Staysure has been joined by a very special guest author, former Blue Peter presenter Valerie Singleton, to discuss her favourite holiday reads.
Choosing books to take on holiday probably takes me more time than choosing my wardrobe. I haven’t succumbed to a Kindle and still love having a proper book in my hands. Though it certainly doesn’t help my limited luggage allowance!
And I am also not someone who necessarily believes that it has to be a lightweight read when I am away. If a book is worth reading I think it is worth reading anytime. And a holiday allows fewer interruptions. Also being a bookaholic, I buy without always getting round to looking at the book immediately. So I have all these volumes still waiting to be consumed and a trip away is the perfect opportunity. But which to take? That is the question!
I find as I get older that my reading is mostly factual. These days there are so many fascinating, serious subjects being written about. Lyn who runs one of my local bookshops – the Bailey Hill bookshop in Castle Cary, tells me she sells factual books to four times as many people.
When I’m travelling I try to read up on the history of the country I’m going to.
That’s how I came upon my first choice. A few years ago I was offered a press trip to Syria to write a piece for the Daily Express. I didn’t know it then of course, but I might have been one of the last journalists to go there in peace time. It was only a few months later that the terrible situation in that country began.
A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby
Trying to find some reading about Syria and Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world, I saw mentioned in a list of reading on the country, a book called A Scandalous Life, about a woman called Jane Digby. Not only had she spent the last 28 years of her incredible life living in Damascus, happily married to a cultured Bedouin sheikh 20 years younger than her – but she was the ancestor of Lord Digby, who lives not far from me here in Dorset and whom I had met once briefly. The Digby family own huge lands and property around here and one branch of the family live in Sherborne Castle.
Jane Digby was born in Dorset in 1807. She was a beautiful child and would grow up to be a stunningly beautiful woman with violet blue eyes and a pink and white complexion. She would win hearts wherever she went. Her grandfather owned Holkham Hall, a stately home in Norfolk and Jane spent much of her idyllic childhood there. When she came out as a debutante she took London by storm and was much sought after in society circles. She married young, to Lord Ellenborough, an eminent politician rather older than her.
But then she had an affair with the aristocratic, handsome Austrian, Prince Felix Schwarzenberg. She divorced for her love of Felix and the ensuing scandal led to her being ostracised. The notoriety this caused followed her for the rest of her life.
She had to leave the country and never lived in England again. She moved first to Paris and so began a life of travel which she loved. She settled in different countries for a while, always creating beautiful homes wherever she stayed. It was an eventful life, full of ups and downs. She had admirers wherever she went, many lovers and a marriage or two. She was an incurable romantic.
Many of her lovers let her down but ever resilient she moved on, often to another country. She kept a diary throughout her life, made lists about everything, corresponded regularly with family and friends, was an excellent artist and superb horsewoman, spoke nine languages perfectly and was an engaging and fascinating companion. Her energy was extraordinary. Living in Munich for a while she became a close friend and probably lover to the King, Ludwig the 1st of Bavaria. Once again she was accepted in society circles, something that didn’t happen everywhere.
It was on a journey to Syria that she met and married, Sheikh Medjuel el Mezrab. She was in her late 40s and he was 20 years younger. He was the love of her life and he loved and cherished her. She created another stunning home in Damascus for them both but spent much time with him in the desert as he dealt with tribal matters. In the desert she behaved and lived as a Bedouin, became extremely knowledgeable about their ways and was eventually completely accepted by them. But there were troubled times too, when different tribes attacked each other and the desert was often a dangerous place.
For the squeamish I must warn you there is a chapter which describes a dreadful massacre of Christians in Damascus and the surrounding countryside. Something that is sadly recurring today. Jane, though horrified by the events, is out in the streets helping and rescuing people as soon as it is reasonably alright to do so, with little fears for her own safety.
I had hoped to visit Jane’s grave in Damascus, perhaps take a photograph and write a few words about her for my local county magazine. But our guide wasn’t sure where it was. After I got home, Ahmed emailed to say he had found it and would take me there on my next visit. Very sadly there will be no next visit to Syria.
A Scandalous Life is perhaps the right title for Jane’s times. But I like to think of it as the Most Extraordinary Life.
Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod
Some of the first trips I made when I began to get into travel writing in the early 1990s, were to Alaska. In all I made three visits. One was in the late autumn and I did an hour-long report for the Classic FM Travel Show.
Two were in the winter, not normally a time for tourist groups, so I had Alaska almost to myself! Alaska was breathtaking. It was minus many degrees, but I loved the winter best. It was stunningly beautiful.
On both winter visits I watched the start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, the tough dog sled race which commemorates the dog run made in 1925 in appalling conditions to get serum up to Nome to combat an outbreak of diphtheria. Nearly 700 miles in five days. Today’s race is longer – 1,180 miles. It takes many more than five days and is very dangerous. One of my winter journeys took me north to Fairbanks and one morning I was picked up by Doug Bowers and taken for a morning’s dog sledding in the Tanana River Valley. In a light fluttering of snow we followed part of the Iditarod trail for several hours through woods of birch and willow and along frozen lakes. It was wild and silent except for the panting of the dogs. Doug had provided me with so many layers of warm clothing I lost count but still I was cold. He allowed me to stand for a while on one of the sled runners and give instructions to the dogs but warned me not to fall off as the dogs wouldn’t wait for me! It was an exhilarating morning.
So I was delighted to come across my second choice of holiday reading – Winter Dance – the Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen.
Gary was living in the wilds of Minnesota at the start of the book and is hooked on dog sledding. He slowly gathers his team of dogs together, spends many days (and nights) out in the wilderness learning the intricacies of racing dogs and getting to know them so well he begins to feel at one with them. He makes many mistakes and has numerous accidents.
He knows that eventually his dream is to take part in the Iditarod and making his way to Alaska he signs up for his very first Iditarod race. But he is still a ‘
rookie’ – a first timer…a beginner. He realises he knows nothing. Not like the confident habitual ‘mushers’. He still makes silly wrong decisions that might have repercussions during the race.
Gary writes so vividly about the days before the race, the race itself and the effect the experience and the landscape has on him: “the seductive, wonderfully magnificent deadly beauty of Alaska.” He makes you feel you are taking part in the race with him. There are heart stopping moments when you fear for his life and his dog team, but the book is also very funny and very readable.
The Great Game
Another book that makes fascinating but not always easy reading (for the faint hearted there are inevitably some unpleasant episodes) is The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. My next choice.
It’s about the period when the British and the East India Company fear the Russians have intentions to invade and lay claim to India. Though it begins briefly with the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, especially of Russia, and how that moulds Russian thinking for centuries.
At the beginning of the 19th century it is Napoleon who is also a worry and there are endless shifting and changing alliances involving Persia, between the British, Russians and French, as plans are made for reaching, or protecting India, across what is still the vast unknown area of Central Asia.
The British and East India Company (not always in agreement) and Russia, realise the need to map this vast uncharted region and as Peter Hopkirk writes: “This great political no man’s land was to become a vast adventure playground for ambitious young officers and explorers of both sides as they mapped the passes and deserts across which armies would have to march if war came to the region.” Afghanistan is vital and The Great Game follows these adventures and political machinations through the 19th century as Britain becomes more and more involved, with the inevitable outcome.
As you read it, you realise everything that has happened recently has happened before. What a shame our leaders didn’t read this book before taking the decisions they did.
So just a few suggestions which I hope you will enjoy!