Indonesia: Notes and Sources

Chapter Notes and Further Reading For A Brief History of Indonesia


There wasn’t enough space to squeeze in the chapter-by-chapter notes and the comprehensive bibliography in the printed book, but if you are interested in the full range of sources used while writing A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis, and if you’re looking for some recommendations for further reading on Indonesian history, you’ll find them here…

General History Books

Any journey through the archipelago of books about Indonesia’s past has to begin with the big general histories – of which there are several.

An excellent first landfall for any serious reader is the hulking two-volume Cambridge History of Southeast Asia.  Totalling some 1,400 pages it’s a daunting behemoth, but it is broken into neat chapters – many of them written in a surprisingly accessible style.  It’s particularly good on prehistory and the early centuries of Indianisation, and it has the advantage of tackling what is now Indonesia as part of a wider region.

Of the major Indonesia-specific history books M.C. Ricklefs’ A History of Modern Indonesia since c.1200, now on its fourth edition, is the best known.  As the title suggests, this book doesn’t cover prehistory or the Hindu-Buddhist centuries; it takes the arrival of Islam in the Archipelago as its starting point.  Nonetheless, it’s packed with detail.

Another well-known book, which does tackle the pre-Islam period, is Jean Gelman Taylor’s Indonesia: Peoples and Histories.  This is a very interesting work, and although Gelman Taylor is a professional academic, she has an unusually literary style.  She also takes an impeccably modern approach, seeking to highlight the experience of ‘peoples’ across history wherever possible, and bringing lots of little-known lives into focus.  This does mean that the framework of historical events is occasionally somewhat obscured, so if you haven’t read much else about Indonesian history you might want to tackle Gelman Taylor’s book alongside something more traditional, for example Colin Brown’s A Short History of Indonesia.  This neat little book is written from a scholarly angle, but it’s short and snappy, and it’s particularly good if you want to get an understanding of the economic history of the Archipelago.

An absolutely fantastic – and thoroughly unusual – resource on Indonesian history is Robert Cribb’s Digital Atlas of Indonesian History.  Originally published in book form as the Historical Atlas of Indonesia, it is now available as both a CD-ROM and for free online.  It takes maps – hundreds of them – as its starting point, often delving into details missed in more traditional publications.

I have used all of the publications mentioned above extensively while researching this book.  They – and all the other books and articles I referred to – are listed in the bibliography at the bottom of this page, while details of major sources and recommended further reading relating to individual chapters follow immediately.

Chapters One and Two: Prehistory, Indianisation and Hindu-Buddhist Java

The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia Volume 1 is the place to start reading about prehistory in the Archipelago, where the topic is tackled in a chapter by Peter Bellwood.  Bellwood is an authority on this early era, and there’s more detail in his Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago.  He has also edited a formidable collection of essays, The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, which covers all things Austronesian from the South Pacific to Madagascar.

As well as these books, I found Paul Michael Munoz’s Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula a handy synthesis of lots of more heavyweight works on the history of the Indianised Archipelago, including those by John Miksic.  Miksic is an important writer on the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Java, with lots of scholarly works to his name, but he has also done some books for a more general readership, including the beautifully illustrated Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas.

It’s always worth remembering just how shady details of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Java and Sumatra are; some of the standard versions of history in this era are, in fact, merely theories – and not uncontested ones. A pop history like A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis isn’t really the place to get bogged down in the scholarly debates, so I’ve stuck mainly to the conventional interpretations of the Indianised kingdoms, but it’s worth hunting out scholarly essays by Roy Jordaan for some fresh perspectives on the Sailendras, for example.

The remarkable account of the seventh-century Chinese monk, Yijing, was translated into English by the Japanese scholar Takakusu Junjiro in the late 19th century as Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago.  Although the sections dealing with Sumatra are fairly brief, it’s a remarkable book, full of colour and incident, as well as endless details of Buddhist practice and theology.  Yijing had some particularly hair-raising encounters with bandits while he was in India.

Chapter Three: Islamisation

The starting point for this chapter is the wonderful Travels of Ibn Battuta.  There have been various translations of this over the centuries, some of them condensed versions of the full text.  I used H.A.R. Gibb’s standard abridged version.

M.C. Ricklefs’ History of Modern Indonesia starts with a great overview of the arrival of Islam in the Archipelago.  Ricklefs has also done a trilogy of fascinating books charting the history of Islam in Java – Mystic Synthesis in JavaPolarising Javanese Society, and Islamisation and its Opponents in Java.  These are absolutely brilliant books, and although they are far more specialised in subject matter than Ricklefs’ better known History, they’re actually much more readable.

I found lots of useful essays on Islamisation – and indeed lots of fascinating material on all aspects of Indonesian history – in the long-running journal Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde (‘The Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia’) which has been published by KITLV, the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, since 1853.  In the early days the journal was mostly in Dutch, but it is now almost entirely in English.  The other significant journal for anyone with an interest in Indonesian history is Indonesia, published by Cornell University in the United States.

The remarkable ‘Suma Oriental’ of the Portuguese apothecary Tomé Pires is available in a translation by Armando Cortesão.  Unlike Ibn Battuta’s account, it’s not a personal travelogue, and so not quite so easy a read, but it is packed with remarkable detail nonetheless.

Chapters Four and Five: The spice trade, the VOC and the birth of European empire

For a thoroughly rip-roaring account of the early rivalry between Dutch and English merchants in the Archipelago spice trade, Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is brilliant fun.  It’s a decidedly Anglocentric account: the Dutch are the bad guys, and the locals hardly get a look in.  But it’s a proper page-turner.

For some more scholarly work on the Indies of the VOC, Jean Gelman Taylor’s The Social World of Batavia is full of fascinating details of life in the colonial capital, while for contemporary accounts of Batavia in the late 18th century, Sketches Civil and Military of the Island of Java, edited by John Joseph Stockdale (and available as a modern reprint under the rather less wordy title Island of Java), has the distinction of being the first English-language book about Java.  It’s packed with detail – not least about just how filthy and diseased a place the VOC headquarters was.

On the partition of Mataram, the rise of the Yogyakarta sultanate, and the early wrangling between the Dutch and the Javanese, M.C. Ricklefs’ first book, Jogjakarta under Sultan Mangkubumi 1749-1792, is excellent, delivered with the author’s customary humour and sharp scholarly prose.

The other great foreign scholar of Javanese history alongside Ricklefs is Peter Carey.  I referred to various of his works, including The British in Java 1811-1816: A Javanese Accounta transcription with voluminous notes of a fascinating account from within the Yogyakarta kraton of the British assault in 1812.  Carey’s masterpiece, however – and it really does deserve that accolade – is The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the end of an old order in Java, 1785-1855.  It is essentially a scholarly biography of the rebel prince Diponegoro, but weighing in at around a thousand pages there is much more to it than that: it is a full social and political history of Central Java in the late 18th and early 19th century and an insightful account of the dawn of high imperialism in Java.  It was my source for the section about Diponegoro, and it is absolutely brilliant.

Chapter Six: The Dutch East Indies in the 19th century

The traditional starting point for reading about the Dutch East Indies in their 19th century heyday is J.S. Furnivall’s Netherlands India: A Study of a Plural Economy, first published in 1944.  Furnivall was a former British colonial official in Burma, and he brought to his scholarship a sharp eye for meaningful comparisons between the different European colonies in Asia.  The book is obviously very dated, but it’s still essential reading if you want to find out more about this period.

For a much more entertaining account which manages to cram in a hearty dash of social history and a good deal more besides – as well as a mindboggling account of the titular volcano – Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded is popular history at its best.  M.C. Ricklefs’ various books cover what was going on in local societies at the same time.

Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago is a great read, the epitome of top-flight Victorian travel writing, in which the author combines serious scientific insight with brisk, gazetteer-style accounts of the various places he visited, as well as colourful tales of his own adventures.  For some serious insight into some of the places Wallace visited in eastern Indonesia – places often neglected in mainstream histories – see Harvest of the Palm by James Fox.  Its subtitle is “Ecological Change in Eastern Indonesia”, but it also delves deep into the general history of Nusa Tenggara.

Wallace was generally admiring of Dutch rule in the Archipelago, but for a fairly horrifying scholarly account life on the plantations of Sumatra, see Jan Breman’s Taming the Coolie Beast.

Chapter Seven: The rise of Indonesian nationalism in the early 20th century

All major histories cover the emergence of resistance to Dutch rule in the early decades of the 20th century, but a particularly interesting account is Adrian Vickers’ A History of Modern Indonesia (not to be confused with M.C. Ricklefs’ similarly titled book).  Vickers is a professional historian, but he also has enviable skills as a writer, and he takes an original approach in this book.  He tells the tale of Indonesia from the early 20th century to the early 21st century, using the life of the novelist Pramoedya Anata Toer as the central thread.  Vickers is also the author of Bali: A Paradise Created, a brilliant account of the construction of the image of a uniquely paradisiacal Bali in the early 20th century.

It’s high time that Sukarno got a new biography for a mainstream readership, but in the meantime the best-known account is J.D. Legge’s Sukarno: A Political Biography.  Legge’s book has all the detail you could ask for, but you’ll find rather more colour in C.L.M. Penders’ The Life and Times of Sukarno.  Penders is also the editor of Indonesia: Selected Documents on Colonialism and Nationalism, 1830-1942a rich array of translated documents in which you’ll find Louis Vitalis’ account of the Cultivation System in Priangan, Suwardi Suryaningrat’s caustic satire ‘If I were a Netherlander’, and much else besides.

Chapter Eight: World War II and the Indonesian revolution

A great number of books have tackled events in Indonesia during World War II and its aftermath, though there is no single accessible overview.  On the experience of the Dutch who found themselves interred during the Japanese occupation, The Defining Years of the Dutch East Indies, 1942-1949, edited by Jan Krancher, contains personal recollections from many survivors.  But if you are seeking a more literary account, there are two remarkable memoirs: Ernest Hillen’s The Way of a Boy is a beautifully written and quietly devastating account of childhood years spent interred in Bandung, and was my source for the opening passage of this chapter. Laurens van der Post’s Night of the New Moon, meanwhile, is a slender account from a British prisoner of war, locked up on the other side of the same city.

Van der Post also wrote an account of his time serving in Java during the year that followed the Japanese surrender, The Admiral’s Baby.  A highly readable account of the British involvement in post-war Indonesia, including the Battle of Surabaya, is found in Forgotten Wars by Christopher Bayley and Tim Harper.

Aspects of the Indonesian revolution have been covered in any number of scholarly books, but two titles remain particularly significant, many decades after their publication: George McTurnan Kahin’s Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia and Benedict Anderson’s Java in a Time of Revolution (which also contains useful potted biographies of most significant figures in the period as an appendix).

Chapter Nine: The Sukarno era

Sukarno’s rule is covered in all major histories.  A handy overview of covering everything from 1945 until the mid-1990s is Modern Indonesia by Robert Cribb and Colin Brown.

A colourful – if somewhat rose-tinted – account of life in the early years of Indonesian independence can be found in Flowering Lotus, a memoir by the young British teacher, Harold Forster, who worked at the country’s first university in Yogyakarta. This is where I found the first-hand accounts of the 1955 election.  It gives a strong impression of the optimism and informality of the era, with the president frequently dropping by at the university to hang out with the students and teachers.

A decade later everything had changed.  The ever-contentious events that ultimately brought Sukarno’s rule to an end have been discussed and dissected at length, but there are still no definitive answers.  The most accessible account of the events of the ‘30 September Movement’ itself comes from the American journalist John Hughes in The End of Sukarno (originally published as Indonesian Upheaval).  Hughes doesn’t do a great deal to question standard Indonesian accounts, but he was on hand at the time, and his version has the freshness of a direct observer.

There’s a radical contrast between the mainstream Indonesian narrative on the events of 1965/66, and the mainstream discourse on the same events from Western scholars – a discourse which began in earnest with Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey’s A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesia in 1971.  One of the best scholarly accounts is Pretext for Mass Murder by John Roosa.  Another more recent publication, which includes some ground-breaking work by Indonesian as well as foreign scholars, is The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965-68, edited by Douglas Kammen and Katherine McGregor.  None of these are particularly light reads, but it is a very serious subject.

Chapter Ten: The New Order

There are two big, accessible books dealing with the New Order.  Adam Schwartz’s A Nation in Waiting was originally published before the fall of Suharto, but the updated third edition covers the end of the regime.  If you’re looking for a somewhat lighter account of the same period, which also covers the events of 1998 in more detail, Theodore Friend’s Indonesian Destinies is enlivened by a sporadic first-person narrative.  Suharto himself gets a thorough biographical treatment from R.E. Elson in Suharto: A Political Biography.

There are two excellent and highly readable books that throw light on life in Indonesia in the 1990s: Janet Steele’s Wars Within which deals with the New Order’s wrangling with the press, specifically the respected news weekly Tempo; and The Invisible Palace, by the late Jose Manuel Tesoro, a beautifully written, meticulously researched account of the murder of a local journalist in Central Java in 1996 – it is a book that deserves to be much more widely read.

A number of books cover the fall of Suharto, including the aforementioned Indonesian Destinies, and many of the contemporary news reports can still be found online.  A highly personal account of the period – including an unusual account of ethnic violence in Kalimantan – is In the Time of Madness by the British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry.  This book has drawn a peculiar degree of ire from some Indonesia specialists and long-time foreign residents, but it is very well written and makes for a good, if subjective, account of the fall of Suharto, and of the period surrounding the referendum in East Timor.  A similarly subjective account of East Timor’s bloody history, but this time from a journalist with a long and deep commitment to the place, is Irena Christalis’ Bitter Dawn.

On Indonesia in the 21st century a colourful, sprightly introduction is Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth Pisani.  This highly engaging book is written as a travelogue, but Pisani knows the country very well indeed, and she has many meaningful encounters on her journeys.

Indonesian Fiction

Indonesia has a vibrant literary tradition, but few of its novelists and poets are well-known outside of their home country.  This may in part be down to a lack of good translations of Indonesian novels – something which is now changing thanks to the brilliant work of the not-for-profit Lontar Foundation, which puts out English language editions of Indonesian classics, notable amongst with are Salah Asuhan, translated as Never the Twain, by Abdoel Moeis, and Sitti Nurbaya by Marah Roesli.

By far the most famous Indonesian author outside of Indonesia is Pramoedya Anata Toer.  An avowedly political writer whose relationship with authority was always strained, he has the curious distinction of having been jailed by the Dutch, the Sukarno government, and the Suharto regime – for well over a decade in the latter case.  His best known books are the novels that make up the ‘Buru Quartet’, partly written while he was interred by the New Order on the Buru prison island in Maluku.  Based on the life of the journalist Tirto Adhi Soerjo, they take the early 20th century as their backdrop, and the first stirrings of Indonesian nationalism as their theme.  They are hugely important works, with a very interesting backstory, but they’re not the lightest of reads.  Some of Pramoedya’s other works, particularly The Girl from the Coast (Gadis Pantai in the original), are rather more readable.

Generally more accessible than Pramoedya is the other ‘giant’ of mid-20th-century Indonesian literature, Mochtar Lubis.  Twilight in Djakarta is a vivid account of life in Jakarta in the 1960s, but his novella Tiger! is a sharper work.

Of the current generation of Indonesian novelists, several have been translated by the Lontar Foundation, and also by US-based Dalang Publishing.  Probably the stand-out work of modern Indonesian literature available to an international audience, however, is Ayu Utami’s Saman.  It’s a daring, original short novel by any standards, but it also benefits from a brilliant English translation by Pamela Allen.



All of the publications that I referred to directly while researching A Brief History of Indonesia are listed below.

  • Anderson, Benedict. Java in a Time of Revolution. Ithaca, 1974.
  • Anderson, Benedict and McVey, Ruth. A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesia. Ithaca, 1971.
  • Aritonang, Jan Sihar and Steenbrink, Karel A. (eds). A History of Christianity in Indonesia. Leiden, 2008.
  • Bassett, D. ‘British trade and policy in Indonesia 1760–1772’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 120. Leiden, 1964.
  • Bastin, John. The Native Policies of Sir Stamford Raffles in Java and Sumatra. Oxford, 1957.
  • Bayley, Christopher and Harper, Tim. Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire. London, 2007.
  • Beatty, Andrew. Varieties of Javanese Religion. Cambridge, 1999.
  • Bellwood, Peter et al. The Austronesians: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Canberra, 2006.
  • Bellwood, Peter. Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago. Honolulu, 1997.
  • Boden, Ragna. ‘The “Gestapu” events of 1965 in Indonesia: New evidence from Russian and German archives’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 163. Leiden, 2007.
  • Boers, Bernice de Jong. ‘Mount Tambora in 1815: a volcanic eruption in Indonesia and its aftermath’ in Indonesia 60. New York, 1995.
  • Borsuk, Richard and Chng, Nancy. Liem Sioe Liong’s Salim Group. Singapore, 2014.
  • Bosma, Ulbe, Giusti-Cordero, Juan A., Knight, G. Roger (eds). Sugarlandia Revisited: Sugar and Colonialism in Asia and the Americas, 1800–1940. Oxford, 2007.
  • Brandon, James R. and Guritno, Pandam (eds). On Thrones of Gold: Three Javanese Shadow Plays. Honolulu, 1993.
  • Breman, Jan. Taming the Coolie Beast: Plantation Society and the Colonial Order in Southeast Asia. Oxford, 1989.
  • Brown, Colin. A Short History of Indonesia. Crows Nest, 2003.
  • Carey, Peter (ed). The British in Java 1811–1816: A Javanese Account. Oxford, 1992.
  • Carey, Peter and Carter Bentley, G. (eds). East Timor at the Crossroads: The Forging of a Nation. Honolulu, 1995.
  • Carey, Peter. The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the end of an old order in Java, 1785–1855 (2nd edition). Leiden, 2008.
  • Carpenter, Frank G. Java and the East Indies. New York, 1923.
  • Chambert-Loir, Henri and Reid, Anthony (eds). The Potent Dead: Ancestors, Saints and Heroes in Contemporary Indonesia. Crows Nest, 2002.
  • Claeson, H. ‘How unique was Srivijaya?’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 151. Leiden, 1995.
  • Coldstream, John. Dirk Bogarde: The Authorised Biography. London, 2004.
  • Colletta, Nat J., Teck Ghee Lim and Kelles-Viitanen, Anita (eds). Social Cohesion and Conflict Prevention in Asia: Managing Diversity Through Development. Washington, 2001.
  • Cortesão, Armando (trans). The ‘Suma Oriental’ of Tomé Pires: An Account of the East, from the Red Sea to China. New Delhi, 1990.
  • Covarrubius, Miguel. Island of Bali. New York, 1937.
  • Crawfurd, John. History of the Indian Archipelago, Volumes I–III. Edinburgh, 1820.
  • Creese, Helen. ‘A Puputan Tale: “The Story of a Pregnant Woman”’ in Indonesia 82. Ithaca, 2006.
  • Cribb, Robert. Gangsters and Revolutionaries. Honolulu, 1991.
  • Cribb, Robert. Historical Atlas of Indonesia. Richmond, 2000.
  • Cribb, Robert and Brown, Colin. Modern Indonesia: A History Since 1945. Harlow, 1995.
  • Cristalis, Irena. Bitter Dawn: East Timor, a People’s Story. London, 2002.
  • Crouch, Harold. The Army and Politics in Indonesia (2nd edition). Ithaca, 1988.
  • De Casparis, J.G. ‘Some Notes on Ancient Bima’ in Archipel, Volume 56. Paris, 1998.
  • Dick, Howard W. Surabaya, City of Work. Singapore, 2003.
  • Doulton, A.J.F. The Fighting Cock: Being the History of the 23rd Indian Division 1942–1947. Aldershot, 1950.
  • Du Bois, Cora. The People of Alor. Minneapolis, 1944.
  • Eliot, Joshua et al. Indonesia Handbook. Bath, 1998.
  • Elson, R.E. Suharto: A Political Biography. Cambridge, 2001.
  • Farram, Steven. ‘Revolution, religion and magic: The PKI in West Timor, 1924–1966’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 158. Leiden, 2002.
  • Farram, Steven. ‘Jacobus Arnoldus Hazaart and the British interregnum in Netherlands Timor, 1812–1816’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 163–4. Leiden, 2007.
  • Farram, Steven. ‘The PKI in West Timor and Nusa Tenggara Timur 1965 and Beyond’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 166. Leiden, 2010.
  • Forshee, Jill. Between the Folds: Stories of Cloth, Lives and Travels from Sumba. Honolulu, 2001.
  • Forster, Harold. Flowering Lotus: A View of Java. London, 1958.
  • Fox, James. Harvest of the Palm: Ecological Change in Eastern Indonesia. London, 1977.
  • Friend, Theodore. Indonesian Destinies. Cambridge, MA, 2003.
  • Furnivall, J.S. Netherlands India: A Study of a Plural Economy. Cambridge, 1944.
  • Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Glencoe, 1960.
  • Gelman Taylor, Jean. Indonesia: Peoples and Histories. New Haven, 2003.
  • Gelman Taylor, Jean. The Social World of Batavia (2nd edition). London, 2009.
  • Glazebrook, Diana. Permissive Residents: West Papuan Refugees Living in Papua New Guinea. Canberra, 2008.
  • Gomperts, Amrit, Haag, Arnaud and Carey, Peter. ‘Stutterheim’s enigma: The mystery of his mapping of the Majapahit kraton at Trowulan in 1941’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 164. Leiden, 2008.
  • Gomperts, Amrit, Haag, Arnaud and Carey, Peter. ‘The sage who divided Java in 1052’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 168. Leiden, 2012.
  • Grant, Bruce. Indonesia. Melbourne, 1964.
  • Hägerdal, Hans. Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Lombok and Bali in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Bangkok, 2001.
  • Hahn, Emily. Raffles of Singapore. New York, 1946.
  • Han Bing Siong. ‘The Japanese occupation of Indonesia and the administration of justice today; Myths and realities’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 154. Leiden, 1998.
  • Han Bing Siong. ‘Sukarno-Hatta versus the Pemuda in the first months after the surrender of Japan’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 156. Leiden, 2000.
  • Hanna, Willard. Bali Profile: People, Events, Circumstances 1001–1976. New York, 1976.
  • Hannigan, Tim. Raffles and the British Invasion of Java. Singapore, 2012.
  • Hillen, Ernest. The Way of a Boy. London, 1994.
  • Horsfield, Thomas. ‘An Essay on the Oopas, or Poison-Tree of Java’ in The Asiatic Journal Volume 1. London, 1816.
  • Hughes, John. The End of Sukarno. London, 1968.
  • Ibn Battuta. Travels in Asia and Africa. London, 1929.
  • Jordaan, Roy. ‘The Sailendras, the status of the Ksatriya theory and the development of Hindu-Javanese temple architecture’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 155. Leiden, 1999.
  • Jordaan, Roy. ‘Why the Sailendras were not a Javanese dynasty’ in Indonesia and the Malay World 34, Issue 98. London, 2006.
  • Jordaan, Roy. ‘Belahan and the division of Airlangga’s realm’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 163. Leiden, 2007.
  • Jordaan, Roy and Wessing, R. ‘Human sacrifice at Prambanan’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 152. Leiden, 1996.
  • Joseph, Suad (ed). Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures Vol 1. Leiden, 2003.
  • Kahin, George McTurnan. Nationalism and Revolution in Indonesia. Ithaca, 1952.
  • Kammen, Douglas and McGregor Katherine (eds). The Contours of Mass Violence in Indonesia, 1965–68. Singapore, 2012.
  • Keay, John. Indonesia: From Sabang to Merauke. London, 1995.
  • Kirsch, Stuart. Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations in New Guinea. Stanford, 2006.
  • Klingaman, William K. and Klingaman, Nicholas P. The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History. New York, 2013.
  • Koentjaraningrat. Javanese Culture. Oxford, 1985.
  • Krancher, Jan A. The Defining Years of the Dutch East Indies, 1942–1949. London, 1996.
  • Kratoska, Paul H. (ed). Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire. Singapore, 2006.
  • Kumar, Ann and McGlynn, John. Illuminations: The Writing Traditions of Indonesia. New York, 1996.
  • Knight, G. Roger. ‘A Case of Mistaken Identity? Suikerlords and Ladies, Tempo Doeloe and the Dutch Colonial Communities in Nineteenth Century Java’ in Social Identities Vol. 7. London, 2001.
  • Knight, G. Roger. ‘Descrying the bourgeoisie: Sugar, capital and state in the Netherlands Indies, circa 1840–1884’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 163. Leiden, 2007.
  • Laffan, Michael. The Makings of Indonesian Islam: Orientalism and the Narration of a Sufi Past. Princeton, 2011.
  • Legge, J.D. Sukarno: A Political Biography. London, 1972.
  • Lindsey, Timothy. The Romance of K’tut Tantri and Indonesia. Oxford, 1997.
  • Locher-Scholten, Elisabeth. Sumatran Sultanate and Colonial State: Jambi and the Rise of Dutch Imperialism, 1830–1907. Ithaca, 2004.
  • Lloyd Parry, Richard. In the Time of Madness. London, 2005.
  • Lombard-Salmon, Claudine. ‘The Han Family of East Java. Entrepreneurship and Politics (18th–19th Centuries)’ in Archipel Volume 41. Paris, 1991.
  • Madureira, Luis. ‘Tropical Sex Fantasies and the Ambassador’s Other Death: The Difference in Portuguese Colonialism’ in Cultural Critique No. 28. Minnesota, 1994.
  • Margana, Sri. Java’s Last Frontier: The Struggle for Hegemony of Blambangan c.1763–1813. Leiden, 2007.
  • Matsuda, Matt K. Pacific Worlds: A History of Seas, Peoples, and Cultures. Cambridge, 2012.
  • Matsumoto, Yasuyuki. Financial Fragility and Instability in Indonesia. Abingdon, 2007.
  • McMillan, Richard. The British Occupation of Indonesia 1945–1946. Abingdon, 2005.
  • Miksic, John. Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas. Singapore, 1991.
  • Miksic, John (ed.). Indonesian Heritage. Volume 1: Ancient History. Singapore, 1996.
  • Milton, Giles. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. London, 1999.
  • Monfries, John. ‘The Sultan and the Revolution’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 164. Leiden, 2008.
  • Morwood, Mike et al. ‘World of the Little People’ in National Geographic, April 2005.
  • Muller, Kal. East of Bali: From Lombok to Timor. Singapore, 1997.
  • Muller, Kal. Kalimantan: Indonesian Borneo. Singapore, 1990.
  • Muller, Kal. Spice Islands: The Moluccas. Singapore, 1990.
  • Munoz, Paul Michael. Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula. Singapore, 2006.
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  • Nordholt, Henk Schulte. ‘Indonesia in the 1950s: Nation, modernity and the post-colonial state’ in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 167. Leiden, 2011.
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  • Oey, Eric (ed). Bali. Singapore, 1999.
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The Ringfort

Ringforts, Ireland, Cornwall – and Pandemics

Screenshot (40)

Walk south of Athenry on the Craughwell road, the R347, past the graveyard with its tight ranks of crosses and the turning to Kiltullagh. Just before the motorway there is a crossroads. The turning on the left runs out to join the Kiltullagh road. The lane on the right, tight against the motorway embankment, is not marked on the map. It seems to lead nowhere, but walk along it anyway. The lane has the strange, ancient stillness of places close to fast-moving traffic. After three hundred metres you reach a gate, with a triangular field beyond. To the right, through the next gateway, is a ringfort.

The ringfort is large, seventy-five metres across. It has been accommodated by the grid of the surrounding fields, its circular form hemmed by dead-straight walls. The embankments are broad, chest-high in places. Where trampling cattle have worn away the grass you can see that the perimeter is built of earth and stones, pushed up like an esker or a motorway embankment. There is a trace of an outer ditch. To the west, the big blue exit sign for Junction 17 hangs in the thick evening air.

DSC_0007There are three other ringforts within half a kilometre to the north; another lies buried under a thorn ticket just beyond the motorway. Circles on a map. Across Ireland, there are some 45,000 of them. Those built of banked earth, like this, are sometimes called raths (the old Ordnance Survey maps give the name of this particular ringfort as Rathacugga, which might mean “the Cuckoo’s Ringfort” – though that certainly wouldn’t have been the name first given it by those who raised its banks). Those built mainly of stone are called cashels or cathairs. The terms dun and lios turn up from time to time too.

They are not really forts – certainly not military structures. They are simply the surviving perimeters of the little homesteads that were once scattered across the countryside. The bank would probably have been topped with a fence, or a ring of living hawthorn. Within it stood huts for the resident family, pens for the livestock: a farmyard.

Walking through the thistles in the ringfort by the motorway, you can detect traces of internal structures; an enclosure to the southeast; an apparent outer gateway opposite; some other cryptic lumps and bumps. The secure perimeter probably had more to do with keeping the cattle in and the wolves out than with any endemic culture of violence.

People may have lived in ringfort-style structures as early as the Iron Age, maybe even earlier. But the bulk of the ringforts that mark the farmland of Ireland like old acne scars were occupied in the second half of the first millennium CE. After that, for whatever reason, most of them were left go. People moved out, moved on. In later centuries some – with their readymade perimeters, their sense of an established place – were used for the burial of babies that died before baptism and were thus denied a place in consecrated ground.

DSC_08640031Cornwall, too, has very similar structures – dozens of them. There is one halfway up the hill above Trevowhan, in the field behind Bernard’s bungalow – banks of earth and granite reaching out like arms for an interdicted embrace. A little further off, at the southwest corner of the parish, there is a mighty double ring of pale stone on the high hilltop at Chûn with a view to both coasts. Elsewhere, at other circle-places, the Irish words come back out of the Cornish landscape like a muffled echo: cathair and dun and lios becoming ker and din and lis. The one difference is that the ringforts in Cornwall are older. They were mainly occupied from the Iron Age through to the Romano-British period. Around the seventh century, just as the peak of ringfort use in Ireland began, the last of them were left go in Cornwall, litter in the landscape, as people began to resettle in unenclosed clusters of cottages and barns. If you want to make an informed guess you might say that it was at this point that the first folks moved a little way down the slope in what would one day be the parish of Morvah, to a new hamlet – a trev, which might have been the trev of a man called something like Owen or Vaughan.

The converse cultural shifts – into the ringforts in Ireland, out of them in Cornwall – are not properly understood by archaeologists and historians. But they coincide, more or less, with the period of the Justinian Plague – a terrible wave of infection which seems to have begun, vectored by rats, in the eastern Mediterranean around 540 CE, and which surged and resurged across Europe for the next two hundred years. The plague killed millions, and had pronounced impacts on trade, politics and agriculture. It seems reasonable to assume that it also – either directly or at the end of a long chain of consequences – changed the way people occupied the Cornish and Irish landscapes. A global pandemic as prompt for a change in rural planning decisions.

Much is made today of the supposed protection afforded to old ringforts in Ireland by superstition. So many of them survive, it is said, because country folks consider them the dwelling places of the faeries – even now! – and to damage a ringfort would be to invite a curse. But old things get left in any landscape. A small earthen bank hardly interferes with the grazing of cattle; and even when the land is given over to tillage it might be easier to plough around one small irregularity than to level it out. People sometimes needlessly invent rationales for the actions of their forebears, then, half-ironically, adopt them for themselves.

Anyway, the big ringfort by the motorway is still there, grazed by bullocks, the ground within a metre higher than the land without. There are three huge upright slabs of limestone built into the field wall to the east. Beyond the wall, a line of flowering blackthorns, their branches crusted with greenish lichen. The leathery leaves of the stinging nettles below are dusted with fallen blossom.


© Tim Hannigan 2021

Away With The Flood: Looking Back at a Baby Orientalist on the Road

A few years ago I dug out an old and mercifully unpublished manuscript – my early attempt at writing a travel book about Indonesia. I conducted a sort of scholarly excavation of the manuscript and its supporting materials (a diary and a handwritten early draft), and published an article about my findings in the Journeys journal. I called it “Counting Up the Lies: A Self-Reflexive Investigation of Craft and Fictionalization in a Modern Travel Book” (behind the academic paywall, unfortunately). I also wrote a sort of “creative” response to the way the manuscript was plainly interacting with an established discourse. I’d forgotten about this piece until I was having a digital spring-clear over the weekend. Here it is, for what it’s worth. It’s a bit weird…

Figure 1 Hannigan

A ferry, turning on the milky water of a broad inlet in the heat of the day while small figures clamour at the dockside.

There are trees behind the harbour, and somewhere a mosque with the midday prayer call ringing out [The mosque is certainly there; I cannot be entirely certain about the prayer call]. The ferry is white [I am reasonably confident of this]; a lumbering castle of a thing, lurching as the engines thrust in reverse and the workers on shore strain at the mooring ropes [reasonable assumptions, these, though not strictly verifiable]. There are cars and motorbikes and trucks [probably] in its belly, Indonesian passengers on its open-sided middle deck [definitely], and out in the scorching sunlight on the uppermost level a gaggle of young foreigners [definitely, though there may also be other foreigners on the aforementioned middle deck, and they may not all be particularly ‘young’] – a dozen of them [regrettably, even as an obvious approximation this figure cannot be deemed particularly reliable], with improbably long limbs, bronzed by weeks and months on the Southeast Asian backpacker trail [or possibly just by living in Australia, and having flown in to Indonesia a few days earlier]. Down the gangplank they go when the ferry is finally secure, into the arms of prearranged drivers, waiting to shuttle them to Lombok’s main tourist centres [a guess, and perhaps a reasonable one, though I cannot possibly ascertain all of their immediate destinations or modes of transport].

One of their number, though, breaks away and crosses the broad blanket of greasy tarmac that expands from the dockside to the spot where the public minibuses to Mataram are waiting. He is a British citizen [of this I can be completely certain]. He carries a backpack, and is dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and rubber sandals. On his head is a panama hat that doesn’t quite fit, with a band made of rusty-brown batik cloth. [Of these sartorial points I am very confident indeed, though I cannot make any claim about the colour of the garments – hat excepted. With complicated further research I might be able to establish certain empirically-grounded possibilities for the colours of said shirt, shorts and sandals, but given that it would ultimately remain impossible to be categorical about their tint at the specific moment described here, I have decided that such research would not be a valuable use of my time.] He clambers into the first of the waiting minibuses. [At this point it would be pleasing to say that his fellow passengers were a pair of old men, dressed in sarongs and with betel-blackened teeth; or a trio of giggling schoolgirls in white headscarves; or a bulky matron with a red bandana and a basket of vegetables. Likewise, one might say that the driver of the minibus was a shrunken man in middle age, with a crocheted skullcap and a clove cigarette fuming between his lips, or a rangy youth with a pirate’s earring and a flare of lurid colour dyed into his hair. It would arguably be of little consequence, and would certainly add to the atmosphere of the scene. But I have no way of knowing with whom he shared the journey. I do know the colour of his backpack, however: it was grey, with blue piping. I can’t say whether it was carried on the roof of the minibus, or in the cramped space behind the driver; that would have depended on the number of other passengers, and as has already been made clear, no information is available on this point.]

Inside his backpack there are two notebooks, both with hard covers and lined pages. One is black, A4-size; the other is blue and smaller, A5 [there is tangible evidence for this]. As the minibus bears away northeast along a road that strikes through the rice fields [this information is readily confirmable via a home internet connection and access to Google Earth], he watches intently from the window [obviously this point cannot be verified, but I am reasonably confident about it], eagerly grasping at the passing scenes he will record – slightly differently – in each of the two notebooks.

He wants very badly to be a travel writer.

The smaller notebook is a daily journal, but the bigger one is a working draft of the book he hopes to write – about the journey he is now making, from Bali, across Lombok and on eastwards, hopping through the scattering of islands that run out towards Timor. He will write the book on his return – battering it out on a rickety desktop computer with the light of a British summer coming in greenish through the window to his right – though it will never be published.

And I? Many years later I sat down in a library in Leicester to read through what he had written.


My desk was on the upper floor of the library, a space full of the furtive rustle of quiet study and the occasional industrial rattle of roller stacks on the move. The view to my right was cut into thin strips by a bank of window-mounted solar panels. Between them I could make out a city sinking into autumn and a quartet of wind turbines on the skyline in a milky distance.

I had three artefacts before me: his manuscript, a daunting slab, just shy of ninety thousand words in twelve-point type, bound into two separate bundles; that hardback A4 notebook, filled cover to cover with scribblings in black ink, the pages crackling stiffly like some far older manuscript; and the blue journal, somehow softer to the touch, with a hand-drawn calendar of the journey inside the cover. There was a fourth artefact too, hovering invisible around the desk, though it turned out to be a disturbingly fickle thing, far more so than I might ever have imagined: memory.

I began to read.


He moves – I see him (and you’ll have to take any incidental details on trust from hereon in; I’ve made the challenges I face clear enough already) – walking beside a canal clogged with water hyacinth, sitting on a tiled floor after dark with a family from Flores while a soccer match unfolds on a television screen above, riding more of those minibuses (occupied by what other passengers I still cannot tell), and then striking out on a rented motorbike (what does he do with the panama hat? I have no idea. Perhaps he ties it to his backpack). A sun sets, and then sets again, lavishly coloured over the smoky cone of Gunung Agung on Bali, back across the strait, and he rolls northwards, under the slopes of a nearer volcano, the rough and ragged hulk of Rinjani.

I see him, tripping along the narrow paths between the fields, talking to the people at the roadside and in villages in garbled but earnest Indonesian. There he is in a mosque beneath the mountain, chatting to men in black hats, and there he is, passing a funeral procession on a blue road in the highlands and then riding the motorbike down into south-facing forests and stopping for the night in a bamboo bungalow in the rice fields in a village called Tetebatu. There are cobwebs in the corners of the bungalow, and the fields are full of furious insect noise after dark. There is a mosquito net over the bed like a grubby bridal train, and as he fades into a sleep stirred by antimalarial medication they begin to pass on either side: a cavalcade of wraiths, those who have come this way before him.

They begin with a duo, a pair of Italians jostling one another over a slender gap of twenty years which cleaves the fourteenth century from the thirteenth, one a merchant, the other with the tonsure of a Franciscan monk. They wander around the bed in the bamboo hut, uncertain even of where they are. What do they see? What do they write? – Shadows of nakedness and license and a rumour of cannibalism, a great king in a gold palace and a marketplace dizzying with spice. Behind them, haunting the steps of the Franciscan, comes a faceless, nameless, nationless harlequin, whispering in Latin and English and French, stealing the monk’s unbound pages as they fall. He fills their margins with all the fantastical flotsam of a thousand years – inking in islands of two-headed geese where the people feast on the flesh of snakes, islands where the men have lips so vast that they spread like umbrellas to ward off the sun, islands of men with eyes in their chests and mouths in their bellies, and islands where the people have the heads of dogs. He pours it all out, and something like a river is now flowing past the bungalow in the rice fields.

The traveller beneath the mosquito net sleeps on though, shifting once or twice at the calls of the geckos in the rafters, but oblivious to the rumble from outside, where a vast and shadowy form is cleaving the black volcanic soil – a carrack, bearing in from Portugal under a great cumulous of square-rigged sails! It is crewed by a legion of barrel-chested men, and amongst them is an apothecary from Lisbon with a scroll and a quill. He writes, he writes – what does he write? Again of a great king and again of spice, and when the king’s women go out in state they look like angels.

On and on they come, longer and sleeker ships under Dutch and English flags, thundering through the night and a scribe on every one. They write what they see – always of kings and spices – but they write what they read too, and the whiff of the harlequin’s whispers still floats like camphor over their pages. With it come other words, mouthed and mouthed again, along with the spice and the cannibals and the kings – laxness and laziness and sometimes demonic violence too, with a borrowed word: mengamuk, amok, amuck…

Now the flimsy window shutter of the bungalow bursts open, and Englishmen in frock coats with factory chimneys at their shoulders and the Enlightenment in their eyes come clambering through, brushing the mosquito net, and striding out of the doorway in the opposite wall. Knowledge is power, they say as they pass, and in the intercourse between enlightened and ignorant nations, the former must and will be the rulers, and the grandeur of their ancestors sounds like a fable in the mouths of these degenerates, and in most of their Mahomedan institutions, we discover the marks of Hinduism. They write and they write and they write, these Englishmen, and they measure and catalogue and categorise, and they pour out their words into a river of their own making. The bungalow itself is islanded in the flood.

And now the tide is actually passing through the cramped and cobwebby room, lapping at the hem of the mosquito net and flowing beneath the bed. Figure after figure comes bobbing through the window, each with a book for a raft – an Englishman with a shovel beard and a butterfly net and a half-made idea about the diversity of animal life, an American anthropologist with a bursary from MIT, a squat and scowling fellow from Trinidad who mutters sententiously that this is not a book of opinion as his book-raft bounces off the corner of the bed. And more besides, each one drinking from the flood that bears him, then pouring his own water back in, drinking up lazy natives and cannibals and dog-headed men and spewing them all back out…  

It is almost dawn, and by now the whole bamboo bungalow is afloat and tumbling eastwards with all the rest.


The sun slips up over Sumbawa and the traveller beneath the net wakes from a sleep of centuries. He steps out, bleary-eyed. The man who runs the guesthouse brings him a breakfast of banana pancakes and grainy black coffee. He eats on the creaking balcony outside the room with the heat rising and the volcano to the north fading in the haze. He knows nothing of the cavalcade that swept past in the night. He has read nothing of them, not one of their works. What he does have, though – he’s leafing through it now as he slurps at his coffee and munches his pancake – is a guidebook. And he is already adrift.

© Tim Hannigan 2021



My next book, The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre, takes a look at some of the fraught issues involved in writing about travel. Published by Hurst, it’s out in May 2021.


A Circle on a Map

On 27 March 2020 the Irish government put the country in lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. One stipulation was that people should stray no further than two kilometres from home for the purpose of exercise. The limit was extended to five kilometres on Tuesday. Until then, for six weeks, I had been wandering – usually, though not always, in a clockwise direction – around a space of 12.57 square kilometres. Here is a brief description of my first consideration of that space, and some of the images I’ve collected during the subsequent travels.

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The outer edge of a circle with a two-kilometre radius, centred on Athenry’s Market Square – centred on the fifteenth-century market cross, let’s say, for the sake of precision (and a literal stone’s throw from our front door) – intersects with the M6 motorway at an eight o’clock angle in the townland of Ballygarraun South, close the Teagasc agricultural research centre. From there, running clockwise, it crosses an unbroken kilometre-and-a-half of farmland, before leaping between three roads north of the Raheen Woods Hotel – the little, ring and middle fingers of the outstretched hand. After that, it runs into another arc of farmland, hitting twelve o’clock just shy of the abandoned railway line to Tuam. Then it begins its steepening descent through a townland called Ballydavid South, crossing the Monivea road, the Clarin River and the Galway-Dublin main line. At three o’clock it slices through the Esker road near Pollacappul, then swings south and intersects with the motorway once more at exactly six o’clock, just where the Craughwell road passes beneath it. From here, it curves back towards the start, closely matched by a minor road – yellow on the map – that joins the old Galway road right across from the agricultural research centre.
I looked at that circle as it appeared on the map, laid across my desk. Everything outside it was off-limits for now. Within it, the orange and yellow of the roads divided little slices of pale green countryside (on this scale, the map did not show the field boundaries – and there were no footpaths, of course). Within those little green slices lay a scattering of unfamiliar names: Kingsland, North and South; Farranablake, East and West; Mulpit, Gorteenacra. There were a few features too: two or three little dabs of woodland, coniferous and deciduous; feeder streams, running in from the east to join the Clarin; a smattering of archaeological relics named in red – “Holy Well”, “Mound”, “Fulacht Fia”; and eleven tiny red pimples, circles within the circle – ringforts, I supposed.
I looked at the circle on the map, at the space within it. Twelve-and-a-half square kilometres – a vast, undiscovered country.

© Tim Hannigan 2020

A Vintage Year: Travel Books of 2019

Travel writing is still dead, according to many book trade professionals – or still a “very difficult market”, as the jargon has it. And this despite the fact that these same people have been publishing great gouts of the stuff for the past decade. The key thing is to make sure you don’t call it travel writing. You can put “journeys in search of something-or-other” on the cover; stick the word “odyssey” or even “travels” in the subtitle; have the thing conform to every last travel writing genre convention. But you must make sure that its narrative doesn’t stray beyond the hardening borders of the United Kingdom, and you must insist that its primary quest-object is a suitably patriotic bit of British natural history. Look, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something a bit Brexity about the so-called “new nature writing” – or maybe I do…

Anyway, in spite of all this, there must be at least a few commissioning editors who missed the edict. Because, from a reader’s perspective, 2019 has been a vintage year for travel writing. Here’s a round-up of some of those new travel books that I’ve had time to read.

trainsJanuary saw Monisha Rajesh’s Around the World in 80 Trains pull up to Platform 1 – and what a heartening way to start the travel writing year! On the one hand, it’s an unashamed, old-school round-the-world adventure which makes Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar look quaveringly unambitious in geographical scope by comparison. But on the other hand, I’ve never read a travel book so at ease with the technological realities of twenty-first-century travel (WeChat, FaceTime, Netflix – this book has more apps than your average smartphone). So much for the old saw about cheap airfares and the internet killing travel writing. And it proves that you can write entertainingly about Big Trips without having to pretend it’s the 19th century. I reviewed the book here.

epicThere was a bit of a breather into the spring, but eyeing the upcoming publishers’ schedules felt like approaching a veritable book mountain. I began the ascent with Nicholas Jubber’s Epic Continent – his best book to date, as far as I’m concerned, an enthusiastic trip around Europe, which manages to be thoroughly immersed in the past without ever ignoring the uneasy present. I reviewed it here.

And then, of course, the big one, the rumblings of its ascent audible months – nay, years – in advance. On 2 May Robert Macfarlane’s Underland came up to grass, as the old men would say. This book has had more than enough praise already, but it’s all deserved of course. Underland is more ambitious than The Old Ways, but it’s also far tighter and more coherent.underland In fact, it almost matches The Wild Places for the controlled elegance of its structure. But here’s the real cause for celebration: Underland’s scope is properly, convincingly international. We might start down a hole in Somerset, but we then dig our way onwards to Italy, Paris, Slovenia, the Arctic. This is a travel book, and its author is way beyond the bounds of that dubiously exclusive British “our” which haunts so much of the new nature writing genre. Mind you, it ought to have a health warning for claustrophobes on the cover…

A couple of months after Underland came a book that plainly made its way to publication along the path that Macfarlane has cut. David Gange’s The Frayed Atlantic Edge will inevitably find itself shelved in amidst all the crow-chasing, otter-bothering, badger-harassing mass of the new nature writing. But it doesn’t really belong there.edge The thematic focus is the densely-peopled past; and the journey it describes – by kayak, down the western seaboard of Britain and Ireland – is probably the most authentically adventurous of all the books covered here. Yes, with its geographic scope we’re in the realms of “the Archipelago” – and yes, there’s something to be said somewhere (but not here) about the troubling idea of British literary territorial expansionism (though it should be said that Gange is specifically concerned with resetting conventional spatial orientation – and does so more convincingly than anyone so far). But, feck it anyway, it’s one of the best travel books of the year! There’s also some pleasing formal innovation in the way Gange lets maps do part of the lifting work of the travelogue aspect. Definitely a 2019 highlight.

July also saw new releases from a veteran pro, the mighty Sara Wheeler, and an excellent newcomer, Jonathan Chatwin (no relation – though as it happens he did write a very good academic book on Bruce a few years back). Wheeler’s Mud and Stars uses a form not dissimilar to that of her previous book, O My America! – a blend of travel and biography.mud This time, however, it’s Russia, and the lives are those of (mostly) male Russian authors. Of all the travel writers of her generation, Wheeler has always seemed to be most thoroughly embedded in the world of literature – that of printed matter, of the review pages, of the literary essay. Her 2011 collection of journalism, Access All Areas, offers a subtle genuflection – not that Wheeler’s really the sort to genuflect to anyone – in the direction of that other great book-world travel writer, Jonathan Raban. And Mud and Stars is very much a book about literature. For an absolute amateur in the Russian field like myself, she’s a perfect, gently authoritative and ever-enthusiastic guide. But she’s a traveller too, of course, and a sense of place is the book’s vital component. The idea of Russia that lingers beyond the final pages is a melancholy, faintly bittersweet, late-summer sort of place. This impression was powerful and enduring enough, in fact, that I found it interfering with the rather different Russian atmosphere in the final book of this round-up, which I’ll get to below…

streetJonathan Chatwin’s Long Peace Street, meanwhile, was more concerned with history than literature, and it tackled it using a brilliantly simply device – a walk across Beijing via the eponymous “Long Peace Street”, an arrow-straight thoroughfare running right through the centre of the city. It works extremely well, chapters spinning off into eclectic historical episodes as the author makes his way along the street. To my considerable surprise, the book that Long Peace Street brought to mind was not one of those by Chatwin’s famous namesake, but W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn – a straight, rather than meandering Rings of Saturn, set in China rather than East Anglia…

And then it was September, and – oh my goodness!

You know that scene in Don’t Look Back? The one where Bob Dylan and his entourage are sitting around in a smoky room in the Savoy? Donovan’s there, and he elects to play one of his thin little ditties (I mean, what was he thinking?). When he’s done, Dylan, smirking atrociously, is like, “Mind if I play something?”. Still smirking, he launches into “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The camera lingers mercilessly on Donovan’s face – the face of a man brutally confronted by the relative measure of his own talent.

The Donovan look – that must have been the expression on the face of every other writer of place, travel or nature with a book out this year as they realised that Kathleen Jamie was in the room and was, like, “Mind if I play something?”

surfacingSurfacing – the book of the year? Of course it bloody was! But then, just like Bob Dylan, Kathleen Jamie’s not a normal mortal. She sold her soul at some Scottish crossroads years ago – she must have done, to be able to write like that. I reviewed the book here. (I’ve no reason to believe that Kathleen Jamie suffers from any of Bob Dylan’s obvious bastardry – but I do think she allowed herself a sly little smirk, just for a passing moment, in the opening pages of Surfacing, as explained in the review.)

Not all 2019’s travel books were strictly new. Every aficionado of the genre gives thanks to the gods of literature for the magnificent institution that is Eland Books. In June they published a new edition of Moritz Thomsen’s The Saddest Pleasure. It originally appeared in 1990, and as I read I found myself muttering, “How did I not know about this already?” A remarkable book in so many ways. saddestIn synopsis: an ageing and rather crotchety American sets off on a trip through Brazil. At the outset it seems that he has recently been the victim of a very considerable injustice in his adopted homeland of Ecuador, though the circumstances are left vague – deliberately, it transpires, for (soft spoiler alert) as the book progresses and Thomsen tears more and more strips off himself, your perspective shifts in advance of the ultimate reveal. One hell of a book. My first take was “as if Paul Theroux learnt self-awareness and humility and gained lyricism in the process”, but I don’t think that really does Thomsen justice. There are hints of Jonathan Raban (also kept in print by Eland) at his best, but really he’s in a class of his own.

(Incidentally, Theroux himself reportedly had a new travel book out in 2019. But he’s been signalling his own retirement from writing about foreign travels since at least 2013, and I have long since run out of patience.)goes

Eland were also responsible, in October, for something wholly new – in English, at least: So it Goes, a delicate little collection of freshly-translated pieces (with Robyn Marsack on translation duties) by the great Swiss travel writer Nicolas Bouvier. I reviewed it here.

I wrapped up my year of travel reading with new titles from two writers who, like Sara Wheeler, first appeared at the start of the 1990s, and who are still going strong.

I’d been looking forward to Philip Marsden’s The Summer Isles – which came out in October – for a longer than any of the other books on this year’s list. It did not disappoint. A worthy follow-up to 2014’s superb Rising Ground, this time Marsden is offshore, aboard a wooden sailing boat, and travelling much the same route as David Gange (we’re in “Archipelagic” territory again).summer But where Gange was concerned with hard history, Marsden is looking instead at the islands of the Atlantic edge as receptacles for the imagination. That premise might sound a few warnings of dangerous waters ahead, but Marsden is an old pro at this travel writing business: he’s equally concerned with the lived lives of the present, the chance encounter, the quayside dialogue. Perhaps counterintuitively, The Summer Isles turns out to be a much more densely peopled book than The Frayed Atlantic Edge. It has serious emotional heft too – suddenly and unexpectedly in the first chapter. And as I approached the end (again, a soft spoiler alert) the book that came to mind above all was Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard

Last, but by no means least, the wry trickster of contemporary travel literature, Rory MacLean returned in November, thirty years on from his genre-bending debut Stalin’s Nose, with Pravda Ha Ha (just how to read that “ha ha” I’m not sure – and I think that’s intentional, though it comes to sound decidedly sarcastic by the end).pravda He’s covering the same ground as that earlier book, but this time in reverse, east to west (and without Winston the pig), beginning in Russia. And this is a much darker book, for all MacLean’s customary humour and eye for the absurd. He made the Stalin’s Nose trip as the walls were coming down; now they’re going up again. Russia as it appears here is more dystopian, nightmarish, than in Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars. The other countries MacLean visits are often similarly grim – toxic nationalism, truth-be-damned hate speech and all the rest. All told, it’s a powerful portrait of a continent in a pretty bad way. The most chilling moment is the encounter with a trio of “alt-right” media professionals in a trendy Warsaw wine bar. And the Britain that MacLean returns to in the final chapters is very much the same sour place that Nicholas Jubber reaches towards the end of Epic Continent (like Jubber, MacLean handles the contemporary European issue of migration very deftly). He does manage a note of optimism at the very last – though it takes considerable effort.

Make no mistake, the dark shadows are falling. But surely that makes travel writing all the more important – travel writing that goes beyond borders (and beyond badgers). This is a genre with a built-in capacity to find space for individual stories, multitudinous voices, connections, empathy. Judging by this year’s bumper crop of travel books – possibly the best single haul since the glory days circa 1990 – we’ve plenty of writers up to the pressing task in hand.

Travel writing is dead; long live travel writing!

© Tim Hannigan 2019

Notes from the Field: looking for Bruce Chatwin in an Oxford archive

When I’m working in an archive, I naturally type up serious notes in a Word document. But I usually also keep a sort of running journal in my notebook as I go – not the stuff of serious, formal research, but just the images and thoughts that distract me, as well as any random ideas and emotions that the materials prompt.

In December I spent three days in Oxford, in the reading room of the Weston Library where Bruce Chatwin’s papers are held. This was for my Midlands3Cites-funded PhD research, and it followed on from similar trips to look at Wilfred Thesiger’s papers in the Eton College Archives, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s records in the National Library of Scotland.

Today I found myself reading back through the notes. I’ve typed them up here, just for fun – a glimpse of a not-entirely-focussed researcher at work, recorded in real time during a very cold week. It ends rather abruptly, as these things do…


img_1408Monday 3 December

To Oxford by train on a wet dark morning. I’d slept badly, and dozed to Birmingham. Manic rush-hour change, then into wet country. At Oxford, the light clearing. Bicycles, menacingly silent.

I had a coffee and a pork and apple pie in a hipsterish café which revived me somewhat. Then on. Mud-coloured canals. A sinking city. The stone less honeyed in this wet dark part of the year.

Registration at the library was like a grand old bank. You sit waiting as if to discuss your current account. A nice woman registered me. She said I was lucky to be from Cornwall. There’s a declaration to read in which you promise to “kindle no fires” in the library.

Upstairs to the reading room. A long room with books around the walls to halfway up to the ceiling – “Old Maps in Japan”; “The World of Aldus Manutius”. A strange wooden ceiling like a damascene box, long study benches cross-wise, marbled wood. I sat by a window, high with square panes, giving out onto trees, a tall blueish conifer, and a thin rain now falling.

The poses of the researchers – fingers under noses, or across mouths or on chins. The involved stare at a laptop screen, the angled head in a pool of warm light from a desk lamp.

My place, a leather bucket chair with copper studs.


I’m here for Chatwin, but not quite sure what to feel or expect.

I have called up the MS of “The Nomadic Alternative” first. It sits to my right, MS.Eng.e.7838, in a grey box, date debossed 1998, acid free, lignin free.

It seemed the place to start. There’s a flatness. None of the apprehension of Thesiger or simple pleasure of PLF [Patrick Leigh Fermor]. Just a flatness, perhaps because Chatwin is so diminished as a man for me now. Am I simply going to find more objectionable idiocy here? Well, here goes, at a quarter past midday…


A neat grey folder within, a note on the cover, “lacking pp145–6”. And the first line:

“The best travellers are illiterate. Narratives of travel are pale compensations for the journey itself, and merely proclaim the traveller’s inadequacy as a traveller.”

Well fuck you, then, Bruce…

As I read on – only four pages in – it strikes me that had he been writing in French perhaps he might have gotten away with this…

This is cod-philosophy mostly, an erudite undergrad’s essay run wild.


Late lunch, sitting on the pitted steps of the Bodleian, cold, damp. I wandered a little – a flash of recognition, I’d been here before. The same bicycles by the fence around the R.Camera. Small tour groups, students in polo necks. There must have been – must still be – an incredible sense of possibility coming up here, one you certainly don’t get at Gloucestershire or Leicester.


I plodded my way to the end of the MS. It was pretty much unreadable – though here and there a fragment – on the Nemadi, on the nomad movement in Persia. Yet at the same time the ideas in The Songlines are all in place. It’s a strange thing – his writing had moved on massively, but his ideas really hadn’t.


It was cold after dark. I walked south to the room I’d got for the stay. An old terraced house, tidied up for guests. A poster for The Master and Margarita on the wall, Dostoyevsky and Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali in a cabinet. Thin wooden doors, stripped of paint at some stage. Quiet. I slept hard.

Tuesday 4 Dec, Oxford

Cold and bright, and a thin glitter of frost on the roofs. Liquid mist over the river. The Thames again – and rowers on the water in that stalled state before they start. Breakfast in a café, cobbles and bikes outside.


Back in the library now, preparing to look at notebooks.

I’ve called up two to start, in different sized grey folders. There’s something here of the old thrill of getting vinyl records in the post.

The first, 3742, is billed as notes from the journey with Toly Sawenko. The box is the size of an average envelope.

On the windows of the reading room, condensation melting to tops and bottoms of the panes.


A sinking feeling – his handwriting is just awful, the worst I’ve seen, indecipherable. Perhaps I’ll be able to tune in later. The notebook here is just a bog-standard reporter’s pad.

The next pad – a WHSmith spiral pad. I simply can’t read his handwriting. It’s like a language you only know a bit of. Every so often a line comes clear, you understand, snatch at it, then the next moment you’ve lost the thread again. Perhaps I’ll be able to tune in if I keep at it, but it’s not looking good.

Of everyone I’ve encountered in archives – Hayward, Raffles, Thesiger, PLF – Chatwin is certainly the most obviously daunting at first encounter.


Hadn’t entirely struck me clearly, but I’ve just realised that these exercises – with Thesiger, PLF and Chatwin – have all been based on the method I came to through my own Ghost Islands exercise.


img_1334Another two up now – 3700 and 3709 – billed in the catalogue as containing Songlines notes. These look from the packaging like they might be proper notebooks. Neat little grey packages.

A moleskine! Bigger than the commercial reinvention, the cover shiny, black, endpapers blue sugar paper, corners rounded off, squared paper inside, elastic to hold in place.

Inside he writes his address and phone number and offers a reward of £25 for recovery.

I start to spy some fragments of The Songlines here – and feel like I’m at something at last. This, always, is what fascinates me – the emergence of the book itself, not the journey.


MS.Eng.e.3709 was mostly a journal of the trip in China in 1985. There’s a strong sense here of the traveller’s working document – though desperately hard to read.

I think I knew, really, that Chatwin would be far less accessible through the archive than either Thesiger or PLF.


At lunchtime, wandered a little, cold and grey now.

Walking around the colleges – honey and charcoal – is like walking through a petrified pineapple field. Gothic and neoclassical – these are borrowed styles.


Afterwards, back to the library. More notebooks.

These earlier, from Africa, and here a few fragments of the writer at work, all in a tiny blue-inked hand. Journey in Niger – Barmou.


Evening, back to guesthouse, ate a ready-meal (lamb curry) and sat on my bed reading The Songlines.

Wednesday 5 December Oxford

Damp, mild morning. Walked up to the library with my suitcase.


This morning there was more of a sense of the process, though still opaque.

When will I learn? The immediate attraction is to the notes made on a journey – Thesiger’s journals, the Green Diary, the moleskines. But always the real fascination is in the production of the book itself, which may be rather far removed from any such notes.


Intriguing sort of note-form draft of TSL [The Songlines] – he did a lot of note-typing.


At lunchtime – a sandwich from the “tuck shop” across the way, then ate while walking on wet pavements to the Pitt Rivers – glorious mash of cabinets, a wayang puppet, a Kalasha effigy.

This is, of course, a problematic museum. But if some impressionable youth thrills to a label mentioning “Naga Hills” or “Java” or “Shan State” can that actually be a bad thing – especially if he or she actually goes there? Same goes for travel books, of course.

Walked back, a lowering light. Coffee in the tearoom. School tables.


After lunch, to look at later drafts. First up MS.Eng.d.3996, tagged “Final draft for copy setters”.

[And that evening I caught a very crowded train back to Leicester.]

© Tim Hannigan 2018

Tip-Topi: Hot Heads and Pithy Helmets in the British Empire

Sola_topee_sideOnly mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, they say. But the truth of the matter is that during the 19th-century heyday of the British Empire, the sun was an object of horror for most travelling Englishmen. In latitudes south of the Tropic of Cancer, it was widely believed, midday sunshine had the capacity to do terrible injury to the brain of a European.

It was in British-ruled India that this peculiar belief gained most traction. In Rudyard Kipling’s story The Man Who Would be King a horrified official asks of a destitute adventurer ‘Is it true that he was half an hour bare-headed in the sun at midday?’ – and is by no means surprised to hear that the unfortunate fellow is dead as a consequence. Even if Kipling’s ill-fortuned traveller had survived, he would doubtless have gone completely doolally – a condition named for the Indian barracks town of Deolali, where large numbers of English soldiers reputedly let the heat go to their heads…


European travellers arriving in tropical British colonial possessions were deluged with sage advice from old-timers about how to survive the climate – stay indoors as much as possible, drink plenty of gin, and continue dressing for dinner as if it was the middle of an English winter being standard suggested tactics. But above all else, a visitor plotting an Indian itinerary or an African odyssey would be told, get yourself a sola topi…

The sola topi was the iconic headgear of empire. Similar in shape to an old-fashioned policeman’s helmet, but a little broader of brim and usually white or cream in colour, it was also known as a pith helmet, for the simple reason that its seven-inch dome was stuffed with the corky pith of the swamp-dwelling sola plant (many travellers mistakenly assumed that these thoroughly silly hats were actually called “solar” topis; unhelpfully they really were also known as “sun helmets”).

The belief was – and it was very sincerely held by everyone, including medical professionals – that without this deep padding of pith above the crown of your head, the deadly solar rays would drill through your skull in a matter of minutes, and would fatally scramble your brain.

Sola topis were considered so essential that the owner of the Simon Arzt department store in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal made an absolute fortune flogging them at inflated prices to the passengers of eastbound liners who had forgotten to buy one back home before departure.  For a while it was even believed that you had to also protect your spine from the sun, and travellers in India would go about wearing a long tail of cork-stuffed cloth, pinned to the back of their hat and reaching all the way to their posterior. Quite what the locals – many of who sensibly dealt with the heat by wearing as little as possible – thought of all this fancy dress is anyone’s guess.



T.E. Lawrence – a fan of the Orientalist dressing-up box in other circumstances – trying to keep a cool head.

The curious thing about the craze for sola topis – which spread beyond British territories to the empires of the French and the Dutch – is that they only came into common usage in the second half of the 19th century, by which time Europeans had been thoroughly engaged in travel, trade and colonialism in hot places for the best part of three centuries. Plenty of previous generations had managed to survive the sunshine without going completely bonkers. The truth behind the ubiquity of this daftest of hats had more to do with racial identity, than with practical heat-avoidance.

The basic principle of wearing a hat when the sun is shining has always been a very sound one. And the idea of topping your hot-weather outfit with some sort of thick padding was nothing new. But there was already a perfectly good item of headgear, worn across continents since time immemorial for this very purpose: the turban. They wore it in North Africa; they wore it in Arabia; and they most certainly wore it in many parts of India. And here’s the thing: for around 200 years, Englishmen wore it too. ‘When in Rome’ (or ‘When in Rajputana’) was always a sensible approach, and throughout the 17th and 18th centuries plenty of the servants of the East India Company ditched their periwigs and frock coats on the voyage east and dressed themselves in loose-fitting robes and turbans as soon as they disembarked. It was comfortable. It helped you fit in.

But by the time Queen Victoria was on the throne attitudes had changed entirely, and the last thing an Englishman was supposed to do was try to fit in with “the natives”. Enthusiastically engaging with local culture and dressing Asian-style was a sure-fire way to end up a persona non grata in colonial society, and as for taking a local wife and converting to Islam or Hinduism – which was not unheard of in the 18th century – perish the thought! But the trouble was, turbans had seemed like such a good idea for travel on hot days…


Topi, heading south…

And so, enter the sola topi as a distinctly European replacement. The peculiar belief that you absolutely had to wear one if you didn’t want to lose your wits quickly developed. On one level, this idea of a morbid climate for which English folks were constitutionally unsuited was ideologically handy. It implied an essential distance from the place and people they ruled, and made it clear that any sort of acculturation – “going native” – was not only morally but also physically impossible (try telling the boys from the barracks, out roistering with their rum-jonnies that – but so long as you didn’t talk about such things, all was well).

But there was also a simpler truth: the topi was, ultimately, an uncomplicated badge of imperial identity.


The sola topi gradually began to go out of fashion in the early 20th century, and though there were plenty of stick-in-the-muds who clung to theirs until the very last, by the time the sun finally set on the British Empire there were a fair few travellers who had realised that a simple panama hat – or even a knotted hankie – would do instead. And of course, as sunbathing Brits spread-eagled on baking beaches from Bali to Barbados demonstrate, these days the average travelling Englishperson has no fear whatsoever of the midday sun…

© Tim Hannigan 2018

Surabaya: before sunrise

DSC_0530 (2)I’ve been thinking a lot about Surabaya, after the dreadful events there at the weekend. The city was my main base in Indonesia, on and off, between 2006 and 2012, and I miss it in sudden unexpected moments. For me, Surabaya was always a night city. In the white heat of the day it could feel flattened, dulled. But after dark – which comes in early there, and with the quickness of a drape falling – the city seemed to rise up into itself. Here’s a piece I wrote about Surabaya during its waking, nocturnal hours for the Jakarta Post’s Weekender magazine in December 2007.


5.30pm; Saturday. From the high rooftop of Tunjungan Plaza the sprawl of red-tiled houses curves away in all directions. A late flight to Jakarta is roaring westward through the paling sky, and the lights of the big advertising hoardings are flickering on. The sun – a crimson thumbprint in the murky air of the East Java capital – touches the horizon.

“Allaaaaaaah uh Akbar…” From the city below the call to Maghrib prayer rings out into the dusk. Night has fallen over Surabaya.


Every town shows a different face at night, and Surabaya, a vast collection of villages by day, seems like a real city after dark. Tonight I plan to stay awake until dawn, criss-crossing the city by motorbike, exploring its nocturnal side.


7pm; the traffic is at its thickest now, roaring through the web of one-way streets that wrap around Surabaya’s modern downtown. The crushing heat of the day has passed and people are outside, relaxing; cafes and ice cream parlors are packed. Taman Bungkul, one of Surabaya’s few public spaces, is crowded with families. Teenagers in baggy jeans practice their skateboard tricks on the ramps and railings, and kids play with the cheap plastic toys sold by wandering vendors. And I am hungry.

Food is a passion in Surabaya, and the best place to eat is on the streets. Since sunset the roadsides have been lined with makeshift cafes. Each has a specialty, from the ubiquitous nasi goreng, to obscure regional dishes. Some are mediocre, some are excellent, and some are famous. Roti Bakar Citras is in the latter category. On a roaring side-street off Jalan Kertajaya, wonky tables are set up along a narrow strip of pavement. I order a sweet coffee – the first of many tonight – and one of Citras’ famed toasted sandwiches.


000023.JPGa9.30pm; north of the city centre, past the Heroes’ Monument, towering into steamy darkness, along dark streets to Chinatown… The thoroughfare of Kembang Jepun is closed to traffic, and plastic chairs and tables are set out under the red Chinese lanterns. This is Kya Kya, the al fresco dining strip held every night. At the end of the street a gaggle of women – of a certain age – are slyly knocking back Bintang beer and dancing enthusiastically to karaoke dangdut.

From Kya Kya I drive east, way out into the suburbs along streets where lamps burn in simple night stalls, and burly security guards lounge at the gates of middle class compounds. Jembatan Merr, the bridge over the Kali Jagir River, is packed. Pavements are lined with worn mats and low tables, crowded with young couples. Coffee again for me, and some steamed peanuts in a twist of old newspaper from a vendor. It is after 11 o’clock and I notice that the traffic has thinned, only a few motorbikes streaking through the night. I finish my coffee, drop a few coins in the cup of the buskers playing battered guitars, and head back for the centre.


Tengah malam – midnight. The downtown streets have an edgier feel. Shops and restaurants are closed, though here and there lights blaze in an all-night warung or internet café. Huge mobs of youths in skin-tight jeans and black sweatshirts crowd the pavements, vigorously revving the engines of their motorbikes. Every Saturday these motorbike gangs gather in Surabaya, racing along dark streets and cruising the city in convoy. I fall in among one of the gangs for a while, and they call out cheerily to me despite their sinister appearance: “Hello mister! Good evening!”

I make a sharp turn into a side street to avoid a police checkpoint and head north again. The streets of the Old City are eerily empty. I catch the smell of garlic and onion skins, and see one ghostly becak creaking through the night. This part of the city, with its narrow alleys and derelict shop-houses, is a creepy place at night and I am glad when I see bright lights on a street between Chinatown and the Arab Quarter. Men in rubber boots are lugging barrels of fish from trucks and tough Madura women are haggling over prices. The fish market has been open since late afternoon and the ground is slimy underfoot. The air is pungent with fish and kretek cigarette smoke.


Tiredness creeps up. The dark band of the Kalimas River cuts through the night as I speed along empty streets. The next two hours blur into a jumble of brief images: a pair of youths in hooded sweatshirts furtively marking a wall with graffiti; a group of men seated around a television in a narrow, blue-walled room; streetwalkers of questionable gender stepping suddenly from the shadows; the shark-and-crocodile statue that commemorates Surabaya’s founding myth starkly white in the darkness; an enormous transvestite in a limp red dress striding along the cracked pavement, and the shadowy outlines of becak, loaded with mysterious bundles, rolling through the gloom.

I am tired, and hungry, and surprisingly cold. I find a simple all-night café on Jalan Mayjend Sungkono. Indonesian pop music is playing on the stereo, and a boy with weary eyes serves me a bowl of Madurese soto and a cup of sweet, grainy coffee. A shining SUV pulls up on the street outside. Three obviously drunk men stumble out and order food. I have a good idea where they have come from: most of Surabaya may be sleeping, but there’s a place where there’s still something going on.


000025.JPGb3am – Jalan Dolly. Somewhere among the graveyards and working-class kampungs on the high ground above the Banyu Urip Canal the narrow streets of Dolly and Jalan Jarak are packed. Taxis and motorbikes clog the road and the throb of high-volume dangdut music shakes the air. This is Surabaya’s most notorious corner, claimed – wrongly, apparently – to be Southeast Asia’s biggest red light district. Wonky neon signs glow along the shop-fronts and bright strip lights shine in big-windowed “guesthouses” where bored women with blond-streaked hair and short skirts lounge on sofas, waiting. I’m too tired to face the rough gloom of the dangdut bars, so I opt for a soft drink at a roadside stall. No one bothers me and the place seems lively, almost festive. But I remember the reports I read almost weekly in the Jawa Pos of trafficked women, some of them horrifyingly young, in the brothels here.


As I leave Dolly I sense a change in the rhythm of the night. The darkness is as heavy as ever, but there is a little more traffic on the roads: the people who have been awake all night are beginning to meet the early risers of the coming day.

Beside the river the Keputran vegetable market is a blaze of light. All night trucks have been rolling in from the East Java hinterland and porters squelch through the mud under enormous loads of carrots, onions and beans. The workers and stallholders seem to get through the night on a brew of ready humor, and I am met with cheerful greetings and bursts of riotous laughter. Then I hear something above the voices: the loudspeaker of a mosque across the river has been switched on and a taped prayer is playing into the darkness. The end of the night is within reach.000021.JPGb


From the market I drive south through silent suburbs until I reach Mesjid al-Akbar, the Great Mosque, better known as Mesjid Agung. The summit of the Ottoman-style minaret is floodlit, burning like a candle flame against the blackness. As I arrive men in clean white shirts and loose tartan sarongs are hurrying up the steps and into the cavernous interior. I can hear the low hum of traffic on the toll road beyond the mosque, and birds are singing in the darkness. Through the arched doorway I see the men forming neat lines, facing towards Mecca, their backs to a faint white stain on the eastern edge of the night. A woman in a loose head-covering pads swiftly across the marble floor and suddenly the loudspeakers crackle into action. “Allaaaaaaah uh Akbar…” The men bow and kneel in unison; the night is over.


As I ride away from the mosque people are out jogging in the first light. Buses and trucks are rolling on the big streets now and a pearly color is leaching into the sky. The new day is beginning and Surabaya is showing a different face. But I am going to bed…

© Tim Hannigan 2018

From the vaults: Melanie Phillips and ‘the terrorist threat’

Earlier this week, Melanie Phillips published a column in the Times, headlined ‘Islamophobia is a fiction to shut down debate’. I’ll make no comment on the piece here, but this response from Nicky Woolf in The New Statesman does the necessary.

Reading Woolf’s deconstruction of Phillip’s argument brought on a bout of scholarly nostalgia. A decade ago I wrote a dissertation titled With Us of Against Us: Moral Panic, Orientalism and the Reporting of ‘The Terrorist Threat’.

As the title suggests, I framed media coverage of ‘post-9/11’ terrorism in terms of familiar theories around moral panic, then historicised them by means of ‘Orientalism’ (and pre-colonial proto-Orientalism, actually). The central section featured discourse analyses of three comment pieces, all responding to a single incident (the Mumbai attacks of late 2008), one each from the biggest selling British dailies in the traditional newspaper sectors – broadsheet, mid-market and ‘red-top’ tabloid. There was a piece by Ed Husain (who we don’t seem to hear so much from these days) in The Telegraph; a ‘The Sun Says’ editorial, and a column in the Mail by the perennial Melanie Philips.

I dug it out of the vaults yesterday evening and took a look. It’s interesting to see what’s changed – not a word of IS, of course, but much discussion of al-Qaeda (though I seem, perhaps, to have caught a moment of shift in that respect). What hasn’t changed, though, is Melanie Phillips…

Here, as a sort of curio, is the section looking at her piece, and the subsequent conclusion.


Text Two: Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail, 01/12/08; ‘The Mumbai atrocity is a wake-up call for a frighteningly unprepared Britain’

This is a longer, more complex piece, opening with a series of rhetorical questions about the nature of the Mumbai attacks, and the ‘motives’ of the ‘terrorists’, and then proceeding to ‘answer’ them in definitive fashion. But its fundamental argument is, like that of the Sun, that Britain is under threat, but is “frighteningly unprepared”, that “we don’t know what we are up against”, and that more must be done.

There are some key differences between this piece and the earlier text, however. The first piece was not attributed to any individual writer, and was presented as the opinion of ‘the Sun’ as a single entity. This piece is not only attributed to a named writer; it is by a regular ‘opinion’ columnist whose views are not necessarily those of the paper in which they appear. This immediately creates a slightly different relationship between the text and its readership: this is an individual stating an opinion, rather than the newspaper (and perhaps its readership) speaking with one voice. And indeed, in this piece Phillips to some extent separates herself from the ‘national we’.

I will deal first with the terms used in this text to label ‘the threat’. In the text from the Sun this labelling was simple: an initial “terrorist” segued to a consistent use of “Muslim”, which, possibly unintentionally, carried an implication: that “terrorist” equals “Muslim”. There is no such consistency here.

In labelling the ‘threat’, the term “Islamist” (that which I consider most appropriate) appears here, eight times in total. But this is by no means the only label used. Within this piece, as well as “Islamist”, Phillips identifies the threat as “terrorists” (sometimes unappended; sometimes tagged with “Islamist”), “fanatics”, “attackers”, “extremists”, “fundamentalists”, “militants”, the fetchingly alliterative “Islamic fundamentalist fanatics”, “home grown radicalisation”, “violent extremism”, and “a capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe”. There are also two references to “Al Qaeda [sic]”. Almost the entire gamut of potential labels is here.

We know that “labelling, defining and interpreting the problem” (Critcher, in Allan, 2005: 179) is a key aspect of the process of moral panic. But the use of over a dozen different terms, none of them particularly definitive, to label ‘the problem’ in this text highlights something important about ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic: the problem has not been definitively labelled; a satisfactory vocabulary has not been created. Because of this a wide range of terms is used. But if the ‘problem’ has a multitude of imprecise names, it is difficult precisely to identify it. And in attempts to make sense of ‘the threat’ it is natural to search for a constant in this unsatisfactory vocabulary. The consequence of this is manifest in the first text from the Sun: there is a perceivable constant in this sprawling vocabulary from ‘al Qaeda’ to ‘home grown radical’; the constant is ‘Muslim’. And so, as in the Sun, ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslim’ are conflated, and therefore Muslims, already long-subjected to hostile othering, become identified with ‘terrorists’ whether they are in fact ‘extremist’ or otherwise.

But in this text the word ‘Muslim’ is actually used very judiciously. It appears five times in the piece, but is never used directly to label ‘the threat’. That troublesome term ‘al-Qaeda’ is also used judiciously.

But despite – or arguably because of – this avoidance of sloppy use of ‘al-Qaeda’, a powerful implication remains. Phillips avoids labelling the Mumbai attacks ‘al-Qaeda’; she uses only generic terms that do not imply an organised group. She references “home grown radicals” in the UK, “Islamists” in general, and the specific, localised conflicts involving Islamist violence in Thailand, Nigeria and the Philippines, without suggesting the involvement of an ‘organisation’. And yet she also uses the phrase “a capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” to describe ‘the threat’. This could be seen as a contradiction: ‘home grown’ British Islamists, regional conflicts in Southeast Asia – these are surely disparate issues. And indeed, Phillips seems never to suggest that they are organisationally linked. Yet a “capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” has connotations of an identifiable, unified entity, an organisation (the very way in which al-Qaeda is so often portrayed).

It is possible to read through this apparent contradiction: in all the inconsistent vocabulary used to label ‘the threat’ in this text, that same implied, latent constant remains: ‘Muslim’. And if there is a “capable and motivated enemy spanning the globe” which has not been identified as an organisation, then the connotation could be that this ‘enemy’ is simply Muslims – all of them.


The ‘enemy’, the threatening other, in this text, then, is Muslims. But there is also reference to a ‘we’. The ‘we’ here is not treated in the same was as in the Sun. In that text the voice of the Sun is identified with that of the ‘national we’, at odds with ‘them’ – the Muslims, and the unresponsive ‘non-us’ of the Government. Here, instead of differentiating the ‘we’ and the state authorities, Phillips conflates them and differentiates herself from the ‘we’: “we don’t understand what we are actually up against, we are not doing nearly enough to prevent this [my italics]” she writes; “Britain is still in a trance of denial”.

But Phillips makes it clear that she understands precisely “what we are actually up against”. She does this with a series of declarative statements about the nature of ‘the threat’ such as: “it has nothing to do with Muslim poverty, oppression or discrimination” (these are in fact opinions, but the use of the declarative structure presents them as ‘fact’). In this Phillips presents herself as a ‘maverick voice’, separate from the broader national ‘we’ (this is, to some extent, the convention for such ‘radical’ commentators).

The fundamental difference between this text and that from the Sun, then, is the object of its address. The Sun’s piece is presented as addressed to the Government on behalf of a ‘national mainstream’ at once identified with and indistinguishable from the Sun itself. This piece by an identified columnist is instead addressed at a ‘we’ in which government and national mainstream are conflated.

But despite this subtle difference in the target of the texts, what they both have to say is essentially the same: the ‘threat’ is Muslims, and ‘we’ need to “get tough”.

Summary and conclusion

Though there is a perceptible decline in the coherence – and therefore the force – of the argument across these three texts, from the Sun with its clear defining of ‘us and them’, and of its demands, to the ambiguity of Ed Husain in the Telegraph, they share a common position: there is a ‘threat’, “a war is being waged against civilisation”, and “short-sighted politicians” are not doing enough about it.

This conceiving of a ‘threat’ and demanding of action from the authorities is a familiar part of the process of moral panic. That all three of these texts appeared in response to one specific ‘terrorist incident’ demonstrates the way in which ‘the terrorist threat’ has developed as prompt for panic. I would argue that the idea of ‘the terrorist threat’ as a whole, the genesis of which in the widest public and media consciousness can probably be identified as ‘9/11’, now forms a constant ‘super-panic’. Individual ‘terrorist’ events – such as the Mumbai attacks – prompt individual moral panics within that ‘super-panic’. The media response to these panics-within-panic is very rapid, with the identifying and (unsatisfactory) labelling of the ‘problem’, the agenda formulation and the demands for action, coming almost instantly. This is because a discourse on ‘the terrorist threat’ already exists; the language, the claims, the demands are already in place.

What is not in place however, as I have shown in this analysis, is an adequate vocabulary. Almost eight years since the inception of the ‘super-panic’ the ‘threat’ has yet to be satisfactorily labelled. This leads to either incoherence, the questionable use of ‘al-Qaeda’, or the conflation of the ‘threat’ with its only obvious unifying connector – Islam – and the identifying of ‘Muslims’ in general as ‘the threat’. That 1400 years of folk memory, and an Orientalist discourse in which Muslims are a threatening other already exists only makes this easier.

It is interesting that despite the sprawling vocabulary used to label ‘the threat’ in the pieces by Phillips and Husain, the term ‘al-Qaeda’ (with its connotations of an organised group) is hardly used at all. In all the reports of the Mumbai attacks in my initial sample, there are only oblique references to ‘al-Qaeda’. This suggests the possible beginnings of a shift away from the kind of uncorroborated usage of this term that was prevalent a few years ago.

I believe that a shift away from instant, uncorroborated use of ‘al-Qaeda’ to label any incidence of Islamist violence would be a positive development: suggesting that ‘the threat’ is a formal organization is likely to lead to the formulation of different agendas and responses to those that might be formulated for a ‘threat’ that can merely be identified as an ideology and a motivation. The term ‘al-Qaeda’ will probably still be around for some time, however: journalists “find it a lot easier to sell a story to a news editor if they can involve bin Laden” (Burke, 2007: 18). And because of that deeply unsatisfactory vocabulary for describing and labelling ‘the terrorist threat’, when attempting to view ‘home-grown’ British suicide bombers, Iraqi insurgents and Thai rebels as somehow part of a single phenomenon, there are only currently two obvious means available: ‘al-Qaeda’, and ‘Islam’. Neither is appropriate.


At no point in the course of this dissertation have I suggested that ‘the terrorist threat’ does not exist: it does; manifestly. But on the basis of my research here I would argue that what does not exist is a satisfactory definition of what that ‘threat’ actually is. There is no vocabulary, no set of definitive words with clear, unambiguous meanings with which accurately to describe it. This, I believe, is a problem.

In the text from the Mail, Melanie Phillips states that “if we don’t understand what we are fighting, we cannot defeat it”. There is a certain irony here: this line concludes a text in which she has used at least 12 different terms to label ‘the threat’, none of them offering a precise definition. Phillips has no more idea of what “it” is – or at least no more ability to explain – than the next person.


Throughout this dissertation I have framed the basic media response to ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic: a ‘problem’ appeared; it was labelled and defined in a stylised and stereotypical (and deeply unsatisfactory) fashion; a response was demanded and formulated (‘getting tough’ and the ‘war on terror’). But there are a number of points about ‘the terrorist threat’ as moral panic that are unusual. The first is its longevity. Few other panics have maintained such a high media profile for such a long period. This has allowed the development of what I have termed a ‘super-panic’. This ‘super-panic’ is the continuous panic-driven media discourse on ‘the terrorist threat’. Within this ‘super-panic’, specific events prompt episodes of a smaller scale: rapidly unfolding panics-within-panic. In the media response to an event like the Mumbai attacks, the key elements of moral panic are identifiable – the identifying and (unsatisfactory) labelling of the problem, the agenda-setting, the demands. But because the routine of a ‘terrorist threat’ panic is well practiced, because the demands and agendas are already in place, these panics-within-panic unfold at high speed, with all of Cohen’s (2002) and Critcher’s (2005) stages of moral panic sometimes being identifiable within a single newspaper editorial.

It is also possible to see the ‘terrorist threat’ super-panic as part of some even wider phenomenon. Andy Beckett writes that:

[O]ur striking susceptibility during the 90s to other anxieties – the millennium bug, MMR, genetically modified food – [was] a sort of dress rehearsal for the war on terror. The press became accustomed to publishing scare stories and not retracting them; politicians became accustomed to responding to supposed threats rather than questioning them; the public became accustomed to the idea that some sort of apocalypse might be just around the corner. (Beckett, 2004)

The media response to ‘the terrorist threat’ appeared in this existing framework of regular moral panics where the media routine was already well-rehearsed. It could be argued, then, that the media response to an event like the Mumbai attacks is a moral panic, played out at high speed, within the ever-present ‘terrorist threat’ super-panic, which in turn is the ultimate manifestation of something even larger – a ‘mega-panic’ perhaps. So we have panic-within-panic-within-panic in a finely practiced routine.

But – and this is the central finding of my research here – what we do not have, despite this vast framework of moral panic, is a clear definition of ‘the problem’. I identify two main reasons for this situation.

The first is due to the initial ‘post 9/11’ oversimplification of the ‘problem’. In the early prosecution of the ‘war on terror’ – namely the invasion of Afghanistan – ‘the threat’ was much more definitively labelled than it is today: Osama bin Laden, and an organised ‘al-Qaeda’. But in the years since, that the ‘threat’ is rather more complex has been abundantly demonstrated in the form of ‘home-grown’ suicide bombers, instability in far-flung corners of the world, and the framing of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as part of the ‘war on terror’.

Though the concept of an organised ‘al-Qaeda’ clearly does remain, my research suggests that it may be becoming less readily used. In the ten stories about the Mumbai attacks in my initial sample, not once was the event tagged as ‘al-Qaeda’, or even ‘al-Qaeda-linked’. But as the ‘al-Qaeda’ label (which, though inaccurate, is at least definitive) becomes less common, nothing replaces it; no new, absolute term to describe ‘the threat’ has appeared. Instead we have the sprawling collection of imprecise terms that appear in the pieces by Melanie Phillips and Ed Husain. This may in part simply be because ‘the threat’ is beyond definition – it is sprawling itself; it would be much better viewed as multiple ‘threats’.

But there is another reason: in the process of moral panic as described by Critcher “labelling, defining and interpreting the problem and its perpetrators” (Critcher, in Allan, 2005: 179) occurs at an early stage. If that initial label and definition (in this case bin Laden and ‘al-Qaeda’) collapses at a later stage – which may now be beginning to happen – long after the agendas have been set, the claims legitimised, the actions demanded, then there is no need to replace it. Indeed to do so would likely prove impossible: you cannot stop a moral panic and start it all over again once it has already begun.

The other reason I identify for this absence of a defining vocabulary is that an idea of ‘Muslims’ as a threatening other existed long, long before the emergence of the current ‘terrorist threat’. Connecting ‘the threat’ to Islam instantly provided a pre-existing discourse with which to approach it: that of Orientalism and ancient hostility.

Often in the reporting and discussion of ‘the terrorist threat’ there is a latent suggestion (perhaps unintentional) that the threat is simply ‘Muslims’ in general. This suggestion was fairly overt in the editorial text from the Sun that I analysed; it was also perceivable in Melanie Phillips’ column. This identifying of ‘the threat’ as Muslims happens partly because of the absence of an otherwise useful vocabulary (only ‘Muslim’ identifiably links ‘home-grown radical’ with ‘Thai insurgent’). But it also happens because a sense of a threatening Muslim other has a very long pedigree in ‘the West’.


To conclude: the moral panic response to the ‘terrorist threat’ may have been inevitable, but its development has certain features that are linked directly to the idea of a threatening Muslim other, and as such, form an aspect of a continuing Orientalist discourse. The use of crude yet imprecise labels, the ready conflation of ‘Muslim’ with ‘terrorist’, and also the lingering concept of an organised ‘al-Qaeda’: none of this helps the formulation of clear agendas and responses to this particular ‘problem’ (which really ought to be termed problems in the plural).

In 1981 Edward Said wrote the following in criticism of reductive terms:

Respect for the concrete detail of human experience, understanding that arises from viewing the Other compassionately, knowledge gained and diffused through moral and intellectual honesty: surely these are better, if not easier, goals at present than confrontation and reductive hostility.  And if in the process we can dispose finally of both the residual hatred and the offensive generality of labels like ‘the Muslim,’ ‘the Persian,’ ‘the Turk,’ ‘the Arab,’ or ‘the Westerner’ then so much the better” (Said, 1981:xxxi).

Three decades later it is hard to be optimistic about this: until we have some better, more appropriate, more meaningful alternative we will continue to use ‘the Muslim’, ‘the Persian’, ‘the Turk’ (or their modern equivalents), and indeed ‘the Westerner’. And in this respect it is hard to foresee any more positive developments in the public, media and Government responses to ‘the terrorist threat’.  In this much at least, Melanie Phillips is right, though perhaps not in the sense that she intends: “if we don’t understand what we are fighting, we cannot defeat it”.

© Tim Hannigan 2018

A (non-crispy) Rendang Recipe

In light of the current BBC Masterchef “crispy rendang” controversy, here is my own “hot take” (hot as in pedas, that is): my personal rendang recipe (beef, rather than chicken), based on much eating of Padang cuisine over the years:

Amongst the pyramid stacks of loaded plates in the window of every Nasi Padang restaurant in Indonesia – be it a grimy concrete room in a fishing port in Nusa Tenggara or an air-conditioned dining hall in downtown Jakarta – there is always one bigger bowl. Its contents are as ominously dark as a monsoon thunderhead, looking more like something mined from the depths of an old volcano than cooked in a kitchen. The flavour too seems to come from somewhere earthy and ancient: hints of garlic and ginger rendered far beyond their last traces of astringency; the citrus tang of lemongrass and lime leaves, somehow matured and deepened; and a ghost of coconut and chilli. The name of this dish is rendang, the essential base note of all Padang cuisine.

A dish described as rendang sometimes turns up on the menus of pan-Asian restaurants in Western countries. It is often quite delicious, but it most certainly is not rendang; it’s usually more like a Thai red curry. For the point about real rendang is that it is dry. There was a sauce, it’s true; but its alchemical vanishing is the crux of the cooking process.


In the Minangkabau villages of western Sumatra in times past there was no electricity, still less refrigeration. When a cow or a buffalo was slaughtered and distributed amongst the families there was a great need to do something with it that would fend off decay – and that something was rendang. A slow, deep, spice-laden cooking process to simmer away the liquids and draw out the natural oils creates meat that will keep for several weeks. But more importantly, it also creates one of the most complexly flavoured of all Indonesian dishes.

There is magic in the long procedure of cooking rendang, and the first time you try it you may well feel a pang of regret as you watch what looks like a very decent curry sauce slowly vanishing before your eyes. But rest assured, you are creating something far more substantial.


Ingredients (serves four)

  • 1kg of beef, diced as if for a stew – I cannot stress enough how important it is that the beef should be from a cheap cut with a fairly high fat content. Shin/shank is absolutely ideal. Using a more expensive cut is not only a waste of money; the rendang actually won’t taste as good.
  • 2 cans of coconut cream, or dried coconut cream powder, made up with water to 800ml
  • 4 kaffir lime leaves – Try to find fresh lime leaves if possible; Asian supermarkets often have fresh-frozen ones that work really well. Otherwise the dry ones you find in mainstream supermarkets are just about better than nothing. If all else fails, replace the lime leaves with the zest of a normal lime.
  • 1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar
  • Juice of half a lime, or half a tablespoon of tamarind paste
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil


For the spice paste

  • A 3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled
  • A 3cm piece of galangal – If you can’t get galangal, the recipe still works well without it; simply double the quantity of ginger instead.
  • 2 sticks of lemon grass with the green outer leaves stripped off, roughly chopped
  • 5 large cloves of garlic
  • 10 small shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 teaspoons of ground coriander seed
  • 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Chilli to your taste – Two medium-size red chillies work well, but you could add more if you like some fire, or less if you don’t.
  1. Take all the ingredients for the spice paste. You have two choices here. The quickest, easiest option is simply to throw them all into a blender and blitz them to a smooth paste in a matter of seconds (if you do this, you should slice the lemon grass thinly by hand first, to avoid ending up with stringy fibres in the paste). However, an Indonesian cook would pound them by hand, and I do recommend using a pestle and mortar if you have one. Not only does this let each flavour element keep its integrity in the finished dish; you also get to enjoy the tantalising scents of ginger, garlic and lemongrass as they slowly succumb to your efforts. If you do use a pestle and mortar you’ll have to work at it for a good while to get the paste smooth – adding a splash of oil at the start helps.
  2. Add the oil to a thick-bottomed pan – and it really does need to be thick-bottomed – and place it over a high heat. When the oil is hot but not quite smoking add the spice mix and fry it for around two minutes until it begins to darken. You’ll need to keep stirring it vigorously at this stage.
  3. Add the beef pieces and continue to fry on a high heat for around three minutes, until everything has picked up a good deal of colour.

Add the sugar, lime juice/tamarind, lime leaves, and coconut cream. If you’ve managed to get hold of fresh (or fresh-frozen) lime leaves there’s a magical moment as their scent comes rocketing out of the pan in an instant evocation of far-off street markets. As soon as the liquid comes up to the boil turn the heat down to the lowest possible level, and leave to simmer until almost all the liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally. This should take around two hours. If the liquid is vanishing too quickly, top it up with a little warm water.

Seasoning rendang is a little tricky. If you taste the liquid at an early stage, it will certainly be under-seasoned. However, if you immediately add more salt the finished dish will likely end up over-seasoned. It’s important to add some salt to the spice mix, but you’ll need to wait to the very end to get the seasoning just right.

  1. After a couple of hours the liquid will have reduced to a thick gloop, coating the beef pieces, and beginning to catch on the bottom of the pan. If you look closely you’ll see that it has taken on a gloss, with little beads of oil forming on the surface. The natural oil from the beef, the garlic and shallots, and the spices has now been drawn out. At this point it’s time for the final, fast-paced part of the process. Turn up the heat and you’ll instantly hear a sizzle as the rendang begins to fry in its own oil. You’ll need to keep stirring vigorously for the next two or three minutes, and the entire colour and consistency of the dish will change dramatically before your eyes, the last liquid vanishing and the meat darkening to a rich, chocolaty tone. Make sure that the meat has taken on a good deal of colour from the frying, add a little more salt to taste, and the rendang is finished. Tempting as it is to tuck straight in, it will taste much better if you save it for the next day – or the day after that.


Cook’s Notes

English-language recipes for rendang often reduce the cooking time, but the two hours suggested here really is the minimum required to sufficiently deepen the flavours and draw out the oils; some Indonesian cooks take half a day over it. English-language recipes also often include spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, but I’ve never seen these used for making rendang in Indonesia, and I suspect that the authors simply add them for extra culinary exoticism. They create peculiar fruity notes that have no business in rendang.

Some Indonesian cooks omit the initial fry of the spices and the meat. Instead they simply throw the raw spice paste into the coconut cream and simmer it until droplets of oil start to rise to the surface, before tossing in the uncooked meat. This works well enough, but you’ll find an astringency from the raw garlic, still lingering at the end. Indonesian cooks also usually use a huge number of shallots – quantities never replicated in English-language rendang recipes, for some reason. To cook the quantity of rendang described here, some Indonesians would use as many as 20 shallots! They actually make very little difference to the flavour, but they do bulk out the paste, leaving more of a coating in the finished dish.

Several hard-to-find ingredients are often used to make rendang in Indonesia. The galangal and tamarind can be replaced by extra ginger and lime juice, as mentioned in the list above, and if you can’t find kaffir lime leaves the zest of a regular lime will just about work as a stand-in. Other ingredients that sometimes turn up in Indonesian versions include kandis, a sour fruit of the garcinia family, but this is simply an alternative to tamarind or lime juice. Candlenuts also sometimes feature. You can replace these with cashews, but they add little to the flavour of the rendang, and their thickening properties are of no value in this cooking process.

As a Padang dish, rendang isn’t really meant to be served alone. As well as rice, Padang-style yellow curry sauce makes a good accompaniment. Indonesians usually eat rendang cold, but reheating it will bring all sorts of subtle flavour notes to the fore. Finally, for a flagrantly inauthentic but fragrantly fabulous way of serving rendang, reheat it as a sort of instant curry in a little extra coconut cream with a pinch of freshly chopped lime leaves.

© Tim Hannigan 2018