“The next morning, standing in the doorway to see me off on my way to the north of Punjab, to the capital, Islamabad, the Begum strained with both hands to raise a heavy old leather-bound Koran under which I ducked to receive divine protection. She resembled a classical figure holding up a torch so that I might see the good in her country.”
Two great matriarchs loom over this memoir which flies over Pakistan like a magical flying carpet: Isambard Wilkinson’s grandmother, and her friend, Sajida Ali Khan a.k.a. the Begum, from Lahore in the Punjab. As a small boy visiting the Irish family home that is suffused with a “heady, dusty fragrance” and chock-full of Anglo-Indian mementoes dating back to the 19th century, a warm and intoxicating vision of another world offered an antidote to the cold austerity of boarding school. His first actual visit to Pakistan was with his grandmother in 1990, to attend a wedding of one of the Begum’s children; and then in 2006 as foreign correspondent. His desire to explore the country and live there eventually was cut short by kidney failure, dialysis and successful surgery when his brother gave him a kidney. Travels in a Dervish Cloak has been seven years in the making. Continue reading Review | Travels in a Dervish Cloak, Isambard Wilkinson | Book of the Week
Where were you born?
Southsea, which conjured exotic images of Pacific islands in my young mind. Then I discovered it was part of Portsmouth. I was born there because my father was in the navy.
Where did you grow up?
After my birth, my father went off to sea to the Antarctic and my mother took me and my elder brother to our grandmother in rural Ireland. I went to boarding school in the UK at the age of seven ‘til 18. Ireland was our one constant for many years, as well as my parents’ Edwardian-bohemian home on the seafront in Deal, Kent, then an old smugglers town with a raffish air.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
My parents read lots and widely, from biography and history to novels of all stripes. My father’s favourite book is Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and my mother loved Nancy Mitford. There were also plenty of humorous books, including P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Continue reading Interview | Isambard Wilkinson | Author of the Week
Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
Absolutely, both of them. My parents hoarded books, and they read to us every night as kids. My mother is a voracious reader of novels (although she never allows herself enough time to read them). My dad came from that great working-class tradition of self-betterment, investing in his own education throughout his life. He stock-piled political and historical texts, was a huge fan of EP Thomson and Eric Hobsbawm in particular, and loved Strachey’s Eminent Victorians so much he named one of my brothers ‘Lytton’. He left behind a library of books about Nasser and Middle East history that none of really know what to do with. Dad was more of a history and non-fiction reader, Mum more fiction. There were some writers they both agreed on though: Lawrence, Hardy, Orwell.
Also, I have to say, in the context of our new release Protest, that this book is effectively my ‘thank you’ to my parents for the extraordinary political education I got from them. I was privileged to grow up in the eye of a whole cluster of political storms. As kids we stood on pickets lines outside coalfields in North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire, took day trips to Greenham, were greatly involved in the 1984 Chesterfield by-election that returned Tony Benn to parliament, marched with the country-long anti-Apartheid march that culminated in the two Free South Africa concerts; and saw a newly freed Mandela address the world at second of these. We were beyond lucky.
As well as being a thank you to them, this book is also a potted journey of protests that Mum, Dad and two grandfathers I never knew were involved in, as well as much earlier ones that I heard mentioned in hushed reverence. Mum and Dad got to know each other on an Aldermaston march; both were linked with the Hornsey sit-in, both were at the anti-Vietnam demo in Grosvenor Square, 1968 – where Dad was wrongly arrested and defended himself in court. My grandfather also marched with Jarrow marchers as they entered London in 1936, and fought against the blackshirts on Cable Street the same year. That’s the thing about this book, it’s not just me, scratch the surface and everybody has a connection to not one, but multitudes of these stories – because it’s our history, not theirs. To quote my friend, Dinesh Allirajah: “It’s political, but it’s always been personal.”
Continue reading Interview | Ra Page, Comma Press | Indie Publisher of the Week