Thursday, 26 March 2009

Hail, The Lady and Private Eye.

A week of literary socialising has left me shivery of limb and sniffing of nose and taught me that March weather in London is not to be trusted. It hailed on me yesterday afternoon in Covent Garden, hailstones that were large enough to hurt on impact, sent people scattering into doorways for shelter and shattered onto the roads and pavements like little, glassy grenades.

Tuesday marked the putting to bed of the beautiful new re-launch of The Lady magazine as the longest continuously published magazine for women has for the past few months been undergoing a quiet facelift. No longer the rather dated, monochrome-dominated source of adverts for household staff, its renaissance sees a glorious, full colour magazine with some rather good editorial hit the newsstands on Monday the 31st. It will still be the source of choice for quality nannies, drivers, cooks, cleaners, holiday cottages and the like, a sort of Fortnum and Mason for domestic and catering staff, but now boasts a more modern, sleeker image, some great, interesting new writing (I must here confess that I will be the author of some of its content) and an overall look that brings it right up to date.

A family owned business, the Great Grandfather of the current publisher established the title in 1885 as a weekly periodical for gentlewomen, having already founded Vanity Fair for gentlemen in 1868. It still holds the same values of tradition, quality, manners, politeness and grace that have always been its watchwords but now does so in a manner more fitting for the twenty first century.

If you haven’t picked a copy up in the past few years then do have a look. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the changes and the content.

On Wednesday I had the rare honour of being lunched by Private Eye. Ian Hislop, the editor, who very kindly graced the microphones at Oneword Radio on a number of occasions, was in Dubai at the Emirate Airline International Festival of Literature with his wife Victoria, author of The Island, and as we sat chatting by the pool was so horrified to hear that since the demise of the radio station I have been unemployed that he invited me to lunch to discuss possibilities. On returning to the UK three weeks ago an invitation was extended, although sadly not to me but to another of the same name, a motorcycle journalist, who on arrival announced himself to the gathered throng only to be told by Ian and Francis Wheen “no you’re not!” The confusion having been explained he duly tucked into the Eye’s generous hospitality, as of course he should. So it was, two weeks later than planned, that I pitched up at the Soho landmark venue and enjoyed a rather good fish and chip lunch with a fine selection of bright and erudite representatives of the worlds of letters, law, broadcasting and thinking. There was much talk of the parlous state of the British press, how print journalism is being hammered by the free content available on the net, how good investigative journalism is suffering and suchlike. There was talk of the state of Dubai, of freedom of speech and of the law. It was all that one might wish of a lunch with luminaries.

An unexpected pleasure was meeting an old friend, a rather good BBC journalist and writer, who I was at school with and as I sat at the table I wondered what our rural childhood selves would have made of it if told that a quarter of a century later we would be having lunch with movers, shakers and household names.

Ian was on fine form as our host and as he, the well-known daughter of a major literary family and damn fine author in her own right and I were nattering away, an image kept popping into my mind which I hope he won’t mind me telling you. Whilst we were all in Dubai, he heard about a water park that boasted a magnificent flume, or water slide, and came over all excited. Sadly I was working too damn hard and couldn’t indulge but I heard tell that he, Anthony Horowitz –author of the Alex Rider series and good man - and Louis de Bernieres all packed their Speedos and went off on a boys outing to flume with impunity. I wish I’d been there, I’d like to have seen those three men of letters giggling their way down a huge water flume, hell I wish I’d been able make up the four.

I leave you with that rather glorious image and as the rain continues to batter the poor daffodils in the garden into submission I say “Hail" to The Lady, “Hail" to Private Eye and “Hail” to Mr Hislop for a fine lunch and for a very kind and well received offer of hope.



Saturday, 21 March 2009

The American Scholar ~ Of Love and Letters.

I seem to have fallen in love.

As Spring blooms forth with dazzling displays of daffodils and crocuses and as even the cynanothis tree at the end of the garden becomes more blue-tinged by the day, the sap rises and a single man’s heart turns to matters of amorous adoration.

In my case this affair d’amour is not with a human or indeed any other life form, but with a publication, a rather special periodical that I’m ashamed to confess I’ve only recently discovered.

I owe this burgeoning love to Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who in a piece he wrote in January under the title “A pencil box of bees” drew my attention to a delightfully wistful memoir by Professor Steven Isenberg in which he recalled four lunches of his early adulthood, each with a great man of letters: Larkin, Auden, Empson and Forster. Isenberg’s wonderful piece was entitled “Lunching on Olympus” and as I read it I was transported to his front row seat in the theatre of luminaries. It is a beautiful piece of writing, as one might expect from Professor Isenberg, a vividly remembered recollection of a young man’s sense of being not quite up to the task of reciprocating the generosity of insight and intellect that his lunch partners offered. In his case the sense is of course unfounded, but it reminded me of the years I spent in a radio studio interviewing my own literary heroes and fearing that however diligently I had read their work, however hard I had thought about their meaning, I would never quite be able to do justice to the time that I was able to spend with them. It is a sense I still have every time I mount the steps up to a stage in order to interview or be ‘in conversation with’ an author at those literary festivals that will have me.

So exercised was I by this thought that I wrote a brief letter to the editor of The American Scholar, more as an exercise than with the intention of sending it, but merely to nail the emotion, the sense of not being good enough. Foolishly I then emailed the publication to congratulate them on publishing ‘Lunching on Olympus’ and more in haste than consideration included some of the lines from the letter as part of the email.

Remarkably the associate editor replied and wondered whether they might publish part of the text in the letters page and in the ensuing e-conversation kindly agreed to send me some back copies of TAS.

The anticipation of waiting for them was more acute than any I have know for some time, like waiting for a phone-call from a lover or for a reply to a billet doux. When they slid through the letter box, wrapped in that curious shade of yellow/orange envelope that is peculiar to North America, I resisted the urge to tear at the package, instead finding a letter opener and somewhat formally teased the flap open, slowly revealing the contents before sliding them gently out to lie in all their beauty on my desk. I have treated lovers with less regard. Dresses have been cursorily cast to the floor in more frenziedly impatient haste to reveal their contents. But this was different. This was textual, not sexual.

And so began the love affair that I am currently enjoying, that has consumed me as all good affairs should. I have read articles on torture and dictators, on the best westerns, on the story of John Wilkes Booth. I have read about Cy Twombly in Paris and a superb piece on why black Americans need a new story, a piece that was published long before Obama was elected President. And in the course of this reading I have fallen in love with the size and shape of The American Scholar. I love its typeface and its quietly worn intelligence. I love the fact that Einstein, Bellow, Didion and Sagan all wrote pieces for it, that in 2006 they published fiction by Alice Munro, Louis Begley and Anne Beattie. I love the fact that its title is drawn from the Ralph Waldo Emerson speech to the Phi Delta Kappa society at Harvard in 1837 and that it has stayed true to its ideals of self-knowledge, independent thinking and a commitment to science, arts, books, history and world affairs. I can’t help but feel that Socrates would have loved it too. He’d probably have edited it given the chance and a sizeable tear in the lacework of time. But even he wouldn’t have been able to improve it, because it is perfect as it is.

I am therefore slightly ashamed that my letter was published. I feel that I have somehow sneaked in under the wire, in the same way that I‘ve assumed past girlfriends have lowered their normal standards and I have just been very lucky. The feeling that I’m not quite up to the task whispering to me all over again, a little demon on my shoulder saying “look what you’ve done, you’ve spoiled it now.” But I’m also honoured to have had a little contribution immortalised in such august company.

In a reply to Peter Stothard’s piece a correspondent reprised Larkin’s line that “depression is to me what daffodils were to Wordsworth” and as I look at their nodding heads at the end of the garden I can but agree with the old song; that love is indeed a many splendoured thing. An American Scholarly thing too.



Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Orange Prize for Fiction 2009

Another year and another Orange Prize for Fiction longlist, but my what a diverse and fascinating one which mirrors the great panel of judges for this year’s shop window on the very best of writing by women.

Chaired by Fi Glover, the four judges Bidisha, Sarah Churchwell, Kira Cochrane and Martha Lane-Fox have done the prize proud with 20 works by authors that include a Nobel Laureate, a 63-year-old newcomer and the ever-fascinating, eminently readable Kamila Shamsie. In Dubai recently I was chatting with the prize’s co-founder Kate Mosse (LibraDoodle passim) who told me that a nicer panel of literary judges it would be harder to find and that her hopes for a great list were high.

You can read the full list and details of each of the books here but my first impression is that the range of styles, ages and modes of writing contained within this year’s list really cuts to the heart of what the Orange prize, now in its second decade, was set up for. It seems odd now to think that there was a time when the considerable talent and achievement of women’s critical views and writing was overlooked by other prizes and the Orange has been at the forefront of changing this. So much so that they seem to have dropped the "for Women's Fiction" part of the prize's title which I'm sure was there in the early days. Progress indeed. If you want to really know what women are thinking about, writing about and what is exercising them then you could do far worse than read the entirety of the longlist. I will and I sincerely hope you will too, as this year it includes works from Australia, the USA, Ireland, Malaysia, Pakistan and Canada as well as the UK possibly making it the most international longlist that the Orange has yet fielded.

Fi Glover has said that “all the books on the long list are there because each one, in its own way, is terrific in its ambition, quality and simple ability to entertain.” Hurrah to that, for many of the authors on the list are some of the best storytellers of our time, irrespective of gender.

I don’t envy the panel the next phase; how the hell they pick one winner from such a brilliant field is beyond me, but I congratulate them on a superbly rich showing so far and wish them luck for the next stage. I hope that the niceness that Kate Mosse mentioned endures!



Huddersfield, famille Harris and hope.

Forgive the mild rant of the earlier post, it’s unlike me to speak ill of anyone or anything, but in this instance I found myself so exercised by the casual rudeness I had to make an exception.

Much happier ground has been walked over the past week. A trip to Southampton to host the third annual Southampton Litfest, a collaboration between the Hay organisation, Southampton University and local schools that sees hundreds of local 12-13 year olds turning up at the University’s rather smart Nuffield theatre for a day of literary fun.

Previous years guest have included fantastic performances by Lemn Sissay, the ever-brilliant Michael Morpurgo and wonderful Valerie Bloom, whose quiet, calm demeanour offstage belies the power of her performances on stage. This year the guests were Guardian Children’s fiction prize winner Jenny Valentine and the Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams, the writing duo behind the bestselling Deeper, Tunnels and Freefall which is due for publication about… now.

It was a fun day and one I always enjoy, but also a tough gig as I’m neither there in an authorial capacity nor am I famous so often wonder if the audience knows what I’m there for. My task, as I see it, is to act as MC and warm the children up for the main acts. This year I taught them the first verse of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika and got them to laugh at me as I did the Haka – the New Zealand All Black rugby team version, Ka Mate - and explained the story behind it. Much fun.

We stay at a local Hilton Hotel, not as smart as you might imagine, as it’s rather a tired outpost of the Hilton Empire, but one that showed me that there’s something even more depressing than a Corby trouser press in your room... a tired, old Corby trouser press with all the knobs removed and rubbish stuck in the bit where one’s trouser would normally go. I did wonder for a brief moment if it was some form of installation art, but only for the briefest of moments.

This past weekend saw a different slice of life as I trained up to Huddersfield to spend the weekend with Joanne Harris and her family and to be ‘in conversation’ with Joanne as part of the Huddersfield Literature Festival. A few years ago, at the Knightsbridge launch of one of Joanne’s cook books for which she gives all the proceeds to various charities, I felt moved enough to celebrate her launch by buying her some ‘Provencal’ style side plates featuring an anchovy design and I felt honoured to be invited to the house where they reside.

Joanne and her husband and daughter have a lovely home and made me feel extraordinarily welcome. Their garden is a wonderful few acres of lawn, paddock, woodland and a Japanese inspired area complete with pond, waterfall and stream that put me in mind of the various areas of Holland Park in London (see LibraDoodle passim). Waking at dawn in my room on Sunday morning to a chorus of dove, pigeon, magpie and the football rattle call of a highly vocal mistle thrush was as much of a treat as sitting at the wooden refectory table in Joanne’s powder-blue themed kitchen eating croissants and talking about writing, inspiration and stories. I hope that she won’t mind if I tell you a little known fact about her… she doesn’t like chocolate. Who’d have thought? The event on Saturday night was notable for the warmth of the audience and for Jo’s reading of my favourite of her short stories, Hope and Faith go Shopping, taken from her collection Jigs and Reels. It’s such a heart-warming story and when it was read by Joanne gave me quite a lump in my throat. On leaving, Jo very kindly gave me a copy of Lollipop Shoes which if you haven’t yet read I can highly recommend; a very clever and engaging revisiting of the Vianne and Anouk characters in Chocolat. If you ever meet Jo and can get her to talk about having Juliette Binoche as a houseguest and what the filming of Chocolat was like then do, it’s a great tale, but not one for me to tell.

Back in Mortlake, Spring seems to finally have arrived and the smell of new mown grass wafts through my open window as I write, ameliorating the gloom of credit crunch job-seeking. Bring on the songbirds say I.



Friday, 13 March 2009

Job Applications and how to fail them - A tale of an uneven playing field.

Still shaking the sand out of my soul from Dubai – curious how such a few days can be so very affecting – life back in the UK has regained some equilibrium as the past twelve months of bleak hopelessness gives way to increasing invitations to chair events at literary festivals, speak at gatherings and write.

You will by now know that my application to be the Artistic Director of the Bath Literature Festival was politely declined and that the successful applicant was none other than James Runcie, a delightful man and fine writer who will doubtless work his magic for Bath. I first met him when I interviewed him on Oneword Radio for his non-fiction work The Colour of Heaven that I recently re-read and loved all over again. Its telling of the discovery of lapis lazuli in the hills of Afghanistan and the effect that it had as a pigment in Renaissance paintings, giving rise to greater use of perspective, is a triumph of research and great story-telling. Very good luck James and here’s to a fine future for you and for Bath.

The other post I applied for having lost out on Bath will remain nameless in order that I can say the following.

The email of rejection was as cursorily insensitive as it was troublingly wrong.

I was told that my application was declined as during the interview “…the team felt that you didn't quite understand the idea and principals (sic) as outlined in the supporting material.”

A fine reason for being told ‘no’, or at least it would be had I actually been sent the ‘supporting material.”

So I asked them, “what supporting material?”

Their crab-appley response was, “The Business Plan was only sent to those applicants that came back having received the initial pack, to ask further questions by way of research. It was not sent to every applicant we saw at interview.”

Oh that’s fine then. That despite asking for all the relevant information to be sent to me, it seems that some applicants were given more information than others. Does that seem fair to you? You can guess how I feel, I'm sure. Exactly. Like a one-legged footballer in a boxing ring. Bruised and handicapped.

Then to be told, “Your application had strong drama training and education emphasis (sic) which are not relevant to the post.” would equally have been fine and perfectly acceptable had my application actually had such an emphasis. It didn’t. I told them.

“Did they mean these comments for another applicant?” I asked them, by now less incredulous than I would normally have been.

They responded, “The remark about education and drama training was made in error and I sincerely apologise for that.”

I make no apology for being cross, no scratch that, really, very cross about this. Putting oneself up for posts requires thought, research, carefully worded letters of application and CV’s and isn’t done to pass the time of day, but is done in full seriousness, with contemplation and analysis aplenty. Presenting oneself for interview is a time-consuming, stressful affair – and that’s just if you’re doing it right – to be made to feel that you’re just making up numbers is appalling. To have one’s application declined is of course galling and hard, one only applies for posts that one wants to take on, feels that one can make a difference with. To be declined in such an appallingly amateur fashion is disrespectful at least and bloody rude at best. I tell you, if they were spending Government money on this travesty, I'd be... oh hold on.

I hope that you don't read this as the immoderate, sour-grape, rantings of the recently rejected. Whilst I'd be more than happy to oblige, that's not what I intend here. I've had enough rejection during my lifetime for it not to be an issue, sometimes the face fits, sometimes it doesn't. It's the risk one accepts when applying for anything. What I do expect though, is that those who have the onerous task of declining the advances of hopefuls, do so with grace and humanity and if they can't manage that, simple accuracy would be a good start. What they should avoid is po-faced patronisation and misattribution. It isn't too much to ask, is it? The fine burghers of Bath were courteous, professional and charming. The call telling me that they would not be taking me on left me feeling sorry for the fine fellow whose role it was to be the bearer of bad tidings. Talk about extremes of approach. Grrrrr.

Right, that’s my soul purged of sand and sourness so let us away to happier ground. Now where was it? Drat, I know I left it lying around here somewhere.



Saturday, 7 March 2009

The Emirate Airline International Festival of Literature

Now that the week is over and the intervening five days since my return from Dubai have served to filter my thoughts, to act as the prism through which I can see recent events, I can tell you about the EAIFL festival.

Those of you who follow such things will be aware of the pre-festival fuss about a book that its author and publisher claimed was banned by the festival organisers, claimed was censored because of its content, claimed was being suppressed. We now know that this was not the case. None of it. The publisher had submitted the book for consideration and as is the right of any festival organiser, the submission was declined. It happens all the time in festivals all over the world. But that was in September last year. It seems that the publisher held this information back until just prior to the festival in order to gain publicity for the work but in doing so has, I feel, won a Pyrrhic victory. There is it seems no suppressive force at work here. Indeed I understand that Magrudy’s, the bookshop chain run by the festival organiser, will be stocking the book. That was the fuss. Now for the festival. Because the true story is as far from one of suppression and censorship is it’s possible to be. The true story is of a well-organised, richly diverse festival that attracted extraordinary crowds of local nationals, expats of many nationalities, western and eastern, and visitors from the Gulf States and beyond.

This was the first such festival to be held in the region. It was an experiment borne out of an idea conceived by two extraordinary people, one a scion of a British literary family, the other a co-founder of a large, local book chain and I can honestly say I have never been to a festival quite like it.

Dubai is a city of cities. Within its bounds are the Healthcare city, the Sports city, the Business city, the Motor City and many more. We were based, of course, in the Festival city, a towering semicircle of two hotels joined by an events centre, a building that really put the arc into architecture. Set on the north shore of Dubai’s creek, it has walkways and promenades along the flowing water and looking out over a small harbour of luxury motoryachts. Across the water was either a breaking yard or repair wharf – I could never quite work out which - for old, rusting hulks. It has a helipad to service the gleaming helicopters that bring yacht owners to their crafts. Frequently. It has, along the shore, one of the many malls I mentioned in the previous post. It is, to be simple, a self contained city within a city with views eastward towards central Dubai’s extraordinary cityscape and for 5 days it was my home and my office.

The home part was a suite in the Intercontinental Hotel. A suite with all the facilities one might expect of a five star hotel. I didn’t know what to expect having rarely stayed in a five star hotel. It had a bed, tables and a desk of course, But it also had a wet room where turning the tap on for the bath activated a fountain which came from the ceiling. The shower created a veritable monsoon that drained through the heated slate floor. There was a huge plasma screen, an iPod station and carpeting that my feet sank into. It had a mini bar. A bar the size of a Mini. It was the swankiest suite I have ever stayed in and it was larger than some Chelsea flats that I’ve lived in. Needless to say I loved it but, being there to work, saw too little of it.

The office part was centred in the events part of the complex, huge rooms that were to be the venues for the many talks and discussions. EAIFL had attracted over 60 world-stage authors and I was to chair events with 5 of them a day. My first event was with Turki al Dahkil, Samuel Shimon and Shakir Noor and was held in the one venue that required a short walk outside the complex to an igloo. Yes, you read that correctly. An igloo. In Dubai. An aluminium geodesic dome covered in white and set at the end of a jetty in the creek. It became my favourite venue as it was impossible to enter it without a smile creeping onto my face. The event went well and half an hour after it finished I was back to chair Kate Adie, talking about her marvellous book “Into Danger”, an exploration into why those with properly dangerous jobs do them. We discussed bomb disposal experts, snake venom collectors and deep sea divers, all with Kate’s modest sang froid and great natural ability to tell a story.

Up to this point, my impressions were of a festival that was so well planned, so beautifully organised that it would have been the envy of many a more established lit-fest, indeed there were times in the igloo that my mind drifted Hay-wards and to how similar it all was.But it was in the next event that the difference hit home.

I was in one of the other venues, the Al Merkaz ballroom, in conversation with Anita Amirrezvani whose book “Blood of Flowers’ was long listed for last year’s Orange Prize. It is a rich tapestry of a story, really, as it tells of a 17th century Persian peasant girl whose path to self discovery and redemption is through her ability, her talent, in rug making. We were discussing aspects of it when I noticed a group of seven women in the crowd who seemed to be paying slightly more intently focussed attention than the rest of the audience. When we came to questions from the floor I asked them where they had come from. They had come from Kuwait, they said, for this event. They were from Kuwait University with their professor and had raised funds to make the trip and attend, not as part of their studies – they were drama students – but because they loved the book. My heart soared.

As questions came from the floor I then noticed a young man sitting on his own in the front row who I sensed wanted to ask a question but was too shy to put his hand up. Just before I closed the event I asked if he would like to ask anything. He stood up and in a clear, loud and heavily accented voice asked “why there are no ‘potboilers’ from Iran” and ‘why no detective stories from Baghdad’. Anita hesitated and I asked if she would mind my answering. I asked him if he liked detective stories. I asked him where he was from. I asked him if he wrote. I then asked him if he understood where my questions were leading. He shook his head. I said that it is perhaps for him to be the first to write such works and that in years to come I hoped to see him up on the stage talking about them. He clapped his hands to his head, said, “Of course, I have been so stupid” and fled the venue, I imagine, I sincerely hope, to start writing!

There were many such moments of joy over the course of the next three days. It was a pleasure and an honour to be on stage with Frank McCourt, Kate Mosse, Andrey Kurkov, Louis de Bernieres, Karin Slaughter, all valued friends over the years, but it was a rarer pleasure to be so with Ibrahim al Koni, one of the best known of Arab writers, with the internationally acclaimed Iranian poet Fadhil al Azzawi, with the wonderful Mohammed Bennis and the delightful Adel Khuzam.

So what will I remember about this inaugural festival? What will the abiding memories be?

They will be of the Arabic poetry evening I hosted, perhaps one of the most taxing, nerve-wracking and unrehearsed but also enchanting and funny nights of my life, of going to the hotel terrace in the relative cool of the late evening and introducing the beautiful and gently intelligent Saudi author Rajaa Al Sanea and her sister Rasha to Kate Adie, Kate Mosse (whose blog is here) Brian Aldiss and his wife, Katy Guest and Claire Armitstead, Liz Thompson, Anthony Horowitz and his wife and then watching them all laugh and chat while drinking mint tea and Turkish coffee. Of listening to Kate Adie tell the funniest story I’ve heard in years and seeing those around the table weep with mirth. These will be some of the memories. There will also be the validation of the reason I agreed to go, to enter into the dialogue, to help build the bridges that we will need in the future if we are to make sense of and help repair this fractured global village, to embrace the differences and to mark the similarities, to help take yet more steps into the ocean of freedoms of speech and expression.

I was concerned that before I left for Dubai two journalists had been sentenced for writings they had posted on the internet, that for all our ability to talk, there were those whose voices were suppressed. I was concerned that in the hastily convened discussion on freedom of expression that they were not mentioned, while some western authors discussed self-censorship. I was angry that there was an elephant on the table and that some were not even acknowledging it, far less discussing it. It was our duty to do so I thought. It was I thought the reason we were there. I talked to a British journalist about it and her piece is here. I will remember this frustration as much as I will remember all the joys. But on my return to Britain I found this on the English PEN website:

“Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the emir of Dubai who is also it’s vice president and prime minister, has since decreed that no journalist should receive a prison sentence for press-related offences, and the journalists have all been released from jail.”

So along with meeting friends old and new, along with meeting someone who has changed my life, I will remember this, that talking does makes a difference, a very real difference to very real people. And that is what EAIFL was for, it is what it did and it is why I am proud to say “I was there.”



Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Dubai - Impressions of Opulence

Dubai, city of dhows and spices, a harbour on the shore of the Persian Gulf through which traders from India and the East have passed for untold centuries to take their goods to Arabia, Africa and Europe. Or then again, Dubai, city of glass and steel, of man-made islands built for the hyper-rich and famous; of buildings so tall that rather than merely scraping the sky they run it through completely.

I hoped that both cities might exist in tandem, that the older might be the basis of the newer and that glimpses of it might be caught between the vast expanses of modern concrete. That was my expectation, based on past travels to cities such as Damascus and Amman, cities whose history is a continuous thread resulting in a visible blend of ancient and modern.

A guest of the first literature festival to be held in the region, I was flown in some considerable comfort from London. The flight takes a route over the Persian Gulf, a magnificent sight from 36,000 feet, its oil platforms and gas flares illuminating the water as the sun sets. Along the coast are the famously huge artificial islands, “The World’ and ‘Palm 1’, glorified housing estates which at night, from the air, look like jewelled necklaces, The Burj Dubai, arguably the world’s tallest building at approximately 2,680 feet, soars upwards as if to pluck from the sky any unfortunate aircraft that veer too near.

Once landed the sheer scale of the airport terminals impresses. They are, quite simply, so huge that even when busy they give the impression of being empty. However it is only when you head into the city that Dubai really begins to amaze. Manhattan has its famous skyline. Hong Kong’s may have been superseded by Shanghai. But Dubai trumps them all. And by quite some margin.

My first impression was that a quiver of Brobdignagian arrows, designed by Gaudi and forged by Thor’s hammer in Dante’s inferno from some extraterrestrial material, had been flung to the ground in a galactic rage. It is science fiction made fact. It has a beauty all its own in the same way that a rocket launch is beautiful. A hard, brittle, masculine beauty of impressive magnitude. No gentle classical proportions here. No easy-on-the-eye Ionic or Doric columnar softness. Not a lot of architectural chintz here. At night these ‘super-spears’ twinkle against the velvet sky, lit up like majestic Christmas trees. During the day they loom, like darkly malevolent stick insects escaped from a genetic experiment gone badly wrong.

Heading into the centre of town in the relative cool of the morning, I went in search of Dubai’s history. I was taken to the Spice Souk, the Gold Souk and the Textile Souk. I was pointed in the direction of the appallingly named ‘heritage village’. I went to them all. What I saw was, I’m afraid disappointing. The spice souk has changed greatly since Wilfred Thesiger took his glorious photos in 1948. So much so that there are seemingly only a handful of spice traders now operating from this once fabled market which has been taken over by vendors of the largest aluminium cooking pots that I’ve ever seen. The Gold Souk has changed beyond recognition to become a shopping centre comprised of hundreds of garish, neon-lit ‘outlets’. Less souk, more Hatton Garden on steroids and with a limitless electricity budget. Certainly it’s full of gold, indeed so much so that the tourist board make great play of the fact that there are always over 24 tons of the precious metal on display in Dubai’s shop windows. Credit crunch? What credit crunch? Actually the credit crunch is rather a big issue in Dubai but we’ll come to that shortly.

The cynics amongst you will wince as did I at the term ‘Heritage Village’ and you’d be right to do so. The clue is in the explanation that “it was created for potters and weavers to display their craft”. To be fair it does its best but when the literature says “it may look fake and touristy” you know what to expect but I also found myself feeling somewhat sympathetic to its lack of pretension.

If modern Dubai is about anything it is about shopping. Not gentle high street shopping for domestic provisions and necessities, but high impact, high energy shopping for international brands. In the brochures I read on the plane and in the hotel, shopping was variously described as a ‘sport’, an ‘extreme sport’ and even a ‘religion’. If the latter is true then the temples of this faith are the many malls. Nor ordinary malls mind you, but super malls. Imagine the progeny of Kent’s Bluewater and London’s new Westfield combined with Milton Keynes. All of it. The whole town. Imagine Oxford Street crossed with Chelsea’s Kings Road complete with a roof, air-conditioning and more escalators than the whole of London’s underground system. And there’s not just one of them, but - and prepare yourselves for this - at least forty-five of them. Yes forty-five enormous shopping malls each of which claim to offer a “unique and rewarding shopping experience” or a “joyous and care-free experience.”

Now I should probably at this point confess to not being much of a shopper. Whilst I enjoy the odd bout of retail therapy I’ve never thought of it as a sport and far less an entire religion. So to help me gain some perspective for my first Dubai mall trip I was accompanied by a rather powerful publishing journalist, well known for her wryly perceptive observation. We went to Marks and Spencer. She was not impressed. The stock was identical to that in London and the prices weren’t much to write home about. We wandered around past Italian brand stores, French brand stores, American and English brand stores, jewellers, watch shops and all the same coffee shops that plague our own high streets. We looked at each other with growing dismay. We could have been anywhere from Miami to Manchester were it not for some of the other shoppers, women dressed in modest abayas and hijabs, some with the niqab face veil, men in immaculately pressed white dishdashas, their kuffiya headcloths held on with coiled woollen agals. We found a bookshop called Magrudy’s and sought sanctuary from the consumerist onslaught. It was like a branch of Daunts, the rather good London chain, full of calming wooden shelves making it reminiscent of a ship’s interior. But a Daunts with gigantism. 

Back at the hotel I sat on a terrace drinking mint tea, listening to the wonderfully evocative sound of amplified muezzin calling the faithful to prayer and watching a scarlet sun set behind the city. I had heard that Dubai is in trouble; that a rescue package of $10 billion had been agreed with the United Arab Emirates to help its liquidity problems. I had heard rumours that newly redundant expatriates were leaving in their droves and that up to 3000 cars a week were being dumped, keys left in the ignitions, at the airport as they fled home. That the planned Palm 2 island will not happen and that property prices have sunk by 25% in the past two months. Many of these rumours were confirmed to me by Kate Adie, there to talk about her book ‘Into Danger’.

Another guest of the festival, Louis de Bernieres, an old friend, came to sit with me and asked me what I was thinking. As the sun gave its last shimmer and sank below the extraordinary cityscape horizon I answered in a word, “Ozymandias.” He replied “Me too. Castles built on sand. It’ll never last."