Man with a Van going nowhere

Peter Stanford loses patience with a shallow trawl through the world of cults

The Spiritual Tourist: a personal odyssey through the outer reaches of belief

by Mick Brown

Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99

There have been times when I have come close to packing my rucksack with desert boots, khaki shorts and mild but illegal substances and joining the procession of friends who have disappeared to India to find themselves. Escape is perhaps the biggest draw, with the promise of exotic gurus with intriguing theories to explain what can often appear a God-awful world a distant second. But it's not just the wardrobe and discomfort that put me off. I wasn't sure I could bear all that self-analysis. There is the real danger, once away from everyday distractions, of finding yourself disappointing.

As Mick Brown can testify. A writer best known for his musings on rock stars and Richard Branson, he has apparently been taking some of their platitudes on the deeper meaning of life too seriously. As a result his introduction to The Spiritual Tourist reads a little like an angst-ridden adolescent essay. There's a bit of philosophising borrowed from Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave plus such embarrassing passages as: "What brings you fulfilment, what brings you pain? Are you happy? The more I ask these questions of myself, the more illusory and provisional my self seems - an aggregate of conditioned experiences, quirks, foibles, the opinions - good, bad and indifferent..."

This would be fine and dandy in an 18-year-old's diary, but Brown is in his late forties. Why hadn't he got it out of his system in the 1960s at the wheel of a multi-coloured VW Camper? Perhaps it is the much-blamed but elusive male menopause.

Before India, there is a lengthy build-up involving drawn-out descriptions of Tube journeys in north London in the company of a rock star referred to coyly as Van. Amid suburban semis near the M25, Brown meets self-proclaimed mystics with Austin Allegros who predict the imminent coming of the Messiah in an East End Indian restaurant.

You can see what Brown is trying to get at: the strange things that happen behind closed doors in a world that we see every day but which, when laid bare, have a power to unsettle us. Yet he struggles to get the tone right. If only he didn't take himself and his spiritual agenda quite so seriously, Brown would either highlight the absurdities of what he describes or else imbue those he visits with sufficient dignity to justify 40 or so pages. Instead, he listens attentively and then dismisses them in a final sentence; as Van pronounces, "What a fookin' jooker".

This absence of balance continues to dog the book once the author heads East. Brown recognises what he calls the Shangri-La Syndrome - giving India a phoney magic, romance and spiritual promise simply because it is different - yet he still falls victim to it. The insights offered by the various gurus and religious leaders he visits are mundane in the extreme: platitudes about love, fate and duty. Yet Brown serves them up, accompanied by lashings of travelogue, as if they offer a new solution to the issues that trouble humankind.

The Sai Baba sect, Tibetan Buddhism, the cult of the Sweet Mother of Pondicherry and the followers of Krishnamurti in Madras are all colourful and all, to differing degrees, worthy of respect. But Brown is so bound up in his own problems that he never gets close enough to help his readers understand what it is that fuels such beliefs. After 300 pages, I found myself no wiser than at the start, and considerably less charitable.

As pilgrimages go, The Spiritual Tourist gets nowhere very slowly and caps an irritatingly shallow read with the platitude of Brown gazing across a beautiful landscape at twilight. "Joy is non-attachment," he intones. "Joy is not to be found in remembering the past nor in anticipating the future. Joy is to be found only in the moment." A promising career on Thought for the Day beckons.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

    £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?