stage to take the applause. He brought with him a birthday cake with lighted candles, it was the birthday of one of the company  and he was persuaded to dance along with the mini-encore.

We left the theatre buzzing, but exhausted, that’s what watching flamenco does!

For more articles about flamenco, in London and Jerez, try         2018 Festival Round-up              Flamenco Fix            Paco Pena