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Chris Stewart Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Chris Stewart
Photo: Andrew Crowley/Camera Press

Chris Stewart

An interview with Chris Stewart

A Conversation with Chris Stewart, author of Driving Over Lemons, as he discusses music, his adventures in Andalucia and the renovation of El Valero.

Let's first get some background -- how did you first get started in music?
Music, well, it was a long time ago. I'd have been about 13 when I saw Summer Holiday and the Young Ones, starring Cliff Richard. (For the benefit of your people, Cliff Richard is a sort of sanitized British version of Elvis Presley -- looser fitting trousers and rather more modest movements of the hips.) I wanted to be Cliff Richard, a ridiculous ambition engendered by his apparently phenomenal success with women, as portrayed on the screen at any rate. I saw this odd trans-substantiation as being the key to finding a mate, a quest which from the age of 12 started to occupy my every waking moment. The first step was to buy an old Spanish guitar.

I was quite devoid of musical talent, couldn't even tune the thing, but in the knowledge that a minimal mastery of this sonorous wooden box would secure me all the sex and love I could cope with, I persevered. I practiced till the blisters beneath the blisters on my fingertips were blue. In time, I achieved a certain pathetic proficiency; I mastered a Bourrée by Bach, a couple of simple pop songs, and found myself a mate.

I then turned my attention to the drums, as a way of mitigating the tedium and downright silliness of military parades with the compulsory school army cadet force. If you were a member of the "band and drums" you could at least exercise yourself a little better, clattering out your paradiddles, flams and ratamacues, than the others who had to stump about in their gleaming boots to the accompaniment of our music.

Some friends were putting together a house band at school, a thing that could bang out songs by Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and Otis Reading and others in a nice sort of a public school way. I was invited to play the drums. We played a gig or two, made a record or two, and became Genesis, of whom you may have heard. My involvement was pretty minimal, though the publicity folks dredged the whole thing up again after thirty years in order to get interest rolling in my book. They told me that the only thing that set me apart from other men was the fact that I had played with Genesis. I resented that a little bit, but it certainly worked.

Anyway, the other lads left school to pursue what some reckoned might be a lucrative career in the music industry, while I stayed on to finish my A-levels, which I subsequently flunked -- so what was the question?--yes, musician--well, I never really was one. I played music for the wrong reasons. Soon after leaving school, I dropped the drums and took up guitar a little more earnestly, and that has stayed with me to this day.

Have you always had the urge to travel? When did you start writing Rough Guides?
I don't think anyone would ever dare answer part one of that question with a no. You'd lose the beauty contest fair and square. But working for the Rough Guides in 1984 at 33 years old was when I realized what was meant by travelling. The Rough Guide to China was a very significant event in my life. I recap:

Having lost a lot of money sheep-farming, I decided to throw in the towel and learn Chinese. I was tolerably good at languages and I though I might find an easier living as a sinologue than as a shepherd.

I met Mark Ellingham and Natanya Jansz at a party in London. I told them of my Chinese aspirations and they told me it was a shame they hadn't met me earlier as they had just sent three people to China to do the Rough Guide. I was understandably despondent, but then a week later the phone rang.

"Hallo Chris, are you busy these days?"

"No, I'm kicking my heels. Why, what?"

"How'd you like to go to China?"

So, I went to China with an exiguous expense account, a list of places to be visited and described and a very rudimentary command of Mandarin. I loved China, the beauty and the vastness of it, and the simplicity and generosity of the people I met. But I suppose I also loved it because it awakened me to the world, to the hopelessness of poverty, the hideous inequalities in the distribution of wealth and resources, and also to the strength of people against injustice and adversity. I knew all about this from books and newspapers of course, but I had never walked amongst it nor written a guide to its roads, rivers and railways.

The lessons I learned from traveling in China, and subsequently in Turkey, Palestine, Morocco and elsewhere, have stayed with me, though since I arrived in the Alpujarra I seem to have lost my urge to travel except in the immediate area.

How did you end up settling in Andalucia?
In 1973, I worked on the vendange, picking grapes for the cognac producers in France. There I met an American woman who extolled the fairytale virtues of Seville as a place to study guitar. Her descriptions awakened a memory of a rather odd folk-song that went "When I was a young man, I studied guitar in Seville." So, when the grapes were all picked I hitched on down through France and Spain to Seville. I immediately lost my silly heart to everything; the architecture, the music, dances and songs, the poetry, the lovely Sevillana girls, the language and the river and the orange blossoms and all the voluptuous and illusory romance of southern Spain. I was utterly seduced and for years I came back to Seville, dreaming that one day I might return to live.

Then, fifteen years later and married to Ana, we found ourselves one day lamenting the dullness of our lot.

"If only we lived in Spain!" we each said to the other. So we came to Spain one April to see if we really did want to live in it -- and we did, and after eleven years, we still don't regret it, not one bit.

What was the state of El Valero when you first saw it?
Unkempt but beautiful. The roofs kept the rain off more or less on the odd occasion when it rained, and the doors and windows kept the worst of the winter winds out. Pedro and Maria (El Valero's owners) certainly hadn't busied about putting fresh flowers in all the rooms, nor roasting coffee nor baking bread -- such shifts were unknown to them. We sat during the sale negotiations on chairs in the dust of the track outside the house. Groveling around us were Pedro's mangy curs, feline and canine, and the dust was dotted with rusty tins, old shoes, plastic bags, broken bottles. But, wherever Maria had found an old tin or box or pot, she had planted flowers, geraniums, roses, anything she could get hold of. She had swept the dust too. Maria's touching attempt to adorn their rough home with touches of simple beauty shone in stark contrast to Pedro's careless brutishness. On a warm sunny day in January though, it's not hard to fall in love with an Alpujarran cortijo.

Did you ever doubt the wisdom of buying a farm with no access, no running water, no electricity? Did your wife, Ana, believe in El Valero as strongly as you did, or did it take some convincing?
No, I was carried along on a wave of romantic enthusiasm. If I had stopped to let common sense lend a hand, the whole scheme would have foundered before it was launched. Similarly if I'd let Ana in on the details she might have advised caution and we could have missed out on one of the best pieces of luck that has ever befallen us. I knew I was right -- though at the time I didn't know in just how many ways I could have been wrong -- and indeed I was right. Ana never dampened my enthusiasm in word or deed, and even if she wasn't altogether convinced at first, it didn't take her long to learn to love the place as much as I did.

On our wedding day, a distant uncle had drawn Ana aside and whispered in her ear.

"If you marry that man," which seemed highly likely as it was our wedding day, "you will never be bored."

Ana told me that shortly after we moved to El Valero, and I was really rather moved by it. Perhaps Ana had been thinking of those words when she followed me uncomplainingly to Andalucia.

You suddenly became a farmer, and had to take care of pigs and goats, not to mention the various crops (olives, lemons, etc.). Was it a tough transition, or did you take to farming right away?
Ana and I had farmed in England for many years before we came here. We knew about sheep and farming in Britain. Nevertheless, there was, and still is, an awful lot to learn. I have many mistakes, but I think that little by little we are making some progress.

You learned many new traditions and customs when you moved to las Alpujarras. For instance, Matanzas -- what was that like?
A pig-killing is certainly gruesome and the orgy of meat eating that follows it makes you good and bilious. It's not an occasion I would choose to attend, but it is an obligation to help your neighbor out -- the thing needs a lot of labor to manage the muscular and heavy pig and then to see to its spectacular metamorphosis into myriad sausages. Of course, our first matanzas made us feel very much a part of life here and we did enjoy that aspect.

There are now much fewer matanzas; people seem to be forgetting the tradition. Bernardo still keeps pigs. Miguel and Mercedes up the river in the Puerto now buy a dead pig in a plastic bag from the freezer shop, but they still retain the old customs in that they invite over the whole village for a glass or two of costa, and everybody takes home a piece of choice meat as if they had been all day helping dispatch the pig. It's a good way of bowing graciously out of the tradition.

How did you get involved in sheep shearing? You brought technology -- in the form of a shearing machine -- to las Alpujarras. How did the farmers and sheep owners react?
I learned to shear sheep at 21 in the south of England. I was dazzled by the skill of the shearers who came to shear on the farm where I was working. From the moment I saw them I had to become a sheep shearer. So I did, and within a few years I had my own gang in the south of England. I loved the job; it was boyish fun and it earned me good money in a short season, which enabled me to live a rather unconventional lifestyle.

The sheep shearing has been a big help in making us feel a part of the community in which we live. Local people found it easy to understand what we did for a living, farming and shearing, and thus we gained an acceptance that some others don't achieve so well. I still love sheep-shearing -- on a good day.

Shepherds were suspicious of the mechanical machine at first, but now, ten years later, there's not a shepherd here who shears by hand. That may not be entirely a good thing -- but it's a true thing.

You did all the building yourself (with some help from friends), and did a complete renovation of El Valero. Were you already a pretty handy guy, or did you learn as you went along?
No. I hated anything to do with handymanism. I had to learn to do things for myself though because it was difficult to find anyone to come all the way out here to work. So, I became a builder, carpenter, electrician, plumber, decorator -- the lot, achieving at best only a very modest ability. My heart's not really in it. I have to say that the building of one's own house is a very great pleasure though. I've come to consider -- foolishly perhaps -- the thought of living in a house built by somebody else as faintly distasteful, like wearing other people's underclothes.

Do you worry that Andalucia will become a tourist haven like Provence?
No, I know what you're driving at though. Driving Over Lemons may not have the broad appeal of Peter Mayle -- it has not sold like the Provence books, and I don't think it will; it may be a little too raunchy and earthy for the common taste, in a similar way to the fact that Andalucia is a little raunchier than Provence.

DRIVING OVER LEMONS has sold well though -- in six months we've sold 200,000 in the UK. So far, the fanatical public response has been limited to a very agreeable family from Córdoba who walked all the way up the river one summer evening to get their book signed, and an extremely pretty Swiss woman who bought me a beer in a bar in return for signing her three books. I can learn to live with this sort of pressure.

On the other hand, I have heard that people have been seen in Orgiva clutching the book. This is wonderful. If the book succeeds in giving a shot in the arm to the rural tourism in an otherwise depressed area, then that's just great!

What's the current big project at El Valero?
As I write this, the sky looks nasty over to the west. I suspect we're about to lose the bridge again -- so, more bridge building. But, apart from that there are endless projects -- planting more olives and oranges, rebuilding the stone walls of the terraces everywhere, re-cutting water channels, re-foresting the hillside, just generally trying to revive the place and see if it can't make us a living instead of being a bottomless pit in which to throw money. We're also registering with the appropriate authority as an organic farm. There's also modifying the house a bit to see if we can't enjoy at least a modicum of comfort. We keep busy.

What's next for Chris Stewart?
Well, it has been discreetly suggested that I might have a crack at writing another book. I sort of like the idea, I do enjoy writing. The whole thing has been pretty heady so far and it would be fun to see if I can pull the same stunt twice. So, who knows what the future has in store?

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Driving Over Lemons jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Chris Stewart but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Elizabeth Gilbert

    Elizabeth Gilbert

    Elizabeth Gilbert was born in 1969 in Connecticut.  She grew up on a small family tree farm, with her sister, novelist and historian Catharine Gilbert Murdock (author of Dairy Queen, the first in a series for teens).... (more)

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  • Frances Mayes

    Frances Mayes

    Frances Mayes is an American university professor, poet, memoirist, essayist, and novelist.

    Born and raised in Fitzgerald, Georgia, Mayes attended Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and obtained her BA ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    Driving Over Lemons

    Bella Tuscany
    by Frances Mayes

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