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Reading Tana French in Mogadishu

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The books: all the Tana French books I could get my grubby hands on

The place: Mogadishu

Further adventures in genre! A year and a half ago – pre-Arkady Renko – I probably would have said that I didn’t really read detective stories. These days, following on from my experiments in SciFi that have been going on since late 2011, I am far more likely to dip into genres I wouldn’t normally think were my thing. A number of people whose tastes I trust have raved about In The Woods, French’s first novel; I’d had it on my Kindle for a while and only got around to starting it last week. I was gripped by the end of the first chapter, promptly downloaded the rest of French’s books and have been reading my way through them since. Currently about three-quarters of the way through Broken Harbour, with only The Secret Place to go, whereupon I expect I will have no option but to turn up at French’s house and throw pebbles at her windows until she writes more books. No jury in the land, &c.

French’s writing has some of my favourite things: a good range of unreliable narrators; a firm and lovingly drawn sense of place; a wide array of delightful and fully-realised characters (Frank Mackey! <3) that wander from book to book – the plots are almost immaterial, but still compelling, even when they stretch the bounds of credulity (The Likeness, I’m looking at you). I should really space the books out as I’ll be bereft when I’ve finished them, but I never claimed to have any willpower, particularly when it comes to delayed gratification.


Here, have some Mogadishu.


Somali Youth League monument (I think)


Lots of firewood


Painted shops: pretty much my favourite thing


Written by Jess

September 29, 2014 at 6:41 pm

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(Intermission: REFERENDUM DAY)

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In January 2011 I was in Scotland, trying to follow South Sudan’s independence referendum from afar. Today I am in Somalia, trying to follow the Scotland’s independence referendum from afar. Life is very odd.

Despite the many parallels that my South Sudanese and Somali friends try to draw with the Scottish referendum (“go for independence!” they urge. “Free yourselves!” In Nigeria the other week, a man told me: “I want Scotland to vote for independence, because Great Britain divided Africa, and now it should be divided”), there are of course enormous differences, the biggest – from my perspective right now – being that no one has any idea how this one is going to go. The results of the South Sudanese referendum were a foregone conclusion from as early as 2006 or 2007, no matter how much the Khartoum Government was urged to ‘make unity attractive’; the Scottish referendum, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess. If you’d asked me six months ago I would have definitely said that the No vote would win with some degree of ease; the last month or two I’ve become far less certain, and today all the polls are predicting different results. Having just heard from a friend whom I was certain would vote No and who in fact voted Yes, I think that’s where my money is, but really, who knows? I think there are a lot of people who are playing their cards very close to their chest on this one: lone No voters in Yes families, and vice versa – but there are also people who genuinely have been unable to make up their mind until the last minute.

As a resident of Scotland, I was eligible for a vote, but I didn’t register in time for a postal vote, and thus haven’t voted. I feel both ashamed and OK about this: on one hand, I have very much internalised the idea of using one’s democratic rights as much as possible; on the other hand, I have a vague, waffy feeling that it’s somehow more ethically correct for me to sit this one out, as an English person who has chosen to settle in Scotland but who has been primarily abroad for the past several years – let the real residents decide. I confess, also, that on a subconscious level, I put off registering until too late because I just could not decide. I’ve had many (many, many) conversations with friends about this over the past couple of years, and I’ve been Definitely Yes and Definitely No and until a few days ago I was Definitely Not Sure. And then I realised this morning that if the Yes campaign lost by a single vote (i.e. mine) I would feel guilty, whereas if the No campaign lost by a single vote, I would feel OK with it. Which I suppose is as good an indication as any of where my inclination lies.

Written by Jess

September 18, 2014 at 7:01 pm

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Reading Diana Athill in Mogadishu

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The books: Make Believe and Instead of a Book, Diana Athill

The place: Mogadishu 

I first read Diana Athill when my ex-boss, now-friend R. pressed Stet into my hand, maybe ten years ago; I have been a devoted fan of hers ever since, burning my way through her various memoirs, which have the advantage of being both slim and plentiful. And then every so often I go on Amazon and I find something of hers that I have somehow failed to notice – I assume things from her past are being reissued, rather than her still churning out masses of new material in her mid-nineties, but who knows, because she is clearly semi-divine in nature – and then I get to buy it and burn through it in its turn. Hurrah!

I have mixed feelings about memoir as a genre, in that often what people think will make for good memoir – excitement and drama and a peculiar life story – do nothing of the sort, while what does make for good memoir – sharp observation (what Athill refers to as the ‘beady eye’) and (without wishing to sound like too much of a hippie) generosity of spirit – is overlooked. But Athill falls very neatly into the latter camp, and is in fact the best memoirist I’ve ever read. I suspect that in large part this is linked to the length of her books – much as I love a huge sprawling epic, Athill’s books are short and tight and entirely lacking in superfluity.

The other thing Athill’s books have is an utterly searing honesty, coupled with an extremely endearing inability to take herself seriously. Athill writes with a sort of brisk cheerfulness about heartbreak and sex, drugs and suicide, aging and abortion and all sorts of other things behind. I’m not sure how much of this is related to the fact that Athill is primarily writing in late middle age or old age, looking back on her life with a sort of dispassionate perspective that I dearly wish I could selectively deploy on my own life right now (would that it were available in a kaleidoscopic form), and how much is just Athill herself. There are plenty of excellent memoirs written by people whom you would happily punch if you found them in the room with you; Diana Athill, on the other hand, is someone with whom I would dearly love to sit down with the beverage and confectionary of her choice.

One of the things I have on my Life List is to write to authors whose books have meant a lot to me. I really should start with Diana Athill.


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A rare trip to the beach, and to visit the Bancroft puppies, in situ under a container. Just about managed not to steal one, or several

Written by Jess

September 16, 2014 at 7:04 pm

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Reading ‘Born to Run’ in Mogadishu

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The book: Born to Run: The hidden tribe, the ultra-runners, and the greatest race the world has never seen, Christopher McDougall

The place: Mogadishu 

I am truly terrible at running. I have both the wrong shape and the wrong mentality for it (short legs, long torso; no stamina, inclined towards great bursts of energy and then lying down at length), and yet for about a year now, I have been running ‘seriously’ – by which I mean I am still rubbish at it, but I am trying very hard to get better. Very little about this is actually about running qua running, because running remains a truly unpleasant experience to put one’s (=my) body through. But I have this wrongheaded idea that pushing myself to do something for which I have no natural ability is Character Building, and I am … learning about persistence, or something?

Last December I read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is the ultimate running book for a writer – but in some ways this book was more motivating, given that Murakami admits that he has the physique of a natural runner, while McDougall clearly does not. I get the impression that Murakami is leaping like a scholarly gazelle around various running tracks, whereas for me, running is a constant process of nagging, berating and cajoling my treacherous body into keeping going. It’s only been very recently – the past month or so – that I have ever managed to access that mythical ‘zone’ that runners talk about, where you enter a semi-trance and almost forget that you are running – of course that is much easier to do when you are running through a lovely verdant park in Scotland at 20 degrees than when you are running in an interminable series of figure-eights within a heavily-guarded Mogadishu compound at 35; in the latter case, simply not keeling over from heatstroke counts as an achievement.

I have found myself frantically gathering nuggets of advice and information and metaphor that are useful as motivation for a reluctant runner. Here are some of them.

  • The Blerch, from the Oatmeal’s The terrible and wonderful reasons why I run long distances.
  • Murakami: “The total amount of running I’m doing might be going down, but at least I’m following one of my basic rules for training: I never take two days off in a row. Muscles are like work animals that are quick on the uptake. If you carefully increase the load step by step, they learn to take it.” This may not be something that works for everyone, or perhaps even most people – but for me, following the Murakami Method is absolutely key. I don’t run every day but I do try and exercise every day, on the basis that, paradoxically, it is psychologically easier to do something physically challenging than something that’s just so-what. A halfhearted trot three times a week does nothing for me, either physically or psychologically.
  • In his book, McDougall asks, if human beings are (as he purports) designed to run, why do so many of us hate it so much? And apparently – in a physiological argument that makes a lot of sense to me – it’s a natural psychological response to unnecessary energy expenditure. Whenever you are running, your brain is all panicky, like WHY ARE WE DOING THIS! WE MIGHT NEED THIS ENERGY LATER, POSSIBLY TO OUTRUN A SABRETOOTH TIGER! SLOW DOWN IDIOT! For me, understanding what my poor benighted brain is trying to say to me is enormously helpful in getting it to quiet down. It’s OK, brain! We don’t have to outrun a sabretooth tiger, and we will replenish with food and water very soon! Just keep going a little longer!

Today, inspired by Ultrarunners, I ran barefoot, much to the amusement of the Somali guards (they find it amusing enough that all the resident gaalo run at all, even with shoes). An interesting experiment – you certainly run differently barefoot: more upright, straight-backed, balanced on the balls of the feet rather than hitting the ground with the heels. McDougall argues convincingly that the foot is a machine, minutely designed to adapt to the ground beneath it, and that running shoes prevent it from doing so, thus causing running injuries, rather than preventing them. I am not sure I 100% buy this, and I don’t have any problems with my feet (yet – if anything’s going to stop me running it’s going to be my ridiculous gangly clown-hips), but while I am only able to run in a fairly controlled environment, it’s perhaps worth a try. I shall see how it goes.



Where I wish I could be running: triumphal arch of some sort, downtown Mogadishu (as ever, seen through bulletproof glass)

Written by Jess

September 14, 2014 at 7:08 pm

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Reading ‘The New Republic’ in various places

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The book: The New Republic, Lionel Shriver

The place: all over the shop

I have a complicated relationship with Lionel Shriver’s books. I thought We Need To Talk About Kevin was absolutely brilliant, not to mention brave and important; it’s a book I reread fairly often. Shriver’s other books … not so much. I am still drawn to reading them, because Shriver is a very engaging writer with a sharp eye (sometimes too sharp) for human behaviour; it’s a rare book of hers where I’m not highlighting some quote or other that’s made me see something in quite a different light.


All her characters are arseholes. I do not say this lightly: I cannot think of a single Lionel Shriver character with whom I would like to share a beer, even in order to have a scurrilous gossip about some of her other characters. Shriver seems to have an unremittingly bleak view of human nature, which I find depressing (and unrealistic) – and at various points in various books I have a realization along the lines of: all right, I no longer care how theoretically interesting these people are, or how many clever quips they come out with; they are utterly vile individuals, and I do not know why I am choosing to spend time with them.

And then there’s the fact that her books are polemics. I’ve got nothing against a good polemic, particularly if it’s on a topic I agree with (So Much for That is a wonderfully bitter indictment of US health care) – but when a book becomes an Issues Book, when it starts to feel as if the author is manipulating the characters just to make a point, rather than letting them live their (admittedly imaginary) lives, that’s when it becomes tiresome.

And finally, gender. Oh lord, Lionel Shriver’s views of gender. She writes women that I find utterly unrecognizable, because they are usually smitten with men whom I find wholly lacking in appeal. This was something that worked in We Need To Talk About Kevin because it made sense in the context of the story, but the heterosexual relationships depicted in the vast majority of her books give me the impression that she conceptualises relationships between men and women in a way that goes beyond the bizarre and regressive and into the downright depressing. In the acknowledgements of The New Republic she thanks a couple of people, presumably editors or agents, for their “appreciation for a boy-book written by a girl”, which just makes me want to throw things. Listen, I get the seductive appeal of feeling like a lone woman admitted to a boys’ club, the desire to point at the gender stereotype and distance your own individual self from it, rather than working to dismantle the stereotype itself. But the easy way out is neither admirable nor laudable.


I took to Lagos, by the way.


The beach at Ibeju-Lekki


Rather a lot of Lagos looks like this: overpasses crossing bits of lagoon


Also, gigantic ads for Moet


Traffic that puts Nairobi to shame


Bring Back Our Girls


Masquerades outside the hippodrome

Written by Jess

September 9, 2014 at 7:21 pm

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Reading ‘Looking for Transwonderland’ in Abuja

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The book: Looking for Transwonderland, Noo Saro-Wiwa

The place: Abuja

Nigeria at last! It was a long, intricate, bureaucratic process to get here – the toughest visa process I have ever been through, including countries like Russia, Sudan and Libya – which I suppose is reasonable, as I doubt the UK makes it particularly easy for Nigerians to go the other way. Still, when I was finally awarded my visa I felt a sense of achievement similar to that of having completed a bureaucratic Iron Man challenge – and even then, the chap on arrivals at Abuja airport on Sunday threatened to send me back because I didn’t have a print-out of my return ticket. (He finally let me through after making it clear to me that if I overstayed the nine days he had permitted me, I would be put in handcuffs and presented to the British High Commission.)

And look, a rare example of place/book congruence! I am really enjoying Saro-Wiwa’s travelogue, and very much getting the point of reading a book about a place while actually in a place; thank you, Captain Obvious. I really should do this more often.

I am also really enjoying Nigeria. It is my first time this far down in West Africa (having previously meandered down the coast as far as Guinea-Bissau), and I have been startled by quite how much the landscape and vegetation looks like South Sudan. I suppose it makes sense, as they are quite similarly situated, climatically speaking, but it keeps giving me strange little starts to be driving through something that looks very much like South Sudan, except instead of lurching at a snail’s pace along a rutted and boggy road, I am whizzing down a well-maintained federal highway. It’s a rather arresting visual and visceral idea of what South Sudan could look like after years of concerted growth and development.


BIG ROCK, between Abuja and Kaduna


Big ideas, between Kaduna and Abuja


Heavy rain in Abuja

Written by Jess

September 3, 2014 at 7:43 pm

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