East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


Damn aristos!

Today I found a hole in Wikipedia. Nothing major, but enough to derail my research work for the better part of this morning. I had to dig out old books and cross-reference information to determine not only what the hole was about, but also what should have been in place of the nothing the hole represented.

I’ve been commissioned a short historical article about two women that lived in Turin in the 17th and 19th century respectively. They belonged to the same family, and lived in the same building, but were extremely different for personality and personal history. So I was looking for historical detail to define their actual relationship and to build some kind of bridge between the two. I needed something that could fit two paragraphs and join the two personal histories.

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Occasional ghosts

One of my various sources of income as a writer is a series of history articles I am writing for an Italian magazine – pieces about characters and events from the history of Turin and of the Piedmont area. It’s a fun job that so far has helped pay the bills and the house insurance in particular, and it hinges on two of my long-standing interests, history and doing research.

Right now I have a nice list of future topics to explore and today I went into the tragic life of a young woman – a member of the Savoy upper class that lived a tragic existence in Turin and met a sad end in the 18th century. What is usually called “a footnote on the pages of history”, but of possible interest for the readers of the magazine, as it’s part of the local history and, indeed, of the local folklore.

Because as I did some research today about the character of the late Elena Matilde, her ghost appeared in the documents and chronicles – bringing my historical work into the field of the occult and the paranormal. This angle is not what my client is interested in, and yet I will add a few paragraphs on the subject. Because maybe my readers do not believe in ghosts, but they might be fascinated by how a tragic incident hit so hard the popular imagination, that a ghost story arose in the aftermath.


Accountants, Soldiers and Nurses

Accountants are dangerous. And no, I am not going to entertain you with my adventures in mortgage and banking. The fact is, while doing a bit of research both for The Ministry of Lightning and for a short article I am about to write, I chanced on something that will not go in the article – being only tangentially connected with the topic – and will certainly get into the novel. And it’s all about accountants.
One accountant in particular.
His name was Andrea Compatangelo, and he was an Italian, from Benevento.

Let’s bactrack a little – during the Great War, a number of Italians fought in the Austro-Hungarian forces, simply because the territories from which they came, while being ethnically Italy, were part of the Hapsburg Empire. Many of these men were taken prisoner on the Eastern Front, and deported to Russia.

After the war, an Italian military mission took care of extracting the “talianski” from the Russian working camps, and bring them back to Italy. This is the subject of the article I am writing.
But there were others. And here we go down a wholly different rabbit hole. This is a strange story…

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Exploring the Axial Age

Jasper’s Axial Age – now that’s something that always fascinated me, ever since I stumbled on the idea while I was setting up my first course in Taoist philosophy.
Karl T. Jaspers was a German psychiatrist, philosopher and thinker that noticed how, between the 8th and the 3rd century BCE, a lot of new ways of thinking emerged all over the world.

Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, – of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.
(Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, p. 2)

Now, of course, “simultaneously” and a span of five/six centuries are two notions somewhat at odds, and indeed Jasper’s theory is considered mostly bogus – an exaggeration at best, an abomination at worst. Continue reading