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The pleasures — and trials — of knowing Bruce Wannell

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

15 August 2020

9:00 AM

Tales from the Life of Bruce Wannell: Adventurer, Linguist, Orientalist Edited by Barnaby Rogerson and Rose Baring

Eland, pp.256, 15

Bruce Wannell was by some way one of the most charismatic travellers I have ever met. Despite his almost complete penury, he would dress in perfectly tailored cashmere and, with a shawl swept over his shoulder, fix his attentive listeners with a glittering eye and a voice that could sweep dangerously low when he was about to cast aspersions on someone else’s cooking or scholarship.

As this affectionate compilation of tributes by friends and admirers shows, Bruce himself ‘not only spoke Persian with a dazzling, poetic fluency, he could also talk in Arabic, Pushtu, Urdu, Swahili, be amiable in Amharic, Spanish and Greek and could lecture in French, Italian or German’. Like Bruce Chatwin, whose sensibility he shared, he took a magpie approach to the world and its artefacts, with an instinctive avoidance of anything dull.

He knew the East in a way that prompted admiration and respect from fellow scholars, along with a little fear. Bruce could be waspish about those who took too broad a brush to what he always saw as the careful, elegant calligraphy needed to describe the intricacies of Mughal and Persian history. He also lived his life in the manner of an Islamic poet who would be tolerated at any given court — like William Dalrymple’s in Delhi — if he could sing for his supper, which he preferred to be a fine one of charcoal-grilled goat with mulberries.

He also knew the East not just as a traveller but as someone who had lived most of his life there. He spent many long and dangerous years in Peshawar, where he converted to Islam and took up residence with hereditary Sufi scholars who left him with an abiding interest in the rich literary tradition of Iranian poets, some of whom he later translated.

Those meeting him for the first time could be forgiven for thinking he was an aristocratic emissary from some eastern court with his own apartment in Knightsbridge. In fact he lived in a housing association in York with junkies for neighbours and endured a life of frugality that needed to be supplemented by the kindness of both friends and strangers.

This is no hagiography. It is clear Bruce could be infuriating. We learn that he was ‘a sponger of the first water, whose various achievements as a tyrannical house guest exceeded the collective literary tradition of Dickens’s Skimpole, Evelyn Waugh’s John Beaver or Olivia Manning’s Prince Yakimov’. Once established in the quarters of any friends foolish enough to take him in, he would appropriate the best furniture to himself and suggest how the food could be improved. William Dalrymple notes drily that he invited him for lunch and he stayed for 20 years.

Dalrymple’s affectionate chapter on their long literary collaboration — Bruce helped Dalrymple with research for many of his Mughal books — describes how he once left Bruce at his Delhi farmhouse for a month and came back to find the wine cellar empty and the terrace outside Bruce’s bedroom turned into what Dalrymple describes as

the Hanging Gardens of Bruce. Every pot plant and every palm, every brazier and every Moroccan lamp in the farm had been relocated to Bruce’s new open-air boudoir, where in our absence much merriment and many fine concerts of Persian music had been held.

Bruce was one of those critics — like the late Eric Griffiths — whose standards were so high that he found it difficult to write anything himself that quite matched them. His output did not reflect his erudition, and there were many commissioned books that never saw the light of day. Aside from a few finely honed essays, he was at his best as a collaborator and translator.

His sudden and brutal death from cancer last year at the age of 67 means that his longer works may never see the light of day. But this generous and affectionate tribute is to a life that was lived to the full and in the best Islamic tradition of a scholar and
wandering poet. As he lay dying in York, he was able to talk in their mother tongue to each of the foreign medics who were tending him, from seven different countries.

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