Come, Tell me How You Live, which Christie describes as ‘a meandering chronicle’ of life on an archaeological dig, is just delightful! I came across this book accidentally when I was looking for some of her crime novels with an archaeological setting.
Agatha Christie met the distinguished young archaeologist, Max Mallowan, in 1930 when she visited Leonard and Katherine Woolley in Baghdad. Her first marriage had come to an end a few years previously and she and Mallowan were married about six months after they met and enjoyed forty-six years together until her death in 1976. During the pre-war years, Agatha accompanied Mallowan on all his digs and took an active part in the photography, recording and preservation of the finds. Come, Tell me How You Live was written to answer a question that was asked of her very often:
‘So you dig in Syria, do you? Do tell me all about it. How do you live? In a tent?…’
The book was begun before the war but was put aside for four years while she was engaged in volunteer work in war-time London and Max was serving overseas. In 1944 she picked it up again and said that it was a joy and refreshment to her to live those days again.
‘Writing this simple record has been not a task, but a labour of love. Not an escape to something that was, but the bringing into the had work and sorrow of today of something imperishable that one not only had but still has.’
Come, Tell Me How You Live revealed a side of Agatha Christie that I would never have guessed existed. Her warmth, humour and honesty shone through the writing and I felt I got to know her as a person and not a detached narrator. It was such a pleasure to read about her relationship with Mallowan. They obviously were very secure and comfortable with each other. I had to laugh when she describes an ‘archaeological packing,’ which consists mainly of books. (I can relate to that!) Mallowan asks if she has room in her suitcases and promptly rams two immense tomes on top of her smugly packed clothes and forces down the lid. The next morning…
‘At nine a.m. I am called in as the heavy-weight to sit on Max’s bulging suitcases.
‘If you can’t make them shut,’ Max says ungallantly, ‘nobody can!’
Max saw everything through an archaeological lens. Seeing a folded printed linen dress in one of Agatha’s suitcases he asked what it was and when told commented that it had ‘fertility motifs all down the front.’ Another time he suggested she wear ‘the greenish buff with the Tell Halaf running lozenge pattern.’ He described everything in pottery terms – ‘pinkish buff,’ and was obsessed with Tells.
Agatha continued her crime writing while on the field and found much inspiration for her books in her Middle Eastern travels. One day, one of the expedition team who had newly arrived and was very sociable, interrupted her while she was getting down to the gory details of a murder. He asked if he could join her in the office while he labelled some objects, but she had to be firm:
‘I explain clearly that it is quite impossible for me to get on with my dead body if a live body is moving, breathing, and in all probability talking, in the near vicinity.’
Mice, fleas, mechanical breakdowns, fighting workers, eccentric personalities, post office dramas, conniving sheiks, are all a part of life and are described vividly.
‘Anointing beds with carbolic merely stimulates the fleas to even greater displays of athletics. It is not, I explain to Mac (a young archaeological assistant), so much the bites of the fleas. It is their tireless energy, their never ending hopping races round and round one’s middle that wears one out. Impossible to drop off to sleep when fleas are holding the nightly sports round and round the waist.’
I’ve shared in a previous post the Archaeological Studies I’d put together for my daughter in which I included some fiction as an added interest and also because she’s always hunting for books to read. After reading Christie’s memories of her and Mallowan’s archaeological expeditions in the Middle East and enjoying it so much, I decided I’d add this to her reading in Year 11.
Linking to the 2020 NonFiction Reading Challenge at Book’d Out: Memoir