East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


A photo from 1939

On the joys and the pains of doing research: I am currently putting the finishing touches (hopefully) on a book about Piedmontese travelers around the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. And one of the perks of this job – that for reasons long to explain I am doing part-time and under less-than-optimum conditions, is that I get to go back to the library and the web, doing a final pass of research.

When the book turns its gaze to China, it’s of course like coming again back home – how many stories I have set in the Middle Kingdom? Ah!
But while I was trying to decide what to quote from Peter Fleming’s book about the Boxer Rebellion, I chanced on a photo that got me off on a tangent for about half an hour.

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The Aeronauts (2019)

Last night I discovered I still suffer from vertigo, and I did so in the most baffling and yet safe way, by watching a movie – The Aeronauts, directed by Tom Harper, is streaming on Amazon Prime, and it’s a good, entertaining, suspenseful movie, and it gave me vertigo.
Which I guess it’s a sign of how well-crafted the movie is.

Inspired by true events with a fair share of fiction thrown in, the movie takes place in 1862, and follows the balloon ascent of scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) in the first expedition to explore the atmosphere. As the balloon climbs, Glaisher and his pilot, fairground aeronaut Amelia (Felicity Jones) face a number of unplanned for challenges.

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Doing research on the Frontier on a 10 bucks budget

Of the 200-and-odd books I read over four years while working on Hope & Glory, India – A History, by John Keay was the first stop. I had tried approaching the textbook for my brother’s course on History and Civilization of India and the Far East, but found it too massive, and written in a language unknown to the living. Keay’s book was fun, well documented, and it was in a language I understood.
I had to start somewhere, and I started from there, and later I also read (and enjoyed) Keay’s book about the East India Company.

So now that I am doing a bit of in-depth background research for my work on the Frontier RPG, I decided to splurge on research books all of 10 euro: the price of a night out for a pizza at Casablanca’s, what passes for a night on the town here in our house.
And half of my budget went for John Keay’s China, a History – that is a lot heftier than its Indian counterpart, but hopefully just as fun.
Once again, my brother’s university books about Chinese history are there on the shelf, but what the heck, for starters I want something as user-friendly as possible.

I will also throw into the research pot another of Keay’s books that’s here on my shelf, his old but wonderful When Men and Mountains Meet: The Explorers of the Western Himalayas, 1820–75, because it’s certainly on topic.

The other half of my budget went for Abraham Eraly’s The Mughal Throne, that I had missed in my previous book haul when researching Hope & Glory.
Amazon Italy has a few copies of the Italian translation, by a very high-end “serious” publisher, discounted to half price because they are a little worse for wear.
This way, I got my copy for six bucks, including delivery, and the volume is perfectly fine (the white cover is a little dirty, but really, that’s not an issue for a reading copy).

Thus armed, I’ll spend the next four weeks reading and taking notes. So far I’ve played fast and loose with my Stories of the Frontier, but now it’s time to start doing things properly.
And as I often repeat, I like doing research.


So you've dreamed of being a mercenary…

I have just received a gift of books and chocolate from a far-away friend. It’s the sort of thing that’s good for morale, because yesterday was a bad day – sometimes these coincidences happen, and they never cease to surprise me. We live in a strange, but not necessarily hostile world.

One of the books in the box was a well-beloved classic I mentioned I wanted to re-read, another is a war story that looks quite exciting, and the third… oh, the third I am starting right away, and filing it under research.

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500 movies per year

I was talking movies with some friends, a few nights back, and one of them asked how come it looks like I have seen every movie out there, twice. And so I had to explain that, first, I am cursed with this memory, that works 110% when it comes to remember movies or other useless things, and really sucks at everything really important (like faces, phone numbers, passwords etc.). And that second, I was born fifteen years before he did, and so I grew up in a different world.

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Robert Conrad, 1935-2020

Hell of a week – bad weather, bad health, unexpected expenses, work complications, and the good guys keep going: yesterday it was Robert Conrad, the star of The Wild Wild West and Baa Baa Black Sheep/Black Sheep Squadron, two shows I loved as a kid, together with the spy show A Man Called Sloane.
It’s been a hell of a week.