Li Po, working in the eighth-century Tang dynasty, wrote a poem about a lonely young wife; Ezra Pound did his best to bring the emotion of it to the west with his 1915 version “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”. I recently read Pound’s poem and she won’t leave me.
I bought anthologies to find more Li Po (also known as Li Bai), and there was “Farewell to a Friend”. Curiosity got me and I found it in Chinese, in which the last two words are “Neigh, Neigh”. And then I read two English versions – Pound’s, and my preferred one (sorry, Ezra) by Witter Bynner. Both interpreted those last “neighs” differently. In one, our horses “neigh to each other” as we leave; while in Bynner’s version a horse neighs “again and again” after I promise to “think of you in a floating cloud; / So in the sunset think of me.”
It’s the precision, the locality of it that appeals to me: how the Chinese poets bring me from a wide world down to the colour red on a boat. In, for example, “For the Courtesan Ch’ing Lin” by the (female) poet Wu Tsao, she and her lover paint each other’s eyebrows and she says: “My dear, let me buy a red painted boat/ And carry you away.”
But it was the river-merchant’s wife who first got to me, standing in a garden waiting for her missing husband to come down the river Kiang. She’s still there. Waiting for him.
In 1989, as an 11-year-old boy growing up in Burnley, Lancashire, I joined in the protests against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, even though I’d never read it. In 2012, the writer Francis Spufford, who had become a friend, bought me my first book. I had never read before; I’d spent my life chasing dreams in the military. The book he gave me was Dispatches by Michael Herr, a collection of first-hand reports from the Vietnam war, and that got me reading. By then I had been a British soldier serving in Iraq, and when I read about those “hot tropic sunsets” that would change how I “thought about light for ever”, I wanted to be a writer. I’d flirted with it but now I knew.
I finished Dispatches, then wrote the first draft of a book about the Iraq war. I was fuelled by that sentence about the “hot tropic sunsets”. Next I read Rushdie and felt stupid, wishing I’d not been on that march.
I found out that Rushdie was coming to London so I went to the Bloomsbury Theatre. It was the first time I’d seen him and I didn’t know whether I would ever see him again, so I stood up and said I was sorry. That first book I wrote tells how none of us on the march had read it. That’s the truth. We were burning a book that we were told we were not allowed to read.
Now publishers tell me they want my writing but not on that subject – so that first manuscript may only ever stand on my shelf.
Watching a play at the Royal Court Theatre, I met writer Hanif Kureishi, who asked me why I’d protested. My 11-year-old self would have had an answer full of blood for him – but now all I had was embarrassment. On a BBC Radio 4 documentary called First There Was the Word, broadcast in May, I defended Rushdie. The fatwa didn’t stop the book; the book didn’t stop the religion. Let’s stop stopping books.
On a recent visit to Cuba, drinking in Hemingway’s favourite bar, the Floridita, I felt empty. I had wanted to be swept away with revolution, to be proud of Fidel Castro eradicating illiteracy in the 1960s; I wanted to smoke cigars as the rum flowed and the music played. But Havana wasn’t a dream. Everyone was poor; they all begged for money. These boys reminded me of the kids in Iraq, chasing our wagons for dollars. One night, after forcing a bartender in Plaza Vieja to give me strong drinks (meaning normal measures – I suspect that the authorities don’t want drunken tourists), I started to convince myself that Havana was a good place and that my warm feeling wasn’t just the climate.
As I rolled off the chair, I gave one boy a 10-peso note. His eyes were serious. The average wage, I found out from asking locally, is 15 pesos a month – about £9. The square looked wonderful in the night and the boy ran to the middle and screamed. He held the money in his fist against his thigh, his legs were bent, his face to the sky. He made a “woo” noise until his breath finished – then ran away.
Back at the hotel, I sat late into the night on a balcony drinking my own measures of rum and smoking. Then the woman I was with came out of the shower wrapped in a towel, and I knew I could have died there. It wasn’t Havana, it was her. She was the warm feeling. I realised I was over my dream of Hemingway scribbling away in Cuba.
What is there for a writer to do but write? After finishing my first book, I began working in a café (I am still there) and I wrote the second, a hundred poems on the Iraq war. Through the act of writing, I found I was still in love with the British army, which I had left at the end of 2007. I was in the middle of book three but then another thing hit, so I’ve broken ground on book four, about the shift that happens in your thirties, which was when I realised – and didn’t want to fight it any more – that I’d turned into my dad.
Writing, I find, is the greatest satisfaction I’ve had since my career in the military. I close myself in a room and put myself to my desk. Friends tell me off for not going out, so I send them poems. Nobody in the house knocks on my door. I read and I write, every day. I’ve never found a “how to” book about writing that was much use, though Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) was good to me and Rilke’s advice was right, in his “Letters to a Young Poet” (1929): it’s about going into yourself. When I edit others’ manuscripts, I send them these books to read. I know I must be at my desk to write and while I may never reach the words and the ways I need to describe the dreams I have, all I can do is try.
They hold no mystery, the boys who go from England to fight in Syria. That men fight is a truth; that men like, even love, fighting is a thing we try to hide and at times it pricks us – but mostly men can be made to fight; it’s seductive, it’s in us. It happened to Laurie Lee. It happened to me. How and why you fight is more interesting. There’s nothing mystical about the young boy who wants adventure and a fight just because he calls himself a Muslim and it’s called a jihad.
I don’t believe that they’re going because they lack opportunity in this country or that it’s against them. I’m from Burnley, I’ve struggled – we all do. Men will fight but what they fight for is their choice. Saying the country is against you is a good excuse to hide your desire for a fight, but it’s not true. There are too many examples of Muslims doing well here.
We need to have a conversation away from big terms such as “war on terror” and look at that young boy who wants to go to Syria, bring it all down from the wide world to something local. Just look at him.
Illustration by Ferguson