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May 31, 2006

A psychogeography of immigrant Britain: Empire of the Mind: A Journey through Great Britain - Iqbal Ahmed

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

Empire of the Mind: A Journey through Great Britain
by Iqbal Ahmed
Pp. 190. London: Coldstream Publishers, 2006
Hardback, £9.95

The sudden change of ambience in a street within the space of a few hundred yards; the hint of a division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is irresistibly followed in aimless strolls; the appealing or repelling character of certain places – this is what draws psychogeographers to trace their routes through cities.

It is as though urbanisation has cut them adrift from the natural world and yet their sensibililties are drawn to underground currents – beneath the stone and brick, the earth's magnet is calling them. They are sensitive creatures, as you can imagine. But I can imagine that this will sound too fanciful for robust and busy, politicised readers. Get on with it, they might be saying. But imagine this: for malingering, melancholic, under-employed writers, psychogeography is a term that encapsulates their relationship with the world. And it is, in effect, the literary equivalent of stopping in your tracks for a moment and looking about you. Sometimes, though, we don't have time. We need writers to do this for us.

Iqbal Ahmed is one such writer.

Ahmed follows in a noble tradition of aimless activity. For the Surrealists, automatism was an instructive pleasure. The Situationists took this further. Guy Debord, in Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, explained the Situationist's prime motivator, the dιrive, or drift, thus: [the]

technique of locomotion without a goal,
in which
one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.
It is an act of playful creation. Paths are taken, people are met, stories are told.

Ahmed's first book, Sorrows of the Moon, described his trawl around immigrant London. His gaze invariably rested on the sights busy Londoners take for granted: immigrants scraping a living. Now he takes on other cities: Oxford, Cambridge, Stratford, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow. What is of interest is his focus: he cannot avoid involving himself in the lives of recent immigrants as they are played out in the shadow of public buildings – examples of munificence and magnificence. His motive is unspoken, but it is there in every word he writes: the connections between the people and their surroundings and what they bring with them or have left behind.

This emphasis leads one to suspect that he is always writing about himself, endlessly replaying the same interior monologue but with resonant variations. But he is certainly not self-absorbed. As a precursor to his trip to Stratford, he describes visiting the Globe. If I quote the passage in full, readers will gain a sense of his style fusing with his subject-matter:

I met a man wearing a yarmulke … . He told me that he was from Dallas in America and was visiting London only for a few days. He was here to find out why Shakespeare had chosen a Jewish moneylender as the main character in one of his plays when there were no Jews living in England, having been expelled long before his time. He said that he was, nevertheless, an admirer of Shakespeare's works.
Clear as water, limpid, simple prose, entirely affectless and unaffected, it conveys a meeting between two strangers – one, the author, from Srinigar and one a Texan Jew – in pursuit of their preoccupation with a playwright who Ahmed describes as conquering their worlds as surely as the British Empire did. And I like the "nevertheless". It conveys so much in terms of mixed feelings, cultural confusion, resentment and open-mindedness.

He meets a Chinese waitress, Tao, in Cambridge, and describes her life: studying at one of Cambridge's non-university colleges, waitressing at night. Her life is joyless. The meetings he has with her are inconsequential; as are their conversations. Ahmed, however, records them all with the same concision and weightlessness he accords the Texan. We are left with an impression of an industrious young woman dutifully gaining an education, forsaking the pleasures of youth, and worlds apart from the students she serves in the bar.

He meets a putative, Canadian novelist, James, in Hay-on-Wye, who has similarly forsaken the bright lights of his youth to concentrate on writing a novel. Lonely, miserable and broke, he is half-way through his great enterprise, wondering about the life his middle-class parents had hoped he would build.

There is little to cheer in Ahmed's book. He is muted in his admiration for his host country, but it is there, if only in his travels around it. Why else would he explore a country if not because it inspires a certain awe. He talks of the cultural empire that the political one spawned, but without rancour. He celebrates it whilst recognising what is lost along the way. Ultimately, his own confident handling of the English language suggests the power that England still wields. He must have worked at it, after all. And his restless wanderings in England's cities confirms the draw of this country – its fascination and its promises – for migrants. The promises are usually broken, streets are not paved with gold. But somehow money is made and relationships formed. The empire sucks immigrants in and they make their living. If there is no cheer in this aimless book, Ahmed cannot help but find resolution.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's review of Iqbal Ahmed's first book, see Sorrows of the Moon - Iqbal Ahmed.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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