Matthew Todd Saint-James - ‘Todd’

Anthropologist and Author

(pr. Tott SanJan)
Wallsend, Newcastle, England.
27 May 1976 (Age 33)

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Overview

An English toff with an accent that drifts north under stress, Todd's career seems to be on a terminally downhill slope. Initially an academic anthropologist working in Afghanistan, he quickly turned 'consultant' to various shadowy agencies. Academy gossip linked him to US military Human Terrain Teams and worse… Convalescing after a mysterious and traumatic car accident in 2007, Todd now survives as a travel writer and novelist - of sorts. Dissolute and edgy, he seems to be searching for something or someone: a mystery, a lost lover, an old enemy, or perhaps simply a place that will grant him healing and peace.

(Click for character portrait)

Todd is a player character of John Hughes

The concept

To the left stands Daniel Craig as 007, rugged, single-minded, aloof, and disdainful. To the right stands Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the plump, foppishly hair-styled and eccentric Tory Mayor of London. Start with Craig and morph him about 80% into Johnson. The result: something close to Todd Saint-James. He may seem like an eccentric buffoon but you feel he wouldn't hesitate to line you all up against a wall and have you shot.

First impressions

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You’ll find him most days in one of several chaikhonas (tea houses) in the maze of back alleys off Chorsu Bazaar in the eski shakar, the Old Town. These are places where tourists and expats seldom venture: smoke-filled mud brick buildings filled with surly old men where you might be discretely served balls of opium with your chai, and where rooms are always available for private purposes. Todd Saint-James sits clothed in a weather-worn chapan, gossiping with the aksakal in Tarjik and fractured Russian, occasionally making notes in his battered leather-bound journal.

Over time you will appreciate that here you find the Englishman at his most spontaneous and most relaxed.

Perhaps you will meet him in his rented studio apartment off Alcha Street, surrounded by cats and coffee-stained journals. You will probably wince as Todd rails in English at his housekeeper, Umida Bychovskaya, about the barbarity of her plov.

More rarely you might encounter him of an evening at the Bahor nightclub or the ghastly Ye Olde Chelsea Arms, drinking heavily and sounding off to fellow westerners.

You’ll most certainly note Saint-James’ heavy build and flaxen straw hair, his affected Oxbridge accent, exaggerated ‘toff’ mannerisms and slightly foppish dress sense. He comes across as well-educated, ferociously intelligent, and overbearingly opinionated, well-versed in CAR history and politics. He is also a gifted polyglot, speaking and reading English, Tarjik/Persian, Russian, Arabic, and a little French.

Todd can be engaging, eccentric, scathing, dismissive, or effusive, depending on his mood. He does not suffer fools or Americans. In Beky at least, he avoids Russians almost completely.

And while he seems to be independently wealthy, gossip among the Oxbridge expats links Todd's wealth to an incestuous clan of Lottery-winning Newcastle plumbers.

As you come to know Saint-James better, you’ll note his evasions, his occasional outright fabrications about the past and the way his accent drifts north when drunk. Occasional details with a ring of truth do slip out. It seems he was an anthropologist in Afghanistan, now he’s writing a novel, a grand historical romance. There was a serious car accident: he’s better now.

Todd is lazy and seeming lacking in clear purpose. He is a heavy if sporadic drinker, given to destructive binges and bouts of despondency and depression, a habitual though careful drug user. At heart, Saint-James seems a loner, introspective and indifferent in his social dealings, tentative in his friendships and emotional attachments.

And he seldom sleeps.

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Skills

Todd is a master at dealing with local Tarjik-speaking groups: from his years in Afghnistan he knows their culture and the ways that they must act to survive. He can think and speak like a Mazari, a basmachi, a Tarjik. He is, however, usually less successful in his dealings with Westerners. He knows (somewhat disdainfully) his way around a library. And though not readily apparent, Todd is quite comfortable in handling a Kalashnikov.

Background

Go on, google him. It’s an unusual name…

He’s a writer all right. Travel articles with a historical bent, all recent, concentrated of course on Central Asia and scattered semi-randomly across a range of publications from Kuwait Airlines In Flight to Ralph. It’s pretty ghastly stuff, apart from occasional hilarious asides about trying to pick up women in Tashkent bars. Its factual, accurate, but it reads like an Occidental’s literary reverie, filled with echoes of a romanticised, idealised and patently absurd past, carefully avoiding any mention of contemporary politics, repression or overwhelming poverty:

Bokhara, Samarkand, Dushambe, what romantic associations are evoked by the mere mention of these names! Down a yellow shimmering road a long line of conquerors—Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Timur—and countless peoples and tribes move in endless caravans through the centuries, lured by the ‘pleasure domes’ and ‘gardens bright’ of Samarkand the Ancient and Noble Bokhara … Incense-bearing trees, vineyards, pomegranates, pistachios, cotton fields, bazaars, camels, tractors, rugs, silks … against a background of deep blue, gleaming towers of particoloured mosques, turbaned mullahs reciting the sacred verses of the Koran, veiled maidens swaying gently to the weird monotone of an old chant …

Ghastly. And nothing like Todd in person.

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It seems Saint-James read anthropology and Arabic literature at Oxford, traveled extensively for a year or two, then, in the late nineties, undertook a doctorate at Columbia. His fieldwork was in northern Afghanistan, around the ancient city of Balkh, to the south of the Uzbekistan border. (It strikes you that Afghanistan must have been a pretty dangerous place for a westerner back then.) His thesis was published as ‘Honour Above Any Law: Resistance and Solidarity in an Afghan Mountain Clan’ (IDC, 2002 out-of-print).

Anthropology—being shot at by warring Afghanis or learned Columbia professors—obviously wasn’t his thing. In the years following the millennium Todd seems to have abandoned academia, publishing at least two bad novels to universally scathingly reviews. Both concerned the exploits of self-pitying Englishmen in their travels across the Middle East and Central Asia—‘Empire of Honour’ and ‘Empty Road, Angry Heart’ (Walls End Press).

There’s a gap of sorts: it seems Todd undertook consultancy work in Iran and Iraq for something called the Institute for Democratic Change. Then in 2006, he is all over the media, defending the use of human terrain teams (military anthropologists) by the US Army. There’s a web video of him (thinner, less haggard) at the 2006 American Anthropological Association conference. His speech is brilliantly, devastatingly, hilariously acerbic: Todd defends the use ’ethnographic intelligence’, skewers his ‘self-absorbed left-wing, whale-saving hippie’ opponents, and simultaneously ends any hope of a continuing academic career in a splendid act of self-immolation.

Todd publicly resigned from the AAA amidst a blaze of publicity, yet only six months later he had quit Iraq and distanced himself from the US military and HHT initiatives with an equally acerbic public letter (now hosted, ironically, on his opponents’ web site) criticising the Army’s implementation of the program.

Hence, it seems, he travelled to Beky, and returned to writing. He would have had few friends left.

If you’re lucky—or unlucky— you might find several slim volumes by one Todd Saint-James amidst the piles of Russian textbooks and Comrade President Karimov’s political meisterwerks at Knizhny Mir World Bookstore. They are entitled ‘The Search for Roxanna’ and ‘The Search for Timur’, and for a few som you can confirm for yourself that the eccentric Englishman is, to put it politely, yet to find his muse.

There is one troubling footnote. In November 2007, at a time of violent political turmoil, Saint-James was grievously injured in a car accident outside Samarkand. He was emergency-airlifted to a US airbase in Germany, and then spent several months hospitalised and convalescing in northern England. Todd returned to Tashkent in late 2008. He is scrupulously avoiding many of his former contacts.

Saint-James seems to be searching for something or someone: a mystery, a lost lover, an old enemy, or perhaps simply a place that will grant him healing and peace. He may not even know what he is searching for.

And he seldom sleeps.

People

Todd trusts Mattias Fjäder, his Swedish 'facilitator'. Mattias is an honest crook, who always steals his ten per cent and no more. This is a quality that Todd recognises and respects from his tribal days.

Todd trusts William Lowell. They're way too alike in many respects, and constantly sparring. However, Lowell is as mad as a hatter, and predictable in his unpredictability, a quality Todd finds immensely reassuring.

Todd trusts Hsi Lien. Lien is that rarest of beasts, an honest cop. She is pushing herself far too hard, and seems close to burnout. The genuine concern Todd feels for the young Chinese-American is both a novelty and a reminder of better times past

Todd implicitly trusts his housekeeper, Umida Bychovskaya (NPC). A Russian emigre, Umida seems totally indifferent to Todd's continual excesses and eccentricities. She is eternally pessimistic and dour, and constantly complains (in somewhat fractured English) about Todd and the entire country to anyone who will listen. Umida nonetheless tends Todd's house and ever-expanding menagerie of cats with a dedicated efficiency. Even close friends cannot fathom the exact nature of their relationship.

Todd does not trust, but has occasion to deal with: Ikram Yakubov (NPC). Yakubov is a supposedly a middle ranking pen-pusher with the Tashkent militsiya (police), but is obviously also on the payroll of the National Security Service, the NSS. Nothing happens in Tashkent without Ikram's knowledge. In the finest traditions of the Uzbeki militsiya, he operates as a local mafioso, directing who might be arrested, or disappeared, or simply left alone. Yakubov is an expensive but sometimes necessary source of knowledge and protection. And his boasts about boiling people alive? Surely that's some sort of sick joke …

Questions

At least those answerable in public …

What's the worst thing he ever did?

'I buggered the bursar. Why else do do you think I'd be living in the arsehole of the universe, a place where only complete failures and Koreans end up. Tashkent of a Sunday night! Oh the bloody horror…'

Dark Secret?

'See above. Oh that and the other thing. Shan't say.'

Someone important? A hero? A friend? A mentor? A fictional character?

Todd has become increasingly nervous and moody in any sort of company. He is guarded and distrustful even with long-time friends. He does speak with obvious affection of his time among the mountain tribes in Afghanistan. And he tends to fixate and idolise historical figures as part of his research and writing process. The latest is Roxana, the Bactrian wife of Alexander the Great. Thankfully, he seems to have gotten over last year's Timur fixation …

Ideal love interest?

Todd no longer seems interested in romance. or even casual sex. Leave that to the bloody French.

Attitude to the supernatural? Ever exposed to it?

Todd has heard the djinn singing across the desert at night. It was a terrifying and inexplicable experience. Beyond the memory of this puzzling encounter, he is an aggressive rationalist and atheist, though he has a comfortable and genuinely respectful understanding of Islam.

Central Asian food?

Loves it. As long its not cooked by Umida.

Todd's Prelude

Keeper Only: draft character sheet for Todd
ToddCharacter.xls (Updated 28 Jun 09]

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