The Black Sea – Neal Ascherson

I chanced upon this in one of Hereford’s second hand bookshops (Hay doesn’t have them all!!) and took it with me to Yalta, which is in the Crimea where Neal Ascherson’s excellent anthropological, historical and politcal account of the Black Sea begins.

As Hazel and I visited the greek ruins at Chersonesus (now a seaside surburb of Sevastopol), the Khan’s Palace at Bakchisarai, and the Genoese fortress and Soviet submarine base at Balaclava, and the harbours and hills of Sevastopol, the book offered additional backstory to the excellent information provided by Voyages Jules Verne‘s local guides.

The book is broader in the context than simply the Crimea; Neal Ascherson considers the majority of the Black Sea coast, and it is a fascinating part of the world, a real melting pot of peoples for millennia, and only in very recent history has it become perceived as a frontier between ‘east’ and ‘west’, ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilisation’.

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Travels with a Tangerine – Tim Mackintosh-Smith

The first of my post-holiday reading (so watch the rate of consumption drop off!), and I decided to continue the travel theme. I’ve long been interested in the life, times and travels of Ibn Battutah, but I was put off by the rather dry academic texts which were all I could find……. until I discovered Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s tales his own 20th century travels in the footsteps of this travel-bug from Tangiers.

Starting from IB’s Moroccan homeland, in the far west of the arabian, muslim lands, Tim follows his trail to Mecca, with a short excursion to the Crimea. This sidetrip within the then muslim world made for interesting reading as H and I head off to Yalta at the end of September. In particular it highlighted the fact that the Crimea spent a substantial chunk of time as a Khanate, having been settled by a segment of the Mongol Hordes that converted to Islam. Not what you expect of part of the Ukraine….

Fascinating stuff, told with human insight by Yemen-based Tim Mackintosh-Smith. I’m very glad I’ve got Norton Rose’s leaving gift, Hall of a Thousand Columns: Hindustan to Malabar with Ibn Battutah , ready and waiting on the bookshelf to provide coverage of further voyages, ever eastwards.

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The Surgeon of Crowthorne – Simon Winchester

Easy-reading account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the contribution made by the mysterious Dr William Chester Minor to this Herculean task. It is all the more fascinating, and sad, given that Dr Minor carried out all his work from his cell in Broadmoor (another Victorian innovation, then, as now, Broadmoor was an “Asylum for the Criminally Insane”) where he was paying a life sentence for murder.

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