Idries Shah:
Many years ago a cousin of mine recommended the book Caravan of Dreams, by Idries Shah.  I found it to be much fun, profound and impish at once, and also discovered that my big brother must have read it because it contained stories he had told me.  So when my little brother suggested Darkest England (Octagon Press, London 1987) I knew I must read it and looked forward to a pleasant break from the melancholy broodings required to keep up with my business here.  So I took no notes.

Of course I regretted that.  I can’t double check these reference easily, but perhaps I shall forgive myself.

The first thing that arrested my attention was a statement when some of the Teutonic invaders went to Britain, their soothsayers told them they would rule 300 years.  The more I think about that, the more it strikes me.  They got it right.  Sure enough, there is a very persistent, although not invariable, brick wall that ends any regime at 300 years if it should last so long.  The cause I think I know.  A regime in order to be visible to history must have an extended gene pool, and that means a genetic (actually epigenetic) clock starts that chimes after 300 years.  The soothsayers must have known a lot of history now lost to us and must have thought about it a long time.

Then at the end of the book Shah brings us the same span of time.  If he was writing about England, he had of course to realize that that land has torn the cover right off the record book.  Shah says that the English didn’t really decide that being English was cool until the 16th century.  I suppose that includes Shakespeare, who seems to me to have ample pride in England.  Then Shah goes on to say that England, as part of Britain, was conscious of decline in the mid 20th century.  This, he says, is 300 years.  I make it closer to 400, which is odd because the writer is obviously a very meticulous scholar.  Something made him go for the 300 number.  Perhaps it is part of his own wisdom tradition, which is Sufi, a part which he does not mention and possibly was not quite aware of. 

He has a good time poking fun at the English as well as the people of his own part of the world, Afghanistan.  But I found it a bit melancholy to read his banter.  He is obviously very proud of his own land and the ancient traditions and kindred he grew up with.  At the time, they were fighting Russia and acquitting themselves quite well.  Everybody in the West loved them.  Now it’s a different.  It is the NATO forces that are wishing the locals would be a little less … shall we say quintessentially Afghan. 

I am sure many loved old things, things he mentions, have been destroyed in the fray.

He has what was then the standard position on the English – they crossed to Britain as Anglo Saxons, Teutonic people from the continent.  I have always felt, and have been justified by genetic studies that had not been done at the time of his writing, that the most ancient Britons – still present in substantial proportion – had been there for a very long time before Saxons and their Iron Age or Celts and their Bronze Age.  I did not have the courage to believe, although my heart told me, they were there before the builders of Stonehenge and their Neolithic culture. 

Of course if you look around a bit I think you’ll just about find everybody is from everywhere.  It’s just a matter of what you would like to emphasize.  So I had no difficulty buying into his own belief that the English really came from, or via, Afghanistan. 

Astute and witty man, if not totally politically correct, I wish I could write him a fan letter.  This is the closest I can come.

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