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New donation to the Library by Old Member Ollie Randall: William Simpson and the Crisis in Central Asia

4 February 2021

This is the story of how my studies at Queen’s led directly to a unique and fascinating freelance job – which in turn led to a rather personal book donation to the Queen’s College Library.

After studying Ancient and Modern History from 2012 to 2015, I stayed at Queen’s for a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. I was the first Creative Writing student that Queen’s had ever had. Part of the course was a two-week industry placement, and I spent a very pleasant fortnight at an independent publishing house run by a man called Barnaby. After my final hand-in in September 2017, I checked my university email account one last time before it was deactivated. As it happened, I’d just received an email from Barnaby asking if I’d be interested in some freelance work. Having no idea of the opportunity that lay in store for me, I asked him what he had in mind.

Fresh out of Oxford, my priority was developing a career as a writer – but I needed income to support that. I wanted to do freelance work that I could write alongside, but I was still in the early stages of figuring out how that would work. Barnaby’s email turned out to be the start of a major breakthrough – in the most intriguing way.

Barnaby explained that the freelance work wasn’t for him – it was actually for Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury. This certainly grabbed my attention. Lord Salisbury is a retired politician, from one of Britain’s oldest and greatest political dynasties. Next thing I knew, I had received a summons to meet him in Hatfield House, his stately home, so that he could explain what he had in mind for me. Up I went on the train, and I had an extraordinary day in the splendour of Hatfield House, being waited on by a butler, as Lord Salisbury outlined his project.

It turned out that he wanted to write a non-fiction book about an adventure of a Victorian war-artist called William Simpson, and his entanglement with a diplomatic crisis on the northern border of Afghanistan in 1884-5, known as “the Panjdeh Incident”. Lord Salisbury had been sitting next to Barnaby at dinner and mentioned that he needed a researcher. On the strength of my history degree and Barnaby’s recommendation, I got the job.

The story of William Simpson and the Panjdeh Incident is fascinating but convoluted and obscure. Suffice to say that a dispute over Afghanistan’s northern boundary very nearly triggered a war between the British and Russian Empires. Simpson – who was at the heart of the whole thing – illustrated it as an eyewitness, producing dozens of watercolours of the disputed territory. Lord Salisbury, who had a long involvement with Afghanistan’s modern politics, bought Simpson’s original sketches when they were auctioned by a descendant in the 1980s. The sketches are compelling on both an artistic and a historical level: a unique record of a remarkable moment in history. Lord Salisbury’s plan was to write a book about this grand geopolitical drama, and copiously illustrate it with Simpson’s beautiful pictures.

When I plunged into the research, I had no idea it would take three years before the book was finally finished and printed. The first job was to amass as much information as possible, working through archives, memoirs, contemporaneous newspaper coverage and modern history books. The second job was to organise it according the chapter-by-chapter structure that Lord Salisbury and I had agreed on. Lord Salisbury then used these exhaustive notes to write the text, which we combed through several times until we were happy with it. Then a book designer married the text to Simpson’s digitised illustrations, while I compiled appendices and explained our complex requirements to a mapmaker. At last, just in time for Christmas 2020, the printed copies arrived.

Lord Salisbury’s plan was always to have a small print run of beautiful hardbacks which could do full justice to Simpson’s illustrations. The final print run was a hundred and fifty of these “special edition” copies. Most of these he has given away to friends of his – including the Queen and Prince Charles. But while Lord Salisbury saw the book as a collector’s item, I was keenly aware that it gathered together a great deal of research about the Panjdeh Incident in one place for the first time. I persuaded him to donate copies to a select few libraries – and I made sure Queen’s was top of the list. So if any members of the College want to see the fruits of our work, it can now be found in the Queen’s College Library, under the title of William Simpson and the Crisis in Central Asia. Lord Salisbury intended it to be a book as a work of art, and I reckon he succeeded – the book designer has made the text and Simpson’s illustrations interact wonderfully. And it is also a fascinating story about some extraordinary people and dramatic imperial politics, to which I think Lord Salisbury has done justice. I hope members of the Queen’s College community will benefit in some way from having access to this book.

As for me, I hope to use William Simpson and the Crisis in Central Asia as a stepping stone. My two main freelance jobs now are working as a researcher and as a cartoonist, as my writing continues as ever on the side. I recently brought all these strands together in a cartoon series and accompanying article about the project. If my next research job is even half as interesting as this one, I will count myself very lucky!

Ollie Randall (Ancient and Modern History, 2012)

Many thanks to Ollie for donating a copy of this fascinating book to the Queen's College Library.

Photos of illustrations from William Simpson and the Crisis in Central Asia © Robert Salisbury.