Posts Tagged ‘Royal Geographical Society’

‘Travels with Paul Theroux’ | Nick Smith in conversation with Theroux in the August 2011 edition of Geographical magazine

September 13, 2011

Arguably the finest travel writer of his generation, Paul Theroux has spent as much of his life in the world of books as he has on the road. By Nick Smith

Paul Theroux saunters onto the stage in a dark grey chalk-stripe suit and a white straight-from-the box Nehru collar shirt. His circular tortoiseshell glasses complete the image of the metropolitan intellectual. Urbane and media-groomed, he pauses to stride across the boards, pours himself a glass of water. If he has notes he doesn’t use them, preferring to tell a string of apparently unconnected anecdotes about his favourite travel books. For an hour he weaves the threads of his immense knowledge into a richly textured fabric. The packed house is enthralled.

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Paul Theroux at the Royal Geographical Society. Photo: Nick Smith

The following afternoon Theroux and I meet for a drink in the courtyard of his swanky hotel in Buckingham Gate to discuss his new book The Tao of Travel. Looking relaxed, he admits he ‘winged it last night. I don’t do a lot of public speaking and it can be very stressful.’ It’s hard to imagine how the author of such classics as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonia Express and Riding the Iron Rooster could find sharing his passion for travel literature with 750 well-read geographers as anything other than an easy stroll. But then again, he’s never happier than when on the road. Or to be more precise, travelling by train.

In his lecture at the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje theatre, Theroux midway through his delivery, makes the observation that as a traveller, ‘if you go to an island, you can only be up to no good.’ This seems like a good place to start: after all, he lives part of the time in Hawaii and here we are in the British Isles. So what’s he up to? ‘Nothing.’ This isn’t quite true, but at the time, neither of us could have known that before his promotional tour of the UK was over, Theroux would be patching up a 15-year feud with his nemesis V.S. Naipaul. A historic handshake in Hay on Wye. ‘I’m sorry. I miss you,’ said the 70-year-old to Naipaul.

It comes as no surprise that Theroux loves decent travel writing, although he admits ‘felicitously written, well-observed books are rather rare.’ As an example of one of the best of its genre he cites Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World. ‘I mention that not just because it’s stylish, but because the voice is so consistent, so right, so measured.’ I mention that this might be in some way related to Cherry-Garrard being George Bernard Shaw’s close friend and neighbour. Theroux says: ‘Yeah. He looked closely at Cherry-Garrard’s book.’

In his wrapping up statement at the end of Theroux’s lecture, the Society’s President Michael Palin took a positive view of the state of the art, saying: ‘rumours of the death of travel writing have tonight been proved to be greatly exaggerated.’ Theroux agrees. It’s not all bad: ‘it’s just that publishers fear a certain type of book won’t sell. But that’s not a reason not to write it. And it doesn’t mean that people won’t do proper travel or write proper travel books. It just means that it’s going to get harder for them to get published.’

He goes on to argue that in this respect ‘the future of travel writing greatly resembles the past’. But the future of books doesn’t. ‘That’s the $64,000 question. No one knows what’s going to happen to books. We never foresaw the effect of the internet, or e-books or Kindle. We’re in the middle of some kind of revolution, but I’d like to think that the book with a binding and a jacket, that’s full of good writing, will endure. And I think it will, only maybe there will be fewer.’

The problem with making predictions, says Theroux, is that everything looks superficially identical to how it used to. ‘Sitting here in London today it still looks pretty much the same as when I first came here in 1965. When people write science fiction the first thing they do is change the look of a place, but actually places look the same. It’s on the inside that real differences happen.’

This can be especially true of returning to a place after a long absence, and I ask Theroux what happens on a writer’s return. Is it the writer or the place that has changed over time? ‘The truth is I’ve changed and I’m a different person when I go back. It’s a wonderful and educational experience to go back to a place, because you see what the future will look like elsewhere. In general the quality of life is vastly different and yet not as good.’

Ideal travel books have the gifts of description and a human element, says Theroux. For sense of place Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli, ‘is wonderfully written, dramatic.’ But that’s not a travel book. ‘He’s not travelling, but he’s in a foreign place. It’s an experience of solitude and confinement. Not a lot of people think of that as a travel book, you’re right. But I think it’s terrific.’

This is important for Theroux, and the demarcation lines between genres are endlessly fascinating for him. As with two other great travel writers of his generation – Colin Thubron and Jonathan Raban – he’s also a novelist. And these two existences, for Theroux at least, are not entirely separate or separable. He says that writing novels is – just like Levi’s book – all about confinement, stuck in a house, stuck behind a desk. At the end of typically eighteen months ‘you really want to get out and do something.’ While travelling to South America for The Old Patagonia Express, Theroux passed through Costa Rica and came back with the idea for his novel The Mosquito Coast. Recently, while in India for Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, he developed the idea for The Elephanta Suite, three novella which ‘I think are great. I loved writing them.’

It is this combined affection for travel and literature that led him to crystalise his vast reading in The Tao of Travel. There are plenty of literary anthologies in print, many with generous travel sections, but Tao is much more than simply a commonplace book of interesting snippets. For Theroux it deconstructs his reaction to people ‘who don’t travel alone. A lot of people who write believe that they have to come up with a certain type of book. They conceal the fact that they didn’t spend as long a time in a place as they should have. They conceal the fact that they were doing other things or were with another person.’

Theroux says there’s a virtue in travelling alone, but it’s difficult; there’s a virtue in travelling for a long period of time, but that’s difficult, too. ‘It’s much easier,’ he says, ‘to travel for a month than a year. And people conceal this. They conceal the fact that they have to pay bills, they’ve got a family and there’s someone on the other end of the phone saying come home. I don’t know where it will end.’

It’s this artifice of concealment that rankles with Theroux, who confesses not to understand why authors write books that ‘appear to be one thing when they’re really another. In Tristes Tropiques Claude Lévi-Strauss makes out he’s travelling alone, but he’s not. He’s travelling with a whole expedition. And his wife.’

Theroux is equally critical of his former enemy V.S.Naipaul, whose A Turn in the South is an exercise in this type of concealment: ‘his mistress is driving the car and yet she’s never mentioned in the book. He paid her $40,000 to drive, find restaurants and fix tickets, while his wife is back in London. As a reader you don’t know that. And that’s kinda interesting, but it’s not what the book is about.’

Despite a literary career in which he’s often blended fiction with reality –sometimes with legal and emotional consequences – when it comes to travel writing, ‘the truth is always more interesting than what’s made up. This is my objection to some travel writing and this is what informs my selections in Tao.’ Theroux says he wanted to expose other writers’ concealments, and so one of the tasks he set himself was to compile a league table of how long famous travellers claim to have spent on the road and then to hold their claims up against reality. One of Theroux’s ambitions was to dissect and atomise travel books in ‘my own eccentric way of evaluating the truth.’

As the conversation threatens to become a metaphysical disquisition of the nature of truth, Theroux suggests that too many travel writers get hi-jacked by an unknown reader that increasingly requires the writer to have travelled alone, suffered, had moments of great incident and enlightenment. He goes on to say that publishers get bothered too when these boxes don’t get ticked. As a consequence, the writer is often tempted to take the path of least resistance and fabricate an experience that conforms to these expectations. I ask him if there’s an absolute relationship between the travel writer and the literal truth? Theroux adjusts his Ray-Bans, considers the question, before restating the challenge that has tripped up virtually every travel writer since the dawn of the genre. ‘You have a great duty to tell the truth, without being boring.’

At this point the sky turns black with helicopters and our voices are drowned out. ‘That’s Obama,’ shouts Theroux reminding me that we’re a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. ‘I think he’s staying with the Queen tonight. Great president. Nice guy. I just hate his political decisions on things like Iraq and Afghanistan.’

Soundbites: Travelling with Paul Theroux’s books

Tearsheet of Nick Smith's interview with Paul Theroux in Geographical magazine

How the interview appeared in Geographical magazine, September 2011

The difference between travel writing and fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows – The Great Railway Bazaar

A train isn’t a vehicle. A train is part of the country. It’s a place – Riding the Iron Rooster

The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

A landscape looks different when you know the names of things, and conversely, can look exceedingly inhospitable and alien when it seems nameless – Fresh Air Fiend

In countries where all the crooked politicians wear pin-striped suits, the best people are bare-assed – Dark Star Safari

Villages endure destitution better than towns, and rural poverty can perversely seem almost picturesque – The Pillars of Hercules

The nearest thing to writing a novel is travelling in a strange landscape – Sunrise with Seamonsters

When something human is recorded, good travel writing happens – To the Ends of the Earth

Travel, which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion the opposite. Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or a foreign culture – The Happy Isles of Oceania

Nothing is more bewildering to a foreigner than a nation’s pleasures – The Kingdom by the Sea

Quotations taken from The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux, Hamish Hamilton £16.99

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Nick Smith’s interview with pinhole photographer Nick Livesey in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 10, 2011

Patagonia through a pinhole

Nick Livesey is best known as an Emmy-nominated maker of short films and documentaries. But he’s also a leading exponent of the art of pinhole photography. Nick Smith hears his story…

nick-livesey-by-nicksmithphoto

Nick Livesey looks up at his pinhole camera. Photo: Nick Smith

A Lancastrian, Nick left school at 16 and went to his local art college in Blackburn. At the age of 19 he was accepted by the Royal College of Art and became on of the youngest ever to graduate with an MA. He moved to New York for a year where he started making moving images, as well as embarking on a career with Ridley Scott Associates that represents him to this day.

Although widely known for his short films, commercials and documentaries, Nick is an avid exponent of the pinhole technique. His camera is ‘a bunch of MDF’ that cost him about £40, put together by a ‘garden shed genius.’ On his extended honeymoon he took this camera around Chile, trekking for days off the beaten track. The result was the intriguing and popular ‘Patagonia through a Pinhole’ exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

With pinhole photography ‘you’re at the mercy of the elements’ says Nick. And although he’s equally comfortable with digital technology, there’s something about the stripped-down aspect of using basic wooden boxes with film in them that he likes. ‘It’s such a basic communication and fundamental way of composing images.’

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Nick Livesey: It was more of a quest. I was frustrated and wanted to understand light while I was making films. I was working with Directors of Photography and was really curious as to what they were doing.

NS: What was your first camera?

NL: Nikon FG-20 that I bought at a flea market in New York in 1993. It felt like an investment. It was something like $130. It’s just a great 35mm camera.

NS: What formal training do you have?

NL: I went to the Royal College of Art where I did an MA in graphic design and art direction. I pretty much lived in the dark room when I was there. At the end of the first year they asked me if there was any reason why I wasn’t working in colour. They said ‘why don’t you work in colour in your second year?’ So I did.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

NL: It’s great to specialise to the extent that you can get a handle on the subject. But I do like working in so many different areas. If you specialise too much you can start to wear blinkers.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

NL: I did a pinhole piece for a fashion magazine in Moscow. That really freaked out the fashion label. They kept saying ‘we need to see stuff’ and we kind of said ‘well we’ll send you a contact sheet.’

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

NL: There’s no downside. There are so many plus factors. Maybe it would be nice to not smell of dark room chemicals. So you do have to wash occasionally.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

NL: They complement each other. I’m looking into ways of cutting the front off an Ixus and replacing it with a pinhole. I think it would be interesting to see what you could get with a digital pinhole.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

NL: Just stand back from it all. Get close to the subject when you’re shooting it, but when you’re arranging a show, learn to stand back from it all. Try to look at everything in its entirety.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

NL: I feel like a conduit. I love taking photographs, but the only point of that is if people want to see them. I’ve always been hungry for creating images. I also love the quiet world of the dark room.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

NL: It’s all about the reaction of the person viewing it. If you can see someone’s reaction to your photo in a detached way – say at a show – then you’ll know what they really think.

In Nick’s gadget bag

Cameras: Wooden pinhole camera, Canon 7D, Arri 435 (movie camera), Red and Sony (digital movie cameras)

To see more of Nick Livesey’s photography visit www.nicklivesey.com

 

 

 

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 reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s new book ‘The Land of Eagles’ in August 2009 Bookdealer magazine

August 26, 2009

Breughelesque farmers in Byronic landscapes

Nick Smith reviews Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s ‘The Land of Eagles: Riding through Europe’s Forgotten Country’

The trouble with the Balkans, Winston Churchill is supposed to have said, is they create more history than they can consume. And while, as with so many of the old Bulldog’s more epigrammatic sayings, this may on the surface appear to make sense, it’s also an expression with hidden shallows. Certainly, the geographical region we now call Albania (or more likely ‘plucky little Albania’) has had more than its fair share of invasions, bloodshed, ethnic cleansing and political upheaval over the centuries, largely because of its situation on the political fault-line between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. But paradoxically, from the 21st century perspective at least, As Robin Hanbury-Tenison points out in his superb Land of Eagles, it is also one of the most dormant, remote and traditional countries in a fast-changing Europe that has apparently forgotten all about it.

Obscured by communism and locked away behind ramparts of impassable mountains, Albania may have been overlooked economically and may well lack what we today call development. But it has long and constantly attracted the literary and cultural traveller.

As Hanbury-Tenison points out, Albania is awash with literary and cultural references. Shakespeare set Twelfth Night in Illyria, an ancient region of the Balkan Peninsula on the Adriatic coast that is modern Albania. In Così fan tutte Mozart casts his two scheming lovers as ‘Albanian Noblemen’. Edward Gibbon describes Albania as ‘a country within sight of Italy, which is less known than the interior of America’. And of course Byron set his lengthy narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in Albania, the country the romantic poet rode through with his friend John Cam Hobhouse in 1809. Edward Lear swung into the saddle to ride across the landscape, a journey ultimately expressed in his 1851 Journal of a Landscape Painter in Greece and Albania. Noted Victorian traveller Edith Durham, often described as the first woman war correspondent and a great enthusiast for the Albanian people, also rode through the mountains before publishing her epic book High Albania. For the record, Hanbury-Tenison comments that up in the high mountain passes of the north ‘these are the woods where Voldemort, the villain of the Harry Potter books goes to lie low after being defeated. We could see why, as they felt quite divorced from the rest of the world.’

Hanbury-Tenison is a renowned and veteran horseman, and he likes to do his travelling on horseback. A few years ago I interviewed him for the Royal Geographical Society’s magazine, and he told me that ‘on foot with a pack you see nothing but your feet. In a car you are insulated from the real world. But on a horse, you have an intelligent animal doing all of the work and most of the thinking, leaving you free to look and listen, to communicate with those you meet.’ These could so easily be the words of the explorer’s hero and mentor, Wilfred Thesiger, and in emulating the great desert traveller Hanbury-Tenison is preserving something of a noble tradition that sees exploring as being about discovering things rather than breaking records. And it’s a formula that has obviously worked and stood the test of time, with Hanbury-Tenison previously riding through and writing about China, Spain, New Zealand and France.

And now Albania. Although the real question is probably ‘why Albania?’ Why not, the author seems to imply, recounting a story of how he first met the Crown Prince Leka of Albania at Sandhurst. The prince had been on a military exercise with the explorer’s son and was covered with mud. He clicked the heels of his boots together in the manner of a Prussian officer before announcing: ‘You will always be welcome in my country.’ Hanbury-Tenison took him at face value and in 2007 he and his wife Louella went on an expedition along the length of the country from Theth in the north to Erind in the south. The result is Land of Eagles, a good old-fashioned travel book, and the sort that would win the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award if it were still going. It’s got just the right balance of travelogue and digression, contrasting a gruelling expedition journal with riveting trivia and occasionally complex political history. One minute Hanbury-Tenison will breezily relate an anecdote about how Norman Wisdom became a national hero, while the next he’ll describe the Balkan Peace Park Project, an initiative where an environmentally protected area is set aside to unite communities and encourage tourism into a war-torn region. This appeals to the environmentalist in Hanbury-Tenison who explains in some depth how substantial chunks of Southern Montenegro and western Kosovo have been joined to the Albanian section, making a total area of 3,000 square kilometres… ‘The fact that this just happens to be the most beguiling and least known corner of Europe makes it a winner.’

Although Hanbury-Tenison’s knowledge of the region is impressive, both historically and culturally, he’s at his best when he’s in the saddle on the open road, which is quite often little more than the narrowest of tracks, often with a precipice one side and a cliff the other. He makes no secret that it is a hard journey: some of the mountain passes and suspension bridges would be terrifying to a man half his age, but now in his seventies Hanbury-Tenison occasionally allows himself to admit just how onerous the task is. To make matters worse the tracks that he uses are dismally signposted in a land without map or seemingly reliable guides. But for all his frustrations he is boyishly optimistic and genuinely enchanted by the hospitality of the people he meets along the road. In a sentence that could only have been written by Hanbury-Tenison he describes ‘the bucolic charm of Breughelesque farmers, who belong to the Byronic landscape so perfectly.’

Robin Hanbury-Tenison has always been an intensely busy man. Download his CV from his website and you will read what you’d be forgiven for thinking is a description of several action-packed lives. Of course he’s best known as an explorer – having lead or taken part in more than 30 expeditions – in which capacity he’s brought to the wider public the plight of the tribal peoples of the world as well as the rainforest. He’s also been named by the Sunday Times in 1982 as ‘the greatest explorer of the past 20 years’, and again in 1991 as one of the 1000 ‘Makers of the 20th Century’. He deserves to be much better known as an author and perhaps with the publication of Land of Eagles this slight injustice is about to be put right.

The Land of Eagles is published by I B Tauris, HB, £19.99 · ISBN 978-1845118556

For more information about Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s books visit http://www.robinsbooks.co.uk

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 reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’ in the Literary Review (archive stuff)

August 26, 2009

Candour in Kandy

Nick Smith reviews Christopher Ondaatje’s ‘Woolf in Ceylon’

Christopher Ondaatje’s best book to date is a refreshingly creative illustrated biography of Leonard Woolf in the years preceding the Great War. Woolf in Ceylon is simultaneously a reconstruction of its subject’s term of office as a civil servant on the colonial outpost; a photographic archive of a long-vanished society in the heyday of empire; a literal journey in Woolf’s footsteps through war-ravaged twenty-first-century Sri Lanka; and an autobiographical travelogue. These four threads are woven together to make a well thought-out book, similar in genre to Ondaatje’s Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2003). The literary world may well be thirsty for Victoria Glendinning’s much-anticipated biography of the man of letters, but Ondaatje’s timely offering constitutes a valuable analysis of Woolf in his most formative years.

Ondaatje is well placed to comment on Woolf: born in Ceylon, the son of a tea planter, his early life is a curious mirror image of his subject’s. While the young Woolf, freshly graduated from Cambridge, sailed eastward to Ceylon for a stint in the Civil Service in order to learn the imperial ropes, Ondaatje was packed off in the other direction to a private school in Devon to discover how to become an English gentleman. The parallels continue, and it’s not hard to see why Woolf holds such a fascination for Ondaatje. Nor is it hard to draw the conclusion that Ondaatje’s return to Sri Lanka in 2004 to take photographs for the book has a personal significance akin to that of Woolf’s triumphant return to the island in the 1960s.

Woolf in Ceylon contains detailed explanations of some of the imperial workings of the British Civil Service, a system that plagued the highly-strung Woolf. He was one of the first to see the cracks appearing in the British Empire, and his understanding of the situation clearly influenced the thinking of the Fabian Society and the Labour Party in the years leading up to 1945.

The volume also comprises an important reappraisal of Woolf’s early novel The Village in the Jungle, which is set in Ceylon during the time of his posting there. Currently revived under the Eland banner (having been out of print in the UK since the early 1980s, though it has never gone out of print in Sri Lanka), the new edition has an afterword by Ondaatje. In this essay, as in Woolf in Ceylon, he convincingly contends that The Village in the Jungle ‘s importance lies primarily in its being one of the very few books to deal with a colonial situation from the perspective of the colonised rather than the coloniser – a blatant clue to Woolf’s developing mistrust of, and later disgust with, imperialism. In his epilogue Ondaatje indulges in some literary forensics as he sets out to find the original village of the title, long thought to be fictional. Working on the basis that Woolf’s fiction is nearly always rooted in established, demonstrable fact, the author makes the not unreasonable assumption that the double murder central to the novel’s plot must have happened in a real place. True to his explorer’s instincts, Ondaatje not only finds the actual site of Beddagama, but also makes a plausible case for Woolf’s association with it. Importantly, Woolf in Ceylon also offers an insight into and critique of Woolf’s incredibly rare Stories from the East, three brilliantly revealing short pieces relating to his time in Ceylon that have previously only been available in a 1921 Hogarth Press edition limited to 300 copies (expensive!), or as an appendix to the improbably entitled Diaries in Ceylon, 1908–1911: Records of a Colonial Administrator, being the Official Diaries maintained by Leonard Woolf while Assistant Government Agent of the Hambantota District, Ceylon … ; & Stories from the East: Three Short Stories on Ceylon , available as a paperback only, and after considerable effort, in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ondaatje focuses much of his critical attention on the second volume of Woolf’s acclaimed autobiography, Growing – the instalment that deals specifically with the Ceylon years. Much of the attraction of Woolf’s five-volume autobiography is his lucid and candid self-examination. Sometimes this can border on the downright odd (as when, for example, he ponders humankind’s relationship with its companion animals), but for the most part he is simply and elegantly matter-of-fact (and often very funny). His recollections of his youthful sexual promiscuity are only sensational in as much as they are an intellectual exercise in candour. He even reproduces a letter to his closest friend Lytton Strachey, in which he reveals how he lost his virginity to a Burgher girl in Jaffna.

But, sexual awakening aside, the real issue and defining characteristic of Woolf’s Ceylon years – something that was to serve him well in later life – was his punishing work ethic: his ability to ‘stick at it’ was to effect his meteoric rise to influence in Ceylon. He did the work of his superiors in Jaffna, organised social events in Kandy with great efficiency for Sir Hugh Clifford (the acting Governor of Ceylon and a notorious ladies’ man), and was rewarded with the job of Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota, the youngest civil servant ever to be appointed to the post. Woolf’s efficiency and industry in the dry, south-eastern Hambantota district resulted in its becoming the best-run region in Ceylon. He doubled salt production as he had doubled pearl-fishing profits during his earlier posting in Jaffna.

Ondaatje is probably at his best when analysing Woolf’s strange courtship of Virginia Stephen, whom he saw, with characteristic honesty, as less beautiful than her sister. Ondaatje is also observant on Lytton Strachey’s influence on the couple’s early relationship, as well as on the sensitive issue of Virginia’s sexual abuse as a child by her elder half-brothers Gerald and George Duckworth (published posthumously in Sketches of the Past). These passages illuminate the loving but sexless marriage between two of the most influential figures in Edwardian literary circles.

The text of Woolf in Ceylon could easily stand on its own, but the inclusion of more than sixty photographs of Ceylon in the first decade of the twentieth century, drawn from the archives of the Royal Geographical Society, add real value. These heritage photos are more than ably supported by the author’s own documentary shots of modern Sri Lanka, which serve to broaden the book’s appeal and take Leonard Woolf on a quite unexpected journey into the mainstream. Woolf in Ceylon is certain to give today’s reader a much clearer understanding of why his importance goes way beyond simply being Mr Virginia Woolf.

To find out more about Christopher Ondaatje’s books visit http://www.ondaatje.com

Nick Smith’s feature on Iran in Geographical magazine, June 2009 (full text)

May 26, 2009

A new dawn for Iran?

Ever since the Islamic Revolution in the 1970s Iran has been something of a closed book to the west. But as the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President heralds a softening of attitude towards Iran, travellers are starting to rediscover a country radically different from the image presented by the media. By Nick Smith

Sitting in a teahouse in Esfahan smoking an apple-scented ghalyan, Hassan tells me he is quietly optimistic about Iran’s future. ‘For us Persians it has been a confusing time. When America invaded Iraq, we were happy.’ Hassan seems to use the words ‘Iran’ and ‘Persia’ interchangeably, but as I get to know him better it becomes just about distinguishable that the former refers to the modern political state, and the latter to the geographical region and cultural empire he still lives in.

Hassan regards himself as informed on international issues. He’s been a shop assistant in London, a taxi driver in California, and fought in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. These days he is retired, and prefers to spend his time drinking tea and talking with the increasing numbers of foreigners who travel to see the most splendid city in Islamic Iran. At the end of the 16th Century, Shah Abbas – the greatest influence in the creation of modern Iran – made the remote desert town of Esfahan his capital, commissioning beautiful works of art and grand architecture. Esfahan has been described for centuries by the people who live there as ‘half of the world’, and it is easy to see why.

For several mornings Hassan and I listened to news reports of the run-up to the Presidential election on an old valve radio in the teahouse in a side-street running off the Royal Square. On more than one occasion, he confided in me that his only real worry was that once America withdrew from its occupation of Iraq, it would turn the spotlight on his homeland. ‘I always believed that my enemy’s enemy is my friend,’ he said, crunching his way through a plate of saffron-flavoured sugar crystals. But for Hassan, this simplistic expression of ‘realist statecraft’ might at last be coming true, because with the subsequent inauguration of Barack Obama as America’s 44th President, the pressure, for the moment at least, is off.

In his inaugural address in January, Obama made it clear that his foreign policy in respect of the Middle East would differ radically from that of his predecessor George W Bush. ‘To the Muslim world,’ said Obama, ‘we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.’ Less than a week later, he elaborated on this, saying: ‘My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy.’ Not so much as a whiff of the ‘axis of evil’. The Wild West rhetoric of Bush’s post 9/11 pronouncements – ‘either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’ – now seems to belong to a different age.

Meanwhile, former UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix has said that Obama’s inauguration raises hopes for a peaceful solution to the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme through diplomatic engagement. According to Blix: ‘Bush was the worst for treating people without respect. The policy was that the US was the good guy and they would keep order among the unruly children of the world.’ While back in February 2008, Bush was steadfastly refusing to rule out any ‘options’, his replacement will, as Blix says, ‘be more ready to enter into direct talks. We should get a much more creative and positive attitude.’ During my recent visit to Iran, I only saw one piece of evidence to suggest international relations are strained. As I drove past a heavily guarded power station on the highway between Yazd and Kashan, I saw clusters of mobile rocket launchers and gun emplacements with their sights trained north, scanning for incoming air raids from Israel.

***

Iran’s image is changing. This is happening because of the popularity of films such as ‘Persepolis’ and the trendy contemporary books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran. And although you can’t easily read Reading Lolita in Tehran in Tehran (much less Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), the rules are starting to relax. The increasing ease with which you can travel here means that it’s becoming popular again. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Iran was the Middle East’s top tourist destination, but numbers dwindled following the overthrow of the Shah. Three decades on and the tourism industry is booming again. Statistics released by the Iranian tourism office show that the number of foreign tourists has doubled in the past three years.

‘Roughly one million tourists visited Iran in 2004,’ says Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Chief of the Iran Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization (ICHHTO). Mashaei highlights the improved facilities provided to tourists and recognises the contribution electronic visas are making in simplifying the immigration procedure. To date, 250,000 e-visas have been issued, while reports of visa applications quadrupling from territories such as South Korea are becoming the norm. Iran’s ‘20-Year Vision’ document projects investment of over $32 billion in the country’s tourism sector. The document also predicts that Iran will account for two per cent of all international tourists by 2025.

One of the reasons for this is the success of the touring exhibition The Glory of Persia, which recently moved from Japan to South Korea. A dazzling exhibit of artifacts dating back to the 6th century BCE, the exhibition introduces Iranian history, culture and art to other nations. The ICHHTO, which has also recently taken major Iranian cultural exhibitions to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Britain and Mexico, is now planning to set up camp in the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it is scheduled to host an exhibition in 2013.

More immediately, currently running at the British Museum is Shah Abbas: the remaking of Iran, the first major exhibition to explore the rule and legacy of Shah Abbas, Shah of Iran from 1587–1629. According to Sheila Canby, the exhibition’s curator: ‘Shah Abbas was restless, decisive, ruthless and intelligent. This exhibition will provide a rare opportunity to learn about this important ruler. Shah Abbas was a critical figure in the development of Iran and his legacy is still with us today.’

But it’s not just a question of Iran touring the world. Although independent travel in Persia is still difficult, travel companies at the more adventurous end of the spectrum are starting to turn their attention towards offering Iran as a destination for escorted travel. One such operator is Simoon Travel. Managing Director Amelia Stewart explains: ‘the reason we wanted to move into Iran was that we knew it would be so different from the much-maligned portrait painted by the Western media. We wanted to see for ourselves, and we weren’t disappointed.’

Simoon’s itinerary is based on a classic journey along an old Silk Road trading route from Shiraz north to Tehran. Enthusiasts for Robert Byron’s classic The Road to Oxiana will be familiar with the names of many of the places of archaeological and architectural interest… Persepolis, Pasargadae, Esfahan and Yazd. Those with a wider-ranging knowledge of Persian travel literature will recognise the trip as an almost exact replica of one of the legs of Michael Carroll’s ‘Travels in Old Iran’ from the 1960s, which he describes in his largely forgotten classic From a Persian Tea House. Travellers expecting a literary, cultural and archaeological feast won’t come away empty-handed: ‘One of the great things about travelling in Iran,’ says Stewart, ‘is that the people make it. They are so warm and welcoming, charming and funny. They will go out of their way to ensure your time in Iran is memorable.’

***

Many writers have tried to capture the magic of Persia. Isabella Bird, Vita Sackville-West and Freya Stark have all chipped in with their observations on subjects as diverse as the beauty of Persian gardens, traditional village weddings and descriptions of the qanats or ancient underground irrigation tunnels that deliver water from the mountains to the desert cities. Lord Curzon, the great imperialist and President of the Royal Geographical Society immediately prior to the outbreak of the Great War, wrote perhaps the most important book on the subject, Persia and the Persian Question (1892). This had such a penetrative influence that even two decades later, writers daring to comment on Persia were openly apologetic to Curzon for encroaching on his territory.

One such was W P Cresson (a fellow of the RGS) who, writing in 1908 in Persia: The Awakening East, describes his arrival in Tehran in such wonderful prose it’s worth quoting at length: ‘since daybreak we had been hoping, at every moment, to catch our first glimpse of the towers and minarets of the Persian capital. From time to time, in answer to repeated questioning, our sleepy driver would wave his whip in a comprehensive sweep that took in the whole sky-line ahead, empty of any sign of habitation except the occasional distant village of high-walled garden, and muttering a reassuring “Tahran Anja” would lapse once more into a state of blissful unconsciousness.’

Arriving in modern Tehran today is nothing like that, although the reasons for wishing to go there in the first place are probably identical. Iran ranks 7th in the world in terms of number of UNESCO heritage sites, and knocks spots off the overcrowded commercialised mega-archaeology of Egypt, Greece and even Turkey… When you go to Persepolis today, or for that matter Pasargadae or any other of the wonderful sites of ancient archaeology, you’ll most likely find yourself on your own. As you wander around these old rocks and stones you can mentally reconstruct the scenes of Darius’s palatial splendour in his summer palaces. British-naturalised Iranian photographer and explorer Henry Dallal tells me: ‘when we were kids we all went to Persepolis on a school trip – it’s the greatest place on earth.’  

The more I traveled through Iran, the more I realised that every preconception I’d based on television news bulletins and the foreign pages of the broadsheets was almost entirely wrong. Our media insists on bombarding us with absurd clichés of rogue nuclear power reactors, public executions and starving, oppressed masses forced to eat the bark off the trees to survive. On the other hand, if you believe the romantic fiction of most guidebooks published today, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that modern Iran is awash with nightingales, pomegranates and poetry. ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ says Hassan as we embark on yet another glass of sweet tea. ‘We’ve only got one nuclear power station, and we use it for generating our domestic power. And I haven’t seen a nightingale in years. When you go home tell your friends to come and see Persia for themselves.’

 

Iran – Travel co-ordinates

Nick Smith travelled to Iran with desert and cultural specialists Simoon Travel who organise tailor-made and group tours to Persia as well as Libya, Algeria and Oman. Experienced guest lecturers often accompany the tours and groups do not exceed 15 in number. The company also works closely with schools to offer educational trips to these destinations. For a brochure call Amelia or Clare on 020 7622 6263 or visit

www.simoontravel.com

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