COMING UP – A RADIO SERIES (Gone to Earth, presented by Horatio Clare and produced by Jeremy Grange, is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday July 9th at 11am, with episode two on Wednesday 16th at the same time)- IN THIS UPDATE – FOOTBALL AND BOYS – GEOFF DYER ON AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER – CUMBERBATCH ON PAPER – CHRIS PARRY ON THE FUTURE – SOLDIERS ON MOUNTAINS – JAY GRIFFITHS ON FRIDA KAHLO – AND.. TURKMENISTAN – PAST OR FUTURE?
Travels with Miriam Allott
Part of the great privilege of being the Miriam Allott Fellow in Creative Writing is taking her name to places I hope would have interested the celebrated Liverpool scholar.
Recent travels between the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan, the Wiltshire garden of a retired SAS Major General, a number of tents in Hay on Wye, the route of the Brecon Beacons Fan Dance (a notoriously tough training run) and a primary school in Rochdale would have entertained her, I suspect.
For the last few weeks the call of the road has been imperative: I have been promoting a book, teaching, reporting and making a radio series. Even by the standards of an itinerant career it has been vividly busy. Here are some field notes.
Boys’ Stories – Primary School, Rochdale.
You have two groups of thirty 10 year-olds who must produce a piece of creative writing by the end of the day. Everyone takes a turn talking about what interests them, from food to film to … football. First lines, character, plot – anyone book-bitten can teach these. The real challenge is the eleventh boy who says his main interest – or the only one will admit in front of his mates – is the dreaded sphere. He won’t be coaxed away from it (quite right, really): but how many ways are there of turning an interest in football into an individual narrative? Is there a limit to the number of ‘Wonderboy selected for Man City’ stories the world should have to bear?
We experiment with writing from the ball’s point of view (no one wants to do the ref’s). One genius crosses a kidnap saga with a football trial, creating a world in which clubs abduct the talented. And so they do, and in much greater numbers they take the time and preoccupation and passion of the otherwise talented, of millions of normal extraordinary boys, you realise – so many, hooding all their idiosyncracies in the strip-wearing crowd. Football clubs are abduction machines, those boys suggested. The World Cup may be a fine thing, but World No Football Day should have a chance, too.
Machines and Men – Hay
Promoting a book about seafaring has meant a maritime year, mostly far from water. Your own event at the Hay Festival is a nervy moment until you take the stage: they’ve turned out! The festival attracts a wonderfully interested and generous crowd. Next I interview Geoff Dyer about spending two weeks on a US Aircraft Carrier. His book ‘Another Great Day At Sea’ recounts a compelling mismatch between Dyer – skinny, pernickity, atheist solipsist – and the driven, faith-filled war world of the US military. By the end of the story Dyer is praying for them.
Benedict Cumberbatch is in the audience in disguise, a beanie and big glasses serving to distinguish rather than blend him in. He signs a magnificent autograph for Robin, 13; a gentle, unassuming superstar.
Rear Admiral Chris Parry, strategic forecaster, is up next. One of his friends, a Chinese Admiral, told him, ‘We are the East India Company, in reverse!’ With growing trading fleets and sea power the admiral implies that China is moving towards doing business with the world on her own terms. Parry is full of admiration for the effectiveness of Chinese naval strategy (force projection into the South China sea and beyond) but he sees Dyer’s US aircraft carrier as an anachronism. In the age of the drone and the coming robot swarms (this is all true), carriers will be too valuable to risk. America’s prospective resignation from ruling the waves worries him. “The map of the future will have the Pacific date line in the middle, and Britain in the far top left corner,” he warns.
Women and Power – Mexico
It is a position some would relish, certainly the amazing Jay Griffiths, whom I interview about her new book, ‘Love Letter to a Stray Moon’. Jay Griffiths is a specialist on the wild, on children, on time, and, now, on Frida Khalo. Searching for a way to write about personal pain in a way that might be valuable to others, she came upon Kahlo’s life, finding there visual languages of trauma, nature, resitance, love and destruction. In an extraordinary ventriloquism, Kahlo speaks for both of them in Griffiths’ first person prose poem. Students taking Creative Writing (Prose) next semester may have the chance to try the same trick.
Mountains and the Mind – Breconshire
The Brecon Beacons, lovely ice-cut crests and rolling saddles of Old Devonian sandstone, have been made associates in the creation of pain. For Radio 4 I am exploring the relationship between the landscape of my childhood and the generations of soldiers who have been trained and selected here, many for elite regiments. All became intimate with a particularly heartbreaking route march, the Fan Dance, which goes over the biggest peaks twice. “I very rarely failed anybody,” said Major General Tony Jeapes, over lunch in his splendidly English garden, miles away from wars he can summon up instantly, as if seeing the enemy at end of the lawn.
A man who fought in Malaya, Dhofar and many other places has an undimmed vision of what he was fighting for and how things should be done. He ran SAS selection in the Beacons in 1960s. “You didn’t have to fail them. Most of them failed themselves.” At one point he clapped his hands and thumped his chest, making the crack-thump of a bullet passing close to you. “More strawberries, more cream?”
“Pain is weakness leaving the body,” says Steve Rees a former Marine, who straps me into a fifty pound pack and takes me for a run, with predictable results. On the recording I sound like a sheep being sick.
Walking the hills with Brigadier who led British Forces in Afghanistan and the Lieutenant Colonel who commanded the 2nd Parachute regiment there, they talk about the way this patch of Wales prepared their soldiers for Helmand.
“In Sangin in 2009 we were being fired on every time we left the base,” says the Brigadier, “You had a one in four chance of being hit. I saw 17 year-olds shaking and being sick with fear before they went out of the gate. Not one of them ever refused to go.”
That was the culmination of a process of selecting, training and welding young men into a family-like units begun in Breconshire. Once you take this road you are changed forever, the soldiers explained, quietly.
You cannot be fully open with civilians because you feel “tainted and stained” by what you have done, said a former Marine. “When you talk to other soldiers you know they won’t judge you, and they won’t offer solutions,” he said. How telling a take on the world of ‘civvies’ that is.
I am struck by the vocabulary, too, and by the way these soldiers do not always distinguish between public distaste for the wars they fought and their – our – feelings for the men and women who fought them.
The Desert of Misfortune
You would have to be slightly mad to want to holiday in Turkmenistan, but the retired policeman, the librarian, the pharamcist, the paedeatrician and the podiatrist could not seem more English or more normal, until you hear their recent vacation spots.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Algeria, Congo… Now they are going to Turkmenistan, a boiling desert floating on hydrocarbon reserves, ruled until recently by a lunatic dicator and still subject to a totalitarian personality cult Stalin would have admired.
Ashgabat, the capital, is a Ballardian insanity – a white marble fantasy of one man’s devising. The inhabitants are scared of foreigners, or rather the threat we might represent. “You don’t say anything in front of anyone,” a man tells me, “Not even your friends!” Neither he nor anyone else can be quoted for fear of regime reprisal.
The country is mostly a desert, the Kara (black) Kum (sand), only ‘black’ has a metaphorical value as ‘unlucky’ in Turkmen, so ‘Desert of Misfortune’ is about right. Scattered around it are the remains of extraordinary endeavours. A Bronze-age walled and templed complex at Gonur Depe had an astronomy tower (they think – Turkmen archaeology is distinguished by great sandy acres of unexcavated humps and dips with towers like skulls, mausolea like palaces, and invigorating factual uncertainty).
Konye Urgench near the northern border was one of the legendary Silk Road cities: it is now acres of bones, some them petrified remnants of massacres ordered by Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane. Ancient Merv, once known as the Queen of the World, was a capital of trade, cultural exchange and Islamic scholarship, a city which was born and reborn through three adjacent ground plans, astounding travellers for two thousand years. Fluted palaces and ice houses like ceramic beehives remain. Having seen how rivers shift, oases shrink, deserts expand and dictators build, you begin to comprehend the lunacy of Ashgabat.
When time is understood in millennia – one of the villages we visited had been there for a thousand years, and its herders and traders live more or less the same way now – the point of tomorrow is only marginally less important than the point of a thousand years hence. Ashgabat is a kind of loopy Las Vegas now, unpeopled, but in ten centuries time it might be rather spectacular.
The full account of an extraordinary journey in this strangest of countries will appear in the Financial Times.
Gone to Earth, presented by Horatio Clare and produced by Jeremy Grange is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday July 9th at 11am, and episode two on Wednesday 16th at the same time.