Ghosts in the Dust

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The eternally, infernally straight roads of the deserts of northern Mexico cut through some of the flattest, most barren country you’ll ever see. On my travels I’ve been through this land. You get on a bus in a station in a city filled with life’s cacophony and drive for days, with the heat suffocating you asleep and the mosquitoes stinging you awake, and the only change from bush and scrub is the odd vulture eyeing you suspiciously. Then, just when you think you’ve landed in the bleakest place on earth, without a human or a sign of one for miles, the black-clad lady who has been sitting quietly beside you for the past twelve hours taps the driver to stop, unloads her overflowing bags and cases, and wanders off into the scrub . . .

It was in this environment that Insurgent Mexico was written. Published in 1914, it is ostensibly the reportage of the months that the journalist John Reed spent with Pancho Villa’s revolutionary guerrillas as they advanced through the desert to Mexico’s capital. But it is more travelogue than journalism, more loving portrait of a people and a country than war reporting. Reed’s reports have the passion and eye for detail of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and are painted with the eye of a poet who was never far from the action – all the more remarkable given the punishing terrain.

John Reed is best known for Ten Days that Shook the World (1917), his classic account of the Bolshevik revolution. But where Ten Days rata-tat-tats like a telegram tapped out under gunfire, Insurgent Mexico slaps across a literary canvas lavish swathes of colour and furious heat and open-hearted characters and swirls them around till you can taste the dust, feel the sweat dribbling down your back and find yourself casting round for your horse, your woman and your gun.

Reed grew up in Portland, Oregon, studied literature at Harvard, where he was snubbed by the smart set, fell

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About the contributor

Hugh Farmar lives in London. He visited Mexico for two days in 2007 and ended up living there. He doesn’t rule out its happening again.

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