Four men in the British Library


I spent a wonderful day yesterday in the company of four men at the British Library. They said very little, but I learnt so much from them and their work. They are illuminators from fourteenth-century London: talented, funny, inventive and disciplined, and each one had his own particular take on life.

We met in the British Library Manuscripts room where I was given a small box. Inside was a book, no bigger than a paperback novel, but fat, and bound in leather: the Neville of Hornby Hours, made in London in about 1340 for Isabel de Byron, wife of Robert I de Neville. (We’re not allowed to take photos of the manuscripts, but this is a photo of a thirteenth-century book the Ballarat Library kindly allowed me to study.)


The parchment pages crackled softly as I turned them, that lovely rich sound of the old and the well used. The book is nearly seven hundred years old, but the colour is still vivid and strong, glowing: orange, blue, pink, white, black and gold leaf that still shines. Most pages have prayers in Latin, and most have illustrations as well; every page has border decorations: flowers, leaves, vines that wind their way around the block of text, here and there a monster of some kind, usually a hybrid mixture of human and animal peering out.

detail f9I looked up at the ‘Issues and Return’ counter; could I really just turn the pages like this, just me and the book? Did they really trust me with this small treasure? Yep, apparently they did.

After peering at some of the illuminations I asked for a magnifying glass to see the details, the incredibly fine lines, the curls, dots and cross-hatching; the single line for curve of an eye, or an eyebrow, or a nose; the curl of a flower stem; the delicate shading of a robe or the shadow on a face. The gold leaf shone, raised slightly from the page when used in a capital, or textured with patterned indentations when used as a background.

For most people, fourteenth-century London was tough, disrupted and crowded. The houses were small and squeezed in, the streets were filthy with mud and rubbish, and while the rich lived well, life was hard for ordinary folk. That image is fairly familiar, but London life was also more than that: the magnificent buildings, the poetry and stories, the gold and silver work, the colourful clothes and the illuminated manuscripts make that clear. The life of the imagination thrived as well. The illuminators of the Neville de Hornby Hours, whatever street they lived in, however small their house and workshop, were talented and committed. I decided I should get to know them better.

The previous day I had read a book by an art historian, Kathryn Smith, who has investigated all the illustrations and discovered that the book was written by two scribes and painted by four artists, or limners, almost certainly men, though we have no names for them. At first, all the artwork looked the same to me, but slowly, as I peered more closely, guided by Smith’s descriptions, I could see the differences in style and interest. Slowly, as I turned the pages, the men became more real.

[Note: I could not make these images any larger on the page, but if you double click each one, you will see a larger, brighter image.)

Artist One is the most talented and experienced, the one who plans the book with Scribe One; together they organised the sequence of pages, where pictures would be placed, and who would paint which ones. I imagine he’s a busy man, with other projects to organise as well, so he splits his team into two and assigns tasks to each of them. Perhaps he is the master illuminator, with an apprentice or two. He’s probably older, I think, experienced — he must be, to be entrusted with planning such a large and expensive book. His figures are tall and elegant, and the backgrounds of his pictures are exquisite.

8 8v Isaac and Jacob

8v Isaac and Jacob

Artist Two is also talented, and One decides to give him most of the major illuminations of biblical scenes. He’s not sure how he does it, but Two has a way of telling a story in a single picture, through gesture and expression; his figures have such energy that they look almost like they’re moving. After a while, looking closely at his drawings, I begin to imagine Two is himself energetic, a storyteller at the local tavern, always ready with a joke and a laugh.

f 190 Siege of Jerusalem

f 190 Siege of Jerusalem

detail artist 2-2He likes the big scenes, but he has no time for the fiddly marginal decorations, the bits of frippery, and he rushes to get them done; it’s easy to see where the paint spills over the edges of leaves and flowers. Artist One argues with him about this, especially when he rushes the borders on his work, as above in f 8v. In the end, decides to give most of the decoration to his young apprentices.

Artist Three has only a year to go before he is qualified. He can paint figures well, though they seem a bit solid and blocky, and he wishes he could develop some of the fluid movement of the two masters. But the strong sense of physical presence in his work allows him to create depth in his illustrations, so that he can use the limited space inside a capital to great effect, creating a sense of the physical space. This man is, I think, a quiet observer, noticing the play of light and shadow on a row of houses, inside a church, or across the features of the human face.

f 91v Christ and the Doctors

f 91v Christ and the Doctors

Artist Four is a few years into his seven year apprenticeship, keen to learn, careful and precise, and his border decoration is beautiful. He has trouble, though, with painting figures, so he is given only a few of the larger illustrations. He uses only pale colours, not the bright oranges and blues of his colleagues, and I wonder if that is his choice, or a restriction because of his lack of expertise. It’s intriguing that for someone with such an eye for detail, the hands on all his figures are too large, without shape or movement. But I imagine he works hard, frustrated that he can’t quite put down in paint what he sees in his mind, or in his master’s work.

f 133 Judas

f 133 Judas

Hours passed in the Manuscripts Room and I was caught into another world — not the world that the illuminations presented, but the world of four men, each alone with parchment and paint, but also interacting with each other on the larger project. It took some time for me to begin to distinguish them, to begin to see them and their characteristics. There are other, more magnificent and richly decorated manuscripts, but beginning to see the strength and weaknesses of each artist gave me a connection with them I would not otherwise have. My musings about what they were like is imagination only, but imagination based in the beautiful, careful paintings they left behind.

All photos above (apart from my own photo of the manuscript book) are downloaded from the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, Egerton 2781, available at:

I am enormously grateful that the Library makes such manuscripts available online, and even more grateful to see at least some of them ‘in the flesh’.

Turkish Pick-up Lines

I began this post about three weeks ago, but I’ve been hopelessly distracted by the business of hearing responses from publishers about the manuscript of my novel. And the amazing news is that I now have a publisher in Australia (HarperCollins), one in the UK (Faber) and one in the USA (Farrer, Strauss & Giroux). I’ve been excited, stressed, elated, worried and unbelieving, sometimes all at once. Coherent blog-writing seemed out of the question.

(I love the photo below: a drama mask as part of a cornucopia carved into the base of a pillar. It’s not supposed to illustrate the comments above, though the cornucopia seems about right at the moment.)


The hard sell is everywhere, but in Turkey, and especially in Istanbul, they’ve been working on their technique. They’ve evolved from the simple harangue to a slick, soft hard-sell. It helps that the Turkish are naturally friendly and have a HeybeliadaAtaturkShopgreat sense of humour, so that the ‘sell’ and the national psyche, are a natural fit.

I was in Istanbul for five days, and on the receiving end of hundreds of appeals, or pick-up lines, especially when I was by myself. Intrigued, exhausted, fascinated, and sometimes fed-up, I compiled a short taxonomy of pick-up lines:


The ‘I’m bored to tears with this job’ Sell.

These sellers are low on the pick-up line evolutionary development, or perhaps just plain bored with the trinkets they have to sell:

‘Excuse me, you need to look over here.’KoranScriptHagiaSophia

Or, ‘Excuse me, which one do you like?’

Or, the ever-enlightening, ‘This is a carpet shop.’

It’s interesting, though, that the polite but insistent ‘Excuse me’ caught me out at first because I wasn’t expecting it.

The ‘Poor me’ Sell.

Is this one a new and clever skill development, or really just the expression of the sensitive type, unsuited to the job, and broken by the thousands of rejections?

‘Hello, do you want to have a break? Have a cup of tea, coffee? Come on, everybody needs a break.’

We smile, tell him we just ate lunch and keep walking.

‘Ah, everybody breaks my heart.’

We turn to see him, hands crossed over his heart, smiling.

I really liked this guy, and would have gone in, but we really had just finished lunch.

The Gallant Gentleman Sell


This type tries a respectful, harmless kind of seduction:

‘Hello lady. Remember me? We spoke yesterday I think. [we hadn’t]  Can I sell you a scarf, I have many scarves. No? But a beautiful woman like you should have a beautiful scarf.’

I say no, I don’t want a scarf and he should save his time and talk to one of the many beautiful women here.

As I walk away laughing he says, ‘Ah, but you are the most beautiful of them all…’

Walking behind two young women, a waiter from a café steps forward and says to them, arms stretched out wide, ‘Ah, I’ve been waiting for you all my life.’

We laugh loudly and he is distracted enough to let the girls go past. Later, as we pass the café again, he invites us to come in for dinner, and we ask him what happened to his previous line.

Always ready with a response, he says, ‘Oh no, I don’t use that anymore. It’s an old line now.’

The ‘Ah, Aussie, Vegemite, I’m your friend, I’ve got a cousin in Sydney’ Sell

This is the seller who knows just enough about most countries of the world to be able to pretend that here, in this city so far away, you have a friend who understands.  HeybeliadaShops

‘You’re from Australia, aren’t you. Aussie? Yeah, I can tell. Vegemite, hey? You like Vegemite. You come from Sydney? Brisbane? Canberra, oh, don’t know Canberra, but my cousin, he lives in Australia. Beautiful, Australia. You need to buy a rug …’

Or…’Aussie, yes. Lots of Australians are buying silver…’

The ‘I’m only here to help’ Sell

This must be the most evolved of the sellers. He genuinely likes people, and he can strike up a conversation at any time and, most importantly, keep it going. They patrol the old part of the city, where any and every tourist comes to visit Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Justinian’s Cistern,  Theodosian’s Obelisque. Their job is to seduce the tourist into a conversation under the guise of being helpful.

One man walked with me, chatting easily, told me some interesting things about the Blue Mosque: its date, its size, the rituals, and showed me the entrance. I thanked him and went in, naively thought I’d got away … until I came out again, walked down the steps. There he was, a big smile on his face, waiting to greet me and demand my end of the bargain: to visit his carpet shop, down the street here ….


The ‘Combo’ Sell

And this guy, who combined a few techniques in one:

JustinianCisternI was buying cooked corn on the cob from a street stall, when he started chatting, as usual, ‘You’re from Australia …’ Stupidly, I asked him how he could tell, and he told me that Aussies just have a look, they are the most beautiful. I laughed, walked away, and he walked with me, of course. He told me he was a uni student studying tourism to become a guide, that he spoke four languages; he told me about the Cistern we were passing, a huge underground cavern designed to hold supplies of water, supported by massive pillars, and very beautiful. I had seen it, and knew all about it, so he told me that one of the James Bond movies was filmed in there. By this stage we were almost at his rug shop, so he showed me the video on his iphone of an Aussie customer who was his good friend, so good that she sent him a clip of the beach houses on Port Philip Bay where she lived. At his shop, I told him, again, that I would not buy a rug. He asked me to come in for tea and I said no, I would not buy a rug. He asked me again, and gave me his card; I said I would not buy a rug. At this, my newfound friend scowled, turned his back and walked away.

I walked on, fifty metres or so, and met another, more sleazy type, who had watched my previous encounter and obviously thought he’d catch me on the retail rejection rebound:

The ‘I’m selling more than rugs’ Sell

‘Hello. I know you don’t want rugs. You need a cup of tea. No, a beautiful lady like you, you need wine, not tea. Let me buy you a glass of wine.’

What? By now I was sick of the ‘beautiful lady line. ‘No.’Medusa

‘Life is about more than rugs. It is about romancing. About wine and romancing.’

Romancing? What happened to rugs and scarves? ‘No.’

‘Then let me walk with you. Let me come and sit with you while you eat your lunch.’

Thankfully, it seems my third ‘no’ was enough to put him off.

Or the guy who said to Alan, ‘You want to buy shirt? A bag?’ And then more quietly, ‘A girl?’

The ‘watch your back’ Sell

We only met one of these, with eyes like Julie Bishop, able to take you out at a hundred paces (see picture of Medusa, above. And yes, the photo is the right way up, that’s how they put it in Justinian’s Cistern.)

On the Golden Horn Bridge the cafes are lined up, one after the other, and waiters stand outside catching anyone they can, showing them their menu, ushering them to a seat before they can resist. We stopped at one of these cafes, with an offer of GoldenHornFishCafesfree fruit and tea after the main course. While we ate I watched, as time after time the persuasive man from our café brought in customers before his neighbour could get to them.

The neighbour’s anger was palpable as he paced back and forward, glared, shook his head. But the final straw came when our waiter appealed to us to assure some prospective customers that the food was good. It was excellent, so we nodded, smiled, Alan gave them the thumbs up, and they came in and sat down. I thought the waiter next door would leap over and strangle Alan where he sat; he walked away, turned back, glared, turned away, paced back again, scowled, the anger tight in his shoulders and mouth, restraining himself. The waiters in our café laughed: oh, he’s always like that. He doesn’t get many customers …

That man was the exception. The lovely thing about many Turkish sellers is that they genuinely love to make a cup of tea and chat, find out about Australia, tell you about their family, show off photos of their kids, and above all, to laugh … even if they don’t make a sale.

So I’ve studied a few of their techniques and in a little while I’ll have a novel to sell … anyone want a cup of tea and a chat? Let me tell you about The Anchoress …