SIR PETER BOTTOMLEY: Merchants across modern frontiers

It is interesting to discover more about the lives of constituents, and to find out what I can learn from them.

Sir Peter Bottomley. Picture: Derek Martin
Sir Peter Bottomley. Picture: Derek Martin

One day nearly 20 years ago in Ferring, an elderly man asked me in for a discussion.

When leaving I asked him about his involvement in films. He asked what had prompted the question. I pointed to two Oscars on his mantel; they were for technical skill.

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More recently, I received a message from a younger constituent Professor Magnus Marsden who wrote about transport difficulties between Worthing and the University of Sussex where he is a distinguished social anthropologist.

One thing led to another and I am now reading with fascination his latest book, Trading Worlds, on Afghan merchants who work in south and central Asia and across Europe.

The book explores the life histories, trading activities and everyday experiences of the mobile merchants.

The traders’ worlds are informed by complex forms of knowledge, skill, ethnic appreciation and long-lasting human relationships that often cut across and dissolve boundaries of nation, ethnicity, religion and ideology.

His words remind me of the happy coincidence that on Fridays I have the chance to read the Jewish Chronicle and the Arab Weekly.

My approach to political service is to avoid pandering to partisan prejudice and to stand against the demonising of the ‘other’.

That is matched by the rabbis in the USA who were held by the police for protesting against the sudden Executive Order that banned some Muslims from entering President Trump’s America.

Magnus Marsden reminds readers of the words of Dame Caroline Humphrey that trade in general operates by making a profit from the differences between the state of affairs in one place and that of another.

Trade is made up of many different elements, including skills, such as the capacity to trade over enemy lines, to gather and analyse knowledge and information, to use the arts of everyday diplomacy, to communicate across closed moral frontiers, to provide security for oneself and one’s goods and to engage with multiple forms of government regulations.

One fascinating chapter, Afghan Merchants of the North London Marshes, illuminates the ways in which, in complex cultural contexts, Islam intersects with convivial urban cosmopolitanism and its forms of daily collaboration.

I enjoyed the story of a senior manager in a central London shop and an encounter with the Queen.

He became a Muslim and grew a beard. The Queen noticed and said: “You didn’t have a beard before?” He said: “No; I became a Muslim,” and she is reported to have said: “Very good.”

There are topics of general interest and importance in key themes in this ethnography: the ideas of the good life and where best to live it; the well-lived life; and the relationship between trust and money in traders’ worlds.

Circulations of money, debt and goods are widely conceived as cementing, fostering, forging and sustaining relationships of various types, including those of friendship.

In private life, I have been involved in academic scholarships involving Trinity College, Cambridge.

By coincidence, Magnus Marsden was influenced there by the late Rajnarayan Chandavarkar who was involved in my daughters’ studies in social science.

A number of institutions, funding bodies and foundations supported the research presented in this book. Their resources have been put to good productive use.

Students of every age can read this book or one like it: we need open minds, open horizons and greater understanding of the lives and thinking of those with whom we share this country and this world.


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