Saturday, 23 September 2017

Today all the Egyptian newspapers are talking about the Villa Ambron and Lawrence Durrell

Zahraa Adel Awad tells me: 'Today all the Egyptian newspapers are talking about the Villa Ambron and Lawrence Durrell'.

Zahraa and her friends and fellow activists (see previous post) have long campaigned to save the Villa Ambron, the place where Lawrence Durrell began writing The Alexandria Quartet, with the aim of turning it into a museum or cultural centre dedicated to Alexandria's recent cosmopolitan period.  But today their photographs appear throughout the Egyptian press to record its destruction.

Corruption and ugliness have ruined a once beautiful world class city.

Here are some thumb shots with links.

مسلسل اغتيال الفيلات التراثية بالإسكندرية مازال مستمر بهدم فيلا أمبرون

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Sad End to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria

Zahraa Adel Awad has sent me more photographs of the destruction of the Villa Ambron (see previous post) where Lawrence Durrell lived in a very different Alexandria during the war. These photographs were taken by her friends Dr Mohamed Adel Dossouki and architect Sherif Farag. All are campaigners for the preservation of Alexandria's heritage and all are very sad. 

This little room, how well I know it!
Now they’ve rented this and the next door one
As business premises, the whole house
Has been swallowed up by merchants’ offices,
By limited companies and shipping agents …
O how familiar it is, this little room!
Once here, by the door, stood a sofa,
And before it a little Turkish carpet,
Exactly here. Then the shelf with the two
Yellow vases, and on the right of them:
No. Wait. Opposite them (how time passes)
The shabby wardrobe and the little mirror.
And here in the middle the table
Where he always used to sit and write,
And round it the three cane chairs.
How many years … And by the window over there
The bed we made love on so very often.
Somewhere all these old sticks of furniture
Must still be knocking about …
And beside the window, yes, that bed.
The afternoon sun climbed half way up it.
We parted at four o’clock one afternoon,
Just for a week, on just such an afternoon.
I would have never 
Believed those seven days could last forever.

- Constantine Cavafy's The Afternoon Sun, translated by Lawrence Durrell

'Were it not to see you again I doubt if I could return again to Alexandria. I feel it fade inside me, in my thoughts, like some valedictory mirage — like the sad history of some great queen whose fortunes have foundered among the ruins of armies and the sands of time!'

- Clea, the final volume of The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell

Zahraa says: 'I am so sad for the villa especially I used to take my tourists group around for Lawrence Durrell tour in Alexandria; now it is totally gone.  The developer is Mr Abdel Aziz who will build a new apartment building called Al Amraa Palace (Royal Princes Palace)'.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Lawrence Durrell's Home in Alexandria Destroyed: The End of the Villa Ambron

19 September 2017
I have received the news tonight from Zahraa Adel Awad in Alexandria that the Villa Ambron where Lawrence Durrell lived from 1943 to 1945 was torn down yesterday, 19 September 2017.

In the octagonal tower of the villa Durrell wrote Prospero's Cell about Corfu and the first pages of what was to become Justine, which grew into The Alexandria Quartet.

Zahraa is wonderful tour guide in Alexandria who takes a special interest in the city's cosmopolitan and literary past. Both photographs in this post were taken by her.  Thank you, Zahraa.

For more on the Villa Ambron and the long campaign to save it and to turn it into a museum of Alexandria's cosmopolitan past, see here.

June 2017

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Talking Templars

The Templars: History and Myth is now an audio book.
You can  now listen to The Templars: History and Myth by Michael Haag while washing the dishes, driving the car, or whatever.

The audio book runs for 11 hours unabridged and is available directly from the publisher Tantor in North America and via Amazon and other online outlets worldwide.

The reader is Guy Bethell, an Englishman who lives in Arizona.  For an audio sample of the book, click here.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Tragedia templariuszy

Bestseller in Poland

Astra in Poland (Wydawnictwo Astra) have acquired the Polish rights to The Templars: History and Myth, following their publication last year of The Tragedy of the Templars which has become a bestseller. The Polish edition of The Templars: History and Myth will be published in 2018.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Cult Books: An Obsession with the Obscure

Durrell's tetralogy exposed readers
to not only the notions of continuum,
but also to life in the Mediterranean.
The Alexandria Quartet joins the Voynich manuscript, Naked Lunch, The Magus, Seven Years in Tibet, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, The Fountainhead, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Jerusalem Bible and thirty-two other titles in a choice (and rather American) selection of cult books featured by Abebooks.

Defining a cult book is not easy. Let's start with the more obvious aspects of cult lit. To begin, a cult book should have a passionate following. Buckets of books fall into this category, including classics like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. But even mega sellers Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey can be considered cult lit by that definition. A cult book should have the ability to alter a reader's life or influence great change, and for the purpose of this list, it should also be a bit odd and a tad obscure.
Many of the titles we've selected have barely seen the light of day beyond their incredibly dedicated and perhaps obsessive following. Only five copies of Leon Genonceaux's 1891 novel The Tutu existed until the 1990s because Genonceaux was already in trouble with French police for immoral publishing when he wrote it and feared a life in prison if he distributed the book to the public. Similarly, The Red Book by Carl Jung was reserved for Jung's heirs for decades before it was made available to a wider audience.
Some of the books on our list are more widely known (though not necessarily widely understood). Robert M. Pirsig introduced the Metaphysics of Quality, his own theory of reality, in his philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book was rejected by over 100 publishers before it was finally published by William Morrow & Company in 1974 and today it's regarded as one the most influential texts in American culture. 
From funny fiction and serious science fiction to knitting manuals and alternative art, the books on this list have steered the course of an individual's life, created a wave of change in a society, culture, or generation, and garnered fanatic attention from a few or few million readers for their quirky and obscure content.
 As it happens I once wrote a review about the Voynich manuscript for The Los Angeles Times.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Science Fiction Writer?

Lawrence Durrell was not Indian nor was he Irish but was he a Sci-Fi writer?  This entry in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction says that Tunc and Nunquam and also The Avignon Quintet put him in that category.

Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) Indian poet and author (his English/Irish family settled in India about 1850), in England from 1923 to 1935, then in Greece and elsewhere; best known for the Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960). His fourth novel, Cefalû (1947; vt The Dark Labyrinth 1961) is a Near Future tale set Underground in a Cretan Labyrinth, where emanations out of the Minoan Time Abyss afflict the protagonists. His sf novel sequence, Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970), assembled as The Revolt of Aphrodite (omni 1974) – the original title is from Petronius Arbiter: "aut tunc, aut nunquam" ("either then or never") – subjects sf material to intensely literary scrutiny. In the first volume, Merlin, a burgeoning multinational corporation, co-opts the protagonist, Felix Charlock, into constructing a super-Computer, which can predict the future and which drives him to madness; in the second volume, Felix is cured in order to create an Android lady – echoing a Durrell obsession – perfectly duplicating a destroyed lover of the boss of Merlin; but the android is also destroyed in a Near-Future world choked with evil and images of corruption. The late Avignon Quincunx [for titles see Checklist] is an immensely complex Gnostic fantasy which exfoliates – in a series of Hermetic and numerological figurations – out of a central quincunx comprised of place, Time, Metaphysics, reincarnated figures, mirrors.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Lawrence Durrell's Tower in Alexandria

Lawrence Durrell lived in the Villa Ambron in Alexandria during the Second World War.  He worked in the tower at the top of the villa where he wrote Prospero's Cell about Corfu and drafted the first pages of what would become Justine, the first volume of the Alexandria Quartet.

The Villa Ambron continues to be deliberately neglected and battered and destroyed by a developer who has already planted blocks of flats in its once vast garden. Two laws protect old villas from development so the tactic is to encourage them to fall down.

Bent Christophersen, an antiquarian book dealer familiar with Egypt and Greece, visited the villa two weeks ago and took these haunting photographs - I thank him for kindly allowing me to use them here; they remain his copyright.

Bent entered the house on the ground floor and worked his way across the wreckage towards the base of the tower.

A staircase rises up from the cellar of the villa to the upper floor. But to reach Durrell's writing room at the top of he tower required climbing an outside staircase, now gone.

Bent was able to get as far as the octagonal room immediately below Durrell's writing room.

The octagonal room beneath Durrell's writing room at the top of the tower.
Read more and see more photographs about Lawrence Durrell and other denizens of the Villa Ambron, including Eve Durrell, the model for Justine.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017


Alexandrie restaurant promotional card.
I discovered the other day that a restaurant previously called Aladino's has changed its name to Alexandrie.

The restaurant explains its transformation: 'Unique in London, Alexandrie's stylish restaurant in Kensington offers its brand of fine Alexandrian cuisine, conveying the marriage of flavours by the most cosmopolitan city from antiquity to recent times'.

Cosmopolitan as recently as 1953 when you might see Sophia Loren hanging out a window overlooking the Corniche. That was the year she was in Egypt filming Aida in which she played the title role. 

As long as the restaurant remains as out of date as this photograph it should do well.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Man who Mistook his Holiday for a Hat

No, not eating from a trough.
I received this postcard yesterday. It dates from the 1920s when it was de rigueur to wear a hat while viewing the Underwater Gardens at Catalina off the coast of California.  Those were the days, you might think.

Today people still go to Catalina to peep underwater and they still wear hats.

Thursday, 3 August 2017


New paperback Justine published 2017

Today, sixty years after the publication of Lawrence Durrell's Justine, Faber and Faber have published a paperback edition in a cover that is a reminder of the first edition - a child's handprint, so familiar on the walls of Egypt, to avert the Evil Eye.

Durrell's photograph of Eve in a mirror,
Alexandria 1943.
A line from Justine runs along the bottom of the cover.  'I have been thinking about the girl I met last night in the mirror ...'  The line is given in full on page 59: 'I have been thinking about the girl I met last night in the mirror: dark on marble-ivory white: glossy black hair: deep suspiring eyes in which one’s glances sink because they are nervous, curious, turned to sexual curiosity'. This is Justine, seen in a mirror in the gaunt vestibule of the Hotel Cecil, and in whom I recognise Eve Cohen, Durrell's second wife.

There is a brief and reassuring foreword by Victoria Hislop, who describes herself on her website as the 'multimillion-copy bestselling author' of popular novels set in the Mediterranean. Justine has a modernist flavour, she writes, and must have tested readers when it was first published in 1957, but 'You do not stop to ask "why?" or "when?" but instead follow the compelling narrative flow'. 

First edition of Justine, 1957.

Your reward is Durrell's remarkable writing, his portrait of a vanished exotic city 'described with a vividness and clarity that invades the reader's every sense', and most of all his 'honest exploration of love'. 'Here, more than in any other novel I know, we see this powerful force at its most complex, at its most unkind and its most real. It is the great strength of this exceptional work.'

Friday, 14 July 2017

Staying at Buxton

Old Hall Hotel
Last week when I was at the Buxton International Festival talking about The Durrells of Corfu, I came across the Old Hall Hotel, thought to be the oldest hotel in England.  The present building dates from 1573 and stands on the foundations of a yet earlier hall and was specially built with the sanction of Queen Elizabeth I to accommodate Mary Queen of Scots who was held here under house arrest from 1576 to 1578. 


Apparently Mary Queen of Scots liked Buxton and the Old Hall, sadly scratching with her diamond ring on her bedroom window pane, 'Perchance I shall visit thee no more - Farewell'.  

No mustard
Alas I stayed at the Palace Hotel which is not really a palace at all.  They served cheap bready sausages for breakfast and when I asked for mustard I was sharply told that 'We do not serve mustard at breakfast'.  

Also I overheard a man complaining that there was no avocado in his avocado salad to which the response was 'we replaced it with cucumber'.

Off with their heads.  

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Books in the Window at the London Library

As I left the London Library this afternoon I noticed that they had a window display of books recently written by some of their members, among them my own book The Quest for Mary Magdalene. The sun was shining brightly against the glass and the reflections made it difficult to photograph anything. There were about ten or twelve titles in all; here are few.

Erica Wagner's Brooklyn Bridge; she was born in
New York but lives in London now.

Andrew Marr and John Simpson are well known on
BBC news and current affairs programmes.

The Beverley Collection at Alnwick Castle by 
Claudia Wagner, John Boardman and Diana Scarisbrick 
details one of the finest gem collections still in 
private hands, the envy of Russia's 
Catherine the Great. 
And there is my Quest for Mary Magdalene.

The London Library has at least two and a half times
as many books as the ancient Library of Alexandria
is thought to have had.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Democracy in America

The London Library's copy of Democracy in America
by Alexis de Tocqueville, first edition 1835.  Half slave, half free.

After publishing Democracy in America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville visited London where he was asked if he had thought of doing such a book about England. Writing about America, he said, was easy; you had only to find the central point and everything is in view. But England is an ancient land full of contradictions and overlapping histories, and there was no one place from which it was possible to comprehend the whole.
In America all laws originate more or less from the same idea. The whole of society, so to say, is based on just one fact: everything follows from one underlying principle. One could compare America to a great forest cut through by a large number of roads which all end in the same place. Once you have found the central point, you can see the whole plan in one glance. But in England the roads cross, and you have to follow along each one of them to get a clear idea of the whole. 
                         - Alexis de Tocqueville
But America did have one great contradiction as the map facing the title page of Tocqueville's book shows; half of it relied on slavery, and its consequences remain unresolved to this day.