Ch9 Pt2 On the Ranchi to Suez

In the past the authorities at Australia House, despite a pile of correspondence and repeated interviews, had always regretted that they could do little to help us. Now they made up for all their previous dilatoriness. Medical examinations and an interview with a selection committee followed each other rapidly. Finally, four months after Oll’s nomination, on my twenty-seventh birthday, we received a telegram from Australia House saying that we were due to sail within the week. 

Hurried goodbyes were said. It was impossible to visit all our friends and relatives. I resigned from the London County Council and got my severance pay. In twenty four hours, Irene sold all the furniture and other articles in our flat which we had saved every penny to buy. We made arrangements for a carrier to take charge of a large trunk containing all the personal belongings we wanted to take to Australia. Getting that trunk down four flights of narrow, twisting, old-fashioned stairs was a back-breaking job.

One late morning in May, we said goodbye to my father who had come to see us off at St. Pancras Station. We had taken leave of my own mother and Irene’s mother previously. Neither had wanted to come to the station for fear of becoming upset.

Even in 1949, if one went to Australia, one did not come back for a long time. The airfare was beyond the capacity of the ordinary working man, and the duration of the trip was such that most people could only afford to make it once or twice in a lifetime. In a way it was, to most English people, still a sort of transportation sentence.

We were never to see my mother again. We saw Irene’s mother once more. I was privileged, however, to enjoy four protracted visits with my father, some in Australia, some in England, before he eventually passed away.

Our train had been specially laid on for migrants bound for Australia, and we thus had a sense of common destiny, and of leaving the land of our birth quite possibly forever. We piled out of the train at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. The railway terminus was very close to the dockside. We had barely time to touch the English earth of the quay in valediction before we found ourselves walking up the gangplank and aboard the P and O liner Ranchi.

We were ten people to a large cabin, males in one cabin, females in another, of course. It was certainly not a luxury cruise, but compared with what we had known in the army, and considering the fact that the journey was free of cost, neither Irene nor I had any complaints at all. We thought that it was a very fair thing. When our bags were stacked, we went up on deck. My thoughts were mixed as I looked at the broadening estuary as it merged with the sea. We were taking our last look for many years – perhaps for always at the “Old Dart” – England – the country which had moulded me, the country which had confined me, my parents and my grandparents to the “lower orders” of society. Yet it was also the country that had offered Irene and her mother, and many other thousands of refugees, protection from a tyrannical Nazi regime. It was ironic that tolerant, kindly England, which had given life to so many of the downtrodden, had at the same time forced so many of her sons and daughters to seek a better life elsewhere. As I leant on the paint encrusted rail of the SS Ranchi, looking at the cranes on the murky wharf side, the waving groups of well-wishers, and the squat sheds became silhouetted against a lowering sky. I reflected how strange it was that a worldwide English speaking brotherhood had evolved, very largely as a result of an enormous emigration from this tiny island.

The voyage of the Ranchi was uneventful. From Tilbury docks we made a straight run for Port Said. One afternoon ten days later, we drew slowly towards the indistinct outlines of the ships and buildings of this gateway to the east. An hour later we were steaming slowly into the actual harbour.

As we drifted past the big ocean-going ships, the palm trees, the buildings with their signs in Arabic and English, a mosque-like edifice which appeared to be a hotel, and the yellow cement police station, we were surrounded by rowing boats filled with merchandise. Below us swam a brilliant array of multi-coloured handbags, pouffes and tapestry work. As the oarsmen of the little cockleshell bumboats pulled frantically to keep abreast of us, vendors stood upright and shouted hoarsely while waving brightly coloured wallets with extravagant designs of the Pyramids, camels and palm trees on them. Strings of beads, green unripe bananas, peanuts and wide brimmed straw hats were offered. As we slid to a standstill and ropes secured us to the wharf, strings with bags attached to them were thrown up to us with remarkable accuracy, money passed downwards, and Egyptian curios upwards.

A fussy little launch chugged around, flying a flag with a white crescent moon and a star on a green background. White uniformed policemen stood at its sides, with fezzes and rifles. Some of them finally climbed aboard our ship. “Watchmen” were there too, in European clothes, to see that fair trade was carried out between the passengers and the Arab salesmen below.

Egypt is a country of mixed races – African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Turk mingle here. Some of the vendors and policemen have white skins, others dark, and there are all manner of shades in between. All this I have seen before, but I got the same thrill as when I first steamed into Port Said with a boatload of troops one black and silent night in 1946. As for Irene, she was as excited as I had ever seen her, dashing here and there and talking to everybody in Arabic.

I noticed particularly that the vendors took great care to exorcise the more colourful flights of English from their conversation. No doubt one converses with tourists, (which they undoubtedly thought we were), on a slightly higher plane than with the rough and licentious soldiery. However, they exercised their usual technique of asking three times as much for an article as it was really worth, and then allowing themselves to be beaten down. Irene bought a wide brimmed straw hat for four shillings when twelve and sixpence had been originally asked. I got a piece of tapestry work depicting mosques, minarets, camels and Bedouin for Alma P, wife of our sponsor in Australia. The price asked originally was three pounds fifteen shillings, but we got it for one pound five shillings and six cigarettes. We had still probably been swindled. But bargaining is fun.

Night falls at last. The dirty waters of Port Said twinkle and shimmer in the glare of the wharfside lights, just as they must have done every night since my last visit there; just as they would do for interminable nights into the future. Astern of us, dancing on the skyline, are the winking lights of the city’s night spots. A few vendors still row around hopefully below us, with lanterns illuminating the wares in their little boats.  

The big, black water barges pull away, and the floating pipe, which has been pouring oil into the Ranchi from ashore, is withdrawn. We are due to sail at half past ten and for the greater part of the night we shall be creeping through the Suez Canal.

At exactly ten thirty a police launch comes alongside, and a Suez Canal official climbs aboard. His business does not occupy him very long. He leaves. The gangplank is hauled up by a team of Indian seamen, and we begin to crawl through the Suez Canal. The sandy banks are walled up to a few feet above water level so that they will not cave in. The scenery is mostly barren – sand – the odd clump of palm trees – occasional bare military encampments. At night, every ship passing along the Canal switches on a powerful searchlight in its bows, and the murky waters, with their navigable depths marked by buoys, are lit up for many yards ahead. During the day the waters of the Suez Canal are green, and seem faintly stagnant. Often clouds of mud appear in the ship’s wake as it slides cautiously along. According to the charts, the average depth of the Canal is between 35 and 40 feet.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and is 87½ miles in length. Of this 66½ miles is actual canal, and the rest of the distance is made up of channels dredged through Lake Timsah, and the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. Traffic is controlled by thirteen signal stations alongside the Canal. We passed through the greater part of the Canal at night, but in the morning crept slowly through Lake Timsah and were able to see the township of Ismailia, looking strikingly green and prosperous against the barren yellow landscape. This town was to be badly shelled in one of the later Israeli-Egyptian conflicts. We saw also big, dirty dredges, with their equally dirty crews. Approaching Suez we passed a massive war memorial erected on a hillock of sandstone, and bearing the legend: “Défense de Suez 1914-1918.”

It was on the day that we passed through the Suez Canal that our stewards appeared in all-white uniforms. The head steward, with his black and gold epaulettes, looked like some South American admiral.

In the late afternoon we came to the end of the monotonous Suez Canal. During the last stretch, between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf, we came across bomb craters by the side of the Canal, and the twisted and torn hulls of ships which had been sunk during the Second World War and hoisted out of the water on to the sandy bank. Suddenly, there was Suez on our right: white houses, palm trees, macadamised roads, square harbour, and an Egyptian ship lying at anchor and letting off vociferous steam. A busy tug approached, our pilot climbed down the side of our ship and stepped into it. The tug veered away, and suddenly the Ranchi’s engines thundered and we started to put on speed.

That night we steamed at full tilt down the Gulf of Suez, while behind us the waters tumbled and foamed madly. Earlier in the evening, while the light lasted, barren rocky desert had been visible on either side. Now it was pitch black and we were really pounding along. A following wind, created the effect on deck that the air was still, and it was very warm. The smoke from the Ranchi’s huge black funnel poured straight up into the sky, and the night was glorious with stars.

Ch8 Pt4 Jugend Aliyah, the kibbutz, and the ATS.

Irena was transferred in 1939 to the newly founded settlement of Beit Ha’aravah – “The House in the Desert” — on the shores of the Dead Sea. The only other outpost of civilisation in this wilderness where the Bedouin roamed was the Potash Company premises. The sandy desert road from Jerusalem led past the Potash Company for two or three miles to the newly established kibbutz of Beit Ha’aravah. Here, in the hottest part of the Middle East, in a landscape of unbelievable aridity and unrelieved mournfulness, young men and young women were attempting to work valuable potash deposits and establish agriculture.

There were no longterm buildings at the kibbutz as there had been at Ashtoth Yakov. Here everybody lived in tents and permanent huts were a long way off, for each kibbutz was charged to become self-supporting in the quickest time possible. The interiors of the tents at Beit Ha’aravah were carefully looked after by the kibbutzniks and soon, with floorboards, home made cupboards, chests of drawers, all sorts of decorations, and partitions in the larger tents, they began to resemble real homes inside. To the outside eye they were nothing but huddles of canvass. 

Everything was done on a communal basis. The work was hard and mostly manual. There was little attention paid to the segregation of the sexes. Clean clothes were drawn from the communal laundry once a week. If they fitted, that was good. If they didn’t fit, one made do as best one could. The single object of the kibbutz at this time was survival. Night attacks by hostile Arabs were frequent. As little reliance could be placed on the Palestine Police, who would normally always have arrived too late to prevent a massacre, the “pioneers”, after a day of back-breaking toil, stood guard around their settlement. Irena took her turn on these guard duties, her rifle held tensely, her ears alert for the slightest sound, eyes strained for the tiniest movement. 

At first the kibbutz could not afford a watchtower and searchlight. Therefore exchanges with marauding Arabs often became a hit and miss explosion of rifles into the surrounding darkness. Despite the apparently disorganised nature of these encounters, the kibbutzniks sustained fatalities and casualties from wounds. This was the common pattern amongst kibbutzim all over Palestine at this time as rifles crackled at night and searchlights installed in the watchtowers quested around in the darkness for advancing Arabs.

Death at other times came unannounced, and with frightening suddenness. One day Irena was fishing in the River Jordan with a sixteen years old youth who was well known for his habit of whistling Strauss waltzes. They knew each other well, for they had escaped from Germany on the same refugee train. Suddenly a shot was fired from the bushes on the opposite bank and Irena’s companion fell dead. Terrified, she ran all the way back to the kibbutz, zigzagging in case the unseen assassin should draw a bead on her.

At night the closest guard of all was maintained around the crèche where the babies slept. For these Israeli-born “Sabras” were the country’s most valuable immigrants. Palestine – or preferably Israel – would be their country and their home. The ancient Hebrew speech, the language in which the Bible was written, would be their native tongue. Knowing nothing of anti-Semitism these young Jews – from the blue eyed blonds of northern Europe to the brown eyed olive skinned people of the Yemen – would face the world completely confident of themselves, unashamed of either their religion or their origin, bowing their heads to nobody.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, all the kibbutzim called for volunteers to join the army and fight against the Axis powers. The response was enthusiastic and many thousands of young men and women flocked to join the British forces. Irena was still too young to volunteer, and stayed at her kibbutz. However, towards the end of 1942 she could no longer put up with the long hours of labour, the continual denial of self, the lack of personal possessions extending even to the clothes which one wore and exchanged at the communal laundry every week. She had worked for no wages for over four years to advance agriculture in the Jewish homeland. Four years’ unpaid labour was enough! 

Here, in 1943, some months prior to her twenty first birthday, she volunteered for the British Army and became a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service — ATS for short. In her army paybook her nationality was noted as “Russian”, the reasoning being that if by some mischance Hitler won the war, or Rommel with his Afrika Korps panzer divisions swept through from Egypt to Palestine, any person in the British Army shown as a German national would immediately be shot for treason. With most of her family exterminated in concentration camps by the Nazis, there was no way Irena felt she was committing treason. Rather she was pleased to be of help in paying back in their own coin those responsible for the cold blooded murder of countless innocents whose only crime was that their ancestors had professed the wrong religion.

She signed up at Sarafand Cantonnement, where she underwent a short period of training. She was then sent to Egypt, where she worked in a munitions dump at Tura, an Arab village just outside Cairo. Subsequently she served briefly in Italy, then in Egypt and Palestine as an interpreter.

During the war she had learnt that her mother Berta had escaped to England and remarried, a London furrier. In 1945 Irena was allowed to take 28 days’ leave in England on compassionate grounds, for she had not seen her mother for eight years. Berta’s new husband pulled as many strings as he could when Irena arrived, and she was demobilised in London, once again on compassionate grounds.

I met Irena at her bed-sitter in North West London about a year after this happened. 

Ch6 Pt7 Cairo and Maadi 1946

In Cairo itself, I remember King Farouk’s Abdin Palace, white and modern, where that gross and licentious monarch used to entertain the women who were procured for him by his underlings. An Egyptian policeman once forbade a friend and me to walk along the pavement, which ran alongside the building. As we wandered innocently along, he came dashing up to us.

“George, hey, George, pliz,” he stammered, clearly embarrassed, in a guttural, broken English,  “No walk on that side, pliz”.

Apparently everyone had to give the Abdin Palace a wide berth of at least a hundred yards. It was a measure of the trust that Farouk placed in his subjects. I remember the pictures of him when he came to the throne in the late thirties, a slim, handsome youth. Now, only ten years later, he was already a fat, balding, debauched, middle-aged man. In 1952, nobody who knew anything about Egypt could have been surprised when the revolution deposed him and sent him into exile. But Farouk had stashed away a large fortune abroad, and did not want. Yet when I was there the fellahin still thought that the sun shone out of the royal backside. 

Farouk was possessed, however, of a certain intelligence and wit. He once said, with some prescience, that in a few years there would be only five kings left in the world, the King of England, the King of Diamonds, the King of Hearts, the King of Clubs and the King of Spades. In the cinemas, it was necessary to stand up at the end of each performance while a picture of King Farouk, bemedalled and fierce-moustached, was flashed upon the screen and a gramophone played the Egyptian National Anthem. It was obligatory to do this, but our soldiers, with their customary crude humour had composed an unprintable lyric to the tune of the national anthem, which was always sung sotto voce.

It began……….

                                    “King Farouk, King Farouk,

                                    Hang his (blank blank) on a hook………”

From all reports the nightly song of malediction had little effect on the erotic antics of the mighty Farouk.

How did the English soldiers manage for girl friends in Cairo? The answer is that they didn’t. The few English service women around were reserved for officers. I suppose you could hardly blame them. So the rough and licentious soldiery either had to make do by watching the belly dancers in the cabarets and getting some sort of a vicarious satisfaction, or by visiting the red light area in Seven Sisters Street. In the brothels placed one against the other, unkempt and unattractive women touted for custom in the crudest possible terms, and from all reports the risk of venereal disease was considerable. For myself, I lived a reasonably monastic life in Cairo, but the magic of the place made up for everything.

Sometimes I used to visit the large swimming pool at Heliopolis, really one of the finest pools I had ever come across, and one of the few worthwhile amenities for the rank and file troops. I loved to swim, and spent some very happy afternoons here. Afterwards, I would return to Cairo. (The journey was made by a perilously rapid tram, stopping in the suburbs at little raised platforms like railway stations). Often I used to go to one of the many cinemas in Cairo to enjoy French films. My favourite was the Odéon, in Emad-el-Din Street, where I made the acquaintance of that excellent actress Renée Saint-Cyr, and often admired the fine dramatic talents of Raimu, whose subsequent death robbed the screen and the world of a great artist.

As a rule I went to the half past nine evening performance at the Odéon. At the conclusion of the performance, just after eleven, I used to walk along Emad-el-Din Street. One then turned right and followed Fouad-el-Awal Street for a couple of hundred yards. Ragged fellahin rubbed shoulders with British soldiers and immaculate Egyptians of the “effendi” class, who were dressed in the smartest of European clothes, but still wore the fez. Electric signs winked brightly, advertisements in French, English and Arabic glaringly proclaimed the high quality of the goods of some fashion house or jeweller. Among the popular articles of “bijouterie” on sale at this time were solid gold ladies’ wrist watches at fifty pounds apiece. This would be a small fortune for a British working man, and a sum of money unattainable to an Egyptian peasant. Yet there was a ready sale for this jewellery amongst the Egyptian upper class.

I used to turn left from Fouad-el-Awal Street into Soliman Pasha Street, also brilliantly illuminated, and would then walk down to Midan Soliman Pasha, that great roundabout which always reminded me of Piccadilly Circus. From here I struck left, into a dark turning at the end of which several native bistros were open, rickety tables scattering the street before them, and dirty, galabieh-enveloped Arabs sitting at them, smoking hookahs and drinking coffee. In this street stood the British Embassy, but at the time I used to pass by, it was always in darkness. Natives were invariably sleeping on the pavement in this street, with long handled brooms standing against the wall behind them. These were the road sweepers, the scavengers, bedraggled, without a future. A few steps away, around the corner, in Soliman Pasha Street, and again in Fouad-el-Awal Street, they were selling gold watches at fifty pounds apiece. This shocking contrast between the very rich and the incredibly poor is impressed on my memory.

At the end of the street I turned right, and went past the offices of the famous Egyptian newspaper El Ahram – The Truth. Evidently such comic titles are not confined to the European world. Walking straight on, I shortly arrived at Bab-al-Luq station, whence I took the train to Maadi and my welcome wire bed and straw paillasses in camp.

Nobody who was in Cairo in my time will forget the pickpockets. Their technique was as follows: A couple of Arabs approach the victim. One of them thrusts a photograph in front of his eyes, pretending to want to sell it to him, while the other rapidly rifles his pockets. This went on quite openly in broad daylight. If the victim carried a fountain pen, it was stolen from him by the thief passing a piece of cartridge paper under the clip and removing it in a fraction of a second without the owner so much as suspecting that anything was amiss.

Although accosted frequently by pickpockets, I lost nothing, keeping my hand always on my wallet, and taking care to let nothing show outside my pockets. However the quartermaster, an old sweat who should have known better, was not so lucky. Returning one night by train, he dozed off. A thief extracted his wallet, removed twenty pounds there from, stuffed the wallet with pieces of newspaper, and returned it to the owner’s pocket. The quartermaster did not discover his loss until the following day when, producing his wallet to pay for a purchase, he extracted there from not money, but a bunch of newspaper cuttings.

Part of Cairo was out of bounds to us, so of course, some friends and I had to pay it a visit. We had several beers in the “Taverne Francaise”, an excellent bistro near the Odéon, where a talented guitarist played during the evenings. Thus fortified we set off and reached the forbidden quarter. We ate prawns – and suffered for days afterwards with diarrhoea – in a dirty little dive where a dark skinned, part Arab girl sang in a high, quavering voice, and asked for baksheesh after each rendition. A minor incident took place when a Polish soldier accused an Arab of trying to pick the pocket of one of our fellows, but the matter passed over and the alleged “klefti wallad” scuttled away. We washed the dust from our throats with another beer, and finally left the place with razor blades, combs, pieces of elastic and other odds and ends sold to us by an itinerant vendor. We strolled along the pavement beneath a long balcony supported by thick, shadowy pillars, then entered a restaurant whose proprietor, a Greek, spoke excellent

English and French and, it seemed, perfect Arabic. Later on, when we got to chatting, he switched to German, at which he was also fluent. Indeed, he claimed to have resided in Germany for several years. He also professed to speak Italian, and while I could not try him out, as I did not understand this language, I was prepared to believe him. If one knows one Romance language, it is not too difficult to learn another. He was evidently an intelligent and able man, and I wondered how it came about that he found himself in Cairo, the proprietor of a dirty little eating house. We left after promising to try his eggs and fried chips, which he assured us, were very good.

Shortly afterwards we ran into a couple of red-capped military police, who demanded to know what we were doing in an out-of-bounds quarter. We had actually come to have a look at the notorious Seven Sisters Street, but we told them that we had got accidently lost. They were very young fellows, and we were all non-coms and each one of us was wearing campaign ribbons. We began to shoot the bull a bit, and to my surprise the redcaps weakened and finally let us go, having instructed us how to get back to more respectable parts. We all felt very cock-a-hoop about having pulled the wool over the eyes of the “Gestapo”, and walked towards Bab-al-Luq railway station rejoicing.

I shall not quickly forget the “Cinés Jardin” of Cairo. It is extremely hot in summer in Cairo, and hardly ever rains. Hence the popularity at that time of the “Garden Cinemas”. One sits in a wickerwork chair in the open and enjoys the performance while the stars twinkle overhead in the clear, purple sky. Everything is very clean, invariably there is a bar behind the auditorium where one can obtain lemonade, beer or cigarettes, and during the interval the enclosure is illuminated by lamps hidden in the walls, within alcoves, or behind ferns. A warm breeze provides natural air conditioning, and usually the Garden Cinema is far enough away from the main street or sufficiently hemmed in by walls for the audience to be protected from the noise of traffic.

This was something to be taken into account, for never in my life had I lived in a city where the trams screeched so much or where motorists sounded their horns so much as in Cairo. Away from all bother, lounging like an effendi in a basket chair in a Garden Cinema, watching a French film, smoking a cigarette, gazing at the stars and letting my thoughts wander, I spent some of my happiest evenings.

Of course, such modern developments as drive-in cinemas were unknown in those days. Thus the Garden Cinema was something quite new and completely adapted to the Egyptian climate and way of life.

The palatial dance halls – a feature at that time of English town life – did not exist in Cairo. For the military there was the Naafi Empire Club where, at the risk of being injured in the crush, and provided you could find a partner, you could wriggle about for an evening in a very restricted area. There was also the YMCA where one could shake a wicked leg every Tuesday. And at the Alamein Club, on the other side of the Nile, (reached by crossing a great white, well illuminated bridge which reminded me of Waterloo Bridge across the Thames, except that it was longer), dancing went on twice weekly by starlight.

These facilities were not enough for thousands of lonely soldiers. So for those who found themselves crowded out, which was the majority, there were the cabarets. These cabarets were simply dives where beer and other beverages were sold, and where young Arab girls came to sit on the knees of the soldiers who were almost the only customers. There was always an orchestra, a small wooden square which masqueraded as a dance floor, and galabieh-clad Egyptian or Sudanese waiters running busily hither and thither. Some cabarets were filthy and the hostesses – the notices plastered on the walls referred to them as “artistes” – were most unappetising. Yet I saw no evidence of prostitution, and when I made enquiries was told that it was forbidden, otherwise the clubs would be placed “out of bounds” to military personnel and would go broke overnight.

On the other hand, cabarets existed where the girls dressed in elegant evening gowns, where discreetly lit tables were covered with clean, white cloths, and one could enjoy an excellent meal, with a quiet glass of beer afterwards, while listening to a reasonably good orchestra.

Yet nothing comes free in this world. And whether they were looking beautiful in charmingly cut evening gowns or shocking with uncombed hair and dirty faces, the cabaret girls all demanded the same thing for sitting at a customer’s table. This was that he buy them glass after glass of coloured water at an inflated price. The hostesses earned their commission thus, and the proprietor made a very handsome profit.

At about half past ten the dancing finished and a “spectacle” took place. In the better class cabaret there was usually a juggler, perhaps a conjurer, possibly acrobats. But in all cabarets the spectacle ended with the same climax. A voluptuous, very scantily clad young lady would perform what the French call “la danse du ventre”, which we translate literally as “belly dance”. The orchestra would play a barbarous tune, slowly reaching a wild crescendo, with the audience clapping faster and faster in time with the gyrations of the dancer. Let me say that to be a good belly dancer requires a high degree of practice and skill, and that in my view any man must applaud skill, and any man who does not appreciate the sight of a beautiful woman must have something wrong with him. Thus, we all enjoyed the belly dancers of Cairo.

Before leaving these few memories of Egypt and Cairo, I must mention very quickly Shepheard’s Hotel. Shepheard’s was famous in the “belle époque” of British colonialism because all the upper crust used to stay there. Years afterwards it was set on fire, and whether it was ever reinstated I do not know, nor do I particularly care. But when I was in Cairo, I passed Shepheard’s Hotel many times. Of course, I never went inside, for Shepheard’s Hotel was reserved exclusively for commissioned officers. If you had a civilian suit and plenty of arrogance, you might get past the suspicious porters. But which ranker in those days of shortages, high prices, low wages, and clothes rationing ever had a spare civilian suit to carry around? So we private soldiers were excluded from the ranks of the “gentlemen”, and I only ever saw “Shepheard’s” from the outside. At the front of the hotel there was an elevated terrace, open to the warm breeze, and covered with tables, so that the diners and partakers of apéritifs could look down upon the passing hoi polloi. Behind the terrace the famous hotel reared up like a monument. By a coincidence it looked out to the insalubrious quarter which was “out of bounds” to us during our stay in Cairo. For all its pretensions, “Shepheard’s” still could not divorce itself entirely from the common herd of humanity.

English class distinction, raised to the status of a religious shibboleth in the army, annoyed me more than anything else. The situation at Shepheard’s Hotel was repeated at the “Maadi Club”, in the suburbs where our camp stood. The Maadi Club admitted only officers to its precincts, and the hob nailed boots of the private soldiers whose privilege it is to do the dirty work, fight wars, and die for their betters, never crossed the sacred threshold. An exception, however, was made on Saturdays for a short period, when private soldiers might use the Club’s swimming pool. Few cared to avail themselves of such condescending generosity, and certainly not I. In any case, we later succeeded in getting a swimming pool of our own opened. I am sure that our lowly physiques would never have stood up to the spiritually refined atmosphere of the Maadi Club; and that after breathing its rarefied air for a few moments, we should have choked.

A personal crisis now supervened for me, which was largely responsible for my leaving Egypt.

My former girl friend, who had become engaged to a merchant seaman just before we had jumped over Arnhem, had subsequently broken her engagement. When I returned to England after the conclusion of the war with Germany, we picked up our old association. However, she had joined ENSA, the body responsible for organising stage shows for the troops, and she was slated to go to Ceylon. She wrote a letter from Ceylon to me in Egypt telling me that she had plighted her troth to a novelette-writer cum scriptwriter. I only ever saw one of his scripts on an American TV programme many years later, and it was lousy. But that is by the way. I was upset to receive her letter, but this was the second time she had given me my congé. It became clear even to my obtuse mind that I was not the man for her. I also began to suspect that she might never have been the girl for me.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the matter, it was a situation which I had no alternative but to accept. At Maadi they were trying to make me an instructor in radio sets, Morse code and signals procedure. I had but a few months to go in the army, and in my present unsettled state, the last thing I felt like doing was absorbing details of unfamiliar wireless sets, then regurgitating them to open-mouthed students.

I decided to see the Colonel and ask him to send me to join the Sixth Airborne Division in what was then known as Palestine, under the British Mandate. Today, of course, it is the modern Republic of Israel. The Colonel agreed, but reduced me to the ranks. I packed my kit one afternoon and climbed into an army truck.

In a cloud of dust the little white villas of Maadi disappeared behind me forever. Then we proceeded to burn up the black macadamised road that runs alongside the Nile to Cairo. There I had to catch a train to Gaza, beyond the Sinai desert, in British Mandated Palestine.

Ch6 Pt6 Saqqara, Apis, and the Step pyramid.

We could not idle at Memphis for very long. Five minutes to take snaps, said our guide. The circle of fellahin, which he had hitherto kept at a respectful distance by spitting out occasional venomous injunctions in Arabic, now closed about us. Packets of snapshots? Ten piastres each. Do you want this piece of old money? Very valuable. I will sell it to you for five piastres. Baksheesh, effendi?

“Yallah! Ana muskid, enta arif? Ana mafish feloos.” Fluent Arabic in their ears, no doubt, but the limit of our vocabulary in that language. The translation? – Buzz off. I’m a poor man, understand? I have no money.” It makes no difference to our fellahin friends. They press around us until we finally take refuge in the waiting taxis.

We were going to Saqqara, a mile or two distant. It was the “boneyard” of Memphis, our guide informed us, and it took a while for me to grasp the fact that he meant “cemetery”. Evidently the United States troops who had found their way to Cairo during the war had been giving our dragoman lessons in American English. Our heavily laden taxis shot off in a cloud of dust, quickly reached the desert, and began to climb a short, steep slope at the top of which was a crudely printed notice nailed to a pole read: “Step Pyramid”.

We pulled up outside a barrack-like hut, built seemingly without any previously formulated design, and now in the process of falling apart. Only the fortuitous juxtaposition of its beams and stones kept it upright. This unlikely residence had sheltered Mariette Pasha against the sandy winds of the desert and against the heat of the Egyptian sun. This illustrious Frenchman, in the middle of the nineteen century, had discovered many tombs in the neighbourhood, and had taken away much baksheesh at the end of his sojourn. Our guide gave as much emphasis to Mariette Pasha as he did to the ruins themselves. He was obviously proud of the fact that in those days the Egyptians gave baksheesh away instead of asking for it.

A great pyramid dominated Mariette Pasha’s house, (now, oh shameful degradation, a sort of canteen where one purchased ginger beer and lemon pop!) This was the “Step Pyramid”, the sides not having a regular slope like the newer edifices at Giza, but being built up step-fashion. It is built up in six steps, or stages, unequal in height. The total height is 204 feet, with the base measuring 411 feet by 358 feet. According to our guide this Step Pyramid dates from 3000 B.C. and is the oldest pyramid in Egypt. It is completely solid – not with passages running through it like the others – for the Egyptians had not yet perfected the art of pyramid building, and the burial chamber had been excavated under the monument. Unfortunately it had been declared dangerous, and visitors were forbidden to enter it.

We turned towards the desert, and followed our guide between the dunes of sand. Through the shimmering heat haze which rose from the yellow, burning desert, the Pyramids of Giza extended in the distance in a long, straight line. It was very hot. I was sweating freely. My rough khaki shirt became soaked with perspiration and I regretted not having put on shorts.        

Where were we going? Our guide had omitted to tell us. A few of our number gave way to importunate Arabs who were following us with little donkeys, and paid several piastres to straddle these animals. No sooner had they done so, however, than we came upon a huge underground tomb, from which the sand has been cleared away on one side, enabling a ramp to be driven downwards. These excavations were the work of our guide’s hero, Mariette Pasha, and led to the tomb of Ti, a builder and powerful statesman in the time of Rameses II.           

We entered the tomb, bending ourselves double in order to pass through a low passage, and came into the room where Ti had found his last resting place. The walls were covered with drawings and carvings of ancient Egyptian life. These were done in the standard manner, the head always being shown in profile, with no attempt made to give the illusion of perspective. In one panel, slaves – men and women – were working at their everyday tasks for their master Ti. On another, they were bringing offerings to him, to his wife and to his son. On the wall, a door had been represented – a false door – in order that Ti’s spirit might leave the chamber when it desired. And in a small neighbouring room the people who had buried Ti had placed a statuette of their lord for every day of the year, wherein his spirit could abide whenever it wanted. At the time of our visit, only one of these effigies was left, the others having been removed to museums.

Near Ti’s chamber were the chambers of his wife and son, whose walls – it was not possible to go inside them – were also covered with drawings representing work and sacrifices, and with rows of hieroglyphic writing. There was also the representation of a false door, allowing the spirit to leave and re-enter at will.

We ascended the cement slope leading to the open, and soon the dazzling sand was again under our feet. The dragoman strode along in front, his blue galabieh swelling like a wind-filled sail, and we followed him obediently.

Shortly we came upon another concrete path leading, like the entrance to the tomb of Ti, into the bowels of the earth. This was the tomb of the sacred bulls of Memphis, and at the bottom of the slope we waited for a while until our eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, and an Arab, who acted as watchman, had lit several oil lamps. All these tombs had been electrically lit before the war, the guide explained. Even the pyramids were wired for it. However, war in the desert and the close proximity of Rommel’s troops had brought an end to it, and although peace had come, the current had not yet been restored.

Lifting our oil lamp above our heads, we see that we are in a great, high passage. In fact, with so little illumination, it is not possible to distinguish the roof. The ground beneath our feet is sandy, and we shuffle along in almost total silence. The walls of this tunnel are pitted at intervals with huge recesses, each one of which contains an immense granite sarcophagus. Each sarcophagus once held the mummified carcass of an Apis bull, which in a bygone age the inhabitants of Memphis had worshipped. A small golden statue of the dead animal into which its spirit could retire was also placed in the sarcophagus.

The sides of the sarcophagi were covered in hieroglyphics praising the fine qualities of the defunct sacred bulls, and there was also in each case a representation of a door so that the spirit could leave and re-enter at will. The ancient Egyptians worshipped only one bull at a time, its sarcophagus being prepared for it during the duration of its life, which lasted on an average, about twenty five years. If the bull died before its sarcophagus was appropriately inscribed, the inscription nevertheless ceased, and its coffin took its place unfinished with the others already in the tomb. Thus, the tunnel and its cavities were not constructed all at once, but piecemeal, as and when needed. It is calculated that the ancient Egyptians took five hundred years to dig this tomb out of the solid rock, lengthening it a little to accommodate each sacred bull as it died. One stands amazed at the enormous trouble taken to bury an animal. Yet even today human beings pay special allegiance to certain animals. One thinks of the American eagle, the British lion, the Russian bear, the Australian emu and kangaroo, and the goat – the mascot of a crack English Guards regiment and given the honorary rank of corporal. The more it changes, the more it is the same thing, and we are not really so far removed from the citizens of Memphis, those mysterious people who lived more than four millennia before Christ.

Then, of course, one asks oneself what link there is between this virile race and the tattered inhabitants of modern day Egypt. What part did our guide’s ancestors play in building these fantastic tombs? These questions can only be pure speculation. Some encyclopaedias show mummies and pictures suggesting a people with almost European features. We shall never really know.

At the end of the main tunnel there was a short opening big enough to admit a man’s body which robbers had made in their search for fresh booty. But they had been out of luck, for the tunnel ends here. It is a tunnel which, after five hundred years of toil, finishes nowhere. Like the rest of us, these people had been playing with pebbles on the beach while waiting for eternity.

We retrace our steps, and at the entrance our guide stopped us to explain one more point.  

“The slope which leads to the surface was constructed by Mariette Pasha,” he explains. “But this is not the real entrance. The original entrance to this tomb was a huge hole made up there, high above us in the roof, where the floor of the desert lies. So the questions is, how did the ancient Egyptians get those huge tremendously heavy granite coffins all the way down here to this underground catacomb? They did it by completely filling up this part of the tunnel with sand – right to the very top. They then manhandled the sarcophagus from the desert above on to the sand, which filled up the hole, after which they commenced to shovel the sand out. When the sarcophagus had at length descended to the tunnel floor, where we are standing, they put wooden rollers under it and pushed it away to its niche”.

We return to Mariette Pasha’s house, drink a bottle of fizzy lemonade, known in these parts as “gazoosa”, and pack ourselves once more into our taxis. Then the bouncing, dusty journey back to Cairo begins. On the way we pass Arab men and women working patiently by the sides of irrigation canals, which bring water to the desert. The trees which grow alongside these canals are heavy with red blossoms and give shade to the people who scratch a living from this sandy soil where fields of corn grew before the desert was unleashed, and where once the kings of ancient Egypt reigned.

Despite the squalor of the poor, benighted fellahin, pleasure predominates when I think back on my stay in Egypt. I had always wanted to travel abroad, and this was my first protracted stay in a foreign country. It was also the end of an era of British colonialism, which made it doubly interesting.

The day was coming when I should have to leave Egypt. Therefore I tried in the diary I kept at the time to pass things in review.  I recorded a general impression of the fabulous city of Cairo and the way things were with me – a young and impressionable fellow coming to the end of a protracted stint of enforced military service. 

I always liked Maadi, that pretty, mostly European settlement on the banks of the Nile, just outside Cairo. The streets of Maadi were planted with trees whose branches were laden with red, sweetly smelling blossoms. One day, when I return, I shall identify the species. Today, I can no longer remember clearly exactly how they looked. But Maadi always seemed to be bathed in sunlight. The people of Maadi were upper middle class, conscious of their intellectual and social superiority, and therefore had little to do with the rough soldiery to whom we belonged. For a few weeks I used to visit a school teacher called Phillippa……..and her other name escapes me…….who was also entertaining a captain from the “Signals” camp. Needless to say, we never visited Phil on the same night. There was nothing between us. Phil was merely being kind to an English soldier who was far away from home. She was approaching forty, unmarried, although not unattractive, and had adopted a daughter, who was away somewhere at college.

I was grateful to Phil for her kindness, but there was always a constraint between us. She had a certain arrogant self-assurance that I inwardly resented. It was possibly because, coming from the east end of London as I did, and being conditioned to the English class system, I suffered from a fairly large inferiority complex. I knew some French people in Maadi, before whom, pleasant as they were, I felt the same constraints.

The fellah and the effendi………

As I grew older I would develop my own secret intellectual arrogance for those who thought that they knew everything, although in reality they had never left school. And the real wisdom, of course, is the realisation that it all behoves any man to look down on another, for we are all mortal, and during our short stay on earth we all have something to contribute to the Common Weal.

Ch6 Pt5 Pyramids and Ramses 11.

It is curious how quickly time passes. During my four months on the outskirts of Cairo, I succeeded in visiting only two spots of real interest. The chief reason for this was, of course, the fact that more often than not I was broke. I drew only a pound a week. And that doesn’t take one very far in a place where things were as expensive for Europeans as we found them in Cairo. The other reason was “the exigencies of the service”. In the army overseas you cannot always leave camp when you want. Also, when the political situation is a bit dicey, you cannot always go where you want. Other places are always “out of bounds” to private soldiers, their rarefied atmosphere being reserved exclusively for commissioned officers.  

However, we decided one day to visit the Pyramids and travelled into Cairo. In Fouad Street, we waited for the necessary tram. An Arab tout came along and told us that the bridge over the Nile had fallen down and we would therefore do better to take a taxi, which he would procure for us. We chose to treat this statement as a slight exaggeration, and sure enough, in a few minutes our tram came swaying towards us. It was full to overflowing with Arabs clinging to its sides like obstinate flies. Somehow or other we managed to find ourselves places on the running board, and the vehicle set off again at a hair-raising pace, screeching and swaying to such an extent that I was really afraid that it would turn turtle. We crossed the wide expanse of the Nile, spanned by a magnificent modern bridge. When the city was illuminated at night, the breathtaking sweep of the river at this point reminded me of the curve of the Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars, where I had visited so often as a boy. On the other side of the Nile we continued to the outskirts of Cairo, and changed trams. In this new transport, we succeeded in finding ourselves places on the wooden seats, and it was then a swaying, hilarious journey through the gimcrack, jerry-built outer suburbs. We careered down a hill at full tilt, roared underneath a huge modern cement bridge, then climbed a slope and flew straight as an arrow to the tram terminus. Here we got out, rather white-faced and with small globules of sweat pearling our foreheads.

On the left, Khufu’s Great Pyramid of Giza reared itself into the sky. We approached it by a curving road, passing a restaurant, which looked as if it was falling to pieces and from which a radio blared forth most inappropriately the latest American jive number to hit the record charts. Then we found ourselves at the foot of this fantastic Pyramid, of which each stone was at least half the height of a man. We abandoned our original intention of climbing the Pyramid – it would have been a considerable task, and would have had time for nothing else. Instead we clambered up a few stones and entered the interior. 

We followed a curving passage, scaled a narrow wooden staircase, and gazed with wonder at the immense slope constructed of huge blocks of stone by which the sarcophagus had been raised into the heart of the Pyramid. We came at last to the large, empty “King’s Chamber” where the mortal remains of King Khufu or Cheops had once rested. On the walls were typically Egyptian representations of the various activities of the king and hieroglyphic writing describing his activities and triumphs. We then descended to the somewhat smaller “Queen’s Chamber”. The heat was considerable inside the pyramid, and the enormous blocks of stone on all sides, much larger than those outside, took on a menacing aspect. Supposing it all collapsed? We should be squashed like mud crabs under the heel of a giant.

This Great Pyramid, the largest of all the pyramids was truly an amazing construction. The height of the pyramid was 481 feet, and the base covered an area of 13 acres. It is said that if it were possible to put St. Peter’s Church in Rome inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, it would occupy only half the ground area. There is apparently a core of local stone within the Pyramid which it is not possible to see, but it has been estimated that the core of local stone and the original outer facing of limestone, (this latter facing now long since gone), were composed of 2,300,000 separate blocks weighing from 2½ to 15 tons each. In the face of such statistics, and having been inside this carefully built edifice which stands up to any test of modern engineering principles, the mind boggles. These tombs were built between approximately 2900 and 2750 B.C. The methods of construction must have been without the benefit of machinery such as we use today. The labour, toil, cruelty and heartbreak involved in building these monuments almost defy imagination.

From the “Queen’s Chamber” we followed a winding, sandy tunnel, and suddenly found ourselves standing in the open air, blinking in the sunlight. It was good to leave behind that tremendously impressive but claustrophobic interior. We jumped from stone to stone until we reached the flat desert sand. We circled the pyramid, marvelling at the fact that almost all of those more than two million stones, all of them large, some positively huge, had had to be cut and brought here from many miles away. A hundred thousand slaves, our guide had told us, had worked for twenty years to raise this edifice, this folly, this wonder of the world. Like a subliminal picture flashed on a screen, I saw in a split second my eight months of misery as a forced labourer in Germany, and compared that with the incredibly harsh life of a slave in Ancient Egypt working for twenty years in much harsher conditions to build this mausoleum for a Pharaoh’s corpse.

To our right another pyramid lifted itself against the blue, cloudless sky. Then it was a succession of pyramids, extending into the yellow, burning desert.

We followed the sandy path separating the two pyramids in our immediate vicinity. These huge monuments towering beside us were pitiful tokens of man’s endless search for some sort of immortality. Yet the suffering of the unwilling builders remains. Perhaps the pyramids are monuments not so much to those mighty Pharaohs of old, as to their workmen, without whose labour these wonders of the world would never have existed.

Eventually, on our left, in a sandy hollow, we sighted the Great Sphinx. The view of the back was disappointing – a mass of badly carved stone. And we saw as we came nearer that the paws had been restored with large and inappropriate bricks. But as we looked at the face of the Sphinx we understood why it had become famous.

For the blind eyes, the strong nose – strong despite the erosion of centuries and the vandalism of Napoleon’s troops nearly a hundred and fifty years before – and the thick lips, curved in an enigmatic, disdainful, merciless smile, expressed a supreme pride and an utter cruelty. The ghosts of a far-off race, at once civilised and savage, defied the passage of time, and still haunted the dry, yellow desert. One sensed a presence hostile to every being who came to profane these sacred places.

We gazed for the last time at the face of the Sphinx, then retraced our steps, reached the highway, and walked silently down to the tram stop. The coaches jerked into motion. Suddenly, the spell that had been cast over us was broken. Native vendors climbed in en route with baskets of oranges and peanuts. We sang boisterously, to the considerable amusement of our Egyptian fellow-passengers, who had no difficulty in understanding certain gestures and onomatopoeic sounds that accompanied our rather ribald repertoire. Even the child beggars, who climbed aboard, displaying their defects and amputations for baksheesh, could not dampen our spirits. Thus it was a gay, pitching, swaying journey into Cairo, illuminated now with neon signs, and very beautiful in the twilight.

A few days before my departure from Cairo, I decided, finding myself in the YMCA canteen in Soliman Pasha Street with two pounds in my pocket and time on my hands, to undertake an excursion. This was a tour to Memphis, capital of Ancient Egypt, and to Saqqara, which had once served the town as a cemetery. I allowed myself to be relieved of forty five precious piastres, and the following Sunday morning, when the tour was to take place, presented myself at the canteen.

When all the party was assembled, we were ushered through the back door into an alley, where we piled into waiting taxis. In ours there were eight people. Two passengers were squashed in the front seat with the driver. (This was a dirty, unshaven, cross-eyed man with a small circular woollen cap on his head). There were two more people on the folding seats behind him, and three others crushed into the bench seat at the back. However, nobody minded. We were looking forward to an interesting trip to Memphis and Saqqara. The director of the trip was a stout, smiling Arab, who spoke English extremely well, and always had a joke on his lips. He was the prototype, in fact, of a whole generation of post-war tourist guides whom we were to know when the world had recovered from the ravages of war, and we all entered better times. Our guide was dressed in a blue, excellently tailored galabieh, which set him aside from others. He went to considerable length to explain to us with obvious pride that this was the “national dress”. He was employed by the YMCA, and warned us not to give any tips – he would pay for everything. This was a real turn-up for the books, and we received the news with delight.

On leaving, we crossed the Nile, and passed the Zoological Gardens. Incidentally, the latter were so clean that one was driven to wonder whether the government cared more about the welfare of the caged animals than that of the beggars who swarmed the streets. We followed dusty tracks alongside sluggish canals, passed irrigation wheels whose design had not changed in five thousand years. We also made several stops for inspection by Egyptian police in white trousers and jackets, with white topees crowning their dark heads.                       

The track became more primitive. We lurched through dusty, dirty villages where Arab shops, devoid of windows, opened directly and blindly upon narrow streets. At every yard we were bounced and jostled as the car wheels slithered over potholes. In these villages, I thought, a European would not walk alone at night. 

We came to Memphis, which consisted of a few clumps of palm trees on the edge of the desert. Five thousand years ago, Memphis was the greatest city in Egypt, and the Pharaohs ruled from here. Now it is nothing, an insignificant village twenty miles up the River Nile from Cairo. As the taxis discharged their occupants, we were at once surrounded by Arabs, who either tried to sell us photographs or pieces of ancient “money” covered in verdegris and “guaranteed genuine.” Failing that, they simply held out their hands for baksheesh.

First we were shown an immense statue of the king Rameses II lying horizontally on the ground because the legs had been broken. After passing this enormous statue, carved from a single block of stone, our guide led us to a small alabaster sphinx, with the King’s head, the ceremonial false beard, and a lion’s body to represent the strength and power of the king. The sphinx had been discovered lying on its side in the Nile, where it must have remained for many years, even centuries, for the flowing waters had completely spoilt the side against which they had washed. A few goats were grazing on the poor, dry grass in the hollow around the impassive sphinx.

Then we were led to a few stones from which time had erased every inscription. They were all that was left of a great temple that had stood here centuries ago. All the other remains had been stolen by Arabs to build houses, for stones were scarce in this vicinity and had to be brought from several miles away.

The mighty king, Rameses II, back in Egypt after a military campaign to extend the boundaries of his empire, and on his way to Luxor, had had two statues made of himself, each one of which weighed eighty tons and stood upright four thousand odd years ago at the entrance to the temple. Thus spoke our Arab guide, standing legs astride, arms akimbo, his cane held lightly in a brown hand. The blue galabieh which enveloped his stout body moved in the wind, outlining his legs and belly. The tassle dangled from the red fez perched on his closely cropped head. But we listened entranced to his guttural voice speaking an obviously alien language, for he was recreating for us the time when people on this very spot, went about their business in an historic and famous city under the rule of a mighty king of civilised, barbaric Ancient Egypt. We stood on a spot where ghosts of the past were present.

The second statue of the king was lying beneath the protection of a roof of corrugated iron. The legs of this statue were also broken off, but it was the better example of the two. We clambered on to a small platform erected around it, the better to examine the carving. As on all these statues, everything had been simplified. There had been no attempt to show every muscle on the torso or the limbs. Yet the impression given was one of great strength, life and immediacy. The face was so carefully modelled that it seemed to have an almost photographic exactness. What tremendous labour to carve such a statue from a single block of stone. And what tremendous labour to move it down the Nile on rafts and then transfer it across land to Memphis.

Ch6 Pt4 Maadi seen through Jim’s letter.

                          After three weeks at Heliopolis, Mack the Glaswegian and I were sent to a camp some way outside Maadi, a little European suburb on the other side of Cairo. The following is the text of a letter I sent to a friend just after our transfer to Maadi:

Dear George,

                          Casting an eye through the little notebook which is my record of letters received and sent, I suddenly realise that for more than a fortnight I haven’t sent you any news of Cairo, city of clean, well-dressed ‘effendim’, whom one would take for Londoners but for their darker complexions, and of filthily clad ‘fellahin’. City of shining, luxurious motor cars, and of screeching, wooden seated trams, crammed with those same clean-as-can-be gentlemen, and with tattered Arabs who shave once a week, wash once a quarter, and change their clothes once a year.

                          Since there is no actual news to send you, the idea occurs to me to describe to you the journey from our camp to Cairo. Our camp is a sandy area dotted with wooden huts. Above us is a vaulted roof of blue sky scattered with white, furry clouds. Where the corrugated iron roofs of our barrack huts touch the wooden walls, one finds nests of chirruping birds. The chatter of these feathered friends awakes us in the morning, and with it is intermingled the quavering, oriental chant of a sunburned young man as he goes happily about his daily chores intoning an Arab love song. This young man is a seeker after baksheesh by the name of Abdul, who comes every day to sweep up the floor.       

                          Let’s imagine that we are leaving the camp. Before reaching the guardroom, you see on the right a long, stone building. This is the dining hall, and outside sits an Arab selling tiny specimens of fruit whose high quality he advertises by yelling continuously and at the top of his voice: “Gigantic bananas!” Near him there is a young lad who sells newspapers, and who, if you give him a note to change, always gives you back the wrong money. But nobody ever gets angry. You have only to ask him for the missing ‘ackers’ and he will produce them for you with a friendly smile.  

                          “We carry straight on past the dining hall, and arrive at the guard room. This is an imposing building, even though it consists of only one storey. The brick wall is brilliantly whitewashed, and at the door stands the soldier on duty who, at first sight, also seems to be brilliantly whitewashed. However closer inspection restores the reality, and you observe that the illusion is caused by the whiteness of the guard’s webbing, revolver holster and gaiters, which have been blancoed assiduously to a glaring snowball hue.

                          The guard room is the epitome of British army bullshit which, as has so often been observed, will frequently baffle brains. And so it turns out. For completely unknown to the Colonel-in-Charge and the other big brass who think they run the show, Arab workers in the camp are very much impressed by the efficiency of the guard room personnel who lift the boom gate to allow them to come to work each day.     

So much so that they make presents to the guard for lifting the gate. These may be by way of free passes to the picture show, extra sugar for the tea, a gift of a hand of gigantic bananas, or even the introduction on special occasions of an attractive young Egyptian lady into this all-male preserve.

                          How wonderful it is to give baksheesh, for it benefits him who gives, as much as it benefits him who receives.

                          The guard raises the wooden beam, painted black and white and gleaming in the sunlight. We stroll under the barrier with a nonchalant acknowledgement. Then we are free – free of the camp, on our way to Cairo, and provided we keep out of the way of the redcapped military police, (locally known as ‘The Gestapo’), to all intents and purposes free for a few glorious hours of the army.

                          We walk along a dusty road, cross a railway track, and find ourselves in the village of Maadi. Somebody told me when we first came here that the syllable ‘aa’ of this word was identical in sound to the braying of an ass. I heard one such animal in good voice in Cairo the other afternoon, and the sound is indeed exactly the same. When he and I were discussing this small point, a teacher of languages remarked that Arabic was a tongue of animals – of camels and of donkeys. The French population write – and say –  ‘Méadi’, which is nearer to the correct pronunciation than the English loosely drawled ‘Mahdi’.

                          Maadi is made up of very clean villas, and its inhabitants are split up more or less equally into English, French and Egyptians. The spick and span villas remind one of the houses that fairly wealthy people in any European country are likely to possess. But one feels an inexplicable difference. Perhaps it is the fact that nearly all the roofs are flat, or that the houses are generally of white cement. Perhaps, again, it is that they nearly all have wooden shutters, French fashion. The dazzlingly bright sun gives them an indefinably different appearance, like the black and white pictures – a little too black and a little too white for reality – that one sees on the cinema screen.

                          After about half a mile, the straight road reaches the railway station, a cement platform covered with sand. Arabs abound, several of them competing to clean the shoes of whomever approaches, asking three or four piastres at first, but lowering their prices even to half a piastre in their haste to do trade before the train arrives. Mixed in this strange crowd, several Europeans in civilian dress stand elegantly.

                          At the ticket office, one must always buy a first class ticket from the clerk who is dressed in a khaki drill uniform and a red fez. The carriage next to the engine is first class; its seats are leather covered. The other three coaches have wooden seats, and the characters travelling therein can hardly be called clean. Mostly they are a poor, ragged, filthy, pitiable lot.

                          It’s a cosmopolitan crowd that the train pulls towards Cairo. You see bare-footed natives wearing the long robe – generally white – known as the ‘galabieh,’ and the red fez, or sometimes a small circular cap, upon their heads. A few wear down-at-heel shoes. Even those Egyptians who dress European fashion and seem to have copied our every garment still wear their country’s fez. It is the fez which is victorious here, the only garment, so to speak, which holds out against the advance of the occident. I have seen a few Europeans with trilby hats, many with light straw hats, but the bowler, heaven be praised, is conspicuous by its complete absence.

                          The poorer native women, that is, the womenfolk of the fellahin, always go bare foot, and are swathed in a kind of black all-enveloping robe. Generally they are veiled to the eyes, but despite this, one can as a rule gain an impression of their faces. Notwithstanding the privacy imposed by their mode of dress, it is not uncommon to see one of these women sit down on a public bench and pull out a breast to feed her young child, in full view of anyone who may be passing. The apparent inconsistency is no doubt due to our residual Anglo-Saxon prudery.

                          The wives and daughters of the richer Europeanised Egyptians dress as we do, and very often in the height of western fashion. Are they attractive? They most certainly are, may Allah forgive me, and when I observe them from afar, I often feel the hot blood of youth boil madly in my veins. Yes, the human race is indeed one: a maid is always a maid, wherever one finds her, and quite evidently a man is always a man.

                          The train creaks into movement and leaves Maadi. We rattle across yellow, sun-beaten desert. Often a band of green, cultivated fields follows the railway track on either side. A warm breeze enters through the open windows; the train whistle sounds joyfully and almost continuously. Voices discuss in Arabic, French, English, Greek, Italian – even in Polish, for we have many Polish soldiers stationed in the neighbourhood of Cairo. One hears every possible language. A fuzzy-haired Melanesian from the outermost Pacific island group would not feel out of place in Cairo’s cosmopolitan atmosphere.

                          We begin to pass tumbledown hovels which are almost visibly collapsing and crumbling away, but which shelter innumerable Arab families. Then we come to the modern little railway station of Bab-el-Luq, which is the terminus of this line. We leave the train and give our ticket to the blue-uniformed official who stands at the exit gate, and whose fez, perched jauntily on his head, leaves the tassle to dangle and dance above shining black eyes. We decline to buy from an Arab lad a paper-backed copy of “Snappy Stories”, the cover of which is embellished by the picture of a nearly naked lady with a wickedly seductive smile. We descend a few steps, and we are in the street. The sun drenches the pavement in warmth and golden light. Dark-skinned urchins run hither and thither. The drivers of ultra modern American taxis seek us as fares. Coachmen from horse-drawn gharries call to us. ‘Hey, Jock! Effendi! Take you to the YMCA? Very cheap!’

                          We carry on straight along this street of native stalls and shops. To the left is an Arab bistro with people inside drinking at dirty tables and smoking hookahs they have rented. On the wall, behind the counter, are hung several more of these ‘hubbly bubbly’ pipes for the delectation of anyone who cares to pay a piastre or two. This bistro has always attracted my attention, for the proprietor’s radio, perched above one corner of the counter, ceaselessly screams out Arab songs, sung by a sobbing, whining voice, which breaks off at the oddest moments, apparently in mid-phrase, and rises above the chatter and shouting of the crowd.                                                    

                          At the end of this street one finds the tramway and the tall buildings of modern Cairo. Near here also is a dark alley where I was accosted the other evening by half a dozen pickpockets, who seemed to appear from nowhere. There was something of a running fight, but I managed to reach a well-lit boulevard before things became desperate and without losing any money.”

Jim

CH6 Pt1 Recovery then Egypt via France.

After spending six weeks at an American transit camp in the small town of Weissenfels, I was flown, cooped up in an uncomfortable aircraft, to London. I had weighed a little under eight stone when the Americans had liberated us. However, they were most hospitable and kind, and fed us well. I looked quite healthy again when I got back home.

I had only been in England for a few short days when I was sent on indefinite leave. But either my friends were in the services or they had grown away from me. Also I was experiencing that peculiar, disheartening feeling which soldiers have when the war seems to be suddenly over, but they have not yet been returned to civvy street. It is a time of frustration when the excitement of ever-present danger has disappeared. Yet it is also a time of self-doubt and fear of one’s ability to cope with the problems of civilian life.

However, there was still a war on in the Far East. Germany and her European allies were beaten, but perhaps I could rejoin the First Airborne Division, who had been sent to Malaya in preparation for the onslaught on the Japanese islands. I wrote to the OC First Airborne Div Signals asking to be taken back on the strength. I later heard that some of my old mates had had the letter read to them. However, there was no way anybody was going to make a special effort to fly me out to Malaya. But, of course, I did not know that at the time.

The crowded streets and dirty buildings of London were becoming intolerable to me. I had a feeling close to claustrophobia. I tried to get myself recalled from leave so that I could resume my service with the army.

I now had the utmost difficulty in getting myself recalled from leave. The army had successfully disposed of me and no longer wanted to acknowledge my existence. But eventually I succeeded, only to find myself sent to a rehabilitation camp for ex prisoners of war. Here army instructors insisted on teaching me all over again how to fire a three-0-three rifle, despite the fact that I had been firing rifles for the past four years. I also learnt anew how to stand to attention, stand at ease, dress by the right, and most importantly, how to “salute the officer.” (Longest way up, shortest way down, fingers together, at the correct angle, almost touching the base of the forage cap). I suffered this very important training for several weeks. Then began a series of shifts from one camp to another during which my chief duty was to peel potatoes.

It was at one of these camps, on the racecourse at the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, that we learnt one day that following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese had capitulated and World War Two was finally over. I am quite sure that we all realised that an era in the history of mankind had finished and that a new and vastly more dangerous one had begun.

By now the pointless fashion in which I had been sent hither and thither had thoroughly annoyed me. Demobilisation was to be extended to avoid a glut of ex-soldiers on the labour market and consequent industrial problems. The fact that I had a job to go back to at the London County Council made no difference. I had at least another year to serve in the army. I therefore resolved to spend it abroad at the army’s expense.

Eventually, after making a nuisance of myself to everybody, I reached a drafting camp outside Newcastle on Tyne. No sooner had I arrived, however, than they stopped sending men to the far-east, and I found myself on a draft to Germany instead. At that time Germany was the one country I did not wish to revisit. My sojourn there as a prisoner had been too recent, and my memories were still bitter. After a prolonged interview with the OC of the camp and frantic negotiations with a comrade to take my place, I finally got myself on a list for a posting somewhere further east.

The war with Japan had been over for a number of months now, and rumours began to circulate that the camp was going to close down. Finally a special order came through that all ex-prisoners of war were to be sent on special Christmas leave, and I journeyed south to London, although I would far sooner have stayed behind.

I came back in time to discover that a further draft – probably the last – was being collected. I was friendly with the sergeant clerk in the company office and with the Company Sergeant Major, and thanks to their influence I was included in this batch of young men who were being sent through France across the Mediterranean to Egypt. They made me a corporal at this stage, as one of the more case-hardened old sweats in this young band of hopefuls. It was the dizziest promotion that I ever obtained in the British army. I was reduced to the ranks some six months later, as I shall relate in due course.

We gathered together on the parade ground one evening, kit-laden and sweating, and journeyed in trucks to the railway station. We spent the following night at a camp outside the twisty-streeted port of Newhaven, and early next morning boarded the sturdy little cross-channel ferry “Isle of Thanet”.

We remained half an hour below deck, awkward and clumsy with our kit bags, valises and life-jackets. Then the motors began to pound, and we set our bows seawards. I climbed on deck, and behind us saw a foaming white wake losing itself in the grey, choppy sea. The chalky cliffs of England, already indistinct, were sinking into the waters of the Channel. Every time that the bows of our ship cut the greyish-blue waves, every time that a little hillock of salt water drenched the deck, the droplets being carried right away to the stern by the cold wind, we were nearer to France.

France! I seemed to have spent half my short life learning her beautiful language. I had also known many of her people. And I had heard many heartbreaking stories of their exile. Yet how many dramas, about which I had never heard, had played themselves out in France during the four years of German occupation! Well, in a few hours we should be treading French soil.

Mack, from Glasgow, one of my new friends, leans over the rail, gazing back towards England. His wife had fallen pregnant to an American soldier. Mack loved her dearly, but had never been able to forgive this infidelity, and they had drifted apart. The memory of her tortured his mind. His reason for volunteering for the draft was to try to forget.

Mack waves sarcastically towards the disappearing shore.

“Bye-bye England. And a soldier’s farewell to everyone, you shower of rotten bastards.” 

I find there the echo of my own thoughts.

Towards midday we drew alongside the silent quay of the little port of Dieppe. This is where the Canadians made their abortive and costly landing in 1942, a rehearsal for the real invasion, which was to come much later. Chains rattled, a narrow gangplank was thrown out and secured by two French seamen in blue caps and jerseys. Then we disembarked and found ourselves in France, a little lost, heavy packs on our backs, and rifles to lean on. Presently some children approached uncertainly, like street mongrels, not sure whether they are going to be welcomed or chased away with kicks. The soldiers dig into their pockets, into their packs and into their gas mask cases, producing sandwiches, which they offer to the children. For the aftermath of war is still with us, the economy of Europe is broken, and food and shelter are at a premium. Chocolate, coffee and cigarettes are the international currency with which one can buy anything.

Some of our soldiers address the children in English, some murder French in the way that only Englishmen can, but communication is established with these hesitant, frightened youngsters. Clearly they see only armed soldiers and do not know what to expect. A kiddy of six or seven years is standing a few yards away from me, his eyes wide, a finger playing with his lower lip. I search in the pockets of my great coat.

“Come on, then. I’ve got something for you to eat.”

Something to eat! His eyes light up. He takes a few hesitant steps. But he is reluctant to come any further.

“Viens ici, mon petit. Don’t be afraid.” 

He comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. During all his childhood his parents must have told him to avoid German troops who have been notorious for picking French people off the streets and sending them straight to forced labour in Germany, or for taking hostages in reprisal for the killing of German soldiers, standing them up against a wall, and shooting them out of hand. In his young mind, all soldiers must be suspect.

The child comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. I have found a bar of chocolate and hold it out to him.

“Du chocolat. Tu le veux? Here, take it.”

We hold our breath, both of us. He is only a couple of feet away from me, but clearly he is scared. But he is tempted. Suddenly he snatches the chocolate from me, scuttles away and takes refuge near a pile of planks. He holds the bar of chocolate against his breast and looks at me, eyes staring, mouth open – a frightened sparrow.

I step forward, but suddenly he turns tail again. Never have I seen an urchin move so quickly. In a moment he has disappeared.

I look at the row of houses opposite. Their walls are still pitted by shrapnel – no repairs have yet been made. To the left, all that remains of a house is a heap of bricks and plaster. A solitary green shutter is still fixed to one wall, and hangs sideways, like a drunken man ready to fall, but clinging stubbornly with one hand. Railway lines run the length of the quay, but higgledy-piggledy, fantastically twisted, no good for anything any more. Maybe the war has twisted the minds of men in the same fashion. To the right a long, white chalky finger, surmounted by a lighthouse, points out into the Channel. How beautiful its whiteness must be when the sun shines, and the waves dance, and the seagulls fly about, at one moment skimming the joyful sea, at another circling the lighthouse.

But the sun is hiding sullenly behind grey clouds, and it seems as if some giant with an immense club has rained down blows upon this town. Dieppe, indeed, has been beaten and ravished by war, which gives death and ugliness in exchange for life and beauty. Even that pretty chalky peninsula is eaten through and through with tunnels, formerly the lairs of German canon, awaiting the approach of the British invasion barges. It is like looking at a beautiful woman whom you know to be eaten up from within by a loathsome disease.

The sky is moody over Dieppe. A cold wind begins to blow, but it cannot blow away the stink of death. This same stale odour pervades bombed habitations everywhere. Only time can cure this stinking illness.

We wait for half an hour, then a dozen lorries – those huge, roaring American lorries, painted grey and with the name of the driver’s wife or girl friend inscribed on the bonnet – come to fetch us. The lorries circle, drive off, and in next to no time we are leaving behind the houses with the picturesque shutters and the hilly streets of Dieppe. On the outskirts of the town, we enter a large camp – a patch of ground, which has been cleared of obstructions and planted with wooden huts. Here we eat in a big communal dining room where pleasant French women show us our places and wait on us. Afterwards we draw blankets and line up at the NAAFI for our rations of cigarettes. 

It is starting to rain as we begin to queue for four o’clock tea, and the dull sky hangs like a pall over the camp. We are happy to receive the order “On the lorries”, and to cross Dieppe once again, this time on our way to the station. The town seems almost deserted. Only a man here in a blue beret or a woman there running her errands glance at us, then turn and continue on their way.

Our train was standing in the station, but we had to wait two hours before it left. During this time workmen with the characteristic French blue beret walked up and down the platform, trying to buy English cigarettes from us. I had a conversation for about half an hour with a young man in his middle twenties who came into the corridor. He had just bought fifty cigarettes and was broke. He told me that the average workman in France received a thousand francs a week which was at that time equivalent to about two pounds ten shillings English, a very low wage. Potatoes, butter and bread, he told us, were rationed, and the cost and conditions of living were worse than under the German occupation. One was free, of course … followed by a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. In further conversation it turned out that he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for five years.

Our train gave a jerk and he quickly turned to get off. I stopped him.

“Attends. Tiens.” I gave him a packet of twenty cigarettes.

“But I have no money to pay you.”

“Forget it. We were prisoners of war together, n’est-ce pas?”

The train groans, moves. We hurriedly shake hands.

“Au revoir, and thanks for the cigarettes.”

“Au revoir, my friend, and good luck.”

He turns again and descends to the platform. I am so sorry for the French. God knows, we have suffered enough from the war in England. But the French were invaded by the Germans, suffered death and deportation during the occupation, then were invaded once again by the allies. It seems to have become the practice that in any European war France is always a battleground. Now once more they have a country to reconstruct. I do not envy them their task.

The windows of our coach had no glass, so we were obliged to improvise curtains from blankets and block up the holes as best we could. The fields outside were covered with snow, and as the train rattled along, a piercingly cold wind sought entry. We were soon bitterly cold, and the position was aggravated by the fact that the heating system had gone wrong between our coach and the one in front.

At every stop I got down, hunted out the stationmaster or the engineer and asked what the chances were of mending the break in the heating pipe. Railwaymen squeezed in between the coaches and made learned examinations. Promises that somebody would do something were given lavishly, and sympathy for us in our travelling refrigerator was extreme. Yet somehow or other the heating system remained useless until the end of the journey.

Camps had been set up by the railway track, and from time to time we stopped to have a meal in some huge barn in the country and to draw sandwiches and chocolate to sustain us on our further travels. At these stopping places, no matter how deserted the countryside, women and their children appeared beside the train, and it was to them that the bulk of our chocolate ration went.

We drew into Toulon at about eight o’clock on a clear, mild morning with the sun shining in a watery fashion. We followed a short, underground passage and found ourselves in the street, the object of curiosity of the passers-by. All traces of snow had disappeared, and a tall, slender palm tree signalled that we had arrived at the Mediterranean coast.