Snow over Surabaya

Snow-over-Surabaya-webPicture this:

Exterior shot: a hot August afternoon in Bali with the trade wind running through the palms.

Interior shot: the dining room of the glorious Biku Restaurant, all antique woodwork and art. At the back of the room a delectable kroncong ensemble is playing “Surabaya” (Kota kenangan, kota kenangan, takkan kulupa!) while the grandes dames of Seminyak sip their tea and nibble their finger sandwiches.

At a table on the right, the patroness herself, the mighty Jero Asri Kerthyasa, is playing host to a pair of writers. Both, as it happens, have written books about a certain Thomas Stamford Raffles, though they have rather different views of the man – Raffled and unRaffled, perhaps. Despite this, they’re getting on like a house on fire.

“Nigel,” says the unRaffled writer; “you should write a novel about Muriel!”

And – blow me! – that’s exactly what he goes and does…

***

A couple of years later, and Nigel Barley’s Snow over Surabaya is now in print – a deliciously funny fictionalisation of the life of the dumpy, bespectacled Scotswoman Muriel Stewart Walker, who somehow ended up joining the Indonesian revolution. (She called herself K’tut Tantri, and became infamous as “Surabaya Sue”, but she was Muriel to her mother, and she’s Muriel to me too.)

Nigel has very generously credited me in the introduction for providing the original suggestion – though I still can’t quite believe that he hadn’t already thought of writing about Muriel for himself. After all, he has fine form when it comes to fictionalising outrageous Bali-based expats, thanks to Island of Demons, his take on Walter Spies.

What I didn’t tell Nigel that afternoon in Biku is that I’d once considered writing a book about Muriel myself. Her story seemed irresistible: lowly Glaswegian birth at the tale-end of the nineteenth century leads – via Hollywood, somehow – to a career as Bali’s original tourist hustler and sometime hotelier, and then, even more bizarrely, to a job as a feisty radio propagandist and general Republican hanger-on during Indonesia’s bloody post-WWII independence struggle. Surely she’d make the perfect hook of a pithy pop history book about that wild period of Indonesian history, I thought…

But I didn’t get far before I realised that Muriel was utterly biographer-proof – as the scholar Timothy Lindsey had already discovered. The problem, quite simply, was that the woman was the most incorrigible mythomaniac, a liar-liar-pants-on-fire bullshitter of the first rank. There was not a single meaningful detail of her life story that she hadn’t redrafted to such an extent that by the end of her days (in Australia in the 1990s) she was surrounded by an impenetrable fug of fabulation. She was also, by all accounts, a pretty difficult person to spend time with. Walter Spies, no less, declared her to be “Awfulll!!!”, while Asri Kerthyasa herself, fully half-a-century later, found her “horribllle!!!”

***

K'tut_Tantri_bersama_Bung_Karno

Karno and K’tut

Muriel’s mythomaniac tendencies certainly make her untouchable for a nonfiction writer, and if I’d suggested writing a book about her to a fellow narrative history author, it would have been a devious act of sabotage. But Nigel Barely is one of those lucky blighters who can do fiction and nonfiction with equal panache (he’s the author of many, many books, including the brilliant The Innocent Anthropologist, and Not a Hazardous Sport, republished as Toraja, as well as being a bone fide scholar). He’s also very, very funny, and the one thing you can say with confidence about Muriel as a character, is that she’s hilarious. I couldn’t think of anyone better to take her on, and Snow over Surabaya is everything I might have hoped for.

The book has Nigel’s customary blend of airy prose and wicked humour, plus the sort of solid historical background familiar to readers of his other Southeast Asia-set novels. There is, as yet, no single narrative history account of the Indonesian revolution, but Snow over Surabaya actually fulfils that function remarkably well, despite being a work of fiction with a notorious liar for a narrator. All the noteworthy players – from Sukarno to Turk Westerling – get walk-on parts, and you’ll come away with a decent sense of how the revolution played out.

***

But, of course, the real reason for reading is Muriel herself. As a non-novelist, throwing a blithe suggestion Nigel Barley’s way, I never stopped to consider the fact that an unreliable narrator might be as tricky a thing for a fiction writer to handle as a biographer, but he deals with it deftly. For the most part we simply get a ripping romp through Muriel’s adventures, complete with saucy tales of early Hollywood, run-ins with sleazy Dutch imperialists, nail-biting gold-smuggling runs through the Javanese hinterland and more besides. There are hints, here and there, that all may not be quite as it seems. But mainly it’s just a good ol’ adventure – until, that is, Muriel winds up detained by British police in Singapore. At this point Snow over Surabaya gets all meta, as the cool kids say, and turns into a comic tropical version of The Usual Suspects (is Muriel Walker actually Keyser Söze?) It’s a nifty reminder that you can’t believe everything you read…

My only disappointment was that the book ends just as Muriel ascends into her bloated post-Revolution period – a period during which she took the physical form of a pink blancmange with winged spectacles, attained new heights of Awfulll!!!ness, and made a career out of permanently inhabiting international hotels at other people’s expense. Still, that at least leaves open the possibility for a sequel in which Muriel gives an unreliable account of her attempts to flog her unreliable account to Hollywood – now that really would be meta!

***

Muriel Manxy-K’tut-Tantri-Surabaya-Sue Walker always wanted to be the hero of her own story, and as I came to the end of Snow over Surabaya I found myself supposing that, actually, she’d probably be delighted by the way that Nigel Barley has told her tale. Because whether you decide to trust her as narrator or not, the hero is what she ultimately is. But then I recalled something rather important…

During the many ill-fated attempts to turn her tale into a movie, Muriel drove would-be producers and script-writers to distraction with her blunt insistence that there should be absolutely no hanky-panky, no torrid trysts with Balinese princes or steamy clinches with rugged revolutionaries. It was precisely this “bizarre and stilted sense of sexual propriety”, as Nigel calls it, that stymied all attempts to bring her legend to the silver screen.

IMG_0290

I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours…

But in the Snow over Surabaya version of events, Nigel Barley’s naughty streak has come to the fore. Outrage of outrages! – he’s given Muriel that thing that she surely must have had in reality, for all her public prudery: a sexuality!  Pudding basin haircut, distinct physical resemblance to a Javanese clown, and voracious appetite for cream cakes are all in place. But Barley’s Muriel also lusts after handsome tram boys and has her wicked way with Ambonese truck drivers. It’s a devilish touch, and one that would surely set the real Muriel spinning in her grave, which is exactly as it should be!

Snow over Surabaya
Nigel Barley
Monsoon Books 2017

© Tim Hannigan 2017

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

gereja-200343_960_720

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 dark and 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

04-bengkulu

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.

thesiger1-667x435

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 Subaltern 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 Subaltern 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

IMG_0473 (2)