Land of Fire and Ice

“The writer in Iceland is God,” says Hallgrimur Helgason, an Icelandic author speaking from the small screen affixed to the back of the airplane seat in front of mine. I am flying to Reykjavik, and passing the time by watching the short documentaries on the country presented by Iceland Air. I’ve been leafing through a magazine as well, only half paying attention. But now, as a writer myself and a traveller who sometimes picks destinations based on their literary history, I am transfixed.

“This is because of the literary tradition we have from the Sagas,” Helgason says. “Iceland is sort of a writer’s paradise.”

In my bag, I’ve got a copy of Jar City, a murder mystery by Arnaldur Indridason that is set in the capital city of Reykjavik. It was recommended to me by the clerk at an international bookstore I like to browse. But I’ve never read an Icelandic author before. This trip was inspired more by an interest in natural phenomena—the Blue Lagoon, the Aurora Borealis—than by literature.

I flip to the section on history in my guidebook, and as I skim through the country’s Viking origins to the present day, a sentence leaps out at me: Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other nation in the world. Suddenly, my expectations for this trip have shifted. As I fish Jar City out of my bag, I know I will go in search of the literary treasures of this tiny island nation.

Early Icelandic literature can be divided into three kinds: the Eddas, Skaldic poetry, and the most famous branch—the Sagas. The Eddas were mostly mythological stories, while Skaldic poetry (composed by poets known as skalds) was composed to honour nobles and kings. The Sagas, by contrast, relate historic events, sometimes dressed up with fantastic or romantic elements. In Iceland, they are regarded as prose histories of the tenth- and eleventh-century Norse and Celtic inhabitants of the country. The style of the Sagas will be familiar to anyone who has read Beowulf—with plain prose that recounts the adventures of a central hero renowned for his bravery. The Sagas typically place emphasis on situating the individual within his noble lineage and pinpointing his inherited traits. So begins Egils Saga, believed to have been written by 13th-century poet and historian Snorri Sturluson:

There was a man named Ulf, son of Bjalf, and Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the fearless; she was sister of Hallbjorn Half-giant in Hrafnista, and he the father of Kettle Hæing. Ulf was a man so tall and strong that none could match him, and in his youth he roved the seas…

The family trees can get a little complex. But that doesn’t keep people from reading them—evidently nearly every household owns a copy of the Sagas. I decide I’ll head to 15 Hverfisgotu Street, near Reykjavik’s waterfront, which I’m told is one of the best places to learn about Icelandic literary tradition. The Culture House has an exhibit that explores the perspective of Northern Europeans during the time period of the Sagas, which included the Viking Expansion, the settlement of Iceland and the other Atlantic islands, and the transition from paganism to Christianity. But most impressive are the actual medieval manuscripts on display. Scribes used ink made of berries and herbs to write on sheets of vellum prepared from calf’s skin. Dimly lit rooms house these ancient books, opened to colourful illuminated illustrations of warriors and neatly penned lines of text.

I have heard that nearly every Icelander writes poetry, and it is not hard to imagine that this is true in the cosy coffee houses that line the streets of downtown Reykjavik, filled with blonde clientele bent over notebooks or tapping at laptop keyboards. But as I pass an afternoon soaking in a public thermal pool, known as a “hot pot,” amongst locals who come to bathe regularly in the mineral-rich waters, it becomes clear that the oral tradition is also alive and well. The tourists sit quietly and close their eyes, while Icelanders chat animatedly, telling stories in a language that sounds vaguely Germanic, which it is. A common saying goes that the hot pot is to Icelanders as the pub is to Brits or the café to the French.

I look for evidence of a contemporary literary community on the city’s newsstands, where I find a dynamic glossy called the Iceland Review, written in English. There is also the Reykjavik Grapevine, a monthly English-language newspaper. At the weekend, the city’s Kolaportid flea market near the Old Harbour seems like a promising place to look for evidence of book trade, and sure enough, I find a charming corner occupied by wooden bookcases and crates and tables full of paperbacks, some of them American literature in translation, many of them in the original English, and the majority Icelandic books published in Icelandic. My favourite find is a hardcover children’s book called Litlr Isbjorn (“Little Polar Bear”) with careful illustrations of a small white bear and his adventures in the Icelandic wilderness. The bookseller mentions casually that one in ten Icelanders is a published writer.

Street signs lead me next to the National Library, a modern red and white building that stands past frozen Tjornin pond near a traffic circle on Armgrimsgata Street. Its collection contains every book ever printed in Iceland, along with antique maps of the country, and Bibles in more than 12,000 languages. Here too is the Nobel Prize acceptance speech given by Halldor Laxness, the first Icelandic author to win the Prize in Literature in 1955. It reads, in part:

[As I accept this honour,] I am thinking… of that community of one hundred and fifty thousand men and women who form the book-loving nation that we Icelanders are. From the very first, my countrymen have followed my literary career, now criticizing, now praising my work, but hardly ever letting a single word be buried in indifference. Like a sensitive instrument that records every sound, they have reacted with pleasure or displeasure to every word I have written. It is a great good fortune for an author to be born into a nation so steeped in centuries of poetry and literary tradition.

It seems to me—as I read through Laxness’ remarks—that no writer could ask for more. And as I find myself seeing the city of Reykjavik through the eyes of Arnaldur Indridason, author of the Icelandic thriller I’ve been reading, it is hard to imagine traveling to this place without embracing its love for story. There is something about Iceland—perhaps its candlelit corners, or the colour of the sky in winter, when the sun rises at mid-morning—that simply begs to be written.

Much Bothered With Buffalo

What makes us start writing a diary? The dawning of another year? Or perhaps the beginning of a whole new life? I am sitting in the sunlit Paulson Reading Room at the University of Oregon in Eugene, reading the diaries of women who have been dead for over a century; women who embarked on such a great adventure that they decided it needed to be committed to paper in the pages of a daily journal. As part of my research for a novel which follows the journey of a Victorian woman from Liverpool to Oregon, I am digging into the archives to read the true stories of those who travelled the emigrant trails in the mid-nineteenth century. [private]

At each end of the Reading Room, carved in thick cedar wood, hang triptychs depicting the history of this western state. One of the images shows a wagon train negotiating the Barlow Trail at the foot of Mount Hood. It is a picturesque scene, with the tall trees, mountains and rivers which contribute to Oregon’s astonishing natural beauty. It reveals little of the nightmare of hauling wagons through impenetrable forest, across freezing rivers and down treacherous mountainsides, or the personal tragedies caused by illness, injury and death. In the 1850’s this land was yet to be ‘tamed’ by white settlers, but increasing numbers were tempted to brave the gruelling journey to the Oregon Territory as part of the ‘Manifest Destiny’ to expand the boundaries of the American nation. With the promise of cheap, or even free, land, many saw it as an opportunity not to be missed. For most, the trail began at St. Joseph, Missouri and ended two thousand miles later in the fertile Willamette Valley, Oregon. The popular image of families packed into horse-drawn wagons to cross the windswept prairies is misleading; wagons were small, no wider than a double bed, and only the sick, elderly or very young were allowed to take up precious cargo space. Everyone else walked, and the wagons were usually pulled by less romantic, but far more resilient, oxen. How do we know this? Largely by reading the letters and diaries of the emigrants themselves.

Should we read someone else’s diary? Normally, perhaps not; it’s a repository of secret thoughts, fears and dreams that are never intended to be shared unless they belong to an individual whose life is of public interest, say a politician or a film star. But what about those everyday people whose scribbles in a journal are simply meant as a private means of self-expression, a place to rant about an unfeeling lover, difficult relatives or trouble at work? Sometimes, opening the diaries of these wagon train women, I feel something of an intruder. When I read the entry for 19 May 1853 written by nineteen year old Agnes Stewart, it is hard not to be moved by the anguish she tries so hard to conceal:

“Oh, I feel so lonesome today! Sometimes I can govern myself, but not always, but I hold in pretty well considering all things.”

Agnes confides her private suffering to a journal, not wanting to be seen by her fellow travellers as a weak and complaining girl. Fixing a lantern to the ridgepole of her tent, she sits hunched over her diary at night, desperately missing family, friends and a familiar life left behind. As the entries continue, my impression of the character of this young woman becomes clearer. She is sensitive to the plight of the Native Americans, questioning their treatment by the government; and she is clearly distressed by the discovery of a woman’s corpse, dug up by wolves, blue ribbons still intact in her hair. On days when the wagon train rests, Agnes tells us she is doing laundry, or stewing apples, though she longs to swim in the creek or play leapfrog with the boys. Although it seems that this diary was written only as a private outlet for thoughts and emotions on the emigrant trail, the document was preserved long after the journey had ended, and, indeed, after its author had died. Can we assume that Agnes kept it to remember that turning point in her life? Did she intend it as a record of family history to pass on to her children and grandchildren? As the teenage Anne Frank recorded in her own diary in 1944, “I want to go on living even after death.”

Of course, there were some, like Elizabeth Wood, who started their diaries with the intention of getting published. By the mid-nineteenth century, pioneer journals had become commonplace, although those published had generally been by men. Elizabeth was unusual in that she was female and single, following in the footsteps of successful women travel writers of the time, such as Isabella Bird Bishop with her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

The original diaries written by the emigrant women were small notebooks that would take up little space. Paper and ink was in short supply on a journey across the continent that might take four months or more. Space in the wagons was reserved for food, and essentials such as bedding and cooking utensils. A journal that could slip into a pocket with a pencil would become a treasured possession. Few of these documents have survived, but many were transcribed before the contents were lost, either by the women themselves, or often by daughters, nieces or granddaughters. Here in the archives, I am reading a diary originally handwritten in 1852, and typed up some sixty years later. The ink is faded, the typing uneven and smudged, but this only serves to remind me that this was probably intended as a personal, family document. It is only with the passage of time that the accounts of ordinary people assume the importance of historical commentary.

Some of the diaries highlight the writer’s awareness that she is entering a new chapter in her life, with the potential for success or failure, happiness or grief. Writing on 4 January 1851, Jean Rio Baker starts her New Year boarding a ship from Liverpool to New Orleans, on route to Salt Lake City.

“I this day take took leave of every acquaintance I could collect together, in all human probability never to see them again on Earth. I am now (with my children) about to leave for ever my native land.”

Is she sad at these partings? It would seem so, but there is also a frisson of excitement. Later, when describing awful storms in the Atlantic, Jean writes triumphantly that she is one of the few passengers unaffected by seasickness. Her diary entries are regular, part of her daily routine. Maybe this is an antidote to boredom, or perhaps a method of alleviating fears for her children and herself. Even when her young son, Josiah, dies, she manages to record the event in her diary, noting the exact longitude and latitude where his body, sewn into a white sack, is consigned to the deep. Her grief is palpable, yet Josiah is not mentioned again after this date, his mother’s diary now preoccupied with the illness of another child. Does that daily ritual of taking up her journal help Jean to keep going, to press on with a journey despite the costs?

Jean Rio Baker’s account of life on board a ship full of Mormons heading to Salt Lake City contains fascinating insights into the life of this community. When the weather is calm, and the family are well, she has time to write of the “shameful” behaviour of Elder Booth and Sister Thorn who are thrown out of the church. We are similarly intrigued by her brief mention of three Mormon women who are cut off for “levity of behaviour (with some officers of the ship)”. There are descriptions of meals, musical evenings and stunning sunsets. On arrival in New Orleans, she uses her diary to debate the issue of slavery, and to dissect the social customs of Louisiana society. As her journey progresses up the Mississippi River to St Louis, and beyond on the Mormon Trail to Utah, Jean writes almost every day, despite broken wagon wheels, perilous ravines and unpredictable Indians. She records attending births (including that of her first grandchild) and deaths, nursing those who are injured or ill. When she finally reaches Salt Lake City, she describes her joy and gratitude to God for arriving safely. Yet we also detect a wistfulness that the adventure is over and her diary with it: “and now I suppose I have finished my ramblings for my whole life.”

Whereas Jean completes her regular diary entries despite the rigours of her daily life, other women struggle to find the time between childcare, cooking and laundry. Perhaps Jean, being a widow, has more control over what little free time she does have. Eugenia Zieber writes almost always on Sundays, when the wagon train halts to observe the Sabbath. However, there are several false starts in her journal, where all she succeeds in writing is the date. Her frustration, as well as resentment of those who have lighter responsibilities is evident:

“There is scarcely time, upon such a journey, for those who have aught (sic) that is essentially necessary to do, to keep a diary. It must be done by snatches or at any moment or not at all.”

Eugenia does not explain her motivation for her desire to write. Perhaps she wanted to capture the inhospitable mountains that threatened snow even in July, or wolves that howled on the fringes of camp at night, or the immigrant names carved on Independence Rock. All we can be confident of is that the ritual of setting down her personal thoughts and observations in a diary, on a daily, or at least regular, basis, is important to her.

The more I investigate the journals of these women who undertook the challenging immigrant trails, whether to Oregon, California or Utah, the more I recognise that they were just like us. They record the daily trials of marriage, children and neighbours, domestic chores and inclement weather. Although their diaries document a singular event that shapes their lives, they also reflect the history of an expanding nation, and the role of women within it. These are strong women, whose individual voices speak to us generations later. Glimpses of burgeoning feminism are seen in references to wearing practical ‘bloomers’ instead of trailing skirts. There are joyful descriptions of novelties such as prairie dogs, cacti and buffalo (although the latter may bother the cattle driven ahead of the wagons).

There is (perhaps unwitting) humour, such as in Mariett Foster Cummings’ diary entry in April 1852 on her way to California:

“This I expect is the beginning of trouble. I stayed at a public house and ate fried pudding.”

There is great sadness, as scribbled by another woman:

“I am sick. Sometimes I think I shall not live long. It is hard to die so young and William, my William, who will console him?”

She’s not being maudlin, just realistic; hundreds of women died on the emigrant trails, both in childbirth and of illnesses such as typhoid, malaria or dysentery. Not to mention those who drowned in raging rivers, fell under wagon wheels or were killed by hostile Indians. Acutely aware of the fragility of life, the women cling to their diaries. If they should die along the trail, and be buried in a shallow grave without a tombstone, at the mercy of wolves and buzzards, there will be nothing to show for their lives. A diary at least would leave something behind. [/private]

The Night I Got Lost on the Way Home From China

“…And I will think of you when I’m dead in my grave”- Tom Waits

The beginning of this century found me, mentally, in exactly the same place where the end of the last century had left me: existing pursued by shame. The shame had followed me all my life, from place to place. This place happened to be the overlit bar of an airport in Amsterdam. Physically I was running from Greece to China.
I had worked in Greece for four months, in a town call Oresties on the border with Turkey and the border with Bulgaria, and the border with Macedonia. Border towns, in my experience, are rough. Triple border towns are… well, you know. I had gone to Greece too quickly, with too little preparation because I was running away from shame somewhere else. I had callously told my family that “I might never come back”, making a deposit in the bank of shame. The journey involved flying to Athens, changing onto a tiny, terrifying plane to Alexandropolis, which didn’t live up to the grandeur of the name, and then getting a taxi for what seemed like forever to my new home. I was dumped out in the dark, over charged, ripped off and lost as usual. “They screw you as you leave the airport”, as good an axiom as Nietzsche ever came up with. 
I lived in a cockroach infested apartment. The couple next door fought, physically, constantly and loudly, the lady upstairs was insane and screamed her way through the night. I went up to her door once and it was covered on the outside with scratch marks from human nails. When I stood on my balcony – yes, I had such a thing, and it was the only place I could escape the army of roaches – I saw the rats, dogs and Albanian illegal immigrants fighting over the food. Never bet against the rat.
 The first day of work I turned a corner and walked directly into the chest cavity of a boar, gutted and hanging outside a butcher’s, so I started my teaching career there marked with blood. There was no way to go anywhere from there. I didn’t drive, there were no buses, there was only the train which I jumped on and used to run away almost the some moment I discovered it existed. That train journey was like a hallucination. I couldn’t get control of my breath. I listened to Cornershop’s song ‘It’s good to be on the road back home again’ (“drinking to my friends and drinking to my foes, for both keep a young heart moving…”, “for I’ve lost myself searching for what I ain’t, it’s good to be on the road back home again, again…”) and to John Cale’s Paris 1919 album (“I suppose I’m glad I’m on this train – again) over and over on that journey.
 But before that I lived in that place for four long months, like a very poor man’s Graham Greene. The town was built in concrete squares. It was built in the 1970s by Greeks returning from emigration to Germany. That hopeful beginning made the reality even sadder, for almost nowhere I’ve ever been has been more ugly. I taught English to teenagers who were more bored even than usual teenagers and the fact was that they had every right to be. They killed themselves at a rate of one or two a month by getting drunk and crashing on small motorbikes. It was ever so slightly like being at war, the amount of young men killed and injured.
 Also, being on the border between Greece and Turkey it was a military town and so pretty rough round certain bars in the nighttime. It was easy for a foreigner to find trouble there, it was sent to your table, compliments of the house. 
It was difficult to get across that border although it was walking distance from my flat. They made sure that when the Greek side was open the Turkish side was shut, and vice versa, most of the time. I did get over once and found that the scene on the Turkish side was a mirror image of what I saw on the Greek side, the same old men with dark moustaches sitting outside little cafes under bird cages, drinking the same short, strong coffee. Same food, same culture – nearly – but I don’t advise saying this too loudly in the little bar district of good old Orestias. This is not an original insight but it is none the less true or important for that. 
I was aware that Greece would collapse economically well before most economists, the roaches told me and the roaches know things we will never know. They made me sign a kind of roach official secrets act to get out of there alive so I can’t tell what they told for fifty years. I got to know them, respect and fear them. People who say they aren’t afraid of roaches mean they aren’t afraid of ONE roach or that they have never shared a small flat with countless thousands of them. Believe me you know who’s in charge under those circumstances.
 I ate Yearas, or Kebab depending on your politics, drank Heineken and went slowly insane for those four months before I fled.

Now I was running away from shame in Greece but it was only the latest in a long list of things I felt ashamed of. My whole life I had moved from one thing to another, then one place to another, never quite achieving what I might have, never quite finishing what I started. Every place I left, every thing I left incomplete left me that little bit more ashamed and I carried that with me all the time so that every new thing I did felt like nothing but a signpost to my previous shameful acts and I became more and more fearful that doing anything made me more likely to be noticed and therefore found out about the things in my past. The past is always present and nothing is ever forgiven – ever. Everyone has it coming and we all have the Devil to pay.
The feeling I’m describing began for me when I was about twelve and I met the Devil. He was just there in the front garden one day and he stayed with me for years after. Later he moved into the background more and dispersed, not so much a physical presence any more, just a part of how I thought and felt. Now you might say, “Twelve, eh, that the onset of puberty, that’s all” and you might be right but I guess I’m like a born again Christian, I just have a personal relationship with the Other Fella and as the Saved say of Christ, if you haven’t met him, you can’t understand. He looked different at different times. Sometimes he looked just like ‘The foxy-faced gentleman‘ from the Beatrix Potter stories.

My friend Kevin had given me a set of two Tom Waits CDs to keep me company on the trip. This was at the time when old Tom was dealing with his Alice in Wonderland addiction and there was an album of slow songs from the theatre production he had worked on based on Alice and another album of rougher tracks in the Bone Machine type of style. I had bought myself a Sony MiniDisc player. It had taken me days to transfer all my music onto the brightly coloured plastic discs or the darker ones that looked more serious and held something like forty-eight albums, an unthinkable amount of data to me back then. I was very attached to this new machine. I have always had a tendency to become attached to an object and to the idea of that object, as if it will be capable of mediating between me and the world, as if that object will provide me with the necessary tools to deal with, communicate with and control my environment.

I feel that way now about my ‘office’ – an iPad and a MacBook – but I have also felt that way about a bass guitar, a Samsung netbook, an MP3 player, a large old-fashioned record player, hundreds of notebooks, several bags (sometimes at once) and a host of other things. At this moment a functioning copy of Microsoft Word would change my life completely.

This could be a hangover from my catholic background to do with the reverence for relics.

I still have that old MD player though it doesn’t work properly anymore and I don’t have many of the discs left but the object itself has some magic about it. I can’t find the disc with the Tom Waits albums on it, another piece of the true cross.

I had flown from Dublin to Amsterdam and had a wait for my next flight to Beijing. So I was back with the Heineken and listening to Tom singing that line that still haunts me: “…And I will think of you when I’m dead in my grave.” Ok, so it’s about obsession, still thinking about something when you’re dead, but there’s a twist to it, a reversal of the idea of remembering the dead which throws that idea into sharper relief like shadowing on a painting. It’s an infinity sign of the connections between the living and the dead. It’s really an example of the magic you can make by editing words together in the right sequence, the difficulty is in catching the little suckers and pinning them down.

I will listen to one album over and over again if that feels like the perfect soundtrack to my mental landscape at that time. There’s a point when an album becomes too moving or appropriate to listen to, so that it’s almost as painful as reading your own work, and another point close by it when an album is perfect for the time. There was a time when I couldn’t stomach From Her To Eternity, and a time when I didn’t want to stop listening to it, when I only felt alive when I heard, “I wanna tell you about a girl…” Amsterdam airport is a ‘quiet airport’, they have no public address system, so I was free to combine drink, music (in my memory you could smoke there also, you could smoke nearly everywhere in that country) and that feeling of being BETWEEN that travel gives you to go somewhere fictional in your head. The time to board the plane came, they changed the gate twice, and I entered that unpleasant mental space of long haul flight that combines all the worst elements of a long train journey with none of the good.

The Enduring Appeal of the Mystery Story

Paget_Holmes_04The critic Tzvetan Todorov once suggested that the trick to writing a successful detective story was being sure not to innovate. The great genre work is that which best and most closely follows the “rules” of its genre; to refine the genre, he cautioned, would be “to write ‘literature’” rather than a mystery. But surely this is wrong-headed; a nonsense—logically, let alone critically—to separate Literature and detective fiction, as if they constitute mutually exclusive genres. For there is no “the” in “the mystery story.” Use of the definite article here is a cheap yet time-honoured trick: a red herring. “The” mystery story is as rich a tradition—or, rather, set of entwined traditions—as any other in the literary network. To paraphrase and doctor the Law, or Revelation, of the great science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: if much mystery and crime writing is “crud,” then this is only because ninety percent of everything is; what matters is mystery writing’s other ten percent, and its enduring appeal. It matters, amongst other reasons, because such consideration as we can afford this ten percent may help us to keep broad and alive our sense of what counts as “literature” and “the literary.” To do this at a time when the political model being handed down to educators offers an ever narrower conception of art and culture—well, perhaps it would be a modest achievement, but not an unimportant one.

[private]Before we move any further, though, let me make it clear that I do not intend to use these opening comments as a way into defending “the” mystery story as Art. So tired is the question “but is it art?” that it barely seems worth the asking these days—though it would make a fine and willing corpse in a crime story. “But is it art?” is always dead on arrival, having been fully exsanguinated, and there is little hope of finding the truly guilty party, for so many have and so many others will continue to execute it: death by utterance.


Why do mystery stories and other branches of crime fiction continue to engage us? Were we to trace the roots of crime writing to the popular Newgate Calendar—from which we get the so-called “Newgate novel”—of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one might be tempted to suggest that crime writing’s success records nothing more nor less than our inveterate fascination with violence and antinomy. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze once defended crime fiction for sharply presenting society’s endless cycles of violence, its self-perpetuating and—begetting networks of falsehoods. The repetitive logic of genre fiction, strewn with the blood and guts and flesh that make up the body, as it were, of crime fiction, seemed to lend themselves well to such a performance of modernity’s fundamental violence. Literary theorist Fredric Jameson, along not dissimilar lines, saw the very meaninglessness of murders in hard-boiled crime fiction as its basic constitutive truth: murder without meaning rang the note of social verity in these stories. By contrast, the artifice of the classical detective story lay in its mitigation of violence and crime, achieved by investing murder with purpose, with meaning.

For the likes of Jameson and Deleuze, then, the contribution of “good” mystery and crime fiction is the dramatization of the indigestible, gristly truths of modernity. At its best, framed by and as an urban pastoral of sorts, such writing offers us an ecorché reflection of ourselves, which meets our gaze from the pages of Chandler, Himes, Høeg, to name but three (markedly different) crime and mystery writers. (Indeed, such an understanding of crime writing’s social and metaphysical urgency stretches back to the Newgate years: Gay’s Beggar’s Opera is a “Newgate pastoral,” and Fielding, in the preface to Jonathan Wild, referred to Newgate as “human nature with its mask off.”) In literature generally—as the confrontation with the abysmal possibility of meaninglessness has become increasingly widespread and hard-boiled—shades of noir can be detected in writing that lies outside the genre proper: it’s there in Oedipa Maas’s spiral pursuit of the Trystero. It’s there in the poetry of Louis MacNeice’s—his “visitors in masks or in black glasses” who symbolize memory, the fragmented narratives and shady dramatis personae of which are figured as our unbiddable assailants in waiting. And it’s there, even, in science writer James Gleick’s Chaos, where such characters as scientist Mitchell Feigenbaum are drawn with a hard-boiled economy, and a theory of apparent meaninglessness—an explanation of the chaotic world—is the subject of an on-going investigation.

Jameson was by no means the only literary theorist who was dissatisfied with classical mystery stories—the adventures of Holmes and Watson, and, a little later, the various incarnations of the “Golden Age” sleuth. For many, most often Marxist, critics, the classical mystery story was a conservative genre, guilty, perhaps, of socio-political quietude, and resignation—if not active subscription—to the status quo. Such stories, the argument tended to go, turn murder into the symbol of societal threat, a challenge to order and harmony; but such threat is staged only for us to see it overcome, and to feel the relief of it being so. Here, the classical detective story is read as an apology for socio-political orthodoxy, and this is mirrored, argued theorist Franco Moretti, in its typical narrative structure: the detective’s big reveal, that marks the dénouement of most every story of this kind, is an imposition of neat, stifling, declarative linearity on narrative. To solve a murder in a classical mystery story, says Moretti, is to murder narrative.

But, needless to say, not all commentators identified such conservative violation of narrative as a basic component of the classical mystery. Ideed, there are those—such as Chesterton and, in celebration of him, Borges—who do not dispute that such stories have the restoration of social order as their subject. But they see such moments of respite as something to celebrate; they are so many brief flickerings of hope in a generally unstable, increasingly fragmented world.

Naturally enough, there are some critics for whom there is virtually no pleasing. And at least one deserves a mention. More than once, American man of letters Edmund Wilson went on record to excoriate mystery readers for their dull literary palates, and mystery stories for their substandard ingredients and overall insipidity. Sharp, eloquent, dismissive, Wilson has time for almost none of the supposedly “great” crime writers. Chandler is grudgingly acknowledged as an aberration—to the extent that he appears not to be terrible. So damning is Wilson’s overall evaluation, that such faint praise, to cast back to Sturgeon’s Revelation, is still enough to put Chandler in what one might estimate as the eighty-ninth, possibly the ninetieth, percentile of crime fiction crud. But Chandler still figures as little more than an epigone of Graham Greene, the only real writer, for Wilson, working in “the” tradition. (Reading Wilson, one gets the feeling that he intuitively worked from the model that Todorov would go on to theorize, and with which we began: is there a suggestion here that Greene, because he writes brilliantly, doesn’t really write crime fiction at all, but, rather, Literature?)

Why, though, despite critical interventions favourable or otherwise, the continued appeal of mystery stories?

I suspect that it has much to do with the figure of the detective, who seems to maintain certain basic qualities, despite having moved in the later-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries far beyond the cynical enervation and stolid machismo of Hammett’s archetype. In recent decades, the gilded sleuth and the harder boiled gumshoe have been broadened and made more nuanced, as authors have woven more intricate historical and political concerns into their plots, and identity issues into their characters. (The race, sex, religion, not to mention gender and sexuality of the private dick have all been up for grabs for some time now.) To see the detective and detective stories as, variously, ciphers of conservative and paternalistic, or liberal and progressive, world-views, is of course a function both of the critic’s tendencies and their readings of particular authors. But, to repeat an earlier point, it is also a sign of the extent to which crime and mystery fictions, at their best, have charted modernity’s developments in all their social, political, and ethical sinuousness, and are able to sustain contradictory readings.

Fans and critical readers are likely to see aspects of detectives and detective stories etched into and reflected by their surrounds, almost anywhere they care to look. Perhaps this is little more than a case of mistaking just so many signs of our critical attentions and inventions for cultural wonders. But if there has been and is any truth to the hollers of “crisis!,” echoed by the culture brokers of every epoch, then the best of our detectives’ casebooks have strong claims to being the ledgers of our on-going, self-made crises of modernity: for Dupin, Marple, Marlowe, and Rawlins do not articulate quite the same anxieties as one another, though neither are they entirely out of one another’s touch.

In one of the most memorable and enjoyable apologies for the hard-boiled mode of crime writing, Chandler says this:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man…He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

The detective is no longer a man by definition; one hopes (perhaps quixotically) that it is no longer solely “The Man,” as he is more than likely imagined by Chandler, who is the rude and witty spokesperson of the age. “The Hero,” I think, is now not so tightly bound by the jerkins, breastplates, leotards, and capes of gender, race, class, and sexuality. Nevertheless—and accepting these identitarian expansions—I suspect that a widespread but often denied, almost clandestine desire for and attraction to a hero/-ine—a virago in the most positive yet also, in a sense, atavistic sense of the word—keeps the detective in whisky, but from drinking herself into oblivion. Just.

The mystery story, in all its permutations, is for all comers. But it is especially for those who have Batman comics and Kierkegaard on the nightstand. Not because such a combination is so very contrary, nor so very impressive; or mere affectation; or a poor expression of an ill-defined and flaccid postmodernist irony. But because the broadest strokes of Chandler’s definition limn an Everyperson who is by twists and turns admirable, disconcerting, comforting. The detective, I think, will be knocking around his or her mean streets for as long as we are drawn to characters whose capes, trilbies, and trenchcoats both admit and mask their—and therefore our—fears and tremblings.[/private]

Purple Bra

Following a 2003 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum, the artist John Currin fell into a long dry spell, what he described in an interview with the Independent as “impotence with the brush.” Two years into the funk, he found a cartoon a friend had torn from a dirty magazine and sent to him in hopes of lifting his spirits. On the other side of the cartoon was a pornographic photo of a woman in a corset, her legs spread wide. He began a painting based on the image. Inspired, he prowled the Internet for more porn shots, and started more pieces. His sexual paintings are graphic, luscious, and fearless. In one, a man and a woman, naked, kiss open mouthed, their wet tongues fused, the woman with her right hand around the man’s rigid penis, the man with his left middle finger inside the woman; in another, two women fondle a third.

[private]I am not interested in art but I am interested in sex, so after I first learned of Currin in a New Yorker profile in January, 2008, his name and his work stayed with me. I didn’t think about him, however, until nearly a year later, when my writing stalled. Not being able to write when you want to is like not being able to come. It is impotence with the pen, or a premature menopause drying up the creative juices. Lucky for me, recent conversations among my friends about erotica brought Currin to mind. I hope he and his work will do for me what the picture on the back of the cartoon did for him.


Though my talent for art is as meager as my knowledge of and interest in the world of art, in college I took both printmaking and drawing, assuming those classes would be easy credits and a nice break from writing and literature. For our final printmaking assignment, students were told to select the technique they most enjoyed—woodcut or linocut, etching or silk-screening—and create a print of a body part.

Little amused me more than my ability to shock people with my writing (easy for a blunt New Yorker to do to an audience of sheltered undergrads), and my choice of body part was a no-brainer. I did not have the skill to design something beautiful, nor the understanding needed to make a print based on theories deeper than beauty. It takes an extraordinary talent to paint a vagina as sumptuously as John Currin does; it takes no talent to simply draw one. In my room I sat naked before the mirror, opened my legs, and sketched. Back in the studio, I began etching: rounded buttocks, lips, a hint of clitoris, hundreds of whorls around it all, twirling to the top of the metal plate. On the last day of class I hung my print in the front of the room between a woodcut of a bloodshot eye and a screen print of a wrist streaming rivers of blue and red. The teacher and my classmates regarded my art very seriously. They mistook my audacity for thoughtfulness.

I am envious of artists like Currin who can find their subjects outside themselves. In my writing as much as in my printmaking I turn inward for my inspiration. The view vacillates between fascinating and dull, sometimes disconcertingly clear, other times muddled, but always limited. Focusing on outside objects—a crinkled paper shopping bag, a statue of a dog in the town park, stacks of cardboard boxes—was a requirement of my college drawing class. My work never progressed beyond what an attentive six-year-old could do. The teacher noted that my naïve perspective added to the charm of my work, but he had to point out that artistically it was a serious flaw.


In some of his paintings, Currin will render a woman just as she appears in the porn shot until he gets to her face, at which point he borrows the face of a model from an old clothing catalogue. Instead of seeing what we’d expect to see atop a body being licked, fingered, or fucked—eyes rolled back in pleasure, a mouth tensely determined or opened in a breathy, silent wail—we find vapid eyes and a lying smile. The effect is jarring. He is not depicting the raunchy sex of regular people but the sex of pornography, sex staged for an insatiable market, and underneath the masks of orgasmic delight aren’t the actors feeling as phony as clothing models? At times don’t we all go through the motions, including the facial contortions, when really we’re elsewhere?

My undergraduate thesis was an autobiographical novella about my first sexual relationship. That’s what I called it, anyway. Truthfully, it was memoir written in the third person. I didn’t fictionalize a word but wrote it all as I remembered it, changing only the names of the characters. This allowed me the distance I needed to write about something so intimate. I didn’t get off the subway at 3 a.m. with so many hickeys on my face I looked like I’d been beaten, and find my father waiting there for me. She did. I didn’t lose my virginity at fifteen on my friend’s parents’ bed to a drunk eighteen-year-old who didn’t wear a condom and finished by jerking off over my bloody belly. She did.

Currin said in the New Yorker profile, “I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it.” If I were as brave as Currin, the bulk of my work might be about sex, too. In the cacophony of my mind, carnal thoughts and memories are a siren song. So many of our youthful personal landmarks, the milestones that become most meaningful to a child approaching adolescence, are sexual ones, and it is the stuff from those years that cleaves to us forever. Some girls dread their first period, but others ache for its arrival; we anticipate with terror and yearning our first kiss, the feel of a breast in our hand or a hand on our breast; fingers and tongues exploring the parts we’ve only touched ourselves; and finally the day we are virgins no more. Clumsy and fumbling, sweet and loving, rough and painful, sex is as multilayered as paint on a canvas or a well-constructed essay. That it be portrayed in art with frankness is the only fair treatment of an act so complex and universal.

For Currin, though, to be frank is to be obscene. Rarely does he depict a vulva that is not spread wide open, wet, eager to be or already penetrated. But he lavishes on the bedclothes, a lace glove, or a set of dishes the same attention he gives women’s genitals. This may be why his paintings can cross the line of graphic representation without losing their respectability. Even when they are obscene, they are beautiful.


Enjoying porn is a sort of voyeurism; producing sexually explicit material based on your own experiences is a sort of exhibitionism. Because writing any personal nonfiction is much like masturbation—the concentrated devotion to self, culminating, when it goes well, in a deep sense of satisfaction—the author of erotic essays is, essentially, pleasuring him or herself in front of an audience.

The first time sex—intercourse—made me come, I was sixteen and doing it on a park bench with that same boy to whom I’d lost my virginity. Ben had long, messy rock-star hair, eyes blue as a thousand clichés, deliciously full lips; my attraction to him was so consuming I had ceased to exist for any purpose other than to be with him. We were in Stuyvesant Town, on Manhattan’s East Side, on a late spring or early summer night, when it was warm enough to wear a skirt without tights or leggings. My friend Olga, an odd girl who was still years away from having sex herself, asked if she could watch us. Ben and I had just finished smoking a joint and thought Olga’s idea was a good one. While Olga sat on one end of the bench, I took off my panties and straddled Ben on the other. We smiled and kissed. As usual, there was no condom. Dozens of identical red-brick apartment buildings stood quiet guard around us. Two uncles, an aunt, and a cousin of mine lived in Stuyvesant Town. It could have been the thrill of fucking outdoors, in front of someone, the risk of getting caught, the humid air against my legs, the genial position conducive to climaxing, a combination of all those things—but I knew, almost immediately, that the long-awaited orgasm was coming. I slumped over Ben’s shoulder as he rushed to pull out. Panting and a bit dizzy, I giggled against his neck. Young and oblivious, he hadn’t realized that this one, different from all the others, was real. Olga nodded, impressed.

So began my fondness for outdoor activities and public displays of affection. Over the next four years, Ben and I sought out other park benches; we tried the beach (too sandy); we let another friend watch us (she masturbated as we fucked but wouldn’t let either of us touch her); we froze in the Vermont woods in April (the ground both hard and muddy from still-melting ice and snow, and gnarled tree roots, rocks, and twigs scratching our ignorant city asses). Only after we broke up but continued to meet illicitly did our habitual exhibitionism lose its quality of youthful, experimental innocence. He had a new girlfriend, and I was afraid that I’d never be loved by anyone else. One day when I was home from college on break he told me to meet him at work at lunchtime; he knew a place where we could go. Wordlessly, we headed west on Fortieth Street, distracted by the midday midtown hubbub of delivery trucks blocking traffic, the honking of cars trapped behind the trucks, people running errands or eating lunch as they walked, trying to squeeze life in at lunchtime. The air smelled of street-vendor hot dogs and exhaust and cigarette smoke, but sometimes a breeze carried an undercurrent of fresh green spring.

Then I saw, in a window across the street, posters and t-shirts colorful and sinister below neon signs: Peepshow, Adult Videos, XXX. With his hand around my shoulders, Ben walked us quickly past the two men behind the front counter, past the shelves of videos, to a row of doors. We entered an empty stall. The walls were tomato-bisque orange, with a screen in the middle of one of them, and the space tight, a little bigger than the average apartment closet. A blobby viscous smear like spit but of course not glazed a spot on the dark gray floor. Before I could change my mind, Ben took a roll of quarters from his jacket pocket and started feeding them into the slit next to the screen. Our movie began with two naked women—a skinny blonde with bulbous breasts and a skinny brunette with smaller, perky tits and big, brown, upturned nipples—kneeling on a thin bed in a bare room, passionately, sloppily kissing, too much tongue and wetness, twangy porn music blocking some of their slurps and groans. The brunette lay back on the black sheet and those happy nipples of hers pointed straight up to God. The blonde licked circles around one of them while pinching the other before trailing her long tongue all the way down to her friend’s hairless, gleaming cunt.

That was all I saw of the movie. It had served its purpose, arousing me enough that it didn’t matter that we had to be fast and that I was no longer attracted to Ben. I pushed up my flowery skirt—much like the one I’d worn the night on the bench in front of Olga—and removed my underwear, careful not to let them touch the floor. Unlike the night on the bench, I would not come. My forearms were pressed against the wall; I balled my hands to prevent my fingers from touching anything. I heard doors around us open and shut. Hungry for more quarters, the screen went blank. After Ben yanked himself out of me, I dropped my skirt over my sticky skin but left my panties crumpled in my jacket pocket. On shaky legs we left our booth and hurried toward the front door. My head was down.

It was too bright outside. Ben yammered the whole way back, another noise in a city of noises, and I didn’t care what he was saying, I only wanted to be alone. Expertly finding paths through the crowd as only New Yorkers know how to do, we brushed by other people, bumping their arms, never looking back. I focused on my short subway ride home, on my bathtub, where I could give myself the orgasm he couldn’t give me and clean my body in water so hot I’d sweat and the world around me would redden. Before we arrived at his store he slipped me a small bag of hash. I stuck it in my jacket pocket with my panties.

“Best lunch ever,” he said, pecking me on the cheek. “Peepshow chicken.”


At twenty-three, I told these and similar stories to an older man I was trying to seduce, a client of the marketing firm where I had an internship. I both succeeded and failed: he found me irresistible but disgusting. He fondled me under tables at fancy restaurants, pressed my head down to his crotch in taxis, bought an antique bench for us to use on his terrace; but sometimes, out of the blue, glaring and seething, he would ask me how I could have done the things I did with Ben and others. His disgust, I surmised, had less to do with me and more to do with the urges I brought out in him, but still I burned with a shame I’d never felt before—not because of the restaurants, taxis, and terrace, but because I chose to be with a person who found me shameful. My motive in sharing my intimate experiences had been to get him in bed; how many of us have the foresight to consider what may happen after that?

John Currin stated that one impulse behind his pornographic paintings was to take something clearly unbeautiful and turn it into something beautiful, though he admitted to feeling humiliated by the work. I whispered like a caress the salacious stories of my past to this man twice my age and knew exactly why I was doing it, but did not anticipate the shame that would follow. On the page my stories are not whispered, the motives compelling me to put them there are not so clear, and the repercussions are not known. So why do it? “All art is about its own making,” Currin said.

When I decided to make an etching of my vagina, I wanted my classmates to be awed by my daring. When I met Ben for lunch, I did so out of loneliness, but also for fun: my high-school years had overflowed with adventure, and I was bored. When I seduced the older client, I needed to test my power. Now, circumstances are naturally different from what they were in high school, in college, and at my first real job. I, however, am very much the same. Risks have always been, at least in part, their own reward. What I can no longer do on a park bench I can always do on paper.


In John Currin’s painting Purple Bra, a woman lies with legs apart on a white, soft-looking blanket. Only her torso appears on the canvas; she has no face. Other than a lacy lavender bra pushed up over her chest, she is nude. She hugs herself with her left arm, her hand tucked gently below her breast. Her right arm vanishes off the side of the painting, perhaps holding up her right leg, of which we see only a slice; a greater portion of her inner left thigh is visible, flat against the blanket. Peeking out from under her right shoulder is a thatch of straw-colored hair. In the center of her stomach, her belly button curves temptingly, like a pond in the middle of a desert. Pale skin disappears below a dark, wild, unkempt pelt. Her lips are parted slightly. A black tunnel forms in the crevice between her buttocks.

The pose is one of a woman who has just been touching herself. She finished her morning shower, maybe, and started to dress when the mood struck her. The blanket is chenille, sensuous, a kiss against skin softened and perfumed by lotion. Lying back, the fingertips of her right hand wander across her belly and down to her thigh, where they linger, tracing paths to and from the edge of her pubic hair, while her left hand pushes up her purple bra and kneads each breast in turn. She keeps her right hand busy on her thigh until desire transforms into a pulsing ache. Her pelvis has developed a mind of its own and is lifting and twisting toward her fingers. One finger first, like the tip of a tongue, grazes her clitoris. She lets the finger slip down to capture the wetness accumulating below and spreads it around her lips. With her left hand she continues to massage her breasts, playing with her nipples, gentle, hard, gentle again. Clean smells from her shower mingle with the musk of her body. The finger that’s been dancing circles around her clitoris begins moving more rapidly, then dizzily falls in the hole below. Her left hand jumps down to help. She is raising her hips off the blanket now, one finger inside the larger opening, another teasing the smaller, while her right hand resumes its work on the outside. Air builds up in her lungs and escapes in huffs, in pants, in little strangled moans. She leans forward. Her hands are a whirlwind, on high speed, tickling, pumping, licking, fucking, until they are clenched by the muscles inside, and she whimpers, and falls back. Her legs close around her hands and she rolls from side to side. Hair is caught underneath her shoulder, pinching, but she ignores it. Finally resting again, she extracts her left arm and settles it against the bottom of her chest, where it lifts and drops with her breaths. Her legs, sweaty and damp, part. She brings her right hand to her face, to her nose and to her mouth, before wiping it off on her right thigh. A clock on her nightstand catches her eye, reminding her she has somewhere to be. She sighs, satisfied.[/private]

A New Focus on Africa

It was 3:30 in the afternoon sometime in 2010 and I was just about to leave for Heathrow Terminal 5—virtually my second home—to catch a flight to Mozambique when my daughter loudly inquired, “Daddy, is everybody poor in Africa?”

I decided the taxi outside could wait for at least few more minutes. “Why are you asking such a  question my dear?” Her answer—“Because every time I see Africa on telly they don’t have nice clothes and their houses are really small and the children are all sad.”

For the next five minutes I tried to explain a few hundred years of a history of exploitation, sometimes questionable leadership, and economic choices. An impossible task. But at the same time, I wanted to leave her with the level of optimism and energy I experience when I visit Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya and elsewhere across Africa. My thoughts boiled down to a single question: Who owns Africa’s image? It’s a question that is relevant and compelling, regardless of your response.

Over the past few years a silent revolution has been occurring across Africa. Some people are very much aware of it, while others are just coming to the realisation. But there are still others who are stuck in an old view of Africa and its challenges. The fact that most of the fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa is lost on them.

For some in the media, Africa is still a corrupt incompetent at the mercy of the random benevolence of  rock musicians or Hollywood stars who care more about African children than Africans themselves. These tiresome stereotypes of day-to-day life in Africa are not only outdated but increasingly irrelevant to an emerging continent.

Some networks seem obsessed with stories of child witches and feed us with a constant diet of war weary, famine stricken lives. In 2009 I was asked by the BBC to anchor a new television program about Africa called Africa Business Report. For the next 2 and a half years, I racked up close to 200,000 air miles travelling to Uranium mines in the Namibian desert, diamond centres in Botswana, fish markets in Dar es Salaam, oil rigs off the coast of Ghana, real estate projects in Rwanda. I held conversations with bankers, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs and politicians, as well as a few African billionaires. I visited 22 countries in total that captured the real meaning of Africa’s rise.

I have made new friends and heard fascinating stories. For every city I visited I make it a personal point to find my way to the top of a skyscraper, just so I can observe that city in motion. I know it’s a cliché to say but it’s true—the vibe is different in Africa. The minute I touch down—Dar, Nairobi, Lusaka, Lagos, Gaborone, Jo’burg—I get the sense of a different energy, a different flow.

You see, since the independence era of the 1960’s Africa has been viewed through the prism (some say prison) of its underdevelopment. So the typical story from the continent has featured the same tired characters—the African strongman, the corrupt bureaucrat, the pot-bellied, bribe-taking policeman, the inefficient public servant or the taxi driver who gleefully tells you “what the problem is with Africa”. And without a doubt elements of these characters exist in varying degrees in some places in Africa.

But this stereotypical, headline-grabbing interpretation of Africa is for me a myopic one. Africa Business Report was a new pair of glasses through which viewers could observe Africa—a better perspective with a more balanced view. There are two stories I’d like to share that might give you a sense of what you may have missed. The first is from Botswana.

If you a fortunate enough to afford or be the recipient of a diamond ring or necklace, chances are it was once a rough diamond from the fields in Botswana, the world’s biggest producer. For may years after independence Botswana followed a pattern some countries are still stuck in. You know the story—African country X that produces raw material Y but has little control over its sale, pricing, or the finished product.

Three years ago, I met the director of the Botswana diamond hub. I was visiting the brand new high-tech facility that symbolised the hopes of a nation. The man in charge of the diamond hub, Dr. Akolang Tombale, told me Botswana did not want to be a mere exporter of rough diamonds anymore, but a player in the multi-billion dollar gem business. The diamonds were being cut and polished in Asia and bought and sold in Europe. The idea of the diamond hub was to train their own people to a point where the reliance on foreign expertise would gradually diminish. So I met many young smart Bostwanans learning the art of turning a rough stone into a fabulous jewel. There were brand new office spaces ready for the banks and insurers who would provide the financial backing for exported gems. In simple terms, the diamond hub would become a one-stop shop for the entire value chain of the diamond business.

Fast forward to 2012. I was reading the paper over breakfast early this year. My wrinkled brow broke into a broad grin when I saw a small headline which informed me that the world’s preeminent Diamond corporation De Beers was relocating some of its major operations to Botswana. By 2013, the article said, the De Beers rough diamonds sales team would be operating from Gaborone. My smile broke into grin. I had seen it coming.

The relocation is a first step for a small country with big ambitions. About 150 De Beers jobs will relocate to Gaborone as a result of this deal. In years to come, diamond buyers will be booking flights to Botswana rather than London. As De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer aptly put it, “The diamond industry’s centre of gravity is shifting.” Imagine what this does for the service industry, hotels, tourism and the country’s overall reputation. The fact is, this is a result of long term planning and foresight—not the kind of ad hoc firefighting policies that some nations are still dealing with. But for other nations with such ambitions, such a shift will not be easy. The traditional centre of power will resist these moves.

Now to my second story. A few months ago I was in Cape Town. One of the highlights of my experience there was a reunion of sorts. I met with an ex-roommate, Sebastian, though known in those days as Zor, from my college days at the University of Ghana.

After the usual round of laughs about our youthful escapades we started talking about the current state of affairs. Things have changed since college. Zor is still a lot of fun to be with, but I was impressed by his meteoric rise in the financial industry. As a senior manager at a leading African bank, he was constantly on the road. Brazil, Portugal, New York, Dallas, Nairobi—building relationships and structuring deals for investments in Africa. Although much of his time was spent in hotels and business class lounges of major air hubs, Zor had a comfortable life in Johannesburg and all the trappings of a finance executive. I think what was most refreshing about it was Zor enjoys this comfortable existence in Africa. He told me he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

I then began to think about what he said and realized that I know a lot of “Zors” around this continent. Professionals with skills and experiences, sometimes acquired at the best schools in Europe and the United States (in some cases homegrown talent) who are working successfully and living comfortably in Africa. They are the living proof that Africa is the land of opportunity for those who are smart and are prepared to take risks. Europe and America are no longer the holy grail.

It’s a remarkable change from our early years post graduation. Many young people would spend the night waiting outside the American embassy hoping and praying that the visa officer would look favorably on an application. In those days there was a belief that an officer’s “mood” could determine the outcome of your future. No surprise that lay preachers did brisk business in those overnight sessions praying over documents and asking for divine intercession for a visa.

But that was then, this is now. Many more of those friends of mine are now part of the exodus of African professionals who are quitting the rat race of the city and Wall Street to build world-class companies in Africa. I met with a group of young professionals who come together under a group called Star 100, extremely smart young men and women working with various high multinationals. The only thing they wanted to talk about were their plans for taking their skills and abilities and moving them to Africa. By the time you read this article, at least one of them has gone. She called me to tell me she quit her job in the city of London and now works out of Lagos. She is getting paid better, has all the perks she wants, and added, “Now I don’t have to travel two hours to buy proper suya!”

These two narratives are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stories about how Africa is changing. I am sure you’ll have heard some of your own.

I am in a very privileged position. As a news anchor for the BBC, I have had the pleasure of being a witness to and narrator of some these stories. This year BBC World News launched Focus on Africa, the first Africa-focused daily news and current affairs programme on any of the major international networks. The BBC has more correspondents in Africa than any other international news network. Every weekday I join a team of African professionals to put together a world class broadcast for viewers around the world, bringing an African perspective to global news. I encourage you to watch it.

Don’t get me wrong. Africa still faces immense challenges—social, political and economic. But if you are still seeing and writing about Africa as a miserable and incompetent monolith, you need to go to the nearest optician—or better still switch on to BBC Focus on Africa.

The York Bar

“You want to know why they call me Sugar Daddy?”

A slender Chinese man with a pinstripe fedora angled on his head sidles up to Miranda and me, and a few of our friends, holding a few beers that look suspiciously unfamiliar. Miranda switches from her native Chinese to English easily, but runs her hands through her mass of curls at a loss for words. We shoot Miranda surprised and awkward glances as “Sugar Daddy” lets loose some rapid-fire Chinese and wrenches the caps off the bottles. We don’t spend much time in Hankou, the nicer part of Wuhan. Miranda drove us here in her red Buick, with a deftness that only comes with a lack of driving instruction. She often assumes the role of unofficial translator, so she leans over and says, “That’s the owner of the pub.”

As Sugar Daddy nods at her translation, we exchange sly smiles. This man is clearly interested in foreigners, and foreign friends receive free gifts. He settles in the chair next to me and grins to show off crooked teeth that move around like a series of zippers in his wide gums.

As we eye the bottles, I inwardly groan at the idea of drinking more fake beer. The Shanghaiist, a popular Chinese weblog and news site, once described the fake Tsingtao as a beer “steeped in nicotine wrappers and death,” and after a few nights out, drinking nothing but Tsingtao, I had to agree. The owner hands us bottles of Tsingtao and peels at the wrapper. It comes off with difficulty, while most other beers have wrappers flapping in the wind.

China sends out whatever goods they can, Sugar Daddy explains. Most people in the country will drink whatever is sold to them. The cheapest beer is called Snow, and for 5 kuai, it’s the US version of a Natty Light. We used to gather outside street vendors with some fresh lo mian andsuck down half-litre bottles of Snow. Once people are drunk enough, they’ll buy anything; they’ll drink anything. It’s good for business. We never get Sugar Daddy to admit what’s in the fake beer. A distributor sends him the real Tsingtao that usually gets shipped out of the country. We’ve taken to drinking “formaldehyde-laced Snow” when out at bars because of our lack of options. On those nights, we hover in the alcoholic stupor, as carboxyls and teeny hydrogen molecules release and eat at our insides.

The York Bar sits in the middle of a busy street in Hankou, the gentrified section of the three smaller cities that now make up Wuhan. Hankou comes complete with its own Soho, budding Chinese clubs and faux French restaurants just in front of half-demolished apartment buildings. There’s a Howard Johnson with a large sun sphere like the 1984 World’s Fair creation down the expansive street, which, after a few double takes and a few more beers, looks like downtown Knoxville.

The decorative outdoor patio is settled snug next to the newly paved street, with only a few feet and some transplanted shrubbery to separate us from the stream of taxis. Instead of the stuffy indoor bar, Sugar Daddy holds court on the outdoor patio from eight until whenever his customers decide to leave. He sashays around the deck chairs, places his palms on the wrought-iron tables and inserts himself into conversations.

“Real beer,” Sugar Daddy says. “From Tsingtao, where I’m from.”

“Why do they call you Sugar Daddy?” Miranda asks. He has never answered the question about his name and at first, his English comes out in stammered bursts.

“Foreigners all think I am being… mistrustful?”

A petite, red-faced woman comes by with a waitress and we pull out bills to cover the beers. Sugar Daddy waves the woman away and tells the waitress to bring over more beer. The woman yells, he offers a sharp response in local Chinese that even Miranda doesn’t understand, and the woman meanders off the patio and hovers in the doorway.

“I have the name because I like the way it sounds and then people say I should change it, but they always call me that. So I keep the name.”

The waitress appears again and apparently she and the angry woman would prefer if we not only paid for our beers, but drank liquor and ate something as well. After getting burned by “Johnnie Worker Red Labial” the week before, we decline the liquor and the woman storms off. Sugar Daddy responds by getting another waitress to drag out the rest of the case of Tsingtao. We slip the bills back into our wallets, settle in on the patio and get comfortable.

“Call your friends,” he says and we all pull out our phones.

“So why don’t we get the good beer?” I ask.

“You know, government. Money.” Sugar Daddy expresses these words in the absolute terms of a businessman acknowledging the demands of his culture. “But I am from Tsingtao.” As I raise my eyebrows, he puffs out his chest and rubs it, satiated.

The waitress returns with a menu, so Miranda orders the cheapest thing York has: popcorn. Sugar Daddy hustles the woman away and calls for more beer. The same red, angry face appears in the doorway and he throws his head back and cackles. He pulls off his fedora like an old pro and points to himself again: Businessman.

I text a bunch of American friends who often spend their weekends in a stumbling migratory pattern between Soho, a few buildings down, and 97, just across the street. When they arrive, the waitress proudly brings chilled fake beers for my friends, who don’t know what they’re getting or that I’ve been drinking steadily for three hours and haven’t paid for a thing. Sugar Daddy leans over to me, his conspirator.

“Once we’re friends, real Tsingtao. ‘Til then… blip!” He moves his right hand as if flicking away a fly.

My friends ask Sugar Daddy about the name of his bar. He shrugs. This is not the conversation he wants to have. He’s been watching movies, he tells me. He opens his arms like Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Sugar Daddy sucks up some unfortunate air and says, “This is China,” just before his lungs break down and he hacks out a few coughs, which he quenches with a swig of beer. He spreads his arms again, as if indicating his own impressive empire. And my friends, who have been drinking shit beer for months, honor their host as eager subjects. Happy to tell his story, he goes on as they invent and develop the dark conspiracy of “what’s in the beer.”

An hour later, all the foreigners are drinking the good beer for free. They compare the fake and real bottles as if analyzing counterfeit bills. They tear off the wrappers and wave them in the air to see their degree of transparency.

“Shit beer, shit glue.” Sugar Daddy now has a cigarette angled out of his mouth that he never lights. He tugs at the bottle wrappers to show his new, best customers. The angry woman has been relegated to the window, where her gaze is just as dangerous.

Miranda directs her thumb towards the ominous window. “You might have to fire that woman,” she laughs.

Our host leans back in his chair, slaps his thigh and claps his hands.

“I have tried! I have! That,” he says, “is my wife.”

He waves his hand to change the subject as if the motion could dismiss an entire marriage.

“I have hooked up in Tsingtao,” he says.

The group smiles, but no one says anything in a long pause.

“That’s wrong!”

He places the fedora over his face and laughs before he tosses it back on the table.

“I have the hookup.”

We decide how to get back home. Miranda’ll take a few in her car and the other handful will brave the drunken girls outside of Soho and commandeer a taxi.

“Hey Sugar, doing anything for the World Cup?” Miranda asks. The York Bar has a large screen set up to watch the preliminary games.

“My special guests! The best table and…” He points towards us with open arms—the maestro knows his audience.

“Real beer,” we chorale. We fall into the darkness, the silence of pre-dawn, and he stands. Instead of holding up one finger as if to say, “Shush,” he puts up the whole hand, pinky pointing out, with resigned but firm authority. That old-time country contractual obligation crosses his face. We nod in agreement.

“Good for business,” Miranda says.

We file pass the shrubs as he calls his wife to collect the empty bottles. Sugar Daddy walks us to the car and rubs at his face. He grabs my arm before I hop inside and kisses my hand. I get in the car and roll down the window. It’s getting late.

“It’s true,” he says. “This is China.”

Amboy: A Walk in the Ruins

Amboy is a place in the Mojave desert, about 200 miles east of Los Angeles. I hesitate to call it a town: undoubtedly that’s what it used to be, and maybe once a town is always a town, but right now, and for the twenty years or so that I’ve been visiting, its population wouldn’t qualify it as a village, not even as a hamlet. There are SUVs driving down the freeway with larger populations than Amboy, and the freeway is precisely the reason for Amboy’s demise.

Amboy sits along a stretch of Route 66, the Mother Road, the place allegedly, formerly, to get your kicks, and when, in the 1950s, the Interstate 40 was built, some ten miles to the north, the serious cross-country traffic went there, leaving Amboy behind, to fade and desiccate, and remain a kind of rough time capsule. But if I hesitate to call Amboy a town, I hesitate even more to call it a ghost town. The place has certainly been abandoned and neglected. Parts of it have certainly decayed and crumbled, and parts of it do indeed lie in ruin, but not all of it, and not all of it conspicuously. The most important parts, the most eye-catching, don’t look like ruins at all, at least not at first glance.

What’s there looks, from a distance, remarkably well-preserved. There’s a school, a gas station, a church, a motel, a graveyard, a post office: the last of these is even fully functional, but a close look reveals considerable ruin elsewhere. That church, for instance, which is actually a bare meeting hall, has a wooden tower with a cross on top, and although the walls are bright white and appear recently painted, the tower is leaning precariously, a little more every time I visit, and I don’t doubt that one day I’ll arrive there and find that gravity has completed its work.  Part of the motel consists a long row of neat, minimalist white cabins that look intact, and even habitable.  But they’re not.  A closer look reveals that these cabins, which you can walk right into, are empty, with no furniture, no plumbing, no power, with the tatters of old linoleum on the floor, many windows smashed, broken Route 66 Cola bottles strewn around the floor.

The gas station probably can’t be considered a ruin at the moment, since it currently has gas for sale, though there were many years when it didn’t.  There was a period when dangerous-looking yet surprisingly friendly bikers would hang out there on Sunday afternoons, selling only slightly over-priced beer from an ice-filled cooler.  They did a reasonable trade, I think.  Plenty of people stop in Amboy, it’s hard not to.  Right between the gas station and the motel is one of the greatest, stop-you-in-your-tracks, roadside advertising signs I, or anybody else, has ever seen.

The sign says Roy’s Motel Café, and it’s a classic all right, tall, formidable, red, black and blue, two rectangles and a downward-pointing arrowhead, a smack you in the eye typeface, and more to the point, right in the middle it says ‘vacancy.’   Many a photographer (not least William Egglestone, who photographed it back in the day when there was often a classic black and white police cruiser parked outside), has embraced that visual and verbal pun: gas, food and lodging here, nothing but vacancy down the road.  Is that a bit too obvious, a bit too much of a cliché?  You bet.  And so the sign has appeared in a endless movies, music videos, TV commercials, and photoshoots.

This is the secret of Amboy’s success.  Although it has defining elements of ruin, it has other elements that define it as a stage or movie set, as a moody, evocative backdrop, as a location.  This inevitably creates certain problems for people (such as me) who yearn a certain (and admittedly contested) authenticity when they’re walking in the desert and/or walking in ruins.

In fact there’s at least one place nearby where people do some more or less conventional, and fairly strenuous, desert hiking.  The Amboy Crater is just a few miles to the west, an extinct cinder cone volcano, two hundred and fifty feet high, surrounded by a black lava field.   It’s a popular enough walking location that I’ve even seen tour buses unloading some extraordinarily well-dressed sightseers there, though I didn’t stick around to see how far they walked.

But let’s face it, an extinct volcano in the middle of the desert barely fits within even the broadest notion of ruin.  If you’re looking for ruin, and I usually am when I’m in the desert, you have to look elsewhere, and as it happens Route 66 is not the only transport artery to run through Amboy.  There’s a railway line too, a cluster of tracks that run parallel to the road, a couple of hundred yards to the south, and the railroad is still very much in business. If you hang out in Amboy for half an hour or so, chances are you’ll see a couple of immensely long freight trains roll through, the initials BNSF on the locomotives, standing for Burlington Northern Sante Fe.

Railways always strike me as the most appealing and picturesque of forms.  Who doesn’t like to watch the trains go by?  Who doesn’t like to stare down the tracks towards the vanishing point?  And yet cities, buildings, landscapes, even small desert towns, so often turn their back on the railway.  Trains thread through the bad parts of town, behind high walls and fences, in cuttings and tunnels, present but not seen and not regarded.  Meanwhile the land beside the tracks becomes a no man’s land where debris collects, where things get dumped, where graffiti are largely tolerated because at least they’re not somewhere more conspicuous.  In the desert however, the railways have nowhere to hide.

And whereas in England every yard of track is fenced off in an attempt to make it inaccessible and supposedly safe, here in the wide open spaces of the desert, nobody has the time, energy or money to fence off all those thousands of miles.  A man can walk right up to the tracks, walk across them, along them if he wants to.  Oh sure there’ll be the occasional no trespassing sign, but who’s going to take any notice?  Who’s going to police it?  And of course dumping goes on there with a casual lack of inhibition.  Down by the tracks in Amboy there used to be a sign that said no dumping, standing guard over a great heap of garbage.

And let’s face, it the railway people themselves are a messy bunch.  In Amboy there’s a sprawling three-sided corral where they’ve stored, or at least stashed, various bits of miscellaneous railroad hardware; posts, coils, wiring, chunks of lumber, those glass and porcelain electrical connectors, though those tend to be smashed if they’re not stolen.  You can walk into the corral, pick around, and although there isn’t a sign saying ‘help yourself,’ equally there’s no sign saying ‘keep out,’ and you can’t help thinking that if you had a use for some scrap fence posts or wiring, the guys from the BNSF would understand, and definitely wouldn’t put much effort into stopping you.

As I turned my back on the preserved charm of Roy’s Motel Café and Route 66, I was aware that maybe I wasn’t so much walking in ruins as strolling around in mess, performing the pedestrian equivalent of making mud pies, as I admired stacks of old sleepers and heaps of ballast.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it’s good to aim a little higher, so when I noticed a fine, low slung industrial building maybe a third of a mile away along the tracks, I decided to walk over and explore. I accepted that this wasn’t ruin exploration on the grandest scale, but we all have to do what we can.

From the road, when I set off walking, I couldn’t have said what the building was intended for, something to do with the railway obviously, perhaps loading and unloading, possibly concerned with storage, though there was no indication that anything was going on there at the moment.  At first I thought it  was made of white painted metal, and the paint had rusted or flaked off, but as I got a little closer I realized the walls were broad slabs of wood, and the paint had peeled away in long vertical strips giving the effect of corrugations.  Up against the side of the building I could see storage tanks, some palates, a mobile scaffolding tower, and there was a chain link fence around the whole thing, serious but hardly impenetrable.  There didn’t seem to be much in there that anyone would want to steal.  I guessed they were trying to keep out vandals and graffiti sprayers, but since I was neither of the above I eyed the fence and wondered if I should do a little creative trespass, shimmy over and go inside.

I walked a circuit of the perimeter.  A railway siding ran alongside the back of the building within the fence, and there was no sign of life or activity anywhere.  The big roller doors on the building were raised and you could see there was nothing at all inside.  I got the impression that if this place was still being used for anything, it wasn’t much and it wasn’t recent.  I decided I’d go in.

And then suddenly I realized the place wasn’t deserted after all.  Around the side next to some half-demolished walls that looked like they might have belonged to a coal bunker, there was a single, pristine, dinky little golf cart with a canopy, a thing wildly out of place in this battered, industrial desert scene, and sitting in the cart was a huge man, dressed all in white.  As I remember it he was wearing a solar topi, though I think I may have made that up in retrospect: it may just have been a floppy sunhat, but nevertheless the overall effect was undoubtedly grand, spooky and strangely ethereal.  He looked both ghostly and angelic, unworldly, very, very still, not remotely right for this location. He was also wearing wraparound shades, and he was smoking a long thin cigar, and he reminded me, improbably, of Marlon Brando, certainly not as he was in The Wild One, and only partly as he was in Apocalypse Now, but rather as he appeared in The Island of Dr Moreau, where he dresses in white gauze, presumably to hide his bulk, with his face coated in white pancake for reasons known only to himself.  I’m prepared to believe that time and my imagination may have glorified the stature and strangeness of my man in Amboy, but not by much.  His presence seemed genuinely uncanny and alarming.  A man who can invoke Marlon Brando, a ghost and an angel, while sitting in a golf cart obviously has an undeniable aura.

I think he must have seen me before I saw him, because I only spotted him as I was reaching for a handhold on the chain link.  The sunglasses ensured there was nothing so unsubtle as eye-contact, but he turned his head just a fraction in my direction, then back again, the subtlest admonitory shake of the head, as if to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.  I wouldn’t do that if you know what’s good for you.’

I like to think I know what’s good for me.  I stepped away from the fence, calmly, unhurriedly, walked on, went about my business, and eventually I headed back to the car, parked up by Ray’s sign.  My wife was waiting for me there: she’d been off in the other direction looking at the graveyard (it’s good to have related but separate interests), and she asked me what I’d been doing.

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘I think I saw the god of the ruins of Amboy.’

‘Was he on a train?’


‘Was he walking?’

‘He was on a golf cart.’

‘Makes sense.  What’s that in your hand?’

What I had in my hand was one of my great desert finds.  Yes, yes I pick stuff up in the desert and take it home with me.  Not so long ago it was thought of as perfectly OK to collect rocks or fossils or antlers or even plant specimens from the desert: now this is regarded as environmentally unsound, as messing with nature, as pure evil.  So now I only pick up stuff that doesn’t belong there, that’s been left of dumped by humans: hub caps, unfathomable innards from bits of machinery, the occasional abandoned children’s toy.  The best stuff is up on the wall of my garage.  And what I’d picked up that day, after my encounter by the chain link fence was half of one of those diamond-shaped metal signs that they put on the back of vehicles, in this case railway cars, warning of dangerous cargoes.  This one, in full, would have read ‘Spontaneous Combustion,’ but since I only had the left hand half, it reads Sponta Combu – a great name for something, a band, a spy, a guru, an Indian fusion dish – or maybe one of the 99 names of the god of the ruins of Amboy.

Two Funny Extracts from The Ultimate Book of Heroic Failures

The Worst Ever Broadway Play

An immediate and sensational flop, Moose Murders by Arthur Bicknell is now widely considered to bethe worst play ever performed on Broadway.

‘Ifyour name is Arthur Bicknell – or anything like it –change it,’ said the theatre critic at CBS.

When it opened and closed on 22 February 1983, Frank Rich, the drama critic of the New York Times, wrote: ‘From now on there will always be two groups of theatregoers in this world: those who have seen Moose Murders and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed it will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic.’

The play, a mystery farce, relates the adventures of Snooks and Howie Keene, Nurse Dagmar, Stinky Holloway and others trapped together one excellent stormy night at the Wild Moose Lodge, a guesthouse in the Adirondack Mountains. Several murders take place, Stinky tries to sleep with his mother and a man in a moose costume is assaulted by a bandage-wrapped quadriplegic.

There is a thunderclap. The curtain rises on a hunting lodge which is attractively festooned with stuffed moose heads.

Act One gets off to a corking start when ‘The Singing Keenes’, the resident entertainers, come on and launch straight into a rendition of ‘Jeepers Creepers’. A scantily clad Snooks Keene sings in an off-key screech. She is accompanied by her blind husband pounding away on his electric organ until the plug is pulled out by the resident caretaker, Joe Buffalo Dance, who wears Indian war paint but speaks with an Irish brogue.

They are soon joined by the wealthy Hedda Holloway, the Lodge’s new owner. She arrives with her husband Sidney, the heavily bandaged quadriplegic, who is confined to a wheelchair. His attendant, Nurse Dagmar, wears revealing black satin, barks like a Nazi and whenever possible leaves her patient out in the rain. In addition to her son Stinky, a drug-crazed Oedipal hippie, Mrs Holloway has a young daughter called Gay, who is permanently in a party dress. When told that her father will always be a vegetable, she turns up her nose and replies, ‘Like a lima bean? Gross me out!’ and then breaks into a tap dance.

Just before the interval Stinky gets out a deck of cards to give the actors, if not the audience, something to do. The lights go out mid-game and the first of several inexplicable murders is committed.

‘Even Act One of Moose Murders is inadequate preparation for Act Two,’ Mr Rich wrote. In the play’s final twist Mrs Holloway serves Gay a poison-laced vodka Martini for reasons that are never entirely clear. As the young girl collapses to the floor and croaks in the middle of a Shirley Temple tap-dancing routine, her mother breaks into laughter and applause.

The leading lady was supposed to be making her comeback after more than forty years away from the Broadway stage, but she dropped out after the first preview.

To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of its opening and closing the play was restaged as a conceptual art project. ‘Broadway had its chance and they blew it,’ the artist said.

The Least Successful Hospital Visit

In June 2010 Mrs Connie Everett of Kitimat, British Columbia, was taken to hospital after colliding with a moose while driving to visit her sister, Mrs Yvonne Studley, who was in hospital after colliding with a moose.

Monkey Hill

When Rio won the 2016 Olympics it was as if the whole city pinched itself. Euphoric crowds sang and danced on the beach while, on the big screen above their heads, President Lula and Sergio Cabral, the state governor, hugged and wept. On buses and in backstreets people went about their business in quiet surprise. Although cariocas are dreamers, years of decline and disappointment have tempered their natural exuberance. But the next day it seemed that everyone was thinking the same thing: maybe, just maybe, life in Rio might improve.

Palpable optimism hung in the air for a few weeks before dissipating in an instant when war broke out in Vila Isabel, a bohemian middle-class neighbourhood. One Friday after midnight, gangs of soldiers from the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) drug faction invaded a favela called Morro dos Macacos, Monkey Hill. The initial invasion was slick and well organised and they drove up the hill in stolen cars and vans where they moved quickly to take over strategic points in the community. Then the plan went awry and the invaders became trapped between the police and their rivals.

Intense gun battles on both sides of the hill went on until Saturday evening. Live TV broadcast images of shoppers taking cover in doorways and behind cars while the police armoured vehicle, thecaveirão (big skull) bore down residential streets. Bullets hit a police helicopter brought down by its pilot only seconds before it went up in flames. There were six police inside: three died. When the invasion began to fail, CV bosses from other areas in the city sent minions out to burn buses, a traditional faction tactic for protesting and distracting attention. A mood of instability took hold and people cancelled shopping trips, nights out and parties. Most cariocas stayed at home to watch constant replays of the helicopter circling and churning thick black smoke before becoming a fireball and crashing into the ground, as any residual high spirits about the Olympic victory dissolved into torn metal, blood and ash.

Evandro João Silva, my colleague and friend, was the charismatic founder of one of the successful AfroReggae cultural centres, and one of few in the city who tried to not let events spoil his weekend. But the city centre by night, far from the war zone in Vila Isabel, carried its own risks. Evandro was shot dead in a street robbery early on Sunday morning, killed walking from one nightspot to another. Security cameras recorded the attack, and over the next days Globo showed the footage on all its news programmes:  first the attack on Evandro, who fights two men who jump him from behind and shoot him during the struggle, and later on, a clip that shows a police vehicle drive past him as he lies dying in a shop window. Then even more footage comes to light that shows the same police officers apparently capturing and then releasing the men responsible for the murder. The scandal that surrounded Evandro’s killing temporarily knocked the battle for Monkey Hill off top spot on the news.

The Public Security Secretary later admitted he had prior intelligence about the invasion, but alleged he lacked the necessary manpower to take preventive action. The high death toll included three men shot in a car, whom police initially described as criminals, but whose families proved they were innocent residents caught in the crossfire. This was the first time high profile combat had broken out in the city since the declaration of the successful Olympic bid and images of the helicopter on fire were repeated on newscasts across the world as presenters questioned Rio’s ability to host a peaceful Olympics.

Rio is in the spotlight and, for the first time in many years, a newsroom priority. Lucy Ash is a BBC radio journalist who came in the weeks following the failed invasion and employed me as a fixer. She was hard-nosed, persistent and insisted that we visit Monkey Hill to speak to the mothers of the innocent men who died during the invasion.

No one was able to put us in touch with community leaders, so we made our way to one of the entrances to the favela and asked locals how to find the residents association. Someone made a call and asked us to wait. It was late afternoon and there was typical Rio warmth in the buzz of conversation in bars, the to and fro of shoppers and the shouts of greetings between friends. Vila Isabel is tucked away in the folds of the city between giant rocks and hills and here the rhythm of life is less hectic than in better-known neighbourhoods. We paid for several rounds of beer and then a gari, a community street sweeper, turned up in his bright orange uniform. He got in the car and we drove through a tunnel that took us to the other side of the hill.

Grey clouds clogged the skies as our car climbed the trash strewn cobbled street, and when Edilson, our driver, wound down the window, heavy air closed in. Residents coming home from work mingled with locals drinking at kiosk bars. Our guide was keen to show off his pimped ride andcalled to friends according to their football team “fala Vascaino! e aí Flamengo!”. Fatigue was visible on stretched faces and when we came to a checkpoint, teenagers in baseball caps handling shiny automatic pistols stepped forward to see who was in the car. The street sweeper leant out, gave a thumbs-up, and told them he was taking some journalists to the association. They waved us on.

Further along the road, we stopped to speak to the cagy President of the residents association. He kept talk to a minimum and introduced us to someone who could take us to meet the families. Suited and carrying a briefcase, this man guided us further into the favela, first up and then down a curved road offset by houses, shops and a panorama of the city twinkling in the early evening. As we navigated a U-bend he showed us where the three men were killed. They were driving in the same direction as we were, when someone in the road above them opened fire.

We parked and continued on foot. More boys with guns peered at us from the gloom of an abandoned bullet-pocked house that commanded the top of the hill. We had come full circle around the favela and below us was the point where we had waited for the gari a short time ago. Then we climbed steps and walked single file along an alley that twisted between primordial boulders where brick dwellings were hewn into the side of the rock face. A group of women on a doorstep stopped their conversation when we appeared.

An impossibly steep and narrow set of tiled steps led into a large, clean air-conditioned room. The walls were painted sky blue and the neatly corniced ceiling, white. There were chairs, two sofas, a dining table, family photos, CD shelves and a widescreen plasma TV. The room gave onto a kitchen and there was a second room on the left and a corridor to the right. The house was orderly and snug. A heavy white woman with a crumpled face sat on the largest sofa. We took our shoes off. Maria was the owner of the house and the mother of one of the boys. Other people came in quietly and sat or leant against the walls.

Maria answered Lucy’s question through sobs.

“Yes they’d been to a party, because like all young people they have the right to go out and enjoy themselves, and then they heard the shooting start. So they decided to come home and that’s when…”

She broke off, picked up a framed photo of her son, who worked as an auxiliary at a private hospital, and circled the room, picture in hand. When she sat down again, another woman came and put a hand on her shoulder, while a man appeared from a room in the corner. These were the other boys’ parents. Out of five in the car, two survived. They were close friends and Maria put on a DVD that showed them all at a birthday party on a schooner a few months ago. The room filled with sunny scenes of happy, good-looking young people partying underneath Sugarloaf Mountain.

Maria touched wrinkled fingers to her son’s face, and stayed standing by the television with her hand on the screen, drifting in and out of coherence, now talking about his death and how they will be suing the state, now talking about the personal problems he had shared with her, troubles with his girlfriend.

While the other parents explained they believed the invading traffickers received support from corrupt police, that it might even have been police who killed their children, Maria went into her son’s bedroom, where ironed clothes were stacked and Flamengo team posters decorated the walls. There was a collection of model cars neatly lined on a shelf and a TV showing soccer. She threw herself on his bed.

We offered our last condolences and left. Raindrops spattered as we made our way in silence along the alley. Inside the gloom of the abandoned house the traffickers and their guns made sad silhouettes in the last light.

Author’s Note:
This piece captures one of the episodic moments of chaos which have periodically paralysed Rio over the last 25 years. It was especially sad for me as it involved the death of a friend in a random robbery which was unlinked to the main ‘spectacle’ but which symbolised the general instability across the city. Monkey Hill is now occupied by what is called a UPP (Police Pacification Unit). Although I don’t like the terminology, this new policing strategy has brought peace, for now, to large chunks of the city and hopefully dark moments like the Monkey Hill weekend will soon be consigned to the past. Rio is getting better. At the same time, I don’t know, or really expect, that Maria will ever find out who killed her son.

Extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking by Dany Laferrière

Introduction by translator Sophie Lewis

January 23, 2010—Dany Laferrière is in Haiti for the literary festival Etonnants Voyageurs. Like so many others, he is caught in the earthquake. Unlike many, he escapes the catastrophe unscathed. A year later, in Tout bouge autour de moi (Everything around me is shaking), he writes of what he saw that day and again, some weeks later when he returned to Haiti: sights that speak of horror but also of the Haitians’ remarkable sangfroid. Laferrière retells the story of the quake through his own impressions and view of the events. He counters the sensationalism and melodrama of Occidental television coverage with a sober, powerful account of this crisis whose repercussions continue to be felt worldwide. Tout bouge autour de moi is not merely a piece of testimony; it is a work of true literature.

The Minute

There I am in the restaurant of Hotel Karibe with my friend Rodney Saint-Eloi, publisher of Mémoire d’encrier (Memory of an Inkpot), who has just come in from Montreal. Leaning against our table-legs were two fat suitcases filled with his latest books. I was waiting for my crayfish (on the menu it said lobster) and Saint-Eloi for a salt-baked sole. I had already started on the bread when I heard a terrible explosion. At first I thought it was a machine-gun (others will say a train), right behind me. Seeing the cooks fly past us, I thought that a boiler had just exploded. All this took less than a minute. We had eight to ten seconds in which to make a decision. Get out of the place or stay. Those who split swiftly were very few. Even the sharpest lost three or four precious seconds before they realised what was happening. I was in the hotel restaurant with friends, the publisher Rodney Saint-Eloi and the critic Thomas Spear. Spear lost three precious seconds because he wanted to finish his beer. We don’t all react alike. In any case, no-one can foresee when death will be waiting for them. All three of us found ourselves flat on the floor, in the middle of the courtyard. Under the trees. The ground began to undulate like a slip of paper carried off in the wind. The thudding sounds of buildings falling to their knees. They don’t explode. They implode, imprisoning people in their bellies. Suddenly, we see a cloud of dust rise up into the afternoon sky. As if a professional dynamiter had received the express command to destroy the whole city without blocking the streets, to give the cranes easy access.

Life Already

Life had seemed to be returning to normal after decades of turbulence. Girls would stroll in the streets laughing, late into the evening. Primitive painters chatted to the mango- and avocado-sellers on the corners of dusty streets. Banditry seemed to be on the way out. In the rougher parts of town, such as Bel-Air, crime was no longer tolerated by the worn-out population, which had seen it all in the last half-century: hereditary dictatorships, military coups d’etat, cyclone after cyclone, devastating floods and stealth kidnappings. I was coming for this literary festival that was meant to bring writers to Port-au-Prince from all around the world. It promised to be exciting since, for the first time, literature seemed to have become the hot topic in town, more popular even than politics. Writers were being invited to speak on television more frequently than the MPs: a pretty rare thing in this highly politicised country. Literature was reclaiming its rightful place here. As early as 1929, Paul Morand noted in his perceptive essay Hiver caraïbe (Caribbean Winter) that in Haiti everything ends with a collection of poetry. Later on, during his last trip to Port-au-Prince in 1975, Malraux would talk about a population of painters. We are still trying to understand how such a concentration of artists could emerge in such a limited space. Haiti only takes up half of an island, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, in the Caribbean Sea.

The Silence

When I travel, I always keep two things with me: my passport (in a little bag hanging from my neck) and a black notebook in which I note down everything that crosses my field of vision or comes into my head. While I was lying on the ground, I was thinking about disaster movies, wondering if the earth was going to open and swallow us all. This was my childhood nightmare. We had retreated to the hotel’s tennis court. I was expecting to hear cries, people screaming. We say in Haiti that as long as there’s no screaming, there’s no death. Someone shouted that it wasn’t safe to stay under the trees. In fact they were wrong, for not a branch, not a flower shifted in spite of the forty-three seismic shocks of that first night. I can still hear that silence.


A shock of magnitude 7.3 is not so bad. You can still run away. Concrete was the real killer. People had gone to town with their concrete these last fifty years. Little fortresses. Being suppler, the houses made of wood and sheet metal had taken the stress. In the frequently tiny hotel bedrooms, the television became the enemy. We always sit down right in front of it. And it falls straight onto us. Lots of people had it fall on their heads.

The Ladder

We pick ourselves up slowly, like zombies in a B-movie. There are shouts in the hotel courtyard. The buildings to the back and right have crumbled. These are the apartments rented on an annual basis by foreign families, mostly French. Two teenage girls are panicking on a second-floor balcony. Very quickly, people start working out how to help them down. There are three of them there in front of the building. Two hold a ladder. The sharp young man who has had the presence of mind to go look for the ladder in the garden is climbing up it. The older of the girls manages to climb over the balcony’s edge. She reaches the ground. Everyone crowds around her. The young man climbs back up to get the younger one, who refuses to leave the place. She demands that they wait for her mother. This is the first we hear of a third person stuck up there. The rescuers work on in sweaty silence. They need to act fast, for the block, which is barely standing, could collapse with the slightest vibration. The teenager screams that her mother is inside. While looking for a stairway to get out by, the mother had got herself locked in somewhere. Weeping, the girl points to the spot where her mother is stuck. Standing in the hotel garden, we all have our eyes riveted on this teenager who believes that if she comes down we will forget her mother. There is enormous tension in the air, for the earth has only just finished shaking. Eventually, the mother frees herself by breaking a window. She rushes to her daughter who still refuses to come down before her. Only when her mother has reached the ground will she agree to come down the ladder.

A Small Party

A woman walks about with a crying baby. I take him in my arms and try to soothe him. He devours me with the black eyes of a frightened mouse. A gaze so sustained that he ends up intimidating me. The woman explains that she’s his nurse. His parents are at work. She had just given him a bath when the room started to rock. Thrown about all over the room, she never lets go of the baby. She tries to leave the building by the stairs. Blocked. She returns to the bedroom and this time manages to balance the baby on the window-ledge, before lowering herself onto the balcony on the next floor down. Then she climbs on a chair to pick up the infant who, miraculously, hasn’t moved, as if he understands the gravity of the situation. As soon as she had him in her arms again, he began to cry, as though he were being skinned alive, for the next two hours. Then his parents rushed in. I hardly dare to imagine their anguish during the journey. They left the car, doors wide, in the middle of the road. The nurse gave them the baby and they danced, with savage joy, holding him tightly between them. Another shock interrupted the little party.

The Hotel Employees

Always perfectly turned out in their uniforms, the hotel employees never lost their cool. If there was a certain amount of disorder at first, it emanated mainly from their guests who ran in all directions. Some had to be fetched, being unable to leave their rooms. They were found pacing round and round or sitting on their bed, eyes glazed. For a while I watch the employees work hard to carry out their assigned roles. It may be the fact of having a role to fulfil that allows them to walk straight while their guests totter. As soon as we are hungry they turn up, in single file, carrying canapés to lay out on a big table. A reception had been planned for the large meeting room, near the restaurant. The food had already been prepared. Now we take advantage of their organisation. The security guards stand close to the narrow barrier at the entry to the tennis court, where we have taken refuge. They do their best to reassure the guests. I say guests rather than tourists, for the latter are rare in Haiti. Only members of the many NGOs that have been festering in the country for the last few decades tend to be found here; tanned newspaper correspondents who can’t get away from the island, foreign businessmen muttering together over breakfast with Haitian politicians who are already sweating. We see the hotel owner go by in the garden, doing his tour of inspection. Pacing slowly, with a worried expression, he appears lost in his thoughts. I would give a lot to know what is going through his mind just then. The destruction is not only material. Some are seeing a lifetime’s hard work vanish in the space of a minute. That cloud in the sky a moment ago was the dust that remained of their dreams.

The Bathroom

I imagine the fright of those who were in the bath at the moment the quake’s first shocks struck. We were all taken by surprise, but those who were in the shower must have lived through a moment of pure panic. We always feel more vulnerable when we are naked, especially when covered in soapy water. In their hurry, a fair number of these people left without remembering to turn off the tap.


The enemy is not time but all those things we accumulate from day to day. As soon as we pick up a thing, we can’t stop. For one thing demands another. It’s the cohesion of a life. We would find bodies near the door. A suitcase beside them.

This is an extract from Everything Around Me Is Shaking (Tout bouge autour de moi) by Dany Laferrière (2011, Grasset et Fasquelle). Translated by Sophie Lewis.
Born in 1953 in Port-au-Prince, Dany Laferrière first made his mark in 1985 with How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer). He has since published a number of novels in France and in Quebec, where he now lives.
Sophie Lewis specialises in translating short prose from French. Her forthcoming publications include Thérèse and Isabelle, a ground-breaking feminist novella by Violette Leduc, for Salammbô Press. She is currently working on Sans Dessus Dessous, a novel by Jules Verne, for Hesperus Press. She is also Contributing Editor at Litro and Editor at Large at And Other Stories.

Carter Jackson — Rat Hunting

Colusa was really different from San Francisco. But while I was there I discovered one of my great passions, a sport I’d never heard of before: rat hunting.

I grew up duck hunting. Which I never really liked because you had to wake up at some obscene hour, wade through a freezing swamp and sit in a dark cold blind that reeked of stale farts and was covered in tobacco spit. Then you waited very quietly—absolutely no talking allowed—for what seemed like hours for some tiny lonesome bird to fly by. Usually, at this point I would be fixing a cuticle or counting the cigar butts at the bottom of the blind and miss the entire event, which so often spurred that cool frustration from my dad—I was clearly “Not Paying Attention”—and the subsequent reminder that I was very lucky to be out there with him given that I am, after all, a girl.

Pheasant hunting was much more my speed. You went at a decent hour, like in the afternoon; you were out walking around, and the birds were big, and you could chatter as much as you like. Either way, duck hunting or pheasant hunting, I can’t say I was a very good shot. Rat hunting, on the other hand, I was great at.

I first heard of rat hunting at a birthday party after I’d been married and living in Colusa for a few months. The birthday boy, Donny, was complaining that the rats were eating all his rice seeds before they had the chance to take root. The obligatory discussion about the cheapest and most effective rat poison on the market ensued, and more Coors Lights were consumed. About an hour later, Donny decided that he had had enough of his own party and that he was getting his gun and taking off to go rat hunting. I looked at my then-husband and said, “Oh this, I have to see.”

In Colusa, there was no need to go home to get your guns, everybody kept them in their pick-ups. So two girls and thee guys piled into Donny’s Chevy along with three guns and a case of Coors Light. We took off for the rice fields. Given that we’d all get a DUI, we took the back roads.

I have to be honest. Rats really scared me. They move fast, have long hairless tails, ugly toothy faces and regardless of what my mother said, I’ve always thought that they were nowhere near as afraid of me as I was of them. In fact, I thought they were out to get me. This made the idea of hunting them down all the more thrilling. Really conquering one’s fear.

The how-to’s of rat hunting. There was an old story about my ex-husband’s uncle who spent the summer driving a tractor and living in a one-room country house. Legend had it, he came home bombed one night and walked in on a whole slew of rats going crazy eating everything in his house. He got himself so worked up over all the rats that he took out his pistol and blasted twenty holes in the walls trying to “teach those little fuckers a lesson”. Now the rat hunting that I experienced was an outdoor sport, rather than an indoor one, that used shotguns and shells, rather than pistols with bullets.

The best hunting was in rice fields right after the seed was flown on and before it took root. Rice fields are long rectangles separated by little levee roads and the rats liked nibbling the seed on the edge of one field then running across the road to nibble the seed of another field. All the hunter had to do was walk along the side of the pick up while the driver slowly creeped along the road. The lights from the pick-up got the rats moving, and when one came into your line of sight, you just shot. This seemed easier said than done.

As we were driving out, we passed what was fondly called the Fields of Death. These fields absolutely stunk of dead animal. For most farmers, the killing of rats was a purely economic equation. Were the rats going to eat enough of the crop to justify the cost of the rat poison and its application? The answer for most farmers entailed putting on some rat poison, but not nearly enough to kill all the rats. It was all about return on investment. Mike, the owner of the Fields of Death, wasn’t concerned with ROI, he flat-out wasn’t rational about rats anymore. He felt that the rats had declared war on him personally and he spent every dime he could on buying up all of the rat poison in the county to cover his fields with it. Mike’s fields were located right off of Interstate 5 and for about three miles in each direction all you could smell was dead animal. For me, having the private knowledge that this smell was due to thousands of dead rotting rats had a tendency to kick in the old gag reflex.

As we drove by and I gagged into my Coors Light, Donny decided that we could hunt some fields that were out of smelling distance from Mike’s. We bumped over more dirt roads and finally arrived at our hunting grounds. We had two 12 gauges and a 20 gauge. I won’t shoot with a 12 because its kick hurts my shoulder, and most men wouldn’t be caught dead with a 20 gauge so we two girls shared it. Unlike the guys, we played rock-paper-scissors for who had to go first, not who got to go first. She was just as freaked out by the rats as I was, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that both of us would be out on the road alone.

I lost and got out of the pick-up. My husband gave me a handful of shells and told me not to shoot too far ahead. While in the safety of the truck’s cab, I thought up a few hunting strategies.

I could walk next to the window of the pick-up, feeling the security of the driver’s company but actually walking in the dark—therefore leaving an opening for the rats to sneak-up and bite my ankles without me noticing. Or I could walk out in front of the pick-up, bathed in the security of the headlights, but out of easy voice contact with the driver. This would leave me open to the possibility of hundreds of rats forming a posse and launching a full scale eating attack on me, piranha style. The third option of sitting on the hood of the pick-up was never viable for me. First, it didn’t accomplish the moment by moment face-your-fears element of the hunt that I craved. And second, the results could be much more disastrous. If the driver braked hard, I could go flying off the hood and get run over by the truck. This would leave me paralyzed, under the truck, in the dark, but aware enough to feel the rats feasting on my maimed extremities. I thought that I would alternate between the first two strategies, switching whenever I got too freaked out.

So, I stood at the side of the pick-up talking to Donny and hoping every so often so that I wasn’t such a predictable target for the sneaky rats.


Out came a big fat rat about 20 yards ahead. It was hauling across the road and just as I lifted the gun to lead it and shoot (like you’re supposed to do in duck hunting), it stopped.

I missed.

Damn it.

Then there was another, this time the little sucker was just strolling across the road. I had all the time in the day. I lifted my gun again and shot, a good clean shot that nailed it. Boom. The rat actually blew up. It was amazing. You know when you go trap shooting and you hit a clay pigeon straight on? It just shatters into a million little pieces. That was this rat. Gone. Shattered.

Ah, the rush of the kill.

I looked at Donny. He looked at me. We were both grinning from ear to ear. He knew what was at work. I was coming down with rat hunting fever.

No sooner had I reloaded my gun when there were more rats. Actually at any given time there were no less than ten rats within eyesight. I could just keep shooting and reloading. It was no problem if I missed, because there was always another to take its place. Sometimes I could even kill three or four in one shot.

The best was when the rats just sat there in groups nibbling on the side of the road. I imagined that they were mocking me, smugly thinking that I couldn’t hit them for all the tea in China. Ahh, the satisfaction of raising my gun and wiping that smirk right off their little rat faces. Watching them all be blown into oblivion. Conquering.

This was fun. Granted, I was still a little freaked about being attacked by the rats, that feeling didn’t hold a candle to the excitement, the pure thrill of the hunt.

I shot about fifteen rats and thought that I should probably pass my gun back to the other girl for her turn. Then I thought, “Naa, let her ask for the gun.” I shot another fifteen rats before she asked if she could have a turn.

“Sure, just a second, let me just get that group up there.”

“Hang on, I just want to try for those guys.”

“In a minute, do you see them? They’re just begging me to nail them.”

“Are you sure you want to do this? You’ve never even been duck hunting.”

“My aren’t you getting pushy—have another Coors.”

“Donny, your girlfriend is a little uptight isn’t she?”

Finally, I ran out of shells.

When I turned to my husband for more, he gave me that look. The one that meant, “Not on your life. You will share come hell or high water.”

He pried the gun out of my hands and handed it to the other girl, gave her some shells and explained to her how to shoot.

I sulked in the front seat for a few minutes. Then I watched her hunting and realized that I was the better shot. I was the born rat huntress.

Carter Jackson is Californian who came to London for a three month work gig… eight years ago. She met Mr. Perfect, who turned out to be a Croydon boy, and now happily lives in South London with him and their two kids. In addition to writing and her family, she enjoys working for the same company that originally brought her over.


Extract from The Book of Universes by John D. Barrow

Being in the Right Place at the Right Time

I know it’s all in our minds, but a mind is a powerful thing.”  —Colin Cotterill

Two Men Walking

I am always surprised when a young man tells me he wants to work at cosmology; I think of cosmology as something that happens to one, not something one can choose.”  —William H. McCrea

The old gentleman walking down the street looked the same as ever—distinguished but slightly dishevelled, in a Bohemian style, a slow-walking European on an American main street, sad-faced, purposeful but not quite watching where he was going, always catching the attention of the locals as he made his way politely through the shoppers and the contra-flow of students late for lectures. Everyone seemed to know who he was, but he avoided everyone’s gaze.

Today, he had a new companion, very tall and stockily built, a little the worse for wear, untidy but in a different way. They were both deep in conversation as they made their way, walking and talking, oblivious of the shop windows beside them. The older man listened thoughtfully, sometimes frowning gently; his younger companion enthusiastically pressing his point, occasionally gesticulating wildly, talking incessantly. Neither spoke native English but their accents were quite different, revealing resonances with many places. Intent on crossing the street, they stopped, lingering at the kerbside as the traffic passed. The traffic lights changed and they continued quietly across the street, both momentarily concentrating on light, sound and relative motion.

Suddenly, something happened. The taller man started to say something again, making a dart of his hand. The traffic was moving again now but the old man had stopped, dead in his tracks, oblivious to the cars and the hurrying pedestrians. His companion’s words had consumed his thoughts entirely. The cars roared past on both sides leaving the two of them marooned in their midst like a human traffic island. The old man was deep in thought, the younger one reiterating his point. Eventually, resuming contact with the moving world around them, but forgetful of where they had been going, the older man led them silently towards the pavement—the one they had stepped off a minute ago—and they walked and talked their way from whence they had come, lost in this new thought.

The two men had been talking about universes. The place was Princeton, New Jersey, and the time was during the Second World War. The younger man was George Gamow, or ‘Gee-Gee’ to his friends, a Russian émigré to the United States. The older man was Albert Einstein. Einstein had spent the previous thirty years showing how we could understand the behaviour of whole universes with simple maths. Gamow saw that those universes must have had a past that was unimaginably different to the present. What had stopped them both in their tracks was Gamow’s suggestion that the laws of physics could describe something being created out of nothing. It could be a single star; but it might be an entire universe!

Funny Things, Universes.

History is the sum total of the things that could have been avoided.”  —Konrad Adenauer

What is the universe? Where did it come from? Where is it heading? These questions sound simple but they are amongst the most far-reaching that have ever been posed. Depending upon how much you know, there are many answers to the question of what we mean by ‘universe’. Is it just everything you can see out in space—perhaps with the space in between thrown in for good measure? Or is it everything that physically exists? When you draw up the list of all those things to include in ‘everything’ you start to wonder about those ‘things’ that the physicists call the ‘laws of Nature’ and other intangibles like space and time. Although you can’t touch or see them, you can feel their effects, they seem pretty important and they seem to exist—a bit like the rules of football—and we had better throw them in as well. And what about the future and the past? Just focusing on what exists now seems a bit exclusive. And if we include everything that has ever existed as part of the universe, why not include the future as well? This seems to leave us with the definition that the universe is everything that has existed, does exist and will ever exist.

If we were feeling really pedantic we might take an even grander view of the universe, which includes not only everything that can exist but also everything that could exist—and finally, even that which cannot exist. Some medieval philosophers were drawn to this sort of completeness, adding everything that has existed, does exist and will not exist to the catalogue of what was, is and will be. This approach seems bent upon creating new problems in an area where there are enough already. Yet recently it has re-emerged in modern studies of the universe, albeit in a slightly different guise. Modern cosmologists are not only interested in the structure and history of our universe but also in the other types of universe that might have been. Our universe has many special and (to us at least) surprising properties that we want to evaluate in order to see if they could have been otherwise. This means that we have to be able to produce examples of ‘other’ universes so as to carry out comparisons.

This is what modern cosmology is all about. It is not just an exercise in describing our universe as completely and as accurately as possible. It seeks to place that description in a wider context of possibilities than the actual. It asks why our universe has some properties and not others. Of course, we might ultimately discover that there is no other possible universe (whose structure, contents, laws, age and so forth are different in a way we can conceive of) apart from the one we see. For a long time, cosmologists were rather expecting—even hoping—that would turn out to be the case. But recently the tide has been flowing in the opposite direction and we seem to be faced with many different possible universes, all consistent with Nature’s laws. And, to cap it all, these other universes may not be only possibilities:  they may be existing in every sense that we attribute to ordinary things like you and me, here and now.

The Book of Universes being one of them, published by Bodley Head on 3 February 2011.


Extract from Across Many Mountains by Yangzom Brauen

1. Trapped

For fear of Chinese soldiers, they only dared walk through the freezing nights, with no light to guide them but the stars. The mountains were black towers before the dark sky. The group, numbering a dozen or so, had set out shortly before the Tibetan New Year festival, which, like the beginning of the Chinese calendar, usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. New Year was deemed the best time to escape. [private]The high passes were covered in snow, and icy winds whistled across them, but the snow was frozen hard at night and was sometimes even stable by day, in contrast to the warm season, when trekkers sank knee or navel-deep into a mixture of snow, ice, water, mud and scree. It was common knowledge that the Chinese border guards preferred to keep warm in their barracks during the winter rather than go on patrol in the biting cold. Everybody agreed that the soldiers would sooner spend the New Year festival, the most important Chinese holiday, celebrating, drinking and playing cards than doing their actual duties.

My mother Sonam’s heart beat wildly as she struggled to keep up with the adults. She was only six years old.

Soon they caught sight of danger looming in the distance. In the valley far below their path, they saw large, brightly lit buildings. They could only be housing Chinese soldiers; Tibetans had no such huge and uniformly built houses as these, with such bright lights. Shouting voices, crashes of music, laughter, sometimes terrifying screams emanated from the buildings, echoing off the mountain. The Chinese soldiers loved chang, Tibetan beer made from barley, and they presumably had plentiful supplies. The sounds Sonam heard were blood-curdling, like a herd of wild beasts gathering in the distance. But her mother whispered to soothe her. ‘It’s good that they’re celebrating,’ she said. ‘They won’t come up here if they’re cosy and warm and drunk.’

The refugees’ path was narrow and stony and barely visible in the darkness. Often the group had to pick their way through thorny scrub and fields of scree, and then carry on between low trees. The roots of the trees protruded from the ground, tripping them up, and the dry branches scraped their hands and faces. All of them were covered in scratches, their feet bleeding and their clothes torn. The higher they climbed, the more often they had to cross snowfields.

It was the winter of 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama went into exile and a prophecy made by Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, was being fulfilled in a terrible way. This ostensibly 1,200-year-old prophecy says: ‘When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth and Buddhist teachings will reach the land of the red man.’ The iron birds, or Chinese planes, were flying over our land, and the horses on wheels, or Chinese trains, had brought troops to the border, forcing my mother and grandparents to set out on a perilous journey.

Although the Chinese had invaded and occupied our land in 1950, it was not until years later that they dropped their initial false friendliness and began systematically arresting, torturing and imprisoning Tibetans, especially Buddhist monks and nuns, and aristocrats. As my grandmother was a nun and my grandfather a monk, they were in great danger. Their monastery was attacked and pillaged by Chinese soldiers. The Chinese ran riot in the village below the monastery. They dragged aristocrats across the village square by their hair and beat them, made them clean latrines, destroyed their houses, stole their sacred statues and gave their land to the peasants. They stole livestock, hurled insults at venerable lamas and trampled on centuries-old village traditions. It was this barbarism that made my grandmother Kunsang Wangmo and my grandfather Tsering Dhondup decide to flee to India with my mother Sonam Dolma and her four-year-old sister.

They planned to cross the Himalayas on foot, with little money and no idea of the trials and tribulations they would meet along the way. They were equipped with nothing but home-made leather shoes, woollen blankets, a large sack of tsampa – ground-up roasted barley – and the certainty that escaping to the country that had taken in the Dalai Lama was their sole chance of survival. This conviction was based solely on their unshakeable faith. My grandparents couldn’t speak any Indian language, they knew not a single person on the Indian subcontinent and they hadn’t the slightest idea of what awaited them – apart from the knowledge that the Dalai Lama, whom they had never seen in their lives but who for them was the supreme authority, had been granted asylum there.

My mother’s shoes were hardly adequate footwear for climbing mountains in the winter. The smooth leather soles slid across the snow, sending her slipping or falling to the ground every few feet. The snow gradually soaked through the roughly-sewn seams, making the hay she had stuffed into her shoes in place of socks cold and slimy. She wanted only to sit down and cry, but she had to concentrate all her willpower on placing her feet, one step at a time, into the footprints left by the adults ahead of her. Just don’t get left behind, she repeated to herself. She knew it would be the end of her.[/private]

Yangzom Brauen is an actress and political activist. Born in 1980 to a Swiss father and Tibetan mother, she lives in both Los Angeles and Berlin and has appeared in a number of German and American films. She is also very active in the Free Tibet movement, making regular radio broadcasts about Tibet and organising public demonstrations against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Across Many Mountains will be published by Harvill Secker on 3 March 2011.

You can also read our exclusive Q&A with Yongzom.

Thirst in Mid-Ocean, from Kon-Tiki Across the Pacific by Raft by Thor Heyerdahl

Even if our predecessors had started from land with inadequate supplies, they would have managed well enough as long as they drifted across the sea with the current, in which fish abounded. There was not a day on our whole voyage on which fish were not swimming round the raft and could not easily be caught. Scarcely a day passed without flying fish, at any rate, coming on board of their own accord. It even happened that large bonitos, delicious eating, swam on board with the masses of water that came from astern and lay kicking on the raft when the water had vanished down between the logs as a sieve. To starve to death was impossible.

The old natives knew well the device which many ship-wrecked men hit upon during the war chewing thirst-quenching moisture out of raw fish. One can also press the juices out by twisting pieces of fish in a cloth, or, if the fish is large, it is a fairly simple matter to cut holes in its side, which soon become filled with ooze from the fish’s lymphatic glands. It does not taste good if one has anything better to drink, but the percentage of salt is so low that one’s thirst is quenched.

The necessity for drinking water was greatly reduced if we bathed regularly and lay down wet in the shady cabin. If a shark was patrolling majestically round about us and preventing a real plunge from the side of the raft, one had only to lie down on the logs aft and get a good grip of the ropes with one’s fingers and tots. Then we got several bathfuls of crystal-clear Pacific pouring over us every few seconds.

When tormented by thirst in a hot climate, one generally assumes that the body needs water, and this may often lead to immoderate inroads on the water ration without any benefit whatever. On really hot days in the tropics you can pour tepid water down your throat till you taste it at the back of your mouth, and you are just as thirsty. It is not liquid the body needs then, but, curiously enough, salt. The special rations we had on board included salt tablets to be taken regularly on particularly hot days, because perspiration drains the body of salt. We experienced days like this when the wind had died away and the sun blazed down on the raft without mercy. Our water ration could be ladled into us till it squelched in our stomachs, but our throats malignantly demanded much more. On such days we added from 20 to 40 per cent of bitter, salt sea water to our fresh-water ration and found, to our surprise, that this brackish water quenched our thirst. We had the taste of sea water in our mouths for a long time afterward but never felt unwell, and moreover we had our water ration considerably increased.

One morning, as we sat at breakfast, an unexpected sea splashed into our gruel and taught us quite gratuitously that the taste of oats removed the greater part of the sickening taste of sea water!

The old Polynesians had preserved some curious traditions, according to which their earliest forefathers, when they came sailing across the sea, had with them leaves of a certain plant which they chewed, with the result that their thirst disappeared. Another effect of the plant was that in an emergency they could drink sea water without being sick. No such plants grew in the South Sea islands; they must, therefore, have originated in their ancestors’ homeland. The Polynesian historians repeated these statements so often that modern scientists investigated the matter and came to the conclusion that the only known plant with such an effect was the coca plant, which grew only in Peru. And in prehistoric Peru this very coca plant, which contains cocaine, was regularly used both by the Incas and by their vanished forerunners, as is shown by discoveries in pre-Inca graves. On exhausting mountain journeys and sea voyages they took with them piles of these leaves and chewed them for days on end to remove the feelings of thirst and weariness. And over a fairly short period the chewing of coca leaves will even allow one to drink sea water with a certain immunity.

We did not test coca leaves on board the Kon-Tiki, but we had on the foredeck large wicker baskets full of other plants, some of which had left a deeper imprint on the South Sea islands. The baskets stood lashed fast in the lee of the cabin wall, and as time passed yellow shoots and green leaves of potatoes and coconuts shot up higher and higher from the wickerwork. It was like a little tropical garden on board the wooden raft.

This is an extract from Kon-Tiki Across the Pacific by Raft (1950). Full text available from the Universal Library.
Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) was a Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer with a background in zoology and geography. Heyerdahl became notable for the “Kon-Tiki expedition”, in which he sailed 8,000 km by raft from South America to the Tuamotu Islands.