Armchair travels with William Dalrymple at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013

William Dalrymple was definitely one of the hits of the 2013 Auckland Writers and Readers Festival, indicated by unseemly shoving at his session in the big room and a plaintive cry of  “if anyone has a spare ticket I’ll buy it” outside a smaller venue.

Cover: In XanaduAlthough he abandoned travel writing some years ago, he devoted a session to reading from his travel books, and as he said, he still travels for his work. Does getting shot at count as armchair travelling?

Dalrymple read first from In Xanadu, his first book; “a young man’s book” and one with some “hugely embarrassing bits”. In it he follows the path of Marco Polo from the Holy Sepulchre to Xanadu.

City of Djinns was next up. It’s about Delhi, a centre of refinement and manners in the culture of India, but a world split in two by Partition.

From the Holy Mountain is about another world that is disappearing: the world of the Christians of the Middle East.  They survived centuries of Islamic expansion, but now huge emigrations have seen them all but disappear from the lands they lived in for generations.

Cover: Nine Lives Nine Lives is his last travel book to date, and one he is not in at all, apart from a little bit of setting up. It attempts to describe the different Eastern religions, a subject more misrepresented by Western writers than any other.

For Dalrymple the worst thing a travel writer can do is the same thing over and over again. I don’t think he’s in any danger, but he did say he could re-write From the Holy Mountain in the light of what has happened to the Christians of the Middle East.

So who are the travel writers he rates?

Afghanistan is “a crossroads for every nation that comes to power”: William Dalrymple

First things first. You might like to get yourself a copy of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple. I ended up having two separate late-night discussions about this session. The book uses Afghan sources for the first time to tell the story of the first Anglo-Afghan War:

In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion.

William was a brilliant storyteller, he moved swiftly from behind the lectern and strode the stage. He used slides to demonstrate the characters and location, and covered the story of the war from its origins, and repercussions, and linked it into today’s situation – and the similarities were chilling.

Lord Auckland
Lord Auckland, in Auckland.

Here are some of the interesting facts and observations that you will find in the book. I am only giving a sampling – there was lots of detail and information in this session (heck I took 13 pages of notes!):

  • In 1837 The East India company had the largest standing army in Asia. The modern equivalent would be Microsoft with nuclear weapons.
  • The British and Russians were both advancing, and “were going to meet in the unmapped territory – Afghanistan”.
  • A British intelligence officer saw Russian cavalry in a valley, riding into Afghanistan, and this incident “was the weapons of mass destruction of its day” – “a dodgy dossier equivalent” – using a single piece of intelligence to misrepresent what was going on.
  • Lord Auckland wasn’t a great leader.
  • Troops began assembling in 1839. Their kit included 300 camels carrying the regimental wine, 30 carrying cheroots and cigars, one carrying eau de cologne. “The only thing they didn’t think of bringing was a map”.
  • Afghanistan is very expensive to hold. They stopped paying off border tribes, and roads were cut off, postmen killed, and no merchants got through.
  • Sleeping with Afghan women does not go well. Alexander Burns picked the wrong woman to romance, and ended up with his head used as a football and his torso strung up in the bazaar. One of the Afghans said the fraternisation must stop “otherwise these English will ride the donkey of their desires into the fields of stupidity”.
  • On 6 January 1842, 18,500 men, women and children left their camp and walked out into the thick snow of the passes.
  • The death rate was appalling – by the second night only 10,000 are left alive. They walk up the pass in a blizzard and only 5000 come down.
  • More hideous ambushes and deaths occur.
  • One Dr Brighton gets through, the only survivor until later some Gurkhas and a Greek merchant get through.

The details of this story are known by Afghans, it is part of their national belief that they can repel all invaders.

Dalrymple had a lot to say on present-day Afghanistan: “There is nothing you can do in the world more expensive than war.” What then is the alternative? Dalrymple suggests “Capitalism creates a set of incentives that stop people going to war”. Some local Afghans have said “These are the last days of the Americans, next it will be China”. China has bought a lot of mineral rights. Afghanistan is “a crossroads for every nation that comes to power”.

Return of the King: William Dalrymple AWRF 2013

Cover: Return of a kingSince 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:

Dalrymple’s favourite travel writer is Patrick Leigh Fermor, Artemis Cooper‘s biography of Fermor was one of Dalrymple’s best books of 2012 and he thinks Robert Macfarlane is Fermor’s heir.

The For Later list grows ever longer.

The Dalrymple Interview: Eating, Drinking, Chatting, Chasing

PhotoLet me say right upfront what a delight William Dalrymple was to interview. Charming, eloquent and fun, he was happy to free range over any number of topics – India, libraries, his home  and his writing. You can read a transcript of my interview with him on the Christchurch City Libraries website.

However, to get the full flavour of a Dalrymple encounter you need to visualise the event as a piece of street theatre. This man does not sit still – ever. In the thirty minutes I had with him he ate biscuits, drank coffee, water and juice, threw himself about the room fetching and carrying for both of us whilst tossing conversational gems over his shoulder. I scurried about clutching my Marantz all the while trying to remember  Richard’s instructions about sound quality. Such a pity we never caught it all on film.

Suffice it to say that by the time he left to meet up with Josie his “minder” (who used to be an NLA by the way), he was on a caffeine and sugar high. He left the room exhorting me to “Eat, Drink, Help Yourself!” I pressed the stop button on the recorder. Heaven help the next interviewer was all I could think.

Imperial psychopaths, Microsoft with an Army

cover of The Last MughalWilliam Dalrymple’s presentation The Last Mughal was the last major session of the festival and what a way to go out. The man is a wonderful writer and a great performer. His voice swoops up and down in emphasis, his turn of phrase is dramatic and the history he recounts is fascinating and tragic.

The court of the last Mughal emperor in Delhi was a place of little political power or financial wealth in 1857 but it was a place of great cultural wealth. Dalrymple described it as like the age of Shakespeare for South Asia. The emperor himself, now very old, was a fine poet. It was also a place where Muslim and Hindu cultures met harmoniously.

The rise of religious fundamentalism and the arrogance of conquerors that beset the British East India Company (think Microsoft with an army says Dalrymple)  lead to actions which precipitated a calamatous uprising and the eventual destruction of the Mughals and their beautiful city Delhi. The British, lead by people whom he describes as imperial psychopaths were ruthless in their crushing of opposition.

Backed by some lovely slides illustrating the art, the people and the places Dalrymple held us absorbed in his tale and finished by reading a beautiful poem attributed to the emperor as he lay in a British prison and one which is still widely read in India today.

Nine lives, two interviews, one jangle of nerves

In addition to reading, blogging, panicking and spreading the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival word – there’s also the little matter of  The Interview.

The Interview involves equipment which I have only met in an online-dating kind of a way. Here’s hoping we prove to be compatible because I am down to interview William Dalrymple and Lionel Shriver. Be still my beating heart.

Way back in the sixties, you too may have succumbed to the delights of An Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I know I did, so I decided to start with William Dalrymple’s latest book:   Nine Lives: In search of the Sacred in Modern India. As a partially out-of-the-closet Hindu with a love of Indian music, Paisley patterns, Persian miniatures and a good curry this felt like it would be a suitable fit. And it was.

Dalrymple loves India and he has walked the walk to prove it. It has taken twenty five years to collect the nine stories that make up this book. Even if you have scant interest in the history of India, leave the room when reincarnation comes up for discussion, loathe books with clusters of foreign, hard-to-pronounce place names and like your non-fiction to have a smattering of photographs, I still believe that you will find yourself captivated by Nine Lives.

The reasons why are simple. Dalrymple is eminently readable , the characters in the stories are as bizarre as anything you would find in science fiction and you will probably find yourself drawn, possibly against your better judgement, to identify with at least one of them. As in: Were I to follow a sacred path in India, which one of these would it be? Actually, even if you are only following a secular path in a job like mine at  Christchurch City Libraries, there will have been bad days  which turned you briefly into The Lady Twilight in Chapter 8 whose story begins thus:

“Before you drink from a skull,” said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, ” you must first find the right corpse.”

OK, so it’s not in the current library training manual but I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Fascinating as these nine tales are, in the end it is Dalrymple’s  own life that I find myself wanting to know more about – perhaps he will relent and write an autobiography one day.  Any questions anyone would like to have asked in the interview will be received by me with little whimpers of joy and may even earn you good karma.

Let the nevers bite the dust

CoverI’m Roberta, and I’m going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival this May.

Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would see in print – and it feels good! In fact, with that one sentence a whole bunch of “nevers” bite the dust: I’ve never been to a literary festival in New Zealand, never been to one anywhere in the world for that matter and, cherry on the top – I’ve never been to Auckland either.

Of course I’m euphoric. I’ve got a spring in my step and a great big smile on my mug. That said, I am waking up at 2am with sweaty palms and the words “podcast” and “blog” beating a merciless tattoo behind my terrified eyes. But together with the rest of the team we’ll be firing on all cylinders before too long.

What this means is that I have been given the chance to rediscover the joy of focused reading. Of course I read for pleasure all the time, but to resurrect the thrill of reading with a purpose is a special privilege. Next to my comfy chair, on my round table with a specially angled reading lamp, there now stands a gently leaning stack of books I must read and be able to comment on with some degree of insight by the 12th May  –  and I am in my element. The pile includes Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That and William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.

And yes, I have bought new stationery for those of you who must know. Really, it doesn’t get better than this!