Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Return to Istanbul part 3

Anastasis, or Harrowing of Hell
The thing I most wanted to see in Istanbul this time was the Chora church, or Kariye Müsezi.  Like Hagia Sophia, it was converted into a mosque after the conquest, and then in the twentieth century into a museum. It's a lot smaller than Hagia Sophia, but has many more surviving mosaics and frescos. Unfortunately it's not easy to get to, being right out by the land walls and not near any tram stops. I ended up getting a taxi, which was easy and surprisingly cheap.

The wedding at Cana (water into wine)
The main part of the church was closed so I couldn't see a few of the mosaics, but actually most of the surviving ones are in the narthex and exonarthex. For many years now I have preferred to travel with a Blue Guide if there's one available for the city where I'm going -- there tends to be for the sorts of cities I prefer -- and these have helpful glossaries for terms like exonarthex as well as really detailed floor plans. (The Istanbul one also has lists not only of Emperors and Sultans but of Ecumenical Patriarchs.) The Chora mosaics contrain three complex cycles of illustrations, including many scenes from the life of the Virgin, which you have to follow round in a particular order -- I don't know if it's intentionally meant to make you feel dizzy, but it's not the sort of art you can quietly contemplate, it's more something you have to battle. The parecclesion, a sort of side-chapel, is full of very well-preserved frescos, including a massive anastasis or resurrection, with Christ pulling Adam and Eve from their sepulchres.  There weren't many other people there, maybe because it was partially closed, or maybe because it's not easy to get to by yourself, though I think it's the sort of place that cruise-ship travellers get bussed out to. I'm very glad I saw it, and taking a taxi was a pragmatic solution. It cost about £7.50 including tip; the driver was pretty obviously taking me a long way round but I decided not to worry about it because it was interesting to see the land walls, which are still in good shape. If I were the sort of person who enjoyed long walks in hot weather I would have walked the land walls.

After that I went to somewhere where it was literally just me and some lizards, the church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, the Joyful God-bearer, also known as Fethiye Museum. Again this Byzantine Church was converted into a mosque after the conquest, but the main building is still a mosque. The surviving mosaics are in a side-chapel, so they turned that into a museum with its own separate entrance. Apparently the mosque is worth seeing, architecturally, but it's not usually open so you have to go at prayer time, wait til prayers are over, and then ask someone nicely if you can have a look around, and I was too shy. It was in a very traditional and non-touristy part of town where women were wearing full black hijabs with only their eyes showing. Apparently you might hear Kurdish spoken around there (not that I would recognise it).

A lot of the mosaics are lost but there are still many left, a few entire scenes and quite a lot of bishops and saints. The simpler plan made them easier to look at than the ones in the Chora, and it was nice to be entirely alone there.  The parts where the mosaics have gone are just bare brick now, so you can see the contrast between the bare bones of the building and the sumptuous decoration it once had.
Pantocrator at the top of a dome full of prophets


After this I decided to catch a boat back to the main part of the old city and ended up going to Asia by accident, which sounds a lot more dramatic than it was. It was only the second time I'd been to Asia, the first being when I went to Israel and Palestine (there's a Blue Guide for there too).

Sunday, 19 June 2016

All the letters in a name

Monogram of Justinian

Monogram of Theodora

How my 4-yr-old niece wrote Rebecca in my birthday card

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Return to Istanbul part 2

Looking east from Galata tower over the Bosphorus to Asia, and south over the Golden Horn to Old Istanbul

Zoe looks good for a 70-yr old; Christ keeps an eye on her
Last time I went to Istanbul I travelled with a friend whose attitude to new places is a bit more interesting than mine: where I just seek out and try to contextualize old things, she looks for varied experiences. So we did a lot more cool things then. But I did miss some of the subtler things in Hagia Sophia. Most of its mosaics have gone, but those that are left have some interesting people in them. I couldn't get a good picture of the Emperor Leo VI, whose total of four marriages scandalised the ecclesiastical establishment, prostrating himself before the pantocrator. There's also a mosaic of the fascinating Zoe, who lived in obscurity for fifty years until from various deaths she became the nearest in line to the throne, and had to make a political marriage. She seems to have rather got into the swing of things, and had a fine time intriguing and promoting people -- she probably murdered her first husband to put her lover and second husband on the throne, only to have him turn on her and try to exile her. She even ruled in her own right for a bit, jointly with her detested sister, before picking out a third spouse in her 60s, and apparently sharing a bed with him and his mistress. In the mosaic she is on the other side of the pantocrator from her third husband, but there's evidence that the husband in question has been updated, probably from her first. I saw a similar thing once in a missal given to Westminster Abbey by Henry VIII.

In the galleries there are a few things that are less beautiful but just as interesting with some background knowledge. Henrico Dandolo's tomb slab is still there -- he directly played a big role in the end of the Byzantine empire. As doge of Venice in the early thirteenth century, being a) blind and b) in his eighties didn't stop his managing to subvert the Fourth Crusade by cunning degrees from an attack on Muslim-held lands, which although objectionable was sort of the point of a crusade, to an attack on the Christian Byzantine emperor. He apparently leapt from his galley to lead the attack which conquered Constantinople, leading to the Latin kingdom. In the later carve up, Venice officially owned one quarter and one eighth of the empire, and looted tons of sparkly stuff which you can see (often ambiguously labelled) in Venice, like the bronze horses at St Mark's and the porphyry statue of the tetrarchs. Although the Greeks eventually got the empire back, it was tremendously weakened by this act of barbarism, and relations with the west were even more damaged. Many Byzantines said that they would rather see the turban in the streets of Constantinople than the cardinal's hat, and in 1453 they got their wish.

Famous in the world of runes, but something I missed seeing last time, is this piece of graffiti naming a certain Halfdan. Apparently it's from the ninth century. Vikings got absolutely everywhere in the early middle ages, and the Varangian guard of vikings in Byzantium was sort of equivalent to the Pretorians in ancient Rome, personally loyal to the emperor and outside the political complexities of the court. But I like to imagine the circumstances in which this was scratched onto a marble balcony looking out over the main space of Hagia Sophia. Did the viking standing next to him think he was a dick? Hagia Sophia is pretty amazing even now, stripped of lots of its decoration and with huge sections of iron scaffolding holding up one side of the immense dome -- when I went in this time I had to find a quiet corner to start in. It was the biggest dome in the world for hundreds of years, certainly until the early modern period. It would have flickered like being inside a jewel, and the liturgy must have been intense and overpowering. In the tenth century Winchester Cathedral -- the new Anglo-Saxon structure, not the larger Norman stone building -- was said to have so many side chapels that people literally got lost in there. I expect Hagia Sophia was pretty stupefying to all the senses. Was carving his name onto the balcony Halfdan's way of interposing something between himself and reality, like the people now who view it entirely via selfies, as if like Perseus fighting Medusa they were dealing with something too dangerous to look at directly? Or did the liturgy just go on for a really, really long time, and he got bored of being on duty?

Return to Istanbul

Over the course of the last year I have finally paid off the loans I took out to do my M.Sc., so for my birthday last week I took my first holiday in ages. When I was choosing where to go it was between three places I wanted to go back to: in order of difficulty, North Italy; Istanbul; and Jerusalem. I chose Istanbul as a bit more of stretch than Bologna and Venice, but more feasible than Jerusalem, especially given that I wanted to travel alone.

Istanbul has changed since I went last time, in 2008. I think Turkey has been hard hit by the political events in its south-west. Istiklal Caddesi, which Daesh bombed earlier this year, wasn't quite the street of high-end fashion designers and upmarket consumerism that I remembered; and I read today that Islamist extremists have forced the cancellation of the Gay Pride march which was due to take place there next week. Also everything was cheaper than I remembered. I spent a total of £250 over four full days and two half days in the city, eating out at least once a day and often twice, buying books and other souvenirs in museum gift shops, and taking taxis to the more out-of-the-way sights. And my hotel was way nicer than I was expecting for what I'd paid -- it's the first hotel I've ever stayed at which had a boutique feel, like someone had deliberately designed it to be in magazines, and it's the first where I've ever ordered room service (£2.50 for a freshly-made cheese and tomato sandwich).

I wasn't totally sure about going during Ramadan, but guide books suggested it would be fine, and they were more than right. I was staying in Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city, near the Blue Mosque, and when I first arrived I stumbled upon the huge iftar celebrations for the end of the day. There's a massive plaza in front of the Blue Mosque, where the people assemble in large numbers every evening, covering all the lawns and benches and laying out neat little picnics. They open their bottles of water, and shake their pots of ayran, and carefully unwrap their food and lay it out: then when the muezzin sings there's a great sigh and they all tuck in immediately. There's a big party atmosphere with tons of over-excited kids running around. I went to the Ashill beer festival the night before I left, and there was a similar vibe going on, except that iftar in Istanbul had a) no alcohol and b) racial diversity. The Blue Mosque had a big sign between two of its minarets saying "Dost istersen Allah yeter", which google translate says means 'If you want friendly God enough'.

The Empress Theodora's throne sat here
Being in an Islamic country reminds me of that humane gentleman Thomas Browne, who said "I could never hear the Ave Marie Bell without an elevation". On my birthday I sat ouside Hagia Sophia, where the minarets are still in use although it is now officially a secular museum, and the muezzins of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque seemed to be singing a coordinated duet for the noon prayers. Hagia Sophia is pretty stunning even in its knocked-about state. The selfie stick wasn't a thing when I went before. There are two ways to look at the constant taking of photographs in which most tourists engage (and I'm not much different). On the one hand you could say that it's a shame not to look at things directly in the present, but only to experience them as a future anticipated moment in which you'll look back into this past. Sometimes it might be better to let things happen, and then let them stop happening. On the other hand, when you're composing a photograph you look very carefully and pay direct attention. Also we officially cannot bear very much reality, and maybe interposing some glass between ourselves and the things in front of us is a sort of defence mechanism. But I saw a thing in Hagia Sophia which was new to me: some people were walking around with selfie sticks out in front of them, videoing themselves as they went, and watching everything through their camera as a backdrop to themselves. This seemed pretty extreme. Do people ever actually watch these videos later? How do they feel if they do?

Saturday, 5 March 2016

The books as physical object

When I first got my Kindle, the most notable thing about it for me was how quickly I forgot whether I was reading something on paper or screen. It was surprisingly hard to judge the reading experience, because after a minute or two I would forget I was using a Kindle at all. It turns out that reading is all about the words! And I still have the same thing -- the other day I spent ages searching my house for a book I wanted to reread, only to realise it had been on my Kindle all along. (It had a particularly memorable cover design, and I was sure I'd owned the physical object.)

Now I find that I have a slight preference for books on paper, as long as they're not too large, and are well designed. I've never been that bothered about book smell -- old books mostly smell musty, or peppery, or of disintegrating leather bindings, and only occasionally have that sweet lignin--vanillin smell. (I own a set of Lucy Toulmin Smith's edition of John Leland's itineraries which smells amazing.) Books where layout or pictures are important are that bit easier on paper -- poetry for example, or guidebooks. Modern books should be paperbacks, and they should be unpretentious, and designed by the sort of designers who want you not to notice that they've been designed at all. The book as a physical object used to be my professional life, and I have read some of the most beautiful books in the world. (The Bury Psalter, for example, or the Trinity Gospels -- the thought of the Rustic Capitals in the latter still makes my heart feel tight.) I am hard to impress therefore -- I think that modern hardbacks in particular are nasty objects. And a book on my Kindle I can reread at a moment's notice anywhere in the world. But still a nice clean paperback in my bag feels like a small, everyday luxury. I think it's a bit like travel methods. If I need to get to a place I would rather go by train than by car or coach or plane; but usually the main point of travelling is the place you're going to.

But back when I first got my Kindle I thought about this a lot. I felt sad that a lot of my pleasure in browsing in bookshops had been removed. This was also at a time when I did not own permanent book shelves, when something like two-thirds or three-quarters of my library were long gone to Oxfam or the Cambridge market book stall, and the remnant were tightly sealed in cardboard boxes in my parents' garage, inside a metal shed which had been carefully closed up to keep out mice. The idea of the book as a physical object began to feel strangely metaphysical. I thought about someone I had heard of once who built an actual, physical memory palace. I yearned for the way that my library, even with bad books in it, had seemed like an outward reflection of the mind which had read them. I imagined a conceptual ideal of a library, with all the significant books of my life neatly arranged around the walls, each book placed among or against the books it spoke with. And inside it I would be in my proper setting, like a picture in a frame or a tiger in its jungle.

So that seems like the significance of physical books to me now -- not that they look nice, or that they smell nice, or that they survive being dropped in the bath, because they don't. It's their symbolism, the way they signify an entire mental experience, something that's changed you or spoken to you, perhaps in the smallest way. You could say (this might be going a bit far) an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. (Spritual is almost certainly not the right word.) And at the time when I was thinking about this I had abandoned the most liberal church in England to go to St Paul's cathedral instead for Evensong, and sit under the resplendently mosiaced dome while the choir chanted the canticles, something I was ashamed of even as I felt I needed to do it. For a long time I was troubled by my preference for quite high church services, given that they so often seemed to me to be about superficial things. I care nothing and less than nothing for chasubles and acolytes. I was brought up, and I am, a Protestant and we care about the words. We read them and we study them -- we take them in and dwell on them. We could never place beauty, or anything for that matter, higher than truth. We cannot bow down to things made by human hands (I still just physically can't) -- we would rather go into a lion's den or a burning furnace. We worship God as well in a forest or on a mountain or in someone's living room as in an old draughty building, perhaps better. But still there is something in the symbols too. The icons I own are not to be worshipped, but they are signs of something that has been spoken in my mind, and not just mine but those of many people widely scattered through time and space. The fourteenth-century building that my parents' church despairs of keeping maintained, and heated, and welcoming to normal people, is to my mind a sign of an ongoing love and attention to God, and to truth, for the whole life of a small and troubled Devon town. So I will keep my library of printed books, and add to it, and I will keep going to Evensong instead of Family Praise, and attending to Tallis and St Augustine rather than Graham Kendrick and Nicky Gumbel, because none of these things are the thing itself; and with that understood, they are free to take their real significance as signposts to other things that are true.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Some music I like

1. I've liked this Miike Snow song, 'Genghis Khan', for a while, and now it has an excellent video.


2. The video for this Zara Larsson song, 'Lush Life', is just her dancing. There's no narrative as such. But on the plus side it doesn't make me feel bad about the Anglican communion.


3. This AlunaGeorge song, 'I'm In Control', doesn't have a video at all yet.

4. This video isn't for music, but if you feel like vegging out a bit it's just the view from the front of a train over a half-an-hour journey in Sweden. Soothing.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Reading in 2015

I reread way less than last year, and a bit less on kindle, but rather more non-fiction. I think I probably read a bit too much again -- a lot of what I read was pretty meaningless filler, but then it's so hard to work out what will be good. Next year I think I will aim for between 150 and 180 books.
  • Total number of books read: 211
  • Gender of authors of each book: 94 male, 111 female, 4 not sure, 2 anthologies
  • Number of non-fiction: 39 (18.5%)
  • Number of re-reads: 28 (13.3%)
  • Number read on Kindle: 68 (32.2%)
The stand-out things of the year were Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan books, and Jane Smiley's ongoing Last Hundred Years trilogy. I read the first three Ferrante books in January after they got so many rave reviews on the Millions End-of-Year summaries for 2014, then pre-ordered the fourth one out of impatience. I don't know of any other portrayal of female friendship that's so unsentimental and true. I've always been a big fan of Jane Smiley, but I think her Last Hundred Years trilogy may be her best work. I read Some Luck and Early Warning this year, and Golden Age is out in paperback next year. They tell the story of an American family from the Depression to the near future, and they are really strikingly good. Every now and then I start reading a book and realise that I am in safe hands -- I remember feeling that when reading Wolf Hall and The Children's Book -- and I felt the same way when reading these books.

There hasn't been anything this year that's felt like an amazing find, though. I enjoyed Astray by Emma Donoghue, a collection of short stories based on American historical documents. K.J. Parker's serial Two of Swords is very good -- it tells the story of a war from lots of different angles in monthly installments. I liked Claire North's three Gameshouse novellas, and Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy. Perhaps the most remarkable book was Sarah Gainham's Night Falls on the City, the story of an actress in Vienna in the 30s. Her husband is not only a prominent left-wing politician but Jewish, and the Nazi tanks are about to roll across the borders. The next two in the trilogy are not quite as good, but are still worth reading.

In non-fiction, I particularly enjoyed Mr Foote's Other Leg, about comedy in the London theatre at the time of the more famous Garrick. It makes a reasonable case for the eponymous Mr Foote's being the inspiration for the famous Pete and Dud sketch 'One Leg Too Few'. The Moth, a collection of true(-ish) stories, is very good indeed. The Rainborowes is a very interesting story of a family of Puritan merchants who fought Barbary pirates, emigrated backwards and forwards between the London dockyards and Massachusetts, and even got involved in the famous Putney debates -- it was a Rainborowe who said "It seems to me that the smallest he that is in this kingdom hath a life to live as the greatest he." But the most important non-fiction book I read this year was probably Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which seems like someone saying something believeable about race in America, at last.


This is the fifth year I've done this so I can now make a nice table:
20112012201320142015Total
Total number of books read209175155217211967
Male:female authors (percentages)51:4452:4549:5150:4945:5349:48
Percentage non-fiction132214101915
Percentage re-reads112241301320
Percentage read on Kindle355727413239

Saturday, 5 December 2015

This Missy Elliot song is very good.

Also the Pharrell bit is very good in its rhythms, once it's got past the obligatory bit about sperm. (What is it with male rappers and their sperm?) "Hermès Trismegistus" is an excellent lyric. I think it's saying that the fashion industry or consumerism in general is all made-up alchemy. So I have reluctantly decided that Pharrell is quite talented. But I am not going to change my mind about Pitbull.

I've been reading some stuff about Jung. He was very keen on alchemy -- he saw all that soror mystica stuff as a sort of mythologisation of something inside the human soul. I used to think that if I had loads of money I would undergo Jungian analysis, because it's charmingly crazy. Partly this was because in Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy when the alcoholic son has Jungian analysis he's told that every single character he meets in his dreams, without exception, is just an aspect of himself. That idea is very appealing from a self-importance point of view. For example, the other day I had a dream where I worried about the strain on my mother of looking after my very elderly grandmother. If everyone in that dream was me then I can spend some time feeling sorry for myself about the inevitability of aging and mortality. But unfortunately it turns out that's not a Jungian thing at all, so I'm forced to think about other people instead of just myself. Heigh ho.