So, having recently enjoyed reading John Curran’s excellent “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks”, I was delighted to stumble across this book in one of my lovely local charity shops! This is one of the few Christies I don’t have and as you might guess from the way the author is credited, it isn’t her usual crime treat.
Dame Agatha’s second husband was Max Mallowan, a young archaeologist, with whom she seemed to spend a happy married life. From the 1930s onwards, she accompanied him on digs to countries which we now know as Iran, Iraq etc but in those days had lovely exotic names like Mesopotamia! Of course, this landscape ended up inspiring some of her murder mysteries, but this book is simply a little memoir of her times on expeditions, written before and during the second world war and published in 1946.
And it’s a beautifully written little memoir, peopled with the companions she had on the expeditions, the larger-than-life Sheiks and officials out in the East and the various cooks, drivers, workers and shirkers on the dig. It’s very humorous, even from the start when poor Agatha is shopping in the middle of winter for suitable things to wear in the hot, sandy desert and being told she is an OS (outsize) so there is nothing lightweight for her. The book is peppered with familiar references from a bygone world to things like Woolworth’s, which will have readers of a certain age sighing with nostalgia.
I can’t help wondering how her husband’s colleagues must have felt about having the ‘boss’s wife’, who is quite famous by this point, join them on the dig. Certainly, there is a little tension between her and ‘Mac’ (architect Robin Macartney) to start with, but this breaks down as the memoir develops and they must have ended up as friends, because he went on to illustrate some of her dust jackets!
The descriptions of the desert landscape are lovely , but Christie does not shy away from describing the less appealing side of the world she sees. Death is treated casually as something that is inevitable, and treatment for illness is very rarely sought or taken seriously. The workers on the dig can be violent and there are constant fights which Max has to sort out, but Agatha is remarkably non-judgemental about the various races she encounters. She is particularly fond of the Kurdish women with their bright clothing and their zest for life, although the status of women in some tribes is much lower and their actions very restricted.
I have seen this book criticised for its lack of detail and accuracy – in much the same way as people criticise her autobiography for its lack of clarity and dates etc – but I have to say that this didn’t bother me in the slightest. This memoir isn’t meant to be a detailed, day-by-day factual record of the dig – it’s an impressionistic picture of what it was like to be in the desert searching for antiquities in what is now a lost world, alongside your husband and his team, and finding the laughter and the sadness in everyday life. And Agatha’s individual voice came through clearly, reminding what a wonderful woman and a wonderful writer she was – and how much her work means to me as a reader.