Monthly Archives: June 2012

Colleen Burke’s Wildlife in Newtown

Colleen Burke, Wildlife in Newtown (Feakle Press,1994)

Poetry is good to travel with. Slim volumes are attractive when you’re packing light, and short poems are well suited to the short grabs of time for reading, in between gawking, eating, finding toilets, blogging and all that. Apart from such practicalities there’s this little syllogism: a) Whenever I travel I have intense dreams about home; b) poetry has been described as a waking dream; c) it makes sense to take poems about home when travelling. So of course I brought this book whose title promises poetry about places a couple of blocks from my home.

True to that promise, the book’s sense of place is very strong, in poems celebrating working class, culturally diverse Newtown, acknowledging its Dharug past and present, and repeatedly evoking Newtown houses, Camperdown Park and the historic cemetery adjoining it. The latter is the subject of elegant photographs scattered through the book, which I’m guessing were taken by the author. It’s evident that Colleen walked through that park on the way to and from work, that she often spent time in the cemetery. If that small part of the world were to be allocated a Poet Laureate, she’d be hard to beat.

The book has a number of interweaving strands: the walks home from work, often involving sunsets: relatively impersonal narratives about the history and make-up of the suburb; conversations with the poet’s children; the cemetery poems, some of which are about the history, some intensely personal; a very few strong poems that directly address the death of the poet’s partner. All the poems are short. If I was at home, I’d find the lovely line about Colleen Burke’s lyrics in Jennifer Maiden’s 1999 collection, Mines, but as I’m gallivanting in Turkey with fitful Internet access, I’ll just recommend that you look it up.

I hope Colleen won’t mind if I quote a poem that, while not necessarily my favourite, struck a chord because I was away from home – in Turkey, not India – when I read it.

And so I was there
for Kerry
‘And so I was there –
a recognition. My
heart full to bursting.
There’s something in the smell of
heat, dust, exhaust fumes,
oxen, tea, animal piss,
garam masala and ghee.
There’s something about women
in saris, beggars of all ages
and people living on the
cramped narrow streets –
an atmosphere of the
Arabian nights that
intoxicates and frees you –
like a window opening.’

I read your letter
in the crumbling
graveyard sheltered
from the August winds
by the empty sandstone
church. Spring
murmured in the winter
soil, a whisper of wattle
in the air. I was close
to you in the gnarled
shadows and slender vines
of sunlight. Close to
the bare bones bound
down by the long dark
roots of the Moreton
Bay fig tree.

‘In the small crowded
Kali temple people
sang, danced and gave
us flowers. Held our hands.
And so I was there’

Place calls out to place calls out to place.

Full disclosure: I published one or two of these poems in The School Magazine in my past life, and may have rejected one or two others; Colleen Burke taught a creative writing class to my mother-in-law, which was a significant event in her pre-dementia life; more than 20 years ago I heard Colleen read poems about her bereavement and her children that still move me, though I remember only a phrase or two.

My trip to Turkey 5: Kayaköy

We arrived at Kayaköy on a stinking hot afternoon. After a quick orientation walk, we ate and then curled up like pythons in the welcome cool of our guest house / Pansiyon Makri (phone 0252 618 0405), which turned out to be a prime example of Intrepid’s knack of finding accommodation that’s close to interesting things but not in the middle of tourist-trap territory. Our host came from generations of butchers: on our second night we had dinner there, and he spent a good bit of the morning taking a cleaver to a large section of lamb, and the results were excellent. (For the record, I had fish, which was also excellent.)

But on the first night, once our wilting spirits had revived, we went by Dolmus over the next hill to the port of Fethiye to photograph some Lycean tombs carved into a cliff face, then dinner at the fish market and a stroll along the esplanade. Fethiya used to be called something else (I cant tell you what because I’m iPadding this on the bus and so depend on my naked mind for facts and figures). It was renamed after a pilot who died in 1914, a martyr in the struggle for a Turkish republic and the end of the Ottoman Empire. There’s a splendid heroic statue of him in goggles and leather helmet with huge angelic wings at his heels. We also saw weirdly cohesive Turkish ice cream being made, and ate some.

Next morning, in slightly cooler weather, we visited the ghost town of Kayaköy, which occupies the hillside above the tourist village: two churches, 14 chapels, two schools, a thousand dwellings, all abandoned in the population exchange of the mid 1920s when everyone who lived there, being identified as Greek in spite of having lived in this place for perhaps a thousand years, was sent ‘back’ to Greece. We were told several times that Louis de Bernières tells the story in his novel Birds without Wings. A while back there was a move to turn Kayaköy into a tourist village, but this was foiled, and it is now a museum dedicated, I read somewhere, to fostering peace between Turkey and Greece.

Kayaköy means stone village, and that’s what’s left of what was the village Levissi: roofless, doorless and windowless stone houses, whose walls have almost all survived upright, stone churches stripped of ornament except some faded colour in the domed ceiling and some red, white and black pebble mosaic floor, narrow stone streets, many of them disrupted by an earthquake in the 1950s. It felt like a memorial,to all the people who have Ben displaced and dispossessed by nationalism, war and colonialism over the last couple of centuries. This forced emigration happened a couple of years before the Coniston massacre, Australia’s last recorded large massacre of Aboriginal people, so there was no call for any kind of moral superiority here. Perhaps the time will come when we’re bighearted enough to have as substantial a memorial as this for the terrible episodes of our history. These solemn ruminations were interrupted by the discovery that, unlike other memorial museums, this one is occasionally put to practical use. I took this snap of the inside of a house near the bottom of the hill:


After our first walk in the ghost village, most of our group went on a six kilometre hike along the Lycean Way to Oludeniz Lagoon, which I regretfully bowed out of as the first leg brought me to the brink of an asthma attack and we were warned that the rest of the terrain was steep.

The others returned in mid-afternoon well pleased with themselves. But as I’d used the morning to blog about the Asia Literary Review I wasn’t too unhappy to have missed out.

The Art Student and I caught a dolmus to nearby Gelmeri, a picnic ground at a beach, where we swam in buoyant salt water and lazed beneath a hired umbrella. The were quite a few Turks there, but most people sounded English. Did I mention that everywhere in Kayaköy cafés offer English Breakfast, and gozlemes are advertised as pancakes? We chatted with a couple of bright red Brits who have been coming to Turkey every summer for 20 years. This year for the first time they experienced earthquake, and they had two of them. Both times they were at the beach, and both times they observed that the Turkish people in their vicinity reached immediately for their phones to text about it. Sounds just like Melbourne.

Asia Literary Review 23

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 23, [Northern] Spring 2012

Issue 18 of Asia Literary Review has a sense of occasion about it. Like some previous issues, this one is devoted to a single nation. But a collection of English language pieces on China or Japan can confidently assume its readers will have heard of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or those poets who are in trouble, even if they haven’t read any of them. This one, on Korea, can expect to be giving many readers their first real look at a national literature. All the more so as both North and South Korea are represented. The sense of occasion is marked by an appearance by the journal’s publisher, Ilyas Khan, who contributes a note on his personal connection with Korea and his appreciation of the Korean people.

If the state of the short story is any indication of the vigour of a literary culture (a big if, I know, but think of Australia in the 1890s), then South Korean writing is thriving. All four short stories here are grippingly weird: in Kim Young-ha’s ‘Ice Cream’ (translated by Dana Zur) a suburban couple phone to complain when a packet of their favourite ice cream tastes of petrol, with unsettling results; Park Mingyu’s ‘Is That So? I’m a Giraffe’ (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) takes the situation where commuters are pushed into the underground trains of Seoul and turns the surrealism up to full volume; in Jeon Sung Tae’s ‘The Korean Soldier’ (translated by Jae Won Chung) the hero, who seems to be the author’s alter ego, has a thoroughly civilian and richly comic adventure in Mongolia; ‘Black-and-White Photographer’ by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong) is a chilling tale on what Martin Alexander’s editorial tells us is a recurring theme, the lost child. The lost child turns up again in the other piece of fiction from South Korea, an extract from What You Never Know by Jeong I-hyeon (translated by Chi-Young Kim), which I’m guessing is a gripping novel – at least I was left frustrated when the extract stopped and nothing was resolved.

Of the South Korean non-fiction, the stand-outs for me are the excerpts from Liu Jiaju’s memoir, ‘My Experiences in the Korean War’ (translated by Martin Merz), and Michael Breen’s ‘Image and Identity’ (crosscultural reflections of an Englishman who has been living in Korea for thirty years).

Two North Koreans speak directly in these pages. The first, Jang Gil-su, does so in a pencil drawing he did when hiding in his mid-teens on the way to successfully escaping to the South. The drawing shows a man being executed by a uniformed figure with a rifle. The caption informs us that everyone is expected to attend executions in North Korea, ‘including children’. The other, the poet–defector Jang Jin-sung, is represented by five poems (translated by Shirley Lee) as stark as the drawing that precedes them. I don’t generally ‘get’ poetry in translation, but these speak to me very strongly. According to the editorial, Jang Jin-sung will be representing Korea at the Cultural Olympiads, which must be happening round about now.

Of the pieces about North Korea, I felt most enlightened by ‘Pyongyang: City of Privilege and Pretence’ in which journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts ranges far and wide trying to make sense of the outpouring of grief at Kim Jong Il’s death, and Daniel Levitsky’s ‘North Korea’s Revolutionary Cinema’, which lays out a part of the jigsaw explaining how people can accept the regime. Possibly the scariest piece in the whole issue is the photo essay ‘Holiday Tours to the DPRK’ by Simon Cockerell, an Englishman who has been taking tourists into North Korea every month for the last ten years. His text is as carefully noncommittal as the faces in his photos, and any irony in his final sentence is totally deniable: ‘A week at a beach resort may be temporarily refreshing but the same amount of time in the DPRK provides an experience that will last for a lifetime.’

I’m writing this on the iPad in Kayaköy, near the Turkish Mediterranean, and creating links to all these articles is more complex than I’m prepared to do while at this particular beach resort (about which I’ll write something tomorrow – it’s seven Ks from the beach, and not exactly a resort). But I’ve listed the translators because everything here read beautifully in English and at the same time retained its sense of having come from elsewhere. Many of the pieces I’ve mentioned are up on the Asia Literary Review site, where there’s an online supplement of material that wouldn’t fit in the magazine, which is well worth a look.

I’ve read most of this issue in Turkey, quite a bit on public transport. One friendly Turkish man picked it up, skimmed the pages, and asked, ‘Where are you from?’, clearly failing to fit me to his mental image of a Korean. The Art Student kindly gave permission to use this photo:


My trip to Turkey 4: Pamukkale

Until yesterday, I thought travertine was a pattern for kitchen benchtops. The little Turkish town of Pamukkale put me right. Its two main attractions are the ruins of the city of Hieropolis on the hill overlooking it and the travertine terraces down the side of the hill. The ruins are interesting enough – a theatre, a small temple, a ‘plutonium’ where oracles entered a volcanic vent and came back with gnomic advice from the Underworld (the plutonium is bricked up except for a small hole, but you can hear the sounds of water if you listen at the hole). It’s the travertine that led one of our group to remark, ‘I can’t go on saying it everyday, but I’ve never seen anything like this.’

Travertine, according to Wikipedia, is a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs, especially hot springs. I understand the process to be similar to what happens in limestone caves. Calcium carbonate deposits, let me tell you, can be magical.

Here’s what it looks like up close. Note the bare foot: even though our body oils have a destructive effect, the potential damage caused by the thousands of tourists is reduced by a no-shoes rule and strict limits on where we are allowed to walk. The surface is completely hard, and the ridges mean it’s not the slightest bit slippery, even when wet, as the path up the hill mostly is.


walking up

The rules weren’t enforced for dogs, and this little pack of strays had a fabulous time as the sun was about to set.


By the time the terraces looked like this the dogs had sniffed out the chips and bikkies we were eating and had abandoned their frolics to turn a charm offensive on us, with a shameful degree of success.


My trip to Turkey 3: Selçuk and Ephesus

Ephesus – Efe in Turkish – is pretty much all,about antiquity. We arrived in nearby Selçuk the evening and went for a stroll to a huge field strewn with pediments, capitals and an occasional intact column, with a pool of stagnant water taking up perhaps a third of the area. This was once the Temple of Artemis, one of wonders of the ancient world. A solitary man trailed us, repeatedly offering a Jacob’s ladder of postcards for one Turkish lira. The stroll also took in the fort-like church of St John. The story is that it was here that St John the Evangelist brought the Virgin Mary, and here that her Assumption into Heaven (if you’re a Catholic) or Dormition (if you’re Orthodox) happened. This was all of interest, but my interest, and I don’t think I was the only one of our predominantly Australian group, was more immediately engaged by the storks nesting on pillars and the remains of an ancient aqueduct. We’ve all seen plenty of ruins but storks are fairytale creatures.

A short ride in a van took us to Ephesus early next morning, where we wandered among the best preserved ancient city in Turkey, one group among many being treated to a tourist-rated version of the history. It was odd wandering through these streets, making our way through the roofed and enclosed terrace houses being painstakingly restored by Austrian archaeologists, of what was once an actual town, and realising that this was the local habitation of cultural phenomena that have always been pretty much abstractions to this colonial mind: Diana of Ephesus, the Ephesians of Paul’s epistle, the Amazons, even reputedly the Virgin Mary in old age.

It was incredibly hot among all the marble of Ephesus, and that afternoon we snoozed in our air-conditioned rooms or went to a swimming pool with, I’m told, a fabulous view. I struggled up after a couple of hours to visit the Archaeological Museum, for more wandering among antiquities, among them three statues of the Artemis of Ephesus – that’s the one whose most striking feature is her large number of grapelike breasts, but who also has the signs of the Zodiac around her neck and strings of creatures on her legs. She’s a weird figure, all the weirder for being surrounded by marble statues that are clearly rpresent actual individuals, from a huge head of Emperor Domitian to life-sized busts labelled ‘A man’.

Am I right in thinking that this was the place where the cult of the Virgin Mary had its beginnings? When the Artemis-worshippers arrived here they blended their virginal hunter goddess with the local fertility goddess (Cybele?), so that only here is Artemis /Diana seen as a fertility goddess. Then when Christianity arrived, she transmogrified into the new virgin-mother figure, so the converts to the new religion found ways not to abandon the female principle that had such meaning or them. These are the ruminations of one who was pretty devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a Catholic child in Queensland. Them Ephesians sure cast a long shadow.

Of course I’m not the only one to notice that divine women are big in Ephesus. Here’s a snap of an array of them on a stall next to one selling ‘authentic fake watches’ just outside the city exit:

female deities

That night, in the comparative cool, we drove to the hill town Sirinçe for dinner. This was a Greek village until the mid 20s ‘population exchange’ in which, as part of a peace settlement after Greece invaded Turkey, something like 1.3 million Greeks and half a million Turks were uprooted and (cough!) returned to their own country. So we visited the remains of the Orthodox Church of St John the Baptist, which is in the process of restoration by a US organisation. The current population inherited vineyards and olive orchards and had to learn from scratch how to tend them. They seem to have done brilliantly – copious. olive oil and brightly labelled wine was for sale.

We had a pleasant dinner. Perhaps it was no coincidence that conversation at my end of the table turned to gender studies. And as we rode down the hill in the dark our driver turned the radio up loud for a Turkish version of Whitney Spears singing ‘I will always love you’.

iPadded on the train to our next destination.

My trip to Turkey 2: Bursa

Bursa was besieged by nomadic Turks led by Oman Gazi, founder of the Ottoman lineage, in 1315. Eleven years later the starving city surrendered to Osman’s son, and the Ottoman Empire was born. Our little group of temporary nomads got there yesterday by ferry and bus, and there was very little starving going on, this being the birthplace of Iskender kebab. It was at the end of the Silk Road at one time, and even today there’s a lot of astonishingly cheap ‘100 percent silk’ scarfs on sale in the Silk Markets, which a number of us found irresistible. Also irresistible to most of us was the famous hamam at Çekirge mineral baths, which I’m told is luxurious with marble, very hot and not at all the punishing experience that a bath and massage is in some places.

According to the schedule we were to be guests at a Dervish Lodge in the evening, with the possibility of ‘dinner with our hosts’. Our host turned out to be a flute player from the Lodge, who couldn’t dine with us but instead gave us a long explanation of Sufism that included rich poetry about everything whirling, from subatomic particles to the vastest nebulae, familiar punitive moralism (if you don’t belong to a religion you will pay the bill when you die), and philosophical reflections on the shortness of life, the smallness of human concerns in the immensity of the universe (‘I am nothing’). Wonderfully, he excused himself three times in the course of the talk to answer his mobile phone – when he returned the third time, he turned it into a teachable moment: ‘You see, I think I am very important. It is hard to remember that I am nothing.’

We were mostly a little ambivalent about the talk, and had some misgivings as we followed him out into the evening. But he took us to the back room of a teahouse where some of the locals were singing and playing Turkish folk music. The room was big enough to accommodate around its walls the musicians, the thirteen of us, and four or five others. Glasses of tea were brought, and what followed was an hour, or possibly two, of joy all round. Our flute-playing friend left after playing beautifully for quite a spell. Drummers came and went – a Turkish man on the way home from work who tapped out a basic rhythm, two young men whose finger work was brilliant. Two middle aged men who sang and played the sas (I can’t look it up, it’s like a balalaika with the hole at the bottom rather than under the strings) seemed to be in charge, and enjoyed each other, the other players, and us to a spectacular degree. They sang and played. Four young Japanese men came for a while and left. One by one we were cajoled into dancing. One of our younger women had clearly learned Turkish belly dancing and did herself proud. The five men of our group got up together, shook our hips and bumped shoulders. We joined in singing on a couple of simple refrains. Eventually, the instruments were returned to their hooks on the wall, and after much handshaking and kissing on both cheeks, we filed out, paying one Turkish lira each for the tea. We’d been told that there was no charge for watching dervishes whirl because it was a spiritual practice, not a performance. Perhaps the same could be said of this event.

We dispersed, found dinner where we could – my small group found it in a kebab house that turned out to have a Turkish pop duo drowning out any conversation, but giving a kind of musical completeness to the evening. We reconvened and walked to the Dervish Lodge.

The Lodge’s crowded grounds were dominated by the video image of a bearded man sitting crosslegged and holding forth – the sermon had already started. There was a festive air all the same, not inattentive, but not exactly hushed. We were escorted into a front parlour and offered the now familiar strong black tea. The sermon went on for an hour. This was not fun, though Burak, our leader, took the opportunity to give us his version of Sufism and the origins of whirling: the man known in the West as Rumi had a dear friend and comrade named Shem; when Shem was killed words were not adequate to express the great poet’s yearning for his lost friend and he began to whirl; his followers saw him do it and imitated him.

At last the sermon, which had sounded at times like a Downfall soundtrack and had been in part about the evils of Facebook, came to an end, and we were ushered into the crowded viewing areas of the whirling room (click here for a virtual tour), women upstairs, men downstairs and children wherever. The man who had given the sermon sat at one end of the room, the six dervishes in their felt tombstone hats and white skirts came in opposite him, one by one, each bowing solemnly to the one after him, before he began whirling. My guess of the age range is 30 to eight years old. Once they were all started, each in his own space, the music started, hypnotic, vigorous, beautiful. And they whirled for what seemed like forever, both hands raised or one up one down, head at an angle, eyes sometimes closed, progressing around the room and never coming even close to a collision.


It was an incredible physical feat, but that was almost beside the point. People in the audience (or should I say congregation?) swayed where they sat, and some wept. After a long time, the bearded man and the man in a black robe who played some kind of leadership role joined in, rotating more slowly, the older man with tears streaming down his face. Then they stopped, stood for a moment, sat upright and motionless on the mat for a long, impassioned call-and-response prayer, sweat dripping from their faces. It must say something about my mental state that I thought the repeated response was habib. (The Art Student assures me it was nothing of the sort.) It was a huge privilege to be a guest here.

Next morning, we paid a quick visit to the Ulu Cami (High Mosque), which was built for an emperor long before the conquest of Constantinople. The biggest piece of calligraphy was the emperor’s name. There’s a pool for ablutions in the mosque itself, and a very beautiful wooden pulpit made of 66,666 pieces with no nails or glue. Burak explained enough of the calligraphy that I can now recognise the name of Allah, the mystic syllable hu and the character wow (pronounced v) which has mystic significance because it curls back on itself like a foetus or a traditionally buried corpse.


I’ve iPadded this almost entirely on the six hour bus ride to Selçuk near Ephesus.

My Trip to Turkey 1: Istanbul

Having a great time in Istanbul. Wish you were here!

I’ll be doing occasional blogs over the next couple of weeks mainly so I have a record of where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. It never feels like I’ll forget things while I’m there but bitter experience has taught me otherwise. For example, I know I’ve been to Fatehpur Sikri in India, but every detail of it that comes to mind turns out in reality to be a memory of the Red Fort in Delhi. So here goes on my couple of days in Istanbul.

As the Turkish Airlines plane touched down at Ataturk Airport there was a round of applause, of the ‘Nice job’ rather than the ‘Thank God’ variety. If this moment of collective grace was a good omen, it was soon followed by another: a young woman in rimless glasses, a stylish black full-length coat and a pale blue scarf over her hair, took a moment from her extraordinarily calm parenting of two very active little boys to wish us – in Turkish – a pleasant trip, and then explain in gestures what she meant.

That was on Wednesday night. We reached our hotel – the excellent two-star Best Town Palace Hotel – close to midnight. On Thursday, after a wonderfully eclectic breakfast (borek, cereal, hardboiled egg, olives and salad meat, meze dips etc) we headed out for a morning of art galleries and other exhibitions. In Singapore we’d seen a Miro, a Warhol and stunning art from Papunya Tula and Yuendemu; in Istanbul it was Leonardo and Goya, but we did also find some contemporary Turkish work. The most interesting show was a photographic exhibition about the Village Institute Program, in which promising young people from poor villages were educated in boarding schools and returned home to spread their learning – a powerful strategy for remedying the endemic rural illiteracy that was the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, and cultivating an informed democracy. (I’ve just found out from Wikipedia that the program was attacked by reactionaries who used the moral panic tactics – the Institutes included girls – and accusations of Communism. The exhibition didn’t do the opposition the honour of mentioning them.)

This morning, our small group tourism experience began in Ernest with a four-hour walk, taking in:

  • the Hippodrome
  • the Blue Mosque, which is extraordinarily beautiful but felt cold and showy to me
  • a tea house, where the eight women of our group were the only women but there didn’t seem to be any awkwardness
  • the Grand Bazaar, which is not, as I expected, a chaotic scene of makeshift stalls filled with the sound of bargaining and a thousand smells, but a vast, orderly shopping arcade, perhaps the world’s oldest mall
  • the Suleymaniye mosque, full of light and air, a totally different experience. It’s the work of the architect Sinan, who seems to have a status in Turkish history not unlike Shakespeare’s in English. His modest türbe (look at me, using Turkish words) is just around the corner
  • the Rustum Pasha mosque, also by Sinan, decorated with fabulous tiles, with a sense of light like the Suleymaniye mosque, but intimate. Even as ignorant as I am, you get a sense of why Sinan is a rockstar.
  • the Spice Bazaar, more what I had expected, only clean. Insert here the olfactory equivalent of spectacular.
  • .

    In true Intrepid Tour style, we were then cut loose for the ret of the day. My little trio had lunch that was like no lamb kebab I’ve ever had, then went to Hagiya Sophia / Aya Sofya. Apart from the sheer awesomeness of the building, there’s a delicious irony in this piece of Christian triumphalism being conquered by a triumphant Islam, and now it’s a museum.

    We’re being called to,our ride to the ferry, so that’s all you get.

    Georgette Heyer’s Corinthian

    Georgette Heyer, The Corinthian (©1940, Bantam 1967 – retail price 75c, but I got it kind-of-free via BookMooch)

    A number of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances did the rounds of my family when I was 12 or 13 years old. In particular, I remember the bursts of laughter coming from first my mother, then my farmer father, my apprentice mechanic brother, and probably at least one of my younger sisters as each in turn read Friday’s Child. Any writing that can do that isn’t too shabby. When a writer friend recently told me of her not-so-secret addiction to these books, and that her much-read favourite was The Corinthian, I decided to ignore the imperatives of cool and the protestations of my traveling companion, and read it on the plane.

    It’s a hoot. It has a lot in common with what I remember of Friday’s Child: a gutsy, childlike heroine, a foppish but morally sound older man who progresses from amused exasperation with her to falling in love, a sweetly benign fantasy of the aristocratic life. Plus, in this one, there’s cross-dressing comedy that’s a lot more Twelfth Night than Pink Flamingoes but still manages to hint that the eponymous Corinthian (evidently a synonym for dandy) might not be completely heterosexual. Ms Heyer’s has fun with thieves’ jargon, fun with stock figures including the pater iratus, the ingenue, the dandy, country magistrate. The Jewish stereotyping she has been criticised for isn’t in evidence here, and while I can see that the outrageous depiction of class might make the book distasteful, I found it hard to take such playful exuberance in anything other than the spirit it’s intended.

    I realised on this reading that Georgette Heyer’s books introduced me to the comedy of wit, so that when my university studies led me to Etherage and Congreve, Meredith and Wilde, this boy from the Catholic wilds of north Queensland already had a toe in the door.

    John Freely’s Istanbul

    John Freely, Istanbul: Imperial City ( 1996, Penguin 1998)

    20120617-184203.jpgOn a friend’s recommendation, I borrowed this from the library as preparation for our trip to Turkey. As it became clear I wasn’t going to finish it in time, I also bought an eBook, which I finished on the plane. I’m jabbing this entry on the iPad keyboard in the air.

    The book is a bit of a hybrid – a biography of the city from 658 BCE to 1995, and a guide to the monuments and relics of that long history. It doesn’t aim to make sense of the history so much as to help reader–travellers understand what they are seeing. Istanbul is not the capital of modern Turkey, but it was an imperial capital for many centuries, so perhaps it’s inevitable that the book’s backbone is a chronology of a series of rulers – of Greek and then Roman antiquity, Christian Nova Roma / Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire and finally the Turkish Republic. We are told the name of each new Augustus/Sultan, how many relatives he killed on his way to power or after getting there (one new Sultan killed a record nineteen younger brothers), his age, and what monuments he left. Court intrigue, exile, mutilation, assassination and heroic exploits in war may make for high drama in close up, but in a narrative that covers more than 1500 years in 300 or so pages, they become a bit of a slog. Freely does his best to keep it lively. The quotes from contemporaries over the ages bring welcome insight into the look and feel of Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul at a given time, in particular the substantial passages from the fabulous seventeenth century writer Evliya Çelebi are just fabulous.

    I’m glad to have read it and I’ve probably retained enough to enrich my impending visit, but I found myself constantly asking why – why did the populace sometimes support an invading leader, and why did they often turn against him soon after his coronation, how come a section of the army could just decide to make their leader the emperor, and so on. I would have appreciated a little discussion of, say, the relationship between secular and religious authorities in both Christian and Muslim empires, or the status of women, or the lives of everyday people. Without such discussion, a lot was left mysterious.There are plenty of events that raise questions about these issues. For example, though Turkey had its first woman prime minister when the book was being written, the Byzantine Empire had more than one Augusta and some women seem to have wielded enormous powered behind the Ottoman throne.

    So I’m not sure I’d recommend the book but I wouldn’t recommend against it. Now our German pilot is telling us to prepare for landing, so I’ll stop poking at keys and switch off my electronic equipment.

    Notes from a Tidy Town

    The Art Student and I have just spent a couple of days in Singapore en route to Turkey. Apart from the fabulously welcome heat and the pleasure of walking about in an unfamiliar place, I’ve noticed:

  • the absence of graffiti, to the extent that an installation in the Singapore Art Museum was accompanied by a note saying that even though graffiti was awfully antisocial it could sometimes inspire artworks (though we did see a couple of lonely tags under a bridge near some equally rare skateboarders).
  • excellent, cheap underground rail, with a ticketing system that’s cumbersome for blow-ins like us who just want single-trip tickets, who have to pay a refundable deposit of a dollar on each ticket (the tickets are plastic – an anti-littering strategy?), reclaim able only from a machine at the other end
  • ‘Do Not’ signs that indicate customary practices: I only saw one ‘pedestrians must use crossing’, and it was in one of the few places where they mostly didn’t; ‘Do not lean on door’ was on the wall above two young men engrossed in their phones and leaning as if there was no other way to ride the subway; and my favourite, ‘$1000 fine for riding here’, failed to deter the gentleman who came zooming past us, who looked as if he wouldn’t have managed a fine of a tenth that size.
  • a definite child-friendly feel to the art galleries: Sakarin Krue-on’s installation ‘Cloud Nine’ in the Contemporary Asian Art exhibition at the Singapore Art Gallery featured stray dogs with beautiful wings that reminded me of S. D. Schindler’s magical illustrations for Ursula Le Guin’s Catwings; more substantially, we caught the tail end of a city-wide Children’s Season in museums – a whole building of the SAG was given over to interactive works that invited children’s participation, real works that made me want to join in, and a video art room that showed excellent children’s cartoons.
  • a system of pricing in which things aren’t always what they seem: if for instance you bought Dr Dre earphones for your iPad for $430 ( very cheap, it turns out, probably because they’re fake) you might find yourself paying more than $500 because of the 7 per cent GST, and if you challenged the maths of that, you might discover there was a government levy on credit card transactions. Not all of this is swift talking by clever salespeople – I saw a price tag on a Tiger beer tower (don’t ask) that read ‘$68 + +’.
  • It’s a terrific city. We walked a lot above ground and a lot below ground. We ate Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and ice cream. We discovered deep fried cereal prawns, which we ate but didn’t understand. Today as we swam upstream in Bugis Street against a current consisting almost entirely of cheerful young people, I thought to myself, ‘This is no country for old men.’ in a couple of hours we’ll be flying to Byzantium, those dolphin-torn, those gong-tormented seas.