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A Singular Summit, and a Thought Experiment for It

Right now, the mood of the times is pessimistic. The predominant trend in the Anglophone world is not about what could be, but to revert to what was. The obvious ones are Brexit and Trump, but Trudeau is a humbug who has done nothing to rein in the tar sands, while Australia may as well append “Mining, Inc.” to its name. That leaves little New Zealand as the outlier – good for them!

I don’t think I am the only one who wants the world to move forwards, but who feels on the wrong side of history. So it was a joy to attend the Singularity University Summit in Thailand in June (I’ve been flat out since, hence the gap in posting). I admit that I’d been sweet-talked into attending by my friend Lloyd, who organized the event, and, as most IT “summits” are self-congratulatory gabfests; I had low expectations. Boy, were they ever exceeded!

You can watch the highlights on Youtube here. The fundamental thesis behind what Singularity University (SU) teaches is simple. With enough critical mass, the marginal cost of production of certain technologies becomes almost zero, and their uptake becomes so rapid that it’s disruptive – meaning that incumbents don’t have time to react, and collapse. Just as the transition from horse to the internal combustion engine was done and dusted in the single decade following the First World War, and the transition from music on discs to streaming music onto your phone has happened in the decade just passed, a whole raft of technologies is set to disrupt energy, transport, money, agriculture, and a whole bunch of other things.

Of course, boundless optimism cherry picks its case studies, and not all technologies are exponential. But the presenters knew their stuff, the sessions were much fuller of facts and cautions than the average gabfest, and, above all, there were those hallmarks of confidence in presenting: jokes. I emerged from two intense, twelve-hour days invigorated and renewed.

And then, there was the food.

Humanity is eating this planet into an ecological grave. Meat and fish are not the only problems, but removing them from your diet is the simplest thing you can do to mitigate the damage. Continuing to eat meat and fish – sorry carnivorous friends – requires invincible selfishness underpinned by wilful ignorance, the wilful part being founded on having the intellectual curiosity of a house brick when it comes to your food sources. We cannot feed the world by going organic, but we can not only feed the world, but return lots of it to other species, or more of our own, if we cut meat and fish from our diets.

To their credit, lunch had a small vegan corner. It was tucked away in such an obscure part of the banqueting hall that I missed it the first time; half a dozen or so of us vegetarians huddled there, watching the other thousand or so delegates stuff their faces with animal cadavers.

But the point is this: all of the speakers knew that meat and fish has to go. Many of them said it in their presentations, others in the socialising that went with the event. Yet the cognitive dissonance regarding diet is so overwhelming that that small corner was all they could muster in the way of action. Words, yes. Action, minimal.

So here’s my suggestion for the next SU summit.

  • Be Bold. Tell the delegates that they’re going to be fed vegetarian food, and tell them why.
  • Don’t be Boring. Offer food that is tasty and interesting.
  • Donate the Skills. Most hotels haven’t a clue how to present a tasty vegetarian meal for a large number of people (actually, most chefs believe it cannot be done!). Send an executive vegetarian chef to the hotel, months in advance, not only to agree a menu, but to train the chefs how to cook it.
  • Leave a Legacy. Encourage the venues to re-use the model. If nothing else, it’s cheaper to prepare vegetarian food than meat and seafood, so more profitable.
  • So, SU, how about it?

Some South East Asian Novels

Four Reigns was first published as a newspaper serial in Thailand in the 1950s. The author, Kukrit Pramoj, was in the first generation of Thais to undergo and overseas education – he went to Queen’s College, Oxford – and I can’t help but think that there’s a lot of his own life in this book. Which makes for an interesting if rose-tainted read.

The story starts with Phloi, a likeable child who leaves her father’s house to work as a courtier of King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of the current Ratanakosin dynasty (His Majesty King Vajralongkorn is the tenth). Phloi spends her late childhood and adolescence in court, has her heart broken once, but follows her father’s advice and marries well. She has four children and the book follows their intertwined lives as well as her own.

Phloi faces few conflicts – she has good karma – which makes the story itself is somewhat saccharine. Yet the characters are well drawn and, even if the book is rather free of incident in Phloi’s own life. One of her brothers becomes a degenerate, she has an evil half sister, and so on. On top of that, not only was Thailand affected by two world wars and the Great Depression, but the kingdom was also going through the throes of a massive modernisation. And, after the death of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), there was a series of short-lived monarchs between him and the late King Bumibol (Rama IX), all of which affect the lives of the characters.

Setting aside the historical background, the book is also brought to life, especially in the early parts, by the detailed descriptions of a court life that is no more. I am not in a position to know if the details are authentic – and I suspect that many of them are recollections of the author’s own mother – but they are beautifully sketched. I was also fascinated by how much, and how little, the social mores of Thailand have changed – how Phloi is happy to ask her husband if he’d like her to find second wives and concubines (he declines), how wives and husbands separate, how the hierarchies of wives change.

Four Reigns is regarded as a classic – the eyes of a Thai sitting next to me on a plane popped out of his head when he saw me reading Tulachandra’s translation into English – yet although the book was never boring, and although it was not written as a page-turner, what let it down was a one-sidedness. The characters covered the good, the bad and the ugly, though no one was evil, but they were all upper-class and well-heeled. There was no hint of the grinding poverty that is the lot, even today, of many Thais. Somehow for me, that left a void in the centre of the novel – I’d hope for more of a seven hundred page epic.

No one, however, could accuse Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan (and translated by Annie Tucker) as lacking in evil. Though written in 2011, the novel is set in broadly the same period as Four Reigns, albeit in Indonesia.

The book starts with Dewi Ayu, Halimunda’s greatest prostitute, rising from her grave, twenty years on, to avenge those who have wronged her and her daughters, but covers the time from her birth to her (first) death, overlapping the First and Second World Wars, up to the early years of Indonesia’s independence.

Often hilarious, the book describes a world of the other-natural, with ghosts and spirits, bold and cruel characters, and with lots of incident. Its world is one of fleeting relationships, of husbands who rape and husbands who love, of women determined and manipulative. It depicts the hierarchies of Indonesian towns, where crooks and cops carve up the power and populace bumbles along as best it can. Where in Four Reigns, the karma of one life determines the karma of the next; in Beauty, payback does not take that long.

Yet, despite the vivid writing and continuous invention, Beauty wore me down. Most of the final fifty pages concerned Dewi Ayu’s grandchildren and, by then, I didn’t much care. Those pages left me wondering where the book was going, and wishing it would get there sooner. As it happened, there was a neat ending, but it could have got there much sooner.

That aside, read together – and it’s mere serendipity that I did – the books are an immersion into a world as strange and wonderful as any sci-fi. Go out and buy them!

A Little Bit of Paradise

A few years ago I was involved in raising lots of money to build a data centre in Thailand. During that time I met David. David told me about an island called Flores, in Indonesia, where he and his associates were building hotels and the like but – and this caught my attention even then – with a difference.

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein describes how, in the aftermath of the 2001 tsunami, global hotel chains used the devastation of coastal communities in Sri Lanka as an excuse for a land grab. Those who had already lost their livelihoods and homes were shoved back to the inner shores while the luxury resorts fenced off beaches and made damn sure that the last thing you’d see on the beach would be the fisherman and his family who used to live there, and the last means of subsistence those fishermen would have, would come from the seas they’d once fished. As to the environment – well, as long as it looked nice, pump raw sewage out to sea and no one would know. This is one of the reasons I avoid beach resorts.

David wanted his company to be everything that the big chains are not. He wanted to include the communities, to make sure that the developments would accord with their wishes – most communities are keenly aware of the threat to their environment that development brings – and that would offer a future for their children.

I was impressed by his passion, but had neither the time nor the available money to get involved. However – a story for another post – the data centre didn’t come off, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was meeting David’s management team:

Well, not quite. These are the famous Komodo Dragons. They are not at all sweet and cuddly: their drool is poisoness enough to kill a grown man with a bite, and they are quite capable of eating small humans and large land animals. Here are some of the last guests to register a complaint:

Komodo Dragons eat whatever they kill whole, bones and all, and excrete the latter. We wandered around in the company of a guide and came across a young one

Who then sensed lunch in the proximity

At which point we made a speedy exit .

So, that’s a major draw to the area. The dragons exist on only three islands, which collectively form Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As such it’s protected, but here’s our little area outside it:

Not quite untouched, but in this filling-up world of ours, it’s as close as you get.

Here are some neighbours:

Houses on stilts in this case. The fishing communities in Flores are poor. Flores takes its name from the Portuguese, and the island is predominantly Catholic and its main export, priests (if you thought Indonesia is full of bomb-throwing Islamists, change your newspaper). However, the fishermen are predominantly Muslim and tend to live in remote bays, inaccessible by road, with minimal access to secondary education, health services and, in many cases, reliable drinking water.

So, what does David’s company intend to do with this pristine patch of paradise? Whatever it will be, it won’t be this

That hotel is typical of rapacious resort development. They’ve built right up to the plot boundary, have put a hideous, maximum density pile of concrete on top of it and the beach – if it hasn’t been permanently destroyed by the construction – will be a narrow strip of sand on water where, in the afternoon, you can most likely watch your very own breakfast turd float past – and those of the other 500 guests.

I bought into the company – Asia Land and Sea – and they’ve put me on the advisory board. It’s as much a responsibility as anything I’ve taken on. On the one hand, it’s a company, not a charity, and needs to make money. On the other hand, all of us on the board are committed to growing the company in a way that respects the local communities and nurtures the environment. That’s a tall order, riven with conflicts, and I wonder if I’m up to it. At least I know where I’ll end up if the management team decides that I’m not…

Trophy Hunting in the Himalaya

“What are you trying to prove?” asked a friend of my latest Himalayan trek, the Manaslu Circuit. It’s a fair question. Yes, I’d like to summit a 6,000m / 20,000ft peak, probably Island Peak, but I’m not at the stage of becoming an Eight-thousander (of which more below…) Well, not yet. But, for an answer, read to the bottom.

My partner in pain was again DC – short for Diamond Card, which sums up his lifestyle – and our guide was Hari. Our porter was Sorach – 4’3″ and I doubt he weighed as much as me with our bags, but, as our bags included two bottles of dietary supplement (whisky), I carried his rucksack. This slowed me down and speeded him up, so that worked well. We again (quick plug because they’re nice guys who started from nothing, as well as because they do a good job) used Outfitters to arrange everything, and they again did an excellent job.

The Manaslu Circuit was very different to Ama Dablan Base Camp. At 288km total distance, including excursions, it was equivalent in distance to a marathon every two days for two weeks; at a total ascent of 7,500m it was, in Scots terms, a Monro starting from sea level every two days. All things considered, Ama Dablan was a stroll.

This trek was also much more social. The Khumbu (Everest) region is a superhighway. The only conversation we struck up was with a fellow who’s been going there every year for the past twenty years, for many of which he’d taken groups of schoolchildren. This trek was much less crowded, and most parties of trekkers moved at about the same speed: we met a group of four Slovakians, a pair of ladies from the UK who struggled, a pair from Australia who seemed far too casual but outpaced us, four Danes who looked the part of Vikings, a married couple the husband of which had dashed from the wedding ceremony to ascend a 7000m peak near Sagarmatha, and various others. This may make it seem crowded but, to the contrary, we were on our own for most of the trail. We met – and re-met – the groups at “tea houses” – the hostels on the route – night after night, as we ascended.

The bottom reaches were full of road construction with the consequent dust, noise and litter, so had little to offer. This fine sight greeted us on arrival at the second night’s town:

However, once in the conservation area, the litter all but vanished. While I don’t absolve trekkers from the mess, it became clear that the construction workers were as, if not more responsible as us.

For the next two days, we progressed through one layer after another of desiduous and pine forests, rhododendron forests, of barren high-altitude valleys; of Tibetan villages beneath towering peaks. It rained for much of the way up, and I am not a good enough photographer to capture scenes in the rain, So here’s a flower:

A warning. On the first day of rain, a trekker got ahead of his guide and took a wrong turn. Realising his mistake, he turned back, slipped on the muddy path, and fell to his death in a gorge. This was at well below the 3,000m at which Acute Mountain Sickness sets in. Mountains are dangerous places.

A day or two later, I topped a rise and saw this.

I stood, stunned. Even if we had to turn back, that view made it worthwhile.

From there, our home of the next two nights, Samagoan, was an easy two hours away. The mountain from which the trek takes its name was wreathed in cloud when we arrived, but popped out the next morning: .

That being a rest day, we took a side trek to a monastery. On the way there, I saw an avalanche on the lower slopes of Manaslu and was very glad to be on the opposite side of the valley. Here’s the monastery – not open until summer.

Here’s a pleasant place to spend a few years seeking god,

And here are DC and Hari, on the way back.

On return to town, we came across a puja. There were bells and gongs and drones, and the villagers came out to present the headmen with kata, white silk scarfs used to show respect.

For some reason, DC and I were deemed worthy of respect, draped with white scarfs, and offered a small taste of the local hooch. The puja, we were told, was to distribute rice to the villagers, and I assume that the village heads are those on the ground being thanked for contributing that rice. Later that evening the temperature plummetted, the rain started, yet the villagers were unfazed outside, distributing rice as we huddled inside drinking our whisky (Hari told us that garlic thins the blood which is good for altitude; I hold that whisky does the same.)

The rain turned into snow and the next day’s walk was through a winter wonderland:

It was a short day to our next stop, Samdo, so DC and I headed up the nearest hill, taking the steepest route up. Having got as far up as we wanted, we struck out to traverse down, only to become ensnared in juniper bushes (very much like heather). That took some navigation – the blob is DC struggling to remain attached to the hill.

We got back to bad news. The weather was forecast to set in and, although we’d planned to spend two nights in Samdo, Hari recommended a single night and an attempt on the high point of the trek, a pass the morning after that, a day earlier than scheduled. Although I’d hoped to take a side trek to a glacier, prudence (DC’s mostly) won the day, so we set off the next morning to the camp.

That walk was uneventful and quick, so that afternoon we popped up a hill behind it for the view of the pass. It’s in the middle of the photograph, a long way from where I took it. A very long way.

On the way down, I got talking to one of the Slovakian group :

`Oh, Peter’s here to do his sixteenth eight thousand meter peak.’

`Um,’ said I, `there are only fourteen such peaks.’

`Yes.’

`You mean…?

`Yes, after this he’s going to ascend Everest, come down to 7,000m for a day, then ascend Lhotse. Two 8,000m peaks in three days.’

What was a trek to us was training for Peter. (I thought at the time that only Reihhart Messner and Andy Hinkes had summitted all fourteen of the world’s 8,000m peaks, but post-trek I found out that a few dozen people have managed the 14 – and you’ll find Peter’s name on that list. That leaves 7 billion, myself included, who haven’t.)

After a crap night’s sleep, due to a rucksack that refused to play pillow and a tent pitched on an incline, at 4:00 a.m. we started up the pass. My camera isn’t good enough to capture the stunning beauty of the night sky at altitude, but it’s good enough to capture the dawn:

And here we are at the top, with me squinting in the sunlight.

Then ascent, through fresh snow, turned out to be the easy part. We had a 1,500m descent down the other side of the pass, over steep snow, without crampons or ice axes, leading out on to a glacial moraine, and more steep stuff, with not a tea house in sight. By the time we arrived at Bimtang, that first Gorkha beer went down very fast.

That was it, we thought. A three or four day trek back down and we’d be off to Kathmandu. We hadn’t counted on the weather dumping four inches of snow overnight; and the next day was, in the word’s of one of our Vikings, “This is the best ever!”::

Rhododendrons were in bloom:

        

As we descended, it got greener and greener.

 

So; why the title of this blog? As I mulled on Peter’s massive achievement, it struck me that, at the end of the day, bagging peaks is not so very different from bagging the “big five” African game animals, the “Seven Summits” and all the others. But does it address this?

That’s Samagoan, where we spent two nights. I do not mean this in a derogatory way, I do not mean to allocate blame, and I have no reason to believe that the villagers are unhappy. But the squalor is Medieval. Here’s a town we saw further down, where the end of our trail joins the beginning of the Annapurna circuit:

That’s US$450 they’re asking for. Over 100,000 trekkers pass that way every year, every single one of whom has spent more than that to trek. And this sign probably says it best

That’s Samagoan’s school sign. There is no other. So what do I hope to achieve? That you, reader, will chip in to my friends at Room to Read, who are doing their best for schools in poor countries..

Gandhi, Jinnah and Shashi Tharoor

I have read a slew of books about India and its separation from Britain in the past year. As someone who was brought up in the generation that believed Britain’s empire in India, the Raj, was a force for good, they do not always make comfortable reading.

Gandhi’s autobiography, subtitled “The Story of my Experiments with the Truth”- like most of Gandhi’s books, written in jail – was first published in the Gujarati language as a series of newspaper articles. This gives the autobiography an episodic flavor. As most autobiographies, and all biographies, are monolithic, this makes it very readable. What it doesn’t do is leave much of a punch.

Of course, Gandhi wasn’t writing with a view to making a bestseller out of his life. But I was left with a hollow feeling that, after five hundred pages, I didn’t know him any better than I did after the first few dozen. Those initial pages give the impression of a self-centred tyrant who puts his wife and family through hell in pursuit of the truth; that he’s ruthless in politics, and that he’s well aware his public charisma is a political weapon. Of the many friendships he forms, often with others of a religious bent, the only ones that last more than a few pages are with powerful figures, and it’s difficult to avoid the impression that those are friendships of circumstance rather friendships of the heart.

As to the histories of the various political campaigns of which he was architect – the satyagraha movements in South Africa and India – these are out of the book’s stated scope. So, as a history, it’s all but useless.

But there is one quotable paragraph which seems especially pertinent to our times:

In the very first month of Indian Opinion [a journal], I realized that the sole aim of journalism should be service. The newspaper press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and destroys crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy.

In these days of wanton abuse of the press, it would do well if journalists were mindful of that.

Gandhi’s nemesis in the Indian independence movement was Mohammed Jinnah. Nearly all historians credit Jinnah with the creation of Pakistan in a way that they do not credit Gandhi or Congress with the creation of modern India. India would have become independent anyway, runs the thought, but Pakistan was an invention, and Jinnah the man who realised that invention.

The autobiography “Jinnah India-Partition Independence” by Jaswant Singh is marred by typos, rambling passages that should be shortened or cut, endnotes that don’t always match the text and from which several pages are missing: in short, as literature, there is room for improvement. Yet, as a view of what caused the Partition, it is insightful.

At the beginning of his career in politics, Jinnah was committed to a single, unitary Indian state after independence. The Muslim League, of which he was to become president, was to represent the interests of Muslims within that framework; it was not to advocate for a separate country. Yet,  four decades after Jinnah became prominent, a separate country was what It demanded and received, and Singh does an excellent job of showing the steps by which Congress marginalised the Muslim League at the same time as the League painted itself into a corner.

The pivotal moment came, according to Singh, in the 1937 elections. As neither party expected to win, Congress and the League agreed to a formula to share power. However, when Congress won by a landslide, they ignored the agreement and bulldozed their own course regardless of the damage to their relationship with the League. This, provided the cause of the split, and, although the concept of Pakistan had been coined some two decades previously, it was from this point on that the idea of a separate state became mainstream.

The cause was one aspect; opportunity the other. This came as the Congress shot itself in the foot during WWII by refusing to support the British effort against the Axis powers. Congress withdrew from politics, its leaders were imprisoned (again) and thus had no voice. By the end of the war, the League had made itself a friend of Britain. Although Congress, when its leaders were released from prison at the end of the war, attempted to make up for lost ground, it was already too late.

And that brings me to the third book, “Inglorious Empire”, by Shashi Tharoor. As a work of literature, this is the pick of the three books. It reads well, the notes and references match the text, and it has enough jokes to make up for the heavy stuff.

But the heavy stuff is heavy. A large number of people in both India and Britain are inclined to view the Raj as a force for good – a thesis that Tharoor demolishes. India was first and thereafter plundered; its historical unity was suppressed and such fault lines as there were, were exploited; such political freedoms as were granted were rationed and often withdrawn on a whim; divide-and-rule (not only along religious lines) was an explicit tool of imperial suppression, and enlightened despotism was despotic without being enlightened. Out of two centuries of British rule, India got the English language, cricket and trains – accidental consequences. Nearly all of this is supported by referenced facts.

Aside from a tendency to see Mughal India through rose-tinted glasses, two things undermine Tharoor’s book. In an early part of the book, Tharoor says there were “unsubstantiated” rumours that weavers’ thumbs were broken to put the local textile trade out of business, where in his concluding remarks, he not only tosses aside the “unsubstantiated” but asserts that those thumbs were not broken, but severed. The extent to which the accusation is true is not what troubles me; it’s the change that worries me.

The greater worry is the economic argument. In short, Tharoor says that India accounted for about a third of the world GDP at the dawn of British rule and about 2% at the end. Set aside my instinctive wariness about paleo-economics – the sparse data and the political agendas. The problem is that a “reduction” from 30% to 2% does not necessarily reflect an absolute fall in living standards. Given the huge global economic growth during the Industrial Revolution, it could well be that, while India failed to get richer, nor did it become, in absolute terms, poorer. This is still no good thing, and there is plenty in Tharoor’s book to suggest that the fruits of that global growth were expatriated to England rather than staying in India, but it is one of Tharoor’s central themes and his book would be all the stronger were it addressed. But it’s an excellent read for all that.

HK24 Launch (Including Me)

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Ama Dablan Base Camp

In 2014, sailing back from the Philippines to Hong Kong, we were sucked into a lightening storm. We were on the open sea, defenseless in a boat that suddenly seemed very small. Bolts of lightening as thick as an oak plunged from sky to sea; the night became day for seconds at a time. And I was at the helm of a glorified lightening conductor. For the only time in my life, I thought: “This is it.”

It wasn’t. The thought that followed was that, if this was it, I was going to go down as a sailor. We punched through the storm and made it home unscathed. But the experience brought to mind the Buddhist aphorism that life is short and the time to death uncertain: whatever time one has, use it well. And, as a result, all of those projects I’d been putting off took on a new urgency.

The foremost and most conscious of those was writing. But another crept up on me: mountains. At the time, I was spending a lot of time in Tehran, which is situated on the lower slopes of a mountain called Tochal. I’d stumbled across the access path on my first visit. On a second recce, I made it as far as the Shirpala hut, at about 2,600m (Tehran rises from about 800m in the south to about 1,300m in the north, whence the jump off point). On the third attempt, I summited at 3,900m. I’d met friendly (most people everywhere are) people on the way, and I had the immense satisfaction of finding my own way up.

It was also a week before I could walk without pain.

So, having got the bug, when I and the owner of that boat decided to go trekking in the Himalaya, I decided that I didn’t want to be one of the many who, when asked if they enjoyed it, reply “I’m glad I did it…” as they hobble along. I trained like mad.

It paid off. We spent eight days trekking in Sagarmatha National Park, and not an ache or a strain to show for it. Here, courtesy of my fellow trekker’s photographic talent, are some shots.

This is the mountain from a distance, on the way up:

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And this is what it looked like when we got to base camp:

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That’s a whisky flask in my mouth, my trekking companion (also on the yacht), and was taken from the base camp (4,600m, though we went a little higher).

Ama means “mother” and “Dablan,” necklace, and here’s a photo that shows why:

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Here’s Lhotse, with Sagarmatha (Everest) peeping out at the back:

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And here are some of random mountain shots:

These birds are Danphes – Nepal’s national bird – to see one was lucky, but to see three at the same time was extraordinary.

This goat appeared when I wasn’t looking – I only saw him when I saw the photograph.

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Here’s the view from a rope (okay, they’re steel cables, not ropes) bridges. Not for those with no head for heights:

The photo in the bottom right shows a mule train crossing the bridge, and this brings me to the down-side.

All of us middle-class folks from the wealthy part of the world have a devastating impact on the local ecology. It’s not only the erosion shown in the two pictures above, and the garbage and the sewage that goes unseen (and untreated). Nearly all the stuff that we consume – and we consume heaps – has to be flown to Lukla and carried in by mule and yak trains and porters. Yes, this creates a livelihood for the local Sherpa people and, yes, this has alleviated the poverty. But the pristine air is filled with the buzzing of helicopters ferrying around supplies, not to mention those too lazy to do it the hard way.

I walked, but it was with the uncomfortable feeling that my self-indulgence came at a very high cost to others and to the environment. When I started planning this, Ama Dablan was to be the first of a series of treks to ever-higher places. These are all in poor countries – Nepal, Tanzania, Argentina – and the next step is to work out if I can visit these places without messing them up. Not an easy one.

Of Elephants and Brightness

One of the good things about airport bookshops in strange places is that they often stock books that I wouldn’t otherwise come across, and my two picks – from Dubai – were both worth the price.

The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown by Vaseem Khan is a fun read. Set in Mumbai, the premise is pleasingly absurd. The British crown jewels are exhibited in India, and not only is the crown stolen, but with it the Koh-i-Noor, the diamond whose name translates to Mountain-of-Light, claimed by Britain as a spoil of war in the 1942 Punjab War. In steps Detective Inspector (Retired) Chopra, with his baby elephant, Ganesh, to solve the crime.

He does, albeit on the back of rather too many faces he can’t quite place. But what makes the book worthwhile is the happy dust that’s sprinkled over it. Mumbai is a vast metropolis teaming with poverty and corruption. These are not glossed over, but Chopra’s indominatable optimism sweeps both him and the reader through this. Even the bad guys aren’t evil, just misguided. And, without giving the ending away, the diamond is acknowledged as a symbol for both nations.

And, while I wouldn’t rate Khan’s depictions of Mumbai on a par with Chandler’s of LA, he comes pretty close.

The protagonist of the The Sand Fish, by Maha Gargash of Dubai, is also a Noora – in this case, a common girl’s name in Arabic, meaning brightness. We start with her in her younger years in the Musandam, a little visited promontory that extends into the straits of Hormuz. The book is set in the 1950s, when people in this area lived as they had since the dawn of history.

I haven’t been able to read much fiction by Arab women (because there’s so little, at least in English). Although Gargash’s book is not as vibrant as Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, what it lacks in pace it makes up for in the depiction of life in that place and time. The Sand Fish makes it clear how limited the options for women (and indeed, for men) were; it depicts the power dynamics between wives of polygamous husbands, and it hints at the changes that were to sweep that part of the world from insignificance to global fame.

And yet, at the end of the book, it’s the author in her notes, not the protagonist Noora in her internal life, who tells us why the book ends the way it does. That does not ruin the book, but it does make the end of the story anti-climactic. And I still have no idea what a sand fish looks like.

Adios, Trumpocalypse and Brexitageddon

I’ve just spent a week in Andalucía in Spain, not boozing it up at the Costa del Red Barrel but in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada with a bunch of other aspiring writers, at a literary retreat (organised by The Literary Consultancy, and conducted by Lesley Glaister). It was a joyous week for me, though very hard work, and I’d recommend any aspiring writer to go on a similar course.

One thing it brought to mind was how far off-course this blog has drifted. The blog was supposed to be about reading and writing, about books that I like and why I liked them, and about writing techniques that I’d stumbled across and how they improved things or didn’t. Perhaps an occasional political post, but just now and then.

What it’s turned into has been quite different: a third-rate political blog, one that echoes the dismal spirit of politics in Britain and the US but without adding any originality of perspective to what’s already out there.

I don’t have the time or inclination to go the extra yard to provide that. So I’m canning the politics. Those who want to read about politics in Hong Kong will find a most excellent blog here, and the Rude Pundit in the US has a depth to which I can only aspire. Or Breitbart, if your politics are that way inclined. As to the slow-motion train crash of Brexit – well, who needs a blog?

So, adios politics, bienvenido books!

“Back up, You Creep!”

Imagine if Hilary, when being stalked by Trump during the second presidential debate, had said what her book says she wanted to. Imagine if she’d lost her composure, rounded on him and said: “Back up, you creep.” Imagine how many of her supporters would have thought At last. At last she showed some spunk, at last she showed a real person, not another bland political mask so polished and so hooked on polite deliberation as to come across as void of character or conviction. Imagine how many undecided voters would have gone out to vote for her.

It was not to be. And, yes, she won the popular vote. But set that to one side. My point is that this points to a central flaw in political discourse on the left: the obsession with never offending anyone. Sure, the nine Trump supporters interviewed by The Guardian will probably support him no matter what, as will these folks. But I’m not thinking of people who believe in walls, or white supremacists who think they aren’t white supremacists. I’m thinking of the maybes, those who sat on the fence, and I’m not only thinking of Trump.

Farage is no different. Forget about his policies, his hazy grasp of facts. The reason that he was able, almost single-handedly, to get Brexit through was because he had one or two core beliefs which he expressed in simple terms that resonated with the man on the street. He connected in a way that no other contemporaneous politician did – not Cameron, and certainly no one in the then Labour party. He attacked distant bureaucrats for attacking Britain’s democracy, he appealed to the concerns of a crowded island about the hoardes poised to invade. What he meant, or at least what many people wanted him to mean but believed he was unable to say it in this politically correct climate, was “kick the wogs out and keep them out.” That won the Brexit referendum.

Few on the left – few commentators and no mainstream politician – cut it this clean. There is no black and white, only ever shades of grey. On the right, there is no grey. Trump has spent the last eight months calling Clinton a “bad person” and Democrats “obstructionists.” Those memes stuck. On what occasion, during Obama’s six final years, when the Republicans voted down every single important legislative initiative, irrespective of its merits, did he label them thus? The only occasion that comes to mind is climate change, when he declared “we don’t have time to convene a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.” That was as close as it got. How many of us would have loved him to say “Stop playing politics with people’s lives and do your fucking jobs.” And ultimately, what did his decency get him? Certainly not a hint of cooperation from the GOP.

So shouldn’t Hilary have let rip?

The problem with a black and white judgement is that it’s a blunt weapon. Once we’ve categorized a person or a group of people as “bad,” “a creep,” or whatever, it’s very difficult to retreat from that label. There’s a loss of face, a serious reconsideration. Disagreeing with someone’s policies is one thing – we can agree to disagree or inch closer to agreement – but a creep is a creep and that’s that. (The converse is not true – Trump had no problem backing down from his pre-candidacy praise of Hilary.)

So labeling political opponents in moral terms makes it all the more difficult to move on. And moving on is what polities have to do to remain polities. Neither the US nor Britain are moving on: while Trump has passed far more Executweet Orders than any preceding president in the same period, and while his administration has simply chosen to ignore its constitutional duty and instructed bureaucrats to ignore inconvenient laws, the battleground he’s created is such that no legislative achievement looks possible. The Tin Lady, May, who has to live with Farage’s legacy, does not seem to be taking positive steps to come up with a Brexit that a majority of Britons can live with. Rather, she seems stuck in a self-reifying fantasy that she can have her cake and eat it – with a hard crash-out Brexit as the only realistically possible outcome.

But in Hilary’s case, it was different. While Democrats dislike Trump, Republicans despise him. “Back up, you creep!” would have done her no harm and much good: had Trump lost, he would have been consigned to history’s dustbin, and most Republicans would have applauded her forthrightness. As it was, her failure to blast Trump came across not as composure under fire, but weakness. That cost her dear.