The curious case of the Sherlock pilgrims

Written for Prospect Magazine:


I have just arrived. I am standing in the square in the small Swiss valley town of Meiringen. On all sides, fir trees and high alpine meadows give way to cragged grey faces of rock that are veined in ice. Here and there louring clouds snag the serrated peaks.

“What’s going on?” I ask the Swiss woman next to me.

“I think they’re starting,” she replies, confidentially.

“Starting what?”

But now a brass band embarks upon some deafening mountain lament and nothing further can be heard.

I fall back upon my powers of observation and deduction. A rotund cardinal comports himself across the cobbles in full scarlet regalia to converse with a man who appears to be some kind of itinerant manure shoveller. A chubby boy in the guise of a 19th century mountain guide sits on a sedan chair with his accordion; from time to time and for no reason, he pops on a false beard, then pops it off again, the elastic cutting into his cheeks. A sly, fastidious man is half-introduced. His name is Snork, he says, or Stark or Hark or Bark or Snark—it’s impossible to hear him until the music stops; at which moment, I catch only the end of his sentence “… and so this is where they invented meringue.’”

“My name is Peter Steiler,” shouts an elderly Swiss man in a lemon-coloured bowler hat. “I am a very intelligent man.’”




Weather Anxiety

Written For Prospect Magazine:


I was powering along the French autoroute in my truly awful car wishing I had gone into mining precious metals or something when my travelling companion piped up from the passenger seat: “Why are you driving so fast?”

It was a good question. We were heading to a small town called Beaune. There was no rush. We weren’t late. We hadn’t even booked anywhere to stay. Nobody was expecting us. The world was even more indifferent to our progress than usual.

“I don’t know,” I replied, backing off a little.

“At least it’s not raining anymore.”

“That’s it,” I said, turning to her. “That’s it.”

“What’s what?” she frowned. “Keep your eyes on the road, you idiot.”


Orta: the Italian lake tourists haven’t discovered

For the Guardian

There is a code of silence that surrounds Lake Orta in northern Italy. Visitors are reluctant to tell others about its beauty for fear of increasing … well, the number of visitors. Indeed, it is astonishing how few people – even Italians – know about the place, and it is telling that the Milanese call it La Cenerentola (Cinderella) because they have long considered it the secretly superior sibling to the larger, money-blighted lakes of Como and Maggiore. But, for me, what sets Orta apart is not its beauty – though the place is absurdly pretty – but the lake’s mysterious, ethereal, almost supernatural quality. There is something for the soul there as well as for the eye.

This is thanks in part to the architecture, in part to the enchanting island in its centre (of which more below), but most of all to the intimate drama of its setting: the way mountains, weather and light are forever in counterpoint to the water itself. Sometimes a preternatural stillness seems to rise from the deep. Sometimes fogs wreathe the surface, shrouding the island and the opposite shore. Sometimes the snow falls silent and heavy as if the sky has sunk never to lift again. Sometimes the fierce sun burns for days as if no other climate were even possible. And sometimes the föhn wind thrashes the lake into fury.

The light changes by the hour. Look out in the morning and there’s a medieval mist; by noon, the lake is as clear as the Enlightenment; then, by five, a brooding romanticism has descended. You never want to leave.

My association with the place began over a decade ago when a member of my extended family discovered Orta San Giulio, the lake’s principal town, and promptly withdrew the offer he had made on a London place to buy an apartment there. For the next few years, as he renovated the place, it was my good fortune to spend weeks at a time there working on my second novel and taking delivery of ovens, logs, taps and so on. In summer when the lake glistened silver-blue, I sat in the garden and worked in the shade. In winter I watched storms coming down the valley and turning the water the colour of slate.

The lake has always been popular with writers.

Among the Russians: Giving the Tolstoy Lecture at Yasnaya Polyana


Visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Edward Docx met writers who live gloriously and furiously—and took a beating on behalf of the former head of MI5


Written for Prospect Magazine:


We are walking through birch trees that quaver and drip with a steady but refreshing rain. We are on our way to Yasnaya Polyana, the country house of Leo Tolstoy. I am with two fellow writers: Evgeny Vodolazkin and Igor Malyshev. The path is muddy here and there and sometimes we go in single file.

“Perhaps it’s because Tolstoy doesn’t have a sense of humour—or not a very good one,” says Evgeny from the back.

“Or maybe it’s because with Dostoyevsky something is always moving,” says Igor, up front.

“Yes, it’s more dynamic,” I venture, “but maybe that’s because there’s more at stake. Unlike Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky has a preoccupation with how to eat as well as how to live.”

“Yes, Dostoyevsky was… what is the English?” Igor asks.

“Skint,” I say.

This is a more than usually germane point since the Tolstoy estate (which remains in that family) stretches away in all directions around us: heavily wooded and undulating with scattered, scruffy villages and sudden long-grassed fields that put me in mind of those scenes in Anna Karenina when Levin goes out scything with his serfs and resolves to eschew all human falsity in favour of a sweat-drenched agrarian redemption.

Lost in Translation


Novelist Edward Docx had to know what it feels like to be lost—truly lost—in the Amazon. So he went to Brazil and hired some men to leave him in the jungle. Written for Prospect Magazine:


Our troubles began with the translator. Undeniably, José was a well-meaning man with a great many characteristics that the guide, Abi, and I both admired. It was a matter of regret to all concerned, therefore, that proficiency in Portuguese or English turned out not to be among them. A native Spanish speaker, he had arrived on the busy quay in Manaus accompanied by numerous madrigals of endorsement from the various agents, boatmen and interested parties involved in our little expedition. Indeed, so exceptionally fluent had he seemed in his acknowledgement of his own abilities that it had also appeared certain that they must extend far beyond the scope of the mere three advertised languages. But now here we were—standing deep in the Amazon jungle and, if anything, his linguistic facility seemed to be receding.

“So, let’s say just one hour,” I said.

José looked at both of us, nodded with childish enthusiasm and said nothing.

I tried again: “I need to understand what it’s like—to be alone here. In the rainforest. For my book. You leave me here for one hour and then we meet at exactly this spot.”

The last stand of the Amazon

For the Guardian

In the forest, there are no horizons and so the dawn does not break but is instead born in the trees – a wan and smoky blue. I twist in my hammock. The total darkness, which has been broken only by the crazy dance of the fireflies, is fading and now shapes are forming – branches, fronds, vines, bushes, leaves, thorns, the soaring reach of the canopy, the matted tangle of the understorey. The crazed clamour of the night – growls, hoots, croaks – has died away and for a moment there is almost hush. This is also the only time of cool and I can see thin fingers of mist curling through the trunks and drifting across the river beyond. A butterfly passes in the quavering grace of its flight. Then, suddenly, the great awakening begins and the air is filled with a thousand different songs, chirps, squawks and screeches – back and forth, far and near, all around. So loud and so raucous and so declarative of life is this chorus that nothing anywhere in the world can prepare you for it. I am camped deep in the Brazilian Amazon with my guide.

Life and Seoul

For The Guardian

The first totems we drive past are the Garbage Mountains. And, contrary to the name, they are almost beautiful – green, rolling, lightly wooded and crisscrossed by trails on which Seoul-weary citizens might wander. The South Koreans are proud of having transformed their terrible trash problems into parkland; they do it carefully, stabilising the vast mounds, protecting nearby rivers, planting skillfully and collecting methane to heat civic amenities. We are on Freedom Motorway – so called, they say, because one day it will reconnect the communist North with the capitalist South. I am with my translator, Kwon, and a photographer and we are on the 35-mile journey out of Seoul towards the world’s most heavily militarised border, which divides the two countries.

The Han River runs beside us deep and wide and glinting in metallic shades of blue-grey. The road turns north. As we move outside the precincts of Seoul, we begin to pass pale clusters of tower blocks. These are further evidence of the economic miracle: the satellite cities. And here live the ever-expanding metropolitan overspill in thousands upon thousands of new apartments linked by malls and walkways that light up at night with an ethereal charm. Another few miles and Kwon points towards an industrial complex, the place where LG, the vast electronics company, is developing its “eighth generation” technology; so sharp and real, he jokes, that they don’t dare bring it out for fear of people walking straight through the screens. His pride, several decades into the job, is characteristic of South Koreans.

So far so good on Freedom Highway. But now, some 15 miles in, the tone of our trip begins to change. Besides the billboards, we begin passing under several bridges daubed in cheaper fly posters. They seem unnecessarily frequent and yet they carry neither traffic nor pedestrians. Kwon’s face becomes more sombre. They are anti-tank devices, he explains, dummy bridges, heavy concrete structures primed with explosives, ready to be detonated in the event of an invasion. To the South Koreans, this is not idle talk: the Seoul subway has signs telling passengers what to do in the event of an attack. Not a year goes by without some dangerous border skirmish or serious naval incident (such as the sinking of the warship Cheonan in March); they consider invasion a real and present danger. By most conventional military measures, the South would eventually overwhelm the North, but the capital’s proximity to the border weighs heavily – decisively – in the balance of such grim calculations, since Seoul would be horribly vulnerable long before any such conflict could be “won”.

Santa Maddalena

For The Sunday Times

When you step through the main entrance of Santa Maddalena — from smoky Tuscan woodland into chiaroscuro Tuscan cool — you are confronted by what must surely be the most impressive visitors’ book in world literature. Approximately 18in tall and 2ft wide, it stands, always open, at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the library, as if it were a Biblical tablet brought down from the mountains by some local colossus of letters past — Dante, perhaps, or Boccaccio.

On my first visit here in 2008, I made the terrible mistake of reading it there and then. I had come to work on my third novel. I wanted an empty sky, bed, soul. Instead, whom did I find crawling across these great pages, in their many crazy hands, but the finest writers available to humanity.