Friday, 23 December 2016

A week in China

I have been on a week long book tour to promote the Chinese editions of my books. A fascinating whirlwind visit:  three cities (Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing) , five talks with the aid of my excellent book translator and interpreter Hans Lu, ten interviews (I think), about two thousand books signed. The enthusiasm of Chinese readers for Mediterranean history has taken me - and indeed, I think, my Chinese publishers - by surprise.

A little practice at signing my name

The size, the energy and the sheer gaudiness of the cities was surreal. Christmas musak in hotels, giant teddy bears dressed up as Father Christmas - China appears to have the appetite to absorb all traditions and festivals in its rush to consumerism after the decades of Maoist austerity
The castle is entirely edible. The bricks are cinnamon flavoured biscuits; its snow capped turrets are icing.

I was whisked from city to city on bullet trains at about 200 miles an hour, through flickering landscapes of fields, huddled traditional villages, lakes, rivers and the repeated sightings of new mega towns and their stooping cranes rising on the horizon like mirages in a desert.

The attention of the audiences, the depth of their questions, and their desire to take photographs at book signings were amazing and surprising. Not to mention the limitless dedication to social media on all occasions. 30, 000 people watched the last talk on live streamed video.

The talk in Nanjing was held in one of the most extraordinary bookshops I've ever been to. The Librairie Avant-Garde is in a converted underground car park. It's a vast temple to literate  book loving, owned by a Christian, hence the cross. The welcome there included a hat, as worn by the bookshop staff, and a fabulous piece of travel luggage, courtesy of a Chinese travel company who helped sponsor the visit - the must-have marketing tool for all authors!

There were brief opportunities for sight seeing. The Forbidden City in Beijing on a clear, smog-free sunny day was extraordinarily impressive, followed by a ramble through the hutongs (the network of traditional narrow lanes with houses built round courtyards),

Street food in the hutongs

I also had an enjoyable morning's tour of central Shanghai - the Bund, the old European trading centre on the banks of the Yangtze, now facing an immense panorama of twenty first century skyscrapers across the water - Stockholm remade as Manhattan - and the streets around.

I got to sample a wide range of Chinese cuisine - and  my chopsticks skills held up reasonably well!

Thanks so much to Mr Li, Hans, Joan and Fengyun - the man who made it all happen.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

A day in Castelló d'Empúries

The largest double font in the world?
I rediscovered this blog post...I've been in southern France recently, with occasional forays into Catalonia - the north east Mediterranean corner of Spain. North of Barcelona I spent a few hours in the wonderful little medieval town of Castelló d'Empúries, just behind the mass tourist coast. It was a visual treat.

Walls of sulphur yellow

The spectacular doorway of the Romanesque Santa Maria de Castelló.

Doors and signs - the last a homage to Ovidi Montllor, Catalan singer and actor

And lunch...

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Gloucestershire man discovers India…sort of...

During research for my book Conquerors about the Portuguese voyages of discovery I unearthed a remarkable connection to England and the region in which I live. When the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama rounded Africa in 1498 he was not just the first man to discover a sea route to India and join up the world – he was also the descendant of a Gloucestershire family.

It’s often said that England and Portugal are Europe’s oldest allies. Both are seafaring countries on the Atlantic sea board which traded with each other in medieval times. English crusaders stopped off at Lisbon in 1147 and helped the king of Portugal expel the Muslim rulers of the city. Many of the English stayed and settled down. Trading links and agreements followed. In 1373 Edward III concluded a treaty with the envoys of the Portuguese king to send archers to resist attacks from the larger neighbouring kingdom of Castile.

It was eight years before an expeditionary force could be assembled. The Duke of Cambridge gathered some 3000 men at Plymouth. Amongst those who went was ‘Frederick Sudley of Gloucestershire’.  Frederick evidently originated from Sudeley, near Winchcombe, but his exact origins seem uncertain. He could not have been a son of John de Sudeley, 3rd Baron Sudeley, who died in 1367, as he had no direct heirs, but it’s possible to hazard a guess that he was a member of the family, and a figure of some importance.  If so, Frederick would have contributed his own band of men-at-arms and archers to the expedition. Eight ships from Bristol sailed round to Plymouth to join the Duke of Cambridge – it seems likely that Sudley and his Gloucestershire contingent made the journey on these ships. They finally landed at Lisbon in June 1381.
Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire

The English expedition achieved nothing. The men were unpaid and the whole enterprise quickly collapsed. After a few months they returned home. However Frederick Sudley decided to stay in Portugal where he prospered. His name, rendered as Sodré in Portuguese, became prominent.  He had a son João (John) and a grand-daughter Isabel who married Estêvão da Gama, from a wealthy and titled family. Vasco, their son, was Frederick’s great-grandson.

Vasco da Gama
It has to be said that the Sodrés and the Gamas were a rough lot. Two of Isabel’s brothers, Vicente and Brás Sodré, accompanied Vasco on his second expedition to India. These Sodrés were Vasco’s uncles but were hardly older than him. The anglo-portuguese crusading tendency remained strong.  Vicente was a member of the powerful Christian Order of Christ, the Portuguese successor to the Templars, and the governor of its fortress town at Tomar.  It’s likely that the Sodré brothers and Vasco da Gama had grown up together at Sines on the coast of Portugal and had shared experiences of piracy, raiding Muslim ports and capturing ships.  When Vasco returned from his second voyage to India in 1503 Vicente Sodré remained in control of Portuguese ships in the Indian Ocean, accompanied by his brother Brás . Unfortunately the Sodré brothers became distracted by the lure of plundering Arab merchant vessels and ended up being shipwrecked off the Arabian Peninsula. Vicente was drowned. Brás died in mysterious circumstances – it’s been suggested that the Sodré brothers had greedily kept the lion’s share of the plunder for themselves and that  Brás was so hated that he was murdered by his own men.  Recently there’s been the probable discovery of the remains of one of their ships off the coast of Oman.
Picture of cannonball

Picture of bell
Cannon balls and the ship's bell from the shipwreck
The Sudeley connection is still recorded in modern Lisbon – the family gave its name to a riverside area beside the river Tagus, the Cais do Sodré (Sudeley’s Quay). Once a rough sailor’s haunt it’s now a trendy area of bars and restaurants, and a transport hub. There’s a Cais do Sodré railway and metro station and a ferry terminal across the Tejo.  The ships that carried Vasco da Gama and a Gloucestershire name to India in the fifteenth century were built on the river banks nearby. In the wake of Vasco’s arrival in India, the Portuguese developed a wide-ranging empire and Frederick’s descendants sailed with them. Today you can find Sodrés across the Portuguese speaking world, particularly in Brazil. The Sudelies have travelled a long way from the slopes of the Cotswold Hills.
Cais do Sodré in the past

And now

Thursday, 25 February 2016

An Istanbul bookshop

'So often, in the past as well,' Van Gogh wrote in a letter, 'a visit to a bookshop has cheered me up and reminded me that there are good things in the world.'

Whenever I travel I like to go into bookshops, even if I can't understand the language. One bookshop I always visit when I'm in Istanbul - or actually two on opposite sides of the popular road between Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar in the middle of the historic city - are the English language bookshops of Galeri Kayseri.

Book shop Istanbul, Turkey

They have an unbeatable collection of book on Turkey in English - art books, history books, novels - everything from ancient Turkey to modern times, the Byzantines to the Ottomans, from Orhan Pamuk to...well me! It also showcases a lot of English language publishing on history and art produced in Turkey itself, books you can't find anywhere else. They're simply the best bookshops on Turkey in the world for English language readers.

I always drop in to see what's new and to talk with the two brothers who run the shops, Selahattin and Şener Tüysüz, about books and the history and architecture of Istanbul, on which they're immensely knowledgeable.

Selahattin in the main shop

Whereas everyone else in Istanbul is trying to sell me carpets, Selahattin and Şener sell me ideas for new books that I should write. Just now - or rather for my last couple of visits - they've been urging me to write a book about Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest of sultans in the Ottoman golden age. It's a fantastically rich period of history. Or historical thrillers. I might just be tempted, one way or another!

 I'd always recommend a visit to Istanbul - and a trip to Galeri Kayseri in the process.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

How did Shakespeare speak?

I've always been fascinated by how Shakespeare's plays must have actually sounded. You get a hint sometimes from the baffling false rhymes - 'love' with 'prove' for example - so it's fascinating to hear one of his sonnets reconstructed by the famous British authority on language and linguistic history, David Crystal. To my ears a mixture of West Country and Midlands, with an earthy depth to it:

Thursday, 31 December 2015

A day out in the past

We went to Canterbury for Christmas. On Boxing Day – 26th December – we had our traditional outing to explore a local historic town. This year it was Faversham, on the north Kent coast, lying up a creek and surrounded by marshes. Faversham was once an important port, ferrying goods to and fro up the Thames in sailing barges, and lying on the coach road between London and Dover. And it’s a place of great visual fascination. Once a sailor’s town, a wharf, a shipbuilding centre and an early industrial place of gunpowder manufacture, it has a medieval hub of some grandeur, and many pubs. Somewhat down at heel now it retains immense charm and interest - streets of half-timbered houses and overhanging roofs, stucco facades, narrow passage ways and curious shop signs.

The medieval market hall

An array of pubs, operational and defunct - witness to a town of seamen:

Yellow brick:

And black and white timber. This house was the scene of one of the most notorious murders of the sixteenth century:
Recent textual analysis reveals that Shakespeare had a hand in writing 'Arden of Feversham'. We know that during the summer of 1596 the theatres of London were closed because of plague, and Shakespeare and his fellow actors of the company of The Chamberlain's Men took their plays on tour. They acted in Faversham. Did they treat the locals to a version of events on their doorstep?

We also saw...

Glimpses down alleyways:

Festive front doors:

A Thames sailing barge:

A rare medieval painted pillar in the church:

And a pack of beagles:

Happy Christmas...!

Monday, 21 December 2015


I made a special trip to the British Museum recently to look at the Lykian monuments from ancient Xanthos. Lykia (or Lycia) was a civilization on the coasts and upland heights of south western Turkey, influenced by both the Persians and the Greeks that reached its height in the sixth and fifth centuries BC.  Lykian tombs still dot the landscape, large blocks like immense loaves, and Xanthos itself is hugely impressive.

Lykian tombs collapse into the sea at Aperlae - a very old slide!

Conquered by Alexander the Great, the civilization and cities  of Lykia were unknown in the West – and were only rediscovered in the 1830s by the British archaeologist and traveller Charles Fellows. Fellows made several expeditions to this remote area, mapped the sites quite carefully and with the permission of the Ottoman authorities and the help of the sailors of a Royal Navy ship, he excavated and removed some of the friezes and remarkable temple-like tombs, which now remain some of the BM’s most impressive exhibits. They include expressive friezes of horses, men, bulls and winged harpies, a complete colonnaded temple – the Nereid monument – immensely popular with visitors for photo opportunities, and some of the  tombs with their massive curved stone lids.

The Nereid monument

It was not only the exhibits that fascinated me. It was also Fellows’ written accounts, which I had been reading, of his journeys across western Turkey, accompanied by a dragoman – an interpreter – and an artist called George Scharf, who not only drew pictures of the tombs in situ, but produced vivid vignettes of rural Turkish life, its people, costumes and buildings. I made some of the same journeys on foot in the 1970s and spent time on the Lykian Coast. What struck me about Scharf’s pictures was that, apart from the dress and the disappearance of the fez, much that they saw in the 1840s was still in place in the 1970s, though by then it was on the point of vanishing
I was just getting stuck into a good look at Fellows’ collection at the BM when the fire alarm went off and we all had to shuffle out.

Scharf's drawing of the tower tombs at Xanthos.

And one in the the BM - the protruding stone 'joists' suggest that these tombs imitated timber structures

Tombs catching the last light of day near Kekova