After four years of war, Aleppo is a city in ruins, bombed by the Syrian air force, threatened by ISIL, its population decimated. Bread queues, electricity and water cuts, rationing and road-blocks are part of daily life. “Rubble and rubbish fill the streets. Looting, hunger and sleepless nights are normal. Medical services have collapsed.” One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, a thousand years of civilization have been reduced to wreckage.
Philip Mansel writes in his introduction, “Aleppo was a city with a rhythm of its own, challenging categories and generalisations. Lying between the desert and the sea, the mountains of Anatolia and the banks of the Euphrates, it was Arab and Turkish; Kurdish and Armenian; Christian, Muslim and Jewish. An Arabic-speaking city with a Muslim majority, under the Ottoman Empire Aleppo also became a centre of French culture and Catholic missions. Like many other cities in the region, it mixed East and West, Islam and Christianity. Until 2012 Aleppo was distinguished by its peaceful character. For 500 years, whatever their origin, its inhabitants had lived together relatively harmoniously. The reasons for this harmony, and for the current cataclysm, are the subject of this book.”Continue reading Review | Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City, Philip Mansel | I. B. Tauris
Born in France, Pierre Loti loved the East. No one could understand his desire to exchange the greyness of France for ‘the far horizons of a sailor’s life’ better than Lesley Blanch, author of such celebrated evocations of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Russia as The WilderShores of Love, The Sabres of Paradise and Journey into the Mind’s Eye. In this haunting biography she shows herself a sympathetic historian, consulting manuscript letters and diaries as well as Loti’s innumerable publications. Her book is a labour of love, an enquiry into a very complex man, as well as one brilliant escapist writing about another. Who, then, was Pierre Loti?
Loti was born in 1850 as Julien Viaud, son of a respectable Protestant family living in the port of Rochefort on the Atlantic Ocean. His father was an official in the Mairie. In 1867 he entered the French navy, in which he would continue to serve until 1910. This extremely unconventional man proved a good officer. Most of his superiors appreciated his ‘agreeable character, very good education’, and later his literary fame, though some fellow officers noticed a cold manner.
The French navy was sufficiently broad-minded to employ an officer who wore rouge, dyed his hair and adopted disguises. More unsettling even than dressing as an acrobat, a Turk or a Bedu, Loti often wore the uniform of a rating rather than an officer. Moreover his friendships with handsome sailors, (Julien, Leo, Samuel, many others}, which such clothes facilitated, were no secret. As his daughter-in-law told Lesley Blanch: ‘Loti loved both men and women passionately and if there had been a third sex he would have loved that too.’
The book has become a luxury item, production is costly, and then there is Amazon which has radically changed the publishing landscape. A prize, a gift, a gorgeous object: the book has an irresistible allure. Publishers have learned that it is well worth sending their writers on tour around the country to promote their work and engage with readers at live events.
While the bigger book festivals like Hay, Cheltenham or Oxford have something of a showbiz atmosphere, with audiences queuing to see their favourite ‘celebrity’ author, the smaller festivals like Bridport are more ‘real’ and benefit readers who can get more from an intimate event.