Despatches from Istanbul 6: Chora Church


There seems to be an assumption in Istanbul that visitors to its tourist attractions outside of its central Sultanahmet district will all be arriving in coaches.  Hence, the biggest roads in the city have tourist signposts but the smaller roads and streets – the ones less likely to be coach-friendly but more likely to be pedestrian-friendly – don’t.  And hence, when a friend and I set off for Chora Church in the Edirnekapi district in western Istanbul, first by public transport and then on foot, we had a job finding the place.


The public transport we used was the ferry-boat that sails up and down the Golden Horn.  It was a pleasant cruise and offered plenty to see along the shorelines – cluttered quaysides, sheds, now-smokeless brick chimneys and mantis-like cranes, plus moored white cruise-boats, grey naval ships, orange-red tugboats and even a sleek dark submarine with the Turkish flag licking about in the breeze at its prow (tethered next to what I took to be a waterside museum).  Unfortunately, the ports-of-call along the Golden Horn were not announced on the ferry’s public address system and each stop was very brief, with the result that we missed getting off at the spot we intended to.  So we had to sail further up the Horn and then back again, which added the most of an hour onto our journey-time.



From there, we made our way up a city hillside – and signs for Chora Church were non-existent.  We at least had a chance to see something of an ordinary Istanbul neighbourhood.  Houses were squashed against one another up the steep incline, their windows enclosed by patterned grills or bars and their pastel colours slightly faded.  The narrower back-streets were cobbled and populated by dozy-looking cats.  Trucks struggled to climb the gradient and negotiate the twisty corners.  At one point, kids came streaming out through an arched gateway that led into a school ground, their school uniforms in the maximum-possible state of dishevelment before they stopped looking like uniforms – school-ties so loosened that their knots dangled level with the wearers’ diaphragms and shirt-tails flapping around the wearers’ backsides.  The school-wall was lined with coils of barbed wire.  To keep intruders out, I wondered, or to keep inmates in?


Without intending to, we got to see the remnants of the mighty city walls built by Theodosius II in the fifth century.  These brought Chora Church within the city’s defences for the first time, as it’d stood outside an earlier set of walls erected by Constantine the Great.  Also, unexpectedly – as we were going up the side of a busy dual carriageway at the time – we passed a traditional-looking cemetery and snapped a few pictures of its gravestones through the railings.



Eventually, after asking half-a-dozen locals for directions, we got to our destination.  Chora Church is one of the oldest surviving examples of a Byzantine church – much of what stands today dates back to the eleventh century, although the original church had been there since half a millennium earlier.  Its history is not dissimilar to that of Aya Sofya in Sultanahmet.  Originally adorned with beautiful Christian mosaics and frescoes, it was turned into a mosque following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.  At which point, due to Islam’s ban on representative imagery, the mosaics and frescoes vanished behind layers of plasterwork.  In the twentieth century, however, restorers set to work uncovering the Christian artwork and the building went from being a mosque to becoming, in 1958, a museum.


Boasting six domes and three internal sections – an entrance hall, a main body and a side chapel – the church is a squat, compact building made of grey and brown stone.  Its interior is a testimony both to the talents of the original artists who created the mosaics and frescoes on the walls, ceilings and inner dome-surfaces and to the diligence of those restorers who liberated them from underneath the Ottoman plaster.  Once inside, you get to view a huge assortment of Biblical characters and scenes: Jesus, Adam and Eve, Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Herod, Saints Peter and Paul, various angels, various miracles, the Nativity, the Journey of the Magi, the Passover, the Resurrection and the Second Coming.  Here are a few examples of what’s on display there.





At the time we arrived at Chora Church, a few coaches had just unloaded their human cargoes, so the interior was uncomfortably crowded with tour groups.  I had the misfortune to several times cross paths with a plump, charmless Italian boy of about 10 years old called Luigi – I knew his name was Luigi because I heard his mother berating him: “Luigi!  Luigi!  Luigi!” she scolded, though with no apparent effect.  Rather than stand and admire the gorgeous mosaics and frescoes around him, Luigi spent his time shoving his luckless little sister into the legs of passing tourists.  I know it’s unlikely, but if you ever happen to be reading this blog, Luigi – be aware that you’re a horrible little arsehole.


Near to Chora Church is an eatery called the Asitane Restaurant, which specialises in a type of cuisine I hadn’t sampled before – Ottoman cuisine.  Feeling experimental, I ordered a dish of ‘de-boned lambs’ trotters served with vinegar on rye bread’.  It was like eating extremely limp squid that had a weird, vaguely lamb-ish aftertaste.  I was proud of myself for trying it, but I doubt if I’ll ever try it again.




I’ve always like cities that have tram systems – although I didn’t actually see a tram until I was 17 years old.


At the time, I’d just finished working as a grape-picker in a vineyard in French-speaking western Switzerland and was using my earnings from the grape-harvest, such as they were, to travel around the rest of Switzerland and then around Germany.  The trams I saw clanging and clunking down the streets of Basel, Bern, Zurich, Munich, Heidelberg and Bonn, with their wheels trundling along rails set in the asphalt and cobbles, and their trolley poles skittering along overhead wires, looked positively Victorian to me.  Yet in terms of comfort, they were a pleasure to ride on – especially compared to the city buses I was familiar with in Edinburgh, which were noisy, smelly and covered in grime.  Indeed, while I dreamily wandered about those Swiss and German cities and watched the trams rumble by, I was lucky on more than one occasion that I didn’t wander too close to them and get ground into their rails.  Yes, I was so wet behind the ears in those days that I was practically equipped with gills.


Since then, trams have been a feature of several cities I’ve lived in and a feature of other cities I’ve visited that made a big impression on me: Prague, San Francisco, Istanbul…  In Australia, Melbourne felt to me more like a ‘proper’ city than Sydney did, possibly because of the majestic street-cars that glided through its thoroughfares.  When I briefly worked in Dublin in 2004, the city had just had its first tram-line installed, from St Stephen’s Green to Bride’s Glen, and everyone I spoke to was as pleased as Punch about it.  The Dublin tram system is called the ‘luas’, which is an Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘speed’.


Even the Japanese city of Sapporo, where I lived and worked in the 1990s, had a tram system.  Known as the ‘Shiden’, it was a tiny affair, confined to eight kilometres of track that ran between the inner-city district of Susukino and the bottom of Mount Moiwa on the city’s south side.  It looked its age too – it’d started operations in 1909 – but public affection for it had prevented the city authorities from ever scrapping it.  What I remember most about Sapporo’s Shiden was that in the evenings you could hire it out and hold a party on board it.  You could enjoy the trundling run from Susukino to Mount Moiwa with a giant barrel of ice-water and beer-cans in the middle of the coach and a bunch of drunkards packed into the seats around you.  But that was the 1990s – maybe Japanese Health and Safety culture (if such a thing exists) has now consigned those drunken tram parties to history.


And in Tunis, where I live at the moment, what redeems the downtown area of the city for me is that, despite the piles of uncollected rubbish and the fetid-smelling sewers, you are liable at any moment to see a stately, green-painted tram go cruising along the French-colonial streets.  (Invariably, there’ll be a couple of truanting schoolboys traveling for free by sitting on the coupling pin at the back of the last coach.)


In the United Kingdom, however, we do things differently.  Whilst city-dwellers in other countries have retained their tram systems into the 21st century, we began the process of dismantling ours in the 1930s.  This was done with the encouragement of the automobile and oil industries, who assured British governments that as soon as the way was cleared for mass car ownership, life would be clean, uncluttered and utopian.  Actually, the axing of the tram networks caused a public outcry as loud as that which greeted the slashing of Britain’s rail system in the 1960s (done under Lord Beeching, who was the Freddie Krueger of British transport history).  But with both trams and trains, the country’s politicians assumed that they knew best and what the people thought was ignored.


Glasgow’s GCT network was the final one to go, in 1962.  After that, the only surviving British tramway was in Blackpool.


However, recent years have seen something of a comeback for trams in Britain, with new lines being installed in Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Croydon.  And I was pleased, initially, when in 2008 it was announced that work had begun on a new tram system in Edinburgh, which would link the city airport in the west with Leith and Newhaven in the east and run along Princes Street in the centre.  There was something appealingly steampunk in the idea of trams operating again in the city of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I could easily picture them trundling along Princes Street between Jenner’s Department Store and the Sir Walter Scott Monument, with Edinburgh Castle on its crag forming an ornate backdrop.


Unfortunately, as any Edinburgh-er will tell you, the saga that has unfolded since 2008 has been the stuff not of fantasies, but of nightmares.  Supposed originally to have been up-and-running in 2011, the Edinburgh tram system isn’t due for completion now until 2014.  Its budget, meanwhile, has rocketed from an initial estimate of 375 million pounds to over a billion.  And the project has been bedevilled by disputes between contractors and the management company, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh, which was finally relieved of its responsibilities in 2011.


The Edinburgh public has been subjected to endless inconvenience around the city centre, where tramline excavations have disrupted transport (and been a continual blot on the cityscape).  The Scottish government, now run by the Scottish National Party, inherited the project from the previous administration, has been wildly unenthusiastic about continuing it and would’ve scrapped it if they hadn’t been outvoted on the matter in the Scottish parliament.  Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has announced his intention to hold a public enquiry into the Edinburgh trams debacle in the near-future.


Meanwhile, as costs have mounted, the planned tramline has been gradually whittled away.  No longer will it go to Newhaven, but it’ll stop in St Andrew’s Square just off Princes Street.  Indeed, it was mooted for a time that the line should be curtailed at Haymarket Station, far short even of Princes Street.  Speculation among original tram enthusiasts (who these days seem to be thin on the ground) that the network might be extended to the north and south of the city, with future trams rattling away to places like Granton and Newcraighall, now sounds like pie in the sky.


So how did the Edinburgh trams project go so catastrophically off the rails, before anything had actually started running on those rails?  Alex Salmond claims that he knew ‘in his water’ – Alex Salmond’s water, incidentally, is not an image I want to carry around in my head – that the scheme was a bad idea, because it involved making too many excavations in a historical city where the soil is cluttered with relics from past eras.  In a perceptive article for the Scottish Review of Books, accessible at, the learned Scottish journalist George Rosie describes workers encountering “100-year-old water pipes, cables from the previous tramway, the remains of a Carmelite priory and a leper hospital, a Victorian water culvert running under Princes Street and more than 300 long-dead corpses lying under Constitution Street in Leith, some of which had lain there since the end of the fifteenth century.”


In fact, Rosie sees the problem with the project as being part of a wider narrative.  Scotland’s industrial sector – which a couple of generations ago could have lain those tramlines and knocked out all the trams needed in the space of a few months – has declined nearly to a state of non-existence and the Edinburgh project has had to draw on engineering and consultancy companies from Spain, Austria, the USA, Germany and France.  A Frankenstein’s monster of stitched-together components from two continents, it’s perhaps surprising that more things didn’t go wrong with the scheme.


I was in Edinburgh two months ago and such was the scale of the tram-works in St Andrew’s Square and on Princes Street that the city centre looked like Beirut, circa 1982.  Let’s hope that the place looks slightly less apocalyptic when the crowds arrive for the Edinburgh Festival next month.  Here are a few photos:




Meanwhile, Iain Rankin must be kicking himself that he ended his Edinburgh-set series of crime novels featuring Inspector Rebus back in 2007.  If he’d extended the series a little longer, he’d surely have had material for one more novel – one where Inspector Rebus had to investigate irregularities in the Edinburgh trams project and found himself embroiled with dodgy contractors, corrupt local politicians and financial embezzlement and wheeling-dealing on a scale not seen since Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.


007 and I


I remember the moment when I decided I had to get acquainted with Commander James Bond of the British Secret Service.  It was an afternoon in 1974 when I was watching a children’s TV quiz show called Screen Test.


Every week in Screen Test a group of schoolchildren would compete against each other by watching clips from films (ones deemed by the BBC to be kiddie-friendly) and then answering questions about those clips that tested their powers of observation.  By today’s standards, and probably even by standards back then, Screen Test was lame stuff, but at least each instalment gave its young viewing audience the opportunity to see a few entertaining extracts from a few movies.  Popular on Screen Test, I recall, were comedy set-pieces from the Pink Panther series, special-effects-heavy scenes from various 1970s science fiction and disaster movies, and those lovely stop-motion-animation sequences from Ray Harryhausen’s monster movies.  This was in an era when you couldn’t just pick up a DVD or go to youtube and watch a film, or a part of a film, whenever you felt like it.


Also, though we didn’t know it at the time, many of the films shown on Screen Test actually had boring scenes too, where the hero would say something soppy to the heroine and they ended up kissing.  So we were spared all those dull yucky kissy bits.


With their famous action set-pieces, the James Bond movies were obvious candidates for appearing on Screen Test – though this being a BBC children’s programme, the clips were going to be of Roger Moore’s stunt double performing acrobatics during a mountainside ski chase rather than of Sean Connery telling Plenty O’Toole that she was no doubt named after her father.  Anyway, in 1974, Live and Let Die, the eighth official James Bond film, had just been released and that afternoon Screen Test treated its viewers to an edited version of the spectacular speedboat chase that took place near the movie’s end.   At nine years old, I was mesmerised – not only were these speedboats chasing one another around the Florida Everglades, but they were doing astonishing things that boats just weren’t supposed to do.  They were shooting out of the water and whizzing across roads, causing police cars to crash into one another, and skidding over people’s lawns and ending up in their swimming pools, and even careering into the middle of a riverside wedding ceremony, where they demolished tents and buffet tables.  I’d grown up watching action shows on television that were invariably low-budget and flatly directed and edited.  This was action on a different level.  Here were scenes that until then I might’ve visualised in my imagination, fuelled day-dreamily by whatever pulpy comic books or adventure stories I was reading at the time, but that I’d never actually seen on a big or small screen.


(c) Penguin Books


So, I decided then, I had to experience more of James Bond.  The problem was, in my situation, seeing James Bond was going to be difficult.  At the time I lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland and the nearest cinema was several miles away.  I could go to the cinema, of course, but only if my going coincided with someone else’s plans.  For example, if my Dad was meeting up with a mate in Enniskillen one Saturday evening, he’d drop me off at the Ritz Cinema for the start of the film and collect me afterwards.  But cinema outings that didn’t fit in with my parents’ plans, and were for my benefit alone, rarely happened.  Needless to say, circumstances conducive to my getting to see Live and Let Die during its original release in 1974 didn’t arise.


I knew there were many earlier James Bond movies and I saw clips of those too on Screen Test and on Clapperboard, which back then was the only other film programme made for children on British TV.  However, as the James Bond movies wouldn’t begin to be shown on TV for another few years, and as DVD rental shops didn’t exist in those days, and as the Internet hadn’t even yet become the stuff of science fiction, I had no means of seeing them either.  Instead, I realised, I would have to read James Bond – for by then I’d learned that his adventures had existed as books before they became films and they’d been authored by a man called Ian Fleming.


Thus, I spent the next two or three years on a Bond / Fleming reading spree – I got through Live and Let Die for starters, and then Goldfinger, The Man with the Golden Gun, Casino Royale, Dr No, For Your Eyes Only, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Thunderball and From Russia with Love.  In hindsight, I realise I was one of the very last people on the planet to become familiar with the James Bond phenomenon through exposure to the books, rather than through exposure to the films.


Actually, getting my hands on the Bond books was little easier than getting to see the films.  As they were considered adult reading, there was no chance of finding them in the little library at my primary school.  However, every Monday afternoon at half-past-two, a mobile library – a hulking book-filled van sent from the main library in Enniskillen – appeared in our village and parked opposite the village shop for 15 minutes.  Primary school didn’t finish until quarter-to-three, just as the van moved off towards the next village, but I managed to persuade the head teacher to let me out 15 minutes early every Monday so that I could go and borrow books from it.  The mobile library itself had no Bond novels on its shelves, but its librarian / driver told me that I could fill out a request form and the books would be delivered from Enniskillen a week or two later.  So that was how I satisfied my initial Bond craving – every few weeks the library-van would rumble into my village with a copy of Diamonds are Forever or Goldfinger in a compartment beside the driver, my name written on the attached tag.


Later, I also joined the library in Irvinestown, a small town a few miles from my house.  This library had a section devoted to writers of classical popular fiction, writers such as Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Leslie Charteris, Sax Rohmer, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming.  As a result, getting hold of Fleming’s novels became much easier, although the lady librarians there always looked uneasy handing over the counter to a 10-year-old boy books that were still, in the 1970s, thought to contain liberal amounts of sex and violence.  Unfortunately, Irvinestown Library was put out of commission soon afterwards because the IRA exploded a bomb in the public toilets directly under its first-floor premises.  The building had been evacuated and nobody was hurt, but the structural damage caused by the bomb resulted in the library’s closure for a long time.  So it was no thanks to the bloody IRA that I managed to read as much Ian Fleming as I did.


Anyway, the James Bond who took form in my imagination was Fleming’s Bond rather than any filmmaker’s one.  And as any scholar of the literary Bond will tell you, Fleming created him by drawing on experiences he’d had prior to finding fame as a writer.  His work in British naval intelligence during World War II, and in particular his time spent overseeing commando units like 30 Assault Unit and T-Force, had brought him into contact with secret-service and elite military types and it was inevitable that when he started to publish spy thrillers after the war, starting with Casino Royale in 1953, aspects of their characters would find their way into the character of his books’ hero.


Likely to have influenced Bond were Sir Fitzroy Maclean, who’d joined the British Army at the start of World War II as a private and ended the war as a brigadier, and who’d fought with distinction in the Western Desert campaign and later alongside Tito and his partisans in the Balkans; and Fleming’s brother Peter, who’d been involved in wartime operations behind enemy lines in Greece and Norway.  At the same time, though, Fleming obviously put much of himself into Bond.  Whilst no academic, Bond had an aptitude for languages, as had Fleming, who in his youth had studied in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.  Bond spent much of the novels clad in scuba gear, which was no doubt because of Fleming’s fascination with underwater exploration, something he’d acquired after accompanying Jacques Cousteau on a dive in the 1950s.  And both Bond and his creator were avid gamblers and golfers – indeed, they shared the same golf handicap.


What endeared me to the Bond of the books, even as a 10 or 11-year-old, was his psychological believability.  He was a world-weary, melancholic and, in the later books, rather neurotic figure, which was understandable – a man with a government-sanctioned licence to murder people who got in the way of his work would surely have things gnawing at his soul.  Again, Bond’s moroseness was probably a reflection of Fleming himself, who – certainly a few books into the series – got increasingly pissed-off with life.  Partly this was due to his marital problems and partly it was due to how the British literary establishment turned against him: “The nastiest book I have ever read,” Paul Johnson thundered in a review of Dr No in the New Statesman when the book was published in 1958.


The books’ plots seemed oddly believable to me too, and they came across as thrillers rather than as fantasies – although no doubt it helped that I was extremely young when I read them.  Fleming was painstaking about his research and the wealth of realistic surface details helped to distract me from the more outlandish happenings in the stories.  It also helped the books’ credibility that few of the far-fetched action set-pieces from the films, which I’d seen in those clips on TV, appeared in their pages.  When I read Live and Let Die, for example, I discovered that it didn’t climax with the film’s demolition-derby-style speedboat chase that was shown on Screen Test.  The book’s ending was much grimmer and, to my bloodthirsty juvenile mind, more satisfying.  Smuggler, voodoo-cult leader and Russian agent Mr Big attempted to keelhaul Bond and Solitaire, the novel’s heroine – dragging them behind his yacht and through a reef with the intention that they get ripped to shreds on the coral.  Beforehand, though, Bond had attached a limpet mine to the yacht’s hull, and it exploded before the keelhauling got properly underway.  A gruesome piece of poetic justice ensued.  Mr Big, who’d earlier removed a couple of limbs from Bond’s CIA mate Felix Leiter by dunking him into a shark-pool, got blown into the water and, while Bond and Solitaire looked on, he was gorily devoured by the local shark and barracuda population.


(c) Penguin Books


Ironically, when I did get a chance to watch the films, the first one I saw seemed less fantastical than the book on which it was based.  In the mid-1970s, ITV – the BBC’s rival channel – acquired the rights to broadcast the Bond movies and they began with Dr No, the original in the film series, which was made in 1962 and was an adaptation of the novel that four years earlier Paul Johnson had thought was the nastiest thing ever.  In the latter part of the book, Dr No captured Bond and, for his entertainment, forced his secret-agent prisoner to go through an assault course of ever-escalating tortures – beginning with a crawl through an electrified metal ventilation shaft and ending up in an outdoor pool that was home to a hungry giant squid.  The movie-version Bond, a young Sean Connery, had to endure the electrified ventilation shaft but, to my immense disappointment, the giant squid never materialised.  Presumably this was because the producers of the fledgling movie-series, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, didn’t have the special-effects budget in 1962 that they’d have later when their films became phenomenally successful.


It also disappointed me that Dr No’s demise was different in the film – Connery disposed of him by lowering him into an overheating nuclear reactor on his island headquarters.  In Fleming’s book, the island contained large deposits of seabird guano and Dr No concealed his illegal operations behind a legitimate business that extracted the guano for fertiliser.  In the book’s climax, Bond managed to seize control of a machine that was pumping the guano onto a ship at the island’s docks and he turned its giant hose-pipe on Dr No – drowning the villain in tons of bird-shit.  I assume Broccoli and Saltzman left that bit out of the movie on grounds of taste.


The next films I saw – ITV aired them in chronological order, with gaps of nearly a year between them – were From Russia with Love and Goldfinger.  I was happier with these because their plots more-or-less followed the plots of the books.  However, by the time of Bond’s fifth cinematic outing, You Only Live Twice, it’d become clear that the filmmakers had lost nearly all interest in Fleming’s novels, lifting from them only a few character names and a very occasional plot detail.  You Only Live Twice, the movie, was about Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavros Blofeld using a gigantic rocket-swallowing spacecraft to abduct Apollo and Soyuz missions from orbit.  His plan was to trigger a nuclear war between the Americans and Russians, who were blaming each other for the abductions.  You Only Live Twice, the book, had Blofeld (who’d killed Bond’s wife at the end of the previous novel) retiring to Japan, where he took up residence on a remote island and devoted himself to gardening.  Blofeld being Blofeld, however, the garden he cultivated was a ‘garden of death’, stocked with poisonous plants and poisonous insects and riddled with deadly volcanic outcrops of sulphur and bubbling lava – and such was its deadliness that the island became a popular spot for suicidal Japanese people to go and kill themselves.  The grieving and revenge-obsessed Bond discovered where Blofeld was hiding and went after him.  No spaceships were involved.


(c) Penguin Books


(From Blofeld’s garden of death in You Only Live Twice, and the assault-course ordeal devised for Bond in Dr No, and also the infamous torture scene in Casino Royale where villain Le Chiffre took a carpet beater to Bond’s genitalia, Fleming clearly had a taste for inflicting severe pain on his characters.  Again, this echoed one of his real-life predilections.  In an article a few years back in the Atlantic Magazine, Christopher Hitchens quotes tellingly from a letter that Fleming wrote to his wife-to-be.  He informed her in the letter that “I am the chosen instrument of the Holy Man to whip some of the devil out of you, and I must do my duty however much pain it causes me.  So be prepared to drink your cocktails standing for a few days.”  For more of this, check out:


Not only was I dismayed with how the plots of the films deviated from those of the books, but I also wasn’t happy with what the films did to Bond’s character.  Today I can see how masterful Sean Connery was in the role and he certainly deserves his iconic status as the greatest cinematic Bond.  But he wasn’t what my Bond, the Bond in Fleming’s books, was about.  Connery swaggered through the films with an insouciance that his literary counterpart, plagued by self-doubt and conscience pangs, didn’t have.  Though considering how cartoonish the films rapidly became, insouciant was probably the only way Connery could play him.  Audiences knew that the cinematic character wasn’t going to get killed, no matter what the filmmakers threw at him, so he soon acquired a casual and knowing arrogance that reflected the audiences’ awareness of his invincibility.


(You’d have thought that Fleming, who was still alive and still writing when the Bond films debuted, would be unhappy to see his elitist and ultra-English hero played by a card-carrying member of the Scottish National Party, a former body builder and a former Edinburgh milkman – indeed, in his youth, Sean Connery had done his milk-round in the company of Alex Kitson, who went on to be chairman of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.  However, once Fleming had seen Connery on screen, he was sufficiently impressed to give Bond a back-story in his next novel – You Only Live Twice – where it was revealed that he was half-Scottish.)


Later, in 1979 or 1980, ITV got around to broadcasting Live and Let Die and I finally got a chance to see the entirety of the movie that’d started my obsession with Bond a half-dozen years before.  This was also the film where Roger Moore took over as Bond from Sean Connery.  After thirty minutes of watching Moore sleep-walk through the role, all raised eyebrows and posh-accented double entendres, I wondered despairingly, what the f*** is going on?!


It wasn’t until half-a-dozen years more that I saw an actor come close to portraying Bond in the way Fleming had imagined him.  Moore’s replacement, Welsh actor Timothy Dalton, approached Bond so seriously that to research the role he read all the novels.  The result, in Dalton’s two films The Living Daylights and Licenced to Kill, was an edgier and more vulnerable Bond.  For example, in Licenced to Kill, the filmmakers finally used the scene from Fleming’s original Live and Let Die where Felix Leiter was fed to a shark, though the perpetrator in the film wasn’t Mr Big but a ruthless drug baron called Sanchez.  As a consequence of his friend’s maiming, Dalton’s Bond lost the plot, quit the secret service and went after Sanchez on a personal revenge (and possibly suicide) mission.  Alas, Dalton didn’t capture the imagination of the public, who still seemed in thrall to his jokey predecessor.  He wasn’t helped either by Britain’s legion of fickle film critics.  They’d spent the Moore years moaning that the Bond films had become ‘too silly’.  As soon as someone tried to toughen up the films, they started moaning that the series had lost its lovable silliness.


In the 1990s, Pierce Brosnan – an Irishman, no less – performed a credible balancing act in the role, suggesting a certain humanity and physicality to Bond whilst also giving him a veneer of tuxedoed Roger Moore-style smoothness, which those undemanding cinema audiences had come to expect by then.  (Though I have to say that I thought his last Bond film, 2002’s Die Another Day, was dreadful.)  After Brosnan’s departure, the filmmakers finally found the nerve to reboot the series and point it in a more realistic direction.  Cue the recruitment of Daniel Craig and the grittier Bond movies Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  While I didn’t think the former film was as good as everyone said it was, and I didn’t think the latter one was as bad as everyone said it was, I generally enjoyed them both and was pleased that the tomfoolery that’d plagued the film series during the preceding four decades was absent.  And I suspect that in Casino Royale, the long-delayed film version of the original novel, Ian Fleming would have been delighted when Le Chiffre started pounding Daniel Craig’s testicles with a carpet beater.


(c) Penguin Books


A few years ago, Penguin Books brought out new editions of Fleming’s novels, using the same covers that’d graced them in the 1950s and early 1960s and having contemporary writers like Val McDermid write introductions to them.  I bought one of the novels I hadn’t come across in my boyhood, Moonraker – yes, the book that in 1979 was made into the worst Bond movie of the lot, starring, inevitably, Roger Moore – and read it, wanting to compare my reactions to it as a middle-aged man in the 21st century with the reactions I’d had to the other books when I was a kid in the 1970s.


What struck my modern self was the shadow that World War II cast over the plot.  It had a heavy bearing on the characters – not just on the book’s big villain, Hugo Drax, a former Nazi planning to use a nuclear warhead and German V2 technology to blow up London as revenge for his country’s defeat in 1945, but on minor ones like the lift operator in secret-service headquarters who’d lost an arm during the conflict.  And Bond, of course, had served in the war himself and had scars on his back to prove it.  I missed this during my original Bond-reading in the 1970s probably because, then, the war didn’t seem so far back in time.  I knew middle-aged people who had vivid memories of it, and it was still being enacted on television in countless documentaries, comedies and dramas like The World at War, Dad’s Army, It ain’t Half Hot Mum, Secret Army and Colditz, and the stories in practically every boys’ comic on sale in the newsagents at the time – Victor, Battle, Warlord – dealt with nothing else.  Indeed, there were probably some kids my age who believed we were still fighting the Germans.


And no doubt the war, or more specifically the war’s aftermath, played a part in the books’ huge success in the 1950s.  Those six years of conflict had broken Britain’s economy and Fleming’s readers inhabited a drab, grey world of rationing and austerity.  I recall a remark J.G. Ballard made in his memoir Miracles of Life, about leaving Shanghai and arriving in Britain for the first time in 1946.  Taking his first steps on the soil of his home country, Ballard wondered why the British claimed to have won the war – from the worn-out faces and rundown landscapes around him, it very much looked like they’d lost it.  Another pertinent quote is one made by Keith Richards, who said that growing up in early 1950s Britain was like living in black and white.  Only when rock ‘n’ roll arrived from America did life suddenly switch to being in colour.


Reading Moonraker, though, I realised that Bond was far removed from the dreary reality of post-war Britain.  Fleming portrayed him as a shameless consumer, one with a seemingly inexhaustible shopping budget.  He wore the most expensive labels, smoked the costliest cigars, drank the finest wines and spirits, helped himself to the fanciest foods.  Accordingly, Bond’s first encounter with Drax in Moonraker took place at a poker table in Blades, an exclusive and opulent London gentleman’s club with service, food-and-drink and furnishings that most of Fleming’s 1950s readers could only dream about.  Though he was accused of marketing watered-down pornography in his books, it surely wasn’t pornography of a sexual or violent nature that titillated Fleming’s readers so much at the time.  It was consumer porn, intended to give a perverse, if futile, thrill to underfed and down-at-heels readers who were still carrying ration books.


(c) Penguin Books


One thing that hadn’t changed in the intervening years was my sense of Bond’s gloominess.  At the very beginning of Moonraker, for instance, he was calculating how many more missions he had to go on before he could retire from the secret service and what the odds were for surviving that number of missions.  (Retirement for Bond, I was shocked to discover, would come at the age of 45.  This meant that if I’d been an agent in Fleming’s version of MI6, I’d be of pensionable age now myself.)  So forget the thrills and spills, and forget the fine living and exotic locations, and forget the fancy cars and beautiful women – more than three decades on from when I’d first read his adventures, Commander Bond was still finding time to gripe about his lot.


But thanks to Ian Fleming, I wouldn’t have wanted him any other way.


Despatches from Istanbul 5: Topkapi Palace, the Imperial Harem and the Archaeological Museum


Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the main home for the Ottoman sultans and their courts during the 400 years between the mid-fifteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, seems to have had a vibe to it resembling that of the castle in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels.  According to the palace’s Wikipedia entry, its inhabitants “rarely had to venture out since the palace functioned almost as an autonomous entity, a city within a city… the palace had its own water supply through underground cisterns and the great kitchens provided for nourishment on a daily basis…  Dormitories, gardens, libraries, schools, even mosques were at the service of the court.  Attached to the palace were diverse imperial societies of artists and craftsmen…  A strict, codified, ceremonial daily life ensured imperial seclusion from the rest of the world.”  (


If that description – well, apart from the mention of the mosques – doesn’t describe the situation of the Groan dynasty in the Gormenghast books, simultaneously rulers, prisoners and slaves (to centuries of ritual), I don’t know what does.


Unlike the massive castle in Gormeghast, however, Topkapi Palace has nothing imposingly gothic about it.  Huge though it is – in its heyday, it was capable of accommodating 4000 people – little of it rises higher than two storeys.  Rather than towering upwards, it sprawls outwards, as a complex of low buildings, courtyards, terraces, passageways, galleries, gardens and fountains.




It is, inevitably, mobbed by tourists and my explorations of the main part of the palace were confined mostly to looking at the (admittedly beautiful) exteriors, rather than venturing into the crowded interiors.  I did brave the Imperial Treasuries, which involved being shunted along in a dense line of people, around the walls of several rooms and past a great many glass exhibit boxes, and trying to study the priceless artefacts within the boxes in the space of a few seconds – for a few seconds was all I got, before the human conveyor belt I was part of nudged me on to the next box.  Wow, I thought, there’s the Topkapi Dagger – but five seconds later the weight of bodies behind me had propelled me beyond sight of it.  And wow, I thought, there’s the Spoonmaker’s Diamond – cue another tantalising but unsatisfying five seconds of scrutiny before I was shifted further on.  It was so frustrating that in comparison it made the shuffle-around in the Crown Jewels section of the Tower of London seem good.


Oh well.  At least, from the terrace outside, you got a great view of the Golden Horn.



The Imperial Harem on the palace grounds, for which you have to buy a separate ticket, offers a slightly less stressful tourist experience.  Historically, this area was strictly off limits to anyone who wasn’t a sultan, or a prince, or one of the sultan’s favoured consorts, or a concubine, or a eunuch – the eunuchs had the job of guarding the place – or the queen mother.  (That last detail seems a little bizarre, admittedly.  If you were a sultan and had a harem at your disposal, the last person you would have granted access to it would be your own mother-in-law.)  Anyway, the tiles, stained glass, lattice-work and architecture generally in this part of the palace are superb.



I spent a good part of a day wandering about the palace, but you can probably spend a large chunk of another day in the archaeological museum that is also on its grounds – again, you need to buy a separate ticket for it.  The most striking thing here is the collection of sarcophagi – not sarcophagi of the man-shaped Egyptian variety, but grand, imposing, sculpted ones – which were gathered from Crete, Durazzo, Ephesus, Sidon, Thessalonica, Tripoli and Tyre under the Ottoman Empire.  The surfaces of these are lavishly adorned with griffins, sphinxes, lions, peacocks and at least one weird eagle-headed man.  In the case of the marble Alexander Sarcophagus, its sides are decorated with graphic battle and hunting scenes – including one detail where a lion tears flesh from a horse’s breast with horror-movie savagery.  (This sarcophagus is so named because Alexander the Great is supposed to feature in one of the scenes, although it actually belonged to the Sidonian king Abdalonymos.)  However, the greatest sarcophagus in the museum is surely the Sidamara Sarcophagus from the late third century.  As big as a caravan, its sides are an epic marble tapestry of horses, horsemen, lions, maidens, youths and sagacious-looking old men and it looks more like a small temple than a burial container.



Elsewhere in the museum’s sarcophagi department is an extensive collection of marble and limestone grave stelae.  Wandering among them, you feel you’re exploring a huge indoor cemetery.


Incidentally, in another exhibition room, you’ll find something that was once inside a sarcophagus.  The remains of Sidonian King Tabnit from about 500 BC represent about the most hideous-looking mummy I’ve ever seen.  Resembling a grotesque hybrid of skeleton and petrified tree trunk, the mummy’s chest is now burst open with the ribs on either side grasping upwards like talons, while his revealed innards are so withered they look like a heap of decayed leaves.



Finally, on the museum’s second floor, I felt strangely happy to encounter a statue of the Emperor Hadrian.  As my family live just a little way above the great wall he built across Northumbria and Cumbria in northern England (in order, no doubt, to protect Scottish civilisation from incursions by English barbarians) and as I’m also familiar with the Antonine Baths whose construction he started at Carthage in Tunisia, seeing him there was like bumping into an old acquaintance.



Fifty shades of ick


When I was 12 or 13 years old, you couldn’t keep me away from the novels of Dennis Wheatley – more precisely, away from Wheatley’s occult novels, such as The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, They Used Dark Forces and Gateway to Hell, which coincidently are the only books in Wheatley’s huge catalogue that anyone remembers today.


These were crammed with things that at the time seemed utterly cool to me, things such as astral projection, demonic possession, revived corpses, evil slug-like elemental beings from other planes of existence, diabolic homunculi needing virginal blood to be brought to life, chalk pentacles offering shelter from assaults by the powers of darkness, unholy talismans with the potential to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and devil-worshipping sabbats climaxing in the summoning of the Goat of Mendes (who was basically Old Nick himself, in the form of a goat-headed man).  Admittedly, there was some tedious stuff too in those books, such as Wheatley’s prose style, which even at the age of 12 or 13 I realised was pretty bad, and the large number of boring-seeming Satanic orgies that went on – though I was prepared to wade through those orgies so long as the Goat of Mendes was guaranteed to make an appearance at the end of them.  Of course, I now realise that I was the only adolescent boy in the world who wasn’t reading Wheatley’s potboilers for the orgy scenes.


There was a problem with getting hold of Wheatley’s novels, however.  In the 1970s, his occult thrillers were published by Arrow Books in a variety of saucy covers – each book was adorned with a picture of a naked, big-breasted lady dancing about a giant flame while some Satanic-looking artefact (a skull, a goat’s head, a broken cross, a devilish-looking African mask) hovered in the foreground.  With the amount of naked female flesh displayed on them, I felt extremely awkward as a 12 or 13-year-old boy buying those novels in Whitie’s, which at the time was the main bookshop on Peebles High Street.  In fact, when I bought my first Wheatley novel – The Devil Rides Out – I remember Mrs Whitie, a formidable old lady who could probably have taken on a coven of Wheatley’s evilest devil worshippers and kicked their heads in, staring over the counter at me with a withering mixture of pity and contempt, and then sighing and saying, “I suppose we’d better stick this in a brown paper bag for you.”  What I could really have done with in the 1970s, I realise now, was a Kindle, so that I could have downloaded any novel I wanted without worrying about smutty covers and the disdain of terrifying bookshop owners like Mrs Whitie.  (Of course, back then, I would have also needed an Internet from which to download those novels…)


(c) Vintage Books


Which brings me in a roundabout way to Fifty Shades of Grey.  Unless you’ve spent the last few months living on the moon, with a serious communications-satellite malfunction disrupting contact between you and the earth, you’ll know that this is a massively fast-selling novel by British novelist E.L. James.  Apparently, it’s already sold in such quantities that it makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows look like a minority read in the category of Finnegan’s Wake or Tristram Shandy.  Part of Fifty Shades’ phenomenal success has been attributed to the discretion with which it can be downloaded onto e-reading devices – quite simply, you can get hold of it without anyone else knowing you’ve got hold of it.  And the reasons why you might want to keep your acquisition of Fifty Shades of Grey a secret are as follows:


1.  It’s full of descriptions of BDSM.  (That’s bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, if you’re not familiar with such naughty acronyms.)  Indeed, the book’s supposed graphicness, and its popularity among women over the age of 30, has caused the media to label it ‘mummy porn’.  I should say that I know loads of women over the age of 30, both mummies and non-mummies, whom I don’t think would touch this book with a bargepole – not out of prudishness, but because it comes across as being totally, well, lame.


2.  It has already become infamous for the low quality of its writing, so it’s not the sort of book you should wave around if you want people to think you possess any sort of brain


3.  And its origins are embarrassing.  Originally, James wrote the story as fan fiction involving the two main characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, and put it on a Twilight fan website.  (Only later did the protagonists turn into those featured in Fifty Shades of Grey, a college student called Anastasia Steele and a successful Seattle-based entrepreneur called Christian Grey.)  Needless to say, reading a book that was initially about Bella and Edward in Twilight is unlikely to enhance any adult person’s street credibility.


Now I have nothing against BDSM – if that’s what floats your boat and if you find a consulting adult to do it with.  And I have nothing against bad writing – after all, I still harbour a soft spot for Dennis Wheatley and his prose was turgid to say the least.  And I even have nothing against fan fiction.  (For the record, I should say that the first book I ever wrote was one composed at the age of 11, written by hand and self-illustrated, which was inspired by the then-popular Target-Books novelisations of adventures from the classic Doctor Who series.  It was titled Doctor Who and the Blood-Lust of the Sontarans.  However, I think even my 11-year-old self would have drawn the line at writing stories about wimpy, spangly Mormon vampires.  And by my calculations James was writing those when she was in her forties.)


No, what riles me about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is the manner in which it is so obviously a huge marketing exercise – not about nurturing and disseminating story-telling talent but about shifting units of lucrative product.  During the book’s inception, you can imagine a boardroom of guys in suits obsessing over a Microsoft Power Point presentation detailing the targeted demographic – a few million Daily Mail-reading ladies of a certain age who have a secret yen for getting flogged with a riding crop.  The fact that Mills and Boon, which is to women’s romantic fiction what McDonald’s is to cuisine, has recently jumped on the Fifty Shades bandwagon by launching a new, laughable-sounding series of erotica called Twelve Shades of Surrender says it all.


The website has done the discerning reading public a favour by printing the fifteen worst (or possibly, depending on your viewpoint, best) lines from Fifty Shades.  In other words, you can get a flavour of it without having to read the whole damned thing.  I can only say that prose such as “The muscles inside the deepest, darkest part of me clench in the most delicious fashion…” or “Desire, acute, liquid and smouldering, combusts deep in my belly…” or “My insides practically contort with potent, needy, liquid desire…” doesn’t really bring to mind taboo-breaking sex games in Seattle.  Rather, it makes me think of sitting on a toilet in Delhi with a severe dose of the runs.  Anyway, you can subject yourself to more of this by visiting




Meanwhile, another recent book by a female author that, if you can’t download it onto your Kindle, you might want to remove from the bookshop hidden in a brown paper bag – in Tunisia at least – is Ma Verite by Leila Trabelsi.




Ms Trabelsi, of course, is a former hairdresser and the wife of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  She, her husband and most of her family had to flee Tunisia on January 14th, 2011, when the Tunisian Revolution – caused largely by people’s rage at the shameless manner in which the Trabelsi clan had helped themselves to the country’s wealth since her marriage to Ben Ali in 1992 – reached critical point.


Leila and her husband have spent the past 18 months in exile in Saudi Arabia.  I assume that life in Saudi Arabia, which is not supposed to be exciting, has provided her with the free time necessary to pen this book and put forward her side of the story.


Attitudes towards the Trabelsi family in Tunisia can best be described as vitriolic.  For many years the Trabelsis were effectively the country’s constitutionalised Mafia.  They had a finger, or several fingers, in every possible financial pie – services, property, construction, tourism – and their overall wealth was rumoured to be to the tune of £3.5 billion.  And while they led lives of luxury, they showed no qualms about squashing anyone who got in their way.  Right up until January 14th, I heard a few Tunisians muttering that they even felt sorry for Ben Ali, since he was married to the grasping old dragon.   He might even be able to remain in office, they speculated, “if he divorces his wife now.”


I’d heard that Ma Verite was obtainable in Tunisia, though booksellers were only stocking it behind their counters.  Thus, it was a surprise to walk into a shop last weekend and see it openly on display – though when I picked it up and thumbed through it, I started to feel unpleasantly conspicuous, as if I was sniffing my way through a hard-core porn magazine in a public place.  Because the book is written in French, I was unable to absorb much of it.  I can only wonder how Leila presented her version of now-infamous events like, for instance, the day before her family’s hurried departure when she removed 1.5 tons of gold bars – half of the country’s gold reserves – from the Central Bank of Tunisia.  “I absolutely had no idea.  I was sitting on the plane to Jeddah and just happened to open my handbag and there it was!  I must’ve accidentally placed the gold in my handbag while I was in the bank vault…”


I wonder too how she described her first and no-doubt passionate meeting with Ben Ali – back in 1992, when he was a dictator who obviously needed the love of a good woman, and she was a humble and from all accounts crass-minded and badly-educated hairdresser.  Were there any echoes of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey in her prose when she recalled how she felt her first stirrings for Zine El Abidine?  “I rubbed the Grecian 2000 into his lustrous and virile locks and, meanwhile, my insides clenched and contorted as desire, acute and liquid, flooded through them…”


In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey and Leila Trabelsi’s life story have surely one thing in common.  They both contain large amounts of BDSM.  Leila and her brood kept their country in Bondage for nearly twenty years, ran it with ruthless, self-serving Discipline, and displayed plenty of Sadism in order to stay on top of the pile.  And having to put up with the Trabelsis for so long was surely a joyless form of Masochism for the Tunisian people.


It’s all gone a bit Waco: film review / Martha Marcy May Marlene


This film begins with a break for freedom.  Its heroine – Martha (the name given to her by her family), or Marcy May (the name given to her by Patrick, whom she met two years earlier), or Marlene (the name she’d been instructed to use whenever she answered Patrick’s telephone) – decides to run away from the community she’s lived in during the past two years.


The community, we learn, is a weird hippy-esque cult that lives on a farm in the Catskill Mountains and has Patrick as its leader.  Martha – let’s call her that – initially found the cult welcoming and enjoyed the companionship of its naïve but seemingly well-meaning members, companionship that’d obviously been missing from her life before then.  But Patrick’s cult, Martha gradually discovered, had a sinister side and lately she’d witnessed some seriously bad goings-on.  Indeed, it’s an early narrative weakness of the film that the cult-members should be so lackadaisical about letting Martha escape, considering what she now knows about them.


Anyway, escape Martha does.  She manages to contact her sister Lucy, who takes her to her fancy lakeside house in rural Connecticut where she lives with her high-flying English architect husband Ted.   Though she seems to be safely removed from Patrick and his followers here, Martha is haunted by flashbacks to her time with the cult – flashbacks that help to fill in the film’s audience on what she’d been through during the past two years – and she has severe problems adjusting to her new situation with her affluent sister and brother-in-law.  Worse, she doesn’t tell Lucy about her experiences – she merely alludes to spending two years with an abusive boyfriend, which in a way isn’t far from the truth.  This finally leads Lucy and Ted to conclude, from Martha’s erratic behaviour, that they’ve taken a basket-case into her home.  And, towards the film’s end, there are disturbing hints that things are not going to finish well for Martha, Lucy or Ted at all.


One thing is clear about Martha Marcy May Marlene – director Sean Durkin is well-served by his principal actresses and actor.  Elizabeth Olsen is excellent as the hapless multi-named title character, repulsed by the cult’s excesses and yet still conditioned by it – so much so that it’s obvious she hasn’t, in her head, escaped at all.  Also good is Sarah Paulson as the materialist but well-intentioned Lucy, who probably would have been able to help Martha if she’d only known what her kid sister had been subjected to in the past years.


And the film marks another highpoint on the acting CV of John Hawkes.  As cult-leader Patrick, Hawkes gives a convincing portrayal of a man who has the charisma to persuade lonely and damaged young people to join his flock but who, once he’s lured them in, exploits them mentally, physically and sexually.  Hawkes’ character is in fact a photographic negative of the meth-addled Uncle Teardrop whom he played in Winter’s Bone.  Teardrop was essentially a good guy, but had some scary bits on the surface.  Outwardly, Patrick has some attractive features – during the cult’s evening get-togethers, for example, he shows himself to be a virtuoso guitar player and folk singer – but underneath he’s a nasty piece of work.


Performances aside, the film’s main strength lies in how it depicts both the weirdness and the shabbiness of life in a rural American cult.  Patrick is the intellectual alpha male of the misshapen, misguided society he’s constructed.  The other men there are younger but dozens of points below him on the IQ scale – and, incidentally, so musically talentless that their attempts at guitar-playing during the cult’s open-mic sessions make James Blunt sound like Django Reinhardt.  Like dogs skulking for morsels around their master’s dinner table, they wait for Patrick to lose interest in the cult’s recent female recruits – which invariably happens when another one joins – so that they can have their way with them instead.


Meanwhile, the cult members are semi-stupefied by a lack of food and their attempts at working the farm look pretty hopeless.  (As the son of a sheep farmer in the Scottish Borders, I think I’m qualified to comment on the low quality of their agricultural skills.)  Most of the cult’s material and spiritual bankruptcy is suggested rather than shown, however, with director Durkin revealing the true state of things through snatches of incidental conversation as the film progresses.


Unfortunately, the film is less convincing when it deals with the money-is-everything existence of Lucy and Ted.  It has an opportunity to suggest that Martha’s sister and brother-in-law, with their oversized house, fast-and-loud speedboat, closets of expensive clothes and never-ending job stresses, are as much prisoners of their own culture as Martha was a prisoner of Patrick’s culture on the farm.  It’s difficult to feel much sympathy for their situation, however, especially as Ted comes across as a porcine London Yuppie knob-end – someone who probably spent the early years of Tony Blair’s premiership hoovering tons of cocaine up his nose.


Overall, though, it’s an effective film and one that’s worth catching.  I’d give it three out of four – a Martha Marcy May, if not quite a Marlene.