Twenty years in life of female foreign correspondent, Christina Lamb, told through a series of articles and circumstances in which they came to be written.
It helps that you go to Oxford University and become friends with Benazir Bhutto, but Christina Lamb’s bravery, quick wittedness and insights are all her own. And whilst there’s a dollop of envy too, I am not that brave.
How heartbreaking to see the book that starts and finishes with your friendship with Benazir published after her assassination.
I love reading about adventurous women travellers of the last century, and before. Yes, they come from privileged backgrounds, even when they claim not to, but they are going against the expectations and conventions of the age, plus they are still making the effort to get out and explore the world and encounter different people and cultures, and all this at a time before Lonely Planet or the internet. One of Ella Maillart’s main sources for her journey was the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk, Hsuan Tsang.
Much of the book follows their experiences in Persia, and Afghanistan – and it makes me long to go back to the former (and the north western areas of Pakistan – ‘Kafiristan‘ was Maillart’s ultimate destination – ultimately unrealised on this trip, once World War II started), and saddens me that realistically I’ll never get to experience the ancient wonders of the latter. I love that part of the world, its ancient cultures and kingdoms, its place at the centre of the Silk Roads and encounters between east and west, north and south.
A slow start (with LRB back issues providing stiff competition for my short attention span), but totally absorbing once I gave it my time and attention. And by the end, a few tears.
The Garden of Evening Mists is set in the Cameron Highlands, in Malaya / Malaysia across three time periods in the narrator’s life: the Japanese occupation, The Emergency, and the present day (actually early 1980s when I read the Wikipedia synopsis). We learn about the peninsula’s history and Japanese zen arts from gardening to wood block prints and tattooing.
And what a wonderfully alluring opening sentence:
On a mountain above the clouds, in the central highlands of Malaya lived the man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan.
It may have been because I’ve been so immersed in moving, and with all the subsequent sorting out and settling in, that I found this volume of Granta essays and stories much slower going than Hidden Histories.
On the other hand, it might have been the weightier subject matter. I did skip a few of the accounts relating to 21st century atrocities.
That said, I did enjoy the pieces on Benjamin Pell and Bollywood.
Just right for dipping in and out for bedtime reading on the lead up to our move to Herefordshire. I particularly liked the last essay, Giles Foden‘s White Men’s Boats, and the personal histories from Diana Athill and Brian Cathcart.
And I’ve just spotted the Giles Foden has written a full length version of the hidden history of the World War I British naval expedition to Lake Tanganyika, overland, led by the inept Geoffrey Spicer-Simson: Mimi and Toutou Go Forth.