J G Harlond Interviews Ludo da Portovenere from The Chosen man
In this first third of the seventeenth century, now 1640, Europe and Great Britain are experiencing significant changes in international politics and domestic life in general. Spain and the Holy Roman Empire are still fighting to keep the Netherlands; the Portuguese are conspiring to regain their monarchy; the French at war with Spain and conspiring with the Vatican on all manner of issues; in England there will be a civil war that could change people’s lives forever if the king does not act to avert it. The bourgeoisie in northern Europe, however, flourish; in Holland they are already calling it ‘the golden age’. But we are surrounded by the plague and the winters continue colder and longer than they should.
Ludo da Portovenere is here with us today to talk about his role as the Vatican and Spanish crown’s ‘chosen man’. Initially commissioned to destabilize the economy in Holland via tulip bulbs, Ludo left Europe to trade from India. He is now visiting London and Madrid to treat with King Charles Stuart and King Felipe IV of Spain on matters related to his new spice company and a New Christian woman in the Portuguese colony of Goa.
Ludo is a fictional character involved in real events. Join me in discovering something about his past, which he never discusses in public, and how he really feels about the women whose hearts he breaks – and about the one woman who has very nearly broken his. His charm, we are told, takes him far, but his amoral approach to life gets him into all sorts of trouble.
Wagon of Fools by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot, 1637. A depiction of the madness of the Tulip Mania.
JGH: Ludo, if I may call you that?
LdaP: Please do (eyes twinkle).
JGH: (flustered before she begins) Would you introduce yourself and tell us where you were born?
LdaP: My name is Ludo da Portovenere – I am also Ludo di Doria. My precise date of birth was not registered given that my mother was on a pirate galley at the time of her travail – of her own choosing, I should point out. It was in 1605, I believe. My adoptive father Murat Reis says I was actually born on land in Salé, Morocco – but I have always preferred my mother’s version. She said I arrived in the world flailing like a swimmer and kicked the ship’s surgeon in the eye. (Laughs)
JGH: So you grew up in a Barbary pirate stronghold?
LdaP: My early years were spent in Salé and sailing with Murat Reis, who you may know as the Dutchman, Jan Janszoon. I was taken to Portovenere, near La Spezia in Italy when I was around five or six, but I returned to live with Murat when I was about twelve or fourteen. I go back to Portovenere whenever I can, though. I have many, many friends there. Someone always takes me in and feeds me. There is no food as divine as sea-food pasta in Portovenere.
JGH: Do you mind telling us a little more about your childhood?
LdaP: My mother was exiled to the Doria family castle in Portovenere when she returned to Genoa. It made life easier for her family – her father was the Doge of Genoa, you see, and they own a wealthy banking house so they had a certain name to keep up. It was actually easier for them when everyone believed my mother, Gabriella, had been taken by corsairs – I have no time for these social niceties. Whatever, they all heartily disapproved of me and – er – shoved us in a castle on the edge of the sea. A husband was found to marry my mother, a poor relation with the Doria name – but I was still so very inconvenient. Murat Reis took me away: saved me, although I didn’t know it at the time. He saved me from tedium if nothing else. I do what I can myself now for youngsters; Marcos who came to Amsterdam with me, and my cabin boy, Jose – he was killed recently. Can we move on, I do not enjoy dwelling on the past.
JGH: Yes, let us move on. Tell us what led to you becoming a silk and spice merchant?
LdaP: ‘The rich trade’ it’s called in Holland, where they are getting richer by the minute without the Spanish holding them back. How did I get started, though? Hmm – I have a lot of contacts throughout the Mediterranean, and in Goa, India, now as well. I’d spent years unloading cargoes taken by Murat’s corsairs so I knew what was valuable, what goods people were willing to risk their lives transporting by sea; I learned what prices spices and silks fetched and so on. I bought my first cargo in Constantinople using corsair prize money. Murat helped to make me wealthy at a younger age than most men – and of course, I am able to stop Barbary pirates raiding my ships, which almost guarantees the safe arrival of goods in London or Amsterdam – subject to wind and weather, of course. The sea is a dangerous place.
JGH: And this is what you wanted from life?
LdaP: What I wanted was my own ship. I’ve got her now – The Tulip – although the Spanish might disagree with that. I stole her in Lisbon harbour – but they should have provided me with a decent vessel in the first place. They tried to cheat me with an old tub, which they then tried to sink would you believe! So I took a new galleon instead – right from under the harbour-master’s nose, it was quite a little show though I say it myself. Some people will believe everything you tell them, poor souls. Tulip’s mine now, a beautiful three master . . . and heaven help the Spanish if they try to get her back!
JGH: The sea is in your blood so to speak?
LdaP: It certainly is. I’ve recently arrived from Goa with a full load of spices and gems. They reckon only one in three ships ever get there and back again you know.
JGH: You aren’t afraid to face danger at sea, then. Tell us what does make you frightened, or shall we say uneasy.
LdaP: (Long pause) I have reason to fear a certain Vatican agent, who I believe is acting beyond his instructions in a personal vendetta. I have reason to be wary of women who give out one sort of signal then act in a contrary manner. Women in general, you know, aren’t always to be trusted. I mean they trust me, act as if they are relying on me and look where that gets them! I fear for them, I really do. But it’s always their choice: I have never once in my life asked or even suggested a woman to do anything against her will. Poor Elsa in Amsterdam . . . but she had so much fun with her precious tulips, and I did give her some gorgeous pearls: silver-black pearls are very rare you know.
JGH: You have a certain reputation with women, Ludo. Why is that?
LdaP: I have a theory that most women dislike mediocrity. They set themselves up for a safe marriage, which is logical and laudable, how else can a woman survive without a man to care for her? That makes her sound like a chattel, and I certainly don’t approve of treating a woman like housekeepers to sleep with – but . . . Where were we? Ah yes, women do create their own problems: they get bored with safe men; they resent having to play house – they look for diversion – can you blame them? Not I. But then they should not blame me when I have to leave. . . Alina’s case was different, of course. But she made her choice freely, which not many women can do in this day and age . . . You were asking about danger though, my apologies. I loathe hate and detest violence so I avoid physical confrontation whenever possible.
JGH: Because you saw so much violence with the corsairs.
JGH: Let’s go back to what you were saying about trust. How do you decide if you can trust someone?
LdaP: It is said that there is honour among thieves: that is not true. Thieves like anyone else act on self-interest. You can trust them to do only what is entirely to their personal benefit. Knowing this is the key to almost any negotiation with anyone in the world. Ask the Chief Minister of Spain, Olivares will tell you the same. I have, as it happens, recently been commissioned by the royal houses of Spain and England – each monarch, wives included – wants something to their personal advantage despite their elevated status, and each has entrusted me to do something for them. I don’t trust them to pay me: they probably don’t trust me to fulfil their tasks or provide what I say I can. (Shrugs) Stalemate, as they say in chess, though heaven knows, life is too short for that game. Who do I trust? Frankly, nobody; not even myself. (laughs) Have you ever played snakes and ladders, Mokshapat as it is called in the East? It’s a form of teaching morality and serendipity; demonstrating the random nature of karma and virtue – far more fun than chess.
JGH: So you think honesty is an overrated value.
LdaP: Not necessarily, but honesty is a personal concept. There was a time when I was utterly honest – before the tulip scandal, for example, I set out the situation exactly as I saw it and was perfectly honest about what I could and could not do – and how many people present believed me, do you think? Let me explain: you can tell me something that is true for you, but because I see the same matter in a different light, the truth that is true for you is not true for me. Are you still with me? I love these discussions, don’t you? One of the joys of being at sea is what the Spanish call ‘sobre mesa’ – enjoying a bottle of good grappa or brandy and taking all night to examine the world and how it works. Philosophy, some call it. ‘Good conversation’ is what I say.
JGH: Tell us about where you would like to live. You travel widely, where would you like to settle?
LdaP: What is it with women and ‘settle down’? No, forgive me; a few years ago I was fully intending to settle down with the woman I loved. At the time, I was planning to build a beautiful home on the Cinque Terra in Liguria, or near Genoa. A pleasant house with a terraced garden and views of the sea was what I had in mind.
JGH: And would you still like to live there?
LdaP: If I can ever persuade the woman in question to join me. Next question.
JGH: I’m afraid we have run out of time so my last question is ‘where to next’. I hear you are currently trading on behalf of both the royal house of Spain and the English monarchy.
LdaP: Trading, amongst other matters, yes: pearls and spices mostly. Both queens have a penchant for these wonderful pearls . . . (opens a chamois leather pouch and tips out three huge misshapen natural sea pearls) They are from the Gulf of Oman – would you like to hold one . . . They’re not at all expensive for what they are. Exquisite, no? Do you know anyone, anyone at all with anything like them? Of course you don’t . . . I also have these uncut rubies . . . would you like to see? (Shows rubies before JGH can even nod her head) They suit your colouring perfectly. Redheads should never wear pink, but your dark and er – silvery – hair sets them off perfectly . . .
JGH: (gazing at Ludo then back at the gems) Thank you. That is – thank you, Ludo da Portovenere, for being with us today. We look forward to hearing about your new venture in the East next year. (Goes back to staring at the rubies and pearls).
Other Books by JG Harlond
I grew up in North Devon, England, spending each summer either on the beach or wandering around Cornwall and Exmoor. Like most of my family I’m an outdoors sort of person; I can get very edgy if bad weather keeps me in all day. That’s possibly why there is so much nature imagery in my work, and why most unpleasant situations take place indoors.
Before settling down to be a full-time writer, I spent many years as a teacher in international senior schools in Europe. This brought me into contact with some splendid people from all over the world. It also heightened my awareness of how young people, and not so young people, have to adapt to new environments: how one almost has to develop a new persona to be successful in a culture very different to where your parents were born and raised. How people adjust to new environments is a theme running through my linked novels The Empress Emerald and The Chosen Man.
Nowadays, I work by a window with wide views of the Sierra de las Nieves, in the Province of Málaga, southern Spain. Apart from fiction I also write school text book material so I am always busy. At present though, I am finishing a crime story set in a Cornish village during World War II and planning another novel about the wicked rogue Ludovico da Portovenere for next year.
The great thing about writing fiction is that you can literally make things happen, as long as events and their repercussions remain within the realms of possibility. Setting a story in a specific epoch, however, means it has to be as historically accurate as possible. Fortunately, I enjoy doing research, and constantly get side-tracked by fascinating details. Truth is stranger than fiction they say: I often think if I wrote that, no one would believe it.
This house, Crimphele (pronounced Crimp/heel), where Davina (in The Empress Emerald) and Alina (in The Chosen Man) live, is based on the lovely Tudor mansion, Cotehele, a National Trust property on the River Tamar not far from Callington. The story of what happens to Alina is, in some respects, Davina’s story in reverse. The rogue Ludo in The Chosen Man is also an ancestor of Leo Kazan, the main character in The Empress Emerald. I am particularly interested in how genetic inheritance informs our personalities and life choices; how aspects of appearance follow through or skip a generation, how, for example, a great-grandson can be the image of his great-grandfather and share his character traits.
Find Jane on Twitter: JG Harlond @JaneGHarlond