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Letter From America: Mad Dogs And Arizonans

Ronnie Bray muses upon the words of a famous Noel Coward song as he recalls hot days in the desert. Then, as rains drench Arizona, a revised version of Coward's lyrics occur - Mad Dogs And Arizonans Go Out In The Midday Rain. Tap your toes to Ronnie's tuneful column.

Noel Coward wrote a charmingly silly song, Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun'. In it he posits the possibility of a peculiarly English insanity of venturing out when the sun beat down on them at its hottest and, therefore, when it was most dangerous to do so.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun
The Japanese don't care to, the Chinese wouldn't dare to
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve till one
But Englishmen detest-a siesta

I acknowledge the truthfulness of Coward’s refreshing doggerel because I spent some time in the Canal Zone, as the occupied territories around the Suez Canal were called by the British, who were keeping it safe for Aunt Maud, Uncle Charlie, and their kith and kin whether they liked it or not, and, almost to a man, my fellow soldiers sought the solace of Sol Invictus for no other reason than that he was there, whereas back in our mild-climated British homes, most days he was not! It was like letting children loose in a sweetshop after they have been deprived of chocolates and humbugs for a year or so. The hot shiny sun was irresistible!

Before the group of soldiers on our flight to Aegypt had been desert dwellers for twenty-four hours, one of our number, Craftsman Chew of Morley, decided to make up for a lifetime of solar deprivation, and donning his trunks, he eschewed the waters of the Bitter Lakes at Kabrit whereon the rest of us sported, and he lay on his towel face down and didn’t set his oven timer.

In the Philippines they have lovely screens to protect you from the glare
In the Malay States there are hats like plates which the Britishers won't wear
At twelve noon the natives swoon and no further work is done
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun

The next alarm that sounded was the bugler of the Yorks and Lancs Regiment to which we REME types had been temporarily posted until the Middle East Land Forces chiefs could decide where we could be placed to minimise the damage that REME mechanics were wont to inflict on expensive military vehicles, either by driving them or by mending them whether they were broken or not.

It's such a surprise for the Eastern eyes to see
That though the English are effete, they're quite impervious to heat
When the White Man rides, every native hides in glee
Because the simple creatures hope he will impale his solar topi on a tree

We ate our dinners like hungry men. We were hungry. There is something about being so far from home, in an alien place, so different from the normal surroundings of the English countryside and its familiar industrial landscapes that whet the appetites of young soldiers on the verge of a great adventure. The food was, well, I have never complained about Army food, even when it has been merited, but it kept us alive and well, and that is what it is intended to do. If I had had strong feelings about Army grub, I would have transferred to the Army Catering Corps and fixed it from the inside. The food was adequate and always welcome.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun
The toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it
In Rangoon the heat of noon is just what the natives shun
They put their Scotch or Rye down and lie down

It was April of 1954 and the sun set early and rapidly. In the Middle East, the sun does not linger to torment those who have to be home by dark. It dips, winks, says “See you tomorrow!”, and drops like a stone behind the western rim of the desert, leaving only darkness and a myriad twinkling stars. It cools down almost straight away, bringing a welcome and pleasant coolness to the evenings.

There are few sounds in the desert, as a rule, but our camp at Kabrit was close to a Royal Air Force establishment from where Meteor fighter planes took off and landed every half hour day and night. Although this made getting off to sleep difficult, we eventually gave in and settled into the arms of Morpheus, descending deeply into a sleep known only to the pure of heart.

Yet, into that night came a sound as if a soul was groaning in the deepest depths of a mediaeval Hell. The cries came from Craftsman Chew as his tormented body writhed and jerked as a result of the lobsterine scalding he had obtained as a result of his injudicious solar soaking session. It was a condition that developed as he slept, and we each learned a profoundly sobering lesson from it.

In a jungle town where the Sun beats down to the rage of man and beast
The English garb of the English Sahib merely gets a bit more creased
In Bangkok at twelve o'clock they foam at the mouth and run
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun

In the world of resonances and redolence, some things rhyme, some things are alliterated, and some things clang. ‘Rhymes’ are easy to understand. “The girl is a pearl.” and “Should this cat be in this hat?” are rhymes. No mystery and nothing profound in that.

Alliteration always attracts attention. After all, alliteration as an additional avenue of artistic articulation adopts aural assonance as an artefact.

But it is the ’clang’ that sets the wheels of the mental meat grinder churning when we discover an unexpected parallelism between discrete concepts that have little relation to each other except perhaps no more than a word, or even no more than a shadow of something not entirely similar in all its parts, but not altogether dissimilar in at least one of its parts.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun
The smallest Malay rabbit deplores this foolish habit
In Hong Kong they strike a gong and fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate, who's in late

I had such a ‘clang’ moment last Saturday when the heavens opened over the Phoenix Metropolitan Area and ended our hundred and forty-three rainless days. Down came the rain. It started in the wee small hours. I heard it. I am a light sleeper. I can hear Gay change her mind if she is reading in our celestial room during one of her frequent bouts of insomnia.

There are no rain gutters on the houses in our area because they are redundant for eleven months out of the year, so when it does rain, we dodge the splashes and don’t grumble about a bit of water. In the desert heat even after a soaking, everything dries out. très rapidement At two in the morning I awoke in time to see, by the dim light of the night lamp, Frankie, our Border Collie, stretch herself forward and lift one corner of the plastic flap on the doggie door just a tad, take stock, and then jump back onto the bed to finish her beauty sleep.

It isn’t that she doesn’t like water, she loves it, but not in the middle of the night. Like most of us she has to know what it is that is making strange noises during the hours of darkness, especially when nothing normally goes ‘bump’ in the night. Belle slept on. When Belle lies down and discharges a rush of air with a loud snort, she is asleep until I rise and say, “Go park!”

The rain kept coming down for thirty-six hours non-stop and we had water, water everywhere and lots of the stuff to spare. I suppose that being English I have had my share of the wet stuff. Gay, on the other hand, a confirmed desert flower, went outside and stood in the garden offering her smiling face to the rain.

In the mangrove swamps where the python romps
There is peace from twelve till two
Even caribous lie around and snooze for there's nothing else to do
In Bengal to move at all is seldom if ever done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!

I looked at her through the patio window and smiled at the simple enjoyment she took from some timely precipitation. Our church had, along with other congregations and faiths in the Mesa area, fasted and prayed for rain that week. Now we had the rain for which we petitioned, and had it in abundance.

I looked at Gay and in a moment there came into my head, Mad Dogs and Arizonans Go Out in the Midday Rain! I was looking at one. Our dogs, being by no means mad, stayed and watched the rain from the dryness of the kitchen.

Copyright © Ronnie Bray 2006
Acknowledgements to Noel “The Master” Coward

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