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Publication of One Man And Mule, Hugh’s new book from Penguin Random House

June 23rd, 2017 No comments

Today sees the publication of One Man And Mule, Hugh’s new book from Penguin Random House.

Here’s a clip of Hugh being interviewed about One Man and a Mule by BBC radio:

 

And to celebrate publication, the first person correctly to answer the following four simple questions can win a free copy: Read more…

The Lost City of Z:   How to Make Enemies in the Jungle

April 16th, 2017 1 comment

This is a longer version of articles written for both the London Evening Standard and the Washington Post when The Lost City of Z was released . 

“Writer and explorer Hugh Thomson argues that new movie The Lost City of Z gives a totally false impression of its real-life hero.”

With many a jungle drum, this week sees the release and promotion of The Lost City Of Z.  Based on the bestselling book of the same name by David Grann, the film proudly proclaims that it is ‘based on an incredible true story’ in which heroic British explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) ‘journeys to the Amazon and discovers the traces of an ancient, advanced civilization’. And yet it is a quite bizarre distortion of the truth.  

The exploration of the Amazon has been one of the epic undertakings of the last few centuries and is still ongoing: uncontacted tribes are still being found in the jungle.  It has seen many heroic figures. But Fawcett was not one of them.

see the full expanded article

Two ‘Green Road’ walks in Oxfordshire

March 20th, 2017 No comments

Five Horseshoes, Oxfordshire

Bluebells, Christmas Common, OxfordshireOxfordshire. Image shot 05/2009. Exact date unknown.

Length: 15 miles
Time: 6 hours
Start/finish: Watlington car park (OS Explorer 171)
Grade: Moderate
Refuel: The Five Horseshoes
Picnic spot: Maidensgrove Common

The Thames makes a great sweep down from the crossing at Wallingford and below Whitchurch and Mapledurham to reach Henley. The Chilterns sprawl out from the centre of this crescent in a mess of wooded valleys. The area is relatively close to London – easily reached on the M40 – but offers some surprisingly remote walks.

The Five Horseshoes stands on the edge of a large area of common ground fringed by woods. A 16th-century coaching pub, it has a reputation for excellent, well-priced food – haunch of vension, braised rib of beef – and along with the usual range of alcohol, some exceptional homemade ginger beer for those thinking of the walk back.

Begin in Watlington, perhaps Oxfordshire’s most attractive market town, and follow Hill Road east from the crossroads towards the “White Mark” carved out of chalk on Watlington Hill. Swing past Christmas Common, and then plunge down deep beech woods and along the ancient Hollandridge Lane that comes out at Pishill (locals prefer you pronounce it “Pish – ill”). Read more…

The Marches by Rory Stewart

February 17th, 2017 No comments

Thomas de Quincey calculated that Wordsworth walked a staggering 175,000 miles during his lifetime.

He was almost constantly on the move, composing as he went, ‘to which,’ de Quincey added, ‘we are indebted for much of what is most excellent in his writings.’

To put this in context, the circumference of the globe is only 25,000 miles. So Wordsworth could have walked seven times around the planet.

Walking in Wordsworth’s day was the act of a radical; it was to ally yourself, as the young poet wanted to do, with the peasant and the peddler. While more aristocratic artists of the day might take the Grand Tour by coach to Italy, he chose to walk through France during the year of its revolution. To feel connected to the world and people; to make an atlas of his own feelings and spiritual progression.

Rory Stewart follows in that mould. His first book, the acclaimed The Places In Between, saw him walking right across Afghanistan just weeks after the fall of the Taliban, an adventure that was both brave and revelatory.  And this was just the beginning of a far longer walk that saw him cross Pakistan.  He went on to further adventures in Iraq where he was appointed a governor after the invasion and wrote memorably about the fog of ignorance that pervaded that administration.

Now he has come home, so to speak, to Wordsworth country.  In The Marches, he has written an account of a walk across and around England, beginning with a traverse along Hadrian’s Wall, built when a Roman emperor wanted to keep out alien migrants. Read more…

Art in memory of Oscar

October 30th, 2016 No comments

 

20161030_110147A visit to the memorable Artangel installation at Reading Gaol, that most Victorian of prisons with its red-brick cruciform shape and wire-grilled segregation.  I filmed ‘Oscar‘ for the BBC here when it was still an active prison some 20 years ago; it closed in 2013 and is now scheduled to be sold off.  But before it is, Artangel have continued their bold and imaginative curating of art spaces that no one normally reaches by getting artists and writers like Ai Weiwei and Anne Carson to leave messages in the cells that reflect Oscar Wilde’s incarceration here.  The finest of these offerings by far comes from Steve McQueen – a sculpture in which a prison bed is swathed in mosquito nets like a cocoon of the imagination.

20161030_111831I revisit Oscar’s cell – C.2.2.  When I filmed here, it was being used by two inmates so was even more crowded than in Wilde’s day – although he had to endure a harsh regime of physical labour.  ‘The most terrible thing about it is not that prison breaks one’s heart – hearts are made to be broken – but that it turns one’s heart to stone,’ as he wrote in De Profundis, his book-length letter from the cell.

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Wilde’s cell with a rose left as offering

On the day I visit, Patti Smith gives a three hour reading from De Profundis in the prison chapel.  She sings a short burst from two songs at the opening and close – first from Nina Simone’s  ‘Wild is the Wind’, then from her own ‘Wind’.  There are sections of the letter where, as Patti admits (‘What did that last bit mean?  I have no idea…’) Wilde can lose the reader as he goes off on wild and lonely tangents.  But there are also passages of haunting beauty: ‘I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine.’  It is a fitting tribute and one Patti delivers with passion and empathy.

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Steve McQueen’s ‘Weight’, with gold-plated mosquito netting

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Oscar, the film I made with Michael Bracewell for the BBC, is still available on iPlayer

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The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century

October 16th, 2016 1 comment

cinma

 

The BAFTA season is about to begin, and as I have done for some twenty years, I will be sitting down to watch the best films of the year before voting.

Before I do, this is a personal response to a recent list where worldwide critics did their poll of polls for the best 100 films of the millennium for the BBC.

These professional film critics have in the usual way opted for obscurity over clarity – quite ridiculous for Mulholland Drive, The Tree of Life and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to be in the top 10 when a straw poll of regular punters would show no one had a clue what any of them were on about. Or cared.

My own Top 21 favours innovation and pure cinema over cult credibility and if that means some blockbusters and animated films, so much the better. And I think I’m right in saying that only a very few of them won the Oscar or BAFTA for Best Film (answers on a postcard).  The majority don’t even make the 100 chosen by worldwide critics.  But they are the films of the century so far that I still think about and return to in my mind – that still live with me.

Read more…

Surfing in Peru

August 13th, 2016 No comments

‘Here’s the thing,’ the surfer tells me as he changes into his wetsuit. We look offshore at the monstrous wave of Pico Alto as it comes charging towards us. ‘That wave gets to 40ft high. But it’s not just the height. It’s the depth of water behind it. It’s triangular. So if that thing comes down on you, it feels like a brick house coming down – with you underneath it.’

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He runs towards the water before I learn his name.

I have been coming to Peru for 35 years and it still excites – perhaps because of its endless capacity to surprise. Although I know the Inca heartland around Machu Picchu best, I have come to love the long Pacific coastline, with its pyramids and fabulous beaches.

Today I am 25 miles south of Lima in the town of Punta Hermosa, where the new mania for surfing in Peru has precipitated a building boom. Rows of brand-new white apartment blocks gleam in the sun on the cliffs above a whole series of incredible waves: Caballeros (Gentlemen), a right-hander, is matched chivalrously by Señoritas (Ladies), an equally impressive left-hander. Further out is the daunting sight of Pico Alto – meaning high summit.

see the rest of my article as first published in British Airways High Life magazine

Sound and Light at the Peabody where East meets West

February 5th, 2016 No comments

20160205_155639Excited to be in Salem for a remarkably innovative weekend put together by Sona Datta and her colleagues at the Peabody Essex Museum.

As some readers may remember, I made a series for the BBC with Sona last year – Treasures Of The Indus – for which we travelled to Pakistan and India.

Now Sona is not only having a screening of the films for an American audience, but has tied it into a new exhibition by the talented Anila Quayyum Agha, who has created an installation that conjures up the spirit of Spain’s Alhambra Palace, where a thousand years ago Islamic and Christian traditions thrived in coexistence.

A square black cube of steel weighing some 600 lbs has been laser cut by Anila into filigree work like that of a jali screen, so that the light from a single bulb inside creates a shimmering effect around the yellow room.  (I did ask her how she was ever going to change the bulb…)

And Sona is also putting on a Night at the Museum party, hosted by my old friend Bee Taylor and his House Of Honey collective, when more light projections will be played around the atrium of the building itself.

The fact that outside it’s blowing a Boston snowstorm won’t stop some determined partying.

Unravelling the quipu

January 3rd, 2016 No comments

quipu 2.

Of all the ancient civilisations, we know least about Peru because, as an illiterate society, they had no writing. They did, however, leave quipus, elaborate knotted cords mentioned by the Spanish chroniclers, which have still not been fully deciphered.  These remain one of the most tantalising challenges in archaeology.

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There are around 600 known quipus around the world, either in museums or private collections.  Some of these quipus follow a straightforward numerical pattern, as if itemising goods.  Others are more random and difficult to interpret.  And even with the numerical quipu, we have no way of knowing what the numbers refer to, as for the vast majority there is no provenance – the quipus have arrived in collections from dealers, from the booty of conquistadors, from looted tombs, or by accident.

Until now.  The team led by Harvard’s Gary Urton has been looking at some quipu discovered recently near the goods they may have itemised – a potential breakthrough, if not, as he is careful to say, a Rosetta Stone.  The quipus – or khipus  – were buried under the remnants of centuries-old produce, which was preserved thanks to the extremely dry desert conditions.

We long for the pre-Columbian civilisations to be able to speak to us direct from beyond the grave:  is there some Homeric tale, some Peruvian Gilgamesh, of which we know nothing? Yet there is a danger that our overwhelming desire for the quipu to be proved a form of language could force us into unnatural contortions to prove that what may still just be an accounting device is actually much more.

see Cochineal Red for a more detailed discussion of quipus and other aspects of pre-Columbian civilisation (published as A Sacred Landscape in USA)

Egypt ‘90% sure’ there are hidden chambers in King Tut’s tomb

December 2nd, 2015 No comments
The sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun

British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves believes Tutankhamum may have been rushed into the outer chamber of Nefertiti’s tomb.

Not quite sure how they work out these percentages.  Last time my wife said she was 96% certain about something, she was wrong.  But this is so clearly an extraordinary story that worth following closely.  For researchers in Egypt claim there is a 90% chance that hidden chambers will be found within King Tutankhamun’s tomb, based on the preliminary results of a new exploration of the 3,300-year-old mausoleum.

One researcher has theorised that the remains of Queen Nefertiti may be inside – which, given she is so famous, hasn’t been a bad speculation to make for the publicity.

Egypt began the search for the hidden chamber last week. Announcing the results of three days of testing in Luxor, the antiquities minister, Mamdouh el-Damati, said the findings would be sent to Japan for a month-long analysis before the search is resumed.

British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves theorises that Tutankhamun, who died at the age of 19 in 1324 BC after just nine years on the throne, may have been rushed into an outer chamber of what was originally Nefertiti’s tomb. Reeves reached his theory after high-resolution images discovered what he said were straight lines in Tutankhamun’s tomb. These lines, previously hidden by colour and the stones’ texture, indicate the presence of a sealed chamber, he said.

Nefertiti was the first wife of Akhenaten, who unsuccessfully attempted to switch Egypt to an early form of monotheism. Akhenaten was succeeded by a pharaoh referred to as Smenkhare and then Tutankhamun, who is widely believed to have been Akhenaten’s son.

Tut, Nefertiti and Akhenaten’s family ruled Egypt during one of its most turbulent periods, which ended with a military takeover by Egypt’s top general , Horemheb. The whole family’s names were wiped out from official records later on. Reeves, who is professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, believes that Smenkhare is actually Nefertiti.