Thursday, 21 September 2017

Lawrence Durrell's Home in Alexandria Destroyed: The End of the Villa Ambron

19 September 2017
I have received the news tonight from Zahraa Adel Awad in Alexandria that the Villa Ambron where Lawrence Durrell lived from 1943 to 1945 was torn down yesterday, 19 September 2017.

In the octagonal tower of the villa Durrell wrote Prospero's Cell about Corfu and the first pages of what was to become Justine, which grew into The Alexandria Quartet.

Zahraa is wonderful tour guide in Alexandria who takes a special interest in the city's cosmopolitan and literary past. Both photographs in this post were taken by her.  Thank you, Zahraa.

For more on the Villa Ambron and the long campaign to save it and to turn it into a museum of Alexandria's cosmopolitan past, see here.

June 2017

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Talking Templars

The Templars: History and Myth is now an audio book.
You can  now listen to The Templars: History and Myth by Michael Haag while washing the dishes, driving the car, or whatever.

The audio book runs for 11 hours unabridged and is available directly from the publisher Tantor in North America and via Amazon and other online outlets worldwide.

The reader is Guy Bethell, an Englishman who lives in Arizona.  For an audio sample of the book, click here.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Tragedia templariuszy

Bestseller in Poland

Astra in Poland (Wydawnictwo Astra) have acquired the Polish rights to The Templars: History and Myth, following their publication last year of The Tragedy of the Templars which has become a bestseller. The Polish edition of The Templars: History and Myth will be published in 2018.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Cult Books: An Obsession with the Obscure

Durrell's tetralogy exposed readers
to not only the notions of continuum,
but also to life in the Mediterranean.
The Alexandria Quartet joins the Voynich manuscript, Naked Lunch, The Magus, Seven Years in Tibet, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, The Fountainhead, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Jerusalem Bible and thirty-two other titles in a choice (and rather American) selection of cult books featured by Abebooks.

Defining a cult book is not easy. Let's start with the more obvious aspects of cult lit. To begin, a cult book should have a passionate following. Buckets of books fall into this category, including classics like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. But even mega sellers Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey can be considered cult lit by that definition. A cult book should have the ability to alter a reader's life or influence great change, and for the purpose of this list, it should also be a bit odd and a tad obscure.
Many of the titles we've selected have barely seen the light of day beyond their incredibly dedicated and perhaps obsessive following. Only five copies of Leon Genonceaux's 1891 novel The Tutu existed until the 1990s because Genonceaux was already in trouble with French police for immoral publishing when he wrote it and feared a life in prison if he distributed the book to the public. Similarly, The Red Book by Carl Jung was reserved for Jung's heirs for decades before it was made available to a wider audience.
Some of the books on our list are more widely known (though not necessarily widely understood). Robert M. Pirsig introduced the Metaphysics of Quality, his own theory of reality, in his philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book was rejected by over 100 publishers before it was finally published by William Morrow & Company in 1974 and today it's regarded as one the most influential texts in American culture. 
From funny fiction and serious science fiction to knitting manuals and alternative art, the books on this list have steered the course of an individual's life, created a wave of change in a society, culture, or generation, and garnered fanatic attention from a few or few million readers for their quirky and obscure content.
 As it happens I once wrote a review about the Voynich manuscript for The Los Angeles Times.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Science Fiction Writer?

Lawrence Durrell was not Indian nor was he Irish but was he a Sci-Fi writer?  This entry in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction says that Tunc and Nunquam and also The Avignon Quintet put him in that category.

Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) Indian poet and author (his English/Irish family settled in India about 1850), in England from 1923 to 1935, then in Greece and elsewhere; best known for the Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960). His fourth novel, Cefalû (1947; vt The Dark Labyrinth 1961) is a Near Future tale set Underground in a Cretan Labyrinth, where emanations out of the Minoan Time Abyss afflict the protagonists. His sf novel sequence, Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970), assembled as The Revolt of Aphrodite (omni 1974) – the original title is from Petronius Arbiter: "aut tunc, aut nunquam" ("either then or never") – subjects sf material to intensely literary scrutiny. In the first volume, Merlin, a burgeoning multinational corporation, co-opts the protagonist, Felix Charlock, into constructing a super-Computer, which can predict the future and which drives him to madness; in the second volume, Felix is cured in order to create an Android lady – echoing a Durrell obsession – perfectly duplicating a destroyed lover of the boss of Merlin; but the android is also destroyed in a Near-Future world choked with evil and images of corruption. The late Avignon Quincunx [for titles see Checklist] is an immensely complex Gnostic fantasy which exfoliates – in a series of Hermetic and numerological figurations – out of a central quincunx comprised of place, Time, Metaphysics, reincarnated figures, mirrors.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Lawrence Durrell's Tower in Alexandria

Lawrence Durrell lived in the Villa Ambron in Alexandria during the Second World War.  He worked in the tower at the top of the villa where he wrote Prospero's Cell about Corfu and drafted the first pages of what would become Justine, the first volume of the Alexandria Quartet.

The Villa Ambron continues to be deliberately neglected and battered and destroyed by a developer who has already planted blocks of flats in its once vast garden. Two laws protect old villas from development so the tactic is to encourage them to fall down.

Bent Christophersen, an antiquarian book dealer familiar with Egypt and Greece, visited the villa two weeks ago and took these haunting photographs - I thank him for kindly allowing me to use them here; they remain his copyright.

Bent entered the house on the ground floor and worked his way across the wreckage towards the base of the tower.

A staircase rises up from the cellar of the villa to the upper floor. But to reach Durrell's writing room at the top of he tower required climbing an outside staircase, now gone.

Bent was able to get as far as the octagonal room immediately below Durrell's writing room.

The octagonal room beneath Durrell's writing room at the top of the tower.
Read more and see more photographs about Lawrence Durrell and other denizens of the Villa Ambron, including Eve Durrell, the model for Justine.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017


Alexandrie restaurant promotional card.
I discovered the other day that a restaurant previously called Aladino's has changed its name to Alexandrie.

The restaurant explains its transformation: 'Unique in London, Alexandrie's stylish restaurant in Kensington offers its brand of fine Alexandrian cuisine, conveying the marriage of flavours by the most cosmopolitan city from antiquity to recent times'.

Cosmopolitan as recently as 1953 when you might see Sophia Loren hanging out a window overlooking the Corniche. That was the year she was in Egypt filming Aida in which she played the title role. 

As long as the restaurant remains as out of date as this photograph it should do well.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Man who Mistook his Holiday for a Hat

No, not eating from a trough.
I received this postcard yesterday. It dates from the 1920s when it was de rigueur to wear a hat while viewing the Underwater Gardens at Catalina off the coast of California.  Those were the days, you might think.

Today people still go to Catalina to peep underwater and they still wear hats.

Thursday, 3 August 2017


New paperback Justine published 2017

Today, sixty years after the publication of Lawrence Durrell's Justine, Faber and Faber have published a paperback edition in a cover that is a reminder of the first edition - a child's handprint, so familiar on the walls of Egypt, to avert the Evil Eye.

Durrell's photograph of Eve in a mirror,
Alexandria 1943.
A line from Justine runs along the bottom of the cover.  'I have been thinking about the girl I met last night in the mirror ...'  The line is given in full on page 59: 'I have been thinking about the girl I met last night in the mirror: dark on marble-ivory white: glossy black hair: deep suspiring eyes in which one’s glances sink because they are nervous, curious, turned to sexual curiosity'. This is Justine, seen in a mirror in the gaunt vestibule of the Hotel Cecil, and in whom I recognise Eve Cohen, Durrell's second wife.

There is a brief and reassuring foreword by Victoria Hislop, who describes herself on her website as the 'multimillion-copy bestselling author' of popular novels set in the Mediterranean. Justine has a modernist flavour, she writes, and must have tested readers when it was first published in 1957, but 'You do not stop to ask "why?" or "when?" but instead follow the compelling narrative flow'. 

First edition of Justine, 1957.

Your reward is Durrell's remarkable writing, his portrait of a vanished exotic city 'described with a vividness and clarity that invades the reader's every sense', and most of all his 'honest exploration of love'. 'Here, more than in any other novel I know, we see this powerful force at its most complex, at its most unkind and its most real. It is the great strength of this exceptional work.'

Friday, 14 July 2017

Staying at Buxton

Old Hall Hotel
Last week when I was at the Buxton International Festival talking about The Durrells of Corfu, I came across the Old Hall Hotel, thought to be the oldest hotel in England.  The present building dates from 1573 and stands on the foundations of a yet earlier hall and was specially built with the sanction of Queen Elizabeth I to accommodate Mary Queen of Scots who was held here under house arrest from 1576 to 1578. 


Apparently Mary Queen of Scots liked Buxton and the Old Hall, sadly scratching with her diamond ring on her bedroom window pane, 'Perchance I shall visit thee no more - Farewell'.  

No mustard
Alas I stayed at the Palace Hotel which is not really a palace at all.  They served cheap bready sausages for breakfast and when I asked for mustard I was sharply told that 'We do not serve mustard at breakfast'.  

Also I overheard a man complaining that there was no avocado in his avocado salad to which the response was 'we replaced it with cucumber'.

Off with their heads.  

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Books in the Window at the London Library

As I left the London Library this afternoon I noticed that they had a window display of books recently written by some of their members, among them my own book The Quest for Mary Magdalene. The sun was shining brightly against the glass and the reflections made it difficult to photograph anything. There were about ten or twelve titles in all; here are few.

Erica Wagner's Brooklyn Bridge; she was born in
New York but lives in London now.

Andrew Marr and John Simpson are well known on
BBC news and current affairs programmes.

The Beverley Collection at Alnwick Castle by 
Claudia Wagner, John Boardman and Diana Scarisbrick 
details one of the finest gem collections still in 
private hands, the envy of Russia's 
Catherine the Great. 
And there is my Quest for Mary Magdalene.

The London Library has at least two and a half times
as many books as the ancient Library of Alexandria
is thought to have had.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Democracy in America

The London Library's copy of Democracy in America
by Alexis de Tocqueville, first edition 1835.  Half slave, half free.

After publishing Democracy in America in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville visited London where he was asked if he had thought of doing such a book about England. Writing about America, he said, was easy; you had only to find the central point and everything is in view. But England is an ancient land full of contradictions and overlapping histories, and there was no one place from which it was possible to comprehend the whole.
In America all laws originate more or less from the same idea. The whole of society, so to say, is based on just one fact: everything follows from one underlying principle. One could compare America to a great forest cut through by a large number of roads which all end in the same place. Once you have found the central point, you can see the whole plan in one glance. But in England the roads cross, and you have to follow along each one of them to get a clear idea of the whole. 
                         - Alexis de Tocqueville
But America did have one great contradiction as the map facing the title page of Tocqueville's book shows; half of it relied on slavery, and its consequences remain unresolved to this day. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Top Summer Read: The Durrells of Corfu

Vanessa Feltz, writing in The Mail on Sunday yesterday, picked The Durrells of Corfu as the top summer read and described it as 'absolutely riveting'.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Times: Best Books of 2017 Featuring The Durrells of Corfu

Today The Times has announced its selection of the best books of 2017, among them The Durrells of Corfu.  All the non-fiction titles recommended by The Times are listed below.


Summer books: nonfiction
From history to memoir, Robbie Millen rounds up the best nonfiction of 2017


The Russian Revolution: A New History by Sean McMeekin 
Profile, 478pp; £25

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain by Ian Mortimer
Bodley Head, 464pp; £20

Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day by Peter Ackroyd 
Chatto, 262pp; £16.99

The Earth is Weeping: the Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West by Peter Cozzens
Atlantic, 576pp; £25


Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
Hodder & Stoughton, 387pp; £25

M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster by Henry Hemming
Preface, 400pp; £20

The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag
Profile, 212pp; £8.99


Theft by Finding: Diaries Volume One by David Sedaris 
Little, Brown, 514pp; £20

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood 
Allen Lane, 336pp; £14.99


Admissions: A Life in Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh 
Orion, 246pp; £16.99

Fragile Lives: A Heart Surgeon’s Stories of Life and Death on the Operating Tableby Stephen Westaby 
HarperCollins, 320pp; £14.99

True crime

Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann 
Simon & Schuster, 336pp; £20

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Macmillan, 322pp; £20


East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity by Philippe Sands
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 464pp; £20

The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam by Douglas Murray 
Bloomsbury, 352pp; £18.99

Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon have Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy by Jonathan Taplin  
Macmillan, 320pp; £18.99

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
Macmillan, 297pp; £16.99


The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor
Bloomsbury, 272pp; £16.99


Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
Granta, 379pp; £14.99


Ravilious and Co: the Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend
Thames & Hudson, 336pp; £24.95

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Philip De Laszlo's Studio

De Laszlo painting a portrait of Princess Marina, Duchess of York, in the studio behind his house.

When Philip de Laszlo died in 1937 he left his house at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue in London to the Catholic Church which transformed it, together with the two adjacent houses at 5 and 7, into the Holy Cross Convent.  These have recently been developed into flats called De Laszlo House though only number 3 has anything to do with the painter who in his time was regarded as the successor to John Singer Sargent.

But de Laszlo's studio, where he painted, was not part of his house; it stood in his garden and could be entered from the rear of his house or from Maresfield Gardens.  The Catholics turned the studio into a temporary church.  Now St Thomas More, a purpose-built monstrosity farther along Maresfield Gardens, is their place of worship.

The studio still stands, however, and is identified as De Laszlo Hall.

De Laszlo's house on the corner of Fitzjohn's Avenue and
Maresfield Gardens. His studio is the white building
in the distance. 

The Maresfield Gardens side of de Laszlo's house.

The studio is the white building on the left.

Philip de Laszlo's studio.
The door into De Laszlo Hall.

De Laszlo painting a mannequin from Lady Duff Gordon's fashion house. 

You can view a 1928 silent film of de Laszlo in his studio painting a fashion model. 

A short step from the back of the house to the studio.
But where there was a garden there is none now.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The De Laszlo House, Fitzjohn's Avenue, London

View down the length of Fitzjohn's Avenue.
The De Laszlo House is at the bottom.
In a blog post last summer called Upstairs Downstairs I wrote about the history of the house at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue in London. From 1921 to his death in 1937 it was the home and studio of the society portrait painter Philip de Laszlo. In his time number 3 was called Hyme House but recently it has been developed along with the two neighbouring houses, 5 and 7, and all three have been dubbed De Laszlo House to give them a cachet and added value, though De Laszlo owned only 3 and had nothing to do with 5 and 7.

Now I have been contacted by Caroline Ries of St Paul, Minnesota, who tells me she lived in the houses as a student in the 1970s when all three had been taken over by nuns. At first Caroline was thrilled to come across her old residence online but said, 'I was shocked to see the ultra modern interior replacing the historic character of the house'.

To illustrate her dismay at what the developers have done, Caroline has sent me the brochure for the Holy Cross Convent as it was in the late 1930s along with her own photographs of the houses taken in the 1970s, 'in black and white which doesn't do them justice', she says, but which clearly depict how a once beautiful example of Arts and Crafts architecture has been turned into what the developers call 'a masterpiece of artful design'
- and where the price of a three bedroom flat is around £4,000,000.

Cover page of the Holy Cross Convent brochure from the late 1930s.  Philip de Laszlo lived in number 3 on the left, but after his death all three houses, 3, 5 and 7, were taken over by the Catholic Church and turned into a convent.  

Brochure illustration of the entrance hall at number 3, the one house owned by De Laszlo.

Caroline recalls the entrance hall at 3 Fitzjohn's Avenue. 'Parlour and dining room to the left on the Maresfield Gardens side.  The back door to the garden was to the right of the window, behind the staircase. The panelled door next to the fireplace opened to the room used as a chapel. Visible through the open doorway is a free-standing partition of frosted glass panels. They were probably not original but served to separate the second dining room from the hallway to the adjacent house, number 5.'

The following are also taken from the Holy Cross Convent brochure.

Dining room at number 3.

The lounge.

A single bedroom.

Brochure view of number 3 from the garden.

Caroline Ries took these photographs when she took a room at the convent during her student days in London in the 1970s.

The French doors leading from the dining room at number 3 to the garden.

View of the garden from the back door of number 3.

Looking across from the garden of number 3 to the rear of numbers 5 and 7
showing their Arts and Crafts architectural features.

'I was thrilled to see your blog on 3 Fitzjohn's Ave.', Caroline wrote to me.  'I lived there as a student from 1971-1977. In fact, I still have a very old brochure advertising Holy Cross Convent as a student residence which shows photographs of the house and gardens. The brochure appears to have been made in the late 1930s or early 40s.'

'I was very disappointed to see that the interior of the three houses (Nos. 3, 5, and 7) were completely gutted. The woodwork was beautiful, and there were French doors leading from the dining room to the gardens. I am surprised there was no effort to restore the interior. The photos I saw online as individual flats are unrecognizable.'

'The original woodwork (that did not get painted over) was beautiful, as were the fireplaces. The main foyer was quite spare. I think the Swiss nuns tried to downplay the opulence of the place. A restoration would have been a better tribute to de Laszlo. After all, he painted the portraits of the Duchess of York and the young Princess Elizabeth in his studio there. I read there exists a film of De Laszlo entertaining the Duke and Duchess of York and Princess Elizabeth at Hyme House.'

'I lived in two different rooms as a student: one facing Fitzjohn's Ave., and my favorite facing the garden. I stripped the white paint off the fireplace in my room thinking it would reveal beautiful woodwork. It turned out to be marble.'

Online photographs of the the so-called De Laszlo House at 3, 5 and 7 Fitzjohn's Avenue show, as Caroline says, that the interior has been gutted, all the fireplaces removed, its Arts and Crafts detail stripped away both inside and along the rear facades.


Living room.

The only detail that survives is a bit of stucco cornicing here and there
and the exterior mouldings.