For a while I thought that, maybe, linking hiking and Brexit was far-fetched. Then along comes Rory Stewart as a late addition to the Brexit storyline.
Stewart emerged as an outsider in the 2019 Tory leadership race, promoting himself through a series of ‘Rory Walks’ videos on social media. He attracted public attention as a conviction politician, one who spoke plainly and clearly about doing the right thing. He made a great impression, even if a lot of people enthused about him with no clear idea of what he stood for. This includes the great work he did as prisons minister: it’s rare to see a minister set targets for themselves and promise to quit if these weren’t achieved.
Rory Stewart is also one of our age’s greatest walkers. I recently finished his book The Places in Between, which describes a solo trek across Afghanistan in 2002. This was shortly after the fall of the Taliban, when rural Afghanistan was incredibly dangerous. Stewart had been following the journeys of the emperor Babur, the first Mughal emperor of India, but had missed out Afghanistan due to the political situation, and decided to go there at the first possibility.
It’s hard to grasp exactly how dangerous Stewart’s walk was, and I’m not sure what he thought he was doing. He sometimes walks away from encounters, having bluffed his way past armed men, not sure if he will be shot in back of his the head. At one point, a group of men suggest he walk down to a riverside and he refuses:
They all laughed. ‘Why are you laughing?’ I asked. ‘Because if you had gone down there, you would have been killed,’ they replied.
Stewart is a great writer on walking, and his account is beautiful and melancholy. He describes a visit to the Bamyan Buddhas, giving a real feeling for the location. Stewart also powerfully evokes the experience of such a long trek:
My mind flitted from half-remembered poetry to things I had done of which I was ashamed. I stumbled on the uneven path. I lifted my eyes to the sky behind the peaks and felt the silence. This was what I had imagined a wilderness to be.
Few westerners have explored these regions of Afghanistan; and those that did were travelling between secure compounds in armoured cars (“International advisors and soldiers were prevented, because of security fears, from ever spending a single night in an Afghan village house.”). Throughout the trip, both locals and visitors are shocked that Stewart risks making his journeys on foot. But this means Stewart is able to discuss the rules of hospitality and how they are applied. He produces strange vignettes from his encounters:
As we went to sleep someone turned on a radio tuned to the BBC Dari service. A Bill Gates speech on American policy towards technology monopolies was being translated into Dari. The men listened intently. I wondered what these illiterate men without electricity thought of bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.
Stewart was not able to carry a map on his walk, in case he was thought to be a spy. Instead, his journey was a linear one: “I recited and followed this song-of-the-places-in-between as a map. I chanted it even after I had left the villages, using the list as a credential.” The walk became a passage between different villages, each with their own chief, relying on the names of allies and protectors for safety. It’s a very different way of walking to following a trail or a map.
Stewart’s descriptions of Afghanistan made me think about it very differently from the impression TV has given me:
Most people in this area had not heard of Britain, though they had heard of America. Some had even heard of the World Trade Center, but they had no real concept of what it had been or why the coalition had bombed Afghanistan.
By 2008, Stewart was teaching at Harvard, and failing to persuade his students of the difficulty of nation-building through military force. My frustration convinced me that my only way of stopping such events in future was to stand for election as a politician. It’s quite something to be in a position where a decision to be an MP so quickly leads to parliament.
Stewart has had an interesting time as a politician. He is an eccentric, and failed to fit comfortably into the Tory party, as Paul Goodman points out in Conservative Home. A lot of people have attacked him on his voting record, but he followed a party whip, and used the ministerial position gained through this compliance to improve the lives of prisoners. The ‘minor gangsters’ incident is embarrassing, but I’m not sure it’s a reason for Stewart to quit politics. And being in the position to have made this mistake is far, far better than our PM’s racist columns written from the safety of a journalist’s desk.
I’m not convinced Stewart is a great fit for London mayor, as Paul Goodman has pointed out. But I hope leaving Westminster after the December 2019 election will give him more time for walking; and for writing about it.