Sunday 30 December 2012

White cliffs

Notes from the 24th December. We’re in Kent for Christmas and today is the now almost traditional Christmas Eve walk – this year on the White Cliffs above Dover harbour. It’s a fantastically dull, dirty winter afternoon, the wind so strong on the cliffs you can lean into it; out in the channel, a green sea kicked into white horses by the violent gusts; somewhere out there in the mizzle lies the coast of France, now blotted out by low cloud. The ferries stand off from the breakwater waiting their turn to go in.

The white cliffs have a special meaning in the history of this island: a defence, a frontier, a place of departure and return, a relief to be waving farewell to or a focus for homesickness – an icon of some kind of England.

I’ve walked these cliffs many times over the past thirty years but today the tide is low and as we look down from the cliffs I get to witness something I’ve never heard about before. Far below, beached on the black rocks ,the outline of a wrecked ship, like the fossil remains of some giant prehistoric fish.

We scramble down the coastal path to investigate. There’s a narrow walk way above the beach to a row of Second World War searchlight stations, suspended on the cliff face like outsized swallows nests guarding the approaches of Dover harbour. It’s at sites like this that the British people were to be rallied by Churchill to fight on the beaches. Inside, a sequence of eerie concrete chambers from which we squint into the wind through the tattered remains of their steel shutters, which have been eroded into beautiful abstract patterns. There’s a weird, hair-raising attraction to Second World War archaeology. 

Down on the beach, it’s possible to climb onto the remnant of the ship, whose iron ribs have become fused with the rocks, and to stand on the last remaining piece of superstructure, like the conning tower of a lost submarine surfacing from the depths for a brief hour. There’s something incredibly awe-inspiring about this beached, ruined structure, turned into a network of iron rock pools reflecting the twilight sky, with the black shingle beach and the white cliffs shining in the gloom and the wind whipping up the midwinter sea.

These are the durable remains of the SS Falcon. Carrying a volatile cargo of hemp and matches to Dover in 1926, it caught fire and was beached in the bay outside the harbour. Amazingly there’s film footage of the ship on fire and the crew’s rescue by the Dover lifeboat.

Friday 21 December 2012

The wettest place on earth

The days before Christmas in the English countryside have been dreary with continuous rain and low cloud, so that twilight seems to fall at about two in the afternoon. It has a charm all of its own - the point when the year shrinks back to its source and there is nothing more pleasurable than to draw the curtains as night falls, turn up the heating and settle to a book. The book, in my case, has been Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater, a traveller's account of tracking the monsoon day by day across the Indian subcontinent as it travels north. It's a time of anxiety and rejoicing - anxiety that the monsoon might fail or be insufficient - rejoicing that when it does come, in full force, it ends the insufferably hot months, stirs new smells from the dust and fertility from the earth.

Frater followed the monsoon in all its manifestations and his quest ended in the town of Cherrapunji in the far east of India, which receives its rain from the Bay of Bengal, and lays claim to being the wettest place on earth. This was perhaps the most mournful posting in the British Raj - unless you were a keen botanist with an interest in mosses, ferns and orchids - which many medical men and colonial administrators were.

In 1850 a doctor called Joseph Hooker spent the monsoon months in the town. He called it 'as bleak and inhospitable as can be imagined' - its climate certainly got to the British. (Frater visited the mournful British graveyard and spotted a number of tombstones with the words 'Died by His Own Hand’.) Hooker was astonished by the absolute and continuous deluge that bombarded the town during the months of his visit. He noted the recordings of a previous resident, Mr Yule:

" who stated that in the month of August, 1841, 264 inches of rain fell, or twenty-two feet...Dr Thompson and I also recorded thirty inches in one day and night, and during the seven months of our stay, upwards of 500 inches fell, so that the total annual fall perhaps greatly exceeded [the] 600 inches, or fifty feet, which had been registered in succeeding years."

Somehow a few wet English days in December seem quite light in comparison! Happy Christmas and New Year.

Saturday 15 December 2012

The giant carrots of Beypazarı

The wonders of Turkey…When I was in Istanbul in October I was introduced to a mention of the carrot town of Beypazarı in central Turkey, by Mary Isin who is an authority on Turkish heritage vegetables.

Beypazarı is the carrot capital of Turkey – probably the carrot capital of the world. Over half the country’s carrots are grown in the area. They hold an annual carrot and stew festival here and have many and ingenious culinary uses for carrots, including carrot ice-cream and carrot-flavoured Turkish delight.

Here’s a roundabout in the town proudly sporting Beypazarı’s iconic vegetable:


Nowadays the farmers tend to grow Dutch carrots, but what caught my attention were rumours of the almost extinct giant carrot – the historical mega-carrot – once grown in the area. Mary went to investigate and to acquire some seeds – and sent me this picture of the mighty vegetable. These are, apparently, quite average specimens – they can grow to over a metre in length…

Mary is also a historian of Turkish and Ottoman food who has just written the definitive book on the history of Turkey's love of puddings: Sherbet and spice : the Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts – part recipe book, part cultural history of a deep tradition that could produce, and I quote, ‘One hundred sculpted sugar lions, baklava the size of cartwheels a thousand layers thick, halva made in memory of the dead, rose jam in a hundred pots of Dresden china, violet sherbet for the sultan and parrots addicted to sugar…the stories behind Turkey's huge variety of sweets and puddings, valued not only for their taste but as symbols of happiness, good fortune and goodwill, are as fascinating as their flavour.’ Cultural and gastronomic history from the land of the giant carrot!

On the cover, the float of the guild of sugar merchants is being pulled along in one of the flamboyant Ottoman processions in Istanbul, sugar piled high on the shelves, and in the cage the sugar-loving parrot which, Mary tells me, was the guild's symbol.

Saturday 8 December 2012

How to catch a leopard

Looking back through some photographs I took in Lisbon during the spring I was charmed and delighted to remember my visit to the National Museum of Azulejos. Azulejos – from the Arabic for ‘small stones’ – are the decorative tiles that are a distinctive feature of Portuguese art and architecture, visible everywhere - in churches, on the facades of buildings, cafes and public spaces – a rich tradition that stretches back to Moorish times. You find ceramic pictures everywhere in Portugal. They can be pious, historical, abstract, surreal - or just funny. This simple icon protected an alleyway in the old quarter of Alfama (above right), whilst a shop was adorned by an inquisitive monkey:
Historical personages were popular in the National Museum. Here's Catherine of Braganza, married to King Charles II of England (looking rather saucy), a curious armless Napoleon,

and, a more modern take, a version of a famous sketch of Portugal's great poet, Fernando Pessoa, beadily reading the paper:

A seventeenth century fantasy depiction of a leopard hunt particularly caught my fancy - animals and themes from Portugal's colonial adventures seem to have provided rich subject matter for the tile artists. The hunters set out in pursuit of some rather portly leopards, who look as though they've spent too long eating pastries in Lisbon's cafes. The hunters are armed with nets and traps to snare their prey:

But their most cunning device is the mirror trap. The leopard approaches the trap, sees a rival leopard in the mirror, and presumably maddened with rage, springs into the trap to attack - the lid is snapped shut and the leopard is taken!

Friday 30 November 2012

Rummaging around the internet as one does, I found the website of a Second World War German U-Boat, U-35, which my father helped to sink very early in the war, whilst serving on a destroyer. By the standard of the times it was quite a gentlemanly sort of affair. Depth charged, the submarine popped up to the surface - to my dad's horror HMS Kashmir was cleaning out its active gun at that moment and was totally incapable of mounting any challenge to this sudden surprise, should it come to it. Luckily U-35 was too crippled to offer any resistance and the whole crew was captured alive. The U-Boat officers were treated as guests aboard the ship – as long as they promised not to escape – and their captain signed the visitor’s book with the comment ‘Wish you all the best of luck except against German U-Boats!’. After the war there was a long-term friendship between some of the German officers and Louis Mountbatten, captain of the destroyer squadron, until he was killed by an IRA bomb in 1979.

But what amazed me most about this find was to discover a grainy photograph of the captured crew being unloaded at Greenock in Scotland and in the background in his officer's cap I can see the unmistakeable features of my father as a young man - facing the camera behind the Scottish soldier standing to attention in profile by the gangplank. The wonders of the internet!

Thursday 22 November 2012

'Venice is too small'

I'm deep in the history of cartography and exploration at present for the book I'm writing about the Portuguese in Asia. As they worked their way down the coast of Africa in the middle years of the fifteenth century, their discoveries were avidly followed by the mapmakers, noting each successive bay or cape as it was named. By the end of the century Lisbon was the go-to place for cartography. Maps were knowledge and power. The Portuguese tried vainly to prevent their leakage to foreign powers but fifty years earlier, when Venice was the clearing house for everything that was known from travellers' tales, the King of Portugal, Afonso V, commissioned a map of the world from a monk on the island on Murano.

Fra Mauro, who had been a soldier and adventurer before taking to the cloister, produced a remarkable image, summarizing all that was reasonably known about the world, and annotating it with his comments and judgements. The map was orientated with south to the top, but is here rotated to make us feel more at home with ways of seeing the world. It includes tantalizing information - the idea that the Chinese had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope - but what was revolutionary, apart from its scepticism about the ideas of the classical authors who had dominated thinking for so long, was that it clearly presented Africa as a continent that could be circumnavigated to reach India. (There was a widely prevailing view that the Indian Ocean was probably a closed sea.)

The Mauro Map was a powerful incentive for the Portuguese kings to continue investing in voyages down the coast of Africa to seek a seaway to the east, which would end with Vasco da Gama's arrival on the shores of India in 1498.

The Portuguese map has disappeared, but the Venetians also had a copy. It hangs in the Biblioteca Nationale Marciana in Venice. It's reported that when the doge saw the map he complained to the monk that he'd made Venice disproportionately small for its importance. 'That's the size it is' came back the reply - Mauro was not to be budged from his notions of objective truth. By the time the Portuguese had stolen some of Venice's spice trade after Vasco da Gama, it might have seemed still smaller.

There's a good little video on the significance of Mauro's map produced by the British Library.

Friday 16 November 2012

Venetian Albania

Wherever you go in the Eastern Mediterranean you can find traces of Venice’s maritime empire – not usually impressive pieces of architecture, more likely forts, towers, harbours, bastions – functional constructions for trade and defence. I guess that Butrint – Butrinto to Venice – in southern Albania is no exception. I spent half a day there in September. There’s a quite wonderful classical site– a green oasis of undisturbed antiquity – set beside a tranquil lake, where cormorants flap slowly across the water and fishermen in rowing boats idle away days with views across to the low hills of Northern Greece. The ancient Greeks certainly knew how to choose a site.

And then there’s the Venetian fort on the opposite shore looking out towards Corfu. It’s a stubby triangular blockhouse – how unromantic the Venetians were when it came to what mattered – guarding trade routes, shovelling money efficiently back to the mother city to build all those palazzi on the Grand Canal…but they were just about everywhere.

Saturday 10 November 2012

W’Allah n’kitab!

Which I think means… ‘By God, a book!’ An Arab expression of wonder at the marvel of a book, if I’ve got it right. (I’m sure I read this somewhere…probably in a book.) As words become digital, weightless, odourless, I still marvel at the sheer pleasure of physical books. No more so than when, from time to time, the postman arrives at the door with a solid box containing my author’s copies of a translation of one of my books. And I’m almost always bowled over by the beauty of these – and the variety of taste in design and format that different countries go for. From Greece and Korea large format paperbacks with flaps – I love flaps, why don’t we go for these more in Britain –and generously large type; slim elegant hardbacks on pure white paper with sewn-in bookmarks from Germany; small chunky pocketbooks – almost square – from Turkey – and a hundred and one different approaches to typography, cover design, chapter openers, title pages.

The problem is, these books are so beautiful that I can’t bear to get rid of them. They are nesting under a bed in the spare room in greater and greater numbers. Sometimes I just take them out and look at them.  I usually can't read the words but I know what they say. W’Allah n’kitab indeed!

Friday 2 November 2012

The light at Delphi

Sailing from Sicily to Greece in September I was reminded again of just what it is that makes Greece different – it’s the light – a point made somewhat romantically by Lawrence Durrell in the 1930s: “You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives. Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape: Greece offers you something harder – the discovery of yourself.”

We arrived at the small port of Itea in the gulf of Corinth in the early morning, before the sun rose, the sea that absolutely flat calm untouched by a breath and the mountains of the Peloponnese violet grey across the straits, and we drove the winding road up to Delphi through millions of olive trees, imitating the route taken by ancient pilgrims. I first came to Delphi over forty years ago and I have to say this place, of all others, does not change. Whatever other horrors may have been visited on the Mediterranean in the name of industry and tourism, Delphi is untouched. No billboards; no hotels with winking neon signs; no development. You look down the site through miles of air into a valley picked out by sharp cypress trees, a single ribbon of road, stretched over hills, receding to infinity –a scene of breathtaking transparency, that fills and shifts as the day grows. It’s still a prospect of wonder and you understand exactly why this was, and still is, a sacred site. 

A few things have altered. It’s not possible to wander quite so freely over the site. Regrettably – but it’s probably a good thing – you can no longer run races in the stadium where the Pythian Games were once held. It’s roped off, as is the theatre half way up. But to compensate, since my last visit, there’s an absolutely brilliant museum. Wonderfully laid out, clearly explained, you get a vivid understanding of the Greek achievement – breathing life on the world and making it human.

Later we went to the Byzantine monastery of Osios Loukas – St Luke. Another of my favourite places, a jewel box of mosaic splendour and another great site. From a breezy terrace, shaded from the sun by trees of immense antiquity, we looked out over tranquil valleys – a world away from the tragedy of modern Greece being played out somewhere beyond the horizon.

Thursday 25 October 2012

At the National Maritime Museum

I gave a talk there on Venice's maritime empire recently - obscuring a perfectly good slide of a Canaletto (and apparently grasping a Venetian sailor by the head). Thanks very much to Louise Simkiss and the team for a very warm welcome. Followed up by a fascinating cruise up the Thames to Westminster, something I've never done before. A great day out.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Lowering the Venetian flag in Perast

In September I went, courtesy of Zegrahm Expeditions, to visit some outer reaches of the Venetian empire along the Dalmatian coast, which I have long been curious about, but never visited. My interest had been aroused many years ago by Jan Morris’s romantic evocation of the Venetian sea, by the long association the Venetians had with what is now Montenegro and its outposts along the Albanian coast. It started with a circumnavigation of Sicily – spectacular not least for a shattering thunderstorm in Syracuse, which kept us trapped for a long hour in the porch of the city’s cathedral with a confirmation party of smartly dressed Sicilians whilst thunder crashed and Bangladeshi umbrella salesmen demonstrated the effectiveness of their wares in the atomic rain:

 A day later we entered the long Mediterranean fjord of Kotor at dawn, a deep water harbour backed by the dark hills of the Balkans. The ship followed the sinuous curves up to Kotor itself, a red-roofed, splendidly walled miniature of an Italian city nestling under the Black Mountain, once covered with pine trees, but stripped bare over the centuries to plank out Venetian ships. The Dalmatian coast provided the wood to construct their galleys and merchant ships and the seamen to sail them. On the outer wall of Kotor, there’s still a Venetian lion, proudly proclaiming the sovereignty of Venice.

Just down the coast, the sea captains’ village of Perast and off shore the wonderful island sanctuary of Our Lady of the Rocks – a miniature seaman’s church embellished with silver votive plaques commemorating miraculous salvations from storms and shipwrecks. In many places – Crete for example – the Venetian empire was felt as an oppressive yoke, but here with great affection. In Perast’s maritime museum a painting of the Republic’s final hour. On August 23 1797, three months after Napoleon marched into Venice, the Austrian navy arrived in Perast and the lion banner was hauled down for the last time. It was an emotional moment. Captain Joko Viskovich made a ringing speech in the local language, people wept and kissed the flag: “The history of this day will be known throughout all Europe, how Perast has maintained, with dignity, to the very end, the honour of the Venetian flag, honouring it with this solemn act, lowering it to the ground, bathed in our universal and bitter tears’. Stirring stuff!

The last day

Monday 15 October 2012

Dolphins in the Bosphorus

It has to be said that the blog has not exactly been active lately, but this week I was lucky enough to stay in  Istanbul on the banks of the Bosphorus. In the early morning, with the water flat calm, the sun just coming up - before the heavy criss-crossing of ferries from the Asian to the European shore and the cavalcade of huge tankers to and from the Black Sea - I was rewarded with the sight of a line of dolphins arcing in and out of the water about twenty yards in front of me, in shallow curves, black fins cutting the surface, as I walked on the hotel terrace, a fantastic sight and a reminder of the wonderful wealth of this extraordinary waterway. So rich was the Bosphorus in marine life in ancient times that in the migration season, it was said that you could scoop bonito from the water with a net from the windows of water-side houses. The dolphin features deeply in the iconography of Constantinople, stamped on coins, carved on city walls - an emblem of grace, nobility and beauty - a sign of good luck, a reminder that this is a city garlanded in water, like a glimpse of the sea caught at the end of a street. And by association I remembered Patrick Leigh-Fermor, whose biography was published last week, for two astonishing pages in Mani on the transformative magic of dolphins: ''These creatures bring a blessing with them. No day in which they have played a part is like other days.' And it's true. I felt touched by some light enchantment. I thought about them all day.

Monday 30 April 2012

What did the Portuguese ever do for us?

I'm just off to Lisbon for a fortnight to do some research into the Portuguese voyages of discovery. I'm going to visit museums, talk to historians, inspect monuments, and the tomb of Vasco da Gama, go aboard a replica caravel - caravels were the ships with which the Portuguese first sailed round the Cape of Good Hope - and experience a great deal of very generous hospitality.

To catch up I'll just reproduce below an article from the old blog by way of deeper explanation.

'What did the Portuguese ever do for us?' to paraphrase the title of a series of historical TV programmes in the UK. The answer, as I'm finding out, is 'quite a lot'. My next project is a history of the Portuguese voyages of discovery - a change from the Mediterranean arena which has kept me at my desk for nearly a decade. I had a vague idea of following this thread at the end of City of Fortune. It was clear to the Venetians that Vasco da Gama's circumnavigation of Africa was potentially a huge threat to their business model, based on importing spices through the agency of Muslim middlemen via Egypt and the Red Sea. However the real push to this subject came from a near neighbour of mine, Pascal Monteiro de Barros, passionate about his country's history and highly persuasive. What I realised, with Pascal's input and some initial reading, was that the Portuguese exploration of the world - from Africa to India, Brazil to China - was an extraordinary story of bravery, brutality, imagination and innovation. In the nineteenth century, the history of Vasco da Gama and his successors was considerably better known than it is now. It has since been dimmed by the rise and rise of Columbus, especially in the USA, but as we survey the ever accelerating pace of globalization and ask ourselves where it started, the answer is - on the Atlantic seaboard of the Iberian Peninsula with the Portuguese.

In the wake of Da Gama, Portuguese navigators vaulted the globe. They were the imperial pathfinders, who provided the template for a wave of successors, such as the English and the Dutch. At the start of the sixteenth century Lisbon became, for a short while, the wealthiest city in Europe. The Portuguese empire connected the world and created a framework for global interactions. In time it would link the oceans, bringing firearms and bread to Japan and astrolabes and green beans to China, tea to England, pepper to the New World, Chinese silk and Indian medecines to the whole of Europe, and an elephant to the pope. It left a huge and long-lasting influence on the culture, food, flora, art, history and language of the globe. It marked the start of 500 years of domination by the West which is only reversing now. From a writer's point of view, this whole story is enriched by the fact that the Portuguese wrote a lot of vivid first-hand accounts – fantastic material to draw on.

For a sense of Portugal’s extraordinary imperial reach, watch this short video. Its haunting music also hints at the lasting nostalgia that imperial legacies leave behind.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Ancient highways, modern frontiers

The image that forms the header for this blog is a view from the mainland coast of Turkey across the straits to the island of Boczaada, near the mouth of the Dardanelles. Turkish now, for thousands of years it was part of the Greek speaking world. The island of Tenedos, as they called it, has a deep place in Greek literature. It figures in Homer; its ruler Tenes was killed by Achilles during the long war for nearby Troy; and it was here, according to Virgil, that the Greeks retreated after leaving the wooden horse outside the city walls to await the success of their trick. It’s always been part of a contested frontier zone. The Byzantines, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Ottomans all successively fought for it; it featured in the Greek war of independence and was finally ceded to Turkey in the 1920s. The Greek population has almost all gone now. There’s a haunting memoir by Dmetri Kakmi about the departure of the rump Greek population towards the end of the last century.

Such off-shore islands lie dotted along the coast of Asia Minor – Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Rhodes, and a scattering of smaller ones. They’re now the frontiers between Greece and Turkey and have become militarized zones, patrolled on either side by jets and warships, though the heat has somewhat gone out of the confrontation in recent times. Once however they were linked closely to the mainland by trade and culture; they were highways down which merchants, travellers and ideas passed to and fro. Just behind the picture, on the mainland, lies the immense sprawling classical site of Alexandria Troas, named after Alexander the Great by one of his generals. St Paul passed this way, stopping at the city to preach – at such length that a young man seated in a window upstairs window fell asleep, dropped out of the window and died – to be miraculously restored to life by the saint. The landscape is scattered with remnants of this ancient place. Columns, probably broken whilst being transported by the Ottomans to incorporate in their palaces, stand upright in the calm sea.

Sunday 8 April 2012

New Blog Site

After a certain amount of thought I've decided to transfer my blog from my main website to Blogger, just to make it easier for people to track and follow. So this is just a post to sort out the visual details. Hopefully something more interesting will pop up soon.