Florida’s Gold

Tupelo 3

Grove Koger

One of the glories of Florida’s Apalachicola River system is the ogeechee tupelo tree, a species noted for the light, mild honey it yields. The region’s beekeepers truck their hives or float them on small platforms to carefully chosen locations along the swampy river as the trees’ pale flowers start to bloom, leaving them there for the few weeks that the short season lasts.

The word “tupelo” is derived from the Creek words for “tree” and “swamp.” Scientifically, the tree is known as Nyssa ogeche W.Bartram ex Marshall, but its place in the larger botanical scheme of things is a little unclear. Is it a member of the Nyssaceae family?  Or does it belong in the dogwood (Cornaceae) family? Or should all the Nyssaceae, as some taxonomists argue, be classified as dogwoods?

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What’s clear is that thanks to its chemical makeup (its ratio of fructose to glucose), tupelo honey won’t crystalize under normal conditions. And it can’t be labeled “tupelo” in the first place, according to standards laid down by the International Commission for Bee Botany, if less than 45 percent of its content is derived from the tupelo tree. Batches that are considerably higher in tupelo content command considerably higher prices on the market.

The value of a season’s worth of tupelo honey is about a million dollars. The industry had been in worrisome decline for several years, but production rebounded in 2018 thanks to generous rainfall and warm weather. But then later that year, Hurricane Michael struck, destroying hives and devastating the region’s trees.

If you’ve seen the fine Peter Fonda film Ulee’s Gold, by the way, you know more about tupelo honey than you realize. It was shot in several locations in Florida, including Apalachicola and the nearby towns of Carrabelle and Port St. Joe. Director Victor Nuñez hired beekeepers from the Lanier family of Wewahitchka (another nearby community, known familiarly as “Wewa”) as consultants.


Smiley Honey (top image) is one of several brands sold in Apalachicola. The photograph of tupelo leaves was taken by Eric Hunt and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Travelers & Travel Liars

Eisner 1

Grove Koger

March 25 is Greek Independence Day, which commemorates the beginning of the War of Greek Independence in 1821. I won’t go into detail regarding the actual event, as this post is going to be a bit long as it is. What I’ll mention instead is that what you see below is a review I apparently wrote in 1993 or 1994 on a typewriter—you remember those, don’t you?—with some definite market in mind, as I took quite a bit of care with it. I ran across the copy in a pile of papers the other day, and was astonished to realize that I’d not only forgotten about the review but also couldn’t imagine what market I might have sent it to. In any case, it doesn’t seem to have been published, so March 25 seems like the perfect day to share it.


Travelers to an Antique Land: The History and Literature of Travel to Greece, by Robert Eisner. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1991; paperback 1993

We carry more than physical luggage when we travel, much of it ill-chosen. Prejudice and preconception can blind us to the brightest landscape.

Thus Robert Eisner’s Lively Travels to an Antique Land is as much about the Idea of Greece as it is about travel there. A few of the individuals he describes seem to have connected with a real place. Judging from their diaries and sketches, a few might as well have stayed home, nurturing the Idea. A few ingenious ones did.

As Eisner observes, the first travelers to Greece were the Greeks themselves. The stories of Odysseus and the Argonauts preserve traditions of those early voyages; Odysseus is “the perfect traveler” and the Odyssey the “paradigmatic travel book.”

A paradigm of a different sort was established by one Georges Guillet de St. George, whose popular Athènes ancienne et nouvelle (1675, with a English version following the next year) described a place its author had never visited. The book’s success encouraged a sequel devoted to Sparta, with which St. George was equally familiar. Further volumes were planned …

Athens B

Between the perfect traveler and the perfect travel liar fall dozens of other figures, some familiar, some undeservedly forgotten. Eisner treats them all firmly but wittily, suggesting that he himself would be the perfect travel companion. A case in point is his discussion of Lord Elgin, whose removal of many of the Parthenon’s marbles has made his name a byword for opportunistic archaeological looting. Elgin’s motives were good, after all, and he later lost his nose to disease in Constantinople—a case of proportional punishment if there ever were one.

Eisner has less enthusiasm for Alexander Kinglake and his famous Eothen (1844), labeling Kinglake’s sensibility that of a “fourth-form boy’s in the body of an English clubman.” He goes on to agree with Byron’s biographer John Galt that the great Romantic poet gives us no sense of place. Byron himself humbly claimed that the air of Greece had made him a poet, but there’s little of it in his poetry.

Lear - Corfu

Eisner’s greatest sympathy seems to lie with Edward Lear, the Victorian painter and nonsense poet. Fat and bald and shy, Lear was never comfortable among the “beastly aristocratic idiots” of English society. Perhaps for this reason, he was able to relate more easily to the ordinary people whose lands he visited. He sketched on the spot as he traveled (the Ionian Islands, Albania, Crete, and so on), later working up the sketches into somewhat inert oils. His watercolors are far livelier, even though their color was usually added in the studio. He was especially fond of lush Corfu and its ancient olive trees.

Among twentieth-century travelers, Eisner devotes the most space to Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Durrell’s years of residence on Corfu, Rhodes and Cyprus gave him material for three justly renowned books, Prospero’s Cell (1945), Reflections on a Marine Venus (1952) and Bitter Lemons (1957). Ironically enough, Durrell’s books and those of this brother Gerald encouraged hordes of tourists to invade the eastern Mediterranean, thus threatening the character of the land the two found so congenial. Eisner has higher praise for Fermor’s books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966), but admits that their verbal density is not to his taste.

“Quo vadis now, traveler?” asks Eisner at the end of his own literary journey. He clearly loves Greece, but of course he is himself an outsider. His own book can only encourage other outsiders, most of them less sensitive than he to the degradation that mass tourism brings with it. He bemoans the changes, but concludes on an optimistic note, suggesting that “there’s another Odysseus out there yet.”


The first image in the body of today’s post is a 19th-century photograph of the Arch of Hadrian in Athens, and was taken by Dimitris Constantine. As the website of the Princeton Library Special Collections notes, “Constantine was the first photographer to be associated with the Hellenic Archaeological Society, for which he photographed antiquities in Athens and objects from the Society’s collection.” The photograph is reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress. The second is a watercolor by Edward Lear, A Distant View of the Citadel, Corfu, from the collection of the Corfu Museum of Asian Art.

Those Storied Coasts

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Grove Koger

Storied Coasts of the Mediterranean: Two Mediterranean Cruises. Montreal: Canadian Pacific: 1929

Cruises are nothing new. The world’s first may have taken place in the summer of 1833 and involved the Francesco I, which flew the flag of (that is, was registered in) the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (since absorbed into the nation of Italy). The voyage took in Taormina, Catania, Syracuse, Malta, Corfu, Patras, Delphi (presumably in an excursion inland), Zante, Athens, Smyrna and Constantinople. This was clearly an event designed for the aristocracy, but changes were on the way.

Commercial cruises available to the public were first offered by the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. (P&O) in 1844. The voyages carried passengers from the British port of Southampton to Gibraltar, Athens, and Malta. In a canny move, the company offered novelist William Makepeace Thackeray free bookings in return for good copy. A few decades later, the first expressly built cruise ship—the Prinzessin Victoria Luise—was launched by the Hamburg-American Line.

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In other words, cruises were a luxury familiar to the wealthy and near-wealthy by the time Canadian Pacific Steamships (CP) printed a hardbound, alluringly illustrated 116-page prospectus advertising two luxury cruises scheduled for early 1930, each of them running to 73 days. And, as the publication made clear on its title page, the ships offered “first class only—no other class carried.” Exceptions were made, of course, for servants, who would be “berthed and served with meals in special accommodation set apart for their use.” Besides Staterooms, the Empress of Scotland offered a Dining Saloon (“particularly large and delightful”), Lounges, Writing Rooms, a Ball Room, a combination Card-Smoking  Room (“pleasantly decorated in Dutch style” whatever that was), a Winter Garden, a Palm Garden, Promenade Space, and a Gymnasium.

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It was the line’s seventh season of cruises, and the ships in question were the Empress of Scotland and the somewhat smaller Empress of France. The catalog explained that its “arrangements for sightseeing in high-class motor cars are ideal and you are not at the mercy of unscrupulous drivers. Furthermore, you see everything that is worth seeing and no time is wasted on unimportant places.” While they might be traveling first-class, tourists were fearful even then that, without proper guidance, they might end up admiring something not quite first-rate.

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Passengers aboard the Empress of Scotland would visit an impressive array of ports of call, beginning with Funchal and Terreiro da Luta in Madeira, Cadiz and Seville in Spain, Gibraltar, and so on, all the way to several in Italy, Monaco and France. In between came Algeria, Jugo-Slavia (as it was then named and spelled), Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. A number of optional excursions were also available, including, for example, a busy little tour involving “Cairo Luxor River Nile Assuan Luxor Thebes Karnak Cairo.”

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Canadian Pacific was founded, by the way, in 1883 and was sold to a subsidiary of the German firm of Hapag-Lloyd as recently as 2005. The Empress of Scotland began life as a German ship, the SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, in 1906 and passed through American and British hands before purchased by CP in 1921 and renamed. It was sold for scrap in late 1930. The Empress of France was launched by the Allan Line as the SS Alsatian in 1913, purchased by CP sometime later that decade (sources differ as to the exact year), and was eventually scrapped in 1934.  Storied 5

Today’s images, all taken from my copy of CP’s prospectus, include its cover; its title page; a photograph of one of the cruises’ first stops, Gibraltar; a map showing the route of one of Empress of Scotland; a photograph of the Library-Writing Room aboard the Empress of France; and a photograph of a sight featured on one of the shore excursions, the Colossi of Memnon in Egypt, which date to 1350 BCE. (The wavy lines on the map do not appear on the original, but are a moiré pattern produced by the action of my scanner.)

Donostia’s Magnificent Beach

Donostia 1

Grove Koger

Before visiting the Basque port of Donostia (or San Sebastián), I doubted the assertion that it possesses Europe’s most beautiful city beach. If you read much commercial travel writing, you run across such grandiose assertions all the time and tend to discount them reflexively. So I expected nothing more than a pleasant enough experience on our visit last year. But now, having walked the entire length (nearly a mile) of Playa de la Concha, or La Concha Beach, I have to agree.

Maggie and I had reached Donostia after an hour’s bus ride from Bilbao, our first stop in the Basque Country, and after checking in at our hotel at a reasonably early hour in the afternoon, decided to take advantage of the sunny weather by walking to Mount Igueldo. Fortunately, the obvious route lay along the elegant promenade that flanks the gentle arc of La Concha and the wider but less spectacular beach that adjoins it, Ondarreta.


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Besides commanding the western end of the Bay of La Concha, 600-foot Igueldo is the site of a funicular railway, and it was this ingenious system—as well as the views it would afford us—that was our destination. But our walk that bright afternoon, with a long series of elegant Belle Epoque structures (set back at a decent distance) on our left and the beach and the lazy waters of the bay on the other, was one of the most memorable we’ve ever been lucky enough to take. There could be no better place on earth at that moment, I felt.

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A funicular is an ingenious cable car system that runs two cars in opposite directions at the same time. In the case of the Igueldo funicular, the bright red cars run on the same track, passing each other on a short loop in the middle. It’s an arrangement ideally suited for steep hillsides such as Igueldo’s where there’s a potential for quite a bit of foot traffic. 

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We’ve enjoyed other funiculars at the monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona and in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, and they’re always a treat. But the real payoff generally comes at the top of the track, as our two panoramic photographs of La Concha Bay and Beach (top and bottom) illustrate. The second photo shows the funicular station at the base of Mount Igueldo, while the third shows the mountain itself, as seen from the little island of Santa Clara (visible in the bottom photo).



Olivia Manning’s Balkan Epic

Manning 1

Grove Koger

Today’s post is about three of the best and best-known works by novelist Olivia Manning, who was born March 2, 1908.


Olivia Manning, “The Balkan Trilogy”: The Great Fortune (1960), The Spoilt City (1962), and Friends and Heroes (1965)

There are several outstanding fictional series in twentieth century British literature. I’m not referring to simple sequences of titles involving the same characters—although there are some outstanding examples of those as well—but closely related novels and stories meant to be read as parts of a whole. There are Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time,” Lawrence Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” William Golding’s “To the Ends of the Earth,” Paul Scott’s “Jewel in the Crown,” Evelyn Waugh’s “Sword of Honour,” and so on. And among them are Olivia Manning’s two trilogies, her “Balkan Trilogy” and her “Levant Trilogy,” which together make up a larger sequence known as “Fortunes of War.”

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Manning’s first series was inspired by her experiences before and during World War II as the wife of a British lecturer working for the British Council in the Balkans, although she fictionalized numerous details. It’s a chronicle of displacement and unease, as its main characters—Harriet and Guy Pringle—attempt to live normal lives in first Bucharest, Romania, then Athens, Greece, as political instability and violence increase. Like Manning’s own husband, Guy is a lecturer in English literature, a gregarious man so taken up with his beloved subject and his friends that the increasingly ominous world of day-to-day events scarcely exists for him. Reality, in other words, is constantly getting in his way. He loves Harriet, but like the everyday world, she scarcely seems to exist for him.

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For the most part, the trilogy’s characters are ordinary, workaday human beings—often lazy, often obtuse, often dishonest, generally blind to their own failings. Like most of us, they want to get by and get ahead. Animating their ordinary lives are the daunting circumstances they find themselves in—pawns of a seemingly meaningless drama that grows from vaguely exotic to frighteningly dangerous. The most bizarre (and for that reason most memorable) character in the trilogy is the half-Irish, half-Russian Prince Yakimov, who thinks of himself as a “genuine Englishman.” (It’s delightful to think that he may have been based on colorful novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross, who may also have been the model for Anthony Powell’s character X. Trapnel.)

Although born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, Olivia Manning lived in Northern Ireland as a child and young woman, and had the “usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere.” Jealous of her literary contemporaries’ success, she thought herself slighted by comparison. With the publication of the two trilogies she gained a secure foothold, and since her death in 1980, her reputation has grown. In his book 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939, Anthony Burgess called the first of them “probably the most important long work of fiction written by a woman since the war”in retrospect, a pretty sexist formulation. But then he adds that they’re “one of the finest fictional record of the impact of that war on Europe” as well. That’s more like it.

You may be familiar with “Fortunes of War” thanks to the excellent 1987 BBC production that starred Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (then actually married to each other) as Harriet and Guy. It’s almost as good an adaption as the trilogy deserves.


The images in today’s post are the covers of my 1974 Penguin paperback editions and feature designs by Humphrey Sutton. Placed side-by-side in order (which I’m not able to do here) they form a continuous panorama.

Durrell the Islomane

Durrell R 1

Grove Koger

Today’s post from my book When the Going Was Good describes the second in a series of five books about Mediterranean islands by Lawrence Durrell, who was born February 27, 1912.


Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (London: Faber & Faber, 1953)

After the end of World War II, Lawrence Durrell lived on Rhodes in the Dodecanese Islands, an archipelago in the eastern Aegean Sea that had passed through the hands of the Turks, the Italians and (briefly) the Germans before being united with Greece. Durrell’s job as Public Information Officer for the short-lived British administration allowed him to establish—much as he had on Corfu—a lively circle of erudite and often eccentric friends and acquaintances. It is one of these who, in the book’s oft-quoted opening passage, describes the affliction of islomania, suffered by those who find islands irresistible. Clearly an islomane himself, Durrell also visits the remainder of the archipelago during the Little Summer of St. Demetrius—the period of fine weather that usually falls during the middle of October.

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Durrell named the memoir of his two years in the Dodecanese in reference to a third-century B.C. statue pulled up one afternoon by fishermen in their nets. The resulting volume recalls Prospero’s Cell, but the shadows of conflicts old and new sometimes darken its mood. Yet Durrell finds that in his new home “the days drop as softly as fruit from trees.” Of the Marine Venus herself, he concludes, “The wound she gives one must carry to the world’s end.”

The various editions of Reflections are actually about one-third shorter than Durrell’s manuscript, and the book’s pruning (by an editor) proved frustrating to the author. Last year, however, C.20: An International Journal printed a generous section of Durell’s longer version, a chapter entitled “Dreams, Divinations.” You can read it, along with David Roessel’s introduction, at http://www.durrelllibrarycorfu.org/.

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The top image is the cover of my attractive little 1981 Penguin reprint, designed by Abner Graboff. The engraving of the fortress of Rhodes, which dates from 1580, is reproduced from the book. The bottom image reproduces the cover of the 1996 Marlowe edition, which includes an introduction by Roessel. The photograph it incorporates is by Christina Hope.

Adrift on Strange Seas with M.P. Shiel

Grove Koger

Today’s post from the project I’m calling “Sea Fever” deals with three stories by M.P. Shiel, who died February 17, 1947. Shiel wrote several works that deserve discussion in this guide to the literature of sailing, the sea, and island life, including his 1901 novel The Lord of the Sea. But rather than tackle it now, I’ll start with three of his most distinctive stories.


“Huguenin’s Wife” (Pall Mall Magazine, 1895), “Vaila” (Shapes in the Fire, 1896; as “The House of Sounds,” The Pale Ape and Other Pulses, 1911); “Dark Lot of One Saul” (Here Comes the Lady, 1928)

Aside from one salient fact, it’s difficult to know just what to say about M.P. Shiel, but that fact is clear: He produced some of the strangest stories and novels in the English language.

Born July 21, 1865, on the West Indian island of Montserrat, Sheil began writing as a young man. According to his own account, he discovered Poe when he was seventeen, and, coupled with the discovery of tobacco at about the same time, was “transported … to Uranus, where [he] abode some time.” Inspired by Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, Shiel published several stories in 1895 about one Prince Zaleski, a remarkably eccentric Russian nobleman who solves baffling crimes, in several cases without setting foot outside the ruined Welsh abbey he has made his home.

The doomed atmosphere of “Huguenin’s Wife” recalls Poe’s similarly obsessive concern with death and destruction, although Shiel’s language is even more madly ecstatic than his predecessor’s. Set in a labyrinthine structure on the Greek island of Delos, it concerns a man whose intellect has been “fettered and darkened” by the past, and who is in fatal thrall to a dead-but-alive creature far more loathsome than Medusa. Now a house is a common symbol of the human mind, and the bafflingly convoluted floor plan of this Greek structure is clearly a clue to its owner’s mental state. As writer Arthur Machen declared in a review of the groundbreaking 1896 collection Shapes in the Fire, in which “Huguenin’s Wife” was reprinted, “here is a wilder wonderland than Poe ever dreamt of.

Shiel’s “Vaila” posits another frightening abode. It seems that our narrator has undertaken a voyage in aid of an old friend, Haco Harfager, who lives in a huge, circular “palace of brass” tethered to an island scoured almost bare by sea and wind, a rock lying in the stormy North Atlantic Ocean midway between Scotland and Norway. Here again, Shiel’s description provides a chilling evocation of a mind in great peril: “I could see that the house,” writes our narrator, “was to half its height more thickly bearded than an old hull with barnacles and every variety of brilliant seaweed; and—what was very surprising that from many points near the top of the brazen wall huge iron chains, slimily barbarous with the trailing tresses of ages, reached out in symmetrical divergent rays to points on the ground hidden by the flood: the fabric had thus the look of a many-anchored ark.”

Acutely, even painfully sensitive to sound, Harfager nevertheless has chosen to live within a veritable deluge. As the frightened narrator observes, “all sense seemed swallowed up and confounded in the one impression of sound. Water, water, was the world—nightmare on my chest, a horror in my ears, an intolerable tingling on my nerves.”

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Some fifteen years after its initial publication, Shiel shortened and rewrote “Vaila” as “The House of Sounds,” and it’s this version that readers are more likely to encounter.

Published years later still, “Dark Lot of One Saul” marks an advance on its predecessors in that it finds a message of hope and salvation in the most unimaginably terrible of situations. Its narrator, Saul, is taken prisoner in the early seventeenth century in Mexico by agents of the Inquisition and dragged aboard ship to be taken (he assumes) to Europe or one of the Spanish West Indies to be tried for heresy. But when the ship is caught in a terrible storm (in what has since been dubbed the Bermuda Triangle), Saul is branded a Jonah and thrown overboard in a weighted barrel. Sinking deeper and deeper, the barrel is finally caught in an undersea current and thrown into a vast cavern on the ocean’s floor. Incredibly enough, Saul finds air and food there, along with the skeleton of a great beast and a measure of solace in his bizarre lot.

Among fellow writers and aficionados of weird fiction, opinions of Shiel and his works abound. August Derleth called him “the Grand Viscount of the Grotesque.” H.P. Lovecraft thought that “The House of Sounds” was his “undoubted masterpiece,” while critic John Squires argues that “Dark Lot of One Saul” is his “finest horror tale.”

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The image at the top of today’s post is one of several versions of The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin, thought to have been inspired in part by an Aragonese castle standing on a rocky islet near the larger Italian island of Ischia. The second image is the title page of the first edition of Shapes in the Fire, which included “Vaila.” The dramatic book cover by Frank Utpatel at the bottom is from the first edition of Xelucha and Others, published by August Derleth’s Arkham House in 1975, and is from my personal library. The collection includes “Huguenin’s Wife,” “The House of Sounds,” and “Dark Lot of One Saul.” The image at the bottom is the cover of one of the first books devoted to Shiel and incorporates a detail from a painting by famed surrealist artist Salvador Dalí entitled Three Young Women Holding in Their Arms the Skins of an Orchestra.