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When Agatha Christie married her second husband, the archaeologist Max Mallowan, in 1930, Britain had a very different role in the Middle East. In spite of all our modern technological developments in transport, travelling anywhere in that region is now much more difficult, if not impossible. Andrew Eames, following Agatha's route for The 8.55 to Baghdad, found himself arriving in Iraq just before the Coalition invasion last year. The question his book raises is whether travel writing, traditionally anecdotal and escapist in character and here based on lightweight memoirs, can handle the heavyweight resonances of war.
Christie's own travel took her to a new life, away from her claustrophobic existence in respectable Sunningdale, the setting for her failed first marriage. That had ended in the sensational "11 days' disappearance" in 1926, when the writer apparently vanished from the face of the earth to re-appear at a Harrogate hotel. Her meeting with Mallowan, Assyriologist and excavator of Ur and Nimrud, evidently appealed to an intense longing to escape. She eagerly embraced the new horizons that his career opened up to her.
This was not too difficult: after the British capture of Baghdad, in 1917, The Times had remarked that "the existing terminus of the Baghdad Railway has passed into our hands". Shortly after that, the Nairn Line opened up across the desert, running Dodge cars from Beirut via Damascus to Baghdad in a journey time of four days. The cars carried army officers, civil servants and small tables on which the passengers could play bridge. Tinned sausages and strong black tea were produced on primus stoves in the middle of the desert. In many respects, Iraq became an outpost of empire.
Some parts of the long journey to Baghdad can be replicated without too many obstacles. The Orient Express can still decant passengers at Venice; the trail to Trieste and Zagreb can be managed without much difficulty, via the Taurus Express. Eames writes at some length about these cities, although one senses that following in Christie's footsteps is merely a slender excuse here, since she seems to have passed through in the blink of an eye.
Eames gives good accounts of these places, even though the writers he quotes are James Joyce and Rebecca West rather than the author of Murder on the Orient Express. He is especially interesting a bit further east, in the damaged worlds of Croatia and Serbia, now largely forgotten by the media since the theatre of war moved on. And he becomes really adventurous once in Middle Eastern territory, travelling across Syria and into Iraq with a small group of fellow-travellers on one of those extraordinary "holidays" undertaken by people with a lemming-like tendency towards suicidal destinations.
The curious paradox about European travellers' safety is that theft, rape and violent attack are far less likely to be encountered in Muslim societies than in many of the war-devastated cities of Eastern Europe. And, as Eames found, personal encounters tend to be marked by great kindness. The obliteration of the personal by the political is one of the many horrors perpetrated on the Iraqi people by the Western invasion.
As for the biographical details of Christie's life, Eames has taken the easy way out. He perpetuates the view of her second marriage as "happy ever after". According to this version of the myth, Christie and Mallowan had the most devoted relationship until she died in 1976, and his rapid remarriage to Barbara Parker took everyone by surprise.
At some point, Eames must have discovered that this is a travesty of the truth: Mallowan and Parker had in fact been having an affair for many years. Jared Cade, author of Agatha Christie and the 11 Missing Days (Peter Owen), recorded that, while Christie was doing crosswords in the library, Mallowan and Parker would disappear upstairs.
If it were merely a question of tacit suppression of these old scandals, one would not quibble. But it is sad that Parker's considerable achievements are being airbrushed out of the official view of Christie's life. Where Parker is mentioned, as in Henrietta McCall's biography of Mallowan, she is presented as a person of pitiable, dog-like devotion. In fact, she ran the dig-house where Mallowan and Christie stayed for years, was a superbly tactful negotiator with the Iraqi authorities, an Assyriologist in her own right, and published work on seals and epigraphy.
I met in her in old age, when she retained beautiful bone-structure and great elegance. More to the point, her intelligence and support for Middle Eastern work never diminished. It seems oddly quaint and unnecessary to continue to hush up this affair, which might have been considered explosive in the 1950s. Surely only the House of Windsor can retain such absurd mores.
Eames's journey, however, becomes absorbing in its own right. He gives vivid and atmospheric accounts, as of the Aleppo souk, or of his attempt to mime the title of Murder on the Orient Express in an Arabic bookshop. I thought he was too kind to the once-famous Baron Hotel, which I found to be full of Aussie backpackers gazing with horror at unspeakably dirty little beer glasses, and too harsh on Damascus, which retains great beauty.
Eames does not spare the reader any of the hell of Middle East border crossings, which always seem littered with dirty syringes and endless waits while dodgy passports are scrutinised. This is where the world of Agatha Christie and ours has really changed - as it has on the ancient sites, where once Western archaeologists ruled supreme. Nothing can protect us from indignities now: not money, and certainly not British passports.
Yet the archaeological plunder has not stopped. Sir Austen Henry Layard, excavator of Nineveh, removed 28 Assyrian carvings from there, which he presented as a personal gift to a cousin. Although that blatant asset-stripping would be unthinkable now, theft and underhand dealing have continued to rob many of the excavations and museums of their treasures.
It is when Eames actually gets deeper into Iraq that the book attains depth. He stands where Christie and Mallowan first met, on the site of the dig-house at Ur, one of the world's most ancient cities, and listens to the sounds of air-raid sirens as a pall of white smoke drifts over Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon.
As Lieutenant Tim Collins reminded the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment as the war began, and as Eames reports, Iraq is the site of the Garden of Eden. Without labouring the point, Eames has succeeded in the difficult task of closing an entertaining and fairly traditional travel narrative with the brutal conclusions of modern history.
Jane Jakeman's novel 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black SwanReuse content