This book was highly recommended and selected by Straits Times Journalist Cheong Suk Wai for The Big Read in March 2017- a monthly library book club for non-fictions. Gill died in December 2016. At the Big Read, I learned that he was dyslexic, which sharpened his senses; a drinking and drug addiction problem, which deepened his compassion. He had cleaned drains, washed dishes, waited tables and tended garden before becoming a top-paid columnist.
This is the best collection of journalism I have ever read. His prose is precise, beautifully, metaphoric and deeply moving. (‘…the road that began broad gently narrows until the jungle crowds in, tapping the windows, dousing the light.’ or The air holds its breath and hangs like a hot hand towel waiting for the imminent monsoon.’) It took me a month to finish the book as I had to consult the dictionary apps on my phone every few paragraphs, which I then got distracted by social media, Words with Friends and emails. Example: for peregrine and kestrel for falcon, and zopilotes for vultures. Thank goodness, once he is fond of a word, he used it many times in different essays – insouciance, detritus, vertiginous.
The book is divided into three sections, and first section Lines In the Sand is a collection of eight essays he wrote on refugees – Syrians, Congo, Rohingyas among them. The title is probably taken from a line in the passage on chapter Lebanon – ‘The old colonial Sykes-Picot lines drawn in the hot sand by cold men will be blown away.’ – where he predicts the collapse of the region in the middle east with the US supporting Assad of Iran. (January 2015) The refugees’ stories are despairing to read, wherever they are located. ‘There is a terrible, bland sameness of depair.’ (Syrians in Jordon.) ‘Gaping, salted grief washes over the room.’ (Refugees from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in Mexico.) Reading about these refugees is depressing. It’s no wonder Cheong spent the whole hour at the meeting talking about what we can do and neglected to mention the rest of the books. It’s difficult to fathom how a human can be so evil to another, and admire the resilience of those living in overcrowded camps with no sanitation for decades, with no future in sight.
The second part of the book is Out There – where he writes about travel and it was where I first started reading, on the chapter of Bhutan, which I shall visit in June. I shall summarize some chapters in this section with a quote:
Camping in The Forest of Dean – The point is to cram as much of the convenience of home into the outdoors as possible.
Hong Kong – It hangs like a silk-worm cocooned between the empire and the People’s Republic.
Botswana – Trees wave their branches like drowning men in impromptu lakes.
India – Bombay is the most sophisticated chaos.
Bhutan – Everest shines against the pale breath of the sky, oddly familiar among all the other cool fangs, like spotting a celebrity in a queue.
The Mekong – The river runs on blameless, bearing everything, washing everything.
On the girls in Humberside – Tattoos dodge down spines, across builders’ buttocks, and slide off cleavages.
Dhaka – …famous for mosques and thin cotton. That’s Muslims and muslins.
Colombia – Bogota is a city that feels like it’s letting out a long sigh of relief, that’s remembering old dance steps to half-forgotten tunes.
Kangaroo Island – The kangaroos on the island had never seen humans before, so hopped naively into the pot.
Trains – Before the railway, no one had ever traveled faster than a horse could gallop, if you don’t count those who fell off cliffs.
Trump University – taught the thing that people who never went to university think universities should teach: how to make money, and how to make money when you have no money. The way rich people make money.
In the last section, titled In Here, he delves into various topics like the history of tweed, visiting a fur factory, biographies, and finally, his personal essays on Life at Sixty and his health crisis – cancer.
I really enjoyed reading Life at Sixty – his feeling, sex (no sex), his generation, experiences – ‘The continuous heartbeat rhythm that tells you your experiences are now rationed.’ Somehow, this sentence makes me cherish every new experience even more, like attempting arm balancing and singing impromptu at a public heartland karaoke – both of which I did today. It’s not exactly worthy of bucket list inclusion, but these little snippets to show off in social media make interesting moments – embarrassing yet humourous, and I need more of these.
If you have yet to read a non-fiction book this year, make this book the one. Especially if you are a writer wannabe like me.