30.8.09

The Office

Just finished watching the 'Office Night' on BBC2, and I feel like an idiot for never having managed to catch the show before. This is blisteringly good television.

The gags speak for themselves. What I'm interested in (as usual) is the moments when the show gets deadly serious. The Office is at root a riff on the tedium and pettiness of white-collar work, and by extension, life in dreary Middle England towns. The atmosphere of the series, captured by an unglamourous documentary camera, is crushing. There is no way out of this horror show. A person's aspiration has no wiggle-room to breathe under the weight of ignorance, selfishness and arrogance coming from higher up the food-chain. At my most insufferable, I would describe The Office as an existentialist horror. It's a zombie movie without the zombies, and all the more terrifying for it.

What catapults the show into the stratospere of pure genius is the ending of the final episode. Tim -- the romantic hero, the person who we identify with and root for -- is turned into a villain. He bottles his chance at freedom, to go back to school, to do something with his life, for a measly promotion and a dull existence climbing up the company ladder. In justifying his decision, he is almost transformed into his vile boss. The writers twist the knife expertly. All those reviled managers were once good people, turned into monsters by the mundane workings of the corporate machine. The look on Dawn's face when Tim leaves is devastating. Brilliant television.

From that scene of tragedy we shift back to the familiar close-up of David Brent. But here, he isn't an entirely ridiculous figure. His cringe-inducing escapades are of course all about attention-seeking, but there is an element of humanitarianism about them. Brent wants his staff to enjoy themselves. He recognizes that the job is soul-destroying, so he tries to inject some fun into it. And he succeeds unwittingly. Through his speech, the writers put forward their basic manifesto: that the way to ward against despair is through comedy. The world of The Office is bleak, we can only bear it by laughing at it.

What was interesting about the interviews preceding each episode was the way Gervais behaved in relation to his creation. When he describes the show's sophistication -- the way it deals with feminism, class and the nature of comedy -- you cannot help but be reminded of Brent boasting to camera about his abilities and achievments. There is definitely an arrogance in Gervais that comes through in the interview, and makes him rather less likable than the grinning Steven Merchant next to him. But what's really impressive about Gervais is that he recognizes his faults, and knowingly uses them for satire. He puts his flaws on television for the world to see. There's something incredibly brave and selfless and humble in that. We should remember it when Gervais goes off to Hollywood and has his ego swollen to enormous proportions, and compare him favourably to Eddie Izzard.

Ultimate Iron Man 2

The following isn't gonna be about much, except to say the artwork on this comic is fracking ridiculously amazing. Pencils were handled by Pasqual Ferry, and boy can he draw around robots, helicopters, airplanes and plasma screens. All the shiny tech looked gorgeous. But really, the stars of this show are the guys (all five of them) doing the colouring. By far the biggest revolution comics have undergone in recent years is in the arena of colour, on which 3D animation and CGI have had a huge influence. Ultimate Iron Man is ludicrously pretty. The light glows, the surfaces sheen, every crevace of every face is picked out by shadow.

The whole thing was so beautiful, I kept reading despite myself. Don't get me wrong, Orson Scott Card (acclaimed SF author) spins a diverting tale of conspiracy and terrorism, but it does get incredibly convoluted. Worse, the characters seem to sleepwalk through it all. To top it off, Card's attempts at witty banter didn't really tickle my insides in the way Ellis, Ennis or Bendis do. Only at the very end does stuff get interesting, when the villain and her motives are revealed. She really is a wonderful creation: powerful, sexy, and totally crazy. You almost want her to kill everyone and win. Check her out:

'Am I boring you, Howard? Talking too much? But now you want to listen, don't you?

'It's power I want. The kind of power men have. The power of guns. The power of money. The power you get when you don't care who you kill.

'You had it all. Except you weren't ruthless enough. That's what I brought to our marriage. And, of course, this body. And my pretty smile. And my saying, "Oh, Howard, I love you so much."

'Here's the joke, Howard. I realized after I left that I actually did love you. And I still care what you think and feel. That's why I'm going to make sure you see your son die right in front of you. So when I shoot you right afterward, you'll really be feeling something.

'I promise to kiss you after you're dead. But before your lips get cold. That would be icky.'

How great is that? Totally rooting for her to waste the boring Stark family and go on to rule the world. Unsurprisingly, that's not what actually happens. Shame.

25.8.09

Dollhouse Episode 13

Hey, Fox! Do you HATE the television shows you make? Do you KNOW what good TV looks like? Do you even know how to WORK a television?

It sure doesn't look like it from where I'm standing.

The last episode of Dollhouse's season one was never broadcast in America. Which is INSANE, because it is by far the best episode of the show so far. It should never have been a bonus on DVD. It should have been the climax of the series' 13-week run.

Some notes:

Let's start small. The bulk of the episode is a things-going-bump-in-the-dark horror. And it's important to stress just how well this is done. Especially when Amy Acker turns up. And THAT TWIST just came out of nowhere! Awesome.

I'm pretty much in love with this Zone guy. Some words of wisdom:
'Money, man. It's, like, the main ingredient in crazy.'
and
'If you point at the frikkin chair, I WILL END YOU!'
Brilliant.

The actress playing the little girl can teach the cast of Harry Potter a thing or two. Incredible.

The flashbacks show some wonderful character moments. DeWitt cradling Topher, Sierra and Victor putting a brave face on things, Security Man back from the dead and manic with gallows humour. This is a fine cast. I'm glad we'll be seeing more of them next season.

The writers pull a little Dark Knight Returns number. The entire episode we are waiting for Echo to show. And then, in a manner strongly reminiscent of River at the end of Serenity, she arrives, all business. Her job, to lead the survivors of the apocalypse to safety (twice). Only Echo, or should I say Caroline, knows the way. The message is clear. Caroline has the heroic qualities needed to resist and reverse the multiple evils inflicted by the Dollhouse.

The only problem here is that the show hasn't really given us enough of Caroline so that we really understand why she's special. We have only glimpses of political activism and carefree youth. Now, I know that Caroline is supposed to be strong minded, politically active, suspicious of authority and yearning to understand her true purpose in the world. But I really need to see it. The ideas in Buffy would lack all force if we didn't know Sarah Michelle Gellar's creation intimately. Dollhouse requires the same medicine. My worry is that Eliza Dushku won't be able to pull that off. As I've mentioned before, she doesn't do earnest goody-goody very well. Then again, her acting ability has noticeably grown with the show. So maybe it'll work out.

Gotta love the final shot's nod to the closing scene of Fight Club. There are definite parallels here. Both works are about the enemy living inside your brain, controlling what you think. Both show you a way out, although Dollhouse is somewhat more hopeful -- rather than staying in the dark listening to the Pixies, the last guys standing (looking much like a new family) climb a rope-ladder to the heavens, and presumably, to freedom.

The apocalypse is caused by China using Dollhouse tech as a weapon of war -- wiping a large portion of the US population with orders to kill anyone who wasn't wiped. China is an apt choice of aggressor -- being a state that still actively attempts to control what its subjects are thinking. Apocalypse here is equated with the destruction of freedom of thought, which rather nicely boils down the basic point of the show. ('Use an Apocalypse' will probably be rule number one in Whedon's How To Write Like Me guidebook).

But it works. If this was the last ever episode of Dollhouse, I would have left the show content. 'Epitaph One' gives a completeness to the series, in the same way that Serenity completed Firefly, and 'Chosen' completed Buffy. The show said what it wanted to say. Even if it wasn't perfect -- the plots made no sense, characters had no arcs, it wasn't funny -- it had revolutionary ideas that sparkled like diamonds in dull rock. It was interesting in ways that few television shows are. Well done, Joss. Good job. Now go make some more Dr. Horrible.

But wait. There'll be more where that came from. Season two is gonna arrive at the end of the year. And don't you worry. Dollhouse's theme is endless. There's plenty more to say. And if Whedon fixes the nuts-and-bolts issues with the series, we'll have another classic on our hands.

24.8.09

Blood: The Last Vampire

This is about the anime film. Apparently, a live-action version has been made recently, but I haven't seen it. I doubt whether it can really improve on the original.

Which is, I gotta say, a great little action/horror film. Or maybe that should be horror/action, because one of the interesting things about it is the way it builds ze tension. The opening credits sequence is masterful -- still shots capturing little details of a train journey, intersected with smash cuts to black. It lasts for-EVER. You are practically squirming by the time the super-speed, barely visible action climax comes along. This method is repeated throughout the film, and I admire the way it takes its time. There are long periods of background shots, people talking, planes flying. But you know something big and nasty is coming. And so... tension.

And it's an interesting little film in other ways. The mayhem takes place in a US airbase in Japan, a few months before the beginning of the Vietnam war. I don't think this is entirely random. Japan's relationship with America is a strange one. The US dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese, only to turn around and become their best friends. Their perpetual presence in the country can easily be interpreted as vampiric. And from Japan, they are moving on to Vietnam. From one victim to another.

Moreover, the film gives you a glimpse of the bars and brothels that line the periphery of the base, and service US airmen on R&R. The grimy, sexy underworld is prime breeding space for vamps. What's notable is that Americans are the ones who are mutilated in the most gruesome way. There may be an element of revenge fantasy at work here.

Then, there's the hero of the piece. Saya is a Japanese teenage girl, who can never be separated from her trusty katana. She works for some US secret agency hunting vampires. Her orders are given to her by her 'handler' (I'm using Dollhouse-speak) David. She doesn't look at all happy about this. Already, this is interesting, in that it seems to embody the strange power relationship between Japan and the USA. Japan is young, female and inferior, the USA is old, male and superior.

And yet, Saya is the only one capable of dispatching the monsters. Why? Well, have you seen Blade? Yeah, that's why. Saya is being made to hunt her own kind. And in her final scene, it's obvious that she feels some kind of sympathy with her victims. Saya embodies the true fighting spirit, the energy, the danger, of the Japanese. But she is forced by the Americans to turn around and exterminate these very elements from her environment.

Finally, we have the nurse, who gets caught up in the madness of the film. She is a thoroughly Americanized Japanese -- speaking English, working at the high-school attached to the airbase, even practicing Christianity. When Saya sees her clutching her crucifix in despair, she rips it away and angrily throws it on the ground. At the end of the film, everything is covered up and the nurse gets no answers. She sits staring at the cross, beginning to doubt her faith. And also, perhaps, her comfortable life working under the shadow of the Evil Empire.

23.8.09

Sebastian O

There's gonna be a little Grant Morrison season unfolding on the Hothouse, while I try and make sense of the most original voice in comics since Alan Moore.

This 3-part miniseries is a Victorian steampunk fantasy drawn by Steve Yeowell. The pencils are very fine and delicate, and convey the pampered, decadent world of Sebastian O well. (Just look at the clothes everyone is wearing!) Morrison reigns in the multiple-personality-disorder writing of The Invisibles. Instead, he focuses on getting the particular language of this alternate historical reality right. And he succeeds admirably. Take a look at the blurb on the back cover, almost as impressive as the book itself:

'Stay a moment yet and know ecstasy! Gentle reader, we implore your indulgence! Do you dare deny yourselves this opportunity to amaze your jaded sensibilities in a manner to which -- we dare fancy -- they have never before been thrilled? Stay but a moment, and discover between these covers a tale of dandyism, vice and revenge unique in the annals of graphical entertainments: SEBASTIAN O, a romance unequaled in wit and esprit, with enough decadent asides to generate the most agreeable of frissons in every civilized peruser!

'Buy quickly, now! And repair to your scented boudoirs, newly armed with this volume of madness and mauve, there to enjoy its sweet diversions in surroundings befitting your unquestionably high status and shameful criminal appetites. Be assured that the actions set forth herein by Messrs. GRANT MORRISON and STEVE YEOWELL are without equal in both originality and craftsmanship, and that the perverse narrative machinations from which they spring are incontrovertibly the flowering of a morbid and Plutonian genius.

God Save the Queen... for someone must!'

Morrison can do the voices, and his plotting is similarly accomplished. In the first issue there is a brilliant set-piece, where our hero is bathed and dressed by two topless maids, completely unfazed by the police storming his house in search of him. Morrison is a master at building these moments of tension and release. In terms of character, there is the usual crowd of the intriguingly grotesque and weird. The dentist assassin deserves special mention, attacking victims from the teeth in. In all, the book has the slight feel of Tarantino doing the 19th century.

Except that Tarantino won't put all this meta stuff in his work. Sebastian O is a member of the Club de Paradis Artificiel, a society which abhors 'Mother Nature's primordial, oozing squalor' and seeks to 'imagine in Her stead a world of perfect, flawless artifice'. Hence you get the Abbe's completely automated garden, where you only need to 'wind the trees once a day and reset the flowers', avoiding 'all that dreadful rot and decay and procreation'. The real world is flawed, but humanity can create artificial worlds which are perfect and true. That's partly what creating art is all about. Except that it isn't. What Morrison is trying to show is that the authoritarian impulse in artistic endeavor is dangerous, and closely related to political authoritarianism. The automated garden is a ludicrous invention, motivated by the desire to subjugate nature and have it under complete control. The villain of the book wants to go much further, controlling the weather, the Queen and the destiny of nations, in order to make 'a world of pure, undying beauty'.

This is what Sebastian O is fighting against. His quick retort to this statement of aims is that 'the essential component of beauty is mortality'. By that he doesn't just mean that things are beautiful because they will eventually decay and vanish, but that they are beautiful because they are made by mortals, and so reflect our helpless, fallen nature. We look at art and see not some perfect God, but ourselves.

The authoritarian impulse in art and politics is essentially a product of pride. I know what's best. My art/political control will show you the way. At the book's climax, the villain becomes delusional: 'This is my world and you cannot kill me. For I am God!' Sebastian calmly replies, 'But haven't you heard? God is dead.' before shooting him off a bridge. There is no one in control. Life is what we, as individuals, make it.

But Grant Morrison has one final joke to play on his hero. At the very end of the book, the dead villain's prediction about the weather turns out to be true. Someone is controlling events. It's not the villain, who's dead, but Grant Morrison himself. The author admits that his craft is authoritarian. He is also telling you what's best. But in showing his hand, Morrison at least confesses his sins, and emphasizes that the art he offers is subjective. He is telling you what he thinks is best. Sebastian O is a book written by a person. You don't necessarily have to agree with what it says.

21.8.09

The Mill on the Floss

I didn't think any character could frustrate me more than Persuasion's Anne Eliot, but Maggie Tulliver takes the biscuit. She cannot accept the amorous advances of either the malformed cerebral aesthete Philip Wakem (because her brother Tom holds a grudge against him) or the flash and sexy Steven Guest (because he is romantically involved with her cousin Lucy). Maggie is tied up by the bonds of kinship, so tight that she cannot move. Her sense of duty towards her family demands that she renounce every possible path towards her own happiness and fulfillment.

Maggie's passion and imagination inevitably attracts worthy suitors. Those same qualities make it difficult for her not to respond to their advances. Wakem offers her intellectual fulfillment and the fellow-feeling born out of shared ostracism. But he's no looker. I imagine Maggie will encounter a few problems running up that hill. When their Romeo and Juliet love affair is uncovered, she feels 'a certain dim background of relief in the forced separation from Philip', and the narrator questions whether this is just due to 'a deliverance from concealment'. Maggie's sympathetic nature compels her to return Philip's feelings, but she never really wanted him as a lover. He's not as exiting as the dashing heroes in the novels she reads.

But Guest is. He is Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Robert Downey Jr. rolled into one, with fire in his eyes and a giant shlong in his trousers. But that's not really why Maggie falls for him. In a conversation with Wakem about the novels they have read, Maggie says she 'always takes the side of the rejected lover'. When Wakem suggestively asks if she would ever have the heart to reject one herself, Maggie replies that she would 'if he were very conceited', but she would relent 'if he got extremely humiliated afterwords'. That's pretty much what happens when she meets Guest. At first, she is rather unimpressed with his dazzling demeanor. But when he breaks down and grovels about his love for her, she can't help but be swayed along. This time round there is a definite physical attraction, as well as the opportunity to live comfortably and achieve self-realization, on the cards. Maggie finds it much more difficult to walk away. But walk away she does.

Notice how in both relationships, Maggie is ultimately swayed by a predisposition to look after other people's happiness better than her own. When Wakem's loneliness is made manifest, she loves him. When Guest's (somewhat OTT) suffering is made manifest, she loves him. But to solve each problem, Maggie will inflict pain on either Tom or Lucy respectively. She's trapped. Every choice will inconvenience someone. In the end she choses Tom and Lucy over Wakem and Guest. Family over love. Why?

This is where all the rather plodding stuff in the first volume comes in. In laying out the central tragedy of the book, Eliot starts from the very beginning, when Tom and Maggie are still children. This is so we have a rounded understanding of the the way in which Tom and Maggie's natures have been molded by the environment they have grown up in. For example, both Tom and Maggie have been ceaselessly lectured on the importance of faithfulness to kin by their Dodson relatives, and while the Dodsons are pretty ridiculous themselves, their message is taken seriously.

But that's not all. Maggie capacity for sympathy is enormous, but her upbringing leaves her with no will to push at the world and get what she wants. Tom, being a boy, has heaps of willpower, and he also thinks girls are silly and should not be listened to. As an adult, he cannot penetrate other people's inwardness in the way his sister does, which condemns him to lead a lonely dogged existence. His industry restores his family's reputation, but he has no clue how to act on the feelings he has for his cousin Lucy (back then it wasn't weird).

Maggie and Tom's adult selves are molded by the prevalent preconceptions of what women and men should be like. The young Maggie's exuberant enthusiasm and courage, which in one extraordinary episode lead to her running away from home with the intention of become queen of the gypsies, is gradually eroded by family tragedy and Tom's constant bullying. She learns to be subservient, aimless and emotional. Meanwhile, Tom reacts to his father's failure by abandoning all sentimentality, and learning from his uncles to be even more assertive and rational. Their central tragedy is that Maggie is forced to become much too female, and Tom much too male. Neither is a full human being. At the very end of the book, they almost seem to realize their mistake. As the flood wreaks destruction all around them, they are drawn together, and they die in each other's arms. 'In their death they were not divided' reads their tombstone, underhandedly suggesting that the reason they died was because they were divided.

Biblical symbols overlay this general theme. Tom is a neutered Adam, who cannot love his sister enough to forgive and accept her bad choices. Maggie is a distorted Eve, who refuses to assert herself and fall when confronted with Steven Guest's sexy serpent . Maggie is also Steven's serpent, in that she undermines his paradisiacal (and rather prim) relationship with Lucy, all of which suggests that Maggie has a certain dark sexual presence of her own, which she barely understands and cannot control.

The flood that ends Maggie and Tom's lives is providential. The waters rise just as Maggie finally buries her temptation in the ground. Instead of breaking free from the social norms that have dictated her life, she chooses to be dragged along by the tide. In the end, she is washed away by it.

Her drowning also echoes back to the very beginning of the novel, where Maggie is explaining one of her books to Mr. Riley:

'It's a dreadful picture, isn't it? But I can't help looking at it. That old woman in the water's a witch -- they've put her in, to find out whether she's a witch or no, and if she swims she's a witch, and if she's drowned -- and killed, you know, -- she's innocent, and not a witch, but only a poor silly old woman. But what good would it do her then, you know, when she was drowned? Only, I suppose she'd go to heaven, and God would make it up to her.'

Maggie is shortly after described as a 'pythoness', and with good reason. She is a witchy child that sticks pins in fetishes, causes nothing but trouble and is an affront to middle class morality. If only she could have retained this rebellious anger and independence, she would have been able to swim free of the superstitious society that dumped her in the water. The flood would not have ended her life. But instead, the adult Maggie will choose to become a 'poor silly old woman', renouncing her natural sexual, emotional and intellectual needs in favour of a desperate yearning faith in God.

It's evident that The Mill on the Floss is a rather more autobiographical than George Eliot's other novels. Eliot was also confronted with the dilemma Maggie faces -- a choice between social propriety and her own happiness. Unlike Maggie, she chose the latter. Her unconventional relationship with George Henry Lewes resulted in her brother refusing to speak to her for most of her life. Eliot not only has Maggie's incredible powers of compassion and imagination (obvious to anyone who reads her work) but Tom's confidence and sense of conviction. Her novel pieces together the elements that allowed her to escape her oppressive environment, and achieve artistic self-expression and personal contentment.

But why write it as a tragedy? Why let your heroine fail where you succeeded? This, above all else, is why I love George Eliot. She has every right to be indignant at her brother's obstinacy and the narrow, ignorant ideas of the community she grew up in. She could have written a satire or a self-glorifying epic romance. But her impulse, driven by compassion and the need for understanding, is towards tragedy. Eliot does strike satirical notes in the tragicomic escapades in volume one, but these are always gentle and good-natured. Moreover, she allows even the most ridiculous characters in St. Ogg at least one moment of grace. This community isn't evil, Eliot insists. Maggie and Tom and Steven Guest and Mrs. Tulliver and Aunt Glegg are all people. They are complicated, and they can surprise you. The last volume abandons pastoral fun and games completely, and tips inexorably into full tragedy. We are with Maggie every step of the way as she battles with the biggest dilemma of her life. But as we follow her story, we are not participating in a 'me against the world' narrative where the heroine eventually conquers all. Instead, we are led to appreciate how Maggie's actions are causally linked to the world she lives in, and we understand the terrible difficulty involved in tearing yourself away from that world, as Eliot did.

20.8.09

How I love Bob Gale...

'Whoa! I haven't seen this many villains, thugs and lowlifes in one place since I watched C-Span's coverage of Congress yesterday.' -- Spider-Man

19.8.09

Istanbul

You see, I have this theory. It runs a little something like this. Cities that have been the capitals of large empires are likely to be more interesting architecturally, culturally, historically, gastronomically... The concentration of people, patronage and loose money would create an explosive cocktail of new ideas, which will leave behind a mountain of monuments to ponder and ponce over.

Now. Istanbul has been a capital of empire for a millennia and a half (give or take). That’s a mind-blowing amount of time. It actually takes my mind and blows it up. I love Rome and London to bits, but Istanbul (according to my little theory) promises to be something else. This summer I took a break from stewing aimlessly in Bulgaria to go visit.

The little sister was the organizational force behind the expedition, and she had brought a friend of hers called Charlie. For some reason, people think such a party traveling together is weird. What can I say? I’m one of those people who likes his sister and her friends. They shall henceforth be referred to as ‘sis and Chaz’, because I find it funny and they’ll find it annoying. I am an older brother, after all.

Sis and Chaz decided to do all the historical stuff on the first day. I had thought that I would have to drag them around the things I found interesting while they sulked behind me, but that was totally not the case. Which was really great. So we began. Istanbul’s blockbuster historical attractions are all in a row: the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya Mosque (former church), and the Topkapi Palace of the Sultans. The guidebook bought in London was (of course) forgotten in Bulgaria. But this didn’t really matter, because it’s obvious what these gigantic feats of architecture and engineering were about: shock and awe. Look on my works, y’all, and get with how amazing I am. Regular people can’t do this sort of thing. Now, down on your knees and worship me like good little poor people.

Istanbul, as I expected, has a lot of this going on. It’s stuffed fit to burst with mosques, built by the rich and powerful to exhibit how rich and powerful (and pious) they are. This is a timeless practice. To illustrate, let’s start with the Hippodrome. This used to be a race track (for chariots, dumb-ass), but is now a Hippodrome-shaped garden, with little but the three obelisks at the centre remaining. The first celebrates the Roman Emperor Theodosius. On all four sides of the base, a crowd of the great and the good appear to acknowledge the Emperor. Look at all the people who do what I want, he silently says. You are gonna do the same. On top of this layer rises a brown obelisk with Egyptian hieroglyphs running down the four sides. I’ve subsequently learned that this bit was originally built outside Luxor some 3500 years ago. Why is it here? The kingdom of Egypt was the first great civilization, and look! the Romans have swallowed it up. Surely this civilization is even greater still. Doesn’t Cleopatra’s Needle in London communicate exactly the same idea about the British Empire?

The other two spires are less interesting, so lets move on to the Blue Mosque on the left. Boy is it a big un! It’s a fully functional place of worship, and so free, a fact that will become significant later. Sis, Chaz and I queued up, took off our footwear, and sis donned a blue poncho thing that covered her shoulders, helpfully provided by an attendant. Because shoulders equals sex, apparently. And a mosque is no place for sex. You got that, Mr. Rushdie?

We walk in. Intricate patterns on the carpet. Golden calligraphy everywhere. A mass of lights hanging from the ceiling. What is immediately striking is the emptiness of the place. No pews, no alter, no nothing. You sit on the carpet and you bow towards Mecca, the direction indicated by a simple golden arch on one of the walls.

From my half-forgotten school lessons, I knew that Islam forbids any visual representations of animals and people, to ward against the worship of idols. No icons of saints or grimacing gargoyles here. Instead, Muslims are encouraged to focus on the words of Allah, exclusively recorded in the Qur'an in the divine language of Arabic.

Thus, Arabic calligraphy is a huge part of the way Islamic culture expresses itself artistically. And the calligraphy is beautiful, much more so than the blocky Latin script we are lumbered with. But if you can’t read it (a huge limitation) it is at the end a rather abstract thing to look at.

The same can be said of the other visual elements in the Mosque. The very tops of the domes suggest the sun/Allah shining down on the world. The calligraphy around the domes and on the tops of the pillars show how Allah’s presence in the world can be understood through the words in the Qur’an. From the floor, minutely detailed plant-like patterns creep upwards towards the sky, seeking Allah’s luminescence. In this way, the Mosque offers a simple life/humanity/Allah structure of the universe, where everything is working its way to the most high.

But this is pretty much the only story being told. The sanction against animal and human images seems part of a more general aversion against images carrying any kind of meaning. Every shape -- be it doorway, sun disc, or flower -- is stylized into abstraction. The decorations I encountered, not just in the Blue Mosque but in all the buildings I saw that day, was always impressively intricate, and sometimes very beautiful, but they never made me feel or think very deeply. It’s almost as if Islamic artists held back their ideas, because they felt that more arresting images would distract away from the purity of thought present in the Qur’an. I can’t help but feel this attitude to be a severe limitation. Angels, saints and cloven-footed devils may be profane imaginings, but at least they provide the tools for European artists to express and convey every human emotion under the sun. And for me, when it comes to the visual arts, people are far more interesting than the metaphysical shape of the universe.

So I was left slightly put out on the artistic side of things. Now as we make our way over to the Aya Sofya, I’m going to address a slightly more mundane issue, namely, how Istanbul treats its tourists. The Aya Sofya was originally a church, built around the time the Roman Empire was starting to crumble. This makes the building more than 1400 years old, a fact immediately apparent as you approach it. It doesn’t look Medieval. It looks Ancient. With the fall of the Byzantine empire to the Turks 600 years ago, it was converted into a mosque. Now, it’s a museum, which means you pay to get in. 20 lira to be exact (about £8). This, to people used to Bulgarian prices (and free museums in London) was kinda steep. What they didn’t tell us at the door was that the building was being retouched. All the mosaics in the gallery had been taken out and replaced with photographs. More upsettingly, a quarter of the giant nave was obscured by scaffolding, meaning you couldn’t appreciate the full effect of being inside this massive space.

I understand that closing the entire museum would be even worse. But being informed about the restoration, and being given a discount, would have mitigated some of the disappointment I felt as I wandered inside. As it was, the thing that struck me most about the building was the eight giant wooden shields hung up around the nave, all bearing different calligraphic inscriptions, gold on black. Standing underneath them all, you could imagine how those words bored into the skulls of the faithful at prayer. Again, I was hit by the repercussions of being unable to worship idols. You end up worshipping words instead. I learned later that the shields bore the names of Allah, Muhammad and the founding fathers of Islam. Sometimes the simplest brands are the best.

The final thing on the list was the Topkapi Palace of the Sultans. Another museum, and another 20 lira to enter. And again, another disappointment lurked inside. To enter the harem section of the complex -- the Sultan’s personal rooms (not just a brothel, you bunch of perverts) -- another 15 lira (£6) had to be shelled out. I dutifully paid up, having come all the way and not wanting to miss out, but sis and Chaz had had enough and decided to sit it out. They chose wisely. Having become acquainted with the intricate abstract patterns of the Turkish style, both in the mosques and the rest of the Palace, I was left underwhelmed by more of the same. Instead, by far the most interesting part of the museum was the treasury (no extra charge for entry), which is both extensive and magnificent. As much gold and precious stones as you could ever want to see. In particular, your eye will be grabbed by a giant 85+ carat diamond shaped like a droplet. Jewels don’t really hold much of a mystique for me, but staring at that, I could understand why some people get all worked up about them.

As you can see, from our adventures on the first day we three explorers were often confronted with the sensation of paying too much for stuff and being cheated out of our money. Such feelings recurred for the remainder of our stay. Istanbul is an expensive city. We paid London prices for food and drink everywhere we went. Going out is actually more expensive than in London. We were forewarned about this, and so abstained from partying. But two (achingly beautiful) Danish girls staying at our hostel did go to a nightclub, supposedly the biggest in Europe, where they had to pay 50 lira (£20) to enter, and a further 20 lira (£8) for a drink. Prices in Denmark are similar, they told me, so for them the cost was bearable. The old lecherous sugar daddies found inside weren’t, however. Sucks to be good looking, it seems.

High prices infuriate me, but I’m a cheerless miser. What would depress anyone is the accompanying feeling of being constantly ripped off. Prices in restaurants are written down, but you don’t get any price tags in shops. Instead, the shopkeeper takes a look at you, listens to the language you speak, and then decides how much to charge you. I think you are expected to bargain, as you are in the bazaars, but none of the tourists in the incredibly touristy centre of the city do, so it’s awkward trying.

Another thing. Restaurants and bars usually have one, sometimes a couple, of waiters outside attempting to rope in customers. These can become very annoying as you’re walking through the city. We ended up actively trying to avoid certain streets in order to not have to deal with the hassle of rejecting the salesmen. The only real way of luring customers they have is to offer reductions on an individual basis, meaning that every time you sit down somewhere you are conscious of the fact that others around you will be getting a different percentage, or that you could have found a better deal somewhere else.

Then there’s the outright trickery. On the first day, after all the cultural stuff, we sat down at a cafe and ordered up a nargile bubble pipe, without being aware of the price they charged for it (it wasn’t written down in the menu). When the bill came, we found that they had charged us 20 lira. The next day we found a lovely place between the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque that offered one nargile for 12 lira, with unlimited coal top-ups. We had been played.

On the third day we took a taxi to the Bus Station in order to see Chaz off (his part in our adventures had come to a close). During the journey, the driver occasionally inquired about our stay: where we were from, whether this was our first visit and so on. He was sizing us up, and not in a particularly subtle manner, either. When we arrived, the meter spat out a bill for 50 lira, even though we were aware that the average cost for that journey was around 30 lira less. Uncomplaining, my sister handed a 50 over, which the driver whipped away. He immediately handed back a 20, and pretended that we had given the wrong amount. In the subsequent confusion, we ended up paying another 20 lira before we left him, still shouting at us.

All of these encounters soured my experience of the city. Services are always provided with a smile, but you cannot escape the nagging awareness of duplicity and deceit running underneath all the friendliness. Rather strangely I ended up missing the brusk, uncaring service you often find in Bulgarian restaurants and shops, because at least it’s honest. They’re not constantly trying to fleece you. Bulgarians are paid shit, they need a cigarette and would prefer you to be on your way as quick as possible. I’m comfortable with that. It’s a lot simpler than the palaver you go through in Istanbul.

So where does that leave my little theory? I walk away from Istanbul -- imperial capital of imperial capitals -- rather disappointed. A massive city clogged up with traffic, few green spaces to sit and chill in, prices inflated at the merest whiff of a tourist, and streets stuffed with salesmen who harass you as you’re walking by. And this was just the centre. The suburbs we passed on the way looked like the worst kind of hellhole -- high-rises, hypermarkets and desolate, littered beaches. The only pleasant architecture we encountered on the trip was in the Galata area -- the Genoese quarter of old -- where a certain Mediterranean flavour remained.

In all, the mosques were impressive, and the Bosphorus is beautiful (we took a ferry down it on the second day), but these things weren’t enough to really inspire a sense of the majesty and incredible age of the place. It didn’t act on my imagination in the way Rome or London does. I didn’t feel like I got a true sense of the Constantinople of the Byzantine Empire, or the Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire. Every historical monument I encountered had the air of a tourist trap. The city felt dirty, guileful and mendacious. But not even in an alluringly grotesque Dickensian way, as London (also pretty grimy and mean) can feel.

Perhaps I just had a particularly bad time of it all. I certainly didn’t see everything, and there may have been many amazing things I missed. That said, I’m not particularly keen on going back. I would rather face the shame of having my little theory on imperial cities thoroughly buried than risk further attempts at salvaging it.

So don’t go there. Go to Bulgaria instead! The beer is good and the women are beautiful. There are beaches and shitty euro-house nightclubs. Everything is cheap as chips. And you can go hiking in the Balkans. And there are gorgeous tomatoes with feta cheese to eat, with apricot brandy on the side. And did I mention how the women were beautiful? And that the beer was good? All that sure beats a 1600-year-old imperial capital from where I'm standing. Not that I’m biased or anything...

How I love Dan Slott...

'Ow! Giant metal banana!' -- Spider-Man

Hello again.