Martin Buckley: Grains of Sand

November 23, 2022

     I’m always up for travels in deserts, and the premise of this book was interesting: that the world’s deserts lie in two bands, roughly at the levels of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and he was going to spend a couple of years travelling through all of them…

That was the theory, but the book ended up being rather annoying because there was rarely any continuity in his travelling: he seemed to flit from place to place in a series of short chapters, creating an impression of a journey rather than a continuous account, if that makes sense. That’s probably a bit harsh; it did detract from the book on numerous occasions, but I stuck with it, and it eventually grew on me. Buckley is interesting in his factual digressions about deserts, and his approach does, somehow, give a good impression of the random chaos of trying to eke out a living in the desert, for those who have to try and get by.

His picture of Africa – the Sahara in particular – is of chaos and lawlessness, and multiple rebellions against hardly-existing governments, alongside the mere difficulties of physical survival. He was travelling at the very end of the 20th century. But how could he miss out Timbuktoo? Dangers, I presume. This was a constant grumble for me: lots of very interesting detail about some places, many others glossed over. And yet, he does meet a number of very interesting characters on his journey, spending time with them and recounting his time with them in detail if it merits it.

As the book and his travels progress he develops a rather more political analysis, pro-minorities and ethic groups and their rights, and we are shown how complex the issues of progress and development actually are in so many places. He shows a genuine awkwardness when faced with the Australian deserts and the devastating effects of the white settlers on the Aboriginal communities.

His travels through the Xinjiang region of China show us the very beginnings of what we are now regularly reading and seeing of the Han Chinese approach to the Muslim Uighurs: even twenty years ago it’s problematic and disturbing to read about, but nowhere near as alarming as today. And there were fascinating insights into the closed world of Iranian society.

It was a decent read, after all; I’d have liked more detailed maps, but then I almost always say that; I wish there had been a greater sense of continuity to his travels, but then, at least he’s done the journey and written about it all, which is more than I will ever do.

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