Someone I haven’t seen for a while stopped me in the street the other day and asked ‘how was Kazakhstan?’ I didn’t correct him, even though it was actually ten days in Uzbekistan. Before I left someone wished me luck in Azerbaijan with a worried look, as though I was actually heading to Afghan(…). I also had someone who knew I was going to Uzbekistan but thought it was in the Balkans.

Most people have only heard of Kazakhstan because of bloody Sacha Baron Cohen, and that’s as a made-up country that just happens to share the name of a real place. It is a lot more Balkan in its portrayal than Central Asian. There are two famous ‘stans – Afghanistan and Pakistan – and the others are met with blank looks or misconceptions of smallish Balkan ex-Soviet states. Even though, of the ‘stans, Uzbekistan is especially blessed with famous sites to see, it’s still relatively unknown to the man (who stops you) in the street.

Afghanistan is thought of as Middle Eastern; Kabul is nothing more than a warzone on the news. Pakistan is intimately linked to India in the mind, so these famous ‘stans are separate from the others. The great treasures of the Silk Roads are forgotten – the names Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva are more likely to produce blank looks than wishful sighs, whilst in South East Asia people trample all over Ankhor Wat and the like. But then, I like empty sites- in fact I’ve become rather spoiled since visiting Syria and Jordan, where you have a whole Roman city to yourself. By contrast, Bukhara was almost bustling with tourists, mainly French, it seemed.

But out in the backstreets of Samarkand one evening I had a real sense of being somewhere completely else, a sense you don’t get in countries similar to your own, or even in very different countries that become familiar to you from t.v. or other people’s visits.

I’d like to do a long trip around the ‘stans, including Afghanistan, although I might have to wait a bit for that. And when I go I don’t want it to be a well-trodden journey stuffed with backpackers. In those Great Game books you get a sense of people marching completely off the maps, and you can just about still get that feeling wandering through the bazaars in Bukhara. It would be a shame if that went, although it would be good for the countries – both economically and politically, as the bastards like Karimov wouldn’t be able to get away with as much as they do if there was a steady stream of foreigners poking around.

I know it would be better for the countries, but selfishly I don’t want it to change until I’ve had a lot longer than ten days of having these places to myself. So when people say Kazakhstan, for the moment I won’t correct them.


Bookshop bonanza

I was in my local Oxfam bookshop today – ‘just to have a look’ – and had the most unbelievable luck in terms of finds. I got Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots (the play which introduced the word and concept of a robot to the world), a book about the fraudulent Holocaust memoirist Binjamin Wilkomirski, AND Hassan by James Elroy Flecker which I’ve wanted for ages – the poem/play which includes the famous lines ‘for lust of knowing what should not be known/ We take the Golden Road to Samarkand’. Three things knocked off my Amazon wishlist, plus I got a copy of Mrs Dalloway with a nice cover. All for under a tenner.

Sometimes you get a whole stack of interesting books in a charity shop but they tend to be on the same, or related, topics. Finding three books that all relate to completely different interests – Central Asia, European modernism, trauma writing – was very odd indeed.

A quick note on galloping Great Game narratives

The firmly-stated plan to read only new books by new authors has been shelved, as I’ve just finished Peter Hopkirk’s brilliant The Great Game, and now I want to go off and read all the memoirs of all the people who charged up and down Central Asia in those years. I had an odd moment just after I finished the book, as I made a cup of tea and turned on Radio 4’s The World At One in time to hear an unpleasant Miliband pontificating about visits to Kabul and making peace with tribal chiefs, and so it was as if time had folded back on itself and the Game was still afoot. But I have no idea what to say about this Third Afghan War so I’ll leave it at that.

The Hopkirk, although it’s a history, is undoubtedly a ripsnorter so I’m going to add it to that list. I’ve broken my self-imposed Amazon embargo and ordered up Alexander Burnes’ two books of memoirs to go next. At the moment I’m too busy enjoying the ripping yarns to think too much about the hideous imperialist values on show, although the attitudes of both the Russians and the British are appalling. Perhaps I’ll have a more nuanced response to the morals of the Game after the initial thrill of adventure has worn off.

Broken promise

I have something to confess: I announced that I was going to read new books by emerging authors but I’ve failed right out of the gate. I did dutifully check the London Review Bookshop site for inspiration, but I didn’t find anything that grabbed me so I ended up reading Philip Hensher’s ‘The Mulberry Empire’. This passes the ‘new’ requirement but not the ’emerging’, as Hensher has written other novels and even won an award, God damn him.


I chose it because I’m interested in the history of the Great Game and in Central Asia in general (hence my aforementioned trip to Uzbekistan). I would recommend it, especially to anyone who has read Peter Hopkirk’s brilliant history ‘The Great Game’ which I’m reading now.



It’s a bit of an odd book (Hensher’s, not Hopkirk’s). The narrative is divided between England and various places in Central Asia and India, especially Kabul and Calcutta leading up to the First Afghan War. There are a good many characters to remember; perhaps too many, and the focus shifts between a lot of them. There is a lot of wit in the narrative, and it’s well written. However, towards the end it turns into another book; the terrible massacre of British forces doesn’t sit well with the tone of the rest of the book, in my opinion, and the parallels between then and the current situation in Afghanistan are telegraphed about as subtly as a brick through a window. The structure of the book – divided as it is into many parts, and shared between many characters – means that it never quite develops into a ripsnorter, despite the subject matter.

It is certainly worth reading though, as the characters, mainly historical figures, are well drawn and the narrative structure is interesting. ‘The Great Game’ by Peter Hopkirk is more heartily recommended though.

Anyway, neither book is a new work by an emerging author, so I give myself a rap over the knuckles for that. Once I finish the Hopkirk I’ll have another go.

National Novel Writing Month

It turns out that November is National Novel Writing Month in America. Unfortunately I’ve only just stumbled upon this information, so it’s now down to National Novel Writing Couple Of Weeks. I like the concept, I think:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.

As you spend November writing, you can draw comfort from the fact that, all around the world, other National Novel Writing Month participants are going through the same joys and sorrows of producing the Great Frantic Novel. Wrimos meet throughout the month to offer encouragement, commiseration, and—when the thing is done—the kind of raucous celebrations that tend to frighten animals and small children.

In 2008, we had over 120,000 participants. More than 20,000 of them crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline, entering into the annals of NaNoWriMo superstardom forever. They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.

‘Novelists’ might be stretching it a bit, but still. The numbers speak for themselves – 120,000 participants, 20,000 completions. Maybe not everyone has a novel in them, after all.

The death of the literary novel?

As I was away this weekend I’m a little behind in my newspaper-reading. I’ve been cherrypicking the weekend papers and only got round to reading yesterday’s news last thing yesterday evening, which means I’m up to date now but it was too late to post about this article when it was still possible to read it in the paper.

But anyway – the Guardian has a long and interesting feature on how much Waterstone’s is responsible for the decline of bookselling, and how much harder it would be for a modern literary talent to emerge given that publishers are terrified of taking a risk since the end of the Net Book Agreement.

The article starts in the Gower Street branch of Waterstone’s which is responsible for my birth, and overall I think it’s a good piece apart from one detail. The writer accepts the statement of former Waterstone’s MD Tim Coates that the chains brought literary culture to towns and cities in the UK which were only previously served by WH Smith’s and “probably, a not very good independent.” This statement is not tested. Leaving aside the generalised attack on independents, did Waterstone’s really create a market or, more likely, did they simply exploit a gap in existing demand? This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument, but it’s important as Waterstone’s sole claim to any sort of public good rests upon it.

My own personal experience of the chain is based on the testimony of various friends who have worked there and who now respond with a physical shudder of horror at the mention of the place. But the consequences of the chain’s power over publishers is far-reaching. I’ve often chided myself for not reading more contemporary fiction, but as I can only read so many books in my life I’m drawn to safe bets myself, ones I know I will enjoy, and these are usually by dead writers whose reputations are already established. But this is a bad habit.

As readers we need to take chances with new writers, giving ourselves the chance, in turn, of discovering the new greats. Publishers needs to accept this risk as well, or our literature will stultify. It becomes a vicious circle. The more scared publishers are of producing new works, the more readers will be disappointed by what is published; and disappointed readers will become less inclined to try new things next time, further evaporating the market for literary fiction.

So. On that note, I’m off to find something new to read.

Spare nose

Gogol’s short story The Nose is one of my favourites – not quite as favourite as The Overcoat but a close enough second. I was thinking about it today as I came across this useless fact: Admiral Nelson of Trafalgar Square has a spare nose lodging up the side of Admiralty Arch.

nelson nose

This is what I love about the world. You read something in a story that is completely brilliantly barking mad and then reality turns and says “well, actually…”


I think I’m still partly reading Aragon as an insight into Walter Benjamin, although last night, in the vicinity of page 137, I really began to enjoy it. There are some wonderfully phrases: “who will reveal to me the secret of the iron hoops which line the paths along the lawn’s borders […]?” (p144 pub. Exact Change)

louis aragon
Louis Aragon

As I’ve said before it’s very much concerned with the surreal in everyday life. I would have thought perhaps that these days, when to see a person marching down the road clutching their ear and engaged in an animated half of a conversation is a common sight, such insight might have become redundant, but it’s not the case. Reading some of the sentences –  a bridge “claiming victims even from among passers-by who had no intention of killing themselves but found themselves suddenly tempted by the abyss” (p137) – is still electrifying.

But I’ve strayed from the point. The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin is one of my favourite books to get lost in, because of its open-endedness. Whether or not WB intended for it to have the structure we encounter seems to me to be a little beside the point – this is the work we have. Each section, or ‘convolute’, is made up of quotes from hundreds of other works all collected by WB and presented with his comments as a sort of mosaic; each convolute is on a different theme, all building up a picture of nineteenth-century Paris, from the bottom up, as it were. It is a surreal text, a collection rather than a construction in the usual sense.

The fascinating thing about it from a reader’s perspective is the cross-references, the way the different convolutes interact with each other. It’s multi-dimensional rather than a linear progression of thought. I’ve never been able to sit down and read a whole convolute in order without flicking around – remembering something I read elsewhere in the heftly volume that reminds me of the thing in front of me – following weird patterns through the quotes. It’s great fun. And this is why I wonder if WB was alive and writing today whether he might have looked to present the AP as a website.

Walter Benjamin

I don’t usually go in for wild speculation but it would be a fantastic way to present the material. Each convolute could be its own page, or series of pages, with cross-referencing links between words and themes in such a way as to enhance the clash of quotations and concepts you get whilst reading. It might be a strange experience – you could easily get lost in the convolutes – but at the same time I imagine it would get past the unfortunate linear nature of a book-form. Plus you could have more pictures, which the reader(s) of this blog will know I like.

One last quote from Aragon – “We enter the park feeling like conquerors and quite drunk with open-mindedness.”  (p137) Open-mindedness to me, here, is the boundary-less sense of possibilities, the sense you get from reading The Arcades Project. And, surely, it’s what the internet is for.

Isherwood and Berlin

I’ve received this email:

There was a shoddy BBC4 documentary on this the other night, concentrating on the film of Cabaret. Isherwood like  the film, but pointed out that most of the cabarets in Weimar Berlin weren’t nearly so glamorous  and Broadway professional as the Bob Fosse musical.
The documentary made only a brief allusion to the original of Sally Bowles, Jean Ross, of whom I should like to know more. After Berlin she kept in touch with Isherwood all their lives. She married Claud Cockburn. She was herself a  radical journo as well as a singer. I think Sally Bowles is one of the zippiest women in twentieth century fiction, a truly great creation. She is the essence, the embodiment of a reality. That really, Berlin in the early Thirties, was the pivotal moment of the century. It was there that the future was decided. Any witness to those years, especially so sensitive a writer as Isherwood, must be seen as authentic. Of course one point of view is not every point of view, but the perspective is valid. The secne on Reugen Island where Ishyvoo and friends meet the amiable man who turns out to be a Nazi is chilling.
However, that ‘s enough for now.
Thank you Geoffrey!