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Archive for the ‘Rory Stewart’ Category

Well, we’ve reached the end of a year I would rather not repeat.  But, despite its challenges, it did hold some amazing moments.  I had the chance to travel widely and experience things I’d been dreaming of for years, and, best of all, I became an aunt.  There is nothing so hopeful as welcoming a new life into a family and it was a very cheering way to see out the year.

It wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me (too many comfort reads and too little quality during the first half of the year, certainly) but there were still plenty of stellar titles to choose from.  Here are the ten that really stood out:

10. For the Glory (2016) – Duncan Hamilton
This excellent biography of Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner and Christian missionary who was immortalised in Chariots of Fire, was the first book I read in 2017 and remained one of my favourites.  Hamilton, a sports journalist, is a clear and thorough biographer, and does full justice to a fascinating and inspiring life.

9. Browsings (2015) – Michael Dirda
An enthusiastic and eclectic collection of pieces Dirda wrote about the books he loves, his immense love of used book stores (and hours spent therein), and other things sure to delight passionate readers.

8. The Bear and the Nightingale (2017) – Katherine Arden
Sweltering in a Tuscan summer, I read this beautiful fantasy novel and escaped to the cool world of medieval Russia, a place where magic and fairy tales all come to life in the most suspenseful way.  I adored it, quickly read the sequel which came out this month, and am already eager for the final book in the trilogy (which is being released in August).

7. Felicity – Stands By (1928) – Richmal Crompton
About as far from great literature as you can get, these humorous stories about the adventures of sixteen-year old Felicity brightened up a relatively difficult point in my life.  They are bubbly and fun and a welcome reminder that Crompton could be both those things (and not just the author of needlessly repetitive and melodramatic family tales).

6. The Way of Wanderlust (2015) – Don George
In a year full of both travel and travel reading, this collection of Don George’s writing was a wonderful inspiration.

5. The Snow Child (2012) – Eowyn Ivey
Ivey’s second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, was one of my favourite books of 2016.  This year, I finally picked up her first novel and found it just as wonderful and captivating.  Inspired the story of the Snow Maiden, Ivey weaves a magical story of a struggling, childless couple living in the Alaskan wilderness and their love for the girl who appears from nowhere one wintery day.  It is beautifully told and shockingly perfect for a first novel.

4. The Coast of Bohemia (1950) – Edith Pargeter
A travelogue about a 1948 trip to Czechoslovakia by a woman best known for writing mystery novels (under her pen name of Ellis Peters) might not appeal to everyone but for me this book was wonderful.  Pargeter’s love of all things Czech makes her a passionate observer of the customs and places she sees.  I loved seeing the country and its people through her eyes and getting to experience a time long past through her excellent record of it.

3. Last Hope Island (2017) – Lynne Olson
An extraordinarily entertaining and enlightening look at the contributions made to the Allied war effort by the occupied countries whose governments and monarchs were living in exile in London.  It is packed full of facts, interesting characters, and devastatingly caustic quotes about de Gaulle (naturellement, everyone hates de Gaulle).  After Felicity – Stands By, this was the most enjoyable reading experience I had all year.

2. The Marches (2016) – Rory Stewart
I started reading this because I knew it was about Stewart’s journeys on foot around the English-Scottish border as he attempted to make sense of the centuries old divide between the two countries ahead of the Scottish independence vote – a fascinating project I was keen to learn more about.  But Stewart takes that journey and weaves into it the story of his own extraordinary (Scottish) father.  The result is a very wonderful and affectionate love letter that left me deeply moved.

1. Moon Tiger (1987) – Penelope Lively
I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.

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The receipt in my copy of The Marches by Rory Stewart reminds me that I bought it a year ago today.  It took me almost a year (a very strange and hectic year in my defense) to read it but one year from purchase to reading is hardly my worst record.  I had been looking forward to this book for a long time (it was announced years ago but the publication date kept getting pushed back and back and back – I can understand why, having read it) and wanted to have the time to savour it.  It was completely worth waiting for.

The book is subtitled “A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland” and is based on Stewart’s walks through the borderlands – first along Hadrian’s Wall and then from Stewart’s home in Cumbria to his father’s home in Crieff, Scotland.  Only 44 years old, Stewart has already led a fascinating life and walked through some precarious places.  Currently an MP, he has been: a lieutenant in the Black Watch, private tutor to Prince William and Prince Harry, a diplomat serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, a deputy governor in two coalition-held provinces in southern Iraq, the founder of a NGO in Afghanistan, and a professor at Harvard.  He also, in 2002, found time to walk across Afghanistan (among other places) and wrote a fascinating book about it (The Places in Between).

I picked this up because I was feeling the urge to encounter someone out of the ordinary – both eccentric and a bit old-fashioned (at least in their ideas of duty and service), which I knew Stewart to be.  What I didn’t realise is that there was someone who fit that description even better than Stewart: his father, Brian, who is the most perfectly eccentric person I have come across in years.  And he is the heart of the book.  What starts as a journey to understand, in advance of the Scottish independence vote, the differences between the people on either side of the border becomes a tribute to the life of Brian Stewart, proud Scotsman and lifelong British public servant.

We meet Brian in book’s opening paragraph, immediately discovering he is a very involved older father (he was in his fifties when Stewart, the first child of Brian’s second marriage, was born) and a rather unique one:

I was five years old and it was just before six in the morning.  I walked into my parents’ room and poked the shape on the right-hand side of the bed.  My father’s head emerged.  He rolled himself upright, retied his checked sarong, pushed his white hair flat on his head, and led me back out of the bedroom.  Once we had dressed, we marched to Hyde Park for fencing practice.  Then we marched back to the house and laid out toy soldiers on the floor to re-enact the battle of Waterloo.

Throughout the book, Brian is a huge part of both Stewart’s daily life (in the average month he would write his son emails totaling 40,000 words and they check in by phone regularly during his walks) and his memories.  A former soldier, diplomat and British Secret Intelligence Service officer (the second-most senior one, in fact) who invariably called his son ‘darling’, Brian had much practical advice for Stewart when he was establishing his own diplomatic career and working in places (like Indonesia) well known to his father.  The casual helicopter parent of today had nothing on Brian Stewart.  My favourite anecdotes were the ones describing how Brian descended on his son’s new postings and, with characteristic energy and focus, immediately started in on projects:

When I left the Foreign Office to set up a charity in Afghanistan, he was eighty-four.  This time it was nine months before he came to visit me.  When he did, he flew through the night to Kabul, came straight up to our office, laid out his sketchpad and began designing a formal Persian garden.  An hour later he began an essay title ‘You know more Persian than you think.’  By supper he was standing in the kitchen, training the cooks.

How terrifying and how absolutely wonderful.  And how excellent that his son appreciates the father he has and the legacy Brian has given him: “not some philosophical or political vision, but playfulness and a delight in action.”

But the book is not entirely about Brian (though his spirit dominates).  It is also about Stewart’s inquiries into the identity of those who live along the border and what that may tell us about the future of both Scotland and England – a debate that is particularly relevant to him, as a Scotsman who lives in England and has, like his father, devoted a good portion of his life to public service.

He begins by walking along Hadrian’s Wall, more a border of imagination than reality, reflecting on the Roman occupation.  He does a superb job of making that strange place of uncertain purpose come alive, a place where foods imported from across the empire were eaten by soldiers, merchants, and slaves from Syria and North Africa and a dozen other places.  And he marvels at how it all disappeared – of how little remained in Britain after the Romans left.  For him, the parallels with the collation occupation of Afghanistan are clear and fascinating:

…while archaeologists seemed to want to insist there was a rational, practical purpose to the wall, which could be read from its architectural design, I sensed absurdity.  The wall was cripplingly expensive to build and maintain.  It failed to prevent incursions from the north, that devastated the economy and society of southern Britain.  Over the course of the occupation, tens of thousands of Romans and hundreds of thousands of Britons were killed and indigenous cultures were smashed forever.  And in the end nothing sustainable was left behind when the Romans departed.

Later, as he walks north to his father’s Scottish home, he considers the artifice of local “heritage” and identity.  The border should an “irrelevance” but as long as the people on either side think of themselves as different they remain different.  In what was once a Welsh kingdom, then the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, he now finds three distinct “countries”: the area north of the Scottish border, the area south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the area between the two.  His observations are excellent and this entire section is just a superb piece of travel writing.  In particular, his comments on how southern Scotland has co-opted highland culture, embracing traditions (Gaelic, tartan, etc.) that have no ties at all to the region, are especially interesting.

In the end, Stewart’s journey comes to an end and the book comes to its inevitable conclusion: Brian’s death at age 94.  From the structure of the book, from the importance of Brian’s presence throughout, it was clear that this was a tribute to him as much as it was an exploration of a specific region.  It would have been an excellent and fascinating book without Brian; with him, it is unforgettable and incredibly moving.

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The Places In Between by Rory Stewart must be the most well-known recent book about Afghanistan, and rightly so.  In January 2002, Stewart was the only tourist in Afghanistan when he set out to walk from Herat to Kabul, following in the steps of the Mughal emperor Babur.  While I was certainly interested in Stewart’s encounters with both friendly and hostile locals, and while I greatly admired his intelligent but unassuming style of writing, I never quite clicked with this book.  I found it fascinating and vastly informative but, for the most part, not particularly absorbing. 

However, I will forever adore Stewart (and overlook his enthusiastic and unrestrained use of footnotes) for this footnoted comment from my favourite part of the book, discussing the liberal, western administrators newly arrived in Afghanistan:

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neocolonialism.  But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer.  Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing.  They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation.  They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language.  They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens.  They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home governments would rarely bail them out.  If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny. 

Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism.  Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention.  Their policy fails but no one notices.  There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.  Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed.  The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialist have no such performance criteria.  In fact their very uselessness benefits them.  By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitations and oppression. (p. 247-248)

It is an excellent book, offering a valuable perspective on the over-simplified issues of a much-discussed nation, but not likely to be considered one of my favourites.  I will undoubtedly look out for Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes, covering the time he spent as a deputy governor in the marsh regions of Iraq after arriving in the country as a diplomat with the Coalition Provisional Authority in August 2003.

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