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.