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Sunday, August 12th, 2007

Time Event
11:20a
Been meaning to read this one for a while ...
Well, I finally got a copy of Idries Shah's The Englishman's Handbook, the third book in his "English" trilogy (following up 1980's Darkest England and 1988's The Natives Are Restless). Being an Octagon book, this is painfully expensive at retail ($35 for a 222-page hardcover), and for a while seemed "unavailable", so was being offered at highly inflated prices on the used end of things. This was issued quite posthumously in 2000 (Shah died in 1996), which makes me wonder just how much of this Shah was directly responsible, and how much associates (or one of his writer offspring) had to do with its publication.

Shah's "England" books sought to turn the tables on the typical "observing foreign culture" modality by taking something of a field anthropologist stance to looking at the English. Shah, while Afghan by birth and heritage, was educated and spent most of his life in England, giving him are rather lucid perspective on the foibles of his adopted land. Each of the three books has taken a different angle (history, culture, mind-set), and this one focuses on how the English think.

Now, one has to understand that Shah held that the English, descendants of the Angles (of Anglo-Saxon fame), originated as a wandering tribe that emerged from the general area of Afghanistan sometime in the dark recesses of history, and managed to co-opt every culture and people that they ended up setting amidst (hence the top billing in "Anglo-Saxon" although this came to Britain from Saxony), eventually becoming "The English" despite whatever other cultural influences (Norman, Dane, Roman, Celt, etc.) were in the mix. Towards the end of explaining how this could be, Shah postulates an "Englishman's Handbook", or some secret store of knowledge of how to confuse and marginalize "foreigners", at home or abroad.

The Englishman's Handbook is more a collection of odd vignettes from conversations, press reports, etc., than its predecessors, with only one "cute story" of a fictionalized character for illustration purposes. This, I'm sure, is due to the book having been largely assembled by "his estate" (the official author/copyright-holder) from snippets and notes they found in his files.

As noted in previous reviews of Octagon books, Shah is a fascinating character. Held by many to be the Sufi "Teacher of the Age", and by as many as a total poseur in early "eurotrash mode" (asiatrash?), who was brilliant in working a mystical con. I was fascinated to learn that Shah was likely the "Jack Bracelin" (he wrote under many pen names, but it's telling that the Gerald Gardner biography by Bracelin was published by Shah's Octagon Press) who was a beneficiary of Aleister Crowley's will. Shah was later to go on to be given J.G.Bennet's (noted follower of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) school and retreat center, so if he was fooling people, he was certainly fooling a lot of the top names in the mystical/occult world in the 40's, 50's and 60's (which appears to have been before he began his career as a Sufi teacher)! One interesting point (if Shah did indeed pen the Gardner biography) is that there is a rather nasty (and somewhat out-of-context) bit in this book about Gardner ... of course, this could be from a posthumous pen and not Shah's.

Anyway, I got this through the Amazon new/used vendors, albeit for a lot more than I usually pay (but with Octagon's pricing, it's hard to get a "deal"). It does appear to be back in print, so you should be able to find it new. Frankly, I would not specifically recommend this book without the context of its predecessors, but the three of them together (with the caveat that this is the weakest of them, largely lacking Shah's arch wit) make for a fascinating read.


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