“Really, the best reason to explore the past is for the sheer pleasure of it…”
“Two-thirds history and one-third travel memoir” is how the ABC radio presenter Richard Fidler describes his new book Ghost Empire. A trip with his fourteen-year-old son Joe fired up Fidler’s passion for the city of Constantinople – as modern day Istanbul was called – and for the rich history that was the Byzantine Empire. This extraordinary and intriguing history provides endless opportunities for a storyteller, with the clash of civilisations, the fall of empires, religious wars, revenge, lust, murder. Yet despite its rich history and its significance for modern times, it’s a history that is largely unknown in the West. Fidler is about to change that with a beautifully written story and father-son adventure.
Richard Fidler spoke to Better Reading about the challenge of writing historical fiction, father-son rites of passage, and why history can be so enjoyable.
Better Reading: In Ghost Empire you explore the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire centred around the glorious and beautiful city of Constantinople before its fall. Why Constantinople?
Richard Fidler: A thousand years ago, Constantinople – which we now know as the Turkish city of Istanbul – was by far the richest, largest and most beautiful city in Europe. At a time when London and Paris were muddy outposts, people in Constantinople enjoyed all the benefits of living a great, cultured metropolis. The city was famous in such faraway places as Iceland, where it was called ‘Miklagard’ (the Big City) and in China, where it was known as the granite-walled city of Fu-Lin.
Constantinople inherited the name of the ancient Roman Empire. It contained the greatest church in the world, the Hagia Sophia, and the Hippodrome, a chariot-racing stadium that was able to hold as many spectators as the MCG. Its emperors lived in unimaginable luxury in a palace complex that overlooked the sparkling waters of the Bosphorus. The prestige of the throne of Constantinople was acknowledged by other powers as the seat of universal power, and they longed to take it for themselves. And yet the story of this spectacularly colourful civilisation has largely been forgotten in the West.
BR: Why do you think there’s a gap in many people’s knowledge of the period and region explored in Ghost Empire, when it has such significance for the development of Western religion, history and culture?
RF: As the Middle Ages rolled on, western Europe became more and more estranged from the high-handed, arrogant Roman emperors of Constantinople. The western church, based in Rome, split from the eastern Orthodox church and its leaders excommunicated each other. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade implanted deep-seated hatreds that linger today. When the city faced its final crisis in 1453, the west failed to come its aid.
Then as Europe entered a new era, many intellectuals turned their backs on the legacy of Constantinople. Edward Gibbon in his massively influential Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, dismissed a thousand years of Byzantine history as ‘a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity, not animated by the vigour of memorable crimes.’ Gibbon was a man of the Enlightenment, who admired the stern, manly virtues of the ancient Romans, and deplored the Christianisation of the empire. Sadly, too many westerners took Gibbon at his word; believing that Byzantium had little to offer, they moved on. Only in the last half century has there been an enthusiastic revival of interest in this dazzling civilisation.
BR: You describe being inspired to write Ghost Empire for your 14-year-old son Joe after he showed a keen interest in history but also as a father/son rite-of-passage, remarking that Anglo-Irish Australians don’t have the coming-of-age traditions that can be found in say, Aboriginal or Jewish cultures. How important was this aspect of the book?
RF: This ended up being more important than I suspected at the time. After the journey a Jewish person explained to me that the ritual of the Bar Mitzvah is not for the benefit of the kid, but for the parents, who must learn to accept the passing of their beloved child into adolescence. This made a lot of sense to me. At the time, I received some kudos for being a good dad, taking my son on this coming-of-age trip, but I can now see my intentions were quite selfish: I wanted to enjoy the last of Joe’s boyhood, and see the glories of Byzantium through his curious, fourteen-year-old perspective.
BR: Much of your research was conducted on the ground when you travelled in the region with your son Joe? What were the challenges of this and how much other research was required?
RF: Actually, most of my research was done before and after the journey. I loaded myself up with stories of the city’s rise and fall. While we were there, I just wanted us to immerse ourselves in the world of Byzantium. We did this by wandering around the ancient Hippodrome, exploring the underground cistern of Justinian, revelling in the threadbare glory of the Hagia Sophia. The most poignant and evocative experience, though, came from a day spent walking the entire length of the fabled land walls of Constantinople, from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn. This was the site of the dramatic final siege of Constantinople. Today they course through an Istanbul slum. Standing on those walls was a moving and oddly melancholic experience.
BR: Any historical work will be influenced by the person writing it, as you say yourself in your introduction. Do you feel some weight of responsibility writing this historical book?
RF: Yes I do. I’ve tried to stick closely to the primary sources, but trying to arrive at a sharply accurate outline of history from primary sources written such a long time ago, where events are often described very subjectively or sketchily, is a near-impossible task. So I’ve written a reasonably subjective interpretation of the history, and offered more than a few character sketches gleaned from those narratives. My intention was to bring the reader into the mind-space of someone living in medieval Constantinople, to create some kind of shared sympathy with people living in a vastly different time and place. To me, what these people believed was going on was just as interesting as what actually did happen, and the two perceptions are often inextricably intertwined. Aside from the histories, I’ve also delved into the rich folktales and prophecies that were widely accepted as factual at the time.
BR: How would you describe Ghost Empire – is it history or memoir or travel?
RF: It’s two-thirds history and one-third travel memoir, and I think the two aspects of the book inform each other, and propel the narrative along.
BR: The fall of Constantinople marks a definitive end to a great civilisation? Does Constantinople before its fall show any parallels or similarities with Western civilisation today?
RF: Yes. The collapse of Byzantine civilisation really begins two centuries before the fall of Constantinople. A certain arrogance and listlessness sets in. Overconfidence in imperial power gives emperors a taste for military adventures, that are undertaken without clear objectives and which end disastrously. There is a lack of willingness to confront hard empirical truths, and the young are too easily thwarted by the old.
BR: Why is exploring the past a worthwhile pursuit? What can it teach us?
RF: I think we’re all orphans without history. We find out so much more about ourselves and our lives when we know the circumstances that brought us here in the first place. But perhaps I’m making it sound too worthy. Really, the best reason to explore the past is for the sheer pleasure of it. I do it for the time travel, for those fragile moments when your imagination is transported to the floor of the Roman senate in 44 BC, to Paris in the 1920s, to the building of the Pyramids, to an American Civil War battlefield, to the shores of Sydney Cove in 1788 as the local Aboriginal people catch sight of a British ship for the first time.
BR: A book such as Ghost Empire can make history entertaining. Who would you expect to read it?
RF: Liz Gilbert advised me to write a book for just one person, and through that singular reader you might arrive at something with a much broader appeal. I told these stories initially to captivate my son, to latch onto his natural curiosity. As I wrote the book, I read every passage aloud to him. Through him, I hope to reach intelligent, curious people from all kinds of backgrounds. I try to make radio the same way.
BR: What other father-son stories in fiction or history have inspired you?
RF: I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy when it came out – a father and son travel through a post-apocalyptic environment. Once I started I could hardly bear to read on, but I absolutely could not bear to put it down. It affected me so much I haven’t been able to read it again or see the movie.
I first read Fathers and Sons by Turgenev many years ago; I see all kinds of things in it now that I missed when I was in my twenties.
As for historical figures, I’m fascinated by Abraham Lincoln as a father. In the White House, Lincoln was a tender, affectionate Dad to his two young boys, one of whom died while in his first year as president, but his relationship with his oldest son Robert was cool and awkward. Would his younger son Tad have withdrawn from his affection, had he not been assassinated?
US General Douglas MacArthur became a father late in life and lavished affection and presents on his only child, a son. Little Arthur MacArthur III (yes, that was his name) was at his parents’ side during his their dramatic escape from the Phillipines, and spent years living in Lennon’s Hotel in Brisbane, where his father commandeered the Allied forces in the South West Pacific. But as a young man, he chose to step out from his father’s shadow. He changed his name and took up a life in music instead of the military. MacArthur, to his credit, accepted all this with apparent equanimity.
Richard Fidler is one of Australia’s best-loved radio presenters, best known for his Conversations with Richard Fidler, one of ABC Radio’s most popular programs and podcasts, featuring in-depth, highly entertaining interviews with local and international guests. He first came to fame in the 1980s as a member of the Doug Anthony All Stars, a musical comedy group along with Tim Ferguson and Paul McDermott.