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Archive for June 2008

3
June 21, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Black

On the east wall of the courtyard near to where I am sitting, there is a shadow. It’s unlike any normal shadow, shades of grey, because it is very very black. But the colour is not the strange thing about it. Rather, it’s that this shadow is not cast by any object. It’s a shadow without a reason.

I first noticed it three weeks ago. The bright afternoon light was beginning to wane, and the sound of donkeys baking in the shantytown was lessening with the heat. I was working on an article, feeling good about myself for working so hard, looking out at the birds swooping down onto the fountain — a single drop of water sufficient to satiate their thirst. I looked up. The birds flew off, up into the bougainvillea. Suddenly I saw it, as plain as the nose on my face… the shadow without a reason.
I called the guardians from the garden. They lined up and waited for instructions. Nothing worries them more than being called in the late afternoon. They hide down at the stables smoking and drinking endless mint tea. A call from me usually ends in a demand, albeit one couched in politeness. They sauntered in, looking sheepish. I pointed at the wall.
‘That,’ I said.
‘What?’
‘The shadow.’
Osman looked at me, frowned, cocked his head to the side.
‘Yes Monsieur Tahir?’
‘Well it’s a shadow without a reason.’
The guardians turned to take another look. They looked hard, frowned again, scratched their heads, smiled, laughed, and then all of a sudden their amusement was  wiped away… wiped away by fear.
‘It’s not good,’ said Hamza.
‘Not good at all,’ Osman echoed.
What shall we do?’ I said.
Just then, Zohra came out of the kitchen, overwhelmed with curiosity. She ordered to know what was going on.
Osman pointed.
‘A shadow,’ said Hamza nervously, ‘a shadow without a reason.’
Zohra stepped back, pushed a hand to her headscarf, leant forward, squinted.
‘Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!’ she crowed.
I asked what she meant.
‘You silly men.’
‘Why are we silly?’ I asked.
‘Because only men would waste time worrying about something like this, wasting time when there is work to be done!’
‘But I have been working. And now we are trying to solve this problem,’ I said.
Hamza waved his hands on the wall, like a child doing shadow puppets.
‘We’re making a scientific study,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ said Osman, ‘that’s what we are doing.’
‘Nonsense,’ replied Zohra, ‘you are wasting time. And that’s all men do, their whole lives. They waste time.’
A day passed, and the shadow didn’t move. Evening faded to night, and with the dawn, the shadow returned… very faint at first, but darkening as the hours passed, until it was very black again. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any more. I had to know the reason for the shadow without a reason. So I went to get my camera. If I could get a picture of it, I thought, then I could study it more closely. I took a photo of the wall with the shadow… click. Looked at the image. Weird, I thought to myself… the shadow’s not there on film.
Just then Zohra shuffled out of the kitchen and jerked her head. A jerk of Zohra’s head is a demand for information.
‘It’s strange,’ I said. ‘I took a picture of the shadow, but…’
‘But…?’
‘But it didn’t come out on film.’
Zohra peered into the screen at the back of the camera. She was going to say something. Then her expression wavered. She looked extremely fearful. It was a look I had experienced before, one conjured by the thought of the supernatural.
I shook my head.
‘No,’ I said, ‘not that.’
Zohra nodded. She spun round and touched the walls, kissed her knuckle and said a prayer.
Anything at Dar Khalifa that has no obvious explanation, is put down to the Jinns, and Zohra is the queen of stirring up fear of them. That is, if anyone needs their imagination to be stirred — which they don’t.
I ushered her back into the kitchen. Then, with all my strength, I moved the big whicker log basket in front of the shadow. Remarkably, the patch of darkness disappeared. I smiled to myself. Zohra peered out of the kitchen at hearing the noise.
‘It’s gone,’ I said.
‘You have hidden it.’
‘No, really, it’s gone away. Vanished. Just like that.’
The maid narrowed her eyes.
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said.
5
June 20, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

White

One morning, long ago now, my father came home and looked white, as if he had seen a ghost. He sat in his study in his favourite chair, staring into space. We asked our mother what had happened. ”He’s had a little shock,’ she said. ‘It’s best to leave him alone.’

A day passed and my father sat there, staring, hardly moving at all.

On the second day, I couldn’t stand the suspense an longer. So I asked him, straight up, what was the matter. He tried to smile. It was one of those forced smiles of reassurance, that leads to even more  worry because it’s so strained.
‘I will tell you, Tahir Jan,’ he said… ‘I will tell you a story. And this time it is true.’
So I sat down beside him, a log fire orange and yellow in the hearth. And I waited. The silence continued for a few minutes, and I half wondered if he had forgotten the promise of a tale, a true one. Then, when I had almost given up hope, he wove his long fingers together, pressed the knuckles to his chin, and began.
‘On the morning of my birth a fortune teller was brought to room where my mother had just delivered. It was in Simla, in the Himalaya mountains, because I was born during a hunting expedition as you know. My mother had me cradled in a soft blanket, a touche, made from the finest hair from the chin of mountain goats. Her face was glazed with joy at setting eyes on her first son. Standing tall and proud beside the bed, my father escorted the diviner in, asked him to sit and, when he was ready, to peer into the future.
‘The fortune teller crouched low on a stool at the corner of the bed. He was very old, extremely wizened, his face like an elephant’s back. He was almost blind. But everyone knew he possessed a clear and untrammeled sight of another kind. Tea was brought and pleasantries exchanged. My mother unfurled the corner of the blanket so that the mystic could see the face of the infant.
‘A little time slipped by. Then, only when he was quite ready, the seer held the sides of his wrinkled face, and journeyed into another plane. His eyes appeared to swell with joy, then with tears. My parents, watching his expression as it changed, waited patiently for the divination.
‘An hour or more passed. Then, an only then, the teller recounted what he had seen. “Your son,”he said, “this little boy you have given the fine name Sayed Idries, will grow up to be a very famous man. He will be a man of his age, a man whose name is known in every home and every teahouse, a man respected and valued for his great wisdom, but…”
‘The seer paused. My parents leant forward. ‘But…?’ they said both at once. ‘But what?’ 
‘”But something unpleasant, something grim, will hang above his life, a terrible danger dangling by a thread. It will always be there, waiting for the moment when his guard is let down. And then it will strike.”
‘My father enquired the nature of this malediction. The diviner looked at him, his clouded vision wavering. “I will tell you,” he said. “I prophesize here and now, at the first light of this infant’s life, that he will meet his demise through drowning. I cannot tell you when it shall happen, because that depends on circumstance, but I can state with the utmost confidence that he will drown. Therefore, I caution you to take appropriate action to safeguard against this curse.”
‘A little more time passed and the mystic was ushered out, thanked profusely, and rewarded for his foresight. When he was gone, the first actions were taken to prevent me from meeting my untimely death. The bathtub was immediately taken away and broken into pieces so that my head might never be forced beneath its waterline. The servants were instructed never, on any account, to put the infant boy in a position of danger when near water.
‘Time passed, and I grew into childhood. In that time, I was not ever permitted to take a bath, only the briefest of showers. And, I was never taught to swim, never permitted to go anywhere near water… oceans, seas, lakes or streams. When my friends went to play in the icy mountain rivers, I was kept back, clutched to my mother’s chest.
‘As the years passed, I grew used to my life shrouded from water, the most natural of substances. I rarely thought of it, that I was ignorant of anything nautical. With time, I even forgot the premonition that had been so drummed into me as a small child — that I would drown.
‘Decades rolled forward. My parents passed away and I became a father of my own, to you three children. My life was arranged around habit, the habit of childhood, designed to prevent an untimely death through drowning. I have never taken a bath, nor have I leapt into a river, and have rarely been close to the sea. It is not that I have a fear of water, rather a mistrust of it, for I know that it is waiting, waiting to end my life.’
‘But, Baba, why did you come back home so fearful,’ I asked.
My father moved his vision from the flames to my face.
‘Because, Tahir Jan, as you know I have a heart condition. My heart is weak and, in its weakened state I have to visit a specialist from time to time. He does tests, examines me, and makes a diagnosis for my future. Well, I met him yesterday. He asked me to remove my shirt, which I did, and he put the stethoscope to my chest. I breathed slowly in and out, in and out. When I had done so several times, he told me to put my shirt on. I did so. He took off his reading glasses, and looked at me hard, the corners of his mouth raised ever so slightly in a faint smile.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said to me: “The trouble with you Mr. Shah is that your lungs are slowly filling with water… and you are drowning.”‘
TS
2
June 19, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Rainbow

OK, I can hear you, you’re thinking to yourself, ‘this guy, this Tahir Shah is just talking rubbish. He’s got nothing at all to say so he’s doing random colours now.’ OK, well, it’s not true… OK it is a little teeny weeny bit true. But this blog writing lark is very good for getting my juices juicing in the mornings. To tell you the truth, I’m getting quite fond of it.

The thing about sitting here a lot of the time, staring out at the delicious garden and the tent at the far end, is that a lot of stuff goes through my head. Sometimes I try and tell Zohra, the maid, what I’m thinking, or Rachana, and usually (99% of the time) they brush me away. They’re too busy to listen, or have no interest in random thoughts, most particularly from me.
So the blog is a way of venting thoughts, a way of sending into cyberspace all the nonsense (well, a small proportion of it at any rate) that spews out of my head. And it seems as if I have a lot of nonsense to spew. The greatest thing about the Internet is that it’s like the universe — it’s so massive, so ridiculously unwieldy that it can absorb a huge about of stuff. I could spew nonsense on an industrial scale for decades and decades and still there’d be space for more. And, the way the net is expanding, there’s always be a black hole of the size of Pluto ready to be plugged with debris from my mind.
So why Rainbow? Well, today, I was sitting here with a blank canvas for a mind. Nothing came out… not a colour, not a sound. Then, all of a sudden there was a blinding flash and POW! — A Rainbow, the likes of which I have never encountered.  I fell backwards on my chair, almost spun around.
And what is more natural, more blessed than a rainbow? Nothing, well, hardly anything at all. Because a Rainbow nature illuminated in its most dazzling perfection — like the dawn light on a dew-covered spider’s web. It gets you all choked up, all emotional. And so it should.
The next time you are lucky enough to see a rainbow and, who knows, it may be today… say a little prayer for all the thoughts from me and everyone else, floating around us in cyberspace.
TS
 
1
June 18, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Yellow

I think I must be part reptile inside because nothing affects me so much as dazzling sunlight. I can’t operate without it, can’t hardly move.  In the morning I’m like a zombie, eyes all bleary, face all rumpled, unsteady at the knees. As soon as I push myself out of bed and onto my feet, I nudge the curtain back and look out at the sky. If it’s overcast, grey, miserable, that’s how my day will be. I won’t get hardly any work done, and I’ll be glum and sullen as long as the clouds last.

But on days that it’s sunny, I feel as if I’m walking on air. I float from the bedroom to the bathroom, then downstairs, moonwalking. I have taken to working in the dining room because there’s an endless view down through the house to the white tent at the end of the pool. I like looking up from the computer screen and out to the tent which, on bright days like this, is like a dazzling reflector. It’s mesmerising.
When we lived in London I bought an SAD lamp (for seasonal affective disorder). On short December days I used to huddle over it, staring into the bulb. I felt like a lackluster Swede trapped in Lapland in the winter. 
There was no possession I parted with so joyfully as that lamp. I gave it to a friend and smiled wryly, because in Morocco — although sunshine’s not always guaranteed — there’s a heck of a lot more than in the East End.
Then the other day, a rainy day, while on a train from Hereford to London (I’d been talking at the Hay Festival), I met a man even more obsessed by sunshine than me. He was so taken by it — and so energised by it — that he’d written a book on the subject. And what a very brilliant read it is too (Sunshine: One man’s Search for Happiness’, by Robert Mighall, John Murray Ltd).
As the train rumbled passed the fearful cooling towers at Didcot, Mighall told me that as soon as the sun comes out he feels the urge to drop everything and anything and run out into it with wild abandon. His habit of stripping off his clothes and sunbathing had earned him the nickname ‘Gecko Boy’ from neighbours. I noticed that even  hearing the word ‘sunshine’ was enough to get him going. I watched as his eyes lit up, how colour slipped onto his cheeks as if blushing with embarrassment.
I asked Mighall why he lived in Bethnal Green and not the prairies of Samburuland, if he really was such a worshipper of all things solar. He went very still, stared down at his lap. I coaxed him for an answer. ‘I’m not sure that I could.’ he said.
TS
1
June 17, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Pink

There was a time when Ariane livied in a world that was that sickly, toe-cringing, jaw-wrenchingly pink. Her bedroom was filled with it — pink curtains, bedspead, cupboard (and its contents), dolls, soft toys, towel, toothbrush, and even toothpaste, a vile shade of bubblegum pink. She used to whisper to me that she liked words that sounded pink, and tried to think pink, because thinking in any other colour was naughty, the sort of thing that little boys would do.

I tried to slip into Ariane’s mind… see the world as she saw it: a luscious ebbing flow of undulating pink. The more I tried to see as she saw, the more confused I became. Don’t get me wrong, a little pink is a good thing. Without it we wouldn’t have roses or Morocco’s radiant pink  hibiscus flowers, and we wouldn’t have strawberry ice cream,  raspberries or even the Pink Panther.
But… and it’s a big but, there can be too much of a good thing, a thing that only little girls below the age of seven can really comprehend. As Ariane bounced around stroking anything pink she could find, I found myself wondering if the adoration for a colour could be wired into a person’s head. Could that be possible? And if so, how did it come about?
I looked at my little son Timur. He likes blue, but not with the same intensity with which Ariane is drawn to her colour, and I’m fascinated about why that is. Had I the time I’d read up in dusty dark depressing psycho journals, but I have too little time, as most of it is spent answering questions like ‘what do trees dream of at night?’ and ‘why don’t dog’s laugh?’
But then, the other day something remarkable happened. Ariane got out of bed, stretched, and said ‘Yuk! Look at all that horrid horrid pink!’ ‘What do you mean?’ I replied, struggling to pull a dress down over her upstretched arms. ‘Pink… it’s nasty nasty nasty! And,’ she said, sticking out her tongue so far I could see her tonsils, ‘I don’t want to see it ever again!’
But little girls being little girls, there is not an end to colour, just a new one.
And it’s red.
TS
2
June 16, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Green

The swimming pool has been going green again. Turn my back for a second and it’s like a secret curse, appearing for nowhere to afflict us. When the waters go green, the guardians line up and shake their heads. They say it’s the dust, and the noise of the donkeys and the cows, and the chemicals put in the tap water by the evil French-owned water company. Then, when I say we have no choice but to drain the pool, they go crazy. They jump up and down, plunge their heads into their hands. It’s as if draining the pool and filling it with an abundance of fresh water has robbed them of honour.

They beg me to buy a huge industrial barrel of Chinese-made chlorine. Only that can do it, they say… for as everyone knows, the Chinese made the world’s most potent chemicals. I don’t dispute this. But the idea of hurling an entire barrel of chlorine into the pool seems too much. Go for an evening dip and we’d dissolve. So I asked Osman to think again. There had to be another solution. One which didn’t included our flesh being melted from our bones.
Days went by. The pool went a little darker green with the passing of the hours. Mosquitos began to breed, and there were unpleasant little bubbles of air boiling up from the deep end. Again and again I insisted that we drain the water and use it on the flowerbeds. Still, the guardians refused. They said that an answer would come. ‘When?’ I asked. ‘When the time is right.’
So we waited and waited, and waited and waited until i could wait no more. I went out and bought an enormously expensive orange-coloured pump, then pointed at the device and then at the dark green water. The guardians, who had lined up again, looked sheepish.
Osman shook his head again and asked for about $2. I gave it to him. He rushed away and returned at dusk. In his hand was a twist of old newspaper and, in it, a small quantity of chalky powder. It was blue.
‘What are you going to do with that?’ ‘Just wait and see.’ Osman sprinkled the powder into the water. Next morning I came down in my dressing down. The guardians were in their places, lined up beside the diving board. They were smirking. I pushed past and inspected the pool.
The water was deliciously transparent, unclouded, clean and bright.
Osman grinned.
‘Even in filth there is purity,’ he said.
TS
0
June 15, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Sunday: Beginning and end

Only someone who has tasted loneliness can fully understand the mesmerising joy of crowds. A thousand feet walking in every direction, faces smiling, grinning, scowling, or blank of any expression, bodies of all shapes and sizes, the scent of perfume and perspiration.

After my teenage travels through Africa — especially the vast empty Great Rift in the continent’s east — I took refuge in Japan, and found pleasure in the press of commuters at Ikebukuro Station on a Friday night. It was like a powder keg in those subterranean tunnels, the sound of birdsong blaring through speakers, a psychologist’s solution for keeping crazed minds calm.

There were so many people, a streamlined mass — black briefcases and rubber-soled shoes, striped neckties and poly-wool suits. I used to wade into the middle of the frenzied rush, splay my feet wide and bend my knees to be rooted to the spot, and enjoy the surge of life all around. There was no feeling on earth like it — a sense of invisibility — while being buffeted by humanity.
I have spent almost twenty years searching for the perfect crowd and have been sucked down in them all over the urban world: in Rio de Janeiro and New York, in Lima, London, Calcutta, Cairo and Rome. There’s something almost supernatural about a good crowd: something complex, random, dynamic.
Think of it — our rural ancestors could never have understood the raw energy of ten thousand, or fifty thousand people, all packed into a tight space. I can hear you cursing — ‘Well, lucky them!’ That’s wrong. They missed out. Because there’s something intensely human about a good crowd, an experience which reminds us of who and what we are.
Of course, when you have struggled across Mumbai’s Victiora Terminus at dusk, you know you have found it — the greatest crowd on the planet. For me it was like the moment when a surfer has tracked down the most sublime wave: the perfect swell. There was a sense of silence at the heart, a terror beyond all terrors and, at the same time, satisfaction like nothing I had ever experienced.
Half the world was right there, touching me, brushing past. There were beggars and commuters, dabawallas, salesmen, students, ladies in sweeping saris, fortune-tellers and godmen, eunuchs and pickpockets, and a seething blurred mass of legs and arms, and dark glistening hair, satchels and nylon socks.
But then, the other day, I found myself in Jma al Fna, the vast central square in Marrakech. It’s name translates as ‘the Place of Execution’, and hints that it was once far more than place de touristes. The sun went down and the air was touched by the muezzin’s call. Then, as if arranged by an invisible conductor, hundreds of stall keepers set up their food stands. Each one was illuminated by a hurricane lamp, eerie platinum light radiating out with the smoke and the chaotic sound of feet.
I stood there, right in the middle of the square, smoke racing,  swirling, twisting, mixing with the incandescent light. There were so many people squeezed in that I felt myself overcome by claustrophobia for the first time. I choked, my eyes wide with fear. Forget Mumbai, I thought to myself, this crowd may be smaller, but there’s something ancient about it, something so powerful as to defy description.
You are probably tied down in life, caught in a spider’s web of bills, chores and responsibility. If there was any way you could break free, I’d counsel you to make a beeline for that square. Spend the afternoon under the shade of a nearby cafe. Then, as the sunlight ebbs away, venture out. Wade into the ocean of people, and prepare yourself for the greatest show on earth.
TS
1
June 14, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Canned pie on Saturday

There are few things that instill such fear in me than the thought of canned pie. As a child of the seventies it was a fare I knew well… a stout round tin with a blue lid welded on tight, filled with a gooey mess of steak and kidney, and an abundance of feathery pastry ready to rise as soon as it tasted heat.

I have spent my adult life thinking of those nylon-shirted days, with ABBA and tie-dye as an omnipresent backdrop, when Fray Bentos pies would be dished up with a regularity that was displeasing to all… to all but the family labrador who circled beneath the dining table like a shark that had smelled fresh blood.
The years passed. On came the highs and lows of Thatcherism, then Blairism. The big hair of youth may have thinned, but my mind still thinks about those pies. There was something so complete about them, a world in themselves, meat trapped in metal, like a dinosaur iced into the Steppes. And, like the pemmican of the first Arctic explorers, they were something quite under-appreciated, a cuisine ready to nourish the brave and the good.
The more I think of them, the more I feel warm inside, touched with a vein of nostalgia, as if they were a symbol of lost hope. My mother used to say, as she dished them up, that the man who invented the process of canning a pie was very brilliant… very brilliant indeed. He’d become a millionaire, she said, adding in a whisper that he had once owned the house in which we lived. 
My mind ground away. Canned pie — what a revolution of simplicity, an obvious and genius design. A fare that’s protected so securely that it would withstand even the nuclear threat of the A-bomb that hung over all our seventies’ homes. And the more I thought of it, the more I realised the genius… taking something that’s known and loved — good old English pie — and transforming it into something else.
I hear that the ‘Liebig Extract of Meat Company’ in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, is now a museum… a point of focus perhaps for nostalgic hippies and children who’d been weaned on nuclear shelter food.
So I’ve decided to make my own journey there, a humble pilgrimage. I leave for Uruguay in three weeks. My heart is going pitter-patter at the thought of it. An excitement hardly known since the long gone days when I’d managed to slide an entire canned pie under the table, to the waiting jaws of our labrador.
TS
2
June 13, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Thank God it's...

It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that I’m stressed. I’ve been stressed all day, juggling with a book proposal that’s taken months of thought, gallons of sweat and the occasional tear. When I started out with it, I thought I’d cracked it right away. I patted myself on the back, pampered myself for working so hard, and relaxed.

My agent asked me to rework the pages, inject some new ideas. To tell the truth I felt a little bit sick, as if I was a spent force. It was like returning to a half-eaten meal. Tasted all stale and cold. But I nudged away at it again… and again… and again. Each time, I was asked ever so politely to do a little more.
I’m on the seventh draft now. There have been times when I have cursed, shouted, waved my fists. On drab winter afternoons I would sometimes open the window in the dining room where I am working, and yell out. It sets the donkeys off in the shantytown of course, and then the dogs, and the geese. But I feel I have to vent. After all, a life without a little venting is no life at all.
So here I am, ploughing through draft number seven and — after six months of struggle — it looks as if it’s coming together. Yes while at first i was so smug, so proud, I now look at the work and see the faults in myself. It’s good, perhaps very good, but it’s just a thing… granted, a thing created from the confines of my imagination, but a thing nonetheless.
On some evenings, when I’m all hunched over the computer screen, I wonder about all the books that were almost written and never were. OK it’s a strange thought. But think of it. There must have been so many men and women of genius who were going to write, but who never quite managed to sit down long enough, or who hand to hold down a day job as well.
I think of those books… and recently I have thought of them a lot. Most of all because my proposal might be a book that is not quite ever written. I fear for it. At night I wake up worrying. What if something happens and I have to get a day job, a job in a sandwich bar, and the great book is never done — like the sculpture trapped in a block of stone?
Gulp. That would be terrible. I’d be racked with guilt my whole life. I’d feel like a failure. Or would I? Would it not be a release…? A release from this torment of themes and character arcs, wordage and symmetry. Oh yes… oh yes it would. It would be freedom.
But then, of course the writer’s secret ego — inside every writer whether they admit it or not (and most don’t) — would not be massaged. Without the book there’d be no arc of the ego.
And where would I be without that?
TS
4
June 12, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Thursday's child

On some days I sit here alone hour after hour, fingertips striking keys, my mind in a twilight zone far away. When one of the guardians creeps in and stands to attention, or when the phone rings and I have to answer it, I find there’s an abyss between where I am and the real world. It’s something that fills me with awe, and troubles me all the same.

Sometimes I find I am so deep in a story, so detached, that my soul has become separated from my body. Or that’s how it feels. It reminds me of ‘Susto’, the Latin idea that a sharp noise, a jolt, can rip one from the other… with the terrible fear that they can never be rejoined. But with me there’s no jolt, rather a gradual descent, a slow and even deviation. I can hardly explain it, but have come to know it’s something of extreme value… a way of reaching another world, the real world.
My little son, Timur, will be five in less than a month. There’s a quality about him that I wish could always stay there, inside him, without being knocked out. It’s the quality of pure innocence and  a natural human genius — something that the adult world strives to destroy as soon as a child has entered school. Our world regards it — a way of appreciating and processing the fantastic — as a thing of evil, a faculty to be replaced surgically with the ability of  cold, clinical thought. Timur still has it though… only just… a mind that embraces fact and fantasy as one and the same, two inseparable elements.
Ariane is seven and a half and she’s lost it. You can’t tell her a tale, a fairy story, without her having to establish whether it’s fiction or fact. And she insists that we have to make clear, one or the other. ‘It’s a little of both,’ I sometimes say. And when I do, Ariane’s face sours with rage. ‘It can’t be!’ she snaps. ‘Because you can’t have both!’
I have travelled with tribes and so-called ‘primitive’ peoples who are, as you would imagine, far more brilliant than us. Their souls are still attached, their minds screwed on right in their heads. I once spent months with the Machiagenga and the Shuar peoples of Peru, and learned to appreciate an ancient and natural way of thought that is the default setting within us all. The longer I spent with them, and the more I came to know of their customs and ideas, the more I understood how terribly misguided we are.
It sounds like basic criticism, a cliche, the sort of thing that’s fashionable to say. But it’s not. Not really. Instead, it’s something that we can all relearn… a little bit at a time. When Timur makes Lego, something he likes very much indeed, he slams some bricks together and, when asked that stupid adult question ‘what is it?’, he fumbles, then says, ‘an elephant.’ A moment later he adds a red brick to the top, and christens it ‘an aeroplane’, and after that ‘it’s mummy.’ 
Of course it is, and that’s how it should be. And we all — all of us — can learn from that, from the default setting that little Timur and every other four-year-old in our world is desperate danger of losing — his imagination.
TS
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