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Life in the big smoke

Books I’m half-way through at the moment

I always have several books on the go at once. I blame this on the fact that I tend to get very excited about new things, so the books I order off Amazon always outpace the amount I read. Hello piles of dusty books in the living room. This issue also applies to writing projects. I’m sure no other writers recognise themselves. Finishing things is easy, right?

Here are some books I’m reading at the moment. Some have sat next to the bed for several months. I am planning on finishing them one day.

The Medical Detective: John Snow, Cholera and the Mystery of the Broad Street Pump, by Sandra Hempel

The newest addition to the pile. Research for a project I’ve been working on for a while. It’s about cholera, more interesting than it might sound.

The Enlightenment Trap: Obsession, Madness and Death on Diamond Mountain, by Scott Carney

SO INTERESTING. It’s about a buddhist cult and the death of a man called Ian Thorson. He died of dehydration after spending months in an isolated cave with his wife and guru Christie McNally.

The book explores how Buddhism has been adopted by the West and its impact on the minds of people who’ve grown up in instant-gratification Western societies. I’ve read about the Diamond Mountain tragedy before and the tale ticks all the right boxes for me, religion, cults, the odd motivations behind acts of self harm, psychology, death and so on.

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

I’ve been reading this cheerful little book before going to bed. It’s written by a Canadian academic and looks how societies break down. Homer-Dixon is fascinated by the fall of the Roman Empire and looks at the different stressors (climate change, terrorism, financial crises) that might make our societies collapse. The books was published in 2006 and so far a lot of the potential problems he’s identified seem worryingly familiar.

Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13000 years, by Jared Diamond

I bought this book because an Amazon review said it had changed the reviewer’s worldview. It’s written by biophysicist, ecologist and anthropologist Jared Diamond and offers a multidisciplinary investigation of how human societies were formed and why some societies became more advanced than others.

It’s a fascinating take on the complete randomness of life and our current system of organising ourselves, our beliefs and our power structures. The book makes it seem blindingly obvious that chance, rather than some grand plan, lies behind the way we’ve chosen to live on this planet. It’s very interesting, but also seriously dense with a tiny font, which is why I’ve been plowing through it slowly for almost six months now.

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I know the list isn’t exactly jam-packed with what you might call feel-good reads. But these topics have in one way or another been on my mind for a while now, they pop up on a regular basis in the work I do and I feel the need to dig deeper. Considering I spent my teens wearing black and reading about serial killers it’s probably something of an improvement.

Afternoon at Oxford Circus

Hurry up Regent Street. No need to linger, the city doesn’t want you stop or to dawdle. Keep moving, keep looking at the crowd. Girls in face veils, bags swinging off each arm. Besneakered couples wearing backpacks. They walk slowly, looking up, looking down, looking the wrong way as they cross the road. Well dressed women in tight dresses, in high heels. People carrying coffee, people carrying dogs. Buses and cars and black taxis, exhaust fumes so thick they make your nostrils black.

I’m early, so I walk through gaping glass doors. Rows and rows of colourful dresses and shirts and blazers. I don’t know what to do with it all. The shop assistants smile a lipsticked smile.

Another shop. Red and black and blue jackets, quilted fabrics, sown on badges of flowers, embroidery. The same feel of the fabric. The same factories churning out neatly displayed truck loads.

Shop after shop after shop. An avenue of them full of carefully displayed mountains of products. New for each season. Belted jackets, leather shoes, flower crowns, sneakers and new phones. Where do they all end up?

I brush my hand along the fabrics. They’re not looking for a home, they just want to be seen. To be worn once. Then what?

Blinking signs and mannequins in yoga poses. Masses flowing in and out of the temple, staring open-mouthed at high resolution screens and iMacs. Shopping bags lining arms like bangles. What is it all for?

My escape to Dartmoor

devon paths

After the fire and the terror attacks I needed to leave London. I had to get away form people and traffic and cars and noise. I found an Airbnb near Dartmoor. I booked the cottage, I booked a train and I left for a week. Gerry was working, so I spent the first few days on my own.

I was going to write, but instead I walked. There were many maps in the cottage, some were old, some were new, some were laminated. I picked a smallish, laminated one and I picked a path. Then I walked.

I walked through fields covered in chest-height ferns, through forests where old oak trees lined the path and the Holy Brook bubbled alongside me. I walked on ancient bridleways and on small winding roads. I walked away from people and toward any place I could find that was green and quiet. I stopped and smelled the soil, the sunshine on the leaves, the growth and the decay.

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I sat on an old drystone wall, a bridlepath behind me, the ground falling away from me on the other side. There was a small brook in the valley below and I wanted to spend some time near it. The trees were heavy and green above. My phone and the map were resting on the wall next to me. Out of nowhere a happy spaniel appeared, jumped up on the wall and pushed the phone over the edge. I patted the dog, then scrambled down the stone wall, down the slope and crawled underneath a fallen tree covered in ivy to retrieve my phone. It’s still not working properly. I take that as a sign. Slow down.

Gerry joined me for the last few days and we walked some more. We walked to the most famous Tors on Dartmoor, we hiked to an old stone circle and had lunch among the standing stones.

standing stones, devon

I’m back in London now. I’ve been back for a couple of weeks, but the paths I walked stayed with me. They were made by feet and hooves over many centuries, perhaps over many millennia, and they can be walked still. That’s what keeps me loving this country. It’s old, its paths are old and there are many left to explore.

London, my London

I took the river boat home after doing interviews around London Bridge yesterday. I looked at the grey waves, the silt. This water, it’s seen tragedy before. It’s seen suicides and bombs and murders.

London has seen a lot. London has survived a lot. I saw some quote yesterday about how this old battle scarred city shrugs and moves on. But we’re fragile. Those of us who live and love and dream and hate in this city, we’re fragile.

I’m fragile.

I’ve seen the aftermath of terror attacks in two cities I love, in two cities I’ve called home, in the space of about a week. I’ve seen fear and resilience and strength and shock. I hid my face from the sweeping broadcast cameras at the vigil in Manchester, because journalists shouldn’t cry.

This is real. This is happening. This keeps happening. This white hot madness, like a pinched nerve running through society. Why does it keep happening?

I was at Borough Market on Saturday afternoon. I bought a coffee from one of the stallholders and then I got a train from London Bridge. A normal day.

A friend of mine left Borough Market a couple of minutes before the attack. A normal evening. Shattered.

Perhaps the people who look back at this time will find a narrative. We only catch glimpses of it, rushing forward and looking out at these events as they blur. In the future some sense might be made and some answers might be found. Until then we’re stuck with the blur and with our feelings.

This is what I thought yesterday. If we don’t take care of our societies they will break. If we don’t figure out what our values are and then stand up for them, what we have will crumble. If we’re not compassionate we engender hate. And if we don’t have honest conversations about fear and anger and who to blame for all kinds of horrors those feelings will crawl out like beasts from the most spiteful corners of our societies.

I wish I could have offered my sadness to the river. I wish she would have washed it all away. But she’s seen it before, she doesn’t care. It’s up to those of us who live along her shores to do that work for her.

The dangerous legacy of Britain’s cursed diamond

victorian jewels

It’s one of the world’s most famous diamonds. Millions of visitors gawp at a replica of it at the Tower of London each year. But the Koh-i-noor isn’t just a sparkly old rock. According to the legend whomever owns the diamond rules the world. And there is, of course, also a curse.

The Koh-i-noor is said to cause men to “know all the world’s misfortunes”. Supposedly only “God or women” can wear it safely and, according to the internet, it’s only ever been worn by female members of the British royal family.

But the diamond hasn’t always been British. There are many different tales about where and when it was found. According to Indian legends it was mined 5000 years ago near the Krishna River. And during its long history it has travelled from ruler to ruler.

In the 16th century it was said to have been in the possession of Babur, the founder of the Muslim Mughal Empire and a descendant of Genghis Khan. In the 18th century it was taken to Persia where the diamond got its current name. The Shah of Persia, is alleged to have exclaimed “Koh-i-noor”, Persian for “mountain of light”, when he saw the diamond.

nadir shah

The Koh-i-noor brought the Shah great wealth. It was part of the loot the Persian army brought back after a brutal attack on Delhi in 1739. The spoils of war were so impressive the Shah made everyone in the Empire tax exempt for three years. Eight years later the Shah was assassinated and his empire collapsed.

The diamond changed hands a couple of times after that, often accompanied by treachery and betrayal.

During the second Anglo-Sikh war, the British annexed the Punjab and took the diamond as part of the peace treaty. It became the property of Queen Victoria in 1849.

queen victoria

At first the Brits and their Queen weren’t that happy with the diamond. They thought it had a “rough” appearance (it didn’t sparkle). The Prince Consort, Albert, had it recut, getting rid of 42 percent of its weight in the process. When the re-cut diamond was shown to it’s previous owner, the Maharaja Duleep Singh, he was supposedly unable to speak for several minutes.

the koh-i-noor

Since becoming independent in 1947 India has been trying to get the diamond back and the British government has rejected several requests. Perhaps it fears that it would be the start of a deluge. On a visit to India in 2010 the then prime minister David Cameron said “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum will be empty”.

The Koh-i-noor isn’t the only thing the British took during their time of ruling over 13 millions square miles of the world. The Elgin Marbles from Greece and the Rosetta Stone are other examples of things in British museums other countries want back.

Diamonds. ... Extracted from Macmillan's Magazine. ... With a note on the Imperial State Crown and its Jewels, by J. Tennant

The Koh-i-noor will stay where it is for now and perhaps it isn’t worth reflecting too hard on what it has seen during the last centuries. Empires never collapse, after all, and strong leaders are never defeated.