Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight

Having read The English Patient many years ago, I approached Ondaatje’s Warlight with an expectation of escapism, but not in the sense of escaping to mysterious places or futuristic backdrops. Quite the opposite. Warlight is set during the second world war and in the decade or so following it, periods of time much exploited by writers. Living in England, I’ve seen so many war films, series and documentaries on British television, it seems to be one of my remembered past lives. With this familiarity, I was gripped in the world of home front secret services and their accomplices drawn from some of the seedier elements of society.

This comfortable escapism also came about as it is set mostly in Suffolk, a county which shares part of its border with Cambridgeshire, where I live, and extends on to the North Sea coast. The villages and the coastline even today hold a feeling of remoteness embedded in the past. During the war, this coastal area was under constant fear of attack by the Germans, and while they were being secretly patrol by residents, the road signs had been removed in order to confuse any invading forces. I cannot imagine the sense of solidarity it must have brought to the local population, a shared purpose which the UK, even in the time of Covid-19 is lacking. While neighbours and friends are helping each other, the constant controversy over the easing and re-establishing of lockdown and the inconsistent messaging have stripped away any national unity. Perhaps Britain in the time of Warlight has filled a void for this reader.

The narrator in this story, Nathaniel, was 14-years old at the time his parents left him and his sister so that they could continue their work for the British government in Singapore. It is through his perspective that we experience these years and the emotions of being left in the care of their domestic servant and his group of criminal associates. Their activities appear to be in one line of work, but Nathaniel discovers later they were something else altogether, involving the defence of the home front. When his mother reappears, he is on the verge of becoming a young man and she is unwilling to reveal what she was doing for the government or the circumstances surrounding her now estranged husband. With some difficulty and amateur detective work, Nathaniel puts together some of the pieces of his mother’s life with what he has learned about the other characters.

Ondaatje gives his narrator the means to reflect on his ability to create these stories. He explains to the reader, ‘I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth. In retrospect the grains of sand had always been there.’

A great deal has been written in linguistics about how we create and present stories, both fictional and real. Reading this book, I was reminded of these constructs and the power of stories in our personal lives. They are not just about communicating ideas or entertaining a listener or reader. As Nathaniel explains, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.’ For a casual summer read, this was escapism, but for this linguist, Warlight proved to be much more.

Metaphors Matter

Following the horrific death of George Floyd, we have witnessed yet another wave of anger and protest. With this some have said that racism is ‘a disease, like Covid 19’. Linguist Elena Semino rightly commented on Twitter: ‘This metaphor may have useful rhetorical functions in context (e.g. to highlight that both kill and are very hard to eliminate), but it backgrounds a central aspect of racism: power.’ Indeed, put simply, racism is about one group of people using race to justify having power over another group. Unlike diseases, there is intention behind acts of racism, whether these thoughts rest in unconscious bias, follow the insidiousness norms of institutions or worse, fester in the venom of white supremacists.

Reading and listening to the anti-racism protesters and news commentators, worthy metaphors have been a bit lacking. The slogan Black Lives Matter, is merely elliptical, short for ‘Black lives matter too.’ The calling out ‘I can’t breathe’ is powerful, a direct reminder of Floyd’s dying words, but it’s not a metaphor. This paucity of metaphors bothers me because firstly because metaphors are powerful tools of communication. Good metaphors, original and sometimes a bit weird, stick with us. Secondly, I’m annoyed that so much of the language of racists is hinged on metaphors – describing the other as ‘vermin,’ ‘invaders,’ ‘pests,’ ‘animals’ etc. Why hasn’t the language of anti-racism these days shown more figurative flare?

In the last century, we had ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,’ Langston Hughes’s dream deferred that stunk ‘like rotten meat’ and sagged ‘like a heavy load’ and the plethora of extended analogies in the oration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Why do we need metaphors to capture the anti-racist experience today?

metaphrs matter 2
Langston Hughes

It is no longer enough to call someone a fascist, a white supremacist or even a racist. These labels are threadbare from their overuse and in some circles worn as badges of honour. No longer are people hiding behind the phrase ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ Even our world leaders are getting away with this. Prime Minister Johnson opposes taking down statues symbolic of Britain’s colonial past and its role in the slave trade. This should be no surprise coming from the man who in 2002 wrote in The Spectator about Africa, ‘The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience,’ he wrote. ‘The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore’ (cited from The Independent, 13/06/20). Johnson has in more recent years been quoted as referring to black people as ‘piccaninnies.’ Sadly, I don’t believe Johnson won the last election despite his racist rhetoric – I believe it helped to get him elected.

And then there’s Tr*mp. No, I’m not going there. No need to really.

Metaphors are a way of thinking about our world and expressing the way that we think at the same time. I do wonder if the anti-racist movement has not truly internalised into our thinking enough to give us the metaphors we need. Of course, as a linguist, I could take the counter argument for a moment and tell you that metaphors are ubiquitous in our language, in our lives. But many of these metaphors are used so often they have lost that ability to inspire. Others, like ‘racism is a disease’ miss the mark, and others still lack that stickability to bring about action. Speaking non-metaphorically, I’m weary and worn from viewing scenes of black men dying at the hands of white police followed by angry protests only to see the same scenes again with different people.

The Semiotics of Lockdown Signage

This blog’s title is grander than this blog could possibly be. As a blogger, my linguist’s hat is being worn slightly askew as I write this – I’m sparing you, dear reader, a heady mix of semiotics and multimodal analysis that a more academically competitive linguist might offer. This is just a small sharing of the signage I’ve noticed in recent weeks as David and I have covered every corner and every walking path in Ely, usually with shopping bags in tow in order to distinguish the outing from our daily exercise outing of running/jogging.

While many of us are communicating with the world outside our homes via social media, Zoom, Skype and phone calls, others have taken to their window panes. The rainbow campaign to involve children in a productive and positive way during their confinement at home has grown into an art from for some and a means of protest for others of all ages.

This one is more specific than most, referring to our local hospital, Addenbrookes. The images of stethoscopes and plasters etc are emoji-like.


Sticking with a rainbow palette, the heart symbol, perhaps overused in our culture, sends the message.

Saying thank you to strangers who are not present in front of us is an interesting act in itself. But that is essentially what we’re doing. The intended recipient – the NHS worker – is likely not to see the sign, ever. The intended audience then are the passers-by, our neighbours, our fellow town residents – who else could it possibly be given the restrictions of the lockdown? Despite the limited audience in this public discourse, at least with window panes, one is less likely to be trolled by a stranger or feel obliged to answer or click ‘like’ to any comments.


The use of semiotic resources of colour and shape along with recognisable texts of our times, phrased as imperatives (stay safe, stay at home etc.), communicate emotions more than orders.  On some streets, the rows of townhouses with children’s rainbows create a wallpaper effect, turning houses inside out.

This window presents a mini-narrative, suggesting before (grey clouds and letters) and after (rainbow colours).

The text is not just a thank you, but a socio-political protest cheekily written in the rainbow colours.

I feel I have to say something about the signage of businesses around our little town. Most are the rather prosaic black ink on white paper, usually type print, occasionally handwritten, saying simply ‘Coronavirus – Closed until further notice.’ One of our local pubs  added political commentary, well wishes and indirect advertising into the mix:


I close, as these walks often do, with a trip to the supermarket and the signage on the ground of the carparks. These signs that have forced our behaviours to change will likely be one of the more poignant memories I’ll have when I look back on this time.


Stay safe, everyone.


The Queen’s English?

‘Brexit Day,’ as some are calling it, was just over a week ago. On that day, these signs were stuck on doors of all 15 floors of a residential building in Norwich, in the east of England:

Brexit Day poster

Aside from the blatant racism, which I don’t mean to diminish or trivialise, I have several linguistic points to make. Not in any particular order.

What is the Queen’s English? For the spoken language, which the moron who wrote this poster appears to be obsessed with, the Queen speaks RP (Received Pronunciation). It’s an accent of English with no regional associations. That’s because it’s a ‘social accent’ taught in certain private schools and reinforced in the homes and social circles of the upper classes. It’s an accent that clips its vowels and makes toast sound like taste. Today RP is spoken by roughly 2% of the British population. I suspect that the cretin who wrote this poster does not speak the Queen’s English.

The British Library website has 77 recordings of different accents and dialects of English from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (https://www.bl.uk/british-accents-and-dialects). I wonder how many of these British-English accents would be fully understood by the imbecile who wrote this poster.

English is not the only native language of Britain. There’s Welsh, Scots, Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish to name a few. And the flipside of this – Britain is not the only country where English is spoken as a native or official language. If the idiot who wrote this poster wants only people whose ‘mother tongue’ is English to live in Britain, he or she would appear to be perfectly fine with people from Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Liberia, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Papua New Guinea – among others.

The ignoramus who wrote this poster has a problem with people who speak foreign languages. Don’t get me started. During this week that saw Britain enter another dark age, the polymath George Steiner passed away at the age of 90. Steiner was trilingual, speaking French, German and English, and he once described his mother as ‘a Viennese grande dame who used to begin a sentence in one language and finish it in another without even noticing.’ Brexit hasn’t really happened yet – we’re in a transition period – yet, I’m already feeling nostalgic.

Professor George Steiner

‘Man up’ – Johnson’s Sexist Parlance Continues

This time it’s a phrasal verb that demonstrates Prime Minister Johnson’s fluency in sexist language. While Johnson didn’t invent the phrase to man up, he has borrowed it from the underbelly of popular culture. According to the Google dictionary, it means to ‘be brave or tough enough to deal with an unpleasant situation.’ Yet, the definition is more than that. To man up is one of those expressions that carries its etymology with it – that is, its full meaning is to be brave and tough like a man. Many phrases and words in English (and other languages) linguistically operate in this metaphorical way. We have to break the ice and cherry picking, to name a couple. Unlike these examples, to man up gets its meaning from gender stereotyping, from a world where men are brave and tough and women are the antithesis. It’s a fantasy world that has disregarded women’s work and women’s voices for centuries.

Whenever I see what I think is sexist language or behaviour, I check myself by running the reversal test – I first heard of this back in the early 90s from American feminist Gloria Steinem. It goes like this – replace ‘woman’ with ‘man’ or ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and see what you get. I’ve never heard of ‘woman up.’ Pulling yourself together and acting like a woman is not in our public discourse. Further, whereas the underlying sense of ‘to act like a man’ means to be brave, ‘to act like a woman’ is nearly always used as a slur, saying that someone is emotional or bitchy.

It could be argued that Johnson is merely reflecting in his language the sexism that festers in our society. Maybe Johnson is copying a phrase that has a modern ring about it. But this PM has already leapt farther than that. He recently called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when the Labour leader argued against a snap election.  Similarly sophomoric, Johnson referred to former PM David Cameron as a ‘girly swot.’ I find these examples of degradation by feminisation even more disturbing than using man up. These boys’-school-sounding phrases are not found in dictionaries. Both expressions are unique to the Johnson idiolect, no mimicry of popular culture or trying to sound cool involved.

What does that say about the man-child living at 10 Downing Street?

Suzy Kassem

While Johnson has not turned his sexism into misogynistic legislation in the way Tr**p has (e.g. removing funding for women’s health in developing countries), I don’t think we should take the PM’s language lightly. To quote poet Suzy Kassem, ‘Never underestimate the power of a single word, and never recklessly throw around words. One wrong word, or misinterpreted word, can change the meaning of an entire sentence – and even start a war. And one right word, or one kind word, can grant you the heavens and open doors.’


Coming to Terms with Invisible Women

I’m currently reading Caroline Criado Perez’s wonderful book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. She addresses many issues convincingly, such as the way drivers’ seats in cars are made and safety tested with men in mind and the amount of medical research that uses male as the default, leaving women’s health and medicine in the Middle Ages.  Statistics and studies are blended with entertaining – though often infuriating – anecdotes.

But I do have a bone to pick. After discussing the male-voice bias in voice recognition databases, raising some good points, Perez tackles corpora of written texts, which she notes are used by translators, CV-scanning software and web search algorithms. She failed to mention that these corpora were compiled by linguists, who are the main users of these databases for language research.  Because she has missed this point, her own research using corpora comes up short. This is what she did:

‘Searching the BNC [British National Corpus] (100 million words from a wide range of late twentieth century texts) I found that female pronouns consistently appear at around half the rate of male pronouns. The  520-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) also has a 2:1 male to female pronoun ratio despite including texts as recent as 2015.’

From this, Perez criticises the ‘gap-ridden corpora’ for giving ‘the impression the world is actually dominated by men.’

As someone who has used both corpora, I have a problem here. Representativeness is always taken into account when drawing data from these large corpora.  It is as much as part of the discussion as the results of the research itself. If I were looking at gendered pronoun use, I would first isolate my search to newspapers only, where I would expect the ratio of male to female pronouns to be even higher than what Perez found looking at all text types. Newspapers are not only written mostly by men, but report and comment on the world around us – its predominantly male politicians and public figures. And then there are the sports pages, where women’s sports struggle to get even a tenth of the column inches given to men’s sports. That is, newspapers, one of the main sources in the BNC, skew the figures. It might be more accurate to say that the world of news print is ‘actually dominated by men.’

Furthermore, corpus research is not just about frequency – it’s also about the context these search terms appear in. For example, a search on the word ‘hysterical’ will show that it is often in the context of ‘she’ or some women mentioned by name. This for me is more telling than the frequency of ‘she’ in printed texts. There is so much more to learn about gendered pronouns in a more rigorous search. The conclusions could reflect the biases in our societies more than the biases in the collection of data.

Taken from a quick search on Webcorp of internet texts.


Okay, I’ve had my linguist’s rant and I don’t wish to labour the point. Many of the studies in this book – and it is an avalanche of studies – are thoroughly considered against other studies, often revealing gaps in data, where sex difference hasn’t been taken into account, or where it has, women have been deliberately and shamefully excluded.

Pronoun Problems

Schools in Brighton have begun issuing gender pronoun badges in an attempt to support trans students. The badges read: ‘My pronouns are she/her/hers,’ ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ ‘My pronouns are they/them/theirs.’  Hang on a minute. How can ‘my’ a singular pronoun match up with plural pronouns ‘they/them/theirs’? I have seen this number-agreement abomination a couple of times recently but only in publications of the sort that still want to spell ‘woman’ as ‘womyn.’  It was easy to ignore ‘I interviewed them’ instead of ‘I interviewed her’ thinking this trend would fade. But putting ‘My…they…’ on a badge – that’s another matter.

Sidebar – really, when it comes to language, like any self-respecting linguist, I’m a descriptivist and not a prescriptivist. Language is not about correct versus incorrect. I describe language – warts and all, changes and fashions – language is constantly growing and developing. And I love it for those reasons.

At the risk of sounding like a prescriptivist, referring to a single individual as ‘they’ rubs me the wrong way. I don’t see it as being inclusive as much as I see it as annoying and potentially confusing. I appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to be identified by ones birth gender if you are transitioning, but messing with number agreement seems a linguistic step too far.

Ideally, one could follow the principles of number agreement and refer to oneself gender-neutrally as ‘it.’ No, of course not. In English, ‘it’ is the table, the chair, the concept and a multitude of other things. People are offended if they are referred to as ‘it’ – they don’t even refer to their pets as ‘it.’

Is it just number agreement or do I have a subconscious dislike of ‘they’? It is something of a weasel word, used without specific meaning for all of those people out there, used by armchair commentators, used by racists.

Language aside for a moment, this badging business has another problem built into it, or should I say ‘them’? When I was a child if someone had offered me a badge, I would have gone for the ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ not because I wanted to change my sex (such options weren’t on the table in those days), but simply because I didn’t want to be treated like a girl. I loved baseball, science fiction and chess. I preferred go-carts and photography over dolls and make-up. My badge would have been making a point about equality. Given the ubiquity of sexism these days, I could imagine young women feeling the same way today.

These days, I find myself more disposed to the ideas of gender hybridity, fluidity and neutrality.  This might not suit everyone, but I think in a liberal society, we have to respect our differences. As for language, I’d be quite happy to get rid of ‘he’ and ‘she’ altogether. That would leave us with ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘we,’ ‘it’ and – oh, dear – ‘they.’

Paola 1972 001
Me, aged 10, on my go-cart.

Online Book Groups – The People’s Literary Criticism

When we think of book groups or clubs, our first thoughts are likely to be of a group of suburban women gathered around a coffee table with sweet snacks and hot drinks. Or we think of libraries and bookshops, were such groups draw on more diverse and urbane memberships. Common to these face-to-face groups is the idea of socialising around books – indeed, linguistic studies of face-to-face book groups have pointed out that a great deal of social interaction takes place that is not about the book at all. Online book groups are a different matter altogether. With the exception of private book groups on social media sites, online participants usually don’t know each other offline. These groups cultivate discourse often devoid of personal stories that aren’t book related. More book talk than social talk, might online discussions about books become a new form of literary criticism?

I wouldn’t have asked this question some five years ago when I started my research on online book groups (published as The Discourse of Reading Groups). First of all, book groups are largely about readers’ opinions of books. Which books they liked and which they didn’t. Genre book groups, such as crime, thriller and romance, tend to focus on book recommendations and comparing one book to another. Some readers appear to use these groups to build identities as fans of one author or another, listing all of the books they’ve read. This was my introduction to online book groups and hardly the stuff of literary criticism. But that was me being a professional reader – academic/reviewer – or perhaps just a snob.Discourse Book-best

Some professional readers also look down upon the emphasis on reading for pleasure that can dictate opinions and impressions in book group discussions. This is specially the case with genre books. But this is where I break ranks. Reading as a leisure activity goes back to the days of Aristotle – the first literary critic. Though he may not have used those exact words, the relationships between learning, aesthetic experience and pleasure were fundamental in Aristotelean thought.

Once I moved on to other types of online book groups, I discovered that in giving opinions, what often emerges is a sense of empathy – the ways that books reflect the narratives of our own lives or have characters whose reactions, feelings of pain, love and fear touch our own experiences. But online book groups, unlike face-to-face, are inadvertently recording these opinions and experiences. They make them available to anyone with internet access to read. From these postings, consensus and debate flourish. And from them we can see cultural trends and ways of thinking – much like the job of the literary critic.

Close readings of the type found in literary criticism are also not lost in online book groups. This is because not only is social talk diluted among strangers, but also because most online communication is asynchronous. The time between postings in online conversations could be as little as a few minutes and as long as several weeks. These time gaps allow readers to think about their interpretations of books and about their responses to other readers’ points. Readers can draw from other written sources, including other books by the same author or with similar themes, journalistic book reviews and literary criticism, and can comment on language in ways more considered than in synchronous face-to-face contexts. For close readings, I recommend the online book group Booktalk.org and the discussion group around The Guardian book blog.

Could the array of online book group discussions from the highly empathetic, Oprah-style book club, to the analytical be harnessed in a way to give it credence as a new wave of literary criticism? To answer this, we need to recognise the unspoken opposition. It’s not just about the absence of professional readers, the self-identification or the idea of pleasure reading lurking in the background. It’s the internet. Open to all, the web has become the world’s soapbox. It’s abundant with opinions masquerading as news, unsourced arguments and photos of people’s cats. Literary criticism, on the other hand, has been cultivated in universities and has been spread through the written word in the required peer-reviewed publication. But there’s an overlap going on here – traditional literary criticism in its peer-reviewed forms is also a part of the internet, accessible to all.

It was Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, who said that he had hoped the internet would ‘cross barriers and connect cultures.’ I share this hope.  I’d like to think that online book groups and other online discussions about literature will help to bridge the gaps – educational, social, class-based – between professional and ordinary readers.

Fire, fury and Trumpspeak

I’m not calling it language – that would give it too much dignity. As a linguist I’ve been intrigued by the utterances of the current US President. Of course, they wouldn’t be so interesting if they came out of the mouth or the tweet of a teenage boy. I haven’t written about this topic sooner because, not only have satirists done much of the job for me, but I was secretly hoping it would all go away – Trump’s presidency would be so brief, a glitch in the history of US democracy, weird, amusing, at times angering, but a mere footnote in popular culture.

Stripped to its bones, language is about communication. But with Trump, he isn’t communicating as much as he is posing. He has positioned himself as a racist, a sexist, no-nonsense tough guy, but one who is a victim of witch hunts at the same time. What he says – or tweets – is often so lacking in substance that it is more slogan than idea. And then there’s the hyperbole. In Trumpspeak, his proposals are the greatest, the most, the best, the largest. Trump has also completely ruined the word very for me. Okay, very isn’t much of a word anyhow.  It’s one of these thin adverbials used to plump up an even thinner adjective.

He now seems to be posing as a comic book villain with his claims that if North Korea continues their threats – just threats, not military action – “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen … he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

The world is understandably concerned as Trump seems to be saying that he is ready with a pre-emptive strike if these threats continue. He is fitting the persona of the thin-skinned villain who you dare not call chubby or bald. And like the two-dimensional villain, he uses a formal diction – ‘the likes of which.’ This is from someone who has referred to the complicated Russian interference in the US election and more broadly in cyberspace as ‘the Russian thing.’ Trump also, as he does so often, repeat himself, as if the repetition makes the point stronger. Though it is obvious to most of us, this penchant for repetition is likely to come from an inability to understand, let alone articulate the situation this accidental president finds himself in.

The words ‘fire and fury,’ for what we can assume means some sort of military action, are tired metaphors. If Trump were a reader, I’d suspect this came from the Bible or from Shakespeare. My guess is that Trump’s source is more likely the film version of the comic book villain. That’s also where the hyperbole comes from as Trump’s actions will be something the world has never seen before.

While Trump uses words to grandstand or to act out a character, the rest of the world thinks he’s trying to communicate something. As Hillary Clinton said to Trump during one of the debates, as her opponent was being flippant about something he had said, ‘Words matter, Donald.’ He still hasn’t understood that message.

There is a silver lining though. We saw this week how Trump was reluctant to criticise white supremacists for their violence against anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a young woman. After public pressure and attacks from influential politicians, Trump finally condemned racism, pointing the finger at the KKK and neo-Nazis. This was delivered at a press conference atrump cartoon 2nd not via Twitter or during a staged rally of his supporters. The statement was obviously written for him – not his usual hyperbolic words, repetition and vague slogans. He was clearly uncomfortable reading the teleprompter. And that’s the good news – behind the scenes, there are people trying to control him and limit the damage. Sometimes he has to answer to them. This could be America’s and the world’s best hope against a man’s whose tendency to ride roughshod with the English language could lead to catastrophe.

Gertrude Bell in Persia

She’s been described as ‘the female Lawrence of Arabia.’ I confess that I’ve used that glib and convenient phrase myself. But it doesn’t do her the least bit of justice.  One could argue that she accomplished a great deal more than T.E. Lawrence and that she had more barriers to overcome along the way.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an archaeologist, scholar, writer and a political advisor, helping to establish modern-day Iraq and the National Museum of Iraq. As a contemporary of Lawrence, she worked with him at one point in Egypt. Both were British born and both developed a love and consequently insider’s knowledge of what was then called Arabia and Persia (or even more broadly and strangely to modern ears ‘the Orient.’) While Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is still read by British and American forces stationed in the Middle East, Bell’s writings on Iraq and Syria are studied by military experts and scholars the world over.

I recently read the first book she wrote, Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures.  It’s a journal of her travels in 1892 to what was then Persia, covering modern-day Iran and much of Turkey. She was accompanying her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, the British Minister to the region, which gave her access to people and places unavailable to most Westerners, especially women.Gertrude bell

Persia Pictures shows us a travel writer at the naissance of her writing life, before she knew herself the role writing would play in her career and the mark it would leave on her legacy. She relays impressions of the landscape, the towns and villages and the people that inhabit them with a sense of wonderment – that first discovery – of a part of the world few in the West knew much about. With this is her discovery of the Persian language and some of its most revered writers – in preparation for the adventure, she became highly proficient in Persian. (At this point in her life, she was already fluent in French and had begun studying Arabic.) Among the gems of this book are her fragments of translations of the Persian poet Hafiz into English. A few years later she published her translations of The Divan of Hafiz.

Bell concludes this short volume with what can be best described as a meditation on travelling. Here, she summarises her encounters with the locals in her role as traveller: ‘Although your acquaintance may be short in hours, it is long in experience; and when you part you feel as intimate as if you had shared the same slice of bread-and-butter at your nursery and the same bottle of claret in your college hall. The vicissitudes of the road have a wonderful talent for bringing out the fine flavour of character.’

With the films Queen of the Desert and Letters from Baghdad, Bell is slowly emerging from obscurity, but still appears to be relegated to ‘women’s studies’ as opposed to the writer, scholar and historical figure that her feats deserve. Yet, the day might come when T.E. Lawrence is referred to as ‘the male Gertrude Bell.’