Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas in Provence

A Provençal nativity with local villagers dropping in.
In Monsieur: The Prince of Darkness, the first book of his Avignon Quintet, Lawrence Durrell writes lovingly about Christmas in Provence. 'In my memory it will always be Christmas here', says Durrell's character Bruce, 'the Noel of 19-, the year that changed the direction and leaning of my life. Nothing had ever happened to me before - or that is how I felt about the events of that year.'

Bruce is visiting the chateau of Verfeuille in Provence where he and Sylvie fall in love.  The chateau is owned by Bruce's friend, Piers, who is Sylvie's brother, and you might as well know that Piers and Sylvie are also in love with one another. That is not so unusual in Durrell's novels; Pursewarden and his sister Liza in The Alexandria Quartet are lovers, for example, and there are many other relationships in the Quartet and elsewhere that are disguised brother-sister affairs - just as sometimes in E M Forster's novels, notably in Howards End, the relationships are disguised homosexual ones. 

Piers had gone ahead to Verfeuille, 
while Sylvie and I had elected to stay on in Avignon, and then pick up horses at the half-way house and ride the last few miles to the chateau. Our saddle bags were full of presents, coloured sweets for the children, confetti, crystallised fruit, and little bottles of cognac and liqueurs. Also we had brought a huge family of little santons of painted terracotta for the crèche. No Provençal Christmas is complete without these little figures which populate and deck out the family crèche which itself does the duty of our northern Yule-tide Tree. 
Santons pay their respects to the newborn child.
I became curious about these santons - the word means 'little saints'.  Curious about their place in the Christmas festivities of Provence but also because I wondered what they might signify, if anything, about Durrell's characters.  Just as in the Alexandria Quartet Durrell describes his characters in terms of tarot cards, so maybe these santons who have invaded the traditional nativity scene with the Holy Family also had some meaning.  But probably not - though Durrell can never resist a homunculus. 

Durrell goes on to explain.  
Originally the cast, so to speak, was a small one, restricted to the Holy Family and two or three other personages who figured directly in the legend, like the kings and so forth; but under the influence of the hardy Provençal sense of poetry the whole thing had flowered rhapsodically and we had found in the shops about forty santons, all different. Their verisimilitude might have been suspect but they brought the story up to date with characters out of stock like the village policeman, a poacher, a Camargue cowboy, and the like. All this gear was carefully wrapped against breakages and stowed in our capacious saddle bags before we attacked the slow winding ascent to the chateau.
In Caesar's Vast Ghost, Durrell's book about Provence, he says 'The little Christmas santons of Provence with their butcher-baker-candlestick-maker preoccupations must echo the same concern with the persistence of archetypes through the different vocations'.  

A santon produce-seller.
And so they turn out to do, and in a surprising way. For on the face of it there is nothing ancient about these santons, these figurines of painted terracotta; the tradition is barely two hundred years old. They owe their existence to the French Revolution and its suppression of religion and outward displays of belief, including the traditional nativity scene with its Joseph and Mary and Christ Child and magi and shepherds and sheep and cows and so on - all of this was banned.  But people liked them.  And there were artisans who had made a living turning them out.  And so everyone just continued on as before, but instead of the Holy Family the figures were butchers and bakers and fishwives.  And the santons thrived.  No Christmas in Provence is complete without a vast cast of characters who have nothing to do with the birth of the Son of God but everything to do with one's neighbours and local tradesmen and the passing gipsies and fishermen at sea.

As for Bruce and Sylvie making their way back from Avignon to the the chateau, their saddlebags filled with santons,
From time to time all visibility was reduced to nil, and then Sylvie, who was in a particularly mischievous mood, pushed her horse into a canter, to be swallowed at once in the mist. It was not a procedure to be recommended and the second time she did it I plunged after her and punished her with an embrace that left her breathless; feeling her cold lips and nose against my face, seeking me out. Such was its magnetism that we became fused into this posture, unwilling to detach ourselves from each other. I tried to at last - for I could feel the mist condensing into droplets on the collar of my old tweed coat; but she whispered 'Stay' and it was only too easy to obey her.
Santon woman with donkey.
Their arrival at Verfeuille was followed by a warming log fire and a magnficent Christmas dinner. (If you want to know about the traditions of a country, particularly the gastronomic ones, you could do worse than read a Durrell novel.)

The wine was going about now and the most important supper of the whole year was in full sail. By old tradition it has always been a 'lean' supper, so that in comparison with other feast days it might have seemed a trifle frugal. Nevertheless the huge dish of raïto exhaled a wonderful fragrance: this was a ragout of mixed fish presented in a sauce flavoured with wine and capers. Chicken flamed in Cognac. The long brown loaves cracked and crackled under the fingers of the feasters like the olive branches in the fireplace. ...

So it went on, our last dinner, to terminate at last with a whole anthology of sweetmeats and nuts and winter melons. The fire was restoked and the army of wine-bottles gave place to a smaller phalanx of brandies, Armagnacs and Marcs, to offset the large bowls of coffee from which rose plumes of fragrance.

Now old Jan's wife placed before the three lovers a deep silver sugar bowl full of white sugar. It lay there before them in the plenitude of its sweetness like a silver paunch. The three spoons she had placed in it stood upright, waiting for them to help themselves before the rest of the company.
For Bruce, that Christmas remained forever impressed into his mind.  
It was not a place or time easy to forget, and I had returned to it so often in my thoughts that it was no surprise to relive all this in my dreams. I must have unconsciously memorised it in great detail without being fully aware of the fact at the time. I know of no other place on earth that I can call up so clearly and accurately by simply closing my eyes: to this very day.
But the day itself came to an end as they moved off across the snow to midnight mass at the village church.
Painted terracotta figures coming to life.
By now the old man had discovered that it was nearly time for the village mass. 'We will have to hurry up,' he said consulting the old clock, 'we must set a good example on the day of the days.' The company donned hats and scarves and we straggled out into the night with its washed-out late moon trying to guide us. Our feet scratched the flinty path which led away to the tiny hamlet of Verfeuille whose ancient church was now so ablaze with candles that the whole fragile structure seemed to be on fire. I walked arm in arm with the brother and sister, silent and preoccupied and wondering about the future – the future which has now become the past.
Except that with Durrell nothing ever becomes lost within the past. Time plays itself out again and again, like the placing of familiar tarot cards and like santons introducing themselves into the world of ancient beliefs and mysteries, as the following volumes of the Avignon Quintet make clear.
Sommieres, the town where Durrell lived in Provence, with the Roman bridge crossing the Vidourle - recreated like a nativity scene and populated by santons. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

L'ascension et la chute

The French edition of my book The Tragedy of the Templars will be published by Ixelles Editions on 5 February 2014 as La Tragédie des Templiers: L'ascension et la chute.

Under the title Les Templiers: De la légende a l'histoire, Ixelles already publish the French edition of The Templars: History and Myth.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

English Cavafy

One of the last photographs taken of Cavafy, 1932.

I was reading this entry for the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in The Oxford Companion to English Literature.  It mentions the several ways in which Cavafy is connected to England and the English language and which justify his inclusion in this companion.  

But what it fails to mention is how much Cavafy's mind was an English mind and how his Greek poetry began life in the English language.

When reading Cavafy's poetry in English translation one has the uncanny sense that one is reading it in a language whose rhythms and nuances inhabited Cavafy.  Cavafy spent many years of his childhood and youthful education in England and to his dying day he spoke Greek with an English accent and he most certainly first 'thought' some of his poems in English before writing them in Greek.

Evidence of this was found by Gwyn Williams who in the 1930s was a lecturer in English literature at Fuad (later Cairo) University and then became a close friend of Lawrence Durrell's in Alexandria during the Second World War, by when Williams had become head of the department of English Literature at Farouk University in the city (today's Alexandria University).   

After Cavafy's death in 1933, Cavafy's friends and downstairs neighbours Rika and Alexander Singopoulos brought out the first edition of Cavafy's works, but there were also numerous pieces of paper of all sizes and quality, some of them pages torn from exercise books, others small irregular scraps, on which Cavafy had scribbled severely truncated, almost coded notes in English - some of them after he had been out prowling at the tavernas. 

Rika and Alexander Singopoulos wanted them deciphered, and so they gave a sheaf of these papers to Michael Perides, another friend of Cavafy's, for Gwyn Williams to see. Many offered glimpses into his homosexual emotional life, while others, to Williams' surprise, bore first drafts of his poems written in English prose which Cavafy would then rework into poetry in Greek. 

As The Oxford Companion to English Literature says, for more on Cavafy 'see Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (2005)'.

Alexandria in World War II

Alexandria in World War II is a 'found poem' composed by Anis Shivani and published in the summer 2013 issue of The Missing Slate.  It was 'found' in my Alexandria: City of Memory; that is all the words and phrases are taken directly from my book.  I have only just found it myself, by chance, on the internet.  It works very well, I think, and made me smile.

The Britannia Club at 26 Rue Fuad, “proof of the British ability”:
we danced with Durrell’s future friend the painter Clea Badaro
during the summer the Burg el Arab served as base for Indian troops,
the long-threatened concert party having descended in force.

We danced with Durrell’s future friend the painter Clea Badaro,
marching about in a snake dance including the band at the Excelsior,
the long-threatened concert party having descended in force.
Since spring, Geneva has thrown open her home to soldiers.

Marching about in a snake dance including the band at the Excelsior,
air raid in the middle, buffet afterwards, breakfast for sixteen.
Since spring, Geneva has thrown open her home to soldiers,
the Choremis, the Benachis, the Casullis, the Salvagos and others.

Air raid in the middle, buffet afterwards, breakfast for sixteen,
the Karam Palace became very grand, almost too grand I’m afraid.
The Choremis, the Benachis, the Casullis, the Salvagos and others
rushing about like mad, celebrating in Pastroudis, dead with Cavafy.

The Karam Palace became very grand, almost too grand I’m afraid,
the glamorous women of Alexandria founded the best reference 
Rushing about like mad, celebrating in Pastroudis, dead with Cavafy,
holding thirty percent of all the shares of banks and limited 

The glamorous women of Alexandria founded the best reference 
during the summer the Burg el Arab served as base for Indian troops.
Holding thirty percent of all the shares of banks and limited 
the Britannia Club at 26 Rue Fuad, “proof of the British ability.”

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nuns Having Fun

The Tragedy of the Templars recently rose to the rank of number one in books about Christian Church Institutions, according to Amazon UK.  The competition was fierce, but in the end the Templars triumphed over Nuns Having Fun.
Nuns Having Fun driven into second place by The Tragedy of the Templars.
What is more, Mother Teresa was driven into third place, and Rowan Williams, hairy Welsh druid and former Archbishop of Canterbury was consigned to fifth.

The mirthless Mother Teresa driven into third place and Rowan Williams, self-confessed druid and recent Archbishop of Canterbury, knocked into fifth place.  A triumph for the Templars!

Friday, 29 November 2013

A Cairo Anthology

A Cairo Anthology edited by Deborah Manley has been published by The American University in Cairo Press and is available in Britain and the United States in bookshops, on Amazon and from other online retailers. 

I have been included in the anthology, along with Herodotus, Julian Huxley, Harriet Martineau and Pierre Loti - which seems pretty good company to me.

Michael Haag in good company.

Click to enlarge the full discription of the book.
Next year The AUC Press will publish An Alexandria Anthology, edited by you will never guess whom.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Struggle to Preserve Egypt's Heritage

Protesters in Alexandria demanding protection for the city's heritage.
The campaign to save the Villa Ambron, home to Lawrence Durrell in Alexandria during the Second World War, is not an isolated one. Egypt's heritage, both recent and ancient, is under threat from many directions, including uncontrolled development, the looting that takes place because of political instability, and from damage to the environment.

The Save Alex Campaign.
The efforts of Zahraa Awad have been mentioned elsewhere in this blog; she has also drawn my attention to The Walls of Alex; though in Arabic only, it speaks eloquently through its images of the vandalism done to Alexandria by developers and others.

The Walls of Alex website is run by Dr Mohamed Adel Dessuki who is also the founder of the Save Alexandria campaign which has taken its message to the streets as the photographs in this post illustrate.

The Walls of Alex website banner.
Another front in the campaign has been opened by Egypt Diaries, a website in English, Arabic and Russian, which tracks and publicises abuses to the country's architectural, archaeological and ecological heritage.

Egypt Diaries website banner.
'We were inspired', say the founders of Egypt Diaries, 'by the efforts of young activists here to save our heritage, and the idea came to us that we can share by making the Egypt Diaries website to focus on all those efforts and and try to gain more supporters for the cause.'

Protesters in the streets of Alexandria.
'We are just normal Egyptians who love and care for their country's rich heritage and history and want to contribute and help everybody who is working in protecting and preserving this heritage.'

As Ibrahim Mohamed, one of the founders of Egypt Diaries, told me, 'It's really difficult but we will never give up'.

The Save Alexandria campaign.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

E M Forster in Alexandria: A Room with a View

The French Gardens, view towards the Eastern Harbour. The Majestic Hotel with its twin cupolas is on the right.
This post is occasioned by the news I have had from Zahraa Awad, who is campaigning for the preservation of Alexandria's cosmopolitan heritage (see previous post), that the cupolas of what was once the Majestic Hotel have been destroyed.  The building has been taken over by a developer who is adding two storeys.  This in itself is no bad thing provided he maintains the architectural integrity of the structure - and replaces the cupolas which added such a graceful touch and turned the former Majestic into an Alexandrian landmark.

The building with its cupolas also has a significant literary association for it was home for a while to E M Forster who had come to the city towards the end of 1915. Alexandria had been a staging post for the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign.  Now thousands of casualties from the disaster filled improvised hospitals throughout the city where Forster worked as a volunteer Red Cross 'searcher', questioning wounded soldiers for news of their missing comrades.  

The following text is slightly adapted from my book Alexandria: City of Memory, published by Yale University Press and The American University in Cairo Press, and also published in Greek by Oceanida in Athens.
Though a civilian, Forster wore the khaki uniform and bore the status of an officer and was expected to arrange his own accommodation. He took a room at the newly-built Majestic Hotel overlooking the French Gardens which extended north from the Place Mohammed Ali at the centre of town: 'Every modern comfort and luxury', says a guidebook of the time. The Majestic was entered from the Rue de l'Eglise Ecossaise which ran along the east side of the gardens past the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew and the French Consulate to the Eastern Harbour, while at the northeast corner of the hotel was the Rue Temple Menasce, named for its synagogue built in 1873 by the financier Yaqub Levi Menasce (who, as it happens, was the great great grandfather of Claude Vincendon, Lawrence Durrell’s third wife). Soon after settling in, Forster wrote to his mother for a supply of Kolynos tooth powder, adding 'one can't dislike Alex ... because it is impossible to dislike either the sea or stones. But it consists of nothing else as far as I can gather: just a clean cosmopolitan town by some blue water'.

The names of the streets have changed, and the gardens, 'a pleasant strip' in Forster's time, are now Midan Arabi, planted with a tram terminus. The hotel, no longer majestic in name or appearance, has been converted to commercial offices, its unlit rubbish-strewn entranceway the resort of idle characters in galabiyyas, and behind them a broken lift like a gibbet, permanently suspended between floors. Ascending the broad flights of worn stone steps rising through storeys of towering corridors, glassed-off lounges and voluminous rooms, it is pointless explaining your curiosity to the shrouded young secretaries wearing the hejab, that veil covering their heads, necks and shoulders, and revealing only their faces, who despite the evidence around them deny that the building could ever have been a hotel at all. Nor can they comprehend your wish to step onto a balcony for the view. A great sea change has washed over Alexandria and its populace inhabits a history disconnected from the city's past.

Forster intended to remain only three months in Alexandria but in the event stayed more than three years, far longer than his pre- and post-war visits to India put together. Like the ci-devant Majestic, enough survives of Forster's city that you can follow his progress through Alexandria today, though it is hardly a conventional tour. 'Tut, tut! Miss Lucy!', he had written nearly a decade earlier in A Room with a View, 'I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touch the surface of things'. To travel without Baedeker was not only to risk not recognising a Giotto when you saw one but to chance unfamiliar social and cultural encounters, and this in fact was the essence of Forster's idea of 'a view'. With luck, you might even meet someone disreputable, or someone you might love though you were not meant to, and these both happened to Forster in Alexandria.

The disreputable person was the poet Constantine Cavafy and the person with whom Forster fell in love - the first and greatest love in his life - was an Egyptian tram conductor called Mohammed el Adl.

A tram turning into the French Gardens. The cupolas of the Majestic Hotel are behind.

Now as the former Majestic is developed and extended upwards its cupolas have been demolished with no indication of whether they will be replaced.

One cupola disappears. The low building on the left is the Menasce synagogue.

The demolition was done without a permit. Photograph courtesy of Hamida Said.

Further storeys are added, but no permission to build was obtained and the works have now been stopped on orders from the governor of Alexandria. Photograph courtesy of Wael Marey.

In fact work on the building has ceased on orders of the governor of Alexandria.  It turns out that the developer never obtained permssion to add two storeys, or indeed to do anything at all.

Ignoring niceties such as the law and permissions is not uncommon in Egypt where backhanders are common.

But in this case there has been an additional factor.  As Zahraa explains, 'This normal in Egypt since 2011, we didn't have government for almost 3 years'.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Preserving the Heritage of Cosmopolitan Alexandria

The Hotel Cecil under construction along the Corniche in 1929.
The other day I received an email from an Alexandrian called Zahraa Awad who tells me of her interest in the heritage of cosmopolitan Alexandria and her efforts to promote and preserve it.  With her permission I quote from what she wrote me.
I'd like to introduce myself. I am Zahraa, Alexandrian tour guide. I am the 8th generation for Alexandrian family. My roots Turkish, Greek, Jewish Moroccan, Sudanese and Egyptian of course.  I have read your books about Alexandria and you inspired me since 2005 to start my walking tour around Alexandria.  I started Lawrence Durrell's tour since 2008 inspired from your books. E. M. Forster tour and Cavafis tour. I called my tour Alexandria Belle Époque's Heritage (Nostalgia).
I tried to explain how Alexandria was during 19th and 20th century. I tried to guide my tourist group around and it was working very well till 2011. But I found to solve the problem and preserve our heritage we must educate the Egyptians themselves or we will lose the rest of our heritage ... So I have started a Facebook page to introduce the city by posting old photos and tell the story in English and Arabic for all Alexandrians around the world, those who left Alexandria after Nasser time and those who are living here but they didn't know anything about the city and how it was look like, especially those immigrants who moved from the countryside.
I am trying to save our heritage and I am asking your support. 
Please click here for Zahra's Facebook page on Alexandria where you will find many fascinating photographs of the city in its heyday, including the one at the top of this post, which I have never seen before, showing the Hotel Cecil under construction along the Corniche in 1929. 

I have now exchanged a few emails with Zahraa and have found that she is a mine of up to date information.  To help her efforts along, I will devote some future posts to various issues she has raised. Meanwhile all power to Zahraa's enthusiasm and my wishes for her success. As she rightly says, 'to preserve our heritage we must educate the Egyptians themselves'.

To read more posts on Alexandria, please click here.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Where I Live

View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex, by Jan Siberechts 1696.

I came upon this painting in Tate Britain and immediately recognised the scene.  This is where I live.  Or where I used to live before it became now.

The estate was established sometime after the Norman invasion and bore the name Bel Assis, which is Old French for well situated; in time Bel Assis became Belsize which is now the name of a neighbourhood in London just south of Hampstead.

The road running left to right in the foreground is called Haverstock Hill; leftwards it descends to London, rightwards it gradually climbs upwards to Hampstead and the Heath.

The avenue of trees leading from Haverstock Hill to the house is now called Belsize Avenue and it is still lined with trees, different trees, but still with the sense that it is an avenue of approach to some grand place.  A section of the high wall surrounding the immediate grounds of the house survives to the left of Belsize Avenue; you can see it by peeping into the gardens of numbers 14 and 16.

And at the far end of the orchard to the right of the avenue grew a mulberry tree which stands on the corner of Belsize Avenue and Belsize Terrace to this day, or a direct descendant of it does, and drips its deep purple juice all over the pavement every summer.

A footpath went along that way, running outside the near wall of the estate.  This is what survives of the path called Cut-Throat Alley, infamous for the murder in 1845 of James Delarue by Thomas Hocker which Charles Dickens called 'One of the worst murders I ever heard of', much regretting that it was along 'one of my daily walks near Hampstead'.

The great house had been the seat of the Earls of Chesterfield but had fallen into neglect not long before Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, came upon it in the early 1720s and described it in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.  The house had recently been taken over by an enterprising fellow who turned it into 'a true house of pleasure', offering a variety of sport and games, so that it attracted 'a wonderful concourse of people', among them the Prince and Princess of Wales, who were 'gratified by all sorts of diversion', until 'the wicked part broke in' so that the magistrates intervened and it was 'suppressed by the hand of justice'.

The Tyburn rises near here and flows down to the Thames, passing beneath Buckingham Palace and dividing to create an island on which Westminster Abbey was built.  Nowadays, though, it travels entirely through underground culverts. Along its journey towards the Thames from Bel Assis it passed by the western end of Oxford Street where Marble Arch now stands and gave its name to Tyburn, the spot where from medieval times to the eighteenth century criminals were hanged and the bodies of traitors were exposed.

As for me, when there is a torrential rain the Tyburn rises from beneath the streets like a memory.  I live behind the great house where a light coloured strip on the right marks the boundary of the gardens to its rear.  What looks like it might be a coach house more or less marks the spot. That is where I am, or where I used to be when this neighbourhood was Bel Assis.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Lord Byron and Paradise

Born where?
For some years I have thought myself suffering from a false memory.  When walking in Cavendish Square near Oxford Circus I could have sworn I had once seen a plaque of some sort in the vicinity announcing the birthplace of Lord Byron.  But look as I might, I never could find it and began to think the whole business was a fit of imagination. 

Then yesterday I was visiting the John Lewis department store in Oxford Street looking for a 2014 pocket diary and I rediscovered the mysterious memory, or rather its replacement.  There was once a plaque, bronze on wood, attached to the doorway of John Lewis, the side entrance on Holles Street.  This must have been what I had remembered, but at some point it had been removed, explaining why I failed to find it again.  Then in 2012 it was replaced by a City of Westminster plaque, and this is what I came upon yesterday.

Replacement plaque erected in 2012.
This is the fourth plaque erected to commemorate the birth of Byron on this site.  The first was put in place in 1867 and was in fact the very first such plaque - the beginning of the idea of marking the spot where famous people have lived, an idea that has spread throughout the United Kingdom and now to many parts of the world.

That was at Holles Street, a private residence at the time, but the house was demolished and the
John Lewis Holles Street entrance.
plaque was lost.  John Lewis had already opened a draper's shop in Oxford Street in 1864 and within a few years his flourishing business occupied the corner of Oxford Street and Holles Street, and here just before the Second World War his son John Spedan Lewis erected a second plaque which was thought lost when the building was bombed in 1940, though it has recently turned up.  This was replaced by the third plaque, the wooden one with the bronze profile of Byron, which I had begun to think was a fantasy of mine, and that in turn has been replaced by the new City of Westminster plaque with Byron's advice to laugh when you can.

So I was in John Lewis today and also in Waitrose, its basement food shop, and I was thinking of paradise.  I was thinking of paradise because that is what some friends of mine call Waitrose and John Lewis, and I do not disagree.  Waitrose is certainly my favourite supermarket and I always feel in good hands when I shop for clothes or computers or just about anything else at John Lewis.  The reason, though I did not know this at first, is that the John Lewis Partnership, which includes John Lewis department stores and Waitrose supermarkets all over the country, and the Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square, is a company owned by its employees; in fact its employees are not employees at all, they are partners - shelf fillers, check out assistants, buyers, department managers, no matter what they may be, all are partners.  This came about because the founder's son, John Spedan Lewis, decided that not only should customers be guaranteed the quality of the goods they were sold, but that his employees should be guaranteed quality in their work and the way to ensure that was to hand the business over to them, to have everyone share in its fortunes.

That philosophy is explained in this brief biography of John Spedan Lewis and also in this BBC broadcast he made in 1957 when he was an old man.  Spedan Lewis has rightly been voted Britain's greatest business leader in a BBC poll.  Certainly the decency and the spirit of the man and his philosophy has been transmitted to the shop floor, and that explains why, even long before I knew all that, I thought along with my friends that pushing a trolley along the aisles of Waitrose was a transport through a kind of paradise.

And so how happier the association now that I have found Byron's plaque on the side of my favourite department store.  Poor George Gordon never had the pleasure of shopping for Waitrose own-brand baked beans but he did have other delights, and now I will connect with these too next time I approach the check out counter.

Byron's version of paradise, one of them anyway, was Marguerite, Countess of Blessington.  When she visited him in Italy he showed her a neighbouring villa, hoping to entice her to stay; the place was called Il Paradiso and he wrote this little poem, called Impromptu, his tribute to the paradise he found in her proximity.

Lady Blessington

Beneath Blessington's eyes
The reclaimed Paradise
Should be free as the former from evil;
But if the new Eve
For an Apple should grieve,
What mortal would not play the Devil?

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Tragedy of the Templars: Recommended Reading Along with The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge

For anyone interested in medieval history, The Tragedy of the Templars by Michael Haag should be read alongside The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge, says Booklist, the influential American journal.  

Booklist, which is the magazine the New York Times calls 'an acquisitions bible for public and school librarians nationwide', is the review journal of the American Library Association. It recommends works of fiction, nonfiction, children's books, reference books, and media to its 30,000 institutional and personal subscribers. In-house editors and contributing reviewers from around the country review more than 7,500 books each year, most before publication.

'In league with The Crusades, by Thomas Asbridge, Haag’s work will pique the interest of medievalists.'   

The Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount was the headquarters of the Templars.  The central three arches are Templar work.

The Booklist review of The Tragedy of the Templars follows:

Their formal name shortened from the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, the Templars were the elite military force of the Christian states established by the Crusades. Haag’s history of the Templars prefaces the organization with the origins of the First Crusade, which in 1099 reclaimed Jerusalem for Christianity. Travel to the Holy Land nevertheless remained dangerous, and providing protection to pilgrims was one reason the pope sanctioned the Templars. The order’s ensuing growth into a religious army reigns as the theme of Haag’s account, which covers the Templars’ role in the wars between Christendom and Islam. But beyond spiritual fervor and organizational discipline, landholdings and banking operations underlay the corporate success of the order. Wealth also, Haag recounts, contributed to the Templars’ ultimate downfall. Having lost its military justification to exist with the final extinction of the Crusader states in 1291, the order’s assets were snatched by the king of France, leaving the pope to abolish the Templars in 1312. In league with The Crusades (2010), by Thomas Asbridge, Haag’s work will pique the interest of medievalists.             

The Booklist review can be seen online here

British edition.
American edition.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Tragedy of the Templars: a 'vigorous questioning of standard assumptions'

The Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount, photograph by Michael Haag.  The crusaders believed it had been built by Solomon and called it the Templum Solomonis which gave its name to the Templars whose headquarters this became.
The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States by Michael Haag’ is a ‘sober and thought-provoking study. This is the second tome that Haag has written on the order, and his ease and confidence in discussing various aspects of the Templars is one of the strengths of the book.’

So begins a review in The Catholic World Report by professor Vincent Ryan, which goes on to point out that 'this is not a standard study of the Templars', rather ‘Haag’s book is better understood as a history of Outremer (see his subtitle) in which the Templars play a leading role. This is not a critique. Indeed, this approach makes the book feel fresh even as it covers well tread terrain.’ ...

‘Even more intriguing is his argument that though much of the Levant had come under Muslim control by the time of the Crusades, the population of the region was still predominantly Christian. This interpretation is certainly controversial, but is not without some merit.’ ...

‘Based on his assessment of the Christian demographics in the Levant Haag frequently describes the campaigns of Saladin and other Muslim leaders as “Islamic imperialism” and portrays the Crusades as a counter to a new wave of Islamic expansion throughout the Mediterranean world. ... Contrary to the claims of some modern commentators, the Crusades did not just emerge out of nowhere; they are best understood as a phase in the often combative relationship between Christians and Muslims that had been going on since the seventh century.’ ...

‘It is an engaging read on a fascinating era. Haag might not have all the answers, but his vigorous questioning of standard assumptions makes The Tragedy of the Templars a worthy contribution.’

To read the full review, click here.
The Temple Mount in the late 19th century. The Dome of the Rock is on the right.  The Aqsa mosque, headquarters of the Templars, is on the left.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Desvendando Inferno

Desvendando Inferno, the Brazilian edition of Michael Haag's Inferno Decoded, has been published in Portuguese by Editora Planeta.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Inferno Décodé

Inferno Décodé, the French-language edition of Michael Haag's Inferno Decoded, has been published by Ixelles Editions.

Come Decifrare Inferno

Come Decifrare Inferno, the Italian-language edition of Michael Haag's Inferno Decoded, has been published by Newton Compton Editori. 

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Lawrence Durrell's House in Alexandria

The Ambron Villa in April 2010 seen from what had been the garden at the rear. Photographed by Justin Tuijl.
An article in today’s Telegraph speaks of a campaign to save the house where Lawrence Durrell, the author of The Alexandria Quartet, lived during his time in the city in the Second World War. (To read the article, click here.)

Durrell and his Alexandrian girlfriend Eve Cohen - who would later become his wife and who also inspired the character of Justine - moved into the upper floor of the house - the Villa Ambron - with a number of friends in October 1943.  Down below lived the owners, Aldo Ambron and his wife Amelia, and their daughter Gilda.  

Eve at 19 Rue Mamoun in 1999.
In an earlier post I said something of my visit to Alexandria with Eve Durrell in 1999. We also went round to the Villa Ambron which was already in the hands of the developer.

Behind the sheet metal the villa was being ripped apart.
The developer had bought the property in the mid 1990s with plans to build several blocks of flats in place of the villa and the artists' studio in the garden. 

There are laws protecting old villas in Alexandria, but in Egypt the law is there to be abused and old villas are there to be knocked down. And so it would have been with the Villa Ambron except that unfortunately for the developer a famous writer had once lived there. Nevertheless damage has been systematically if furtively inflicted on the villa and the studio in an attempt to make them fall down.

In another tactic, as reported in the Egyptian press, the developer demanded the demolition of the villa because it had been inhabited by a kafir.  In Islam a kafir is an unbeliever, an infidel, a person who rejects God and denies the Islamic version of the truth. A kafir is the worst charge you can lay against a person; a kafir is beyond the pale and has no human rights; all his property is forfeit and his wife and his daughters too. The kafir of course was Lawrence Durrell.

Failing that ploy, the developer, Mr Abdulaziz Ahmed Abdulaziz, is happy to sell the property that he never had the right to develop for five million dollars to the British Council.  

The balustrades of the entrance stairway had been 
deliberately smashed.
The columns on either side support a balcony where 
Durrell and Eve used to entertain their friends.
As Eve and I stood there looking at the villa which was being systematically destroyed, in a city without memory, she reminisced about how things used to be.
Standing on the balcony of the Villa Ambron is one of Durrell's friends, Theodore Stephanides from Corfu. During the war Theodore was serving in the medical corps of the British Army and often came to visit Durrell and Eve.  The photograph was taken by their friend and fellow tenant Paul Gotch who worked at the British Council.

Eve and I walked round the block to look at the Villa Ambron from the rear, across what used to be a lush garden of frangipan and banyan trees and ever-flowering forests of violets and ginger lilies. Durrell wrote at the top of the tower on the right.
Although Paul Gotch took this photograph with a bad roll of film, it is just possible to see two people, probably Durrell and Eve, standing in the doorway of the tower.
Durrell commandeered the tower at the Villa Ambron. The tower became his writing place and it was here that he wrote Prospero's Cell, his book about his happy days in Corfu before the war, and here too that he began writing what would become The Alexandria Quartet 

Eve recalled how Durrell would often ask her up to his tower; her presence did not disturb his writing.  'I was in those days a very silent person, I hardly ever spoke - this was because I was still coming out of my past.'

The people Eve had known before were one dimensional compared to the Villa Ambron dwellers and visitors.  'It was as if I had suddenly got myself into a book, of the characters of a book coming alive.  I wasn't sure what my part was doing, but I was happy to observe.'  

Eve said that for all of them, for Durrell and herself and for everyone who lived at the Villa Ambron, 'those were the best years of our lives'. 
Aldo Ambron with the dark hair, 
staring at the camera.
Aldo Ambron was an Italian Jewish civil engineer and architect, a founder of the Banco Italo Egiziano, president of the Italian Club, and bore the title of Grand Uffiziari of the Italian royal court. He was married to Amelia, an Almagia by birth, and had a hand in her family's engineering company that in 1906 built the magnificent sweep of the Eastern Harbour's Corniche that E M Forster celebrated as being in the finest spirit of the Ptolemies.

Alexandria's Eastern Harbour in the 19th century.

The graceful sweep of the Eastern Harbour Corniche, the work of the Almagia family.                      

A charcoal drawing by Amelia Ambron done in her garden studio. The subject is her friend Rose de Menasce, who had been a friend of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy and became a friend of Lawrence Durrell.
Prince Nicholas Romanov,
heir to the Russian imperial throne,
and Gilda Ambron.

Eve described Gilda as short and dumpy but said she had an animated face and was good fun. Gilda, Eve said, 'was besotted with Larry, in a proper way: she was une fille de bonne famille, and she behaved beautifully'. 'Gilda adored Larry', Paul Gotch recalled. 'She was in love with him.'  

At the end of the war Durrell left Alexandria to take up the post of British Information Officer on the Greek island of Rhodes, and it was there that he heard that Gilda had been killed in an air crash.  

Durrell was shocked when he heard the news; it was as though it spelt the end of the Ambrons, said Eve: 'That world we had known at the Ambron villa had already become unreal'. 

Gilda Ambron was the only Alexandrian whose real name would appear in the Quartet. Twice in Balthazar, the second volume, Durrell rolls out 'the majestic poetry of the names which had come to mean so much to me, the names of the Alexandrians', and on each occasion, though the order of the names is changed, he ends with a falling toll on Gilda Ambron.
This was Alexandria, the unconsciously poetical mother-city exemplified in the names and faces which made up her history. Listen.
Tony Umbada, Baldassaro Trivizani, Claude Amaril, Paul Capodistria, Dmitri Randidi, Onouphrios Papas, Count Banubula, Jacques de Guery, Athena Trasha, Djamboulat Bey, Delphine de Francueil, General Cervoni, Ahmed Hassan Pacha, Pozzo di Borgo, Pierre Balbz, Gaston Phipps, Haddad Fahmy Amin, Mehmet Adm, Wilmot Pierrefeu, Toto de Brunel, Colonel Neguib, Dante Borromeo, Benedict Dangeau, Pia dei Tolomei, Gilda Ambron. ... The poetry and history of commerce, the rhyme-schemes of the Levant which had swallowed Venice and Genoa. (Names which the passer-by may one day read upon the tombs in the cemetery.)
The last of the Alexandrians.

To read more posts on Alexandria, please click here.


Two books by Michael Haag for the story of cosmopolitan Alexandria.
Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press
and American University in Cairo Press)

Vintage Alexandria (American University in Cairo Press)