When actress-turned-author Carol Drinkwater went in search of the origins of the olive tree for her new book, The Olive Route, she thought she would find the secrets of Mediterranean culture and cuisine. Instead she found that entangled in the tree's roots was such conflict and cruelty that it politicised her.
"The olive tree is a tree full of health," she explains. "It is a symbol of eternity. Of all things, it has peace attached to it. I supposed that I might come back with the secret of good health. What I found was man's cruelty to man." She is recalling Israel, the final destination on her trip for the first of a two-book series that will eventually cover the Mediterranean rim. Early in the trip she had travelled to Lebanon and liked what she saw. Within weeks of her return to France, Israel was dropping bombs on the places she had visited in its bitter war against Hezbollah.
She has not been able to get in touch with the Lebanese friends whose hospitality she had enjoyed. Her voice is almost a whisper. She looks tense; then there is a surge of anger: "I have sent many messages, but just can't get through. It is an obscenity what has happened in a country that was already struggling to get rebuilt."
Her anger feels out of place in our idyllic surroundings. We are sitting on the balcony of the beautiful Provençal farmhouse made famous in her bestselling trilogy, The Olive Farm, The Olive Season and The Olive Harvest. The traffic from the bay of Cannes, just visible over the tree tops, hums in the distance, its noise competing against the breeze shaking the olive groves of the farm. It is far from the places Drinkwater left six weeks before the war. The book is also a long way from the trilogy that made her famous as an author, enabling her finally to throw off the memory of Helen, her role as James Herriot's wife in the long-running veterinary drama, All Creatures Great and Small.
The book was conceived as a historical and cultural expedition; Drinkwater wanted to map the route by which the olive became the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. The concept would enable her to move on from the trilogy, which she regards as a "love story in thee parts" rather than part of the Brits Abroad strand pioneered by Peter Mayle, into the literary travel writing of her heroes Eric Newby and Graham Greene. "The fact that I hung on so long here" - she indicates the farm - "and fought so hard to save this place and my marriage, meant that I needed to get away," she explains.
She headed east for chronological reasons, in search of the world's oldest olive tree, a quest eventually rewarded with a the discovery of a 6,000-year-old tree. In Israel, Palestine and later Libya, the trip provided more than oleicultural revelations. "I care nothing for Palestinians. I would prefer to see them all wiped out," ranted an Israeli taxi driver. He was not alone in his opinion, she found. The final straw came in Belthehem, when she saw the conditions the Palestinians were forced to live in behind barbed-wire fences. Drinkwater recalls the trip with a shudder: "I hadn't expected when I got to Israel that I would confront such violence. It politicised me in a way that I hadn't expected." As a result, she hooked up with Jewish- and Arab-Israeli peace activists, and writes movingly of a defiant tree-planting ceremony on the West Bank overlooked by gun-toting Israeli soldiers.
That Drinkwater should be inclined towards the Arabs should not surprise her readers. In the olive trilogy, her friendship with her ancient Arab gardener Monsieur Quashia is warm and amusing. During our interview the real life "Monsieur Q" shuffles over to say hello, he looks at me curiously and offers a toothless smile, before disappearing to work in the groves. Soon after, he reappears, weighed down by a massive bunch of branches. He shouts over a question, which Drinkwater answers in perfect French, before turning to me, an amused look in her eye. "Wouldn't that make a great picture?" she observes. Monsieur Q is not averse to modelling and frequently asks journalists if they want a photograph.
Drinkwater has a sharp eye for character, and the people who populate The Olive Route will not disappoint her fans. As well as peace activists and taxi-driving translators, she finds the glorious Julia in Malta, Christos the storyteller in Crete and everywhere a community of olive farmers with whom she instantly bonds. The spurious immortality she lends those she writes about can make for some awkward encounters. "I never think of people's literary potential when I meet them, but people do audition," she explains laughing. How? "They start telling stories or behaving in a way that they think is crackpot or interesting to be written about. There was a chap who cleaned the swimming pool here who always came up with these mad stories." He shouldn't have bothered. He didn't make the cut because he wasn't pertinent to the narrative.
Writing about people you meet on your travels is one thing - Drinkwater is unlikely to run into them again. Family is different. In the trilogy she details unflinchingly her relationship with Michel, her French television producer husband, and his two daughters, Clarice and Vanessa, and gives no quarter to privacy, revealing the pain behind her own miscarriage and even Michel's breakdown. How did they react to the books? "Michel had no problem," she says matter-of-factly. Clarice was less sanguine. "She was very upset at first and said she was going to write her own book and that it wouldn't be the same as mine because that was not how she remembered events."
Drinkwater was unperturbed. All perspectives are valid, she believes, and all are different. "If Michel, Clarice and Vanessa wrote about what happened, there would be four different stores because we all have our own version of what happened."
One perspective she does regard as invalid is that of the tabloids. Being turned over by them during her well-publicised affair with All Creatures co-star Christopher Timothy 20 years ago inspired her to write a memoir rather than a novel about Provence. She leans forward and pushes the jangling bracelets up her tanned wrists as if getting down to business. "When I became involved with Chris Timothy, it became a truly huge national scandal. It was out of all proportion and went on for months." Being tabloid-fodder still hurts. "I was terribly upset. I wasn't even the person who broke up his marriage, there had been two other people in between but nobody knew that because I was the television wife and it made great copy." She sits back and brushes the hair from her forehead. "Part of the thing about why I wrote memoirs rather than a novel is that if anybody is going to tell my story it is going to be me in my way." The confessional, however, does not extend to her violent childhood. She fiercely resists any pressure to discuss it or to join the burgeoning ranks of celebrity misery memoirists.
You have to admire her guts in staying true to her muse regardless of the market and opinions of her publisher. Hard to pin down, she thrives on creativity. It was that rather than the affair with Timothy that led her to jack in a job on one of the biggest shows on television and why she swapped Provence for politics as subject matter. Is she worried about alienating her readership? No, though her editor, Weidenfeld & Nicolson's Alan Samson, had qualms. "Alan wanted me to do the Western half of the Mediterranean first," she confesses. "He thought that would gently take my readers with me. It is not such a shock to take them to Spain or Italy from France."
It is unlikely her readers will be too shocked. Though Drinkwater's passions are clearly stated, there are plenty of lighter anecdotes and local details to please armchair travellers unwilling to risk run-ins with Libyan secret police and Syrian border guards.
Given that most women her age prefer the safety of package tours to travelling in war zones, did she ever feel afraid? "I got braver as I went along," she admits. "When I was setting out, I was so frightened, I was shaking with fear. This was just past Marseilles!" She bursts out laughing, the lines on her face crease. "Libya was bloody awful," she adds. "If you saw the bathroom of the oilman I stayed with..." She crinkles her nose in disgust. "They joke about French plumbing, but my God, that was grim. I don't know why those men have to live like that, they are making so much money."
Libyan toilets and Israeli guns have not put her off further travels. She is already working on the second book, which will chart the western half of the olive route from Morocco to Albania. "I've already started researching it," she says. The plethora of ex-pat titles from Peter Mayle to Frances Mayes and Chris Stewart mean it is already well- trodden territory. She doesn't care. "I want to get beneath the skin of these places. I want to look at them in a broader sense than those ex-pats did, so I may not go to exactly where they are."
By concentrating on the olive tree and the ancient communities that are sustained by and sustain the fruit, she hopes to offer readers enough to hold their interest. What that will be she is yet to find out. If her trip to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean has taught her one thing, it is to leave her preconceptions at home. Her passion for the tree should open doors and may challenge assumptions, including her own about politics. "This trip has very clearly shown me that there is history and there is nature and politics just sits on the top and eats its way into the soul of what is wholesome," she says. Perhaps travelling in the more peaceful shores of the western Mediterranean among people who prefer the ballot box to bullets will make her change that opinion.
* To order a copy of 'The Olive Route: a personal journey to the heart of the Mediterranean' by Carol Drinkwater (Orion £18.99) for £17.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content