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Troy: myth and reality

Terrific exhibition at the British Museum, which, among other things, tells the stories of the Iliad, the Odyssey and, to an extent, the Aeniad, through the artefacts of the ancient world, I recommend it very highly. Beginning with the marriage of King Peleus and sea-nymph Thetis, to which the goddess Discord was not invited, through to depictions of the characters in the Trojan epics in more recent art, this exhibition immerses the visitor in the world of Troy, the imagined as well as the archaeological city.  I spent several happy hours in it yesterday (and will be returning next week).

The words of Homer’s epic poems feature through-out, as you would expect, though Virgil gets a look-in too. The exhibition begins appropriately, with the opening lines of the Iliad ‘Rage – Goddess sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles‘.  Quotations sprinkle the show and there are recorded readings, in Greek and English.  The Roman bust (left) of Homer as blind poet can be found at the start, it is a copy of an older Greek original.  Statuary, in marble and, on a smaller scale, in metal and on stone sarcophagi features.  So do ceramics.

I had forgotten just how exquisite the painted decoration of Greek ‘red ware’ and ‘black ware’ was, from the coloured figures, like those on the large two handled pot depicting Achilles killing Amazon Queen Penthisiliea (right) or the Judgement of Paris on a wine krater, to the delicate line drawings showing Briseis being led away from Achilles’ tent.  I will also remember the stone bas relief showing this scene, with Achilles looking away in anger, but Patroclus placing a consolatory hand on Briseis’ shoulder as she is collected by Agamemnon’s soldier. A tender gesture.

It is testament to the power of the ancient story that the characters live so vividly again. But then, the story has been told and retold, as evidenced by the lines from the epics scribbled by ancient Roman children on the papyri copy books displayed. Its retelling is brought bang up to date with the poster from the, much derided, 21st century Hollywood film Troy and modern versions of The Judgement of Paris – photographic – and The Siren’s Song ( see left for the ancient depiction, below for the modern collage by Romare Bearden ).  Aficionados of the male body please note, Brad Pitt has quite a lot of competition in the buffed masculinity stakes, though it’s interesting that, even where a ‘hero’ such as Odysseus is obviously beyond youth and is depicted on artefacts with an older face, his body is still drawn as youthfully ideal. Hollywood’s fixation with perfect bodies is nothing new.

There is a very interesting section on the real city of Troy, or what we now believe is the real city. Not Schliemann’s much too early, if appropriately burnt, discovery but a later version. I didn’t realise just how many Troys there were, built on top of one another, but there are informative graphics showing just how these cities developed and when.  Indeed the whole exhibition is  well organised, with clearly written and illuminating captions. Technology, from the annotated drawings in light of various pieces of complex decoration to help the viewer unscramble some of the detail, to the videos showing the massing levels of the different Troys is used cleverly and well.

Personal favourites – the bas relief in which Paris looks thoroughly bored as Helen is loaded, along with the other treasures, on to his ship and the wonderfully evocative Fuseli drawing of the grief of Achilles as he kneels over Patrolus’ body.

The exhibition runs until 8th March and costs £20 to enter ( concessions £17 ). It is popular, so don’t leave it until the last minute, it will be very crowded. It took us two and a half hours to go round, taking a look at just about everything, ( though there were at least two school parties to deal with ).  It may take longer if it is even more full.

Very last chance to see…. wonderful…

…exhibition by Olafur Eliasson In Real Life at Tate Modern. It ends on 5th January, so if you live in or near to London and have a little spare time I strongly recommend that you go (but check ticket availability first, this is a VERY popular show and there are only a few days left so tickets might be hard to come by ).

People may remember Danish-Icelandic Eliasson’s brilliant, single The Weather Project bringing sunrise to the Turbine Hall of this same gallery some years ago and he has returned since then with his blocks of Greenland ice melting on the Thames-side forecourt in Ice-Watch to illustrate and draw attention to global warming, but this is a major show. It can be found on Level 2 of the newer part of the Tate ( although there is also a waterfall/fountain to be seen outside in courtyard ).

The first room is a collection of Eliasson’s models for larger works, often created with mathematician collaborator Einar Thorsteinn. Many of them are beautiful in themselves with lots of natural shapes, based, one imagines, on fibonacci sequences.  One model is of a finished work Your spiral view (2002) shown later in this exhibition. Room 2 contains early works and already we see the cleverness and simplicity of Eliasson. Window projection (1990) has the silhouette of a window shone, in light, on to a wall. At first sight the viewer imagines the light is coming through a window from outside, but no, there are no windows it’s just a lamp with a cutout on its lens. In Rainwindow (1999) the artists uses a real window but recreates the effect of the weather. These are typical of Eliasson’s interest in light and weather.

Room 2 also contains trickery in mirrors and glass, an insect’s eye glass and a mirror which is actually a hole.  This leads on to the Kaleidoscopes Room ( via a very interesting corridor which challenges the senses – I’ll say no more ). Here there are hanging reflective spheres and a walk-through corridor of reflections. Thence to a room with a projected, slowly transmuting image – all calm and tranquillity – followed by a room full of energy in which viewers find themselves part of an ever-changing art work on one of the white walls. It is so simple it seems effortless, but of course it isn’t.  Like Big bang fountain which is found in a small curtained-off room with no light at all save for a periodic strobe which illuminates a fountain, freezing the water into silver metallic images before the viewers’ eyes.

This exhibition is child friendly and there were plenty there today, many eagerly experiencing the changing light and reflections, most especially in the room with the mirrored ceiling and an, apparently, circular sculpture. This exhibition is also great fun (but heels are not a good idea ).

There are serious points to be made with the twenty year sequence of photographs showing the withdrawl of the ice-cap in Iceland and very beautiful works capturing the impact of melting ice on paint wash and colour discs which use the palette from two of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic nature paintings. In The Expanded Studio room we see the genesis and development of a number of projects, the design and creation of a solar powered light, the measuring of the disappearing ice and other environmentally engaged work, through film, artefact and notes.

It’s impossible to describe it all. Suffice to say that the visitor will come away with a new perspective on how one uses one’s senses, especially sight, as well as having learned a lot ( I certainly did ).  I have been wanting to see this exhibition since it opened and I’m glad I caught it. I’m only sorry that I didn’t go before and could return again!

Olafur Eliasson In Real Life is at Tate Modern until 5th January. It costs £18 for non-members and is worth every penny.

For more on Art see    Portrait of an artist        Bonnard Colours       Zubaran Impossible Light 

Less than two seconds….

… that’s the time a potential reader gives to the cover of each book when scanning a bookshop display or online screen.  So say the publishers. In that time the individual takes in the design, the title and whatever is written – tag-line or glowing review – on the front cover. If it doesn’t get their attention, their eye moves on to the next. So the pressure to make the cover arresting and appealing is intense.

The new novel from yours truly – a contemporary political thriller set in Westminster, entitled Plague – is due for publication in the Autumn of 2020, with review copies available in the Spring.  So I am currently engaged with publisher Claret Press and designer and artist Petya Tsankova in deciding upon the cover. Petya is a freelance graphic designer who frequently works with Claret Press.

I am used to working with cover designers. Readers of my blogs at The Story Bazaar will be familiar with the work of Andrew Brown, who designed the cover for Reconquista  see ( Reading a Book by its Cover ) and that of Dan Mogford ( Final Touches ) who designed the cover for The Silver Rings. Both are excellent designers who created covers which, in my humble opinion, have stood the test of time, with arresting images, bold and interesting lettering and sufficient of a theme to link the two together. Credit for this must go to Dan who designed the second of the two  and continued the pattern – quite literally when it came to the tracery at the foot of each cover.

Incidentally, both books in the Al Andalus series can be had half-price, for less than the price of a cup of coffee, at the Smashwords Christmas Sale which runs from Christmas Day until the New Year.

This time around, however, it’s not just the cover for Plague ( a very early version of which can be seen above left ). Plague is the first in a series of novels with the same protagonist, so there must be commonality in the designs for each of the covers, thereby establishing a brand. A quick visit to Amazon or any other online bookstore to take a look at a long running series will show how that translates in design terms.

So I have received not one, but three covers recently, for the first three books in the series. For Plague, but also for Oracle, the second in the series, which is set in Delphi, Greece and Opera the third, which returns to central London ( and which I have not yet started writing – although I know its last line – I have my writing life mapped out until December 2022! )

The covers aren’t final and they will change and develop ( the photo right does not do that cover justice ).  The title needs to be clearer I think, especially of Plague – two seconds, remember, and the eye moves on, the gaze won’t linger to decipher a word which isn’t understood immediately.  I do like the fractured nature of the space in the first set of covers,  the jagged edges which promise the excitement of the thriller within which remind me of film titles of the nineteen sixties.  But there’s a way to go yet….

In the meanwhile Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all readers!

 

Clapham Book Festival 2019

Calling all lovers of books and reading!  The countdown to the annual south London celebration of both has begun.  Clapham Book Festival takes place on 5th October 2019 at Omnibus Theatre.

The preparations are now well under way.  The CBF stall at the recent Clapham Summer Fete attracted a lot of interest from locals and visitors alike. It’s taken us almost four years but folk now expect the Book Festival to take place, it has become part of the Clapham scene.  Our stall this year had books donated by Clapham writers, especially those who had been prize judges. So they were, by and large, pristine copies at knock-down prices and some of them signed by the authors as well. One woman was delighted to find the signature in the book she had just purchased. We had a superb hand-made chocolate cake to raffle off as well (congratulations John, I hope it tasted as good as it looked).

Ably assisted by the ladies from The Reading Den another Clapham-based not-for-profit organisation which acts as an on-line central hub of advice and guidance for book clubs, we managed to raise £130 for the Festival, as well as doing a lot of promoting of the events ( and having fun talking about books and writers ).  Clapham Writers has at least three new members, who we hope to see at the Meet & Greet event after this year’s Fest.

We have also been out and about leafleting around Clapham. We were at Venn Street market on Saturday and our small battalion of volunteers is posting flyers through letterboxes all over Clapham. One may be coming through your door soon.

The Windmill on the Common has again supported the Festival by donating a voucher for an overnight stay for two in that boutique hotel as a prize in our Festival day raffle.  Last year’s winner was a Clapham resident who, as the occupant of a one-bedroom flat, was able to have his parents to stay by using the voucher.  Thank you The Windmill and Young’s Brewery.

As regards publicity, you will find us mentioned by the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors, in the Sunday Times On-line and in a veritable cornucopia of local media of various kinds.  There’s also a podcast coming out on 1st October.  Henry Hemming – Our Man in New York – had a double page spread in the Sunday Mail and Elizabeth Buchan – The Museum of Broken Promises – an excellent review in The Times.  Aida Edemariam and Ursula Buchan won the plaudits when their books, The Wife’s Tale and Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, respectively, were first published. That’s not forgetting our opener – Professor Kate Williams on the relationship between the Rival Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots – and Frank Gardner OBE, BBC Security Correspondent to close the Festival.

Tickets can be had at Omnibus £16/£13 concessions or £10/£8.  A snip at the price.  Buy soon, the events are filling up fast!

For more on Clapham’s own Book Festival try       On The Day….           Books and Walking – A Literary Trail 

Introducing….and reading

As part of 2019’s amazing line-up of authors at the Clapham Book Festival  on 5th October, we introduce a new type of session this year, of an author introducing his or her new book and then reading from that book.

Local historian, biographer and travel writer, Henry Hemming takes the inaugural slot talking about, then reading from, his latest book Our Man in New York.

After the hugely successful M, a biography of Maxwell Knight, MI5’s greatest spymaster, Hemming has moved on to tell the story of the covert British operation to manipulate public opinion in the US, using, amongst other things,  fake news and spin, to prepare the way for America to enter World War II. Our Man in New York has been described by William Boyd as “A revelatory and wholly fascinating work of history. Superbly researched and written with gripping fluency, this lost secret of World War II espionage finally has its expert chronicler.”  

As Nicholas Shakespeare has said, it is Gripping and intoxicating, it unfolds like the best screenplay.’ There are rumours that Hollywood is interested. So come along and listen to its author read an extract at five o’clock on Saturday 5th October.

For more on this year’s Clapham Book Festival take a look at the Programme on the web-site. Or buy your tickets at Omnibus Theatre.

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