The Polysyllabic Spree

I read a lot of books on my holiday, but my favourite was probably Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree. I picked it up in my last few hours in Delhi. I had a pile of books I'd read that I didn't want to take home. I lugged them between the second-hand shops on Paharganj's Main Bazaar, trying to find something decent to swap for them (there's a whole post to come on reading and buying books in India).

There was nothing in the bookstalls that grabbed me, so I decided to take a chance on the Nick Hornby book. I'm glad I did. The book was good enough that I read for a couple of hours on the flight home, despite being exhausted. I struggled not to laugh out loud at times.

The Polysyllabic Spree is a reading diary that Hornby kept for the Believer Magazine. During the course of the book he compares LP Hartley's The Shrimp and the Anemone with Mötley Crüe biography The Dirt; discusses the problems with novel about writers; and proposes a legal limit to biography length based on the subject's importance.

I particularly loved the book's introduction where Hornby talks about reading for pleasure. After pointing out that 12 million adults in the UK have a reading age of less than 13, Hornby questions the idea that literary novels are superior to books like the Da Vinci Code: "If reading is to survive as a leisure activity… then we have to promote the joys of reading rather than the (dubious) benefits" A version of the introduction is available on the Telegraph website, and is well worth reading.

Hornby was restricted by the magazine's editorial policy in that he could only say positive things about the books he read. At first Hornby chafed against this prohibition, but finally resolved to abandon any book he didn't enjoy. The enthusiasm Hornby shows for the books he likes is invigorating.

Coronation Park, Delhi

One of my favorite places in Delhi was Coronation Park. It's to the North of the city and a nightmare to get to (few autorickshaw drivers know where it is). The park is a fantastic monument to British hubris.

Coronation Park is where Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. Later it was the site of a Durbar held to commemorate the coronation of George Vth. There is a large obelisk in park which has the following inscription:
"Here on the 12th Day of December 1911, His Imperial Majesty King George V, Emperor of India accompanied by the Queen Empress in solemn Durbar announced in person to the Governors, Princes and Peoples of India his Coronation celebrated in England on the 22nd day of June 1911 and received from them their dutiful homage and allegiance."

When I first visited the park it was Republic Day. Dozens of cricket games were played in the space around the obelisk. I couldn't work out where one game ended and another began, but the players all knew where the boundaries were. I returned on my last day in India to take some photographs and found the area deserted. I saw only one other person, a man snoozing below a tree.

Near the obelisk is an overgrown garden containing nineteen plinths. This was intended as a place to place the statues of British royalty and officials left over from the British Raj. Most striking is a 15m tall statue of George V (shown in the photograph directly below). This statue used to stand at India Gate.

The empty plinths are particularly striking, begging the question of what happened to the missing statues. Apparently some were stolen or vandalised, and others were never moved.





The eroded statue below is Lord Handinge, Viceroy of India between 1910 and 1916.


Camel trekking in Jaisalmer

I spent most of my holiday in India touring Rajasthan. Each of the desert towns has its own individual atmosphere. I loved the empty landscapes, the architecture and sitting on rooftop restaurants while dusk fell. Jaisal Italy, an Italian restaurant in Jaisalmer, was one of my favourite places, because it had an amazing view of the fort.

Jaisalmer has a busy tourist industry. Everyone wants to sell visitors camel safaris, and the first few people I spoke to pressured me and made me feel like an idiot. I was going off the idea of camel trekking until I visited Trotter's. Or, to give the company its full name, Trotters Independent Travels. The company is run by a local man called Del-boy. I figured I can't go wrong with a company themed around Only Fools and Horses – and, if I did, it would be a good story.

We set off into the Thar Desert by jeep just before dawn. We stopped at a small camp where a goatherd made tea while we waited for the camels. After a brief breakfast we mounted the camels and set off into the desert. The second photo below shows the camel I was riding, which was called Johnnie Walker.


Riding a camel seems easy, if a little painful on the behind. You also get a good view of the landscape. We trekked to Khaba fort, which stands above a deserted town. Travelling by camel is slow and relaxing. The landscape unfolds gradually as you pass through it. There's little to think about so you can unwind and let the day happen.



After visiting Khaba, we found a shady tree to stop for lunch, which was cooked over a fire. We lounged around under the tree for the hottest part of the day, reading and relaxing while fending off the black goats that wanted to eat our food. The meals we ate on the tour were excellent. Afterwards the plates were cleaned by scouring with sand. The camels were hobbled and allowed to go foraging.



The desert was beautiful. We saw very few people, but there were little signs of civilisation, such as flocks of sheep or wells. The paths took us over what looked like ploughed fields. During the rainy season people from the nearby villages would do their best to grow crops while they could. Later on we passed a blocky stone building that we learned was a dormitory used when people were farming.


In the later afternoon we came to a series of sand-dunes where we would make our camp for the night. We watched the sun-set over the dunes, where we were found by a beer-seller. The boy travelled between the tourist camps in the evening, selling bottles of Kingfisher. Best of all, they were cold! 



As it grew darker, there was little light nearby. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, the guides' mobile phones seemed to work perfectly. It's amazing: you can't get on signal with Orange on Brighton's Upper Western Road, but there's perfect signal in the depths of the desert. 

Since there was so little light pollution the stars were easy to see. I couldn't believe how many there were and spent some time lying on the dune looking at the sky. While it was beautiful being in the desert, it wasn't easy to get to sleep. Every so often I would be woken up by a wild dog curling up next to me, and I would have to persuade it to move on. The sand wasn't the most comfortable bed I've ever
had, but the scenery made up for that. I woke up around dawn, my bedding surrounded by beetle tracks.



After two days of camel trekking I felt quite sore, but it was well worth the discomfort. After a week back in England, I miss the desert.



Holi Day Photo

Holi is the Indian festival of colour. This spring festival is celebrated by people flinging coloured dyes and water at one another. This year Holi fell on March 1st, while I was staying at the Durag Niwas guesthouse in Jodhpur.

I'd been forewarned about Holi and bought some new clothes. I joined in the celebrations at the hotel after they'd been underway for a while. Everyone was delighted by the appearance of a new victim. I'd spent weeks avoiding Indian tap water but I was led to a large barrel of water, where I was invited to dunk myself. Then my wet face and arms were smeared with coloured dyes. The guests danced with the folk from the Durag Niwas, while being sprayed with hoses and dyes. There was even a photographer from a local paper who turned up, but I've no idea if the pictures ever appeared anywhere. Another part of Holi appears to be ripping people's clothes, which is why the image below shows me with a torn T-shirt.


The Durag-Niwas guesthouse was one of the best places I stayed in India. It was friendly, had great food, and a courtyard that was perfect for lazing around and reading. It was a much-needed sanctuary after a run of dodgy hotels and I was quite sorry to leave.

Back home

I'm currently in Derbyshire after my two month holiday in India. I had an amazing time, visiting Delhi, Kahjuraho, Varanasi, Chandigarh and Darjeeling, as well as touring Rajasthan. It's going to take me a while to sort through the photos but in the meantime here's me in the Thar desert near Jaisalmer: