This episode, 'Back in Time', was recorded live at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on Sunday 27 October 2019. It features Richard Fidler in conversation with Astrid Edwards.
Richard Fidler is taking his gift for storytelling back in time. He has traipsed through Istanbul uncovering legendary Constantinople with his son, and journeyed to the sites of the beautiful and bloody Icelandic sagas with his friend Kári Gíslason. Now he takes the UWRF stage to talk about his love of history and travel, and the stories where the two meet.
Richard and Astrid have since spoken again, and you can listen to their discussion recorded at during Melbourne's lockdown in 2020 here. Astrid has also interviewed Kári Gislason, Richard's friend and co-author. You can listen to Kári discuss what it is like writing with Richard here.
Richard Fidler is a writer and radio host. He’s the author of the bestselling books Ghost Empire, a history of the legendary city of Constantinople, and Saga Land, a journey into the sagas of Iceland, co-written with Kári Gíslason. Richard is also the presenter of Conversations on Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, Australia’s most popular podcast.
ASTRID: Good morning everybody and welcome. Thank you so much for being here this morning. My name is Astrid Edwards. I am from Melbourne, Australia. Without further ado, I would like to introduce you to Richard Fidler. So, Richard is obviously a very well-known radio host and broadcaster from Australia. He is also the author of two beautiful works of history Ghost Empire about Constantinople and Saga Land about Iceland. And I believe Richard is going to honour us to start this interview with a reading from Ghost Empire.
RICHARD: Thank you very much. Thank you Astrid and it's lovely to be interviewed by Astrid. When we were having email communication, Astrid revealed that she actually has studied classics, so I'm vaguely intellectually intimidated by her. The only Latin I know was quo vadis and Cartargo delenda est and I'm pretty sure I got that wrong anyway. But thank you very much.
Yes, I'd like to begin with a reading from Ghost Empire which is a part quite at the start of the book, which is a description of the city of Constantinople, the capital of the later Roman Empire at its absolute height from a thousand years ago. This was the city we now know today as Istanbul. But at this point it was the capital of what they called the later Roman Empire –they saw themselves as Romans. Today we call their civilization Byzantium but that wasn't a phrase they used for themselves, that's a historian's name they put on it later, which refers to their ancient Greek name of their city. They always saw themselves as Romans and they saw their city, absolutely as the capital of the world. So, here's a description of Constantinople from way back when it's called a ‘Second Firmament’.
A thousand years ago, Constantinople was the greatest and richest city in Europe. It dwarfed its rivals in size, splendour and sophistication. The city contained half a million souls—more than 10 times the population of London or Paris. At a time when western Europe was ensnared in a dark age of poverty and illiteracy, the people of Constantinople enjoyed the pleasures of the metropolis. They bought exotic goods in the marketplaces of the city's great marbled squares and cheered for their teams at the hippodrome—the world's biggest stadium. Students attended universities and law academies. There were schools for female education and hospitals with women doctors. The city's libraries conserved precious manuscripts by Greek and Latin authors, ancient works of philosophy, mathematics and literature that had been lost or destroyed elsewhere. Constantinople was the greatest wonder of its age. It was an imperial capital and emporium, a shrine and a fortress. Venetian merchants arriving after a long sea voyage would see the gold and copper domes of the skyline appear out of the Bosphorus fog like a hallucination.
First-time visitors were stunned by the monumental scale and beauty of the city. They reacted like European peasants arriving by boat into Manhattan, not quite believing the impossible metropolis looming in front of them. Traders came to Constantinople from all over Europe, from Asia and Africa. Russian galleys cruised down from the Black Sea, laden with fish and honey and beeswax and caviar. Amber was brought from the shores of the Baltic Sea to be exchanged for gold or silk. Spices from China and India were carried overland into the city and sold on to western Europe.
Constantinople was a holy city—its majestic churches and monasteries housed the most important sacred relics of Christendom– the crown of thorns, fragments of the True Cross, the bones of the Apostles and a portrait of Christ believed to have been painted from life, by St. Luke himself. Pilgrims came to Constantinople by the old Roman road down through Thrace. Passing through the Parisian gate and the land walls, the Pilgrim would push his way through the crowds on the mesa, the city's broad central avenue, passing shops and colonnades squares paved with marble and tenement blocks. Beggars and prostitutes would loiter in doorways, while a holy fool smeared with grime and filth displayed the scars of his mortification to jeering children. The crowds on the mesa would part for a procession of chanting priests, parading a wooden icon, followed by a train of ecstatic believers hoping to catch a glimpse of the icon weeping miraculous tears or dripping blood. The emperor's procession among his people would bring city traffic to a standstill. Heralds with dragon banners would appear strewing flowers on the path ahead, followed by an entourage of imperial guardsmen, clerics and ministers. The voices of a choir would then lift up and sing ‘Behold the Morning Star! In his eyes, the rays of the sun are reflected!’
Finally, the Emperor would appear, swathed in crimson and gold silk, his feet clad in the distinctive thigh-high purple boots reserved for the occupants of the throne.
ASTRID: That is beautiful writing and a beautiful reading. Thank you, Richard. You've written two works of history. Why is history still important to us?
RICHARD: I wrote a bit about this right at the start of this book, about why I think history is important to me in any case. Ever since I was a kid, I remember my father was, my dad never went to university. He was a great autodidact—taught himself. And so at home we had shelves of books of history and I used to look upon them and think ‘Oh you know, when I grow up and I'm old enough to read this stuff’, that's where the secret of the world lies, somewhere in the pages of those books. And I think as a kid I always wanted to know where I sat in the great stream of events and people that preceded me. And I think without history we're all orphans.
A part of this story and this book is that it's based on a trip I took to Rome and then to Istanbul with my son Joe, who was 14 at the time when we had this coming of age ritual. And Joe was just like me you know, he grew up wanting to know all this all the time. He's dyslexic and so he developed the kind of the skills of interrogation that dyslexic kids get, where they just ask, bombard you with question after question after question—and I really enjoyed all this. I read a lot of that history for pleasure and at university and so, he really started to drain everything I knew from my head again and again, and so when he turned 14 I thought, we should have this coming of age ritual and we'll go to Rome and Istanbul together so he could see and touch the ancient world in Europe. And that was the idea because he too wanted to be able to see, where do I fit in, what came before all this, how did we come to be here? His mum is born in Singapore, there's connections there to the British Empire and we have, we're Irish Australians on my side. So you know, the stories that connect us to Europe and to Asia were completely fascinating to him as they always have been to me, because like I said, I think without history we're orphans, we're condemned to live in the eternal present all the time. And just to sort of be batted around by forces that we can't recognise. But if you do have some history, then when things happen you go, oh yeah that's a bit like this, or oh yeah that's a bit like that, particularly when we're going through this kind of slightly, let's say very tense moment in the world at the moment. There's really nothing new under the sun about what's happening in the world right now.
ASTRID: There is nothing new under the sun. Now I want to talk to you in depth about your relationship with your side and how you wove that through Ghost Empire, but before we go there, talk to me about the Starbucks logo because not only does Richard take us through history and let us explain our current times, you illuminate all the little bits and pieces that we've forgotten that you know, end up on a corporate logo.
RICHARD: Yeah. This was… I kept finding these stories and to be honest, there's always something a bit a little bit spooky about writing, you do feel like if you sit still and listen, stories come up to you like pets almost and they walk right up to you and say hello and write about me please I'm here—and you go, oh my god yes this is very interesting. I just keep finding stories like this. There's a really old fashioned European folk tale about a woman called Melusine, who saves a stupid nobleman from… gets him out of his problems, and she agrees to marry him under the condition that she be left alone on Saturday. She should be left alone on Saturday to bathe. Just don't, don't mess with this and everything's going to be fine, she said. And of course, he's as, well he's as dumb as a bag of hammers this guy she marries, and um, and of course something gets in his head and says, is she having an affair? So, he peeks through the bathroom keyhole and he sees that Melusine really is a kind of a fairy woman. She has two fish tales and that's her true appearance. And so, she bathes—spends all day Saturday bathing and singing to herself in the bathtub, and he lets it slip at some point that he's seen her do this and she collapses. There's two different versions of the story. One is that she collapses with sorrow and grief, another one that she's absolutely furious, she flies out the window, becomes a dragon and flies around the window and says look after my babies and takes off. So, there's a, there's a lot of feminist scholarship that's done on Melusine as a kind of a symbol of feminine privacy and rage and all these things. So, you read the story—the legend of Melusine though is based on a real Byzantine Princess—Mellissena her name was. She was the daughter of… I have to remember the story in my head, she very highly placed. I think she was in line to become a princess of the throne. In the end her father got deposed, so she was sort of farmed out. She was going to be, she was gonna marry some very high, highly placed King, but then her value as a consort dropped. And in the end, she married a German nobleman, German warrior, German knight I should say—pretty low on the social scale.
Her bloodline was fabulous. Like she had, it was said she had Chinese royal blood in her because of a marriage that was made on the Silk Roads, but also Kazakh blood. The Kazakhs was fascinating, fascinating people—they’re central Asian people who settled in modern day Georgia, in Europe, who adopted Judaism in the Middle Ages. Anyway, she had these two streams of royal blood through her. Her German knight of a husband adored her and was just in awe of her. She was so sophisticated and glamorous, and of course he wanted to parade her around the courts of western Europe. And she was just seen as this exalted princess—ethereal, and pristine and beautiful, and she bathed every day which was seen as like, oh what a weird and amazing thing to do, you know in western Europe at the time. And so, this legend grew up around her, and the twin streams of royal blood were transmuted in this idea of her twin fish tales—other worldly, exotic and magical. And so fast forward to the 1980s I think it is, Starbucks are looking for a logo and there it is. Why Mellissena, and I'm not entirely sure, they just kind of like the look of it, I think. The issues with her crown and her twin fish tales, and so Melusine is remembered every time you buy a cup of overly sugared and under strength bad American coffee.
ASTRID: Richard it is so clear that you love history, just hearing you talk about anything there is passion and happiness in your voice. I've heard you describe yourself as a history enthusiast. You are certainly not a historian or an academic, and in both of your books you read the personal through the history. In Ghost Empire, it is the relationship with your son and in Saga Land, it is the relationship with your best friend Kári. Can you tell us how you approached the writing of history including you in it?
RICHARD: Yeah it seemed to be natural, in a way I have Kári to thank for that. My friend Kári Gíslason is a, he is an academic. He teaches creative writing in QUT in Brisbane, and we became very good friends. And when I was writing, we were actually travelling around Iceland together making a radio project Saga Land, and when I started to properly write Ghost Empire, and it was Kári that really urged me to put more of my personal journey into it. I wanted to write about fatherhood in this book because so much of our voyage, in my voyage into Byzantium was in the company of my son, and fatherhood is one of those things that evokes very powerful feelings, and I saw the two as being inextricably intertwined and so I started to write a bit about it—and really nervously too because you know, ABC broadcasters…. we don't put ourselves into the story. And as an interview I really try not to, and I try to really just create a space where other people can tell their stories. There's a saying I learnt about it on a radio workshop in the United States where this wonderful guy Rob Rosenthal said, when you appear in your own story you should be dressed in mirrors. That was his phrase, and quite rightly so. So, you appear but you're there to reflect the story you're trying to tell, unless you're doing something…there's a whole other way of doing things—he could be like a Jon Ronson type memoirist, where he's so inextricably woven but then he's always revealing things about other people. So, writing about myself, I'm sorry, I'm getting to the point here, just didn't really come easily to me—it felt like I was being impertinent or something like that. But Kári really encouraged me to do so and… and then our trip to Iceland became also about the friendship I have with Kári and that bound up with the story too.
ASTRID: I have to say, and I'm speaking as an Australian reader here even though we are in Indonesia, it's unusual to see a man talk so, write so beautifully about his relationship with his son and also his friendship. Well done.
RICHARD: Thank you. I'm glad you noticed that. It's sometimes…. I've had this thing sometimes where it's irritating, where they go, where my friendship with Kári is sort of, oh it's your bromance isn't it. You know friendship is actually more important than bromance, you know. And fatherhood—I think that's been taken more seriously which is nice, but friendships really important. Like, I often use this analogy from Seinfeld because it's unusual to make good friends in your 40s. Kári and I have become good friends in our 40s, that's really unusual for guys to do that for some reason. There's a moment in Seinfeld where he talks about, you know when you were a kid, when you're a little boy, you know, you're sitting in your house and you see a kid with a yellow shirt and you go, ‘Oh you've got a yellow shirt, I've got a yellow shirt, let's be friends’. But then when do you hit your 30s, you can be at a party talking to a guy and having a nice time, and after a while you, you’ll say, you know you're a really great person, we have all these things in common but I'm sorry we're just not hiring right now. And so, it is unusual because start up a really good friendship with a lovely man like Kári. Absolutely is. So, I'm glad you noticed that, thank you.
ASTRID: Definitely ,and I think it makes both of your books stronger because these aren't pure histories. It's history but it's history that you uncover as you are deepening your relationships.
RICHARD: Yeah. Thank you. Yes, I would hope so yeah.
ASTRID: Now in addition to being a history enthusiast, you take different points of view as you write both Ghost Empire and Saga Land. As you say, the fall of Constantinople was a tragedy for those who consider themselves Romans, but it was a victory for the Turkish. How do you place yourself on both sides of history?
RICHARD: I think, I don't find that too hard actually, I must say. I feel I ought to do it and must do it. Maybe that's this whole idea of the ABC is that you have to represent all principle points of view on a story. That's the idea… but I don't find it that hard.
When you get to the end of the story of Constantinople, which is event... towards this final centuries as it becomes weaker and weaker and eventually it's, the city is put to siege in the year 1453 and it's successfully invaded by the Ottoman Turks, and ever since then it sort of gets remade as Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. By the time the Ottoman Turks arrived at the city walls of Constantinople, the city was already badly broken. It was badly broken, it was a village with inside a city and I'm sorry, I'm going to blame the bloody Venetians for this, the Venetians and the Crusaders. Constantinople was wrecked and plundered by the Fourth Crusade—a group of Italian and French knights but really sort of manipulated and led by Venice and they're 90-something Doge—the Duke of Venice who was totally blind, totally blind and manipulated the whole crusade and went along with it, and stood on the boat that attacked the walls of Constantinople.
This is on the most cunning and evil bastards I've ever encountered in my reading of history. This is this Doge was so cunning, he used to keep people guessing about how blind he was, he was in his 90s. He would do a thing like, he would surreptitiously pluck a hair, put it in his soup and go, which one of you put a hair in my soup—and they go, oh maybe is not blind, you know. You know, that's the kind of guy he was. So, the city was wrecked and invaded and plundered by people calling themselves Christians in the greatest city of Christendom. It's one of the great crimes of history and I'm sure many people here in Venice... have people here been to Venice? You know you go to the Basilica of San Marco, St Mark’s Basilica on St Marks Plaza. You look at the front of it. Above the entrance there are these four horses. These are actually replicas now, but the original four horses—the Quadriga, it's called. These magnificent stallions that are rearing for a chariot race, stolen from the hippodrome at Constantinople. The beautiful marble portico out the front, stolen from Constantinople. The statue of the four emperors by Accretion and his mates, stolen from Constantinople. It goes on and on. I can't look at that bloody church the same way. It's really a magpie’s nest of stolen goods that the Venetians…they looted a place and stuck all their booty on their holiest building. Who does that?
Yeah, the British Museum. There you go right there.
ASTRID: So Richard, it is very clear that you are, you can tell history with humour. I actually have.. you made me laugh throughout these works and I have a quote here. You were talking about Diocletian—he was an emperor in the third century and your one sentence goes ‘Diocletian was aiming for the restoration of the classical Roman traditions but accidentally invented feudalism instead’. You put history, a thousand years of history into one sentence. That's a skill. Honestly tell us how you did it.
RICHARD: Oh, thank you. Like I say, I did a Bachelor of Arts degree, I majored in history but I don’t see myself as an historian, so I suppose I call myself an obscure history enthusiast rather than an historian. I suppose that's a way of giving, allowing myself to have the audacity to write naughty sentences like that. But I do think there's a truth to it. There's a way of arriving at a point. Perhaps that comes from my radio experience too—what I have to write things to introduce a guest all the time and really arrive at, I hope at a point with a… that's engaging and interesting. And I work with brilliant producers and I always read them at my introductions out loud and they don't even need to say anything to me now because you know ,you could just tell where it's sagging or where it sounds a bit crap or a bit you know, wrong. So over 13 years of doing my 14 years of doing my radio program, that's been helpful for that process. The downside of it means I'm always trying to find someone in my family that I can read my drafts out aloud to. God bless my son, he was he was young enough to sit there. I got him to do some household chores once, we got a new fence put up in our front yard in our house and I said, look I'll pay you a couple hundred bucks to paint it. And while he was doing it then, I was reading stuff out aloud to him from the book. And so, I just need to check with you because you were there, and of course he remembered moments that I'd forgotten and had a perspective that I didn't have and so that was really helpful. And with Saga Land I had Kári, who was if I could persuade to listen to me talk. Now with my new book I’m writing the moment I'm just doing everything I can, every trick in the book to get my wife to be able to put up with listening to me read to her all the time— and it's quite hard for her because she says I just sound like a Great Dane to her. I just you know, I in the background she said I just don't like *Great Dane impersonation*.
We've been married for 25 years you know, so that's what happens over 25 years. All you sound like your wife is *Great Dane impersonation*. Over time I'm going to evolve into Scooby Doo for her and go ‘Rohroh’ or something, you know.
ASTRID: I don't really know how I can follow that but. I’m going to ask you a serious question Richard, and before we move on to Saga Land it struck me that you basically wrote the history of three major religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Now that's a big task… you’re an atheist?
RICHARD: No, no I'm someone… I think I describe myself in the book— the best… I thought a lot about how to describe myself here. I'm someone who likes to stand outside the door of a church. That's how I describe myself, I think. I find it hard to go in sometimes. I like going to, I like going to mass or church in foreign countries but I don't understand the liturgy because… sometimes you know, a couple times I've been to some family christenings or something and the priest is just in Sydney or somewhere, and the priest has said something, and you go ‘Oh God’, you know like that, and there are a lot of things I absolutely love about various forms of religion.
Christianity is the one I supposed I’m the most familiar with. I'm attracted the idea of grace and mystery. I see… in the end one of the lovely things about writing this book was to learn more about the Orthodox faith, which I knew nothing at all about, which is so absolutely saturated in art and music, like this place—this place is amazing isn't it. I mean art music is everywhere here, it saturates the place. The point is to make the world as beautiful as possible. In Constantinople, the latter Romans as Christians, their idea of Orthodox Christianity sort of compelled them, instructed them to build a city that would be a mirror of heaven operating under the principle of ‘As above, so below’. And this was not only a kind of an aesthetic duty and a religious duty, it was a political responsibility too because emperors had to reinvent themselves. And how do you, how do you create imperial authority… well under in Constantinople you have, you stop seeing Jesus as a as a tortured pauper on a cross, and you see him as a beautiful, pristine Emperor reigning in heaven surrounded by archangels and saints, like the Emperor does in Constantinople who rules from his palace surrounded by his ministers and bishops. So, there's something that appeals to me about Orthodox Christianity in that sense. I've only been to see that the Orthodox rites twice in my life, once in Paris by accident and I was just, just overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. All of the liturgy was sung, surrounded by so much art and music, it’s just absolutely heavenly. There's something about… I had this conversation the other night about this. There's something about our apprehension of the sacred that really interests me. I have it—I have an apprehension of grace and the sacred. I think that's very human to feel that way, and certainly the process of writing books. So many writers will tell you this is, is an uncanny experience, like ah… I’m trying to remember the name of the woman… the Queenslander who wrote umm, Mary Poppins...
AUDIENCE: Pamela Travers.
RICHARD: Pamela Travers, yes, thank you. Yes. She always used to… thank you its good doing these things in front of a live audience, if I was in radio I'd be completely stuffed right now, so thank you for that. She always felt that she was… she said the stories never came from her. She's always felt that she was a radio picking up things that are flying through the ether, that she was able to receive and put to the page. A lot of writers feel that way. Other writers will go that's total bullshit, doesn't work that way at all. So, I suppose that's it, I keep myself outside the door of the church, looking in, hearing the music, looking at the art.
ASTRID: Moving from the religion that you so adeptly cover in Ghost Empire to the sagas of Iceland, in a way I found that a similar experience. They are beautiful. Why Iceland? I know Kári is your friend, but the radio show and the book, that's a lot of time in your life. What made you fall in love with the stories of Iceland?
RICHARD: Our Kári is a very persuasive man. He came on my radio program as a guest. He'd written a memoir called The Promise of Iceland, which told the story of his very complicated family story. He was born in Iceland to an Icelandic father and an English mother, and when he was born his father asked not to have his name put on the birth certificate because he already had a wife and five kids in Reykjavik. And this meant Kári had to grow up not acknowledging or being allowed to acknowledge his father in Iceland as his father, as his true father. He spent most of his childhood in Britain and Australia, and he went to the University of Queensland, and there was someone doing a literature course there and he saw Kári’s name, and he said, ‘Kári— that’s a fine Icelandic name’ and he was introduced by this academic Martin Jewel into the sagas.
So Kári never had the sagas as a kid, but he was introduced them to them as an undergraduate and became obsessed with them, and eventually did his doctorate— and so he's got a doctorate in medieval Icelandic literature, which I know probably quite a few people here have this morning. I know, so you probably know more about it than I do. So he and I became, anyway he came on the show and we just really hit it off, we had all these things in common, you know at the time we were both living in the same suburb of Brisbane. We both had young kids, similar taste in music, literature all that sort of thing. And so, we started to hang out and we were, we were having a drink one night and he was talking about the sagas and I said ‘Oh yeah the sagas that's like Beowulf isn't it, like you know, monsters and warriors’, and he went ‘No no no no no’. The sagas of Iceland are true stories about real people who actually existed, whose existences are recorded through various documents, because Icelanders have kept a genealogical records to an extraordinary degree, going back to the very first people who arrived in Iceland in the 19th century—the first Norwegian settlers. And they're the stories of those first settlers, those first families and they’re very powerful human stories that are absolutely classics of world literature. Tolkien was a huge fan of the sagas and told his undergraduate students at Oxford that they shouldn't waste so much time with Shakespeare and read more of the sagas instead. Luis Borges and huge wonderful fan of the sagas and W.H. Auden the poet, also a massive saga fan. It was.. we’d come up with the name of the book Saga Land before I realised that that was Odin's nickname for Iceland, which he went to regularly and rode a pony across the land and did all of that. So, these stories are so magical because they, they take you into the lives of Vikings. Vikings are people who are often presented to us as mindless brutes, but of course they’re human beings like the rest of us. And so, seeing them as fully human is completely thrilling, and about, I think about 90 per cent, 95 per cent of their lives and their attitudes are recognisable to us as modern people. They're obsessed with all the same things we are —with family, and love, and revenge, and status, and money, and travel, and excitements and beauty. But there's this one aspect to their lives that makes them really different to us, and even different from the people who wrote the sagas, which is the Viking concept of honour. And this is critical to all the saga stories. Honour in Vikings, in the Viking world in Iceland, was not something you could earn. It was something you had to take from someone else. So, it's not like Christian love, it's not something that is ever flourishing and grows. It's more like a currency and there's only so much of it to go round. And with that you can see why the society occasionally became extremely violent, and why also they developed the first modern parliaments because you just couldn't let it go that far. You had to negotiate, sit down and talk. And the other key thing you need to know about the sagas is this, that a woman's honour is just as important as a man, and she will go to astonishing lengths to maintain her honour, even if it means the death of the men she loves the most. She will engineer the death of those men if she has to, and then grieve over their bloodied corpses. That's.. and so often with the sagas as you read them, sorry some are probably quite a long way from your question, I'm sorry. But so often as you read the sagas you think they're about men. They start off being about men, and then a woman will say and do something that makes you go, ‘Oh my God, wow’. And then everything changes and always for the worse it has to be said too. There's gonna be a lot of horror. Men have been misusing women in some places and then some.. there are consequences for that.
ASTRID: Nothing wrong with consequences. The first line of Saga Land is, ‘My friend Kári is a Viking’. Now that is a great first line.
RICHARD: Thank you.
ASTRID: Kári’s story is integral to the story, well to the book. Without a massive spoiler, can you take the audience through the journey that you and Kári went on.
RICHARD: One of the reasons why we went to Iceland, which Saga Land began as a radio project for ABC Australian Radio National, was to find out whether something that Kári’s father had told him was true. I mentioned his father couldn't acknowledge him well. Kári was in his 20s. He wrote a letter to his sisters and his father. He felt that the promise of Iceland—which was a promise that his mother had made to keep his existence a secret from that family, wasn't something he was obliged to keep because it was a promise that meant denying his own existence. And so, he wrote… he'd met his father surreptitiously a couple of times when he'd visited Iceland. Like in a sort of remote part outside of Reykjavik. But then eventually in his 20s, he went to Mount Coot-tha and sat at the café at the top of Mount Coot-tha in Brisbane and spent a whole day agonising over this. And then he wrote a letter to which one of his siblings in Reykjavik and his father. He wrote to his father saying ‘You've kept my existence a secret and you shouldn't have done that. I'm going to tell my brothers and sisters about me’. And so, then he wrote to his brothers and said, you have a brother and his sisters were really wonderful about it, and they welcomed him into their family. And they arranged a lunch, which was a little awkward as you might imagine. And as he sat with his father, his father said to him, so what you want to do with your life, Kári? And he said, well I think I want to be a writer. And his father said, oh well that makes sense, and Kári’ say why? And he said, well because you know, you're descended from Snorri Sturluson don't you? Now Snorri Sturluson is the greatest of the saga authors. He's Iceland's national hero. In Reykjavik there is a street, a statue and a beer named after him. He was a figure from the 13th century, from the time of crisis where Iceland lost its Commonwealth, had lost its Republic and became ineffective vassal state of Norway and then Denmark. Snorri was a lawyer, and a chieftain, and extremely wealthy, and cunning and a poet. This was so prized at the time, to be a scholarly poet. He spent some time in the court of Norway, teach.. try to get them less interested in the courtly poetry of the continent and more interested in their, in their Scandinavian poetry—the Nordic, the Norse poetry of the time. Snorri wrote the prose Edda, and this is where we get all of Norse mythology from. All these stories of Thor, and Odin, and Loki that are just absolutely bashing us over the head through Marvel comics movies right now, written by this man, this fat Icelandic lawyer writing in a farmhouse in Iceland in the 13th century. So Kári’s father had told him this, and I said to Kári, but is it true? And he said, I think so, I don't know. And I said you know, Iceland has these genealogical records that are now on a giant computer database called the Book of Icelanders, Íslendingabók. And I said, can’t you find out from there, and he says no because his name isn't on the birth certificate, then Kári’s name is not connected to his father's name and he couldn't trace the chain of ancestry. So I said, let's make a radio series, go over there, tell stories from the sagas and see if we can persuade them to connect your name to your father's name, and then see if what your father had told you was true— that you're directly descended from the greatest of the Icelanders, and the greatest of the saga poets. And it was something that's kind of both meaningless, like you know, because along the way of course we're all descended from, you know, we're not you know, oh I had a dream and I discovered I had descended from another life from Cleopatra or whatever you know. But really the truth is we're descended from pretty nondescript people all the way along through history, and they of course have put as much genetic input into us as everyone else. And so, it's a kind of a meaningless thing in some ways but in other ways it's terribly meaningful because Kári loves the sagas, and he loves the culture that gave birth to the sagas. So, we went there to find it out, and that's the story of Saga Land as well.
ASTRID: Saga Land is co-written with Kári.
RICHARD: Yes, that's right.
ASTRID: So unlike Ghost Empire, which you wrote yourself, you alternate—each chapter is written by you and Kári. First off, how did you do that? And secondly what's it like to read what Kári wrote about you?
RICHARD: Huh. Very good question. Thank you. Yes, we really worried about that. How many books do you see of this kind that have two authors, and Kári teaches literary studies so he was well aware of the challenge of that. There are very few books that are like this and he worried about it and worried about it. And I thought, maybe I'm not thinking, it doesn't seem that hard to me, but maybe are we overthinking this? And then we thought, why don't we just try writing a chapter, alternate chapters and just talk to each other about how we hand over to the next chapter, and how we going to structure it. And it just worked like a dream, quite frankly. It worked so much better than we'd hoped. I think partly because we are good friends, we share the same enthusiasms, the same enjoyment of the same things and I've ended up loving the sagas. I can't say as much as Kári, but I adore them. I absolutely adore them and that carried us easily through it. And it is kind of fun writing about each other along the way, like our own little personality quirks. Like, I only discovered from reading one chapter that at one point Kári just wanted to pull the four wheel drive over at the start of the day and kick me out, because I kept having to push him, and I hate pushing people but I had to because he was really shy about finding out the stuff about what his father had said was true. And he was getting really antsy and felt really encroached upon and I got that, I could see that. But you know, we'd said we were gonna make this bloody radio series and we had an answer one way or another didn't we. So, I had to push him, and I hated pushing him and I felt the same way that if I was in his position, I'd feel the same way. But it was also funny to write about Kári and take the piss out of him because he's so grand. Like, he is a proper Viking, he's 6 foot 4. He's gigantic. He's a very gentle man. He's got huge hands and part of me got the shits with that, because I like being the tall person and he makes me feel like his little kind of, like his little mate on the side. I always felt like Robin to his Batman going through to through Iceland. So, I just felt like taking the piss out of him a bit. So, that was a lot of fun and we were pretty good about that with each other, I think.
ASTRID: I encourage everybody to read and buy Saga Land. It's actually a story of male friendship. It’s really beautiful.
RICHARD: Thank you.
ASTRID: But to hold you to this, how did you actually divide it up because Kári tells his own story, and then you take a different…
RICHARD: That was easy too. Kári has lived with the sagas for 20 years. He knows the stories so well and he has his own way of telling them. And I knew we had a radio series and a book in it, and I asked him to tell me a saga story and he told me the story of from the Njáls saga, a story of two people called Gunnar and Hogarth, man and woman. And he told it in a way that just was completely electrifying. My producer, Pam at the time was sitting with me and she went well, holy crap this will make the most magic radio. And that's where we really got the idea from, and Kári has this beautiful way of telling, and he was also used to telling it to his own his own sons—long family drives with the family he would, he would tell these stories to his sons and in doing so it freed him of the need to be… act like an academic I suppose. And he really had to imbue the stories with the joy of storytelling, and he was so good at it. And so, we went to the places in Iceland where the stories unfolded, the saga stories unfolded. We went to a place called Thingvellir, which is where the Viking Parliament used to meet—this beautiful gorge in Iceland. A farm called Hlidarendi where Gunnar’s farm was, a farm called Borg where Grimsson was, who turns out to be another ancestor of Kári, on it goes. And so, he was he was gonna always write those saga stories from his own language, in beautiful English. Simple, strong, hard, beautiful English. I left him to do that. I was gonna write, and he was also going to write the story about the search for his father and the family, and the family story of that. Whereas I was going to write about life on the road, our story on the road together, me pushing him towards this story and observing him as we're finding out the truth about what his father had told him. But also, I set myself the task of finding other fantastic amazing stories about Iceland. Like, I uncover this incredible story, and I knew this story but I'd forgotten about it. We went and visited Iceland's most haunted house, which is this house in Reykjavik, just on the outskirts of Reykjavik near the bay. And it's this kind of modest little timber mansion. It's called Hofdi House and it was built around about the turn of the last century and served as the residence first of all for the French ambassador, then a lawyer bought it, a lawyer and a prominent lawyer, who went to investigate a murder case in the north of the island where a brother and sister had had an affair, given birth to a child and then had murdered this child. So, it's a really grisly case. This is the 1930s and the woman, who in the case had actually taken a lethal dose of poison before she walked into the room to give her deposition, so she died in agony in front of him, this lawyer… I can’t remember his surname. Anyway, he always said her ghost followed him back to Reykjavik, and the house in Reykjavik, Hofdi House had become uninhabitable—walls shaking, possibly volcanic conditions, yes, but then a woman in white appearing and screaming at them all the time, like it was like that. So, he didn't believe in ghosts, but he had to move out anyway. Sold it to a few other people then the British ambassador bought it in the 1950s and he's went ‘Oh it's fabulous, I love the ghost legend I'm going to renovate it make it fabulous’. He lasted a month and then moved out. And so, they pretty much just kept it bolted up and used it for diplomatic occasions.
So fast forward to 1986, middle of the cold war, Gorbachev is now the Soviet leader, Reagan is the US president. They're having difficulty advancing arms reduction in Europe. And so, Gorbachev writes to Reagan and says, can we just have a meeting just to expedite all this. And Reagan said, sure. And so halfway between Washington and Moscow is Reykjavik. So, they go to Iceland and the Icelandic government gives them Hofdi House to have their summit. So, Reagan and Gorbachev show up with their entourages and it's the weirdest thing. There's no ghosts. There's no haunting but the weirdest thing happens. Gorbachev sits down and says I'd like us to remove all intermediate nuclear weapons from Europe. And Reagan says, why don't we just get rid of all our nuclear weapons. And Gorbachev says, we can look at that. And so, this suddenly, this dizzying possibility of a world without NATO and Warsaw Pact Arms just suddenly appears in the middle of Hofdi House. They negotiate all night, and it's frantic and it's exciting. But you remember the Star Wars program, the strategic defence initiative, that this research, the idea was that the US would be able to shoot lasers from space and knock out nuclear weapons out of the sky. Yeah total crap, was never going to work at amounts shooting a bullet with a bullet. But nonetheless, the United States were on into this idea and they wouldn't let go, and Gorbachev says, well forget it. But they came that close and it in the end they agreed to a much more realistic arms control proposition, a year later. But that's the kind of madness of Hofdi House. I mean Iceland. Then there's Bobby Fisher versus Boris Spassky in 1972. Some people remember this. This was a year when a chess match was the most watched sporting match of the year, and apart from the Muhammad Ali rumble in the jungle, the most sporting watched sporting event in the decade a chess match in Reykjavik. So, I found all these great stories, so we told those as well. But I also looked into the story of Snorri Sturluson, the great hero of Iceland and it turned out he was a total son of a bitch. And they really should probably revile him as their worst traitor in a lot of ways. But his skill as a poet and as a writer is undeniable.
ASTRID: It's so impressive to see you in full flight talking history.
RICHARD: Oh sorry I get carried away. I do, yeah.
ASTRID: That's why people are here for. Can I open it up to questions from the audience? Would anybody like to ask Richard a question?
AUDIENCE 1: Thank you Richard, very much. Hello, hi. I've enjoyed both books a great deal. I am a historian, so I'm really interested in what sort of archival research you do. I mean that's the basic resource of the historian. I mean, I'm much happier in an archive than anywhere else. So, I'm wondering what sort of archival research you did particularly the Istanbul.
RICHARD: Yeah, that was a little hard in so far as it's hard for me to read. I can't read primary documents that are not translated. I don't have any medieval Greek. I don't have Latin, so I should have enslaved Astrid and got her to work for me for nothing to translate Latin for me. But I didn't know you then, so what a shame. And nor do I have Turkish so that was a real issue. But I was I was living in Brisbane when I wrote Ghost Empire, and amazingly the State Library of Queensland is really well endowed with primary documents from Byzantine history in translation. And so, I was able to read them translated. I also sort of put a copy in front of a wonderful Greek Byzantine historian at Sydney University with really, really frightened of his response because I you know he really knew his stuff and, and he was really kind.
He said, he's actually getting his students to read Ghost Empire, and he sent me an email after was he said, ‘Oh God I just read your chapter about the Fourth Crusade again’, and he went ‘those fucking Venetians, fucking Dandolo’, like that. So, what more do you want really out of out of someone than that? So, I did have to read primary documents in translation. The ones around the fall of the city and 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, which I from my mind, I have never encountered an historical tale more enthralling and dramatic and moving than that story. Fortunately, they're blessed with so many stories, different accounts of the fall from within the city, from within the Turkish camp. There was a Venetian doctor, so there are some Venetians that are kind of okay, who was writing a diary in the city at the time of describing the fall and that was great. That was much more work to write that part of the book, because you have to do it from various different vantage points and decide what's real and what's not real. And, but so much with Constantinople, the history of Constantinople is bound up with legend and myth, and I found I can't, you just can't extricate that from the story. So, and I enjoy myth and legend. So my solution was to simply include it, indented on the page so that it was clearly looking different from the rest of the text, and point to it and say this is what is said, this is the legend of what happened at this time. There may be a smidgen of truth in it, there may be no truth in it whatsoever. It certainly dovetails into it. The city was put to siege in the 8th century by the Arabs, when they were absolutely at their, at their height of their power. But there were two sieges and they failed. And the accounts of why the siege failed are just bizarre. But we do know they failed. The story of how the Emperor at the time outfoxed, outfoxed the Arab commander was just strange and they barely seem plausible but they’re from the Arabs own accounts of why this siege failed. So, what you can do is put it then go, will make it that what you will, and the story is having brought all this force to the walls of Constantinople, which were the most it was the most profoundly well-developed, well defended city in the world. And having been rebuffed they tried to sail back home again through the eastern Mediterranean, and a volcano apparently exploded and destroyed them on their ships. And from that, according to the legend, they just could see clearly God did not want us to do that, which was hard because one of the Hadiths of Islam at the time had said that Mohammed had said that, surely one day the Muslims will conquer the city of Constantinople, how great will that army be, how great will that commander be. So, the Turks in 1453 were well aware of that Hadith from the Islamic Hadith and they felt themselves consciously enacting that what was appeared to be a commandment from Mohammed.
ASTRID: We had a question over here.
AUDIENCE 2: Richard what are you going to write about next?
RICHARD: I'm writing, I’m about three quarters, or five sixths I hope, the way through my next book, which is going to sound really odd, a history of the city of Prague. I went to Prague for the first time in the middle of the Velvet Revolution, when that period 89, 1990 when that wave of revolution swept through central and eastern Europe, and the government's, longstanding decrepit communist governments were overthrown. In Prague, oh my God, to be there at that time where the shockingly cruel dinosaurs were just kicked out for good, in a bloodless revolution and replaced by this beautiful man. This what was essentially a hippie playwright and a brave, profoundly brave and honourable dissident Václav Havel, was just like heaven to be in a city like that. The most beautiful city in the world in all its shabby decrepitude which is what it was in 1989, 1990, was completely thrilling— a humane revolution. I was constantly thinking of the words of Wordsworth, who was writing about the French Revolution at its outset “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. Now he was writing that knowing that the Jacobin terror was going to approach and ruin the great dream and hopes and expectations of the French Revolution. But in in the Velvet Revolution, in Prague we knew there was no Jacobin terror coming and it didn't come. And so, there was nothing to qualify that statement. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven”. And so each day I sort of on reflection I sort of realised that being there at the time, it was.. it felt like you feel when you're in love you're falling in love. You know that feeling of where you feel excited and relaxed at the same time? The feeling of waking up every day when you've just fallen loving you, Oh my God what's going to happen today. And so that's what it was like. I saw amazing things in that period. So, I sort of want to understand it. Prague has always exerted a kind of an uncanny feeling to a great many people who have visited there, I wasn't the first to have it, but this is the city which gave birth to the legend of the Gollum, to the first robot, robot as a Czech word invented by the Czech playwright Carl Chadwick, and of course it's where Franz Kafka wrote Metamorphosis. So gigantic Jewish clay monsters, mechanical people and a human becoming a cockroach. It come from such a place like Prague. Prague is where the reformation really began, really under the Hussites. There was this period in history…
ASTRID: Richard I am going to stop you talking about Prague because I know we have a few other questions. I’m so sorry.
RICHARD: Sorry, I will bang on about this forever.
ASTRID: We have a question here.
AUDIENCE 3: Richard, thank you for bringing history so brilliantly to life. Like you, I think that history is really important as you said, without history we're all orphans and yet I think in Australia too many people think of history as dry, dull, irrelevant. Do you agree with that? And if so, what can be done about it?
RICHARD: I always think of history as delicious. I mean, don't you? I mean I find it delicious. I mean I if I see a book, you know my great dream was to produce a book that looked like this you know, so I could sort of want to buy it myself. Oh, I mean I don't, I just seeing a beautiful history book on the shelf it just takes you into a whole other world. Well written history is just such a joy. I don't read much academic history, I have I've used it for my research, very clearly and that's very helpful. The precision of academic history is brilliant for research, but the historians I love to read for pleasure have influenced me enormously over the years. As a teenager I read tons of William Manchester, the great American historian who wrote American Caesar, the biography of Douglas McArthur. He wrote a multi-volume biography of Winston Churchill but failed to complete it before he died. And he also wrote a history of the Krupp family—The Arms. He was a wonderful prose, brilliant prose. I'm still like probably a few people here, trying, hoping Robert Caro doesn't die before he produces the final volume of his series of Lyndon biographies on the life of Lyndon Johnson. And Barbara Tuchman inspires me enormously. What beautiful amazing prose, it taking you right into the world of the world as she describes it. So, like I say, I have a feeling of deliciousness I've always tried to be a hospitable writer and offer good food to readers.
ASTRID: History is delicious. That sounds wonderful. Question here.
RICHARD: Don't ask me about Prague again.
AUDIENCE 4: No, I love Istanbul. I went to Istanbul this year, and a friend said to me when I came back, what a pity you didn't read Ghost Empire before you went there. I was just wondering if you could explain the title Ghost Empire.
RICHARD: Yes, Thank you for that question. Constantinople fell in 1453 but as it fell a whole lot of scholars left. Scholars who'd been left, who'd been sort of left in charge of maintaining the great classics of the of the classical world, works of philosophy and science and literature. And they carried the scrolls with them to Italy which was just… now you can't say that that started the renaissance because it didn't. There were already Renaissance poets and painters who are starting to appear in Italy at the time, but it's certainly stoked what was a flicker into a great big roaring flame, because the first thing that happened when these Greek scholars arrived in Italy was that, oh my God you're here, translate this into the vernacular for us please. And so suddenly these great works from the classical world reappeared and are enjoyed again. So, you get the renaissance from that. So, that’s the lingering effect of Constantinople. But there's also the city itself. That's the more importantly I think, why I called it Ghost Empire. You can go there today and this is what some nearly 600 years after the city fell and you feel it, you feel Constantinople, the ghost of Constantinople wherever you go through Sultan Ahmed, the historic centre of Istanbul. You feel it in the Hagia Sofia, which is to me the most beautiful building in the world. Have people been, have people been to the Hagia Sophia? I just knew I had this electric feeling walking into the place. You know my expectations were high and I had this electric feeling walking in there—I was in the most beautiful building in the world and I looked at my 14 year old son and he was smiling at me, and the way he was smiling you reminded me of the accounts of Procopius, writing about the building of the Hagia Sophia and how he described walking through it for the first time. It was sort of being played out in the face of my beautiful son at the age of 14, how many fifteen hundred years later. And, and there is… and what it is, it's kind of like victory, is a victory in it, and the victory is I suppose that there is something transcendent in this world. There is something, sometimes humans can create this completely magnificent thing that's just designed to be enjoyed and I describe the Hagia Sophia as being a place that makes you feel like an insignificant insect one minute, at another moment it feels like a great big present that's made just for you. So that's the ghost, the lingering ghost of Constantinople you feel in the hippodrome, in the Hagia Sofia, in the remnants you can find of the great palace of the Caesars that are there, and it's still there it imbues the streets of Istanbul today.
ASTRID: We do have time for one more question.
AUDIENCE 5: Richard, I think something we all respond to very much in relation to your work and your presence, is that you run a marvellous line between absolute enjoyment and fascination of the story, the place, the person, the time et cetera, et cetera. I think anything you'd put on your plate, and you would make it fascinating for us, and it is about your own enjoyment of it but at the same time you don't project, you apparently don't project your own ego needs on to it. So, in anything that I ever read or hear if yours, I'm delighted by the ability to be distant, absolutely recognise the emotion and the feeling and the experience of somebody, but in fact not impose your own mawkish, perhaps feelings about that, which often people tend to do.
RICHARD: I keep the mawkish feelings for my family..
AUDIENCE 5: Yes, that’s quite clear its part of the Great Dane. So, I do have another question. With that in mind, I went to Wikipedia last night thinking, I must be able to find some dirt on this guy. You know, something juicy something I'll go to…
RICHARD: Dead bodies everywhere I'm afraid.
AUDIENCE 5: Absolutely. And I saw, ah personal life—one line on your wife, 27 lines on your guitar and what they were tuned to. That was, that is your personal life. And I thought to myself, you must have done it yourself. My question is..
RICHARD: I didn’t. No, it's such a question I didn't— I don't think I've ever looked at my Wikipedia page, I just think that's too weird.
AUDIENCE 5: Well you'll love it. My question, because I have to ask one, is could you tell us more about Prague?
RICHARD: Look, I won’t do that, but can I speak briefly to something there. I can speak to what you're talking about a curiosity though. I think I mentioned this a bit in the book, I had this moment I think when I was 16, my family moved to Canberra and I was enrolled at ANU, that's where I do my degree. I didn't really know anyone there. I used to spend long sort of weird little afternoons just sitting in the Chifley Library, which is a bit sad, yeah, and sort of you know, in my own head self-obsessed and what have you. But I remember, I do remember there was this moment when I kind of looked at rows, and rows, and rows, and rows of books in the Chifley Library, and I thought I will never get to the end of this. There's no end to things to find out and discover in the world. And I think having that, allowing myself to feel that curiosity has been the best shield for me... for me. I'm not, I'm saying this is true for anyone. For me it's been the best shield against depression and boredom throughout my life. I'm never bored. There's just too much to find out about. I'm so, so that I suppose, that's the approach I try and make to anything I do. What am I genuinely curious about genuinely? It's the same with my radio interviews, I only ever talk to people I'm genuinely curious about because I can fake curiosity for about 15 minutes but after that it just sounds terrible. I listen back to some interviews I've done early on in my life and what I'm just trying hard to be interested. And it's not like I sound bored it's just the opposite. I sound increasingly shrill and hysterical and I'm going, what happened then. Oh God, and I just can't bear it. I just can't bear it. So, I'm always just try to make radio I can live with really and so I have to be authentically curious.
ASTRID: Can you all please join me in thanking Richard.
RICHARD: Thank you, and thank you to Astrid as well. Thank you.