I only recall one event that was at all remarkable. A few of the officers got the idea that somebody was tunnelling underneath their quarters, so they invaded the billets of us underlings and took up residence with us for a while. Nothing came of it. A few bepipped gentlemen had been taking too little water with their Scotch, and must have been hallucinating. There were definitely no terrorist sappers trying to blow up our beloved officers.
Here are a few lines written at the time to my old friend George Mills, quoted verbatim, because there is no better way to recall the thoughts that were going through my mind at the end of my army service.
Dear George – Just a few egotistical lines because my head is full of words. Today is, truly speaking, my last day in the army. Tomorrow I am going to Haifa to follow a course. I am going to brush up my French – can you imagine that? Of course, it is an excuse to spend a few days in Haifa. I am told that I shall in all probability be recalled before the course finishes, and sent to Sidi Bishr, near Alexandria. There I shall catch the boat for Toulon. At our camp today the lads are going on a route march, but I shall not take part in it. I shall watch them struggle into their kit, and I shall smile to myself and feel very satisfied, for this kind of thing is finished for me. In England I shall exchange my uniform for a civvy suit, and then I shall be my own person again amidst several million others. My apologies for ‘le moi haissable’. But adult peacetime civilian life is something I have never known. I was only nineteen when I joined the army, and very inexperienced. I hope I shall be able to cope. The army is a prison. But as in all prisons, you never starve, and you always have a roof over your head. In civvy street you have to struggle for those things.
The weather is extremely fine today. The sun is shining, and at only nine in the morning I am sweating like a little bull. For the next six weeks the future is all mapped out. I know exactly where I’m going, and the prospect pleases me. After that …….Question mark ! What shall I do when I return to London, when I become once again a small insect striving to maintain himself on the human ant heap? Does it matter that much? All our worries, our battles, our achievements will be insignificant a hundred years from now ..….”
On the 24th August, I left the camp on my way to Haifa. There were nine of us in two jeeps, each of which was pulling a small trailer on which our kit was stacked. After being shut up for so many weeks it was good to drive through the countryside, sandy and arid, but dotted with odd desert plants and with the occasional incipient greenery of young citrus plantations.
Haifa is a beautiful, sun-drenched city, beginning at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, then climbing up the slope of magnificent Mount Carmel. One has the impression of tiers of seats about an arena. The arena is the Mediterranean, dotted with boats, and the tiers are rows upon rows of square white houses. From the upper slopes of Mount Carmel one does not distinguish the white-capped waves below – one merely sees a vast blue expanse, and one has the impression of being able to step out immediately from wherever one is, and walk upon the sea.
The motor buses climb with difficulty the steep slopes found everywhere. They are single-decker vehicles, and the entrance is next to the driver, who collects the fares and distributes tickets before the passengers take their places. The engines of these buses strain agonisingly as they climb the hilly gradients, but the inhabitants of Haifa do not bother – they are used to the sensation that their conveyance is at any moment likely to run backwards down Mount Carmel.
The Arab quarter, which was supposed to be out of bounds to military personnel, was at the docks end of the town, and was chiefly composed of shops facing each other across narrow alleys. Here one found the inevitable bistros where a radio moaned Arab love songs and the atmosphere inevitably stank. In the streets accessible to motor traffic, one frequently saw armoured cars with machine guns poking from their turrets. Sometimes one would come across convicts in brown uniforms working under the surveillance of an Arab member of the Palestine Police, looking like a Cossack in his tall, black woollen hat. Modern Haifa, we found, was very clean and attractive. In the boulevards, on the terraces of the cafés, people sat drinking coffee or orange juice, this latter seeming to be the national beverage, and talking nineteen to the dozen in many languages although, of course, Hebrew predominated. Incidentally, we noticed that the residents of Haifa suffered from the same delusion as those of Cairo, namely that the English soldier existed solely on a diet of beer, fried eggs and chips. Clothes were plentiful – I noticed this particularly, after the rationing situation in England. But they were very expensive. I paid two pounds for a cotton shirt of very poor finish, whilst one could not get even a mediocre pair of trousers for under four pounds. Jackets followed the same price trends, and one came to realise that when one saw a well-dressed man, one was looking at a walking fortune.
Towards the end of my course at Haifa, I met a young ATS private who was studying music. She was an Algerian Jewess. She had good intelligence, but although at first I did not consider her pretty, she was “très sympathique”. Of course, we spoke French together. Iris was trim and smart, and as I took more notice I began to get a very favourable impression. She took good care of her jet coloured hair, and she had long eyelashes that reminded me of black silk. Her eyes were large and dark brown, and I made myself believe that I could read her thoughts in them. I began to like her a great deal.
We dined together one night in a restaurant in a suburb of Haifa, half way up Mount Carmel, and while we were waiting for the bus to take us back to camp, I somehow started to tell her about my recollections of our poverty in London. She listened with sympathy, and suddenly put her hand on mine.
“…….Mon Cher ami ……….”
The tutoiement mounted to my lips. How is it possible to explain that delicious familiar form of speech, which, in French, enables one to express so exquisitely kindness and gentleness to those who are near and dear? This form does not exist in English, and to me, when one wishes to express tenderness, its absence makes our language seem so harsh.
At that moment the bus came. I helped her in, and we returned to camp. When we arrived there, we sat down outside the canteen in darkness, and talked until long past midnight. I was conscious that I was to leave the following day.
On the morrow, a jeep called for me at midday. Iris and I were talking in the library. Hurriedly I left her to bundle my kit into the jeep’s trailer. Then I came back to her. We touched hands for a moment.
“Don’t forget to look up that friend of mine when you reach London, Jimmy.”
“Irena. You will like her.”
“Oh, yes. Irena S.”
Iris had asked me to call on a friend who had served in the ATS with her, and was now living in London, after having travelled there to see her mother.
Iris’s brown eyes surveyed me thoughtfully.
“It’s always the best friends who go away, isn’t it?”
“It is. Goodbye, Iris. Take care of yourself.”
I boarded the jeep. We bumped forward. I waved. Then we were out of the dusty camp and running down the winding road leading to Haifa and the blue sea stretched out invitingly below us.
We made our way back to Sarafand, stopping on the road for a meal at a café run by a Palestinian Sabra and his wife. She was a Jewish girl who had been brought up in the same part of London as I, and when she stopped speaking Hebrew and turned to address us in English, she had a refreshingly Cockney accent which lifted my heart. On the floor of the café, her three young children sprawled happily like fat little puppies. These were the future Israelis. What a lovely country this was. I would willingly have stayed in it. But not as a British Army conscript.
After reaching Sarafand, I caught a troop train to Sidi Bishr – a military camp just outside Alexandria, and after a couple of days here, I found myself one morning on board the ship which was to return me, very much against my will, to England.
I think that quotations from my diary will best tell the rest of the story.
Friday, September 27th, 1946. (On board the S.S.”Orduña”).
I got up early this morning at four o’clock, being among the first group to leave. At six o’clock, outsize lorries came to pick us up, and half an hour later, set us down at the Alexandria docks. Two flat motor barges approached. We boarded them, and in next to no time, we had been transferred to the “Orduña”, our kit had been stacked away, and we were ready to start.
At the moment of writing, another group of soldiers is struggling aboard. One more group after this, and we will set sail for Toulon. I’m feeling rather sleepy, and I’m not at all happy.
The waters of the bay are twinkling in the morning sun, naked Arab divers are waiting for people to throw money in the water for them, and in the distance the buildings of Alexandria rear themselves silently against the blue sky. Shall I see them again in my lifetime? With all my heart I hope that I shall.
It is now eleven o’clock in the morning. Well, at least I’ll soon be demobilised. I’ll be free. Then, to hell with the army and to hell with the system where some jumped-up twit with a stripe on his arm or a pip on his shoulder has the right to tell me what to do, even though he is stupid enough to eat hay.
Seven o’clock in the evening.
We left Alexandria at five o’clock. There was lifeboat drill, then we had some food. Afterwards I climbed on deck and made my way towards the stern, just above the propellers. It was very dark, but behind us I could discern our foaming white wake. Beneath the deck the powerful, hidden motors pounded. From time to time a cigarette end, which some soldier had thrown away, described a red arc until it was abruptly extinguished and swallowed by the hissing sea.
On the horizon I could see the brilliant white light of the Alexandria lighthouse, surrounded by a far-off glare. The streets of Alexandria are at this moment blazing with illuminations, and it’s the same in Cairo. The Europeans are going to the cinema – to the “Odéon, to the “Kursaal”, to the ‘Miami”, and to the ‘Metro’. Galabieh-clad men are sitting outside the bistros, smoking their narghilehs, whilst in Maadi lights have been switched on in the clean little villas. You can no longer see the red blossoms on the trees that embellish the settlement, but you can smell them. And you can hear the rustling of leaves and the croaking of frogs in the canal. Ah, yes. I am sorry to leave these shores, and I would give much to remain.
10th October, 1946.
I can’t write any more. I’m a civilian in England. We crossed France and the Channel in a hurry, and I was demobilised on the sixth of October, nineteen forty-six, after five years of military service. Am I sorry to have left the army? No, indeed. I’m glad to be the captain of my soul again. But when I think of my stay in the Middle East, there is a dagger in my heart. To get away, to get away! How I long to get away!”