Essays, Journalism and Translation


James was commissioned to write an essay about artist artist Katie Paterson’s First There Is a Mountain project which is touring 25 coastal venues in the UK in 2019. Paterson chose 5 mountains in the world and made a series of to-scale moulds of them out of 100% degradable corn starch, which miraculously fit inside each other. The public is invited to the beach near each venue to hear the commissioned piece, then take the moulds and make  sandcastle mountain ranges on the beach— before their works are washed away by the tide.

It’s about time.

James read his piece in August 2019  On Margate Sands


A poem by Afghan poet Hasan Bamyani, ‘translated’ by James, was published in the Oxford Review of Books in May 2019. You can read it below.

The expression Darde Dell in Persian — literally ‘pain heart’ — means sitting with a friend and sharing your sorrows

Oh, my friend

let’s sit down together and do darde dell,

sharing the pain in our hearts

I am imprisoned in darkness—

please shine your light on me

so I can bloom

I was like a dying flower

during a drought—

you gave me life.

By the help of your hand

I will grow strong again

for the harvest

Instead of bracing myself

against the waves

unleashed by war

I would like to rest

for just a few hours

in the calm waters of a lake

Take my hand

be kind

until I manage to

free myself

from the hostile forces

that bind me

I made my escape

from a volcanic realm

where I suffered like Abraham in Egypt

persecuted by Nimrod

Arriving at the River Nile

I wanted to drink a little water

My generation is waiting for peace

as a swallow waits for spring

but peace has come to me here

With your help I feel

as though I’m living in my motherland

and Oxford becomes

Kabul for me

HASAN BAMYANI is a poet from Kabul. He worked as a teacher there until 2002, when he came to Oxford as a refugee. He is the author of the collection Lyla and Manjun and his poetry is featured in the anthology The Story of my Life.

Note on translation: James does not speak or read Dari. He and Hasan enjoy a close collaborative process, working through poems line by line over multiple drafts to find a satisfactory translation. The English version does not attempt to replicate the formal structure and rhyme scheme of the original, instead concentrating on capturing Hasan’s voice. Artwork by Abigail Hodges. To also see the poem both in English and the original Dari, click here


James wrote a piece for Apollo Magazine to tie in with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019, on post moonshot art, here.

In the piece Take Me to the River: A Journey into Digital Fiction, James discusses the collaborative nature of new media for Review31

To read James’s discussion of digital fiction with writer Thomas McMullan in Partisan Hotel, click here

James reviews the extraordinary show ‘Hannah Ryggen: Woven Histories’  at Modern Art Oxford  here

James reviewed  the exhibition Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica at the Reina Sofia in Madrid for Frieze magazine, staged to mark the 80th anniversary of both the painting and the fascist bombing of the Basque town in 1937.

Another Picasso review— of Picasso 1932: Love, Fame and Tragedy at Tate Modern, for the London Review of Books— is here

The exhibition ‘Kaleidoscope’ at Modern Art Oxford was part of the gallery’s 50th anniversary celebrations. James’ review for Frieze is here.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, The Beautiful Ones, Series #2, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London. © Njideka Akunyili Crosby.



James went behind the scenes at Heathrow to research this piece for The Independent about the experience of passing through an airport  — something many of us are now probably wondering if we will ever do again— the curious, weightless state we enter when we have checked in our luggage and passed security but haven’t yet left the ground.

Slipstream by Richard Wilson. Terminal 2, Heathrow


 Beat Generation

Here are a trio of reviews of books about Beat Generation related themes, all for the Independent: first, a review of Jack Kerouac’s lost novella This Haunted Life; second, of Barry Miles’ biography of William Burroughs; third, of Iain Sinclair’s American Smoke.

Barry Miles at the Indica bookshop, 1967


Volume 6 of TS Eliot’s Letters covers the years 1932-1933, the year during which the poet left his first wife Vivien, a relationship breakdown played out to comments from eminent members of the literary audience. I was almost more interested in what Eliot’s voluminous correspondence revealed about his life as a publisher: continually caught up in negotiations over rights, copyright, translation of his own work and with the elusive Mr Joyce, perennially late with delivery of his Work in Progress, that would eventually become Finnegan’s Wake.

The title of Jay Parini’s exhaustive and fascinating biography of Gore Vidal sums up at least one aspect of his mercurial character: Every Time a Friend Succeeds, Something Inside Me Dies…

Travel, walking and psychogeography

It was tough picking just five books for the Independent’s Christmas round-up of travel books. In the end, these were the ones that made the selection: a hymn to air travel by a 747 pilot, two rambles through London, an immersion in Putin’s Russia and a love-song to Granada…

Paul Theroux’s Deep South sees a master of the travel writing genre travelling through his home country and being deeply disturbed by what he finds.

Review of Iain Sinclair’s account of his return to the land of his birth, Black Apples of the Gower.

In Night Walking, Matthew Beaumont has written a crepuscular classic, given a full review (beyond its mention in the best of 2015 round-up) here for the Independent. Staying with perambulatory titles, here’s a stroll through A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros.

A review of Simon Armitage’s Walking Away is here.

Here is a review of Hugh Thomson’s The Green Road into the Trees. The multi-talented Gruff Rhys (of Super Furry Animals) created a suite of songs, an app and a book around his journey into the American Interior.

Gruff Rhys. Photograph: Tom Oldham/Rex

Click here for a review of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ fascinating book Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America. 

More on the Arts…

Click here to read about John Tusa’s coruscating attack on those who would subvert the arts with bureaucracy and management-speak, A Pain in the Arts. Here’s a very different, wonderfully strange and at times laugh-out-loud funny art world perspective in A New Concise Reference Dictionary and Glossary of Contemporary Art A-Z, by Neal Brown.

Nature Writing

Click here for a review of George Monbiot’s provocative and thought-provoking book Feral that has gone on to spawn a movement.

This review of Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk  for the Independent was one of the first… pleasing the book had the success it deserved.

James swam against the tide a little with his review of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. Also Melissa Harrison’s Rain, for some of the same reasons. Interestingly (a fact edited from the review for reasons of space) many of the words included in a glossary of rain in the back of Harrison’s book are word for word the same as the definitions in Landmarks. Both authors have found them in old dictionaries and guides to local dialect, some a century old, rather than in use in local parlance.

Mark Avery’s A Message from Martha seems to have touched a nerve, with its account of the extinction of the most populous bird in the world in less than a century. From the same author,  Inglorious is a devastating exposé of the grouse-shooting industry. Horatio Clare has written an elegiac account of another vanished species in Orison for a Curlew which manages to find something positive in the lives and work of those engaged in conservation in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

Nature cameraman John Aitchison’s book The Shark and the Albatross is technologically enabled nature writing, seen through a lens, that adds something to the genre.

Stuart B Schwartz’s Sea of Storms provides an alternative history of the Caribbean, told through the eye of the hurricane that is the area’s most distinct weather feature.

Easter Saturday 26 March 2016, the last ever print issue of the Independent came out carrying James’ review of Tim Birkhead’s The Most Perfect Thing. A blend of scientific rigour and passion, Birkenhead’s book will be in many lists of the best nature writing of 2016, as one more great broadsheet institution becomes extinct.

Other journalism

Here is a piece called Gazing into the Watery Abyss for Tate Etc.

Here is  an article about the moon in literature, headlined Satellite of Love and Fear. You can find a piece for the Daily Dot called ‘Reclaiming the Night from the Net’ here. And a short piece for the Observer, for their Ideas for Modern Living column, curated by The School of Life, on darkness.

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