Drysdale, Helena 1960-

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DRYSDALE, Helena 1960-

PERSONAL: Born May 6, 1960, in London, England; daughter of Andrew (an insurance underwriter) and Merida (a conservationist; maiden name, Gascoigne) Drysdale; married Richard Pomeroy (a painter), May 21, 1987; children: Tallulah, Xanthe. Education: Cambridge University, B.A. (with honors); Trinity College, Cambridge, M.A., 1982.

ADDRESSES: Home—22 Stockwell Park Rd., London SW9 9TG, England. Agent—Derek Johns, A. P. Watt, 20 John St., London WC1N 2DR, England.

CAREER: Artscribe, London, England, editor, journalist, and art critic, 1982-84; writer, photographer, and lecturer, 1984—. Arts editor for Richmond Times and Twickenham Times, 1982-84.

MEMBER: PEN, Society of Authors, Royal Geographical Society, Globetrotters Club.

AWARDS, HONORS: Named an exhibitioner at Trinity College; Looking for George was shortlisted for Esquire/Apple/Waterstones nonfiction award and J. R. Ackerley award for autobiography.


Alone through China and Tibet, Constable (London, England), 1986.

Dancing with the Dead: A Journey through Zanzibar and Madagascar, Hamish Hamilton (London, England), 1991.

Looking for Gheorghe, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995, published as Looking for George: Love and Death in Romania, foreword by Tobias Wolff, Picador (London, England), 1996.

Mother Tongues: Travels through Tribal Europe, Picador (London, England), 2001.

Contributor of articles and photographs to magazines and newspapers.

ADAPTATIONS: Dancing with the Dead: A Journey through Zanzibar and Madagascar, was filmed for Granada TV's "Compass" series and Thirteen/WNET's "Travels" series in 1991.

WORK IN PROGRESS: "A book set during the Maori Wars in nineteenth-century New Zealand, provisionally entitled Weeping Water, to be published by Picador."

SIDELIGHTS: Helena Drysdale told CA: "Alone through China and Tibet recounts a five-month journey starting in Canton during the new year festivities in February, 1985, continuing down to the remote hills of Hainan Island, across the wastelands of northwest China to Tibet, and thence to Nepal. The journey was undertaken purely in a spirit of adventure, and it is this that I have tried to capture in the book. My experiences along the way ranged from the hilarious to the macabre: I was hailed as a visiting VIP in Hainan, took part in a spectacular Lantern Festival, and witnessed the dawn Sky Burial in Tibet. Exploring back streets, markets, temples, on bicycles, buses, and trains, I traveled and lived with ordinary people—teachers, sailors, black marketeers, monks—made friends and visited their families, at a time when China was just beginning to open its doors to the West and when the lives of these peoples were changing dramatically.

"I discovered the exhilaration—and occasional anxiety—of traveling alone: the contradictory urge to go on, and yet also to turn and run back for home. This too I tried to capture, as honestly and straightforwardly as possible: the loneliness and discomfort, the thrill, the sadness. Reviewers have pointed out the candor of the book, and emphasized the personal nature of the account."

The title character of Drysdale's acclaimed memoir Looking for George: Love and Death in Romania (previously published as Looking for Gheorghe) is a young poet-priest who, "for one gloriously liberated week" in 1979, as Jason Cowley related in the New Statesman, defies authorities and accompanies the author and her friends on a journey through the Carpathian Mountains. The friendship between Drysdale and Gheorghe grew more intimate; they shared romantic moments in Romania and exchanged impassioned letters after the author returned home to England. Suddenly, Gheorghe's letters stopped. In 1991, after the fall of the dictator Ceaucescu, "Drysdale returned to Romania to find out what had become of her 'mad monk,'" Cowley wrote. She learned how her presence in Gheorghe's life had changed the young cleric, "filling him with impossible expectations, and how irresponsible she and her friends had been in allowing him to travel with them, monitored as they were by the secret police." The reviewer concluded that Looking for George "begins as a travel book . . . but slowly deepens into something stranger and more mysterious, an authentic metaphysical quest, in which truth shimmers brightly but elusively."

Drysdale undertook another journey, this time with husband and two small daughters in tow, for her 2001 volume Mother Tongues: Travels through Tribal Europe. The author's goal in this project was to seek out the origins and use of some of the lesser-known of the world's 6,500 languages. Thirteen European regions were investigated in Drysdale's book, "from the Sami, in what we can no longer call Lapland, to the Basques in northern Spain and the Celts in Brittany," commented Sunday Times writer Anthony Sattin. But Mother Tongues is as much about the author's personal experience as her language study. Packed into a mobile home (called the Mob), Drysdale must deal with the demands of toddler Tallulah and ever-hungry infant Xanthe, as well as cope with the pressure when her husband, Richard, leaves the trip to tend to his dying father. While he was gone, "there immediately entered into his wife's life, on intimate terms, a Greek Lothario," wrote Times Literary Supplement contributor Philip Glazebrook, a man who took more than a casual liking to Drysdale and left her wondering what to do if he made a pass at her. "This is one of several beginnings to stories which do not have endings," Glazebrook commented.

"Though capable in her journalist role of handling interviews and making knowledgeable enquiries," Glazebrook added, "it is living on the road, with all its incident and diversion, which Drysdale really relishes." The New Statesman's Cowley pointed out that in much modern travel writing, the authors present "truth-free zones, in which facts are never allowed to interrupt a good story," and "imaginative fancy is irresponsibly indulged." Drysdale, the writer continued, "is different. For a start, she can write; every page of [Mother Tongues] carries the imprint of her originality of thought and expression." As for her scholarly quest, the author "seems to have returned from her travels as uncertain as she was when she left as to the value of preserving minority language," noted Cowley. Drysdale does, however, advocate bilingual education for British children whose background may be Breton or Celt. To Cowley, the principle "is admirable, but it has always seemed pointless to me for a child to be taught [minority language] at the expense of a truly global second language such as Spanish." Cowley added that this criticism, however, "in no way [diminishes] Helena Drysdale or the achievements of this marvellous book."



Catholic Herald, October 31, 1986.

New Statesman, November 28, 1986; November 19, 2001, Jason Cowley, "Still Life in Mobile Homes," p. 49.

New Statesman & Society, July 26, 1991, review of Dancing with the Dead: A Journey through Zanzibar and Madagascar, p. 38.

Sunday Times, December 9, 2001, Anthony Sattin, "Speaking Up for Lost Voices," p. 39.

Times Literary Supplement, January 16, 1987; August 2, 1991, A. M. Daniels, review of Dancing with the Dead, p. 24; February 8, 2002, Philip Glazebrook, "Feeding Xanthe," p. 32.

World, July, 1991, Nicholas Crane, review of Dancing with the Dead, p. 75.


Helena Drysdale Home Page,http://www.helenadrysdale.com/ (September 25, 2003).