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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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Letter from Iceland

August 20th, 2015 No comments

Letters-from-Iceland-TP_zpsb65ae8d4Difficult to be here without thinking of the travel book W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice wrote in 1936 when they came.  Letters from Iceland is a curious and in some ways very lazy book, which they threw together for Fabers at a time when such golden boys they could pretty much do anything they wanted.

So in some ways it’s a mischievous anti-travel book that tweaks the tale of more serious contemporaries like Peter Fleming.  There’s quite a lot of ‘I can’t really be bothered to do this,’ with deliberately amateur black-and-white pictures.  At one point they just bundle in a whole anthology of clippings from previous visitors to bulk it up a bit.

But it also signals a sea change in their own writing – in Iceland, they can loosen up, free from the pressures of being ‘the voices of their generation’ back home, a particular pressure on Auden.  He had read Byron’s Don Juan on the boat over and the idea came to him (in a
bus when travelling across Iceland) that, for the first time, he could write some similar light verse, in the form of letters home to friends in England in which he could put ‘anything I could think of about Europe, literature, myself’ . And this lovely couplet about a place I’ve just visited as well:

‘In Seythisfjördur every schoolboy knows
That daylight in the summer never goes.’

images (3)MacNeice contributes much less to the book – some eighty-one pages out of the first edition’s two hundred forty – but has some equally effective couplets in his own verse letter which prefigures the great wartime Autumn Journal: 

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‘Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
stills from the film of life, the frozen fire’

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they rode on ponies around the glacier of Langjokull

There was a subtext to their visit as well.  Some Nazi anthropologist were also visiting the island in an attempt to prove that it displayed pure, isolationist Aryan characteristics.  The two poets tried to show in contrast that it was the model for a quiet, democratic nation, free from such shrill nationalistic yearnings.  And it was in Iceland that Auden first heard the news about the civil war in Spain, and everything changed….

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Talking Sheep

August 3rd, 2015 No comments
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Jason Gathorne-Hardy, the master artist when it comes to sheep

Not often that an obvious stand-out classic arrives in the rather over populated world of nature history writing at the moment. Last year it was Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel.

This year it is definitely The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks , who already has a large following from his Twitter account as ‘The Herdwick Shepherd’.

Counting sheep will never send people to sleep again. It’s an extraordinary authentic account of what it actually is like to live and breathe sheep.  Tersely written as well.

He pays tribute both in his title and in his text to WH Hudson’s classic A Shepherd’s Life, which was based on a series of interviews with a shepherd in Dorset and which I quoted in The Green Road into the Trees when walking through that part of the world:

The naturalist WH Hudson, noted how the local plants had adapted by growing as low as possible to avoid the attentions of the sheep.  I was a great admirer of Hudson and had visited the house where he was born in Argentina, overshadowed by an enormous ombu tree:  a strange tree which is more like a giant shrub, and needs to have its branches supported on crutches across the ground, so that it resembles a giant spider.

He brought to his studies of England, in particular A Shepherd’s Life about these Dorset and Wiltshire Downs, a sense that England was just as strange and exotic as the pampas;  also a sense of how short rural memories are.  He told an odd story of how a farmer he had met had puzzled over finding a disused well full of sheep heads with horns, when none of the local breeds were horned;  and that Hudson had had to tell him about the old Wiltshire breed of sheep, with horns, which had only died out a generation or so before.

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.

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…

Paul Fussell: An Anniversary Tribute

May 23rd, 2013 No comments
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Lt. Paul Fussell in Paris, France, May 1945

I was in Philadelphia recently and thought of Paul Fussell, who lived there before his death this time last year and whom I knew:  one of the finest writers about 20th-century war, both because he wrote about the subject as a cultural critic more than military historian and because having fought in WW2 both in Europe and the Pacific, he knew what he was talking about.  The Great War And Modern Memory is his most famous book – but I have only just read one of his very last books, The Boys’ Crusade.  Subtitled ‘American GIs In Europe: Chaos And Fear In World War II’, it highlights some familiar Fussell themes:  how many American soldiers were teenagers, how little about war they knew before they went, and how many cock-ups there were.

Like all of his books – and like his conversation – it is candid and clear-sighted, just like the Augustan prose he so admired (he was a professor of 18th-century English Literature).   Unlike most books on WW2, it is also elegantly short.

But if his other achievements were not enough, he also helped in the revival of interest in travel writing, for which I am more directly grateful to him.  His book, Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars, championed travel writers of the 1930s like Robert Byron who had largely been forgotten at the time.

I was once with him when a BBC executive (I was trying to get the BBC to make a programme about and with Paul) asked him if he had ever met any Germans.  Fussell gave him a stare:  ‘Any Germans I met during the war, I killed.’  The executive blanched.

Read more…

Panspermia

March 11th, 2013 No comments

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of panspermia: the theory that Fred Hoyle and others put forward almost 30 years ago that – very broadly put – life was distributed across the universe by meteorites.

It’s often been ridiculed by other astronomers and physicists – let alone biologists – for being simplistic, but that surely is part of the charm: we should look for an elegant simplicity in our scientific solutions.

So the news that scientists, including a former colleague of Fred Hoyle’s, have identified biological matter in the heart of a meteorite that recently landed in Sri Lanka, in December, should have attracted much greater attention than it has.

This judicious and weighted article in the August M.I.T Technology Review puts the case.

My more frivolous case for panspermia is below:are 

The first Big Bang:

panspermia flood

through space, lactating

fireworks against the black;

meteorites cross-pollinate

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between planets,

extremophile bacteria

clinging to the rocks

like a rodeo:

‘yi-haaaaaah!’

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The Earth got lucky –

we were fertilised.

But what I want

to ask the Universe

is this:

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‘How was it for you?’

following Edward Thomas and his ‘map of the soul’

January 10th, 2013 No comments

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Almeida Theatre, LondonBlown away by the quite phenomenal Nick Dear play The Dark Earth and The Light Sky about Edward Thomas, now showing at the Almeida Theatre on its first run.

I wrote about Thomas in The Green Road into the Trees – indeed in some ways the book was a centenary version of his own book, The Icknield Way, when he took the same route in 1912. Nick Dear has a fine phrase for Thomas’s travel books which he describes as ‘maps of his soul’, rather than more conventional guides, and as a result did not sell.

Dear does a few things exceptionally well:  he doesn’t sentimentalise Thomas at all – he often comes across as a monster in the way he treats his wife Helen in particular;  the play does not climax with Thomas’s tragic death in the First World War which often over-colours accounts of his life – this is the chronicle of a death foretold;  he shows how the friendship between Thomas and Robert Frost was pivotal for both men’s poetry – Thomas started publishing and Frost got recognition.

But above all it focuses on Helen, who for me had always been a shadowy presence.  She comes across as a tragic figure, quite beautifully played by Hattie Morahan, dealing with her husband’s depression and death wish with alternate light and sadness.

In The Green Road into the Trees, I quoted the lines of Thomas that haunted me from his own account of my journey:  ‘I could not find a beginning or an ending to the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness.’

Getting Through Customs

November 20th, 2012 No comments

Regular readers will remember my review of Howard Marks’s book about his adventures and high times in the drugs trade, which I suggested signalled a new form of travel book – the ‘how am I going to get through customs’ genre. Another remarkable example of this was Marching Powder, ghost-written by Rusty Young about the hair-raising experiences of a drug dealer in a Bolivian jail and set to be a major motion picture, with Brad Pitt’s involvement.

 

Now comes Mark Dempster’s Nothing To Declare, ably ghostwritten by Matthew Huggins, which is considerably grittier than either of the above.  Dempster does slightly less glamorous travel – though there is a funny bit where he tries to cross the Himalayas to a Nepalese village when stoned which is clearly not recommended in the manual – and is more Sweeney than Miami Vice.

Connoisseurs of the genre will still notice one or two similarities:  there is always a moment when, just like the hero of Goodfellas, paranoia overtakes the life of Riley and the helicopters start circling overhead.

Dempster also does the ‘it’s just become a day job shtick’ well, when he describes ‘the same daily routine, the same grind: up at eight, drink, stock up on Crucial Brew, deal, opium, drink, deal, smoke hash, deal, line of coke, deal, line of coke, Brian [his main supplier], bottle of wine, Sprog [bodyguard and drinking mate, trouble], fight, opium, drink, sex with girlfriend Lesley, drink, drink, drink, drink – pass out. That was it – days into weeks into months until a whole year had vanished.’

Thinking of doing a hard-core writers book which would describe my day, which also begins at eight but otherwise has few similarities: cup of tea, watch a rerun of Frazier on Channel 4, bacon sandwich, few e-mails, cup of coffee, write as much as I can before I get bored, phone girlfriend, pop over to deli across the road for a chat, have a Scotch egg or pork pie for lunch if I’m feeling like something extreme, salad if I’m feeling healthy and trying to go clean, do some more writing, do some more e-mails, uh, take some exercise, and let’s face it no one has got this far in the paragraph because it’s so dull….

This book reminds me a bit of those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where every speaker tries to outbid the last one by declaring that ‘you think that guy did bad stuff – wait until you hear what I did!’

Dempster is quite remarkably candid – and often funny – about his lowlife, which does hit some truly frightening lows by the end. It never quite addresses the mystery of why some people feel the need to get so wasted – ‘an addictive personality’ is a very loose concept.  But it certainly describes the consequences well.