Tag Archives: World War II

Passionate nomad : Freya Stark by Jane Fletcher Geniesse

Cover of Jane Fletcher Geniesse's biography of...

Cover of Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s biography of Freya Stark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(A not very recent read – read about 5 years ago)

What a woman – what a life – what a story – what a book!  I was captivated right through this lively, well-researched book about the eccentric lady explorer. She was a Traveller and  a writer  – in her heyday in the late 1920s,  until just after WWII.  A dazzling combo of brains – she learnt Arabic plus dialects, Persian, Italian, French and German; became a cartographer, an ethnographer, and a world authority on the Middle East . She exerted charm, virtually a one-woman international charm offensive.  She seems to have accomplished more by charm than anything else, despite her scientific achievements as an explorer.

Freya was small but formidable, and still very feminine,  with a liking for hats and make-up.  Such a contrast to the two Oxfod blue stockings who joined her expedition to the Hadramaut  – it was a disaster.  Frey Stark flitted, flirted and charmed her way through life and the world. She was terribly well-connected and knew (and cheerfully used) everybody.  Her friends needed to be indulgent and long suffering,  particularly her life-long publisher Jock Murray of John Murray Publishers. She produced 22 books, mostly travel, with one book of essays, and then eight volumes of letters privately published.  Mygoodness, but she wrote letters on an epic scale  – in this age of the cellphone/text messages/e-mail one forgets how, in previous years, the letter was a prime means of communication.

Freya Stark had a blind spot concerning gay men: she seemed unable to comprehend the basics of male gayness, and kept befriending, falling in love with and even marrying  one: she was self-willed to an extraordinary degree.  Had she not been so, doubtless her life would have been humdrum.

I learnt about the Africa and Middle East campaigns and politics of WWII, about which I knew zero. Prior to this book I could  just about  recall the names of the famous generals and the great military defeats and victories.  And good old Freya Stark was part of it all.  I’m adding her to my list of the people I wish I’d met. The other person on my list is Aleister Crowley, at one point labelled by the Press as The Wickedest Man in the World.   Thinking it over, how I admire Frey Stark for her grasp of languages (as a child I longed to be a polyglot) her varied travels (I also longed to see distant and exotic places) and I also wanted to become a writer so there’s a strong commonality between us.

The more I think of Freya Stark the more charmed and intrigued I become:  her strategic withdrawals to bed with illnesses when she couldn’t cope;  the longing to be loved and cosseted – haven’t we all been there? and how like her demanding and domineering mother she became, seemingly unconscious of this repeated character trait.  She simply ignored what didn’t suit her or accord with her ideas, and sailed blithely on. How marvellous to be so much one’s own person and be admired (although not universally) for it.  She had her critics and detractors, periods of poverty and depression: but – what a woman, what a life !




Probably my best read of the year. Twan Eng returns in his second novel to Malaysia, initially in present times but interspersed with the period just after WWII ended, and the Malaysian Emergency reached its height. While the Communist guerrillas were carrying out a campaign of murder and terror against farmers, miners and villagers, the Malaysian Nationalists were simultaneously trying to wrest power from  British Colonial authorities – a turbulent time.  Interestingly, as a historical aside, apparently this is the only time that a guerrilla war was won by the authorities (i.e. the Brits) and not by the insurgents.

The book resonated with me for days after I had finished reading it, as I kept remembering incidents and characters from the complex and haunting tale. The main protagonist is a Chinese woman, who survives internment in a Japanese slave labour camp and ultimately goes on to qualify as a lawyer and became a Supreme Court Judge.  This story would, on its own, form the basis of other lesser novels.  But there are other equally  strong characters in the tale.  The person I found the most fascinating was the enigmatic Japanese Aritomo Nakamura, one-time gardener to the Emperor of Japan (pre-war) now resident in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, and architect of an exquisite Japanese style garden, on a remote hillside.  Again, Aritomo’s story in the hands of a lesser novelist would have been a book on its own.  As the book progresses we learn about Japanese archery as a meditation, we learn about the art of woodblock prints and the arcane practice of horimono  which I found utterly fascinating, and which  is an integral (and important) part of the story.

There’s a South African link in the story too.  Aritomo’s neighbour is an ex-pat South African who emigrated to Malaya in the 1930s to become a tea-planter. Magnus, the tea-planter and his family are important characters in the unfolding story. As part of their story we get a chunk of South African history as well – but not an indigestible chunk.

Tan Twan Eng currently divides his time between Malaysia and Cape Town, South Africa, and I’ve had the privilege of hearing him speak about his first novel The Gift of Rain. He’s alarmingly well informed and articulate, and passionate about his home country, Malaysia.

Tan Twan Eng is such a versatile writer.  His book contains the  history of Malaysia, alongside a  WWII mystery concerning looted treasure (which other novelists would have simply have written as a Raiders of the Lost Ark extravaganza, but TTE is way beyond such a facile approach) coupled with evocative descriptions of the jungle and tea-gardens, as well as tenderly romantic interludes – which, effortlessly, are beautiful and poetic without being artsy-fartsy or mawkish – whatever he’s doing he gets it just right.

I cannot recommend this book too highly.  At the time of writing I learn that the book has made in onto the Booker Long List. It deserves to be on the Booker Short List and if it were up to me, I would award it the Man Booker Prize.  However, given the MB Judges extraordinary predilection for choosing obscure, unreadable, very literary novels, my hopes are not too high. But enough of my griping.  Read this book: it’s marvellous!


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