Interview with House and Garden
How and why did you become a writer?
The real writers are the ones who need to liberate a story that will
otherwise destroy them. I am not one of these, for I write because I have
always loved being inside and around books, from the moment I was given my
first ladybird (stoneage man in Britain) and then having read my way through
the series, I started (aged about 6) to collect those wonderful jackdaw
folders full of photocopied maps and documents. I can still remember
hoarding silver sixpences, to make up the 11 and 6 needed to buy the next
jackdaw from a shop just outside the gates of Greenwhich palace where we
were lodged by the navy in a haunted apartment. I would also be happy
working as a librarian or a second-hand book dealer, but fortunately I came
into this highly competitive world sideways, given the oppurtunity to write
a guidebook by a chance meeting on a beach in the outer hebrides.
Briefly describe your career to date.
Half a dozen guidebooks (such as Morocco, Tunisia, Cyprus, Istanbul),
followed by four history books ( a life of the Prophet Muhammad, a history
of North Africa, of the first Four Caliphs, of the Last Crusaders)
interspersed, fuelled and funded by travel journalism and running Eland, an
independent publishing house which keeps classic travel books in print, now
almost a hundred titles strong, as you can see by browsing through
What or who are your main influences?
Gavin Maxwell's romantic study of a Berber dynasty who seized control of
their mountains, Lords of the Atlas, E.V. Bovill's book about the
trans-Saharan caravan trade, The Golden Trade of the Moors and C. Boxers
books about the emergence of the Portugese and Spanish Seaborne Empires.
But every month, there comes a new passion, at the moment I am in awe of
Penelope Fitzgerald's succession of slim, powerful novels, but in the
background lurks William Golding, Robert Graves, Bruce Chatwin, Norman Lewis
and Wilfrid Thesiger, before you reach further back towards Dickens and
What struck you most about your trip to Egypt?
Ahmed our guide had a wonderful theory (which was totally new to me) about
how the tomb frescoes of ancient Egypt were like a cartoon book that could
explain the mysteries of their religion to the illiterate masses. Then I
began to see how close their design scheme was to the painted interiors of
an Orthodox Church, and our own lost wonder of all the gorgeous painted
interiors of England destroyed by the Reformation. I keep thinking on this.
What has been your most memorable trip so far?
The ones I can hardly remember, like the sounds of monastery bells mingling
with the scent of lemons in Malta, and riding piggy-back through the
Mediterranean sea clinging to my mother's back like some happy frog.
What are you working on at the moment, and what is next?
I have just done the captions and the text for a photograph book by Don
McCullin on the Roman ruins on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, and
I am now sketching out the nine intended chapters for a book on North Africa
that I have been commissioned to write for that maverick and inspiring
publisher, Peter Mayer.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
I love meeting new people, experiencing new landscapes, discovering whole
vast new fields of history that I wasn't yet even aware of. It would be
deeply unfair if this paid well.
Where do you live, and with whom? What is your own house/garden like?
I live right in the centre of London, where if you dance outside the pub
door across the road from us, you pass through three postcodes. Our terraced
house is old, thin, a bit draughty and leaky but is surrounded by good
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Drink sancerre and rioja, sip coffee at brills cafe in Exmouth Market,
picnic, swim in the sea with my daughters, build sandcastles with nephews
and godsons, plot tea-parties, flaneur my way along a leyline of favourite
shops, stalls and street markets that criss-cross London, unfurl a
map...while I listen to the increasingly bizarre confessions of my friends.