THE FADING MARGIN: serial 15.Posted: February 22, 2013
In the year 2008 the papers were full of pictures of the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay with smoke and flames billowing out of its windows, following an attack by terrorists from Pakistan. Today as I write, stapled to one of the hand-written pages in an obviously old desk journal, is a miniature menu on faded pink card headed “Taj – Bombay. LUNCHEON 12.30 to 2 p.m”. The card informs hotel guests not only that a grill of ‘Mutton Kidney & Bacon’ is available, but that ‘By Government Order only Soup plus one dish of section A and one dish of section B may be served’. On the back of the menu (I have it by me now) is a programme of ‘Music by the Melody Trio’ which, no doubt in honour of Britain’s contemporary allies, included Souvenir D’Ukraine, by Ferraris, and Tambourin Chinois by Kreisler. The card is dated 8.8.46.
It had been a journey of 4,500 miles and 4 months from the primroses of Sussex to the frangipani and all too often less fragrant airs of the Deccan Plateau in India. Inside the front cover of a slim, much-worn copy of James Elroy Flecker’s Selected Poems, which I treasure, a pencilled scribble reads: “We are flying 5,000 feet above the Mediterranean. One has heard so much of the blue of this sea and indeed it is unreally blue. As we crossed the coast after leaving Castel Benito it was hard to tell sea from sky”.
The book of poems had been a parting present from my sister Jessica when I had left home the day before. In a snapshot which has been used as a marker, and which is loosely between Hassan’s Serenade and To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence, a dozen or so army officers carrying small holdalls are standing close to an RAF Liberator bomber which they are evidently about to board. The officers are wearing their peaked hats and greatcoats and are probably eager to escape from a keen little wind that was blowing across the airfield there at Bourn, in Cambridgeshire, on the last morning of March, 1946. The scribble, which occupies the whole of the inside of the cover and most of the originally blank facing page, notes that we landed at Marignane, near Marseilles, that after Castel Benito we “skirted Benghazi” (a household name during the desert war of 1942-1943) and that before Alexandria we looked down on 4-year-old tank tracks made during the fighting at Alamein. Taking up the account where the volume of Flecker leaves off, the diary remembers that we landed at “an airfield near the Pyramids” and that two of my fellow travellers and I took a taxi into Cairo, had drinks and dinner at the renowned Continental Hotel, where in 1923 Lord Carnarvon (the power behind Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun) had died of a mosquito bite, spent “a foolish and unprofitable hour at the Bardia Cabaret” and took another taxi back to the camp and “bed without incident, though I had to control the other two, who had drunk a lot more than I”.
DISCOVERING THE LOTUS
It is a lamentable fact (the diary was my confessional) that next morning, when a colonel who was one of the officers in the Liberator proposed that four of us should hire a taxi to take us to the Tutankhamun Museum in Cairo, a hangover allied to ignorance very nearly prevented my joining the party. I must already at least have heard of Tutankhamun, but William the Conqueror and Henry the Eighth meant infinitely more to me than did the name of the boy king who was the most famous of the pharaohs. The colonel’s encouragement and Alka-Seltzer saved the day, and before the morning was out and I was sitting in the shade on the terrace of historic Shepheard’s Hotel, enhancing the earlier therapy by a liberal application of John Collinses, I knew that I had just been treated to a glimpse of some of the most consummately beautiful artefacts that the world has ever seen. Why, of all the exhibits in the collection, the alabaster lotus flowers in particular should have so impressed me I have never been able to explain; perhaps because they were most obviously exquisite to the untutored eye; but in 1972, when I saw them again at the British Museum in London, I was again entranced. Pleased, too, by a sense of familiarity, as by a reunion with a long-lost friend with whom I had once established an exclusive and valued relationship and who on rediscovery reaffirmed the validity of the original attachment.
The incident in Cairo was another of a number of occasions in those adolescent soldiering years that were to leave me with a regret that I had been so ill-equipped at the time to take advantage of them. On the field of Waterloo, albeit not unaware of its place in history, I had known nothing of the epic battle itself, so that Quatre Bras, Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte, the Sunken Lane, La Belle Alliance and Plancenoit, all fundamentally key locations of the action in June, 1815, all famously celebrated in print and on canvas, and which I might easily have explored, had held only minimal significance for me. Later, I wished I had known about Wellington’s legendary elm tree and gone to see where it was said to have stood at the intersection of the Chaussée de Charleroi and the Chemin de la Croix.
Brussels, too, had been rich in associations of which I had known little or nothing when I was first there and had time to spend more or less in any way I liked. In the 18th century the city had been host to a large British community. Wellington had been tutored there. I had heard of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the eve of Waterloo, could even recite a few appropriate lines from Byron’s Childe Harold, but Thackeray had not been on the compulsory reading list at school, so that I had never met Becky Sharp, Amelia Sedley or George Osborne. All would have added piquancy to my wartime love affair with the still fundamentally 18th and 19th century city that was to be so hideously blighted by post-war developments. It was a regret that may have been misplaced. Even so soon as 75 years after Amelia had vainly finished praying for George – “lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart” – it had become impossible for researchers to identify the place where the legendary eve of battle gathering had been held.
PASSAGE TO INDIA
We had lunch in Cairo, supper before boarding the Liberator again at the airfield near the Pyramids and breakfast in the very early hours of the morning at Shaibah, almost on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Dawn was breaking as we flew over the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates and what my scribble in Flecker described as “vast wastes of merciless-looking country”. The sun was setting as we landed at Karachi, in India. After a hot, sticky and restless night in the city we exchanged the Liberator for that ubiquitous workhorse of the Second World War, a Dakota, and after some 500 turbulent miles as the DC3 flies, and a furnace of a train, arrived in Deolali.
Rubber-stamped in violet ink inside the covers of some two dozen volumes, several of them weighty, on my bookshelves here in Sussex is the legend ‘For the use of H M Forces. Not for resale’. The non-fiction titles include The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, three volumes of A History of Europe by H.A.L Fisher, J.C.Stobart’s The Grandeur that was Rome, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and The Arts of Mankind by Henrik Willem Van Loon. Distinguished by the same violet rubber stamp are The Trumpet Major, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy; A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Hard Times, The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield by Charles Dickens; Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre by Emily Bronte; Rotunda – a selection from the works of Aldous Huxley, and a 1940 edition of Hilaire Belloc’s Hills and the Sea.
With the exception of a photograph or two, the books constitute my only material souvenir of India. The stout leather trunk with securing straps, faithfully copied from the sort of thing that generations of sahibs had brought with them from England, so attractive, and so irresistibly cheap in the bazaar, did not survive an accidental drenching in the monsoon and the consequent disintegration of the thick cardboard body concealed by the paper-thin covering of low grade genuine leather. The smart Jodhpur boots, their skilled craftsmanship undeniable and the provenance of their design almost certainly the same as that of the trunk, fell apart when the soles proved to be of the same basic construction as the luggage. The ‘Benares’ brass tray, owing more, I suspect, to the industry of the brass workers of Bombay than to those of the holy city on the Ganges, that had been intended as a present for my mother, mercifully never left the subcontinent to bear witness to my youthful aesthetic judgement.
Deolali. The name is writ large in the annals of the British in India and commemorated in “doolally”, meaning mentally disturbed, or soft in the head, an abbreviation of ‘doolally tap’, itself deriving from the fact that the military depot of Deolali was the site of a mental sanatorium, many of whose soldier inmates – it was said – had been driven off balance by the climate (tapa is Sanskrit for heat) and interminable waiting for a home posting. Later and more tenuous fame was conferred by its being the setting for the long-running British television series, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. In April 1946 I was as ignorant of such claims to fame as I was of India itself. To my delight, at a gathering of new arrivals, I met Tom Benning, who had so recently been on the same Air OP course in England and had completed it. Not only had we been contemporaries and friends at Wrotham and Catterick, we had served in the same division in Normandy. Now, almost alone in having seen active service among those awaiting posting, in the unknown, uncharted and vaguely menacing territory of the depot, mere numbers and names on cards to be shuffled and dealt by indifferent hands, we met again like hardened veterans and blood brothers. To make space for new contingents of transitional soldiery, and the shuffling to be completed, numbers of us were sent for an indefinite term to the nearby recreational resort of Lake Beale. Here, Tom and I went sailing together, shared taxis to bazaars, spent evenings at this or that officers’ club and talked late into the night. Destined to become a successful barrister, he was endearingly tolerant not only of his companion’s fanciful ideas about a literary life but – greater love hath no man – of his often gin-fuelled post-mortems concerning the love affair with Nicola, on which subject lamentations still littered my diary. When, at the end of April, he was posted to Secunderabad, we were both unashamedly upset. Deolali to Secunderabad as the crow flies is more than 300 miles. Well-acquainted as we were with the vicissitudes of the times and military life, we knew that we might never meet again.
A TIME OF DISCONTENT
For a while I was left to linger on at Deolali, seriously bereft, comprehensively bored, a joy neither to myself nor to anyone else. Knowing that I had at the very least six months to serve before demobilisation, I began agitating for a job. Regimental soldiering offered no attractions. I enquired again about the Education Corps and was told that there were no vacancies at the moment. Instead, within a few days I found myself in nearby Nasik commanding a troop in a regiment of artillery that had been in India throughout the war, had no guns, and, I suspected (we were less than a year away from Partition), might be intended for service in a situation of Indian civil unrest.
Discontent was not ameliorated by a severe bout of dysentery, treated with alarmingly large doses of sulphaguanidine. Graver by far was that most pernicious of afflictions – a consuming sense of injustice. Troop commanders were customarily captains, and although, with the exception of the colonel and second-in-command, I was wearing one campaign medal ribbon more than any other officer in the regiment, I was still only a full lieutenant. I complained. I agitated. Like most of my fellow junior officers, I drank easily obtainable and affordable gin and whisky in appreciably larger quantities than was good for me. In the mess, when not gratuitously disputatious, I was liable to be sullen or tediously facetious. In short, I cannot have been at all nice to know.
Much – perhaps most – of the trouble stemmed from the fact that for India (for the world, for the army, for myself) it was a time in limbo. The global war was over. The British Empire was in an advanced stage of disintegration. Farewell The Trumpets was to be the title of the last volume of Jan Morris’s superb trilogy charting the whole historical process. Colours were being laid up, proud regiments disbanded, military establishments eliminated or drastically reduced. From major-generals (and their wives) to long-serving privates and their indigenous girlfriends, a whole new class of displaced persons was being created. From the Himalaya to the Indian Ocean, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, all bets were off except those contingent upon whether or not one might be homeward bound before the monsoon arrived.
NEXT FRIDAY, 1 March, Serial 16: Indian Occasions, Part Two.