Book review: Grains of Sand ~ Michael Buckley

Michael Buckley, 2001

Starting in Chad, a former BBC journalist alluding to a mid-life crisis, travels on and off for two years, tracing the bands of desert which ring the globe around each hemisphere. Leaving N’Djamena at the height of summer, he struggles up to Bardai in the company of war-grizzled Tubu, and then through the Air to Iferouane with similarly combat-fatigued Tuaregs, returning to Agadez to stagger around with a camel for a few days. Timbuktu is reached aboard a pinasse from Mopti, and in Mauritania he claims to climb Guelb er Richat with his newly wed wife, though it reads like they never got out of St Louis. The Guelb account is either invented or exaggerated for literary effect (the reality as some of us may know, is rather disappointing). Other deserts in southern Africa, Chile, Mexico and southwest America. Australia, China, India and the Middle East see the book finish up in Israel. What must have sounded like a cracking proposal to a publisher largely fails to satisfy desert lovers. Over a third of the book covers Chad and Niger, and in the Air one learns much about the disastrous failure of the Tuareg rebellion. However Timbuktu is reached but not described by a single word, while an extraordinary country like Mauritania spans just three paragraphs! (OK, it was his honeymoon but it would have been better deleted). Confessing to disapproval with materialist Western ways, the sanitised New World deserts are briefly, dutifully and at times scornfully described, and yet there is no doubt these places are as beautiful and alluring as the “quintessential” Sahara.

One gets the impression that, after burning himself out in Chad and Niger, the author loses enthusiasm and energy for the whole idea and, with a brief recovery in China and the Indian subcontinent, just does what it takes to complete his ambitious assignment. The result is another white middle-class romantic’s travelogue, cataloguing the familiar range of encounters with locals, sun-fried ex-pats and fellow travellers we know so well. Roll on the ‘Glasgow School’ of British travel writing!

Most of his visits are at the height of summer. The reasons for this timing are not fully explained, but one suspects a “narcissistic masochism” was at play, along with a belief that the full power (if not appreciation) of a desert must be experienced at its most extreme. What bollocks. I look forward to Ranulph Fiennes’ next book about walking to the South Pole in winter! We also get the familiar plea for the futures of beleaguered nomadic tribal peoples – but as Michael Asher puts it in conversation with the author, this is “a rich man telling poor people they are better off poor”.

But one thing Michael Buckley has a good crack at (improving greatly on Geoff Nicholson’s limp ‘Day Trips in the Desert’ which came before) is unravelling the desert’s paradoxical fascination on our skewed western imaginations, the “instinctive discomfort and fear alongside exhilaration, aesthetic ecstasy and awe.” Here, over a couple of pages, he succeeds in getting to the heart of the matter.

In the end any travelogue relies greatly on the reader’s empathy with the narrator, but also on their diligence, at best offering an expansion of the reader’s understanding of an exotic or familiar environment. After a promising start the ambitious concept of ‘Grains of Sand’ quickly slips through the fingers.