I first went to Georgia in 1998, when there was no street lighting (often no power at all), foreigners were being viciously mugged in Tbilisi, and Svaneti was a no-go area unless you had bodyguards. Jo Seaman arrived in February 2001 to take over the nascent British Council operation, and stayed until August 2005, having fallen in love both with the place and its people. My memories of the time are a little vague, but her book ‘Roses Down the Barrel of a Gun’ brings it all back with wonderful clarity. Not only does she well describe the feeling of those early days and the transformation that followed, but she also lays out the political progressions in parallel with the development of the British Council’s mission.
The title refers, of course, to the Rose Revolution and Misha Saakashvili’s ascent to power, with the massive clean-out of corrupt officials that followed. I have to say that Jo’s rôle was more activist than I expected, verging on a political stance, despite always being aware that the British Council had to be apolitical – there’s a heartwarming moment near the end when she was told the Rose Revolution might not have happened without her support for exit polling.
My experience was different to Jo’s because I spent much more time out of Tbilisi – in fact this may be the only book about Georgia you’ll ever read that doesn’t once mention Kakheti and its now semi-compulsory winery visits. Just a couple of hours from Tbilisi, but it seems it wasn’t the place for romantic weekends away at that time. Which reminds me that one of the book’s attractions is the love story, which is nicely handled – although there are so many casual mentions of a certain somebody as ‘the man from the Embassy’ that it would be hard not to guess that something was brewing.
We had one or two friends in common, but we didn’t overlap that much. Still, it’s great to see so many familiar names – Mark Mullen, Amy Spurling, Peter Nasmyth, Giorgi Margvelashvili, David Lordkipanidze, Wato Tsereteli, not forgetting the Hotel Apollon in Bakuriani. But I regretted that she didn’t always name and shame – who was the strange British jazz musician? And the annoying video artist?? But happily HM Ambassador the MacLaren of MacLaren is not spared for his possibly alcohol-related unpunctuality.
The book is slightly under-edited (some commas are missing, and a few words – has anyone else noticed that this is increasingly common, presumably as missing words just aren’t noticed by spellcheckers?) – but that didn’t stop me from greatly enjoying it. Jo’s account of her hectically successful time in Georgia (and all in unsuitable shoes) is illuminating and also lots of fun.