Book Review: The Tartan Turban by John Keay.

“John Keay tracks down his mysterious, Quixotic quarry with masterful scholarship, wonderous detail & true insight”

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: KASHI HOUSE (16 Feb. 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1911271008

Inside this book you will fine detailed 2 relief maps that chart the world Alexander Gardner inhabited and travelled, they are full of exotic names that conjure up the lost days of adventure and danger that punctuate the succeeding 279 reading pages. Adding to the visual impact of this production is the stunning gallery of 86 images, printed in colour across 28 pages with an average of 3 per page. These are staggering in their quality and fed my imagination, complimenting the richness of text and subject beautifully. Each inner seam is covered with white calligraphy on burgundy, an added aesthetic touch which I appreciated exptremly. The cover is bound to attract you, because it is hard not to be strangely fascinated by the melancholy, leonine face staring with unfocused intensity out at you. This is the face of Alexander Gardner when he was an old man, wearing his ubiquitous Tartan Turban, backed by a portion of an American flag. The title, thank heaven is not in faux gilt, it is a shiny emerald colour. Kashi House has produced a wonderful book.

To men like Alexander Gardener the moral world didn’t make sense. At some point in his shadowy past he had become aware of some truths that many shy away from, and many just pretend to understand. Somewhere along the way he found that the civilised world was a shallow and superficial place, and he craved the brutal honesty of those places as yet unknown to his peers. The ordered civilisation he shunned,seemed to deny that life was full of random cruelty, ambition, hypocrisy, greed and hardship. By the end of his life he had discovered that when one goes out into the world, plunging in until body and soul would are submerged in situations that must be met, a person is faced with choices that clean fingered onlookers who have not lived with the same earthy verve cannot explain. Although some might deny it, there is something of Quixote about Gardner, a man who didn’t understand the world that had been forced on him and so went out in search of one that made better sense.

He once described himself as “a person long seperated from the World” who had lead a “self communing life” away from the “curious moralising notions of the world.” However he was not above many of the things that had apparently driven him to his life of wandering and self communion. He was no mystic searching for truth, fortune on his own terms seems to have been his end goal, although he wholeheartedly flung himself into whatever pursuit he was engaged, he was often at pains to explain his deeds to the world he had rejected, asking for acceptance as the quixotic outcast and at the same time asking to be left alone.

Men wishing to cover what they fear to be shameful acts tend to philosophise. In Turkestan Gardner captured enemies and sold them into slavery. He killed many men subsequently with little compunction, (in one instance he oversaw the ritual disfigurement of a political prisoner), and as the author states we have only his word that those who died by his hand did so in a fair fight. He certainly played a supporting role in a massacre and then took pride in parading the severed head of one of the defeated through the streets. All of which goes to say that a man could not easily serve in the retinues of eastern potentates without getting blood under his fingernails.

Keay’s Tartan Turban is replete with adventure, drama, tragedy & mystery. The beginning has definite Kipling esque overtones, in scale and in elegance, but then it seems entirely likely that the poet took some inspiration from Gardner. Fittingly it starts with an investigation into who “The Tartan Turban” was, and Keay was not the only curious party. Cleverly introducing us to his subject through the investigations of a woman claiming to be his daughter who tried to establish a genetic link to Gardner after his death. This is particularly apropos, and represents the caliber of writing & focus found in the rest of the book, whose subtitle after all is “In search of Alexander Gardner”, this then is an investigation not an appraisal, a fascinating journey in pursuit of an enigmatic figure who has kept us guessing for over a century.

I found Gardner’s adventures, pieced together from patchy sources, (the dissemination of which is a recurring theme throughout the book), in remote parts of Asia the most entertaining. Here we find that there was a romance to this escapist, a swashbuckling shadow with a love of adventure. These extraordinary journeys are full of bandit lords ruling over isolated kingdoms, wandering slave traders who casually kidnap whoever they meet, running fights, raids, skirmishes and natural disasters, other semi nomadic adventurers from Europe tracing a wayward path through forbidden passes and endless plains that compose a land, that at times seems not of Earth but of some kind of fable. This adds an almost Man Who Would Be King flavour to these early adventures, and indeed the whole book Has the impact of one of the better Huston movies. Indeed, as if Alexander Gardiner was a character from fiction he grows and evolves. A man emerges, an excentric, flawed anti-hero, a dangerous, unpredictable adventurer who surprises the reader by the revelation that he is indeed a man of honour and loyalty as well.

After three journeys in which we are convincingly persuaded that Gardner blazed the first trail into as yet untouched parts of Central Asia, we are taken to the court of the Sikh Maharajah, Ranjit Singh, the one eyed Lion of Punjab. Here he gained a commission in the Sikh army and from this vantage point witnessed the cataclysmic fall of the Khalsa Raj, an endless stream of murders, wars and the Byzantine plots. Amidst the many singular aspects of Gardner’s life I found it interesting that for a man who had little knowledge of Napoleon, he actually did have a “whiff of grapeshot” moment during the siege of Lahore. And from this it became knowledge that this curious westerner who shunned western thinking was a man to have with you in a tight corner. Gardner was no military genius, but he is shown here to be a man of strong loyalties, and for better for worse would tend to serve faithfully whoever employed him. Once more a somewhat pleasing romanticism can be found at the heart of this curious wanderer.

Gardner emerges larger than life through Keay’s narrative. It is a mysterious life but one to which the author has effectively investigated & most important he has bestowed on his subject the benefit of the doubt. Nowadays one constantly comes across people who take academic cynicism to exalted levels, ruling out swathes of information with a wave of the hand, as if they have an eye that can pierce time and can therefore see what is true and what is not. I’m glad that authors like Keay who will not dismiss, without good reason, something that might contain even a grain of truth.

The smooth, elegant prose, easy and natural, confirms the author’s reputation as a storyteller of brilliance. The weave between factual discussion and narrative is almost invisible, the pace is solid and adept. It was intruiging to see how Keay creates pivotal scenes by first alluding to and then sketching out an event and then moving on as if there is no more to say, only to return for a more in depth look a little later. This is, of course, in keeping with the theme of the book, which is a journey of investigation and discovery. We are almost transported along the route with both Keay and Gardner rather than just given a lecture.

This then is a story that is worthy of motion picture treatment. Few lives could have been so heroically flawed and so madly eccentric or so deserving of notice, but at the same time it was a life played in a sort of gaudy, inglorious, undertone, because Gardiner never stepped fully into the limelight in his own lifetime. Happily we now have John Keay’s book to bring this fascinating character back into focus.



Leave a Comment