You drop down through pewter clouds, down into a valley of green and brown with rivers like veins of mercury. Kathmandu! Even the name is powerfully magnetic, drawing in dreamers and crooks from every corner of the earth. Up until the 1950s the Kingdom of Nepal remained closed, a Himalayan mystery; today fifty dollars cash will buy anyone a visa at the airport, and you are off, down into the city that is a prodigy of every kind of pollution and intrigue and incense-wreathed enchantment.
In the islands of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa there is an institution called the aluguer. Perhaps ‘institution’ is too weak a word. The aluguer – from the Portuguese verb ‘to rent’ – may at first sight seem nothing more than a shared taxi in the form of a Toyota van or a flatbed pickup truck. In reality the aluguer is the backbone of society and economy: not just a bus but also an informal courier and messaging service, a small-scale cash-banking network, an ambulance, a limousine, and a theatre on wheels. Take an aluguer through the cobbled streets of Mindelo or the mountain roads of Santo Antao and you will see more than the view.
Edmund de Waal, a celebrated potter and ceramicist who had one of the literary hits of 2010 with his biographical memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes has now written a study of the remarkable history and nature of porcelain. De Waal has devoted much of his working life to porcelain, and this is not a mere history of the white ceramic that helped shape the wealth of nations from its discovery in China more than two thousand years ago. It is an attempt to capture the inner nature of porcelain, its power to mesmerise and to bankrupt its addicts.
People say a lot of things about Calcutta, but one thing they never say is that Calcutta is a pleasant place. Intense, chaotic, corrupt, and confusing, yes. Unremitting discomfort and infinite inconvenience, yes. Pleasant, no. Calcutta (or Kolkata if you insist on following the endless name-changes inflicted by the government of West Bengal) is never going to be your ideal destination for a quiet relaxing break. But it is unforgettable: addictive, insistent, and amazingly friendly (for a place that is so violent). Calcutta is India in highly concentrated form. Use with caution.
Book Review: The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin, published by the University of Chicago Press
From The Spectator
AS a boy I spent quite a lot of my free time trying to fake up ancient-looking documents. This hopeless enterprise involved things like staining paper with tea or vinegar, together with plenty of burning, and creasing, and copying of random texts with a scratchy old inkwell pen. Typical silly small boy stuff. Reading this book on a collection of maps supposedly derived from Marco Polo suddenly brought it all back – especially the silliness.
ON THE HARBOUR wall in the port of Funchal, Madeira, there is a remarkable collection of paintings. Nobody commissioned these works, the artists are anonymous, and the medium is industrial primary colour on cement. The subject is the Atlantic Ocean. With photographer Nick Sinclair, I recently published a short photo essay celebrating these unofficial, unbidden images.
Book Review: Following Fish by Samanth Subramanian
INDIAN fish can be quite dangerous.
I learned this at first hand, sailing a rented catamaran on my annual hippie-holiday in southern India. One moment all was calm, the sea surface as dark and quiet as a dish of lukewarm dhal. And then there was a fizz, a flash – and four or five long silvery things of the swordfish sort launched themselves, whoosh, right across the boat. They were just fish, but they might as well have been rocket-propelled cut-throat razors.
SO there I was one rainy Sunday doing some admin tasks when my phone rang. The man on the line wanted to know if I would be interested in riding a motorbike through Death Valley in the company of a couple of the people who ran the Italian Ducati motorcycle company. I conceded that I would be interested. “Can you be in Los Angeles tomorrow?” he added, as a kind of afterthought. I thought no, but I said yes … yes, I might be able to do that.
THE NAMES roll off the map like scene settings in some classic western: Furnace Creek, and Desolation Canyon; Badwater, Wildrose, and Stove Pipe Wells; Zabriskie Point, and the Funeral Mountains. This is Death Valley: the hottest, highest, lowest, fiercest place in the contiguous United States, the great natural barrier that separates the body of the American southwest from the Pacific Ocean, a national park the size of Connecticut where daytime temperatures can climb above 130 degrees. A century and a half ago when pioneering European emigrants took a wrong turn and stumbled into Death Valley on their way to the California gold fields, they were lucky anyone survived to tell the story. Today you can drive across the national park in the air-conditioned space of an afternoon – if you want. But that’s no way to tour Death Valley. To experience the dimensions and the desolation and awesome grandeur of the Valley – to travel fast and yet to experience the scene physically – for that you need a motorcycle.