Book Review: The Rory Stewart Crazy Train Trilogy

The Lexplorers have been enjoying our series of book reviews of What Were They Thinking? travel adventures,  in which we can live vicariously through the fascinating (and often terrifying) accounts of authors who have written about unique journeys in interesting places.  These authors describe journeys above and beyond the standard travelogue, visiting places we might not otherwise be able to see and doing it in a way that we probably would not want to replicate.  Thanks to these intrepid travelers, we have read along as they hitchhiked around Ireland with a Fridge, Couchsurfed in Iran, and visited North Korea as both a tourist and as a defector.  In our latest What Were They Thinking? book review, today we go off the rails on a crazy train (with apologies to Ozzy Osbourne) and discuss three books by the Scottish author Rory Stewart.  First, in The Places in Between, Stewart braves snipers, frostbite, and dysentery to walk alone across Afghanistan in the chaotic period shortly after the fall of the Taliban.  Next, in The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, he faces mortar shells and car bombs when he volunteers to serve as an administrator in post-war Iraq.  Finally, in The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland, he risks his life to walk along the dangerous border between Scotland and England.  Well actually he doesn’t risk his life at all in that one, and that border is not at all dangerous.  In fact, the third book is nothing like the first two, which without question fit into our What Were They Thinking? category in terms of personal risk and sacrifice.   And in all honesty, these three books are not a true trilogy.  But the three books are by the same author, and they share common themes of bold exploration that piqued our Lexplorers interest.  Plus, we like the sound of “Crazy Train Trilogy,” so we’re going to discuss all three today.

The Places in Between

Lexplorers rating: 9.0/10 average customer rating: 4.2/5

In 2000 and 2001, Rory Stewart spent a year and half walking alone across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal.  That in itself would make a really interesting book, which he unfortunately has not written.  The book he did write, The Places in Between, is about the leg of his walk across Afghanistan.   This section of the walk almost did not happen, because he got expelled from Iran under suspicion of being a spy (possibly because he had neglected to tell them that both he and his father actually had worked for Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service), and the Taliban wouldn’t allow him to enter Afghanistan.   In early 2002, he got a second chance when the Taliban fell, and, just 2 weeks after the new government took over, he crossed the border in order to fill in the gap in his trek across the region.  His plan was to walk from Herat to Kabul across the mountains.  He first needed to get permission for the walk from the Iranian-accented Security Service officers, who put him through a harrowing interrogation and tried to discourage him from walking  (“It is mid-winter, there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee.  Do you want to die?”)

The walk itself is a never-ending series of hardships, from severe weather to food scarcity to physical ailments to land mines to encounters with armed militias.  There are 4 primary ethnic groups in Afghanistan (Hazara, Aimaq, Tajik, Pashtun) that historically do not necessary get along, and he crosses through regions populated by all 4.  There are both Shia and Sunni Muslims, who also do not always get along.  The country had been constantly at war for 25 years, and individual loyalties had shifted frequently for/against Russians, Mujahadeen, Taliban, Northern Alliance, and US-led Coalition.  At each village that Stewart walks into, in order to know how to request safe passage he must first figure out what the ethnic makeup of the village is, who the village chief is, and then who that chief and his followers supported in the various wars.  This leads to bizarre and absurd situations where Stewart will encounter armed men who shoot at him while he is walking between villages but then welcome him as their guest when he reaches their village.  His sleeping arrangements in the villages most often involve curling up on a bare floor with several, and sometimes dozens of, villagers.  There is no plumbing, it is winter, and Stewart has dysentery and diarrhea for most of the walk.   And because that all doesn’t seem challenging enough, toward the start of his walk Stewart decides to take a large stray dog on as a walking companion.  But dogs are deemed unclean by the Islamic residents of most of the villages, so Stewart and his dog endure frequent barrages of stones thrown by villagers at the unclean dog.

And yet, despite the hardship of the walk, Stewart perseveres and finds many moments of joy.   He comes upon sights that few tourists have ever seen.  He meets villagers who have very little to offer but who welcome him with open arms as a guest.  At one point he reflects on his experience:

“I sat down and wrote a long letter to my parents, in case I was killed.  In the past sixteen months I had bribed, flattered, pried, bullied, begged, and wheedled in order to continue my walk.  I was more of a tramp than a mystic, but as I wrote I felt at peace.  I described to my parents the moments on the way that seemed to have a deep, unified relation to my past.  I wondered if walking was not a form of dancing.  I was happy then and I slept well”

Stewart completed his walk from Herat to Kabul, and The Places in Between is a well-written account of his experience walking across a part of the world very few people have ever seen.


The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

Lexplorers rating: 6.0/10 average customer rating: 4.6/5

After completing his walk across Afghanistan, Rory Stewart returned home and wrote the book that became The Places in Between.  But rather than relaxing in the safety of Scotland or going on a book tour around Europe, he instead looked around for another crazy train to hop on.  In August 2003, after the invasion of Iraq by Coalition forces, he applied to work in Iraq, even going so far as to take a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad to ask for a job.  The British Foreign Office, probably having read his first book and realizing that if they didn’t give him a job then he would just decide to walk across Iraq on his own with a stray dog, appointed him as “deputy governorate coordinator” in Maysan, on the Iranian border in southeastern Iraq.  The Prince of the Marshes is Stewart’s account of his year as an administrator in Maysan and later in neighboring Dhi Qar.   Much like the region of Afghanistan that Stewart walked through in The Places in Between, the region of Iraq containing Maysan and Dhi Qar has a long history of ethnic and religious conflict, which, combined with its location on the border with Iran, has meant decades in a state of almost constant war.

The book contains some very interesting history of the region where Stewart worked, as well as a thorough rundown of the many different religious and ethnic groups (each with its own militia) battling for power.  For the most part, The Prince of the Marshes is an account of the administrative challenges of trying to rebuild infrastructure within a war zone while navigating the politics and dangers of warring militias.  Stewart summarizes the first meeting of the members of the provincial council:

“Most had killed others; all had lost close relatives.  Some wanted a state modeled on seventh-century Arabia, some wanted something that resembled even older pre-Islamic tribal systems. Some were funded by the Iranian secret service; others sold oil on the local black market, ran protection rackets, looted government property, and smuggled drugs.  Most were linked to construction companies that made immense profits by cheating us.  Two were first cousins and six were from a single tribe; some had tried to assassinate each other.  This dubious gathering included and balanced, however, all the most powerful political factions in the province, and I believed that if anyone could secure the province, they could.”

It turns out that many of the groups Stewart had hoped would “secure the province” ended up instead kidnapping and/or assassinating each other, as well as directly attacking Stewart and other Coalition staff and buildings.  Stewart writes quite matter-of-factly about the frequent machine gun fire and mortar rounds that he dodges, and he recites the long list of civilians that he knew personally who were killed, wounded, or kidnapped in Iraq during his year there.  Stewart certainly does not shy away from danger.  At one point during a multi-day militia attack on his administrative compound (by one of the groups he had met with many times and had trusted to help keep the peace) he sends all other civilians to safety (barely) and stays behind with the military units defending the compound.  After the compound is hit by 34 mortar shells and 59 rocket-propelled grenades, Stewart does not hop in the first armored vehicle escaping the attack.  Instead he writes “I asked someone to make coffee while I tried to deal with the mess in the computer room.”

As with The Places in Between, Rory Stewart survives all the many life-threatening situations and writes an accessible and very interesting account of a unique experience.

One final note about The Prince of the Marshes is that the book was unfortunately not very well edited.   A previous borrower of our library copy (the 2006 Harcourt hardcover first edition) had taken it upon themselves to mark up the text (in pen) wherever they found a misspelled or duplicate word, a missing punctuation mark, or another typo.   We counted more than 100 of these marks in the book.


The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland

Lexplorers rating: 4.0/10 average customer rating: 3.9/5

Many years after writing The Prince of the Marshes about his year as a politician in Iraq, Rory Stewart was elected a British Member of Parliament.   A native of Scotland, Stewart represented a constituency that “had historically been part of an independent nation, and then part of Scotland, but was now in modern England, and included half the English-Scottish border.”   This region serves as the backdrop for his third book, The Marches: A Borderland Journey between England and Scotland.   The book is ostensibly about one of Stewart’s favorite activities: a long walk, this time along the historical border between England and Scotland.  But unlike his walk across Afghanistan in The Places in Between, the walk is really secondary to the two main themes of the book: 1) a reflection on the long life of his father and 2) the difficulty in defining and separating Scottishness from Englishness in a border region that has straddled the two countries for hundreds of years.  Unlike the first two books of the Rory Stewart trilogy, the crazy train does not run through The Marches.   There are no situations that present mortal danger, no daring or reckless decisions, no gunfire or militias.  There is just a lot of introspection on national identity and family heritage.

As in Stewart’s first two books, The Marches contains a thorough discussion of the history of the region.  It is peppered with maps from ancient times through the present, each with a corresponding chapter of historical detail.  This includes some interesting discussion of the linguistic history of the region, covering languages and dialects from Pictish, Cumbric, Welsh, Geordie, Cumbrian English, to Scots Gaelic.  This was definitely the highlight of the book for us.  Also interspersed with the history and the details of the actual walk are chapters about Stewart’s father.  This interleaving of three different threads (the walk, the history, his father) causes the book to be stylistically extremely disjointed.  It is almost as if Stewart is publishing his account and thoughts as they happen, without the benefit of post hoc organizing and editing.  The author realizes this and in later chapters even includes conversations with his father about how difficult he was finding it to finish the book (“I’m still really struggling to bring the walk together – make sense of it all.”)   This struggle is unfortunately never fully resolved in the final version of the book.  Stewart’s writing about his father’s life and his own relationship with his father is touching, but it is diluted by being shoehorned into a book about Scottish-English border history.  In the end, we felt that The Marches would have been better as two separate books: one about the struggle to separate Scottishness and Englishness in the border region, and a second as a requiem for his father.



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