Man with a Van going nowhere
Peter Stanford loses patience with a shallow trawl through the world of cults
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.
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