I am unreasonably depressed that Murder in Samarkand has not even made the longlist of 20 for the BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction.
Surprisingly, Stephen Grey’s Ghost Plane isn’t there either. It is a tremendous and meticulously researched investigation that cuts right into the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme. It is scrupulously fair, and gives the CIA’s reasons and version of events. It never indulges in speculation or goes beyond what can be proved. But it carefully builds up a picture that is shocking and damning – a truly great bit of investigative journalism, that forced George Bush to admit the system of secret CIA prisons abroad. It is indefensible that it is not on the BBC list.
One thing you can say about the list is that it is safe. The only book about the “War on Terror” is safely pro-Iraq war. Occupational Hazards by Rory Stewart takes the neo-con line that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but we did not kill enough people, sorry, use enough troops with robust enough terms of engagement and provide “greater security”. Stewart seems to see himself as a right wing mystic in the mould of Francis Younghusband.
There is a book about living under a regime with a terrible human rights record. Naturally that turns out to be Iran.
I haven’t read all twenty books, but I warmly recommend The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple. It resonates for me because I saw so much of the remnants of Timurid civilisation at the Uzbek end. The book is not a biography of Zafar but a local study of the Mutiny in Delhi in 1857, and an elegy for the elegance of a lost civilisation and for the death of religious tolerance in India.
The resonances are astonishing. The ruthlessness of the evangelical christians, massacring for Christ, and the role of Mujahedin and Jihadis, cannot fail to make you think deeply.
I am a great fan of Dalrymple, but the claims made in reviews that the book is revolutionary historiography are overblown. Certainly it is very well researched, and Dalrymple has unearthed Indian sources which are insufficiently used. But close reading of the footnotes shows that these were not quite as virgin sources as Dalrymple might have us believe. It must also be said that Dalrymple himself does not give us as much of this new material as he might. For example, having discovered vast quantities of petitions to the Emperor from ordinary people, he quotes very little from them.
I enjoyed greatly his little dig at the Subaltern Studies school and their tendency to cloak a lack of genuine research by etymological obfuscation and a continual use of abstract terminology. As Dalrymple demonstrates, the subaltern voice can be recovered, but it involves moving your fat arse off the seat of your luxurious office provided by your well-paid American university post, and searching through dusty archives in India. One piece of genuine history is worth a thousand pieces of theorising introspection from the field of post-colonial studies. It is a great irony that characters like Spivak and Bhabha enshrine the imputed qualities of self-serving over-clever deviousness that led the colonisers to hold the “Educated Baboo” in contempt.
Mourning the passing of cultures is what Dalrymple does so well. From the Holy Mountain is a great example. But here he is also mourning the passing of the dynasty of Timur. I wonder what there is about the passing of royal dynasties that touches such an irrational chord? The Stuarts are surrounded by a mystic glow. Richard III and the Plantagenets have their active advocates, and it is this aura that permeates CJ Sansom’s current bestseller, Sovereign. The literature around the only English king of all England, Harold, is immense. In France the yearning for the Merovingians led to the whole nonsense of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the Da Vinci Code.
The common theme, perhaps best exemplified in the Arthur mythology, is that everything would somehow have been better had a true dynasty survived. Perhaps this is just “Good Old Days” nostalgia, but its permeation through literature over the centuries is massive. It has no relationship to truth. The Stuarts lost their crown because they were both arrogant and stupid. Richard III did depose his nephews.
The result of the Indian Mutiny was by no means a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the British hold was very precarious. One new point I learnt from Dalrymple’s book is that, on at least three occasions, the simple lack of physical courage by Zafar or his sons turned the tide at crucial moments.
Having seen all the nauseating stuff about chinless drunk groper Prince William and parasitic Kate Middleton – whose job is a “fashion accessory purchaser for designers” – the sooner we get rid of the monarchy the better. That will give authors something to really get nostalgic about.