Indexing on the Mekong

Our friends at Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subscription now!) have once again kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives. In this article from the Autumn 2004 edition (issue 3),author Julia Keay recounts a remarkable river journey…

I guess (but I don’t know, since it’s not often a hot topic of conversation) that every amateur indexer has his or her own way of working. Since our joint IT expertise would shame most 10-year-olds and certainly does not extend to using a computer’s indexing facility, my husband and I use pencil and paper. Tried and tested over the course of twenty-five indexes of varying lengths and complexity, this oldfogeyish no-tech method has served us well, but never more so than when compiling the index to Sowing the Wind, John’s twentieth century history of the Middle East.

For various reasons (including the typescript of the book having had to follow its editor to Mexico), the time available for correcting the proofs and compiling the index had shrunk to about twelve weeks. Had all else been equal, this would have been more than enough. But all else was not equal, because for ten of those twelve weeks we were going to be travelling, roughly, inexpensively and by any means available, up the Mekong river.

Despite last-minute preparations for what would be an unpredictable journey of more than 2,000 miles – applying for visas, hunting for information, studying maps, packing, unpacking, repacking – we did manage to correct one set of proofs and post it off before departure. But the index? There was nothing else for it. The index would just have to come up the Mekong too.

It seemed the obvious answer at the time. Once on the river, travelling at night would be out of the question. The whole point of the trip was to see where we – and the river – were going. There would be no socializing, no radio or television, no cooking or home improvements or walking the dog or whatever else one spends one’s evenings doing, and although more than half our luggage always seems to consist of books, there is a limit to how many hours at a time you can spend reading. The index would give us something useful to do during the long, dark tropical evenings.

We reduced the proofs in bulk and weight by judiciously trimming the sheets. Each was pared back to the print area, leaving only a slender left-hand margin through which our local printer rammed huge staples so that there was no danger of 400-odd pages being scattered by a stiff river breeze. Before leaving we did just – and vitally – have time to compile and alphabeticize a list of the more obvious index entries on the computer. Then we packed list and proofs in the bottom of the suitcase and left for Vietnam.

We should have started working on them straightaway. In the bright and breezy towns of the Mekong delta the nightlife – drinking heavily or playing mah-jong at top speed in dark doorways – was hardly enticing. Visibility was excellent under the neon strip-lights of every sparse hotel bedroom, and finding the next boat just meant turning up at the ferry. But it wasn’t until we had left Vietnam and were well into Cambodia that we even remembered the proofs were there. And when we did unearth them it took us a while to get our heads round the juxtaposition of flooded paddy fields and stony desert, of Angkor Wat and Alexandria, of giant Mekong catfish and Arabian racing camels. But we still had masses of time.

We started slowly – one with the proofs, the other with the list. ‘ Page 1, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine; page 2, Suez Canal; page 3, Tunis and Tehran, Jordan and Jerusalem, Damascus, Aden and Yemen . . .’ John intoned, as I rifled through the list, writing each reference in pencil so it could be rubbed out if he changed his mind, but doing so legibly enough to last another eight weeks and 1,500 miles if he didn’t. We started slowly – and got slower. Travelling became more challenging. The towns along the riverbank shrank to villages; the distances between them grew; places at which to stay and eat were few and far between; boats were scarcer and hiring them took longer. Where there was electricity, the supply was intermittent; light bulbs were at best 20-watt, barely strong enough to read by and certainly too feeble to penetrate a mosquito net; torch batteries were precious; there were clothes to wash, cockroaches to squash, progress to record, notes to take and always the next day’s travel to plan. By now the Mekong was having a strange effect on us. The river was mesmerizing, absorbing our attention, eroding our resolve, leaching away our ability to concentrate on anything other than its swirling silt-laden waters and what might lie round the next bend.

‘. . . page 52, Ismailia, Mesopotamia, Aden, Cairo; page 53, Sykes-Picot agreement, Balfour Declaration; Anglo-Zionist undertaking contained in . . .’ It was going too slowly. We packed the index in the top of the suitcase so we couldn’t ignore it if we tried, and we worked on it religiously for an hour a day. From having been the least-regarded item of our luggage it gradually became the most important. What if it got wet? What if the suitcase was dropped in the river? Think of all that work. Better put it all in the wee backpack, easier to keep an eye on. Where is it? You’ve got it. No I haven’t. Yes you have. No I . . . oh, here it is. ‘. . . page 103, Saad Zaghlul, Husayn Rushdi, Orde Wingate; page 104, Iraq, Syria, Palestine . . .’

Over the border and into Laos. A much-needed rest beside the mighty Khong Falls and we polish off 150 pages in three days, working in the early mornings before it gets too hot. ‘. . . page 199, Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, David Lloyd George – look at that amazing butterfly, it’s the size of a tea plate – page 200, King Faysal of Iraq; flees from Damascus . . .’ The list of entries was getting battered, blotched with sweat and mosquito repellent and splashes of muddy Mekong , dog -eared and grimy with handling. Was it still legible? More or less.

North through Laos and up into the Golden Triangle. Thailand on the west bank became Burma on the west bank. Watch out for drug-runners, they make buffaloes swallow bags of amphetamines, ferry great herds of them down the river and wait till they shit them out again. Nothing is as innocent as it looks. ‘. . . page 284, Jabal Druze, Amir Abdullah, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan . . . the map shows serious rapids ahead. Is the index somewhere safe?’

For all that they are only noticed when they are bad or, sometimes, when they are extremely good, indexes are important. Under such absurd working conditions we were in danger of producing one so bad as to be unusable. Besides, anxiety over its safety was distracting us from some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and we were starting to hate it. If both projects were not to suffer, we had to concentrate on one at a time.

The discovery, one of the kind that proves that just occasionally the world can be perfect, of an idyllic and idiosyncratic ‘eco-lodge’ clinging to the bank of one of the Mekong’s rare tributaries, decided the matter. The index won. For a week we abandoned boats and shared a bamboo hut with all manner of frogs and lizards and enormously long-legged spiders. The palm-thatch roof covered a small room and a small veranda on which hung twin hammocks. Swinging in gentle, slightly soporific unison – ‘. . . Musaddiq Mohammed, Ahmed Mahir, Masjid-i-Suleiman, Golda Meir . . .’ – we finished the index, packed it back at the bottom of the suitcase and, much refreshed, thoroughly relieved and just a touch pleased with ourselves, set off in search of another boat and the river-road north into China  

Julia Keay’s books include Alexander the Corrector, a biography of Alexander Cruden. Slightly Foxed Quarterly magazine is packed full of wonderful articles like this — you can buy a subscription here.
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4 thoughts on “Indexing on the Mekong

    July 12, 2011 at 12:45

    ‘the trouble of an index’: How insistently Lord Byron’s phrase comes knocking, although Byron was writing from the perspective of the looker-up not of the indexer. He could not have dreamed of indexing in the comfort of a gondola on the Giudecca Canal, let alone in the more stressful milieu of Missolonghi. The trouble taken over an index carefully done should be rewarded with praise form readers, but rarely is. I’m often grateful for a good index but rarely remember the hours put in to achieve it, so thank you for reminding us of what it can, admittedly in extreme circumstances, entail.

    As for the indexes one does remember, my favourites are Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture, with entries that are revelations in themselves (‘Feathers, anatomy and colours of, not connected’, ‘Florence, Pal. Pitti, grandeur of unpolished stone’, ‘Future, the, “thunder on the horizon” ‘), and Alan Bennett’s Writing Home, straight-faced but occasionally evoking the republic of Giggleswick (‘Dodd, Ken: and Wittgenstein’).

  2. Worm
    July 12, 2011 at 13:08

    great post, but remind me never to go on holiday down the mekong, sounds ghastly

    I think the only book with an index I can remember reading is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I read aged 19 or so, and which left me thoroughly disorientated

  3. Gaw
    July 12, 2011 at 13:44

    It’s a refreshing change to hear of a river journey into the heart of darkness resulting in a triumph for civilisation. Good show.

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