Sikunder Burnes and the Blurred Narrative of Real Life 57

I confess that when I saw that Sikunder Burnes was being reviewed by the ultra conservative romanticist Allan Massie, in the staunchly British unionist Scotsman, I was braced for a broadside. But overall I think the review is both interesting and reasonably fair, making some intellectual points worthy of contention. A review that states “This is a fascinating book”, and praises my research and mastery of the facts, is not a bad review, even if it outlines ways Massie thinks it could have been better.

But the criticism that there is too much detail, and the narrative line is blurred, is interesting because it is something of which I was highly conscious in writing, and discussed as an issue. Though regular readers of this blog, who followed the struggle to cut out 80,000 words from the book, will recognise the criticism that I threw in everything I knew as completely misguided.

Real life is very messy. Individuals sometimes do things that appear completely out of character, or contrary to all their usual motives and inclinations on a subject, and sometimes a couple of centuries later we can’t understand why they did that. And not just individuals – social trends and movements will always throw up inconvenient counter-examples that buck the trend.

Allan Massie is a historical novelist, and a fine one. It is unsurprising he likes his historical characters to move consistently, clearly and at a good reading pace along neatly plotted narratives. But real life is not like that, and thus real history should not be. History cannot elide, or it is not history. Real life is messy, and real biography is obliged partly to reflect that.

To give just one example from Sikunder Burnes, Henry Pottinger was an extremely irascible, indeed bellicose, British imperialist who had no time for Burnes’ interest in local cultures and institutions and desire to give responsibility to Indians. He was gung-ho to annex Mandvi and to attack Sind from an early stage, and was a vicious driving force behind the First Opium War. Yet in 1839 he suddenly had a crisis of conscience over the annexation of Karachi, and stood firmly against the Governor-General on the ground of two inconvenient facts. Firstly it was untrue that Karachi fort had fired on a British warship, and secondly that it was true that the Amirs of Sind had a written contract releasing them from a tribute obligation to Shuja.

This noble behaviour of Pottinger was completely out of character with a career of trampling local rights, which had never shirked from imperial dissembling or brutality. The conflict between Burnes and Pottinger over how Indians should be treated is an important theme of the book. Pottinger’s behaviour here undermines that powerful theme. I did not have to include it. I could have just omitted these letters, and there are not three people in the entire world who would be equipped to notice. It would have made for a shorter book and a clearer, more dramatic narrative. But it would not be intellectually honest, which is my main driver. Plus I have this rather illogical compulsion to be fair to people, even if they are long dead. Indeed a conviction that Alexander Burnes has been treated very unfairly by history is my major motive for writing the book.

I discussed this exact question over drinks in Delhi with the brilliant William Dalrymple. His general advice was that readability is essential, and that small counter-facts are always omitted from any general narrative; which is true. I do accept that Massie has a point – the specific Pottinger case is one of scores of examples, and perhaps I leaned too far towards completeness and had insufficient pity on my readers. William Dalrymple’s books are superbly written with a quality of description I do not even seek to match, and do move along very linear narratives, while not leaving out important detail. I do not claim to be in the same league as a storyteller, but I rest in the hope that others will find the muddle of life as endlessly fascinating as I do.

I confess to checking how online sales are going, and was happy to see that the only historical biography on Amazon outselling Sikunder Burnes is The Invention of Nature, Andrea Wulf’s life of Alexander von Humboldt. Purely by chance von Humboldt turns up in Sikunder Burnes playing a brief but key role, helping to pluck the convict soldier Jan Prosper Witkiewicz from obscurity in Orenburg.

Finally, I should address the fact that Sikunder Burnes appears to have completely disappeared. Their appear to be no physical copies available anywhere that I have been able to determine. Amazon are selling extremely well, but don’t actually have any. I have received literally dozens of reports of people not being able to get it in bookshops, and not one report of anyone actually seeing it on a bookshop shelf.

I wish I could give you a proper explanation, but obviously with the book already reviewed by the Mail, the Sun and the Scotsman, its lack of sales visibility is a major blow to me. I think part of the explanation is that Birlinn, who have produced an extremely handsome volume of which I am very proud, have just been taken aback by the high level of demand. They promise me there will be stock widely available imminently.

The second and much larger problem is that very few bookshops appear to have ordered the book in for their shelves. For example three different readers of this blog have reported ordering it at the same Waterstones Birmingham store, but that Waterstones has not ordered it for stock. I have been told that Foyles, who sold many dozens of my Murder in Samarkand, have not ordered in to stock. Yet the prominent tables of Waterstones and Foyles are stacked high with books which Sikunder Burnes is massively outselling online, even though listed as currently unavailable. I think part of the reason for this is the problems of an excellent but independent publisher in this corporate world, and partly that it is conceived as a Scottish interest book (the situation is rather better in Scottish bookshops).

Anybody with the time and inclination would do me a huge favour by attempting to persuade your local bookshop, chain or independent, that they should have it on their shelves. I do not think there are many books given a prominent review by the Daily Mail which are never stocked. And Murder in Samarkand was a bestseller. I need somehow to get this book visible.

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57 thoughts on “Sikunder Burnes and the Blurred Narrative of Real Life

  • Brianfujisan

    I bought the book on £18.50 odds Two weeks ago

    Still awaiting Delivery notice..

    Are you still against crowd Funding button…And A Television Show Like GG..Once you get into it i’m sure it will be a hit. Cos there is So much to Enlighten the Public to..All the Best Anyhoo

  • fwl

    Asked in two major London branches of Waterstones and one fantastic Indie and all oblivious to the existence of the book. In the 80s (I don’t know now) small publishers had reps who would visit every key London store. Even for the more esoteric titles.

    • Alcyone

      Precisely. Is someone (a qualified someone, hopefully) making the calls from Birlinn if it’s impractical to pound the pavement? They should at least be pounding the dial-pad, morning-to-night?!

      They need to shake the trees hard, but Craig needs to hske them up first is what I am intuiting.

  • Alcyone

    This has to be a top-down lead project by Birlinn, who may be lightweights and, therefore simply do not have the weight or capacity to pull this off. All the more, they need a check list of prioritised tasks that they need to hit on their head.

    Do you seriously think one of us should go to Waterstones and try and persuade the salesperson to ask HQ to order in copies. I already did order in 5 copies, when one were expected or on the cards, whether I in the end take all 5 or not.

    Come on Craig you’re a strategic thinker; now knock heads together, it’s still not too late. Can’t help pointing out the little-Scotland-village-mentality that is on display.

    Finally, stock-outs are a very, very bad way to do business in this day and age when attention spans are seriously limited by the “stuff of daily life”. Kick off here with a 1,000 hard copies signed and ready to go.

    Btw, curious in the extreme: how many copies were printed in the first run? (Come on, please blow the whistle!)

    • Alcyone

      Craig, I shall be following through on Jaipur in the rest of this week. Meantime, have you any news?

    • craig Post author


      It was always the case that individual Waterstones branches could order in titles independently, though I believe the system became more centralised this summer. In any event, there will be a system to feed back and the people who work in the shops will recognise Murder in Samarkand.

      I cannot understand why you think I do not communicate my concerns to Birlinn, when I have told you plainly on another thread that I do. They tell me that their sales reps are pushing the book and that they do give the reviews to Waterstones. Plainly that approach is having a limited effect, for whatever reason.

      I have just blogged that there are no physical books available and your reply to me is I should have 1,000 to sell myself. Sadly I failed that part of my magic course. I have indeed ordered 100 so far to sell myself. They have not physically arrived. I am promised next week.

      You then say “Finally, stock-outs are a very, very bad way to do business.” Yes. I know that. Hence my despair and appeals for help, on which I would be grateful if you could desist from pouring cold water.

      I understand the initial print run was 1,500 hardbacks.

      I am genuinely, very grateful for your concern and your efforts to help, but in a situation which is causing me great angst, your references to the blindingly obvious do not make me feel any better!

      • Alcyone

        Craig, as you know, it’s far easier to have misunderstandings than understanding. How can I make it plain that it’s NOT about you? It’s about Birlinn, it’s them I don’t trust! The more I hear, the less I trust them. Therefore, I trust you will meet the Reality and direct them best you can, with business advice, whether that includes legal advice or not depends on your contract and doing the right, pragmatic thing.

        I can well feel how you are feeling, if you care to experiment by trusting me. Meeting the actuality here and now calmly, but smartly in next steps should/could help you feel better and focus.

        There’s little point in saying it could’ve been or should’ve etc etc etc.

        But I will say one thing on the FACTS: You’ve spent 8 years in creating. 1,500 books printed at 5 pounds a copy is 7,500, i.e. less than 1,000 pa of your effort. Or, the cost of a coffee a day. I just hope you’re not dealing with novices. Have they been organising children’s tea parties? It is a joke, but this is no laughing matter. BROAD POINT: The Last Mile is important.

        Re: ‘magic course’ etc, I now understand that there are simply not enough copies to go around! So it’s not a matter of wrinkles/bottlenecks in the supply-pipeline, at least not primarily.

        Everything to play for! To borrow an Americanism: Kick ass….with kid leather socks. I bet Sikunder loved the people around him. A proud, very elegant, fair, elderly lady all dressed in white blouse (3/4 sleeves), white sari once said to me: ‘I come from the Land where people never say die!’. She was Punjabi Hindu living (and working) in Lucknow and was a good friend of the philanderer, Jawahar Lal Nehru, although I hasten to add, utterly, totally and completely loyal to her husband, a top Cambridge, world-renowned. botanist. We shared a cup of hot tea; no cold water here.

        • craig Post author

          I do understand absolutely your good faith, believe me. I also understand what needs to be done.

          The publisher needs to cut through the crap and get the books delivered, even if that costs more than the usual apparently desultory method. The publisher needs to get through on the phone to Richard Humphreys, Waterstones chief history and biography buyer, and tell him this is being nationally reviewed, selling well on Amazon and is a national campaign book not a local interest book. The publisher’s reps need to prioritise this book in particular as they go rounds stores, point out the reviews and the sales of Murder in Samarkand.

          I do not have any leverage or ability to make the publisher do these things. It is not for lack of pushing on my part.


          • Alcyone

            Great (!) and even better if you can go along and have a cup of tea with Richard Humphreys too. Till today, I like to do business based on personal relationship.

            Thanks for your reply and every good wish.

            “There’s perfection in every moment
            But its all so difficult to see
            Like Truth itself, unknown and unbent
            Beamed directly from the Galaxies”

  • Kerch'ee Kerch'ee Coup

    Might I suggest, from a long-term perspective, arranging a review by’Frontline’,an excellent excellent news and general culture magazine published in Chennai by The Hindu. They cover the history of Anglo(Caledonian???)-Indian politics and The Great Game in some depth.
    BTW, how are sales in Ireland doing? Still many knowledgeable and independent booksellers keeping going compared to most of Britain , so should be some scope. I will donate an extra copy to Kerry libraries once I get the two ordered on my return .

  • Kerch'ee Kerch'ee Coup

    Will you be giving a presentation, Craig, to the RSAA in London and when is a review scheduled and by whom? Many years ago my interest was stirred in the area by a pile of the Royal Central Asia’s Society ‘s journals that I bought at a jumble sale. It’s difficult to access their reviews on-line, though, but their library must be fascinating and time-consuming.

    • craig Post author

      Thanks! There are two rival Royal societies covering Asian affairs. I believe they have both now been contacted by the publisher to offer a talk. It appears they may be naturally waiting to see if the book is any good before accepting!

      • Kerch'ee Kerch'ee Coup

        Thanks for prompt reply. though long-time member of RAS, I though ;’thatothe place@ might be more appropriate. At any rate, avoid close’Encounters’ with Asia Society , organisationally ,but I’m sure you have .

  • Loony

    To what extent have you researched the book selling industry?

    Here is an article from The Independent that briefly describes the decline in the number of independent bookshops in the UK (now down to below 1,000)

    There is something called Bookscan which tracks most bookstore, online and other retail sales of books. According to Bookscan the average book now sells less than 250 copies per year with lifetime sales of around 3,000. – These are figures for the US so I assume figures for the UK will be somewhat lower.

    Here is an article discussing what counts as a success in the book sales business

    According to the this article some books nominated for the Booker Prize are only selling around 3,000 copies. Sales of 15,000 are described as “sensational”

    So you have a decline in the number of booksellers and a decline in the number of books sold. You can reasonably conclude that there is a lot of economic pressure on booksellers. Even if your book sold 3,000 copies then (after deducting online sales) that probably leaves an average of around 1 copy per bookseller.

    Surely a much better way is to leverage your on online presence and sell copies directly to the public. As other people have suggested you could sign these books – or put some kid of personal message in them.

    If you could only find someway of upsetting some people in the deep south then maybe they would buy your book simply in order to burn it – just a thought.

    • craig Post author


      Murder in Samarkand sold approximately 40,000 copies in the UK. I know the majority of books published are commercially unsuccessful. That is irrelevant to this particular book.

      I am aware that sales of 15,000 are “sensational”. I write sensational books.

      The large majority of booksellers in England are carrying zero copies of this book in stock. Yet online it is outselling the vast majority of those books they are carrying. If they do not possess a single copy, of course they cannot sell it.

      • AAMVN

        I worked briefly as a Xmas temp for Waterstones. It was interesting how they decided what to stock. They were always browbeating the staff in charge of the various sections to only buy a book if they expected to sell 10 copies and not to stock anything just because they felt they ought to have a copy.

        The books that sold were the books put out on tables. Books on a shelf with the cover outwards outsold those with their spines showing. Of course the window display was the main sales engine with the bestsellers in huge racks. I was once drowned in a cascade of Harry Potters when the display collapsed on me. Gave everyone a laugh.

        Fun but very underpaid job with lots of attractive young arts graduates to flirt with the main perk.

  • Frazer

    I asked my local Waterstones for a copy. They said that they have no demand and their HO has not informed them of any plans to stock it.

  • Sean Armstrong

    To get your books into the bookshops you need to light a fire under Gardners in Eastbourne who are the major wholesalers in the UK – for example, you cannot get a book into Waterstone’s without going through them. If they do not have sufficient stocks or are not promoting the book properly it will not get into the shops. Light a similar fire with your publishers.

    Get your book reviewed by the Spectator as well, that usually makes for a jump in sales.

  • Simon

    Hi Craig, congratulations on the book which I’m hugely looking forward to. Your question of complex narratives is a vast one, and of course I completely agree with you. The contradictoriness of history is surely a sensibility. If you don’t have it, stick with clear narratives, but don’t expect to understand much. If you do have it, then clear narratives are going to seem unbearably simplistic. And a determination to be fair is certainly the main thing I want from an author presuming to guide me through a forgotten period. Just don’t fall into the Italian trap of presuming all stories have to be complicated. These are now very dated references, but if you’re ever wondering how to write page-turning history that does justice to its subject, don’t hesitate to go back to AJP Taylor, or George Dangerfield (another amateur historian, who waited 60 years for something like just recognition. Hopefully yours will come sooner!)

  • John S Warren

    May I suggest taking a more relaxed approach to the Massie review? He is a novelist, not a historian and clearly does not think like a serious historian. Allow me to review his review from the perspective of a reader: it was either badly written, or perhaps more generously, badly edited. The last two or three paragraphs are so terse, undeveloped and abrupt that by the end he had undermined any persuasive force his assertive style had established at the beginning. The only fair summary word to describe Massie’s review is “baffling”.

    The most famous book reviews are usually famous because in retrospect they are, at best, unfortunate:
    “An absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama or plain record of New York high life” – ‘Saturday Review’ (1925) review of ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    • Darth

      Signed copies will be available from here soon. Craig does not want to start taking money from people for signed copies until he actually has some to sign and send out!

  • Stephen

    I’ve just this minute received confirmation from Hive that the copy I ordered on 26th October is on its way!

  • giyane

    Waterstones Birmingham told me on 31/10/2016, the day of publication that they’d ordered 2 for stock. Maybe they’ve already gone.

  • Demetrius

    Good luck with the sales. The question of detail and the related analysis is always a tricky one away from the world of academic journals and theses. But when looking at the Raj given the sheer amount of activity, its complexity and the many and various interests involved trying to simplify is in itself risking inadvertent falsity or wrong impressions. It is a “no win” thing. Lady Bracknell was all too right about what was involved in The Fall of the Rupee rather later.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Sympathize completely about the contents of serious books, and their sales.

    If you write a short, catchy book, the reviews will question its accuracy. If you write a long book about anyone or anything, with most the the details footnoted, the reviewers will claim that it is not a biography or a real history, but a daily acccount.

    And bookstores just have a sample in stock of what is available.

    Usually, one has to know about a book’s existence, and pursue its purchase until you do.

    I remember wanting a book about the history of lasers, and when one finally appeared, I had to order it several times, as it was never on any shelf, before I finally got a copy.

    I would never write a book again because that is just the beginning of the problems with publishers, reviewers, bookstores, suppliers, and purchasers.

    I was most lucky to find Barry Rose, now dead for over a decade, because he agreed to publish anything a wrote, provided he could publish my biography of Brougham.

  • DoNNyDaRkO

    I bought mine through Birlinn online . It arrived after 5 days. No complaints
    Enjoying it so far…… but Burnes is only 22… long way to go.

  • bevin

    Your decision on the Pottinger was absolutely right. I am genuinely shocked to hear that you were advised otherwise: the truth is always more interesting than a smoothly crafted story. In historical terms it is of great importance that people understand the complexity and contradictions of the actual practice of imperialism and its rather crude ideology.
    I read the book on Kindle (for my PC) and I greatly recommend doing so: it is in some senses much inferior-maps and other illustrations don’t work well for me- but it had real advantages for those taking notes. Whole passages can be copied, pasted and filed on a document for example and very easily. I haven’t got an actual Kindle but I believe that they are very portable etc.
    The strategy to adopt seems to me to take advantage of the fact that nobody can find physical copies of the book. And thus to promote the Second Impression, which I assume is already being printed: lots of fuss and publicity, of the “I can’t find that book anywhere. Where did they all go?” kind will build up demand. It is not the sort of thing that people change their minds about wanting- if they want it they will wait. And the waiting impatiently will increase sales momentum.
    The current problem is a lot better than the alternative, which public apathy, slow sales and an early grave on the Remainders market.
    Anyway, it is a very good book and I do recommend, particularly Canadian, readers to order it now and read it in Kindle form.

  • Trowbridge H. Ford

    Must say that I don’t find Massie’s review all that great, and I have only read about one/fifth of the book.

    Think Massie has engaged too much in what he complains about biographers not doing, omitting stuff.

    For example, I found Craig’s description of Alex’s sex life, especially with British women, like Emily Eden, and the treatment of venereal disease, unique.

    Then there a lot about native hatred of the British imperialism well before the Sepoy uprising. Seems like the Brits were only engaged in taking ever more of India.

    Want more detail about what Sikunder actually did.

    Massie, in short, relied too much on what had already been said about the book.

  • Sharp Ears

    Wouldn’t it be good if the BBC rang Craig to invite him on to Open Book with Mariella Frostrup!?

    ‘Open Book

    Continuing our #lovetoread series about writers across the generations, Sir Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clark talk about their new collaboration Three Little Monkeys. Sir Quentin was Emma’s tutor at art college, now she has provided the illustrations for his words. So how did it feel to provide the pictures for one of the greatest children’s illustrators of our time?

    The Mothers is an impressive debut from twenty five year old American writer Brit Bennett. She talks to Mariella about the coming of age story set in an oppressive small town community in California.

    Two new books celebrate our love affair with bookshops.

    And the collected short stories of Joy Williams is our recommendation for a great November read.’

    They also have ‘This Week’s Book List’

    • Darth


      There are Amazon widgets for the book in several places on the front page right now in articles.. Maybe you’re blocking them with an ad-blocker or something? The Amazon widgets have been on the site for years in the Books section and are linked to an affiliate account in Craig’s name..

      There’s an Amazon widget directly under “Read a free sample” in this very article. I guess you don’t see it?

  • nevermind

    Waterstones Norwich has got my order yesterday, I picked it up today, The Book Hive, I popped in whilst passing to see whether it had arrived, had no trace of my name or order from last week, somebody made a mistake, so I ordered it again.

    You have entered a very busy Yule market and you have to persuade the buyers to order it in for stock. They do not know your book and have ordered loads of celebrity books and covers they know they can shift a long time ago. The more noise you can make the better.
    A book reading a day keeps the vultures away….good luck with it

  • Old Mod Jon

    Well, the good news is that having ordered the book on Tuesday, Waterstones have let me know it is ready for collection, just two days later. When I placed the order their computer system could not say when it would be delivered, and I was wondering if several weeks wait would be necessary. So, it looks like the supply chain is working!

  • geomannie

    Hi Craig

    I agree, you should rightly be pleased about the review from Allan Massie. I have only just received my copy of Sikunder Burnes (direct from Birlin who I believe still hold copies) and am yet to read it, mainly because my wife has picked it up while I finish my current read, the fascinating “Race against the Stasi” by Herbie Sykes, the true story of a cyclists defection from East Germany in the mid 1960’s.

    So much to read, so little time.


  • Alcyone

    “Read a free sample: Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game – by Craig Murray”

    Does anybody expect normally to pay to read a sample?

    If not, why the word ‘free’? It does sound very cheap to me.

    But then there may be some classless types enticed, like the shrew-troll who flounced off in a huff last Christmas and once threatened legal action, only to return in purdah.

    I remember Craig’s brilliant remark at the time: “no one is prisoner to this blog’. Priceless freedom!

  • Fuddlededee

    Blackwell’s have advise me that there are 8 copies available in the Edinburgh South Bridge branch.
    They are also accepting online orders (currently 16.99 hardback version),
    I now have an electronic copy and expect the hardback to be dispatched on the 7th November.

  • BrianPowell

    I ordered a copy on line some while back. They gave a delivery date but the other day gave a new date, pushing back the delivery. Perhaps a problem with the printing.

  • Michael

    Ordered Sikunder from Hive on 27 October, was told they had sold out but were expecting more & would fulfill order as quickly as possible — which Hive did, book arriving here in remote NW Highlands (nearest actual bookshop 70 miles away!) on 5 November. No complaints about Hive’s service & now looking forward to reading the book.

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