Ruins of Miletus, Turkey

Like dogs snuffling for truffles, literary agents are trying to scent out the next craze in publishing – the quest for a new James Joyce, or a safer risk travelling back into the past – another Hilary Mantel. More likely another Hilary Mantel. A book with a strange twist, as in the way a motet, taking ‘mot’, the French for ‘word’, is used for a composition of musical notes, while a lyric – words originally sung to a lyre – became a musical pattern of words.

Narrative, the earliest communication of our experiences, must have preceded song. Or did it? Words carry further if chanted, as in the case in large buildings like cathedrals. When I first went to Italy there were still ‘cantastorie’, itinerant entertainers before television, men who travelled from city to town to village recounting stories of how the Saracens tried to invade Italy and were repulsed through varied acts of bravery. They sang, chanted and strutted in market places, sometimes accompanied by a pipe player – the pied piper of legend, who can use music to entice. These ambulant entertainers, usually men, travelled alone, or occasionally with a female partner and a child, all part of the entertainment. There was great excitement when they came. Even now I happen on itinerant fire eaters or jugglers in both Britain and Italy who travel from town squares to village greens in the summer months, intriguing children and amusing their elders alike.

Some years ago we travelled to Turkey in search of the earliest known city with a grid street pattern, like New York or Philadelphia. It was Miletus, now a ruined city some way from Istanbul. It was August and immensely hot. We had to wait in the Istanbul bus station until the vehicle was full and departed. No timetable. We were the only passengers to get off at the ruined city on a wide plain ringed by mountains. Before us lay the ruins of a once vast city on a trade route between East and West. The bus rattled off leaving the two of us alone, folded into the silence. We wandered off clutching water bottles in the shade of the widest-brimmed hats we could find. No movement underfoot or overhead. Just silence below a relentlessly blue sky – not even one puffy cloud.

A speck in the distance throbbed closer and a small bus with heads peering out of windows and gesticulating arms braked loudly. Out spilled men, women and children, all from Istanbul’s Orthodox church on their summer outing. The priest approached us holding out his hand, speaking to us in fractured English. He too was interested in the ruined city and was relieved to see we had a guide book with basic information. He too wanted to search out the grid street system to find out how extensive the blocks of buildings were. The group divided, women and children remaining in whatever shade they could find while, with the help of the guide book’s rudimentary map and a lot of talking in multiple languages, a group of us wandered off to explore the ruins.

Then I heard hollow notes, almost hesitant, floating down from the lower slopes of the mountains. A lonely shepherd, the priest told us, was playing his reed pipe, the earliest musical instrument. Across the valley came an answering trill of notes. Another solitary shepherd from a distant slope where the sheep or goats were taken to eat the summer grass.

It was a miracle how the group from Istanbul found space for us on their bus. Another when we stopped under a mulberry tree by a ramshackle cottage. The priest bent down to pull at a hooked handle in the middle of a piece of metal at ground level, and to my amazement pulled out a steaming joint of meat from a brick oven at ground level. Slices were cut and handed out on mulberry leaves with bread and a piece of white cheese. The further east one travels, I learnt, people eat yoghourt instead of drinking milk. It was one of the most memorable meals I have ever eaten, though it may not sound like it.

Strangely, I thought of it when listening to the liquid sounds of a harp in the Minster a few days ago. They filled the nave and flowed around the columns into the aisles. The strings of a lyre, like a harp, would have been made from the guts of the animal herded by the lonely pipe player in the foothills. The harpist was playing a motet, sounds without words, though a ‘mot’ is a word in French. Liquid, wordless music.

My narrative is ended, the book completed, soon to start its journey out into the world.

Harpist in Beverley Minster



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