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Herding travel writers across Iran


What are travel writers when they travel together? A squabble perhaps, as of scavenging seagulls unused to picking up their own hotel bills. Or an unkindness, as of flesh-picking ravens? Especially appropriate when we are about to review the book of a rival. A skulk (of foxes) seems more suited for that stage in the gestation of a new book when we borrow a country cottage from a friend. But once our leader, the Flemish textile artist Sylvie Franquet, had settled on a pandemonium (of parrots) we knew we had the right label. It saluted our colourful plummage, our egotistical screech (skillfully copying anything that would get you some attention) and nodded a literary reference to the capital of Hell from Paradise Lost. It was also especially appropriate for this trip across Iran, since Pandemonium is the lost homeland of the Indo-Aryans.

It was a trip that reunited a number of leading travel writers, particularly strong on India and the Middle East, many of whom had started flirting with each other as students 30 years ago. There was Katie Hickman of Daughters of Britannia fame, Kate Hubbard of Serving Queen Victoria, while Antony Sattin would be resting from the success of his T E Lawrence and Winter on the Nile books, and William Dalrymple from his Afghan triumph, Return of a King. Lurking fragrantly in the foreground would be Alexandria Pringle, Queen of Fiction at Bloomsbury, Rose Baring, the editor at Eland, Catherine Gibbs, Director of Short Books and Viv Guinness the patroness-Director of Dublin’s Lilliput Press. We also had an artist, two gallerists and for good luck a Californian. It is a little-known fact that the presence of an American or Australian, does wonders to stop the British from descending into a maestrom of class chatter whilst abroad (who is who’s cousin and why). It is as vital as adding salt to porridge for the success of a trip.

It had been agreed was all agreed that this was to be a holiday and not a work trip. We were all to pay our own way (gasps of surprise) and not to hide beautiful things from each other (all the better to write about them as lone discoveries). I formally invoked the first rule of foreign shopping, which is a form of copyright over anything unusual which you have spotted in a bazaar, and which you do not want the rest of the group to then buy, ruining the originality of one’s inspired purchase. What I failed to realise in the era of social media is that the modern travel writer is also their own publicity department, feeding loyal readers with free morsels in between the volumes for sale. Photographs of a new Orientalist bargain were now fed to tens of thousand of twitter, instagram and facebook followers.

Fortunately the second rule of group travel, remained inviolable and intact: when you happen upon delicious looking street food in a covered bazzar, you buy sufficient for all. And such is the nature of Iran, where each city has its own tradition of cakes and sweets, and each province its own cherished produce, that we became a very harmonious group indeed. Over the fortnight our coach became an increasingly extravagant mobile tea-room, with its own pop up table upon which we shared a tribute of nuts, dried fruits, baklava-like treats, fresh fruit and on one glorious occasion macaroons as light as clouds. This almost made up for the complete lack of alcohol and espresso, so certainly I now want to return to Iran once a year, for the health of my liver.

Our greatest shared joy, despite the staggeringly beautiful mosques, proved to be the traditional Persian gardens. These tree-shaded wall gardens, fed by chuckling rills of water work on multiple sensual levels - sound, reflected dappled light, irrigation and temperature, but only become really potent when visited after hundreds of miles travelling through bleak mountains and desert. They also allowed us to place the ancient ruins of Persepolis in their right setting, as a terrace from which to observe spring flowers, and to appreciate the magic of the water-rich city of Isfahan through Persian eyes. A country where we witnessed men singing medieval love songs beneath the arches of a bridge over untroubled waters.

This obsession with water in a desert land also turned us into qanat spotters. The underground irrigation tunnels that feed Persian gardens can be detected by the mole-like heaps of excavated earth that snake miles across the desert from the mountains. It was at the third underground level of the Qanat Museum in Yazd that Antony Sattin, William Dalrymple and myself discovered that we had all three betrayed the spirit of our holiday. Each one of us had bought what we thought was the last copy of a precious source book on Zoroastrian beliefs….which we were fingering in a Gollum-like way. It could not possibly be considered holiday reading and was clearly research for a future book. Rivals or friends? We glared at each other, then laughed in guilty complicity as we confessed secondary reasons for joining this holiday, which included research into Bakhtiari nomads, martyred Shiite heroes and the fate of the Koh-i-Nur diamond hidden in a turban.

On the full last night of our holiday, we had one of its greatest treats. With no brandy or whisky to hand, after-dinner chatter had lost a lot of its appeal, until William decided to set himself up as a bazaar story teller, and legs crossed, told us the plot of his next book, with not a line yet written. It had us all on the edge of our cushions longing for more.

Our Iranian guide listened in, with a smug smile of satisfaction. He had had his suspicions about this group of British holidaymakers, and they were now confirmed. Next morning he whispered to me, ‘you are clearly harmless, but I am surprised that these others were let in’.

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