Concerned that his mother and stepfather were not back from a party despite assuring him of returning well before midnight, Miles Morland set in search through the streets of Iran’s shrine city of Mashhad. It was characteristic of his life – a career in finance without any background and then giving up a high-paying job to walk across France’s Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic, pioneering stock markets in Africa and Middle East, taking up motorcycling at 47, and attending Madagascan funerary rituals.
He also has the distinction of witnessing an Iranian ‘bazaari’ mob at full rage, living in Baghdad when it was the safest city in the Middle East for Western nationals, being deported from then communist Romania at gunpoint, going on an unnerving taxi ride through Beirut where a shaky peace had returned and being saved from kidnapping and a torturous death by insurgents in Ethiopia by a plane crash (of a business associate).
Born in India in 1943 to a navy father and a “dangerous glamorous” mother, Morland spent his first few years in the country, coming back shortly after returning to Britain in 1946 as his parents divorced and his mother found the going tough in the post-war, austere homeland. His memories of India, including the snake in the bathroom which gives the book its title, are “collection of vivid mental snapshots, shot with heat, colour, light, tumult and the smell of spice”.
Morland, now older, has more concrete details of his stint in Iran where his family moved in 1950 – of Iranian customs and shrines seen first-hand , of the difficulty of keeping pets (dog lovers, skip it!), attending the American School (where the pupils were taught to beware “the trouble around the corner”), the tension following the CIA-inspired coup that removed Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and more. Also valuable are his recollections of Hashemite Iraq where they lived for a few years.
He then takes us to through his education including at Oxford (where he was a enthusiastic member of the rowing teams and participated in quite few of the traditional races against Cambridge), his lotus-eating period as a tour site employee in the Greek islands, the first pangs of love, an initial stint in media (and his first electoral opinion poll) and career in the financial industry, where his dedication led to his marriage breaking down.
But it is then the narrative picks up to a higher level of thrill – Morland’s impetuous visits to (then) communist Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania in late 1989 to understand what was going on, his new career in financial consultancy and in revitalising bourses across Africa and Middle East after spectacular successes in Ghana, and Oman, (and some insights about Africa which upset conventional wisdom) and his new-found interest in motorcycling – and tours through Japan, south India and on Che Guevara’s tracks through the Andes.
Also standing out are his recollections of the World Trade Centre and its chequered history while returning from new York where he was on that terrible day in September 2001 and of a surrealistic trip to Baghdad in 2010, when he and his associates came across some Incas to find they were an example of American outsourcing, were guarded by Pistol Pete and the Testosterone Tommies and then the Baghdad Bazooka Boys.
More poignant are the account of the last rites of one of his daughters who had committed suicide, and of a visit to Hiroshima and its sombre peace memorial.
Living his far from conventional life on his own terms, Morland has something for everyone – motorcyclists, sportsmen, pet lovers, development experts, international affairs aficionados, and more – from his sometimes quite absurd but always entertaining experiences recounted with candour and wit in his memoirs. Don’t miss them.