Imagine being high in the Hindu Kush, bedding down at night on the side of the mountain track in a sleeping bag, under the bone shattering cold of high mountain nights, under frosty stars so close they could be touched. Breakfast? Just a mug of hot sweet chi.
This was where I followed the trials and loves contained within the pages of War and Peace, 'tis a long book (the 7th longest, they say, written in our characters) Huddled around the furnace of a Chi house at the foot of the Barmian Buddhas (before they were blown up) down in the lush valleys and on the stony slopes.
Sleeping rough and breathing in sparkling air and passing the time of day with the inhabitants of another world and culture.
The war of Tolstoy's story wasn't set in those lands I travelled through in the early 70s, but they were foreign enough, exotic and cold enough, for the experience to colour the great sweep of Russian life.
Some books I remember because of where I am as well as for what lay between the pages. I read Micheners Caravans just before we crossed over the Afghan borders, borrowed from a travelling companion and so apt, colouring all I saw as we wandered through a country I fell in love with - back before the Russians or ‘western powers’.
What other books do I recall? Many - here are a few.
In complete contrast I spent early sunny mornings in a small bed,in a sun room overlooking the ocean in Sydney, following Lawrence’s adventures in the Middle East. The story of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom blew me away and I resented the clock each morning telling me it was time to work. The sun slowly heating my room to Arabian heat. The experience was made more intense with the fact that one half of my employers was from that area, thick with a similar accent, his voice would enhance the book, as I staggered forth to brew his dark bitter coffee.Still, the aroma of that coffee will bring the book back.
The first Georgette Heyer I read - Arabella - was in Cardiff, South Wales. I took it as a book for reading while we visited an elderly aunt. She lived alone then, her father having died a couple of years previously. She ordered her life by strict Edwardian rules and her house never had a thing out of place, unlike our untidy den of contentment. I decided that at 13, and reading my first grown up romance(therefore being an adult,almost:) it was time I became a ‘nice helpful child’. It wasn’t that I was horrible, well no more than any other child of that age, but with crippling shyness I rarely put myself forward.
That visit I jumped to my feet and offered to do the washing up for her.Oh dear, you would have thought I had offered to kill her dratted poodle. Of course she worried I would chip ancient china had inherited from her mother, but back then I only knew my offer of help was not greeted with the delight I had expected. The whole exercise was fraught, according to her disaprovement I washed up all wrong, the amount of soap, the heat of the water, the order of doings. She was there, carping and criticising and I vowed never to help her again. Mum and Dad complimented me quietly but it wasn’t them I had hoped to impress. I sulked for the rest of the stay, finding solace in Arabella. My aunt and I did grow to like each other eventually, although I knew she was watching my every move around her china and Arabella is still one of favourite Heyer’s.
I hated birthday parties as a child, I still do actually. The rule was, one invited everyone in the class to your party and then you had to go to all theirs. They were not my friends, I had none in the school, I was not theirs, but that was the rule. Mum suffering from a greater shyness than myself insisted Dad came home to run them. He was a brilliant party organiser and could keep control of children very well. I pouted, sulked and argued my way through every one held in my honour and perfected every trick in the book to avoid going to others.
When I was trawling through my books for this challenge I came across two very slender books The Weasel Family and Otto the Otter,a birthday present one year when I was about 7, and memories of those hideous parties flooded back. I had hidden on the arm of the sofa behind a curtain and was quietly reading all about Otto and his adventures, when I was discovered. Mum was angry that I had chosen to abandon my guests for a book. And hauled me out to do the proper hostess bit. I had managed to read most of the adventure by then but had not quite reached the en;, she wouldn’t let me finish! Was I fed up. I did however, get sour satisfaction in joining my guests to find them all distressed at the sight of a headless, gutless bird on the door mat to the garden; the cat bless her, had left me a good birthday present.
When on on an Internet site for reuniting friends I was approached by a couple who wanted to know if I was the one who lived in such and such house? I was, I affirmed, wondering who they were - names rang no bells. They remembered the parties,they had apparently been really good, they said, they couldn’t remember me though!
I was the one behind the curtain!