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Book Review December 26, 2001
The mongols of Ulster
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 2
And for all Stewart's sentimentality about the savages, he does a good deal of gloating over their reduction to harmless local colour. The Mongols may chortle when Stewart mishandles his pony, but Stewart always saves the last laugh for his Tory readers, going on in a "good-natured" way about the drunken antics of the locals and their lewd, uncivilised sexual habits.

Anyone who's read Western travelers' accounts of post-Soviet Russia is familiar with this sort of writing. In fact, though he only passes through Ukraine on his way to the Steppes, it's the Slavs whom Stewart enjoys humiliating most of all. He takes a Russian ship from Istanbul to Sevastapol, sharing a berth with a young Russian, Kolya (who is naturally a drunken thief), and repelling the advances of Anna, depicted as the typical sexually-desperate, shameless Russian whore. Anna drags Stewart onto the dance floor, where he takes notes on her dancing mistakes, then completes the passive-aggressive rape-scene by spurning her: "My failure to respond to Anna's advances had hurt...both [her and Kolya]," he smirks, going on to describe Anna's unending, humiliating sexual offers at considerable length.

The whole episode is so common in Westerner-in-Russia accounts that it should be recognised as the pornographic cliche it is: a sado-masochistic game in which the Western man makes the Russian woman crawl to him, desperate for a bit of hard currency and/or affection -- then kicks her away. Never has impotence or priggishness seemed so sexy to so many. It's the sort of S&M summarised in the old joke:

[Russian] Masochist: "Beat me, beat me!»

[Western] Sadist: "No.»

Stewart has a cliche for every Slav he meets on the road to Xanadu. After touring Volgograd, he reminds us, "'Scratch a Russian,' the old proverb goes, 'and you will find a Tartar.'" Stewart's notions of Russian and "Tartar" seem somewhat confused; in the same paragraph he notes, "The Cossacks, another Tartar band, are part of Russian folklore." The Cossacks will be interested to learn that they are Tartars. Indeed, one surefire recipe for intercultural comedy would be to impart this information to a table of drunken Cossacks and just watch the hijinks that ensue.

When Stewart meets a Russian family on a train, he knows exactly who they are: "In the next compartment was a Russian family of three ursine lumbering figures: Father Bear, Mother Bear and Little Bear, a girl of eight." Russians as bears -- how funny! How original! How daring!

Unaware that they have already been reduced to cartoon characters, the Russians invite Stewart to share their lunch. This, of course, is a fatal mistake when dealing with the Theroux-style bitchy travel writer. The kinder his fellow travelers are to him, the more they expose themselves to his ill-bred and cowardly parodies -- never delivered to their faces, but scribbled quickly in the train's lavatory between courses, allowing the traitor-guest to enjoy the entire lunch before savaging his hosts.

In fact, bestial, defeated Russians are only one of the many caricatures with which Stewart populates his journey. The most common of his formulaic comic bits consists of jokes about...the Pope! You might not expect the ol' Pontiff to feature so largely in a tour of Central Asia, but Stewart is an Ulster Protestant boy, and when he wants a quick, surefire ethno-religious slur, he knows where to look: Vatican City. Morbidly fascinated, I counted 35 jokes featuring the Pope, or nuns, or other paraphernalia of the hated Taigs. It's downright weird, the way Stewart manages to drag the Pope into every single chapter, from boasting about his Patriarchal blessing as "more grand than that of the Pope" to citing the verdict of some aged Central Asian Christians: "To these men the Pope was an embarrassing renegade, with all the authority and dignity of a fairground preacher. "

Separated at Oven?

Crusty, bespectacled poster boy for dropping Daisy Cutter bombs.......
...and crusty, bespectacled poster boy for delivering Pepperoni Supreme pizzas?

You can take the boy out of the Ulster vicarage, but you cannot, apparently, take the petty hatreds of said vicarage out of said boy. And this, you recall, is out intercultural ambassador to the Mongols! All the way from Istanbul to Ulan Bator, Stewart never really leaves the Vicarage, returning again and again to the taunts he learned in his Orange childhood. Stewart's relentless harping on the Papists in the middle of wild pagan landscapes reminded me of that Belfast song, "William Bloat," in which Mr Bloat, a citizen of the Shankhill Road, devotes his last words on Earth to his most sacred duty, reviling the Pope:

With his dyin' breath and he facin' death,

He soundly cursed the Pope....

And after two hundred pages of ill-bred religious sneers, this smug little bigot has the gall to attach a pietistic moral to his story. Visiting a Central Asian shaman, he sighs like Miniver Cheevy for a world in which dull piety still calls the shots, a world without science or reason. This is not only tedious but bizarre, since one thing which all chroniclers emphasise in their accounts of the thirteenth-century Mongol empire is the Mongols' utter contempt for any and all religion. Blind as usual, failing to see what's in front of him, blathering on with the old Tory party-line, he contrasts this wretched shaman's rapt audience with the empty churches of the West:

"Compared to the shaman's powerful spirits, the Christian God of our own era was a strangely diminished figure. It took an effort to remember that he had once been omnipotent. These days he was no longer required for the big practical matters. Gasses had created the world, evolution had created Man....It was little wonder that so many people had given up on him."

Isn't it incredible? After a book's worth of cheap sectarian taunts, this loathsome Ulster bigot actually dares to ascribe the loss of faith in "the Christian God" to science!

You want to know why "the Christian God" went into decline, Mister Bloat-Stewart? Not because of the rise of science. It was the fact that He had friends like you which made people of taste avoid his company. He had too many mean little bigot-friends -- products of the Ulster vicarages; smug, meanspirited worms like you and C. S. Lewis, A. N. Wilson and the rest of the Spectator grubs, who can ride across half the world without managing to see anything but the damp back garden of an Ulster vicarage.

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