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.