The British brand that conquered the world, but which is almost unknown in the UK

Lipton tea

If you’re a Brit overseas it’s likely that at some point you’ve had a cup of Lipton tea, prominently available everywhere from America to Europe to Asia.

It’s the world’s best-selling tea brand, and you may or may not be surprised to discover that it’s British. So why is it largely invisible at home? It’s entirely adequate, if slightly weak, but attractively packaged, and evidently has no distribution problems.

The story starts in 1871, when local lad Thomas Lipton opened his first grocery in Glasgow after having worked his way around America for the previous five years. A flair for marketing – stocking the world’s largest cheese; a bagpipe and brass band parade to accompany his first tea shipments from the docks – led to his expanding to a chain of 300 shops.

Tea sales doubled between the 1870s and 1880s,  and it was the working class and middle class markets that Lipton courted by undercutting rivals with a good quality product at lower prices, achieved through production and shipping efficiencies. One of these was to buy his own 5,500-acre tea plantation in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, taking advantage of low land values due to a recent coffee blight, and so becoming a producer himself.

Ushering in the 20th century with a revolution nearly as impressive as radio or television, the company claims to have been the first brand to sell tea leaves in teabags, successfully commercialising an American idea.

Big in the USA

Teabags were successful in the United States, but Britain was slower to abandon centuries of teapot tradition. It was only during the 1950s with a post-war, post-rationing explosion in interest in labour-saving products that teabags took off as a modern household convenience.

However, the various mergers that Lipton supermarkets were involved in throughout the 20th century saw their gradual disappearance, and British-Dutch multinational Unilever acquiring the tea business. By the mid-1980s, Lipton shops traded under the name Presto, which were either converted into Safeway stores, originally an American brand, or by 1998 all closed down.

While business abroad boomed, back home there just weren’t the shops to sell the tea, and in the meantime other brands, using staggeringly successful marketing, slowly squeezed out Lipton’s once-strong recognition:

pg-tips

Iced tea cometh

It didn’t help that for more than a century British consumers regarded iced tea with the same suspicion which first greeted teabags. Iced tea emerged in the United States during the 1870s, but became a big success following its introduction to the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. Surprisingly, it is only in 1964 that Lipton is associated with the product, with the launch of its own powder mix. Iced tea was launched in Europe in 1978, and in 1991 the familiar Lipton bottles appeared in a joint venture with Pepsi, almost assuring market pre-eminence.

You may have been on a blazing hot beach somewhere, yet somehow still yearn for a cup of tea. You discover that none is served nearby, or that it’s a tepid and undrinkable grey fluid. So a bottle of iced tea it is, and even though it may contain a rather limited quantity of extract in comparison to sugar and preservatives, it’s entirely tolerable.

As with so many other US products, iced tea has drifted over the Atlantic into British supermarkets, like Oreo cookies, or Hershey bars, which for most of my life existed only as words uttered by John Malkovich and others in Empire of the Sun.

Once again, British retailers are stocking the Lipton brand, though this time it’s in refrigerators alongside Lilt, Dr Pepper and 7-Up. Boxes of teabags are limited to fleeting, promotional supermarket appearances, but hardly compete with the household names alongside.

Today

Do we drink stronger tea now than we did a century ago? Are international palates so dissimilar to our own? Perhaps. Though when Douglas Adams wrote of something “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe he may not have had Lipton in mind, but instead the frustration of being abroad in a hotel during the 1970s, with otherwise excellent catering but for the dishwater served in a cup and saucer at breakfast – which Lipton would claim it is the solution to.

Every year, 100 billion Lipton products are consumed around the world; it’s one of the biggest international drinks brands and almost as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola, Nescafe and the like. This is quite remarkable.

A British tea company has conquered the globe. Just not the small island where it all began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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William Dalrymple book launch: Return of a King

A British-Indian force attacks Ghazni fort during the First Afghan War in 1839 (Wikipedia)

When NATO forces leave Afghanistan next year, India, Pakistan and even China could make it a theatre for their own proxy wars and interests, bestselling historian William Dalrymple told a London audience, based on researches for his most recent book.

Mr Dalrymple told a packed auditorium of more than 100 people on 26 June that after the Americans leave, Afghanistan with its pro-India President could become an Indo-Pak proxy theatre, with India having development interests and previously arming the Northern Alliance, and Pakistan supporting the Taliban.

“It’s the biggest question for 2014,” he said after discussing Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan and Britain’s catastrophic 19th-century invasion of and retreat from the country and subsequent negotiations with the previous ruler, “when I gave this talk to the White House a month ago, they wanted to know ‘how do you negotiate with them, how can you be sure they will keep their promises?’”

He added that he told his senior US listeners of the effects on the Pakistani populace of drone attacks, as until recently a largely unregulated assassination policy targeted against any large group carrying weapons — which people in the region often did — and that a wedding party of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s extended family had been bombed earlier this year.

The award-winning author of White Mughals and In Xanadu drew several parallels between the modern-day invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the British occupation of the latter in 1839, notably that the ‘dodgy dossier’ of the day — skewed intelligence used as a basis for war — was an accidental sighting of a Cossack cavalry cohort on an unofficial preparatory diplomatic expedition. This whipped into frenzy contemporary hawks, convinced that Russia was an imminent threat to British India, and led to invasion.

“There is a rule in geopolitics that you can create the monster with your own fear,” Mr Dalrymple said, drawing a comparison with the US invasion of Iraq attracting al-Qaeda extremists to the country in great numbers, where they had not been previously.

He told of an enormous caravan of 21,000 troops and 38,000 camp followers — with 3,000 camels bearing the regimental wine cellar — setting off from British India and arriving in Kabul after only a small number of combat fatalities, installing their own candidate Shah Shuja, while existing ruler Dost Mohammad surrendered.

Mission accomplished, the British set up camp in a worryingly exposed area outside the capital, where Mr Dalrymple pointed out that NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the US Embassy are currently based.

He said that, as with the aftermath of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, another conflict drained resources from the occupation – Hong Kong in 1839, Iraq in 2003 – and with terrible consequences. With diminished troops, and little to tax in Afghanistan despite the region’s historical silk route caravan trade, British payoffs to Gilzai tribesmen for keeping open the borders stopped, meaning no communications or supplies could get through. Training an Afghan national army was paid for by taking estates off the Afghan nobility, alienating them.

“The point of empire-building is not to lose vast amounts of money, generating no revenue — Iraq has oil reserves, or you could tax the wealthy farmers of the Punjab. Of course, we now know that there are mineral reserves in Afghanistan,” Mr Dalrymple said.

Worse, British men began consorting with Afghan women.  The trigger came when renowned intelligence agent Sir Alexander Burnes was killed, partly due to a particularly vexatious amorous encounter [since disputed by a more recent biography of the celebrated spy.] Those responsible vanished into a crowd, which became a mob, which became in a few months a full-blown insurgency, outnumbering the British ten to one.

Decimated by Gilzai snipers in the passes, cut off from supplies, and facing nightly temperatures of up to minus 30 degrees, the retreat from Kabul went down as one of Britain’s greatest imperial disasters. Of thousands that set off, barely a handful made it out, the rest dead, captured, abandoned to die in the snow, or sold into slavery in Central Asia.

The British would return with a scorched earth policy, burning down half of Kabul, before, as with US talks with the Taliban today, negotiating former ruler Dost Mohammad’s return to Afghanistan.

Mr Dalrymple said: “Every Afghan knows this history. I think Karzai is a much more remarkable character than he is given credit for, when you hear how he attacks America, it’s because it’s popular with the Afghans, so it’s an impossible game he has to play.”

While tracing the route of the retreat, Mr Dalrymple found himself at a conference of elders, hearing one say ‘we are the roof of the world, here you can see everything, but we don’t have the strength to control our own destiny’ and ‘these are the last days of the Americans. Next it will be China.’

The book is the first to make use of contemporary Afghan sources, including the previously untranslated memoirs of Shah Shuja, letters, and two epics composed at the time, shedding new light on this notorious episode in history.

The event was hosted by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, which was founded in 1901 and is a charity promoting greater knowledge and understanding of Central Asia and countries from the Middle East to Japan. The society hosts lectures and encourages debate on a wide variety of topics, from literature and the arts, exploration and the environment, to cultural, military and political history and current affairs.

First published in The Times of Central Asia, 28 June, 2013

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Russia and Ukraine: how social media is the new espionage, finance, recruiter, propaganda and weaponry of modern warfare

gregory-asmolov

Both sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are using civilian populations as a military resource to fund, hack, spy, spread propaganda and enlist through social networks, a Kensington audience heard.

Gregory Asmolov, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics, told the Ukrainian Institute on 1 December that online crowdsourcing was not only being used to fundraise, but also for people to provide information about where troops are and where skirmishes take place, to attack opposition propaganda online, as well as hacking the enemy. Supporters can simply allow their computer to be used remotely as part of a ‘botnet’ hacking network, without having to hack, or even knowing how to hack, themselves.

He said: “If you’re a soldier, you’re protected by international law. Online, it’s not always clear if you’re protected by international law or not.”

Propaganda

Mr Asmolov, a former Middle East correspondent for Kommersant newspaper, referred to Ukrainian websites such as i-army, which asks people to become ‘information troops’ by creating social media accounts and posing as residents in the embattled east of the country. The purpose being to comment on news stories through social media and post on websites to attack Russia’s online narratives about the conflict, which aim to show popular support for the annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

A slide showed a quote translated from the website: ‘In one year we created a powerful army that defends us in Donbas area. Now, it’s a time to resist Russian invaders on the information front. Every Ukrainian who has an access to Internet can contribute to the struggle. Every you message is a bullet to the enemy’s mind.’ [sic]

Mr Asmolov also gave the examples of Dokaz, which crowdsources information about Russia’s illegal activities in Ukraine, and The People’s Project, which crowdfunds medical support for soldiers wounded in the conflict, mixed in with news of how Ukrainian infantry are being tortured by Russians and other atrocities.

There are websites for both sides simply asking people to volunteer to go and fight in eastern Ukraine, he said, referring to a Russian one, translated as Volunteer.org, which has seemingly had a few iterations shut down, though perhaps lives on within VK, Russia’s version of Facebook.

“There is crowdfunding from the Russian side and there is crowdfunding from the Ukrainian side,” Mr Asmolov said. “There’s Russian coverage and there’s Ukrainian coverage, and there’s almost no media that covers it in a balanced way.”

Fake news

The US election had highlighted to the world the issue of Facebook spreading fake news stories through algorithms, he said, which had led to people blaming social media; ‘bot’ technology where computer programmes create false social media accounts to spread agenda-driven news stories; as well as journalists, for the election of Donald Trump.

He said: “Russia is the common denominator in all these things, blamed for the election outcome in the US, and for what’s happening in Ukraine.”

Referring to the publishing online of the names of journalists accredited in Donetsk and in Lugansk – areas held by Russia-backed separatist militias – Mr Asmolov said:  “The idea was ‘anyone who has this accreditation is the enemy.’ To what extent should we push this idea that journalists are now the enemy? We should be very careful.”

In describing this engagement with war through social media, he gave the example of immersive theatre, where audience members become active participants in a play, rather than just watching. A chilling example of this immersive, participatory warfare being an Instagram account which crowdsourced votes on whether to execute or release captured ISIS militants.

Mr Asmolov said: “There is no clear boundary between conflict and inter-personal communication. In the past we consumed news from traditional media. Today we consume news and interact with people in the same environment. It’s much more difficult to differentiate between news and social interaction.”

Your daily war

War invading everyday social interaction leads to a digitally-mediated immersion, making conflict a part of everyday life, one of his presentation slides said, with conflict mapping becoming a form of gamification, blurring the line between citizen and combatant and legitimising civilian targets.

Another slide showed a Russian newspaper cartoon, where a man sitting at a computer screen asks: It’s all about war, it’s all about war, where are the cats?

Before taking questions, Mr Asmolov warned: “The major battlefield is the identity – what I think we should do is think about how we can protect ourselves from this kind of engagement in conflict.

“It’s identity theft with a different kind of meaning, by these kinds of politics, and stolen by these kinds of agendas.”

Regulation

On being asked about what could be done to regulate social media and the internet, he said: “Governments enjoy this reality – for them it’s a new tool. We should be wary of opening it up for governments. When governments feel there is a need, they’re really happy about it, and introduce much more regulation.

“We already have too much of it, including here in the UK,” referring to several pieces of recent legislation, “It should come from pressure from the public. Usually, governments take it too far.”

Instead, he proposed a transparency and accountability for the social media algorithms which determine what we see online and what we can buy, perhaps allowing scientists, journalists, and members of the public to conduct an audit.

An audience member asked what Mr Asmolov thought about cats on the internet. He said that there is a book which promotes the theory that online cats drive political engagement and are part of modern communication.

Online hatred

A grey-haired woman said: “I have never heard so many nasty things about the Ukrainian language as in recent months. There is some special hatred among ethnic Russians for the Ukrainian language, and I’ve noticed it’s also present among Belarusians.”

Mr Asmolov went on to say that there are consequences when people engage with warfare in this way, using the same social networks, giving the example of how in Israel, different political ideas about how to deal with conflict, amongst Israelis, has had the same divisive effect online which then severs offline relationships.

He said: “The online battle between Russia and Ukraine takes place between people who know each other, friends who had a good relationship but find themselves on different sides – destroying social ties, to deepen the conflict inside.”

 

 

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By-line in China

A feature I wrote on the cultural history of Georgia and Armenia was published in the international Chinese edition of Travel and Leisure Magazine in June, 2015, through some contacts at the excellent Maximum Exposure Productions.

Nice to be published in the world’s new superpower economy.

travel-and-leisure-magazine-international-china-edition t-and-l-ii

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Russophobia Today, recolonisation, and David Lynch’s Dune: history repeats itself (again) in new Afghanistan spymaster biography

The controversial former British ambassador to Uzbekistan has warned that Russia and the West keep rehearsing the same parts they’ve played for the past 200 years; and that a famous portrait of a legendary British secret agent in Afghanistan isn’t of Alexander Burnes after all.

Craig Murray was speaking at a launch of his new biography of Burnes at the Yunus Emre Turkish Cultural Centre, London, on 26 November. The Victorian explorer, spy and latterly British envoy to Afghanistan, who became embittered when his doubts about the 1839 invasion were suppressed and ignored, was hacked to death by a Kabul crowd in 1841. His name was pronounced locally as Sikunder.

Mr Murray began by raising the spectre of anti-Russian sentiment both in the media and in policymaking, which has haunted so much of politics from the Great Game era of the 18th and 19th centuries, through the Cold War, and up to modern times.

He said: “We are entering a period of more extreme Russophobia in the western media. One of the things that I found frequently in researching and writing this book is how old and how recurrent these themes are in British society.”

In 1834, David Urquhart, First Secretary at the British Embassy in Constantinople, travelled to both Dagestan and Chechnya and founded a committee of mujahideen, which the government then supplied weapons to. One of these smuggled shipments was discovered by the Russians aboard a boat named the Vixen, hidden beneath a cargo of salt.

The Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, denied all knowledge of the arms, and of any such instruction given to Mr Urquhart. The incident didn’t stop the diplomat being promoted to the post of Consul the following year, however.

Mr Murray said: “This shows that in the past 200 years, very little has changed in global affairs. The fact is that there was never any Russian plan to invade British India. Russia, first of all, wanted to take as much Persian territory as possible, or, secondly, to make Persia a client state.

“There were definitely some Russian diplomats and soldiers who liked the idea that this might cause difficulties in British India. Their thinking was that this might cause Muslim subjects to to rebel, to revolt against British rule, and this is the mirror image of what the British were doing in Dagestan and Chechnya.”

Mr Murray referred to a policy of Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India 1836-1842, of promoting violence between Sikhs and Afghans, to preoccupy Sikh armies from focusing on British interests. Similarly, the Russians would promote conflict between Persia and Afghanistan, to draw forces away from Persia’s border with Russia.

Mr Murray said: “The mirror image policies see each of them doing the same thing, but accusing the other one of being evil and trustworthy. That imperial hypocrisy comes out elsewhere in the book as well, in Alexander Burnes famous mission up the Indus river.”

He described how during the early 1830s, by boat, Burnes had accompanied a gift of horses and a carriage to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire, ostensibly a gift to the ruler, but in reality a thinly-veiled excuse to ascertain if the territory could resist conquest, and whether or not the river could be navigated to transport troops. The rulers of Sindh were not amused.

Mr Murray said that correspondence amongst the British at the time reveal incredulity at the effrontery of the natives to accuse them of espionage.

Palmerston’s government also heavily edited Burnes’s reports from Kabul, to make them demonstrate to Parliament that there was a case for invading Afghanistan despite the envoy’s thinking being quite different. There were three Parliamentary debates on the falsification of this evidence, before Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister at the time, declassified the documents 20 years after Burnes’s death – taking even longer than Chilcott, Mr Murray added.

He said: “Governments lie to justify wars – the book is of things that happened long ago, but they are still very relevant today.”

Mr Murray said that a difficulty in the eight years he spent researching the biography was that there is no single collection of Burnes’s letters or journals, many of which he suggests were burned by Sir John Kaye in an effort to preserve the notorious womaniser diplomat’s reputation from further scandal. An individual can letter fetch $10,000, according to recent sales in Canada, but with both sellers and purchasers remaining anonymous.

The hunt for original source material took him all over the country, eventually discovering a volume of early, official reports bound in a volume in the Montrose Museum and Art Gallery, in Burnes’s Scottish hometown.

Mr Murray also ventured abroad, including to the Mumbai Asiatic Society, where, stored in a basement he discovered a dusty, forgotten portrait of Burnes, shown on the biography’s front cover.

It is the sister painting, by the same artist, of one held by the Royal Geographical Society; ever the master of disguise, Burnes is without a moustache and out of uniform in this one:

Alexander Burnes Royal Geographical Society sikunder-burnes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is almost certainly pure coincidence, but I couldn’t help noticing a resemblance between the recently-discovered portrait of Burnes and that of the Dr Wellington Yueh character in the 1984 film of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune – another ill-fated spy.

Mr Murray said that he has found correspondence which indicates that the classic portrait of Burnes, which is faithfully reproduced in all histories of the Great Game, on the front cover of modern editions of his famous account Travels Into Bokhara, and all over the internet, turns out not to be of Burnes at all:

not-burnes

A sketch had been made of him in costume, but Mr Murray said that Burnes later wrote to the artist to request the painting be altered, so that it no longer featured the paradoxically celebrated secret agent, and that a subsequent reply confirms that this had been done.

Among several questions, an audience member asked if, in regard to fears of a border-crossing Russia, the people of Estonia and eastern Ukraine might take comfort from the fact that history will, or won’t, repeat itself. Mr Murray replied that the British have, historically, failed to see Russia as an empire, because empires are places to be sailed to overseas, not simply walked to. He said that though the collapse of the Soviet Union had been a decolonisation, some Muslim lands remained Russian colonies.

Another questioner, possibly an Afghan, asked if the world powers of Britain, Russia and America suffered from ‘battered wife syndrome’, in returning to defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan; that they arrive, depart, and ‘when they leave they leave everything to us, that is how we survive.’

Mr Murray replied that there is indeed evidence of a repetition, in that the British empire installed a puppet leader, Shah Shuja, from the same part of the same tribe as Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan who came to power following the 2001 invasion by coalition forces, thus forging the same alliances, and disaffections.

He said: “Politicians and governments are not terribly deep-thinking people, they tend to think in terms of short term advantage.”

As an ambassador, with 20 years of diplomatic service, Mr Murray spoke out about human rights abuses by the Uzbekistan government, which post 9/11 was an ally in the war on terror for Washington and London; he was removed from office.

After the launch, I read in the preface: ‘Burnes and I made opposite decisions in the same dilemma. Burnes is criticised for not sticking to his principles against his government; I am criticised for deserting my government for my principles. You can’t win.’

The launch of Sikunder Burnes: Master of the Great Game was part of the Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum 

 

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Dagestan, Game of Thrones, and a Gorbachev adviser: a Russian afternoon in London

rossotrudnichestvo

Russia has its own Commonwealth, administered by the Rossotrudnichestvo state agency, with a UK office just off Kensington High Street.

Upstairs to the first floor, through a door and a group are registering with a young woman and a laptop. Through a glass wall is a small room of what looks an empty internet cafe, or rows of call centre workstations. Impressionist paintings on walls; books, brochures, magazines and newspapers, mostly in Russian, on tables.

The main reception hall. Thirty or so people sit in chairs before a lectern while the programme of events making up the Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum is explained. In a corner, a grand piano gleams in black.

A young man in a deep blue wide-checked suit, Anton, welcomes everyone to Rossotrudnichestvo, presumably where he works, before journalist and author Gulsifat Shahidi stands to introduce Crane, by Dagestan writer Abu Sufyan, and edited by David Parry.

It is a collection of children’s prose poems, fairy tales of animals and the natural world, but, much like Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books, chilling meanings lurk within. A mare raises a foal alone, and is left abandoned and isolated; a child wanders into the den of a bear.

I have no idea when these stories were first written, in Russian, but the mother and father of the Boston Marathon bombers come to mind while scribbling shorthand notes. Dagestan is a republic in Russia’s Caucasus, next to Chechnya, and its reputation, sadly, is increasingly matching that of its neighbour.

Next: memoirs, of a sort, by one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s former advisers. Georgy Pryakhin‘s collection of stories, Seraglio ’55, is introduced by its editor Laura Hamilton. Very clever: anecdotes of a political, sensitive nature regarding the collapse of the USSR are rendered surreal, and perhaps even sharper, as dreams: soldiers in Grozny; Barbara Bush; even Stalin. Ms Hamilton suggests that with the current vogue for Swedish writers, there should one day be a platform for those from slightly further east.

The indigenous Khanty people of Kushevat, in Yamalo-Nenetskiy Autonomous Okrug, in the Arctic zone of western Siberia, are portrayed in Blue River, by journalist and film-maker Zinaida Longortova. The book is introduced by its editor, freelance journalist Stephen Bland, as a way of documenting the customs, language, culture, and close relationship to the land and its wildlife of the people, through the story of a family rescuing an injured elk calf. It sounds beautiful, and from a remote region about which even the internet struggles to find many photographs of, or English-language information.

A hulking Icelandic wrestler appears before us, and proclaims: “I am a poet in my heart.” This is somewhat unexpected. Sölvi Fannar, actor, athlete, writer, musician and agent of Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson, better known as Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in Game of Thrones, is clearly a man who can recognise toughness. With evident affection, he introduces Natalia Kharlampieva and her book of poems Foremother Asiathe first of any writing in the Yakutian language, also known as Sakha, to be translated into English. Mr Fannar, who visited the Sakha Republic to take part in a global wrestling contest, tells of a Yakutian legend of a Viking ship sailing up the region’s Lena river, and one of the European visitors with a native Turkic woman producing the first Yakut.

The poems she has written can be harsh, we are told by the book’s editor Mr Parry, and Mr Fannar tells that they offer a glimpse of life as a woman, and poet, in the patriarchal society of the Sakha Republic, in Russia’s far east. I begin to wonder what horrors, trials, and scarred recoveries are in the verses of the middle-aged grand dame sat beside the lectern.

One of her poems has been made into a song, and a projector shows a four-minute pop video of fur-clad warrior lads with swords, galloping around on horseback through forests. Stirring stuff, and you can imagine it doing rather well at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ms Kharlampieva stands to read a poem, in Sakha. Rapid, percussive, melodic detonations, which resemble music, and with a mesmeric effect on the room. Afterwards, she plays the jaw harp, instantly redolent of sweeping plains and mountains, and which sounds similar to this. 

Throughout all of the above, excellent interpreting was provided to the assembled by Daria Antonovich.

Tomorrow promises to be equally interesting: a talk by that British ambassador, who introduced the idea of Uzbekistan’s government boiling its enemies alive to the international consciousness.

All titles are available through Hertfordshire Press, a publishing house that brings the writing of Eurasia to western readers.

 

 

 

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Essential writing from Central Asia: part two

nemat-kelimbetov

Claridge’s, a winter evening. Within, I am directed down a bright, pristine corridor. There are liveried staff everywhere: smiling helpfully, welcoming reverently, enquiring politely what my business is in this establishment. I tell them, and receive a court bow, indicating a room of wood panels and autumnal decor; high-ceiling, low lighting.

Little heaps of little black hardback books on tables; I take one; it brings to mind a gleaming ebony cigarette case from the Jazz Age. I Don’t Want To Lose Hope, by the late Nemat Kelimbetov, was first published in 1981. It is a short novel by the acclaimed translator, philologist, and Turkic specialist, in what I presume to be its first publication in English.

Trays of champagne glasses glide by; canapes glisten. A hush descends. The son of the award-winning writer will say a few words.

Kairat Kelimbetov was better known at the time as Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister. He says tonight is not so much a launch as an opportunity to introduce us to his father’s novel, and to ask for our thoughts and opinions. He has an immensely genteel delivery and manner; afterwards, I am introduced to him, and cannot remember a word of what was said other than that it was serenely courteous.

The novel opens with an orchard, a garden, and a family. It is the gallery, perfume, wardrobe, and lexicon of memory, magnified to sweeping technicolour, from a narrator confined to his bed due to illness; it is immensely autobiographical.

A marriage in detail: grains of sand become worlds. There is forgiveness, patience, wisdom, love and virtue, written with the profundity of those living their final hours – though it would be decades before his death in 2010. It is a story that finds an absolute clarity of humanity, with every word weighed and balanced, and expertly translated.

In three days I finished it, due less to any brevity than my refusal to do much else at home, on the train, or in a chilly square outside the office.

I Don’t Want To Lose Hope is essential reading, but is sadly unavailable. In another life, it would be proclaimed a masterpiece by America’s most celebrated television presenter, with sales in the millions, and a film in production.

A few weeks later we arrive at Almaty International Airport, in Kazakhstan, after an all-night flight. It is November, and snow will remain underfoot until well into next year. A meeting at the Kazakh Academy of Sport and Tourism; chattering student crowds criss-cross the campus to classes under a sky of greying white.

Professor Kairat Zakiryanov, the academy’s rector, and my employer are engaged in discussion in Russian too swift for me to follow. His office is wide and spacious in burnt ochre, with books, awards and certificates on shelves, walls and tables. An accomplished mathematician and educational scientist, the professor has written a study of language which we are to publish.

Under The Wolf’s Nest: A Turkic Rhapsody makes you ask questions of words. I must declare an interest at this point: several years ago a friend returned from Mongolia and showed me a photo of an eagle used for hunting, named Sargoz because of its yellow-looking eyes. I found this fascinating, because five thousand miles west, in Turkey, sarı and göz mean yellow and eye. How, and why? Nomads of the steppe.

Professor Zakiryanov has discovered that corridor of language, from the edge of Europe through Central Asia and into China, has extended throughout much of the world, drawing on sources from Herodotus through to modern Russian and Kazakh research. He returns to when Russia and Alaska were joined, and great migrations of nomads scattered their words throughout North, Central and South America, as well as Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and in the origins of Islam and Christianity.

My task was to proofread the text, which had been translated excellently by Robin Thomson. I had little to do other than enjoy it; forevermore, I cannot help but hear connections everywhere: reklam is the root word for advertisement in both Slavic and Turkic; many languages say sweet water when the English mean fresh water…

The only publishing house dedicated to bringing the contemporary writing of Central Asia and Eurasia to the West is Hertfordshire Press. The Open Eurasian Literature Festival and Book Forum takes place in venues around the UK, in November 2016.

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