I am writing this from an airport (although it probably won’t be posted until tomorrow), where I am sitting on the floor in a corner, waiting to board. It is my tenth airport of the year (Beirut; Cairo [seven separate times]; London Heathrow; London Gatwick; Schiphol [four separate times]; Juba [four separate times]; Entebbe [twice]; Malta; Cardiff) but probably my favourite – light and airy, apparently impossible to get lost in; if it weren’t irritatingly distant from London I’d fly from here more often.
For someone who travels as much as I do, I am surprisingly rubbish at it. I enjoy travel, and it doesn’t stress me out like it does other people, but I have an enduring tendency to miss trains, miss flights – or turn up just in the nick of time, panting and disarrayed, most recently in Malta – forget to pack things, break things, lose things. I once lost my passport while on a flight from Khartoum to Cairo (after a thorough search by the air crew, it turned out to have fallen out of my pocket and ended up on the floor ten rows back). Another time I left my passport and travel documents in an airport toilet in Sharjah before going to for a lovely three-hour nap under a seat in the transit lounge, only realising they were gone when I woke up (some kind person had handed them into security). I lost my wallet – containing all cash and cards – in a café in the port in Bari, before boarding an overnight ferry to Durrës, Albania, only discovering the loss once the ferry had actually left the port (I was rescued by a kind Albanian water-polo player named Fredi, who gave me a lift to Tiranë where I was meeting a friend and able to access Western Union). Etcetera. The problem with all of this – aside from the obvious idiocy of it – is that every time something like this has happened, someone has been kind or helpful enough to save the situation, allowing me to bumble along happily through life with the naïve belief that it will work out fine. If I ever ended up seriously in trouble – imprisoned, say, or sleeping under a bridge – perhaps I would start taking my friends’ advice of donning a large Velcro suit while travelling, allowing all important items to permanent adhere to my person. (That said, I did effectively have to deport myself from Uzbekistan last year due to a visa misunderstanding – and that wasn’t enough to dent my sanguine attitude to travel.)
Today’s trip is reasonably prosaic, though no less pleasant for that – to Budapest for the Budapest Book Fair. Budapest is one of my favourite cities, and this will be my fourth visit:
- 1997, on a whistle-stop inter-railing trip, for a few hours in between arriving by train from Zagreb and hopping on an overnight sleeper train to Sighişoara (doesn’t really count);
- 2002, with M., on a longer trip through Hungary and Slovakia, when we stayed in a tiny pension up in the hills above Buda, ate deep-fried goose-leg and visited the Statue Park, among other things;
- 2007, when T. and I spent Christmas there: several days of walking around the semi-deserted city in sub-zero temperatures, before retreating to our studio apartment to eat frozen pizzas and watch The White Rapper Show on MTV.
This time, I am blithely clueless of what will be expected of me as a participant in the Book Fair (where do I have to be when? I have no idea!), but I am looking forward to a few days of wandering gently about, reading in cafes (BEST THING EVER) and exploring the various bits of the city I haven’t yet seen. Also doing writery things (what are they, other than writing itself? I do not know!).
(Current travel challenge: how to fit my muddy running shoes – currently sitting beside me in a Sainsbury’s plastic bag – into my carry-on bag, which currently only just fits Ryanair’s stringent cabin baggage sizing standards. Considering putting them on and trying to secrete my black ballet flats somewhere about my person.)
- Climbed Jebel Kujur, the mountain on the outskirts of Juba, along with a couple of friends. It’s the closest you can really get to hiking in the Juba environs, and I confess I was mostly doing it to tick it off my list of Juba-related things to do. However it was actually lovely, stunning views, clear air and a lot of hawk-dodging (one of my companions claimed that a friend of hers had been attacked by hawks not once but twice on their way up the mountain, which made me slightly wary). The mountain is covered with men quarrying stones, which is probably one of the worst jobs I can imagine: backbreaking and incredibly hot. As a result of this activity the mountain has noticeably changed shape since I first came to Juba in 2006; with a bit of concerted effort it could be made into a Hollywood-esque city sign.
- Done a reading from The Angel Makers and The Ice Cream Army at Leaves Bookshop in Juba! I am generally pretty rubbish at the whole process of Being An Author, and as such I had never done a reading before; the redoubtable Awak Bior, who runs Leaves, made it a possibility, and it was pleasingly fitting that my first reading should be in South Sudan. I am not sure if I’m ever going to be properly comfortable in a performative setting, but it can’t hurt to make more of an effort to do these kinds of things.
- Finished my job! Mixed feelings aplenty; it was the most satisfying and enjoyable job that I’ve ever had, but at the same time I’m ready for a break from South Sudan, and even (whisper it) the chance to work somewhere else for a while. Said somewhere else is as yet undetermined; I am vacillating between the desire to Go Normal for a while, and the panicky certainty that I would be bored out of my mind – quick, Kabul! Bamako! Sana’a! ANYWHERE! So we will see.
- Visited Cairo (briefly), Alexandria, back to Cairo again and now Malta – or, technically, Gozo, where I am staying for a week. First new country visited in 2013! It has been absolutely glorious, staying in a secluded farmhouse with my friend H., driving about, looking at the sea, going for runs, reading and writing and working a lot, kayaking, eating delicious fresh food and drinking lots of coffee. More (and more detail) later. I am here until Tuesday, then back to Cairo for a night, and then to Amsterdam for a day or two before FINALLY getting back to the UK. Where I will be for all of five or six days before heading off to Budapest. Hurrah, what a delightful introduction to unemployment!
After three years in South Sudan (and six months in Khartoum before that, not to mention my time here in 2006), I’m leaving on a jetplane next week. I have predictably mixed feelings about it: it definitely feels like it’s time to go (at least for a while) and so I’m not doubting my decision – but at the same time, I do love it here, I have some wonderful South Sudanese colleagues and friends and there’s a lot I’m going to miss about the place. However I am fairly certain that I’ll be back, at least to visit, if not to work.
My last couple of weeks in Juba are proving to be a flurry of activities that I’ve always meant to do, but never quite got around to. Today it was an early morning visit to South Sudan’s national archives, organised through my friend Nicki Kindersley, who has (perhaps inadvertently) ended up Juba’s own kawaja authority on the archives. Nicki writes about the archives in more detail here, but in short: the papers were originally collected by Douglas Johnson (Sudanista extraordinaire) in the early 1980s, but then suffered through years of neglect, termite infestations, water damage and general disinterest, until being salvaged from a basement in 2006 and put into a giant tent on the Ministries Road in Juba. Since then a multitude of volunteers and staff from the Ministry of Culture have risked Archive Lung to sort through piles and piles and piles of dusty scraps of paper, kicking termites to death on the way. The archives have recently moved to a new home, a rented villa in Gudele, where at least they have the protection of permanent walls and a roof, but this is temporary – the villa’s only rented until later this year, after which the archives will be homeless again.
It’s kind of surprising how little attention the archives have garnered from the international community – the work is carried on under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture, with the voluntary assistance of the Rift Valley Institute, but to my knowledge the only donor funding the project has received is from the Norwegian government, via UNESCO. There’s been relatively little interest – so far – from academics, as well, which is peculiar because it’s an amazing untapped resource for research. You can open up just about any box and start reading something of immediate interest: the first one we opened contained a whole load of documents about Dinka / Murle relations in the 1940s, including details of songs and cultural practices for conflict resolution. I guess it’s easy to assume that for a country with the sorts of problems that South Sudan faces – in terms of security, education and health provision, infrastructure, and so on – the establishment of an archive would be far down on their list of priorities, and the funding reflects that – but for a country that is building itself in terms of national identity and unity, a sense of where you’ve come from is incredibly important.
I’ve been white-water rafting twice before: in 1998 (crikey) on the Zambezi, from Victoria Falls, and in 2003 on the Bow River in the Canadian Rockies. Both experiences were awesome, in very different ways; however there is something particularly special about doing something like that where you live, particularly if you live in South Sudan.
One of the frustrating things about living in Juba is the paucity of things to do. I mean, it’s fine: there are bars, there are restaurants, there are a lot of awesome people – but there’s not much to do that’s particularly different; you end up on an endless carousel of the same bars, the same restaurants, the same (awesome) people. It’s particularly lacking in outdoorsy stuff, which is frustrating given the ACTUAL NILE flows right through the city, and there are mountains (albeit small ones) visible from town, but much activity is scuppered due to lack of facilities, lack of roads, a preponderance of landmines, snakes and other deathly things (including security forces, who tend to get a bit antsy if you’re doing anything out of the ordinary), etc.
BUT THEN! These awesome people started offering white water rafting trips on a stretch of the South Sudanese Nile, between Nimule (on the Ugandan border) and Juba. Friends of mine did a five-day trip all the way from Nimule to Juba a couple of years ago, and ever since I’ve wanted to do it too, but there’s a very brief window in which the trips are offered (due to the rainy season, I guess), which I missed last year. This year, however, I was determined, and so a load of us booked on for last weekend.
It turned out to be even more awesome than I had expected. Camping in Nimule National Park on Friday night, we woke up early for a short walk to Fola Falls and saw an ACTUAL ELEPHANT (the first I’ve ever seen in South Sudan!) en route, which set the bar high early on, but things only got better from there once we got on the water. There were rapids to raft, hippos to outpaddle, surprisingly decent food (prepared by our stalwart rafting guides), fish eagles to spot, and, on the Saturday evening, a ruined colonial house to explore, on a bluff overlooking the Nile. Certainly the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen in South Sudan; definitely up there with the top three best weekends I’ve ever had in South Sudan – after Uganda, I couldn’t imagine a weekend that could be more enjoyable and relaxing, but this pretty much did it. Highly recommended if you ever get the chance.
Hard to believe we’re nearly two months into 2013 already. What’s been happening?
I started the year in Beirut, where I’d spent a few days wandering the city alone, reading in cafes and eating a great deal of hummous and halloumi. As ways to end and begin a year go, it was pretty ideal: a buffer zone between Juba and the UK. Beirut is gorgeous and I would love to go back and spend more time there. The most lasting visual memory of the place is of walking along the Corniche at dusk on new year’s eve, the sun dropping into the Mediterranean on one side, the lights of the city coming on ahead, and beyond them a powder of distant lights on the mountains.
Then to the UK: several days with family in South Wales, where I read more, played with my parents’ dog, ate nice food, spent time with family and family friends, and enjoyed cold weather for the first time in months. On to Glasgow, where I visited my flat (which I hadn’t seen since the previous April; still standing, albeit only just) and saw friends and went to Edinburgh for a day for a very posh lunch in the Plumed Horse. And then finally to London, for an all-too-short visit: friends, babies, sushi, wine, gazing up astonished at the Shard (which I’m fairly sure wasn’t finished when last I was in London), a night in a hotel in London Bridge and then another in the Gatwick Yotel, which is pretty much the best thing ever before a painfully early morning flight…
…to Amsterdam! For work. But Amsterdam was covered in snow, I was staying near the Botanical Gardens and every morning I walked to the office past ice-laced canals and trees outlined in white. It always takes me by surprise how beautiful Amsterdam is; I’m not sure why. The office is right opposite the Amsterdam Hermitage, which I didn’t even know existed, and I spent a very rushed hour or so one afternoon looking at the van Goghs, temporarily housed by the Hermitage while the van Gogh museum is being renovated. Also spent a lunch hour in the Jewish museum, also very nearby. A flying visit to Wageningen for dinner and drinks (strange Dutch liqueur ginever) with my old Juba housemate, L; a very unexpected day in Amsterdam with university friend N, who just happened to be passing through; and then a final European night in Brussels with J and C, struggling with their ridiculously tiny lift, eating carpaccio in a wonderfully old-school Italian restaurant, and spending hours talking travel with J (who, incidentally, I first met in a backpackers’ hostel in Mozambique in 1998. 1998! We are old). Also, I had my photo taken next to a giant bear made of ice in Brussels Midi train station.
My departure from Brussels was nearly foiled by heavy snow and the fact that I couldn’t get onto my Amsterdam train for 20 minutes because the doors were literally frozen shut – but I managed to get back to Schiphol, and thence to Cairo, a night in a hotel near the airport courtesy of EgyptAir, and on to Juba, where I have been more or less ever since. The ‘more or less’ refers to a weekend spent in Nimule, on the Ugandan border, with friends H and A, where we visited (possibly) South Sudan’s only operating national park, saw hippos and crocodiles and lots of evidence of elephants (but sadly no actual elephants) and warthogs and perhaps most amazingly, watched our wildlife guide club a catfish to death in the shallows. Also swam in the Nile but as yet have not contracted bilharzia or Guinea worm. Success!
Famous Modern Ghost Stories, edited by Dorothy Scarborough
This turned up on a Project Gutenberg search for Maupassant, as it includes one of his short stories. It’s an enjoyable collection, though it brings to mind very clearly something that Stephen King points out in Danse Macabre, his book about the horror genre – I can’t remember exactly how he phrases it, but the point is that the true horror in any story is about suspense and anticipation, and as soon as the monster behind the door is revealed there’s an element of disappointment felt by the reader, as whatever the monster is is unlikely to be worse than whatever the reader imagined. (I don’t think King explicitly states this, but I suspect that the only real way around this is by recourse to Unimaginable Horror in the commonplace – something that Henry James employs rather brilliantly in The Turn of the Screw, as he never tries to explain why the ghosts in the story, taking human form, are as horrifying as they are.) A number of stories in this collection brought King’s statement to mind, horrors that turned almost comical once revealed (Robert W. Chambers’s ‘The Messenger’ and W.F. Harvey’s ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ in particular), but there are a few great stories in here – ‘The Woman at Seven Brothers’ by Wilbur Daniel Steele, and ‘The Willows’ by Algernon Blackwood are both properly spooky. The standout story, however, is Leonid Andreyev’s ‘Lazarus’, which is rather fabulous, particularly its opening parts; I’d never heard of Andreyev before, but would definitely seek out anything else he’s written.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
My first ever Sherlock Holmes – I’m not a big fan of the detective story, but this kept showing up towards the top of the free Kindle downloads, so I thought I’d give it a try. Possibly not the best Conan Doyle to start with, as it launches straight into an established relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the stories become pretty repetitive after a while (I remember feeling the same way about the one and only Wodehouse I’ve read), but it’s true that Holmes is a compelling character (albeit I’m not entirely sure what he gets out of Watson, other than an admiring audience), so I’d probably try another book or two. However I suspect I may prefer the BBC’s reimagined modern-day Holmes to Conan Doyle’s original, although that’s probably heresy (and I’ve not actually seen any of the BBC series).
Loaded, Christos Tsolkias
Tsolkias’s The Slap was one of the best books I read last year, and I do admire Tsolkias as a writer – though I’m never sure how strongly I’d respond to his books had they not enormous nostalgic value for me, in terms of reminding me of what I miss about living in Australia (this may seem odd, as Tsolkias’s books really don’t go out of their way to make Australia seem appealing, and it’s hard for me to explain – I think it’s just the voice that Tsolkias writes in, which strikes me as endearing and familiar). Loaded has been compared to The Catcher in the Rye, which is a bit of a red herring, unless you believe that every book with a disaffected young male protagonist is essentially the same; still, I did think that Loaded lacked the striking originality of The Slap, and while it’s clear from Loaded that Tsolkias is an excellent writer, I felt like Loaded was more an indication of his potential, rather than any sort of crowning achievement. (I felt the same way about Chimamanda Ngodi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, when compared to Half of a Yellow Sun.)
So Much for That and Double Fault, Lionel Shriver
So, OK, I have complicated feelings about Lionel Shriver’s writing. I thought We Need to Talk about Kevin was absolutely brilliant; the other books of hers I’ve read since…well, when I’m reading them it feels compulsive, I gobble them up, and yet I wind up feeling a bit miserable and unsatisfied afterwards. There’s something about Shriver’s writing style that I find cluttered and circumlocutory; her use of metaphor is often startling and unusual – sometimes this works, and sometimes it really, really doesn’t. So Much for That includes the line “Film magazines and photographic equipment piddled every surface like dog pee” – and yeah, I can see where she was trying to go with that line, but it falls profoundly flat for me. Compare that with the following semi-similar metaphor from Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies: “When Stephen comes into a room, the furnishings shrink from him. Chairs scuttle backwards. Joint-stools flatten themselves like pissing bitches.” – now, that’s the way you involve dog piss in a metaphor!
The aspect of Shriver’s books that I find universally interesting and compelling is the subject matter, and the issues she explores through her writing. Double Fault is a very stark examination of competition in a marriage; So Much for That is an equally harsh indictment of the US healthcare system before Obama’s reforms – a very worthy subject, and Shriver’s stance is one that I completely agree with, but at times the novel became too polemical, even for a hoary old socialist like me. (There’s nothing wrong with polemic, of course; I just feel it’s often difficult to include in a novel while still seeming natural.) However I do wonder if the strong issues focus of Shriver’s writing is linked to the main thing that I find troubling about it, which is the utter lack of likeable characters. I don’t think there’s a single character in any of the four of Shriver’s novels that I’ve read that I would willingly have a drink with; even the ones that should be likeable come across as variously too dull or astringent to be decent company. Contrast this with, say (and yes, I know I am a broken record, but still) Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy or Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, which are chock-full of characters I’d love to spend time with; even those who are depicted as unpleasant or out-and-out evil have redeeming features and a sense of balance. The difference, to me, is that from Seth and Mantel’s work I get a sense of authorial fondness for the characters, which is completely lacking from Shriver – and I wonder if that’s linked to the fact that her characters are effectively constructed to act out the issue-centric set-pieces that form Shriver’s plots, rather than being conceived of as fully rounded people.
I also have some issues with the Everything’s Easier in Africa trope that Shriver employs in So Much for That. Given that this ease is predicated on vast wealth disparities (Shep wants to move to Pemba because the place is so poor that he can live a relatively luxurious life on the savings he has), the fact that his Happily Ever After vision remains pretty much unexamined and unchallenged within the world of the book is something that I find troubling. (It’s similar to my unease with Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe books; however the whole subject of Africa in literature is a whole other blog post that I may write one day.)
(As an anecdotal aside, I initially started Double Fault on January 2nd, 2011: having spent new year’s eve with Nine in Llanidloes, a complete lack of public transport meant that I ended up hiking eight miles in inappropriate footwear through the Welsh hills in order to get the train home from Caersws. Having missed the train I intended to get, I retired to a nearby pub for a warming ale; the pub was middlingly grim, chock-full of locals and with a pair of obviously-worn Y-fronts nailed to the wall above the fireplace [I never got an explanation for this, and probably didn’t want one]. However said pub did have a surprisingly decent library of books, including Double Fault, the first 100 pages I read while waiting for my train. Completed on Kindle this month.)
Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Certainly my most eagerly awaited book this year so far, and it didn’t disappoint. There were admittedly a few niggles – I was one of the few readers who didn’t find Mantel’s use of ‘he’ to mean ‘Cromwell’ in Wolf Hall annoying, but I got the impression that she had responded to critics who did, and the new convention, of referring to him as ‘he, Cromwell’ did grate rather. Also, as Mantel says in her Afterword, she is effectively making her readers an offer in terms of a particular historical interpretation, and I think I find that offer less convincing than that of Wolf Hall – the construction of Cromwell as a modern man surrounded by a load of medievalists (as someone, though I can’t remember who, described him in Wolf Hall – sorry, uncited and doubtless important person) struck me as convincing; Mantel’s interpretation of revenge for Wolsey acting as Cromwell’s motivation for the stitch-up of Anne Boleyn’s ‘lovers’ was rather less so. Still, despite any criticisms I could make, there’s something about Mantel’s prose and construction in her historical fiction (less so in her other fiction, though I still enjoy it) that I find utterly intoxicating; back in 2010 I described the experience of reading Wolf Hall as like delving into a series of treasure chests, while Bring up the Bodies was more like sticking your hands into the grand, heaving river of history and delighting in the sensation, as hard as it is to grasp the whole.