Georgia on my Mind

‘My recent book wasn’t shortlisted for the Orwell Prize but nor was Christopher Hitchens’s — the judges must be mad’

Literature Russia The Outsider's Diary

Travel, they say, improves the mind.  It can also paralyse it. One of the results of too much travel is being continuously reminded how much there is to know. No bad thing in itself, but you do have to stop and absorb at some point. I accept one final invitation, to speak in Tbilisi at “European Week”. Georgia wants into the EU, just as everybody else wants out, though it has understandable reasons.

While in Tbilisi I take the opportunity to visit the South Ossetian boundary with a group of fellow speakers. We pass the vast new settlements built to house the thousands of families “displaced” by Russia during the 2008 war. At the demilitarised zone we see the vast military bases still shooting up on the Russian-occupied side.

While walking along the demarcation line, I strike up conversation with Lord Harries. I always thought him a rather wonderful man when he was Bishop of Oxford and this is confirmed when I hear him speak later in the week. Sullen boundary guards watch us. I cannot avoid a shiver of pleasure at this strangely Anglican moment: standing in no man’s land, reminiscing about Oxford with the former Bishop.

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My recent book was longlisted, though sadly not shortlisted, for the Orwell Prize. The only comfort is that Christopher Hitchens’s last book,  Arguably, didn’t make the shortlist  either — an omission suggesting what all writers hope will be suggested when they fail to win prizes: that the judges must be mad.

On the night of the awards I head into the ceremony to discover a whole gaggle of Hitchenses. Christopher’s son Alexander (formerly of this magazine) is there, as is one of his daughters, his wife, brother and nephew. It transpires that a posthumous lifetime achievement award is to be given.This elevates my opinion of the judges, though it crushes any claim that they are of unsound mind. At the end of the other business (the book prize justly going to Toby Harnden’s account of British forces in Afghanistan) Christopher’s brother Peter — who himself won the Orwell Prize in 2010 — is introduced. In a witty and moving speech he presents the prize to Christopher’s widow, who reads from a last essay on Orwell.

Afterwards I am easily cajoled to join the whole clan and others at dinner. We pay some accidental tribute by being the last to leave. It is a wonderful and sad evening by the end of which I am reminded of what Martin Amis wrote in Experience.  To adapt him only slightly: “This is where we really go when we die: into the hearts of those who remember us. And all our hearts were bursting with him.”

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I have rarely spent an evening at English National Opera without someone’s genitals being flashed in my face. Whatever the opera, nudity there is so completely de rigueur that the only shocking production ENO could now stage would be one in which everybody kept their clothes on. I suppose it is an attempt to appear relevant, the other main effort being a reliable crowbarring in of references to contemporary politics.

The other evening I saw Detlev Glanert’s Caligula. I suppose if any opera should be granted the right to flash a nipple it is this one. A naked woman is on stage almost all night. But how to explain the moment when Caligula, having just announced a crazed new tax-gathering scheme, winks at the audience and says, “We’re all in this together”? Some clod in my row leant over and said “somewhat relevant” to his companion. I nearly started the first opera house fight since that couple in the stalls started punching each other during Satyagraha, most likely driven to violence as much by Philip Glass’s music as by each other. If ENO, or any of its audience, truly believe David Cameron is about to rape and kill us all, then they ought to say so rather than leave us to divine the fact via the medium of contemporary opera.

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The next night is happier. I am in Aldborough, North Yorkshire, for Any Questions? The sun is out: we record in a perfect English church on a perfect English evening in a perfect English village. The Labour MP gets booed, the Respect party representative gets heckled and the Conservative MP David Davis and I get cheered to the ancient and very attractive rafters. On such an evening it strikes me that civilisation just might survive after all.

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It also reminds me that I have drunk as much abroad as I can for a while. Summer is my time to write. From now I shall sit in the country, attempt to turn my thoughts into gold, and in my few spare moments reflect, Hobbit-like, on the strangeness of travel and the pleasures of home.