Shusha Guppy interviewed Lesley Blanch at her home in Garavan, before and after a delicious home-cooked lunch consumed in the shade of a fig tree in the garden. September 1988.
Shusha Guppy : Do you have a routine for work? When do you work?
Lesley Blanch : I used to write early in the morning – I was rather matinale. When I was writing The Sabres in Hollywood and I was running a house and doing lots of entertaining, I used to write when I came back from a party, then have two or three hours sleep, get up at five and write till eight. Alternatively I would get up at three and work till seven, then get into the car and go up into the hills around Los Angeles to have breakfast in some cowboy café. But it was irregular work – Romain and the house came first.
SG: Nowadays you can write any time you wish, do you write more slowly?
LB : Sometimes it rattles off quickly. But there are certain types of work over which I get le trac [stage fright]: journalism and reviewing books. I hate the time limit and the clock. It is no good just skimming a book, you are reviewing. I read it carefully and write about it with care, whether panning or praising.
SG : Do you like writing? I mean the actual process – you write so beautifully and it reads so easy.
LB : Oh no! It’s hard! Painful! I sometimes write a page fifteen times. I use children’s exercise books with lines. There are twenty lines on a page, and I can see that each page represents about 220 words, so I know how I’m going. I throw out the notebooks after the first draft is typed. The pleasure is when you feel you have done something good. I will “die with my eyes closed,” as the old Oriental saying goes, for having written The Sabres of Paradise, because by so doing I’ve fulfilled a true desire.
SG : What about travelling? Did you like travelling rough or in comfort?
LB : I like impromptu travelling, roughing it one moment and the next going to dinner at an embassy. They usually know I’m there, and I take a stylish sort of dress with me and turn up looking terribly mondaine, having perhaps slept in the bus the night before. Then everybody asks one to endless lunches and dinners which if one accepted one would stop doing anything else. I have always particularly enjoyed going to the British Embassy in Turkey. It is such a historic place: it’s where Lord Stratford de Redcliffe gave a ball after the Crimean War and the Sultan, to mark his gratitude, left his palace for the first time and watched the dancers with great interest. Travelling, I like not to know what’s going to happen next, when you don’t know when and where you are going to sleep or what or who you will encounter.
SG : I know that for the moment you don’t undertake long, difficult journeys because of a broken knee, which luckily has healed almost completely. But where would you like to go next, if possible?
LB : I love Afghanistan more than anywhere else, perhaps, but how to go back now? I long for the Middle East too. Afghanistan is so unspoiled, so savage still, and the men are so handsome. You go over those appalling mountain passes and suddenly come across a little Chai-Khaneh [tea house] with a samovar, and a few grubby cushions, and you want to stay there forever. I never wanted to leave. I wanted to take a little house and live there, but they said I would never stand the winter; it gets to forty degrees below zero. I would have caught pneumonia and died, uncomfortably.
SG : Who are your favourite travel writers, past and present?
LB : Lucie Duff-Gordon’s Letters from Egypt is one of my livres de chevet. She lived and died there, and she adored the Egyptians. She became consumptive in 1850, and went to Luxor where later she died. But her understanding of the country and its people, and her description of the camaraderie she shared with them are marvellous. I feel a special affinity with her – I too feel very close to Egypt. Tolstoy’s description of the Caucasus in The Cossacks is superb, as are Lermontov’s, though he is more cynical. I love Robert Byron – another cynic. He sent everything up, but he is supremely good. Lord Curzon is marvellous on Persia and Central Asia. Of today’s writers I think Peter Levi writes of his travels very well. He is a poet and an Oxford don. Some travel books are full of information, worthy, but I wish they combined it with fine writing, which is what you enjoy in Gérard de Nerval on Turkey, for example, or Flaubert on Egypt, or Loti everywhere. All these young travel writers nowadays give you masses of information, historical research and so on, but not much style. Dervla Murphy is so intrepid that one forgets she has first done her homework. Recently I read a curious book, Philip Glazebrook’s Journey to Kars; it is like no other, and records the sort of haphazard travelling which I myself like to do.
SG : Life is so precarious today that even the young, like my children and their friends, frequently have intimations of mortality. Do you think of death? It seems an incongruous question, not to say crass, to ask one so youthful and lively. Do you believe in an after-life? Or indeed in God?
LB : I don’t know. God is within us, if He is anywhere. Something like conscience. Sometimes I feel that heaven would be where I could meet all my animals again. People might be too complicated. For example, suppose a man has had two wives, one after another, and has loved them both deeply. Will he meet them both again? What would he do?
SG : En effet, the logistics of heaven don’t bear thinking about!
LB : I don’t want to die as long as I am well in my body and my mind. There are too many things I like doing. Life is a present; one can’t have enough of it, can one?
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