So I had to go to Dhaka. To its literary festival, to be precise. I was invited a few months ago, I’m not sure why. It was certainly before some maniac at the London Review Bookshop, probably desperate to drum up custom for an event I was chairing there, described me as “Britain’s most influential book critic”, a title that cheered me up, to be sure, but, for all the benefits that have accrued to me as a result, may as well have been “Ireland’s most unpredictable wasp”, or “Poland’s wonkiest ladder”.
My invitation to Dhaka arrived, instead, shortly before the July attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery by Islamist extremists, in which 29 people were killed. Before then, I had noticed that Bangladesh was becoming one of those countries where writers and atheists were hacked to pieces more than was strictly necessary, and had experienced some collywobbles, but an epic dinner at Rules given me by Ahsan Akbar, the festival’s director, made me snap my fingers at danger.
Really, it would have been rude to refuse to travel; besides, the threat I constitute to myself is at least on a level with the one posed by any militants. If you think I exaggerate, the state of my bedroom alone, which I have not allowed Martha the Cleaner to enter for the past three weeks, on the grounds that it is too shameful, is enough to make me want to kill myself. I had to get out of there before I did myself any further psychic damage by merely looking at it. It was time to put a few thousand miles between myself and the Hovel.
I have been in Bangladesh only a day now, but never, considering how I am being treated, has the title “Down and Out” been less applicable to the words beneath it. The journey started with an Emirates flight from Heathrow, and if what I was in was economy, then heaven alone knows what first class is like. Maybe it is heaven, and indeed the steps leading up to the next floor of the plane suggested something magical and other-worldly, like the staircase in A Matter of Life and Death.
I scanned the inflight entertainment brochure with awe. It covered several pages. I decided to watch La Grande Illusion, the Renoir classic, but then, realising that I actually have the DVD at home but just haven’t got round to watching it yet, settled on a binge-watch of episodes of M*A*S*H and a surprisingly fascinating documentary on the making of Star Trek: the Next Generation. This after playing the Velvet Underground for my take-off. The music selection itself, I must say, is incredible. It’s like flipping through the record collection of your coolest friend. Not just Unknown Pleasures and Never Mind the Bollocks: there’s Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, for crying out loud. I was aching for sleep, having pretty much not slept since the night of the US election, but it was almost too exciting.
And now Dhaka. We arrived in darkness, but this only made the lights of the police escort all the more visible. Having a police escort is a new experience for me, unless you count the more informally organised police escort I was offered after being caught with two tabs of LSD in the vicinity of Buckingham Palace in 1982. (Long story.) This time, though, the police were armed and, notionally, on my side, though one of them seemed to be giving us the evils.
“No,” said one of my fellow authors, “that’s just a sexy underlook.” (I hadn’t encountered the word “underlook” before, but from now on I intend to adopt one as part of my seduction technique, even if this might be a risky thing to try at my age.)
My fellow authors are delightful. They have to be. The English-speaking author abroad on a cultural jolly is bound by a firm obligation: to ensure that as much as possible of every conversation consists of a joke. I suspect that a convention of comedians would be notable for its seriousness of word
and deed; writers are happier to subvert themselves. Maybe. But even V S Naipaul, who opened the festival from his wheelchair, was able to crack wise a couple of times before and after cutting the ribbon.
The hotel is so luxurious that it fills me with guilt. As for Dhaka, I’ve not been here long enough, except to marvel at the traffic, which moves only at the exact moment you have given up all hope of ever moving again, and at the kindness of the people, and at the warm, soupy air. The city isn’t exactly tidy – but, as you might have gathered, that kind of thing isn’t going to bother me. l
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile