Isambard Wilkinson bounds up the steps and into the Travellers Club, looking every inch the foreign correspondent in his new, set-for-the-tropics pale suit. I'm feeling slightly guilty about the suit, which he has bought specially for the occasion. You can't get in without one. At least it'll be useful in Hong Kong, where he is a journalist with Agence France Presse.
We're here in London to talk about Travels in a Dervish Cloak, his first book, a sparkling, prejudice-burning description of his wanderings across Pakistan. We last saw each other more than 30 years ago, when our paths crossed at school in the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral. I have time-blurred memories of a charismatic teenage adventurer with a whiff of glamour and danger about him. He'd been expelled from another school for an excess of youthful high spirits, if that's what you can call vomiting on your teacher's computer.
A light literary atmosphere lingered at King's School, Canterbury, in the Eighties. "We were all told about Somerset Maugham and Paddy Leigh Fermor," he says. "I was hooked then and remember reading Bruce Chatwin at school. I wrote to Sotheby's [where Chatwin was an art expert] saying how much I loved his books and wanted to travel. They sent me £50."
From an early age the world of travel writing was less over the horizon and into the hills than within immediate touching distance. "Dervla Murphy was an ambient atmosphere in my childhood, living in the same village as my grandmother in Ireland. Everyone knew her stories and she was a benchmark against which a young boy might measure himself." It may be worth noting the octogenarian Irishwoman's plaudits on the jacket of the book, which she hails as conjuring up "the best of Thubron and Dalrymple".
If travel literature was an early love, so was Pakistan, which permeated his childhood through his grandmother, an Anglo-Indian, Raj-era survivor who visited a grand Pakistani friend, the Begum – a magnificent, servant-scolding star of the book – in Lahore every year. He started travelling to the country as a teenager with his grandmother and brother Chev, whose vibrant, life-affirming photographs illustrate the book. By 2006, after a stint reporting from Madrid, Wilkinson became The Daily Telegraph's Islamabad correspondent with the "Global War on Terror" in full swing.
A priority for his newsdesk, that American-led adventure in the mountains and plains of "AfPak" – the US military's two-for-one neologism did not inspire much confidence – was never top billing for Wilkinson. His interests lay far from the Western media's narrow focus on "a dour, depressed world of troubled Muslims". Is any other country so crassly misunderstood as Pakistan, reduced to glib paraphrases like "the front line on the war on terror"? He hoped instead to find "the essence, the quiddity of Pakistan" by immersing himself with mystics and rabble-rousing saints, hedonistic tribal chiefs, grandly bewhiskered feudal lords and truculent warlords from one end of the country to another: Baluchistan and Sindh in the south, the plains of Punjab in the heartland and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the unromantically named Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the north. These diverse, insightful encounters build up layer upon layer to provide a rich, intimate portrait of a country that will be largely unknown to outsiders.
The evident love and knowledge of Pakistan and its people, a prerequisite for the best travel writing, dances across every page of this book. He gets high in whisky-soaked, high-society revels in Lahore and down-to-earth, crowd-filled saints' festivals alike. Some of these scrapes are knockabout good fun but they also bear disconsolate witness to the rising tide of conservative, militant Islam, whose adherents disapprove of, criticise and all too often blow up ancient, venerated shrines for being "un-Islamic".
Searching for the tolerant, heterodox Pakistan, a place where Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims can come together for spiritual relief at the same shrines, where lines between Sunni and Shia, Muslim and non-Muslim can blur into irrelevance, he finds it fading fast. Innocence has been lost. He gives short shrift to run-of-the-mill rural mullahs, poorly educated in Islamic history and philosophy, full of hatred and in thrall to anti-Western, anti-Zionist conspiracy theories. "I had spent many hours cross-legged, listening to conservative mullahs' brain-numbing theological twaddle," he writes. Foreign-funded conservative Islam has made inroads even into Pakistan's traditionally gentle mountains, where minority populations such as the remarkable Kalash, possibly the descendants of Alexander the Great's world-conquering army, find themselves and their ancient traditions under threat.
Travels in a Dervish Cloak, a reference to Pakistan and its wandering Sufis, revels in the palpable joy of discovery through adventure. The footloose Wilkinson, always chafing at the newsdesk's routine demands, escapes Islamabad as often as he can get away with it. There is a hair-raising visit to a warlord in his Baluchistan cave hideout, mountain meanderings into pre-Islamic beliefs in fairies and spirits. "In the mountains, doctrines of social control and theology, so layered and wrought on the plains, were pared down to essentials in the same way that winds at high altitude strip back soil to bedrock. Paganism flourished beneath a veneer of Islam."
Humour is in good supply. Much of it comes from Wilkinson's madcap household in Islamabad. Basil, the toadying cook, and Allah Ditta, the narcoleptic driver, are forever engaged in low-level feuding and fleecing of their benevolent employer. One morning Basil hovers on the terrace "grinning sycophantically, hair smarmed down in preparation for another day on the take".
Wilkinson has a wonderful eye and a gift for evoking a poetic sense of place. A dawn sky in Islamabad is "the blue of a linnet's egg". The preternaturally beautiful Chitral Valley of northern Pakistan, where he pursues a pair of princely brothers, is an "echoing cocoon of ice, wind and stone". A tailor in Lahore sits cross-legged on the floor "stitching a crimson, bedizened and spangled garment, his needle flashing like whitebait under the tangles of his moustache". Entranced by the Old City, the author plunges into its warren of streets, admiring jerokah carved wooden balconies that face each other "across subfusc alleys like ageing courtesans". On the road from Karachi to a saint's festival at Sehwan Sharif, "flamingo-pink and white lotus flowers spangled flooded paddy fields like buttons on a quilt". One has to applaud the invention and imagination of a writer who can see in the decapitated head of a suicide bomber in Lahore echoes of Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath. Lahore's Old City also inspires a reflection on Akbar, the pragmatic 16th-century Mughal ruler whose Islamic faith was no bar to holding interfaith debates that gathered Zoroastrians, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, conservative Sunnis, mystical Shia and perhaps even Tibetan Buddhists under one roof.
Wilkinson's prose crackles with compassion and humour. Travelling in militant-infiltrated Peshawar, where less robust writers might have feared to tread, he stays in a tribal leader's home. "Its 1970s cosiness was jeopardised by an anti-aircraft gun installed on the roof and by a sitting-room that seemed more like an arsenal."
He describes Pakistan as a creaking “Heath-Robinson” contraption with its overlapping allegiances to Islam, clan and state, the tussling forces of common law, tribal and feudal justice, civilian versus military. Isn’t that a little romantic, perhaps? The vast mass of the population languishes downtrodden beneath either a venal feudal elite in the countryside or corrupt city politicians. He nods. “There are some very dark forces at work in Pakistan, especially the intelligence agencies. If you go off the gangplank, it’s a long way down. I go back to what the Begum told me before I started my travels. ‘This is a tough country.’” The cynical machinations in FATA, where spies, Islamists, the military and the tribes prey on each other in a deathly dance of proxies and puppet-masters, provide abundant testimony to that, as well as to the futility of the whole exercise. Nothing changes and everything stays the same.
Serious, sometimes shattering political interludes break up the travels. He tells the story of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's fatal return to Pakistani politics in 2007, a convulsion of bombs and bloody violence in Karachi that culminated in her assassination in Rawalpindi later that year. Who killed her? Too many people wanted her dead, from President Musharraf and the military to multiple Islamist groups, for any easy answers. This is a tough country.
Apart from the bravery of these travels into difficult places at dangerous times – brushed off with a very British smattering of self-deprecation – there is a deeper courage in fending off serious illness. After one kidney transplant, Wilkinson eventually had to leave Pakistan for another in 2009. This time his brother Chev was the donor. "There wouldn't be a book and I wouldn't be standing here tonight without him," he chuckles over dinner at the Savile Club (motto: Sodalitas Convivium, convivial companionship) with his Eland publishers and a bevy of writers, including Ziauddin Sardar, Sara Wheeler and Christopher de Bellaigue. After toasts and thanks and speeches and marinated duck with port-glazed figs, we reel off into the autumn night.
Rich in colour, humming with humanity, Travels in a Dervish Cloak is a kaleidoscopic, storytelling delight and a remarkable debut. We must hope its author can tear himself away from his Hong Kong newsdesk before too long to write another.