By Charles FitzRoy (Thames & Hudson, £12.95)
This improbable travel companion was, for me, the highlight of this year’s Christmas.
Mr FitzRoy proposes, with no needless earnest, to be your guide in the Istanbul of 1750, as if you were extending your Grand Tour eastwards. (I did wonder whether any European of 1750 would refer to the place as ‘Istanbul', but no matter.) He introduces us to the very mixed locals, with their highly coloured footwear, cafes and habitats, takes you round Topkapı Palace and the Harem, shows you the main sights and slips you into the city’s great celebrations - all in an engaging style that maintains the fiction of being an eighteenth-century vademecum while never lapsing into pastiche.
The book is very informative, though free of any buttonholing harassment. While I’ve probably forgotten much more about Ottoman Constantinople than I realise, I’m sure I never knew that the Balat district was named after a palace (‘palation’). The municipality of Beşiktaş (where in recent years a hidden tea garden of effortless charm, perfect for whiling away a late afternoon, has been supplanted by a featureless restaurant and takeaway) is so called for a stone on which the infant Jesus had been washed: again, my memory is innocent of this notion, though, as I discover, it's but one of the theories. Not had I any idea that the imam would climb the pulpit steps in Ayasofya with a naked scimitar, in token of the principal church of Christendom being taken by storm in 1543.
There’s very much more than this to enjoy here, and I’d devoured it all before making Christmas dinner. Thames & Hudson’s historical guide book idea is seductive: I look forward to examining their Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day or The Wild West on Five Bits a Day. And unsurprisingly from this publisher, the book is beautifully set and illustrated (both visually and with snippets from authors of the time). I found it an utter pleasure.
But The Sultan’s Istanbul on Five Kurush a Day may ultimately give me more than a few problems. Sophie Rathenau is expected in Constantinople in the mid-1770s, and how I’ll accomplish that without cribbing shamelessly from Mr FitzRoy I hardly know. There had been an academy in Vienna for Sprachknaben from 1754 - it trained boys in oriental languages because dragomans, the local translators, were unreliable and corrupt, another fact you’ll learn from The Sultan’s Istanbul - but Sophie, as her readers know, has already taken her first faltering steps in Turkish, and will doubtless have achieved some fluency by that time.
I’m not ashamed to admit how much I’ve learned from What would Keir Hardie Say? Exploring his vision and relevance to 21st century politics (edited by Pauline Bryan). It’s full of remarkable facts of which I had no idea. Almost incredibly, the great Christian Socialist was brought up in an unbelieving household; improbably, given his terrifying beard, children adored him as they did Kim Jong Il, although in Hardie’s case there is firm evidence they actually did; and for all Hardie's dogged support for universal suffrage, his relations with Christabel Pankhurst were anything but straightforward. (That bit I might perhaps have guessed).
This comprehensive review from Luath Press attempts to balance a celebration of Hardie’s extraordinary life, achievement, and values with an assessment of Labour’s historic and current commitment to the last of these. Very effectively it does that, too, with contributions from (among others) writer and campaigner Melissa Benn, and Jeremy Corbyn, now leader of much of the British Labour Party.
The book underlines the remarkable emergence of this central figure in the creation of Britain’s traditional Left. The poverty and devastation of his working-class background might have destroyed anyone, yet, with titanic energy and unwavering vision, Hardie overcame it - though in another sense never abandoning it - to become a figure of prophetic status, heralding internationalist, feminist and pacifist struggles.
Particular chapters take my wayward fancy, for example Bob Holman’s on Hardie’s Christianity. Given the horrendous conditions of the time, it's more than reasonable that an agitator like Hardie should lay overwhelming stress on the practical relief of misery, and all but none on nuance of belief. But Holman’s exploration of Hardie’s deep spirituality casts new light for me on Hardie’s nature. And Fran Abram’s account of Hardie’s commitment to female suffrage, fascinating in its balance of Hardie’s shrewd tactical sense in pursuing new voters with a more profound involvement with women’s dismissed and neglected being, opens terra incognita for me.
Inevitable is the book’s summing up (necessarily piecemeal among the contributors) of Hardie’s legacy and its import for the present, with light on the internationalism or otherwise of resurgent Scottish nationalism, as well as the growing gap between rich and poor. As Pauline Bryan notes in her introduction, Hardie ‘continues to be a touchstone for judging whether the Labour Party is living up to his standards.’ The contributors certainly work hard to present those exacting standards, if seeming a little reluctant to consider the sheer impossibility of comparing our vision with Hardie’s. Hardie represents True North not solely because of his astonishing insight and diligence, but also because of the perversions of the intervening century. We have no passage back to that essential innocence.
I sometimes wondered while reading, finger tracing the line to the whisper of my lips, why socialist writers are so little inclined to use commas in the longish paragraphs which crave them, and pondered the theory that, haunted by an instinctive fear of the police breaking up their meeting, they like to cram in as much as possible at blistering speed. Perhaps socialist economists might confirm that, in a society like ours, commas are as near to free goods as anything can be.
But comma-rich or not, this is a marvellous and timely compendium of Hardie thought and lore. If you’re as big an ignoramus as I’ve been on the detail of Hardie’s life and contribution, this book is the perfect remedy.
More information and orders:
The Seed-box Lantern: New & Selected Poems (Mariscat Press)
Through the generosity of Mariscat Press, the eminent poetry publisher, a small stack of books recently came home with me from a visit to Scotland. I can claim a moment’s distinction in that a pamphlet of mine, XII from Catullus, was the imprint’s first publication: a roughish affair, whether we’re talking about the production values or the poems themselves. But since that milestone in 1982, poet and publisher Hamish Whyte has turned out volume after distinguished volume, encompassing such poets as Edwin Morgan (for whose Mariscat appearances I ran up two or three covers), Gael Turnbull, Valerie Thornton and Stewart Conn, to name a few in this who’s who of Scottish poetry.
Mariscat productions are celebrated as much for their design and print as their select choice of contributing poets, and Diana Hendry’s latest appearance, The Seed-box Lantern: New & Selected Poems, fits that bill comfortably. Poet, short story writer and (among her other accomplishments) children’s author Diana Hendry has woven a beguiling variety of themes into this collection - a delight to pick up and browse as well as to read.
Here gape, among uneasy reflections on female relatives and quick flirts with philosophical despair, Andean gorges and Greek skies. Home base is, appropriately, the everyday, and an everyday seen with a refreshing eye (‘cellophane sticky as semen’ is but one of the unexpected apercus in these pages) yet we never take the unserious risk of growing stale there, and are soon off in search of wider horizons:
The sea’s trying
to find the far edge of sky
In vistas like these, Diana Hendry’s affinity with other modes of being becomes very palpable, as in her sympathy with seals:
Someone has stitched them up
iin sleeping bags of stained grey satin
Or at her apple tree, which ‘stands/on one leg’ (Apple Sense). Especially subtle are the gradations in Hendry’s empathy, where the creatures or objects she contemplates are not patronised into ‘ others' with whom we can, given a flash of imagination, commune, but greeted as fellow travellers, beings themselves in the process of change.
As indeed are her closer connections, populating much of the book, and no less themselves for Hendry's close scrutiny and edgy faiblesses. Of an infant daughter we’re told ‘We quarrel while you’re in the bath’, and it’s soon clear the verb is less a piquant whimsy, more an all-but-welcome report of respective status. The poem itself, The Stranger, moves from a quiet start to a heartbreak of remnant having, rather than outright loss:
Queer, but I’m glad of ghosts and fear
That if they leave, I’ll lose your shade to pin
Love to. Then love, that hall-light left all night
For you, might break its filament, or fuse.
The Stranger is token of Diana Hendry’s mastery of time: she flicks into a past as easily as one thumbs the pages of a photograph album, only thereafter sensing the weight of the leaves. A father’s reticent knocking on a daughter’s door is a constant reminder of him, like a leitmotif (Father’s Doors); a mother’s incapacity in age, in one breath her child’s inability to catch up with her (Waiting). Beneath the regret beats a vein of faith that the journey is to some end, sometimes swelling to unabashed hymn, almost browbeating us into singing along. There are many chords on Hendry's score, though it's ultimately for one engaging voice.
I’ve no more relish nowadays for a tussle with a poet than has the bleary sheriff with the unwary gunslinger who hasn’t sized him up properly. If I want puzzles, there's the Turkish homework I haven’t done. But Diana Hendry’s conundrums are those of existence itself, dilemmas she reminds us that we share. Her companionable voice, in its many tones, invites us to explore them further, and to enjoy its ring on the way.
Diana Hendry’s home page
Diana Hendry’s Amazon author page