More on those four great mysteries…

When I was in Suzhou a few weeks ago, I gave a talk about my [amazon text=Sixty-Four Chance Pieces&asin=B00W0LPFDO] at the wonderful Bookworm bookshop, called ‘Four Great Mysteries’ (see the blog post here). In preparation for the talk, I scrawled the following notes, and although the talk itself diverged occasionally wildly from what I’ve written here (the wine helped, as did the fun of working with two exceptional interpreters), I thought that I’d share the text for anyone who might be interested.



I’m delighted to be here in Suzhou to talk about my new book, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, a novel of sorts based upon the Yijing, or the Chinese Book of Changes. And I’m very grateful to the Bookworm for generously hosting this event. What a beautiful place Suzhou is, and what a lovely place the Bookworm here in Suzhou is! It’s really a pleasure to be here.

I’m here because, several years ago, I decided to write a kind of novel based upon the Yijing. Now, if there is anything that almost everybody knows about the Yijing, it is that it is a very mysterious book. So what I’m going to talk about today are what I am going to call Four Great Mysteries related to the Yijing, and to my own book that is based upon the Yijing, Sixty-Four Chance Pieces. So I’ll talk a little bit about these Four Great Mysteries, and then I’ll read a story from the book, to give you a flavour of the what I’m doing. Then we can open the floor up to questions.

So what are these Four Great Mysteries that I want to talk about? Let me put them down as briefly as I can.

  • Mystery number one: What the hell is the Yijing?
  • Mystery number two: What the hell does the Yijing mean? What is it for? What is its purpose?
  • Mystery number three: How the hell did a foolish and ignorant laowai like me come to get involved in all this stuff?
  • Mystery number four: What the hell is Sixty-Four Chance Pieces, this book I ended up writing as a result? Is it travel-writing? Is it fiction? Is it non-fiction? Is it philosophy? Is it an unholy mess? Or is it all of these, or none of these?

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Some jet-lagged reflections on travel

I’m a bit jet-lagged and weary, after a long journey back from India that has involved (in this order) a rickshaw, a train, a taxi (one of Kolkata’s glorious yellow Ambassadors), a lift from a friend, a plane, another plane, two tube journeys, and now another train, after which it is just a quick hop in a taxi to find my way home once again.

I’ve only been away for a couple of weeks, but in truth it feels a lot longer. It seems to me that subjective time is measured, at least to some extent, by the experience of change; and this being so, it feels as if it was along time since I left the UK. The final few days in India were I spent in Rabindranath Tagore’s university town of Santiniketan, reading, thinking and making a great many new friends and connections; and it was a humbling experience to meet with so many warm and generous people, and to find myself engaged in so many fascinating and enriching conversations.

So—partly to stave off the jetlag a while longer, and to keep myself awake, so that I don’t end up falling asleep and finding myself missing my stop and ending up in Nottingham by mistake—I thought I’d write a few idle notes on the subject of the virtues of travel. Nothing that I’m writing here is particularly new or startling; but (the issue of staying awake on one side) I thought it worth saying at least as a reminder to myself.
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Turning About Once Again

I only have one more day in Bodhgaya, after which I fly back to Kolkata for the book fair; and it’s been absolutely delightful to be here. I’ve just been pedalling around, making the most of the local food, meditating when I feel like it, sleeping when the mood takes me, making new friends, sitting and thinking, reading things that come my way, and feeling pleasurably purposeless.

There is, however, one problem: in theory, I am in Bodhgaya do research. Before coming here, I filled in research proposals and even managed to get a modest amount of funding for this trip. These proposals were tied to a couple of book projects that I’m working on at the moment, both of which have some kinds of interesting connections with Buddhist themes, ideas and history. But as the days have passed, I have begun to realise that it doesn’t particularly look or feel as if what I am doing is research. Not only am I spending more time at tea stalls and in temple meditation halls than in libraries, but I also have to confess that I’m not even thinking about these books very hard.
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Thunk, thunk, thunk…

Bicycles are my favourite mode of transport. They are less grouchy than camels, they don’t have minds of their own the way horses do, they are cheaper than cars, and they are speedier than going on foot. So it was a pleasure today to borrow a bike from my guest-house here in Bodhgaya, and to set out to explore the outer reaches of the town.

I started out with some trepidation, as it’s a long time since I’ve cycled anywhere like India. Back in the day, when I was living in Pakistan, I used to regularly cycle across Lahore to my job as a school teacher. After miles of cycling through the choking fumes, jostling horse-carts, rickshaws, motorbikes, buses and cars, I developed style of cycling that combined fearlessness, justified caution, and a degree of panache. Today as I got on my bike on Bodhgaya, I found that old knowledge coming flooding back.
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Guard-Dogs and Sausages

Tomorrow the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework are to be announced, and in universities up and down the country, anxieties are running high. For those who don’t know, the REF is an exercise that aims to evaluate the quality of university research outputs. At best, this is an affair of dubious value: not only does it create enormous and widespread stress amongst university staff, but it is also expensive, it spreads discord and tension, and it has been linked to an increase in bullying within universities. Worst of all, given all of this, it doesn’t even necessarily do what it claims to do—which is to encourage research excellence (see the articles here, and here). Read more

Amateurs, Professionals and Bullshit Going Forwards

The new academic year has started at De Montfort University, and I’m teaching a course on Professional Writing Skills. It’s good to be back in the swing of teaching, and a pleasure to see my students from last year once again.

This is a course that I love teaching, because of the way that it directly mixes philosophical, technical and practical issues. But the longer I go on, the more I’m a little worried by the notion of a professional writer. In my lecture today, I said that I’d like to teach another course alongside this one called amateur writing skills. It got a muted laugh, but it was not really a joke.

The trouble with many widespread notions of professionalism (what I would call faux-professionalism), is that they can be so very narrow and restrictive. They conjure up drab images of suits, ties, boardrooms smelling of stale coffee, and that awful bureaucratic-speak that is properly categorised as bullshit (or bullshit going forward). In this context, ‘professional’ and ‘unprofessional’ (or ‘amateur’) are often terms that are used to maintain a very restrictive range of behaviours, and to limit what can and cannot be thought about and talked about. None of this seems to encapsulate a state of being towards which anybody, writer or otherwise, should aspire.  Read more

The Art of Staring into Space

I spent much of my schooling staring out of the window. This was not because there was anything interesting happening outside; instead it was because of a certain detachment from the world around me, a tendency to daydream. In fact, I wasn’t really staring out of the window. I was looking at some indeterminate point in the middle distance (I discovered early on that you need a window, and a sense of far distance, if you are to find the optimum point in the middle distance at which to stare). At the time, this was considered a serious moral flaw, of course. There were more pressing demands upon me, after all. But looking back, I think that there was considerable value (and still is) to be found in staring into space (see, for example, this article).
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Because we are too menny?

A couple of weeks back, the novelist Javier Marías wrote an article for the Independent on the subject of why to not write novels (and one reason why you might want to write them). Briefly, the reasons were these: i) because there are too many novels in the world; ii) because more or less anyone can do it; iii) because it’s unlikely to make you rich; iv) because it’s a hopeless way of courting fame; v) because neither will it bring you immortality; vi) because it is not flattering to the ego; and vii) because of the sheer suffering that it involves. As for the sole reason for writing novels, Marías says, “Writing novels allows the novelist to spend much of his time in a fictional world, which is really the only or at least the most bearable place to be.”

I’ve mentioned the torment and suffering before, in a recent blog post, so I won’t go back over that. And there’s a lot that could be said about the rest of the list as well (particularly the peculiar reason Marías gives in favour of writing novels). But what I want to talk about here is the idea that there are too many novels in the world. Read more

Storytellers and Anthropologists

I’m currently in the middle of editing a book that I’ve been working on about the Tanimbar islands in Indonesia. I was in Tanimbar some twenty years ago as a fledgling anthropologist, and it was in Tanimbar that I started writing seriously. In fact, I find it hard to disentangle my time in Tanimbar from my life as a writer. This, in part, has been why I have found this book so tricky to write, and why it has taken long. Read more


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