Sikkim at the Beyond Borders Festival 2015

In August I spoke about Sikkim at the sixth Beyond Borders Festival of Literature and Thought. A recording of the session in the wonderful chapel at Traquair House is available below and on Youtube. I was interviewed by Sir Kieran Prendergast, the former British ambassador to Zimbabwe, Kenya and Turkey who later became Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the United Nations between 1997 and 2005.

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Grace Kelly of the East: video footage of the 1963 marriage of Hope Cooke in Sikkim

In the spring of 1963, 22-year-old American Hope Cooke gave up her US citizenship and boarded a plane bound for a remote Himalayan Kingdom, Sikkim. She was on her way to marry the Crown Prince. Already she was being touted in the Washington Post as ‘Grace Kelly of the East’. Her life would never be the same again. ed4

Sikkim, a beautiful but tiny mountainous country wedged between Nepal and Bhutan and nestling up against the plateau of Tibet, had emerged from the end of the British Empire as a semi-autonomous protectorate of the new Republic of India. It was what one British administrator had called a ‘good old patriarchal monarchy’, run by a Buddhist royal family, the Namgyals,  whose authority was as much spiritual as practical.

Hope Cooke had met the Crown Prince in 1959 when she was just 19 years old. Cooke was from a wealthy but complicated family background; she had travelled to India with a college friend in search of excitement, venturing up to Darjeeling (the hill town that acts as the gateway to the Sikkim Himalayas) on a whim. In the bar of the colonial era Windamere Hotel, she and the Crown Prince, Thondup, fell in love.

The story of how their wedding thrust Sikkim into the global spotlight is at the heart of my new book, Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom.Mono untitled 5 copy The ambassadors of nations from all over the world including JK Galbraith, the ambassador of the USA, made the long journey up to Sikkim’s capital Gangtok. The event was covered in Time magazine, National Geographic, and across the world.

The video below gives a sense of the excitement it generated – and of the geopolitical tensions with China that lurked in the background. (The Chinese Communists had established complete control in neighbouring Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee to India in 1959,  the year Hope Cooke first visited Sikkim.) It was these tensions that led to an extraordinary denouement ten years later when Indira Gandhi used its newly formed External Intelligence organisation, the Research & Analysis Wing, to annex Sikkim.

In 1973 Hope Cooke left Sikkim for the last time, accused of being a CIA plant, returning to New York where she still lives today.

Read the whole story in Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom, published by Birlinn in the UK (buy from Amazon UK) and Penguin in India (buy from Amazon India).

More videos bringing the story of Sikkim to life available here

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Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom

Very pleased to announce the launch of my first book, available in all good bookshops, and on Amazon. It’s being published by Birlinn in the UK, and by Penguin in India.

If you’d like to know more, click here for my Facebook page where you’ll find a regularly updated list of events I’m speaking at this summer (Hay Festival on 27 May, Chalke Valley Festival on 27 June, and Edinburgh Festival on 26 August among others).

I’ll also be using Facebook to post background information, photographs and videos to bring the book to life over the next few weeks.

Cover for the Penguin India edition - out May 24

Cover for the Penguin India edition – out May 24

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Obituary: Martha Steedman

It was on a cold February morning in 2010 that I first knocked on the door of Martha Steedman’s beautiful Fife home. A tall, impeccably dressed woman opened the door and ushered me in. It felt like we’d known each other for years.

I was there because I had an idea that I’d like to write a book on Sikkim, a tiny Indian state perched between Bhutan and Nepal that had once been a Himalayan Kingdom. A year earlier, I had retraced a journey that my grandfather had made in 1922, walking 120 miles into a hilltop Buddhist monastery in the heart of Sikkim. Continue reading

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Catastrophes, Iron Curtains, and Currencies


 I looked across at my Budapest taxi-driver from whence the bellow had issued.

“CATASTROPH!” he repeated, this time causing a slight tingle on my tympanums. We had been acquainted for less than a minute, but he seemed determined to let me know that even this brief interaction had caused him immense pain. Continue reading

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Of Balkan Bikes and Civilised Cities

My short trip across Europe by train has already taken me through Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Tomorrow will be Hungary then Austria, Germany and France and onto London. (For those with an interest in these things, I chose the convoluted third option suggested by that nice man in Seat 61). Continue reading

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The travel drug

After months of shameful neglect, I will be posting a few blogs here over the next few days as I journey overland from Athens to London.

Travel is most certainly my drug of choice – and for the first six months of this year I went cold turkey. Luckily, as Bryan Ferry memorably crooned, love is also a drug – and I (and my new wife) had preparations for our wonderful wedding this summer to serve as a most effective distraction from confinement to barracks. Nevertheless, our honeymoon in Corsica in July came as a much-needed shot in the arm for us both. After a brief fortnight back in London, we have spent the last two weeks cruising through the Aegean with my parents as they celebrate their Golden Wedding. It would be fair to say that we are both sporting the fixed grins of addicts given the opportunity to overdose.

Today we have finally docked in Athens. I’ll be blogging about both Corsica (the place, not the honeymoon) and the Cruise (extraordinary) in due course, but over the course of the next five days I’ll be returning to the spirit of my 2008-9 journey by train in Asia as I wend my way back to London along the railways of Europe.

The route is, as yet, unclear, but the options are myriad. Step 1 is to leave Greece, probably into Bulgaria. More tomorrow. Toodle pip!

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