Out of Sunningdale
Solving the mysteries of Agatha Christie's Iraq.
Jan 16, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 17 • By THOMAS SWICK
The 8:55 to Baghdad
THE DILEMMA FACING TRAVEL WRITERS--how do you write about the world when practically every place has been visited, if not written about, already?--is producing interesting responses.
Many travel books have become more analytical, in an attempt to penetrate the well-photographed façade (Pico Iyer leads this charge); while others have become more domestic, looking not at the places we visit but at the places we inhabit (think Jonathan Raban). And a number of writers, still infused with old-fashioned wanderlust, have enthusiastically set off, not to blaze new trails but to plod in the footsteps of those who have gone before. If you can't beat 'em, trace 'em. In Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh-Smith replicated the journey from Tangiers to Constantinople of the great medieval explorer Ibn Battutah, and in A Sweet and Glorious Land, John Keahey traveled around southern Italy in search of George Gissing.
Though not a travel writer, Bernard-Henri Levy recently traversed the United States, shirt unbuttoned to the wind, with Alexis de Tocqueville by his side. Welcome the follow-up travel book.
And now at your local bookstore we find The 8:55 to Baghdad: From London to Iraq on the Trail of Agatha Christie by the English travel writer Andrew Eames. Eames's dearly departed companion for the journey seems at first glance an unlikely choice. (Not Gertrude Bell? Not Freya Stark?) Yet on a visit to Aleppo to visit the famous souk--"the longest roofed market in the world"--Eames was invited to tea by the proprietor of his hotel, and heard the man's mother say that the famous mystery writer came to Aleppo "to do her shopping. And to get her hair done. From Nineveh. With Max."
Max, Eames subsequently learns, was Christie's second husband, an archaeologist whom she had met in Ur, and with whom she "spent thirty winter seasons living in testing conditions 3,000 miles from home, in a land of Kurds, Armenians and Palestinians, doling out laxatives to help the sheikh's wives with their constipation." Eames decides to travel to Iraq just as she had, by train from London.
Actually, he sets out on the eponymous 8:55 from Sunningdale, the commuter town where Agatha spent the last four unhappy years of her 14-year marriage to Archie Christie. Arriving at Victoria Station, and boarding the restored Venice-Simplon Orient Express, Eames interlaces the story of the bestselling author with that of the international train, and makes the very reasonable claim that the latter's survival, albeit in a truncated and high-end form, is partly due to the former's most famous novel. The saving power of murder.
As the journey proceeds, the reader feels triply blessed, getting two learned and lively tales tacked on, always gracefully, to the vivid account of an epic railway journey and its own co-mingling of countries, characters, scenery, arcane knowledge, political history, literary digressions, archaeological asides--that rich gallimaufry that caused Evelyn Waugh to claim that he preferred "all but the very worst travel books to all but the very best novels."
The 8:55 to Baghdad is one of the better ones, and it really hits its stride in the former Yugoslavia. In Slovenia Eames digs up a retired reporter who interviewed Christie on one of her visits to Lake Bohinj, and he tells us that, having been translated into 112 languages, she falls between the Bible and Shakespeare. In Zagreb he finds the history-obsessed Croats "like a tribe of Latin teachers, well-meaning, socially unsure of themselves and a little off-fashion, and very expert in a subject which was largely irrelevant to today's world."
Further down the line he talks to people who give credence to the cliché that Serbs are interested only in making love and war; then meets a young woman in Belgrade who spends her evenings with her father watching fishing programs on the Discovery Channel. "Because," she tells him, "it's incredibly peaceful."
And for anyone nostalgic for the days when the sun never set on the British Empire, Eames introduces Stephane Lambert, an English real estate agent doing a brisk business on Bulgaria's Black Sea coast selling homes to his countrymen who can't afford Tuscany or the Costa del Sol. Under the Balkan Sun.
When not meeting memorable characters, Eames turns his attention to his surroundings, with felicitous results. Istanbul's ferries are like "an extended family" with "short, fat and pompous uncles" and "long, elegant and languid aunts." The skyline of Damascus is studded with "the occasional set of egg-box domes rippling in the waves of heat."
The tension builds as he gets closer to Iraq. He hooks up with a tour group, on a lowly bus, at a time when U.N. weapons inspections are still going on. The vehicle holds, not surprisingly, an odd bunch, which includes four elderly women: two English, one German, one French. There is also a young American, Sean, traveling with a boom box. At the border, men under 60 and women under 50 are all required to submit to an AIDS test. (A few of the senior ladies complain, with mock indignation, of discrimination; Eames astutely travels with his own needle.)
It's your standard package tour: the Iraqi Museum (founded by Gertrude Bell, looted four months after the group's visit); Saddam City (actually, Eames has to see this on his own); the Minaret of Samarra (atop which Eames finds a group of Iraqi teenagers high-fiving Sean, who later tells the author that if Americans could see him showing friendship toward Iraqis they would label him "a national traitor." It is one of the few times when you wish Eames hadn't just let a statement stand).
The story of illustrious trains (Eames's fascination extends to the Taurus Express, which once traveled between Istanbul and Damascus) is replaced by that of ancient civilizations. And antagonistic sects. Though away from the ruins, Eames finds the people unfailingly friendly toward foreigners, while generally resigned to the inevitability of war.
His descriptions of contemporary anxiety contrast sharply with the recorded memories of halcyon days on a dig. His group visits Nimrud, where Max "excavated the palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II," a discovery that placed him in "the major league of British archaeologists." It was also here that Agatha wrote the introduction to her autobiography, and "spent some of the happiest years of her life."
The group is given a tour by Muzahim Mahmud Hussein, "the frustrated hero of Iraqi archaeology," who made a discovery (of gold-filled tombs) that had eluded Max. As a recently disinterred winged bull is brushed off, he requests that no one take a picture, then adds that they can "tell John"--"by whom he meant John Curtis, the Keeper of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum."
In this engaging book, Eames has now told John, and anyone else who cares to listen.
Thomas Swick, travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, is the author, most recently, of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.