Come, Tell Me How You Live: an archaeological memoir: Agatha Christie
In Dartmouth for a few days, I decided to try the boat trip up the River Dart to Totnes and discovered that I could stop off at Greenway, Agatha Chistie’s family’s former summer home. Set high above and overlooking the Dart, Agatha bought it in 1938 and it is now a National trust property.
I had never read an Agatha Christie book, not being a fan of crime fiction, but during the tour the guide mentioned a book I’d never heard of, Come, Tell Me How You Live: an architectural memoir, one of the few Christie non-fiction works and one of only two published under the name Agatha Christie Mallowan. Archaeological memoirs seemed a long way from crime fiction so, intrigued, I bought a copy in the bookshop. Mallowan was the name of Agatha’s second husband, Max, Christie being the name of her first husband.
By now a successful writer, Agatha Christie was visiting archaeologist friends Leonard and Katharine Woolley who were to excavate a site at Ur, Iraq. She was researching material for a novel (Murder in Mesopotamia, published in 1936). It was her second visit and on their arrival at Ur the Woolleys detailed their young assistant archaeologist to be her guide. His name was Max Mallowan. He was 14 years Agatha’s junior, but the pair got on well. So much so that when Agatha’s return journey was planned and because Max was due a rest, his departure plans were revised so he could accompany her. It was this journey that cemented their relationship and they married later that year.
The title, Come, Tell Me How You Live, includes a pun on the word Tell and comes from the verse A-sitting on a Tell with which the book opens. Tells, ancient city mounds, were the sites of the Woolley’s archaeological digs. The book was published in 1946, though she had the idea of writing it in 1938. However, she delayed starting it until around 1942 after Max had been posted to the British Council in Cairo. The notebooks, filled during several trips to Iraq and Syria with Max between 1934 and 1939, provided her material. The book’s chronology is confused, and she doesn’t mention dates. This is probably in the interests of brevity and to make the narrative more fluent; she was, after all, a novelist. She told her publisher the book would be “…not at all serious or archaeological” and described it as “…this meandering chronicle…”. Although Agatha had been interested in archaeology for some time, she had not visited any sites prior to meeting the Woolleys.
Come, Tell Me How You Live is a book of its time and we should make allowances so as not to stand in the way of its enjoyment. There is some cultural stereotyping, as in her description of the comical ineptitude of the postmaster when the Christies collect their mail and get cash. She also attributes the attitude of some Arab workers to “the Oriental mind”. However, readers then would not have found this unusual: it is humour, not malice. At the same time, she is generous in her portrayals of the mixture of races she encounters. The Kurds; “men from over the Turkish border”; Armenians; Yezidis, whom she describes as “…so called devil-worshippers—gentle, melancholy-looking men, prone to be victimised by the others.” She is taken by the contrast between the Kurdish women who are “…gay and handsome…” and tall and wear colourful clothes; and the Arab women who are “invariably modest and retiring” and who “wear mostly black or dark colours”. While Kurdish men, she tells us, have “…the brick-red face, the big brown moustache, the blue eyes…”. Today we see how the catastrophe unfolding in Syria and Iraq has changed the lives of these people immeasurably. The Kurdish women now show their independence by forming formidable fighting units while the fate of the gentle Yezidis is almost beyond tragedy.
There is poignancy in the place names, too. Agatha describes Palmyra’s “…charm—its slender creamy beauty rising up fantastically in the middle of hot sand”. Having been subjected to horrific modern-day iconoclasm, it has now been re-taken by Syrian government forces but much of its beauty is probably lost forever. She mentions a visit to Sinjar, where the world witnessed the suffering of the Yezidis, who had fled from the town and were trapped, starving on a mountain for weeks before being relieved. Raqqa, Homs, Der ez Zor and Mosul are also mentioned, names that now have a chilling resonance.
Agatha’s introduces the cast of her “meandering chronicle” gradually as the story unfolds. Firstly Mac, the shy, introverted architect whose drawings provided a record of the digs. Another, known only as B, is there for additional support for Mac. He also provides one of the funniest episodes as he plays out the saga of his errant pyjamas. Then we hear of ‘The Colonel’ (Burns), a military man not an archaeologist who is detailed to supervise one of the digs while Max is engaged on another. He is a stickler for order. ‘Bumps’ (Louis Osman), also an architect, and then later in the narrative, Guilford Bell (no nickname for him), an Australian, also an architect and gifted artist (one of his drawings was used on the cover of Come, Tell me...). There are other characters, too, who support and accompany the archaeologists. The various drivers of their temperamental lorry Queen Mary—Aristide, Abdullah and Michel; their foreman, Hamoudi, and Dmitri, the cook. They provide many moments of humour often mingled with frustration. There is also the mostly un-named cast of workers who conduct the digs. They are portrayed much of the time as a quarrelsome rabble prone to fighting amongst themselves with varying degrees of violence causing much exasperation, mainly for Max.
It must have been hard for a privileged middle-class woman—intrepid as she was—to endure the privations and discomfort of life in the desert, far from “the world where the electric light switch rules”. But a combination of humour and a British stoicism, keeps her going. It is unsurprising, though, that barely halfway through her narrative, she looks forward to her return, writing: “I begin to think of Devon, of red rocks and blue sea…It is lovely to be going home—my daughter, the dog, bowls of Devonshire cream, apples, bathing…I draw a sigh of ecstasy”. By December 1938 it was clear that it was time to leave as the clouds of unrest were gathering over Europe: “There is the feeling, this time, that we may not come back…” In her epilogue four years after leaving and when she has completed the book she says “…it has been a joy and refreshment to me to live those days again…in that gentle and fertile country…”. Come, Tell Me How You Live is a delight: engaging, funny and poignant, and a wonderful read but these are not characters found in one of her novels, they are real people, and when they are caricatured it is always with respect, humour and affection.
Agatha Christie, Come, Tell Me How You Live (1946)
Harper Collins × Pb × 205pp × £8.99 × ISBN 978-0-00-653114-2
Donald Oldham 2019
A version of this article was published in the Western Morning News on 4th August 2018.