This time last week, all being well, we would have been preparing to receive the novelist Philip Pullman as our guest speaker for the Dark Angels masterclass at Merton College, Oxford. Sadly, all was not well. Poor Philip had been laid low and a couple of days before had sent us an apologetic sick note.
It was a blow. It would have been the third time he had entertained us to an after-dinner conversation in the relaxed and intimate setting of our teaching room, and the two previous occasions had been memorable. I particularly recall him talking about the daemons, the animal alter egos possessed by the characters in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and how the idea for them had not struck until he was on the seventeenth draft of the first of the three novels. Yet that single moment of inspiration had led to one of the most spectacular literary devices of recent English fiction, changing his career and fortune at a stroke. The only thing better than that, he told us, had been kissing Nicole Kidman at the premiere of The Amber Spyglass.
But although we were without Philip, all was not lost. Stuart had managed at very short notice (his phone call reached her at work on her Oxford allotment) to get hold of an old friend with an extraordinary story to tell us, Lady Sedhar Chozam Ball, a Tibetan actress and activist married to an eminent Oxford mathematician.
Sedhar was spirited out of Tibet aged five by her sister, shortly after the Chinese invasion, her parents having already died young, as was common then in Tibet. In India she was placed first in a refugee camp, then in a boarding school. Later she trained as a nurse, before finally making her way to the UK where she became an actress. Today, as well as appearing on stage and in films, she champions those whose voices cannot otherwise be heard, such as the Tibetans themselves and other oppressed minorities around the world.
Listening to this elegant, articulate, titled woman speaking to us in the rarefied surroundings of an ancient Oxford college, it was almost impossible to imagine the circumstances of her early years: the grinding hardship of life herding yaks in the high Himalayas, the danger of the journey out of Tibet under Chinese eyes, the uncertainty and chaos of a refugee camp, the loneliness of being an orphan at an Indian boarding school. And although she wears those experiences lightly, I couldn’t help thinking how profoundly they set her apart from us, the cosseted middle-class Europeans who made up her audience.
This sense of competing realities was doubtless heightened by the novel I was then reading and have since finished. The Blind Man’s Garden, by Nadeem Aslam, a British Pakistani, is the story of two young men who cross into Afghanistan in the months following 9/11 to help care for civilians wounded in the mounting conflict between US forces and the supporters of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
I saw Nadeem Aslam speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a couple of years ago. He smouldered on stage, and that same intensity translates directly into his writing. I was almost overwhelmed by the power of the story he tells in this novel, by the beauty of the language he employs, and by the brutality of the lives he describes, where extreme poverty and violence, in a landscape of unremitting harshness, are routinely balanced by extraordinary resourcefulness, selflessness and courage.
Again, it left me to think that we have no idea of what it is like to live life on the very edge, as do so many people in that troubled region of the world. And while in most respects I am grateful for this, it does make me reflect on how trivial and inconsequential are most of our daily pre-occupations – which perhaps is the job of all good speakers and writers.