Everywhere is Exotic, Everywhere is Mundane

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about travel-writing and anthropology, and about the obsession with exoticism that runs through both, in different but equally uneasy ways. Travel-writing often seeks to heighten the exotic: the excitable travel writer revels in it, talking up their experiences and carefully framing photographs to make sure that the Coca-Cola signs are not included. Meanwhile, anthropology tends to downplay it: the sober anthropologist refuses to get involved, sets out to demonstrate that this apparent exoticism is …

Raining Trees, Faraway Isles

I don’t know quite how long ago it was that I ran into the writer and journalist Grace Tan-Johannes (Grace Susetyo) online. I think it was around seven years, although I can’t be sure. Grace got in touch with me as she had read my first novel Cargo Fever (perhaps the only person in Indonesia who has ever done so), and we shared an interest in the Eastern part of the archipelago. We’ve been sporadically in touch ever since – Grace sent …

Return to Indonesia

It is a warm night in Bali, and I am walking along the road eating tahu isi – filled, deep fried parcels of tofu – when I realise how grateful I am to be back in Indonesia after almost a quarter of a century. I came to Indonesia in 1994 to study to become an anthropologist. I spent six of the most formative months of my life in the Tanimbar islands of Maluku, and returned to the UK to take …

Strange Collaborations

This morning, a parcel arrived containing my author copies of Snapshots of Museum Experience, the book on which I collaborated with my former partner, the late Elee Kirk. It is good to see the book published after so long. But this has been something of a strange collaboration. Over two years ago, Elee and I went into the our favourite coffee shop here in Leicester for what we called, half-jokingly, a ‘summit meeting’. We always liked to schedule in time …

The Zhouyi – a Tool for Invention

A couple of weeks back, I said I would post the text of my talk at the Third Annual World Yijing Summit Forum in Wuxi, as it might be interesting or at least entertaining for visitors to this blog. Since then, I’ve been in touch with my translator Junxia Pu 浦军霞, who has very generously given me permission to simultaneously publish her Chinese translation of the text. So here it is, in its entirety, with parallel text in Chinese. I …

The Duracell Bunny and the Deputy Political Commissar

It is lunchtime on the first day of the Third Annual World Yijing Summit Forum in Wuxi, China and I am in the dining hall surrounded by a bustle of other delegates: scholars, Daoist priests, diviners, geomancers, inventors, poets, financial speculators, management theorists and other mystics. I have come to the conference to talk about my book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, a collection of stories, each one drawn from one chapter, or hexagram, of what is one of the most ancient …

To Steal With the Eyes

Just over a quarter of a century ago, whilst I was a student of Fine Arts, I fell in love with the strange charms of anthropology. After starting my degree, it turned out that I wasn’t a particularly good artist, so I took refuge in the university library instead. I used to walk the library waiting for books to leap out at me and surprise me. And in this way, in my second year at university I stumbled across the …

A Quiet Evening Derailed…

This is the text that I used as a basis for my talk at Cambridge Union, on the 23rd November, whilst opposing the motion that ‘This House Would Kill One to Save Many.’ I wanted to avoid going on about trolley problems and to try and bring out two things that I thought were often overlooked in these discussions: the question of the actual fact of killing, and the question of the uncertainty inherent to the many ethical situations — …

Back Home, Close to Midsummer

I am now back in the UK from Myanmar, and have been enjoying the beautiful midsummer weather. There’s a lot that I haven’t yet written about Myanmar — and may yet write — and a great deal I could say about everything that has happened over the past few months. But for the time being, just to signal that I am home, and that I am alive and well, I’m posting this poem that I wrote a couple of days ago. It …

The Pleasures of a Good Index

It is extraordinary that one of the most comprehensive ethnographies of Burman culture is still The Burman by Shway Yoe, a.k.a. Sir J. George Scott — a Scottish journalist, schoolmaster and colonial administrator who lived in Burma in the nineteenth century. The Burman was first published in 1882, but remains an amazing repository of information. You can get the book everywhere here in Yangon, in pirated knock-off reprints of the Norton edition. I was given a copy by a friend soon after I arrived, and I’ve …