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