Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

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.

Shakespeare in Kabul

April 26th, 2012 No comments

Shakespeare in KabulA remarkable new book has just come out about trying to mount a production of Shakespeare in Afghanistan, using a mixed cast, which of course is in itself a radical step.

Even the discussion about which play to select caused endless difficulties. Most of the comedies have “Male-female interactions  that could be problematic in performance”:  the Merchant of Venice raises issues of anti-Semitism; Measure for Measure and the Taming of the Shrew are not funny in a country where many women continue to be treated badly;  Miranda pursues a young man in The Tempest in a way Afghans would find ‘inappropriate’.  Obviously the history plays with their themes of invasion and insurrection could have played well – Richard II being a strong candidate.

But the producers did want to try to introduce a large female cast, so the search was on for the right comedy.

Eventually they settled on Love’s Labours Lost with its courtly conceit of four young men retiring from the world, and four young women disturbing that seclusion.  But even that caused problems. At one point the young men are required to disguise themselves as Russians to woo the women.  The actors categorically refused to dress up as Russians.  Eventually a compromise was reached.  They would disguise themselves as Indians instead.  As I know from my own travels in Afghanistan, because of Bollywood movies the Afghans think of India as the home of romance, so this transposition made sense.

As did these wonderful – and in Kabul, revolutionary – lines from Biron’s speech on the folly of forswearing the company of women:

From women’s eyes this doctrine I derive:

they sparkle still the right Promethean fire;

they are the books, the arts, the academes,

that show, contain and nourish all the world.


Shakespeare in Kabul (Haus) is by Stephen Landrigan and Qais Akbar Omar 

Highway to the Sangre de Cristo mountains

August 30th, 2011 No comments

road to Sangre to Cristo mountains, Colorado




In Colorado to ride horses in the mountains.  One of the first times I’ve been in rural America – most of my previous visits have been to the cities – and I’m blown away by the scale and wilderness.  The largely empty highways seem to go on forever.  The mountains are chunkier than I’d expected as well – we’re a stone’s throw from Pikes Peak at over 14,000 feet.


Even the apples are bigger in America. And there’s a reason for that.  They grow a thousand times as many apples in the States as in Britain, but they prefer theirs to be ‘meal-sized portions’ – so they export the little ones to us, with our smaller appetites and orchards.

We take a pack trip into the Sangre de Cristo mountains, south-west of Colorado Springs, and spend some nights at over 10,000 feet with nine wonderful horses who pick their way surefootedly across some difficult terrain.  The forests are a rich mixture of aspen, spruce and pine, with wild raspberries growing underfoot and a few bears lurking around to add spice to the mix (we have a large Great Dane with us called Guinness, who is said to be more than a match for any bear, as they are notoriously afraid of dogs).

I’m with my old friends Gary Ziegler, who has led trips with me in Peru many times, and his wife Amy Finger.  Their Bear Basin Ranch lies on the old stagecoach route to Westcliffe, and has over 4000 acres of fine riding country to explore.

By coincidence I’m just re-reading John Steinbeck’s excellent Travels with Charley, in which he also travels across America with a large dog, who at one point barks at a bear.  It’s almost exactly 50 years old, written in 1961, published 1962, almost his last book and a fine tribute to his love for the wide open spaces of America as well as a melancholy forecast of some of the changes he could see coming.  It came out the year he won the Nobel Prize and was subtitled ‘In Search Of America’;  perhaps helped by the Nobel Prize, it was a bestseller and deserved to be for the simple, direct approach he took to travel writing, and his perfect ear for American dialogue:  ‘the Badlands of Missouri are like the work of an evil child…’


Another dissolute memoir

January 24th, 2011 No comments

Another dissolute memoir which turns out to be a travel book in disguise.  It seems only a few weeks ago that I posted on Howard Marks’s High Times (no I wasn’t referring to mine…).  But I have a particular interest in ‘Life’, this autobiography by Keef (I had never realised this was a self-appointed nickname):  before publication his managers had been talking to me about possibly directing the forthcoming documentary that will complement the book.  Talks went on for a while but were then blown out of the window when Johnny Depp said he wanted to do it as his first directing job – clearly rather a better name to have over the marquee and an old friend of Keef’s anyway. 


Life is fun – some good stories told with the trademark louche bonhomie, either travelling through the Badlands of the southern States or downtown Kingston.  And one of the most memorable passages is when he takes us to Morocco, Tangier and Marrakesh for a key moment in his story, the love affair with Anita Pallenberg when she leaves Brian Jones for him, almost pulling the Stones apart in the process. 

Someone has to make it into an opera – the beautiful but tempestuous boy (Brian), the beautiful and even more tempestuous Anita (“she certainly made a man out of me”) and Keith himself, the picaresque hero, with the story played out against a sixties Morocco that he describes well — the kef and hash, the orange trees, the sheer alien nature of the place just a slip of a way from Europe (“it could have been 1000 years ago”). 

As it still is.  I have been over to Morocco three times in the last year and it never ceases to amaze me how such a wild country can be just a few hours on a no-frills flight away (Ryanair from London Stansted). 

For my feelings on how you can “get lost in Fez”, see the recent feature I did for the January issue of Conde Nast Traveller

But one particular moment in Keef’s travels particularly intrigued me – when he fetches up in, of all places, Urubamba, the small town in Peru where I lived with my family five years ago, as recounted in Cochineal Red:  he and Mick have to sing for their supper (and a room for the night) as no one knows who they are.  

It’s a story I’d heard when staying in Urubamba but always discounted as one of those tall stories.  Sure the Rolling Stones came here and played here in the small corner cafe on the square.  Pass the Inca treasure will you…

Wine and Granta’s ‘best of young Spanish language novelists’

December 6th, 2010 No comments

Literary launches are often dull affairs — dutiful publishers, respectful friends, bashful authors — so very agreeable to be invited to the Granta launch for their new ‘best of’ list of ‘young Spanish language novelists’ – in Granta 113.  Someone (Saskia Vogel) has had the bright idea of combining the reading with a professionally hosted wine tasting so that each writer is paired with a fine Spanish vintage.  As punters are only given one glass, this means they have to drain it between each reading to get a refill.  Result?  A happily inebriated audience who appreciate every last word that the writers feed them. 


And the writers themselves?  Granta make much of the idea that this new generation (i.e. born after 1975) have not experienced the repression of Franco or the Latin American dictators, so write more of the personal than the political.  This perhaps oversimplifies the work of the older generation – like Vargas Llosa and Márquez – and also ignores the work of some of the finest young Peruvian writers like Daniel Alarcón (Lost City Radio) and Santiago Roncagliolo (Red April) which is intensely political. 

But they do have a point as it is true that one huge influence hangs over this generation and not necessarily a benign one:  the late Robert Bolaño, who was been canonised by the literary world since his untimely death.  Bolaño made a virtue of an autobiographical approach – what it was like to live as a writer in the  Latin American bohemian world of casual sex and drugs – which in the hands of a master is all very well,  but when played out in infinite variations by disciples can become introverted and dull.  Writers have affairs and literary rivalries — fine .  But give me Macondo or the War At The End Of The World for a bit of scale and vision.  Both Alarcón and Roncagliolo provide that in their novels above, as do some of the others;  the best of the work here is, to use one of Borges’s favourite words, nítido,  lucid and intense (and very well translated), and as ‘viscerally real’ as Bolaño wanted South American literature to become.  Granta are to be commended for their commitment in launching the project. 

What is notable is the lack of women writers.  All six of those reading tonight are men.  And only a quarter of the total published list are women.  This is not the fault of Granta, who have rightly selected just on merit not political correctness.  But surely the next wave of Latin American writing will see far more from the likes of the remarkably accomplished Lucía Puenzo, who is both a filmmaker and writer. 

Back to the winetasting, which should be developed further by other literary publicists:  I’d like to see a vodka tasting with Martin Amis and Ian McEwan;  champagnes with Howard Jacobson;  and ‘Amazonian armpit arguardientes’ with Will Self.

see my full review of the issue

Jonathan Franzen and Tolstoy

November 25th, 2010 No comments


Like everybody else at the moment I’m reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. 


There have been many references to it as being Tolstoyan in ambition, partly because of its length and scale – the intimate lives of his characters played out against contemporary events like 9/11 –  and because the author references War And Peace himself once or twice in the text. 

But I think it’s Tolstoyan in subtler, different ways:  Franzen seems to have the same ability to slip in and out of different characters’ heads, particularly his female ones.  Few male contemporary writers would dare to begin their book with a long testimonial from their heroine, ranging across issues from motherhood to sex to her fraught relationship with her own mother.  In a way what Franzen has done very successfully is to take territory usually occupied by such brilliant North American female novelists as Alison Lurie (The War Between The Tates), Carol Shields and Anne Tyler and give it a male twist while preserving the intimacy of detail. 

He’s also Tolstoyan in the way that when major events happen — one of his characters falls in love with someone they shouldn’t have, or someone dies – he just lets them occur baldly in the narrative rather than building up an elaborate scaffold of preparation, as a lesser novelist might do.  What interests him are not the large stones dropping in the water but the ripples that they cast – and that while his characters may often rationally know what they should do (which man to marry, what not to say), events and random emotions may somehow compel them to do precisely the opposite. 

File:L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpg

Tolstoy in 1908

Are there any British novelists achieving a similar scale over here?  not that I can think of – although there is another question that interests me perhaps even more:  are there any that would want to? There is still a modernist agenda here which values formal ability – of the sort that David Mitchell for instance has so dazzlingly displayed – over the slow unweaving of characters’ lives against an uncompromising historical background of the sort that Tolstoy would recognise.  

Not that Tolstoy, at the time of the centenary of his death (November 1910), is that much of an influence still in Russia itself:  when I asked a young Russian novelist in Moscow whether his generation viewed Tolstoy as an influence, he laughed and asked, quite fairly, whether Dickens was still an influence in Britain.  Although the fairer comparison might be George Eliot….

The Sentimental Education of Latin American Writers

October 8th, 2010 2 comments

So Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. To be honest, I’d half assumed he’d already won it years ago, so  major a figure has he been for so long. 

I’m sorry not to have been in Peru for this as sure that while he remains a controversial figure there – more for his exile in Europe than for his political views – they would be celebrating. 

I remember being in a small town in Ecuador in 1982 when Gabriel García Márquez won his Nobel (he has apparently just twittered Llosa to say that they are ‘now even’).  Although it was only eleven in the morning, the bar filled up with excited revellers ordering brandies; he might have been Colombian, but the town was treating Márquez as if he were a local boy.  

He 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 reconstitute so many scattered shards of the broken mirror of the memory,’ a nostalgia weighed down with decay. 

Llosa plays a different game.  His books are often at the sharp end – the brutality of life in Death in the Andes, or under the dictator Trujillo (in one of his finest late books, The Feast of the Goat) – laced with surreal or erotic moments.  With Márquez and other South American contemporaries, he shares a fascination with the brothel as a sentimental education.  In his memoirs, A Fish in the Water,  he writes that ‘my generation lived the swansong of the brothel’, a place where one could live ‘a life apart’, and  laments ‘the banalisation of sex’ that accompanied its disappearance as changing social mores allowed for sex outside marriage.  He wrote about the one he frequented near Castilla in a novel that like much of his early work was autobiographical, The Green House

Márquez too has written a great deal about brothels – Love in the Time of Cholera is full of them, for instance – but it was his last novella that really upset critics, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, in which a man in his nineties sleeps with an underage girl, an uncomfortable and problematic book that showed that whatever else he was doing, Márquez was not ageing gracefully.  One wonders if the situations had been reversed, and it was Llosa who won it 30 years ago and Márquez in contention now, how comfortable the Swedish judges would have been with that. 

See my appreciation of Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera

Postscript:  in a later interview, Vargas Llosa described how he had been rung with news of the Nobel at 5 in the morning when he usually rises (one reason perhaps for his prodigious output);  he had been reading Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo, which he commended as ‘mystical, fantastical but also profoundly realistic’;  they seem to me to be  the qualities which distinguish his own work.

Mr Nice and Mr Nasty

October 4th, 2010 No comments

Reading Howard Marks’s extraordinary Nr Nice about his life and high times as a drug dealer I  slowly begin to realise that it is among many other things a travel book, albeit a very unorthodox one.

howard_marksMarks loves to travel.  He also needs to.  And given that he is usually carrying something that could get him into trouble, whether dope, cash or a false passport, his arrival at each airport carries an edge of excitement – what he describes as ‘an asexual orgasm of crossing a border illicitly’.  Then he wanders, often stoned, through the foreign bright lights of a city, taking it all in, befriending taxi-drivers and ending up in a luxury penthouse suite – or meeting some Pushtan suppliers in their fortress on the North West Frontier.

A lot of his business takes him to Thailand and Hong Kong, so there’s a fair amount of nostalgia about the 70s and 80s pleasures of first class Asian airlines and their beautiful hostesses, an age of opulent air travel that may have passed forever, the glamour of which was celebrated in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can film.

Certainly travelling Ryanair, as I did last week just after buying Marks’s book at the airport, is enough to make you feel that these days every passenger might as well be suspected of being a drug-dealer.  The level of cross-checking  and intimidation is intense.  The slightest deviation of hand baggage allowance will be punished with the full weight of the Michael O’Leary Law (will his autobiography be titled Mr Nasty?).  Need to change a date or a name on a ticket?  Or add a bag?  More often than not it will cost you as much as the original ticket.

The yellow plastic fittings and lack of an adjustable seat make you feel you’re on a banana boat ride at a fairground attraction. Fine for a few minutes but not for a few hours.  And for some strange reason they seem to have a policy of keeping the ‘safety belt sign’ on for as long as possible during the flight, causing some distress to the pregnant lady next to me who needed to use the facilities.

So on arrival in Morocco, far from causing me the excitement felt by Marks, I felt a bit drained – as if I had managed to get through a tedious bureaucratic experience like an American visa.  They wear you down, do Ryanair.  And they really don’t need to.  Given a choice between Marks and O’Leary as to who I’d rather have sitting beside me on a flight, I know who I’d go for.

Note – anyone doubting Howard’s abilities as a travel writer should check out his account of Colombia

in Sebald’s shadow

September 25th, 2010 No comments

After Chatwin, a book that in some ways could not be more different – Will Self’s new Walking to Hollywood, which I’m also reviewing.  Compared to Chatwin’s self-consciously lean prose, Self is baroque, fecund and profuse – in fact, rather like that, always using three adjectives when one could do.  But both share a common interest in travel writing as essentially fictive.

Walking to Hollywood is heady stuff and the book has some brilliant flashes of genius as well as of over-indulgence.  One shadow looms large over it – that of WG Sebald, the German writer who lived for many years in England and died in 2001.

Reading it, I was reminded that earlier this year I went to hear Self give an intriguing lecture on Sebald – whom with the intimacy of a familiar he called Max;  he also pronounced his name to rhyme with ‘pay-cult’ (rather than ‘see-bald’), thereby elevating him to the pantheon of those writers like Borges whose name can only be pronounced properly by initiates … Read more…

Walking with ghosts

September 10th, 2010 No comments


Reading Bruce Chatwin’s wonderful letters recentlysee my review for the Independent – I came across a detail that brought me up short:  that Chatwin, while a mature student  at Edinburgh, used to go to Glen, the country house of the Tennant family near Innerleithen. He writes to the deeply eccentric recluse Stephen Tennant about it. 

So what?  Well I went there myself a great deal as a teenager, as the son of the household, Henry Tennant, was my closest friend.  It was a special place for me, about the only place I knew in Scotland, with its crazy Victorian Gothic castle and romantic glen leading up to a loch and trout stream where we used, ineffectually, to fish.


So the discovery that Chatwin used to go there as well had a special resonance.  Not least because the place has been in my thoughts as its then owner, Colin Tennant (Lord Glenconner), another eccentric member of the family, has just died – see Phillip Hoare’s obituary.  As a teenage boy, I found him a frightening but fascinating mixture of playboy charm and occasional irrascability;  he was a nightmare to partner at tennis.

It was not a happy time for Chatwin – he found academic archaeology stultifying, as I often do – and he left a cold Edinburgh flat prematurely, with little money left.  Glen was clearly a place of refuge for him; as it was for me.

Why do we like to think of our heroes as having trodden the same ground as we have?  Do they leave some footfall that we can pick up?  Walking with ghosts is something I increasingly find I do on my travels.

I sometimes go back to Glen as I know the current chatelaine, Tessa Tennant;  and the next time I do, I will be thinking of Chatwin as I walk up to the loch and the glen.