I was recently interviewed by the writer, Vujica Ognjenović, for a magazine in Montenegro and thought I would share his insightful questions.
1. Your parents are Scots. You were born, raised and finished your studies in Scotland, so I will ask you, at the beginning of this conversation: are Scots really too stingy, or are they just reasonable savers? I hope you are not angry that I am asking you this because in many countries of the world, there are anecdotes about Scots as misers?
Ha! I won’t take offence at the question but I have no idea how Scots got such an unfair label. My family come from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and the Gaelic-Celtic culture of that region is famed for its hospitality and generosity. The Highland code demanded that strangers and travellers – even from rival clans – must be given shelter and food. Stories of clan feasting were legendary! I can only assume the prejudice against Scots grew from the fact that in bygone days Scotland was a relatively poor country and so had to be careful with its resources. But close-knit communities would look after each other and help each other out in the bad times. There is an old Scottish saying, ‘mean as a key’. This meant that no one should lock their doors and that all were welcome into each other’s homes.
2. At the age of 18, you traveled to the “end of the world”, to the wonderful land of Nepal. Why? What did you expect from that trip?
My overland trip was inspired by my maternal grandparents who had lived and worked in India from the 1920s until retirement back to Scotland in the 1950s. My mother had lived there as a girl and I was brought up on stories about tigers and trekking in the Himalayas. I wanted to travel East before I went to university and see some of the amazing countries on the way. But I also wanted to experience some of the places in India (and now Pakistan) where my family had lived. When they were there, it was very difficult to get into Nepal but with my grandfather being a forester, they did some very remote treks into the Himalayas as far as Tibet. My mother as a baby was taken on these treks and carried in her pram on poles!
I have always had a fascination for other cultures, and I hoped to learn more about the countries and people along the overland route. I was also inspired by a book that I’d studied at school: Passage to India by E.M. Forster. It made me think about the diversity of cultures within India itself. When I returned from my trip, I went to Edinburgh University to study Social Anthropology.
3. Kathmandu, the capital of that distant land, located at the confluence of the Baghmati River and the Bishanmati River, is a famous cultural and Buddhist pilgrimage center. How did you experience that city where many traditional rituals are preserved?
You have to remember that this was the 1970s and, in those days, Kathamandu was the end of the hippy trail! It was a fascinating place, full of beautiful temples and stupas – with monkeys running across their rooftops – and medieval buildings with intricately carved windows and doors, and narrow streets which we explored by bicycle. But it was also a haven for overland travellers from the West, living cheaply in backpacker hostels, enjoying the food and the laid-back lifestyle. To cater for the European travellers, there were small cafes selling pancakes, apple pies and huge delicious cakes!
Our bus arrived there at Christmas time and so most of the group stayed together for the celebrations, even though it was the end of the trip. On Christmas Day, I remember vividly, going out at dusk in the crisp mountain air, when all the lights were coming on in the open-fronted wayside stalls, the moon and evening star were rising and mist was settling on the hills around. Then suddenly, in the crowded street, a small band went past playing drums, pipes and bells. They looked like shepherds in their homespun blankets and they disappeared into the half-dark and their lovely rhythmic music faded away. I felt as if I’d seen the Biblical shepherds from the Christmas story!
4. How inspiring was that city for you? Was your mysterious novel, “Vanishing of Ruth” the result of that journey?
I adored Kathmandu and the surrounding countryside. It may be a cliché to say how friendly people were, but it’s true. It was the people as well as the fascinating city and the breath-taking mountain views that made it so special. It saddens me that so much of it has apparently been destroyed by earthquakes in more recent times.
‘The Vanishing of Ruth’ was definitely inspired by my journey overland, though it was over thirty years later when I finally decided how I would turn it into fiction. I thought that the themes of travel, escape and self-discovery lent themselves to a mystery novel. So the novel has flashbacks to the same year (1976) that I travelled overland and much of the background is true to my own journey – though no one disappeared on my bus as they do in the novel! Kathmandu features in the novel too, and some of the pivotal scenes take place in Nepal.
I was also lucky enough to travel through your beautiful country of Montenegro during my bus trip. We camped by the Kotor Fjord and swam under the stars, visited Kotor, drove up the hairpin bends and through some spectacular wooded gorges. In those days, the towns we passed through were called Titograd and Ivangrad.
5. In the book “In the Far Pashmina Mountains” you told an epic tale of a woman’s bravery and endurance in nineteenth century British tropical India, and remote Afghanistan. What was the reason for writing this interesting and very unusual story?
Again, there is a family story at the heart of why I looked at this early stage of Britain’s connections with India! One of my MacLeod ancestors signed up as a soldier of the East India Company army in the 18th century, because of the lack of opportunities for young men in the Scottish Highlands. Life was tough and brutal but fortunes could be made. Donald, my ancestor, was wounded in battle and put on a ship home but he died before reaching Scotland again. ‘In the Far Pashmina Mountains’ (although set a few years later) depicts this crucial time in British and Indian history when the commercial interests of the British East India Company were turning into the political ambitions of Empire.
There was also a growing rivalry with Russia and so the independent country of Afghanistan became a political ‘football’ between the two imperial powers. There were those who thought that the Afghans should be treated as allies and friends and the more aggressive imperialists who wanted to invade the country and extend British power. What interested me was the women and civilians who were caught up in the struggle and how they coped in what became a notorious retreat from Kabul. That is why I wrote about a brave, independent woman as my central character.
6. Is there any particular reason why you have placed the plot of this book, for the most part, in the steep mountains of Far Pashmina?
My hero, John Sinclair, is a Scottish Highlander and adapts well to the rigours of life in the Himalayas and mountains of Afghanistan where a lot of the book is set. I wanted to draw parallels between his life in Scotland and that of the Afghans and their warrior culture – the common hardships, prowess in battle, generous hospitality and pride in their clans. This is set against the arrogance of imperialism which seeks to dominate rather than understand people. I was also interested in portraying civilian life in the early Indian hill resort of Simla in the foothills of the Himalayas. It began as a place for the British soldiers to recuperate from the heat and disease of the plains in summer and grew into the most desirable hill town where government departments would go for the summer months and the Europeans enjoyed riding, sports, picnics and entertainment. In the 1920s my grandfather was stationed there as a forester and it was from Simla that he and my grandmother would set out for treks into the mountains and go ‘into’ camp for months at a time, to organise planting and harvesting of the trees. I visited Simla (now called Shimla) a few years ago and discovered one of the boarding houses where my grandparents and my mother had stayed – a thrilling moment as it still looked much the same as it would have in the 1920s. After that, I researched Simla’s history and that led to it being a part of the novel, ‘In The Far Pashmina Mountains’.
This is part one of the interview – I’ll post the second half later this week.
[Last sunrise in Kathmandu – goodbye to last of the Swaggie friends and final breakfast at KC’s before Nikki and I flew away from the snow-clad Himalayas. Chrispin waved us off – he was heading off to do more travelling around India, so I took his large suitcase home and leant him my backpack and sleeping bag not thinking I would have need of them again for a while … bad call as it turned out!]
THURSDAY 30TH DECEMBER, 1976 – Part One
“Up very early because Heidi leaving at 6. As she went I could lie and see the sunrise out of the door. Lovely winter morning – dark clouds with orange-pink light seeping into sky behind. Hils dark behind and trees in foreground full of the noise of birds. Streets quiet for once but dogs already beginning to stir in hotel courtyard (big black one and little black puppy that looks like a baby bear and plays with my tatty jeans!)
Waved off Heidi, Pam and Mark – fresh cool air of early morning. Met Chris and Nikki and went for breakfast at KC’s – he was still asleep on the chairs! OK and KC helped get us breakfast – fried eggs, toast and lovely milky KC coffee. Back to hotel after KC wished us happy journey – amused when I said I’d see him in Scotland. He has a saying that: Chinese food is best food, Japanese women best women, Nepalese dope best dope and Scotch whisky best whisky!
Taxi waiting for us. Frances saw us off – Adrian still sick in bed. Went to airport via narrow lanes – last glimpse of narrow streets inhabited by cows and dogs. Our into fields then airport. Chris organised us into right queues etc trying to cheer Nikki up. Customs nosed around in cases – opened my souvenirs. Body search – girl helped herself to coconuts and Nikki’s cigs! Walked out to small Nepalese plane – Chris waving us off from terrace. From plane, Nikki noticed that he lit up cigarette (she was always trying to control his consumption). Waved us off even when in the air.
Circled over Kathmandu – saw terraced brown fields and houses for last time growing more distant – picked out the Boudhnath Stupa. Great white range behind us, slightly clouded; then left Kathmandu Valley and on into smaller range of hills with roads winding through them.”
[The Thamel quarter of Kathmandu had become home and I was already growing nostalgic at the thought of leaving the place. But the group were melting away and it was almost time for Nikki and I to make our way to Delhi to find the elusive return tickets. One more day of cycling the backstreets of the city, mooching around Freak Street, drinking endless milky coffees – and of course a visit to KC’s.
WEDNESDAY 29TH DECEMBER, 1976
“Di up really early – bus at 6.15. Said a sleepy goodbye! Said a second sleepy goodbye to Shirley a little later. Morning – breakfast with Heidi at Shangri la – talked of education and interpreters! Hired bicycles with Chris and Nikki and went to Yeti Travels – tickets to Delhi confirmed! Signed away most of travellers’ cheques! Gave us sweet tea. Chris’s money come through too, so he treated us to coffee at the Ra Ra Restaurant!
Back on bikes – really good fun. Lunch at Kathmandu Guest House with Heidi – had savoury pancake rolls. Later set off on bikes again down narrow lanes – hair-raising ride avoiding cows, people, vehicles, gutters, porters with swinging poles of earth, dogs and babies! No one gets out of the way – though we soon got the idea of ringing bells continuously! No wonder Nepalese are addicted to bells and horns!
Went to Aunt Jane’s (parallel with Freak Street) for their lunch. Very small restaurant upstairs – very famous – perhaps first of the ‘trendy’ places to go. In Freak Street plagued as usual by boys with Tibetan books and people offering hash.
On way to Yeti Travels again, nearly got knocked over at roundabout – one of many near collisions! Great fun though.
Had coffee and apple crumble at KC’s for last time – sob! sob!After dark spent last of rupies on little presents eg Nepalese hats – shops are lovely at this time because still bustling with sounds and life and welcoming lights. Know this narrow crossroads so well – on first night the bus got stuck there – quite nostalgic about leaving.”
[This amazing day which started with a burning sunrise in the Himalayan foothills and a packed trolley ride with dead chickens and excited kids on their way to the King’s Birthday celebrations, continued in Kathmandu. Its happy crowds, banners, noisy bands and side stalls reminded me of the annual Durham Miners’ Gala – and it all took my mind off those blistered feet. What better way to finish the national holiday than with a meal at KC’s?!
Heidi, Sally, KC and Di at KC’s on King’s birthday (King and Queen in background!)
TUESDAY 28TH DECEMBER, 1976 – Part Three
“We finally disgorged back in Kathmandu! Town by post office was almost deserted; no rickshaws to be seen. So walked into centre – great crowds on public park and lining the streets – people selling chunks of fruit on pavements. Processions of people, especially kids parading round field and then up New Street to Durbar Square. We we couldn’t get through until finished so wandered up New Street.
Like Miners’ Gala Day [in Durham] – people pouring in and the sound of bands. These bands consisted of small drums, cymbals, pipes and flutes and strange singing. Lots of schools in uniform marched with banners – a few managed to swing arms in time, while some cocky lads followed and mimicked. Other groups of Nepalese carried biers with greenery all over – couldn’t see what sat underneath.
We rested blistered feet (me, Nikki and Chris) in Paras Hotel, by Nepal Bank, and had omelettes for lunch. When emerged again, streets breaking up – went back via back streets to hotel. Heidi and Di packing for Pokhara. Finished rum.
After shower, went to KC’s for their final meal. Had lovely tomato soup and hamburger steak with salad and roti (ie potato). Followed by night life! (rum and lemon) KC in good form – bought me night life; offered me and Nikki job driving a hamburger stall! Full of new ideas and plans for saunas, bakery etc. Fred and Jan came in – Fred still not well enough for him to go trekking.”
[This turned out to be a mega day – it started with a spectacular sunrise over the Himalayas and then dropping down into the Kathmandu Valley we found ourselves swept along in celebrations for the King’s Birthday. My battered overlander’s shoes were not keeping pace – I was picking up blisters as well as cheerful children along the way.]
TUESDAY 28TH DECEMBER, 1976 – Part Two
“Lovely walk down – soon became warmer. Little lad pointed out jungle to left. Another kid joined us waving a palm type leaf, dressed only in grubby shirt – asked my friend if this was a friend of his and he said no firmly! His school began at 11 but he’d set off down because his school was going into Kathmandu for the King’s Birthday.
At village we saw 2 truck loads of screaming kids set off shouting, “Hello, bye-bye, Kathmandu! Kathmandu!” Truck over-brimming with them!
Walked to Bhaktapur because minibus not there – it passed us just as we entered town! My feet and Nikki’s wereblistered from loose shoes coming down hill, so hobbled painfully to nearest cay shop! (They make it with boiled milk and water in the same pan like Indians).
Through Bhaktapur – passed dead animals, potter spinning big stone wheel with a long stick. Bought little cake things.
Caught trolley bus – whole of Nepal seemed to dash for door as soon as opened – nearly trampled in the rush! Then there was loads of time before it left and everyone had a place so it was futile to begin with! Don’t think there’s a word ‘queue’ in Nepalese! Imagine the indignant looks and tutting that would receive such enthusiasm in ‘respectable’ Britain!
As bus progressed more and more piled on until it was almost impossible to ever get off! Chris was complaining about rubbing shoulders with a frenchman and bottoms with a Nepalese! He and Mark were swinging from the bars. Pam was worried about the kid next to her with a plaster on his face in case he had chicken pox and also about the dead chicken in his mother’s string bag!
(A mother was feeding her baby on the bus even after the baby had fallen asleep!)”
[Word came through that return tickets for Nikki and I were waiting at Post Restante in Delhi – this was the pre-electronic quaint old days of handwritten letters and cryptic telegrams where mail was sent to post offices in large cities to await collection. So the next step in finding the elusive tickets was to arrange to back-track to Delhi …]
SUNDAY 26TH DECEMBER, 1976
“Slept in! Got up and went with Nikki to book tickets for Delhi. Yeti Travels confirmed flight to Patna but not Delhi – our usual luck. Back to hotel – Di still sleeping; Heidi got touch of flu but wandering up and down corridor! Went and joined Sally and Adrian in Shangri la for pancake.
Then went into Yeti Travels again to check mail – got letter that should have received on 23rd – from family in Malvern – various rude messages tacked on end of Mum’s letter! [from brother Torquil] Met Rob there – he gave me lift back to hotel on back of bicycle – hair-raising experience! Dodging cows, rickshaws, roundabouts – nearly thrown into gutter but didn’t come off once!
Met Sally on roof (superb view over Kathmandu and surrounding hills, could see Swayambuth easily). Went and gave jackets to little man to put dragon on.
Had drinks in Anders’s room with Heidi, Bill, Shirley, an American couple en passant (French interjection!) Then Di, me and Sally went and ate at Shangri la – buff steak and chips, then coffee at KC’s – met Hans and Chris. Then went for drinks in Gary and Beryl’s room (Canadian couple that met us all over Xmas and live near Bill and Shirl in Vancouver).
Great evening – packed at first – Chris and Nikki (went early because Chris got dizzy spell), Rob, Maree, Diane, Mark and Pam, Hans, Chris, Di, Sally, me, Anders, Heidi (left then came back!). Had great chat with Little Chris about Skye – he climbs in Cullins – very keen – made me feel close to home. Listened to tapes, then Gary and Rob started playing guitar – Rob played blues and Gary played bongo drum; then Gary played folk songs and lovely Philipino song. Shirley came in because couldn’t sleep. Then got complaint about foot stomping from bloke below! Beryl broke party up at 2.30 because of noise. Said goodbye to Di, Rob and Maree.”
[Christmas in Kathmandu: at the start of the trip I hadn’t expected to still be there for the 25th – a return plane ticket should have been waiting from Asian Greyhound. But it was a very happy day with all the right ingredients: good food, drink and lots of friends with which to share it – and a dusk walk with a magical moment when musicians came out of the dark like a group of Biblical shepherds playing their pipes.]
SATURDAY 25TH DECEMBER, 1976
“Christmas! When woke, Di gave me and Heidi a little Xmas stocking filled with nuts, sweets, bics and tangerines! Got up leisurely and had breakfast with Sally and Anders, Heidi and Di at about 11.30! Sally and Fran gave me a little bead choker and card. Had porridge at KC’s – all a bit chaotic from the night before – some suffering!
Nipped down to corner shop and bought vodka, spicy nuts and sweets for Di and Heidi and peanut butter for Sally and Fran. Back to hotel for cocktails in Chris and Nikki’s room again! Went on till about 3.30! Great atmosphere – chatted with guy off Contikee – trip where bus rolled – didn’t get on together etc – not like Swaggies!
Went for lunch with Di and Heidi – had gorgeous mushroom and chicken roll at Shangri la served by sweet grinning waiter! Went for evening stroll with Di round streets – lovely dusk with moon and evening star and mist settling on hills around. Passed a little band playing drums and pipes and bells – lovely rhythmic beating in the half dark. Streets busy still (passed shop stacked with coloured glass bangles). Di still not better.
Met Sally and Heidi in KC’s cake shop and Heidi treated us to piece of pie and coffee.
Had a drinks party in our room with selection of spirits and nuts – Bill, Shirley, Sally, Fran, Adrian, Anders all came. They all went off to KC’s and I went down to ‘Cafe de Star’ where Rob and Maree prepared a fabulous dinner – we stood around having “Crispin’s aperitif” ie country liquor, water and orange, until meal served. All sat in far room at long table – Rob, Maree, Geoff, Jan (Fred ill) me, Diane, Mike, Hans, Ian, Chris, Nikki, Mark and Pam. Really super evening – all stuffed ourselves with turkey, chicken, carrots in butter, peas, cauliflower, stuffing and roast pots, follwed by Xmas pud and white sauce, presented with flaming Cleopatra whisky on top!
By the time it came to KC’s cake we were all so painfully ill that we sat there just looking at it! No one moved for hours because couldn’t face going up steps – Geoff and Jan had to stagger back with Fred’s grub. All gave Geoff his Xmas pressy – woolly waistcoat, pen, biro. Had my bottle of Muscadet wine from Channel crossing! (And hotel made us a punch). Everyone in good mood, cracking jokes etc.
Mike said farewell because off early – so I said, “Ceylon Mike!” Eventually all lights in other part went off and waiters went to sleep on floor – so we finally broke up and crept upstairs to bed with pieces of cake!”
“Xmas Eve! Di not well. Went into town early and sent telegram home, “Happy Christmas – love you all. Alcoholica”! Met up with Mark and Pam – wandered back – Mark bargained for our postcards – any excuse for an argument! Walked through backstreets – cows, dark shops, rickshaws, kids with pockmarks – Pam worried in case gets chickenpox. Met Rob and Maree eating rock hard gooey things – Mark said looked like cow pats!
Went in later to collect suits – Di went back because sick. Yeti Travels, then expensive tea at Ra Ra Restaurant – not good.
Had bread and cheese and curd in room – Di in bed; Heidi egg nogging! Then went to rum punch party in Chris and Nikki’s room. Really good fun – lots of people there, great drink. Rude comments about my green suit – “come in your pyjamas” etc. Sang Christmas carols then decided to sing outside KC’s – so we all grouped at the door and sang away – difficulty in remembering words, but appreciated by diners at KC’s Xmas Eve party. Sally knocked down some of new kitchen wall! KC very tolerant with us. Some of us sneaked in and listened to guitarists and drank Night Lifes, while others went on to sing elsewhere.
Tried to organise going to midnight mass but didn’t know where place was – Mike had already set off walking, had said I’d go too. Joined others in cake shop – KC lit cake with brandy on – all had some – kept pouring rum into my coffee – no one paid for anything! All very merry. Went round kissing everyone merry Xmas. Back to restaurant – funny little urchins grabbing onto us out of the dark. Locked us into restaurant, so Nikki rushed back for Chris and others! Pushed back tables and had a disco – really great bop. Finished about 3 o’clock! Got Xmas kiss from KC!”
[Sunbathing, shopping, eating out … No, this is not the Riviera; it’s the life of the Overlander in Kathmandu!] THURSDAY 23RD DECEMBER,1976
“Sunbathed on terrace – lovely hot sun but awful flies – felt virtuous because wrote letter and cards! Lay in sun for awhile – really hot – Little Chris had tent out (on concrete) – people made cracks about hard ground for pegs etc).
Went out later with Sally and Di to get embroidery put on skirt and jeans by this little man in tiny workshop in one of lanes between here and Durbar Square. Then hunted round Freak Street for Nepali suits (baggy trousers and wrapover tops) and had some made up at little tailor’s.
Went to Utze’s again for another good meal – little boy with black fez works really hard there.”