Away with words
SNOOPING around the on-show residences of the rich and famous is always a marvellous exercise in voyeurism, whether palaces, castles or the make-believe home of party-giver extraordinaire Jay Gatsby.
But surely none could be more interesting than those where great writers lived. Greenway, Agatha Christie’s holiday home in Devon, has been open to the public since 2009 and if you’ve read her Dead Man’s Folly you’ll recognise it as the novel’s Nasse House —‘‘a big white Georgian house looking out over the river . . . a gracious house, beautifully proportioned’’. Walk down its wild and lovely grounds to a boathouse by the River Dart; this is where Christie’s character, the girl guide Marlene Tucker, was cruelly strangled as she waited to play her part in a Nasse House garden party hunt.
In Florida, Ernest Hemingway’s grand two-storey home at Key West is packed with memorabilia, but goodness knows what he would have made of his memorial mouse mat in the gift shop — it’s said he wrote his novels long hand, standing up. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda kept creatively untidy houses at Valparaiso, Isla Negra and, in Santiago, La Chascona, named for the unruly curls of his muse, Matilde.
I have visited Karen Blixen’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Nairobi, in the suburb that bears her name at the foot of the Ngong Hills, and seen her writing desk, boots and jodhpurs (‘‘from the wardrobe of Miss Meryl Streep’’, whispered my guide, who looked downcast when he sensed my disappointment).
In Weligama, Sri Lanka, I once stayed in a breezy white villa on the tiny island of Taprobane where Paul Bowles wrote The Spider’s House in the 1950s and reputedly lounged about in ‘‘coquettishly ironed pleats and imitation leopardprint slippers’’. But the most meaningful pilgrimage has been to Dylan Thomas’s house at Laugharne in Wales, his ‘‘sea-shaken house on a breakneck of rocks’’. My father read Thomas’s poetry to me every bedtime when I was young and I can still recite wadges of Under Milk Wood in a passable Welsh accent. Laugharne felt like a homecoming.