Thursday 12 September 2013

Freya Stark: Part the First

Why did it take me so long to read anything by Freya Stark?  After all, she was published by John Murray, and it was the John Murray Archive that was responsible for my starting this blog.  (I worked on the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland.)  Anyone lucky enough  to visit 50 Albemarle St where John Murray was based for many years would see portraits, sketches and photographs of some of their famous travel writers - including Miss Stark.

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Anyway, I'm just glad I finally got round to it (her?).  Freya Stark's prose reads almost like poetry; her insights about the people she meets and lives with in Arabia are profound.  She has an eye for detail and a wonderful gift for describing her surroundings evocatively.

I don't propose to write at length about Freya Stark today, given I've just read one book by her (A Winter in Arabia - about some months she spent living in the Hadhramaut, an isolated part of what is now Yemen), am about to start the second (Baghdad Sketches) and want to supplement my meagre knowledge by reading the recent biography.

But here are some thoughts of hers that have stuck in mind: is, I believe, a fallacy to think of travellers' qualities as physical.  If I had to write a decalogue for journeys, eight out of the ten virtues should be moral, and I should put first of all a temper as serene at the end as at the beginning of the day.

Then would come the capacity to accept values and to judge by standards other than our own.  The rapid judgement of character; and a love of nature which must include human nature also.  The power to dissociate oneself from one's own bodily sensations.  A knowledge of the local history and language.  A leisurely and uncensorious mind.  A tolerable constitution and the capacity to eat and sleep at any moment.  And lastly, and especially here, [in Arabia? in the Hadhramaut?] a ready quickness in repartee.

Excellent hints - not just to lady travellers, but to all travellers, everywhere.

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