Saturday, 27 December 2008

There's research, and then there's research

I'm just reading Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, and I have to say I have been horribly disappointed.

First of all, the stock characters. Any woman with overt sexuality is, naturally enough, a villain. I thought we'd maybe got past the madonna/whore syndrome, but apparently not...

Secondly, the little habit of dropping French and Occitan phrases into the dialogue every so often just so zat we know zat the Frrrench characters are Francais, becauzz zey speak like zis. They say hurry up and get a move on, and then leve toi. Or they have little Occitan thought bubbles that say Perilhos! danger!

Strangely enough they never have dialect words for the kind of thing you do have dialect words for, like ouzels, milly-mollers or bishy barnabees - the real, concrete things of the country. (At least get cigales right. They're not cicadas in France.)

But the thing that really made me spit is that when I looked up the book on Amazon, plenty of other people were saying these things but then admitted 'At least she's done her research.'

Well, I don't think so. It's 1209, and a Jew in Beziers refers to 'Your Christian Saint, Francis'. In 1209, Francis had only just started his Order.  He wasn't canonised till 1228 (and died in 1226).

Not difficult to research; it's on Wikipedia. And St Francis isn't exactly obscure.

There are other little glitches. Toulouse Cathedral didn't have a cloister when I was last there...

And Chartres is not, absolutely not, the 'first of the Gothic cathedrals.'

That made me spit. Because I love Laon, which really is the first - the first, purest, most lovely work of the springtime of Gothic. Chartres, together with Bourges, represents the classic Gothic style - a generation later, and much heavier. I love Chartres too; it's my local cathedral when I'm living in France, and I know it well. But it is by no means the first of the great Gothic works of France.

Ah well, having got that off my chest, I ought to see what happens next... at least the research is better than Dan Brown's!

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Pedant? moi?

One of the things that always makes me wonder just how gullible human beings can be is the plethora of Harry Potter and da Vinci Code tours. As far as I'm aware there isn't yet a Lion, Witch and Wardrobe tour of Oxford (though there is a Middle Earth tour of Birmingham) but I'm sure there soon will be.

If you've read the da Vinci Code, be prepared for a shock when you get to know Rome. I spotted quite a few howlers - I know my Roman baroque churches extremely well and I can tell when Dan Brown hasn't done enough research. But for a real in-depth treatment, try Scott's marvellous article "The Dirt on Rome's Earthy Chapel". It came up on Google when I was doing a bit of research for a piece on Rome's skeletons - and it's the most amazing piece. Worth reading, in fact, even if you have no interest at all in the da Vinci code, for its superb explanation of a very complex and interesting work of art, the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Dubai's air-conditioned beach and the nature of postmodern travel

One of the things I've always loved about the Gulf is the skating rinks. You wouldn't think ice hockey stood a snowball's chance in hell of becoming the national sport of Oman, but actually, it wouldn't be that surprising. As for snowboarding... well, Omanis and expats there have a lot of fun duneboarding, so the skills are already there.

But I think Dubai has hit a new level of petro-funded oddity with its air conditioned beach at the Palazzo Versace. The sand will be cooled so that it is not scorching hot to walk on, the swimming pool is refrigerated and there will be huge blowers to waft a gentle breeze along the beach.

Personally my attitude to beaches in the Middle East is a very traditional one. They are there for the benefit of fishers, joggers, and football players, and you either go out for your few kilometres run at dawn or at dusk, when there's a light breeze and the air is cooler. On the beach in the middle of the day? Don't do it.

But there is something really quite decadent about this idea. And it's that absolute decadence that is interesting about the Dubai developments. At a time when the rest of the world is worried about the credit crunch and global warming, we have air-conditioned beaches, huge new hotels, massive housing developments. They defy gravity. They defy common sense. They defy ordinariness.

And they make me think of Jack Vance - a marvellous SF author whose universes include a number of utterly decadent cultures and civilisations (or possibly over-civilisations).

Now I don't really want to go and use an air-conditioned beach. But maybe, just maybe, I want to go and visit Dubai to see a culture that has become so decadent.

Or maybe I want to wait a few years and see what happens in Dubai when gravity finally catches up.

Hmmm, that's interesting. Because I'm thinking about travelling with irony. I'm thinking about travel that is not about seeing amazing things, but about experiencing amazing hubris while also knowing that it is hubris. Travel that is more about attitude than experience perhaps.

Does that make it post-modern travel? I wonder.