Advice to New Bloggers (from Bob)

Bob has decided to go into journalism. Did I have any hints, he asked me? How should he go about it? In the end, I suggested he write a guest post for me.

‘What on?’ he asked.

Oh, I don’t know, I replied, possibly a little too casually. How about blogging?

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’ll do that.’

Over to you, Bob:

‘Right, so…why do we follow blogs? Obviously, it is so we can read the pearls of wisdom they scatter before us mere mortals. And if every post is a literary delight, then how much better would it be if we could get twice as many? Or three times? Or more? Everyone wants to read 20 new posts a day from their favourite blogger, all the more so if they receive email notifications of each one, as they get the added frisson of a ‘ping’ every few minutes as another notification arrives; an anticipation of the huge pleasure they will get when they read the new post!

‘Black print on a white background is so yesterday! Experiment with colours – green on blue, perhaps, or if you must use black, try it against a dark grey background. This ensures the reader gives your post the attention it deserves, rather than perhaps just scanning it quickly and moving on to something else.

‘But don’t stop there! Times New Roman and all that ilk are boring, boring, boring! Fonts such as Blackadder or Edwardian Script make it so much more fun! Again, your reader must work hard to prove how much they adore your posts if they are going to get to the point of posting any sort of relevant reply.

‘Size is everything. there is nothing better than a 4,000 word post to read because, let’s face it, your readers have nothing better to do with their time than read your post. After all, it’s probably the highlight of their day, so why skimp on their reading pleasure? Especially so if you have employed fonts and background colours similar to those mentioned above!

‘Is that okay, Mick?’

‘It’s a bit short, Bob. I thought you were in favour of long posts?’

‘Um…I ran out of stuff.’

Thanks, Bob. I’ll let you know.

Ladakh 3

 

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The Wheel of Life, Tibetan Buddhist wall painting, Thikse Gompa. The Wheel represents the cycle of being, the various realms of existence, and the three poisons (desire, ignorance and hatred).

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View of the Stok Mountains, Part of the Himalaya Range, above farms and poplars on the edge of Leh, Ladakh.

From my diary, Friday 15th April 2005:

Outside, my hosts are planting their potatoes, today. It’s been fascinating watching over the last week, as they’ve dug over the whole vegetable garden (about an acre), then divided it up into a total of about fifty smallish and four large plots, all neatly divided with earth walls, between which are carefully dug channels to the stream that runs along the side.

Then, over the last couple of days, half of the plots have had compost dug in and the channels opened one by one to flood each plot for a set time, then closed and the water allowed to soak into the earth.

The first of the large plots is now being planted with potatoes, presumably saved from last year’s crop, and some more digging is commencing at the far end of the garden, where so far there are no small plots.

I’ve just noticed what’s happening at the far end of the garden. It’s going to be one huge potato patch. Dad is digging, Mum is planting, whilst Granny is sorting the potatoes ready for planting. The little girl is happily employed in making mud-pies, like small children anywhere in the world under these circumstances!

 

The monastery at Thikse, Ladakh. Virtually the whole of the hill is covered in buildings belonging to the monastery, whilst the Gompa or temple crowns the top. Founded in the fifteenth century by monks of the Gelugpa, or ‘yellow hat’ school of Tibetan Buddhism, to which the Dalai Lamas belong.

Wednesday 13th April 2005:

12.45 and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable. Where else in India would you find that they don’t bother charging anyone for just going a couple of stops, or that they’d wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread? All along here, passed all this desert scenery, so similar to Oman. And so many fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like hanging precariously to the tops of cliffs. 

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Building at Thikse Gompa.

If it is so beautiful now, in winter, then what must it be like in the other seasons? I’d dearly love to come back to see! And after all the heat, dust and pollution in Delhi, well, need I say more? I’ve not even been asked once for baksheesh, either. 

Mandala painted onto roof of entrance to Shanti Stupa, Leh. The Shanti Stupa, or Japanese Peace Pagoda, is one of more than 70 built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji Organisation, which was run by Fujii Guruji. They were built to promote world peace.

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The River Indus at Choglamsar . The Indus originates in Tibet, near Lake Mansarovar – a lake sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists – and after flowing through Northern Kashmir, including Ladakh, passes into, and flows the length of, Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea. So, ironically, the river that gave its name to the state of India, flows mainly through Pakistan.

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Trees on the edge of Leh. Trees are highly important to Ladakhis – they provide timber for building, fuel, food in the form of walnuts and apricots, and fodder for animals. In all of Ladakh, the only trees that grow are willow, poplar, walnut and apricot.

Monthly Writing Update

AAARGH! Boink…boink…boink…thud!

Sorry…that’s me going a bit stir crazy and bouncing off of the walls at the moment. Two weeks ago I had an operation on my foot, which I am supposed to ‘rest and elevate’ for most of the time. I can get out and about a bit, but it is very slow going, with the aid of crutches, at an average speed of something in between ‘Get on with it!’ and ‘Oh for goodness sake, is that the best you can do?’ and which means, in effect, that I’m pretty well confined to barracks.

At least that gives me plenty of writing time. Perfectly true, but normally I would take a day off from writing every now and again, and go out somewhere – perhaps for a walk. Because that’s not really practical at the moment, I think I’m spending too much time writing and feeling a bit stale, so yesterday I ended up reading and watching a DVD.

I’ll be glad to be back on my feet properly again, but that won’t be for well over another month.

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Elephant tea caddy – what’s not to like?

Anyway, enough of your whinging, I hear you cry. What on earth are you writing at the moment?

Well, as usual I’m flitting between books, and I’m almost 40,000 words into the Indian story, which has the plot and sub-plots now fully worked out, and some 25,000 words into book one of The Assassins’ Garden – the one set in Medieval Persia and Mughal India. The plot of this one needs a bit more thought, but I’m making it up as I go along, so we’ll see what happens.

I wrote a few poems in the last month, one of which I put up on a blog post.

Oh, and here’s a haiku for today. The last week or so has been unusually hot and sunny, but the forecast is that it will break sometime this morning.

Heavy summer air,

Feeling so hot and humid,

Threatening a storm.

And here it comes now!

Today? Perhaps I’ll write one or two book reviews, once I’ve finished watching the rain hammering down outside the window.

Or just read…

Indian Cookery – Ingredients

Those people who know me particularly well, may have noticed that I am partial to the occasional Indian meal.

But never more than, say, two or three times a week. Well, okay then, four. Or five. At least, not unless I’m actually in India.

I never thought that I would ever write a post on cookery, but I was thinking recently about the ingredients that have travelled to India from, especially, South and Central America since the Spanish first arrived there, and thought it might be fun to explore this a little.

The obvious ones, that have had a huge influence upon cooking in the sub-continent, are chillies, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes. I cannot imagine Indian cookery without them!

 

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Market stall in Kalimpong

Just think. There would be no Bombay aloo

No Aloo dum.

No tomato-based sauces.

No peppers!

Clearly, Indian cookery must have changed in a huge way since South America was first reached in the late fifteenth century.

So it could certainly be said that the Spanish are largely responsible for Indian cuisine as it is today!

Of course, this is also true for most other countries of the world, too. Where would European cookery be, for example, without potatoes or tomatoes?

It would be interesting to know whether either of my readers know what the staple Indian dishes (other than dal) would have been before their arrival.

I would also be interested to hear whether any part of India has retained more of the traditional ingredients and, perhaps, resisted assimilating the ‘newer’ ones. Certainly, pretty well all of the regional food that I’ve had seems to accommodate those imports.

Words

We use words all the time. There is a bottomless well of words, a huge mountain of them. There is a never-ending supply of words. Like anything else that is all around us and that we take for granted, we waste words because we see them never running out.

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We never think we have to watch them carefully, but words can teach and inform, or they can conceal and perpetuate lies.

Words can wound or words can heal.

Words can speak to people half a world away, or be whispered into someone’s ear.

Words can bring down governments and send the world to war, and words can bring people together and heal divisions.

Words can soothe troubled minds and words can reopen old wounds.

Words are powerful weapons and words are a lover’s touch.

Words are laughter and words are bitter tears.

Words are pleasure and words are torment.

Words are just…words, but…

The wise use words carefully, for they may have consequences far beyond the intention of the user.

A Poem – ‘Glamour’

Every time I post a poem I insist I don’t write many; that’s it’s not really my forte. And yet, I still write them, despite my doubts.

Although I consider myself a fiction writer, and a writer of short and long stories to be a little more precise, I love poetry. I love its conciseness, its ability to paint pictures and tell stories without telling stories. I feel it is closer to painting than other forms of creative writing.

So here is another offering, called ‘Glamour’.

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Sun-bed ravaged skin dry flaking and decaying,

Masked by layers of painted make-up.

She sets the wig straight with faltering hands,

Since the bloody thing has slid over her eyes again

For the umpteenth time!

Now takes a deep breath,

Then

Checks herself in the mirror across the room,

Turning her head painfully this way a little,

And then that…

‘Shit, I guess that’ll have to do.’

Both hands shaking, she lights a last, final, cigarette,

And,

Her lips pursed and cracking,

She expels the smoke with a wheezing sigh,

And coughs,

One eye still on her reflection.

Then leans back awkwardly against the pillows,

And turns slowly towards the nurse.

‘Do I look good?’ She rasps.

‘Yeah.’

The nurse nods.

‘You look good.’

The Best of Humanity

It is frequently said that when disaster strikes, that is when you will see the best of human nature. Generosity, bravery, selflessness – this was all on display yesterday at the dreadful fire in West London. The bravery and selflessness of the rescue services, and of many individuals caught up in the horror as it unfolded. The generosity of the entire community and beyond as they rallied around to donate food and clothing, money and shelter to the victims. All this and much more.

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But it is important to remember also that every single day countless individuals all over the world carry out countless acts of kindness, bravery and generosity that few others, if any, ever know of.

It is often tempting to look at the news and think that the human race is a barbaric, selfish, and bloodthirsty entity, and I know I am guilty of that at times, but we must never lose sight of the bigger picture. Because if there are many occasions when as a race we fall much lower than any other creature on earth, equally, there are many where we rise far higher.

Visit to Kashmir

I fell in love with Kashmir.

It was 1989, and I had come to India to have a closer look. A year before, I had flown to Delhi and the same day taken the bus to Kathmandu to go trekking in Nepal.

This meant that I had a lot of hours sitting and watching Northern India go past the windows of the bus, and this had piqued my interest and convinced me I should go and have a proper look.

So I arrived and, a couple of days later, took the bus up to Srinagar, a journey of 24 hours. In those days, I never kept a travel journal, which is something I regret now. It makes it difficult to piece together the details and leaves me, at best, with impressions and, of course, a number of photographs.

The photos, though, were taken on a cheap camera, and I did not take many.

But I had a week in Srinagar and although I did not venture far afield from there, I loved what I saw of the valley with its gardens, Lake Dal with its confusion of meandering paths through fields and grass, naturally, the houseboats on the lake and also the shakiras, the sampan-like boats used by the fishermen and the traders on the lake.

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Shakira on Lake Dal

I found a houseboat when I arrived, managing to resist ending up in a hotel in town that was being pressed on me by a fellow on the bus. I seem to remember I found my houseboat by going to the lake, hiring a shakira and asking the boatman to take me to the first of a long line of moored houseboats, where I asked if there was a room. I think at the second or third I struck lucky.

I keep trying to remember the name of my houseboat.

Occasionally, during their waking day, a dreamer will catch a glimpse, a snapshot – no, not even that; perhaps no more than a hint, a flavour of a previous night’s dream. Something akin to catching a scent on the breeze that is gone before it is even realised that it was there. That is the best way I can describe the teasing hint I may get of the name of that boat. I think ‘Ah, yes, it began with ‘S’…no, wait, it didn’t, but there was definitely an ‘S’ in it somewhere. Perhaps…’ then it has gone.

But it was my own floating palace for a week. A marvel of beautifully carved wood, a magnificent bedroom and living room all to myself, and a fellow who lived on board (not the owner, I gathered) who cooked my meals. When I wasn’t ashore exploring, I sat on the deck and read.

I remember the Shalimar Gardens, and that there were at least one or two more; masses of flowers, large lawns, trees…I wandered around there with the high mountains towering above us.

And, there was the beginning of the agitation. At that point, I knew next to nothing of India’s history or politics, and although I could detect the tensions, I was unaware of what they comprised. Once or twice, there were isolated gunshots in the distance, especially at night. ‘Bandits’, said my fellow on board, rather too casually. I came across a mass demonstration outside a mosque in town, with either the police or the army, I’ve no idea which, a very heavy presence. There was a lot of shouting, and the atmosphere was hostile enough for me to make myself scarce fairly quickly.

But I personally encountered nothing but politeness and good humour, and other than the underlying tensions, despite getting ripped off now and again in shops (it was Kashmir, and I was a tourist!), I felt comfortable and happy there. When I left the valley to return to Delhi and thence further afield, it was with the thought I would return again one day.

Regrettably, though, each time I have returned, it has not been considered a safe destination.

Perhaps, though…perhaps…one day…

The Kashmir Issue

I posted a little while back that I had prepared a rather contentious post.

This is it.

Of course, I realise I risk being shot down in flames over this post. An Englishman blogging on what he thinks might be the solution to an incredibly difficult problem in the Sub-continent. So I will put on my tin hat, duck behind the sandbags, and press ‘Publish’.

As always, I welcome your comments. In fact, it is probably pointless my posting this unless there is a conversation. But, please, keep it polite.

Obviously, I am not the only person to have thought of this idea. Indeed, I read about it a long time ago, when these various options were being discussed to the backdrop of bombs and bullets.

Plus ca change.

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I fear there is only one solution that is practical in the long term, but I strongly doubt that the governments of India or Pakistan would have the courage to implement it. For the whole of Kashmir to remain in Indian hands will mean a continuation of the devastating armed conflict in progress at present, with no prospect of it ever ending, plus the ever-present prospect of it escalating into something much more serious. But for it to pass entirely into Pakistani hands would be considered out of the question by the huge majority of the Indian population, and certainly by the whole of the political class.

No, the only prospect of peace that I see is for the state of Kashmir to be partitioned in much the same way as India herself was in 1947. The areas of Muslim majority such as the Vale of Kashmir would need to be ceded to Pakistan, and the remaining ones would remain part of India. Pakistan and the insurgents would need to agree to give up all claims to these areas. This would need to be achieved by negotiation in good faith with goodwill on both sides, both conscious of the risks and the monumental steps they are taking to finally establish permanent peace, and to restore prosperity to a troubled part of the sub-continent. And upon resolution, all parties would need to declare very publicly that this was a solution agreeable to all, and give it their blessing.

It is not as though there is no precedent to that arrangement. After all, both the Punjab and Bengal were divided this way at independence, and although it was strongly resented by some, it was also generally viewed as the only practical solution. And it is what should have happened to Kashmir, then.

If the difficulties in the way of this solution are huge, then so too are the incentives for success. It goes without saying that the loss of life and the devastation caused by the troubles are highly undesirable in the first place, and then there is the massive drain in resources to both sides by keeping huge forces established on either side of the border. With the prospect of peace, then agriculture, industry and tourism could return to normal with major benefits for everyone involved. Lastly, with the removal of the ‘Kashmir Issue’ as a friction between them, it is possible that both sides might finally come to the sort of mutual respect, collaboration, and friendship envisioned back in 1947. Even if the attempt were to end in failure, then the goodwill generated by the attempt could be a positive that might spill over into other areas of India / Pakistan relations.

The alternative solution, sometimes mooted, of an independent Kashmir under UN jurisdiction, appears an unworkable ideal. The state itself is too divided for this to work, and both Indian and Pakistani players would still covert the whole country. It is unlikely that conflict would cease under these conditions; it would be more likely to simply escalate. The small state would forever be reliant on the UN for security, leading to a constant financial drain on the organisation. The peacekeepers, too, would inevitably become military targets raising the risk of  new frictions arising.

I believe that the option of doing nothing is one that must be finally put aside. At present the situation is one where a resented and hated military presence governs within its own borders through fear and the threat of violence, That is not a situation that is likely to ever change to trust. The population are never going to learn to love their rulers that way. The only option in that situation is the eternal continuation of the status quo.

But it lies within the power of the regional players to solve this crisis once and for all, and it is essential that the attempt is made.