‘Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka’ by John Gimlette

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The ancient name for Sri Lanka was Serendip (or Serendib), and finding this book was indeed serendipitous. I’d just finished reading a book about the Sri Lankan civil war and, not being happy unless I have half a shelf full of books waiting for my attention, I needed to get something else. So I was happy to wander into Waterstone’s and find Mr Gimlette’s latest book in paperback. I admit to being a fan of his other travel books, which have taken me places (in my head at least) that I wouldn’t necessarily have had on my travel list before. As well as being very good at describing the places he visits, local flora and fauna, the journeys he makes, the people he meets, the food he eats, his thoughts and emotions, the author really brings the country alive through his explanations of the history of the island, both ancient and more recent. And Sri Lanka has a lot of history.

The book is unsurprisingly dark in places, although balanced, taking nobody’s word at face value. Mr Gimlette does not shy away from asking some uncomfortable questions, for instance while talking to the former second-in-command of the Tamil Tigers, who changed sides and now holds a position in the government. This was surely quite an ideological jump to make. The saddest parts are those that make you picture the life for people caught up in the war, neither Tigers nor government soldiers, who just wanted to get on with living their lives. One of the last chapters, about the so-called ‘No Fire Zones’ is particularly good at this, and upset and angered me in equal measure. The writing is so clear that it’s easy to picture the people and the situations, sometimes against your wishes.

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One impressive aspect is the amount of groundwork the author obviously did before going out to Sri Lanka. He meets many people and develops contacts. He visits his local temple at home in London and drinks tea with worshippers. While travelling round the country he has access to members of the most prominent families, but is also happy chatting away with random people he meets. I particularly enjoyed (though I don’t think he did!) his interactions with one of his drivers, Sanath. In the end their mutual incompatibility means they go their separate ways.

Despite part of me feeling as if I’ve been to Sri Lanka after reading ‘Elephant Complex’ as soon as I’d read about half the book I went back to the bookshop and bought the latest Lonely Planet guide. ‘Elephant Complex’ has made Sri Lanka top of my travel list and I’m looking forward to visiting some of the same places as Mr Gimlette did and comparing my experiences with his.

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Poetic prose from a master craftsman. 5 stars – highly recommended.

All photos courtesy of John Gimlette.
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So here it is…

Blimey, I wrote my last proper post last year – time flies when you’re having fun. Since October 2015 I’ve been studying for another master’s degree, this time in public health (well, control of infectious diseases, same difference). To say that this was a good decision is the understatement of the century. I have absolutely loved it – never been so inspired, never met so many people with, well, infectious(!) enthusiasm, I’ve even enjoyed commuting (huh?? Oh, time to read a book). Also never been so knackered but that feels like a small price to pay right now – and I’m in the middle of revision (ahem) so that says a lot. This time next week the exams will be over and I can focus on the next part of the course. And then try and figure out what I’m going to do with the rapidly disappearing (or at least that’s how it feels) rest of my life.

Turning 40 this October is terrifying, not because of the wrinkles and white hairs (got plenty of those already, particularly after revising statistics…), but because I wonder how the hell I’m going to fit in everything I want to do. Life expectancy is increasing, but I doubt it’s going to be 300 by the time I get to 80 (2056…aagh!). There are just too many places to see, too many things to do, too many conversations to have, too much wine to drink… I spent so long telling myself I should just apply for the course, try and see what happens, follow my heart etc etc, all that ‘romantic’ stuff. And of course the ‘sensible’ bit of my brain (the bit with the mortgage) kept telling me that I had a job, that what was I thinking of, going back to education at the advanced age of 39?!? Was I mad?? Had dementia set in already??

Sometimes you just have to say ‘get lost’ (or words to that effect) to that ‘sensible’ bit of you, and get on with it. And now, well, bring on whatever happens next, I’m ready.

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Young Lawrence by Anthony Sattin

I am absolutely fascinated by the lives of a few historical figures. I will read anything written about Napoleon (negative or positive – I am on the side of Andrew Roberts rather than Charles Esdaile – Napoleon is one of my heroes, albeit a very human hero). I will read anything about Churchill (particularly if it was written by Max Hastings). Similarly I will read anything that is about TE Lawrence.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Anthony Sattin’s earlier book ‘The Gates of Africa’ about the European ‘search’ for Timbuktu I was excited to see that he’d written one about Lawrence of Arabia. As the title suggests, the book focuses on Lawrence’s life up to the outbreak of World War One. His later life and involvement in Middle Eastern politics have been copiously written about and described by numerous people, and so it was interesting to be able to read a book that focused on his early years, as he, maybe unsurprisingly, had a fascinating life from the word go.

Lawrence in his Arab outfit (image from Google)

Lawrence in his Arab outfit (image from Google)

TE Lawrence is one of those people whose lives I envy and who I can identify with (in a small way). An interest in other cultures, a love of travelling and finding a ‘foreign’ place that feels like home all resonate with me. Not that I would want to live anyway except London necessarily, but it’s always good to have somewhere else you can go to, where you feel familiar and fit in. I love his confidence, tromping round alien parts wearing a suit and hob-nailed boots. Refusing to do as other ‘tourists’ and hire a load of people to carry his luggage (no tin bath and crates of brandy for him). Not liking, at some points in his journeying, being surrounded by men with guns (to protect him, although it didn’t always work out that way).

Sattin’s book has made the older, more frequently portrayed Lawrence more easily explained, although he will always remain something of an enigma, and no doubt we will never know the truth of some of the events that allegedly happened. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Not knowing is part of the attraction of the man.

There is a wealth of information about the digs at Carchemish, how TE lived there, and his very close friendship (if it was only a friendship) with Dahoum, who educated him in many ways. There is an explanation of his illegitimacy and how this may have affected his relationship with his family, and particularly his rather domineering-sounding mother. There are snippets of other people’s views of him. I’ve read books about and by Gertrude Bell (another hero of mine), who mentions him, so it’s interesting to read his view of her.

Dahoum (image from Google)

Dahoum (image from Google)

The book is supremely well written and is peppered with quotes, both by and about Lawrence, my favourite being ‘To do the best of anything (or to try to do it) is not a waste of opportunity’. Or of time, I would add. And certainly reading this book was not a waste of time – I thoroughly recommend it.

What I’m reading: ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage’ Haruki Murakami

I am an avid fan of military history (I am fascinated by Napoleon but at least I don’t think I AM him…) but as I haven’t read any fiction for a while I decided to treat myself to the most recent Murakami novel. I am a big fan of his writing (both the fiction and also his book about the sarin attack, ‘Underground’) but I was disappointed by the last, pedestrian novel (IQ84) so I’ve been eagerly awaiting Tsukuru Tazaki. I started reading it on Wednesday night and got two-thirds of the way through – going to work the next day was not easy because I just wanted to stay at home with a lot of cups of tea and finish it. It’s not ‘Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, which has got to be one of his best novels (in my opinion, the best), but it’s entertaining. The book has the usual cast of odd characters, with strange events (and, of course, beautifully shaped ears…), weird sexual encounters, music and cooking. Tsukuru and his five friends were super close until he left to go to university in Tokyo. When he returned home during the holidays they collectively ignored him; after many phone calls, one of them finally told him to leave them alone. He spends the rest of the book finding out why, in part so that he can lay the past to rest and reassure his new girlfriend that he is no longer haunted by it. It certainly does keep you turning the pages. I know some people have been disappointed by the denouement; the loose ends aren’t all tied up neatly, but I personally think that’s a good thing. All in all it was a good read and I enjoyed it.

The first go

For weeks now one of my friends has been nagging me to start writing a blog. I’m having a bit of an interesting year (in both the usual and ‘English’ sense of the word), and I enjoy writing (in fact I do it for a living), and so I thought why not. Now I’ve started I’m not sure whether anyone’s going to want to read a word I write, but there’s only one way to find out.

So far this year I’ve managed to go on my usual annual trip to Nepal (in March, narrowly missing the Turkish Airlines crash, which meant we lost a week of our holiday), visit Rome (fascination with Roman buildings and history), get married (in May, for the second time!) and be accepted on the MSc Control of Infectious Diseases course at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – I still can’t quite believe the last one, even though I have the official letter at home. The course starts at the end of September, 5 days before my 39th birthday, and so I’m leaving my medical writing/editing job on the 30th July. During the 2 months between then and the start of the course I’m going to sit in a cottage in Somerset for 3 days and read and think, and go back to Nepal for 18 days (also hoping to get to Bhutan for a few days during that time). In my spare(!) time I run a crafts business with my mum, importing (mostly) fairtrade goods from Nepal to sell at local markets, which is one of the many reasons we go over every year.

I live in Brentford (not Brentwood!!) in a flat full of books and pictures and stuff I’ve brought back from travelling. Luckily there is also some space for my husband, and my degu Elvis. We don’t have a TV, which leaves more space for books.

Unbelievably, that’s the first mention of books. Books are one of the reasons that I get up in the morning – another is travelling. Both are incredibly important to me. As is super-hot curry, and a nice glass of Shiraz, or two. However, I am not a fan of cooking (or washing up!) so I prefer to go out and eat. This is easy round us, as there are lots of good restaurants nearby, although we usually end up in one of two of them. Creatures of habit, definitely.