BOOK REVIEW / Stark realities go unnoticed: Freya Stark: A Biography - Molly Izzard: Hodder, pounds 25

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The Independent Culture
MOLLY IZZARD has achieved what many would have thought impossible: a boring biography of travel writer Freya Stark. Her book is sure to be hyped as a startling reinterpretation of its subject's achievements and personality, based on 10 years of careful research. In fact it is no such thing; there is nothing new here. Freya Stark's own writings, which include four volumes of autobiography and eight volumes of letters spanning 60 years, reveal that she has always been vain, ruthless, manipulative, hypochondriacal, emotionally unstable, intolerant of criticism and hopelessly addicted to aristocrats. It's all there, in her own words, either between the lines or - quite often - on them. She has been disarmingly inept at disguising her flaws, which leaves would-be-debunkers out of work. It also sets her biographer a difficult task. How, thus flawed, did she inspire so much affection among so many for so long? Finding the answer to that question is a challenge dodged by Molly Izzard - despite her offering, as the seed of this book, a wish 'to explore' a complex character.

The first of Mrs Izzard's three meetings with her subject was in Asolo, Italy, when the 86-year-old Dame Freya was already losing her memory and unable to assist a biographer, even if she had wished to do so. (She would certainly not have wished to assist any woman, having long since made plain her predictable preference for a male biographer.) Yet we find here many allusions to the author's conversations with Dame Freya, some phrased to suggest a helpful working relationship. Such misleading of unwary readers incidentally involves an abuse of hospitality both distasteful and, in the circumstances of her hostess's mental decline, insensitive to the point of cruelty.

In chapter one the author affects to have been 'jolted' when, in the 1970s, Wilfred Thesiger 'fiercely dismissed' Freya Stark's achievements. This 'jolt' is hard to understand, Thesiger being notorious for fiercely dismissing the achievements of almost all other travellers, especially women. However, it seems their conversation prompted Mrs Izzard to think back to 1961, when her husband accompanied a television crew to the Assassins' castle of Maymun Diz, in Iran, and 'Freya's inspection of sites on that first journey, it was found, must have been cursory in the extreme'. This ' finding' is presented as unexpected and ominous, a clue to the bogus element in the Stark myth. Yet for the past 60 years readers of The Valley of the Assassins have been aware that a nine-day journey allowed no time for a detailed study of the Assassin ruins - which was not, in any event, the author's main purpose. Her preface to that book explains: 'I must add that for my own part I travelled single-mindedly for fun.' Freya Stark relished remote places, but never pretended to be an explorer. Instead she suffered (or perhaps in her case enjoyed) the fate of many travel writers whose modest journeys are made to seem quite heroic by non-travellers.

Page by page this book gains tedium. Stories that have been circulating for half a century in Starkistan are brandished as novel weapons in the iconoclastic battle, and innuendo is piled upon innuendo. We are told that when Freya visited her father in Canada, in 1930, 'they decided how his will was to be made . . . it was arranged that his entire estate should pass to Freya; there was to be nothing for Flora (Freya's mother) or Freya's younger sister Vera'. As Vera had died four years earlier, this was hardly surprising. But Molly Izzard's compulsion to denigrate her subject, and consistently to insinuate the worst, takes precedence over factual accuracy.

Freya Stark's early life is dealt with only towards the end of this biography, a confusing ploy for readers new to the subject. Molly Izzard tries to create a mystery where none exists and keeps her readers waiting, in suspense, for some spicy revelation about Freya's background. Tantalising hints are trailed - 'People were vague about her antecedents . . . '; 'Nothing was known of her antecedents . . . '; 'the mysteries of Freya's origins . . . ' - the implication being that for snobbish reasons Freya's own writings left an area of darkness needing illumination by a diligent sleuth-biographer. But the first chapter of Traveller's Prelude mentions an illiterate yeoman great-great-grandfather, a great-grandfather's brewery in Torquay, a grandfather taking his boots off in the drawing-room and childhood memories of visiting a Torquay hardware shop where sat 'an old jovial man with blue eyes who was my grandmother's brother'. This scarcely adds up to a concealment of humble origins, and when Molly Izzard at last comes to her grand denouement, the ancestor-hunt, far from turning up anything new of substance, merely engenders pages of woolly theorising about the influence on Freya of her forebears.

Evidently Freya Stark is aimed at a readership unfamiliar with the Stark oeuvre and Mrs Izzard reckoned she could get away with any number of unjust distortions. There are, of course, occasional appreciative passages, usually referring to Dame Freya's early books and giving a flavour of phoney objectivity to this whole unworthy enterprise. Also, Mrs Izzard's personal knowledge of the Middle East - about which she has written in the past with authority and distinction - provides an air of authenticity for her long-winded consideration of Dame Freya's activities as an employee of the wartime Ministry of Information in Aden, Cairo and Baghdad. By the time the weary reader has plodded that far, it will be clear even to the uninitiated that writing this book was a labour of hate - for reasons reviewers cannot be expected to discern and which are in any case of small interest. The publicity surrounding Freya Stark's 100th birthday will re-focus attention on her extraordinary career and even more extraordinary personality.

Happily, there are alternatives to this biography. Neither Caroline Moorhead's Freya Stark (Penguin 1985) nor Malise Ruthven's Traveller Through Time (Viking 1986) claims to be more than a thumbnail sketch; both, however, present a truer picture of Dame Freya than this humourless mish-mash of prejudice, innuendo and speculation.

(Photograph omitted)