by Charles on July 15, 2014

On the shelves in my study there are long rows of small, hard-backed notebooks. Most of them are blue or black, with a red fabric spine. On the spine there are usually some dates, and often some place names: Beirut: 8-9/1993; Danakil: 4/2002; Misc North Africa 4-6/2007; Spitsbergen and North Pole: 2004; Peloponnese, 9/1997. Occasionally there are some subjects: Swifts; Wolf-cults; Being an Animal; Intuitions; and, mysteriously, not to say pretentiously, ‘Notes from a Yorkshire Sinai’.

When I take a notebook down, blow off the dust, and open it, things fall out; a receipt for dinner for two in Cairo (who was she? And how on earth did I afford that as an undergraduate?); a faded blue flower from a radioactive mountain in Kyrgyzstan; grains of sand from Wadi Rum; part of a menu from Kashgar; a butterfly wing from the highlands of West Papua; a bus ticket from Van to Ankara. At the back of each notebook there are scribbles, often in another hand; the dose of tinadazole for the giardia I got in the Kumaon hills; the address, in a grim Almaty tower block, of Olga, who always (says my annotation), wore beaver-skin boots; the date when the first swallows gust over the Straits of Gibraltar; the time of the late, slow train from Madras to Trichi; the name of a man in Andritsaina who puts out a dog bowl of wine for Dionysus every night.

But nothing falls out of recent notebooks. There are no recent notebooks. I’ve been away a lot, and I’ve written. But I’ve seen the business of writing as the business of fitting what I see into a – and increasingly the scheme. So I’ve sat at café tables in Reykjavik, Delhi, Brisbane and Addis Ababa looking around me and gathering only what is necessary to support The Thesis. [click to continue…]


Travelling with camels: a practical guide

by Charles on March 7, 2013

1.         Why use camels?

1.1       The alternatives are feet and vehicles. Vehicles are boring, unreliable and hopeless in mountains and serious sand. Feet cannot carry for any significant distances the food and (particularly) water needed to keep them going. So unless the desert area you are in is not a proper desert, you cannot rely on feet.

1.2       So the main reason why you should use camels is that unless you do your expedition will fail and you may well die. Camels are temperamental, sometimes violent, and take a lot of getting used to. But most of the classic desert journeys have been done with them, and one photograph of a camel is worth a thousand photographs of an air-conditioned Land Cruiser.

2.         What sort of terrain can be crossed?

2.1       Sand, obviously. And rocky and mountainous areas if the camels are used to it. If they are not, rocks will cut their feet to ribbons.

2.2       All dromedaries hate mud and are pretty miserable in all wet weather. I know nothing about Bactrians.

3.         Should you hire or buy?

3.1       For long expeditions you should consider buying. Unless you have extensive experience of camels, supreme self confidence,  a knowledge of the local camel trade  and a lot of time on your hands, you should delegate the buying and the subsequent selling on to someone local who knows the business. He will take a big cut, but it should not be as big as that taken by the man who hires camels out to you.

3.2       If you intend to buy, build into the expedition schedule time to try out your wares. If you buy on a Monday and set out into the dunes on the Tuesday you need urgent psychiatric help.

3.3       For short expeditions you would be insane to buy. Hiring more or less guarantees the provision of an animal which is capable of staggering round the course. [click to continue…]

Who were the Israelites?

by Charles on February 28, 2013

Somehow, sometime, and somewhere, Israel became a people. That meant two different but related things: it meant becoming different from its neighbours, and it meant becoming itself. Often Israelite self-identification was negative: ‘We are Israelite because we are not Philistine’, or ‘We are Israelite because we do not eat pigs’. Sometimes it still is. Neighbours matter. They mould us.
The neighbours
Whether or not the first Israelite was a Mesopotamian wanderer called Abraham, we first see Israel in the archaeological record in the highlands of Canaan in the late Bronze Age.
Canaan was a backwater. For a long time the eastern Mediterranean had been dominated by three great, proud Kingdoms, whose glory and shadow fell over Canaan. To the west there was the strutting, martial New Kingdom of Egypt; to the north the Mittani and the Hittites, scheming, callous, imperial administrators, masters of arms and realpolitik; to the north west the golden, sea-going Mycenaens, Homer’s warriors, watching from their Peloponnesian palaces the shifting alliances of the Levant; and to the east, there was burning sand, crossed occasionally by caravans of myrrh. [click to continue…]


A Dyslexic boy in a Trojan horse

by Charles on October 25, 2012

‘Come in’, said the Well Known Educational Psychologist. We did. ‘Please sit down’, she said, and we did. She didn’t waste time, and quite right too. We wanted to know.

‘Tom and I have had a very interesting afternoon.’ That sounded bad.

‘He’s a very able child indeed’. That sounded worse, because it came with the emphatic pause that always indicates a big ‘but’.

In the pause I wondered why we’d done this. Why we’d taken a little boy out of the woods and out of his playground to have someone fumble inside his head with blunt tools: indices, probes, inventories, and assumptions about normality. [click to continue…]

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In the Hot Unconscious

by Charles on August 19, 2012

Charles Foster’s latest book, ‘In the Hot Unconscious: An Indian Journey’, has just been published. It’s about how myths are made and perceived, and about the conversation that has to happen, and usually doesn’t, between the mystical traditions of East and West, and between the two sides of our own heads.

What critics are saying:

‘Foster must by now be the greatest living travel writer in the English-speaking world. His vision is both extraordinarily acute and astonishingly wide, his prose tumbling forth like a lava flow straight from some muse of fire, hitting the page so hot that you can smell the scorching rocks and find yourself ducking for cover. Yet, not content with writing about India more evocatively, fondly, quizzically, searchingly, vibrantly, and, at times, comically than anyone I have ever read, he has also written here one of the finest tales of self-exploration, a work of deep spiritual questioning that is as unstuffy and full of life as the teeming Hindu temples he encounters, with their erotic carvings, gibbering monkeys and ancient holy men. You are constantly taken by surprise by this exuberant, but ruthlessly self-aware, account of the most unconventional and riveting of pilgrimages. Indeed, can one call it a pilgrimage at all, this wild journey that starts, characteristically enough, with a quest for giant leeches, and ends leaving the great questions, as it must, (almost) unanswered?’
Iain McGilchrist, Author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
‘Foster’s In the Hot Unconscious is a gem. Hilarious, charming and profound, it both mirrors and challenges the India it portrays. Having read it once, I wanted only to read it again.’
John Keay, Author of Into India, The Honourable Company, The Gilgit Game, India: A History, The Great Arc, and Where Men and Mountains Meet
‘Charles Foster has accomplished a rare thing. He has managed to write a book about religion that is funny, witty, totally irreverent, completely pleasurable, and utterly profound. Chesterton said, ‘It is a test of a good religion whether you can make a joke about it.’ He must have had someone like Foster in mind. Highly recommended. I couldn’t put it down.’ [click to continue…]


A framework for Jewish medical ethics

by Charles June 13, 2012

Introduction My most recently published book on bioethics was an attempt to suggest that human dignity was the foundational principle in bioethics – the principle on which all other principles were parasitic. ‘Dignity’ has not had a good reputation in the Academy. It is commonly dismissed as hopelessly amorphous, incurably theological, or parasitic on more [...]

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My son’s dyslexic, and I’m glad

by Charles February 16, 2012

My son is dyslexic, and I’m glad. Most people think that I am deranged or callous. But I have two related reasons, both of which seem to me to be good. The first is that his dyslexia is an inextricable part of him. I can’t say: ‘This is the pathological bit, which I resent’, as [...]

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Human enhancement: A symposium

by Charles November 6, 2011

23 November 2011: 6-8 pm: E.P Abraham Lecture Theatre, Green Templeton College, Oxford. Humans have always sought to enhance themselves and their performance. Examples include education, the drinking of coffee, and the choice of reproductive partners whose genes are perceived to be desirable. But now, and increasingly, technology allows for enhancement of a kind and [...]

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The Six Pillars of Jewish Wisdom

by Charles July 26, 2011

What on earth is the philosophy of Judaism? There are six elements. Each has roots in the Pentateuch. It is part of the mystery of Jewish identity that these principles produce techniques that are fecund and unembarrassing in the hands of avowed secularists.

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Ten reasons to drink real ale

by Charles March 28, 2011

Britain is rediscovering, just in time, that some good things are not mass-produced, pre-packaged, hysterically advertised and celebrity-promoted. One of those things is real ale. The stereotype of the real ale drinker is laughably out of date. If you think of matted beards, stained cardigans and huge bellies, you need to get out more. Real [...]

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