‘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.

A most intrepid civil servant

That’s my heroine, Cassandra Fortune, according to Claret Press, my publishers. They are referring to my her as ‘the world’s most intrepid civil servant’.

There are plenty of real life intrepid civil i.e. non-military, servants of the Crown. The employees of the security services, for example, or holders of high profile positions like the Director of Europol. Policemen and women serve society in a civil capacity and there are lots of real as well as fictional police heroes and heroines, though, technically, they aren’t civil servants. The publishers are playing on the popular and entirely erroneous assumption that ‘civil servants’  are faceless ‘pen pushers’. I can personally attest to the fact that that stereotype is very far from reality.

There are plenty of civil servants in literature – see, for example, the entire oeuvre of C. P. Snow, various characters in the novels of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and A.S.Byatt, to name a few. But fictional civil servant detectives? Well, Cassie wouldn’t be the first.  They are more rare, though they do exist.

Natasha Cooper, former Chair of the Crime Writers Association had Willow King, at the Department for Old Age Pensions, who first appeared in Festering Lilies in the 1990s. Agatha Christie, no less, wrote a series of short stories featuring a retired civil servant named Parker Pyne in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). I’m sure there must be others and there are probably real civil servants who are more intrepid, though they may not meet with murders and villains with such regularity as Cassandra does.

This started me thinking about the professions and jobs of fictional detectives. Aside from police and associated professions, including Private Investigators, what do fictional detectives do for a living?  Amateurs, by definition, many belong to the ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’ detective category, individuals of independent means who are intrigued by mysteries and/or spurred on by a love of justice.  This covers many ‘early’ detectives, like Poe’s  Auguste Dupin or  Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey. From a quick hunt around my memory, there are plenty of writer or journalist detectives, whose job requires them to find things out, I suppose, but also former forces people, like Dr Watson or Sax Rohmer’s Nayland Smith the sleuth in his Fu Manchu novels. Academics feature but also psychologists and psychiatrists.  Lawyers too, in part I suppose because of their association with crime and the law, e.g. like Kate, in Sarah Vaughn’s best-selling Anatomy of a Scandal (2018)

There is a modern trend to go for something different. So we have Jimmy, homeless veteran and PTSD sufferer who is the hero of Trevor Woods’ Debut Dagger winning The Man on the Street (2020). Hetty Wainthropp, the working class retiree from Darwen in Lancashire, who first appeared in David Cook’s Missing Persons (1986) is another such unusual character.  Personally, I would like to see a Tesco’s check-out female investigator, who teams up with the assistant from the local chemist to solve crimes.  Or maybe a teacher, or a local authority drainage engineer? Ordinary people.

My heroine, Cassandra, is ordinary, though she’s intelligent, quick-thinking and brave, all attributes which don’t require a private income, a silver spoon or a university degree (though she has one of those).  And yes, she is intrepid and a civil servant, though not the first.

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!

 

Adieu to Delphi

Sad as I am to leave beautiful Delphi (though it’s under deep snow at the moment I am told) I have, at least temporarily, waved goodbye to Oracle, which is now in the hands of the publishers and their book and cover designers. The manuscript has been proofed, the front cover tag-line and back cover blurb have been agreed and the internal design created, again by Petya Tsankova, so it’s consistent with that of Plague, which Petya also designed.

Like the earlier book, Oracle takes place over a few days, so that is how the book is divided up. My sketch of the Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi ( see below ) is featured on the named ‘day’ pages as the sketch of the Palace of Westminster was in Plague.  It looks good.  This time, however, the book has a ‘Praise for’ section at the front, ( squirm – it’s what is done ). At the moment this contains endorsements and complimentary review remarks about Plague.  As we approach publication day these will be augmented by what I hope will be complimentary reviews and endorsements of Oracle.  I also get an ‘About the Author’ at the back, so Claret Press must be pleased with me.

Already the promotional schedule of events is being formulated ( there are two events in place already, with the UK Crime Book Club and Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, see the Events page ).  The manuscript will go up on NetGalley during March, for a limited period only, to attract reviews and test reader reaction.  Any revisions will follow and Advanced Review Copies will be produced and despatched to various ‘experts’ and to reviewers for newspapers, magazines and blogs. Quite a lot of the publications which reviewed Plague are anxious to follow up with a review of Oracle and, I’m pleased to say, there are plenty of readers out there who tell me that they re anxious to read it too. Publication day will be 5th May.

I’m very pleased to have the help of a number of ‘experts’ with Oracle, as I had on Plague.  These include Maro Nicolopolou, Head of Conferences and Artistic Programmes at the European Cultural Centre at Delphi, below (and a lover of detective fiction) and Sharon Hartles, zemiologist, of Strathclyde University and the Open University.  Maro has already been of inestimable help in directing me to all the changes at the Centre since I visited it back at the turn of the millenium and to the changes in the town.  This is so important given that the trip to Delphi I had planned for last year had to be abandoned because of COVID.  I’ll be writing about the amazing Centre and its conferences and performances later. Sharon has introduced me to the new discipline of zemiology and Oracle is probably the first time it has featured in a novel (see earlier post here).  She’ll be sure to put me right if I have erred.

So, a break from the actual writing then, until I begin on Opera, but not a break from work, with lots of activity around getting Oracle absolutely ready for publication and for its promotion and still doing lots of events for Plague.  I’ll be writing more about Oracle in the coming weeks, but here’s a photo of what Athens looked like earlier this week.

For articles on Oracle so far          Art and life – again!                Myths and Legends

COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism

Last Monday evening listeners to my talk ‘Politics & Prose’, for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, seemed to enjoy it, especially the Q & A afterwards. There were some excellent questions.  But barely have my feet touched the ground and I’m involved in another event.

Next Thursday ‘COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism’ is a discussion organised by publishers Claret Press which promises to be equally interesting, if rather different.

The panellists will be Vicky Pryce, noted economist and current member of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills Panel which monitors the economy, Dr Emily Barritt, Co-Director of the Transnational Law Institute at King’s College London and me – I get billing as either an ex-high ranking Civil Servant or as author of Plague. The session will be chaired by Dr Katie Isbester, Editor-in-Chief of Claret Press and supported by Ko-fi as part of the ‘Claret and Conversation’ series of online discussions.

In Plague the villain co-ordinates a complex strategy to emasculate or destroy the institutions of democracy including Parliament.  He says ‘Democracy is so easy to pervert, why replace it? Money can buy anything. If a government gets difficult another can be sponsored. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes it’s easier, but there are always people willing to take over. When national or global institutions fail to serve the purpose they are destroyed, distorted or hollowed out from the inside.‘ (P236). Money, the media, the connivance of powerful individuals, inside and out of those institutions, enable him to do this, together with leverage over others who are hungry for power.

This includes illegally determining the award of lucrative public contracts so they go to friends and allies. On page 246 the heroine says to him ‘You’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies while you make money on the markets.’

In real life, the Good Law Project, the Runnymede Trust and a non-partisan collection of MPs from various parties have sought judicial review of the Department of Health and Social Care’s awarding of billions of pounds worth of contracts since April 2020 to private companies e.g. for Personal Protective Equipment. That is, they’ve asked the judiciary to adjudicate on the legality of the contract awarding process. Of these contracts, many millions remain unstated and have not been made public as regulations require.  The Labour Party has raised this issue in Parliament and via the media ( see HERE ).

In correspondence with the GLP the government has recently stated its intent to spend £1 million in defending the case, stating that finding out whether they acted lawfully in channelling hundreds of millions or billions to their VIP associates, is not in the public interest. The money is, apparently, to fund a vast exercise in disclosure, not required by the courts. The GLP, funded by small donations, will be unable to accept such a financial risk and has sought a cap on costs from the court. If this isn’t granted the litigation will have to be abandoned.  Perhaps the villain was right and ‘Money can buy anything.’ even the law. I hope not.

COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism looks at the situation and the impacts of corruption and ‘crony capitalism’ on a country’s economy, on its system of law and on how such a country is governed and administered.  Join us on Thursday 4th February. It’s a FREE event, but you need to register on Eventbrite.

If you missed the broadcast you can watch the recording HERE.

Politics & Prose

Question – which of the following is true?

  • Stories which deal with political ideas need not be stories about politics.
  • Stories which show the struggles, jealousies and rivalries, or alliances and betrayals of politicians, may not be about political ideas.
  • Most fiction is about power and its balance, so all fiction is about the political.

All three, as far as I’m concerned. It depends, of course, on how you define politics and the political. The dictionary definition is ‘the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation; and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs. ‘

While that encompasses an awful lot, it is actually quite a narrow definition.

Yet, as Orwell said in Politics and the English Language his essay of 1946, ‘There is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.’ Since 2019 the UK has had a prize, the Orwell Prize for political fiction.

I will be addressing these questions and lots of similar, related ones in Politics & Prose, a talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Libraries on Monday 25th January at 18.30 GMT. It’s a FREE event, but you have to register with Eventbrite if you want to attend ( you can do so HERE ).

My novel Plague (Claret Press, 2020) has been described as a ‘Westminster novel’, and, I am proud to say, a page-turning read, but is it political fiction?  It’s commercial, not literary fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent it dealing with ideas. It  deals with crime, with torture and murder, but also, something of very topical moment,  crony capitalism. As my hero says to the villain, ‘you’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies.’ (P246) There are real legal cases underway claiming that the current government is using the COVID emergency to indulge in exactly that.

As the pandemic began early last year I believed that Plague had lots of resonance with reality and, of course, its title attracted attention. Yet, as time has gone on, it has been the politics, not the pandemic, which resonates more. The crony capitalism, the link between political policy and making money on the financial markets and manipulating the media to influence the public that seems more apposite. Plague‘s successor, Oracle, is much more of a ‘classic murder mystery’, though I hope it has the same page-turning quality. Yet it too has the political at its heart and, already, some of its themes are hitting the real-life headlines, like questions about the politicisation  of the police, something which surfaced again after the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  I suspect that this issue is something crime writers will be incorporating in their stories for the next few years.

I’d also like to answer the following question;  in an age in which the novel is arguably no longer the dominant force in story telling and when social media allows us all to be citizen journalists and political commentators, what place does political fiction have? An important and relevant one, in my view. And I’m not alone – see this piece of graffiti, found in London, NW7 earlier this week ( thank you John Johnston for the photo ).  Is the political image of our age the age of the boot on the face, or the pill and the palliative? Orwell or Huxley?

I hope some readers of this piece might come along and contribute on Monday.  Here’s a book list of books which will be mentioned.

Politics & Prose Book List

The Godmother’s Tale

What follows was first published in 2016. I reprise it here specifically for those who enjoyed the reading, for UK Crime Book Club, of some chapters of Reconquista, in their series of lockdown books for younger readers, and for anyone else who may enjoy reading about the inception of that book.

Once upon a time there was a boy. His name was Luke and he was twelve years old. Luke had fair hair and grey eyes and he was slim and clever. He was very good at maths.

So good at maths that he used to go to Cambridge University at weekends where he would speak the language of numbers with a young professor. At home he would write long and complicated formulae and equations, with lots of numbers and squiggles which his family didn’t understand.

One Spring Luke and his family were to go on a journey to visit his god-mother, who lived in a far-away place where the sun was hot and shone for most of the year round. Her home was just outside an ancient town, which had walls with battlements and towers and a castle in one corner, on the highest point.

Luke’s god-mother puzzled over how to organise things so that Luke would enjoy his visit. She could speak different languages, but she wasn’t fluent in number. But what she could do was create worlds. She was a writer and she wrote books and stories. So she went out into the town, to particular places which she loved, so as to seek inspiration to write a story for Luke.

The town was old and beautiful, with narrow cobbled streets and ornate balconies at the windows of the houses. It had fountains and perfumed jacaranda trees in tranquil, shady squares and the wider roads were lined with orange trees.

First the god-mother went to Plateros, a square in the old town, which was once part of the Jewish quarter, where all the silversmiths lived. There she saw the Church of San Dionysio, the patron saint of the town, which, before it was a church, had been a mosque. From the square she looked down to the cathedral, which had a separate tall bell tower, standing all on its own, which looked suspiciously like a minaret. And she understood that her story had to include all these different cultures and religions, the Christian, like the church, the Jewish, like the square and the Muslim, like the mosque and minaret. She would give voices to people from all three.

Then she went to the Alcazar, the castle or citadel, with battlements and towers over a thousand years old and she climbed the tallest tower. The wind blew on her face and it smelled of the sea, for the sea, though she couldn’t see it, was close by, just beyond a range of hills. And she realised that the sea would play a big part in her story.

As she stood on the tower she looked down at the surrounding countryside below she remembered the history of the town and she imagined…..

The town is under attack. Outside the walls an army tries to force its way in. Men with long pikes, wearing metal helms and leather breast plates mass at the foot of scaling ladders. Knights on horseback ride back and forth, encouraging their men. And in the wind the flags and banners blow, the rearing claret lion of Leon and the golden castle towers of Castile.

Inside the defenders hurl rocks down on to the way attackers, pushing the scaling ladders away from the walls. But it’s no good, because the besieging army is too strong and has too many weapons, giant mangonels and trebuchets which throw huge rocks into the town and burning smoke bombs filled with oil.

The townspeople are desperate. What can they do? The ruling council can’t decide. Should they surrender? What will happen to them and their town if they do? The army outside is a Christian army from the north, led by King Alfonso. But the people in the town are a mixture, some Christian, some Jewish and some Moors, people who originally came from North Africa, before they crossed the narrow sea to Al Andalus.

But in reality the townsfolk have no choice. They must surrender to the King.

So King Alfonso and his knights and soldiers come into the town. He and his courtiers and knights stay in the Alcazar or castle, but ordinary soldiers are billeted on the townspeople, who are forced to take them into their homes and feed and look after them. In a house in Plateros Square three pike-men are foisted on a Jewish family. Simon, the silversmith, has no choice but to take them in. His son, Nathan, finds them interesting.

Now, a word about Nathan. He is one of the heroes of the god-mother’s story. He is fourteen years old, with fair hair and grey eyes, small for his age, but quick and clever. He is always bickering with his older cousin Rebecca, who lives with Nathan and his father. She is fifteen and is another of the heroes of the story, and, really, she and Nathan love each other like brothers and sisters do, but that didn’t stop them fighting.

Often the peacemaker was their friend Atta, a Muslim. He and his father move in with the family when their own house is destroyed during the long siege. Atta is the same age as Nathan, but he is tall and skinny whereas Nathan is slight and not so tall. Atta has floppy black hair and dark eyes and he wants to become a doctor like his father.

One addition to the household in Plateros is more welcome than the soldiers. This is Thomas, a kind young English doctor, at the court of the King. He brings food for the family, from the King’s stores. And they need the food, because there isn’t much left in the city after the siege. Everyone is hungry.

But life isn’t safe in the ancient town. There is a curfew, no one is allowed on the streets after sundown or they are taken to the dungeons of the castle. There are riots in the marketplace and brutal crack-downs.

So many townsfolk decide to leave, to quit their homes and, carrying what belongings they can, travel in search of a safer, better life. Many of those who leave are Moors or Muslims and many Jewish people too, because they fear that they will not be liked by the Christians. So long columns of people, heavily laden wagons and donkeys stretch along the roads leading out of the city.

Atta and his father decide to join them, to become refugees. They’re afraid because Atta’s uncle is a powerful man at the court of the Emir of Granada, an enemy of King Alfonso, so they fear they will be treated as traitors, even though they’ve done nothing wrong.

So Atta and his father abandon their home and all their things, taking only what they can carry. Nathan is very sad to see his friend leaving and is unhappy to be left behind. Yet at least he is with his family. But only two days later things get even worse for Nathan and his father, because one of the family had a secret plan.

So, the god-mother’s heroes are scattered far and wide. How could she bring them all back together and end the story? She didn’t know. And Luke was arriving in three weeks time. She had to find the end of the story before then.

She went out again into the town to look for inspiration. She visited Plateros, but couldn’t find an answer. She went to the castle, but couldn’t find an answer there either. Then she went up into the tower and looked again at the countryside. Nothing, no inspiration.

Then she saw the sunlight glinting on something far off. The god-mother screwed up her eyes to see. It was something reflecting in a town on a hill-top many kilometres away southward, a window or a mirror maybe. She’d been to that town recently and had stood on a high tower in its castle, just like the one she was standing on now. And she had seen the ocean and the coastline, the Bay of Cadiz, the beach stretching away southwards, down to a large cape which pushed out into the Atlantic.

This was Cape Trafalgar, where there had been a famous navy battle and Admiral Lord Nelson had defeated the Napoleonic fleet. Cape Trafalgar, Tarif al Ghar as it used to be, the Cape of Caves.

That was it, the god-mother realised. There would be a climactic battle between the Armada of the King and the pirate ships belonging to the evil warlord Don Raul. Rebecca, Nathan, Atta and other characters would take part.

The god-mother went home to finish her tale and send it to Luke. He liked his story and when, many years later, his story became a book, he remembered the heroes and their adventures, even though he was fully grown. The book is ‘Reconquista’ and it was long listed for the Children’s Novel Award 2016.

Thank you for visiting the land of Al Andalus with me. This is a true story, some of which actually happened.

Enforcing the law

On Wednesday the world watched as an enraged mob, whipped into action by their leaders, including the outgoing President of the United States, stormed the U.S. Capitol in order to derail the process of endorsing the recent and overwhelming Presidential election results. As the attempted overthrow of legitimate government took place, elected representatives were removed to or found places of safety and thugs ransacked offices, stole Capitol ‘souvenirs’ and took selfies.  Pipe bombs, molotov cocktails and guns were found and a policeman, a female insurrectionist and three others died.

There are many questions to be answered; will Trump be removed, by the 25th Amendment powers or by impeachment; why was there such a lack of preparedness among those whose job was to protect the Capitol ( the Capitol Serjeant at Arms has already resigned and the Chief of Capitol Police is going ). Many of the questions relate to events which lead up to the insurrection, which didn’t occur spontaneously ( a quick look at QAnon substantiates that ) and the attitudes and beliefs  of the people involved. Mistaken and sometimes reprehensible beliefs which have been encouraged by lies in social and mainstream media and by Republicans. There were plenty of Damascene conversions and, as someone on Twitter pointed out, a ‘traffic jam on the Damascus road’ in both Houses, so keen were Republicans to condemn what happened.

It has not gone unnoticed that the protection given to public buildings during the Black Lives Matter march was hugely different to that given to legislators on Wednesday ( see photo, left, of the Lincoln Memorial steps on the earlier occasion ). As I write this there have been 82 arrests. There were 14,000 at BLM marches and there were no pipe bombs found at any of the latter.  Reports that off-duty policemen were with the insurrectionists have yet to be proved correct, but there certainly appeared to be a reluctance, for whatever reason, among some police to prevent the mob from entering the building.

That the US police are not impartial is one conclusion. As if more convincing of this was needed, given the regularity with which unarmed black men and women are killed by police, without the killers suffering any penalty. Hence the calls to ‘defund the police’ ( though I recognise that, in certain respects, this relates to very specific types of police ). Impartial law enforcement is crucial to justice, which, together with the legal system which sustains it, is crucial to democracy.  Without the rule of law and real equality provided under that law only the strong and powerful will thrive, reducing any voting system to a sham and paving the way to authoritarian tyranny. This is basic level Civics, but something which seems to need restating. These are also ideas which I explore in Oracle.

While the book is, I hope, a fast paced mystery tale, somewhat in the same mold as Plague and involving the same central character, pursuing the murder case in it is fraught with difficulty because the police, the law enforcers, have become politicised.  So who can one trust? Even the police do not trust each other, fearful that their colleagues are members of a banned and criminal organisation, the former extreme right-wing political party Golden Dawn.

Oracle doesn’t offer any answers, I don’t know what those are, other than a thorough and committed programme for change. That is likely to take years but has been done in the past.  Perhaps this is one of the things high on the list of problems to tackle which the new Biden-Harris administration is going to have to undertake in the US. I wish them luck.

N.B. This article has been amended. The photograph of heavily armed National Guardsmen above left was taken during the BLM protest, but the Guardsmen are standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, not the Capitol.  I apologise for the error. The point however, remains good. There was a huge discrepancy between how BLM and MAGA were treated.

Listening

It is estimated that audiobook sales have more than doubled in the last six years, with a significant rise during the pandemic. There has been double digit sales growth in the English speaking markets  for the last three years ( the US is by far the biggest market for audio books, but the UK and Australasian markets are growing rapidly ) and more audiobooks are being produced than ever before. UK book sales are still overwhelmingly (80%) of printed books, but the digital market has grown at the expense of print during the pandemic, possibly after the Treasury reduced VAT on digital books to zero, in line with printed books, in May 2020.  Digital fiction sales is the fastest growing element of this market.*

In terms of retail, the giant Audible (Amazon) dominates, but there is an increase in subscription services like Scribd and, this year, local libraries are seeing an unprecedented surge in audio book borrowing. This is probably also tied in with COVID, as reading, of whatever kind, has increased during our different stages of confinement.

Incidentally, Neilsens also finds that audiobooks reach the younger market, with big numbers in the 18 – 24 age group. In the UK the average audiobook user is an urban male, aged between 18 and 34, who listens while working, commuting or running outdoors. Given that women read more than men and younger men in particular, this is tapping into a new market, good news for the book industry.

Claret Press, my publisher, is expanding its audiobook offering too and the recording, by Essential Audiobooks, of Plague is well underway. The reader, RSC Associate actress and voice coach, Alison Bomber, is on the final few chapters, then there’s the editing and the music and finally the audiobook comes into being.

I haven’t heard it yet, though I have heard Alison read and she’s very good. By a strange coincidence I met up with Elizabeth Bergstone, the actress who read the audiobook of my short story collection,  The Village, only last week. A long time Los Angelina, Elizabeth now lives in North Carolina, so we had been corresponding during the recent US elections. Originally from south London, she was over to visit her sister for Christmas. She gave me lots of tips about online speaking, having listened to my recent talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries ( she thought my delivery poor ). I learned a lot, for example about Forvo, the online pronunciation dictionary ( which tells me that the name of the engineering genius Sir Joseph Bazalgette, is pronounced with a soft, not a hard ‘g’, as I had thought, so that caller to my session was correct ).

The good news is that Essential Audiobooks provide a ‘taster’ for promotional purposes, so I’ll make that available here as soon as I have it. I don’t know if the upsurge in audio will continue into this new lockdown period, when only essential workers will be commuting, but there will be plenty of joggers, like me and plenty of walkers and gardeners too, who will be outdoors at the first sign of spring.

And already the days are growing longer… but there’s still time to enjoy a book!

*Data from Neilsens, AAP, IBIS.

Political movies

Maybe it’s because I’m preparing a talk on Politics and Prose for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries ( it’s free and happening on 25th January if anyone is interested, see Eventbrite Politics and Prose ) or it may be coincidence; but over the holiday I’ve been watching a number of excellent films depicting the world of power and politics, some based on real events.

First was The Death of Stalin, Armando Ianucci’s 2017 very black political satire of the Stalinist Soviet Union. It is a fiction, but its characters are based on real people who were part of the Stalinist ruling elite. These are played by a stellar cast which includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin and others. The crude and barbaric terror of the Stalinist period is shown, full throttle, where the answer to any problem was murder and truth was what the most powerful said it was.  It’s a mesmerising and very funny film, in an absurdist way, but it’s also not comfortable watching. If you haven’t seen it, I can definitely recommend it.

The second film was The Ides of March, (2011) a George Clooney contemporary political drama starring Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, himself and others. This was less of a hit than The Death of Stalin and my other choice, but it’s an efficient and, in its way, thought provoking film which captures the tight-knit nature of U.S. politics – the intern is the daughter of the Committee member, the rival campaign managers are well-known to each other (each trying to exploit the other’s known foibles ). It’s a quieter film which depicts an inhuman and corrupt world – hardly news – but does so through the prism of one man’s ambition and where it leads. Again, recommended.

My third film was The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Aaron Sorkin’s 2020 depiction of the trial which followed the anti-Vietnam War riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Directed by Sorkin after Stephen Spielberg, whose project this was, had to withdraw, the film was on restricted release in September, but, given the COVID pandemic, went onto Netflix only weeks later.  If I hadn’t known that this was based on real events ( and court transcripts ) I wouldn’t have believed it possible. The real Chicago Seven plus Bobby Searle, the eighth defendant (and only black man) and their lawyers are portrayed by another stellar ensemble cast, including Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton and others. Like The Death of Stalin, this has attracted criticism from academics about it’s veracity, but, again like The Death of Stalin, it has been critically very well received.  Anyone who remembers the wit of The West Wing won’t be surprised by that on show here, it made this viewer laugh out loud a few times, though with a bitter twist. This truly was a ‘political trial’.  It’s also a clever depiction of a moment in time rather in the way that the TV series Mrs America captured the spirit of the 1970s political backlash to the 60s. I strongly recommend you watch this film.

The real events in Trial, like the shooting by police of Fred Hampton, Black Panther supporter of Searle, in circumstances not dissimilar to the shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in 2020 Kentucky make it very relevant to today. As does the ‘truth is what I say it is’ attitude of the Soviet powerful in Death, not unlike that of Trump and other populists. Political stories have a gripping relevance and political storytelling deepens our understanding of our world.

The first two films were based on written stories; The Death of Stalin on La Mort de Staline, a two volume graphic novel by French writer Fabien Nury and artist Thierry Robin, The Ides of March on Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon ( Farragut North being the Washington DC metro station at the heart of think tank and consultancy territory ). The Trial of the Chicago Seven was written as a screenplay by Sorkin. Incidentally the U.S. TV version of House of Cards had an executive producer by the name of Beau Willimon. Now there’s a book about politics and power which has been translated to the screens, small and large, to very good effect.

I’ll be exploring how politics is depicted in stories, as well as discussing what a ‘political novel’ is in my talk on 25th January.

Meanwhile, may I wish that 2021 be a year in which we return to life as we used to know it, but that we appreciate it more; that the vaccine is given to everyone and the dread COVID is either eradicated, or mutates into something much less dangerous. Happy New Year!