Like so many of my imaginary boyfriends, Rory Stewart is a beautifully educated, raven-tressed, quite dotty Brit. See also: Simon Schama, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Danny O’Brien. Big Daddy G lives in London, so he gets in on a technicality. My reasons for marrying blond, blue-eyed, completely sane Jeremy are left as an exercise for the reader.

To return to my theme, which is Rory and the dottiness thereof: at the end of 2001 he walked across Afghanistan. Just after the Taliban were deposed. On foot. Over the mountains. Did I mention that he walked? Along the way he adopted a dog and named him Babur. My ex-(real life)-boyfriend used to say that the English were dotty about animals, as if that were a bad thing. Rory wrote about his Afghanistan journey in The Places In Between, which is a heady trip of a book, like climbing a mountain made of turquoise.

The book of Rory’s you really should read, however, as soon as you can get your hands on it, is The Prince of the Marshes, his account of a stint as deputy governor of the province of Maysan in Iraq. The title turned me off at first: I thought he was calling himself the prince of the Marshes, which came off all entitled and I can’t stand those Brits.

But he’s actually the other kind. The closest I can come to describing it is that it’s as if someone we know was writing from there; sure, someone with far better Farsi than ours (no, he doesn’t speak Arabic) and who has spent his time usefully in the Black Watch and Foreign Office and not just been lumping around in tech all these years, but still someone skeptical and curious and funny and with that combination of subversiveness and reluctant idealism that, you know, we try to have.

Rory knows that it’s more complicated than that. There are people in Iraq he likes enormously, and disagrees with. There are people he dislikes and distrusts, to whom he accords great respect, at least in public. He tries to work out peoples’ agendas and to decode their rhetoric and affect. He makes mistakes and learns from them. He is doubtful and worried and scandalized by the conduct of the Coalition, but he wants very much to put things right. He just isn’t sure how. He is always thinking.

Let me put it another way. Those of you who have read Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels know that Consider Phlebas is the most provocative, because it views the liberal generous enlightened enfranchised Culture from the outside, from the point of view of its enemies. And that the Culture novels only work at all because they’re about Contact with other Cultures; otherwise, there’s no jeopardy, just silly little First World problems.

Well, the West is the Culture, the Coalition Provisional Authority is Contact and Rory Stewart’s book is a non-fiction Culture novel. All of which makes it one of the most frightening things I have ever read.

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