FREYA STARK once told me that she had missed her vocation. She should, she maintained, have been a dress designer. Ever since her early childhood, she had had a passion for clothes, designing and frequently actually making her own; and in the late Forties and Fifties no visit to Paris was complete without a morning spent at the collections. Characteristically, she turned this dress sense to excellent advantage: 'Nothing', she wrote in her autobiography, 'is more useful to a woman traveller than a genuine interest in clothes: it is a key to unlock the hearts of women of all ages and races . . . I wonder if men have any such universal interest to fall back on?'
'A woman traveller' - the phrase is significant. Never for a moment did Freya Stark seek to be One of the Boys. On her first day at the Baghdad Times in 1931, nobody rose as she entered the office. She immediately made 'a little speech', as a result of which they all stood up - and, she remarked with satisfaction, did so thereafter for the whole of the year that followed. It was the same when she travelled: women, she constantly impressed on her camel-drivers and guides, were in no sense inferior to men, but neither were they like men. On the contrary, they were to be thought of as queens. As a queen, she herself demanded a very special degree of consideration and respect; and, almost invariably, she got it.
Freya Stark was born in Paris in 1893, and spent her early childhood with her parents on - of all unexpected places - Dartmoor. When she was eight, however, her half-Genoese mother took a house at Asolo, some 40 miles north-west of Venice. This lovely little town in the foothills of the Dolomites remained her home, in the intervals between her wanderings, for the rest of her life; she never tired of explaining how it had also been the last retreat of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, whose friend Cardinal Bembo had invented the word asolare, to describe 'the purposeless, leisurely, agreeable passing of time'. Here too was a concept dear to Freya Stark's heart. Hurry she hated; what was important was to leave oneself time to think, to listen, to understand. It is a theme that recurs again and again in her writings; indeed, it was her ability to practise what she so persistently preached that enabled her to write as she did.
Most travel writers fall comfortably enough into one of two categories: they are either writers who travel or they are travellers who write. Freya refused to be so easily classified. She travelled for all sorts of reasons: in the early days because she was an incurable and unashamed romantic; later because of her passion for ancient civilisations; always because of a genuine fascination for unknown peoples and - in her view the first cardinal virtue for any traveller - her readiness 'to admit standards that are not one's own standards and discriminate the values that are not one's own values'. But never, I believe, did she travel simply in order to write a book. When writing of her journeys, despite an occasional tendency to sententiousness, she was capable of producing descriptive prose as fine as any written this century; on the other hand, as is immediately clear to anyone reading those superb letters of hers, she would have written just as brilliantly if she had never left Asolo. Which was she prouder of - the books that so magically evoked the sights and sounds, the places and peoples, of the Arabian desert, or the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society? She would have been hard put to give an answer.
Although in the last years of her long life her memory began to let her down, her enthusiasm never flagged. Many of us will remember a three- week cruise through the Eastern Mediterranean in the autumn of 1982, during which - at the age of 89 - she walked for well over an hour though the Old City of Jerusalem and climbed unaided to the topmost tower of Krak des Chevaliers, talking to the village children in her careful, courteous Arabic as she went.
One evening, at my request, she read us a few extracts of what she had written about the cities of that historic coast along which we were sailing; now that she is dead, her words re-echo in my ears: 'Tyre, on her headland, listens to the waves. Her columns are lost or carried away or lie in the sea where they fell broken, and the water, clearer than glass, lisps over them or under, singing an old song learned in the mornings of Time; and the causeway built by Alexander is flanked with fields and crops; and the streets and markets, leisurely places, keep the Roman rectangular shape unwittingly, and the forgetful children of the Phoenicians still build small clumsy boats on the open beaches. There is nothing left in Tyre except this forgetfulness, a life of little things quieter than silence, an essence of oblivion woven with the sun and sea.'
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