James was commissioned to write an essay about artist artist Katie Paterson’s First There Is a Mountain project which toured 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
until I manage to
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. Two of his poems are included in the anthology Crossing Lines: An Anthology of Immigrant Poetry from Broken Sleep Books (2021). 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
For a piece in Apollo Magazine to tie in with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in July 2019, on post moonshot art, click 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 a 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
A review of 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, reviewed for Frieze.
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.
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.
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…
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.
Click here for a review of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ fascinating book Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America.
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.
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.