Saturday, 28 March 2015

Tomas Tranströmer

When I heard of the death of Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish Nobel prize winning poet, I fetched down my copy (English translation only!).  I have no idea what his poems sound like in Swedish but I imagine that they translate well. He’s a writer who conjures a sense of place: the forests and snowy distances of Sweden, the mist-shrouded islands of the Baltic. There's a feeling of imminence in the pine trees and the deep silence, moments of mysterious epiphany and transcendence. A train stops suddenly at 2 a.m. on a lonely plain. 'Days - like Aztec hieroglyphs'. The impact of a death.

After someone’s death
Once there was a shock
which left behind a long pallid glimmering comet's tail.
It contains us. It makes TV pictures blurred.
It deposits itself as cold drops on the aerials.

You can still shuffle along on skis in the winter sun
among groves where last year's leaves still hang
They are like pages torn from old telephone directories -
the subscriber's names are consumed by the cold.

It is still beautiful to feel your heart throbbing.
But often the shadow feels more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
besides his armour of black dragon-scales.

(Translated by Robin Fulton)

Thursday, 19 March 2015

End of the line for Istanbul's Ottoman railway station?

Nostalgia comes in many forms. Quite high up the scale for me is the Haydarpaşa railway terminus in Istanbul. For over a century this magnificent ormolu late Ottoman edifice with its nods at art deco, has been the beginning and the end of journeys. It ‘s a place of grandeur and confusion – where Europe tilts into the Orient. It looks out over the sea: at the Galata bridge that spans the Golden Horn; at the fussy steamers smudging the sky with smoke as they ply the Bosphorus; at the swarms of people passing to; at the incessant  buying, selling, loitering, fishing and travelling to and from mysterious destinations.

Through the Haydarpaşa ran the Berlin to Baghdad railway. The Orient Express ended here. It has seen pass along its platforms explorers, spies, soldiers, diplomats, refugees, gastarbeiter, pilgrims to Mecca – and the plain curious. Agatha Christie came on this line. Old postcards summon up a lost world of moustachioed porters, portmanteaux and the grand Pera Palace Hotel, fezzes and  dragomans.

Aff ciwl orient express4 jw.jpg
 The Orient 'Express' brought me to and from Istanbul a few times in the 1970s – not a plush Pullman service, but a slow, low-grade clanking journey courtesy of the unreliable rolling stock of central Europe, two days sitting semi-upright, semi-comatose with brief stops to encounter the expensive air of Switzerland, the stern demeanour of Bulgarian customs officials, the offerings of food salesmen on the platforms of Belgrade and Sofia, the enjoyment and annoyance of fellow travellers.

The train came via Calais and Paris, Mussolini’s slab of a station in Venice and Tito’s Yugoslavia, through fields of sunflowers and wheat where headscarved women wielded large scythes, past beehives, tiny houses, flocks of birds, communist apartment blocks and sleeping dogs. And on into Istanbul, running along the shore, with the Sea of Marmara glittering in the sunlight on one side, on the other the crumbling walls of old Constantinople and the ruins of Byzantine palaces converted into shacks and metal bashing workshops. Finally, exhausted but exhilarated by this jumble of passing life, the train ushers you under the iron pillared canopy of the station – and Istanbul begins. You step out of the doors, startled and disorientated by the pounding of new sensations: the smell of frying fish, car exhaust, roasting chestnuts and sea water; the street cries of sellers of sesame rolls, lottery tickets, shoe shining services, football shirts and mobile phone services;  the squabbling of gulls; the viscid, malodorous waters of the once Golden Horn – admittedly cleaner today than forty years ago. And the Galata Bridge across it, now a fixed structure, but until the 1990s a series of connected pontoons that rippled disconcertingly beneath your feet, evidence that Istanbul that possesses a vivid magic.  

The last time I looked in, the Haydarpaşa was still receiving trains. Now it’s probably a shell. A new station has been constructed on the Marmara shore and the Haydarpaşa seems on the way to becoming a piece of real estate up for grabs to private interests. An 'accidental' fire ripped through its roof in 2010. Istanbul is falling prey to the blight of many big cities: the privatisation of public spaces,  around which the protests in Taksim Square revolved,  the squeezing out of the poor, the destruction of inconvenient but iconic buildings – an attack not quite on the scale of the Mafia’s sack of Palermo in the 1960s, but the cold hand of big money is clutching at the city's fabric. The Haydarpaşa came to mind because I read a Turkish blogger on all this.  

‘It seems to me,’ said Pierre Gilles, a sixteenth century visitor, ‘that while other cities may be mortal, this one will remain as long as there are men on earth.’ Let’s hope.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Ten years of history writing

I’ve been sitting at a desk writing history books for something over ten years . It’s been engrossing, demanding and occasionally exhausting. This is a good moment to take stock. What does it add up to? Four books in various languages (the last still in proof), thousands of pages of handwritten notes:

Despite the impressive number of different language versions it’s been a modest living not a handsome one – I’m still waiting for the film rights. People come by and take out options but I’ve become realistic. I spent three unpaid months writing outlines for a Game of Thrones  style history epic based on one of my books at a publisher’s behest – no luck so far. There’s an element of gambling in all this – the next book could make it, a producer could get serious, but I’ve learned that seasoned punters read the odds – a history of Venice is never going to be Fifty Shades of Grey.  

Writing about the history of the Mediterranean has its pluses and minuses. It’s not an area of heavy publishing traffic such as the Second Word War or the Tudors, but it does translate: there’s a slow burn of foreign rights. I’ve written for personal interest but with an eye to the market: I’ve benefited from a post- 9/11 interest in Islam/Christianity issues. I’ve missed tricks, sometimes using up my material too fast, got titles wrong. I’ve created what post hoc looks like a trilogy of books about Mediterranean history but if I’d been more strategic I’d have done it differently. You live and hope to learn.  I now think that skirting round heavily covered topics can be a mistake. There’s a reason for the squillions of books on Henry VIII and Hitler. People read them. I do study carefully (and sometimes enviously) what sells. It’s also apparent that you’re only as good as your last book: point of sale information, available to all publishers, mercilessly reveals your sales graph. On it can hang the size of your next advance.  You always have to be on the top of your game.

I’ve learned that writing the books is not enough. Staggering from the desk, you then have to promote both the book and yourself: as in life generally, we are continuously reminded that we’re all our own brands. A good website is invaluable. Mine has brought me quite a number of interesting opportunities, but I don’t write enough articles or feed the Twitter beast (slowly working on that). I do literature festivals – stimulating to do and they put your name about – but their pure sales value seems dubious. Ideally all authors need to construct their own marketing plans – publishers only do so much – and we’re all invited to talk directly to our readers these days. Over time you get slightly better at judging opportunity costs after being ignored at bookshop signings or trying to animate tiny audiences.

But it’s not all orthopaedic risk at the desk or promotional boasting. We historians are lucky. They let us out to do research. We get to ramble around libraries and museums and go on trips. In my case, because the Mediterranean world is my main subject, I’ve been to fossick around Istanbul, Venice, Crete, Cyprus, Lisbon and various other places. And from time to time unexpected offers and opportunities pop into the inbox. I’ve been to study days with the US Navy in Washington and to NATO HQ in Belgium. I get to talk to varied audiences ranging from the Old Folks home down the road, to the Hay Festival to the US Army in Stuttgart and BBC radio. I’ve been to bob up and down in a boat at the site of the battle of Lepanto and to the Topkapi Palace outside opening hours for TV documentaries.  I’ve given one day personalised tours of Istanbul and been on quite a few ships. I do one cruise a year with a small US company and I’ve spent nine days with my wife on a luxury vessel consisting entirely of privately owned apartments.

 It’s the unexpected variety that makes these sidelines so engaging. A few weeks ago I was invited to talk to the cast of the Royal Shakespeare Company about the siege of Malta as background for their forthcoming production of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, for which I’ve also written programme notes. In a couple of weeks we’re going to see the results at the opening night in Stratford. Then it’s back to the desk, I guess, and what to write next. The house and garden could also do with attention.

My latest book, Conquerors: How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the First Global Empire will be out in the UK on 17 September, in the US on 1 December

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Pirates or Discoverers?

The book I've just written about the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean - is finished and in production. All my ponderings on historical perspective can be summed up in this one brilliant cartoon I saw in the Guardian at the weekend. On the left hand side Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese arrive on the coast of India. On the right, the perspective from the inhabitants of the Malabar Coast: