Greenback: The Almighty Dollar

The BBC recently made a radio series on the history of the American dollar, and asked me along to talk about it, as the author of GREENBACK: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America.

The Athenaeum portrait of Washington, wearing his uncomfortable false teeth

The Athenaeum portrait of Washington, wearing his uncomfortable false teeth


Surprised? Well, it’s not a Yashim mystery, for sure: it’s the book I turned to after I’d written the story of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons. I wanted to describe the rise of another empire – and zooming in on the story of America’s money seemed the way to do it. Oblique, maybe – but an astonishing tale. BBC Magazine ran this piece on the series.

Gideon Fairman's engraving of Gilbert Stuart's portrait, on the dollar bill

Gideon Fairman’s engraving of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait, on the dollar bill


As the shows aired, I took a look at GREENBACK again. I had to agree with a reader who recently noted striking parallels between the nineteenth century financial skulduggery it describes, and the 2007 financial crisis. It was a pity, he thought, that I hadn’t published the book after Lehman Brothers collapsed, the world banking system teetered, and the euro – that other new currency – began to unravel, a nightmare for countries in the grip of a deep and problematic recession.

Coming at GREENBACK after a lapse of years, I read with a fresh and readerly eye – a version of the old put-it-in-a-drawer-and-leave-it-for-six-months advice handed out to aspiring writers. I saw where the book lagged, and where it needed a tweak or a correction. So over Christmas, between the holly and the pudding, I revised GREENBACK wholesale, and wrote a new preface. I even tracked down a half-chapter which for some unaccountable reason had fallen out of the original manuscript, and restored it – it’s about Sir Walter Ralegh’s search for American gold, and the fate of the first settlement at Roanoke, in Virginia. It makes for spooky reading, and sits well with the whole thesis about the role of money in America.


The new Kindle edition

The new Kindle edition


I’ve now published the revised book on Kindle.  Here’s a selection of the reviews:

“The story of the dollar is the story of the country’s independence and emergence – and it couldn’t have been told more engagingly.” The Guardian.

“His engaging ‘Greenback’ … approaches the empire of the dollar with a foreigner’s sense of wonder and a dry wit.” The New York Times.

“Splendidly entertaining, fast-paced, and revelatory. . . Goodwin, who possesses the gift of concision and an impious eye for character, is a master at weaving together monetary theory and historical anecdote.” The Boston Globe

“A fanciful and charming meditation on money and the role it plays in our society, history, and culture. . .[Written] with flair, anecdote, and amusing aside.. . . A beguiling narrative.” Chicago Tribune

“[With] tidbits and tales that read more like novels. . . Greenback is a giddy ride into the past.” Barron’s

“A riveting story with a quirky cast of American characters that includes a few of the Founding Fathers, inventors, counterfeiters, secret agents, bankers, and swindlers.” The Christian Science Monitor

The Christmas Story

I’d like to wish you a very happy Christmas, by sharing with you the Christmas Story which Richard Adams and I have sent out to all our friends this year. It was written by the late John Michell, and has only the most tangential relevance to Yashim, or Istanbul – see the forthcoming novel THE BAKLAVA CLUB for more details…!

Birds & Flowers of Eastern Siberia copy



Reader, I married her

Apologies to anyone who downloaded On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk toIstanbul to their Kindle and discovered that it was

squashed up

against the left hand margin

rendering it all

but unreadable!

It has been fixed, and I believe the Kindle will update your copy automatically. Maybe you have to push a button, but that’s it.

of cover

If you don’t know, it is an account of a trek I made from Gdansk to Istanbul in the Spring of 1990, walking for almost six months through the villages and landscapes of eastern Europe – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and finally Turkey. It was the journey that kindled my fascination with the Ottoman Empire, as we walked through a world touched by its lingering influence – a minaret, say, in northern Hungary, or an encounter with a fierce shepherd dog, or a gulp of very strong black coffee, or the sight of gypsy women in glorious swirls of coloured skirts Istanbul, or Constantinople, was in the music, and in the orthodox churches, and in the air.

My companions were Mark and my girlfriend, Kate. Mark, understandably, decided to head off on his own, on another route, about half way through the trek; but Kate and I walked into Istanbul together. The book ends there; but the story continues…


Albanian Rhapsody

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When I visited Albania, in 1996, the imam at the Tirana mosque very kindly invited me to accompany him up the minaret. I shuffled my feet nervously onto the balcony while he issued the call to prayer, gazing down over the roofs of the city, and away to the encircling mountains. Far off, high on the mountain flank, I could just see Krujë, from where Scanderbeg defied the Ottoman forces in the 15th century for almost thirty years.

Albania is a mountainous country of about 4 million people, which was all but closed to the outside world from 1945 to the early 1990s, when its secretive communist regime finally collapsed. It’s a land of ancient ruins, glorious terraced hills, unspoilt Mediterranean beaches, and really hairy driving conditions. Here’s a gypsy playing his bagpipe – a reminder that Byron thought the Albanians were close to the Scots, with their kilts and their clans. He, of course, had himself painted in Albanian dress (above).


And here’s the wonderful trailer the Albanian publisher produced – 52 seconds of true Albanian atmosphere!

Once conquered, the Albanians did a reverse take-over of the Ottoman Empire. Their horizons, bounded by the mountains and the seashore of their own small country, expanded. Albanian devsirme boys went on to dominate the Janissary Corps. The Köprülü provided a dynasty of Grand Viziers. Mehmed Ali ultimately seized control of Egypt, founding a royal line that fell from power in 1956. So when I spotted Ataturk’s double in the street outside my hotel, everyone shrugged: Mustafa Kemal was Albanian, they assured me.

tirana mosque

Now a site has been cleared for a new mosque nearby, but the delightful roccoco building erected in 1703 is in immaculate condition, decorated inside and out with floral panels and these delightful glimpses of an Ottoman paradise.

A Rose by any other name…

…would smell as sweet. Yet Shakespeare’s rule may not apply to books. After all, who these days would write a play called Henry IV Part II?

The late Anthony Blond was a brilliant publisher. In the Seventies he found himself stuck with a rather dull-sounding book by an Austrian academic on the subject of intermediate technology in the developing world. Blond thought up a clever new title. It sold millions.


When I wrote The Gunpowder Gardens: Travels in India and China in Search of Tea, I thought the title rather marvellous. The gunpowder referred to a type of green tea, and also to the legacy of the tea trade in the Opium Wars and the imperial project in British India. The gardens in question were tea plantations. My father-in-law, himself a publisher, referred to it as a canting title, by which he meant it explained nothing to anybody. I think, after all, that he was right. My next book was called unambiguously On Foot to the Golden Horn. The subtitle repeated the main title in a form anyone might understand: A Walk to Istanbul.


Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire was inspired by an inscription on a mosque in Bursa, placed there by an early sultan who described himself as ‘Lord of the Horizons, Burgrave of the Whole World.’ It seemed to sum up the Ottoman project nicely.

The titles of my Yashim novels, thrillers or mystery stories dealing with an investigator in 19th century Istanbul, have had a mixed run. The Janissary Tree was, I think, rather brilliant. Everyone knows what a tree is, but almost nobody recognised the word janissary, so their curiosity was piqued. The publishers were less enthusiastic. In Dutch, the book was called Istanbul Fire; and in Norway, where the term janissary is actually still used – applied to some sort of school choir, I believe – they thought it would cause confusion.


The title of the second book still irritates me. The Snake Stone was meant to be called The Serpent Column: like the Janissary Tree, the Serpent Column is a feature of modern Istanbul. In the event, the publishers won – but I still don’t know why they preferred one over the other. The third novel, about the search for a lost Bellini portrait, is called The Bellini Card in, I think, the sense of playing a card, or taking a chance. Some people tell me it’s their favourite book in the Yashim pack, but I have to admit the title stinks.

Book Four deals with intrigue and superstition in the sultan’s harem. I called it An Evil Eye. Strictly speaking it should have been The Evil Eye, to match the others in the series: but then it ran the risk of sounding like a history of malocculation. Later I was told that books with the definite article always sell better than books with the indefinite article. The trumps a every time. (Reminding me of my friend the scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who regrets doing the research for his superb book Dogs that Know when their Owners are Coming Home. Cat books, he assures me, outsell dog books five to one).

The latest Yashim novel, out next Spring, has the provisional title The Latin Reader. The publishers on both sides of the Atlantic hate it. It runs a serious risk, they say, of ending up among the Dead Languages section of the bookshop. It involves a group of hapless Italian revolutionaries who have fled to Istanbul to avoid prosecution in the Papal States. Polish ambassador Palewski, who admires their youthful idealism but doubts their staying power, has an affectionate but slightly contemptuous nickname for them. So, as I edited the final manuscript, a new title sprang out at me.

The Baklava Club.


Erdogan and the Janissaries

Istanbul residents have always treasured their green spaces.


This was, once, a city of trees – ornamental cypresses in its graveyards, fruit trees in its gardens, the banks of the Bosphorus ablaze with Judas trees blossoming in the Spring. On the shore of the Golden Horn, on the Pera side, there grew an enormous plane, cut down on the sultan’s orders to clear the approach to the Galata Bridge.


Long before Istanbullu united to preserve the trees of Gezi Park and, by extension, to protest against the increasingly autocratic actions of Prime Minister Erdogan, I’d imagined a similar scene. In 1840, in The Bellini Card, Yashim encounters a crowd murmuring against the destruction of the great plane. The extract below is from that book, in which Yashim’s adventures take him from Istanbul to Venice.

Prime Minister Erdogan, unlike the sultan, is democratically elected, and seems to have done Turkey a great deal of good. All the more reason, then, to regret that he’s unwilling to enter into the kind of negotiation that a complex society like Turkey deserves. Liberty cannot mean majoritarian rule, as JS Mill pointed out, and there are voices and attitudes in Turkey’s modern society that should be handled with respect. As Norman Stone pointed out in yesterday’s Evening Standard, Erdogan is dangerously like another prime minister who after ten years in power came to believe that their will was identical to the will of the country. Mrs Thatcher’s term ended in ignominy.

One lesson that can be drawn from Ottoman history is that if the people require tribunes, so do their rulers. For many centuries the janissaries, despite their growing licentiousness and arrogance, performed that function: soldiers, who dominated civic society, could now and then express the popular mood. Their method was to overturn their great regimental cauldrons, and beat on them with spoons: the terrible sound of the janissaries in mutiny drifted from the barracks to the palace, and the sultan took note. Then in 1826 Sultan Mahmud II destroyed them, to a man.

Today, housewives in Beyoglu bang their pots and pans together at their windows. But Erdogan doesn’t seem to be listening.

Once the janissaries were eradicated, Mahmud and his successors were less beholden to the people. They furiously modernised the Ottoman Empire, running roughshod over popular disquiet, and collapsed unlamented in a puff of smoke at the end of World War I.

The Janissaries had their own tree, and their own traditions – and they, like the empire they served, are gone. Erdogan – like Mahmud II – still wants his mall.


Here’s the extract from The Bellini Card: note the detachment of troops in reserve.


Yashim walked slowly back to the Golden Horn, taking the steep and crooked steps that led from the Galata tower.

He was about halfway down when he became aware of a strange sound, an unfamiliar murmuring from the shoreline below.

From the lower steps he gazed out over a crowd gathered around the gigantic plane tree. Its branches cast a deep pool of shade over the bank of the Golden Horn, where the caique rowers liked to sit on a sweltering day, waiting for fares. The lower branches of the tree were festooned with rags. Each rag marked an event, or a wish – the birth of a child, perhaps, a successful journey or a convalescence – a habit that the Greeks had doubtless picked up from the Turks, and which satisfied everyone but the fiercest mullahs.

Yashim heard the distinct rasp of a saw; looking closer, he realised that there were men in the tree. There was a sharp crack, and one of the branches subsided to the ground: the crowd gave a low groan. He scanned the faces turned towards the great plane: Greeks, Turks, Armenians, all working men, watching the slow execution with sullen despair; some had tears running down their cheeks.

Two swarthy men in red shirts started to attack the fallen branch with axes, stripping away the smaller growth: Yashim recognised them as gypsies from the Belgrade woods. They worked swiftly, ignoring the crowd around them. Out of the corner of his eye, Yashim caught a sparkle of sunlight on metal: a detachment of mounted troops was drawn up beyond the tree. He hadn’t noticed them. Perhaps the authorities had expected trouble.

He looked carefully at the crowd. Most of them, he guessed, were watermen for whom the felling of the tree was a harbinger of bad times to come: what would become of them, when people could walk dryfoot between Pera and old Istanbul? But it was also the loss of an old friend which for centuries had sheltered their members from the heat and the rain, which had accepted their donations, brought them luck, sinking its roots deeper and deeper with the passing decades into the rich black ooze. No-one had turned up to witness the destruction of the fountain: that, in the end, was only a work of man. But the plane was a living gift from God.

A second branch, thirty feet long or more, fell with a crack and a snapping of twigs, and the crowd groaned again. For a moment it seemed as though it would surge forward: Yashim saw fists raised, and heard a shout. Someone stepped forward and spoke to the woodmen, still hacking at the first branch. They listened patiently, staring down at the tangle of twigs and branches at their feet; one of them made a gesture and both men resumed their work. The man who had interrupted them turned back and pushed his way out of the crowd.

Yashim watched him: a Greek waterman, who stumped away to his caique drawn up on the muddy shoreline and stood there, looking up at the sky.

Yashim followed him down the steps.

‘Will you take me across to Fener, my friend?’

‘I never thought I would live to see this day, efendi.’ The Greek hitched his waistband, and spat. ‘I will take you to Fener, or beyond.’

As they pulled away, Yashim turned his head and saw that the woodmen were still at work. Two more branches had fallen, and the tree looked misshapen; he could hear the rasp of the saw and the toc toc of the woodman’s axe. A team of horses were dragging away the first bare branches.

The rower pulled on his oars, muttering to himself.


The Ottomans’ Trees

In the light of the unrest in Istanbul sparked by the high handed demolition of the green spaces of Gezi Park, I quote from Lords of the Horizons:

“Every storm must have its eye, where the winds sound without a breeze, and in whose still, flat air you can feel the whole of its sullen energy… For the common man, the centre was perhaps a tree. ‘Cursed be the man who injured a fruit-bearing tree,’ the Prophet said, and the idea of the tree – the shaman’s tree, the tree of the Old Religion – was firmly rooted in Ottoman life. Osman’s earliest dream was of a tree of destiny, which grew from his breast and whose leaves pointed at Christendom like spears. A tree grew gnarled and bent in the dusty square of every imperial town and village, where the men could sit to exchange the gossip of the day; so at the centre of the Hippodrome, in the middle of Constantinople, in the heart of the empire, stood a tree known as the Janissary Tree. From it, centuries later, in their days of arrogance and praetorian power, the janissaries liked to administer rough justice, and form their mutinous assemblies: ‘a tree,’ said a visitor in 1810, ‘the enormous branches of which are often so thickly hung with strangled men that it is a sickening sight to look on.”

Istanbul has seen a whirlwind of growth and development, but the storm must still have its eye, I think. Erdogan should think again.


The Janissary Tree

Gentle authors

My mother, Jocasta Innes, died last week. I am composing a eulogy – and wondering how it might do justice to her, and how to read it firmly.


She wrote all her life. Strapped for cash, and with a family to feed, she dived into her repertoire of cheap, delicious and essential meals, and bundled the recipes up into The Pauper’s Cookbook, which threw a lifeline to countless students and newly weds. A countrywoman in those days, she wrote The Country Kitchen, her own favourite – and used her experience of buying junk and wielding a paint brush to write The Pauper’s Homemaking Book. You don’t have to be rich to look good and eat well, she said, and she burst through layers of magnolia and professional diffidence to popularise secrets vouchsafed to the well-to-do. Paint Magic sold a million copies around the world, and sparked a domestic revolution in colour and effect.

She moved back to London and took on a mouldering heap of a house, defying demolition orders to turn a dosser’s squat into a sort of jewel. Her conversation was mercurial, brilliant and fiery, and she had such energy and appetite for life, love, books, people (and dogs). I thought her indestructible.

After all the obituaries in the papers, perhaps the best glimpse of her is this, given by the Gentle Author and re-issued by popular demand:

Mixed Media

Why isn’t The Janissary Tree a movie yet?

After all, the locale couldn’t be faulted, could it? Who wouldn’t want to see 19th century Istanbul brought to life, from the palace to the street?


Just imagine the costume! Imagine the décor!


Ottoman civilisation may have been crumbling, politically, but it was in full flood in the creation of beautiful and unique aesthetic, and a particular way of life.


It would be gorgeous, wouldn’t it? And new: I’m rather tired of ballrooms, and chignons, and gowns. I want to see this veiled Circassian on the move:


So let’s forget the movie for the time being, and focus on the music.

Here’s an interpretation by Greg Burrows, a New York-based percussionist. He sent to to me the other day, inspired by Yashim’s adventures in The Bellini Card.

And here, if you haven’t heard them yet, are The Bookshop Band’s takes on An Evil Eye, the latest Yashim story.