Colour, noise, religion, beer

By Nicholas Asheshov

A couple of weeks from now sees the fiesta of the Virgen del Carmen in Paucartambo, a cold colonial town east of Cusco. Just beyond is Tres Cruces on the dramatic edge of the cordillera and from here the escarpment plunges into the jungles of the Madre de Dios. There’s not a hill between here and Rio de Janeiro.

In Paucartambo I have a godson, Adolfo Concha, who is just starting his career as a policeman. “There’s not much to do,” he says. “Just play football.”

But once a year this Quechua market town, distinguished by an old stone bridge over a turbulent river, explodes into the raucous magic of a slam-bang Andean fiesta.

The fiesta at Paucartambo is famous for the discipline of its dozens of dance troupes, their wild costumes and masks together with battering brassy noise as hundreds of dancers swirl through the cobbled streets. It goes on for the best part of a week.

From now on through September most parts of the Peruvian Andes, not to mention the Coast, is wall-to-wall religious fiestas, enormously colourful and powerful.

The people of the southern sierra tend to be morose and introverted. Half a millennia ago they gloriously ruled the world but today they carry a sad chip on their shoulder and perhaps it’s not to be wondered at. They mistrust each other and the same goes for outsiders.

But this insidious gloom, in the middle of some of the world’s greatest scenery, explodes every year in every pueblo into well-organized get-together colour and noise. Here on the marches of Rome’s spiritual empire, ancient local traditions emerge in good humour -they throw a good party.

Cusco itself is always full of processions and fiestas. I remember a foreign hotel manager complaining of being regularly woken up before crack of dawn by the explosions of fireworks marking the beginning of yet another fiesta.

From now on it’s wall-to-wall troupes of masked dancers, thumpy bands, other-worldly pan-pipes, fireworks and Amazonian quantities of beer and chicha.

There is often a waiting-list of several years to become a mayordomo of the dances, The mayordomo finances the dances and the bands, and provides the meals and vast quantities of drink for each dance group. My wife and I have done it. It takes up a lot of time and energy for months beforehand but we knew that it was worth it, that we’d done our duty by our saint, la Virgen de la Natividad de Huayllabamba, and that we are living under her protection. We top up our devotion every year by supporting other mayordomos and, of course, joining the parties and processions and a mass or two.

As a mayordomo you get to walk in the procession with an ornate woven banner with your name and you get privileged access to your saint’s attention on His or Her day, indeed for the whole year leading up to the fiesta. It’s like having life insurance. You can ask special favours, like getting your child into university, curing a health problem, money for a truck or a house.

One couple who were mayordomos for the Capac Negro dance group at the fiesta for Mamacha Naty, as us devotees feel entitled to call her, were able to announce the birth of a long-sought child nine months after the fiesta. La Virgen de la Natividad is known around here as being “bastante milagrosa.”

By this stage I can take fiestas in strictly limited quantities. But there are one or two that I don`t tire of.

My favourite is at Coya, between Calca and Pisac, around August 20 where you can watch a super game of football with the players dressed up in masks and dancing gear. They start off with regular soccer but within minutes they’re picking up the ball and running with it and throwing it and it’s as slam-bang tough as Australian Rules. The ref is dressed up as the devil and the linesmen are junior devils. There are several crates of beer at stake and gentlefolk like you and me would not want to be on the receiving end, believe me, of a tackle from an Andean Indian in a mask. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of July 3, 2008


Death in the Andes

By Nicholas Asheshov

The hot tap in our bathroom is on the right-hand side, not the left like everyone else’s. The windows on the verandah overlooking the wood don’t shut properly or those that do can’t be opened, and the fireplace in the study smokes when we light it, as now, in the winter.

In other words, Anselmo, our handyman, had been at work. He was a friendly, willing soul who brought kittens for the children and who was always available to do his best to mend a doorknob, fix the wheel on the llama cart or unblock the drains.

But Anselmo is dead, killed in one of those accidents endemic to life in the provinces.

He was working on the construction of a small building in Urubamba on what was to be a balcony. He was carrying a couple of those long steel construction rods and as he swung round they connected with a high-tension line drooping, illegally of course, just over the rooftops.

The shock must have killed him instantly. In any case it knocked him off the balcony 10 metres to the concrete below which crushed his skull.

There was no investigation into the constructor, the electricity company or the municipality. The wife and daughters whom he had supported could barely be persuaded to come to the funeral which my wife organized.

A week or so earlier there had been a big funeral in Urubamba for four prominent fruit-sellers in the market who had died when their lorry, full of tropical fruit had gone over a precipice on its way here from the Valle de Lares. It seems that the brakes failed but no one really knows.

This same institutionalized carelessness saw me, accompanied by my boy William, attending the funeral of a three-year-old, the son of one of our employees, Alejandro Huaman, on a sad New Year’s Day.

The simple coffin of the child was painted white and was on a couple of portable worn old bronze coffin-stands with a disconsolate group of family on the steps of the old church in the Plaza de Armas. We had to wait for a half-hour because the priest had forgotten the key.

Looking at the coffin, Huaman said every few minutes. “He was one metre twenty. “Then he would add, “He would be three today. It was his birthday.”

The child had died after drinking Parathion, a pesticide that the Urubamba agro-products store told me later had lately been discontinued as “too strong” and “against the environment”.

Pesticides are routinely retailed in small quantities at market stalls and corner stores here and is often taken away as powder in a paper bag and mixed in the same kind of plastic containers as those in which chicha or aguardiente are stored

The Huamans were hard-working and reliable people, as we assured the District Attorney, who left it at that. As Huaman kept saying at the church, “He was our only child.”

The little boy had been left in the care of an 11-year-old nephew in a maize field next to us. The child had taken a drink of Parathion and the nephew had run off to find Alejandro.

Eventually it was our pick-up that rushed Alejandro and the baby into the Seguro Social a few blocks away. But the baby was dead on arrival.

The priest arrived and the sexton tolled the bell as the dreary service began. When it ended we walked the half-mile through the town under a harsh midday sun to the cemetery, stopping at each corner for a prayer.

There were a few more prayers at the niche into which the coffin would be slid. A neighbour knocked a few final nails into the coffin, a dreadful sound.

Then the young, pleasant-looking mother was allowed to fall on the coffin for her farewell.

“Please, my son, wake up, wake up.” My boy William, like everyone else, watched in stony silence.

The great snow peaks and glaciers of the Chicon massif stood nearly ten thousand feet above.

Outside the cemetery, they drank some ritual chicha but the Huamans weren’t the drinking type and they soon walked slowly off, a little apart from each other, into the afternoon. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of July 5, 2008


It’s The Serranos That Count

By Nicholas Asheshov

I’m expecting that the census the other day will show an upsurge in the rural population. We out here in the campo may even be getting back to the population levels of the Inca Empire.

There’s been only a modest increase over the past couple of decades. But anyone traveling round the southern sierra and in the montaña east of Cusco will see bigger villages, more roads and above all more school-children.

Every valley in the massive Cuzco core of The Empire is heavily-populated. The forest is being cut back aggressively.

By contrast all over rural England and elsewhere in Europe they have been shutting primary schools. But here in Urubamba and in the great hinterland beyond the Valley, primary schooling is a big focus. For nearly two decades the government has been opening primary schools and kindergartens for three-to-fives, even crèches called here wawa wasi.

A while back I was in Occabamba, one of Cuzco’s hidden, exciting cacao-coca-coffee valleys. Spectacled bear, deer and eagles are close by but you also see truckloads of school kids going to and fro at around eight any weekday morning and after one in the afternoon. Five of every 10 people is under 16.

Richard Webb, with his Cuanto? organization, the only people in town for numbers, tells me that the figures show that only 7.6 million Peruvians are classified as “rural.” But he suspects that often “tiny little hamlets are included as urban, meaning that the rural population is in reality higher. Whatever, around three out of every 10 Peruvians live out in the country.

The amazing thing is that the rural population of Peru is still lower than it was under the Incas even though the total population of Peru is three times greater. Of course everyone in Inca times lived en el campo apart from a few tens of thousands in Cusco, Chan Chan, Huanuco Viejo and Pachacamac.

The low point over the past six or seven thousand years came in 1620, with only 600,000. These would all fit today into Miraflores and San Isidro with room left over.

The Conquest produced one of the great population disasters of history. It was worse even than the Black Death of the 14th century where half of Europe was wiped out.

In Peru, out of every 20 people, only one survived.

Vital censuses were carried out by Viceroy Toledo in 1570, in Huanuco and in Yucay, just up the road from Urubamba. These were followed up in 1603 and 1620.

On the basis of the 1570 head-counts, carried out less than 40 years after the Spaniards had arrived in Cajamarca and just as Tupac Amaru was being executed in the Plaza de Armas de Cusco, Toledo estimated that the population of pre-Conquest Peru at eight and a half million.

This was a pretty good shot. according to the best work done on Inca population, David Noble Cook’s “Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru 1520-1620”.

Cook looked, for instance, at how many people would live off a hectare of tilled land –seven, according to a 1960s study– and came up with 6.5mn people living on the Coast in 1520, which was when Atahualpa and Huascar were getting ready to destroy each other, a decade before Pizarro landed in Tumbes.

Using statistical regressions based on Darfur-like disasters he calculated how many people had died from disease and warfare, and came up with a total population for Inca Peru of 9.4mn; the 0.4 there is William Devevan’s calculation of the population of the montaña. There’s a good case, he also says, for numbers of around 14mn.

So within less than a century the population had dropped by around 95% to 600,000, almost all of whom were sierra Indians. The native population of the Coast had dropped to zero. No one was left.

Ever since, Peru has been massively underpopulated, the classic land without people, and people without land. By the early 20th century, 100 years ago, the population of Peru had inched up to just over three million, according to my 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. By 1940 Peru had just over seven million. In 1961 it was 10.4mn, more or less as it had been before the Conquest.

The sierra saved a small genetic something of Inca and pre-Inca Peru. The sturdy Quechua tradition, with its Quispes, Mamanis, Usquamaitas, Corimañas, Orqohuarancas and Yupanquis is all that remains of the Incas, the Lords of Sipan, the Dukes of Chavin, the Earls of Huari and the Kings of Tiahuanuco.

Much more interesting than counting how many people spend their lives in unproductive cities would be some DNA studies of the ancient families of my neighbours here in the Sierra to tie them to the glories of seven millennia of one of the great success stories of civilization. We can be sure, in any case, that the per capita GDP of the Inca Empire was substantially higher than it’s ever likely to be under today’s slash-and-burn efforts. ENDS

Published in Caretas Magazine Oct 28 2007

Boulder –It’s the Solstice

When the sun hits the white granite boulder, it’s the Solstice

By Nicholas Asheshov

On June 21, just over a week from now, the winter solstice, easily the most important day in the ancient Andes, falls due and brilliant rays of sun will be flooding just after dawn through carefully-designed Inca windows onto sharp once-a-year marker stones.

In the old days everyone would be out in the sharp cold dawn at huacas in every valley. I myself will be out too, at a white granite boulder the size of a pick-up truck, in what used to be Huayna Capac’s palazzio at the upper end of Urubamba, beside the cemetery where there is a fine long Inca wall.

I will, like the Incas 500 years ago, be looking up to a couple of stone towers, four metres in height, on a far ridge soaring a thousanad metres above. Beyond these, yet another thousand metres, loom the great snow peaks of the Chicon and Sawasiray.

Between the stone towers, on this day a sharp ray of sun will slap precisely onto the white granite boulder, an intihuatanaa, a sacred carved map representing the Urubamba Valley.

I will feel reassured, as people all over the world did and do, that there are solid, precise, predictable events, or as Ecclesiastes puts it,

One generation goes, and another comes; the Earth remains forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down and hurries to its place where it rises.

In the Andes it is the mid-year solstice that has always been much the most important simply because it is the dry season and the skies are generally clear of clouds and haze. In December like as not it is pouring, good for the crops but not for astronomers.

I had pointed the sun pillars out some years ago to Kim Malville, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Colorado, and he has since written academic papers on them and on the solstice significance of other sites in the Sacred Valley including Machu Picchu, Llactapata, Ollantaytambo and, in the Cordillera Blanca, Chankillo.

The Urubamba sun pillars can be spotted from anywhere in town and they make a wonderful, steep couple-of-hours walk up to an ancient platform with an outstanding view over a dozen miles of the Valley. Brian Bauer, the Inca-ologist, reported them officially in 1995 as “useful examples of what Inca solar pillars may have looked like”. The reason that Brian says “may” is because there are hardly any left: they were exterminated by the Spaniards as of 1539 as part of the official campaign to destroy the Inca and other cultures.

Kim tells me today: “We’ve established over several June solstices that the Urubamba sun pillars mark the June solstice sunrise very precisely.

“I hope the boulder survives; we had heard that the folks in the cemetery had once thought of breaking it up to make a bridge for their clients.” The boulder is still very much here and elsewhere in the two-hectare main courtyards of the Palace are a couple more. Huayna Capac’s palace is at the centre of Susan Niles’s gripping The Shape of Inca History: Narrative and Architecture in an Andean Empire.

The close relationship of the stars to the Incas and their elaborate astronomy has fascinated the greatest of today’s Andeanist anthropologists, namely Tom Zuidema, of the University of Illinois, and Gary Urton, at Harvard. They have in their different ways combined careful measurements of the ruins, always focusing on the solstice angles and azimuths, and on the stories still told by communeros high in the Andes*.

The Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu is shut so the best place to watch the solstice is from a point near the quarry from which the great stones of Ollantaytambo were taken. It is one of the most thrilling views easily available in the Andes.

At seven o’clock in the morning of June 21 a sudden shaft of sunlight against a somber early-morning background hits first one, then another and another, walled Inca courts, the size of a small football field. These are part of a pyramid-like set of fine terraces just below the main ruins.

This is Broadway in the Andes.

To get there is an easy hour or so walking from the Inca bridge just above the town along a mule path.

All around rise great steep dark slopes, peaks and narrow valleys outlined against translucent mists, wisps of cloud and sharp shafts of sunlight.

At the bottom of a thousand-foot scree is the Rio Vilcanota, including some rapids, pushing on down exactly the same route as it has for at least a thousand years, through ancient maize and potato fields. The Incas lined the sides of this river with stone and they’re still there.

In front rise the snow peaks of the Veronica, ‘Tears of Gold’ in Quechua. In the light of a full moon these great mountains, from this vantage-point, stand out silhouetted against eternity.

On the other side of the river runs the railway track, laid 80 years ago, on its way, along the bottom of the pyramid, from Cusco down to Machu Picchu.

In the little trains people are looking at their electronic watches to see if they are on time. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of June 5, 2009

Cooking is the difference between us and the chimps

By Nicholas Ashesho

At the University of Exeter, England, they have discovered that athletes who drink half a litre of beetroot juice a day increase their oxygen capacity by 18%. This would certainly help us up here in Urubamba, at 2,840 metres above sea level. But so far the main result I’ve noticed is that my urine has turned pink.

Beets, a cool-climate crop, are grown locally here and I make the juice from an extractor and throw in a few carrots and apples which soften the taste. But, staying with us the other day, a Japanese friend, Sensei Kanai, a doctor and martial arts teacher, got unusually upset when he saw the extractor being used at breakfast.

“No extractor, only liquadora,” Sensei ordered Sra. Ana, our housekeeper. He insisted that we should shove the fruit and veg into the liquadora and the result is indeed excellent, an all-inclusive Smoothie.

But I’m sticking with the extractor, too, since coming across “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” by Richard Wrangham, Professor of Anthropobiology at Harvard.

Prof Wrangham’s proposal is that the difference between chimpanzees, on which he is a leading authority, and humans, is that our ancestors, a million years ago, learned how to cook, that thanks to this our minds and bodies did a Darwin. It is this that has given us our biological edge over everyone else.

Here it is: cooked or prepared food is better for you than an all-in all-raw diet. This, he says, is why we are bigger than chimps and a lot smarter than everyone.

For instance, in order to get the oxygen benefit of a half-litre glass of beetroot juice I would have to gnaw my weary way through three kilos of raw beets.

In the same way I would have to eat twice as much raw fish or raw meat to get the same benefit as from half the amount of grilled, baked or fried.

For instance, Prof Wrangham says, our digestive systems can make use of 50% of the protein in a raw egg but of fully 90% of the protein in a cooked egg.

“Cooking increases the proportion of nutrients that the digestive system can digest.” Put another way; “Cooking makes the food we eat more nutritiously efficient.”

Raw-is-better is, Prof Wrangham says, simply not so. Our stomachs and mouths have become smaller and more efficient, thanks to cooking, and our brains bigger.

“Humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows adapted to eating grass, or fleas to sucking blood,”

The catch is that those of us with middle-age spread have over-evolved.

One solution is to go back to a chimpanzee diet. Prof Wtangham says: “People who switch to a raw diet report feeling constant hunger and lose large amounts of weight.”

You don’t have to be a chimpanzee to know how that one works but Prof Wrangham repeats: “Raw foodism is against our biology”.

Up here in Urubamba, then, in the middle of a forest down by the river I have adopted a half-chimp, half-sapiens existence though I have the advantage, unlike most chimps, of having a qualified nutritionist, Andrea Suito to keep me on the straight and narrow.

I do the beetroot concentrate but only every other day, and the fruit Smoothie every day. Peru has a better selection of fresh fruit than anywhere in the world so I have a big plateful. I don’t have to leap through the trees to find it: Sra. Ana, of course, just trots off to the market.

During the morning I’ll have raw Quaker Oats with dried and fresh fruit and skimmed milk.

I get through the morning by cheating and drinking several cups of thick black coffee. I’m trying, with no success so far, to evolve to green tea.

Lunch is a huge raw salad and either some grilled trout from the Pumahuanca hatchery or a piece of supermarket chicken. During the afternoon I’ll have a milk shake of banana or, when I can find it, lucuma. Supper is a crema de tomate, green vegetables, onion or ajo with another bit of fish or perhaps jamon de pavo. I’ve completely given up sugar, even honey.

I’ve lost 10 kilos and perhaps the key to it is that I’m down to a glass, two on Saturdays, of red wine. Alcohol in any form puts on weight but clearly the French have evolved more than the rest of us: it was they who discovered that red wine is good for you, the finest marketing coup of the past million years. Prof Wrangham undoubtedly approves. FIN



Published in Caretas Magazine Oct 23 2009

See you in Uhujapacha

By Nicholas Asheshov

Last week we buried Ken Duncan in the cemetery at Huayllabamba, a riverside town in the Urubamba Valley and, as is often the case, it would have been more fun if Ken himself had been able to enjoy it too.

It turned out to be a rousing send-off. It included a trumpet-and-euphonium thump-thump band; a few hits of Scotch and the never-fails drama of a wailing widow determined to lay her hands on the money.

Ken, 64, an irascible, clever Scot had lived on his farm nearby for most of the past 15 years. It was he who introduced to Peru the awaymanto, a wild Andean fruit, as a commercial crop. He even sold some made-in-Cuzco jam, he would tell us, to Harrods and claimed to have met Mohammed Al-Fayad, Dodi’s father.

He spent the last month of his life in the clinic in Cuzco and had hired a couple of off-duty policemen to stand at the door to shoo off the wife, a communera from the highlands of Huancavelica who he hated.

No matter. She and her mum were there, tearful and in black, within minutes of his death and they quickly shelled out borrowed banknotes to acquire Ken’s body from the hospital.

“In the old days,” Roger Valencia tells me, “people in the Andes believed that when you died you moved along to Uhujapacha, which was a repeat version of the world they had just left.

“The only difference was that it was timeless. ”

Roger, friendly and polished, is Cuzco’s top guide: if you are a princess or a film star visiting Cuzco and Machu Picchu, you get Roger.

“If you were the Inca here, you were an Inca in Uhujapacha. If you were a soldier you should be buried with your equipment, a farmer or a ceramicist, the same. If you were a llama, you were a llama next time around. Not much social mobility.

“Also, it was important to take along presents.” All of which explains why ancient Peruvian graves have always been a rich source of treasure trove.

No longer. Not long ago I was window-shopping for a nice cemetery and the one up the road at Maras has a glorious view over the Cordillera. But the locals advised against it. They told me that these days people will quickly steal even your modest marble headstone.

Today people in the Andes are just like the rest of us and think, right or wrong, that we can’t take it with us so Ken was buried simply in a grave alongside his campesino neighbours.

After the funeral service in the town’s quiet colonial church, all organized by Carmen, the widow, we accompanied the casket and the band, playing noisily through narrow streets to the cemetery. At every corner the procession would stop, as is traditional, for a prayer or some wailing chants.

We crowded into the modest cemetery on the edge of town. A god-daughter and a couple of neighbours made short grave-side speeches.

Carmen, a thin 40-something who until Ken’s death had been prohibited by judicial order from getting within 1,500 yards of him, now stood flanked by her mum and lawyers within 1.5 yards of him, wailing as she shoveled her piece of earth onto the coffin.

Moments later things livened up again in the street outside with several crates of beer and wine. There must have been a hundred people, mostly from around Ken’s farm a few miles away.

As the afternoon faded into dusk even over the great mountains rising out of the valley, Carmen told everyone that she was serving supper down in the parish rooms. And the band, paid for by one of Ken’s god-sons, played on.

I remember a few years ago in San Lorenzo de Quinti, in Huarochiri, a traditional area in the highlands deep behind Lima, members of a family up from the city spent the afternoon telling ancestors the latest news.

It was good-humoured and convivial with frequent toasts in aguardiente.

“Y la Sandra, que te recuerdas tuvo problemas en tercero, termino muy bien su secundaria y esta de novia con un chico del barrio y esta trabajando como secretaria en la municipalidad.”

“El Jorge esta pensando entrar en la Policia Nacional… tía Juana no podía venir por estar delicada parece ser de los riñones y el esposo no encuentra trabajo….”

I certainly hope that when I’m getting bored in timeless Uhujapacha people will come and keep me, too, up to date.


Published in Spanish by Caretas magazine the week of October 27 2008

Paul McCartney, the Maharishi and Me

Nicholas Asheshov, Editor of the Peruvian Times during the 1970s and 1980s, recalls how in the Swinging London of the 1960s Sir Paul McCartney, who plays in Lima on Monday 9, helped him to his first break. —-

I first met Paul McCartney in a Kensington drawing-room in 1967 when he was already world-famous. I was on Fleet St, a reporter trying to make my name in the man-bites-dog jungles of the world’s most ferocious newspapers, each of them great empires selling millions of copies.

Mine was the Daily Sketch, a bumptious right-wing tabloid owned by Lord Rothermere with headlines like “The Duke and Mandy -Palace Denial,” probably a story floated by the Sketch itself. This was the tough end of Fleet St and we were paid much better than the schoolmasters on The Times.

Paul had not been famous for long and I had not been on Fleet St for long. I was 26 and he was 24.

Over there by the window was, yes, Mick, 23, also becoming famous, and Marianne Faithfull, his lovely fair-haired pre-Bianca girlfriend, daughter of a European baroness and a British spy. Marianne was already, at 20, a top-of-the-pops star.

This was all a complete shock. I had gone along with a photographer to meet some obscure Hindu yogi. It was a sleepy London Sunday summer afternoon. Newspaper people call it the silly season because nothing happens.

As we went in the photographer whispered, smiling, “John. Paul. George. Ringo.” He said the names slowly, as if he were pulling rabbits out of a hat.

I was stunned. He pushed me forward.

The drawing-room had thick carpets, tall Georgian windows with heavy-draped curtains, and there was a hushed, respectful atmosphere unusual, I imagine, among super-stars.  There were other showbiz people only some of whom I recognized, though of course the photogapher knew them all.

But the main point for me was not precisely that here were these world-famous fellow-youngsters but that they had been in hiding for months and I was the only journalist in the place. No one else had bothered to come to meet some old out-of-town holy man.

I will modify that only to enhance it. I had taken along with me Jane Gaskell, who shared a desk and a phone with me on the Sketch. Jane had become famous just a few years earlier as a 16-year-old best-selling author of soft-porn cavegirls-and-dinosaurs novels. She had long blond hair, long legs and very short skirts that were a feature of the cavernous newsroom overlooking the Thames, which half a century earlier had been a shipping warehouse. Jane was soon to go on to Hollywood and New York and was part of the new Swinging London.

This was a world where England’s tough young team had just beaten Germany at Wembley for the World Cup and where Christine Keeler, 20, had seduced the British Defence minister and, next evening, the Soviet military attaché, at Lord Astor’s house. Harold MacMillan’s government had tottered. Even the French were impressed.

After two world wars, hunger, and grey socialism it was suddenly OK to be young.

Myself, I knew more about the Amazon and Africa than about London. And here, suddenly, I was in this quiet star-packed nerve centre of the universe, alone with my note-book, a crack photographer and a micro-skirted girl novelist: finger-waves and air-kisses.

I had forgotten the Hindu. I went straight up to Paul –John looked less approachable– and whispered, “Nick, Sketch. What are you doing here?” Paul whispered in his thick, pleasant Liverpul twang, “We’ve come for a meditation lesson, I think. But it looks a bit crowded, doesn’t it.” I asked Ringo, “What’s happening?” “You tell me,” Ringo replies. “It’s supposed to be this holy man from Calcutta. Ask George, he knows.”

We were drinking tea out of china cups and here was the story: The Beatles had disappeared for months. Brian Epstein, their brilliant young manager, had committed suicide, for love of John, it transpired. The Beatles had also been had up before the magistrates for marijuana, a big deal in those days. They had gone underground.

But here they were and now they were producing a guru.  Or as it turned out, it was the guru who was producing The Beatles.

According to my front-page smash scoop next day for an amazed Britain, the Hindu holy man was, Paul told the Daily Sketch and the world, “changing our lives.”

“We’re on a new track. We’re moving again.”

Forget Vietnam, Israel, the sterling crisis, Russia, the Bomb. This was real news.

My obscure Hindu was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and, once we were all seated, maybe 20 of us, in he came, a little chap in a straggly long grey beard and hair, parted down the middle, below his shoulders. We were all, starting with the Beatles, given flower rings to put around our necks.

My photographer snapped.

Flower Power was born.

The Maharishi, as I recollect, sat cross-legged lotus-like on a cushion on the floor. He was then, I learn from the internet, 54, more than twice the age of anyone else in the room. This was the moment that the Maharishi launched Transcendental Meditation, TM. This was the beginning of a worldwide empire.

Thoughtfully, the Maharishi had already registered the trademark, Transcendental Meditation. The Mahashi, as The Beatles were allowed to call him, was “really important,” Paul told me. “He’s helping us a lot.” Indeed he was: within a few months they were to produce the epoch-making White Album.

“Meditating is so easy, so simple,” the Maharishi said in a light sing-song, and using an English that was long out-of-date in England: “Even a duffer can do it. Even Ringo can do it!” We laughed obsequiously. Ringo was of course no more of a duffer, in his field, than Maynard Keynes was in his, and even richer, although when later The Beatles all went to the Maharishi’s ashram he was the first to give up on the grounds that he was fed up with vegetable curry and wanted a steak and chips. One of the steadiest drummers in the business, he has also had a movie career. I remember him as the lecherous Mexican gardener in Candy, and the blind gun-slinger hero of a spaghetti western. I saw him on the TV last year for his 70th birthday and he looked just as sharp and pleasant as in that London drawing-room four decades ago.

I had a chat with Paul, then Ringo, a word with John and George. “He’s wonderful” – “He’s changing our lives, our music” and moved on to the Maharishi: The Holy Man Who is Saving The Beatles, as the Daily Sketch told the world next day.

He explained to me pleasantly, “John, Paul, George and Ringo are the most admired young people in the world. If they take up Transcendental Meditation, TM, the whole world will follow.

“These people are hard-working, supremely talented. But they are tempted into problems, like drugs. With TM they won’t want these things.”

I got the Maharishi to pose for the photographer in the plush drawing room talking into a white telephone: this was chosen, presciently, as the front-page photo for the next day.

My story in the morning appeared as a slam-bang front-page Exclusive! The Holy Man who is changing the lives of The Beatles by Sketchman Nicholas Asheshov.

The photo of the Maharishi on the phone was splashed over most of the front page.

Inside, the whole centre spread was of the Beatles with the Maharishi, with quotes from everyone, with little photos of Marianne and Mick. Jane did a side-bar which started off with “The roses are back in The Beatles’s cheeks.”

All over Britain grannies, mums and teen-agers sighed a little tear of relief and pleasure.

The Maharishi died a couple of years ago aged 94 with two billion pounds in his bank accounts. He had fallen out with the Beatles a year or two after our get-together in Kensington and had taken up with other stars of the day and was, famously, accused of trying to rape Mia Farrow. Within a few years of our meeting he had five million followers, the first wave of tens of millions more and his TM was established worldwide as a useful and, at worst, harmlessly peaceful pursuit.

Paul McCartney, Sir Paul, was and, as many of you will see in Lima on Monday, still is one of the great musicians and creative forces of our time.

It was an unlikely genetic event that brought together these four modest boys in a grimy post-war British port town. That Lennon and McCartney should be two of the great artistic talents of our time is another marvel. Those of you who have had the forethought to acquire tickets will get your money’s worth. You will see and hear a Master. And when it comes to putting on a show, as the billions who watched the Royal Wedding the other day saw yet again, the Brits are in a league by themselves.

Myself, I shall be in Urubamba as usual, but thinking, as I am now, of how those four boys and I chatted for a while in the room where flower power was launched by another genius, the Mahashi. He had had the courage, the vision, the timing and the chutzpah to grab hold of the four boys who could launch for him a worldwide spiritual movement about which we all know and which coined him a massive fortune. When he arrived at that house in Kensington, for all I know he got there by bus. When he died he had his own fleet of planes and helicopters. A few weeks before he died he announced, a trouper to the last, that “My work is done.” In a century of flannelers, an all-time great.

And, bless him, and Paul and the Beatles, he launched me out of the back of the pack. Next day at the office, battle-honed veterans of savage Fleet St wars would pass by with their mugs of tea and mutter kindly, “Good read, Nick.” Or at the pub later, a paunched, nicotined warhorse might offer a pint and growl, “Nice one, Nick.”

I was on my way.

Published May 5, 2011 by