The Riches Of The European Bronze Age

December 3rd, 2014 No comments

Dea MadreAnother reminder this year of the riches of the European Bronze Age which we still underestimate so much – this time in the form of an artefact allegedly looted from Sardinia and now up for sale in New York, magnificent in its stark simplicity.

Adam Nicolson’s superb study of Homer and the Bronze Age, The Mighty Dead, and my own travels through Bronze Age Britain in The Green Road into the Trees have whetted my appetite for more.  And a chance to go to Athens recently and see some of Schliemann’s findings from Mycenae, like the so-called Mask of Agememnon, in the flesh – or rather metal – only confirmed that.

A chance to see something closer to home is at the British Museum: The Mold Gold Cape, discovered in Wales and the most spectacular of British Bronze Age findings, which should have crowds diverting from the Egyptian rooms, but few know about.

Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’

November 25th, 2014 No comments

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If you read one book this year, it should be not even the book itself, but the introduction to the book: Arundhati Roy’s essay ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, attached to the reissue of a lost classic, Annihilation of Caste by B.R Ambedkar, the leader of the Untouchables at the time of Indian Independence.

In cool and merciless prose, Roy blows away the cobwebs that obfuscate all discussion of this most shameful aspect of Indian life.  There are still around 100 million Untouchables, or Dalits as they are now more commonly known  – and , as I saw when interviewing her some 15 years ago in Kerala, it is a prejudice that is practised in India by Christian and Muslim communities as well as Hindu ones.

You can watch The Exotic Marigold Hotel or The Darjeeling Limited and be blithely unaware of the realities of caste as a system that still preordains life for so many and so narrowly.

As she asks: ‘Other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism and religious fundamentalism have been politically and intellectual challenged at international forums. How is it that the practice of caste in India – one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisation that human society has known – has managed to escape similar scrutiny and censure?  Perhaps because it has come to be so fused with Hinduism, and by extension with so much that is seen to be kind and good – mysticism, spiritualism, non-violence, tolerance, vegetarianism, Gandhi, yoga, backpackers, the Beatles – that, at least to outsiders, it seems impossible to pry it loose and try to understand it.’

The introduction, at 125 pages, is longer than the book it presents.  In any other writer this might be presumption; with Arundhati Roy every last word is justified.  She has already proved herself a formidable polemicist, but this may have been her most important contribution to the debate about India’s future – and one which has already stirred up a great deal of controversy, both because she attacks Gandhi and because some Dalit radicals have complained – unfairly in my view – that she has tried to appropriate their voice.

‘The Doctor and the Saint’, as an introduction to Annihilation of Caste by B.R Ambedkar, has just been published by Verso in the UK.

The Indian edition by Navayana has the best cover – as here – and has been carefully priced to make it accessible to a wide readership, although there have been problems finding distributors for it in some states due to its controversial nature.  I bought it on my last day in Delhi and read it in the next 24 hours as I travelled back to the UK, learning more about India than I had in the previous two weeks in the country.

The Buddhist Heartland of Gandhara

October 26th, 2014 1 comment

CCCC4951 Buddha head 1 Taxila Museum lo res

Seven years ago I visited the Buddhist heartland of Gandhara on my way to Afghanistan and determined I would come back one day to this part of Pakistan – and now I’ve been making a film there (one reason for the radio silence over the last couple of months as it’s been a very intensive operation and fraught with security issues).

The quality of the sculpture produced by the Indo Greek kingdoms that followed Alexander the Great’s incursions here in 326 BC is phenomenal – like this Buddhist head that I photographed in Taxila – with its mixture of classical, Persian and Indian influence.

Some of the Buddhist sculptures have been vandalised in situ and now need to be protected from Islamic extremists – or just as sadly some heads have to be removed from their torsos and taken to museums for safety, as it is usually the head that is vandalised.

We had problems filming here because some of the sites are close to nuclear and military installations so the ISI sent a heavy to follow us ‘for our own protection’.

But as a chance to spend some time around the old monasteries and stupas, it was memorable and a reminder which the world occasionally forgets that the old Indo Greek kingdoms in what is now modern Pakistan were responsible for exporting Buddhism to Tibet, China and the Far East.

 

One of the Last Few Polymaths

June 24th, 2014 No comments

p01l974wReading Michael Wood’s excellent A South Indian Journey (first published as The Smile of Murugan) and as ever by Michael’s work, impressed. He really is one of the last few polymaths, equally at ease writing about South American conquistadors or Anglo-Saxon chronicles. And filming them as well – ‘The Story of India’ for the BBC a few years ago was a tremendous achievement; and now he’s taking on China for a 2-year film project! Respect…

Homage to the World Cup

June 15th, 2014 No comments

IMG_1412 boys playing football 04.

My small homage to the World Cup – and tribute to Cartier Bresson who took a series of similar pictures – is this shot I took in Fez a few years ago, and my accompanying piece for Conde Nast Traveller on ‘how to get lost there’ – always a perennial concern of mine, as anyone who has read Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico knows…..

Oxford Mayday

May 1st, 2014 No comments

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As part of an occasional series – where I get up early so you don’t have to, as in previous posts on Stonehenge solstice  etc. – a frontline report from Oxford Mayday, which by comparison was a relatively genteel affair – the only rasta locks I saw were on a security guard, one of many stopping anyone from jumping into the river off Magdalene Bridge.

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But from the moment the choir started singing from the top of the tower at 6.00 am, this had a magical quality:  green men parading, a terrific samba band up the High St and Oxford buildings looking at their most dreamy in the morning mist.  A lot of very hungover and loved up students emerged from clubs and pubs: a strange mixture of disco shorts and dishevelled black tie.  And in the middle of it all, a talented band playing mournful latin music in front of the Havana cigar shop…… what a way to wake up to spring.

 

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SAMSUNG

for those who always have to have a bike with them in Oxford

for those who always have to have a bike with them in Oxford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring: The Blue Road into the Trees

April 23rd, 2014 No comments
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bluebell woods (c) Hugh Thomson

“The bluebells in the beech woods that surrounded and disguised the embankment came as a shock.  I had forgotten that they would be there, a soft purple rather than blue, as I came in from the bright sunshine of the fields and saw waves and islands of them spreading below the trees, not so much lighting up the forest as glowing within it:  purple shadows.

They spread across the ridge.  A heavy-seeded plant, bluebells travel slowly across the ground: it had taken many, many generations for them to cover such distance.  The carpet of blue flowers managed to be a celebration both of the transience of spring and of the permanence of the English landscape.

I followed a path that was covered with beech-mast and threaded through with white wood anemones.  Looking down through the trees at the wheat fields to either side, with the young wheat still tight in bud, the stalks shimmered blue under the green of their tops, so that when viewed from certain angles they looked like water, an effect exaggerated when the wind blew across the fronds and sent a ripple of green-yellow across the underlying blue.”

a seasonal extract from The Green Road into the Trees: An Exploration of England, which has just won the first Wainwright Prize for Nature & Travel Writing

Gabo:  The Death of Gabriel García Márquez

April 22nd, 2014 No comments

garcia marquez‘He’s won, he’s won,’ Guillo shouted excitedly.

I couldn’t think what he was talking about.  The Ecuadorian bar was filling up with excited revellers ordering brandies, even though it was only eleven in the morning.  It was 1982 and Gabriel García Márquez had just won the Nobel prize.  It had been announced on Radio Grande de Bahía, so it had to be true.  Although Colombian, the town was treating him as if he were a local boy.

My friend Guillo was impressed that he was using the money to fund his own independent newspaper:  he had read all Márquez’s books – they were piled high in the local stationery shop, along with the comics and murder stories.

And Gabo remains one of the few recent novelists to combine huge literary acclaim with matching commercial success.  When have you ever seen a Martin Amis book in a Tesco?

Márquez was writing of their world, with its perpetual llovizna, that wonderful word for a soft drizzle of rain playing over the dampness of the platanales, the banana-plantations, while the oceano nítido, the bright ocean, stood off in the distance. The predominant mood in his books was one of nostalgia, ‘tratando de recomponer con tantas astillas dispersas el espejo roto de la memoria, trying to Read more…

In Memoriam Peter Matthiessen

April 14th, 2014 No comments

The-Snow-Leopard-for-blogThe Snow Leopard is a book more quoted than read these days.  It should be celebrated not just for its spiritual  honesty, but for the courage with which it fails.  Imagine a TV channel or even publisher today prepared to put up with a book that does not even glimpse its subject.

“Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake,” Peter Matthiessen told the Guardian in 2002. “We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”

 

 

At The Captain’s Table

March 30th, 2014 No comments

Kindle_let us depart.inddAt The Captain’s Table:  Life on a Luxury Liner, Hugh Thomson (Kindle Singles £1.99).  Round the world the soft way. For less than the price of a cappuccino grande, a frothy confection of a travel book with double shots of autobiography and world analysis thrown in.   download it here.

I  enjoyed writing this  –  light-hearted, it involves all the classic elements of comedy: life on the high seas, some rampant snobbery and even a marriage at the end.  And I got to see a lot of intriguing places.

For those who haven’t come across Kindle Singles before, it’s an interesting Amazon initiative.  Kindle have commissioned established figures like Stephen King, Jon Krakauer and Amy Tan to write shorter, novella-length books and put them in a special branded part of the store, so readers know they’re getting something that’s met a quality control threshold – unlike the self-published parts of Kindle.  A development which may get traditional publishers very worried…

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FROM THE BLURB:  “Hugh Thomson had always wanted to travel right around the planet.  He just never had the money. Until he realised he could do it on the world’s most expensive luxury cruise.

Mischievous and entertaining, this is the first book to be written about a new phenomenon – the strange and unreported world of small luxury cruise ships, so exclusive that if you need to ask how much they cost, you probably can’t afford them.

So don’t act like the Cruise Queen Bee who, when she received her invitation to the Captain’s table, wrote back giving her apologies and explaining, ‘I cannot accept your invitation as, on principle, I never eat with the staff.’  Buy the book and take your place as Hugh serves up tales that are clear-sighted about the rich and observant of the new world opening up on our horizons, powered by a supercharged 32,000 ton luxury liner, a microcosm of 21st-century life, with its superb engineering that almost, but not quite, overcomes all the indignities the natural world can throw at it.