In it’s 25th year, the Somerset Celebration of Literature continues to attract luminaries of Australian literature. This year, Australia’s favourite interviewer and podcaster, Richard Fidler appeared at the festival to talk about his 2016 book ‘Ghost Empire’ as well as sharing a stage with with co-author Kari Gislason to discuss their new book ‘Saga Land’. The fabulous Literary Long Table Dinner that featured Gislason was beyond my meagre budget, however, I did manage to catch Fidler’s daytime talk about ‘Ghost Empire’.
For the uninitiated, Richard Fidler spent 10 years performing with comedy group the Doug Anthony All Stars (DAAS) from 1984 to 1994, alongside Paul McDermott and Tim Ferguson. Following stints on ABC TV shows ‘Race Around the World’ and ‘Aftershock’, he moved to Brisbane to work in local radio. In 2005 he started his ‘Conversations’ program, then moved to Sydney a year later where the program blossomed into a national hour-long morning radio interview show which is also now podcasted to a monthly audience of nearly four million, the most downloaded podcast in Australia.
‘Ghost Empire’ is an account of his trip to Istanbul with his then 14 year old son Joe. It was as much a right of passage for his son as it was to satiate his own history buff hankering to chronicle the story of the great city of Constantinople. “This city dazzled people with it’s incredible scale and beauty of it’s incredible architecture” says a captivating Fidler as he describes a visiting dignitary who talks of witnessing a golden tree with mechanical birds in it and mechanical lions on either side of the Emperor’s throne, which, while the dignitary prostrates before the Emperor, raises 30 feet into the air!
“When I was at school I was taught that civilisation began in Mesopotamia and it keeps going west all the time from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece and then west to Ancient Rome, to Western Europe, it crosses over to America and eventually ends up in California where it dies. But of course it’s not true. The so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were a time of thriving civilisations when Byzantia , China, India, Persia, Arabia and Mongolia flourished as well as other nations across the Eurasian continent. They had an exchange of ideas, money, religion and technology all the time. There is a quickening of the spirit and a growing sense of excitement.” Ah yes, Fidler is an eloquent speaker and has his audience of year 11 and 12 students as well as the adults in the palm of his hand. No wonder the podcast is so popular.
Fidler knows how to relate to his teenage audience: “I love history. I did it at uni. Then I got distracted at uni and joined a comedy trio for about 10 years. We were quite disgusting on stage and we were like this on TV. Our costumes stank all the time and we were proud of that. We were touring around Australia and the world quite a bit and that meant sitting in the back of a Tarago for hours and hours on end, and this is when I did a lot of reading. I read a lot of history at the time… I think without history, we are all orphans. Without history we don’t know how to place ourselves in the great stream of events and people that came before us… we don’t know how we got to this place.”
Fidler wanted to explore the beginnings and end of the Roman Empire with his son who was keen to see and touch the ancient world. They went to Istanbul where remnants of the old Byzantium empire and the city of Constantinople still stand today. “To find the origins of the Empire, we had to start with the man who gave it it’s name, Constantine the Great. He was one of the few people who actually deserves the term ‘Great’.” Fidler mesmerises the audience with tales of Constantine’s vision, why he moved the Roman Empire to Constantinople, the Theodosian Walls, the Hagia Sophia, Emporer Justinian and Empress Theodora and more. I could have sat for hours listening to this man’s passion for history.
Unfortunately my meagre budget didn’t include the cost of the book. I may have missed out on having the author personally sign a copy but next payday I’m buying it anyway.
‘Ghost Empire’ and ‘Saga Land’ are available from ABC Shops and online.