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

Summer Book Sale

It’s that time of year again and books are being discounted to promote sales and capture the Summer holiday trade.

LastSaturday my local church had its annual fete, smaller this year, as the event has grown in recent years ( see Books for Sale in the Sunshine ), but the Clapham Book Festival had representatives there, including me, staffing the book stall, handing out our flyers. A must for the diaries of book lovers and those who like talking about books is Saturday 5th October, the Saturday of the 2019 Clapham Book Festival!  Check out this year’s Programme.  Tickets are on sale from 1st July.

But last Saturday we were selling books – £1 hardbacks, 50p paperbacks, everything must go!  Lots of people browsing and buying mentioned that they were looking for a good book for the beach, the country, the plane or the train and, in one instance, the fishing.  I guess reading a good book is ideal when sitting on a river bank waiting for the fish to bite.

On-line too, the Summer Sales begin. Over at Smashwords from 1st July until the end of that month you can find J.J.Anderson’s ‘e’ books at a major discount.  In the Al Andalus stories , Reconquista will be FREE to download until the 31st July. The next book in the series, The Silver Rings, will have 25% off RRP at $2.45  or less than £2.  The Village; A Year in Twelve Tales will be discounted by 50% to $1.99 or £1.50.  So, if you want to make a journey in the imagination on your holiday, why not travel to 13th century Al Andalus, or to a contemporary English village, you can do so for free or at a major discount on Smashwords as part of its summer sale!

In the meanwhile it’s time to submit my latest manuscript to the publishers. A real departure from the historical adventures written previously, Plague is a contemporary thriller set in Westminster, which draws upon my own experience working in Whitehall and the rich history of Westminster and Thorney Island.  On the basis that informed and independent criticism is worth its weight in gold, I have been fortunate enough to have the members of three different book clubs read the manuscript.  Any author will tell you that, however objective your friends try to be, they will, invariably, be less critical than people who don’t know the writer personally. Their comments have been insightful and very useful, helping me refine the novel before submitting it to the publishers.  Now I await the editor’s comments.

Plague is also the first in a series – I am about to begin writing Oracle, the second book featuring the same protagonist, while I wait.  I am enjoying researching the ancient temple complex at Delphi on Mount Parnassus, somewhere I actually visited during a 1999 conference at the modern conference centre just below Delphi town. What a place for a murder mystery story, I thought at the time. Now it’s going to be just that!

For now, if you haven’t already, why not make a visit to the exotic Al Andalus, with its Kings and Emirs, its warlords and treasure and all for less than a cup of coffee.

For more about Reconquista and The Silver Rings and writing them try             Seduced by History            The Godmother’s Tale              Warp and Weft

Portrait of an artist…

as a young man, not the James Joyce novel but Tate Britain’s summer exhibition, on Vincent Van Gogh and his time in in south London. Van Gogh arrived at the age of twenty in 1873 and lodged in Brixton ( though it’s described here as Stockwell ) where he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. He worked for two years at the offices of Covent Garden art dealers Goupil, before turning to both teaching and preaching, when he was dismissed from his job.

Any number of Impressionists and post-impressionists fetched up south of the Thames at some point in their lives ( usually during the Franco-Prussian War and the time of the Paris Commune ). So his was a path well-trodden, by his almost contemporary Pissaro in Norwood, Sisley at Molesley, Monet at the Savoy or Tissot in St John’s Wood (okay, that’s north of the river).

The exhibition is a large one, with nine rooms, containing Van Gogh paintings, drawings and washes, but also many works of contemporary, or near contemporary, artists who were living in London at that time or which Van Gogh would have seen while he was here.  It includes works and prints which Van Gogh owned and there is cross-over here with the Tate’s winter exhibition of 2017/18 The Impressionists in London.

The Van Gogh also includes later, British artists clearly influenced by him.  So, for example, his Sunflowers, in Room 7, is juxtaposed with paintings of sunflowers by William Nicholson, Frank Brangwen and Jacob Epstein, among others.  I very much enjoyed these – the whole is joyous and up-lifting.  I enjoyed too the paintings of later artists, like those of the Camden Town School and David Bomberg and Francis Bacon, who acknowledged their debt to Van Gogh ( see study, by Bacon, left, of his painting of Van Gogh in the sun-bleached landscape of the south of France ).

I am insufficiently knowledgeable to be able to draw any but the most obvious of parallels between Van Gogh and the artists who influenced him while he was here.  That the river-scapes of Whistler, with their floating fogs and twinkling lights, had an influence, especially in the depiction of lights in the Rhone, doesn’t surprise me and there are obvious links to be made with Pre-Raphealite paintings like those of Edward Millais.  Some of the other connections are less obvious, indeed they may seem tenuous to the untrained eye, though I have no doubt that the scholarship behind this exhibition is excellent.

That Van Gogh adored Dickens and his works was new to me, though it fits, some of his portraits have the gnarly yet fluid quality that one perceives in some of Dickens’ descriptions of his characters. That he collected British prints and reproductions – the ‘black and whites’ – over 2,000 of them, often of modern subjects, like the workhouse, the prison or the deprivations of the poor, also feels fitting.  As he said ‘I often felt low in England… but the Black and White and Dickens, are things which make up for it all.’

The exhibition is at Tate Britain and runs until 11th August.  It is very popular, we visited at 4 o’clock on a Friday, when we thought it would be quiet, yet it was anything but.  Afterwards a steward told me that, in relative terms this was quiet!  So beware the crowds.  Entry costs £22, with concessions for students, seniors etc. and if you are not a member you will have to book.  It’s well worth a visit.

For more on art and exhibitions see            Soane and Kapoor          Art on the Underground                 John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

To the Lighthouse

… the lighthouse or faro at Bonanza in Andalucia, to be precise, not Virginia Woolf’s Hebrides set novel of 1927.  The fishing village of Bonanza is on the estuary of the Rio Guadalquivir as it reaches the Atlantic, just north of the Bahia de Cadiz. The derivation of its name is from the Spanish (and Latin) for calm sea, or tranquil waters, though it has come to mean a windfall, or unexpected piece of good fortune. It was our good fortune to be there last Sunday.

I doubt Ms Woolf ever visited, though the place itself is small and charming, with one main street running parallel with the river, houses backing onto a deep sandy beach. Bonanza does feature elsewhere in literature, however, in The Confusion, the second in Neil Stephenson’s rip-roaring and erudite Baroque Cycle (2005) as the location for an audacious piece of thievery. There are no grand mansions to be found there now, though fishing boats bob on the swell and there is, at the Alguida end of town, a port area with docks and factories. There are, unsurprisingly, good places to eat fish, which was what we were there for.

Beyond Bonanza is farmland, now often given over to poly-tunnels, interspersed with houses whose architects certainly had exuberance and imagination, though they didn’t tend towards understatement (the Baroque featured here too, though attached to flat-roofed bungalows). If you continue along the single road you eventually gain access to that portion of the Donana National Park which lies on the south eastern side of the Guadalquivir.  Here there are wonderfully tranquil forests of Iberian pines and a lagoon, complete with bird watching hides.  The flamingos were displaying and we saw not one other human being.

Or maybe head back to Sanlucar de Barrameda, of which I have written before ( see Contrasts ) the rather larger port and holiday town. Both Columbus and Magellan set sail from here, their voyages being recorded in sculpture and tile work around the town. The former completed his first circumnavigation of the globe from Sanlucar, while the latter returned to his own discovery of Hispaniola. The town is intensely proud of its hugely influential maritime history. On Sunday afternoons the Plaza de Cabildo is the place to be and be seen, amongst the bougainvillea entwined palms, as the inhabitants drink manzanilla or eat ice cream at the square’s two competing ice cream parlours.

Maybe visit the Castillo de Santiago the fifteenth century fortification on the edge of the Barrio Alto, with its two museums and excellent views over the Barrio Bajo or take tea in the gardens of the 13th century Palacio de Medina Sidonia, now a hotel/hostel, for similar views.  There’s an interesting monument between the two, indicative of today’s desire among many Spaniards for the truth to be told about what happened during the Fascist era and commemorating just some of those killed or ‘disappeared’ during that time for opposing Franco. The Duchess who owned the aforementioned Palacio was one of those who was imprisoned, although she was, presumably, too eminent to do away with quietly.

If you’re in this part of the world Sanlucar and Bonanza are worth visiting – we will do so again.

Not Quite a Fleeting Glimpse….

…is what one gets at the Dennis Severs House, or 18, Folgate Street, Spitalields, E1.  Not quite a fleeting glimpse of those people who have just left the room, who were eating that meal just before you walked in, or smoking that pipe, or baking that loaf.  Whose wig sits on the wing of the chair? Or whose floral perfume scents the formal withdrawing room?

18, Folgate Street is an 18th century house (1724) which has been preserved and restored and, during his lifetime, lived in, by Dennis Severs, the American artist and storyteller, who died, aged only 51, in 1999. Twenty years after purchasing the house he saw the Spitalfields Trust buy the house and commit to keeping it going, when on his death-bed.  It’s still going twenty years later.

The House is chock-full of antique furniture and fol-de-rols, china, costumes, tapestry and tat, but all in period. So is the lighting, mostly candlelight, but some gas-light in the Victorian rooms. We visited on a sunny Monday lunchtime so it was relatively light, but the house is most often open in the evenings, from 5 – 9pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and on Sundays ( see Tours ).  I imagine that then it is even more atmospheric, though it would also be more difficult to see the multiplicity of objects on show, often close together.

Severs created an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers called Jervis to inhabit the house and it is their homely detritus (and comestibles) that one comes across as one climbs the narrow stairs, either down to the kitchen and cellar, where there are the supposed fragments of St Mary’s, Spital (1197) and the warmth of an iron range and the smell of…what is that smell?  Or upwards, through fashionable London entertaining to the elaborate boudoir and then up beneath the eaves to the penurious lodgers’ rooms.

Scent is something the House does well, as is sound – the ticking of a clock, the half-caught chatter, like Eliot’s rose garden ‘full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter’ in Burnt Norton. Visitors are asked to walk around the house, on a pre-determined route, in silence, so that this sound track has full effect. There are wordless guiders, who will direct you if you go wrong.

There are other symbols of life lived in the house.  The half lemon on the mantlepiece, the half drunk glasses of sherry on the card and occasional tables, the cheese and bread in the kitchen.  I like to think of the guiders going round each morning setting everything fresh into position, spraying the scents and lighting the candles ( there are piled candle ends in several rooms, today’s occupants being as thrifty as Madame Jervis could have been ).

It takes about 45 minutes to walk through the house and costs either £10 on Monday lunchtimes, or £15 in the evenings ( a guided tour is available for groups at £50 per person ).  We arrived at about 12.45 on Monday lunchtime and had to wait for a further twenty minutes, in a queue, as only small numbers are allowed in the house at any one time.  Once inside, you realise why ( people were smaller then ).

It’s an unusual and, for me, unique, experience and well worth visiting.

For more visiting of history try                        Undiscovered                  The Real Thing      Mother of Parliaments                           An Old Prospect                     Metamorphosis                    Waterloo

All photographs are from the House web-site, photography inside the House not being allowed.

Chelsea 2019

The day dawned bright and this south Londoner rose early, if not quite with the lark.  It was the first day of this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show and I was to rendezvous with a group of friends at the Royal Hospital.  I set out, in my English linen and sensible shoes, along side the commuters, checking the weather app as the 137 bus crossed Chelsea Bridge. Yet I wasn’t the first of our group to arrive, some hardy souls were there when the gates opened at eight o’clock.

Programme purchased, I headed to the River View Cafe for an absolutely  necessary shot of  caffeine and a chance to text other members of the group.  I could even see the river.  Meeting up was always going to be something of a logistical issue, given that we were from all parts of the UK – from the West Country, North Wales, the south coast and Scotland.   Plus, my phone seemed to throw a tantrum.  Why don’t they work properly when you need them to?  No matter, there was nothing for it, I would just have to wander around until I found the others – amid a crowd of thousands!

At this time of day the betting was that some, if not all, would be on Main Avenue looking at the Show Gardens, before it became too congested to see them. And so it was.  I met the West Country contingent by the Resilience Garden and we were shortly joined by those from Wales and some from Oxford, via Putney.

It was time for some serious garden viewing.  The planting this year was natural, but not quite the garden meadow and sprinkled wildflower natural which has prevailed in recent times.  There were a lot of mature trees, including a glorious Scots Pine, and green predominated.  Andy Sturgeon’s M & G garden deservedly won Best Show Garden, in this humble gardener’s opinion, with its burnt timber formations resembling ancient rock and setting off the jewel-like colours to perfection.

Thence to lunch. Fizz and smoked salmon on the grass, picnic style, where we met the Scottish and south coast contingents for some chat and catching up ( and lots of talk about this year’s Clapham Book Festival ). We disperse again in the afternoon, it being impossible to keep over a dozen people together in the growing crowds.

The Grand Pavilion is always worth visiting, with its wonderful displays and, this year, a Show Garden, the IKEA Tom Dixon; Gardening will Save the World garden.  This was intriguing, if not the most aesthetically pleasing garden, with the science on display beneath the raised ‘garden walk’.  Here were hydroponics, artificial light stimulated growing and lots of other clever ways of nurturing food plants.  Very interesting, but it couldn’t compete, in terms of impact on the eye, and the nose, with the traditional stands and their carefully chosen cultivars in riotous display.  ( This year the Bloms Bulbs man was in full tartan rig. ) Serious purchasing was done.

Time for a quick swing around those gardens which we hadn’t had the chance to visit, before meeting at a Pimms Bar – but which Pimms bar? There were several groups by now, all doing their own thing and lots of Pimms Bars, it was lucky that other people had functioning mobile phones.

A word for my favourite gardens, the Silent Pool Gin garden ( alas no gin, but excellent planting and lovely use of copper ) and the Greenfingers Charity Garden, not for the double storey so much as for the planting, with liberal use of fennel and angelica.  The D-Day sculpture garden was also immensely impressive in its own quiet way.

Another Chelsea over – though it goes on until Saturday of course and the sell-off.  It’s expensive ( £75+ for a day ticket and steep prices for everything once you’re in the Showground ) but then a ticket to a Premiership football match is not much cheaper and you only get ninety minutes ( at least the cricket goes on all day ).  I wouldn’t miss it.

For articles on Chelsea’s past and other gardening try                   London Summer Starts Here            Under Canvas                  RHS Chatsworth 

Voting in Spain

Amid all the Brexit turmoil ( though it’s gone suspiciously quiet recently – could it suit the two main party leaders to drift towards the Euro Elections I wonder ) we might forget that the polarisation of politics is going on in plenty of places other than the UK.

A ray of hope therefore from Spain.  On Sunday Spain went to the polls for the third time in four years after Pedro Sanchez’ minority government of only 84 deputies ( out of 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies ) failed to secure enough support for its budget.  This followed a period in which, since 2015, Spain has had no single strong ruling party, voters having returned the equivalent of a UK hung Parliament. This also coincided with the rise of the first extreme right-wing party – Vox – since Franco’s death in 1975 ( see Vox ).

The turnout was up, at 75%+, despite a degree of election fatigue. There was speculation, at least among my Spanish friends, that this was in reaction to the  apparent voter apathy which allowed Vox to take its first seats at regional level – in Andalucia and Extramadura – and a determination that this should not be repeated at the national level.

The result – an increased number of seats, up to 123, for Sanchez’ Socialists (PSOE) a left of centre social democratic party.  PSOE is now the largest block in the Cortes. In second place, just, the Partido Popular with only 67 seats, followed closely in third by Ciudadanos with 57.  The last of these, though tacking to the right, went nowhere near as far as the PP, which tried to steal Vox’s thunder.  Alberto Rivera, Ciudadanos leader says he wants to lead the opposition, but already media ( and many Spaniards I spoke with ) like the look of a PSOE Ciudadanos coalition.  A coalition of the centre.

I enjoyed watching the TV coverage in the run up and on election night.  My TV aerial was not functioning well so I watched the results come in on a channel I wouldn’t normally watch politics on, which made it even more interesting. Think Peter Snow, but in faded jeans, and speaking even more quickly, as coloured columns rise and fall around him.

I also went to check out the local polling station, in the large Post Office building near to us. I went along at lunchtime on Sunday and there was a long queue of voters snaking round the large room.  The Spanish system uses the D’Hondt method of proportional representation ( the same to be used in the forthcoming European Parliament elections ) with parties having lists of candidates.  I gathered up the listings, as well as a ballot paper (see photo above). One of my neighbours then went to register and cast her vote in a temporary voting booth ( which looked suspiciously like a temporary shower ).

On Sunday there was the leisurely perusal of the results in papers local and national.  The right-wing vote had fragmented, the centre had held. On-line and to the BBC and one could be forgiven for not noticing that the centrist socialists had won at all, so focused was the story on the rise of Vox.  That party did become the fifth largest, but did not do as well as many predicted and had itself proclaimed it would.  It’s sad to see the BBC so in thrall to what one can only describe as ‘click-bait’ news reporting.

Now it’s back to London, where the skies are less blue.  For more on Spanish politics and the remarkable trajectory of Pedro Sanchez see            All Change in Spain                                    Democracy III