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.

‘Martial law in all but name’


Yesterday a mob (I think this is a fair way to describe a crowd of people armed with iron bars, meat cleavers and shovels who are shouting angry slogans) of Han Chinese attacked Uighur neighborhoods in Urumqi, in apparent retaliation for Sunday’s violence. Though there were reports of beatings, no casualties have been confirmed (which did not stop the World Uyghur Congress from reporting a long list of atrocities:

A Uighur woman who was carrying a baby in her arms was mutilated along with her infant baby… over 1,000 ethnic Han Chinese armed with knives and machetes marched into Xinjiang Medical University and engaged in a mass killing of the Uighurs… two Uighur female students were beheaded… their heads were placed on a stake on the middle of the street.

This post seems to have since been removed from their site (and it is important to stress that there has been absolutely no indication of any such horrific events), in favour of reports that rely more on the major news providers.

Today, the BBC are reporting a massive troop influx into the city (some estimate 20, 000). They show footage of soldiers marching through the streets; there is talk of it being ‘martial law in all but name’.

Interesting, their footage (which looks to be in a central, Han area) shows people going about their daily business. No doubt the increased troop presence has reassured them there will not be a repeat of Sunday’s violence (a retaliation for their retaliation).

The BBC also have this photo of a Uighur neighborhood, where residents are apparently blocking off a street. Perhaps they are less reassured by the massive influx of troops.

Uighur residents blocking off street

Uighur residents blocking off street

“Ethnic confrontation should be definitely prohibited”

Local government officials hold a press conference

Local government officials hold a press conference

This was the message of Wang Lequan, secretary of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) earlier today, who sounded increasingly worried, and unusually conciliatory.

“Neither the people of Han nor Uygur ethnicalities (sic) are willing to see the Han people being attacked. It is the same the other way around. If the Han people attack the innocent Uygur people, it is also heart-breaking. The family members of those who were involved in the violence are innocent. We should be cool-headed and do not be fooled by the enemies…Our targets should be the hostile forces at both home and abroad and criminals, rather than our own brothers and sisters of different ethnic backgrounds.”

He also announced there will be a curfew in Urumqi (and probably elsewhere).

A less conciliatory note was struck by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, who denied that the original protest on Sunday had been intended to be peaceful. He described it as “an evil killing, fire setting and looting… Anybody calling the violence a peaceful protest is to turn black into white in an attempt to mislead the public,” Qin told a press conference.

At present, an estimated 1,400 people have been arrested across the province in connection with Sunday’s protest.

“Now we are going to their area to beat them”


Chinese official sources are reporting what appears to be a counter-protest in Urumqi, this time by Han Chinese. They report that several thousand people

“armed with clubs and knives.. marched along the Youhao Street and Guangming Street toward Erdaoqiao Roadin downtown Urumqi Tuesday afternoon. The protesters, mostly Han Chinese, were shouting “protecting our home, protect our family members”. Police armed with guns and shields guarded intersections. A Xinhua reporter saw a police officer crying while he followed the march.Many of the protesters gathered at the Urumqi South Railway Station, Changjiang Road, Yangzijiang Road and some other places. People ran in panic and roadside shops were shut down. Residents of some community compounds were holding bats for self-defense.”We will not hide up anymore. We will fight back if they (the rioters) come,” said a man standing in front of a building in Shihezi. Crowds of people rushed to the municipal people’s hospital to take shelter. Many nurses were trying to call their relatives to make sure they are safe. An adult who was coughing up blood and a young man whose head was covered in blood were rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment… Someone drove a car into a police wagon during a standoff with police at Tuanjie Road at about 1:30 p.m.. Police have arrested a number of people. The number of arrests in the latest outburst is unknown at this time.

I’m not sure what to make of the tone of the Chinese report. It’s unusual for the Han to be portrayed as being so aggressive. It doesn’t read like a threat, or an act of self-defense. If anything, the report seems almost bewildered by the way in which things seem to be slipping out of the government’s control.


The BBC have since confirmed that a demonstration by Han Chinese took place. Hundreds of Han Chinese marched through the streets of Urumqi smashing shops and stalls belonging to Uighurs. Reuters reported that some Chinese protesters shouted “attack Uighurs” as both sides threw stones at each other. One Chinese protester, clutching a metal bar, told the AFP news agency: “The Uighurs came to our area to smash things, now we are going to their area to beat them.”

Further protests in Urumqi

Uighur people take to the streets in Urumqi. Photograph: Guang Niu/Getty Images

Uighur people take to the streets in Urumqi. Photograph: Guang Niu/Getty Images

The BBC and The Guardian report that there have been further protests in Urumqi, this time without violence. Incredible footage at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/8137519.stm

Uighur residents erupted into protests during an official media tour of the riot zone in the face of hundreds of officers… Women in the market place burst into wailing and chanting as foreign reporters arrived, complaining that police had taken away Uighur men. Authorities have arrested 1,434 people in connection with Sunday’s unrest. As they streamed out on to the main street, the crowd swelled to about 200, with Uighur men and more women joining them, shouting and waving their fists… And then a single old woman, propped on a crutch, forced armoured personnel carriers and massed paramilitary ranks into a slow – if temporary – retreat. No one noticed her at first. She emerged from the crowd and moved slowly down the street. A Uighur police officer came forward to escort her away. She could not be persuaded. As older residents stepped forward and attempted to calm the crowd, she advanced steadily towards the line of armoured vehicles. She halted inches in front of one. The driver started its engine. For a long moment they faced each other. Then the carrier slowly began to roll backwards and the line of officers inched away, back down the road. Suddenly, the massed might of the Chinese authorities looked very much like one scared and vulnerable man – like many of the young officers stationed around the city. Officials attempted to remove reporters – telling them that it was not safe and did not fit in with media arrangements – as the stand-off continued. “You see old women and children now. But on Sunday night it was men – you should go to the hospital and see the victims,” said one.

One wonders what the situation would be like if the international media was not present. It could be like after the riots in Yining in 1997, where arrests continued for weeks, followed by executions.

Or perhaps the Chinese authorities have decided that such crackdowns are ultimately counter-productive. That they only exacerbate tensions between Han and Uighurs.

The test is what happens when the media’s attention inevitably shifts.

Unrest spreads to Kashgar

Further pictures of Urumqi from the BBC, who also report that the unrest has spread to Kashgar, in the south of Xinjiang, which has been the focus of many protests in the past. The authorities claim that about 200 people were “trying to gather” at the Id Kah mosque in the centre of Kashgar. They also claimed to have information about plans to organise unrest in Aksu and in Yili prefecture (which was the site of the largest riots to date, in 1997). Given that all of the police and paramailitary troops are likely to be on full alert, it seems unlikely there will be any more large scale disturbances like the one in Urumqi. It is not just the sheer number of police and troops that make this likely- they are also organised in rings that encircle most of the major towns in the province.






The BBC are reporting that the clash in Guangdong province last month (n the city of Shaoguan) was caused by a man who posted a message on a local website claiming six boys from Xinjiang had “raped two innocent girls”.

Police said the false claim sparked a vicious brawl between Han and Uighur ethnic groups at a factory. Two Uighurs were killed and 118 other people were injured.

As for the riots in Urumqi, Uighur groups are insisting that their protest was peaceful and had fallen victim to state violence, with police firing indiscriminately on protesters in Urumqi.

Dolkun Isa, a spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) in Munich, disputed the official figures, saying the protest was 10,000 strong and that 600 people were killed. He rejected official reports on Xinhua that it had instigated the protests.

Riot in Urumqi

A shop smashed on Tianchi Street in Urumqi

A shop smashed on Tianchi Street in Urumqi

The Guardian reports that there has been widespread violence in Urumqi, the provinical capital of Xinjiang. Official reports place casualties at 140 so far (though this is impossible to verify). The protests were said to have started when several thousand people rallied in the grand bazaar to protest at the death of two Uighur migrants, and injuries suffered by hundreds of others, during an ethnic conflict between workers in a factory in Guangdong, southern China, last month. If this is the case, then it marks a shift from previous protests, most of which have have been at the provincial level (see my article at Eurozine for background and the history of such protests). One would predict an even more intense crackdown than usual from the authorities- nothing disturbs them more than nationally-organised protest.


The official explanation is that “the violence was masterminded by the separatist World Uyghur Congress led by Rebiya Kadeer, according to the regional government. Rebiya Kadeer, a former businesswoman in China, was detained in1999 on charges of harming national security. She was released on bail on March 17, 2005 to seek medical treatment in the United States.”

Whilst there is no evidence of Kadeer ever having done much more than send a few newspapers to her husband (let alone instigating a riot via the internet), it is interesting that the government refuses to mention the political aspect of the riots, so as (in the case of the riots in Yining in 1997) to portray the rioters as apolitical criminals intent on looting and destruction.

Firemen put out a fire in Dawannanlu Street in Urumqi

Firemen put out a fire in Dawannanlu Street in Urumqi

As for the events in Guandong, the government said “that three forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism made use of a fight between Uygur and Han ethnic workers in a toy factory in Guangdong Province on June 26, in which two Uygur workers died, to creat (sic) chaos.

“Nur Bekri said the bodies of the two Uygur workers in the factory fight have been sent back by plane to Xinjiang for burial. Police in Xinjiang and Guangdong are jointly investigating the incident.

“The government of Shaoguan City, where the toy factory is located, and the factory are trying their best to help Uygur workers go back to work as soon as possible, he added.

“The fight was triggered by the sexual (sic) of a female Han worker assault by a Uygur coworker, he said.”

More on this to follow (not least the dubious implication (as I read it) that it all stems from an attempted rape by a Uighur male.

FAO: Lunatics


A reasonable request from Alexander Waugh:

To the Editors:

Adam Kirsch’s high-minded and misleading review of my book, The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War [NYR, June 11], has caused at least one terrorist lunatic to write to me in a threatening manner. I quite understand that reviewers cannot be expected to tailor all their work to the sensibilities of lunatics, but if there happen to be others among your readers who have also interpreted from Mr. Kirsch’s remarks that I am a “Jew-hating British intellectual piece of dog shit” I would advise them, before putting pen to paper, or threatening to “knock me on my ass,” that they read the book itself, which clearly expresses my huge admiration for the Wittgenstein family and acts as a corrective to most of Mr. Kirsch’s somber pensées.

Alexander Waugh
Taunton, England

Age waters the writer down

Martin Amis, 1985

Martin Amis, 1985

I’ve never got much out of Martin Amis’ novels. They seem to want to be both ludicrous (farcical plots; characters called ‘Russia’) and very, very earnest (“She wondered where the end of the world was and what the world ended with- with mists, high barriers, or just the end of everything” Other People, p.56). The only books of his I’ve enjoyed were Experience, a memoir, and The War against Cliche, a collection of reviews and essays, most of which were impressively precise in their attention to language.

I was very snug in this opinion (fiction- no thank you; non-fiction- yes, please) until I read a number of articles in which he expressed opinions on Islam and terrorism that suggested he had lurched to the political right. In October 2006 he told the BBC that we should not feel bad about having “helped Iraq scrape a draw with Iran” in the Iran-Iraq war because a “revolutionary and rampant Iran would have been a much more destabilising presence.” Elsewhere he referred to the “extreme incuriosity of Islamic culture.”

It seemed ill-advised for him to be making high-profile pronouncements on subjects as complex as these. It recalled the rightward shift of Christopher Hitchens (who vigorously defended the Iraq war in the pages of Vanity Fair). And because these views were so in conflict with my own, I accordingly (and very conveniently) wrote him off. It was much simpler than trying to reconcile Amis-as-political-pundit with Amis-as-critic.

But this morning, as I clicked my way through today’s Guardian, I saw he had written a piece on Updike’s last book. It begins with a challenge that is hard to turn down, perfectly pitched as it is to the promise of wisdom and the reader’s ego.

The following wedge of prose has two things wrong with it: one big thing and one little thing – one infelicity and one howler. Read it with attention. If you can spot both, then you have what is called a literary ear.

… Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land. In the prime of his life, when he worked every weekday and socialised all weekend, he had pretty much ignored his land.

From there it takes sentence after sentence apart, chiding them for repetition and poor word choice (I wonder if he would fail the sentence from Other People quoted above on the same grounds).  As Amis himself concedes, it is the kind of demolition that “would have gone unwritten if its subject were still alive”.

But this destruction is wreaked in the most loving, respectful fashion (for Updike’s place in Amis’ canon is almost as assured as that of Saul Bellow), as if by highlighting the flaws of this last book, he means to underscore the quality of all that came before. It is a fine review. It makes me think that his students at Manchester University are very fortunate. They cannot be complacent.

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