In the days when English counties were untouched by the dead hand of central government rationalisation, odd little chunks of them used to fetch up in neighbouring shires, appearing as little green or brown blobs, defiantly labelled ‘part of Leicestershire’ or ‘part of Somerset’. The Mediterranean sometimes seems like a larger version of this topographical oddity. Officially it is part of the Atlantic, an awkward remnant of what was formerly a vast marine depression stretching far into central Asia. But who beside its shores has felt depressed for very long? The Atlantic is where we go for granite and fog, grey waves and annihilating icebergs, to be overwhelmed by ‘l’immense démence de la mer’, as Victor Hugo called it. The Mediterranean, on the other hand, as we sidle into it through the Straits of Gibraltar, persuades us, by its millennial evidence of human creativity, imagination and ingenuity, that we are little less than gods.
Nicholas Woodsworth is a Canadian journalist married to a Frenchwoman and living in Aix-en-Provence, not exactly beside the great inland sea but sufficiently vulnerable to what he terms the goat’s-cheese-and-lavender school of writing about maritime Provence. Leaving France behind (even rackety old Marseilles, as irrepressibly Mediterranean a spot as you could find, apparently won’t do for a departure point) Woodsworth prepares to start his tour of ‘the Liquid Continent’ on a train to Alexandria.
Curiosity is what makes him a bona fide traveller and saves him from instant disenchantment with the city when he arrives. For Alexandria is the classic casualty of postwar nationalism, a polyglot Levantine society whose febrile essence was vindictively shattered by the Suez crisis, leaving nothing very much to take its place.
Shaped from a Macedonian conqueror’s Homeric dream, the ancient birthplace of geometry, geography and literary criticism, the capital of the Ptolemies has become just another scruffy, overpopulated Middle Eastern conurbation, with grimly generic apartment blocks where villas and palaces once stood.
Woodsworth’s Alexandrian guides are not of the usual pyramids-for-baksheesh variety. A French archaeologist named Elizabeth Hairy interprets the mysteries of the earthquake-toppled Pharos as an antique pathway to heaven, Joseph, a dodgy Lancastrian Brit, having unearthed the city’s single surviving Greek brothel madam for the author’s inspection, takes him on a nocturnal church crawl, and Mimi Awad, half-Orthodox, half-Muslim, introduces him to what is left of cosmopolitan bon ton, ‘stirring up the settled dregs of once lavish and decadent lives’ with the crumbling shell of Lawrence Durrell’s villa for a backdrop.
‘No matter what the age’, Woodsworth concludes, ‘all Alexandrians gaze behind themselves in longing’. Among the most distinguished of them was St Mark, who ended up under the high altar of his eponymous Venetian basilica after medieval merchants smuggled his body out of Egypt wrapped in pork to deter Muslim customs inspectors. We are at least 100 pages into Woodsworth’s Venice volume before he himself arrives on the Rialto, having dawdled in Aleppo, Latakia and Ankara en route. A reluctant cultural tourist, he slogs dutifully round churches and galleries, but is far more interested in boating on the lagoon among the topi, sandali and caorline than in the beauties of Titian and Veronese. The city proves too dinkily parochial for his taste, so he hurries south to Ancona in search of a ferry to whisk him back inside the confines of the old Ottoman empire.
The Liquid Continent’s final volume is much the most enjoyable. By now the writer has got into his stride and decided who he is in relation to the unfathomable complexity of his theme. On his way to Istanbul he delights in Albania as an ideal manifestation of the ‘screw-you-Jack, what’s-it-to-me unruliness of the Levant’ and tries without success to avoid mentioning the ‘L’ word on the island the Greeks would much rather we didn’t call Lesbos. To history’s habit of encroaching on his Mediterranean travels at the slightest opportunity he reacts with a surprise which is positively touching. At least some of the pleasure afforded by these three books derives from Woodsworth’s frankly acknowledged ignorance of the Levantine past. He fetches up in Istanbul, that Mediterranean Alpha-et-Omega, apparently knowing nothing of Byzantium, the Ottomans, the Dardanelles campaign or the 1922 Greek invasion of Turkey but refreshingly ready to shoulder the corresponding burdens of enlightenment.
The city, Woodsworth discovers, is full of those ready to share his load, from Australian tourists at Gallipoli cursing the bloody Poms, a Berber institutrice in Galata’s Benedictine academy and a venerable family of Armenian architects to an Italian novelist and the editor of Constantinople’s last Greek newspaper. Preferring Istanbul’s resilience and vitality to the decadence and self-consciousness of Alexandria or Venice, he nevertheless closes the trilogy on a note of ambivalence. Can cosmopolis on the Bosphorus survive by its classic expedient of looking in two directions at once? Galata Bridge, linking Europe to Asia, provides him with a ready-made image of the universal conflict between globalisation and cultural identity, one which the Mediterranean’s cosmopolite pluralism may now prove too weak to resolve.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 17, 2008