Friday, 13 December 2019

A late medieval Christmas - or two, by Alex Marchant

With the holidays fast approaching, I thought it would be apt to offer a little festive post. A year or two back I was asked by a fellow blogger to write a Christmassy guest blog for her. As her blog covers mostly historical fiction, she asked me to take the theme of 'Christmas during the reign of King Richard III', King Richard of course being the focus of my two books to date (four if one counts the two charity anthologies I’ve edited!)

King Richard Christmas tree ornament!

Given that only two Christmas seasons were celebrated during Richard’s short reign, it seemed a slightly tricky prospect and I fell back on the idea of the ‘topsy-turvy Christmas’ of the medieval period, which features in The King’s Man – when a Lord of Misrule is elected and servants are waited upon by their masters, etc. (See  


But after a little more thought, I realized that in fact we do know rather more about those two Yuletides than I had initially thought. While the records of Richard’s reign are woefully thin on the ground (owing in some cases to deliberate destruction, because they didn’t fit the preferred story of the Tudor regime about this maligned king), enough survive for various reasons to give an idea of how he – and perhaps others of his time – celebrated this important religious and secular occasion.
I suspect in many ways, the feasting, dancing, mumming and other festivities, along with the religious observations, were not unlike those enjoyed in the previous reign of Edward IV or the following ones of the early Tudor monarchs, but a small window on King Richard’s Christmases can just about be prized open. This is particularly the case with his final Christmas, that of 1484, owing to the waspish words of a chronicler, who was likely writing some time after Richard’s defeat at Bosworth ... and taking the opportunity to view that time in hindsight and make the dead king’s actions blameworthy for what would come later.
Richard ascended the throne in the summer of 1483. The previous Christmas, 1482, it seems he spent in London, perhaps at his brother Edward IV’s court: Parliament had been called for the middle of January and Richard is known to have purchased gifts from a London goldsmith during the festive period. The following months wrought great changes in his life, and that of many around him: his brother died unexpectedly, Richard became Protector of the realm, his nephew – the new King Edward V – was declared illegitimate owing to his parents’ bigamous marriage, and Richard then was offered, and accepted, the throne as the next legitimate heir.
Autumn 1483 brought rebellion against the new king – by rival Lancastrians presumably seeing the upheaval as a chance to try again for the throne – but it was relatively easily quashed and King Richard returned to his capital in triumph, just in time for Advent. The scene was set for a magnificent Christmas at the new court.

From the Histoire d’Olivier de Castile

There is some evidence that Richard’s finances were precarious in the early part of his reign, owing to difficulties in securing his brother’s treasury during the Protectorate, and then the expenses of gathering and equipping the army to put down the rebellion. But his relations with the wealthy merchants of London and elsewhere were always amicable, especially after the various favourable laws he enacted in his only Parliament, and they were happy to advance money on various royal treasures, such as a gold and jewel-encrusted salt cellar and a helmet embellished with gold, gems and pearls, in order to fund the festivities. A bill to the enormous sum of £1,200 was run up with a mercer, no doubt to supply sumptuous gowns, outfits and gifts for the king, queen and courtiers, and Richard likely treated his wife, Anne, to the finest jewels, having earlier in the month licensed a Genoese merchant to import precious gems, so long as he himself was given first option to buy.

The Middleham jewel: might it have been made
for Queen Anne, perhaps as a Yuletide gift?

The following year, 1484, again brought tragedy for Richard’s family with the death of his only legitimate son and heir, little Edward of Middleham, in the spring. But in December, as the twelve days of Christmas began, it was again time for the conspicuous consumption that was required of a king. The court must impress with lavish feasting, gifts, entertainments, largesse, charitable donations, a display that would show all was well in the kingdom – whatever personal tragedy might befall its premier family, or whatever threat might be lurking abroad. For it is said that King Richard was brought news of Henry Tudor’s planned invasion during the Twelfth Night festivities – although that might be that devious chronicler juxtaposing unrelated events once again for his own purposes.
That chronicler, writing a year or two later at Crowland abbey in Lincolnshire, was also at it – as mentioned earlier – when deploring the opulent nature of the festivities. As so often happens with Edward IV, he let the previous king’s magnificent, even excessive celebrations a few years before have a bye, but Richard must be castigated – now that Henry Tudor has become king! He laments the expense, the splendour, even the quantity of singing and dancing (perhaps it was too much for a cleric) at the Yuletide court – but in particular he targets the ‘vain changes of dress – similar in colour and design’ of Queen Anne and her niece, Elizabeth of York, illegitimate daughter of the old king, saying ‘At this people began to talk, and the lords and prelates were horrified.’ His aim appears to be to link this with the later rumour that surfaced after Queen Anne’s tragic death the following spring, that Richard was considering marrying his niece – and may even have been responsible for his wife’s death – in the same way as he also appears to suggest little Edward’s death was somehow retribution for Richard’s earlier ‘crimes’.

Crowland Abbey

Yet in truth it had long been a tradition in medieval courts, both in England and elsewhere, that the entire household would dress in the same colour on certain feast days: during the lengthy Christmas revelries, they might alternate colours on different days, with the ladies wearing colours to complement the men’s outfits (which may have led to the enormous mercer’s bill mentioned above). And Richard had pledged to ensure Elizabeth married well, despite her illegitimacy, and by the spring was in negotiations for her to wed Duke Manuel of Beja, later King Manuel I of Portugal.

Elizabeth of York, Richard's eldest niece,
later wife to Henry Tudor

In my own novel for children, The King’s Man, telling the story of Richard’s ascent to the throne and his all-too-brief reign, my leading protagonist, Matthew, is kept abreast of events at court by letters from his good friend, Alys, which are ‘full of the colour and finery of the royal festivities’. And her words about the King and Queen fill him ‘with the good cheer suitable to the Christmas season’:
During Christmas they have looked happier than I had seen them for months, at least since that terrible time in the spring [when Edward died]. The Queen and Elizabeth and all the ladies have been wearing the most sumptuous gowns of cream and gold, while the gentlemen have dressed mostly in blues and greys. But on Twelfth Night – what a spectacle! We were all clad in red or gold, like flames in the great fireplaces of the palace. The Queen had made a gift to Elizabeth of a gown exactly like her own, and the King had presented them both with the most beautiful jewels. He then led both of them out to dance while everyone cheered and clapped.
One last moment of pleasure, maybe, before the dire events of the coming months. But, as always seems to be the case with Richard, everything must be viewed by Tudor sources and the later historians that follow them in the light of what later transpired, and must be related back to the crimes that this most maligned of kings is alleged to have committed. However, I prefer to think that perhaps Christmas 1484 offered this royal couple a brief glimmer of light, hope even, in an otherwise grim year. And it offers us a glimpse of the colourful celebrations of the time. Excess at this time of the year is nothing new!

Alex Marchant is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, The Order of the White Boar and The King’s Man, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name and Right Trusty and Well Beloved…, two anthologies of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). 

Alex’s books can be found on Amazon at:

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Save the Planet, Borrow a Book -- Misha Herwin

I have just read The Overstory by Richard Powers a powerful novel that has left a deep impression on me. The book follows the lives of a number of very different characters, ranging from a Vietnam veteran to a successful business woman and their involvement in a guerrilla campaign to save ancient trees. 

Reading this book I learned so much about the forests of America and how the individual trees support and communicate with each other. On that level alone it seems wrong to think of cutting down them down, but far more importantly these trees are keeping our planet alive. An old, well established tree cleans our air and helps to prevent the global warming which threatens all our lives. Destroying vast swathes of forest for short term commercial gain is positively suicidal.

Re-foresting helps, but that man-made woodland has nowhere near the biodiversity of the ancient forests. So it seems to me vital that we not only preserve the forests we still have, but we also look carefully at how we use wood.

I know that many books and paper products now use re-cycled paper, which is great. There is also the option to read on Kindle, or any other electronic devise, but for those of us who love the smell and feel of “real” books there are other alternatives. First you can always by second hand, think of the shelves and shelves of books in charity shops. Then you can share. I do this a lot with my friends. If one of us has a book they particularly like, or find interesting we lend it out, which doubles the pleasure as not only have you read it yourself but you’ve shared the joy. Sometimes I give away books I’ve enjoyed away because I know that I won’t be reading that particular one again.

Some communities have also set up their own little free libraries. These are small spaces, some look like mailboxes, others use existing structures like old phone boxes, which are filled with donated books.  

And then there are the public libraries. Libraries are wonderful places where you can read any book you like for free, or if you have to order it, it will cost you a minimal amount. Because of the varied selection of books, if you browse you will come across writers you’ve not heard or, or books you’ve never read and unlike in a bookshop there is no risk to taking them home. After all, if you don’t like it, it’s cost you nothing.

Which of course leads to the question−what does the writer get out of this? His or her book is being read but there is no financial reward and even writers have to eat.

This is where having your book in a library in the UK comes in. Because if you are part of the Public Lending Rights scheme, every time your book is borrowed you earn. It might not be a lot, but a popular author can do well.

Libraries are a very good thing. But they are under threat. To keep them going we all need to use them more. After all, the books are free and you are helping to save the planet. What’s not to like?  

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

It's All About Me | Karen Kao

Memoir is hot these days. At least, it was last year around this time when Michelle Obama’s Belonging was at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Educated, a memoir written by Tara Westover, followed close behind. Soon thereafter, I sat in on a memoir writing class. Not because I wanted to write my life’s story but to cheer on the teacher, Ellen Keith, a fellow faculty member at the International Writers’ Collective.

Memoir belongs to the genre of creative nonfiction, a broad tent that holds many circus animals: personal essay, travel narrative, memoir, blog, and autobiography. Unlike autobiography, which generally spans an entire lifetime, memoir is more thematic, focusing on a particular phase. It uses the same building blocks as fiction: a strong narrative voice and a story told in scenes.

It made me wonder: where does memoir end and fiction begin? Then Ellen distracted me with a hermit crab exercise.
Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide, or a recipe. Hermit crabs are creatures born without their own shells to protect them; they need to find empty shells to inhabit
Brenda Miller, “The Shared Space Between Reader and Writer: A Case Study,” Brevity, Jan. 7, 2017
Hermit crabs exist in fiction, too. Think of Lydia Davis and her “Letters." I wrote a hermit crab piece that day in Ellen’s class and was pleased with it. But when I got home, I took another look. Had I written a work of fiction or nonfiction?


Autofiction is a term coined in 1977 by Serge Dubrowsky. He was trying to distinguish his novel Fils from autobiography, which in his mind was a genre reserved for the Very Important. Nowadays, the term is applied to
contemporary authors—Knausgaard, Ben Lerner, and Sheila Heti, among others—whose “reality effects” create a strong sense of immediacy on the page, so that very little seems to separate the reader from the writer’s experience.
David Wallace, “‘Liveblog’ and the Limits of Autofiction,” The New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2018
In other words, the author is drawing from his own life, using recognizably autobiographical details, blurring the distinction between writer, narrator, and character. The concept is not at all new.
why do we need a unique term for this movement in contemporary literature, if authors have always used their own lives as inspiration for their work?
Rebecca van Laer, “How We Read Autofiction”, Ploughshares, July 1, 2018

Is It True?

If anything, a label like autofiction encourages readers to lift the veil. Is this story true? Which character are you? If you’re Jamie Quatro, your readers want to know what your husband thinks of your illicit sex stories. That is to say, did you do any of that stuff? My response to all that is so what? In fiction, you don’t get extra points for truth.

But in nonfiction, truth is the whole ball of wax. You don’t get to put words into a source’s mouth, create composite characters or compress multiple interviews into one efficient chat. You can’t make it up.

hermit crab
Image source: Wikimedia

So I look again at my little hermit crab and I’m still not so sure which species it is. My friend, the poet, asks what difference does it make? I cite the submission guidelines used by literary journals; you can only tick one box, fiction or nonfiction. The pragmatic poet says, submit it as both and see which one gets accepted.

Still, I demur. I’ve got the skeleton on paper. Do I now add a fancy dress, top hat, and cowboy boots? Or do I stare into the mirror and try to conjure up my youthful self? 


Memory is a slippery substance. What we remember may be the whole truth, a half-truth, or an utter lie. We often remember the telling of a memory better than the event itself. Even if I wanted to, it’s not so easy to recall events that took place 2 or 12 or 20 years ago.

It’s far easier to embellish as a novelist would. To put people in the room who were never there or words in their mouth that come out of your own. But that’s not how nonfiction works.
Image source: Wikipedia

factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with. If something is red and globular, you don’t call it a tomato if it’s a bell pepper.
John McPhee, “Structure,” The New Yorker, Jan. 14, 2013
I heed McPhee’s advice. I work with what I have and not what I want. At the same time, the novelist in me demands scenes and details: the color of his eyes and the taste of her chewing gum. My characterization must be accurate and alive. I want the reader to be moved, not because my work is true to my life, but because it could also be true to his.

On Lying

Dina Nayeri is the author of Refuge, a novel with visible ties to Nayeri’s own life. It’s the story of an Iranian girl who escapes to America, leaving her father behind in Iran. Nayeri acknowledges that her protagonist is loosely based on her father, just as she admits to examining her mother regularly in fiction and essay.
I love to write auto-fiction: it is, I believe, the purest, most powerful way to tell an honest story.
Dina Nayeri, “On Lying and Auto-fiction”, Read It Forward
Truth, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Nayeri’s father can accept the idea that his truth may differ from his daughter’s. To Nayeri’s mother, on the other hand, there can only be facts and lies. Nayeri makes no apology though she does acknowledge her debt.
I take too much from my parents. 
Memoir and autofiction have in common the power to hurt those we love. There’s a reason why most novels open with the disingenuous disclaimer.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Most of us don’t write with the intent to wound. Most of us, like Nayeri, are simply trying to solve the puzzle of our own life.

My little hermit crab might be a work of autofiction or it may be a bit of memoir. It doesn’t matter. I’m mining my life in service of a larger truth. If my hermit crab piece ever gets published I’ll let you know which shell it fell into.

Note: It's All About Me was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.  

Monday, 9 December 2019

Homo Reus? Death comes to Mozart by Julia Jones

Bars 7-8 of the Lacrimosa.  Mozart's last notes?
When the 9th of each month approaches I find a quiet moment in my head ask myself what's mattered to me recently: what might interest other people who like books and writing? Not everything converts into a blog. I didn't write about Francis's and my wedding last month as as I'm still reeling from the glorious emotional impact. Instead I wrote about a war memorial which we visited on our honeymoon -- an oblique testimony to Francis's generosity in organising a holiday that included so many places I wanted to explore, which might not necessarily have been at the top of his personal wish list (four ship museums, two naval memorials and a canal viewing -- in five days!)

This month, however, there's no quiet place in my skull, fragments of Mozart's D minor Requiem are echoing round, as they've been doing since we began rehearsals in September. The Requiem begs for peace but these fragments are not peaceful  I don't think Mozart was peaceful when he died. I think he was either rebellious or terrified, but I'm not sure which.

As everyone knows Mozart didn't finish writing the Requiem. There's good evidence to suggest that the last section he was working on, before he died, was the 'Lacrimosa'. The point where he is believed to have broken off is in bar 8 where the music builds to a chromatic, dramatic climax, then goes over the cliff edge on the words 'homo reus' = guilty man.  The words are not Mozart's; they are the words of the great Latin poem the Dies Irae. It's the way he sets them that's so extraordinary and compelling. The 'Lacrimosa' follows a chilling section where the condemned sinners are depicted, cast away into the bitter flames of hell. 'Confutatis maledictis, Flammis acribus addictis.' The narrative voice pleads desperately for salvation, as it has been doing for several verses already. But it's abject and exhausted 'Cor contritum quasi cinis' = my heart as empty as a cinder. 

Weeping, says the 'Lacrimosa', with apparently exquisite sweetness, is the only possible reaction because everyone will be called up from the ashes to be judged -- and everyone is guilty: 'homo reus'. Is that what Mozart, the Catholic, thought? Is that how he died, in mental anguish? I wrote the programme notes for our concert but they're rather long and it's a busy time of year. Perhaps you should just listen to the first 42 seconds of this YouTube clip and see what your ears tell you as the music builds to that high A in the soprano part, and topples down -- 'homo reus'. 

Lacrimosa bars 1-6

(Programme notes for Waltham Singers concert, Chelmsford Cathedral 23.11.2019)

Requiem in D minor KV 626

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
completed by Franz Xavier Süssmayr (1766-1803)

At the beginning of 1791 Mozart was living in Vienna. He was married to Constanze Weber and they had conceived five children of whom only one had survived. Constanze was again pregnant and in poor health; their relationship may have been difficult and money was short. It was, however, a year of astounding productivity. Mozart wrote a second string quintet for a Hungarian patron; completed a set of five pieces for mechanical organ; supplied his salaried quota of dance music; completed the piano concerto in Bb major and began collaborating with the theatrical impresario Emanuel Shikaneder on The Magic Flute.

Visiting Constanze at Baden in June during the last month of her pregnancy he wrote Ave Verum Corpus then, soon after the birth of their sixth child, Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, he dashed to Prague, accompanied by his assistant Franz Xaver Süssmayr, Constanze (and presumably the baby). Working as they travelled, he completed  La Clemenza di Tito in just eighteen days. On his return to Vienna in mid-September he felt ill and exhausted. He dosed himself with drastic remedies (which may, or may not, have hastened his death) then wrote the Clarinet Concerto in A major. He was fully involved in the rehearsals and early performances of The Magic Flute, which opened on September 30th 1791, but still had one major commission outstanding.

In July a somewhat mysterious ‘man in grey’ had called on Mozart to order a requiem. Count Franz von Walsegg’s wife had died earlier in the year; he wanted a mass in her memory and he wanted the world to think he had written it himself. The message was therefore conveyed by a third party and the requiem was to be composed in strict secrecy. So far, so mundane, but as Mozart felt increasingly ill after his return from Prague he began to believe he had been poisoned. The nature of this commission began to prey on his mind. Although, when he felt just a little better in November, he agreed that the poisoning had been a product of his imagination, yet this remained a period of intense and fluctuating emotion, both for Mozart himself and for those around him. His reported conviction that he was writing his own requiem is psychologically credible: sadly the music does not suggest that he became resigned to his fate.

There’s little agreement as to the cause of Mozart’s death – except that he wasn’t poisoned by Antonio Salieri.  The two composers may have been musical rivals but were on personally amiable terms: Mozart’s last surviving letter to Constanze in October 1791 mentions that he had given Salieri a lift to The Magic Flute and tells her how much the older composer had enjoyed the evening. Later Salieri would be young Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart’s music teacher. But Vienna was a rumour mill, Mozart’s private life was often colourful and speculations connected with his untimely death were passed around until the unfortunate Salieri, living with dementia in his last years, confusedly accused himself. Pushkin picked up on the story and wrote Mozart and Salieri, a short play on the theme of envy which portrays the older composer slipping poison into Mozart’s wine. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov repeated this in an opera, including quotes from the Requiem. For modern audiences however, the most potent fiction is Peter Schaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus, which became a successful film in 1984 and cast Salieri as the sinister individual who plotted to steal the Requiem and do away with its composer.

Both Pushkin’s and Shaffer’s Salieri was motivated by his corrosive jealousy of Mozart’s genius. Looking at the quality as well as the quantity of the music written during 1791 it’s an understandable reaction.  Leopold Mozart, a devout Catholic, had accepted his son’s gifts as God-given and while Mozart’s adult religious views may have been complicated by his involvement with Freemasonry, he remained a lifelong member of the Church. The structure of the Requiem follows the established format for a memorial Mass, including essentials such as the Kyrie, Sanctus and Angus Dei (but no Gloria or Credo) and additional elements; the Requiem prayer itself, the Offertory, Benedictus and Communion. The central Sequence is a setting of the mediaeval Latin poem, the Dies Irae, which was also a regular feature of a Mass for the Dead. These traditional words and concepts emerge with a new immediacy, even to listeners who have no belief in Hell or interest in the mechanics of Judgement Day.

The effect (to my ears) is a felt-on-the-pulses expression of the individual facing his own mortality – fear, grief, resentment – together with a painful acknowledgement of guilt. Mozart’s father worried that his son didn’t go often enough to Confession: today only a small minority would consider that activity, nevertheless most of us are sufficiently self-reflective to know how shameful our private failings and collective irresponsibility would appear if they were considered from a truly dispassionate perspective – as at a day of reckoning. The human consciousness at the centre of the Requiem accepts this guilt (as theology and the verses of the Dies Irae insist) but though the words are submissive, the music remains strong. The soul awaiting judgement doesn’t only beg for mercy; it wheedles, flatters, negotiates, pressurizes for it – particularly through the Sequence and also in the Offertory.

There’s definite sense of an individual experiencing consciousness throughout Mozart’s sections of the Requiem but it’s hard to find the right definition – soul won’t really do as it’s sometimes so corporeal. The perspective also changes: in the first movements (Introitus & Kyrie) it’s that of an observer. The Adagio entrance suggests the approach of a cortege: death has happened, but it is not (yet) ours. A wave of instrumental grief threatens the emotional control but, at the outset of this work, personal feeling can be sublimated by the activity of pleading on behalf of others: the primary purpose of a requiem mass, just what Mozart had been commissioned to provide. The soprano soloist offers formal respect to God: ‘Te decet hymnus’ on behalf of former civilisations (Sion and Jerusalem); then the chorus reminds itself that everything mortal will die. The request for light and peace becomes correspondingly more urgent. 

The impression of singers and instrumentalists piling up their pleas is embodied both here and elsewhere by the contrapuntal construction: voices come in one after the other all uttering the same request. Mozart was unusual for his period in that he had studied Bach’s Art of Fugue and he had also been employed to prepare new editions of some Handel oratorios. In the Kyrie Mozart chooses to quote the aria ‘And with his stripes we are healed’ from the Messiah.  It’s almost a nod to the knowledgeable, using the allusion to remind his listeners that Jesus might potentially be a source of help.  In Mozart’s version of the fugue the second subject (Christ) is introduced very quickly, just a bar after the first Kyrie (God the Father). The singers and instrumentalists hurry along, confidently encouraging one another – until they almost reach a moment of resolution…They pause, realise fully what they’ve been taking about and launch into the Dies Irae. Throughout this central section there’s a sense of soloists and singers sharing their knowledge, listening to one another and eliciting increasingly personal and confessional statements – as well as expressing their shocked reactions to the horrors in store.  The consciousness is human and alive, not yet ready to face the possibility of eternal condemnation, wondering whether there might not be a way out.

Death came for Mozart early in the morning of December 5th 1791 just eight bars into composing the Lacrimosa. Singing what may have been Mozart’s final notes feels a startling experience. Bars 4 – 8 describe the moment that guilty man is resurrected from the ashes to face judgement. It’s a steadily rising sequence that begins as a panting struggle up the D minor scale (quavers and rests) then continues past the tonic note, moving loudly and chromatically up to a high dominant A. To my ears the words at the peak of the scale, ‘homo reus’ (guilty man) sound both anguished and defiant – or is that simply terrified? The setting of the word ‘lacrimosa’, flowing and dissolving, brings a sense of mourning and human grief. Strictly speaking ‘lacrimosa’ applies to the Day, not the people, yet the lilting beauty of this music opens emotional floodgates.

Mozart’s method of composition was to sketch out lines and overall shapes of sections in advance, then return to them and fill in the orchestrations etc. There is therefore plenty of authentic Mozart still to come after the beginning of the Lacrimosa. He had already sketched out the Offertory and may have suggested the idea that the ending of the work should be a return to the opening plea (though this is disputed). In more recent years a scrap of an Amen has been discovered which might have been intended to come between the Lacrimosa and Dominus Deus. Constanze Mozart, intent on establishing the authenticity of her husband’s work, claimed there were other fragments (‘Trummer’) which guided Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s completion of the Requiem in 1792.

Süssmayr had been living and working closely with Mozart and his family, assisting as copyist for both The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito (for which he also wrote the recitatives). He’d played through and discussed parts of the Requiem with Mozart, and might perhaps have been told about ideas for its continuation and overall shape. The strong liturgical basis must also have helped.  Süssmayr had previously spent eight years as a chorister and instrumentalist in a Benedictine monastery where he had gained experience in composing as well as performing church music. Bizarrely he was not Constanze’s first choice to finish the work: she turned to him only after other composers had tried and failed. There were, it seems, relationship issues (‘I was angry with Süssmayr’). The completion of the Lacrimosa, together with the Sanctus, Benedictus and Angus Dei and the orchestration of most of the Dies Irae– totalling about 1/3 of the Requiem – is Süssmayr’s, an achievement which deserves to be recognised, though it is fair to say that his sections of the work are noticeably less conflicted than those written by the terminally ill Mozart.

Mozart’s body was buried in the city’s common grave on December 7th 1791 – and the 37 year old Süssmayr joined him in 1803. On December 11th 1791 Constanze successfully appealed for a pension from the emperor. Though she may have allowed personal considerations to discourage her from immediately asking Süssmayr to complete the Requiem, in general her business sense seems to have been shrewd. There was no chance of Count von Walsegg taking advantage.  She was careful with her husband’s unpublished manuscripts, careful with his reputation – though perhaps some of those rumours about possible causes for his sudden death might have encouraged people to support the benefit concerts arranged for her and her children. Constanze married again in later life and was Mozart’s first biographer. The baby, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, became a composer.

Francis and I did attend one concert while we were away.
This was in Amsterdam where the orchestra included an unscheduled piece
by the Czech composer Pavel Haas. The announcer explained that Haas had been filmed
conducting this in Theresienstadt as part of a documentary depicting humane conditions there.
The following week (autumn 1944) he was deported to Auschwitz where he was murdered.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

S5-HVS1 by Bill Kirton

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

This is a deliberately different blog, but it’s not very long, so please bear with me. I know it's that season, but I didn't want to do any Star of Bethlehem stuff, so I found a substitute and decided to tell you about a star called S5-HVS1. I know, I know... it's not a very romantic name. But that's fine, because it’s not a star you’ll gaze at with your loved one as you quote Byron at her/him and swear eternal devotion. Why? Because it’s heading out of the Milky Way at 1,700 kilometres A SECOND.

But it wasn’t always so hell-bent on leaving us.

Oh no. Once it was part of a binary star system, but the two of them got a bit too close to Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the middle of the Milky Way, which is bigger than 4 million suns. (Actually, 'bigger than' is probably wrong there because, apparently, when something has 'greater mass' than something else, that doesn't necessarily mean it's bigger.)

Anyway, it turned out be not a good idea, because the two stars spiralled inwards, and the one which wasn’t S5-HVS1 switched into a binary partnership with Sagittarius A*.

Well, we’ve all heard what black holes are like and, sure enough,  the star which wasn’t S5-HVS1 got sucked into its new partner and just vanished into… well, nowhere. But…

another result of this break-up of the relationship was that poor old S5-HVS1 was not only ditched by its partner, but got hurled away at a ridiculous speed and, in about 100 million years, it’ll leave our galaxy and carry on drifting through intergalactic space, all on its own, FOREVER.

But my point in writing of this event in such a seemingly flippant way is not really to highlight the phenomenon itself. It’s to register my awe at the fact that a handful of human beings (at the Siding Spring Observatory of the Australian National University, as it happens) have actually measured and speculated confidently about it and have brains huge enough to comprehend things such as enormous speeding stars, galaxies, black holes, event horizons and even conceive of eternity itself.

In fact the whole process I’ve described (thanks to a report in The Guardian newspaper) is known as the Hills mechanism, because the astronomer Jack Hills proposed the likelihood of it happening more than 30 years ago.

A member of the team, Emeritus Professor Gary Da Costa said that S5-HVS1 will just ‘keep going and eventually end up as a white dwarf like our sun; it just won’t have any neighbours’. (
I love the casual use of ‘eventually’ there.)

When Hamlet told Horatio: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in thy philosophy’, he didn’t know the half of it.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Aunty Debbie Returns ...

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? So you all thought Aunty Debbie’s helpful problem page had ceased trading since the last post? Well, no such luck – I’m still here and still dispensing wisdom like oil of cloves on a rotting tooth. And probably about as useful …

I bet you think I make all this rubbish up, don’t you? And I do. Sort of. But every ‘question’ I’ve answered in this little series has been based on fact – a snippet I’ve read online, or heard people discussing. Yes, I have on occasion embellished reality in order to make a point (hey, I am a writer; it's what we do), but the basis is all real. There really are people – authors and readers – out there who genuinely believe this stuff. And it’s my mission to put them straight!

Dear Aunty Debbie: I’ve just read this fantastic book on my kindle. Would you like to read it too? I can email it to you with another one I bought last week. In fact, I bought a USB stick from some bloke on the internet – it was only a tenner and he promised me it had at least a hundred free books on it and some of them haven’t even been published yet! How cool is that? A Canny Reader.

Dear Canny Reader: Not cool at all. In fact, you should be burning hot with embarrassment. What you think of as free stuff is actually piracy, theft, fraud – however you want to dress it up. Do you not think the authors of those books deserve to get paid for their work? I bet you were one of those people who bought cassette tapes from the dodgy man with the suitcase on the corner of the street, then got them home and wondered why the writing/images on the cardboard sleeve were blurry. Because they were ripped off from the genuine article. Digital technology makes it easy to share stuff at the same quality – but just because you can does not mean you should. Aunty Debbie says buy your goods from a reputable supplier, or direct from the creator.

Dear Aunty Debbie: I’ve always wanted to write a novel. What should I do? Can you tell me how to write, what to write and send me details of publishers. A Lazy Writer.

Dear Lazy Writer: I have enough work to do of my own – why do you think I should do yours too? If you want to write, then write. No excuses, just do it. Having time, space, a computer etc all help, but it’s completely possible to write on the bus with a notebook and pencil if that’s all you have. And write what fires you – if you’re not passionate about your subject, your reader will be bored too. As for details of publishers: if you have to ask, then you are not ready to submit stuff to anybody. Part of the apprenticeship these days is finding your way, working out how the business operates, who are the sharks and the cowboys. In the era of the internet and social media, there is really no excuse any more for ignorance. Aunty Debbie says just get on with it!

Dear Aunty Debbie: I’ve written a book and it’s 300,000 words long. It’s my true life story and it needs to be published as the world needs to know about it. My best friend says I need to make it shorter but I can’t because it all really happened. An Autobiographer.

Dear Autobiographer: Well first off, congratulations for sticking with it. That’s a lot of words. Now here’s the hard part – your life is very interesting to you, but will probably bore the pants off everybody else. Take a look in the book shops and you’ll see that all the (auto)biographies are about or by people who have a genuine story to tell. Maybe they are famous – a sportsperson, an actor or singer. Or maybe they have survived torture, abuse or other tragedy or disaster. Perhaps they have a unique perception of a common job, an undercover account of reality versus the public face. Does your story match any of that? If not, then you have a few options – you can keep it as it is and leave your life-story to your family for posterity. Or you could cut it down and spice it up a bit and publish/sell it as fiction. It all depends on what your aim is. Aunty Debbie would go for the latter, but then she loves a bit of spice …

If anybody has any questions for Aunty Debbie to answer in future columns, please send them with a crisp fiver to any address you can find for me. Aunty Debbie accepts no responsibility for any of the advice provided. You're on your own, guys ...

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Listing (Cecilia Peartree)

I was making a list of presents to give people for the occasion which I suppose we can now mention (Christmas) when I had the idea for the title of this post. It was only after I had thought of it that I remembered two alternative meanings which seem curiously relevant. I've checked online and found there are far more than two meanings, and they all appear to have originated differently. Just thought I would throw in something related to writing here!

To begin with the Christmas present list, I am very uninspired this year, a feeling that is not entirely unprecedented as I have had spells over the years of either hating the whole season or just barely tolerating it. I don't think it really gets much better than that, although I've worked out as I got older that actually it's the darkness of this time of year I hate, and that my mood will always improve marginally once we get past the winter solstice. Which of course is why Christmas and New Year happen at this time in the first place. Of course there are lots of external factors making me even less enthusiastic this time, such as the impending election (December 12th) about which I'd better not begin to comment. I''m not sure if that's what has caused me to write 'socks' opposite the names of several family members, but it must be a contributing factor. On the other hand, one of my sons told me once that he loves getting new socks for Christmas. Probably not as much as he loves new computer game technology, but it seems to be quite a close thing. My grandson is the only one I've actually bought anything for to date, because I can never resist toys and books for children.

I think part of the problem for me is that, in spite of the list-making, I feel rather listless.. Of course I have just completed 50,000 words of a novel in November for NaNoWriMo, which might help to explain it, particularly since this past month has been particularly challenging. It didn't help that on the 1st of the month I was surprised at my writing desk by the appearance in the doorway of a doctor from our local practice, accompanied by a student. This kind of thing would happen quite frequently when my husband was first released from hospital in May or thereabouts, because there were carers and physiotherapists and district nurses and they could all let themselves into the house using the key from the key-safe at the front door. It hadn't happened for a while, hence my surprise, which was magnified when the doctor announced that my husband was ill again and should really go back to hospital. This turned out to be easier said than done, because about half an hour later, having been upstairs to have a look at my husband, the doctor returned and announced that he had refused to go to hospital. This didn't surprise me as the last time he was summoned there for a scan they kept him in for a week, during which every time I went to visit him, he tried to persuade me to take him home in the car

The doctor's visit was the signal for all sorts of other tasks for me to do, such as visiting the local practice and rushing to the pharmacist for more antibiotics, and then one evening when I was waiting for our Just Eat delivery two people from something called the Hospital at Home service appeared on the doorstep, which was very disappointing as I had been looking forward to fish and chips. Anyway, things were all right in the end and I feel that my husband's stubbornness was vindicated.

As November went on, other random events took place that I selfishly resented for disrupting my NaNoWriMo activity. The whole family (apart from my husband who was full of antibiotics by that time) became ill in one way or another, and my car had to have some welding done to make it fit to pass its MOT test, a process which is still going on. Fortunately I hadn't been able to drive for 4 weeks recently following my cataract surgery, so I already had the number for the best taxi company saved in my phone and was accustomed to calling them day or night from almost any location. I even had to take Jacques the cat to and from the vet by taxi when he mysteriously developed a limp in a front paw, perhaps in sympathy with others in the family. Incidentally the 'new' cats are now allowed downstairs, which means there are 3 of them poised to jump on my keyboard as I type instead of just one. The small black and white cat who used to hide behind an old fridge in my son's game-playing room, has now taken to sleeping behind books in the bookshelves in the front room, and the grey female one has not given up on her pointless feud with Jacques, the original cat, but now wages it from the chair next to the radiator in the kitchen.

The only nice thing that happened during the month, apart from the fact that I managed to pound out 50,000 words of a historical novel sequel in just over 3 weeks, was that the optician told me my eyes were now good enough for driving even without the new lens I've just had put in my spectacles. I indulged in the pleasure of driving to work for approximately a week before the welding saga began.

To get back to the title of the post, I have an image in my mind of a ship listing as it prepares to sink beneath the waves. Although hoping not to sink, I do sometimes list to one side as I walk, although I've taken to using two sticks when I go out, especially if I have to use public transport or walk along any pavements.