Constantinople and its Double

‘Couldn’t we have,’ Richard asked, ‘a map of Istanbul with Byzantium as a layer on top?’

I imagined a booklet of transparent pages, each setting out a different period of the City’s history, with perhaps a detached opaque sheet, so you could isolate one or superimpose two periods. It was then I noticed I didn’t have my bag.

I’d already had a ‘Where is it?’ incident coming out of the Hamdi Restaurant – that time with my wallet – where we had been discussing the nature of groups, how their character is formed by the largely unconscious interactions of people who don’t necessarily know each other terribly well; how this corresponds to that strange composite beast, the audience – and indeed, the largely autonomous actions of the individual, who, if neuroscience has it right, acts regardless of the assumed authority of the ego.

We’d just dropped into The North Shields (actually the Port Shield, but don’t let that misreading disturb us too much), which turned out to be an expensive replica of someone’s idea of a bar. Zöe had sheared off in horror, and Richard and I had to agree with her, leaving drinkless to be badgered by taxis half way to the hotel…

…and there I suddenly was, bag-less in Stamboul. We took a taxi back to the restaurant, reasoning that my wallet search was an unconscious sense of loss. It turned out there were many floors of the Hamdi, each with its own little office for manager or security guard or seated waiters (they have to sit somewhere).

A very solicitous and concerned waiter led me patiently up and down stairs, and baffled men in suits showed me bags which were not mine, and umbrellas which were not bags. A security guard even offered to watch footage of my meal in search of clues.

By now I’d reasoned it was either in the Port Shield or long gone, so off we headed in another taxi, discussing our favourite phenomenon of the double. I was trying to remember the actions of a forgetful being, the creature that behaves, rather than the self who decides, as though he were indeed my sabotaging double.

The same waiter, smiling the same smile for a different reason, showed me my cheap canvas bag, purchased on Crete and worn inside out to conceal the touristy images. It contained a pad with a parody written on it, an umbrella, and the selected poems of Edwin Morgan (Richard’s copy).

We followed the same route back, passing the same grumbly drunk as earlier, now contentedly smoking a stub, and remarked on the way the layers of the city were like those of the forgetful person.

Byzantium, according to this analysis, was the body leaving its ruins behind, even as the modern city tried to think what it had done with its own history. Byzantium was, as we all knew all along, Istanbul’s doppelgänger.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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