Travelers, Wild and Tame

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

For over forty years (except for a brief interlude when she was married), Freya Stark spent some 40 years traveling by herself in the Middle East. I have just finished reading her first book, Baghdad Sketches (1932), consisting of columns written for the Baghdad Times plus some 8 pieces added later for the British edition.

I am amazed that she was able to not only survive traveling in a difficult part of the world roughly between 1928 and 1970, but she lived to the age of 100.

She is not the first to do so. Gertrude Bell (who died in Baghdad just a couple years before Freya arrived there), also covered much of the same ground. Still, I cannot imagine in this period of violent jihad and xenophobia that their travels could be duplicated without a military escort.

Freya had interesting attitudes about solitude and travel. On the former, she wrote that “solitude is the one deep necessity of the human spirit to which adequate recognition is never given in our codes. It is looked upon as a discipline or penance, but almost never as the indispensable, pleasant ingredient it is to ordinary life.” For the modern traveler, she felt with distaste that its purpose “is to give people a glimpse of the exotic places without the least bit of inconvenience to themselves.”

In Baghdad Sketches, she gives a picture of a much more diverse population than exists now in the era of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Stark frequently visited among the Kurds, Yezidis, Shi’as, and Eastern Christians living in Iraq during the 1930s.

Among her books that I have read with pleasure, in addition to Baghdad Sketches, are:

  • The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934)
  • The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey to the Hadhramaut (1938)
  • Alexander’s Path: From Caria to Cilicia (1958)—about Turkey

Many of her books are still in print.



I’m Not Finished with Argentina!

The South Atlantic Near Ushuaia

The South Atlantic Near Ushuaia

Even while I am planning my Ecuador trip, I am hinking of returning to Argentina. It is almost like another home to me, after three visits. This time, I am interested in traveling down RN 3 along the South Atlantic from Buenos Aires all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia (in Argentina) and Punta Arenas (in Chile). That is slightly over 3,000 kilometers. I may even fly to Puerto Williams in Chile, the absolute southernmost inhabited town in the world. Then I would fly back to Buenos Aires.

Along the way there would be the following stops:

  • Bahia Blanca with its famous Museo del Puerto de Ingeniero White.
  • The twin cities of Carmen de Patagones and Viedma, separated by the Rio Negro.
  • Puerto Madryn, which I visited with Martine in 2011 and perhaps some of the Welsh colonies around Trelew and Gaiman.
  • Comodoro Rivadavia, the industrial port from which Argentina launched the 1982 Falklands (Malvinas) war.
  • Puerto Deseado, visited by Magellan and Charles Darwin, called by naturalist Francisco Perito Moreno “the most picturesque place on the eastern Patagonian coast.”
  • Puerto San Julian, where both Magellan and Sir Francis Drake suppressed mutinies by executing the ringleaders.
  • Rio Gallegos, a key southern transportation hub and an old wool and petroleum shipment center. From here I can go to Punta Arenas (Chile) and see the Torres del Paine and the Fitzroy Massif. And from there, I could fly to Puerto Williams (a bit pricey, but comes with great bragging rights).
  • Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, where I’ve been twice and which I love. I’ll even stay at the same place, the Posada del Fin del Mundo owned by my friend Ana Bermudez.
The South Atlantic Is Not for Swimmers

The South Atlantic Is Not for Swimmers

Now that I’ve come to understand the long distance buses in Argentina, I know I’ll be able to travel in comfort and at a relatively low price. The longest stretches would be between Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia and between Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca.

Except for Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn, and Ushuaia, most of the above cities are off the tourist route. I could live with that.

You Can, But You Won’t

E-Readers Are OK, but Smart Phones Are Not

E-Readers Are OK, but Smart Phones Are Not

Once I saw a website somewhere about all the devices that smart phones will render obsolete. On the list were e-readers, such as Kindle and Nook. I do not believe, however, that people with smart phones will be reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (in seven volumes) anytime soon. I do not even think that they will be reading many shorter books, such as 10 Haikus for the Next Millennium.

Just because you can read books on a smart phone does not mean that you will ever want to. There are four reasons for this:

  • You can only see so many words on a page. Excessive page-turning will render the reading experience too clumsy.
  • If your device is backlit, it will bother your eyes to read for any length of time. E-book readers like Nook and Kindles use a technology that does not glare at you.
  • People past a certain age (and I am already there) have trouble reading words on small screens.
  • Smart phones are so small that the reading experience is psychologically different from cradling a physical book in your hands.

I remember when Gutenberg and other websites put the complete texts of thousands of books online. In the last ten years, I have succeeded in reading only one book online: Sir Richard F. Burton’s Falconry in the Valley of the Indus. It is a relatively short book, and I can tell you it was a real chore, what with the glareback from my monitor. I believe this may also be a problem on iPads and other pad devices.

Over the years, I have long suspected that those people staring at their cellphone screens while walking are probably not reading Moby Dick.


L.A. Writer: John Fante

John Fante, L.A. Novelist, Short Story Writer, and Scriptwriter

John Fante, L.A. Novelist, Short Story Writer, and Scriptwriter

This is a series about writers whose work is predominantly set in Los Angeles.Last Month, I wrote about Eve Babitz (who is still alive).  I am wondering whether to open this series up to people who came from other countries, such as Aldous Huxley or Raymond Chandler, who have written works that have added to the Southern California scene. Omitted will be writers like Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust) who are primarily oddities or one-shots.

At the corner of West 5th Street and South Grand Avenue, hard by the Los Angeles Central Library, is a sign commemorating John Fante Square (see below), just on the edge of the old Bunker Hill neighborhood made famous by the writer’s Arturo Bandini novels. These include:

  • Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938)
  • The Road to Los Angeles (1936, Published 1985)
  • Ask the Dust (1939)
  • Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982)

The best of them that I have read is Ask the Dust, which I finished reading this morning in the Central Library just outside the foot of Bunker Hill, where Fante and his hero Bandini lived.

Sign Commemorating John Fante Square with the Tower of the Central Library

Sign Commemorating John Fante Square with the Tower of the Central Library

Arturo Bandini wanted more than anything else to be a great writer, but we see him on the edge of poverty and trying unsuccessfully to find a love interest—in the worst possible way. His choice in Ask the Dust is a hophead Mexican waitress named Camilla Lopez with whom he has a love/hate relationship that ends badly. He is torn between his Italian Catholic upbringing and the glitzy Hollywood life of famous writers and film people.

It is in no way a Hollywood novel. In fact, Bandini and Lopez don’t even drive through Hollywood or have any interest in seeing films together.

Today, Bunker Hill is no longer a ghetto of cheap boarding houses; rather, it is full of high rise banks and corporate headquarters that tower over the lowlands of Downtown L.A. The old funicular, Angel’s Flight, which rises to the top of Bunker Hill from Hill Street across from the Grand Central Market is still in existence, though it is not presently in operation.

The life of John Fante has a particular interest for me because the end of his life was characterized by severe diabetes. In 1978, he went blind. Subsequently, he lost both of his legs to the disease. He died in 1983 at the age of 74.


My Japanese Years

Mifune Toshiro in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s Duel at Ichijoji Temple

It all came back to me while I had a Japanese meal with Martine at the Aki Restaurant in West Los Angeles. When I first came to Los Angeles in late 1966 I quickly became a Nipponophile. I lived for a while on Mississippi Avenue in the middle of the Sawtelle neighborhood, the old Japanese plant nursery district. Even before I started my explorations of Mexican food, I started becoming a Japanese foodie. I even thought the little tofu cubes in my miso soup were shark’s fin. (I marveled at my sophistication in eating “shark’s fin” soup.)

Since i was a graduate student in film at UCLA, I made a point of seeing as many Japanese films as I could. I remember taking the MTA #81 bus down Wilshire Boulevard to La Brea and walking a couple blocks south to the old Toho La Brea theater. The first films I saw there were Hiroshi Inagaki’s Miyamato Musashi (based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel) trilogy: Samurai (1954), Duel at Ichijoji Temple (1955), and Duel at Ganryu Island (1956). I fancied myself falling love with the sweet Kaoru Yachigusa, who played the part of Otsu; and of course I hero-worshipped Toshiro Mifune as the hero of he saga.

The Toho La Brea theater had a clock over the left emergency exit that was illuminated with the words Sumitomo Bank. All features were preceded by an Asahi Shimbun newsreel in Japanese without subtitles. Although I couldn’t understand a word, I looked forward to the newsreels.

A few years later, I joined with my film freak friends in visiting the other Japanese theaters in town: the Kokusai and Sho Tokyo (both Daiei studio), Kabuki (Shochiku), and the Linda Lea (Tohei). Today all five Japanese theaters are gone.

By the way, ever wonder why I call this website Tarnmoor? That was a pseudonym I used along with two of my friends in a UCLA Daily Bruin column entitled “The Exotic Filmgoer,” which was mostly about these Japanese theaters.

Santa Monica and Saint Monica

Statue of St. Monica in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park

Statue of St. Monica in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park

I’ve walked past this statue hundreds of times in the last half century. I always wound up shaking my head because St. Monica is made to look so Nordic. It’s like all those blonde blue-eyed Jesuses favored by Evangelicals. Protestant America doesn’t like to admit that, in certain countries surrounding the Mediterranean, people come with dark hair, brown eyes, and various skin shades of a darker hue.

Saint Augustine was born in present day Algeria, where, presumably, his mother Saint Monica, lived. Here is a painting of Saint Monica by artist John Nava which more closely corresponds to how she may have looked:

Painting of St. Monica by John Nava

Painting of St. Monica by John Nava

This painting is from a Saint Monica’s Church in Trenton, New Jersey. Too bad the people in Santa Monica are afraid of ’fessing up that their eponymous saint could be … shudder! … colored. And also likely to be banned from the local country club.


The Crusade Against the Christians

The 4th Crusade Was Christians vs. Christians

The 4th Crusade Was Christians Against Christians

Pope Innocent III didn’t plan it that way, but the 4th Crusade (1202-1204) was mostly Christians fighting Christians.When the knights involved in that crusade decided to go to the Holy Land by sea, they contracted with the Venetians to carry 30,000 bodies and associated horses and supplies to retake Jerusalem.

There was only one little problem. Although the Venetians spent a year building a fleet to carry the 30,000 crusaders, only about a third of that number showed up. Oops! That didn’t sit well with Enrico Dandolo, the 90-year-old blind Doge of Venice—but no pushover when it came to negotiations.

Venice was upset that the Adriatic port of Zara (now called Zadar) now belonged to Hungary. The Doge negotiated with the leaders of the crusade to stop and capture Zara “on the way” to the East. Unfortunately, Zara was not only Christian: It was Roman Catholic. And King Emico of Hungary wore the crusaders’ cross himself. A deal was a deal, and the crusade did not want to start on in debt to the Venetians. So, they attacked and took Zara, returning it to the Venetians.

That was only the beginning of their problems. A Byzantine prince named Alexius Angelos offered to pay a fortune to the crusade and to their Venetian transport … if only they would see fit to returning him to the throne of Constantinople. His father, Isaac II Angelos, has been the emperor; but his elder brother Alexius III Angelos, had him blinded and deposed him.

It looked like a good deal. Although Prince Alexius had been drumming up support for his cause among the crowned heads of Europe, he was pretty much ignored. Too flighty, it seems. But the crusaders were committed, and the idea of all that loot turned their heads.

So off to Constantinople they sailed. They besieged the city from the Golden Horn side, and after a number of attacks finally prevailed. Prince Alexius was set up as Alexius IV Angelos. And now it was time for payback. Except, Alexius IV was unable or unwilling to pay what he had promised. So the crusaders not only took the city, but looted and burned it, raping and killing at will. And, um, they never did get to the Holy Land.

Pope Innocent III was furious. If you can’t trust 10,000 crusaders wearing crosses over their armor to do what they promised, whom can you trust?

The story is well told in Jonathan Phillips’s The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople, complete with extensive notes, a large bibliography, and an alphabetical index.




Homeless in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park

Homeless in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park

The title of this post comes from Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness:

I went to work the next day, turning, so to speak, my back on that station. In that way only it seemed to me I could keep my hold on the redeeming facts of life. Still, one must look about sometimes; and then I saw this station, these men strolling aimlessly about in the sunshine of the yard. I asked myself sometimes what it all meant. They wandered here and there with their absurd long staves in their hands, like a lot of faithless pilgrims bewitched inside a rotten fence.

Except, the pilgrims of whom I speak are not European ivory traders in the Congo, but either the homeless or people who do not wish to be labelled “homeless,” so they merely appear to be “in transit” with multiple bags.

Now that I work only two days a week, I like to spend more time in libraries, specifically downtown L.A.’s Central Library or Santa Monica’s Main Library. Curiously I see more pilgrims in Santa Monica, which comic Harry Shearer has dubbed “the Home of the Homeless.” Most are young, approximately half are black, and they travel with a lot of “stuff.” Usually, they just drop into a chair and doze off. Some use the Internet to try to find a way out of their present circumstances.

The library discourages homeless that smell very bad or have too many bags with them, as they inhibit families and students from using the books and computers. That tends to discriminate against elderly bums who have lived on the streets for years and and who have accumulated a vast store of “stuff.” (I have seen some with regular choo-choo trains of multiple supermarket carts.)

At night, Palisades Park along the bluffs overlooking the Coast Highway turns into a large encampment full of tents, shopping carts, plastic bags full of rags and food scraps, and whatnot.

There are Salvation Army and other accommodations in Santa Monica for the homeless, but I suspect not enough. And many of the homeless, as I hinted, are “in transit” and do not consider themselves to be homeless. A goodly number are stark raving mad, and a couple are probably homicides or arsons waiting to happen.


Cold War Nostalgia

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad magazine

The Spy Vs. Spy Characters from Mad Magazine

Looking back, the Communists were a worthy enemy. There were no suicide vests or improvised explosive devices aimed at innocent civilians. (Religious wars are always the most brutal.) Mind you, the Russians weren’t Boy Scouts, either. But after the ugliness and indiscriminate savagery of the current Sunni Muslim jihad against the West, I grow downright nostalgic about the 1960s.

Lately, I have been reading the three great spy novelists of that time—with great pleasure. I just finished Funeral in Berlin by one of them, the great Len Deighton. The other two were Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, and John Le Carré, author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Funeral in Berlin is typical of the period. The hero, who is called Harry Palmer in the movies but is unnamed in the books, arranges to transfer a Russian scientist to West Berlin by means of a coffin. No one seems to be trustworthy. In fact, the character one would think would be the most villainous, Colonel Stok of the KGB, is actually the most sympathetic character that “Harry” encounters. The people who are supposedly his allies are an untrustworthy lot: two of them try to kill him, others just want to sell him down river.

In comparison, James Bond is almost never surprised by villains who are supposed to be on the same side as him. There are all those lovely girls, and Felix Leiter of the CIA appears as a supporting hero in several of the novels.

Only Le Carré comes close to Deighton in creating a murky world of spies and supposed friends. My favorite of his books is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been made into an excellent film and a great British TV series starring Sir Alez Guinness as George Smiley.


The Monster That Almost Devoured Cleveland

Le Bron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers

I never write about sports, and yet here is my second consecutive posting about sports. The day before yesterday, the subject was Muhammad Ali. Today, it is the comeback of my native city, Cleveland, Ohio, in winning the NBA championship after being down 3 games to 1. No, I didn’t watch the game—Martine controls the TV remote in our household—but I followed the sports news on the net and in the Los Angeles Times.

The last time Cleveland won any sports championship was the 1964 NFL championship, in which the Browns slammed the Baltimore Colts 24-0. And that was 2 or 3 years before the first Super Bowl. That was the great team that featured Dr. Frank Ryan at QB and Jim Brown at FB. I remember listening to the game on radio because it was blacked out in the Cleveland TV market.

It took 52 years before Cleveland won another championship … in anything. In the meantime, it became the butt of jokes, such as from Maynard G. Krebs (played by Bob Denver) of “The Dobie Gillis” show always going to see a movie called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.

Well, the monster did not devour Cleveland this time. Although I would have to have my head examined before I ever went back to live in what we called The Mistake on the Lake, I retain a strong affection for the people who live in my old home town.

When I was in grade school, Cleveland was the 7th largest city in the United States. No more. After much of its industry went to Asia to stay, it is now 31st and still falling. Although they have been uniformly miserable in sports rankings over the years, I hope they start a new tradition of winning, so that the devoted sports fans of Northeastern Ohio have something to look forward to.