Author Archives: Tim Hannigan

Ten Years of Scribbling

Yesterday I received an email. It was from a fellow hack writer, based in the States, who had been involved with a big “digital content” project I worked on a couple of years back. She was scrabbling around for work leads, as we do, and she wondered if I had any scraps to throw her way. Sadly I didn’t. In her sign-off she mentioned that it was ten years since she started out as a freelancer. It would never have occurred to me otherwise, but once I’d replied to her message I got to thinking: it must be around ten years since I started out too. I checked, and it turned out that it was precisely ten years ago today – 18 March – that my first piece of published travel writing appeared – paid for! – on the front page of the Sunday supplement of The Jakarta Post. It was a piece about trekking on Gunung Rinjani in Lombok (the trip itself took place in October 2006, I think; it was a while before it made it into print). The title and subheads were the work of the editor, Jim Read, who was kind enough to publish various whimsical travelogues that I subsequently wrote, as was Bruce Emond, who captained the JP’s glossy Weekender magazine (sadly no more). Here’s the piece, in full; it’s a bit purple, but it was a start anyway:

Gunung RinjaniPure elation on reaching Rinjani’s summit at dawn

Originally Published in The Jakarta Post, 18/03/07

It was 5.30 a.m., and bitterly cold. A broad saffron stain was spilling into the milky-gray sky over Sumbawa, and the green of the Sembalum valley was forming from the gloom.

The wind of the night had dropped to nothing, and despite the chill the sweat was dripping from the tip of my nose. Glancing back, I could see the flashlights of the other trekkers flickering along the ridge.

To my left a fearsome void opened in a sheer drop to the crater lake, and to the right the plummeting sweep of the volcano’s north wall ran down towards a pale sea. Ahead of me, rough and imposing, was the summit of Gunung Rinjani. But I still had a hellish climb to get there.

***

Rinjani volcano towers over the beautiful island of Lombok in West Nusa Tenggara province. Rising from the sparkling rice terraces to a dizzying height of 3,726 meters, it is the second-highest volcanic peak in Indonesia.

Only Gunung Kerinci in Sumatra is higher, at 3805 metres. Unlike the smooth cones of Bali and Java, Rinjani is more a massif than a single peak: the huge crater is some six kilometres across, and shelters a deep lake.

The whole of the Rinjani area was gazetted as a national park in 1997, and the mountain is one of the most prized trekking destinations in Southeast Asia.

Preparing for the assualt

We had arrived at Lombok’s well-served Mataram Airport two days earlier, and spent the first night in Senggigi on the west coast. Tourist development on Lombok is low-key, though the island has many of the attractions of its illustrious western neighbor, Bali: stunning rural landscapes, beautiful golden sand beaches, a fascinating traditional culture, and of course, Rinjani.

Senggigi is the only major resort on Lombok with a full range of hotels and services. Kuta on the south coast – far removed from its famous Balinese namesake – is the other resort, although it is still unspoilt, with the atmosphere of a fishing village.

All travel agents and most hotels and guesthouses in Senggigi can organize Rinjani treks at short notice. Prices are negotiable depending on the size of the group, and after a couple of hours comparing and negotiating from operator to operator we were all set.

The next morning after a dawn ride from Senggigi up into the cool of the hills we had set out from the highland village of Sembalum Lawang, cupped in an ancient crater and famous for its garlic and onions.

Our party was a motley crew of Surabaya-based English teachers and others, and we were soon strung out along the path from the village. A warm wind was blowing through the yellow grass, the smudged outline of the summit rising in the distance.

We had hired porters to carry our bags and camping equipment. They were spectacularly tough Sasak men from the villages around the volcano, with a lifetime of work on the high slopes behind them.

They carried their loads delicately balanced on stout bamboo poles over their shoulders, and made their way up slippery scree slopes in rubber sandals.

Oldest and toughest of these was Pak Mohammad, a wiry, cheery man who smoked kretek cigarettes continuously. Our guide was a cheerful young man called Dipan. He was from the village of Senaru where we would finish the trek, and he had grown up in the shadow of Gunung Rinjani.

Worth all the effort

The first day’s walking was easy to begin with, the route bending over the rolling grasslands with the coastal plain hazy to the north. By late afternoon, however, we were struggling up a steep and winding path through sparse pine trees toward the ridge.

The air cooled as we left the sultry tropics far behind. The great Rinjani peak towered over us and the hills beyond Sembalum were dark.

We reached the ridge just before sunset. We watched as the light faded behind the black line of the far ridge, across the shining Segara Anak crater lake, then we made our way to the first campsite.

It was a cold and windy spot, at the foot of the steep rise towards the summit, but the views down to the lake on one side, and back towards the coast on the other were spectacular.

A couple of other trekking groups were camped out already, all planning to make the final climb to the summit in the early hours of the morning. We ate a hurried dinner of mie goreng (fried noodles), rustled up by the porters, then clambered into our tents.

***

It was bitterly cold when we stumbled into the darkness at 2.30 am. The plan was to reach the summit for a spectacular sunrise, and those of us foolhardy enough to try set out up the steep, slippery path after a cup of lukewarm, sweet tea.

I quickly pushed my way to the head of the group and was soon walking peacefully alone along the high ridge. Empty blackness opened to my right, and to my left the lights of the distant coastal villages glittered in the dark. Up above dozens of shooting stars streaked out of a clear sky.

The final climb to the summit was desperately hard. The path became loose gravel, rising at a steep angle, and the effects of the high altitude soon became apparent as I gasped for breath.

But it was all worth it when I reached the top in time to watch the sun creeping up above the flat-topped outline of Gunung Tambora on Sumbawa.

All of Lombok from the fish-hook of the port at Labuan Lombok, to the low stains of the Gili Islands was visible, and in the west the cone of Bali’s Gunung Agung loomed from the low cloud.

It was shockingly cold, but the elation of reaching the summit kept me warm as the other trekkers started to arrive.

As we rested in the brightening sunlight Dipan told me that local villagers believe that the mountain holds the key to eternal life. But to seek the secret is dangerous, and people have been turned to stone for trying.

Back at the campsite we ate a breakfast of banana pancakes, then started the descent to the lakeside.

Rewarding descent

Segara Anak Lake (“Child of the Sea” in Sasak language) is sacred to the people of Lombok. For the ethnically Balinese Hindus the waters are the Home of the Gods, and for the Sasaks too, some of who still cling to pre-Islamic beliefs, the waters are home to powerful spirits.

There are crude alters at the water’s edge, scattered with Balinese sesajen offerings, and during the annual Pakelem festival pilgrims make their way up from the villages to cast gold offerings into the lake.

Rinjani is still active, and rising from the lake is Gunung Baru (“New Mountain”), a volcano within a volcano that emerged from the waters in 1942, and erupted as recently as 1997.

While the porters prepared lunch we took advantage of this geothermal activity by washing away our aches and pains in the steaming hot springs that bubble from the rocks below the crater rim.

The afternoon saw us trekking uphill once more, following a beetling path along the northwest crater wall. The jagged dagger of the summit was fringed with cloud now, and the wind was singing in the trees.

But we were all elated when we reached the top of the ridge in the golden light of evening. From here it was downhill all the way to the beaches.

The second campsite was a warmer spot than the first, sheltered by the ridge and not far from the start of the dense forest that cloaks the lower slopes. We made our way into this forest the following morning, a welcome change from the barren landscape higher up.

***

The shaded humidity was a return to the tropics, and the canopy and undergrowth bustled with life. Grey macaque monkeys eyed us suspiciously from the branches, and rustling in the distance suggested the wild deer and forest pigs that live in Rinjani National Park.

Once we caught a glimpse of a pair of elusive ebony leaf monkeys, fleeing through the treetops.

We reached the trailhead village of Senaru at midday, weary and footsore. The Park office is located at Senaru, and there are a several simple guesthouses and restaurants. The area is also scattered with villages of rattan and bamboo where Sasak traditions are maintained.

But for us, tired and dirty, it was time to relax.

After fond farewells to Dipan and the porters we were on the road again, heading for the white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters of the Gili Islands where we could ease away the aches and blisters, and look back at the dark outline of Gunung Rinjani, looming to the east, with some satisfaction.

© Tim Hannigan 2017

History and Hostility

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Christianity in Java

History is everything; everything can be explained by the events of the past.

The apparent uptick in “religious intolerance” in Indonesia of late is a disturbing development in a notably religiously diverse country (Indonesia’s founding fathers certainly understood the danger to a fragile national unity represented by politicised religion). But at times in recent months minor incidents in Java have seemed to suggest an almost comic paranoia and insecurity amongst the aggrieved party – that is, some sectarianist Muslims. A hysterical response to the appearance of an obviously Muslim woman on a billboard advertising a Christian university; an outbreak of moral panic when some Muslim ibu pose near a kitschy statue of Christ…

It suggests a way of thinking in which Christianity is some highly contagious disease, with an apparently innocent selfie near a very bad statue every bit as dangerous as jabbing yourself with a junkie’s used needle. Even in the parts of the world where the persecution of minorities is generally a more deadly business there rarely seems to be such an air of paranoia. So why this apparent sense of insecurity around Christianity amongst some Muslims in Java?

As always, history explains.

Red and White: The Religion of Java

In the middle of the 20th century, very nearly 100 percent of the indigenous population of Central and East Java was Muslim – nominally, at least. The only non-Muslims were the geographically isolated Tenggerese (whose religious identity was probably not so obviously distinct from that of their neighbours then as it is today), a tiny and proportionally stable smattering of Christians descended from 19th-century missionary converts, and the ethnically distinct Chinese and other immigrant populations.

Of course, that great mass of Javanese Muslims amounted to no monolith. Anthropologists liked to divide them cleanly between a minority (and it was a very small minority in many places) of orthodox Muslims known as “Santri” (or sometimes, historically, “Putihan”, “the white ones”), and a heterodox majority known as “Abangan” (“the red ones”), who still identified as Muslim but who generally had little time for standard Islamic practice. This blunt two-way division was, of course, a gross oversimplification, and both categories contained almost limitless diversity of their own. But it is nonetheless a useful shorthand.

But then, suddenly, something changed. In the second half of the 1960s the Christian population of Central Java grew at an astonishing rate of almost 30 percent a year. The growth was often particularly pronounced in urban areas: Surakarta ended up almost a quarter Christian in its denominational make-up. In other places, entire villages which had been notionally Muslim (albeit of the Abangan variety) for hundreds of years turned Christian in the blink of an eye. Although the ultimate Christian percentage of the overall Javanese population never got beyond low single digits, at specific times in specific places it really could seem as though Christianity was spreading like wildfire amongst erstwhile nominal Muslims. (Elsewhere, something even more peculiar happened, and Java went from having virtually no indigenous Hindus, to having around 170,000 of them in the space of just five years.)

The prompt for all this, if it’s not already obvious, was the astonishing slaughter that swept Java in late 1965/early 1966, the anti-communist pogrom precipitated by the so-called “30 September Movement”.

The Law of Unintended Consequences, or “Why Two Million Came to Christ”

In the aftermath of the killings, across Indonesia, there was a push for proper adherence to one of the country’s officially recognised religions (at that time, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism). To not offer a clear demonstration of religious affiliation was to risk the taint of communism. In Java, given that virtually everyone was already officially Muslim, the expected upshot might have been a universal uptick in Islamic praying, fasting and alms-giving. But it didn’t turn out as simply as that.

Very broadly speaking, association with the Indonesian Communist Party, the PKI, was commonest in communities an anthropologist would have tagged “Abangan”, while some of the most vocal opposition to the PKI came from what that same anthropologist would have dubbed “Santris”. This, coupled with the direct participation in the killings by the youth wings of orthodox organisations such as the NU, gave orthodox, Santri-style Islam an unpalatable association with political violence for some of those Javanese (nominal Muslims still, remember) who had been on or close to its receiving end. For some of them it was so unpalatable that, under the new pressure for religious conformity, they turned elsewhere – to Christianity. (A trend in conversions to Christianity had actually begun before the killings – along the same lines of political polarisation and with ultimate origins in the earlier emergence of religious polarisation in the 19th century; but it was the slaughter of 1965-66 which turned it from a peripheral, statistically insignificant business into a bone fide phenomenon.)

Elsewhere, there were those – usually, though not always, in remote rural areas – who were particularly firmly committed to the syncretic traditional Javanese belief systems usually known as Kejawen, and who had long understood themselves to be a distinct counterpoint to the Santris, for all that they were technically Muslim themselves. For them a change to demonstrative mosque-going was equally unpalatable (it was from amongst this group that most of the Hindu conversions emerged, though these were always insignificant in overall number compared to the shift to Christianity).

The rate of the growth of Christianity tailed off after a few years, but in places it didn’t really stabilise until the 1980s. A delighted American Baptist missionary wrote a book about the episode called Indonesian Revival: Why Two Million Came to Christ

This, then, is surely the context when some zealots in the 21st century appear to be suffering from paranoid delusions and the belief that a passing housewife might spontaneously swoon into the arms of Jesus upon glancing at a cumbersome statue or glimpsing a photo of a jilbab-framed face amongst a beaming bunch of Christian scholars. The hypersensitivity seems likely to have its roots in the aggrieved memory of a moment when it really did seem as though an ascendant Christianity had remarkably contagious properties amongst a population of (sort of) Muslims. And the roots of that episode, like so much else in modern Indonesia, lie in the bloody abyss of the 1965-66 rainy season…

/////

For far more detailed background on all of this – and much, much more pertaining to the current religious make-up of Java besides – it’s well worth hunting out M.C. Ricklefs’ Islamisation and its Opponents in Java. For the context of the context, including the formation of the Abangan-Santri dichotomy and the beginnings of the small 19th-century Christian community, see his earlier book, Polarising Javanese Society, and for the context of the context of the context, look for Mystic Synthesis in Java. These are all thoroughly academic books, but don’t let that put you off. Most people know Ricklefs’ big standard history, A History of Modern Indonesia, but it turns out that his far more specialised works on the history of religious identity in Java are generally much more engaging. They have room for colour and anecdote and a very lively writing style, which sometimes gets squeezed out in his more general history.

© Tim Hannigan 2017

What Am I Doing Here/What I Am Doing Here

copy-of-dsc_0001-2I’m currently in the early stages of my M3C-funded PhD research on travel writing at the University of Leicester. I recently wrote a piece for the blog of the nice folks of the Journey Place Narrative research group at Plymouth University about the peculiar challenges of straddling the creative-critical frontier in travel writing studies. Here’s the intro; follow the link at the bottom to read the full piece…

What am I doing here/what I am doing here

I am sitting on the top floor of a university library, a space filled with the furtive rustle of fast fingers on laptop keyboards and the industrial rattle of roller stacks on the move. I’ve been sitting here, or hereabouts, for the last couple of months. When I first set up camp the view to my left – cut into long thin strips by a bank of window-mounted solar panels – was over a city swamped in paling greenery. Today it is wine-dark and smoky. I still feel a little like a trespasser…

Read on here…

© Tim Hannigan 2017

Book Review: Cove

cmr8ou0wiaa2ejbCove, by Cynan Jones
November 2016, Granta Books

The first echo is there in the physical form of the book itself: a slender pinch of pages, little thicker than a floor tile; a thing to be handled carefully as if it might break, and to be read with a delicate dabbing, like eating some rare dessert. The next echo is in the form of the story within: a man in a tiny boat, striving shoreward. And there’s an echo in the sparsity of the style too.

And yet somehow it isn’t until a nine-word paragraph, put delicately in place on the forty-sixth page – which, hereabouts, is halfway through the book – that the recognition passes under you like the bow-wave of a bigger ship:

You went out. You went out too far fishing.

Ah, yes. Of course.

Cormac McCarthy, Bruce Chatwin, and, above all here, Ernest Hemingway: these are clearly Cynan Jones’ writers – the writers that every young man wants to be, usually with disastrous results. It’s some measure of his skill that he can have those influences yet never descend to posturing and pastiche. It’s yet greater measure of his skill that he can have written a book which nods so very directly in the direction of The Old Man and the Sea, but which you can read almost without noticing as much.

All of Jones’ books have been slender volumes, and Cove is certainly short. Flicking through, you might mistake it for a book of poetry. Broad margins; acres of white space. There are pages where few of the paragraphs stretch further than a single line. The style is as careful as poetry too. I am a very slow reader, and I was stopping to reread a passage every few pages, to feel its sharp edges carefully. But I was still done in an hour and a half – an hour and a half during which I slowly hunched tighter and tighter over the book, with the noisy clatter of the café in which I was reading fading like the sound of the waves against the shore as you paddle for the horizon.

Put simply, the story of the book is this: an unnamed man – young, or youngish, rather than old here – heads out to sea to go fishing in a kayak, freighted with a recently deceased father, and the imminent birth of a child; a freakish lightning strike comes; there follows the terrible physical and mental ordeal of an attempted return towards shore with memory and body shattered. The location of the narrative is never stated, and yet you know, without doubt, that it is somewhere in west Wales, as it has been with all of Cynan Jones’ books. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons for his success in drinking down those strong influences: he’s eschewed the globetrotting and gallivanting of Hemingway and Chatwin, and swapped McCarthy’s vast Western spaces for the smallest thumbnail of Celtic coastline.)

In the story of this ordeal, Jones does the compelling stuff of physical endurance, of making do in extremis, familiar from The Old Man and the Sea or The Road: a line cutting into flesh; filleting a fish with one hand crippled; the task of paddling landwards made herculean by a lost paddle. There are also the moments of strange beauty that are often a feature of such tales: a sunfish, flapping against the plastic of the boat; a wren’s feather trapped in a mobile phone casing; a doll, adrift in the deep water. And there are images of the sort that mark the finest of observational writing: the imprints of barnacles left in the skin of a pregnant woman’s belly after bending over rocks at the shore.

But with never so few words he brings so, so much more to this story. His other books have also had the alchemic quality of the condensed epic. This was particularly the case with his debut, The Long Dry (which remains one of my very favourite books read in recent years). In the space of fewer than a hundred pages and in a narrative covering a single day, it managed to range hugely through two whole lives, voyage back through generations then – utterly devastatingly – into the near future, all while meditating magnificently on the corruptibility of the flesh.

With Cove, though, he pares things back to the very utmost, yet somehow leaves an enormous sense of a man in full (the book’s title, as the epigraph makes clear, is a double entendre: cove, a small inlet, and cove, a fellow, a man). Cove is like some experiment in mortifying asceticism, an experiment so successful that every word has significance and the simplest line on the starkest page can slap you hard like a sudden wave as you try to land a kayak on a steep beach in a running swell, leaving you – and I really do mean this, physically – struggling for a moment to catch your breath:

He could not picture her, but the sense of her came back.

It’s hard not to be hyperbolic about this book. If someone told you that a Welshman had written a sort of Wales-set twenty-first-century homage to The Old Man and the Sea that somehow manages – in even fewer words – to be a bigger, more emotionally loaded book, you’d be forgiven for laughing. But you shouldn’t laugh. You should buy Cove, and holding it very carefully, hunch yourself up over its pale pages, draw a deep breath, and begin to read…

© Tim Hannigan 2016

Indonesia Expat Article: Bengkulu

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Issue 170 of Indonesia Expat – which always has an interesting and eclectic array of articles – carried a piece of mine about Bengkulu, the erstwhile British outpost on the west coast of Sumatra.

Bengkulu is where Thomas Stamford Raffles ended up, after his departure in near-disgrace from Java, and generally the only attention is gets from writers and historians is as a sort of extended footnote in the Raffles story – and this despite the fact that he spent far longer there than he ever did in Singapore. But Bengkulu’s past brims with characters and stories, amongst which Raffles probably isn’t the most interesting. I’d love to write a book about the place one day, but for now this article will have to do…

British Bengkulu: A Forgotten Imperial Outpost

Bengkulu, October 1685: The fort stood atop a small hillock on the banks of a coffee-coloured creek. To the west the Indian Ocean stretched blank and white and empty. To the east the dark wall of the Bukit Barisan mountain range rose like a stalled tsunami, a grey curl of monsoon cloud spilling from its lip.

A European ship was moored offshore – the first of its kind to pass this way for many months. Inside the fort – little more than a few mouldering huts ringed by a wonky wooden palisade – two men were busy writing. Benjamin Bloome and Joshua Charlton, the English overseers of this sad little station, had been at their post since June 24, but the passing ship was only now providing them the chance to send a first message to their British East India Company overlords at Fort St. George at Madras in India. They filled 18 densely packed pages with restrained accounts of their frustrated attempts to establish an effective pepper trade before finally coming to the crux of the matter…

Read the full article online here…

© Tim Hannigan 2016

The Shepherd’s Life: A Challenge to Travel Writers

shepherdNature writing is the new travel writing. In the UK the last decade has seen those with itchy feet and literary ambitions turning away from foreign shores, and instead folding inwards towards fens and fields and fells. The books they have produced are often dubbed “New Nature Writing”. This is not simply some vacuous marketing phrase, for they really do differ from the works that went before. The “Old Nature Writing”, before the genre became fashionable, was generally done by real experts. Their books were more likely to be filed as “popular science” than as “literature”.

But many of the best-known – and indeed the best – of the New Nature Writers are amateurs, in the old and by no means disreputable sense: at large with a roving eye that skitters from science to literature, from geology to philosophy in the space of a few pages. Its’s a modus operandi which can, if done well, create an impression of formidable polymathy, and along with the dominant first-person narratives it reveals New Nature Writing for what it is: travel writing, by any other name. It’s as if Patrick Leigh Fermor had walked, not from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, but from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

Travel writing is my literary first love, so I have relished this newest incarnation of the genre. As the “Travel” shelves of bookshops have contracted to a slender yard of guidebooks, classics and comedy quests, there’s been solace in the concurrent swelling of the “Nature” (or sometimes “British Travel”) section. Some of my favourite nonfiction reads in recent years have come from these shelves: Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground; Patrick Barkham’s sprightly, nature-themed domestic travelogues; Tim Robinson’s magisterial multi-book engagement with Connemara (Ireland, admittedly, but on the cusp of the domestic when it comes to travel writing, apparently) ; and, of course, the works of Robert Macfarlane.

But at times the pleasure has been tempered by a sense of unease, for close reading reveals that New Nature Writing frequently suffers from many of the same issues which make travel writing the most ethically troublesome of literary genres. A reader with a sharp eye can spot the same contrived encounters, the same casual cutting and pasting of chronology – and perhaps even the same glib disregard for the actualité, a series of Songlines transposed onto a landscape of oak woods and hayfields. Travel writing’s preponderance of a white male gaze is there too (just look at the names I mentioned above!), and the same problems endure with that polymathic pose – often a particularly ersatz pose in this age of Wikipedia. But the biggest problem of all, and the main cause of my unease with New Nature Writing, is its relationship with what scholars sometimes call “the Travellee”: the inhabitants of the place that the travel writer passes through (or inhabits as an expat) – in short, what were once known as “the natives”…

***

There are many reasons for the apparent decline in the popularity of traditional travel writing. The rise of the internet; the easy availability of cheap air travel; the transient whims of the book-buying public and the commissioning editors who minister to them: these all have something to do with it. But perhaps a more fundamental cause is simply a lack of confidence. In a truly postcolonial age where old power dynamics have largely given way, it would take a certain supreme confidence – arrogance even – to go boldly in search of “the heart” of some foreign country, the language of which you speak imperfectly at best and the history and culture of which you come at only with the enthusiasm of an amateur. In the twenty-first century the image of an Oxbridge-educated Englishman at large in Central Asia with a book contract and a vintage copy of the Travels of Marco Polo can seem like the most appalling anachronism. Go back to the myriad travel books published during the 1990s; in even the best of them you’ll often find moments to make you cringe – moments which almost always involve encounters with or depictions of “the Travellee”, the natives…

New Nature Writing’s shift of focus towards the domestic, then, could be seen as the result of a crisis of confidence, travel writing cringing away from postcolonial complexities, going in search of badgers, hawks and otters because they seem so much safer for an ethically-aware author than nomadic tribesmen in some developing nation. If you stick to home ground, then you’re surely less likely to run unwittingly into the ghost of Edward Said, ready to batter you around the head with a copy of Orientalism. Stray no further east than Lowestoft and you should be fine…

Except that the foreign does not definitively begin and end on the beach at Lowestoft.

Robert Macfarlane’s second (and as far as I’m concerned best) book was called The Wild Places; more recently he has written about what he sees as an “eeriness” in the British countryside. But a place can only really be “wild” or “eerie” when seen with outsider eyes – just as a place can only be “exotic” when held in direct contrast to your own notions of normal. New Nature Writing, again and again, positions the British countryside as an exotic, othered, foreign territory – for both writer and reader. And its approach to “the natives” of that foreign land is often peculiar, to say the least.

***

By ostensibly focussing on “nature”, the genre often manages to ignore “the natives” altogether, denuding the countryside of inhabitants entirely, or encountering only a handful of atypical representatives (who often turn out to be “expats” – organic downsizers, well-heeled literary types, elective refugees from some other, metropolitan existence). Ignoring people is a very potent way of representing them: a tacit acknowledgement of their existence remains, but they are firmly put in their place; they are made singularly insignificant. It’s also a prime example of a writer awarding himself tremendous authority: that to entirely unpeople a landscape. A travel writer ignoring the inhabitants of, say, the Hindu Kush to glory exclusively in the grandeur of its natural features is the sort of thing scholars have been vigorously critiquing for decades. And yet New Nature Writers often do exactly this in smaller mountain ranges, closer to home.

If the natives do chance to appear, it may be as an abstract presence, without voice or name, somewhere off the page, and in all likelihood doing something nasty – baiting a badger or grubbing up a hedgerow, probably. Where New Nature Writing lapses into the consciously political this hostility often becomes overt, but even when it doesn’t there is almost always a latent assumption that the old ways were better; that the natives of earlier generations were somehow operating on a higher plane (rather than also simply trying to extract the greatest return from a working landscape with all the means available to them); and that their descendants are somehow debased. Here, then, is the modern equivalent of Wilfred Thesiger proclaiming that “his” Bedouin had been “spoilt” by the arrival of the internal combustion engine.

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Travellee and Traveller: Salim bin Ghabaisha and Wilfred Thesiger, not actually in the Lake District…

It’s all here, all that has made traditional travel literature so troublesome, and this is why I read James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life with such excitement.

***

I’ve come to this book a little late. I’d seen reviews last year – a warmly received memoir by a Lakeland sheep farmer and sometime Twitter celebrity. But none of the notices that I read had made it clear just how political a book this was. So I was surprised and delighted to discover within a few pages that this was not simply some prettily written country diary. It was a fierce riposte to all that is problematic in the mainstream of New Nature Writing. As I read I kept disturbing my companion from her own reading: “Listen to this! This is what I’m always going on about!”

Very early in the book Rebanks remembers a moment during his schooling when a teacher addressed an assembly:

I listened, getting more and more aggravated, as I realized that curiously she knew, and claimed to love, our land. But she talked about it, and thought about it, in terms that were completely alien to my family and me. She loved a ‘wild’ landscape, full of mountains, lakes, leisure and adventure, lightly peopled with folk I had never met. The Lake District in her monologue was the playground for an itinerant band of climbers, poets, walkers and daydreamers… Occasionally she would utter a name in a reverential tone and look in vain for us to respond with interest. One of the names was ‘Alfred Wainwright’, another was ‘Chris Bonington’; and she kept going on and on about someone called ‘Wordsworth’.

 I’d never heard of any of them. I don’t think anyone in the hall, who wasn’t a teacher, had.

If “Thesiger’s” Bedouin had had the space to speak maybe this is how they too would have responded: “Wilfred who? Lawrence of what???

The political intent is underscored with the quotations at some of the chapter openings, egregious examples of the way admiring outsiders have viewed the Lake District and its people, and from the outset Rebanks wields the word “we” with deliberate intent. “We” is, of course, a powerful word, the converse to “they”. In most travel writing when the author speaks of “we” he is identifying with his readers (and in the process often placing the Travellee firmly amidst the ranks of “they”). But not here. “We live”, Rebanks says; “Our landscape”; and in doing so he is being deliberately assertive, provocative, even aggressive. There is a certain provocativeness elsewhere too. He jabs sheep with antibiotics, kills crows, watches the hounds cross his land on the line of a fox almost as if he’s trying to get a rise out of double-barrelled hobby-farmers and crusading journalists who would sweep aside six millennia of agricultural engagement with the British landscape. But if they should swing for him he’s ready, with passionate passages where he makes his own reverent – and rooted – responses to the landscape around him obvious.

Wilfully provocative books are, obviously, meant to provoke. Perhaps he uses that insistent “we” like a jabbing finger once too often, and it’s natural that some might react unfavourably (see the book’s smattering of one-star reviews on Amazon and the nature of their complaints). But for those familiar with and troubled by the tropes and traits he’s kicking against, then The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderfully energising book.

The book is not without its own problems, of course. Though the prose is crisp and considered there are occasional slips. It has the fragmentary nature of many modern nonfiction books with their roots in social media. And there seem to be some peculiar lapses of editorial supervision in the middle sections. There’s also room for criticism in Rebanks’ telling of his own tale. That insistent “we” gets a new context when it is revealed that he left the farm in his twenties to study at Oxford. Maybe this is an author with a need to insist to his peers that he’s still one of “us”, despite the details of his curriculum vitae (something I can sympathise with). And he is perhaps a little disingenuous when he insists that he went to university simply to prove some kind of point before returning to farming. As well as being a shepherd, he reveals, a little too hurriedly, that he also works as a consultant to UNESCO, which begs the question: can you be an authentic travellee voice if you have a degree from Oxford and a career in international consultancy? (For what it’s worth, I’d say that yes, of course you can. Rebanks notes that his own grandfather was “quite simply, one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who lived, worked, loved and died without leaving much written trace that they were ever there”. Identity is never a monolithic thing, and if the travellee is to speak, he needs to have the means to do so. But perhaps an insecurity over this point is behind what those one-star Amazon reviewers misidentify as “a chip on the shoulder”.)

Also, though the hard and sometimes squalid realities of work in the landscape are closely described, there’s a certain lack of context due to the fact that Rebanks avoids much proper discussion of the financial realities of farming – beyond a passing mention of the fact that many small farmers have to do “two jobs” to support themselves (more likely to be contracting work than world heritage consultancy, perhaps). The contentious but hugely important role of agricultural subsidies, not least in places like the Lake District (and West Cornwall, for that matter), gets no mention either.

Ultimately, though, these are only passing complaints, for The Shepherd’s Life is a robust and invigorating piece of work, a challenge to all travel writers, wherever they choose to travel. It reminds them that they cannot sidestep the genre’s thorny ethical challenges simply by staying at home. Do travel here, it says; write about this place if you want to, represent it, revel in it, love it, but remember that those are not empty fields. And remember too that when it comes to travel writing’s ethical issues, the Lake District might actually turn out to be more dangerous than the Hindu Kush. After all, there could be an erudite and angry shepherd with an Oxford degree and a Twitter account, at home somewhere out there in those wild and eerie places.

As Rebanks notes, “If we want to understand the people in the foothills of Afghanistan, we may need to try and understand the people in the foothills of England first…”

© Tim Hannigan 2016

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Indonesia Expat Article

The most recent edition of Indonesia Expat is history-themed, and it comes with an eclectic array of articles on all sorts of intriguing subjects – from the lives of expat wives in centuries past to the influence of Javanese traditional music on the development of jazz (the former piece is by Rosie Milne of the Asian Books Blog, while the latter is by the ever-entertaining Terry Collins). Also included is a piece by myself, on the early spread of Islam in Indonesia. Here’s the introduction; for the full article follow the link at the bottom:

Settlers, Saints, Kings and Conversions: The Dawn of Indonesian Islam

The hamlet of Leran lies amidst the low fields north of Gresik in East Java, a few kilometres inland from the muddy shores of the Madura Strait. On a December day in the year 1082 a funeral party gathered there beneath leaden monsoon skies.

Leran lay within the kingdom of Kediri, a realm ruled by a raja who claimed to be an incarnation of the god Vishnu, and in the surrounding countryside there were temples where shaven-headed priests oversaw Hindu worship. But there was no such priest amongst the members of the funeral party, and there was no pyre of scented timber. Instead there was a hole dug into the damp soil and aligned so that the corpse, bound in pale cloth and laid on its side, would face towards the northwest. When the mourners gathered at the graveside they cupped their hands and whispered words of Arabic prayer.  They were burying a Muslim. Her name, marked later in Kufic calligraphy on a carven headstone, was Fatimah binti Maimun, Fatimah daughter of Maimun.

We know nothing about her – her age, her race, her place or birth or cause of death. But amongst the various flotsam and jetsam of history, cast up along Indonesia’s shores, hers is the oldest identified Muslim tomb, dating back almost a thousand years, fully two centuries before the rise of the Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit kingdom…

Read the full article online here…

© Tim Hannigan 2016

Book Review: Crazy Little Heaven

clhIndonesia is strangely underrepresented on the “travel literature” shelves. The merest glimpse at the map of the archipelago should surely be enough to tantalise any would-be travel writer. And yet, compared to similarly vast China and India, Indonesia seems to have been visited by relatively few literary wanderers. Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple: none of them have passed this way with pen in hand. Tim Mackintosh-Smith even managed to sidestep Sumatra in the final part of his “in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah” trilogy, despite the fact that the Tangerine traveller spent a very interesting sojourn there. V.S. Naipaul (whose mode of travel is more that of bad-tempered tourist than intrepid travel writer) did pass briefly by on his Islamophobic odysseys of 1981 and 1998, but given the malign influence of Naipaul on virtually every subsequent Indonesia correspondent with literary aspirations, the less said of him the better. In fact, the only instantly obvious contender for the designation “classic Indonesia travel book” is Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago – and that was written almost 150 years ago!

But in the last year or so there have, at last, been some worthy additions to the Indonesia travel shelves. Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia, Etc. finally gave us a proper, high-profile “portrait of the nation” travelogue – and thankfully, it came from a writer with a long and deep relationship with the country, rather than a passing member of the “posh white men” club. It’s brilliant, and has much to offer newcomers and old-timers alike. Then came a book which received far less attention, but which, if there was any justice in the world, would be winning prizes. Andrew Beatty’s After the Ancestors: An Anthropologist’s Story was, I’m pretty sure, the single most impressive book I read last year, better even than his previous book, A Shadow Falls. And then, to wrap up my reading year, came another travel writing delight: Mark Heyward’s Crazy Little Heaven, first published in 2013, but with a new edition apparently in the offing.

Crazy Little Heaven is essentially a travelogue, an account of a journey across Indonesian Borneo, from Samarinda in the east to Pontianak in the west, by boat, by road, and on foot. That alone promises the sort of off-the-beaten-track adventure of which classic travel books are made – the stuff which Redmond O’Hanlon served up in his journey Into the Heart of [a different, non-Indonesian, bit of] Borneo. You certainly get the adventure and the foetid jungle atmosphere in Heyward’s book. There are steamy mountain passes to be crossed, rapids to be ridden, leeches and bad food to be endured, and various human difficulties to be dealt with. But what makes the book so impressive is that the author hangs upon the framework of a relatively simple – albeit very engaging – travelogue all sorts of other, more complicated things.

Mark Heyward is an Australian by birth, but he has spent over two decades living and working in Indonesia. The journey described in Crazy Little Heaven actually took place early in that long stretch – in 1994. But by returning to his memories and diaries of the trip 20 years later, the author has been able to use it as a device to create a book that is at once a travelogue, a personal memoir, and a deliberately and affectionately subjective portrait of the country he now calls home. It’s quite a feat, structurally as much as anything, but he pulls it off – thanks in part to the clever decision to use a crisp, immediate present tense to tell the tale of the journey, and then a softer, more reflective past tense for the passages of memoir, even when the events described occurred long after the central Borneo adventure.

So, in this relatively slender book (250 pages or thereabouts), we get to visit Flores, Lombok, Java and various other corners of the country, as well as Borneo. There are also the illuminating passages on history and ecology that are de rigueur in travel writing, and plenty of encounters with orangutans – which is always a good thing! There are also compelling first-hand recollections of the turbulence that wracked Jakarta in 1998 as the New Order collapsed and the way for Reformasi opened, and more besides.

In many ways, Crazy Little Heaven makes an attractive companion piece for Indonesia, Etc. Heyward and Pisani have both known Indonesia well for around two decades; both have worked there and so know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the civil state; and both are very well qualified to write a book about the place. But they take very different approaches. While Pisani remains, to some extent, a sceptical outsider with a critical and analytical eye, Heyward has a greater degree of emotional connection. He is married to an Indonesian; he has an Indonesian family; and that gives his book a warmer tone than Pisani’s. Indeed, perhaps the most memorable section of Crazy Little Heaven is a sustained passage recounting the customary journey to his wife’s home village in Central Java at the end of Ramadan – an immersive and deeply affectionate account, and one of the finest evocations I’ve read of the soft, slow-moving world in which most Javanese people still live, but with which so few foreigners connect. The warm tone is also evident in Heyward’s intriguing reflections on the idea of religion in Indonesia as “a kind of poetry” (this from the son of an Anglican vicar, who lapsed from Christianity, and then converted to Islam for marriage).

Make no mistake, however: this book is first and foremost a good-old-fashioned traveller’s tale. The 1994 crossing of Borneo frames the whole thing, with each day of the journey – seventeen of them in total – forming a chapter. And it’s in the descriptions of life on the river and on the trail, and in the smoky Dayak villages visited along the way, that Heyward’s prose is at its best. There is a delicate, deliberately descriptive style that captures the atmosphere of deep forest and ramshackle riverside townships perfectly, without lapsing into lurid exoticism. And there are fleeting moments of strange magic – not least the discovery of a pair of bleached human skulls in a crevice of a limestone outcrop. There is also a refreshing honesty about the challenges faced by any party of foreigners undertaking such a trip – the wrangles over prices with guides and porters and boatmen, the suspected thefts, and the frustrations that such things cause – though Heyward never for a moment descends to the petty whinging that can taint books by those authors less naturally suited to travel (Naipaul springs to mind, again).

Crazy Little Heaven is charming, insightful, and very well written, and it does something to address that paucity of decent travel books about Indonesia. And it is original and even innovative too in the manner of its telling. The idea of an author returning to the subject of a youthful journey in middle age is hardly new – Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee both did it, and indeed, the aforementioned After the Ancestors is based on fieldwork Andrew Beatty conducted in the 1980s. But the combination of travelogue and broader memoir here is unusual. The appealing thing about this book is that, as you reach the final, seventeenth day of the journey it describes, with the sun setting over the South China Sea, you know that the author’s adventure is really only just beginning.

© Tim Hannigan 2016

Is “bule” a racist word?

This was supposed to be a box text for a book I’m currently working on, but I got a little carried away. I’ll be needing to cut it back by about nine-tenths, but before I do I thought I’d share it here, as it’s always an interesting topic…

Is the Indonesian term “bule” racist?

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Bareng sama bule…

If you’re a Caucasian foreigner and you spend any time in Indonesia away from the beaten tourist track and the expat bubble, you’ll hear it: bule. It might be an excited whisper between friends as you pass in the street – “Hey, look! A bule!” Or it might come with a grin and a wave – “Hello bule!” It’s just two simple syllables (the pronunciation is “boo-lay”), but it’s a word powerfully primed for controversy.

Let’s start with the logical semantics: bule originally meant “albino”, but in its modern colloquial sense it’s generally used as a term for Caucasian foreigners. Very occasionally it might be used for a non-white Westerner, but only when their status as a Westerner trumps their skin colour – when they become, in short, an “honorary white guy” (those determined to muddy the waters of the debate always also manage to find an instance of “bule” being used to describe a tourist from Japan or Korea, but I’m inclined to dismiss those instances out of hand as atypical irrelevances – because I can. Ya-boo bule!). I’ve seen some people try to translate it as “honky”, or even as the Hawaiian word haole. But those are unequivocally hostile terms, which bule simply isn’t. As far as I’m concerned the most accurate translation is nothing more than “whitey”.

So bule is unquestionably a racial designation, but is it actually racist? This is a question that has been stirring up endlessly furious debate on internet forums and in expat bars for years – debate which, incidentally, leaves 99 percent of Indonesians utterly baffled; as far as they’re concerned it’s just a word for a white guy or gal.

Some grumpy expats – and boy, can some expats be grumpy! – like to insist emphatically that if it’s a racial designation, then it must be racist. (These grumpy expats are generally the same ones who like to claim that “Indonesia is the most racist country in the world”, and who, as they warm to their topic, frequently back it up with all sorts of vicious slurs on the intellectual and moral qualities of the entire Indonesian nation. Grumpy expats don’t have a great sense of irony, it seems.) However, as those with a little more self-awareness like to point out, for most Caucasian Westerners, living in Indonesia will simply give them their first unnerving experience of being routinely identified, and indeed overtly addressed, in terms of their own skin colour – something which is, of course, a far less novel experience for Black Americans or British Asians. It doesn’t necessarily imply racism in the word bule, and it certainly doesn’t imply that Indonesia is “the most racist country in the world”.

Very few Indonesians are even aware of the idea that the word bule might be contentious – it’s used in newspapers and on TV after all. And if they do happen upon the expat debates they are usually bemused and defensive: “But it can’t be a racist word! We don’t use it as an insult,” they protest; “we love bules! It’s just a word for white people!” The response to this from those determined to be offended is that in 1900s Mississippi, in its average daily usage the “N-word” wasn’t consciously used as an insult either; it was just “a word for black people”. They have a point, of course, but my personal riposte to this is always that any white expat in 21st-century Indonesia who tries to equate his experiences with those of Black Americans in the Deep South a century ago probably needs to check his sense of perspective…

For all those who get offended, there are plenty of other foreigners who are quite happy to use the word bule themselves. I’m one of them. I like the word. It makes me laugh. And it makes Indonesians laugh when I use it. “I’ve reclaimed it!” I once glibly proclaimed to a work colleague. He was a cleverer man than I, and he eyed me sternly, then pointed out that the very fact that a white man from a former colonial power could so easily come trotting into a postcolonial Asian nation and start casually self-designating with a racial – and possibly racist – term with laughing ironic intent said something about balances of power in identity that ought to give any self-proclaimed liberal pause for thought. In any case, it was certainly a million miles removed from the idea of some Black Americans feeling empowered to “reclaim” the “N-word” out of a centuries-long heritage of oppression and exploitation.

Ah, bule – it’s a word to make your head spin…

For what it’s worth, my personal take is this: Indonesia is not “the most racist country in the world”, and bule is not, of itself, a racist word. It’s almost never used with insulting intent – and even on the very, very rare occasions when it is, it’s in the intent, not the word, that the insult lies. Indonesia is, though, a country singularly lacking in the concept of “political correctness”. If it wasn’t, then bule certainly would be an unacceptable term, and if things one day head that way, then it will be perfectly reasonable for Caucasian foreigners to complain when they hear the word (and what’s the betting that at that point the same grumpy expats will be bemoaning the fact that in Indonesia too, we’re now blighted by “political correctness gone mad”?).

For the moment, however, being called bule doesn’t bother me one bit; and I’ll keep using the word myself. It all comes down to the fact that to be happy as a foreigner living or travelling in Indonesia, to not exist in a permanent state of frustration and rage, you need to remember that you are a foreigner, that you do look different (and that, like it or not, even if you’re on a EFL teacher’s salary, you’re also almost certainly much richer than the vast majority of the people around you). You will also inevitably often be assessed and addressed on first sight according to your skin colour – and maybe it’s actually healthy for white Westerners to experience that once in a while.

Keeping this all in perspective can be hard if you spend your time entirely in tourist or expat hotspots. But I know that when I’m riding my motorbike through some small town in the hinterlands of Java and I spot another incongruous foreigner on the street, strangely dressed and twice the size of everyone else, even I find myself staring. In fact, I sometimes have to fight the urge to shout out as I pass – “Hello mister! Hello bule!”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

A Brief History of Indonesia Media Coverage

coverMy new book, A Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: The Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation, was published this summer, launching first in Southeast Asia in July, then in August in the US, and finally in the UK in September. It’s available from all the usual places, though of course, you really should try to buy it from a bricks-and-mortar bookshop if you can…

I had a grand old time launching the book in Indonesia in July and August, starting with some fun events in Bali. First up was a talk, accompanied by the fabled high tea, at the glorious Biku Restaurant in Seminyak, followed by a lively evening session at Casa Luna in Ubud. Other events in Bali, Yogyakarta, and Jakarta followed, all organised by the lovely folks from the Periplus bookshop chain. Last up – literally on the way to the airport – came a final talk at Komunitas Salihara, hosted by the formidable Ayu Utami, who I was very excited to meet (she’s a proper Indonesian literary superstar, and very cool with it).

It’s been really exciting to see how much attention the book has been getting from Indonesian readers and Indonesian media. As an English-language book it was obviously written with non-Indonesians in mind first and foremost, but it’s been very gratifying to get such warm responses from the people whose country it’s actually about.

12039228_10153197818427984_3651873102638603337_nI got featured in the Indonesian-language version of National Geographic – which not only called it “a book which is light to read”, but also delighted me by calling me by my favoured Javanese form of address, “Mas Tim”!

I had a lovely – and very detailed – profile in Harian Nasional by Devy Lubis, and there was more coverage in Bisnis Indonesia, Waktoe, Intisari, Tribun Yogya, Bali Pos and Kedaulatan Rakyat in Yogyakarta which made much of my notion that Indonesians really should stop saying “it would be better to have been colonised by the British, not the Dutch…”

My favourite Indonesian coverage, however, was a fulsome review in Media Indonesia (one of my favourite Indonesian papers) by Hera Khaerani, with the delightful pull-out quote:

What is unique about each of Hannigan’s books is his way of interpreting historical facts and presenting them in a cinematographic way, despite being armed only with the written word. He is able to create a theater in the heads of his readers… (Keunikan setiap novel Hannigan ada pada caranya menginterpretasi fakta sejarah dan menyajikannya secara sinematografis meski hanya berbekal kata-kata yang tertulis. Dia mampu memainkan teater dalam kepala pembaca…)

Tempo Magazine kicked off the English-language coverage with a fine review from Bill Dalton, doyen of Indonesia travel writing, calling the book “a highly readable, informative, solid and irreverent introduction to this sprawling island nation.”  The same review was later reprinted in The Bali Advertiser.11889692_10153511643579303_6494228137556188346_n

Writing in The Jakarta Post, Hans David Tampubolon said that the book “manages to capture this heavy and rich history in a very easy to understand and entertaining narrative”. There was more Jakarta Post coverage in an interview about my favourite books. Meanwhile, Bali & Beyond magazine kindly called it “definitely a must-read” and said that it was “almost as if you are reading a story book rather than complicated research by a historian.” I’m not a historian, as it happens; I’m a history writer, which isn’t quite the same thing, but I won’t quibble with a positive review!

There was also a very detailed review in the Asian Review of Books, also published in the Jakarta Globe, in which Stephen Joyce wrote:

A Brief History of Indonesia is an intelligent and lucidly-written piece of work that has more than enough content and drama to attract the general Asian history reader; and is the perfect companion for travellers and tourists who wish to delve deeper than their travel guide’s history section and get closer to the beating heart of this troubled yet remarkable nation.

In Indonesia Expat veteran Jakarta-based writer Terry Collins reviewed the book, suggesting that it “be translated into Indonesian as an all-purpose supplement to the shallow versions of national history ‘approved’ by successive governments”!

Foreword Reviews gave the book five stars, and said that it “presents Indonesia as a place of high drama”, and Lonely Planet made it one of their top books to “read before you go”, and called it “a highly readable and entertaining narrative that highlights the many personalities who have shaped the nation – and our perception of it…”

And there has eve11050220_501342990028717_5866183669623329163_nn been some coverage on home ground! My own local newspaper, The Cornishman, ran a nice piece, very excited that a “local author” had scored a “bestseller”, even if it was on the other side of the world! And Lucy Munday wrote a feature which ran in The Western Morning News.

And now, it’s time to get on with the next book…