Telling stories: The books that change our lives
- 2001.06.16 The Times: Telling stories
SATURDAY JUNE 16 2001
Telling stories: The books that change our lives
INTERVIEW BY E. JANE DICKSON
William Dalrymple¹s From the Holy Mountain opened Simon Mayo¹s eyes to
modern parallels with ancient history
UNTIL his fortieth birthday, Simon Mayo¹s reading was done on a strictly
need-to-know basis. Mayo, 42, the former Radio 1 DJ who this month took
over the lunchtime slot on Radio 5 Live, had always been focused on radio.
He made his first programme at the age of eight on a family tape recorder
(it helped that Mum was a sound engineer at the BBC), with his sister doing
jingles on the xylophone.
Books, however, were alien, indeed enemy territory. In the spirit of Mayo¹s
name-and-shame BBC show Confessions, we can reveal that the young Mayo
mounted a private rearguard action on the world of books by borrowing
Agatha Christies from the public library just for the fun of underlining
the first reference to the murderer and blowing the storyline for
³English literature was the only exam I ever failed. Reading just wasn¹t my
bag,² Mayo explains. ³I read my set texts at school and university, but
only when I had to.² At Warwick University there was a thriving student
radio station, and by the time he joined Radio 1 in 1986, he was adept at
gleaning all the information he needed from news broadcasts and newspapers.
It was while presenting Radio 1¹s midmorning slot that he began to think
that books might have their uses.
³I remember interviewing Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry and being struck by
their both telling me that when they stopped reading newspapers and started
reading books instead, they became happier people. So I thought I might
give it a go. On my fortieth birthday, one of my best friends gave me
William Dalrymple¹s From the Holy Mountain.
In the book, Dalrymple, the garlanded travel writer whose previous
best-sellers include In Xanadu and City of Djinns, retraces the steps of
John Moschos, a 6th-century Byzantine monk who travelled from Mount Athos
in Greece to Alexandria, compiling a kind of spiritual audit of an Orthodox
empire on the verge of collapse. Byzantium was under assault from Avars,
Slavs, Goths and Persians.
Dalrymple¹s own journey, taking in Istanbul, Syria, Beirut and the
Israeli-occupied West Bank, revealed a world in which Christianity is once
again being pushed to the brink, edged out by the clashing superpowers of
fundamentalist Islam and militant Judaism.
³It wasn¹t just the fact that From the Holy Mountain was fantastically
written,² says Mayo. ³It was this sense of a double journey; there¹s the
physical journey that takes him round the Levant, but it¹s a spiritual
journey as well, and that gives the whole book a sense of purpose and a
sense of discovery. It felt urgent and important to be reading it. To me,
travel books were Bill Bryson and that kind of thing. That was all I knew,
and here was something that was so rich, it was like eating duck ptÈ an
exquisite experience, but something I could only take in small quantities
at a time.²
Mayo, a father of three and a Christian who has hosted various determinedly
upbeat God-slots and who won an International Radio Award for his own
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1987, was also moved by Dalrymple¹s unshowy
confession of his Catholic faith.
³Here was someone quietly observing Christians and Muslims worshipping in
the same places and you think, hang, on, he¹s really on to something
here¹. When stripped of the buildings and the priests and all the other
trappings of institutionalised Christianity and institutionalised Islam,
people are finding common ground and getting on, sometimes even worshipping
the same saints, like it¹s the most normal thing in the world.
³But there is also this real sense of urgency, that this could be the last
generation of Orthodox and Muslim overlap in the Levant. Thirteen hundred
years ago John Moschos was watching the collapse of Byzantium, a dying
civilisation, and the fact that right now Christianity is in its last
throes in all the places he went to gives the book a real sense of historic
Nor is this a uniquely Eastern drama. Mayo, born in Southgate, North
London, draws lessons for our own experience from Dalrymple¹s observations.
³Last week I was interviewing the historian Simon Schama and he was talking
about Britain and the beginnings of Britishness. I was telling him about
Dalrymple, where he talks about Constantinople in its glory days as this
most extraordinary melting pot and how this made it such a dynamic and
exciting place. Schama drew the comparison with modern Britain and he is right.
³We¹re obsessed with the political debate on asylum-seekers but in fact it
is the sheer cultural diversity of somewhere like London that is its
strength and which makes it, for me, such an enjoyable place to live. The
lessons that Dalrymple has learnt by looking at the way civilisations have
risen and then fallen, can and should be applied to Britain, as we debate
the kind of culture we are creating for ourselves.²
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.