Something fishy

 

© Heinemann

 

The other week my better half (Mrs Blood and Porridge) and I were travelling in a three-wheeler along Colombo’s Marine Drive when we found unexpectedly found ourselves at the back of a traffic jam.  This was unexpected because we were on a wide part of the drive that isn’t normally prone to bottlenecks; and it was the middle of a Sunday, when Colombo’s frequently severe traffic isn’t that severe.

 

Then we realised that the congestion was caused by a large number of vehicles left parked at the seaward side of Marine Drive.  Crowds of people had climbed out of those vehicles and crossed the railway tracks, which run alongside the drive, to get to the rocky shoreline overlooking the Indian Ocean.  We asked our driver what was happening.  He didn’t know, but thought that someone might have drowned – and the onlookers were there out of ghoulish curiosity to see the police retrieve and remove the body.

 

By chance, the place we were travelling to on Marine Drive, the 14-storey Ozo Hotel, stood opposite the spot that seemed to be the focus of the crowds.  We planned to have some lunch at the hotel’s rooftop bar.  After we’d finally arrived there and taken the lift to the top of the building, the first thing I did was go to the railing and look down over Marine Drive and the railway, shoreline and sea and find out what had been drawing all those spectators.

 

Far below, lying across some sand whilst being gently pummelled by endless silvery breakers, was a big pale carcass maybe twenty feet long.   A carcass of what, I couldn’t tell.  It was so decayed and shapeless and bloated that it was unrecognisable.  I was relieved to be 14 storeys above the scene, well out of the way of what must have been a vile reek of putrefaction.

 

 

At first I thought it might be the remains of a whale-shark – the world’s biggest fish species – because two months earlier someone had told me she’d been scuba-diving at a shipwreck a short distance out into the ocean from Colombo when one of those giant (but non-carnivorous) sharks had swum at her out of the murk and spent a minute moseying around her.  However, according to a news report that appeared subsequently, the badly-decomposed carcass was identified not as a shark but as a whale.

 

This occurred just a fortnight after a well-publicised incident where a 50-foot-long corpse was washed up at Seram Island in Indonesia.  Rotting, but still bleeding enough to turn the surrounding waters red, the thing initially caused speculation that it might be the remains of some gargantuan and hitherto-unknown sea-creature.  Later, though, marine experts were able to identify it, from the presence of baleen plates, grooves along its body and certain skeletal features, as a whale too.

 

Being into literature, the carcass on Marine Drive set me wondering about giant washed-up bodies in books and stories I’d read.  I could think of two examples.  One occurred in the whimsical (and occasionally twee) fantasy novel Mr Pye (1953) by Mervyn Peake, which is set on Sark in the Channel Islands and concerns an eccentric evangelist who arrives to preach a message of love and compassion to the islanders.  A first attempt to convert a mass audience ends in disaster, however – he assembles Sark’s inhabitants on a beach one evening with the promise of a giant picnic, but before he can start proselytising, the waves inconveniently dump a dead whale on the sand nearby and the stench of it drives everyone away.

 

The other example I thought of was the short story The Drowned Giant by J.G. Ballard, which appeared in his 1964 collection The Terminal Beach and, as its name suggests, isn’t about a whale carcass but about a gigantic human one that’s inexplicably deposited on a beach following a violent storm.  In his typically perverse fashion, Ballard has no interest in who the giant was or how he came into existence or how he ended up on the beach.  Rather, he focuses on the reaction to him by the ordinary, normal-sized humans living along the coast.

 

This begins with intense and rather disrespectful curiosity – soon they’re clambering over his huge, dead bulk like the Lilliputians swarming over Gulliver.  Then it turns into even less respectful greed, with the body gradually being dismantled and processed by “a fertiliser company and a cattle-food manufacturer”.  And finally the poor giant fades out of both the landscape and human consciousness.  The stretch of beach that was his final resting place is left empty save for a “clutter of bleached ribs like the timbers of a derelict ship” that “make an excellent perch for the sea-wearying gulls.”  Meanwhile, the anonymous narrator observes that “most people, even those who first saw him cast up on the shore after the storm, now remember the giant, if at all, as a large sea beast.”

 

One of Ballard’s most haunting and melancholic stories, The Drowned Giant can be read here.

 

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.”  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topkap%C4%B1_Palace.)

 

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.