Since he first went to India in 1984 at the age of 18 William Dalrymple has been hooked on Delhi. This fascination lead to City of Djinns, White Mughals and The Last Mughal; books that both Salman Rushdie and the New York Review of Books called “compulsively readable”. Max Hastings, another big name at the festival, called him “an outstandingly gifted historian”.
In Return of a King he has turned his gifts to the 1837 British invasion of Afghanistan, an invasion launched by Lord Auckland, the man who gave his name to the city where the audience to hear Dalrymple formed itself into a large crush in the foyer of the Aotea Centre.
Bad manners abounded in the queue to get through the doors and secure a good seat. Discreet and then overt queue jumping, gentle then firm pushing; they were all on full display. The only relief came from eavesdropping on conversations about booking a villa in Tuscany for this Northern summer.
In a way it’s a shame we weren’t assembled outside the Aotea Centre as apparently there is a municipal flower bed featuring a statue of Lord Auckland. It stood in Calcutta until 1969 when the Bengalis decided Auckland was a much more suitable place for it.
Dalrymple was urbane, he was entertaining, he had a lovely voice, he had fascinating things to say. The crowd loved it although the laughter at the folly of the English died out as the session went on and the dreadful suffering and losses of the defeat became evident.
As for the future of Afghanistan in the world? Not cheery.
For those who like to know who writers rate and read, Dalrymple’s list of the best books about Afghanistan includes:
- The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright
- Taliban: the story of the Afghan warlords, and Descent into Chaos: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the treat to global security by Ahmed Rashid
- Cables from Kabul: the inside story of the West’s Afghanistan campaign by Sherard Cowper-Coles
The For Later list grows ever longer.