Memoirs of a Dervish, By Robert Irwin
The decade that went by in a whirl
Sunday 17 April 2011
Unusually for a Sixties memoirist, Robert Irwin doesn't claim to have lived in a golden age.
But then, unlike his contemporaries at Oxford, he eschewed swinging London and spent his first summer vacation in an Algerian religious foundation, enthusiastically converting to Sufism at a time when Islam barely registered beyond its heartlands, and not at all with the hippie hordes seeking spiritual fulfilment. Decades later, the Arabist and novelist is greatly amused by his younger self, a character he barely recognises. Piecing together his misadventures from old diaries and writings, the older, mellower Irwin is fascinated by his youthful desperation for answers.
Soundtracking his solipsism with the Velvet Underground and Donovan, he blithely walked where the Foreign Office would soon advise us not to tread, even hitch-hiking round the Med from Istanbul to the Maghreb, before the Six Day War curtailed such jaunts forever. Algeria in the mid-Sixties was a grim place, only recently independent of France, its aggressively secular new rulers repressed anyone deemed overly traditional. Irwin's chosen Alawi sect would be targeted after his return to England. Irwin wonders now how he failed to see the signs. Yet such oversights were not untypical – just check his list of "ghastly iconic Sixties people", from Frantz Fanon to Frank Sinatra, R D Laing to Richard Neville.
Admirers of Irwin's excellent 1967-set novel Satan Wants Me will find something familiar about the older narrator recalling incidents of his peculiar youth, but the sheer strangeness of Irwin's quest still impresses. And he took the task of getting closer to God very seriously. Joining the wild communal dancing of the 'imara, he dived in deep, often experiencing religiously provoked seizures. He never, though, participated in the famous whirling dervish dance which, he was advised, merely left its participants in ecstasy rather than truly purified.
Back in drab, turn-of-the-decade London, Irwin deals with his emptiness, continuing his guru hunt well into his thirties, as a parade of charlatans and messiahs wait to scoop up the suggestible. Eventually normality beckons, yet ghosts of his past reappear occasionally. Years later, Irwin's favourite Algerian adept recognisably inspires a character in Esther Freud's semi-autobiographical Hideous Kinky. Irwin's witty, casually erudite tribute to his clever, naïve youth shows that there are no short cuts to wisdom. But it often comes with age.
Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Katie Hopkins gives rare glimpse of sensitive side with heartfelt open letter to her children penned in case she dies from epilepsy
- 2 Rihanna's Met Gala dress took one Chinese woman 2 years to make, was reduced to omelette meme in 2 seconds
- 3 Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
- 4 Women think Irish men are the sexiest, survey finds
- 5 Florida couple forced to register as sex offenders for having sex on public beach
Penny Dreadful, series 2 episode 1, review: It is still gloriously silly
Top Gear: Jodie Kidd, Philip Glenister and Guy Martin 'in advanced talks' to replace Jeremy Clarkson and co
Eurovision 2015: What date and time is the song contest and who are the favourites to win?
Indiana Jones sequel confirmed by Lucasfilm - but will Harrison Ford return to the franchise?
How the Other Half Eat, Channel 4 - TV review: Swapping food trolleys shows how food and class are closely connected
In defence of liberal democracy
General Election 2015: Post-election 'shambles' looms as 70 per cent of voters say SNP 'should not be able to veto UK government policies'
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
General election live: SNP suspends two members for disrupting Labour rally
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils