Shining a new light on an ancient disease

Victoria Hislop, who has become an ambassador for Colchester-based Lepra after writing about leprosy

Victoria Hislop, who has become an ambassador for Colchester-based Lepra after writing about leprosy in her novel, The Island - Credit: Archant

A moving visit to a now-deserted Greek island that was once a leper colony and the best-selling novel that followed has led to a new role for Victoria Hislop, as ambassador for a Colchester-based charity. She spoke to Sheena Grant

Victoria Hislop attends the Costa Book Awards 2013, at Quaglino's, in central London

Victoria Hislop attends the Costa Book Awards 2013, at Quaglino's, in central London - Credit: PA

VICTORIA Hislop is at her desk in Crete. From the window she can see across the crystal-clear blue waters to the island of Spinalonga, inspiration and setting for her best-selling novel, The Island.

Shamol and his self-help group in Bangladesh. They are a group of people affected by leprosy who hav

Shamol and his self-help group in Bangladesh. They are a group of people affected by leprosy who have formed a self-help group where they save money collectively to provide loans to each other to create businesses and generate income. - Credit: Archant

I too am at my desk, also near the coast, albeit one offering very different views. From my window I can see the towering white dome of Sizewell B power station, almost invisible today against a thick blanket of cloud that threatens rain – or worse.

We are speaking on a telephone line that makes her sound as though she is in the next room, rather than thousands of miles away, looking out on a vastly different landscape with a vastly different history.

But she knows all about the storms forecast for parts of Blighty, having spoken to her sister, who lives in Woodbridge, earlier in the day.

She travels frequently to Crete, where she has had a home for the past five years, often for work (this time she is giving some talks about her books) but she admits there’s always a certain amount of pleasure involved.

“It’s very difficult when you are in Greece to not enjoy yourself,” she says.

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She fell in love with the country on her first trip there as a teenager and has been going back ever since. In fact, she doubts she would ever have become a novelist were it not for the inspiration it provided and continues to provide.

Having a sister in Woodbridge is not her only connection to East Anglia. Earlier this year she became ambassador for Lepra, a small charity based in Colchester, working to raise awareness of issues around leprosy in parts of the developing world.

Victoria knew very little about the disease until she visited Spinalonga. At that time she was working as a journalist and had never even thought about writing a novel.

“I had been going to Greece since I was a teenager,” she says. “When I was very small we didn’t leave Britain to go on holiday. Bognor Regis was about as far as we got. I don’t want to be unkind about British holidays but for me they are utter misery. To go to a beach where the sea is brown brings back memories of being cold and crunching on sandwiches with bits of sand in them.

“For lots of reasons, but mostly due to the fact that my mother started working when we were teenagers, that was the first time we went somewhere further away.

“The holiday we had to Greece was, for me, completely life-changing. I never looked back. I think it’s the light. The light in Greece is different to anywhere else. It’s translucent and life-enhancing. It makes me feel very cheerful. The light has a huge effect on my mood.

“Since the late 1970s I have come to Greece every single year. Then five years ago we bought a house here, which means I am now here many times a year. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been to Greece – well, I could, because I’ve kept diaries since I was 11, but it would take too long.”

Despite the fact she had been visiting the island of Crete for many years, Victoria made it to Spinalonga for the first time only in 2001.

“We were staying in a villa and had done all the archaeological sites,” she says. “I read about the little island of Spinalonga in a guide book and noticed that it was populated until the 1950s. I wanted to find out more.”

Spinalonga was the last leper colony in Europe. For much of the 20th Century, from 1903 until a cure was found in the 1950s, people with the disease were banished there, many living what remained of their lives isolated from family and friends.

“I didn’t realise leprosy existed so much in the 20th Century,” she says. “I thought it sounded interesting and we decided to visit. It’s only 500 metres off the coast, so it doesn’t take long to get there by boat. When we arrived I had a very immediate reaction to it. I was moved by this place. There were derelict houses and churches – streets that looked like a deserted community. It was almost as if the people had just gone. It was a tremendously evocative atmosphere. I was surprised by my reaction.

“One of the things I didn’t realise is that leprosy takes a long time to develop. I went there thinking it was somewhere people went to die but actually it was somewhere people went to live.

“There were the remains of a cafe and other things. It was uncanny seeing all these things and realising that my idea of it was so unlike the actual reality.”

The fear of this then incurable illness that eats away the body and makes skin insensitive to pain was so great that legislation was passed compelling sufferers to exile. It had been thus for millennia – the Bible declares sufferers “unclean” and says they should be shunned. “People tried to hide and escape from being isolated on this tiny island but some of them were hunted down. They were regarded as a danger to the community.

“We went there out of slightly ghoulish curiosity but I was surprised by my reaction to what we found. At the time, I was doing quite a bit of travel journalism. I vaguely thought, maybe this will make a thousand-word piece for the Sunday Telegraph, as it was something less known. But almost immediately I then thought, I want to write about the people who lived here and they are not going to be real people. They are going to be fictional.

“I created the characters in my mind while I was walking round the island. I realised that people did not necessarily go for a short time. They went for a long time and I imagined it could become a life they did not necessarily want to leave.”

And so The Island was born, telling the story of Alexis Fielding, who travels to Greece longing to find out about her Cretan mother’s past.

Once there, she learns about the nearby deserted island of Spinalonga and at last hears the story her mother has buried all her life.

For Victoria, credited with bringing leprosy back into modern-day conversation, it was important no-one remains on the island, meaning her story could offer hope.

The novel was published in 2006 and very quickly became a best-seller.

“It’s had a big life in Greece too,” she says. “They made a 26-part TV adaptation of it, which was an enormous success here. It got the highest ratings of any TV series.

“They did it beautifully. It was filmed in Crete and on the island of Spinalonga itself. We had a lot of help from a local man who suffered from leprosy. We also had an amazing special effects team, who researched leprosy exhaustively. It was very authentic.”

She wasn’t short of offers when it came to interest in adapting the book for the screen.

“Seventeen is the figure that sticks in my mind,” she says. “I had a lot of approaches.”

Hollywood even beckoned, but Victoria turned that and every other offer down for the one she felt would handle the story with the greatest sensitivity and integrity.

“I was very cautious about it because I was really reluctant to let someone make a horror movie out of it,” she says.

“If you wanted to, you could exaggerate what happens to the body with leprosy and I didn’t want that to happen because it perpetuates the stigma. So yes, I turned down Hollywood offers. It was a lot of money, but I didn’t care. The Greek offer allowed me to be close to the production and to be involved in casting and the script.”

Despite being married to Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye and one of the team captains on the BBC’s Have I Got News for You, Victoria remains largely unrecognised in the UK. Not so in Greece. The success of the book and the part it has played in boosting tourism at a time of economic meltdown means that there she is a celebrity. Sometimes she doesn’t even get asked to show her passport at the airport.

“Very Greek,” she says. “How relaxed.”

Ian also reads her finished manuscripts and gives her “four or five comments” on suggested changes, she reveals.

“I usually take them on board. He’s got good powers of literary criticism. It’s always hard, though, and I can’t help but be a bit irritated, both at the criticism and the fact he’s right.”

She learned about Lepra, which works on the frontline, helping people affected by leprosy, only after the publication of The Island and was impressed by its achievements.

Although leprosy is easily cured nowadays, and doesn’t exist in Europe any more, it is still a big problem in parts of the developing world, including India, Bangladesh and some of South America. Many people still live with irreversible disabilities caused by the disease, including blindness and deformities.

“In writing the book I had done a lot of research into the disease,” says Victoria. “Although the characters and story are fictional, one thing I really wanted to get right were the details of leprosy and how it develops.

“But in a strange way, I did some of my research after writing the book, travelling to India to see the reality of what it is like now for people with leprosy.

“The trip was more uplifting than depressing. There were so many positive and encouraging stories.

“Once you are diagnosed with leprosy it is very treatable. Disabilities can’t be reversed but you can improve people’s quality of life, for example, by making special shoes for them. In a country where people still walk everywhere, that can change someone’s life.

“They can also do operations on people’s eyes, which are often affected by leprosy, and corrective surgery on hands, which can get locked.

“There are happy stories and amazing things that can be done.”

Her role as ambassador for Lepra involves helping to promote the charity’s work and raise awareness.

“The book still sells a lot around the world – it’s a best-seller in France at the moment – and most editions carry some factual information,” she says.

She’s also hoping to visit some of the charity’s new projects in the near future, something she says will spur her on to keep writing and speaking about it and, hopefully, raising money.

“Twenty-five pounds goes a long way in India,” she says.

“It’s always gratifying for people to know that their donation will have a huge effect on somebody’s life.” As to the future, she’s still looking to her beloved Greece for inspiration. Her latest novel, The Thread, is also set there and, these days, journalism has largely gone by the wayside in favour of fiction.

“I’m not sure I would have been a writer of fiction without Greece,” she says. “The modern history of Greece is quite dramatic – it’s never dull.

“There’s always some kind of catastrophe or problem or conflict that creates a situation I could write about.”

To find out more about the work of Lepra, visit www.lepra.org.uk or phone 01206 216700.

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