We had taken a copy of the Odyssey with us on holiday. Armed with a picnic, we were sitting on the shore reading aloud the wonderful chapter that tells of the hero's meeting with Nausica. Afterwards, copying the princess and her maidens, we played ball then gathered wild flowers to press between the pages of the book.
It was in Orkney that I first realised the cheapest way to add immeasurably to the enjoyment of a holiday is to pack the right book . . . and I don't mean a Rough Guide. A friend in Stromness lent me a novel by the local author, George Mackay Brown, a gentle man who has rarely left his islands and who captures their spirit in sweet, simple prose. Greenvoe, the story of a summer in Orkney, mirrored the peaceful time I spent there.
'Afternoon was always the quietest time in the village. The fishermen were still at sea. The crofters had not yet unyoked. There was little sound in Greenvoe on a summer afternoon but the murmur of multiplication tables through the tall school window, and the drone of bluebottles among Mr Joseph Evie's confectionery, and the lapping of water against the pier.'
I fell for Mackay Brown, for Orkney and for the whole idea of appropriate reading on the spot. I went to Chicago with Sara Paretsky, to New York with Damon Runyon, to LA with Raymond Chandler and to the Mediterranean with Homer.
We travelled widely for pleasure, my husband, my young daughter and I. We once took a year to drive overland to India. Recently I asked Kerry, now in her twenties, which book she had enjoyed most during our holidays. There was no hesitation.
'Kim,' she said. 'Nothing could ever surpass reading Kim going along the Grand Trunk Road. When I went back to India for the first time on my own I was 17, and I was still half hoping to find a holy man and become his chela.'
What a journey that drive to India and back was for books. We began in Greek Macedonia, with Mary Renaud's Alexander Trilogy, our pleasure heightened because, while we were reading about the young conqueror, the tomb of his father, Philip, was discovered near our campsite.
As we skirted the Black Sea, we began a novel with surely one of the best opening sentences, The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay.
' 'Take my camel, dear',' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.' Trebizond, or Trabzon, in Turkey is rich in medieval architecture, fortifications, minarets and fine old churches, but there is no indication in which of these aunt Dot chose to worship.
In northern Iraq, we stood on the ancient walls of Nineveh with an Old Testament in hand. 'The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me'.' We read aloud the Book of Jonah (it takes about 10 minutes) to the end, where the Lord said to the somewhat peeved prophet: 'And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much
Of the 120,000 souls, we could see only the faintest trace, but below the wall still grazed a large herd of cows.
Just without the city wall is the simple tomb in which Jonah lies buried. Would the Muslims consider it sacrilegious if we entered with our Book? Then we remembered that Islam and Christianity share the Old Testament. Inside there was a simple stone sarcophagus with the outline of a fish drawn above it on the wall.
'The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and for three days and three nights he was in the belly of the fish.'
Our progress through Iran was a personal treat. I had come to love Persian poetry in my teens, captivated by Fitzgerald's inspired version of the quatrains of the mathematician Omar Khayyam. In Elizabethan England, gentlemen of breeding could write verses, likewise any Persian worth his salt could throw off a quatrain or two, or in Khayyam's case several hundred of them. It is still an amusing pastime for Iranians. I had mapped out a route that was a pilgrimage to the shrines of several of my favourite poets.
As the sun was setting one evening, we sat on the marble steps of Hafiz' mausoleum in Shiraz, the perfume of Persian roses in our nostrils, the sound of nightingales in our ears. It is built on the spot where the poet loved to rest as he wrote his verse. Hafiz and Sadi, two of the greatest Persian poets, were both born in Shiraz, a market town that is now, as it was then, the central meeting place of all the surrounding nomadic tribes.
The mullahs wanted to deny Hafiz the rites of Muslim burial, on the grounds that he was unorthodox, a free thinker, who criticised them for their hypocrisy:
The Mullah to a harlot said:
'When you entice men to your
Do you not in your heart repine
To live a slave to lust and
But she upon his words broke
'I am adept in every sin:
Tis my career . . . can you
To follow yours with like
On we travelled to Pakistan and the remarkable experience of someone else reading to us the right words in the right place. We were invited to Swat, a little kingdom in a valley that sweeps northwards into China. We stayed with the ruler, Aurangzeb, and his wife, in purdah to her own countrymen but completely at ease and unveiled before my foreign husband.
How could Aurangzeb be the ruler when Swat is just part of greater Pakistan? No one seemed to have told the people they were no longer a separate kingdom. They treated Aurangzeb with the respect and deference due to a prince and daily brought him their problems to solve. On our last evening he produced a book by Edward Lear and began to read, under the gentle breeze of a fan operated by a punka wallah.
' 'Who, or why, or which, or what, Is the Akond of Swat?
Is he tall or short, or dark or fair?
Does he sit on a stool or a sofa or
chair, or SQUAT
The Akond of Swat?
Is he wise or foolish, young or old?
Does he drink his soup and his
coffee cold, or HOT
The Akond of Swat?
Does he wear a turban, a fez or
Does he sleep on a mattress, a bed,
or a mat or a COT
The Akond of Swat?'
'Mr Lear wrote that about my great-grandfather. He was the Akund, the religious leader. My grandfather became the Wali, the Prince of Swat. We all enjoy Mr Lear's poems. I read them to my children.'
And then it was Lahore, and along the 1,000 miles of the Grand Trunk Road to Benares.
'See, Holy One - the Great Road which is the backbone of all Hind. For the most part it is all shade, as here, with four lines of trees, the middle road - all hard - takes the quick traffic . . . Left and right is the rougher road for the heavy carts - grain and cotton and timber, bhoosa, lime and hides. A man goes in safety here - for at every few kms kos is a police station. The police are thieves and extortioners, but at least they do not suffer rivals. All castes and kinds of men move here. Look] Brahmins and chumars, bankers and tinkers, barbers and bunnuas, pilgrims and potters - all the world going and coming . . . truly the Grand Trunk Road is a wonderful spectacle.'
A great writer can transport us to another time and another place. If you have never been to India, you can't do better than read Kipling to give yourself a taste of its colour, confusion and contradictions. Kim is a splendid book under any circumstances. So too are the novels of Joseph Conrad and Bruce Chatwin. Why then does reading them while sailing the China Sea or crossing an Australian desert add so much more to the pleasure?
Perhaps it is because the next dark-
eyed, scruffy urchin who brushes past you along the road, could be another Kim. Perhaps the lurch of your heart at a sudden roll of the boat suggests that, despite the clear, starlit sky, a typhoon just might be on the way. What I do know is that my holiday starts the moment I begin to consider which books to take with me, and in a way, never ends. Snapshots are all very well to show to family and friends, but the pictures that flash upon my inward eye are held between the pages of well-travelled books.
Mary Renault's The Alexander Trilogy, Penguin, pounds 8.99
George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe, Longman, pounds 4.95.
Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond Fontana, pounds 5.99.
Rudyard Kipling's, Kim, Penguin pounds 3.99.Reuse content