Posts Tagged ‘Bookdealer’

Nick Smith’s review of ‘The Great Explorers’ by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (Bookdealer magazine)

February 7, 2011

Treading carefully on the frontiers of discovery

Antarctica by Nick Smith, author of Travels in the World of Books
Antarctica, December 2010. Photo: Nick Smith

 

Exploration in the 21st Century is different to how it used to be. For sure there’s still a flourishing band of adventurers ever willing to be the first to do something extremely dangerous in a hostile and remote environment, and the world would be a duller place without them. But with important environmental and cultural issues on the agenda – climate change, the fate of indigenous peoples, and wildlife conservation – our approach to what we now accept as genuine geographical exploration is changing. And importantly, so is our attitude to the great names of the past who made the first steps to push back the frontiers of knowledge. While a century ago we might have celebrated the achievements of those who claimed unknown pockets of territory for Empire, today we’re much more likely to be interested in some of the lesser-known pioneers who penetrated the interiors of far-flung continents in search of scientific data.

Nobody is more aware of the problems modern exploration can throw at you than the great 20th century explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Exploration – a classic published nearly two decades ago – he notes wryly that time and again, ‘the European explorer, as he “discovers” some new land, makes a passing reference to his native guide.’ He goes on to refer to a cartoon in the Geographical magazine that appeared long before I was ever in the editor’s chair, depicting two pith-helmeted explorers who wonder, as they stand at the foot of a huge waterfall with their baggage bearers: ‘You don’t suppose they might have discovered it already, do you?’ Hanbury-Tenison has always been aware that the history of exploration is crashingly Eurocentric – something that today a swelling body of braying academic commentators seem to think they’ve found out for themselves.

But that’s all right, because unlike those of other travellers, the deeds of explorers, Hanbury-Tenison informs us, ‘have a lasting significance which may affect the destiny of mankind.’ Two decades on there are different challenges. Today, even the most respected and accomplished explorers tend not to describe themselves as such. This is because of a semantic shift that, for no reason I can see, has ring-fenced the word, reserving it for use only in the context of historical figures. This is totally barmy, but words change their meanings, and political correctness makes fools of us all. Even the occasionally flamboyantly outspoken Hanbury-Tenison tones it down a bit in his prefatory essay to his authoritative The Great Explorers. The language has changed, but the sentiments remain the same: the pith helmets may have disappeared from his imagery and the vaunting notion of destiny may have been brought under control, but for Hanbury-Tenison explorers are still people who have ‘excelled in their geographical endeavours to an extent that has changed the world.’

His new book profiles forty such individuals in biographical portraits spanning half a millennium, contributed by expert writers in their field. The result is a monumental tome that’s a genuine contribution to modern thinking about the nature of exploration. It could have been a bland reiteration of the received orthodoxy, names that trip so easily off the tongue, but Hanbury-Tenison challenges our assumptions, not so much with what he says – this is a curiously anonymous book for one written by so many heavyweights of the genre – but by what he doesn’t say.

In the field of Polar endeavour alone there are enough absences of old favourites to get the armchair explorer choking on his pemmican. What no Shackleton? No Scott? Instead we have a much more international cast in the shape of Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen, as well as what are, to the outside world at least, the lesser names of Edward Wilson and Wally Herbert.

This is interesting for two reasons. First: as the veneer of Empire begins to fade Hanbury-Tenison is able to be more objective as to who’s who. It’s no longer traitorous or heretical to say that Scott was pipped to the post by a better explorer, albeit a bloody foreigner. We now know, no matter how much it might hurt our national psyche, that Amundsen was simply a more enlightened and experienced campaigner, more capable of improvising. Second: rather than automatically acknowledging the scalp-hunting exploits of explorers whose ambition was to be first to do something, there’s a strong implication in The Great Explorers that an expeditioner’s greatness ultimately rests in their contribution to our understanding of the world. Shackleton may well have served up the best handful of chapters of derring-do in the so-called Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, but did he increase our knowledge of the planet in the way that Wilson – scientist, doctor, naturalist and artist – did? In the section entitled ‘Life on Earth’ we are treated to essays on Alexander von Humboldt, Marianne North, Alfred Russel Wallace and (a favourite of mine) Frank Kingdon-Ward. Given its name, it would be easy to suppose Hanbury-Tenison might have had in mind including David Attenborough. But he didn’t, and quite right too.

The essays themselves are first class and I particularly like the way Hanbury-Tenison has matched up his writers to their subject. So we find that the chapter on Mungo Park was written by Anthony Sattin; that on Livingstone by Claire Pettitt; that on Wilfred Thesiger by Alexander Maitland; that on Gertrude Bell by Justin Marozzi, and so on, where in every pairing the latter is an acknowledged expert on the former. For me this – along with the sumptuous picture editing – is the book’s key strength and what sets it apart from similar enterprises. The Great Explorers simply oozes authority and ease with its subject matter. I did raise my eyebrow slightly on noticing that one of the contributors is also one of the great explorers. In fact, our leading speleologist, Andy Eavis, it seems was commissioned to write the final chapter on Andrew James Eavis. Maybe this isn’t as much of a problem as it first seems: Eavis writes in the first person, and, as there are few specialist authors on caving better than Eavis, it sort of makes logical sense to give the man the job. I’m not saying that this editorial decision creates a flaw in the book, but it does represent to me at least a minor inconsistency.

This quibble aside, The Great Explorers is nigh-on perfect, operating on two distinct levels. First, as a sensible interpretation of the historic record for the non-specialist whose interest lies beyond cannibalism, frostbite and flag-planting. Second, for those aware of how the murky undercurrents of political correctness are distorting the wider picture, it’s good to see Hanbury-Tenison serving up a balanced, if sometimes surprising, cocktail of what our true exploration heritage is in a world where many are frightened to use the word.

The Great Explorers, edited by Robin Hanbury-Tenison is available from Thames & Hudson, £24.95, pp 304 · ISBN 978 0 500 251690

To find out more about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit www.robinsbooks.co.uk

Nick Smith is a former editor of Geographical magazine. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club in New York and of the Royal Geographical Society. He writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph and his latest book Travels in the World of Books was published last May

‘Travels in the World of Books’ website is now active – visit www.intheworldofbooks.com

May 8, 2010

Travels in the World of Books, Nick Smith

Nick Smith’s new book ‘Travels in the World of Books’ now has an active website

visit www.intheworldofbooks.com

‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith – publication date announced, 11th May, 2010

April 8, 2010

‘Travels in the World of Books’ by Nick Smith, publication date 11th May 2010

‘I find it difficult to recall anything I’ve read over the past few years that is as amusing and interesting as this lovely book. A triumph.’ Alexander McCall Smith

For the past three years Nick Smith has written a column for Bookdealer magazine that – despite his remit to cover the inner workings of the book trade – often drifted from the beaten track as he recorded his own travels as a photojournalist on far flung assignments. The result was the immensely popular monthly ‘Travels in the World of Books’, collected here in their entirety.

Bored with wasting time in airports, planes and hotels, he decided to catch up on his reading, only to find that travel and literature go together like gin and tonic. The more geographically wide-ranging his travel became, the more he rediscovered the works of great travel writers, classic novelists and immortal poets.

Part travelogue, part literary criticism and sometimes simply gossip, Nick Smith’s Travels in the World of Books offers an insight into some of the remotest regions of the world through the eyes of the writers who went there before him.

‘I cannot imagine a better companion than Nick Smith for a wander through the world of books. Amusing, interesting, and always perceptive, he takes us into the parts of the publishing industry that the public rarely reaches. Quite wonderful.’ Alexander McCall Smith

‘Nick Smith writes with fluency and insight, equally happy musing on ancient world history as tackling swashbuckling epics of adventure and exploration. Entertaining, thoughtful and unmissable’ Justin Marozzi, author of Travels with Herodotus

‘A fascinating voyage into the world of books. Nick Smith, like an experienced captain, steers the boat of his narrative – past the hidden rocks of publishing and sales – to the coveted Eldorado of high literature. An insightful, educational and highly entertaining journey.’ Vitali Vitaliev, author of Life as a Literary Device

Travels in the World of Books, by Nick Smith

Published by Rare Books and Berry, 264pp inc 8pp colour photos, Hardback, Price: £14-99, ISBN: 978-0-9563867-0-0

www.rarebooksandberry.co.uk

Available from all good bookshops or direct  from the publisher (£14.99 plus £1-63 post in UK)

or from Amazon Click here

Nick Smith reviews William Dalrymple’s ‘Nine Lives’ in Bookdealer, December 2009 edition

December 1, 2009

Letting India speak for itself

Nick Smith reviews, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple

A lot’s changed in the two decades since the young William Dalrymple published his first book In Xanadu. India has changed, the world has changed and so too has travel writing, he tells us in his introduction to his latest, Nine Lives. In the 1980s, the genre was all about the writer, with the far-flung landscapes and the people who inhabit them relegated often simply to an exotic stage setting. Indeed, while Dalrymple was cutting his teeth on his first India book City of Djinns, another well known travel writer, Michael Palin, was broadcasting Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole to a public that, dazzled by his celebrity, seemed to have developed an insatiable appetite for travel journalism provided it was about the journalist and not about travel.

But fashions change and our objectives have evolved into something slightly more ambitious than simply reporting on how unlike us foreigners are. Palin is now president of the Royal Geographical Society and Dalrymple is recognised as a leading popular historian specialising in India. In the past decade, in terms of book publishing at least, he appears to have turned his back on producing any more of those beautifully rendered travelogues that made his name, preferring to concentrate on delivering the first two volumes of his monumental commentary on the Mughal Empire. He’s also edited Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals Of Fanny Parkes, which falls into the same category of historical production. But, there’s been very little in the way of sustained travel writing. And yet, if we are to believe the Guardian, Dalrymple has ‘effortlessly assumed the mantle of Robert Byron and Patrick Leigh Fermor.’

One of the reasons for his being one of our most important travel writers is that when he turns his hand to the craft there are simply few better than Dalrymple. With Nine Lives he has proven once again that you don’t need to prolific to be of literary importance (Leigh Fermor’s books emerged at a rate of about one per decade). So, even after a decade’s absence from the fray, when the man who gave us From the Holy Mountain says it’s all changed, we’ve ripped up the programme and we’re doing it differently now, it probably makes sense to listen.

What exactly is different about Nine Lives? To answer that question it’s helpful to start with why it’s similar to Dalrymple’s collection of travel journalism The Age of Kali. In Kali he explores the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in India. But you could do that with any country. What’s so fascinating about India is the rate of change, and this is what gives Dalrymple his hook. Thousands of years of unchanging tradition, he says, are under attack from all sides by the skirmishers of the digital revolution. The new India loves technology: but while everyone in the city is becoming a software engineer, drinking Starbucks in their Levis and Ray-Bans, a few miles outside the city men in dhotis are tending the land with agricultural utensils that haven’t changed in five millennia. If you want to express the rate of growth of India’s economy on a graph, just point the line straight up. If it continues like this, by 2050 India’s economy will lead the world.

How Dalrymple chooses to express the changing face of India in Nine Lives is what’s different. Gone is the intrusive self-consciously literary narrator scribbling in an unfamiliar landscape (although Dalrymple can’t resist telling us about his ‘slowly filling… notebooks’). In a moment of artistic self-extirpation he’s banished the central narrator of old, to make room for the people of India tell their own story. So what have we got? Nine people, nine lives, all based on interviews in eight languages and all cracking entertainment.

In ‘The Nun’s Tale’ we are told of friend who undertakes sallekhana, a ritual fast to the death; in ‘The Daughters of Yellamma’ we hear the harrowing story of the devadasi (or temple prostitute) who introduces her two daughters into a trade that she regards as a sacred calling, only to lose both teenagers to AIDS; there is the story of the woman who leaves her middle class family in Calcutta and her job in the jute factory only to find unexpected love and fulfillment living as a tantric in a skull-filled hut in a remote cremation ground; and there is an idol maker, the thirty-fifth of a line of sculptors going back to the Chola bronze makers who sees creating gods as one of the holiest callings in India, but has to reconcile himself to his son, whose ambition it is to study computer engineering.

The cast of characters, drawn from different walks of life, with their heart-breaking, life-affirming and often plain weird stories, invites immediate comparison with Chaucer’s pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, and to his credit Dalrymple acknowledges this straight away. But this isn’t ‘a modern Indian Canterbury Tales’ as the accompanying PR blurb enthusiastically trumpets, because there’s no pilgrimage to while away, no journey, no raiding of the memory banks of the oral tradition. Nine Lives does something else; something entirely different, more akin to an Impressionist painting, where the deftness of the brush strokes, rather than the detail, paints a subtly textured and unexpectedly complex piece that has Dalrymple’s fingerprints all over it.

That Nine Lives is unmistakably and so assuredly from the pen of Dalrymple is a tribute to his depth of knowledge of the people and places of India. As deployed in his The Age of Kali, his main strengths are his instinctive feel for what details matter, how much they weigh and how to articulate them in his understated, but quite lovely prose. While so many of today’s travel writers shift from territory to territory in search of new thrills, Dalrymple goes deeper and deeper into the landscape of India in order to return with clearer images of the people who live there. And in trying to appreciate their lives, we enrich our understanding of our own, and this is why Nine Lives might well be William Dalrymple’s most important book to date.

Nick Smith writes for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award.

Nine Lives is published by Bloomsbury, £2.00, pp 285 · ISBN 978-1-4088-0061-4

Nick Smith reviews ‘The Shackleton Letters’ in Bookdealer magazine, November 2009 edition

November 5, 2009

Yours faithfully, Ernest Shackleton

Nick Smith reviews

The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition

By Regina W Daly, Erskine Press, HB, £27.50

The trouble with history of course is that it’s not really very good at telling you what happened. It creates reputations and myths that so often seem to have so little to do with the facts. When it comes to the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration we are traditionally served up two protagonists – Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton – and as the wheel goes around one takes the ascendancy at the other’s expense. At the moment Scott is in the doghouse and Shackleton is in the firmament, and if you had only read Regina Daly’s The Shackleton Letters you would have no difficulty in seeing why. Whether by accident or design, the way it falls out portrays the Boss, or ‘Shackles’ as he often signs off, as a decent bloke in love with his men, his ship and his wife (in that order), while an imperious (and I think misunderstood) Scott comes across, in the argot of the day, as a thundering ass. Of course, these letters were written a hundred years ago, when people wrote letters and didn’t have phones to shout down, but on the other hand there isn’t and never was any compulsion to write with such vaunting self-aggrandizement as Scott does.

There had always been a history between the merchant seaman and the naval officer. As far back as 1902 Scott is supposed to have called Shackleton a ‘bloody fool’ to which the Irishman retorted: ‘You are the worst bloody fool of the lot, and every time you dare to speak to me like that you will get it back.’ This was on the Discovery (‘National Antarctic’) Expedition 1901-4, where Scott was the leader and Shackleton was his third lieutenant. It seems that this extraordinary insubordination – if it ever took place – was soon overlooked, because by Christmas they were lying in their sleeping bags reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to each other (not ‘Origin of the Species’, as Daly erroneously calls it). By the time Shackleton was scouting around drumming up funds for an expedition of his own, their relationship was under strain again due to a conflict over rights to an existing expedition base in Antarctica. Scott’s letters are arch and seem to accuse Shackleton of upstartishness, while Shackleton, who feels more sinned against than sinning, never once loses his thoroughly infectious charm (‘My Dear Captain Scott, To make everything clear as regards our arrangements… I am following your suggestion and writing it down.’) Incidents like this have lead commentators – especially Roland Huntford – to surmise that each man was the antithesis of the other. If only it were this convenient and it were true that Scott was an iconoclast and Shackleton a loveable rogue punching above his weight, how much easier our lives would be. But, the truth is that they were both fallible human beings whose passions for the Polar Regions informed their extraordinary lives and dramatic ends.

Another area where history seems to get Polar exploration all wrong is in its insistence that we remember Shackleton above all else for his impossibly romantic Endurance (‘Imperial Transantarctic’) expedition, 1914-17. This was the one in which he lost his ship in the ice and famously (although not strictly true) never lost a man. With a handful of men, Shackleton set forth in the plucky little whaler – the James Caird – across the seas of the world to fetch relief for his crew. Although this is without doubt one of the greatest stories ever told, we must remember that it was a rescue mission, and that Endurance in essence achieved nothing. As with Dunkirk, the British heart has never been so proud of something that shouldn’t have happened. But on the other hand the earlier Nimrod (‘British Antarctica’) Expedition 1907-1909 – the subject of The Shackleton Letters – was a triumph. Among its many successes were the first ascent of Mount Erebus, the attainment of the South Magnetic Pole and the publication of the first book on the White Continent, Aurora Australis.

As we celebrate Nimrod’s centenary, Daly’s new book couldn’t be better timed or more welcome, especially as the true significance of the expedition seems to have been lost on some sectors of today’s exploration community. In terms of the range and diversity of the material assembled, both written and photographic, it’s hard to see how this anthology could have been any better, although the stickler might complain that it could have been better named. After all, many of the 165 letters, reports and telegrams collected here aren’t by, or to, Shackleton (although in fairness to Daly, they perfectly satisfy the book’s sub-title – ‘Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’). In the section of Letters called ‘Kudos, Criticism and Rumours of a New Expedition’ there are epistles from Charles Dorman to Emily Shackleton, from Roald Amundsen to J Scott Keltie, from Robert Scott to Major Leonard Darwin, from Clements Markham to Keltie, from Markham to Darwin, from Fridtjof Nansen to Emily, from Nansen to Darwin, from Markham to H.W.Feilden and even a report from Markham to the Royal Geographical Society (‘letter’ 124). But there is very little either to or from the Boss himself, and while this all makes for interesting – compelling even – background material, it is hardly sufficient to allow for the title The Shackleton Letters. The counter-stickler might argue that this isn’t the first time a book has set sail under the wrong flag, and that to judge a book by its title might be only one step away from judging it by its cover. But titles and covers set up expectations, and here sadly it’s all gone a little bit awry.

For all these niggles, The Shackleton Letters should be on the shelf of anyone interested in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. This is the first time this collection of documents has appeared between one set of boards, arranged thematically, specifically to deal with the Nimrod expedition, and so it will prove useful to the scholar and the historian for years to come (especially if a second edition is graced with an index). Daly has done a good job tracking down and compiling the material and her historical sketches that set the papers in context are superb distillations of some of the classic Shackleton analyses by the likes of Hugh Robert Mill, Margery and James Fisher, Roland Huntford and Beau Riffenburgh.

Above all The Shackleton Letters is important because it gives the Nimrod expedition the credibility and attention that it so richly deserves, allowing us into the methodology, planning and execution of a grand scale expedition the way it used to be. And it’s quite comforting to realise how little has changed. Behind the scenes there is still the same mad scramble for sponsorship and patronage, the begging letters, the broken agreements, lonely wives and expectant public. Perhaps even more reassuringly, in the wings the cast of explorers still comprises the same unsung geniuses and braying bigheads, dignified elder statesmen and chancy upstarts, men of iron and posturing fraudsters as it did in the Heroic Age. And there’s not a damned thing history can do about that.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

Nick Smith writes on Aeronwy Thomas’s ‘My Father’s Places’ in October 2009 Bookdealer

October 15, 2009

Lost girl in the land of my fathers

Nick Smith reviews

My Father’s Places: a portrait of childhood by Dylan Thomas’ daughter

By Aeronwy Thomas, Constable, £14.99, pp 218

On the fiftieth anniversary of her father’s death Dylan Thomas’s only daughter said in an interview with the BBC: “Some of my best memories are when we walked back silently to the Boat House and I just felt so comfortable with him and he obviously felt comfortable with me… because there wasn’t any need to speak.” Aeronwy Thomas had put up with a lot. Her father had died before she’d reached her teens and she’d been forced to grow up in public with hurtful, nasty comments made about her father without a thought for her feelings. Gutsy, she stuck to her guns, defended the poetry and made allowances for the father. But she did need to speak. “Beyond being a drunkard and a writer and a womaniser,” she said commenting on his belated inclusion at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, “he was predominantly a poet. So what if he was a drinker? There are many drinkers in the United Kingdom, but there are not that many writers.”

Aeronwy died in July this year as her last book – My Father’s Places – was going to press. It’s sad when an author doesn’t get to see the fruits of their labour, but in this case particularly so because it’s a posthumous labour of love that ‘took ten years to write from start to finish’. That it took a decade to get out of her system suggests that it was something she simply had to get right. She consulted her father’s biographer Paul Ferris, and academic Barbara Hardy ‘who never lost faith in the content of my own memories’. That the resulting book seems to contradict the diplomatically crafted public statements she made throughout her life, could mean that we have here a work that sheds important new light on the Swansea-born poet. Gone are the torch-bearing defences of the great 20th century bard, and instead we have a more muted, sometimes overly-sunny, Tizer and Welsh cakes idealisation of hopeful youth: as with so many children of celebrities, she didn’t particularly want a famous father, she just wanted a father.

My Father’s Places, despite its title – recalling the phrase from St John that would have been hammered into the young Aeronwy in the chapels of west Wales – is neither much about her father or geography. It’s really a memoir of her own childhood, with the years at the famous Boat House in Laugharne clearly the most important. There is the complex relationship with her mother, Caitlin MacNamara, former professional dancer upon whom motherhood sat awkwardly. Caitlin, though she undoubtedly loved her children and her husband too, was a hard-drinking exhibitionistic firebrand would pull her daughter’s hair until she screamed because she looked ‘so much like your father. The harder I pull your curls, the better I feel.’ Caitlin often beat her daughter so violently that she would run to her grandmother’s to escape, only to find that upon her arrival she was physically incapable of sitting down. And yet there were times when she’d go skinny-dipping with her mum, secretly pleased that they were shocking the neighbourhood.

The trail of writers and artists that drank and vomited their way through the Boat House of Aeronwy’s youth hardly made her life easier. One of Dylan Thomas’s many guests gave her a gold ring in exchange for her silence following an incident when he sexually assaulted her on a boating trip. Her father by special arrangement would be allowed into the local pub before 11 o’clock when it officially opened, and by lunchtime was often incapable of recognising his own child in the street (at her baptism he got her name wrong, giving it as Aeron Hart, instead of Aeronwy Bryn). At seven o’clock Caitlin and Dylan would go to ‘the Brown’s’ pub together leaving their daughter to look after baby Colm. On their return there were routinely fights, singing and slanging matches, and worst of all for the young Aeronwy, her mother would get dolled up and dance in front of the guests, doing cartwheels, showing her knickers and drunkenly knocking over the furniture. These are the memories of their only daughter in her final memoir.

Maybe none of this was so shocking in post-war rural Wales, but this disorganised and dysfunctional childhood was certainly a long way from the norm. And wistful, nostalgic and romantic as My Father’s Places may be, it’s also a bleak insight into a cracked family of unstable megalomaniacs with no parenting skills and no desire to acquire them. As she wanders around the emotional bombsite of her childhood memories, Aeronwy seems to become ever more desperate to put a brave face on things, make it all normal, make it all go away.

One of the ways she does this is to imitate her father’s prose style. Every phrase is well chosen, well turned and written to be read aloud. There is the same inebriation with language: the artful zeugma, transferred epithets and tumbling tricolons. There is the same compressed musicality of dialogue and the same searching for a (probably non-existent) primal Welsh lyricism, mixed up with the effing and blinding of the public bar at chucking out time. Of course, she’s nowhere near as good as her father, but of his many imitators, she’s the best.

Oddly My Father’s Places reveals almost nothing about Dylan that we don’t already know, although Aeronwy is very good at reminding us that he was of course very young. We tend to forget that. Even when he was old he was very young, and when he died he was only thirty-nine and not that much older than Keats. When she recalls that he hero-worshipped Henry Miller and thought Tropic of Cancer the ‘best fucking book’ ever written, it is a tremendous insight into the mind of the young poet, because only thrusting young men bursting with literary ambition are likely to admire Miller. For all the clichés of being locked in his writing shed by his fiery wife, hacking out every ponderous syllable with a Woodbine dangling from his lips, here was a man in love with words, who thought writers and writing were cool. For all the tangled over-written madness of the ‘sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ that was Under Milk Wood, here was a man with who loved experimental literature, whose legacy is a handful of the most profoundly glorious poems of the 20th century.

You leave My Father’s Places the way you leave much of Aeronwy Thomas’s father’s best work. Inspired and slightly depressed. In an appendix she has included a poem of her own that in some respects resembles her father’s terrific piece of occasional verse – ‘Prologue’ – that he wrote to introduce his Collected Poems in 1952. In ‘Later than Laugharne’ she writes of the ‘balmy, never-to-be-forgotten days, green and golden…’ a reference also to the final lines of ‘Fern Hill.’ Brave? Self deluded? Its rhapsodic, mellifluous, self-consciously Welsh tone can do nothing to cover up a little girl’s lost childhood subverted by her parents alcoholism and poverty. And yet she was the child of one of the great poets, and there are times when she seems to happily accept that this comes at a price.

Nick Smith was brought up in Swansea, Dylan Thomas’s ‘ugly, lovely town’ before reading English at Balliol College, Oxford. He now writes for the Daily Telegraph

Nick Smith reviews Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ in September 2009 edition of Bookdealer

August 26, 2009

Revelling in the Reeperbahn

Nick Smith reviews a new edition of Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’

It’s been a busy time of late for James Bond aficionados. There’s been the release of the latest movie Quantum of Solace as well as Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care, apparently the last ever Bond novel. The latter was published last year on 28th May, on what would have been Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, and the Queen Anne Press brought out a sumptuous 18-volume centenary edition of the author’s complete works at the same time.

For those not suffering from Fleming fatigue, wondering if there’s a little something left in the tank, there are reissues of two of Fleming’s works of journalism: The Diamond Smugglers, a piece of investigative journalism that penetrates the world of international gem trafficking, and Thrilling Cities, thirteen essays of travel writing, urban portraiture commissioned by the Sunday Times exactly 50 years ago. Of the two Thrilling Cities is by modern standards the better book, and there will be travel editors up and down the land tearing their hair out that they neither have the budget nor a sufficiently imaginative publisher to allow for the commission of a series of such sustained brilliance as this.

Despite being overlooked by collectors – you can get a decent UK first for around £100 (compare that with, say Thunderball) – Thrilling Cities is Fleming at his best. There are a few negative comments to make about it because any collection of newspaper articles bundled up for publication, as a book will suffer from inconsistencies and repetitions. And although it is tempting to say that Ian Fleming Publications could have produced an edition with more critical apparatus and textual analysis, at the end of the day we’re dealing with journalism that was – no matter how good – of its day. To me at least the most important concern is that we’re presented with the unexpurgated versions of Fleming’s essays. He rather revels in the strip clubs, topless mud wrestling and red light districts of Hamburg’s Reeperbahn and so would have been peeved to have found these details hacked out by assiduous sub-editors working under a nervous editor’s instructions.

Another problem with reproducing newspaper journalism is with the contractual obligation stuff that all travel hacks have to (quite often against their will) include. There will be nightclubs that have given you a smashing night out, restaurants that have killed the fatted calf, as well as airlines and hotels that have upgraded you to both seats and suites bigger than your house. All this has to be paid for with name checks and superlatives. Despite having bought a round-the-world air ticket for £803 19s. 2d. and having drawn £500 in travellers’ cheques from the Chief Accountant, Fleming is no exception to this time-honoured barter system and there are times when his (often very amusing) ‘Incidental Intelligence’ notes extend to several pages, as with New York.

By contrast there is no incidental intelligence relating to Monte Carlo, the last thrilling city in the series. Maybe this is not that much of a discrepancy, as the essay on Monte Carlo is so lacking in local colour of any description it is hard to believe that Fleming ever even went there, at least for this commission. Some early editions of Thrilling Cities have the so-called ‘lost Bond story’ – ‘007 in New York’ – appended to the New York essay, but this reprint doesn’t, which is a shame because it’s not well-known and this edition might have benefitted from its inclusion.

Fleming’s journey is divided into two series: the first is a truly global jet-setting affair, with the second a rather glamorous blast around Europe in his seven-litre Thunderbird, which he tells us is ‘very comfortable, roomy, and as quick as hell.’ And off he went leaving ‘humdrum London’ not because he could see much literary merit in the enterprise but because he wanted to ‘see the world, however rapidly, while it was still there to see.’

Anyone expecting Fleming to be a fish out of water in the travel genre will be sorely disappointed. He’s a terrific journalist and travel writer whose observations are blunt, colourful, patriotic and at times reassuringly elitist. Hard for us to imagine now of course, but at the time you could only do journeys like this if you were the creator of James Bond with a seemingly unlimited license to travel. This license came from Leonard Russell, Features and Literary Editor of the Sunday Times, who in October 1959 ‘came up with the idea that I should make a round trip of the most exciting cities of the world and describe them in beautiful, beautiful prose.’

Of the 14 cities Fleming visits I’ve been to only four, which in itself says much about what cities were thrilling then and are no longer now. The way in which European travel has changed over the past half a century means that many of the places Fleming visits are now industrialised clichés where you might stop in order to change plane while heading for somewhere thrilling in Africa (a continent studiously avoided by Fleming). Having said that, the shared experience is important because it shows just how good he is at grasping the essential character of the city.

Even so we’re worlds apart: I can honestly say that I’ve never stayed at the house of the most powerful English taipan (‘big shot’) while in Hong Kong. Likewise, in many visits to New York I’ve never dined where it’s necessary to tip the headwaiter $50 simply to get a table and wouldn’t know where to. While in Hamburg I’ve certainly been to gigantic Bavarian beer halls, my head half blown off by brass bands, but I’ve never found places where ‘you can enjoy really hot jazz.’ In Geneva I’ve paid ten pounds for a fried egg and yet never encountered a single occasion where a working knowledge of the anonymously numbered banking account system has been absolutely necessary.

Fleming’s world is swanky and suave – just like James Bond – and the reason his cities are thrilling is simply that he seeks out what the guidebooks omit. Doors fling themselves open before his fame and charisma, both a better passport than a passport. But at other times the thrills turn into grief simply too hard to bear. He leaves Berlin without regret: ‘From this grim capital went forth the orders that in 1917 killed my father and in 1940 my youngest brother.’ For all these quite unexpected personal reflections, Jan Morris is entirely correct when she says in her introduction to this new edition of Thrilling Cities that as P.G.Wodehouse is to the comic novel so is Ian Fleming to the thriller. His travel journalism is wonderfully flashing, humorous and quick as hell. Those who through over-familiarity with the Bond novels have grown tired of Fleming should get hold of a copy of this marvelous edition of Thrilling Cities and have their faith restored.

Ian Fleming’s ‘Thrilling Cities’ is published by Ian Fleming Publications, £15.00 · ISBN 978-1 -906772-00-0

Nick Smith regularly writes travel features for the Daily Telegraph and has been a judge on the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year award

To find out more about Bookdealer magazine visit http://www.bookdealer.org.uk/

Notes about Isabel Dalhousie, by Nick Smith

April 28, 2009

Please remember words are usually better in print, so advertise in and subscribe to Bookdealer while you can: let the article commence…

Airborne with Isabel

After several weeks globetrotting with an attractive literary Scottish divorcee, Nick Smith thinks that he might have found the perfect fictional heroine…     

You know when you’ve been travelling too much when you no longer care what the time is and you start to think that everything can be dealt with in American dollars, even in London. I’ve been to Vancouver, Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi and Stevenage, all in the space of a month. Had it not been for my constant travelling companion – the wonderful Isabel Dalhousie – I might have found it a chore.

Isabel is of course fictional. She’s the well-heeled, professional philosopher who gives her name to the series of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels that have titles such as The Sunday Philosophy Club, The Right Attitude to Rain and The Careful Use of Compliments. I’d been thinking of reading them for a while but, put off by their covers, I’ve allowed them to languish on the ‘not very probable’ pile. Conventional wisdom has it that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but since Adam McCauley’s stylishly evocative designs appear to propel Isabel unashamedly towards the ‘mozzarella and sun-dried tomatoes’ sector, I fell foul of the trap. Until now I’d taken the expression to be metaphorical, and never really suspected it could be applied to actual books. And yet faced with a half-stocked Borders in Heathrow I decided to grab a couple of paperback Isabels and give her a whirl, covers notwithstanding.

The Isabel Dalhousie novels are deceptively light comedies of manners set in Edinburgh, McCall Smith’s hometown. Unlike the author’s fantastically popular No1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which is implicitly about moral philosophy, these books are explicitly about moral philosophy. His protagonist is editor of the quarterly Review of Applied Ethics, a journal that provides the serving spoon with which to dish up the moral dilemmas that confront Isabel and the ensemble cast of mostly well-to-do, well-educated, white Scotsmen and women. Although this may seem light years away from Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana, the two series share the core concern of how to reach an understanding of proper human behaviour (another similarity is that the heroines of both employ a sidekick called Grace). I read recently in The Ethical Executive by Robert Hoyk and Paul Hersey that one definition of such behaviour is that which hurts no one while being of potential benefit to all: what game theorists call the ‘non-zero sum’ result. Resolving conflicts of interest with this outcome in mind is what Isabel Dalhousie, as both philosopher and human being, is striving to achieve, and this is what supplies these books with their plots.

After several days airborne with Isabel I confess myself deeply attracted to her. I disagree sharply with critics who find her wealth, moral integrity and beauty a little too good to be true. I find her fascinating precisely because she is perfect, as well as enjoying the comparative novelty of a central character without a tragic flaw. To include a plotline where a 40-something divorcee ­– no matter how visually splendid – can bag herself a ‘beautiful’ 28-year old bassoonist shows McCall Smith’s knack of demonstrating how predictable currents of probability can have an unexpected undertow. And yet it is her generosity of spirit, rather than her wealth or looks, that makes her so attractive. She is undeniably extremely rich by any standards, which is not in any sense a virtue, but she is anonymously philanthropic, which certainly is.

We also like her because she allows a fox to live in her garden, where it rears its young under the shed. Brother Fox is a moral test for the reader. Why would Isabel allow a fox to live in her garden when you’d have Rentokil around to exterminate it faster than you could say knife? The answer is, she’s inherently good: the sort of person who instinctively and deliberately cares for people who are emotionally less well off than her, for whom goodness is literally the day-job.

It would be nice to say that I’ve got a lot in common with Isabel, but she is, alas (for me at least) an inspirational character. But I do have plenty of sympathy with her as a professional journalist. As editor of the Review of Applied Ethics she has her imperfections, occasionally overstepping her remit by straying into the territory of moral theory, much to the self-satisfied irritation of some members of the publication’s editorial board. Again, I sympathise: I don’t claim to be an expert in moral philosophy, but I have edited more than my fair share of monthly magazines and I know that the most time-consuming issue, that requiring the most diplomatic agility, is that of dealing with ‘the constituency’. For those thinking the duties of the modern magazine editor mainly consist of literary luncheons in Bloomsbury, or knocking off the Telegraph crossword while flicking through a file of press releases from Faber & Faber, light Sauternes to hand, the truth will be a rude awakening (I certainly agree with that ­– ed). The grubby reality is that the job is a defensive role, where much time is spent fending off offensive skirmishes from the Awkward Squad, be they in the form of advertisers, contributors, editorial board members, publishers or even readers.

Usually I deal with professional journalists, seasoned hacks who know the ropes, who’ll chop you out 800 print-ready words before you can say ‘double whisky’. They can be a trying bunch, so I can only imagine Isabel’s life as an editor of a peer-reviewed academic journal, whose contributors appear to be driven by motives more greedy and devious even than the pursuit of money or alcohol. Their need to publish is not fuelled by the desire to contribute to the canon of ethics, to bequeath their wisdom to future generations, or even to cast light on the thornier points of current philosophical thinking. It is triggered by the need to draw attention to the self, to rack up wordage in order to climb the academic ladder, or to carve a notch on the academic bedpost, during the execution of which, if an arch rival becomes irked or jealous, so much the better.

Pity the poor editor. Isabel spends much of her time reading unsolicited paper manuscripts (she refuses to read electronic submissions on her computer screen, forcing her into the very modern moral circle of hell called sustainability.) Most of what she receives is borderline at best, such as a paper entitled ‘The Concept of Sexual Perversion as an Oppressive Weapon’, which doesn’t make it into print, or ‘On the Ethics of Pretending to be Gay When You Are Not’, which does, despite being a straightforward disquisition on lying, while pretending not to be. Then there are the papers submitted from PhD students, postdocs and other junior academics that have no realistic chance of making it into the Review of Applied Ethics. Before rejecting their work, Isabel treats these self-deluded souls thoughtfully, despite their uninvited arrival in her ‘moral proximity’. Although she is too polite to say so, this is amateur flotsam and jetsam from what a former colleague on a magazine in the Isle of Dogs used to call ‘the green Biro brigade’.

Politeness is, of course, what sets McCall Smith’s books apart. Over the past few years I’ve read nigh on two dozen of his novels and not once have I encountered so much as a syllable that would make a nun blush. His style is understated, breezy and polite – perhaps too polite, as I find myself serenaded into allowing his use of the formal third person singular, which one normally detests. Even when Isabel and Jamie (her 28-year-old bassoonist) consummate their affections in a country house in Scotland, there is a discreet cutaway to the morning after, with only a brief flashback to explain how they got there. Their love is that of ‘Eros’, while their union is symbolised by the housekeeper needing to resupply only one of their rooms the following morning with a fresh bottle of water.

That McCall Smith can get away with such lightness of touch, when we’re told the public demands ever more extremes of explicitness, confirms my long-held belief (and I suspect his too) that while sex may sell, some things are more important to the success of a novel, both in creative and commercial terms. And because he never underestimates his reader, he rightly assumes his readers will think so too. When The Right Attitude to Rain is adapted for television it will inevitably be treated with a heavy hand by producers who, thinking they know better, will crank up the raunch factor in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Of course, I can’t be sure that this is exactly what will happen, but there is plenty of form.

Somewhere, 35,000ft above the Canadian Shield I snap shut The Comfort of Saturdays, switch on the in-flight entertainment and wait for lunch to arrive. They’re rerunning Andrew Davies’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the one when Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy famously takes off his shirt. If I’m being charitable, the best I can say is it’s not particularly good. But TV adaptations never are because their producers always want consumer-digestible, zeitgeisty piffle no matter what the directors have in mind. It occurs to me that with each successive television incarnation of Jane Austen’s heroine, the amplitude and acreage of Eliza Bennet’s décolletage increases in inverse proportion to the editorial attention paid to the moral and social concerns of the novel. This is particularly sad because it is Austen’s almost imperceptible rebellions, rather than the pulchritude of her women, that make Pride and Prejudice so naughty in the first place. Travesties of interpretation such as this are not simply an error of professional or even literary judgement on the part of the television hacks, but an ethical issue concerned with how far we should be allowed to distort a classic in order to make it acceptable to a mass audience ­– a debate I feel certain that Isabel, for all her almost saintly perfections, would find impossible to resist.

 

 

 

 

Nick Smith’s review of Bob Headland’s ‘A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration’ as appeared in Bookdealer magazine (full text)

April 27, 2009

A few people mentioned to me yesterday at the Antiquarian book fair at the RGS that they’d not seen my review of Bob Headland’s new Chronology in Bookdealer. Here is the full text, but remember words look better in print so please subscribe to the magazine… 

 

Cold hard facts from the bottom of the world

Nick Smith reviews

A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: a Synopsis of Events and Activities from the Earliest Times until the International Polar Years, 2007–09

By Robert Keith Headland

Quaritch, HB, £110 · ISBN 978-0955085284

Ever since Pythagoras postulated that the Earth was spherical the possibility of there being Polar Regions has intrigued philosophers and explorers alike. In the 8th Century a Northumbrian monk conjectured that the poles were places of eternal cold: in the north he thought there was an ocean, while in the south a great land mass. The Venerable Bede was of course spot on, but it was to be well over a thousand years before the likes of Robert Peary or Roald Amundsen would be able to see that for themselves by setting foot on the geographical poles. In 1366 pioneering travel writer Sir John Mandeville was the first to use the word ‘Antartyk’, while in 1487–88 a Portuguese naval expedition commanded by Bartholomeu Díaz de Novaes discovered the Cape of Good Hope. In 1516 the earliest printed description and illustration of the Southern Cross Antarctic constellation appeared in a work by Andrea Corsali, an image that adorns the front cover of Robert Keith Headland’s monolithic A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration.

In the 1600s the southern seas were getting positively crowded, with Dutch, English, French and Spanish expeditions all contributing to the exploration and mapping of the region. In 1736 the lighting of London streets with whale oil lamps created ‘great impetus to the whaling industry’. In 1762, John Harrison claimed the Board of Longitude’s £20,000 prize for the invention of an accurate chronometer for the determination of longitude at sea. By the 1800s the sub-Antarctic islands were starting to see the slaughter of marine mammals on an industrialised scale, when barely a year went by without a whaling or a sealing voyage setting forth to plunder the biodiversity of the South.

But it is the 20th century – starting with the Heroic Age of Polar exploration and ending with the dawn of an age of environmental responsibility ­– that forms the bulk of Headland’s Chronology. In a tome of well over 700 pages, the 20th century begins on page 231. To express just how intense this surge in activity in the region is, the first two millennia of the Chronology are dealt with on just one page. Political issues such as territorial sovereignty, international accords and the Antarctic Treaty weave their way through the latter part. These threads are supported by a wealth of scientific, expeditionary and tourism-related material that will be of inestimable value to researchers, academics and anyone with more than a casual interest in polar affairs.

Since the Second World War there have been several compilations of chronological lists of Antarctic expeditions, but this title is essentially a third edition of the author’s Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events (CUP, 1989). There are major structural changes. For instance, its historical extent now includes up to the International Polar Years 2007–09 (for some reason I’ve never managed to work out, International Polar Years are considerably longer than the more conventional calendar year). This means that there are some 1,500 new entries, while a tenth of the original entries have been significantly amended. Headland is nothing if not thorough: in his introduction he notes that there are some additional minor voyages of discovery, several hundred more sealing voyages, corrections to dates and notes, better indexing of subjects, revision of the histograms and bibliography, and ‘similar improvements in completeness and correctness.’

One of the most curious effects of reading a linear chronology such as this is how dispassionate academic history can be compared with its so-called ‘popular’ counterpart and as a consequence it is sometimes hard to gauge the relative importance of historical events. While the polar community celebrates the centenary of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s iconic British Antarctic Survey of 1907–09 (otherwise known as the Nimrod expedition), Headland allocates what seems to be a rather measly 22 lines to the subject (although in fairness he allocates fewer to the 1982 Argentine invasion of South Georgia, during which he was captured, and even fewer to the invasion of the Falkland Islands.) And yet within those 22 lines salient points for the academic historian are rattled off in a prose style that has a taciturn beauty all of its own. Here’s one sentence from the Nimrod entry:

‘Party of 15 men wintered at Cape Royds on Ross Island; climbed Mount Erebus (3794 m), 10 March 1908; Shackleton and 3 others (Jameson Boyd Adams, Eric Stewart Marshall, and John Robert Francis [Frank] Wild), discovered and sledged up the Beardmore Glacier to the farthest south of 88 • 38º S (01 • 62º [180km] from the South Pole) where Shackleton took possession of the Polar Plateau for King Edward VII, 9 January 1909; insufficient supplies necessitated their return; discovered nearly 500km of the Transantarctic Mountains flanking the Ross Ice Shelf; discovered coal at Mount Buckley.’

Somewhere in here is the human drama of the Boss’s decision to turn around a tantalising 97 miles from glory. He could have pushed on and claimed the pole but his men were in bad shape and he needed to get them home safely. This has been called one of the greatest decisions in exploration, and one that defines Shackleton as an icon of management leadership a century later. But this category of interpretive analysis is not what the Chronology is about – it is about cold, hard facts from the bottom of the world. There’s even one for antiquarian bibliophiles: ‘Book, Aurora Australis, printed at Cape Royds, 90 copies made.’

Bob Headland is of course a legend in Polar circles, having held the post of Archivist and Curator at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge until late 2005, when he left in order to pursue his research and to get his Chronology finished. During his career he has spent probably as much time as anyone else in the Polar Regions. He spent two winters at Grytviken on South Georgia involved in biological research with the British Antarctic Survey in the late 1970s. In 1982, a third winter of study was cut short by the inconvenience of having to spend time at the Argentine forces’ pleasure (a ‘Galtieri: his part in my downfall’ moment if ever there was one). South Georgia not only provided Headland with masses of field experience, but also resulted in studies on the biogeography of the peri-Antarctic islands and an interest in their history, which in turn led to his 1984 book The Island of South Georgia.

In his introduction Headland admits that there’ll probably be no fourth edition to his Chronology. Improved access to the White Continent means that the sheer volume of data will become unmanageable in book form. As commercial flights and tourism cruises increase in frequency, the maintenance of such a project will become more difficult and will inevitably be handed over to the online environment. Which means that for those preferring their reference works to be made out of paper and board the time has come to invest. At first glance £110 might seem like a tall order, but for that you get the definitive work. Bob Headland has produced a monumental work of scholarship based on a lifetime’s dedication to his subject, and if his Chronology does not become the final court of appeal for all factual matters to do with the events and activities in Antarctic exploration, then nothing ever will.

Nick Smith is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York

Shah ‘Abbas – review of exhibition and catalogue as appeared in April 2009 Bookdealer

April 13, 2009

For those who asked to see my review, but couldn’t get hold of the magazine, here it is in full

Anyone lucky enough to have travelled across the desert through Iran to Isfahan will know that it is not just one of the most beautiful cities of Islam, but also one of the wonders of the world. The Royal Square, or the Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, is the jewel in Isfahan’s crown, greedily boasting not one, but two glorious mosques – those of Shaykh Lutfallah and Masjid-i Shah – as well as the magnificent Ali Qapu palace. Not much has changed since the square was first built four centuries ago: shops sell carpets, silverware and antiques, while clouds of pigeons circulate above what was once the heart of the capital of Shah ‘Abass’s Persia. Horse-drawn carriages take tourists on trips around the city, while dark alleys lead off into the depths of the legendary bazaar. Side roads punctuated by old caravanserais that have been converted into teahouses drift down to the river where Isfahan’s famous bridges cross Iran’s only permanent natural waterway.

Isfahan in all its glory is the work of one of the formative figures in the creation of modern Iran. Shah ‘Abbas, the country’s most influential king and a great military leader, ruled Persia at a time of great political renewal, when it emerged as a world power with a national identity. For those of us who find Middle Eastern history something of a closed book it may be useful to think of Shah ‘Abbas (who reigned from 1587–1629) as being contemporary with William Shakespeare, whose dramatic output straddled the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and the beginning of King James I of England’s. In fact the Bard, aware of the colossal wealth of Shah ‘Abbas, even name-checks the ‘Sophy’ in Twelfth Night. In a scene where Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are plotting to bring down Malvolio, fellow conspirator Fabian says: ‘I will not give my part of this sport for a pension of thousands to be paid from the Sophy.’

Heartbeat of Persia and home to the Shah’s government, Isfahan played host to the Dutch traveller and artist Cornelius de Bruyn, who passed through the region in the early 18th century. His illustration of the Maidan from Voyages de Corneille le Brun par la Moscovie, En Perse, et aux Indes Orientales (1718) is one of the highlights of the British Museum’s fantastic new exhibition Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (also the title of the accompanying catalogue). De Bruyn’s depiction of the plaza ‘full of tents, where all kinds of things are sold’ is shown both as a gigantic wall-mounted reproduction, as well as in its original binding. His account of the square conjures up an atmosphere that remains to this day: ‘One continually sees a prodigious crowd of people of quality who come and go to the court. One also finds there troupes of clowns and charlatans … There are people there who have monkeys whom they make do a thousand tricks that attract the people because there is no nation on earth that loves a bagatelle more than the Persians. Also, the cafés and bazaars are full of these clowns.

In other galleries, there is a fabulous array of ceramics, tapestries, carpets, manuscripts, paintings, coins and religious artefacts. Another breathtaking highlight is a slightly surprising collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain. Perhaps not that surprising, as China was an ancient trading partner of Persia. In fact, the history of blue and white porcelain begins with the export of cobalt from Persia to China. These ceramics were so highly prized that at the shrine at Ardabil a special building to house the collection was commissioned, its walls lined with niches contoured to fit each ceramic exactly. The overall effect of the exhibition is quite stunning and its curator Sheila R Canby must be congratulated for creating a magical experience for anyone with the slightest interest in the arts and treasures of the Middle East. It will be interesting to see if her efforts will help to overturn the widespread and baffling prejudice the British media holds against this beautiful and wonderful country.

The exhibition is logically and thematically divided into four geographical aspects of Shah ‘Abbas’s life: Isfahan, the Ardabil shrine, the shrine of Imam Riza at Mashad and the shrine of Fatimeh Ma‘sumeh at Qum. The catalogue follows the same format, although after the splendours of the exhibition is an anticlimax. On the page, Bishn Das’s iconic portrait of Shah ‘Abbas seems muted, the full-length portraits of Robert and Teresia Sherley lack scale, and the sub-collection of Armenian Christian crucifixes and censers lack the historic grandeur they exude in three dimensions. The ostentation of the silk and gold carpets, prayer rugs and the 17th century leather filigree bookbinding loses its fizz in print. The reason for this is that no catalogue could ever hope to do justice to such a truly exceptional exhibition, although there are quite frankly times when, as we shall see, the editors could have at least tried. But this is only to be expected: a catalogue can only really serve as a reminder, like a faded postcard from your favourite holiday.

Closer inspection reveals that the catalogue of Shah ‘Abbas: the Remaking of Iran suffers sorely from poor editing. In the index we are promised 128 catalogue entries, but the book comes to an abrupt end after 127. Of the entries themselves, 63 begin with the words ‘the’, ‘this’ or ‘these’, which to be charitable doesn’t matter that much – except that it does, because it makes you want to stop reading about the artefacts. This could have been put right in a matter of hours by a competent sub-editor. I could forgive this had the picture editing been any better, but there are pages of images in Shah ‘Abass: the Remaking of Iran that are not good enough to be published in a book from the British Museum Press.

By far the most disappointing is on page 104 – ‘Interior of the fifth floor of the Ali Qapu gatehouse, Isfahan, 1598-1638’ – where a snapshot grabbed on a cheap compact camera (or mobile phone) has been post-processed to the point where there is hardly any of the original digital data left. Almost as bad is the image on page 110, where the ‘Golden Ivan, Shrine of Fatimeh, Ma’sumeh, Qum, 1519’ has such pronounced barrel-distortion that it looks as if it were taken with a camera from a Christmas cracker. On pages 10–11 there is a (captionless) photograph of some ceramic tile-work that is over-extrapolated to the point where it is hard to tell if the original ever had a single point of focus.

The objection to these comments from the publisher will no doubt be that it is hard for photographers to get access to some of these holy sites and that decent photography of parts of Iran is scarce. This may be the case, but I speak from personal experience when I say that during my travels through Shiraz, Esfahan, Tehran and many other Iranian cities, the only time I was prevented from using my professional photographic equipment was when I was in a government treasury building. (As for holy sites where photography is not allowed for cultural reasons, the procedure is obtain special permission or leave your camera behind ­– not to grab shots by stealth using a mobile phone, or a similar tactic, as appears to be the case here). I accept that these criticisms may seem insubstantial in the grand scheme of things, but they are justified considering the expense of the catalogue – a Sophy’s ransom at £40 – compared with the twelve quid you’ll need to get into the show.

Shah ‘Abbas: The Remaking of Iran is running at the British Museum until 14 June 2009

http://www.britishmuseum.org

A selection of Nick Smith’s photographs of Iran was exhibited last month at the Royal Geographical Society, where he is a fellow. He is also a Contributing Editor on the Explorers Journal, the magazine of the Explorers Club in New York