The journalist and historian, Peter Hopkirk, who sadly passed away on August 22nd at the age of 83, was one of my favourite writers. Like many people interested in the history of Western Imperialist incursions into Central Asia his books were really the first to open up this fascinating area of history in a way which was deeply engaging. Reading his books I found his enthusiasm and empathy for the historical figures he wrote about truly infectious.
I first came across his books in the bookshop of Shanghai Museum, whilst I was working there on an exhibition, in the summer of 2006. During that time I found myself avidly racing through the pages of his Trespassers on the Roof of the World (1982), and, the wonderfully titled, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road (1980) – which I think is possibly one of the most enticing history book titles I’ve ever come across! Hopkirk’s books are those rare things, they are both eloquent and pacy, gripping and informed, page-turners with a true purpose – they convey a wealth of historical detail and are genuinely hard to put down ... If you’ve not read any of Peter Hopkirk’s books yet, stop reading me and pick up one of his books immediately!
Finding his books at that particular time and place was a wonderful example of happenstance. I’d already begun to contemplate the idea of seriously researching the life of Louis Magrath King, and here were a couple of books which seemed to tie in to that very same past world. Having worked in museums for a number of years already, my interest in collectors and their collections – the often untold or even unknown stories of how certain objects from isolated and relatively inaccessible parts of the world began their journeys towards today’s museum showcases – was something which already fascinated me deeply. And happily I found that these two books by Peter Hopkirk were a treasure trove of such tales and anecdotes.
Interestingly enough, it was the story of the Bower manuscript, which Hopkirk recounts in both Foreign Devils on the Silk Road and Trespassers on the Roof of the World, which initially caught my interest the most. I’d already begun efforts to piece together Louis King’s family tree and I knew he had forbears on his father’s side who had the surname Bowers, and, naturally enough, I wondered if there might perhaps be some connection there. I’ve not yet found a direct family connection between Louis King and Hamilton Bower (if there was any connection that Louis himself had known of, I’m sure he would almost certainly have made mention of it), yet there is a connection of a different sort – in that Tibetan artefacts collected by both men sit alongside each other in the showcases of the present Asia Gallery in the British Museum.
I’m not sure I really knew at the time that I was first reading Hopkirk’s books whilst staying in Shanghai, but the connections to Louis King are certainly there – in the first sentence of the first page of his first book in fact, which begins with a direct quote from Louis’s close friend and colleague, Sir Eric Teichman. Like Louis, Teichman had been stationed for a time at Tachienlu and had also travelled extensively in the surrounding region of East Tibet known as Kham. As my researches progressed I constantly found myself looking back to Hopkirk’s books as other prominent ‘players’ in the history of the Great Game, which Hopkirk chronicles so well, were contemporaries who would have known and been known to Louis himself – people such as Sir Charles Bell, Captain Eric Bailey, General George Pereira, Alexandra David-Neel, and, even Lord Curzon.
More than this though, Hopkirk’s books seemed to link with my own world, as in the years that followed I made numerous journeys of my own to Asia. And during these travels I’ve often found my mind wandering back to certain passages or images which were first conjured in the pages of his books. I remember watching a beautiful sunset over the Taklamakan desert from the window of a cargo plane when I was on my way back to Shanghai once again in 2008. I remember looking down at the Taklamakan and thinking of Sven Hedin and Marc Aurel Stein.
Our plane had spent five hours on the ground at Baku in Azerbaijan, where my travelling companion and I hadn’t been allowed to get off the plane. Not content with following the Silk Road by air from one of its many starting points in the West, my feet itched to get out here and continue our journey overland instead. Soon after we soared off the runway and headed out over the glittering waters of the Caspian Sea I was sat up in the cockpit, poring over the pilot’s maps, trying to work out what the ground features were below. We were passing over places with familiar names: Bokhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Kokand, Fergana, Kashgar, and Dunhuang. Hopkirk’s books undoubtedly added a heady dose of historical spice to my travels and inspired me to delve ever deeper into a growing interest which soon became a genuine passion. For a long time I’d been pondering which area of history I wanted to return to university and pursue, and it was probably the coincidence of my family connection to Louis King, and my frequent work trips to related parts of Asia, both lit by the spark of Hopkirk’s books, which finally helped me to narrow down and channel my focus into a study of Western adventurers in Central and East Asia.
If you look at the traditional short author’s biography at the start of each of his books you’ll get a brief, tantalising glimpse into Peter Hopkirk’s own life; which, evidently, was no less adventurous than some of the historical persons he writes about. Recent obituary articles written in memory of him give a little more detail, hinting that a life of Hopkirk would most likely be a fascinating book to read. For more than twenty years he worked as a foreign correspondent in the great days of the Fleet Street newspapers, most notably for The Times. As a journalist and traveller he was certainly intrepid, finding himself twice flung into jail in Cuba and in the Middle East; and even surviving the hijacking of a plane travelling out of Beirut in 1974, in which he very courageously mediated with the Palestinian hijackers when the plane landed in Amsterdam, successfully persuading them to lay down their weapons. Before becoming a journalist he’d served in the British Army in the King’s African Rifles, in the same battalion as the young Idi Amin, who later became the infamous Ugandan tyrant.
In 1999 he was awarded the Sir Percy Sykes Memorial Medal for his writings and travels by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. Of all his books, perhaps his most personal is the last – Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game (1996). Part personal travelogue and part literary detective work, he recounts how he went in search of traces of Kipling’s original inspiration for the real locations and historical characters on which Kipling had based his famous and much loved novel. Reading Quest for Kim over the last month, as well as dipping back into his other books, this final work really shines with all of Hopkirk’s personal passions: the immersive joys of historical research; getting lost in libraries and emerging to follow up various leads and loose ends; tracing the shadowy, long forgotten dealings of imperial espionage; unearthing accounts of personal endurance and adventure; reflecting on his love of language and the written word; and, not least, acknowledging his deep rooted captivation by all the classic ingredients of a first rate ‘Boy’s Own’ storyline – something which clearly remained with him all his life from his early boyhood days when he’d first discovered John Buchan's 'Richard Hannay' novels, and, of course, Kipling’s Kim. Happily for us, Hopkirk’s own books are just as captivating and enjoyable as these greats which he loved.
List of Works by Peter Hopkirk (1930-2014)
Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia (John Murray, 1980)
Trespassers on the Roof of the World: The Secret Exploration of Tibet (John Murray, 1982)
Setting the East Ablaze: Lenin’s Dream of an Empire in Asia (John Murray, 1984)
The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (John Murray, 1990)
On Secret Service East of Constantinople: The Great Game and the Great War (John Murray, 1994)
Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game (John Murray, 1996)