Sunday Morning Blues 12

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.

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12 thoughts on “Sunday Morning Blues

  • writeon


    Cheer up, old man! Listen to some music, go for a walk in the sunshine and have an icecream, hold someone's hand. It's been about twenty-two degrees in my garden and I've been on my knees weeding for hours. I've watered the rockery and mowed the lawn. The tees are looking good, the sap is rising. Spring is here again, nature is sprining back into life like a rocket this year. My birdboxes are full. The doves and the pigeons are strolling around the lawn. The newly-cut grass smells good, ripe and sweet.

    The film will help the book sales. You need to patient, mate! Your really can't expect recognition, can you, in Blair's Britain? The gutter-press is stupifyingly patriotic and militaristic and drools over sex. The so-called quality press isn't that much better. Look at how the Observer and the Times have gone down the toilet. The Guardian seems lovesick for Blair and New Labour.

    All people's have these old, old "saviour myths". It isn't just nostaligia. It's also a manifistation of regret, for lost opportunities and hope. Hope that somehow, some power from the past, a superhero, will return or be reborn, grab the present by the scruff of the neck, shake it, and create a better tomorrow. Often, it's this "nostaligia" for a mythical past that gives us the strength to keep going, lifts one's spirits, lifts one's head and helps us move on!

  • ChoamNomsky

    As far as I understand it, it's just the personal preferences of 5 Judges. With such an incredibly small sample of "intellectuals" the results are thoroughly meaningless.

    Why not let the public vote? Or if they are going to be elitist about it, let anyone with a Masters or Doctorate vote.

    Since the sample of intellectuals is so meaninglessly small, perhaps the BBC can be persuaded to reject the findings of its own "survey". After all the BBC largely rejected the Lancet report despite its having thousands of samples.

  • NickW

    '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.'

    Actually there're two books about the "War on Terror" on the list; the other is 'Imperial Life in the Emerald City' by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Bloomsbury), about the Green Zone in Baghdad. I've not read it, but I'm told it's quite a damning indictment of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. I've read Stewart's other book,'The Places in Between'. I enjoyed it, and found it provocative. He doesn't have much time for NGOs, it seems to me, and argues the case for closer collaboration with local power structures. I see he's been giving evidence to the recent Commons Select Committee on Defence's enquiry into the UK's military commitments in Afghanistan.

  • johnf

    Imperial Life in the Emerald City is great, and so is the Dalrymple which I'm reading at the moment. So many parallels between the English EVangelical Christians and the neo-cons in the lead up to the mutiny and their responsibility for it.

    You, Craig, would fit in as one of the White Mughals in his previous book which did so much to blow up so much lazy post-colonial theorizing.

    The connection between Samarkhand and Delhi is, of course, one of my great heroes, Babur. I did a 90 minute radio play on him about ten years ago.

    I'm planning a similar sort of thing on Ibn Khaldun and Hafez's meeting with Timur – I know that they didn't meet him at the same time, but I'm allowing myself some latitude.

    I know Timur died of something like cholera, but is it true that his great army froze to death in a pass in the Pamir mountains on their way to conquer China?

  • NickW

    I read the 'Baburnameh' a few months back (in the excellent edition translated and edited by WM Thackston) and found that it became progressively more readable and perceptive. In the early chapters the continual listing of names and genealogies gets quite wearying, but the later chapters on India are marvellous.

    I believe Timur's death at Utrar (in modern-day Pakistan) in 1405 stopped the invasion of China in its tracks. Unfortunately, at the mo I only have B F Manz, 'The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane, to hand and so can't supply any more detail.

  • Craig

    I have just bought "Imperial Life in the Emerald City". It was indeed Timur's death that halted the plan to invade China. Justin Marozzi's "Tamerlaine – Scourge of God" is a good recent assessment.

  • NickW

    Craig, I read Justin Marozzi, 'Tamerlane – Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World', and I think some of the criticisms you made of Dalrymple's 'The Last Mughal' could also apply to Marozzi – a good general account but ultimately hugely reliant on previous scholarship. However, Marozzi does stamp his own personality on the book – hence diversions into Jacobean drama and various encounters in the streets of Samarkand and Bukhara. Of course, the problem is, whilst there are fascinating first-hand accounts from, inter alia, Clavijo, Ibn Arabshah, and Schiltburger, details about the character of Timur himself are sketchy at best. Readers used to the psychological profiles of more modern historical figures will find little by way of insight into the personality of one of Asia's most significant figures.

  • johnf

    NickW and Craig,

    Thank you for those recommendations.

    What I find amazing about Timur is that he went into battle surrounded by his poets. Hafez's they weren't, much more in the thud and blunder line I presume, but it underlines the potency of the word in a non-visual Islamic culture. (There are parallels with protestant/puritan England).

    And the poets were still there. Zafar was surrounded by them when the British attacked Delhi in 1857.

  • Shillum

    There are many natural human pressures that have not changed. One is religious persecution. Iran is one of the least persecuting powers I know of. The U.S. is the greatest persecutor. But with the U.S. it is less obvious, for it does not use the ordinary expressions. The term most often used in American "religion" is the god, "democracy" Who is the great omnipotent ruler over freedom and peace around the world. Anyone in the way gets burned at the stake. Everything is the same, only the names and places change.

  • Craig


    Certainly by Zafar's time they were very much real poets, discoursing on the pangs of love and delights of life. Don't forget that it was in a Timurid court that Omar Khayyam wrote his Rubaiyyat. This is the civilisation that built the Taj Mahal.

    Timur himself started life as a Chagatay chieftain and it is reasonable to presume he was pretty rude. But he very rapidly adopted the great Persian vivilisation and within three generations the Timurid civilisation had become the most advanced in the World in literature, architecture and science. How that was built on towers of human skulls is one of the great paradoxes of history.

  • Justice_For_All

    Dear Craig

    Your book is a fascinating, educational and supercharged read its almost like we are there with you recounting what happened in those tumultuous days…and its done with a unique mastery of writing ability with such apt brevity. The real detail is there.

    It has been one of the few books I have finished in a few days despite hectic work and commuting…beautifully and engagingly written you have a talent as a writer indeed. A sense of sadness comes over me as I get to the last pages.

    You are a man of and for the people and you get our vote…the asses at the Beeb are promoting the agenda of the day just as "writeon" has so well stated in his post (1st comment)…."dumb down" and have a few psuedo intellectual door stoppers on the list instead. Keep the masses occupied on the MTV/celebrity drivel/sex brain drain.

    When Blair and his cronies in Whitehall actively campaign for torture evidence, let Lebanon be bombed to hell, wage bloody wars without end, permit extraodinary rendition and torture by proxy and so many other heinous crimes against humanity its both sad and enraging that people instead care more for who Paris Hilton has screwed that day, if that overhyped tramp Lyndsey Lohan is wearing underwear, or Kate Moss and her sickening unhygienic junkie boyfriend have finally overdosed on crack (here's hoping) the world has really gone to shit…excuse my francais…

  • NigelQ

    Very interested in your comments on Rory Stewart. I have discovered two new authors with something useful to say on international politics in the past few weeks – you are one, Craig, and Rory Stewart is the other! I have read both "The Places In Between" and "Occupational Hazards" and remember no instance where he champions a neo-con agenda. My impression was of a man with an independent mind and quite remarkable strength of character (even if that is based mostly on his own testimony!).

    In his first book especially he highlights key reasons why our (US/UK) efforts at reconstruction in Afghanistan are doomed to failure, because of over simplification and an over centralised approach. It is a remarkable book and if you have not read it yet I heartily commend it.

    In Iraq, I thought his overriding message was that we needed to work with the people on the ground who actually had the power to get things done – which is far from the politics of Bush/Blair. I do not recall him saying that greater military effort was the answer, although he may well have criticised the level of resource and the rules of engagement as being ineffective to accomplish the stated mission. I must go back and re-read it – if what you say is true I may need to reclassify him from hero to villain!

    Congratulations on your own book – it has totally gripped me for the past week or so. And has made even harder to take the outpourings of Blair-fever in the past day or two. I guess Nick Robinson is looking to pick up a gong in the last Blair honours list!

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