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‘The first Englishman’ [book review]

A review of Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City by Edmund Richardson

‘This is a story about following your dreams to the ends of the earth’. So writes Edmund Richardson in his introduction to Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City, which one could be forgiven for thinking – on the basis of that sentence – is a work of fiction. In fact, were it not for the quoted extracts and copious source notes, the improbable story of Charles Masson does read very much like a novel, a similarity of which Richardson is more than aware and which he echoes in his prose style. Meticulously researched and written with spirit, Alexandria is a fascinating addition to the vast body of literature inspired by lost cities, desert adventurers and, of course, Alexander the Great.

Cover image Alexandria

Writing the story of Charles Masson is no easy task: as Richardson is quick to point out, the man himself was a fabrication. Born James Lewis in 1800, the Londoner who would later become Charles Masson started his career as a soldier with the East India Company, only to desert in 1827. What followed was almost a decade and a half of travels throughout India, Afghanistan and modern-day Pakistan, and enough adventures to fill a book more than twice the length of Richardson’s. From respected soldier to penniless traveller, who adopted a pseudonym to escape the East India Company’s clutches, Masson would go on to become at various points a spy, a political and military advisor, an archaeologist and impassioned writer, the first European to visit the ruins of Harappa, and the instigator of a spectacular effort to uncover the lost city of Alexandria Beneath the Mountains, believed located to the north of Kabul at Bagram. He was also, tragically, a pawn in the Great Game, a role which saw him unfairly imprisoned and his life’s work purloined. Masson was finally dispatched back to England, where he died in 1853.

No one is quite sure what drove James Lewis to desert and adopt the name Charles Masson – ‘it may not be entirely true’ is a refrain that runs throughout the book. What is for sure is that he later became obsessed with finding Alexandria Beneath the Mountains, just one of ‘over a dozen’ identically named cities scattered across the vast empire that once belonged to Alexander the Great. This obsession drove him to make hugely important archaeological discoveries, but it would also be his downfall: as the British and Russians moved in on South Asia, Masson’s unusual attitudes made him a marked man.

Richardson, who clearly empathises deeply with his subject, paints Masson as quite different to the scheming colonial officers with whom he became entangled; he was a man who understood and respected the communities he lived among, and who refused to draw a line between East and West. His excavations were conducted with care, while the collections of ancient coins, scripts and figures he amassed and studied in depth demonstrated that the then-perceived differences between Western ‘civilisation’ and Eastern ‘barbarianism’ did not, in fact, exist. In short, Masson seems to have been a man far ahead of his time, yet in the ruthless race to seize land and resources, his criticism of Brtish invasions and iron-fisted colonial rule fell on deaf ears.

That said, Masson was himself a product of the colonial system – and indeed his work contributed to the removal of priceless artefacts from the lands to which they belonged. As Richardson notes rather poignantly, with reference to an Afghan proverb, Masson was not only a greedy collector, but ‘the first Englishman’ – after whom came a seemingly unstoppable wave of European explorers who usually did more harm than good. He may not have used dynamite, as happened at the ancient city of Troy, and he may not have gleefully indulged in ‘“one or two little bits of smashery”’, as a British officer noted in his diary during the 1839 invasion of Afghanistan, but still he came and disrupted the old order of things. Though Richardson may admire Masson, who has only recently begun to receive recognition for his finds, he succeeds in portraying him as two-sided coin: both blessing and curse.

If Masson can in many respects be seen as a controversial figure, many of the other characters who appear in Alexandria are utterly nightmarish. At the same time, Richardson has a good eye for colourful exploits, picking out individual heroics or absurdities to make what may once have been a heap of fairly dry source material spring to life on the page. Many of the scenes he describes are shockingly unforgettable, but even the more routine descriptions of Kabul’s bazaar or the great plains of the Punjab are imbued with the kind of atmosphere often reserved for travel writing. Though he has evidently waded through a phenomenal amount of research, Richardson seems also to have let his creativity exert a considerable influence over the writing process.

Though on the whole it makes for vivid, approachable writing, at times this style is more successful than others: some figures seem to have been included merely to be ridiculed, and the casual, almost jokey tone can occasionally become grating. It is undoubtedly refreshing to read one particular British administrator described as a man who ‘looked like an angry dumpling’, but too much of this tone can dislodge the more serious questions at hand – particularly those thrown up by colonialism. Of course, this kind of thing is always a matter of personal preference, and Richardson’s style of storytelling is commendably individual, one that will attract and retain a loyal readership.

And after all, storytelling is very much at the heart of Alexandria, beginning with Charles Masson, a storyteller through and through, and going right back across layers of history to the myriad legends woven around the life of Alexander the Great. In this respect, Richardson has mirrored his subject perfectly, imbuing his book with the against-all-odds spirit in which Masson seems to have lived. Though it does at times read like a bit of a boys’ romp – the stereotypical golden age of exploration come to life on the page – it also delves deeper, asking questions about what has been irreparably lost in the name of ‘research’ and ‘progress’. As a scholar and writer, Richardson has much to offer – and Masson, I can’t help but feel, would approve of his work.

Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City by Edmund Richardson is published by Bloomsbury in hardback and digital. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a digital review copy.


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