Persistence of the infamously cold weather continues to inhibit the reconstruction of Serial 19 of The Fading Margin. Work is confidently expected to be finished during the next few days; meanwhile, as a reminder of what summer used to be like, we are reprinting a nostalgic piece from the not-so-distant past.
WALKING FROM KINTZHEIM TO RIQUEWIHR left me with the conviction that nowhere that I know more closely resembles the popular idea and the romantic ideal of wine country than the wine country of Alsace. Except for one short diversion through forest, and for the villages themselves, hardly a hundred continuous yards of the path were not bordered by the growing vines. From time to time, wishing to go higher up or lower down the slope, I would simply walk between the rows, glad of the shade.
It was easy walking: rarely so steep as seriously to test limbs or lungs; rarely demanding careful attention to either map or compass; to my right was always the guiding line of the Vosges; to my left, the wide plain and valley of the Rhine. Village succeeded village, always within sight of one another, never more than a mile or two apart. Unadventurous it may have been, but never dull. Not unless sunshine and birdsong and a woodpecker and a brace of hares and the wild flowers and the scent of summer are dull. Not unless it was tedious to see village squares and streets innocent of litter and almost all other ugliness, bright with geraniums (everywhere geraniums), tempting with invitations to dégustations in timbered and cobbled courtyards. Not unless it was dull to look up at the ruins of castle and watch-tower on the forest-covered heights and think of the centuries of war and turbulent peace that they had seen.
Recommended to Charles Koehly & Fils, a winemaker in the village of Rodern, I took a path across a verdant little valley that led down from what must have been all of 28 degrees Celsius into a brief but delicious fraîcheur, then up again into the noonday glare. Fearing the approach of lunch and with it closing time, I hurried along, almost trotting down the last short slope before the village, then toiling briskly up the other side to arrive breathless and perspiring in the attractive Koeberlé-Kreyer courtyard as the church clock struck twelve. Nobody was about, but an electronic alarm had sounded as I entered the courtyard, and now a bespectacled, grey-haired head appeared at an upstairs window.
‘Bonjour madame. Je voudrais acheter du vin, si ça ne vous dérangera pas trop.’
‘Pas du tout, Monsieur. Pas du tout. Je serai avec vous dans un petit instant.’
In a cool and spacious ground floor room my hostess took bottles of Riesling and Pinot Blanc from a refrigerator and poured generously. Both wines, but the Riesling in particular, seemed to me exquisite. Here was the lovely, clean, cool freshness of a summer morning. Buying a bottle of each, I wrapped the Pinot Blanc up well inside my rucksack and went out again into a village abandoned to the heat and a tabby cat asleep on an upturned cask. A few hundred yards took me up a forest track into the trees. Another mile or so led down into the wooded valley of the Bergenbach stream; yet another up and out on to the edge of the wide, sweeping, vine-covered Kirchberg slope overlooking Ribeauvillé.
On a little knoll, I found a lone walnut tree for shade, closely hedged in by vines on three sides but commanding a view of the plain. Luxuriously extended in the long grass, boots off, shirt unbuttoned, rejoicing in a gentle, heaven-sent breeze, I poured myself a glass, and then another, of what seemed to me at that moment one of the most delectable Pinot Blancs in one of the most desirable picnic places in the world.
NEXT FRIDAY, 5 April, The Fading Margin Serial 19: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part One.
SERIAL 19 of The Fading Margin is undergoing emergency reconstruction. We hope the work may be completed within the next few days; meanwhile, by popular demand, we are again publishing a piece that first appeared about this time last year.
JOIN ME IN A GREAT ADVENTURE. On Wednesday I braved the steep track behind my house and walked up onto the Downs.
Early last year, rain or shine, I was walking there almost every day; three miles, five miles, now and then ten or more. Then the implacable forces of Wear and Tear opened hostilities. Little by little the occasional twinges that I had erroneously supposed to be the legacy of old skiing incompetence became my almost constant companions, at first merely unwelcome, then troublesome, intimidating, so that less demanding excursions became my exercise default mode.
Then came the X-ray report: ‘…marked loss of disc height, prominent anterior marginal osteophytes and facet joint sclerosis most severe at the lower three lumbar levels’…. Paget’s syndrome … luceny and coarsening of the trabecular pattern in the right hemipelvis ….thickening of the illiopectal line.
You might be forgiven for thinking that such a diagnosis would be enough not only to stop a man laughing in church but to deter him from ever again so much as twiddling his toes. Here in Sussex we are made of sterner stuff. What it did, nevertheless, was to limit my walks to the Seaford promenade where there are benches which, though not specifically reserved for the victims of prominent anterior osteophytes or thickening of the illiopectal line, might fairly be described as what the doctor ordered, and for dodgy facet joints a comfort beyond price.
All my adult life I have striven to make the most of my modest five feet seven and a half inches (taller than Napoleon and Genghis Khan) and at this advanced stage to suffer a marked loss of disc height was a cruel psychological setback. Facet joint sclerosis at the lumbar levels was nothing short of a blow below the belt. Gritting the teeth, muttering the sort of mantras that made the British Empire great (Bear through life like a torch in flame —Play up! play up! and play the game!), I have risen above the indisputable and carried on. There are countless conditions graver than luceny and coarsening of the trabecular pattern, and millions are obliged to endure them. “The great affair is to move”, said Robert Louis Stevenson, and every day I thank whatever gods there be that move I can. Also, although the Seaford waterfront may offer no competition to your Costa Brava or your Côte d’Azur, to be within a pebble’s throw of the English Channel and the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry is boundlessly uplifting; the lungs filled with the smogless air, the head with wishful fantasies born of Stevenson’s Vagabond and Housman’s blue remembered hills. But I have sorely missed the Downs.
Wednesday dawned with only the smoke stack of the eco-friendly Newhaven incinerator belching picturesquely above the mist in the valley. A cloudless sky and a mounting temperature were evidently to come. Greatly daring, before high noon I had broken the bonds of prudence and Bonningstedt Promenade and was on my way up the hill.
How tentatively I went to begin with; how tenderly testing the anterior osteophytes and the facet joints. Oh, the blessing of my walking poles. But what a reward was there. How reassuring to be able to climb the padlocked 5-bar gate with a hey nonny nonny and scarcely an admonitory twinge. How good to have the old chalk grassland instead of the County Council’s concrete underfoot. How pleasing to rest the hemipelvis upon familiar stiles and lift ambitious eyes beyond the immediate goal of Page’s New Barn (built in the year that Victoria ascended the throne) to the far ridge overlooking the Weald.
There was no obvious swelling of ash or hawthorn buds, none but winter colour in the landscape, no thickening in the woods; but in the rookery was a noisy congregation of birds at last year’s nests. The hedgerows were still bare except for the bright gold of lichen on the blackthorn, yet wild plum blossom, white as new snow, confirmed beyond a doubt that another spring had arrived.
A Last Hurrah!
If the hunting trip in Kuwait contributed to any ideas that the General may have developed as regards a possible defensive occupation of the sheikhdom he did not say, or it was intelligence he never shared with his ADC; but we saw the strategic lie of the land and even though it was a banner whose power to impress was universally on the wane, we showed the flag. Though the drilling rigs were busy in 1946 and the crude oil reserves of the area were said to be equal to those of Iran, we could never have imagined the horror forty-five years later of more than 700 wells, deliberately fired on the orders of Saddam, spewing their smoke and flames into the sky where the falcons had flown. Could this sprawling metropolis of skyscrapers and multilane traffic be the same part of the world where we had played with the sheikh’s pearls in a rosewood chest? Could this be the place where our host had wanted to present me with a superb pair of gold and pearl drop earrings for the General’s wife? It had been an offer that I had been obliged to refuse on the spurious grounds that the wives of senior British army officers were not permitted to enjoy such largesse when in active service zones, but in reality because the long-serving resident British Political Agent advised me that the Ruler eagerly desired a jeep, and that an acceptance without an appropriate quid pro quo would constitute a diplomatic gaffe that would never be lived down.
Shortly after our return from Kuwait I started getting headaches, having bouts of nausea and generally being unwell. The cool season was in full swing and I was reluctant to be excluded from it. Eventually, the General himself ordered me to see the headquarters doctor and within hours I found myself in the Shaibah military hospital. “Tom Kemp, who has died aged 89, was the oldest surviving England rugby captain; he was also one of only three men who played rugby for England both before and after the Second World War … He trained as a doctor at St.Mary’s Hospital in London … During the war he became a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in the Middle East”. Reading the Daily Telegraph obituary in January, 2005, I could see his face as clearly as when first I saw it looking down at me in Shaibah. How was I feeling? he asked, glancing up from the notes on the clipboard hooked on the end of my bed. “Pretty awful”, I said. Tom said he wasn’t surprised: infective hepatitis wasn’t calculated to make one feel like a spring lamb. I was in hospital for more than a week, during which time, once or twice accompanied by the General and his wife, he saw me daily. He was head of the Force’s Medical Division and if he was slightly inclined to give the Force Commander’s ADC attention bordering on the privileged it would hardly have been surprising. The General and the rest of headquarters staff liked him, and afterwards I saw a lot of him. Nine years my senior, his attitude towards me was saved from the avuncular or paternal by his own enduring youthfulness and innocence of the slightest self-regard or pomposity. He had been at school at Denistone, but had friends who had been at the ISC. We talked about rugger. He heard that I had trained as a pilot at Marshalls airfield, Cambridge, where he had been an undergraduate at Clare. I had often walked in its grounds, I told him, and envied him his membership of such a beautiful college. I ought to try it myself, Tom said; his Cambridge years had been some of the best of his life.
Thanks to him, I discovered Cyprus. It was his earnest recommendation that after the malaria in India, the dysentery to mark my arrival in the Gulf and, now, the hepatitis, I should have a change of climate and environment. With heavy irony, the General said that he would do his best to manage without me. My brother David, who was with the RAF in Palestine, had married a girl in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (a ‘Waaf’). After their wedding they had gone to Cyprus, where I unconventionally joined them for a few days of their honeymoon and a few more of my sick leave in what seems now to have been an idyll of delights. At home there was still rationing. Mass tourism was not yet so much as a smudge on the horizon. In Germany they were still clearing the rubble from their devastated cities and had not yet dreamed of rising early to stake their claims on Mediterranean beaches. Not one person in a thousand beyond Spain had heard of the Costa Brava, let alone a peasant dish called paella or a concoction of wine and fruit called sangria. It was twenty years or more before the calamari on the menus of waterfront restaurants in the isles of Greece needed to be imported frozen from China. In Cyprus I swam alone where Aphrodite is said to have risen from the foam and the package holidaymakers now pullulate, walked by myself on unfrequented paths in the Troodos mountains, had solitary picnics high in the ruins of the castle of St. Hilarion. It would be eleven years before Harold Macmillan would tell the British that they had never had it so good, but in 1946 the tourist in Cyprus might with some justice have been warned that he never would have it so good again.
Back in Basra stamina was necessary to survive the social round. The principally British staffs of shipping, oil, banking, and lesser trades were prominent and busy participants. Several consular offices were actively represented. Invitations issued by the Royal Navy were highly prized. Nor, as the archives of the Iraq Times could show, were movers and shakers among the indigenous population idle.
Basra. “Sheikh Ahmad Noori Bashayan’s party was given on Thursday in the garden of his house at Silihiyah … the rich colour of the bougainvillaea covering the veranda made marked contrast with the uniform green of the surrounding date gardens … On Friday Sayid Hamid el Nakeeb gave a very large luncheon party to at least 200 guests in the garden and courtyard of his house in Basra City. On Friday evening Sayid Najim-ed-Din el Nakeeb entertained a large number of guests to dinner at his house down river. On Saturday the monthly dance took place at the British Club. The music provided by the Punjabi band was excellent. On Sunday Hajji Mustafa Taha es-Salman gave a big and, as usual, very excellent luncheon party at his house on the river … Without prejudice to parties in previous seasons, it may be said that those of the last week set a standard of excellence hard to surpass.”
The account is taken verbatim from IN AND AROUND BASRA, a yellowing column clipped from the local paper and discovered in a largely unrewarding search for mementoes of 1946 to augment information provided by an increasingly sketchy diary. Had such reports been accompanied by guest lists the names of Major-General F.J. Loftus-Tottenham, his wife and his ADC would have appeared in them. As a matter of course, the Commander of Force 401 and his normal personal entourage were liable to be invited to any major social event. Their attendance was likely to depend on the advice given to the General by his ADC, who in his turn crucially relied on the advice of others whose local, and in some cases specialised, knowledge equipped them for sorting the social sheep from the goats. Acceptance or refusal could be interpreted as approval or disapproval of something other than the would-be host’s merely social status. The very presence of the Force in Iraq had implications that could engage a level of diplomacy higher than that on which I was qualified to function, and there were moments when I was obliged to seek counsel from our embassy in Baghdad. When in doubt, a meticulously crafted conveyance of regrets was always preferable to an indiscreet acceptance.
There are reasons for suspecting that at least as much of my energy was spent in these matters of civil protocol as in the discharge of more martial responsibilities. Landed in situations in which he was obliged to exchange inconsequentialities with people whose company he had not sought, and in circumstances he would normally have taken pains to avoid, the General’s anger afterwards could be such that anyone responsible was well advised to seek deep shelter. He was capable of being the most kind and gentle of men, but to say that he did not suffer fools gladly would be dangerously to underrate his capacity for wrath. Once, when I had made a mess of something or other and he had rapped me over the knuckles, I was not so much injured by the rebuke as desolate with the knowledge that I had disappointed him. Later in the day, when he gruffly suggested that if I had nothing better to do that evening I might like to dine with him and his wife at their bungalow, I felt as a child might feel when he has lost his most treasured possession, then found it again.
“Mrs. Loftus”, as the Chief of Staff, a close friend of long-standing, called the general’s wife, was an ADC’s delight. Dependably one of the best-looking women in any mixed company, discreetly vivacious, familiar since birth with the ways of the British army in India, her wisdom and diplomacy could anticipate storms before ever they became tempests or wonderfully calm them if they did. I did not know it at the time (neither they nor anyone else ever spoke of it; the Chief of Staff told me only when we were both civilians again), but two of their three sons, both in their early twenties, both Gurkhas, had been killed in action; one in Italy at Monte Casino, the other in Burma under his father’s own command. Though they would not have admitted it even to themselves, there must have been times when my very existence must have appeared almost as an affront to them, yet they treated me with unfailing kindness and forbearance. Much later in life, listening to the headmaster of Westminster School extolling the virtue of fortitude from the pulpit in the Abbey, they came poignantly to mind. Exemplars of the British military Raj at its inimitable best, their like was soon to be extinct.
So passed the last few months of my own trifling term in uniform and almost the last of the General’s long career in the service he loved. We routinely visited component units of the Force, largely consisting of Indian troops (Pakistan was not yet a political reality), who took part in manoeuvres that became increasingly academic as the need for our existence appeared to recede. We danced attendance on such travellers engaged in more urgent business as came our way and rated our salutes. They were months when the world east of Suez was a melting pot. Apart from any part Force 401 might be playing in geopolitics, its significance in the logistics of air travel made Basra an almost unavoidable airport of call for those concerned with the shifts of military and civil power resulting from the end of the war and the future of India. Memory identifies in particular Generals Wavell, Dempsey, Auchinlech and Slim. Once or twice, Admiral Mountbatten (“Lord Louis“), head of South-East Asia Command and soon to be the last Viceroy of India, now engaged in the preliminaries to Independence and Partition, came through, accompanied by his wife. All used the airport as a refuelling and comfort stop.
General Sir Miles Dempsey, who had recently been appointed Military Commander for the whole of the Middle East, arrived in his own Dakota and inspected the Force at Shaibah. In 1944 he had commanded the British Second Army in Europe; now, noticing the France and Germany campaign ribbon on my tunic, he asked what formation I had served in, and, when told, remarked that I must be finding the desert quite a change from the Reichwald Forest. Auchinlech and Slim, both old personal friends of my commander, later to be met again in London clubs and drawing rooms, chatted amicably. Only Mountbatten managed to combine imperiousness with condescension. Afterwards, listening to General Loftus and the Chief of Staff talking about the occasion over drinks in the General’s bungalow, I realised that in spite of all popular glamorisation of the scion of the German House of Battenberg, the Viceroy Designate’s unpopularity ran deep and wide.
I misreport those months in Iraq if I give the impression of having played the dutiful ADC innocent of intensely selfish indulgencies. That Alexandra has not already featured in earlier pages, and out of regard for the reader will rarely do so in those that follow, is inversely proportionate to her significance. Twenty-five years old, a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, the unmarried daughter of American academics resident in Basra, she was a quibble or two short of beauty but distinctive enough to be one of the most sought-after young women in circulation. She was in Iraq on holiday after relinquishing a wartime commission in the American armed services and before joining the U.S. Foreign Service. My General, who was himself not indifferent to her charm, and who approved of my evidently better-than-passing regard for her, more than half-seriously cautioned that she might be a spy in the pay of American petro-diplomatic interests, bent on obtaining useful information from a patently vulnerable young officer with access to useful military and geopolitical secrets. It did not prevent him from letting me have his staff car to collect her for dinner or take her on midnight picnics into the desert. In today’s jargon Alex and I were ‘an item’ and it puzzles me still that I did not fall deeply in love with her. If I had had any secrets worth the telling she could have had them for a whisper, yet my most daring confidence was to quote Flecker at her under those star-filled desert skies.
But when the deep red light of day is level with the lone highway,
And some to Mecca turn to pray, and I toward thy bed, Yasmin;
Shower down thy love, O burning bright! For one night or the other night,
Will come the Gardener in white, and gathered flowers are dead, Yasmin.
Alex was staying with her parents, whose manners and morals were to say the least conservative, while my own quarters neighboured those of my colleagues too closely to permit of any breach of discretion. Still, the sentiment was the thing.
The visit of General Dempsey and his immediate entourage from Cairo proved unexpectedly rewarding. Early the following year a high-level conference in London required the attendance of the General, but not myself. Being, in any case, due for leave, wanting to see more of the place of which I had seen so little en route from England, I shamelessly used my Shaibah acquaintance with General Dempsey’s ADC, and my local connections with the RAF, to contrive a return trip to Cairo. This time I was better equipped to profit from the opportunity. Before leaving Iraq I had obtained introductions from Stewart Perowne that opened doors not only in Egypt, but in Jordan and Syria. Accompanied by a succession of guides that money could not have secured but Perowne’s standing in the world of antiquities did, I not only saw more of the Valley of the Kings and the Tutankhamun Museum, but (thanks again to the RAF and Middle East Command connections) marvelled at Jordan’s famously ‘rose-red’ city of Petra without another tourist in sight and Syria’s (at that time notionally inaccessible) Krak des Chevaliers, which T.E. Lawrence said was “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”.
Finally, persuaded that its comparative closeness represented an opportunity that might not soon come again, and with my movements facilitated by the same kindly agencies, I crossed the border into the Lebanon and went skiing near Beirut. “Went skiing” is to view the occasion through a bountifully distorting lens. Though I had not been puffed up by my début in the hills near Liège in 1945, the experience had been equally dangerous in that it had failed to temper enthusiasm with cautious respect. Hiring skis, a taxi, and two boys who spoke enough French to assure me that they would take me to the best slopes in the country, I was driven into the mountains overlooking the narrow coast and escorted to the top of descents compared with which those in the Ardennes had been the most modest of inclines in the least spectacular of landscapes. There were no lifts, nor any sign that anyone but myself, companions included, had so much as thought about skiing. The idea was that I would descend for a few hundred yards and that, taking it in turns, one of the boys would then carry my skis back to the top. The snow was hard, the terrain was what with characteristic exactitude of expression the French might call accidenté. The many boulders were avoided not by technical skill, which I had not even begun to possess, but by hurling myself bodily aside in ill-judged preference to the acute risk of breaking a limb or a joint through incompetent disposition of the feet and legs. I made two runs and miraculously survived both. The first was exhilarating, if frightening. The second convinced me that the pleasures of the downhill were outweighed by the exertions of the up. The two boys did not dissent.
The Lebanon was my last hurrah for quite a long while: before the snows melted my number literally was up. I could have applied for demobilisation to be deferred, but only for a minimum of a year and the General said that unless I was thinking of making a career in the army it would hardly be worth it: Force 401 would be disbanded in less than half that time and he himself out of a job. He would be sorry to lose me, but better, he would have thought, for me to go while the going was good and I could at least travel home in style.
Thus on a day in April, 1947, a four-engined Short Empire Class flying boat belonging to British Oversea Airways Corporation – successor to Imperial Airways – rose from the Shatt al-Arab near Basra, bound for Cairo, Sicily, Marseilles and England. Most of the passengers were army officers who had boarded at Karachi. With the single exception of myself, none had less than a crown on the shoulders of his uniform. Then, and for years to come, the flying boat was by far the fastest and most comfortable way between India and home, and only special high authority, or priority attaching to exalted rank, could secure a passage. As ADC to a general I possessed one of those prerequisites. There was a poetic symbolism in the water surging up and over the cabin window a few inches from my face, blinding the view, threatening to engulf the entire aircraft as we neared the end of our take-off run. Within minutes a white-jacketed steward was serving drinks, and as the palm groves fell away beneath us and the desert took their place I downed a gin and tonic to enhance an acute awareness of my privilege. It was all a far cry from a converted Liberator bomber or a four-berth cabin on an overcrowded troop ship, though even they had represented luxury compared with the fashion in which most men in uniform were obliged to travel at the time.
Of the rest of the journey one recollection alone survives. At Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, a shore excursion enabled me injudiciously to buy a large quantity of Gorgonzola, which I knew would be a sumptuous addition to the wartime rationing that persisted at home. We had been airborne again for a very short while when the steward asked if by chance anyone had brought cheese on board. Shamefacedly, I confessed. Gingerly, the steward removed the offending parcel from the overhead locker, courteously assuring me that I would be able to retrieve it from the hold. My fellow passengers generously accepted my apologies and a brigadier from GHQ in Delhi said that he hoped I wouldn’t be tempted by a ripe Camembert when we got to Marseilles.
Thus within 24 hours of our departure from the Shatt al-Arab we came to rest in Poole Harbour, Dorset. To a month, five years had passed since I first put army uniform on. In less than a week I would discard it, never to wear it again. At the time of my first parade the worst of the London Blitz was over but the “Baedeker” raids on York, Norwich, Bath, Exeter and Canterbury were just beginning. Operation Blue – the German advance towards Stalingrad – had not yet started. Singapore had only just fallen to the Japanese. Now, as I made my way home to Sussex and the primroses, World War II had been over for almost two years, half the world had been laid waste and the greatest empire that the world had ever seen had reached the last stage of dismemberment. And at the end of May I would be all of twenty-three.
NEXT FRIDAY, 22 March, Serial 19: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part One.
A Last Hurrah!
Characteristically, my diary marks what must have been the crowded last few days of my six months in India with a conspicuous blank. No philosophical reflections upon their significance. No regrets or excitement. No fond farewells. Only when Iraq had been disclosed as the regiment’s destination and my first and last voyage on a conventional troop ship had begun was the momentous shift in my experience as an amateur soldier briefly noticed.
Tuesday, 3 September, 1946: Bombay. Tugs move us slowly out of the basin at 7.15 am. A clear morning as we leave harbour and the sun is shining on the Taj and the Gateway of India. The pleasanter side of the city looks quite attractive. Passing the ‘Georgic’, decks crowded with troops bound (someone says) for home and demob. Bad attack of nostalgia as a result. Soon reach open sea. Ship rolls badly and troops start feeling it. Self OK so far. Lunch and dine briefly. Wednesday: Just started on eggs and bacon when suddenly obliged to leave saloon and was sick. Took to bunk. Curry and rice lunch stayed down. Bunk rest of day until light supper. Ship rolling abominably and most people ill. Thursday: Fair night & breakfast. Rolling reduced. On deck and read Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp. Entertaining. Good curry lunch. Sleep until dinner. Wrote letters. Friday: Getting warmer as Gulf of Oman approaches. Read Nigel Balchin’s Mine Own Executioner. Excellent: could hardly put it down, but obliged to do so when warm air plus movement of ship induces nausea that sends me unsteadily to heads. Much humidity. Beautiful moon and sea. Saturday: Land sighted several times; great rugged cliffs and sandy shore. Read and sleep. At evening, round corner at head of Gulf of Oman. Sea dead calm. Sunday, 8 September: Very beautiful day with delightful breeze on deck all day. In evening, anchored at mouth of Shatt al Arab river. Terribly humid. C.O. calls officers’ conference and announces we are part of Force 401; purpose unspecified. Have developed unpleasant yellow tinge from anti-malarial mepacrin.
Britain had had a cardinal interest in the Middle East for at least 200 years. Until the discovery of oil in Persia in 1908 the interest had been that of protecting the approaches to India from the possible encroachments of any rival European power. Following the Royal Navy’s abandonment of coal in favour of oil during the First World War, her prime concern had been at all costs to safeguard the supply of the fuel that was indispensable both to her maritime security and (which came to the same thing) her national economy. Until the 1950s, all of Britain’s oil came from Abadan, downstream on the eastern side of the Shatt al Arab, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Jointly owned by the British Government and BP, Abadan was at that time the largest refinery in the world. Our first major military incursion in the region had been that of the catastrophic expedition from India under the command of Sir Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend in 1915 against the occupying Turks. With the defeat of the Turks throughout Arabia, and the establishment in 1921 of the ‘mandated territories’ (most of which were effectively under British rule) and the Kingdom of Iraq, the oil of the Gulf was safe until World War II. In 1941, the rabidly pro-Nazi Arab nationalist, Rashid Ali, together with four senior Army and Air Force commanders, carried out a military coup d’état which included the capture of the RAF base at Habbaniya. Oil was by this time coming from Iraq itself as well as Persia; to secure both, as well as to protect the Allied supply lines of war material for Russia, a force was for the second time sent from India Command. This was PAI (Persia and Iraq) Force, which eventually came under the command of Lieutenant-General Henry (‘Jumbo’) Maitland Wilson. PAI Force did the business required and remained in Baghdad as a headquarters rump until the end of the war.
It was not long before the arrival of the third nightmare threat to Britain’s supplies of oil from the Gulf. This time it was not trouble in Iraq that was the cause, but trouble in Persia. During the war, for the familiar reasons of oil and supply lines, the country had been invaded jointly by Britain, the USA and Russia. In 1945, when Britain and the USA withdrew, Russia continued effectively to occupy Azerbaijan and other northern provinces with the aim of establishing an autonomous Communist state. The nationalisation by Persia (later Iran) of the British-owned refinery of Abadan was the ambition of the Russia-backed Tudeh (Persian Communist) party, which in early 1946 fomented riots in Abadan. Once more, Britains’s entire economy and military security were menaced with imminent disaster; accordingly, Prime Minister Clement Attlee ordered a fighting force to be sent to the Gulf with the object of convincing Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and his ministers that if the Persians themselves could not regain control of the oil fields and protect Abadan, Britain herself would be obliged to do the job.
With post-war demobilisation at full spate in Europe, India was yet again the only place from which such a force could come. Sailing the same seas, braving the same heat and humidity, disembarking at the same port on the Shatt al Arab, a fighting force was hastily dispatched. This time, in 1946, where Major-General C.V.F. Townshend and Lieutenant-General H.M. Wilson had led, Major-General F.J. Loftus-Tottenham now followed. Born in 1898, first commissioned in 1916, he had been wounded in the Mesapotamian campaign in 1918, had twice served on the North-West frontier, had been Envoy Extraordinary to the King of Nepal and had commanded the 153rd Gurkha Parachute Battalion, the 33rd Indian Infantry Brigade and the 81st (West African) Division in Burma, where he had won two DSOs.
Monday, 9 September: Up at 5 am. Ship moves into river. Great groves of palm trees. Intense heat. Pass Abadan refinery; awful-looking place. Arrive Basra early afternoon but disembarkation not until 7 pm. Humidity truly appalling. By road to Shaibah. Bedroll not yet arrived so sleep in primitive conditions. Tuesday: Intense morning heat. God knows how we shall work in it. Chaos everywhere but I escape by being sent on advance party to permanent (?) camp. Bare, cruel place. Odd palm here and there. Dust. Mud buildings. No latrines fit for use. Water in short supply. Work until 2 pm, clearing buildings and erecting tents. IORs (Indian other ranks) not standing heat very well. Self pretty limp. Lunch and dinner at Naafi officers’ club, an oasis in this desert. Bed in hut with 2i/c (Second in Command) but move outside. Even there, terribly hot but huge and lovely moon in beautiful night sky. Wednesday: Start work 5.30 am. Sun blazing like fury from 6.15 am. Temp above 100. Sweat-soaked all day. Nothing to see but few dry palm trees, glare and mud. A merciless country. Slave all morning at erecting tents with men working well, considering. Am getting quite brown. Lunched and dined at club again. Dance night but only 4 women visible. Terrible German POW band. Beautiful night but dreadfully warm again. Thursday: Tents all day. Organise officers’ mess. Regiment moves in at 4 pm; level of chaos about usual. Sweat-soaked and gasping for air all night. Cool weather promised for middle of October. Pray heaven promise is kept. Feeling very bad-tempered.
The bad temper may have been partly attributable to an attack of dysentery, which took me into hospital for long enough for it to be ascertained that the condition was bacillary and not amoebic. On my return to the regiment the colonel summoned me to his office early one morning to tell me that he had been asked to release me as soon as possible from regimental duties in order for me to report to the G3* at Force Headquarters. It appeared that they had “some sort of a job” for me. As to what sort of a job I did not bother to enquire. Regimental life when the game of soldiers is being played in earnest may have its attractions. Regimental routines in which the highest achievements are erecting more canvas in the men’s lines so as to sleep only four to a tent instead of six, and improving the fly screens in the officers’ mess, held little appeal. In a couple of hours I had packed, said my good-byes and been driven into Basra.
The G3 was a captain only a few years older than myself. He was sorry it was all being sprung on me so suddenly, but the Force Commander had only just learnt that I had come in on the Varella and had been “rather miffed” that Delhi hadn’t kept him briefed on my whereabouts. Apparently……
The G3 was cut short by the opening of the door and the abrupt arrival (“Burst in” might not be too extravagant a description of his entrance) of an officer in jungle-green fatigues with red tabs on the tunic collar. He was notably tall and had a classic military moustache. It was as much his personality as his physical presence that seemed to fill the room. The G3 and I both jumped to our feet. For a moment the General said nothing; simply looking. Then, to me: “I think I may be the man you’re after”. Then, to the G3. “I take it you’ll fix him up with all comforts, Peter”? And to me again: “Let’s go and have some lunch”.
Loftus-Tottenham “was a fine-looking man with a strong and forceful personality …The moment you met him you realised that he was a commander … a bulldog of a man … tenacious, stubborn”, wrote Arthur Swinson in Kohima, his book about the engagement between the British Fourteenth Army and the Japanese in Burma in 1944, which Mountbatten called “one of the greatest battles of history” and Field-Marshal Lord Wavell said was “one of the turning points of the war”. It was at Kohima that the man I now lunched with in his bungalow won the first of his two DSOs .
“A military officer acting as secretary and confidential assistant to a superior officer of General or flag rank”, says an Internet search engine for an explanation of the abbreviation ADC. As an admiral has his barge, so a General his ADC: it is an appurtenance of office; it goes with the territory. Even in smartest service dress with red tabs and a peaked hat Loftus-Tottenham was not easy to associate with anything so pacific as a secretary-cum-confidential-assistant. “A soldier’s soldier” came readily to the pen of one of his obituarists in 1987. “Someone who characterises the Army’s core values; in action, the sort of man everyone wants to have around”.
Being his ADC wasn’t going to be a very exciting job, the general warned: mostly making sure there was always plenty of clean ice for his gin and tonic. Though obviously it had to do with the man in the Rifle Brigade whom I had met in Ahmednagar, I never knew exactly by what means the general had acquired me and he never volunteered the information. What was obvious from his seemingly casual enquiries over lunch was that he had no need to be informed about the salient facts in my four-year-old military career. It was the first occasion in my life of realising that my interlocutor already knew the answers to most of the questions he was asking. It was not the last.
Though Force 401 was in Iraq with a serious military-cum-political purpose, there is remarkably little either in recollection or in my own records to illustrate the fact. Every few years, a wearisome ferreting for some rarely-remembered or needed possession unearths a multipage document entitled OPERATION FOXER. Prominently classified as S E C R E T, mimeographed (its origins were at least three decades too early for photocopying) on what was never better than army-issue paper which is now brittle and almost sepia with age, it concerns an exercise in which units of Force 401 simulate as realistically as possible a full-scale crossing of the Shatt al Arab with the obvious intention of occupying the Abadan refinery. The exercise requires the deployment of artillery, light armour and infantry together with appropriate landing craft. There is an inference in the text of both air and naval support. The document must have been among my papers at the time of packing for my final return to England and been deliberately purloined as a souvenir; now, it is my only specific clue to the sort of military activity that appears to have engaged the Force during those Shaibah months, but squares with a diary note in which I record that “shambolic day and night operations drive Loftus almost to apoplexy, and result in major bollocking of senior officers”. “I don’t know if they’ll frighten the Persians, but by God they frighten me”, said the General, paraphrasing Wellington. Boats were capsized. Men were drowned.
Though it was the main and most immediate one, Abadan is unlikely to have been the only reason for our presence in Shaibah. The Middle East in 1946 was, to put it vulgarly, a can of worms. The days of Iraq’s Hashemite monarchy were already numbered. In Palestine (through which a pipeline from Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, carried crude to a refinery at Haifa) Jewish militants had already in July blown up the King David Hotel with the loss of almost a hundred lives. In June, the first international shipment from the immensely rich Burgan oil field in Kuwait had taken place. In short, the threat to Britain’s oil interests in Iraq itself, and in neighbouring Arabia, that had been the origins of PAI Force had not disappeared with the end of the war in 1945.
Such considerations may in turn have been behind a particular conference in Baghdad that was attended by the General. We lodged in style with a prominent member of the British community distinguished by his charm, his urbanity and his rose garden. For considerations of security, we were strongly discouraged from exploring beyond the boundaries of our military world, nor, to tell the shameful truth, had I any compelling desire to do so. For a young man of twenty-two with a red armband and a captain’s three pips on his epaulets, our immediate and legitimate social scene, closer to the diplomatic as opposed to the commercial civilian milieu than was the case in Basra, was agreeable enough. There is a wistful remembrance of dolce far niente associated with those days in Baghdad. While my masters deliberated over sterner matters, I spent what seem now to have been hour after undisturbed hour lounging in a garden chair with cooling drinks on call and a breeze stirring the eucalyptus trees, reading Kinglake’s Eothen and daydreaming about travels that I would yet make in a world that was all selections from Flecker.
What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the west.
Night was falling on Anglo-Arabia, but the garden was sweet with jasmine and orange blossom and for a while it was still black tie for dinner and thinly-sliced cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea.
For the passing visitor at a certain social level, no other country of Arabia could so easily foster the illusion of embodying an intrinsic Englishness as Iraq in 1946. Constitutionally a creation of the English, ostensibly independent, it was virtually a British puppet. King Feisal, who had inherited the throne at the age of three, had been schooled at Harrow. The royal household in Baghdad embraced not only English nannies, governesses and tutors, but even English stable staff. Educated at Victoria College in Alexandria (described by Jan Morris as “a transplanted English public school … specifically designed to produce surrogate Britons”) Abdullillah, the Prince Regent, was thought by some to be more English than the English. I met him very briefly in Basra. “Big luncheon at Haji Mustafa’s” says one of the few entries in my diary for December, 1946. “Prince Abdullillah is guest of honour and servants barbarously slaughter six sheep on the landing stage to provide wonderfully delicious kouzi. Prince chats with General. Self perfunctorily acknowledged with rather limp handshake. Hope my bow was OK”. Jan Morris, who met him nine years later, has described him as reticent, formal, courtly and shy.
“Inexhaustibly interesting” was an opinion of diplomat Stewart Perowne, Oriental Counsellor at the British Embassy, talking about the kingdom of Iraq over dinner with the General and myself on a night train to Basra. The 48-year-old archeologist and historian had himself been going south and General Loftus had offered him a spare sleeping berth in our special carriage. Today, recollections of the man and the moment crowd irresistibly back whenever Iraq is in the news. He himself had originally discovered not a few of the treasured exhibits in the National Museum of Baghdad. Had he lived to know of its sack after the fall of the monstrous Saddam Hussein it would surely have broken his heart. Inevitably, the legendary Garden of Eden, said to have been the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, north of the Gulf, came into the conversation. The General had been invited to shoot in the wetlands and Perowne spoke at length about the region, of which I knew nothing and the General, I suspect, knew little more other than its possible strategic significance in any notional future manoeuvres. We did go shooting there, bagging both duck and snipe. Almost twenty years later, Wilfred Thesiger wrote his classic The Marsh Arabs, initiating popular attention for the extraordinary territory. Thirty more years on, and in revenge for the rebellion of Shiite rebels, who had taken refuge there, Saddam Hussein instituted the massive works of engineering by which the marshes were maliciously and catastrophically reduced from more than 6,000 square miles to fewer than 400 (the United Nations said it was one of the worst environmental disasters in history) and a culture that had existed for at least 3,000 years before the Garden of Eden had been thought of had been irrecoverably destroyed.
Saddam’s atrocities and their consequences provoked almost nightly bouts of nostalgia as the television cameras covered Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Soon after our return from Baghhad, conceivably as a consequence of the discussions at PAI Force, we paid an official visit to the sheikhdom on the Gulf. ‘It looks like the timeless, mouldering east’, wrote an anonymous contributor to the Picture Post in July, 1946. ‘Fifty thousand people live in a city girdled by walls five miles in length. During the day they like to picnic in the desert. At night they pitch their tents round the bay to sleep’. Few places can have undergone a greater transformation in both appearance and way of life in the past half-century than the Gulf States. Kuwait in the twenty-first century bears as much resemblance to the Kuwait that we saw in 1946 as present-day Manhattan bears to the fur-trading island of the same name that Henry Hudson discovered 300 years ago. Pearl diving had made a vital contribution to the life of the sheikhdom until the large-scale production of cultured pearls by the Japanese in the 1930s. Boats sailed from Kuwait to the oyster beds of the Gulf coast at the beginning of the fearful desert summer, and sailed home at the end of it to sell both their harvest from the sea and the chests that had been embarked as plain rosewood but returned with the traditional (and, when genuinely antique, today highly-prized) brass work decoration executed during the four-months voyage. Now, in the year after Hiroshima, pearl fishing was fast becoming more of a tourist attraction than a staple of the economy, and the desert where once only the Bedu had pitched their tents and milked their camels was picturesque with oil drilling rigs and Coca-Cola bottle caps. We called on the Sheikh in his mud-walled city and in his treasury delighted in the tactile pleasure of letting fortunes slip through our grasp by lifting handfuls of pearls from a superb old Kuwait chest and trickling them slowly back through our fingers.
Picturesque, too, were the falconers who travelled with the Sheikh and ourselves into the desert for a hunting foray. In their loose-fitting dish-dashahs that were whipped by the wind as their wearers rode a pickup, hawks hooded on their wrists and held protectively close to their chests, they would have pleased the eye of a Doughty or a Thesiger, though contrasting oddly with the General, conventionally uniformed, driving in an open jeep with the Sheikh beside him and myself in the back. It was the season of the annual migration of the bustard, the hubara, from central Asia, and the Sheikh said that he would be disappointed if we failed to kill at least two or three. On a good day, with three hawks, it was possible to kill many more. We killed four. Once, the Sheikh said, we might have bagged a gazelle, but there were regrettably far fewer of them than there used to be. When the hunt was finished, we gathered where carpets had been spread colourfully on the desert floor with a giant platter holding a kouzi for a centrepiece. Years later, assembled for shooting lunches on Scottish moors, I whimsically never failed to be reminded of Kuwait and thought how the delectable young lamb, stuffed principally with pistachios, pine kernels and almonds, deserved to have been prefaced by a dram or two of the single malt that accompanied the generously provisioned Scottish picnic baskets.
* General Staff Officer. category 3
NEXT FRIDAY, 15 March, Serial 18: Chapter Eleven, A Last Hurrah, Part Two.
There is no readily available memoir of the administrative process whereby I left the regiment in Nasik and joined another in the state of Maharashtra; most probably I had made myself so unpleasant in the first that a means was found of foisting me off on the second. Whatever the explanation, in the middle of May a tortuous six-hour drive through the Western Ghats ended in the place where I was to spend most of my last two months in the subcontinent. “Camp not at all bad though very dusty and windy. Mess fair. Own room spacious and well appointed”, says an unusually upbeat note in my diary on the day after my arrival in Ahmednagar. Appointed acting adjutant, the previous holder of the office of principal assistant to the Commanding Officer of the regiment having recently sailed for home, it did not take long for me to recognise that I had moved from the frying pan into the fire. The regiment had fought in North Africa but had since been severely cannibalised, so that not a single officer who had served with it then was now on its strength. In the course of action in the Western Desert it had lost not only its treasure chest but – conveniently – the regimental accounts. ‘Inconsistencies’ in the explanations supplied to the original court of enquiry had been identified, suspicions of malfeasance aroused and the subsequent investigation prosecuted with timeless persistence. Four years on, it was still in being. One of my most important duties (in practice, there was no other), the colonel said, was both to continue research into the history of the loss and to attempt to determine as accurately as possible the size of what was believed to be the considerable sum involved.
In any circumstances it would not have been the occupation of my choice, but when pre-monsoon tension was mounting by the day, and in an office where the temperature must have been in the high nineties Fahrenheit and the benefit of the non-oscillating fan was not easy to detect, it was a task in comparison with which the labour of Sisyphus was a sybaritic relaxation. There was also a bird, which, perched in a nearby tree, from dawn to dusk and with indefatigable and metronomic regularity on a single, high-pitched note, emitted a seemingly purposeless call. One morning, maddened to breaking point (murder; not suicide) I rushed to the armoury in search of a rifle and was saved from a court martial offence only by the good sense of the sergeant of the guard.
It was an exercise in unrelieved futility. Without exception, anyone who might have provided useful information was either dead, had been dispersed, or been demobilised. I had no experience of accountancy and less than no aptitude for it. When the colonel asked me how things were progressing, knowing him to be a graduate of the “go at ’em and keep going at ’em hard” school of military philosophy who despised anyone who failed to “show willing”, I said that I thought a few more days might bring significant results and continued privately to hope that some more urgent matter for his attention and my employment might suddenly arise.
The hope was fulfilled in the form of a memorandum from higher than regimental authority on the subject of welfare. It was a cause of concern, said the memo, that cases of drunkenness, serious indiscipline, absence without leave and even desertion were on the increase. Reasons for what were beginning to look dangerously like the onset of a general malaise were not difficult to find in this most difficult period of transition from war to peace, but there could be no doubt that one of the most urgent countermeasures was the making of every effort to ensure that time was not allowed to lie heavily on unoccupied hands. Commanding officers must explore every means …….
And so on and so predictably forth. Overnight, the enquiry into the regiment’s lost funds was suspended sine die and I was appointed defender-in-chief of its military fibre. Of recent creation was an organisation responsible only to the War Office called the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, one of its declared purposes being, indeed, the improvement and maintenance of morale. Winston Churchill was later to be revealed as having considered it a shocking waste of resources; now, however, the colonel suggested that I should lose no time in contacting ABCA and enlisting their help. The Bureau, he understood, was housed in the ‘old fort’.
Reflective, I suspect, of the times and my part in them, diary entries for the period are slovenly and irregular. The wind of time having winnowed the chaff from the grain, memory alone must serve to report on my visit to ABCA. “These English are a strange people”, a leader of the Mahratta army is said to have remarked in 1803. “They came here in the morning, surveyed the wall, walked over it, killed the garrison and returned to breakfast”. The wall that now sheltered the Bureau had belonged to one of the strongest fortresses in the whole of India and was strategically vital in the campaign being waged by a certain General Arthur Wellesley – later to be better known as the Duke of Wellington – for the pacification of the Deccan. Typically, I knew next to nothing of the great man other than that he had won the Battle of Waterloo, very little indeed about his time in the (Iberian) Peninsular and nothing at all of the fort. It is safe to assume that I must have stated my business with the Bureau as a quest for ways and means to brighten the lives of the troops and received an appropriate response. Overtures resulted in my being handed over to a genial, well-fed, timeserving quartermaster-sergeant who proceeded to lead me into an Aladdin’s cave of potential diversions. Here were shelves piled high with board games of every kind from chess to snakes and ladders and Monopoly. Here were stacks of ping-pong tables, small mountains of dartboards, pillars of gramophone records (though curiously no gramophones) and enough assorted handicraft materials to keep several army divisions busily employed in basketwork, model-making and tapestry into an unforeseeably distant future. “Been there since the end of the Jap war”, said the genial custodian. “Only wonder is someone didn’t flog the lot months ago, but I don’t suppose the locals are too keen on ping -pong”.
A SEMINAL DISCOVERY
The books were, and remain, a conundrum. When I asked the quartermaster-sergeant if there was any reading material he first of all said no; all the “social bumf’” that London had sent out by the ton prior to the general election of 1945 (with justice, the Bureau came to be suspected of having been assiduously devoted to working for a Labour victory) had either been distributed or junked. Now that I mentioned it, he said, when I apologetically explained that by “reading material” I had meant something other than ABCA literature, there were a couple of boxes marked books that hadn’t even been opened yet but that I was more than welcome to. He’d have them loaded on to my vehicle along with any of the other stuff that I cared to select.
The monsoon broke shortly afterwards. I had not yet unpacked all of the books, but had dipped into the Huxley selection, started reading excerpts from the novels and within a few days had obtained paperback copies of Brave New World, Chrome Yellow, Point Counter Point, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan and Those Barren Leaves by mail order from Bombay. It was not the best time for an introduction to what Rebecca West so percipiently called “the literature of disillusionment”. Had I been endowed with even so much as a tithe of Huxley’s prodigious intellectual abilities, and, like him, been educated at Eton and Balliol, it is not wholly inconceivable that I might have taken him more or less in my ambitious stride; as it was, meagrely educated at best, emotionally overstretched, I had far too much time to wallow in the author’s satirical virtuosity and often evocative sexual cynicism (Evelyn Waugh referred to it as his “bored lovemaking”). Wallow I did, and in Kipling’s immortal words was bowled over “like a rabbit in a ride”. Star of sixth form English I may have been, but a distinction in the School Certificate has never been a match for a First in English at Oxford. What Huxley read on rainy days during his school holidays is not on record, but there can be little doubt that it was something more nutritious to the developing mind than The Last of the Mohicans, The Thirty-Nine Steps and Summer Lightning; all fairly representative of my own literary diet. There in Ahmednagar I was about as well-equipped for a discovery of one of the most influential authors of the 20th century as a neophyte dinghy sailor is for a single-handed voyage round the world.
The consequence was frequent bouts of emotional turmoil, including near-masochistic introspection (How ignorant one was! How intellectually inadequate and untutored! How uncouth!) leading to depression, leading in turn to exaggerated countermeasures. I had yet to learn the wisdom of Dr.Johnson’s “Melancholy should be diverted by every means but drinking”, so that in far and much-distorted retrospect those Ahmednagar days and nights are all very dry martinis and John Collinses, interspersed with long curry lunches (many in the hospitable officers’ mess of the Fourth Duke of Cambridgeshire’s Own Lancers, known as Hodson’s Horse) and self-punishing runs in the rain.
Ahmednagar! The scuffed, water-stained, faded green cover of the fat Huxley Rotunda is here today on my bookshelves. Seeing it, I see enormous cottonwool cumulus clouds surging up from the south. I see treetops “lashing the darkening sky”. I see raindrops exploding in the dust and smell the drenching of the long-parched earth. A baby cobra is discovered in the latrine and a 3-man team is assembled to dispatch it. I lie in my tin bath, listening to the monsoon deluge on the roof and hear Bima, my servant, exclaim “too much pani (water), sahib!”
POSTING TO POONA
Smoke and flames billowing from the windows of the Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008. A luncheon menu pinned to the page in an old diary. Music by the Melody Trio. That I was lunching at the Taj in Bombay on 8 August, 1946, was thanks to a friend in Hodson’s Horse. At a Hodson’s Sunday luncheon I met a Rifle Brigade captain who was visiting from Delhi, where he was on the staff at India Command. We were wearing the same ribbons on our uniforms and found a lot to talk about. What was I doing in Ahmednagar, he asked. Oh dear: it didn’t sound much fun! Could I be interested in a spot of what might be more colourful soldiering elsewhere? He wasn’t at liberty to say much more at the moment, but if anything should develop he would let me know. Numberless John Collinses, a curry lunch or two and a fortnight later, my bombardier clerk handed me an order from Brigade headquarters posting me “forthwith” to a regiment of artillery in Poona. It proved to be the last regimental assignment of my life.
Though in other circumstances a posting to Poona – one of the two most important military depots in India, staging point for legions of the lost – could have been a ticket to a kind of purgatory, I trusted my Rifle Brigade acquaintance unreservedly and with ill-concealed glee gave the colonel the news. Carrying magnanimity to saintly heights, he said he would be sorry to lose me. Shaming me with its collective kindness, the mess gave me a farewell party. Bima (for whose diplomacy I had cynically greater regard than for his sincerity) said that I was the best sahib that he had ever worked for. Finally, the genial ABCA quartermaster-sergeant at the old fort said it was very decent of me to return the books, but he didn’t see anyone else being interested in them and if I cared to have any – or all, for that matter – shipped home as personal possessions he would gladly arrange it. Retaining The Trumpet Major along with Hills and the Sea, I left the rest in his keeping, never expecting to see them again.
In Poona, the regiment I joined – again as assistant adjutant – was under orders for service overseas. Overseas, but nobody was saying where. “All in good time”, said the colonel, mysteriously. For the moment our precise destination did not matter; meanwhile, there was a lot to be done: new equipment to be acquired, checked and “put through its paces”, new drills to be practised, inoculations to be had. As acting assistant adjutant I would be involved with organising the move from Poona to our port of eventual embarkation and with the embarkation itself. A week or two later, liaising with Movements Control in Bombay, I was eating a mixed grill for lunch, accompanied by the music of the Melody Trio at the Taj. It was the occasion when I first heard that the regiment would be bound for the Middle East.
Monsoon notwithstanding, the Rifle Brigade had as good as promised light at the end of the tunnel and time in Poona passed agreeably enough. Taken at face value, my diary might give the impression that life revolved around the Poona Club. Fire had destroyed much of the original premises, but lunching, dining and dancing at ‘the Club’ rarely failed to feature on several days a week and nearly all of every weekend and there seems to have been no shortage of girls to grace such activities. Many, I suppose, were probably nurses or therapists of one sort or another from the hospital. Not a few, perhaps, were the wives of officers on the permanent establishments of various other military organisations. No matter their provenance, and as ever in India of the Raj, they must have been abundantly outnumbered by men of every sort and condition of military rank, but enough of their first names are on record to suggest that I had a generous share of their company. Anne, Pat, Joy, Joan, Betty, Barbara: plucked from their limbo of the ill-written chronicle (I am chastened to see how little my handwriting has improved with the years), they are ‘attractive’, ‘nice’, ‘quite pretty’, ‘interesting’, ‘fun’; but however hard I search for them in memory’s gallery, and not doubting that each was deserving of lasting honour, are no more substantial than shadows. Only one appears to have engaged my better-than-fleeting emotions; of one alone is there any memento. “For Nigel with love. (Grant says any more of this and he’ll institute proceedings)”, says the inscription on the back of a badly-faded black and white photograph in which a smiling, indisputably striking young woman is posed against a background of a snow-covered mountain which I know to be Nanga Parbat in the Himalaya Range. The inscription is signed “Laura”.
Laura was a nurse. Grant was Laura’s handsome, thirty-something-year-old husband, a surgeon in the Medical Corps, with whom she was much in love. The picture had been taken by him when he had returned from Burma in 1945, met Laura at the hospital in Poona and taken her on honeymoon to Kashmir. If I had not still been mindlessly besotted I myself could easily have fallen in love with his wife. As it was, the three of us were often together at the club, sometimes at Grant and Laura’s bungalow, once or twice at the races. “Lucky your case isn’t surgical”, Grant, calling on me in hospital, was shortly to say. “Otherwise I might be on it and my hand might slip”. A year later, hearing that both had been killed in a road accident, I wept.
It was hospital that provided my envoi to India. After a day of doing nothing worthy of special note, I had dozed after an early evening bath and woken before dinner with pain in my chest and shoulder. An hour or two later I was groaning in agony and very frightened. At midnight the regimental doctor called an ambulance. In the morning, after a drug-induced sleep, I was diagnosed with benign tertian malaria (there is also malignant tertian) which did not prevent my reading a lot, writing letters, and observing that the food was “excellent” and the attendant sisters “very sweet”. As time in hospital goes they were ten days about which I had nothing but good to say, excepting for the strange case of the snake in my bed. It was on my second night and I was probably running a temperature when I was awoken suddenly by something heavy, soft, and curiously sinister falling across my chest, and knew at once that it could only be a snake. Terror came instantly. Trying to eject the invader, I flayed about, throwing my body frantically from side to side, only succeeding in half strangling myself with the tangled, sweat-soaked sheet and tearing the mosquito net from its fastenings as the sinuous horror flopped to and fro across my upper torso. My screams brought a nurse and the night sister running. When at last— calmed by cool hands, caring voices and clean pyjamas, vastly pacified by the administering of a powerful soporific and the promise of safe oblivion for what was left of the night— I listened to the sister telling me what had happened I felt a terrible fool. Falling into a fevered sleep, lying on my arm, I had so temporarily paralysed it that a sudden convulsive movement of my body had caused the unfeeling limb to fall across my chest as if it had indeed been an alien intruder. Blind panic had accounted for everything else. I was discharged from hospital on 28 August.
NEXT FRIDAY, 8 March, Serial 17: Chapter Eleven, A Last Hurrah, Part One.