The London Review of Books


My piece about the riots in Urumqi appears in the next issue of the London Review of Books.

A change in habit

Henry James in 1890, aged 47

Henry James in 1890, aged 47

I have recently acquired two new habits in the way I read. The first concerns how I consume prose. It used to be the case that I would, on finishing a book by one author, make sure to shift to one by a very different author. e.g. from E.M. Forster to Henry Miller (or vice versa). If there was anything as developed as a reason for this (which I doubt) it was to avoid being overly influenced by a particular voice.

My new approach is to do the opposite, to read as much by one particular author as is ‘possible’ (which here depends on how many books by a particular author I have, and if it seems worthwhile to try and do so- answers in the negative include Ian McEwan, John Fowles and Herman Hesse). I suppose I began doing this with Faulkner, partly because the first 5 or 6 were so extraordinary, partly because I wanted to see if there was anything he couldn’t do. The benefits of this are that one gets to watch a writer’s style evolve (in some cases, degenerate into mannerism) and that one can identify central preoccupations (or, to put it less grandly, whether he or she is repeating themselves in an increasingly tired manner e.g. Paul Auster). Currently, I am in a Henry James phase, having read The Europeans (very slight), wandered into Colm Toibin’s The Master, then resumed with The Spoils of Poynton. This is from The Master.

Henry studied Gosse and paid attention to his tone. Suddenly, his old friend had become a rabid supporter of the stamping out of indecency. He wished there were someone French in the room to calm Gosse down, his friend having joined forces, apparently, with the English public in one of their moments of self-righteousness. He wanted to warn him that this would not help his prose style.

The second shift concerns poetry, and is, I now realise, the opposite. Where once I would try (and always fail, except with Raymond Carver) to read a poet’s Collected Works, now I either read a single volume, or start with the latest work. Often this latter work seems best, and one does not thus get bogged down in juvenalia or false stylistic turnings. I’m not sure if this is due to the nature of poetry (as opposed- if it is- to prose) or just my own capacity for enjoying it (five or six poems at a time is usually sufficient).

Stone Voices

Salisbury Crags

Salisbury Craigs

I am continually disgusted by my ignorance of Scottish literature, history, geography, poetry and art. Where once I had purposefully spent hours exploring, going down streets and alleys simply because I had not done so before, now it is a matter of getting to my destination as quickly as possible. The city has plenty of decent museums and galleries, but these days my knowledge of what goes on in them is limited to the posters on walls I glimpse as I cycle by. I have probably not been to an exhibition for almost 2 years.

By no means is this something willful. It is what usually comes of living in the same place for a long period of time (in my case, almost 7  years in Edinburgh). I am aware of this lamentable state of affairs, but it is too comfortable a rut to get out of. Only occasionally do I lift my head and look around and properly comprehend how rich and interesting it is to live here. Usually after I’ve read something like Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices, which, in its tour through Scottish political history, makes many interesting stops.

For instance, whilst I vaguely knew that Edinburgh had been the site of some serious shifts in geological thinking, I did not realise how profoundly they had altered people’s thinking.

At the end of most streets in Edinburgh’s Old Town rises the crimson wall of Salisbury Craigs, a lesson in the unimaginable force and lapses of time which have gone to shape the world. The Craigs are a basalt intrusion, a fossil tide of volcanic rock which surged through the foundations of a dead volcano some 200 million years ago. Geology and paleontology, with their revelations of deep time and alien life-forms, towered up wherever nineteenth century Scots turned their eyes. The ‘testimony of the rocks’ threatened their moral universe, its narrative incompatible with a creation myth or even with a creator.

Equally powerful testimony exists less than a twenty minute walk from my house, on Blackford Hill, where there is a rock i have passed dozens of times (on which, now I think of it, there is even a plaque). As Ascherson says, “Here, in 1840, the Swiss naturalist and geologist Louis Agassiz arrived in the company of Charles Maclaren, the Scotsman‘s first real editor.” It was his observations of the horizontal scratches on the stone that led him to claim they were the work of stones carried by a moving force, in particular ice masses.

From the Scotsman, the entire British public learned for the first time that there had been an Ice Age in their own land and throughout the northern hemisphere. Conventional religion was faced with proof that much of the world had been overrun, buried and reshaped by an ice-cap and glaciers hundreds of feet thick- and at a relatively recent period. Here was a cataclysm which the Book did not even mention.

As it with the Aggasiz rock, so it is with the shaped stones that constitute the buildings of a city. These too have their plaques that speak of what was done and said within, usually before our time. Perhaps, when we occasionally pause to read them- when the bus is late, when she is late -we find nothing of interest, no connection to the person who lived there or wrote X while doing so. The fault for this is entirely our own. We must unblock our ears.

An opinion


Though there is a long history of protest in Xinjiang (most notably in Baren, in 1990, and Yining, in 1997) the recent unrest in Urumqi differs from previous clashes in two important respects.

The first is that however the events of July 5th started (whether it was intended as a peaceful protest or not), it definitely ended in violence. Usually this violence has been between Uighur protesters and the army or police (with the protesters on the receiving end). On this occasion, judging by scores of interviews (and the casualty figures, of whom two-thirds were Han) the violence was mostly aimed at Han residents. This, then, is violence on purely ethnic grounds, aimed at other citizens rather than representatives of the government.

The second is the Han response to Sunday’s riots, when they purposefully set out to attack Uighur neighborhoods.This has reinforced the purely ethnic side of the conflict. The role of the police, unusually, has thus been to actually keep the peace.

Whilst the authorities represent a clearly defined entity, about which specific (and verifiable) grievances can be expressed, the same logic cannot apply to other ethnic groups. The fact that most of the police and army (and government) are Han Chinese naturally leads people to conflate the two, but does not, I think, necessitate an automatic hatred for people as individuals. When I lived in Yining in 2001-2, Han and Uighurs were able to co-exist, albeit often in separation (separate schools, neighborhoods, shops and restaurants). Though there was prejudice in abundance, there was rarely any sense that it would escalate to violence.

But even uneasy co-existence seems far off in Urumqi. There will probably be soldiers on the streets for a long time.

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