Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Gunpowder Gardens or, A Time for Tea

Is Amazon a predatory monster monopolising the book trade? Do e-books mean the death of publishing? Are we standing at the edge of a bright new dawn, as readers and writers – or staring into the abyss?

Is it a storm in a teacup?

I have no idea – but I may have a better answer in the months to come. I have just published – with Argonaut Books, whose CEO, staff and publicity director are all me – the Kindle edition of the first book I ever wrote, The Gunpowder Gardens.

Published in the USA as A Time for Tea: Travels in China and India in Search of Tea, it’s a travel book, a history book – and a book about tea. It was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, ran to numerous editions on both sides of the Atlantic, and is now out of print. Until today, at least.

Having proof-read the digital edition myself, I can say that I am still as proud of this book as I was on the day it first came out, with beautiful covers done by my friend Mark Kesteven.

For UK Kindlers:

In the USA

For more about the book, click this link


Many readers have written to me to say that Yashim’s exploits have inspired them to visit, or re-visit, Istanbul – where the official city guides, as it happens, recommend the Yashim series to prospective tourists, as a gentle introduction to the city’s long and tumultuous story. My thanks to them all.

If any further spur was required, then Cornucopia should provide it. Cornucopia describes itself as ‘the Magazine for Connoisseurs of Turkey’, and it is that and more. It is an astonishingly beautiful magazine, published quarterly, with features on everything from old Bosphorus interiors to nomads of the steppe, from attar of roses to neolithic Anatolia, very lavishly illustrated, as the brochures would say, and intelligently written.

One way to look at what it has to offer is via this link, which begins with a review of the Yashim books by Barnaby Rogerson, author and publisher at Eland Books – of whom, and of which, more in a later post.

A browse through the website to begin with is highly recommended!

Celebrating and chronicling all things Ottoman-inspired and influenced, Cornucopia is a cross between World of Interiors and National Geographic, with a gentle Turkic twist. Tyler Brülé, The Financial Times

Anyone with £100,000 to spare? (£5 million preferred)

Speaking of orientalists (see previous blog), Sotheby’s have a sale of Orientalist paintings on April 24th in London. The link is at the end of this post.

The star of the sale, to my mind, is Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Scholar: it could be Yashim’s young friend Kadri, from An Evil Eye, continuing his studies.

The estimate is £5 million.

If it’s too short notice to free up that amount, why not John Frederick Lewis’s A Halt in the Desert?

Lewis was not the first English artist to go East, but he was unusual in settling in Cairo for ten years from 1840, where he quietly worked on his sketch books. The British were about to fall in love with the Middle East. For one thing it was actually quite easy to go there by the 1840s, so that the sort of journeys which Byron had made so much of became almost everyday. David Wilkie, it’s true, didn’t make it home: his death aboard ship was commemorated in Turner’s Peace – Burial at Sea. Richard Dadd came home only to murder his own dad, afterwards pursuing his career inside Broadmoor; but others – like David Roberts – managed to lash themselves around the sites in short order. Even Edward Lear was able to roam from Albania to Petra (‘striped ham’, he noted) and get home safely. There is a good Lear in the sale, too. By the 1860s you could visit Palmyra with Thomas Cook.

Travellers by then could contrast the warmth and personality-based governance of the Ottomans with the repressive machinery of centralised government represented by Russia. After fighting the Ottomans in the cause of Greek independence, the British (and the French) tried to prop up the Sick Man by any possible means; British forces saw off an Egyptian incursion into the sultan’s dominions in 1840 (see An Evil Eye) and, famously, fought alongside the forces of the Sultan in the Crimea; some historians go so far as to describe the Ottoman Empire as a British protectorate in all but name. Echoing the spirit of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s observations in the previous century, some observers compared eastern freedoms favourably with the industrial slavery of Victorian England.

Lewis was not alone in trying to convey the dignity of Ottoman civilisation, partly by his emphasis on craftsmanship over soulless machine products (although by the 1840s, Europeans were unwittingly cooing over Manchester cottons on sale in the bazaars of Constantinople, fully in the belief that they had stumbled over a cache of exquisite native prints). There was a receptive audience for this stuff at home. Thackeray wrote: ‘There is a fortune to be made by painters in Cairo…I never saw such a variety of architecture, of life, of picturesqueness, of brilliant colour, of light and shade. There is a picture in every street, and at every bazaar stall.’ Lewis, whom he championed, really did it best: he may have recycled the same stuff for 25 years after he came home, even trying the patience of Ruskin, who had first encouraged him into oils, but he did it with a shy sense of irony.

Both in The Carpet Seller and in Interior of a Mosque, Afternoon Prayer (The ‘Asr) he renders a disguised self-portrait, once as the carpet dealer, the other as an old military man about to pray, which seem to exude a private yearning for fellowship with a world he could, when all is said and done, only watch from the outside. I like this one, A Harem Scene, Cairo, for the detail:

Lewis and his wife had no children. They never went out to parties, he wrote very few letters, and after all the apparent excitement of Cairene life he seems to have lived a life of quiet and blameless activity with his brushes in Walton-on-Thames, part of which, I am sure, can be glimpsed out of the window of his harem picture. His wife modelled for some of the decorous odalisques. Called upon to speak after dinner at a gathering of watercolourists, he apparently gazed silently at the ceiling and then sat down.

Not many painters do so well.

Going Dutch (and French)

ALL parcels are exciting, but this morning’s delivery brought two thrills in one box.

Mauvais Oeil is the French edition of An Evil Eye – impeccably translated by Fortunato Israel who has been responsible for translating the whole series, published by Plon and by the French thriller house 10/18.

The cover illustration is from an 1893 painting, Les Almees, by Paul Louis Bouchard, a second rank orientalist; I suspect the setting is actually north African. Like Gerome’s subjects, Bouchard’s veer towards the sleazy… there is something about them taken from the brothels of Paris, not the palaces of the Orient.

Out of the same box, forwarded by my agent, came Het Boze Oog, translated by Auke Leistra and Atty Mensinga and published by De Bezige Bij.

It is a great picture, by Gaston Casemir Saint-Pierre, of Soudja-Sari, a character from Theophile Gautier’s Fortuno:

“I must be content with telling you that Soudja-Sari 
means “The Languorous Eye,” in accordance with 
Eastern custom which gives women names drawn from 
their physical peculiarities. Thanks to the translation 
of this significant name, which I owe to the kindness of a member of the Asiatic Society deeply versed in Javanese, Malay, and other Indian tongues, we now 
know that Soudja-Sari is a beautiful girl with a voluptuous eye, with a velvety, dreamy look.”

I think I like her best, but the whole affair requires some consideration. After all, Yashim’s world is exotic, no doubt; but it is also quite specific: Istanbul, 1839. The women of An Evil Eye are denizens of a sultan’s harem, but they are rather more than idle odalisques. They manage power; they have histories; they have ambitions.

If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have a story!

Invite your Dutch and French friends to view the blog if you think they might be interested.

Emilia Plater revealed!

Well done everyone who guessed the identity of the Polish amazon: it was Countess Emilia Plater. Born in Lithuania, raised in modern-day Latvia, she died at Kapčiamiestis (Kopciowo) in Lithuania in 1831. This is her monument.

Her extraordinary and short life is well told on Wikipedia, here:

The first right answer came from Canada, I believe – so congratulations to falcon44! And if they want their copy of An Evil Eye, I just need an address…

Another quiz soon!