My fifth book, Fabric, will be published on November 11 this year, 2021. It’s taken more than five years to write and finish. I’m slightly exhausted but really happy. I haven’t yet worked out how many countries I visited, but it includes Papua New Guinea, France, India, China, Scotland, Guatemala, the USA, Norway, Italy and Spain. Oh, and Thailand, where I was visiting the library in Bangkok’s wonderful Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in the King’s Palace when suddenly everything went quiet and I realised I was the only one there. I read rapidly until the end of the day, but then I was sneaked out, running through various back corridors in this labyrinth of royal buildings, and through a tiny door and out into a rainstorm. I was told as I ran that other visitors had left early to make space for an unscheduled royal visit, but that I’d looked so settled and intense in my reading about fabrics that they’d let me alone, and just asked somebody to mind me until I was done, and then let me out of a secret gate.
Colour (in the US, Color) was my first book, published in 2002. The first journey, to Chile, was made in 1999 when I was helping friends with a documentary on Pablo Neruda and I just happened to bump, in the metro, into the man whose father had helped bring cochineal to Chile from Peru. This isn’t what started the book (that happened when I was eight, in a cathedral in France), but it is the coincidence that kicked me to actually write it rather than talk about it. It involved 17 journeys to places like Afghanistan, Iran and Mexico, as well as thousands of hours in libraries around the world. My favourite one in memory is the Calcutta library with the fans lazily drifting above, and the smell of old paper and warm grass. My favourite one in reality is the British Library. My husband says he is glad they close it at night, otherwise I would live there.
Jewels was my second book. I went to 14 countries, including: Cleopatra’s (almost) lost emerald mines in the middle of Egypt’s desert; Burma’s ruby mines; the biggest amber mining town in Russia, which once was a gulag; the Australian outback for opals… even as I type this I’m caught up in nostalgia for those journeys, and the people I met.
The third book – and if somebody had a bet with me 10 years ago that this would be the title of my third book, I’d have lost some money – was Faith in Conservation. I wrote it with my husband, Martin Palmer, and it was published by the World Bank in 2003. They said it was one of their best sellers. The first five chapters are mostly his stories, and some of my own (e.g. the bedbugs were mine), about starting this work with HRH Prince Philip, and how religions can really have a huge impact on environment work. You can buy the original from amazon, or you can download the pdf free of charge.
In April 2014 a short story of mine was included in a book called Stories of the Stranger, published as a series of reimaginings of traditional stories about helping people you don’t know: the idea was for us all to remember that if we have a faith, then it is taught that we should look after stranger. My story was based on something I had heard about Puran Singh, a saintly man who set up a hospital in the 1940s in Amritsar. He was inspired by a disabled boy of four who had been abandoned, and whom Puran Singh had carried on his shoulders for many years. I imagined what the boy’s father might have felt had he seen his abandoned son years later, on the shoulders of a saint. (US link is here)
My fourth book came out in November 2014 titled A Brilliant History of Color in Art and published by the Getty Museum in LA. It has plenty of fantastic illustrations, many from the Getty itself.