|Freya Stark in Italy|
I thought I was immune to brainwashing because I'm a writer. And it may be that I am more tuned into how language is manipulated, jargon introduced as normal, how spin is engineered to be invisible. But in the early hours of the morning, during a rare night of insomnia, a travel memoir published in 1970 reminded me again how quickly images attach themselves to words, how quickly one view is replaced by another.
I was deep into Freya Stark's book, The Minaret of Djam - her account of an unorthodox journey to an isolated 12th century structure in a wild province of Afghanistan - and it's thrilling, in places beautiful, often thought provoking. She was in her mid 70s when she made this incredibly demanding trip and she allows herself the freedom of comment that comes with age. It is very easy to be with her, even though I am never likely to be so adventurous.
I so rarely suffer from insomnia that when I do it doesn't bother me - I decide to sleep during the day and enjoy the sounds of foxes outside. So I keep going and am near the end of the book when I come across her description of "the wide pasture lands and climbing skylines of Helmand...." and in the last pages of the book, what she sees on the road towards Kabul and Kandahar.
"Caravans of firewood, and cows in long lines returning, moved beside us along a far-stretched avenue of pines; they were making for the city in the dusk."
I didn't set out to challenge my preconceptions about Afghanistan. Stark ambushed me, in the best possible way. And I am grateful for that experience, for the insomnia. I wonder, if I hadn't been so alone in the early hours, with just the foxes playing outside, if I'd have realised, with such force, the fragility of language.
Woman's Hour interview in 1976.