The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

Flamingo, 1990, 283 p. First published in 1956.

The Towers of Trebizond cover

Reading this was an odd experience. It is couched as a first person memoir of a trip to Turkey by narrator Laurie who is accompanying her Aunt Dot (plus camel) and her companion, the very high Church Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, both of whom wish to convert the natives to Christianity. Their camel steps are dogged by Seventh Day Adventists desirous of witnessing the Second Coming on Mount Ararat, spies who may not be spies, Billy Grahamites, and a BBC van recording the singing of the inhabitants. As a narrator Laurie has a very chatty style, it is as if she is talking to the reader, yet everything is considered and the sentences are beautifully balanced. The narration is interspersed with diversions on all sorts of topics, religion foremost among them – pages 4 and 5 present a potted history of Anglicanism, and there are more such discursions – but also ruminations on Laurie’s life, which seems to be provisional, in a kind of limbo. The chattiness can be engaging but also wearing. In the guise of Laurie, Macaulay is excessively fond of the word “and”. Lists joined by it abound; in one paragraph there must have been at least twenty instances.) The whole for a long time seems like little more than entertainment, a comic novel with only its lightness to recommend it.

Yet there are serious aspects. Both the redoubtable Aunt Dot and Laurie display that peculiar English attitude to religion, which simultaneously treats it as a serious matter but at the same time, secure in the knowledge that theirs is the best possible, is very off-hand about it. Dot is much exercised by the position of Muslim women, one exemplar of which, Dr Halide Tenpinar, reluctant to marry a Muslim man for the lack of expression that will entail, joins the expedition for a while. Dot remembers the good old days, when travelling was only for those and such as those. At one point she laments, “‘Abroad isn’t at all what it was,’” while Laurie feels that foreigners (ie tourists – of which she does not appear to consider herself to be one) only want to see the old things of a country, not the fruits of the country having got on which the locals are more keen to exhibit.

On an objection to a proposed foray into the Soviet Union Aunt Dot replies to the question whether that would condone its government, “if one started not condoning governments, one would have to give up travel altogether, and even remaining in Britain would be pretty difficult,” while on the suggestion that Turkish men would never accept freedom from dress restrictions for women as it might inflame their passions we have, “‘Men must learn to bridle their temptations’ said aunt Dot, always an optimist.” Those last three words certainly hit the target.

Having reached Trebizond, or Trabzon as it is in Turkish, (it has no towers, Laurie envisions them in a later dream she has of an ideal fantasy city) they go still further until Aunt Dot and Father Hugh venture off on their own and disappear – presumably over the border into the Soviet Union – and eventually become something of a minor press obsession. This is about the only eventful occurrence in the book apart from a small sub-plot concerning the theft of the work of a now-deceased writer by one of Laurie’s acquaintances. It is notable that these incidents are only relayed to us. Laurie is not directly involved in either of them.

Left to her own resources Laurie retraces her steps and goes on to travel with the camel round Asia Minor and the Levant. Reading the names Aleppo, Palmyra, Baalbek, Homs and Damascus as being safe places for a young(ish) Englishwoman to travel safely accompanied only by a camel is a reminder of how the world can change. This passage of the trip also lets Macaulay describe the early manifestations of what has become the enduring antipathy between Israelis and Palestinians.

Laurie’s wanderings give ample scope for reflection. Pondering the phrase “met his/her/its Waterloo” she remarks, “curious how we always seem to see Waterloo from the French angle and count it a defeat.” After a week spent with her (adulterous) lover Vere, Laurie continues her travels and her thoughts on religion grow deeper, “.. the Church, which grew so far, almost at once, from anything that can have been intended, and became so blood-stained and persecuting and cruel and war-like and made small and trivial things so important and tried to exclude everything not done in a certain way and by certain people, and stamped out heresies with such cruelty and rage. And this failure of the Christian Church, of every branch of it in every country, is one of the saddest things that has happened in all the world.”

As to the reliability of the Gospels – written after all long after the events they describe – she considers some things which might have been very important may have been forgotten or left out, and some things put in may have been wrong, “for some sound unlikely for him to have said. That is a vexatious thing about the Gospels. You cannot be sure what was said, unless you are a fundamentalist and must believe every word, or have an infallible Church.” There is “no need to be so drastic” as to take it or leave it “and few things are ever put down quite right, even at the time.”

A potential flaw is that Laurie’s lover Vere is something of an absence in the book. They meet rarely and none of what is said between them is revealed to us so we do not get a flavour of their relationship beyond that it exists. He only appears on the page in a speaking role once and that more or less as an aside, an adjunct to that sub-plot and in a piece of reported speech. As a result, what Laurie tells us at the end does not have the emotional pay-off it might have had. Macaulay is, perhaps, aiming for a pathos her book therefore hasn’t earned. On the other hand another way to look at it is that the whole thing is an exercise in displacement, a desperate enumeration of little things, ramblings and considerations of the nature of faith in order to avoid contemplation of the seriousness of life. Here we are again with love, sex and death. But while Macaulay – through Laurie – mentions them she rarely addresses them head on. As an authorial approach that is arguably very subtle but here runs the risk of early disengagement. Such considerations are in any case somewhat at odds with the generally light tone.

The Towers of Trebizond won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1956. I would probably not have picked it up had the good lady not been working her way through as many of the winners as she can find. I’m glad I did though.

Pedant’s corner:- There are several 1950s spellings – Moslem, haarem, yoghourt, Irak, Erivan – but raise cheers for archæology/archæological and manœvre/manœvring (except why, then, penny-plain medieval?) Otherwise; aunt Dot is used throughout (as a relative Dot’s designation ought to be a proper noun, so Aunt Dot,) manicheeism (Manichaeism or Manicheism,) everthing (everything,) occasional commas omitted before a piece of direct speech, “‘as we had to often heard of it’” (too often,) “did not probably think it peculiar” (probably did not think it peculiar,) “once for all” (I’m more familiar with once and for all.)

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