Interview with Barnaby Rogerson: Part II – Eland and travel writing

Open day at Eland Publishing in December 2017

Open Day at Eland Publishing in December 2017

It is late November 2017, and I am with Barnaby Rogerson, author and expert on North Africa, whose latest book, In Search of Ancient North Africa – A History in Six Lives, has just been published.

This is the second part of our interview and the focus is on travel writing in general and on Eland, the publishing house where he is a director.

We are in the Eland hub – books are everywhere.

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Interview with Barnaby Rogerson: Part I – North Africa

Barnaby Rogerson (in the white shirt) with Nigel Barley (author of the Innocent Anthropologist). The photograph was taken at the Eland Open Day in early December 2017.

Barnaby Rogerson (in the white shirt) with Nigel Barley (author of The Innocent Anthropologist). The photograph was taken at the Eland Open Day in early December 2017.

The day is sunny, the bus ride easy, and the grey door is exactly where it should be. There are no signs … just a button to press, and then a set of narrow grey stairs to follow in a spiral to the top.

I climb the smooth steps and at the top a door is open. Just inside a tall, elegant, eager dog waits to say hello. Beside the dog is a slightly less-leggy man. He is, as I presume, Barnaby Rogerson, author of In Search of Ancient North Africa – a History in Six Lives, and one of the directors of Eland Publishing.

Behind them both is a book-filled den.

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Interview: Michael Aspinall – gentleman diva and ‘maestro di canto classico’

Michael Aspinall photographed in Christ Church, Naples Italy in 2016

Michael Aspinall photographed in Christ Church, Naples Italy in 2016

The trouble with being the king of a niche is that however impeccable your talents your kingdom may not be big enough for those outside the niche to notice your crown … which, if the king is a modest man, leaves the rest of us none the wiser … as it were.

I met such a king recently and it took two years to discover who he was.

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Interview: Bonnie Alberts of Napoli Unplugged

Bonnie Alberts - one of the four authors of the Napoli Unplugged Guid to Naples

Bonnie Alberts – one of the four authors of the Napoli Unplugged Guide to Naples

“I don’t see how an American can ask me if Naples is safe!”

Bonnie Alberts is an American, a well-travelled American, who has lived in Naples, Italy for a decade.

“I don’t understand the reputation – it’s a breathing, working city.”

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Written by Peter Rolls

Elaine Figgis was busy, busy – things to do, pies to bake.  She whizzed into the kitchen and fell over a spindly figure crouching beside the sink.

“Boswell!” she said.  “What are you doing?”

Her 13-year-old son took his head from the sink cupboard.  “I’m seeing what there is.”

“Under the sink?”

He waved a notebook.  “It’s for homework for Miss Betts.”

She was none the wiser.  “Who is Miss Betts?”

He shifted tins and said: “Why have you got six lots of Eezi-Gleem?”

She persisted.  “Who is Miss Betts?  And why has she asked you to poke about under my sink?”

“She’s with us for a month.  We’re doing Environmental Science and she’s given us a project.”

“And how does this involve my kitchen sink?”

“Not just yours.  Everyone’s listing their sink-stuff.  Checking the contents, safety precautions, country of origin and so on.  We’ll be interviewing you.”

Her jaw tightened.  “Who is ‘we’, Boswell?”

“Me and Mitzi.  She’s got a video camera, so we can film as we go through everything.”

Her eyes sharpened.  “Go through what Boswell?”

“Asking you about the stuff under your sink.  Do you use it properly?  What do you know about its eco-impact?   And so on …”

She clutched a door post.  “I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.”

“There’s all this stuff.”  He poked at tins and bottles.  “Look at it … cleaners for sinks and cookers … squirters for washing-up … disinfectant … candles … batteries … basins … dish mops … Do you need it all?”

“In a word, Boswell, yes.  I need it.  You need it.  The family needs it.  This kitchen is mission control and that sink is the nerve centre.”

“‘Nerve centre’- that’s good.”  He wrote on his pad.  “Just to remember it for the interview.”

His mother was unconvinced.  “Look, Boswell.  I don’t see the point.  Things under that sink are of no interest to anyone.”

“Oh, but they are,” he said.  “I’m making a list; Mitzi’s making a list; everyone’s making a list.  We’ll be able to look at the profile of socio-economic class.  I’ve got us down as C1 – sort of average.”

Her eyebrows twitched.  “I think you’ll find, Boswell – for what it is worth – that we count as Group B managerial.”

“Fair enough,” he said.  Mitzi says she’s Group A.  Her Dad is pretty well up in Biscuits … He’s just taken over in Singapore.”

His mother closed her eyes.  “Well done he.”

“And Mitzi and her Mum have moved into Woodmill Park.”

His mother murmured “Excellent.”

“Mitzi says it’s fabulous.  Their kitchen is brand new – all stainless steel and marble tops.”

She looked round her well-used cookware and not-quite-matching Formica work surfaces and said “Goody, goody.”

“Mitzi says everything is shiny and super-neat.  I thought it would be a good contrast with ours.”

“Couldn’t be better.”  She was past irony, past sarcasm – into the world of ‘God give me strength’.

“The only problem is they’ve got two kitchen sinks – plus one in the laundry and one in the utility room.  So we’ll have to allow for that.”

“Absolutely,” she said.  “And … er … is Mitzi’s mother OK with all this?”

“I think so,” said Boswell.  “She’s not there this week.  She does a lot of modelling abroad.  Greek islands and stuff.  Mitzi says she’s really cool.”

“Absolutely … So … er … who’s looking after the house at the moment?”

“Freya.  The au pair.”

His mother looked at her finger nails and said nothing.

“She’s from Finland.  Mitzi says she’s a bit dim – but quite pretty.  In fact, she’s been on Finnish TV, so she’ll probably like being interviewed.”

“I’m sure she will.”  In his mother’s mind, a bimboid blonde made love to the camera.

He picked up a packet of soap powder and shook it.  “This is empty.”

She took the packet, put it in the waste bin and gave him the hard eye.

He beamed at her.  “So you’re happy, are you?  Us doing an interview here.”

She made a long-suffering noise.  “When did you have in mind Boswell?”

“Tomorrow night.”

Tomorrow.”   Mrs Figgis clasped her forehead.  “No Boswell.  I’m far too … It all needs … Maybe next week.”

“No can do,” he said.  “We have to finish the video and everything for this Thursday.  The governors are coming for a class presentation on Friday.”

“The governors!”  She clenched her fists.  “The governors certainly won’t want to see under my sink.”

“Yes they will.  Miss Betts said.  There’s this new thing: ‘Learning in the Community from the Community’.”

His mother shook her head in disbelief.

“Then we do it again next week for Parents’ Evening.”

Parents! .. No Boswell.  Definitely not the parents.”  She recoiled at the thought – other parents goggling at her sink-beneaths.

“You’ll be fine,” he said.  “Mitzi’s mum will be back by then.  You can have a bit of a laugh together.”  He stood and checked his list.  “OK, that’s it – 53 items.  I’m off to Mitzi’s to sort out our questions for tomorrow.  Don’t touch anything.”  He went out and came back.  “Not to worry about tea.  Mitzi says Freya’s a great cook – she’s done it on TV.”  He went out and the front door slammed.

His mother said “Farewell Boswell” to the empty room and knelt down at the sink.  She looked at the muddle of bottles, pots, jars and tins … dribbling, out-of-date, scrunched up, dried up, half-used, never-used clutter.  In her head her own mother said: “It’s disgraceful Elaine” – and it was … “It’s embarrassing Elaine” – and it was …

Everything needed sorting and cleaning.  No, it didn’t – it needed throwing away –  all of it.  She would have to replace the lot – and wash the shelves, and she would have to mug up on the replacements:  their constituents, their third world impact and overall eco-burden.

And … horrors!  She would have to sort out herself.  She would be on video tomorrow – intercut with the fabulous, TV-friendly Freya.  And there was next week’s Parents’ Evening … she would have to meet Mitzi’s uber-mum – in the sleek and suntanned flesh.

Reputations were at stake – not only for the Figgis family, but for the entire Class B demographic.  Action was called for.  Her mind filled with a vision … fresh hair, fresh face … new skirt, new blouse … new scarf, new shoes.  She reached for the telephone book and felt cooler and younger already.