Shivering in the park with Tosca

ToscaatCrystalPalace2On a grey and somewhat chilly Bank Holiday Sunday English National Opera, with the full ENO orchestra and chorus and soloists David Junghoon Kim, Natalya Romaniw and Roland Wood were at Crystal Palace Park. So were we.

Part of ‘South Facing Festival’ this was the first time this music festival has taken place and it showed. In the information provided to concert goers and in provision of refreshment at the site. So, there wasn’t a clear message that the gates would open at 5.30 pm, yet the show would not begin until 7 pm. A crowd of people were milling around at the entrance at 5.20, all a little bemused at the lack of urgency in letting people enter. We were there and then sat around for an hour and a half, waiting. It did allow us to grab a prime spot, however, with a very good view of the stage.

Despite a promise of ‘a carefully curated line-up of some of the UK’s top street food traders‘ we had small choice – aToscaatCrystalPalace3 couple of burger joints, a pizza place, churros and sushi – with long queues, which meant people walking back to their places bearing food after the performance had commenced. There were bars aplenty, unfortunately they sold only hugely overpriced cans – of beer, of wine and of gin & tonic. No draught beer, no bottles of wine. And no bringing your own drinks with you. We knew this, so didn’t try, but others clearly did not and had their goodies confiscated at the entrance. Given the lack of choice and the prices charged this left a sour taste in a lot of mouths.

So did some of the ticketing information. We’d gone for the cheap seats in Zone C ( blankets on the grass at the back ). Others had paid a premium ( £60 ) for Zone A. In one instance £240 for four seats, the man arguing heatedly with a steward clearly believed, only to be told this paid for entry to Zone A and he would have to pay even more for Zone A with seat (and there were no such tickets left). He and his family had to sit on the grass at ToscaatCrystalPalace5the back of Zone A, only a few yards from where we sat. They weren’t pleased and understandably so.

Whoever organised this was clearly focussing on making as much money as they could. I estimated over a thousand people were there on Sunday, each paying a minimum of £35, many paying more. The food and drinks outlets would also pay the organisers for their pitches. Yes, opera is expensive and the local council would be paid for use of the park, but, if you’re offering a superb musical experience, then why not allow people to enjoy the whole evening, not just the performance. 

But this was the ENO so the playing and singing was sublime. I had forgotten what a full orchestra, live, sounded like and Puccini was a wonderful way to be reminded. The performance was ‘semi-staged’ and the ENO had circumvented the potential pitfalls ( Tosca shot Scarpia and, at the end, herself, in the absence of a stage on which to set a dinner table or a set of battlements to leap from ). Inevitably some of the subtleties went missing -if you didn’t know about the political sub-plot and the news from Marengo, it would have passed you by completely.

The music and singing were absolutely ENO standard, that is, world class. They had bought their A game. Kim was a lyricalToscaatCrystalPalace9 and powerful Cavaradossi who reached those high notes with ease. Romaniw was empassioned and exquisite – even in a park and with an audience this big, you could have heard a pin drop during ‘Vissi d’arte‘. At the end, everyone was on their feet and clapping and cheering ( and booing Scarpia, who was an excellent Roland Wood ). Though there were also folk beginning to clear away their things – it was cold by this time. The group to the immediate right of us had brought duvets, they were snug.

Tosca is also the opera in ‘Opera’, a performance of which my heroine attends with a Greek diplomatic party ( the Greeks from previous book, ‘Oracle’ ) but that one is at the Royal Opera House ( of which more in a future post ).

Jam-making and manuscripts

PlumJam1Last weekend I submitted the manuscript of Opera to Claret Press. Then I went and made some jam.

I’d had a major wobble about the ending towards the end of last week and rewrote it, now I’m worrying that it’s not written well enough. In truth this doesn’t matter, because the editing process means that submission is just the beginning and I’ll have ample opportunity to consider it again. I’m sure that those more experienced or more skilled than myself are able to produce a manuscript which is almost, typos and a few infelicities aside, completely ready for publication. Their manuscripts would be almost perfect. As yet I can’t, so my aren’t.

Opera is the sixth book that I’ve written, the third to be traditionally, commercially published (by Claret Press), beginning with The Village back in 2014. I’ve learned a lot since then, not least how very unglamorous a job writing is andOpera_Cover_HiRes what extremely hard work. It’s a business, an industry and many of those toiling within it do so for very little reward and recognition. As with any industry the larger entities, the Hachettes and Harper Collins, will have greater reach and a higher profile ( placing their books on supermarket shelves for example ) and the big corporate vendors, the Amazons and Waterstones will also skew the market towards those books which get the publicity and the coverage. As my friend and fellow Claret author, Steve Sheppard, says in the note in his latest novel Bored to Death in the Baltics, he ‘ought to have tried to become a celebrity first, as this would have made selling it (the book) so much easier’. 

Another of the things I have learned about is the creative process, or, at least, how the creative process applies in my case. So I know that there comes a point in the making of a book when I, the writer, need other input.  As ever this will come from my husband, who has an uncanny knack of spotting plot holes, very useful to a writer of crime/mystery stories, but also from a trusty band of beta readers, some of them writers themselves, who are ‘critical friends’. So the manuscript of Opera has also gone to them.  Their feedback will inform the editorial process too. But the major input will be from my editor.  So far, I’ve had two, Gina Marsh on Plague and Madeleine Simcox-Brown on Oracle: both were excellent in different ways and, of course, there is the over-arching input from Katie Isbester, the Editor-in-Chief.

PlumJam4I have come to genuinely enjoy this process, though it sometimes isn’t a comfortable one. People get passionate about a work, there are disagreements and I, like any writer, am possessive about my stories. I expect to know them better and know what’s best for them, despite evidence to the contrary. But for now I have a moment’s respite, maybe a fortnight, maybe longer. I can sit back, read other books, do the garden, catch up on all those jobs… and make more jam.

Bored to Death in the Baltics will be published by Claret Press in September 2021.

 

Truth lives on…

Opera noun, Italian, feminine  1 work: 2 task, job: 3 artistic creation: 4 action, deed, handiwork: opere buone goods deeds: opera lettararia literary work: opera musicale opera: opera lirica opera.

Opera is, of course, also the title of my current work-in-progress, the third in the Cassandra Fortune series. As yet, it is nowhere near complete, even though it’s been written. Quite apart from matters of plot, of tension, surprise and revelation – the stock components of the crime thriller/mystery – there’s the theme to explore. In Plague it was power, in Oracle, justice, this time it’s truth. This is why Opera is set in the opaque world of secrets and the secret intelligence agencies, of smoke and mirrors where disinformation and deceit are the stock-in-trade and real truth, both in terms of fact and of understanding, is hard to find.

My heroine, Cassandra, has been a seeker of truth from the start, tracking down the killers in Plague, while attempting to get back to a position of power, mainly because she wants to have some impact and do something meaningful, but also because she cannot stand being on the outside, without knowledge of what is going on. She achieved her aim and landed a plum job working for the Prime Minister, but, in Oracle she learned that this wasn’t enough and she would have to address certain matters arising from her past if she wanted to escape them.  Thus she sets out, at the beginning of the third book, to find out the truth of what happened at Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ), her former posting, when she was forced to leave it. Until now she had believed her dismissal was because of her own failings, but begins to see that there may have been other forces at work.

Thus Opera opens with Cassie going to visit her former boss, Angela Kayser, whose retirement paved the way for the shake-up which resulted in Cassie’s being made to move on. Angela, as head of GCHQ, is the modern equivalent of the Pythia in Oracle, the priestess of Delphi who listened to the voice of the god Apollo and delivered his message to the listening supplicants. GCHQ provides signal intelligence and information to the government and armed forces of the UK, monitoring voices from the ether and interpreting their messages, just as the Pythia did (though without the psychotropic gases). Cassie sought guidance from the Pythia and in Opera she seeks it from Angela. Both provide answers couched in riddles.

That’s all I’m about to disclose about the plot, though Cassie has to follow a labyrinthine trail of clues, often unsure of the direction they are taking her in and shrouded, like Plague‘s lost River Tyburn, in darkness. Set, once again, in London, its main locations are Whitehall, Number 10 Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster, but Opera also takes in some of the less well-known and quirky gems of central London and, of course, the Royal Opera House. Needless to say, individuals from her more recent past also resurface, seeking revenge.

The title of this post, by the way, is from Friedrich Schiller’s ‘On the Aesthetic Education of Man’ (1795) and it sits, in its entirety – ‘Truth lives on in the midst of deception’ – on the frontispiece of the novel, together with the definition of ‘opera’.

Christmas in July

LondonChristmasLights3…is what I’m experiencing as I edit Opera.

The three books in the Cassandra Fortune series take place, successively, across four months from September to December (with a one chapter addition in January). So Opera begins on Monday (all the books begin on a Monday) 12th December and concludes on Christmas Eve.

There had always used to be, and probably still is, a special atmosphere in Whitehall during the pre-Christmas period. On one hand there’s a hurrying to get business done before everyone leaves for the holiday (and the Houses of Parliament usually rise a week or more before Christmas) but, on the other, there’s an anticipation of the holiday, with office Christmas lunches, Christmas parties and a general relaxation. Anyone who has worked in an office at Christmas time will recognise the latter.

There is also a specific London element, with the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square and the decorative lights along theLondonChristmasLights2 major thoroughfares and in shops, pubs and public buildings. The carol concerts at St Martins and St Johns, the pantomimes in theatreland, the ‘Christmas show’ at the National Theatre (I have seen many over the years) and at least one, often two, productions of The Nutcracker ballet. All this contributes to the backdrop against which Opera takes place.

Plague took place during the late gasp of sunny London summer, Oracle in the storms of November in the spectacular, snow-tipped mountains of Greece. In Oracle it is a grim, cold, wet December back in the city. Car headlights reflect in wet roads and puddles in the late afternoons, the bright colours of Christmas lights inside cafes and shops are smudged behind windows streaked by rain. The wind buffets down Whitehall and whips along the river as people hurry between buildings, collars raised, brollies blown inside out, clutching their briefcases and papers. Hooded and cagouled tourists wear determined smiles as they wander from Abbey to Palace to park and parade ground. This is a place and time I know.

LondonChristmasLightsEach book is organised on a day by day basis. Plague runs over ten days from Monday 9th September to Wednesday 18th with a final chapter on Friday20th. Oracle begins on a Monday in November with six days in Delphi and two more, a week later, in Athens. Readers say that they like this aspect of the novels, making events seem more real and immediate as well, I am told, as pacey. Opera is no exception and a lot happens in ten days, as, I hope, readers have come to expect.

For the moment I am busy recreating that pre-Christmas London. Cassie and Daljit meet in pubs which pump out the instantly recognisable Christmas pop tunes, there is an office Christmas lunch (at the Natural History Museum) whichLondonChristmasLights4 gives our main suspects an alibi – but wait, who arrived when and who was late? The Palace of Westminster becomes relatively deserted as Members head off to their homes and constituencies and it turns into the haunt of the permanent staff and the tourists, who, while the Houses aren’t sitting, get let into the Chambers.  N.B. For anyone who hasn’t visited the Palace of Westminster, the Christmas recess is a good time to go, there are generally fewer tourists than in the summer months.

For me, it is Christmas in July.

Opera and ‘Opera’

Is it entirely coincidental that, at a time when I’m working on ‘Opera’, the next novel in the Cassandra Fortune series, I’m going to more opera than usual? No, of course not. The opera in ‘Opera’ is Tosca, Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ (according to musicologist Joseph Kerman) set in Rome on 17th and 18th June 1800. The dating is precise because the plot is impacted by specific events, in particular the outcome, for some time in doubt, of the Battle of Marengo then taking place far to the north. The date of events in ‘Opera’ is precise too, though opera and novel have more in common than that. Both have a political backdrop of democracy under siege by the forces of repression and wealth, both have an arch-villain and a courageous heroine. I’m off to see ENO present this later in the summer.

It was a very different Puccini work which I went to see last Friday. Gianni Schicchi is a comedy, though its central character appears in Dante, the eponymous 13th century nouveau riche nobleman who is condemned to Hell for impersonating a dead man in order to acquire his property (including an ass). The company, St Paul’s Opera, is based at a Clapham church. It was set up by Patrician Ninian and others (who have since moved on) with the specific aim of offering accessible opera while encouraging and supporting aspiring young professional singers. Some of the finest were singing last week. It was, as it always is, a sell-out.

Friday evening was perfect, sunny and warm. The gates opened at a quarter to six and we sat, sipping wine and chatting before a pied piper, Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis, appeared walked through the gardens to summon us to the first musical performance. This was of sacred music in the Eden Gardens, sung by many of the company who were to appear later in the opera.

We returned to our food and wine and, unfortunately, missed the second small performance, a string quartet playing, among other things, an old favourite of mine Night Music from the Streets of Madrid by Boccherini.  So we were determined to hear the third, a selection of aria from Puccini, Donizetti and Verdi, sung by some of that evening’s principals. Then it was everyone to the grassy area behind the church where the main event was to happen. Every part of the evening had, so far, been a delight and so was the buzz as folk drank up, gathered their jackets and walked down to the amphitheatre. What a joy it was to be part of a happy crowd of people again, all anticipating more fun to come.

The seating was in small blocks, with gaps between, just as the tables in the picnic area had been. The evening took place entirely outside, but social distancing was still in evidence. Not in the production, where the newly cold body of Buoso is surrounded by his grieving (and greedy) relatives, who, when the will is discovered, are forced to turn to the wily parvenu, Gianni Schicchi, to retrieve the situation.  As the sun set and the strains of ‘O mio babbino caro’ rang around the hushed churchyard, for a short time everything was right with the world. Here’s Kiri Te Kanawa singng the same.

‘Opera’ London

BromptonCemeteryStatuaryI’ve recently been out and about looking at the places in London where the third book in the Cassandra Fortune series, entitled ‘Opera‘, is set.  The obvious one, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is not yet open to anyone but ticket holders to socially distanced performances ( though I have a contact there for when it opens more widely ), but there are others, less obvious and, to non-Londoners, perhaps something of a revelation. If ‘Plague‘ was set in places that we all know, even if it took you to parts of those places which are usually closed to view, or hidden, ‘Opera’ will introduce some settings which are less well-known, but, I hope, people may then visit.

I visited one of these last week, just before the heatwave hit.  Cloudy weather notwithstanding, Brompton Cemetery was still a delight to visit. Designed as a ‘Garden Cemetery’ and meant, from its inception, to be a public space as well as a last resting place, the cemetery stretches over a long, rectangular-shaped forty acres on the Fulham Chelsea borders. It has a grand entrance lodge gate at its northern extremity which houses a café, an information centre and exhibition space ( and which will feature in the book ) and which looks down a grand main avenue towards the chapel and colonnade at the far end. BromptonCemeteryMainAvenue

The main avenue is flanked by the grander grave markers and mausolea, this was the most public and therefore the most expensive part of the cemetery to bury your loved ones. The side avenues and circles have their fair share of statuary and raised tombs too, though the still working part of the cemetery to the west is in a lower key. On Wednesday, when I visited, the cow parsley was rampant and allowed to be so, only the edges of the lawns next to the avenues were mown ( except for the railed section of the cemetery which belongs to the Brigade of Guards and which was fully mown with military precision ).  Butterflies and bees were plentiful, the latter possibly living in the cemetery bee hives still kept on the west side of the cemetery.

BromptonCemetery1Brompton is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Victorian cemeteries, which includes Highgate, with its graves of Karl Marx, George Eliot and other very famous people and Kelsall Green with its oft-filmed catacombs. While well known to locals – and a godsend during lockdowns – it is less widely known than these others. Both Kelsall Green and Tower Hamlets ( another Magnificent Seven cemetery ) featured in ‘Plague’. Brompton is owned by the Crown and run by The Royal Parks and includes many military graves, including of Commonwealth service personnel maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and many Czechoslovak, Polish and Russian military burials.  It is also evidence of the diversity of Victorian London, housing as it did and does, the remains of individuals ranging from Chief Long Wolf of the Ogulala Sioux nation to Johannes Zukertorte, Jewish-Polish chess grandmaster and the Keeley and Vokes families, music hall artistes and actors. Other individuals buried here include a Mr Nutkin, Mr Brock, Mr Tod, Jeremiah Fisher and Peter Rabbett – Beatrix Potter lived nearby and was known to walk in the cemetery often, did these names inspire her?

BromptonCemeteryCatacombEntranceThe Chapel at the cemetery’s southern end wasn’t open last week, but the grand colonnade is open all year round. Built in a style aping that of St Peter’s Square in Rome, the Colonnade runs above catacombs, which were fashionable for a brief time in Victorian London ( all too brief, additional catacombs built along the west side of the cemetery were never fully occupied ). The steps down to them are very wide and shallow, mainly because the lead-lined coffins deemed necessary for catacomb interment were extremely heavy and therefore difficult for pallbearers to carry and manoeuvre. The catacombs themselves are not open to the public except on special tours and open days and the locked metal doors, with their sculpted serpentine bas reliefs offer tantalising glimpses within.

If you happen to be in West London and have an hour or so to spare, you could do worse than spend it in this tranquil and interesting haven from the city which surrounds it. I will, most certainly, be back.