Friday Night Drinks with… Julie Anderson

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Pubs are open again, hurrah! However, it is only outside drinking for now so my guest tonight is joining me indoors in my warm, virtual bar for chat and Friday Night Drinks. Please welcome to the blog, author…. Julie Anderson.

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Hi Julie and thank you for joining me for drinks this evening. First things first, what are you drinking?

Chilled white wine, so cold the glass is frosted.  A bottle of the wine sits neck deep in ice in a bucket at my elbow for us to share with our guests.

If we weren’t here in my virtual bar tonight, but were meeting in real life, where would you be taking me for a night out?

The wine is in an ice bucket because the air is warm, a balmy evening at the end of a hot day and we’re in Delphi, Greece, otherwise known as the ‘navel of the world’. We’ve driven up from Athens, through the traffic choked outskirts, across the farmland and into the mountains around the Gulf of Corinth, a drive of several hours. Now we’re sitting outside as the sun sets, on the terrace of a tiny, family run taverna on the edge of  Delphi which serves amazing fresh local dishes, dolmades, tzatziki and flatbread, wild boar stew and dessert made with Parnassus honey, washed down with the resinous local retsina.  But it’s the view which stuns. Beyond the railings of the terrace the mountain slope, covered in cypress and pine trees, falls away sharply, over 1,600 feet to the river far below.  On the other side of the valley are the peaks of the lesser mountains, ranging away to the horizon and the valley slopes away to our right, down to the plain and sea. We are on the slopes of the highest  mountain, Mount Parnassus. Its name means the mountain of the house of the god.

Delphi is the setting for my novel Oracle, the second in the series featuring Cassandra Fortune, Whitehall detective and, after the end of Plague, the first book, the envoy of the British Prime Minister. Cassie doesn’t eat at this restaurant, she is staying at the European Cultural Centre which lies just outside of Delphi town on the other side of a mountain ridge, but the view is similar there. Just around another ridge on the other side of town is the ancient Temple of Apollo, which is really a precinct of temples and buildings, including an amphitheatre, gymnasium and stadium, all set on the slopes around the massive Temple itself. The site has been a centre of worship since the Early Bronze Age (so about 3,000 BCE) and, when you look at the spectacular view you can see why – of course it must belong to a God.

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If you could invite two famous people, one male and one female, alive or dead, along on our night out, who would we be drinking with?

Given where we are I’m going to have to choose someone from the classical period, so my male invitee is Xenophon of Athens born about 430 BCE. He lived at a fascinating time, he was a pupil of Socrates, a contemporary of Plato and knew Cyrus the Great of Persia, his Hellenica details Greek history from the Golden Age of Athens to the rise of Macedon and Alexander the Great. He knew many of the politicians and generals he wrote about and was well travelled and open minded enough to understand and admire different peoples and cultures. He also wrote the Anabasis, an account of how he lead the Greek ‘Ten Thousand’, mercenaries who were leaderless and thousands of miles from home in Asia Minor, back to Greece.  This has inspired many books and novels and a cult 1979 film, The Warriors directed by Walter Hill. In addition to all this he found time to write many philosophical works and On Horsemanship, a manual on the selection, care and training of horses still in use centuries later. He visited Delphi and consulted the Oracle there. Would I have some questions for him!

My female guest is Agatha Christie, doyen of detective fiction and married to an archeologist, so someone who would feel quite at home in Delphi. I devoured her stories when a child, even if Sherlock Holmes was my favourite, not Hercule Poirot, but Christie is a cultural phenomenon. I’d have lots of questions for her, mostly about plotting ( I confess, I often find her plots contrived ), but also about her time as a pharmacologist during World War Two and how she used places she had visited in her books ( something which I do too ). She also had a civil service detective, in a series of little known stories, called Parker Pyne, though he was retired.

So, now we’re settled, tell me what you are up to at the moment. How and why did you start it and where do you want it to go?

I am mid-way through the first three books in a series featuring Whitehall investigator, Cassandra Fortune, for publisher Claret Press. The first book, entitled Plague, was published in September 2020 and I wrote an article about it for A Little Book Problem on 18th September. The second book, Oracle, is being published on 5th May, though it’s available for pre-order now. In the absence of book tours and signing sessions I’ve been doing lots of promotion and publicity online for both books.  Though that’ll have to take second place soon as I need to begin writing Opera, the third, which is due out in 2022. That one is set in London, as was Plague, so I’ll be closer to home.

The three books hang together as a trilogy, following the central character, although the plotlines are, mostly, stand alone. They’re all thrillers, but are also about political themes like power and justice, looking at corruption and cronyism (very topical).  That makes them sound boring, but they’re not, at least that’s not what readers say, who tell me that they’re gripping and exciting. I’ve agreed to write three, then I’ll decide whether or not to pursue the series.

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What has been your proudest moment since you started writing and what has been your biggest challenge?

2020 was such a strange year that the obvious candidates for proudest moment, like my first, traditionally published book launch, didn’t happen  there was so much that we were going to do that had to be shelved. I was really proud of my book being reviewed in the Literary Review, however, I didn’t know it was going to be and it was a complete surprise when it was. I was also really pleased when fellow writers, much more experienced than I, liked my book and were prepared to say so.

The biggest challenge is always to get the book out there and noticed. There are so many books on the market, from large publishers with deep pockets who focus on a small group of already famous or celebrity names so newcomers like me from small indie publishers don’t get much of a look in.  But then I’m sure some self-published authors would say that I was fortunate, so it’s all relative and we all face the same pressures.

What is the one big thing you’d like to achieve in your chosen arena? Be as ambitious as you like, it’s just us talking after all!

Oooh, there’s a question. I’d like to be involved in making a filmed or TV series of the Cassandra Fortune books, but my dream is winning some sort of big prize for writing.  Neither are likely.

What do you have planned that you are really excited about?

The next book – always the next book is the exciting thing. Opera is the culmination of the three books so far, but it might also, I hope, lead on to another.

There’s also this year’s Clapham Book Festival ( I’m a trustee of the charity which runs it ). The 2020 edition was cancelled, like so much else, but the Board have decided to go ahead this year with a mix of events, some physical, in the local theatre which we have used before, some virtual, bringing together authors from all over and some interesting additions, like literary walks led by authors. Clapham has always attracted writers and there are lots of places of literary interest.  It’s a great Festival, run entirely by volunteers and was, until COVID hit, attracting a growing audience.  Clapham Book Festival 2021 is going to be fab! It’s happening on 16th October, please tell everyone about it.

I love to travel, and I’m currently drawing up a bucket list of things I’d like to do in the future. Where is your favourite place that you’ve been and what do you have at the top of your bucket list?

I love where I live, but it’s an urban environment, so I would choose to visit somewhere rural. I really enjoy the Northumberland coastline, with its miles of beach, castles on promontories and little hidden churches and chapels, also the gently folding Devon countryside or wild Dartmoor.  Delphi is similarly apart from the city, the town itself is only small, though the ancient town must have been quite a size. The Temple site is fabulous, very atmospheric, especially when there’s a mountain mist. It’s tucked into a fold of the mountain so that you don’t see it until you’re on top of it. It must have been a magnificent sight when it all still stood, marble reflecting the sunlight.

There are wonderful mountain walks, on slopes roamed by wild goats and where bees, feasting on pollen from wild flowers and herbs, make the famous Parnassus honey. In ancient times, when Delphi was difficult to get to in winter, it was said that Apollo left to spend the winter months in the land of the Hyperboreans, the land beyond the north wind, which is sometimes identified with Britain. So his cousin and fellow god, Dionysus, ruled at the Temple during the winter. Dionysus was the god of the grape, of theatre, festivity and ecstasy, also known as Bacchus and there is a suitably Dionysian revel in the book.

The top of my bucket list would be to travel the great railway journeys of the world, but taking in music where ever I went. So, London to Istanbul would be on the Orient Express but via Paris (Opera), Vienna ( Musicverein ), Venice ( La Fenice ) Belgrade ( jazz and blues) Sofia (plain chant in the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral) to Istanbul. There I would stay at the Pera Palace Hotel, which is where Agatha Christie stayed  – it has a room dedicated to her.  I could even write for a time on the train. Absolutely perfect, but probably impossible.

Tell me one interesting/surprising/secret fact about yourself.

When I was a civil servant I found myself the nominal owner of one of the world’s smallest navies (it’s true). 

One of the areas for which I was responsible was something called ‘Bona Vacantia’ or ownerless goods.  This refers to the goods and effects of individuals who die intestate and without any relatives ( there is something similar for companies and corporations ).  Their property reverts to the Crown. Legally this idea goes back to the sixteenth century when Henry VIII was trying to raise money for his foreign wars. In this instance, however, a company which hoped to create a marine tourist attraction in the, then recently refurbished, Liverpool Docks, had gone bankrupt. It owned a destroyer, a mine sweeper, the ship on which the Falklands War ended and several other smaller craft. These reverted to the Crown, but had to be ‘owned’ by someone on its behalf, at least until the items were sold.

What happened to it, you ask. Well, I tried to get the First Sea Lord to take the destroyer, but he wasn’t game, the Navy having sold the unwanted ship to the defunct company in the first place. In the end most was sold for scrap. I just regret not having got myself a peaked navy hat.

Books are my big passion and central to my blog and I’m always looking for recommendations. What one book would you give me and recommend as a ‘must-read’?

Having just written Oracle I am heavily into Greek history, mythology and drama at the moment ( a quote from Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon opens the book ). Modern fiction in English seems to be having a ‘Greek’ moment, with writers like Madeleine Miller ( The Song of Achilles, Circe ) Natalie Haynes ( A Thousand Ships ), Margaret Attwood ( Penelopiad ) and Pat Barker ( The Silence of the Girls ) reinterpreting the ancient Greek stories, often from a female perspective. I can recommend all of the above.

The one book I would recommend right now, however, is the only novel of Harry Thompson called This Thing of Darkness. It follows successive voyages of the Beagle, captained by Robert Fitzroy ( pioneer in weather forecasting) with Charles Darwin as naturalist.  It has an almost perfect blend of history, science and adventure and brings that period and those, real, individuals to life.

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In 1831 Charles Darwin set off in HMS Beagle under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy on a voyage that would change the world. This is the story of a deep friendship between two men, and the twin obsessions that tear them apart, leading one to triumph, and the other to disaster.

So, we’ve been drinking all evening. What is your failsafe plan to avoid a hangover and your go-to cure if you do end up with one?

My plan is to drink lots of water at the same time as drinking the alcohol, especially when in warmer climes. And, given that one of the famous Delphic maxims is ‘Nothing in excess’ often translated as ‘All things in moderation.’ I’ll have to be careful. We don’t want to offend the god.

If I do end up hung over I try and replace the sugars and vitamins lost ( that’s my excuse ), so fresh orange juice, fruit cocktail with yoghurt and Greek pastries ( or croissants ). If I was somewhere cold it would be a bacon butty or a boiled egg with bread and butter soldiers.  In short, comfort food.

After our fabulous night out, what would be your ideal way to spend the rest of a perfect weekend?

On Saturday morning, hangover permitting, I’d walk up the mountain behind Delphi to the Corycian Cave where people have lived since Neolithic times. I’d trek across, via the stadium used for the Pythian Games (rivalling the Olympic Games in their time) to stand at the top of the Phaedriades, huge cliffs called the ‘shining ones’ which tower above the temple site. It used to be the punishment for blasphemy to be thrown from these cliffs and, in Oracle, a body is found at their foot.

I’d come back down into town and have an early lunch on a terrace at one of the other little tavernas, then spend the heat of the day in the Museum (which is air conditioned) looking at artefacts from and reading the history of the ancient site. That evening it would be to an outdoor concert or drama performance, either at the European Cultural Centre or in the temple site itself.  I would love to see Euripides’ The Bacchae in the amphitheatre, in which Dionysus is a main character. Or Eumenides by Aeschylus, which opens in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and ends at a ‘trial’ in Athens, just like Oracle.

Then on Sunday morning to the Temple itself, walking up the Sacred Way, past the ruins of treasuries built to house the many treasures and gifts which rich patrons dedicated to the God. Cities sent presents, so did whole islands and even Pharoah of Egypt dedicated gold and precious gems. No one wanted to offend Apollo. I’d go to the Castalian Spring at the foot of the Phaedriades, where the Pythia, the female priestess, bathed in ritual purification before she entered the Temple and became the Oracle. I like that this place was dedicated to Gaia the Great Mother before it passed to Apollo and that it was a woman, or women, who spoke with the God’s voice even after Apollo took over. I’m not sure I’d have fancied the ritual outdoor bathing in March ‘though. At that time of year it’s cold this high up.

A long and lazy Greek lunch would follow, probably before a nap and the drive back to the modern world.

Thank you for a really interesting chat, it’s been extremely enjoyable.

Julie’s new book, Oracle, will be published on 5 May and you can buy a copy here.

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High on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, near the ancient Temple of Apollo, a group of young idealists protest against the despoiling of the planet outside a European governmental conference. Inside, corporate business lobbyists mingle with lawmakers, seeking profit and influence. Then the charismatic leader of the protest goes missing.

Oracle is about justice, from the brutal, archaic form of blood vengeance prevalent in early human societies to modern systems of law and jurisprudence, set in the context of a democracy. This is the law and equality under the law which allows democracy to thrive and underpins the freedoms and safeguards for individuals within it. The story is interlinked with Greece’s past, as the ancient cradle of democracy and source of many of western ideas of government, but also to its more recent and violent past of military strongmen and authoritarianism in the twentieth century.

Oracle also considers, in the form of a crime thriller, the politicisation of the police and the justice system and how that will undermine justice, especially following the banning of Golden Dawn, the now criminal organisation which wrapped itself in the mantle of politics. It touches on the new academic discipline of zemiology, the study of ‘crime’ through the prism of the harm it does to people, especially those without power.

Julie Anderson was a Senior Civil Servant in Westminster and Whitehall for many years, including at the Office for the Deputy Prime Minister, the Inland Revenue and Treasury Solicitors. Earlier publications include historical adventure novels and short stories. She is Chair of Trustees of Clapham Writers, organisers of the Clapham Book Festival, and curates events across London. 

You can find out more about Julie and her books via her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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