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The Maclean Effect

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I defy anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to go to mysterious Central Asia. From the moment I read those seductive first paragraphs as a student, I was drawn to the murky world of Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent that Maclean observed at close quarters in the 1930s when working as a diplomat in our Moscow embassy. It was to be ten years before I travelled to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in the ‘year of stagnation’ – 1975 – and another three decades before I saw the country without the dubious assistance of a Soviet minder.

But still those opening sentences hold me in thrall. ‘Slowly gathering speed, the long train pulled out of the Gare du Nord . . . I was on my way to Moscow, and from Moscow, I was going, if it was humanly possible, to the Caucasus and Central Asia,’ wrote Maclean. As he watched the drab, sodden countryside rush past the carriage window, in his mind’s eye he saw the green oases, the sunlit domes and minarets of Turkistan. ‘Suddenly, as I sat there in the half light, I felt immensely excited.’ If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it.

Maclean’s ostensible purpose was a good deal more prosaic. He was leaving a very agreeable posting in Paris to take up an appointment in the embassy in Moscow as military attaché. Friends warned him that the Soviet capital in the 1930s was a dead end, a tedious round of parties in overheated chancelleries where he would meet the same people, none of them Russian. At the back of his mind, however, lurked the golden road to Samarkand and ‘the lust of knowing what should not be known’, in James Elroy Flecker’s unforgettable phrase. In the previous century, few Britons had visited this fabled region, and even fewer had returned to tell the tale. Turkistan, a vast area fought over by the warring khanates, had fallen belatedly and reluctantly to the Red Army in 1922. Since

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I defy anyone to read Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches and not want to go to mysterious Central Asia. From the moment I read those seductive first paragraphs as a student, I was drawn to the murky world of Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent that Maclean observed at close quarters in the 1930s when working as a diplomat in our Moscow embassy. It was to be ten years before I travelled to the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan in the ‘year of stagnation’ – 1975 – and another three decades before I saw the country without the dubious assistance of a Soviet minder.

But still those opening sentences hold me in thrall. ‘Slowly gathering speed, the long train pulled out of the Gare du Nord . . . I was on my way to Moscow, and from Moscow, I was going, if it was humanly possible, to the Caucasus and Central Asia,’ wrote Maclean. As he watched the drab, sodden countryside rush past the carriage window, in his mind’s eye he saw the green oases, the sunlit domes and minarets of Turkistan. ‘Suddenly, as I sat there in the half light, I felt immensely excited.’ If there is a more romantic opening to a book, not just a travel book but any book, then I don’t know of it. Maclean’s ostensible purpose was a good deal more prosaic. He was leaving a very agreeable posting in Paris to take up an appointment in the embassy in Moscow as military attaché. Friends warned him that the Soviet capital in the 1930s was a dead end, a tedious round of parties in overheated chancelleries where he would meet the same people, none of them Russian. At the back of his mind, however, lurked the golden road to Samarkand and ‘the lust of knowing what should not be known’, in James Elroy Flecker’s unforgettable phrase. In the previous century, few Britons had visited this fabled region, and even fewer had returned to tell the tale. Turkistan, a vast area fought over by the warring khanates, had fallen belatedly and reluctantly to the Red Army in 1922. Since then, its crumbling cities, crowded with some of Islam’s finest cultural sites, had been off limits to Westerners. The people of Central Asia, their customs and their life under the Soviets were a closed book. Maclean, a young Highland Scot of some impetuosity, but possessed of diplomatic immunity and kitted out with a wry sense of humour, was ideally placed to make ‘the golden journey’. That he had an easy, natural style of writing, and had done his historical homework, was a bonus that keeps Eastern Approaches in print more than half a century later. After some furtive exploration of what was then Tiflis (now Tbilisi) and the oil centre of Baku, scene of the alleged massacre of twenty-six commissars by the British in 1918, Maclean felt confident enough to tackle the Asian heart of the USSR. He travelled by rail, to Alma Ata, ‘Father of the Apples’, capital of remote, empty Kazakhstan, but found, as all travellers do, that there is little to see there except the luminous prospect of the Tien Shan mountains bordering China. He journeyed on to Samarkand via Tashkent, enduring the incompetent attentions of the NKVD, hilariously described. In the city of his dreams, home of Tamerlane’s glorious, blue-domed mausoleum, the young diplomat was fascinated by the natives. A young Uzbek woman ‘reminded me of a face on a Chinese scroll. . . her features were finely formed and the delicate oval of her face showed a trace of some other ancestry, Persian perhaps, or Circassian’. Yet he clearly spent only one day in the city of James Elroy Flecker’s imagination, drawing literary sustenance from its magnificent minarets. The excursion whetted his appetite for the ultimate destinations: Bokhara and Chinese Turkistan. Stalin’s show-trials interrupted his travel plans, and they make chilling reading. By this time he was a ‘largely spurious’ expert on Central Asia, on the strength of a report written for the Foreign Office after his expedition. After a failed bid to reach Urumchi, Maclean finally arrived in Bokhara the Noble in the autumn of 1938. From the nearest railhead at Kagan, and after some adventures with the local police, he walked through the night until, topping a slight rise, he looked down on its broad white walls and watchtowers. He followed a string of dromedaries into the city of the emirs, ‘very unlike the Soviet Union’ but with a red flag fluttering atop the spectacular and infamous Tower of Death from which the Emir casually dispatched his subjects. Maclean waxes lyrical about the blue-tiled mosques and madrasahs, the chai-khanas, the busy bazaar and the delights of idling under apricot trees in the clear, warm sunlight of Central Asia. He also relates some adventures of previous British visitors to the city, including the nineteenth-century eccentric, the Reverend Joseph Woolf, who escaped being thrown headlong from the tower by presenting himself to the Emir garbed in full canonicals – clergyman’s gown, doctor’s hood and shovel hat, a Bible under his arm. His comical appearance, and his readiness to prostrate himself while crying thirty times ‘Allah Akbar! ’, so amused the despot that he let him go. Maclean made his way back to Moscow circuitously via Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad, Tabriz and Yerevan, and there his Asian odyssey ends. The rest of Eastern Approaches covers his time with the SAS in the Western Desert, and his hair-raising adventures with Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia, an experience that made him a lifelong friend of both leader and country. These periods make up two-thirds of the book, but they are something of an anti-climax after the magic of Central Asia. However, the Maclean effect does not end there. It sends you further, deep into the luxuriant thickets of ‘Britons in Asia’ literature. To begin with, there are Maclean’s own later expeditions, which produced A Person from England (1958) and Back to Bokhara (1959), not to mention Frank McLynn’s biography of the man, published in 1992. Then there is Colonel F. M. Bailey’s Mission to Tashkent (1946), James Lunt’s Bokhara Burnes (1969), and Philip Glazebrook’s Journey to Khiva (1992). Further back, Arminius Vambery’s celebrated Travels in Central Asia of 1864 has been republished by the Cambridge Scholars’ Press, while a 1983 edition of Fred Burnaby’s A Ride to Khiva (1877) has a preface by Eric Newby, who was entranced by a book ‘so idiosyncratic, so endearing and so funny’– no mean praise from a writer who is all those things himself. Branch lines radiate everywhere from these beginnings, especially to anything written by Peter Hopkirk. My own ‘Maclean library’ starts in Belgrade and finishes in Beijing. It takes up practically a whole bedroom wall, and threatens to invade the landing. Hunting down the more exotic titles is a journey in itself, particularly since the arrival of the Internet. How Fitzroy would have despised this ersatz adventurism! Not until 1975 could I follow in the great man’s footsteps. As labour correspondent on The Times, I was offered a trip to the USSR, and agreed to go on condition that Central Asia was on the itinerary. In company with Mick Costello of the Morning Star, and a minder from the Soviet agency Novosti in Moscow, we got as far as Tashkent, Samarkand and Alma Ata. It was mid-February, and bitterly cold. After the obligatory textile factory and trade-union visits, we squeezed in a day’s cultural tourism in Samarkand, which emphatically did not disappoint. Not a great deal, I imagined, had changed since Maclean’s foray half a century earlier. We bounced around the Shah-I Zindar complex of mausoleums and mosques, and the blue-ribbed Gur Emir mausoleum, burial place of Timur, in a clapped-out Lada, and drank in a chai-khana with bemused Uzbeks who sat cross-legged on the floor. I noticed they were drinking a clear white liquid from delicate china bowls. What might that be? ‘Bielo chai,’ they smirked into their moustaches. White tea – vodka! On that expedition, alas, Bokhara was ‘niet’. Almost three decades more elapsed before I could return, ten years after the end of Soviet Communism but once again in the company of the fluent Russian-speaking Costello. It was now possible to fly direct from London to Tashkent, overnight, in a brand-new Boeing jet, with a driver waiting at the airport to whisk us to a private hotel. Everything certainly had changed in that interval. We saw the splendours of Bokhara, and the bug-pit where in 1842 the British officers Stoddart and Connolly were incarcerated before being executed by the Emir. Through the Kyzyl Kum desert, we penetrated further than Maclean to the even more ancient city of Khiva. Khiva is now a Unesco world heritage site, infested with carpet-and souvenir-sellers, virtually a ghost city where the mosques are for tourists, not worshippers. We were there during one of the frequent anti-religious clampdowns ordered by President Ismail Karimov, subsequently to earn the soubriquet of the Butcher of Andijan. The atrocity of May 2005, when at least 500 protesting Uzbeks were mown down by troops in the Ferghana valley bordering Kirghizstan, is a reminder that Central Asia can still be a violent, unpredictable place in spite of all its architectural treasures. The cruel Emir of Bohkara – who fled as late as 1920, ‘dropping’, as Maclean writes, ‘favourite dancing boy after favourite dancing boy in his flight in the hope of thus retarding the advance of the Red Army, who, however, were not to be deterred by such stratagems’ – may have gone, but his ways have not. Still, Maclean is right. Sweet it is to sit under a shady almond tree, by a water-tank, sipping vodka and eating shashlik, with the brilliant blue tiles of a nearby ancient mosque glittering in the sunshine. In that sense, at least, the anticipation roused by Fitzroy Maclean’s opening paragraph is not disappointed. And there is always the literature when you get home.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 9 © Paul Routledge 2006


About the contributor

Paul Routledge is a columnist on the Daily Mirror, and author of seven books of political biography, including Public Servant, Secret Agent: The Elusive Life and Violent Death of Airey Neave.

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