Bruce Wannell was the greatest Orientalist traveller of his generation. A Paddy Leigh-Fermor of the East, a Kim for our own time. He had lived through the Iranian Revolution and worked for a decade in the North West Frontier during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Speaking Iranian and Afghan Persian with a dazzling, poetic fluency, he could also talk in Arabic, Pushtu, Urdu, Swahili, be amiable in Amharic, Spanish and Greek and could lecture fluently in either French, Italian, English or German. Bruce could also transcribe the most complex Arabic calligraphy by sight.
Bruce had lived, not just travelled through all the lands of Islam which he could reference against the artistic treasures of Europe. His curious combination of talents; linguist, musician, translator and teacher, were duplicated by an international network of friendships with scholars, poets, aid-workers, archaeologists, diplomats, artists and writers. He was an accomplished sponger of the first water, whose various achievements as a tyrannical house guest exceed and outflank the collective literary imagination of Dicken’s Skympole, Evelyn Waugh’s John Beaver or Olivia Manning’s Prince Yakimov.
In the last fifteen years of his life, he would combine all these skills and become the resident amanuensis of William Dalrymple, taking up residence for months at a time in their house outside Delhi. Working together against a backdrop of tame goats, a brilliant cook, parrots, visiting fans, passing musicians (not to mention the presence of three Dalrymple children and their artist mother Olivia Fraser) they created four books about the Mughal Empire. It was a unique achievement, which combined fresh archival scholarship with a rollicking page-turning narrative, that both entertained and instructed a vast international readership, whilst subtly inoculating them with historical revisionism and scholastic multi-culturalism. In volume after volume: White Mughals, The Last Mughal, Return of the King, The Anarchy, William Dalrymple saluted the vital contribution of his scholar house guest, who he acknowledged to be “the best translator of 18th-century Persian’ and “probably my best friend in the world”. Bruce could be maddening. I remember William rather regretting paying Bruce an advance (for he immediately disappeared off to Ethiopia for months until lack of funds brought his return) just as Bruce could be annoyed by the rock star status of William in India, “surrounded by sycophants until dawn.” Bruce was always wilful, spending months translating a Sufi poet fantasizing about being loved by a lion in the desert (knowing it was not likely to be of any use) but time and time made up for these ‘diversions’ by the most extraordinary discoveries, creating original translations of “five Afghan histories in the book market in Kabul; the unused Mutiny Papers in Delhi and a bunch of first person 18th histories of late Mughal India.”
Bruce had travelled through all the lands of Islamic and Arabic culture. I think Malaysia and Indonesia were the only gaps left on his mental map of the Muslim world. His arena of greatest expertise was Iran and the old Empire of Persianate culture that surrounds it, such as Afghanistan, Central Asia, Pakistan and the principalities within Moghul India. He had a special facility for the transcription of timeworn inscriptions, and an innate understanding of the influences that had inspired late medieval calligraphers: the interlaying of Persian, Turkic and Arabic literary and spiritual traditions and grammar, alongside local dialects. For Bruce knew at first hand the workings of a still intact traditional Muslim civilization, how a waspish poet, an enlightened mystic, fawning historian or troop of musicians all fitted into the household of a ruler. How literature for all the formal honour that it was given, in practice worked as little more than the prompt for a much more virile oral tradition, and how this recited language was itself interlaced with the giving and receiving of hospitality, of the civilized roles of food and music presided over by the host.
Aside from Dalrymple, he worked with a number of scholars to whom he would become a living legend. I witnessed a fund-raising evening organised by Amnesty International in an elegant City of London office, where he provided live translations from poet-exiles reciting in half a dozen languages. He had not had time to change, for his plane had been delayed. It had caught fire leaving Kabul, where he had been teaching traditional calligraphy to young Afghan craftsmen, working to restore their city. On another occassion I accompanied him to a conference organised by the Ashmolean museum at Oxford, around an exhibition of sacred and esoteric objects, and noticed over the day how he was greeted with special affection and respect by every single speaker and half of the audience. It was wonderful to see how well regarded and cherished Bruce was in this otherwise waspish and competitive academic world. In one way or another he had assisted them all in their researches, checking an inscription on site, working out a variant transcription or offering a fresh translation.
Bruce had converted to Islam as a young man in the North West frontier. He would study beside traditional Sunni scholars, take up residence in the zaouia of hereditary Sufi scholars and throughout his life immersed himself in the rich literary tradition of Iranian poets and Shiite sacred texts. His work as a translator always fitted into this tradition of Islamic scholarship, of a succession of commentators, all working on an understanding of a sacred tradition like a golden chain. I began to think that the years of labour he put into translating the sacred cosmology of Imam Ali was never really designed to be finished but was a form of worship.
Within the world of Anglo-Islam, Bruce could be saluted as a savant, a spiritually wise friend who was often called upon to help others in their quest for a fully lived life. In the end I think he believed more passionately in civilization than in any organised religion and was as interested in the commentators (be they Hafiz, Mozart, Rumi, Schubert, Ibn Arabi or Beethoven) as the Prophets and Kings. His essay on the references to paradise within the Koran, (published by Critical Muslim), his selection of Sufi verse (published by Amnesty International), his translations of Persian Poetry (achieved with Robert Maxwell) are book-marks along this long personal journey. He loved working with other minds, and I noticed that all his published works were achieved in some sort of intellectual partnership. He was kind enough to give my biography of the Prophet Muhammad, and a later work on the first four Caliphs, a critical reading. The proofs came back not just corrected but ornamented with elegant spirals of calligraphy in coloured ink, which had themselves been annotated by later readings. I am not alone, indeed British writers on Islamic themes tend to divide into two factions, those who happily acknowledge their debt to Bruce, and those who bear the hidden scars of a Bruce book review.
Bruce had enthusiasm, he had stamina, he had knowledge, he had an ear and a delight for music, language and poetry. What he did not have was any money or any interest in making it, let alone submitting to the slavery of a salary. He never owned a car, contributed to a pension fund or found himself burdened with a mortgage. As a young man straight out of university he taught English in foreign universities for five years, before working as a freelance translator-amateur musician-professional house-guest in London for four years. For the next eight years (1985-1993) he would be based in the North West Frontier of Pakistan. For the first two years as an administrator for Aghan-Aid, then as a freelance script writer, a translator and a researcher into the complex internal politics of Afghanistan. When he left Pakistan, he accepted a commission from his friend the publisher, Nick Robinson, to write a travel book that would embrace the Islamic World and travelled in Egypt, Syria, Sudan and the Yemen. This book was never published, for although he spent years on it, it became vast and he strangled it with footnoted scholarship that flickered between half a dozen scripts and a dozen languages. This failure must have been difficult to digest, but my wife did at least manage to extract, then edit and publish a section from his Sudan travels. The Independent selected Bruce’s essay to be serialised, which was a happy incident.
His home for the second half of his adult life was a narrow loft at the top of a terraced house in York owned by a Housing Trust. This cell would not have disgraced the vows of poverty of a hermit-scholar or a medieval medicant. It had no bed but was beautifully scented with fragrances wafting out of his collection of Asian and African textiles, while the walls were entirely hidden by bulging shelves filled-up with a highly discerning library, three books deep. If you were lent one of these volumes, you invariably found several pages of Bruce’s notes tucked into the back, plus references to other works and a photocopied article paper-clipped to an academic book review. I don’t think there was a book in this loft that not been properly read. There was certainly nothing second rate in that room. On a number of occasions young heroin addicts would break in and steal his books to sell in order to feed their addiction, but over the years the second-hand books dealers in York got to recognize Bruce’s most valuable volumes and were able to return them. Bruce in his turn decided to feed the addicts, putting out food for them “like the birds” and even visiting them in prison. He succeeded in this unlikely mission of civilising his English neighbours, furnishing the communal kitchen with Bokhara rugs and serving up delicious stews until the household became a model of its kind, winning prizes for best garden on a tight budget.
Bruce could sleep anywhere, and even when at home, simply wrapped himself up in a cloak and lay down on a hand-knotted woollen carpet from the mountains of Luristan. This habit of sleeping anywhere is one of the most enviable resource of a traveller, which makes a hotel of any cave, but it also could be alarming, for he could quite happily nod off while riding pillion on the back of a motorcycle. He knew nothing about engines or the mysteries of the gear box, which made him a very grateful and appreciative passenger, but also meant that all his friends had been “wannelled” in their day. To be Wannelled was to be coaxed into some wonderfully romantic quest, to identify some lost tomb of a legendary prince or some such thing, only to realise half way through the journey that you were in fact being used as an unpaid chauffeur, conducting your guest safely to his next lodging. For one of the features of Bruce is that although he always appeared immaculately dressed, he also travelled very light, never giving away his travelling intentions away by the size of his baggage. Other aspects of being “wannelled” could be more fiscally alarming, like the time I was met at the door of a country hotel to be informed that “all your other guests have already arrived Sir”, or suddenly finding yourself in charge of the bill after a convivial lunch for six of Bruce’s friends. But for a man of his slender means he was also extraordinary generous with the little he had, giving away prized textiles and ceramics, though his favourite method of exchange was the gift of some carefully wrapped up parcel of food sourced from his travels. Rock salt quarried from the Sahara, dried mulberries from Baltistan, pistachio nuts acquired in the covered souk of Aleppo, or some delicacy sourced from Leila’s café shop in the East End, all assisted with detailed instructions how they should be served. Like a nomad herdsman he could recognize when the ground needed a rest, and there were half a dozen houses in London where he placed himself by rotation. May they find their reward in the garden beyond.
Our office, in central London, would often be used as a drop off point for bags, or as a base from which to extract a visa from an embassy, or for a teatime pause between lunch at someone else’s smart club and the early evening lecture. He also loved to buy books from us before Christmas, leaving behind a Child & Co cheque which would invariably bounce, so we ended up using them as bookmarks. I seem to remember that Bruce’s Belgian grandfather had worked for a Catholic Publishing house, and it became an important annual ritual picking up a book for his mother from a similar environment. We once made the mistake of trying to employ Bruce for a week, checking the accuracy of various translations within Fanny Parkes Indian travel book. He would arrive very late, then make long, rather loud and piercing social calls, arranging meals and outings for himself over the next few days. He would return after a lunch outing and then make a little textile nest for himself in the middle of the office floor and slumber. It was a period when we were employing half a dozen earnest apprentice publishers, who in the late afternoon he would feed with slices of polenta cake and bowls of rare tea. Just as they were leaving, he would finally settle down to work. It was fun, and we thought it was good training for our young staff to meet a real traveller, popping around the office bare-footed and in a shawl. We made a resolution to hereafter cherish him as a friend and never make the mistake of employing him again.
Bruce loved things that had been created with love and integrity, with authenticity and craft. He was seldom seen without some beautifully woven linen and silk scarf that had been picked up in an Eastern marketplace. He wore kaftans off the shoulder and a sarong with the balance and swagger of a native tribesman, though there was always something faintly offkey to his English wardrobe, as if Dick van Dyke was playing an Edwardian gentleman. Bruce also wore the slender moustache of a cad which may have once been fashionable in the heyday of David Niven. The moustache did at least give some advance warning to the world of the lethal amounts of charm that could be brought into play. Site guardians instructed to allow no-one near the archaeological trenches, bored security guards holding the key to the fortified gate of an embassy compound, body-built shaven-headed bouncers patrolling access to the palazzo would soon be reduced to conspiratorial giggles and become mere puppies in a Bruce escapade. One of his many successful social skills was an uncanny ear for identifying a regional accent and then talking about their homeland, be it Calabria, Baltistan or Khuzestan with affectionate and intimate knowledge. He could also launch an artillery barrage of names, known, dropped or recently acquired, but pronounced with a flourish that connected up the drawing rooms of Kensington with the courtyards of Khartoum, Sanaa, Venice and Aleppo, Isfahan and Beirut. But he was always an aesthete on mission (much more interested in their gardens, libraries and pictures) and not a social snob.
Although one of Bruce’s survival tactics was to scent out a grand piano insufficiently used by their owners. Bruce would infiltrate such a household as a gifted amateur musician, who would then begin to graciously accept trays of china tea, and then by degrees advance to the status of pampered house guest. His delight in using the best silver and china, in sweeping out the floor of the neglected summer house in order to prepare an impromptu picnic, in boldly swimming in rivers and lakes, and in mixing lethally strong cocktails served at dusk on the lawn, would gradually bewitch the whole household. For he had the ability to teaching people to enjoy what they were and what they already possessed. He also had a genius for appreciating real work, be they musicians and cooks as good as himself, or much put upon cleaners and gardeners, whom he would charm and befriend. On several occasions in his life he was literally the guest who came for a weekend but stayed for three years (George Lemos), six months (Susanne Drayson) or eighteen months (Juliet Crawley). I believe George found it convenient to sell his house in Islington in order to politely remove Bruce, who had somehow contrived for his piano to also be included in the household. Juliet Crawley (Mrs Vergos-Peck) did appreciate his presence as a permanent house-guest for she had been twice widowed and had two young children to bring up, as well as horses and dogs that needed care. She became increasingly infuriated by his slow annexation of all the best furniture in the house which Bruce had spirited into his growing suite of rooms, when she was off on a ‘foreign mission’. Bruce once confessed to me that the thing he hated most was being put up in a bedroom filled with children’s clothes and toys. It was a curious ‘thrush like” revelation for I can think of at least four households where he became a beloved avuncular presence. I gather he was not such a popular presence with his two sisters in law but certainly proved to be an angel to his godson, who lost his mother just before going to Prep school. In William’s words “I lost Mum but gained Bruce.” Bruce was planning the music for his godson’s wedding well into his last week on this earth, without really consulting the couple if they really needed a whole morning devoted to Brahms.
The greatest love of Bruce’s life was his Belgian mother, followed by a handsome bearded Pashtun warrior, who was already married but managed to also cherish Bruce on the North-West Frontier for a number of years. His memories of this friend, going through his martial exercises on the summit of a hill, framed by the peaks of the Hindu Kush, was like listening to Patrocolus talking of his love for Achilles. Other affairs always paled in comparison with these two ideals of requited love, though he had some spectacular successes, such as a secret policeman set to spy on his movements, who he turned into a lover. As a teenage boy he had been seduced by one of the masters at Wellington, but looked back with affection on this man, who had introduced him to pleasures without any sense of shame. Bruce could quote the urgent, sensual amoral poetry of Catullus with evident relish (“Just now I found a young boy stuffing his girl, I rose, naturally, and with a nod to Venus, fell and transfixed him there with a good stiff prick, like his own.) I think when he quoted Simon Digby’s preference for sex with men, who were neither of his class or of his nation, he was also speaking for himself. Bruce had extraordinary fine taste in female friendships, and made lifelong relationships with dozens of strong-minded, elegant, clever, capable and artistic women, which you will find out for yourself as you read this book. The intensity and longevity and importance of these loving friendships would not have been possible if he settled down and committed to a single partner. And the way that he was cared for at the end of his life proved just how very strong those bounds were.
Bruce was the third child in a family of four, which is traditionally a place of comparative neglect for parental attention. As a child Bruce managed to ascend a pedestal, though his brilliance as a musician and as a scholar. He won a set of straight A grades at Wellington capped by a scholarship to Oxford. But by the time Bruce had left University (including a year perfecting his French in Paris and a year his German in Berlin) a rift had opened between James Wannell and his effete, very talented but lazy, sensual and homosexual son.
I am not capable of writing about Bruce’s relationship with music but could recognize it was the central passion of his life. If Bruce had put this book together for himself, the trunk of the narrative would have been based on a listing of sublime concerts, from out of which branched all the secondary branches of his life; be they travel, friendships or work. I have however been fortunate enough to be carried along in the slip stream of Bruce’s passion on many happy evenings, be it in a Turkmen yurt, before Kurdish shepherds, as opera guests at The Grange in Hampshire or in a jubilant Dalrymple-hosted picnic party at Garsington, in the Baroque splendour of a Hawksmoor London church or an impromptu gathering arranged in some hospitable London drawing room. On each occasion, though transfixed with pleasure, excitement and emotion, I also realised that we existed on entirely different universes of musical comprehension. Fortunately this book is enriched with dozens of essays from lifelong friends who fully shared his knowledge and his passionate engagement, but happily there are also some comic sketches and complaints which allow those as ignorant as myself to have a laugh at Bruce’s gamesmanship on the keyboard. A friend of his warned me that “Some musicians found him unbearable to play with (I am not that great, but I could not cope with his extremes of rubato - he probably felt I was too mechanical - and his complete indifference to whether the composer had marked a section PP or FF, but he was always improving and adapted amazingly well to arthritis in his fingers.”
But if this book reveals nothing else, it will reveal the fundamental importance of music throughout his life, which kept him alive, passionate, competitive, minxy and interested to the very last. In the last week of his life, I had arranged a rather nice lunch laid out on the round table in the centre of our attic publishing office. I wanted to talk to Bruce about this book and so had forbidden him to sweep in any additional guests from the street and also to promise me that there would be no other conflicting dates in his diary that afternoon. Although pretty weak and clearly in considerable pain, Bruce rose to the challenge of these instructions, so we had a beautiful Australian musician join us halfway through the meal, and before we could settle down to any editorial chat over a coffee, I found myself helping him with his bags and then navigating him to a hospitable London house to practice some Brahms. So I never got the chance to check facts and dates, which I tentatively list below. They have not been footnoted by Bruce, but fortunately this book is a work in progress. We all hope for a proper biography of Bruce by Lisa Chaney informed by his letters and diaries. Now that he is no longer present to obfuscate the work of any editor, his Islamic Travels might even be published one day, in which case he will (at long last) be revealed to the world as the 20th-century Ibn Battuta of the West. In the meanwhile the royalties from this book will help to support an annual Bruce Wannell Memorial lecture in Persian Studies to be held at the University of York, an idea championed by Richard McClary.
Possible facts and probable dates about the Life of Bruce Wannell
Bruce was born on 25 August 1952 at Sandringham, a beach suburb of Melbourne during his father’s three year experiment in emigration to Australia. His parents would later set up home in Surrey in a house called Cyrene. Bruce’s mother was Andree Celine Moreau, one of two daughters of Luc and Jeanne Moreau. Bruce’s father was William James Wannell, born 24th November 1916, one of the two children of Benjamin and Alice Wannell.
Andree and Jim met at the end of the war and were married at Hamburg on March 10, 1950.
Bruce was educated at Aldro Prep school, Godalming, then Wellington College, Berkshire, where he achieved 5 A graded A levels and a scholarship to Oxford. His family, which included a twin elder brother and sister, James and Corinne and a younger brother, Julian, lived in Cyrene House, Surrey. Upon retirement the Wannell parents moved to an apartment in Oxton House, Kenton, Devon, and in their old age would migrate to France to live beside their eldest son, James.
Bruce took a “year off” to improve his German, then read French and German at Oriel College, Oxford (from autumn 1971 to summer 1975) which included another year of lotus eating, this time in Paris. No oriental element was yet apparent in the life of Persian Bruce apart from his study of Goethe’s East-West Divan.
After university, Bruce taught English in Italy, 1975-1977. Liceo Linguistico, Rome. James Ramsay sent me a flavour of these years. “Bruce meeting me off the overnight train from Verona, and we walked unforgettably to his flat via Santa Maria Maggiore ... the only way to admire 5th-century mosaics, I realise, is through clouds of incense on a sunny morning with a High Mass involving several cardinals in full swing (I wasn't churchy at the time, so have no idea what the Feast was) followed by breakfast in a superb little pasticceria. Bruce was adamant that it was not worth visiting the Forum et al when one only had a few days: so we concentrated on early mosaics (one accessed via a most unpromising door on a boring street) and the baroque. To recover from neck-twisting adoration of Borromini we resorted one day to a totally charming and somehow affordable trattoria, with lunch slightly abruptly ended by an announcement that Bruce had to go to Voice of America to do his 'culture slot'. As we walked along I asked what he was going to talk about, and he said, "I thought I'd talk about 18th-century gentlemen's private libraries." "What do you know about THEM?" I asked. Bruce was vague. "Oh well, of course ... I'll be asking for your thoughts." The mixture of pasta, wine, and Borrominian perspectives made it impossible to think of how to get out of this bit of press-ganging. When he gave his talk it was clear he had in fact done some preparation - and talked about stamped leather bindings and the texture of old paper. Bruce's strategy for seeing the Sistine Chapel (this may no longer be possible) was of course to be at the head of the queue in the morning, then go straight to the Chapel - which you would have gloriously to yourself until the first tour had worked its way through. The strategy for our second visit was to visit other rooms first, then time arrival at the Chapel just before closing time - so that visitors less brass-necked than Bruce (i.e. nearly everyone) would have left, and one could placate the infuriated staff with questions such as Did they enjoy working in such a wonderful place, and had they noticed how Ghirlandaio and Botticelli both ... at which point the guard would be taken to the back of the Chapel to appreciate whatever it might be - what was remarkable was that because Bruce asked them their opinion, a relationship would develop, and the mood become quite relaxed and positive. Friends of mine in Verona still remember Bruce as "the barefoot scholar."
Then a year in Germany, 1977-1978, teaching research presentation skills in English at Max Plank institute for Education Research. Berlin. I think this was the period when Bruce smashed his front teeth playing squash. Memories of this period were overwhelmed by the tragic death of his sister Corinne, twin to his elder brother James. Bruce remembered that his sister left behind two letters after her suicide and for the first time he “watched the carapace of strength drain from the face of my father.”
Two years in Isfahan, Iran 1978 – summer 1980 - teaching English and French at the Isfahan university, loosely affiliated to the British Council. Artemis Cooper seems to have provided Bruce with a useful personal introduction to Paul Gosht who invited him to teach English in Isfahan through the British Council. This happy task would last for two years and seems to have been on a suitably ad hoc basis. Every third month, Bruce would cross a Persian frontier, and travel into Afghanistan, Pakistan or India for a bit, then return to the Iranian frontier and collect a fresh three-month tourist visa.
Bruce survived attempts to denounce him as a foreign agent, supported by all his students at Isfahan. But the violence of the revolution would eventually catch up with him. In Isfahan he had lodged in the house of Rev Hassan Barnaba Dehqani-Tafti, the Anglican bishop of Iran, Jerusalem and the Middle East. It was a family house, home to his four children: Shirin, Susanne, Goli and Bahram. The bishop was an intriguing character. He had been born to a poor Muslim family of slipper makers in the village of Taft but had been sent to a series of Anglican Mission schools after the early death of his mother who had converted to Christianity. He formally converted as an 18 year old, and his fluency in English made him a natural middle man, during his period of military service (1943-45) which coincided with British military occupation. After studying for the priesthood he was ordained at Cambridge in 1949 and in 1952 married Margaret the daughter of William Thompson, the English bishop at Tehran whose job he would take over in 1976. The Revolutionary regime did not approve of either the bishop or the centuries old network of Anglican schools and charities within Iran. The bishop was accused of corrupt practices and in October 1979 a gunman visited their house. The bishop narrowly escaped assassination in his bed (three bullet holes punctured his pillowcase) and his wife was wounded in the hand by another bullet, leaning over to protect him. The following year their only son, Bahram, who taught at the University in Tehran, and worked part time for NBC news was abducted and killed, symbolically shot twice in the head outside the walls of Evin prison on May 6th 1980. Bruce helped Susanne (Bahram’s colleague and closest friend) claim his body and escort it the church in Isfahan. Bahram, who had been educated at Oxford and Harvard and taught economics was aged just 24.
It was time to go home.
Back in England Bruce sat the Civil Service Exam, hoping for employment in British Council or the Foreign Office, but was sent to Inland Revenue, Finsbury Park, North London.
Freelance translation work, 1981-1985 This is the “middle period” of Bruce as a professional house guest and amateur musician, largely based in London.
Manager for Afghan-Aid. University Town, Peshawar, 1985-1987. Specific projects included working within the refugee camps in Pakistan, creating employment for war widows and the fitting of the prosthetic limbs for war casualties, but also providing convoys of cash to support war-damaged farming communities within Afghanistan, especially the farming hamlets of the upper Panjshir valley under the control of Ahmed Massoud. Bruce’s fluency in Persian won him this job but after two years he had to return to London (to be cured at the Institute of Tropical Diseases) which gave the Director, Romey Fullerton, the opportunity to replace Bruce with Juliet Crawley. Despite this, Bruce remained a friend to Juliet, most especially evident after the assassination of her French husband, Dominique Vergos.
Freelance consultant, monitoring aid projects in Afghanistan, for UN and other agencies. 1987-1990. Bruce converted to Islam in this period, had himself circumcised, taught himself classical Arabic with which to read the Koran and lived like a local. He was a figure cut straight out from the Great Game, complete with his own horses, hawks and a knowledge of the best Afghan cooks and musicians. This period includes his celebrated journey, riding through North-Western Afghanistan (September 1989 to January 1990) working as the translator for Hugh Leach (an ex Arabist from the Foreign Office), included meetings with two of the most celebrated commanders of the Afghan resistance. Bruce considered Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to be evil personified but delighted in the company of Ahmed Massoud. Two years later he would complete another major journey through Afghanistan (Ghur, Gharjestan, Chesht and Herat) inspecting and reporting on agricultural, educational and health projects. The letter he would later write to Fynn Vergos, explaining the circumstances of his father’s assassination, reveals just how familiar he was with all the complications of the North West Frontier in this period, thick with spies, researchers, journalists, diplomats and well-meaning aid workers.
Researcher, script-writer and translator. Islamabad, Pakistan, 1990-1993. Specifically a series of Pashtu and Dari ‘soaps’ for the BBC world service “sexed-up Archers for Afghanistan” which were designed as propaganda-lite, a subtle attempt to marry Islamic culture to western values.
Travelling in the Middle East, 1993-1995 researching a book on Islamic culture for Nick Robinson of Constable publisher but also immersing himself in life. Egypt, Syria, Sudan and Yemen and probably bits of North Africa, Caucasia and Turkey.
Living in Healaugh, Tadcaster, Yorkshire, March 1997-summer 1998. Helping Juliet Crawley look after her two widowed children (Fynn Vergos and Lettice Peck) while revising and adding to his travel book. Bruce’s book of Islamic travels would take ages to be written, and eventually grew too large, too literary and too festooned with linguistic cross references and footnotes to ever be published. Rose Baring managed to extract a chapter from the ten-volume pile of proofs and published his Sudanese travels in Eland’s Meetings with Remarkable Muslims. It was serialised by the Independent and received considerable attention.
Dragoman tour guide and guest lecturer, specialising in the Islamic world. 1997-2020. Initially Bruce worked for Martin Randall Travel which is without doubt the world’s leading company for organising art, architecture, music and archaeology tours complete with concerts and evening lectures. Later Bruce would work for Eastern Approaches ran out of a cottage in the Scottish Borders by Warwick Ball who had excavated in Iraq and Afghanistan before setting up a tour company that seemed to specialise in conflict zones. Bruce was at first rather dismissive of the ‘paid” role of a tour guide, but in the end, he turned it into one of his passions and brought enchantment to thousands of travellers. All the old social tricks of the lygger guest: his ability to open doors, plot meals, arrange concerts and impromptu poetry readings, were now merged with his brilliance as a linguist, his toughness as a traveller and his desire to teach, to ‘open eyes”. He could flirt in all the languages of Europe and recite in half the dialects and tongues of the Middle East. He loved good food but could also survive off “Taliban marching powder” - little handfuls of dried mulberries and dried walnuts. He was also a fearless, interested, brave and kind host, except when it came to tinned music, against which he waged perpetual war. He had two principal failings, an inability to suffer fools gladly and an indifference to time-keeping. Clients who wanted to tick off historic sites like a shopping list, leave their hotel at 9:00 am, lunch at 12:30 and be dropped back at their hotel at 5:30 would write impassioned letters of complaint to the head office, denouncing the wilfulness and capriciousness of Bruce Wannell. But then six months later would find themselves booking into a tour “wherever Bruce is going.” After Warwick closed up shop, in order to concentrate on Afghan studies, Bruce transferred his skills to Speikermann Travel in the USA, which specialises in the Middle East.
His attic room in 46, Holgate Road, held his books and tour-notes in between foreign travels and forays as a musical guest. I always thought of it as a bolt hole, but it became a real home. I showed an early draft of this note to a mutual friend who wrote back with some corrections. “ I don't think you make clear that his room in York was in a Housing Association house, hence the drug and mental problems. An unsung part of Bruce's achievement in life, in my opinion, is the way he created a kind of almost therapeutic community there assisted by his neighbour Mark Speak ... that's possibly overstating it, but it was remarkable. Eventually the Housing Association would actually consult him on proposed new tenants, as they valued his role in creating a stable atmosphere.”
This was combined with several months (sometimes half the year) in Delhi, working beside William Dalrymple 1999-2019, translating original Indian documents and histories that had been written in Persian, which would be used in the texts of White Mughals, The Last Mughal, The Return of a King, The Anarchy. An extraordinary successful series of history books.
These strands of his life were also combined with his own freelance research and writing. The most distinctive products of this fruitful period include “Calligraphy and Epigraphy in Iran and Afghanistan, 2009” and “The Elite Burials of Herat and Kabul, 2013” topped up by translations of poetry (Persian Poetry with Robert Maxwell), Sufi poetry (Amnesty International), articles for Encyclopedia’s (such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan for the Literature of travel and Exploration), a third of the text of the Odyssey Guide to Iran and book reviews in learned journals. Lectures delivered in Durham University, Goldsmiths College, Oxford, Galle, Institute of Ismaili Studies, Astene conferences and others. This body of work, annexed to the prodigious amount of original historical documents translated for William Dalrymple was recognized by an Honorary doctorate at York University, the year before he died.
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