The Wind Rises: A very gentle, beautiful film which doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be: a doomed love story between a man and a woman, a doomed love story between a man and an aeroplane, or a doomed love story between Japan and militarism. Like Porco Rosso, it’s a paean to aviation pioneers and the lost world between the wars, but much more serious and realistic – and so, much more maudlin. It’s set in the real world, which is still full of wonders (the mad 1920s behemoths like the Caproni Ca.60 and the Junkers G.38, realised in perfect Ghibli animation with that obsessive anime eye for detail) but, far more so, horrors: the Great Kanto Earthquake (again, realised in perfect Ghibli animation with that obsessive anime eye for detail), the inescapable knowledge that everything our quiet, unprepossessing protagonist is working for and obsessed with will serve only to help a monster do more damage before it is finally killed.
I am, of course, biased, but I don’t see much romance in Japanese aviation design. They built fragile, boring deathtraps, refined but in no way inspired, that were kings of their theatre for a year or two but failed to keep pace – and then they renounced the art forever, just when things were getting interesting.
This is part 4, T-Z, of an A-Z of the Illustrated World of Mortal Engines. If you haven’t seen the previous bits, you can find Part 1 and Part 3 on Philip Reeve’s blog, and Part 2 on mine!
T is for Rob Turpin
Early on in the development of the IWOME, it had more of an artbook-y feel: big, fancy full-colour works taking up whole pages at a time, with the relevant text on the opposing page and any empty space filled by fancy cogwheels (which ended up on the cover.) We wondered if we could make it feel more of a technical, encyclopaedic sort of thing, the sort of book which says “refer to Fig. 2a”, by adding more, smaller illustrations – perhaps little black and white ones…?
To which Jamie, the Scholastic design manager, said “Ah! I know just the chap!” Rob Turpin is an illustrator and designer from Yorkshire who has been living and working in London for the last twenty years. Mainly working in science fiction and fantasy, Rob has a love for spaceships, robots, imaginary places, and the colour orange…
Rob’s lovely little cities, full of detail and personality, crowd the book and are all laid out in the endpapers. In particular, he’s taken on all the more bizarre experimental cities, like Panjandrum, Vyborg, Borsanski-Novi and Havercroft. Probably my favourite of these is the Nuevo-Mayan piranha town. We originally envisioned these as smaller than the first version he sent in, only about the size of houseboats, but the one he sent was so lovely we had to keep it in anyway, with a little squadron of smaller friends. And, absolute gentleman that Rob is, when I said it was my favourite, he only went and sent me the original art…
U is for Uncertainty, or Unsolved Mysteries – it’s all one.
The IWOME answers a lot of questions. Readers will come away knowing how London got from the end of Scrivener’s Moon to the start of Mortal Engines, how Tractionism spread to India, which was the largest moving city ever built, what on earth is actually going on down in Australia, and who originally used Nuevo-Mayan Battle Frisbees. They will also have a much better idea of the geography of parts of the world and how much the Sixty Minute War really reshaped things, which has been a source of great speculation and interest in the fan community.
But it doesn’t answer all of them. This isn’t an exhaustive encyclopaedia or comprehensive atlas; we have no interest in naming every Traction City ever built and categorising them all. The book leaves a great deal up to the reader’s interpretation and imagination; it’s a history as seen by people inside the world, which is still full of mystery and uncertainty. Hopefully, we’ve left a world that feels wider, rather than narrower.
V is for Philip Varbanov
As mentioned in Exploded Diagrams in the first blog, something we were anxious to include from the very beginning was artwork which captured both the scale and the detail of a Traction City. And for that, Philip Varbanov’s work exceeded all our hopes.
Philip is a concept artist and illustrator with a background in fine art and graphic design. He’s based in Sofia, Bulgaria, and works in the entertainment industry, specialising in environment art and production drawings. He illustrated the “Evolution of London” series at the start of the book, as well as several helpful cutaways of traction cities, an illustration of the Municipal Darwinist food chain and a stunning Jenny Haniver.
Philip’s works are striking for their great attention to realistic-looking mechanical detail. His drawing of Fever’s London on pages 10-11 is a masterpiece – we were worried it wouldn’t be possible to get central London, Nonesuch House (which is well away from the centre, on the edges) and the Orbital Moatway (which is far off on the horizon) all into the same drawing satisfactorily, but Philip used space and perspective so cleverly the whole thing just works.
Chances are if you’re a fan of Philip Reeve’s worlds you’ll already be familiar with the works of David Wyatt. He’s responsible for the charming black-and-white illustrations of the Larklight series and, closer to home, a series of Mortal Engines and Fever Crumb covers (along with the Haunted Sky comic-that-never-was.) His covers are exactly how I imagined the world of Mortal Engines as a little boy, and the IWOME simply wouldn’t have felt right without him involved.
David’s huge full-page illustrations are scattered through the IWOME. All his works have an incredible sense of atmosphere: contrast the rain-slick, overcast landing pad of the 13th Floor Elevator with his light, airy Brighton, or the calm of his Zoffany-like art gallery with the oppressive, chaotic Battle of Three Dry Ships, where a three-tiered London grinds implacably into view over a blood-red battlefield. I also adore his Nuevo-Mayan traction city chase, which is like the cover of a Mortal Engines book that never happened – it’s so close to what I had in mind when writing the brief it’s spooky.
David is a prolific illustrator (I hadn’t realised quite how prolific until, looking at his portfolio, I found half the books of my childhood were in his covers – everything from The Hobbit to The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents), and recently won the Blue Peter Book Award for The Legend of Podkin One-Ear alongside Kieran Larwood. Like Philip Reeve, he lives on Dartmoor, and you can see evidence of its mossy hillocks, windswept tors and curly, spooky old trees in his art here. More of his IWOME art (among many wonderful other things) can be found on his blog here.
X is for Xanne-Sandansky
…one of the many, many Traction Cities mentioned in the Quartet, but which never got its own entry in the IWOME. I’d love to come back to it – there are plenty of ideas for cities which we never quite got round to.
Xanne-Sandansky is best known in the IWOME as the eater of Borsanski-Novi, a catch so crammed with spare parts and useful machined goods that its Gut bosses had a spring in their step for months thereafter.
Y is for whY can’t I think of anything for the letter Y?
It’s a copout. But I really can’t. Suggestions in the comments section, please…
And finally, Z is for Amir Zand.
Although he’s last in the alphabet, Amir Zand was one of the first artists involved in the IWOME. Amir is an Iranian illustrator and concept artist, specialising in cover art and promotional illustration. He’s been featured in numerous magazines and books, including Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, and has illustrated more than 35 book covers.
Amir contributed all sorts of works to the IWOME, providing a marvellous set of mutant creatures (his Maydan Angels look rather a lot like shoebills, which are easily the most malevolent-looking birds in the world) and a lot of static settlements as well as a wonderful variety of cities (his Juggernautpur, continuing the “person in front of Traction City” theme of the Ian McQue covers, also looks like the cover of a book which hasn’t been written yet.) Amir’s works are all incredibly evocative: you can feel the chill of his winter-dawn Kometsvansen, the heat of the sun on his gleaming Zagwan city, and the aching stillness of his wreck of Motoropolis, lit from below by scavenger’s spotlights in the purple night. One of my favourites is his Panzerstadt-Bayreuth, a huge, intimidating silhouette wreathed in smoke and scattered with lights, and you can get a sense of how Londoners must have when they saw it bear down on them in Mortal Engines.
Pictures in order: Piranha suburb, Railhead postcards and Kom Ombo, by Rob Turpin; Sky-train, by Philip Reeve (originally for the Traction Codex); detail of pre-Traction London and Diagram of Municipal Darwinism , by Philip Varbanov; Airhaven and Nuevo Maya, by David Wyatt; Traction City, by Philip Reeve; Arkangel, detail of Panzerstadt-Bayreuth, and Tunbridge Wheels, by Amir Zand.
I’m immensely chuffed to announce that the Illustrated World of Mortal Engines, the actual, factual, physical, gorgeous, expanded and wonderfully illustrated version of the Traction Codex Philip Reeve and I worked on together back when I was at uni… launches TOMORROW (though it’s turning up in bookshops and letterboxes already). I haven’t talked about it here yet, because honestly I haven’t talked much about anything other than travelling since I started getting real jobs which don’t like you talking about them online. But it was Very Cool to do.
To commemorate the launch, and talk a bit more about the process of creating the book, I’ve put together an A-Z of the Illustrated World. The first part is on Philip’s blog here, and there’ll be two more after this one. Had a look at the first part? All settled? Read on…
Part Two: G-M
G is for Green Storm…
…who readers will know are very important in the later books, but are most conspicuous here by their absence.
The IWOME developed through a long period of writing, hashing out ideas and improving the general structure. One of the issues which emerged, which we never really found an answer to, was that going into the Storm and their war with the cities was a big distraction from the original story of Mortal Engines. Worse, due to the limit on the length of the book and the time pressures of getting illustrations for all the other new stuff in, there wasn’t really time or space to do the Green Storm War justice. So the Storm, and the war, are alluded to but don’t feature heavily in the IWOME.
But! We have the early drafts of lots of material – hydrofoil swarms and shaped-charge lancers, the Battle of the Bay of Bengal, increasingly grotesque and ludicrous applications of Stalker technology – and on the Traktionstadtsgesellschaft side, a heap of mad flying machines, armoured fighting towns and an effort to create the Longest Possible German Compound Noun (“Traktionstadtsgesellschaftstandardausgabeverteidigungsreihenfeuerpistole”). Perhaps, one day, we’ll get to come back to them, and the world will see a beautiful professional illustration of the abortive “Stalker walrus”.
H is for Historians and their Disagreements
The phrase “Historians disagree” will be familiar to any readers involved in academia. In the real world, if Historians Disagree, it means right now someone in an archive somewhere is furiously typing up the latest volley in a protracted battle of books and monographs with other people in other archives, all of which will then be glibly summarised in one sentence by an undergrad who’s skim-read half of them. (Possibly, they also will say that the aforementioned battle has generated more heat than light, or something like that.)
But when writing a fictional history, it’s a marvellously useful phrase. Historians will Disagree when we want to allude to something the reader already knows but people in the WoME don’t, or when we haven’t written the relevant backstory but want to speculate on it, or when we have two or three equally good ideas for what might have happened and want to use all of them…
We owe the Historians of the WoME a great deal, and gave them Puerto Angeles for their trouble, a cheerful historian party city where the museums and the samba clubs are both 24/7.
I is for International Productions
The IWOME travels widely across its fictional world, but the people who helped create it are spread all across the real one! Many of us, like Philip, are based in the UK, but work came in from as far afield as France, Bulgaria, Iran and Indonesia (an artist from the USA was going to be involved but couldn’t participate in the end – I’m told this was due to a commitment clash rather than finding out what happened to their homeland in the books.)
I think it’s a real shame we may never get everyone who worked on this book into a room together – but such an international cast of creators is a cool, strange part of putting something like this together in the modern networked world. (And hats off to poor Jamie Gregory, who had to stay up late and work with people in all these timezones!)
I is also for Influences, and I thought up a great long self-indulgent post about all the stuff which in some way made it into the IWOME, but it was too mechanical and not very funny. So I’ll just mention Simon Winder, whose description of the actual Schloss Runkelstein/Castel Roncolo in Danubia painted such a compelling and side-splitting picture it earned its own tribute city (well, fort). If I’m ever able to write observations half as canny and funny as his, I’ll be very happy.
J is for Jokes…
…which are Very Important. The IWOME isn’t really a “reference book” for other books – we worked hard to make it something which people will actually enjoy reading in its own right (there’s not much point in writing it, otherwise), with the same sense of humour that runs through the Mortal Engines books. There are… well, quite a lot of bad puns.
Actually, the hardest part in all this was reining the jokes in – humour is important, but it also has to be something that works even if the reader doesn’t get the joke (some of the punchlines are pretty obscure); a jokey double meaning is bad if it makes the original meaning too hard to understand. (Philip has discussed in-jokes in his splendid Railhead A-Z.) And some had to be pruned because they were too gratuitous – we toyed with a mitre-shaped Traction Vatican City, with a lot of popes called Urban (white smoke from the exhaust stacks when a new one was elected) but it was just Slightly Too Silly. So please appreciate the horrible jokes, because there are plenty more on the cutting room floor.
K is not for Characters, but will have to do
There’s plenty going on in the IWOME with all these maps, cities, wars, histories and amusing pictures, but what about the people who inhabit them? There are loads of little character portraits throughout the IWOME, illustrated by the excellent Ian McQue (I hadn’t really realised before this book Ian was a dab hand at character art as well as all his robots, flying ships and traction cities.)
Some people, like Thaddeus Valentine and Freya Rasmussen, are familiar; some, like Madzimoyo Khora, give familiar names a bit more of a background, and some are brand new, like Woolloomooloo Smith (credited with introducing Australian culture to the Great Hunting Ground). Some of them address unanswered questions (like how Anglish-speaking cities in the Hunting Ground have ready access to tea when presumably all the good tea plantations are in League territory – Lakdas Weerasinghe, captain of the blockade runner Invisible Worm, will be very happy to answer that). Others, like pioneer air rustler El Condor, or Niccolo Tornatore, the Doge of Brighton’s arch-rival Venice, are just there as people and stories who can give a little more human texture to the world.
L is for Jeremy Levett
which is to say… me. I’m far too self-conscious these days to write this sort of thing about myself, but Philip had some kind words…
From the moment the iWOME was first suggested I knew I couldn’t write it alone, and I knew that the person I wanted to write it with was Jeremy Levett. He’s a longtime fan of the books, but his mind works in a completely different way to mine – I’m interested in things because of how they look and how they make me feel: Jeremy wants to know how they work. So where in the books I had the Green Storm develop giant military airships because giant military airships are cool, and then had their Tractionist counterparts build rickety flying machines because rickety flying machines are fun, Jeremy instantly understood that the real reason is that the Storm’s mountain heartlands contain good sources of helium to provide huge air-destroyers with lift, while the Tractionists prefer hydrogen, which their heavily industrialised cities can easily split from water – but this makes their airships kind of explodey and drives a move to heavier-than-air solutions.
Faced with this kind of top-notch historical analysis, I can only nod and agree and pretend I planned it that way all along. And Jeremy also has the ability to write all this stuff in a way that’s both funny and informative (just check out his travel blogs). He has a glittering literary career ahead of him if he wants one, and I’m proud that it began in the WOME.
M is for Maps
Maps of fictional worlds are very popular, from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth to Keith Thompson’s world of Leviathan, based on actual First World War propaganda-y maps.. However, the WoME has a slightly complicated relationship with them. One problem is that Traction Cities, the primary landmarks, move around. Another is that committing to a map leaves you a bit boxed in story-wise as to where things can or can’t be (I remember Brian Jacques had to keep extending the Redwall map in new directions to tell new stories).
So the maps we do have in the IWOME are mainly places that don’t feature heavily in the story (there is a map of the general shape of the Great Hunting Ground, but it’s very scuffed-up): southern India, South America, Australia. We were given a lot of help creating them by cartography expert Lowtuff, a regular on the Mortal Engines Discord server, who gave a lot of detailed thought to plausibly answering mad questions like “what if we just tilted the whole continent west a lot?” and produced excellent outlines which our artist Maxime Plasse turned into the final maps.
An interesting issue we discovered with the maps, playing around with sea levels and continental plates, is that you can do some absolutely horrible things to continents and and they still don’t actually look that different. Take Nuevo Maya here: most of the important rivers have completely changed course, a million square miles of slightly salty pampas have risen out of the sea, the Falklands are no longer islands and the Panama isthmus is no longer anything… but it’s still instantly recognisable as South America. But, put it side by side with an actual map of South America, and you’ll see quite how different they are.
One which came together particularly well at the eleventh hour is the Dead Continent. Many of its coasts are guesswork, and the interior is a great black patch of terra(/or) incognita, with the only light cast by the paths of scientific expeditions – some of which come back, while some head inland and are lost in the darkness.
Pictures in order: Green Storm Soldier, Panzerkampfstadt and Green Storm Tumblers, by Philip Reeve (all originally for the Traction Codex); Bookshelf, by Aedel Fakhrie (due to multi-language printing issues, this hasn’t quite been done justice in the printed version, so here’s the original); Danubia cover pinched off the book’s Amazon page – READ IT; Traktionturnieren by Philip Reeve; Captain Khora, Smoke Jaguar and Lakdas Weerasinghe sketches by Ian McQue (the final versions are in the IWOME!); selfie with 12″ railway gun, by me; Nuevo Maya map, cartography by me and Lowtuff, final art by Maxime Plasse.
David Gareja was one of the true highlights of the tour, up there with Chiatura in “this is something you can only really see here” terms. There’s a daily (slightly poorly organised) minibus tour from Liberty Square, and we joined the crowd of intrepid-looking tourists, hearing Polish, Chinese and German spoken as well as the dense Georgian consonants and the inevitable English. We handed over our 25₾ (about eight quid) each, and the marshrutka whisked us away onto a dusty highway lined with watermelons and rows of shiny new tractors. The sheer density of the melon stalls bemused me – who looks at the fifth hopeful looking melon-seller in the space of a kilometre, and thinks “yes, this is the moment I need a watermelon big enough to hide a three-year-old inside”? But they must sell enough to bother showing up, because they’re there. A giant dark metal column passed to the south, knurled with unclear sculptures and crowned with a robed figure holding up the sun – who? Why?
We passed more ghosts of infrastructure, cows grazing among concrete skeletons (abandoned or never finished in the first place?) East of Tbilisi turns to really pretty country, more cultivated than the Chiatura uplands but just as green; we saw the first crest of naked orange rock at the same time as we felt the road get noticeably worse beneath. Scrub gave way to grassy plains and then to high, rugged heathland, scattered with wildflowers, cloud-shadows and prefab concrete parts. I feel like this would be a cool place to grow up, among the many birds and mysterious ruins, all the concrete culverts just built to dam or crawl inside. There were occasional outbreaks of barracksy-looking buildings, all clearly neglected. Did Georgia ever have collective farms? On non-collective farms, little boxy combine harvesters spat out little boxy haybales.
The road only arguably existed at this point, and our driver decided the best way to deal with potholes was to take the van half off the remaining tarmac, leading to a horrendous, storm-tossed lurchiness which did nothing to reduce the impact of the potholes but meant the whole roasting, juddering mess was canted over twenty degrees. A low polyglot murmur of alarm could barely be heard over the sound of stones popping under tyres and hot, unhappy bodywork being wrenched about. But we survived, and reached David Gareja as the landscape turned incredibly interesting.
Some minor fault line here, an outlying wrinkle of the continental ruche which raised the whole Caucasus range, has lifted the bedrock and shaken it out, leaving a landscape with a wobbly, uncertain feeling entirely recognisable to a bunch of recently freed marshrutka inmates. Chunks of tilted strata, striated with rust like the clouds of Jupiter, jut up out of the ground: some are proud and triangular, pointing up like the prows of torpedoed ships; some are smooth and curved, bunched together like the knuckles of a buried god.
The David Gareja complex occupies the largest and southernmost of these upheavals, an immense long ridge it shares with the Azerbaijani border. We went straight up the hillside with a fellow-traveller, a cheerful town planner from Dresden, without whose sensible pace-setting we would plausibly have either died from heatstroke and overexertion (both incline and temperature were about forty degrees) or given up. A huge flat piece of exposed stone has ancient rainwater channels cut into it, and the ants here have very long legs, to keep their bodies from the baking earth. Even the lizards – big, clever-looking things with spiky heads – keep to the shade at midday, and move from shadow to shadow with a leaping, loping gait.
From the ridge’s peak, you look north to see the frozen waves of strata, west along an enormous rampart of broken stone, south to see the land fall away into Azerbaijan, with the distinctive silhouettes of power plants visible in the hot blue infinity. The exact border isn’t clear (unless it’s the nubbins of steel fence, in which case we and the path both crossed the border and back again with wild and gay abandon); it was in our interests not to really notice it, as many of the best monastic remains are on the Azerbaijani side. The geology round here has led to bands of iron-impregnated sandstone in alternating hard and soft layers, ideal for cave-carving. So we walked east, where the hidden monastery of Udabno is buried.
The eponymous David was an Assyrian monk, one of a legendary thirteen who came to Georgia a millennium and a half ago.* He and successive monastic types have inhabited this rock off and on until the present day, carving and building an eclectic patchwork of caves and above-ground complexes, most abandoned, some decorated with beautiful, ancient frescoes. The faces and some of the fine detail on the paintings have faded, and only the brightest of the details remains: blazing crucifixes and the wings of angelic hosts. The art is at once fairly primitive (asymmetrical crosses, formless angels), and quite strikingly accomplished: the use of colour and repeating pattern is timelessly gorgeous, the visual language of devotion and exaltation as clear as high Baroque. The cave mouths are ringed with wild flowers, and pigeons have set up in the corners of ancient altars. Entering each cave, a blur of surprised black butterflies would billow out past me, into the light.
The caves themselves feel like a microcosm of the whole pitted, riddled cliffside. The strikes of ancient mattocks are still clear in the stone; the clay and plaster has been much blown by burrowing wasps; the dusty floors are full of the reverse cones of ant-lions. Worst is the graffiti. Bored Soviet soldiers have carved names and dates into the faces of ancient frescoes, leaving lines of warrior saints half scribbled out and walls deeply chiselled from that time in 1965 Alexeyev from Dnepropetrovsk had half an hour off watch.** The refectory had a triple line of carved stone benches under the long Orthodox faces of the Last Supper. Other caves had flood channels, wine jars, huge, dark cisterns deep enough to leave a two-second silence between tossing a stone through the entrance and hearing a bassy bat-guano thud. Up top, three Georgian soldiers smoked in the shadow of one of the above-ground structures. At the highest point, an iron Russian trig point stood underneath a mysterious frame, overlooking yet more dramatic strata – whole plateaux of sheared-off rock.
We slipped and scuffled down the hillside and past the vast flat slab of rock with its rain channels, overlooking the fortified Lavra monastery (currently undergoing reconstruction.) In the shadow of the hill, stone steps have been cut and cisterns dug, some of them still actually in use. The spring called David’s Tears was, alas, bolted up and inaccessible, with the gaps in the bars giving away only a musty smell and the vague glints of Orthodox altar paraphernalia. So we turned back into the light, back towards the waiting marshrutka, and in one of the nearby cisterns a cave frog suddenly sounded off, loud enough to make everyone jump.
* There is evidence of plenty more Assyrian missionaries operating in Georgia around the time; it’s possible that David and his twelve colleagues were simply retrofitted on to the thirteen major sacral sites they are said to have founded.
** I am hesitant about having three posts in a row containing some sort of anti-Russian polemic, but they used it as an artillery range, for crying out loud. Disgustingly, it took serious protests to stop the independent Georgian government doing the same thing.
Tbilisi’s name means “warm place”in old Georgian. Legend has it that this is because of the sulphur springs, but you could have told me it’s because the city is hotter than an overclocked toaster and I would have no trouble believing you.* More than one in three Georgians live here, no doubt helped significantly by the AC units which drip onto every pavement (as, occasionally, did we). Our airbnb was in Vake, one of the older, cooler districts, and an interesting mix of architecture and cultural styles: Soviet tower blocks, modern gyms and mini-markets, women with crates of fruit. Many signs were in Mkhedruli, some English, a few Cyrillic.
The traffic situation is a fun mix of Russian truculence and Italian unpredictability; getting across the road is a matter of aggressively striding out in front of moving cars and hoping they’re awake enough to not kill you, as simply waiting never works. A plurality of cars are missing bumpers. Charitably, Arpi suggested this might be to improve air flow to the radiators. I’m possibly painting too negative a picture here – at few points did we feel like we were actually at risk of death, and the chaos is more opportunism than aggression.
“I guess even Georgians don’t park at crossings.”
“They don’t give a damn, but it’s a Mediterranean sort of not giving a damn, not a Russian sort. You know?”
We found a streetside bakery for pastries and a sort of dry sesame pretzel, and descended into the cool depths of Rustaveli metro station, named for the great poet, whose iconic status here is only slightly below Saint George and David the Builder. Tbilisi public transport has Oyster-style cards (easily topped up at the little roadside touchscreen machines which are absolutely everywhere in Georgia), with journeys costing half a lari (about 12p). Tbilisites are polite on the metro, letting people off trains rather than crowding round; the trains are the same old Soviet stock as on the Budapest and Prague metros, painted in tasteful Georgian red and white.
The tourist office on Liberty Square gave us a much-needed English-language map, and directions to Arpi’s desired attraction, the Automuseum, so far to the east it was basically in the Caspian Sea. We took a taxi (the driver kept crossing himself, which I did not take as a sign of great confidence) and zoomed through Tbilisi’s riverside array of intriguing megastructures – the Reichstag-esque hall (complete with glass dome), the pointless but fun roof over the Liberty Bridge, an even more pointless and apparently unused pair of golden sausages like dead sandworms, an otherwise nondescript building capped with a huge girderwork crown (the university, we later learned). Tbilisi is a valley city, hemmed in on all sides by high hills, with the occasional domes of monasteries overlooking it placed for maximum dramatic impact. Lovely fountains were everywhere, built in the classical “cascading down tiers” style, which gives much more of a sense of abundance than “squirt it up in the air” fountains and is presumably mechanically much easier. The dashboard thermometer showed 100F (I know, I know – Fahrenheit?!)
The automuseum was almost hidden down a side road; it contained a large collection of Soviet cars and motorbikes, beautifully restored and painted, gleaming with polish, smelling of fuel and wax and paint. If only I cared at all about cars. Arpi was as happy as a dog with two tails, though.
We returned in a different taxi (going down George W Bush Street in the process – he’s popular here) to the National Museum, which like all national museums was a collection of magnificent treasures with a pretty serious political point at its core. The opening narrative – of a secular, tolerant postwar Georgian democracy snuffed out in its prime by the Bolsheviks – is a bit too utopian for my tastes, but plausible in its general sweep.** The treasures down in the basement, of course, are absolutely top notch – Georgian goldsmithing was second to none as far back as the kingdom of Colchis, and some of the enamelwork was genuinely breathtaking.
They had Greek coins from 2,700 years ago, burial carts and Colchisian axeheads; Hellenic candelabras, winemaking implements from before written history. A gallery of traditional Georgian dress, heavy on big moustaches, bright embroidery and those fantastic long jackets called chokha, with silver-plated belts and cartridge loops on the breast. There was also an (unexpected, but really incredibly good) collection of Far Eastern art. I didn’t get much of a sense of the sequential history of the nation, why this coin was Roman, this cup Arabic, this piece of jewellery Mongol and this one Persian – partly because everyone east of the Rhine seems to have had a turn going at Georgia and listing the invasions would take a whole museum to itself. Even the natural history section noted how animals of every kind wandered across the Caucasus on their way to the corners of Eurasia (and some excellent fossils of proto-humans have been discovered there).
Outside of Gori, it seems the Georgians have little or no nostalgic illusions about the USSR, and the section on the Soviet occupation pulls absolutely no punches; it opens with one of the railway cars in which arrested Georgian civilians were rounded up in 1924, and one of the machine guns that put all the little holes in its side.*** Quite strikingly, and very effectively, they put up the evidence first and let the narrative emerge from it: a whole gallery of earnest handwritten petitions and applications for the return of lands and churches seized by the Reds; photos of Georgian artists and descriptions of their work, all with a death date in a gulag or a basement. A letter which led to 145 people in Georgia, and 110,000 ethnic Poles across the USSR, being shot as “enemy agents”. One Georgian in every eight was shot or deported between the wars – nobles, priests, doctors, artists, “kulaks”; a similar proportion died in the second war or the followup repression. Stalin is a remote, malign presence, not addressed head on. At the end is an “occupation continues” section, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia blocked out in red; it suits current Georgian nationalism to draw a continuous narrative from the Russian Empire, through the Bolshevik horrorshow, to Putin’s current shenanigans. It’s also not too far from the truth.
Tbilisi’s old town walls are still there – some underneath a motorway, some with buildings perched directly on the turrets. Inside, the old town is (unlike most cleaned-up touristy Old Towns), run-down and thoroughly crummy, in the same way as it’s probably been since Tbilisi extended beyond the walls and urban planners started enjoying actually having a bit of space. These little winding streets are, in richer places like Tallinn, absolutely charming as a contrast to the sprawl of wide-boulevarded modernity. But the authentic, ungentrified version has a medieval seediness to it.
After dinner (probably the most expensive meal so far, which is to say it was still less than £20 between us for a mass of kebab, dumplings and a litre of fantastic Georgian wine) we took a cable car up to the hill that also hosts Narikala Fortress – an ancient, glowering pile of brown stone – and the statue of “Georgian Mother”, a smaller and less violent version of Mother Motherland but in the same “giant metal woman with a sword” vein.
We marched over to the base of the Russian Empire-era funicular and zoomed up to the top, where we chilled all evening with our new Egyptian friend, looking out over Tbilisi: the golden light on the gigantic Holy Trinity cathedral, the broadcasting tower lit white and lilac, an olive-tree fountain whose lamps and water between them scattered the trees around with a shaking, uncertain light.
* A Tbilisi founding legend has it that fifteen hundred years ago King Vakhtang was out doing a bit of falconry. His bird caught a pheasant and the two fell into one of the hot springs. Both were promptly cooked alive, impressing Vakhtang so much he had a city built there. This seems capricious, but kings will be kings.
** I don’t know much about modern Georgian history so my suspicion that the reality wasn’t quite so tolerant is based on little more than gut feeling and a knowledge of the hideous abattoir of repression and cleansing that followed the Great War. But it is funny, for instance, how many Armenian churches and buildings there are from shortly before the collapse of the Russian Empire, and how little evidence of any Armenians.
*** The gun is an M1910 Maxim with a pre-1930 water jacket and the early model brass feed block, so it checks out. How they got hold of it is a story I’d like to hear, though.