Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Homeric Age

Heroes are unfashionable these days, but we are unrepentant in our reverence for Wilfred Thesiger, last of the great explorers, as he is dubbed by Alexander Maitland’s recent biography. Born in Addis Ababa to British parents in 1910, by the time he was twenty Thesiger had tracked animals in the bush, crewed on Icelandic fishing boats, attended the coronation of Haile Selassie, the “colour and savagery” of which left a strong and abiding impression on him, and planned and led an expedition to discover the source of the Awash river, deep in the closed Sultanate of Aussa. The latter trip, into one of the last blank spaces on the map of Africa, took him through the lands of the Danakil, one of the Horn of Africa’s most fearsome tribes, who took pride in castrating their defeated enemies (using their traditional curved dagger which, this author can attest, they still carry today).

One of those lives that simply could not be lived today, Thesiger’s took him first to the now-infamous Darfur region of Sudan as an Assistant District Commissioner in the 1930s, about which he spoke fondly and where he, among other things, raised twin lion cubs as house pets before shooting them on their first birthday “for their own good”, and undertook arduous week-long treks on horse and camel to outlying stations which were to prepare him for his future journeys. The war saw him a key player, alongside Orde Wingate, in Gideon Force, which liberated Abyssinia from a particularly brutal Italian occupation – and, notably, returned it to Abyssinian rule shortly thereafter – as well as in the famed Long Range Desert Group.

After the war, Thesiger became famous for his books documenting his double crossing of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, Arabian Sands, and his time spent among the peoples of Southern Iraq, The Marsh Arabs, alongside numerous other works. Arabian Sands is an extraordinary book, capturing the magnificence of one of the least hospitable places on earth (as seen below), together with informed, passionate but unsentimental portraits of its Bedouin inhabitants. The Marsh Arabs is in much the same vein, including startling portraits of the grand reed architecture of the marsh peoples and boar hunting among the waterways. Both are testaments to a vanished, destroyed world: the Bedu irrevocably changed by the arrival of motor vehicles, the marsh arabs by the Ba’athist draining of their lands, which, despite now-stalled restoration attempts in the aftermath of the Second Iraq War, are now less than one tenth the size they once were.

Thesiger published his own autobiography, The Life Of My Choice, in 1987, a wonderful read for the adventurously inclined, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty short on anything approaching feeling or emotion. This only served to inflame our more prurient interests, largely because for us there has always been a constant and undeniable homoerotic motif running below the surface of much of Thesiger’s work.

Whether it is the intense friendships with other boys at prep and public school; the beautiful, otherworldly figures of his Nuer porters in the Sudan; his constant companions in the Empty Quarter, Salim bin Ghabaisha (right) and Salim bin Kabina; or his extended family of Samburu houseboys and servants in Kenya in his later years; Thesiger’s pen, and camera, seem to linger over male adolescents and young men wherever he travels. Despite this, and his notable lack of a wife, he maintained an aura of hardbitten asexuality throughout his life, up to his death in 2003.

Now comes the authoritative biography by his friend and amanuensis Alexander Maitland, and we read it, we must shamefully admit, desperate for new information. We were not disappointed, but the information we came to – and which, for once, we have no desire to spell out here – left us with a bitter taste in the mouth. Thesiger could be overbearing and occasionally cruel but he was in no way a bad or unpleasant person, and it is clear his sexuality was formed early in such a way as to make him reject most intimate contact for the rest of his life. On second thoughts, we would rather not have known this.

We can’t blame the biographer for this: it is his duty, and probably the most telling detail about an otherwise fairly straightforward and plain-speaking man. That the rest of the book is made up of daily minutiae and extensive quotes from Thesiger’s own writings – which, to be honest, we have and have read already – does not help matters.

We’d be very happy indeed if this post, which we’ve been meaning to write for ages, got one more person interested in our hero, but we’d advise against the biography. For the life, read the auto-version. For the expeditions, read Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs and The Danakil Diary, and for the stunning photographs (which illustrate this post, courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum) see Maitland’s far more enjoyable contribution to the legend: Thesiger: A Life in Pictures. Many, unprurient, pleasures await.

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Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The Last Of England


This weekend, STML and l’amant headed down to the South Coast to enjoy the balmy English summer (ha!). One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Dungeness, the strange, other-worldy headland that juts out into the English channel from Romney marsh. Dungeness is Britain’s only desert, a shingle wasteland punctuated by strange plants and even stranger human interventions.

The twin Dungeness nuclear power stations are the most obvious of these: giant, humming boxes that divide the land and slice the sky into pyloned sections. But even they cannot subdue the landscape, and more impact is made by the two lighthouses erected to warn seafarers away from the treacherous, marshy point: rising out of the flat land, they signal at least some intention to transcend rather than subdue the flattened earth.

Scattered around these trig points are the homes of the small but diverse Dungeness community: a mix of fishermen and hermits, madmen and artists seeking the last areas of seclusion on the English coast. One of these is better known than many others: Prospect Cottage, the former home of artist, writer and filmmaker Derek Jarman.

Derek Jarman's cottage and garden

Prospect Cottage is famous not only for its artistic associations and awe-inspiring setting, but for the garden that Jarman laid out in his later years, a exercise in natural sculpture that harmonises the bleak surroundings with the tenderness of home. In his journals, collected in Modern Nature, Jarman wrote:

Prospect Cottage, its timbers black with pitch, stands on the shingle at Dungeness. Built eighty years ago at the sea’s edge – one stormy night many years ago waves roared up to the front door, threatening to swallow it… Now the sea has retreated, leaving bands of shingle. You can see these clearly from the air: they fan out from the lighthouse at the tip of the Ness like contours on a map.

Prospect faces the rising sun across a road sparkling silver with sea mist. One small clump of dark green broom breaks throught the flat ochre shingle. Beyond, at the sea’s edge, are silhouetted a jumble of huts and fishing boats, and a brick kutch, long abandoned, which has sunk like a pillbox at a crazy angle; in it, many years ago, the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preservative.

There are no walls or fences. My garden’s boundaries are the horizon. In this desolate landscape the silence is broken only by the wind, and the gulls squabbling around the fishermen bringing in the afternoon catch.

There is more sunlight here than anywhere in Britain: this and the constant wind turn the shingle into a stony desert where only the toughest grasses take hold – paving the way for sage-green sea kale, blue bugloss, red poppy, yellow sedum.

The shingle is home to larks. In the spring I’ve counted as many as a dozen singing high above, lost in a blue sky. Flocks of greenfinches wheel past in spirals, caught in a scurrying breeze. At low tide the sea rolls back to reveal a wide sandbank, on which seabirds vanish like quicksilver as they fly close to the ground. Gulls feed alongside fishermen digging lug. When a winter storm blows up, cormorants skim the waves that roar along the Ness – throwing stones pell-mell along the steep bank.

The view from my kitchen at the back of the house is bounded to the left by the old Dungeness lighthouse, and the iron grey bulk of the nuclear reactor – in front of which dark green and gorse, bright with yellow flowers, have formed little islands in the shingle, ending in a scrubby copse of sallow and ash dwarfed and blasted by the gales.

In the middle of the copse is a barren pear tree that has struggled for a century to reach ten feet; underneath this is a carpet of violets. Gnarled dog roses guard this secret spot – where on a calm summer day meadow browns and blues congregate in their hundreds, floating past the spires of nettles thick with black tortoiseshell caterpillars.

High above a lone hawk hovers, while far away on the blue horizon the tall medieval tower of Lydd church, the cathedral of the marshes, comes and goes in the heat haze.

Dungeness Power Staion from Jarman's Garden

At the end of his last book before his death from AIDS, the polemical At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, Jarman (who has just been canonised on the beach by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence) writes:

I’m alone again. I sit watching the sun go down, peach as my grandmother’s table-cloth behind the nuclear power station. A great orange moon hangs over the sea and the winds die bringing in the night.


I am tired tonight. My eyes are out of focus, my body droops under the weight of the day, but as I leave you Queer lads let me leave you singing. I had to write of a sad time as a witness – not to cloud your smiles – please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages; and after, put this book aside and love. May you share of a better future, love without a care and remember we loved too. as the shadows closed in, the stars came out.

I am in love.

Dungeness Lighthouse


Apologies for the poor photographic skills, but you can see the full set of these photos of Dungeness at Flickr.

Wikipedia has lots more information on Derek Jarman and Dungeness.

For those interested in visiting Dungeness and Prospect Cottage, it should be noted that the house still belongs to Jarman’s long-term partner and discretion should be observed at all times. There was no one at home the day we visited.

tags: Artists + Personal History + Travel | permalink | 9 Comments

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Going to render an account

“…this time however I come as the victorious Dionysus, who will turn the world into a holiday…Not that I have much time…”

– Nietzsche (from his last “insane” letter to Cosima Wagner)

We had planned an extensive post on the fascinating Islamic Homosexualities of Messrs. Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, and perhaps carry on the discussion with reference to the work of Peter Lamborn Wilson, a.k.a. Hakim Bey, but as we depart today for another voyage into the lands of the Musselman, once again taking our pleasures in places where we don’t even dare to book a double room, it’s going to have to wait. Apologies for the hiatus, and we shall see you soon. Don’t go on any drug trials (apart from the self-administered ones, obviously).

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Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Gottedammerung at the Buchmesse

A suitable time has passed, a suitable distance has elapsed. I can finally talk about it. It started Wednesday 19th October when they threw open the doors of Frankfurt’s immense Messe Halle for the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair, admitting a world of freakish, champing publishers, editors, agents, scouts, successful, less successful and would-be authors, printers, publicists, students, irredeemably lost tourists and the great, literate unwashed. It began properly when HarperCollins threw a huge, champagne-swilling party (their first since 9/11), and someone on the Transworld stand asked Stephen Hawking if he’d read The Da Vinci Code (and he said (pause) “No”), possibly an even greater indignity than writing a brief history of one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, selling a million copies, and then being asked to make it even shorter in a tacit acknowledgement that noone actually read it the first time round. It was all downhill from there.

Stephen Hawking at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2005
Frankfurt is a trade fair held in an exhibition hall, so on the one hand you’ve got international book professionals running all over the place (and I do mean all over the place: you cover miles and miles of corridor in your epic journeys around the Fair: think 20 Earl’s Courts bolted together), desperately trying to make deals, sell rights, and steal ideas, while on the other you’ve got 200,000 German day-trippers out for anything they can get: free books (ha!), free catalogues (yes, by the handful), free carrier bags to carry the free catalogues… The buzz among the former group tends to revolve around big deals and new signings, and heavily-trumpeted ‘surprises’ such as this year’s launch of Canongate’s Myths series, a retelling of various myths from history by various high-end authors. Essentially, it’s another brick in the wall of Jamie Byng’s monumental ego (remember the Pocket Canons?) – but if STML owned half of Scotland AND a publishing house, there’d definitely be a few crazy box sets floating around out there (Complete works of Ed McBain anyone? With introductions by Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie?), so we’d better shut up. And yes, the Margaret Atwood and the forthcoming Chinua Achebe do sound pretty good.

The other feeding frenzy going was the circus around Londonstani, the debut novel by Gautam Malkani, a journalist at the Financial Times. A story about Hounslow’s Heathrow diaspora written in the unique patois of West London’s Asian rudeboys, it provoked a bidding war just won by Fourth Estate, so will probably appear some time next year. Initially hopeful this would turn out to be an answer to STML’s prayer for a truly London novel, conversations with a couple of editors who’ve read it seem to suggest it’s more frivolous than that, poking fun at the wannabe Asian gangstas rather than saying anything too meaningful about London today. Even more amusing was the agonising debate among French and Spanish publishers who snapped up translation rights about whether it will be possible to translate ‘aaiiight’ and ‘innit’ into the Romance languages. Verlan, perhaps? The first chapter appears in the new issue of Prospect Magazine, so go take a peek.

Overview of the Frankfurt Book Fair 2005
But of course, the real deal with Frankfurt is the aforementioned parties, a chance to blow the hospitality account at the Frankfurter Hof and the Casablanca. To be fair, there’s not a lot else to do at Frankfurt, and after a few days it’s nothing but caffeine, nicotine (Smoking Allowed Throughout: is there a more glorious phrase?), vodka fumes and papercuts. By the weekend the last few publishers out are taking whatever they can get: Slovenian rights to The Da Vinci Spud: an Irish-American Parody? Gotcha. Massive advances for an unpublished novel by a Northamptonshire badger farmer, provisionally titled Brock And Roll? Done. Hours to go and those massive expenses from Kaiserstrasse’s ‘Neu Man Gay Shop World Of Sex’ have to be justified somehow.

Crowd at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2005
The over-riding impression of Frankfurt was one of frenzy. One abiding memory: A German teenager having an all-out, fists in the air, bawling panic attack on the upper level of Hall 4, beneath a huge, exposed breast advertising Goliath fetish photography, while the crowd swarmed thickly around her, oblivious. Another: I never saw anyone, anywhere, reading a book.

Oh well, four months ‘til London.

[UPDATE 2/5/06: For the last word on Londonstani, see here.]

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Gallic Flair

Rue RambuteauAnd so the quest for the perfect bookshop continues. As regular readers will know, STML was recently in Paris (on a very romantic tryst, sshhh…) but still made time to drop in at some of the City of Lights’ finest literary emporiums. As well as visiting the wonderful Shakespeare & Company (where we acquired a lovely poetry anthology by London’s own Iain Sinclair), the whistle-stop tour took in another few librairies of note.

Les Cahiers de Colette on Rue Rambuteau is one of the finest little temples to the word in a very wordy city. Bucking the left bank trend, Colette Kerber has been doling out books to the cultural quarter around Beaubourg and the Centre Pompidou (whose current Dada exhibition is well worth a look) for almost twenty years. Mme Kerber can frequently be found in Le Bouledogue, the bar on the other side of Rambuteau, from which she may be prised if your desire to purchase a good book is deemed sufficiently consuming, although when STML called she was ensconsed in a corner with a visiting author, and the vin blanc was in full flow. Francophones can read all about the shop here, and follow the rather bizarre saga of Colette’s targeting by ACT-UP, for the allegedly discriminatory sacking of a HIV+ employee, here. As L’amant put it, “Bloody hell! I’d find it hard to believe an old fag hag like her would have fired anyone for being positive…”

Les Cahiers de Colette
Further into the Marais, we come to the Rue Ste Croix de la Bretonnerie, a humming little street and home to Paris’ finest gay bookshop, Les Mots a la Bouche, which, like gay bookshops the world over, seems to serve as bulletin board, newsstand and cruising spot for the community alongside it’s more commercial functions.

Les Mots a la Bouche
Unlike Colette, Les Mots… has an excellent English-language section, allowing us to purchase a beautiful Black Sparrow Press edition of John Fante’s Ask The Dust, and an advance copy of Dennis Cooper’s God Jr., as yet unreleased in the UK, and of such a marked diversion from his previous work that we hope a review will not be far off…

Les Mots… also has an basement, not unlike that of Soho Books on Brewer Street, filled with glossy coffee-table books of photography and strange, weighty reference tomes, with the exception that the French version, while light, has a yet more sinister feel, with a certain dungeonous, Roissy-esque appeal…

The basement of Les Mots A La Bouche
Finally, after a hard day’s book-buying and boulevarding, there is only one possible rest-stop: the quiet and sophistication of La Belle Hortense at 31 rue Vieille du Temple, still in the heart of the Marais, and just around the corner from Les Mots A La Bouche. Named for a pulpy 19th century romance set in the surrounding quarter, and combining the finest qualities of the classic French bar (approachable zinc bar, aloof but not unwelcoming barmaid, smoking throughout, lashings of pastis) and a small literary bookstore, it boasts a hand-lettered sign which should appear in all bookshops the world over:

N’approchez pas les livres avec un verre dans votre main.
As if we’d ever do that…

La Belle Hortense

[STML is off to Frankfurt for the next week. Look out, at some point in the future, for our report]

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

Shakespeare&Co_ExteriorApologies for the hiatus, but STML has been out of town. And not just out of town, but down to Waterloo, under the Channel (Champagne’s free on the Eurostar, you know), and into Paris, home of one of STML’s favourite bookstores in the whole wide, wide world, Shakespeare and Company, that enduring edifice on the left bank of the Seine.

If you don’t know the shop, I advise you to get there by hook, crook, or jetski, ASAP. Failing that, you should read its remarkable history, as well as this delightful piece by its founder, the legendary George Whitman, who wonders “if all along I have just been playing store on one of the back alleys of history, putting obsolete books on dusty shelves while people are riding the information superhighway from one end to another of the global village.” There are worse things to do.

The shop is frequently stuffed with American students, both as staff and customers. Not naturally an Americaphile, neither am I a -phobe, and I was much cheered by the following exchange, overheard in the shop. Student one to student two: “I have so many books at home, I don’t know why I’m buying more.” To which student two archly replied: “You’re not just buying a book, you think you’re buying the time to read it.”

Books, like the love affairs which Paris itself so artfully inspires, exist outside the currents of normal space and time, in the hearts and minds of the beloved and the enthralled, and as such endure long after their physical passing. The trouble with both is finding time.


tags: Bookshops + Travel | permalink | 1 Comment