Friday, January 29, 2016

Adventure classics – A joy to live those days between wars

Come, Tell Me How You Live
by Agatha Christie Mallowan
It was spring 1944 as Agatha Christie (in a rare use of the name of her second husband, Max Mallowan ) wrote the epilogue to Come, Tell Me How You Live, the memoir of her time as an archaeologist’s wife in the Middle East. She began it before World War II, laid it aside for years, and at last took it up again, writing, “. . . it seems to me that it is good to remember that there were such days and such places, and that at this very minute my little hill of marigolds is in bloom, and old men with white beards trudging behind their donkeys may not even know there is a war.”

So after years of war (with more than another year still to go), she took up the writing again. She could remember with both nostalgia and humor the travails of the years she and Max spent on excavations in Syria and Iraq.

There were the plagues of mice (dealt with by “a very professional cat”); the excavation’s top-heavy lorry (christened Queen Mary) and prone to getting mud-bound when seasonal rains wash out roads; the local forms of entertainment (“there is to be a hanging,” their foreman said, “a woman…who has poisoned three husbands! Surely (you) would not like to miss that!”).

Agatha fears her refusal to attend the hanging costs her a great deal in status, as does her insistence on not having the sheep that will constitute dinner slaughtered in plain sight of their house.

And although she considers herself handy at washing excavated artifacts and developing photographs, and dealing out first aid, her writings get no respect. And no wonder. Because after a workman proud of his rare literacy writes a note on an empty cigarette packet that another man has been drowned, the unlucky packet finds its way to the supposed dead man’s home village, prompting the arrival of “a great cavalcade of mourners”, the man whose rumors of death were so greatly exaggerated attacks the literate one. Max docks the supposed dead man a day’s pay for fighting, sentences the prankster to walk the 40 kilometers to the not yet dead man’s village to explain and apologize, and docks him two days’ pay.

“And the real moral is—Max points out afterwards to his own select circle—what very dangerous things reading and writing are!” she writes ruefully.

Perhaps most of all, she remembers an old man (one of those who seemed to arrive out of nowhere as if in a fairy tale) who arrives and after a long silence, “inquires courteously if we are French. German? English?. . . ‘Is it the English this country belongs to now? I cannot remember. I know it is no longer the Turks.’

“‘No,’ we say; ‘the Turks have not been here since the war.’

“‘Ah yes, about the time you mention, many (soldiers) went to and fro over the railway. That, then was the war? We did not realize it was a war. It did not touch us here.’”

“After four years spent in London in war-time, I know what a very good life that was, and it has been a joy and refreshment to me to live those days again…not an escape to something that was, but the bringing into the hard work and sorrow of today of something imperishable that one not only had but still has!…Inshallah, I shall go there again, and the things that I love shall not have perished from this earth…”

(The illustration for today’s post is reproduced from a photograph by World War I Australian Expeditionary Force member Eric Keast Burke and published in The National Geographic Magazine April 1922.)

(Next Friday Adventure classics begins a February of animal adventures with A Dog of Flanders, by Marie Louise de la Ramee, writing as “Ouida”.)

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