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The Review - BOOKS
Iqbal Ahmed at work at the Marriott Hotel in Swiss Cottage
Iqbal Ahmed at work at the Marriott Hotel in Swiss Cottage

At the Scott Monument in Edinburgh on his travels
At the Scott Monument in Edinburgh on his travels

Iqbal's travels: A dream of England shattered

By night Iqbal Ahmed is a hotel doorman, by day he writes books considered the best of the year by the Guardian. Dan Carrier finds out how he does it

Empire of the Mind: A Journey Through Great Britain by Iqbal Ahmed, Coldstream Publishers, £9.95 order this book

AN Imperial hangover is still with us: but its effects are only noticeable if you know where to look. For Hampstead-based hotel concierge turned author Iqbal Ahmed, whose second book Empire of the Mind is out this week, Britain’s past, when two-thirds of the world where painted pink, is still apparent.

Iqbal works nights at the Swiss Cottage Marriot hotel and uses it fund his writing. His first book Sorrows of the Moon, which was about moving to London from his native Kashmir, was named as a book of the year by the Guardian.
“My shift starts at 3pm and ends late that night,” he says. “This gives me time during the day to research and write.”
And Iqbal does not coop himself up at his home in South End Green to write – he takes his laptop into cafés in Camden Town to soak up the city’s atmosphere.
He moved to London from Kashmir 12 years ago, was inspired to create a chronicle of an immigrant’s experience of being a stranger in a new land. It was well received: Ahmed’s writing style is straightforward and to the point.
English is Iqbal’s second language and his family, although great storytellers, were illiterate – his nephew has had to read his first book to his mother.
His prose style is clear and easy to read and his travel writing avoids Wordsworthian descriptions which show off the vocabulary of the writer.
A fan of English literature, he was inspired to come to London after reading an Oxford English Dictionary that an uncle bought for him in Srinagar, the capital of Indian Kashmir.
He says “English language books are sought after in Kashmir and I read all I could lay my hands on. It meant the British Library became a mythical place, the centre of my world.
“At first my travelling was random – I thought I would look at places that had a literary connection: Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford, Cambridge and Hay-on-Wye.”
But then, as he met others who had come from abroad to live in London and then moved out of the capital, he decided to widen his remit.
On his travels Iqbal achieved two different things. First he produces a snapshot of today. The multicultural layers of the UK are stripped bare. He mixes with other immigrants, telling their story in occasionally tragic tones. The second aspect that leaps out is his liberal use of factual information, which, it appears, he feels the reader should know. At times it is almost as if the narrator has swallowed a list of facts.
At times, you wonder if the book has an element of the spoof about it: then you pinch yourself and remember you are in conversation with Iqbal.
Stopping in Hereford on his way to Hay-On-Wye, Iqbal tells us: “I saw nothing noteworthy,” a fact he feels worth noting.
But this strange way of telling the reader nothing happened, and his deadpan way of reciting the sort of facts you find in municipally-produced tourists leaflets, is
strangely mesmerising.
Other vignettes include Iqbal marvelling at the nuances of the language he has adopted. He writes that a lady from Edinburgh was polite when he met her, prompting him to think of all Scottish people of being as nice. “I always found her soft tone and turn of phrase delightful,” he writes. “One day she told me how the phrase ‘daylight robbery’ had come into use because of a tax on windows.”
And during his travels he meets people who, like him, have come to the mother country. As a hotel worker, he knows how to recognise a transient population: we meet Peter, the South African who worked with him at his hotel but moved to Edinburgh to escape his friends who sat around all day eating the food he would buy and drinking the wages he’d lend them in the pub at night.
But above all, this is a story about the decline of empire and the creation of a modern, multi-cultural country.
Iqbal says: “My early visions of Britain at my home in Kashmir were heavily linked with products like Horlicks, the produce of an imperial past that had made themselves at home in India.
“I had mistakenly believed the British empire to be benevolent and I couldn’t see the point of wailing about colonialism half a century after its demise.”
Sadly, Ahmed’s vision of the England he expected to find when he first moved to London has changed. He says: “I arrived with an American travel-guide notion of it being genuinely most civilised country in the world. Then I discovered that Britain has one of the worlds largest prison populations – not a sign of a civilised country. It was like catching a glimpse of the dark side of the moon. I had also mistakenly believed that if there was a socialist country anywhere in the world it was Britain. But I saw as much social inequality here as elsewhere.
“The London I had heard about in my childhood in Kashmir was a city where people were compassionate, shopkeepers were honest and democracy was valued.
“In London I found to my dismay that only half of the electorate bother to vote. It seemed absurd that Britain was waging war in the 21st century on the pretext of bringing democracy to another country when only half of its own people wished to exercise their right to vote.”
Iqbal’s book is not just a well-told piece of travel writing, but an interesting insight to the country that is often taken for granted by the people who live there.

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