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A Shout From The Attic: Ægypt - 1

...As I walked through the aeroplane door to go down the steps wheeled up to its side just behind the wing on which the huge pod of the left side engine was mounted, I felt the searing, almost unbearable heat. I conjectured that the engine was the cause of the heat, but as I climbed down the stairs emitting inane sounds, such as “Phew,” “Hecky thump,” “By gum,” and other North Country expletives...

Ronnie Bray, serving his Queen and country in their Army, arrives in Egypt.

**

When the sand’s in my socks and the sun’s in my eyes
And I can’t see the jam on my pudding for flies,
I can quite understand though I’m half off my chump
How the poor, Patient camel came by his hump
ANON.

The aeroplane lurched to a standstill underneath a sky so blue that if I had not seen it for myself I would not have believed its colourful intensity. A few men in brown overalls pushed a wheeled aluminium ladder against the side of the aircraft and after some minutes, the door was swung open. We gathered our bags and our wits and shuffled towards the front of the plane to get at Egypt as fast as we could in that early April day of 1954.

As I walked through the aeroplane door to go down the steps wheeled up to its side just behind the wing on which the huge pod of the left side engine was mounted, I felt the searing, almost unbearable heat. I conjectured that the engine was the cause of the heat, but as I climbed down the stairs emitting inane sounds, such as “Phew,” “Hecky thump,” “By gum,” and other North Country expletives, suitable for family and mixed company applications, and crossed the blistering tarmac to enter the Lilliputian building that served as a terminal to receive dispersal directions, there was no let-up in the intensity of the heat, so a source other than the shimmering engines must be imputed.

Another source was quickly discovered. It was the blesséd sungod, Ra, whom the ancients of that land of wonders had worshipped, and little wonder. The mighty Ra chief of cosmic deities, from whom early Egyptian kings claimed descent sailed across the cerulean air from dawn to dusk in his majestic barge unchallenged. That is until his vessel dipped too close to the western horizon when he was swallowed by the night monster, an act that made the land dark and brought pleasant coolness in summer nights and bleak cold during the darkness of winter months.

Sovereign Ra rose early and rapidly in Egypt. His beneficial rays and heat given freely to all in his path, and there being but little in the way of shade, each of us who left our sweltering tents was more than generously supplied. Some of us, and we were all tyros, innocently and without wisdom aforethought took foolish benefit of Sol’s largesse, such as the unfortunate Craftsman Chew of Morley, Yorkshire, who took to sunbathing on the shore of the Bitter Lakes on our first full day at Fayid, turned bright, glowing lobster-pink, and moaned like a woman in travail all night. He was unable to report for medical attention in the morning because, had he done so, he would have been charged with a self-inflicted injury. He had our sympathy, but medical comfort was denied and we all learned an important lesson from his misfortune.

At end of days, the blistering monarch fell below the horizon and into the maw of the swallowing monster as swiftly as he had risen from his craw, and the welcome twilight coolness dropped like a curtain, displaying the beauty of the starry nights that I had never seen before or since and knew for the first time why the Milky Way was so called as it spread across the sky as if drawn with starred paint from a broad and careless brush.

We stayed at Fayid, almost attached to the newly moved in Yorks and Lancs infantry regiment for about three days. Their transport was in an abysmal state, having been partially dismantled by the previous occupants of the camp and left to rot. One vehicle was running, and I decided that I should try my first Egyptian jaunt in this sand-coloured lorry. It fired first time and I adjusted the hot seat and headed up through the central roadway of the camp. This thoroughfare was separated into two lanes by a series of orange painted forty-gallon oil drums. As I steamed up the left-hand lane to the camp gates, another lorry stared down my side, but seeing me, he reversed and allowed me to pass through the gates and turn right onto the main road.

I had not driven very far when my opinion of Egyptian drivers hit bottom. Although the roads were somewhat narrow, there was enough room for two vehicles travelling in opposite directions to pass safely, but these fellows seemed hell bent on driving on the wrong side of the road and only swinging out to their own side when we were almost in collision.

After a few miles, I had become used to this cultural anomaly and took no further notice of it. Eventually, I thought it time for me to return to camp, so I pulled off the road onto a piece of the desert that was conveniently flat, and parked facing the roadway to watch this unusual traffic. After something like ten minutes, I detected a pattern in Egyptian driving. They drove on the right-hand side of the road, like so many non-English countries, and I had been the one on the wrong side of the road.

It may have been long experience with sand-coloured wagons and pale-faced drivers that caused these kindly Egyptians to yield without hesitation, so perhaps I was not the first blundering purveyor of transportation-related imperialism they had experienced. I was chastened and lived to tell the tale. I have often wondered since whether some of us survive only because of the kindness of others and because they make unusual allowances for us when we do not see the plan of life as normals see it.

We visited the Lido on the shores of the Bitter Lakes at Fayid most afternoons when work was done for the day. It was there that I encountered Egyptians and things Egyptian. Fayid was a small town that was barely out of the Stone Age. I do not say this in any sense to be a pejorative description, but only to mark the contrast between the English and Egyptian village cultures. It was in Fayid that I learned about bargaining, or haggling, as it is called, to force a bargain price for an article on sale. I saw sides of beef hung outside the butcher’s shop there, with more interested flies than customers, and I saw the arrogant pride of some soldiers of the Queen who considered it proper to treat the local people with brutality and disdain, much to my disgust. There were times when I was ashamed of my fellow countrymen who behaved so very badly.

On the beach, there was a man who was in charge of an extensive set of lifting weights, where would-be imitators of Charles Atlas and his methods of body-building known as Dynamic Tension gathered to display their muscles and to challenge each other in weightlifting matches. Sat on a canvas chair underneath a group of tall palm trees was a middle-aged man with an untidy sheaf of grey-hair and an overweight body apparently made of polished walnut.

I was mildly interested in weightlifting as body building exercise, and had a more than reasonable physique but was not possessed of the competitive spirit necessary to engage in public displays of strength, so I went over to talk to the Arab who greeted me with a nod and responded to my introduction in flat but welcome Yorkshire accents. He was, it transpired, a Yorkshireman from Leeds who had served in Fayid as part of the garrison’s recreational staff for the past twenty years. Perhaps his bare chest, khaki shorts, and the absence of a burnoose should have given the game away, but I was predisposed to arrive at incorrect conclusions based on erroneous information.

Ægypt - 2

Eventually, I was dispersed (not as painful as it sounds) to the British Military Garrison at Suez, at the Red Sea end of the Suez Canal, to serve as a vehicle mechanic attached to the First Battalion of the Green Howards infantry regiment. I was assigned to Support Company, which was the specialist company that operated the four thirty-pounder anti-tank guns, each towed by an American Stuart light tank. In addition, they had twenty American Bren Carriers, and some ten or so British made Austin Champs, based on the idea of the American Jeep, but amazingly advanced for the 1950s.

The Suez Garrison hosted three regiments of British infantry and a contingent of West African Pioneers, affectionately referred to as Jambos . Besides the Green Howards, there were the Royal Inniskillin Fusiliers, known as Skins, and the Royal Scots Grays. These regiments shared the sparse facilities afforded by the post that amounted to an open air swimming pool, an open air cinema, and a NAAFI Club. Apart from a Christian facility run by the Royal Army Chaplains Department, there was little else of interest.

The desert around our camp was a flat bedrock with little of the romantic shifting sand dunes of the common image of Egypt, and the pyramids were a good way off and Out of Bounds, because we were not there as tourists, nor were we there as guests of the Egyptian government, recently taken over by Gamal Abdel Nasser who deposed the playboy-king Faruk. General Muhammad Naguib first headed Egypt’s new government, but in 1954 Nasser stepped out of the shadows to assume power. He eventually negotiated a treaty with the British government, under whose terms we evacuated Egypt after seventy-two years of occupation.

Life in Suez was an easy-going affair with a minimum amount of work and a lot of leisure time that was often hard to fill. I lived in a tent with two other REME mechanics. Although we shared the tent and our work for the next four months, I can recall little about them, not even their names. They were both National Servicemen near the end of their stint and had been together a long time. They were close and did not take kindly to strangers. One of them thought it unusual that I did not drink tea – coffee was not very popular among the British then – and planned to get some into me. Each of us had a vessel known as a chatty.

A chatty is a long-necked porous earthenware vessel that holds half a gallon of water, some of which seeps through the pot wall and evaporates on the outside, keeping its contents cool. Although the neck is restricted about two inches down by a disk into which four holes of about an eighth of an inch had been pierced, my bucolic associate had managed to feed some tea complete with tea leaves into my chatty that stood cooling at our tent door. When next I drank from it I tasted the tea. I had not been a Mormon so long that I did not remember the taste. I dashed the chatty to pieces on the ground and bought a new one for twenty piastres at the NAAFI. Although I did not speak of the incident, being shy and fearful of confrontation, the culprit did not raise the subject, but it was not repeated.

Evenings were spent at the camp NAAFI canteen or at the cinema across the railroad tracks, or at the Christian centre about a quarter of a mile down the Cairo Road. The NAAFI sold Tiger beer, a chemically produced brew of indeterminate strength and also orange juice made from real oranges called Assis. One night, Roy Davies and I were in the NAAFI, Roy with his Tiger and me with my Assis. I matched him pint for pint, although we were not in competition. I left early, and Roy stayed on to talk and have another pint of the mordant mix. There was a sergeant in the Green Howard’s Regiment who was not better than he ought to have been and some days not even as good as that. He had been drinking in the Sergeant’s Mess, because only junior NCOs could use NAAFIs. The Sergeants Mess was close by the NAAFI, and as Roy was leaving and had walked into the cool Suez night air, an unsubtle chemical reaction, using his insides as a retort and his brain as a subject of behaviour modification seriously overtook him and made him go wild and want to destroy all human life he could see.

It was fortunate that he did not see this particular sergeant behind him, and fortunate for the sergeant that he was not seen, and fortunate that although many knew what happened next that night, no one ever told Roy. It might be safe to tell him now because the sergeant is probably part of the dust of history and who would remember his name? Sensing that Roy was behaving like a raging bull and that only firm, decisive, drastic action would meet the need of the moment, the sergeant picked up a two foot long piece of flanged angle iron used to secure tent guy ropes and brought it down hard on top of Roy’s skull. The angle iron proved stronger than Tiger beer, and Roy was stopped in his tracks, and he fell insensitive. The world was safe again.

Roy was taken to hospital, where his head was stitched shut like a leather football, he regained consciousness, and was kept in overnight for observation.

To this day, I doubt if he knows what really happened that night, for he bought the beneficial fiction that he had fallen over and bumped his head. It was a useful fabrication and probably prevented a sober but angry attack on the man who had saved him, if a little drastically, from doing harm to others who were innocent of any offence against Craftsman Roy Davis of Cricklewood, London.

I have many fond memories of my friendship with Roy, and found him a very good and likeable young man with a sense of humour that helped us make light of dreary days and the petty demands of military life.

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