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Memoirs of a Dervish, By Robert Irwin

The decade that went by in a whirl

Reviewed,Steve Jelbert
Sunday 17 April 2011 00:00 BST

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.

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