Archive

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Scotland leaving Britain – or Britain leaving Scotland?

May 6th, 2021 No comments

.

Why the rest of Britain might want to leave Scotland

I was at dinner recently with a distinguished Fellow of All Souls who had served as a politician and is known for his incisive analysis. The conversation turned to Scotland and their forthcoming elections.

With some relish, my companion, English like me, listed the multiple reasons why the Scots should not want to leave the Union.

They would have problems with their currency. The Europeans would not want them back. Under current arrangements, they were considerable nett gainers from Westminster; independence would see their trade and incomes diminish.  And would Shetland or Orkney then want to secede from Scotland? Or for that matter would some of the border constituencies reconstitute themselves, like the six counties of Northern Ireland, and want to reattach to the United Kingdom, with all the attendant tensions that have occurred in Ulster?

As much to stop him in his tracks as anything else, I asked him if he had ever turned the issue on its head. If the Scots enjoyed so many advantages by being part of the Union, what exactly did the rest of Britain gain by keeping them? If they wanted to go, and certainly if they voted to go, wouldn’t we be better off by just cutting them loose? Surely there was no logical or rational reason for wanting to keep Scotland in the Union, other than the very debatable merits of maintaining a nuclear base at Faslane? Read more…

Afghanistan: No Interpreters and the Dangers of Ignorance

March 25th, 2021 No comments

As the Americans prepare to leave Afghanistan and here in Britain we hold a Defence Review, have we learned the lessons of our own failures there?

Lockdown has given me plenty of time to reflect and I’ve been thinking recently a great deal about Afghanistan – perhaps prompted by the fact that the Americans may be about to withdraw completely from that country after 20 years of largely unsuccessful occupation since the invasion.

I was in the country for a brief and intense time in 2007 when I was filming for Channel 4 Dispatches and CNN. We saw a country that had been brutalised for decades by the Russian occupation, the ensuing civil war and then the American carpet bombing to ensure that their troops met no resistance. And a country which was becoming restive as the Allies seemed increasingly unable to help them rebuild, or for that matter interested in doing so once they had been distracted by Iraq. Read more…

Back to the Joys of Armchair Travel

January 10th, 2021 No comments

‘Well that’s you shafted,’  said one friend kindly at the start of the worldwide lockdown. ‘Not a good time to be a travel writer…’

Well yes and no. Obviously there’s not much actual travelling possible at the moment. But then the ratio in travel writing between the former and the latter has always been grossly disproportionate – too little time spent travelling and far too much time having to write about it when you get back.

And in my case I only did just get back. I was writing a piece about the sunny beaches and boho resorts of northern Uruguay – one of those gigs which leads to envy and resentment, particularly in March – when  they introduced the sudden guillotine on air travel, so we had to slip over the border to Brazil for one of the last flights back to Europe. I was travelling with my girlfriend and for a moment we thought of just staying, as there are worse places to self-isolate than a low rent beach hut in the sun; but while this sounded fun for a while, if the worldwide lockdown continued for months it might have become restrictive and complicated. Wiser counsels prevailed. Which is lucky as otherwise we would still be there. Read more…

Whatever Happened to Television?

June 10th, 2020 No comments

The suggestion in the BBC Plan that BBC4 is to stop making new programmes and become a largely repeats-only channel, possibly only accessible online, is a depressing reminder to viewers of a very long-term trend.

Oh dear. Whatever happened to television? And in particular, the area that BBC4 was particularly supposed to promote – factual and arts television. The channel that was launched with the slogan, “Everybody Needs a Place to Think”. Has the BBC decided that they no longer do?

Or rather, that it is not for them to provide it, when they can concentrate on ‘youth programming’ like BBC3, with the assumption patronising to both young and old that serious factual programming is only for the elderly.

Time was when working in television was to work in one of the most exciting industries around. I certainly found it so. Read more…

Return to Aldeburgh

February 20th, 2020 No comments

For those who have been wondering where I’ve been for a longer pause than usual, last year I turned my attention to poetry which has been a constant presence in my writing life, and have been assembling some collections which needed seclusion and concentration, including one of travel poems which for obvious reasons has been a constant thread.

As part of that process I returned to the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival which loyal readers with longer memories will remember I attended almost exactly 10 years ago and gave a reading and blogged about.

So very interesting to go back. A certain amount has changed, in that the poetry festival – now called ‘Poetry in Aldeburgh’ as part of its new incarnation after a substantial hiccup a few years ago when the original one went bust – has taken a few years to get up and running again. Read more…

‘Roma’: Mexico City in the 1970s

December 10th, 2018 2 comments

 

I like a director with a truly visual imagination – which surprisingly few have – and Alfonso Cuarón qualifies in every way.  I loved Gravity for the formality of its visual approach – almost the entire film was shot on the same focal length of lens, apart from the ‘dream sequence’ which was shot on a slightly wider one so the audience was disconcerted without quite knowing why.

But I was still not quite prepared for quite how good his new movie Roma is. Cuarón was his own director of photography, and his black-and-white camerawork is luminous and inspired.

I also have a strong affinity for the place and time – Mexico City in the 1970s where I lived for a while and wrote Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico. Although of course I remember it in colour.

 

What impresses me so much is the control and confidence with which Cuarón wields his camera. The film genuinely inhabits the space: mainly a suburban house in Mexico City but also some diverse landscapes and startling juxtapositions.

When I lived in Mexico City the arthouse cinemas showed a lot of Fellini and this reminded me of them – particularly when we visit the wasteland outside Mexico City where, as a human cannonball is shot into a safety net, we follow the film’s heroine in search of the father of her child.

This is not some softshoe indie shuffle, but a film with heart and purpose. At its heart is the Mixteca maid Cleo (played by non-professional newcomer Yalitza Aparicio) who  has a quiet and moving resignation in the face of some of the humiliations and tragedies life throws at her. I defy anybody to watch the penultimate scene when the children are swimming in a dangerous ocean and she wades into the waves to try to save them without a lump to the throat.

It’s a shame that Gabriel García Márquez never allowed anybody to film One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Cuarón would be the perfect director for the project, perhaps as a longer box set.

Once In A Lifetime: Eric Griffiths (1953 –2018)

November 9th, 2018 3 comments

I was one of Eric Griffiths’ first students at Trinity, back in 1980. I remember the excitement at the prospect of a very young new English fellow arriving. He was known to be brilliant and a protégé of Christopher Ricks, with a slightly dark reputation for having a wild side.

He certainly enjoyed being a Cambridge maverick. But he did also prove an extraordinary brilliant teacher and this of course is his true legacy.

A sometimes partial one – he could be unfair to those he excluded from his circle and I will always remember the shocked tones with which he once told me a student was doing a thesis on Tolkien – but if he engaged with you, it was a life transforming experience.

For Eric, the study of English literature mattered: in a heuristic way, in a way that constantly questioned one’s own responses and assumptions, in a way that affirmed what it is to be alive and to process mute swirls of consciousness into words on the page. Read more…

Chicago! Chicago! So good they named it twice…

July 3rd, 2018 No comments

I have been to many American cities, but never before to Chicago. And I came here for the most agreeable of reasons – to launch a new book, Travelling With Cortes, a handsomely illustrated catalogue of artwork from the Stuart Handler collection which Yale University Press are distributing; I wrote the essays for it.

.

So as my duties are light – a launch dinner at Gibson’s, the Chicago institution where my friends in the city tell me you’d be stupid not to have the steak – there is plenty of time to absorb some unexpected architectural delights: the wild owls and scrollwork on the roof of the central Chicago library; the grill on what is now a Target department store; a US mailbox in silver; a light fitting out of a Terry Gilliam film. The pleasures are endless – compounded by more obvious attractions like one of Alexander Calder’s finest sculptures, a public auditorium by Frank Gehry and the Lakeside Drive. Read more…

Letter from Lahore

March 26th, 2018 1 comment

 

the only person in Lahore wearing a pork pie hat

It’s not every literary festival where you have to check out the foreign office security warnings before you attend.  It certainly doesn’t apply to Cheltenham.  But then the literary festival which has just taken place in  Lahore was no ordinary one.

For a start, there were guards with machine guns at every entrance.  Lahore remains a city where foreign nationals have sometimes needed to exercise caution, as have the Pakistani locals.

I’ve been before and thought I knew my way around.  So I felt particularly stupid – and alarmed – when I realised the taxi taking me from the airport to the hotel on my arrival was heading in the wrong direction.  Moreover the driver only spoke Urdu and brushed aside my questions.  Then he pulled into a lay-by and another younger and meaner-looking driver replaced him.

Read more…

At the Jaipur Literary Festival

February 5th, 2018 1 comment

The Jaipur Literary Festival is an extraordinary occasion. Nothing I had heard about it had quite prepared me for the reality. The numbers are staggering. 350,000 people attend over the five days, so roughly twice the attendance of Glastonbury. Not only are there 400 writers, but there are 400 volunteers just to look after them – which is more than most British literary festivals in small market towns get as an audience.

The energy and intensity is a lot of fun. There is a much younger profile than British literary festivals with plenty of sidebar marquees to dance in.  And of course a fair amount of partying.  The Ajmer Fort is lit up for a spectacular evening of music at night. While the Writers Ball at the end sees a great deal of glitter and splendour.  Can’t believe how much Talisker and Scotch the Indian writers put away.

But  the talks were the main events and gathered big audiences. A fascinating one about Bruce Chatwin with William Dalrymple, one of the presiding spirits of the festival, Nicholas Shakespeare as Chatwin’s biographer and Redmond O’Hanlon as Chatwin’s friend.

I was asked to do no less than five sessions over the festival, which is going some by my usual standards and really enjoyed every one.

Here I am talking about my Nanda Devi book which, for reasons I explain has only just been able to be published in India – 30mins to 40 mins into programme, just after William Dalrymple.

And this was a really enjoyable session on the current vogue for nature writing with Adam Nicolson and Alexandra Harris, during which all of us in different ways claimed not to be nature writers anyway, but this didn’t stop us having a very lively discussion.