Reading 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…
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…..
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.
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.
“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.”
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…
The 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: 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…
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.”
Funny how things come together. I’ve just been to a preview of the British Museum’s new blockbuster show on the Vikings, which opens later this week just as the world is focussed on Ukraine. A side-bar to the exhibition, which naturally focusses on the Viking invasions of Britain – is the less well-known Viking progress east, when ‘the Rus’ travelled down to Novgorod and Kiev in their longships and founded what became Russia.
The Viking leader Rurik and his dynasty established their base in Kiev from about 862 on – the same time as ‘the great army’ landed in East Anglia, martyred King Edmund and put Alfred the Great’s kingdom to the sword.
The difference is that in Russia the Vikings won. Kiev is as a consequence as central to Russian identity and history as Winchester or Canterbury to England. Hardly surprising they should take a proprietorial interest in what happens there; or that the descendants of the Vikings should value the navy at Sevastopol enough to protect their Crimean base.
The Vikings themselves travelled on past Kiev and down through the Russian river system to reach Constantinople. Now that must have been a clash of civilisations. Islamic commentators of the time were impressed by the Vikings’ fighting spirit, but less by their personal habits, reporting that they did not wash after urinating, or after sex, or indeed much at all.
Michael was a good friend and very kind man. A dedicated hispanophile who lived in Andalucia, he wrote many books about both Spain and South America. For my money his very best was his last, The Robber of Memories, a quite magical account of travelling down the Magdalena river in Colombia. I reviewed it when it came out last year:
“Subtle and precise, it may well be Jacobs’ finest work after a lifetime of studying the Hispanic world. This is travel writing at its best, with the memories a country creates about itself weaving with those of the author for a journey that pulses with an elegiac, penumbral light.”
My daughter Daisy also interviewed him for Isis Magazine at Oxford and ended her piece by saying:
“For Jacob, travelling creates memory and it is these memories that keep us alive and moving forwards. As Jacobs says, ‘It is our memories that sustain us in later life.’ “
He will be much missed.
PS FEBRUARY – since this was written, a fine obituary has appeared in the Independent by Barnaby Rogerson
Attended the recent Tinquy, which was a quite wonderful get-together in Cusco of the world’s weavers – and what a great place to have it, as weaving has always mattered so much more in Peru where, while there was no pre-Columbian writing, they could always express themselves with textiles.
It’s the only time when I’ve addressed an audience who were mainly spinning as they listened – on the good principle that, however boring I might be, they would still get something out of the session.
To mark it, a fine book published by two of the moving spirits of the festival, Nilda Callañaupa and Christine Franquemont, Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes, which I cannot commend too much (and have on the cover as well!) – not least because the photographs by Joe Coca are quite excellent, with moving and dignified portraits of the elders of weaving, the old women – and some men – who have kept the ancient traditions alive.
Tragically, Christine Franquemont died on the first day of the conference in Cusco, and this book stands as a memorial to her.