Rory Stewart on avoiding repetition

Is Rory Stewart a leader? He’s certainly a writer, as of course is Boris Johnson, who is reckoned at this moment to be some way ahead of him in the contest to be the next prime minister of a disunited kingdom. Either might be worth reading (once he’s been turfed out) on the experience of being inside Number 10. And Stewart — judging by a piece he wrote after winning the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize for 2005 for his book on Afghanistan — would strive to see the place with fresh eyes:

Landscapes, like sunsets, evoke our most uniform responses: writers on places repeat each other endlessly. This is, of course, particularly true of the areas in which I have worked in Central Asia – where we are always tempted to find in a diesel-choked multi-lane highway the last traces of the Silk Road or the footsteps of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. We often do this as though we were exploring relevant recent history: a writer and friend of mine described a Pakistani in Taxila as ‘exactly the kind of man who met Alexander the Great’. (I wonder if he would feel as comfortable saying a living British butcher was ‘exactly the kind of man who met Julius Caesar’.) But we face the same problem even when we try to engage not with the historical but with [the] incongruous and the contemporary.

When I was first in Herat, for example, I remember being struck by the traffic policemen at the cross-roads – their comic-opera uniforms, the absence of traffic, their truncheons and whistles. I thought I would write about this trace of the Western city as a way of getting away from ancient oriental history. But something troubled me about the image. A little later I read Peter Levi’s The Light Garden of the Angel King (1970) and found him writing: ‘Herat…a small lonely policeman in the centre of a vast deserted square, directing two donkeys and a bicycle with a majesty more appropriate for the Champs Elysées.’

Then I went back to Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1952) and found: ‘Herat…the police directing a thin trickle of automobiles with whistles and ill-tempered gestures like referees.’

Then I read Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, written in 1933: ‘Herat…the policeman at the crossroads with a whistling fit to scare the Chicago underworld.’

These identical responses were, I found, quite different from those of the Afghans with whom I was living or travelling.

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