Disappointment ensued in Cairo circles when Rollo could not add much to the picture of Whit himself. As an only child of busy parents, he’d been sent away to school – and besides, Whit was always faraway, up to something worthwhile and heroic, even epic. Rollo had in fact only met his benefactor once. But he was such a familiar figure in his family’s life he thought he knew him and had known him all his life, and when his mother spoke of Whit, she seemed to find what she was saying important in some way Rollo could not grasp.
In the city that spring, levees, luncheons, soirees, dinners, dances, suppers, even breakfasts after supper, took place in clubs and houses, pavilions and palaces, on a round that met head to tail since his duties required an early start. Rollo was meeting lots of his countrymen out in Egypt – Lord Cromer himself acknowledged his existence:
“A sprog of young Verdanay, and grown already? Of course you’ll do. And if you don’t we’ll see to it.” This greeting was followed by gusts of laughter, the scented breath of the great man richly laced with port and brandy and cigars and gun oil.
That was at a tea party: days in Cairo governing the country in partnership with the locals entailed much party-going, Rollo began to see. It was at one of these that Major Crowhurst of the 11th Hussars told him of his plan to liven up the social round with some more gentlemanly pursuit than drinking tea in the afternoon. “Cairo’s deathly after a month or two – what? Nothing to be done here, dear boy. Natives ostensibly in charge, so we have to play second fiddle, dance attendance while they make a mess of things, ha, and then come after them and put it to rights - never letting on, of course. But this life is turning me soft! Before my time a lean and slipper’d pantaloon!” He struck his belly, well-corseted in his Hussar jacket.
“A spot of hunting, that’s what’s needed,” continued the Major.
So it was that a few weeks later, Major Crowhurst gave Rollo the job of fetching a special cargo newly arrived in Alex. Rollo would have liked to take his own horse north to meet the ship when it docked, but the cargo was to be brought later by railway to the regiment’s compound in the east of Cairo, and so it was decided that he would forgo the night ride through the desert in the cool of the dark, and travel up by train himself with his men to make sure of the preparations for the cargo’s delivery.
Air and water floated overhead on the Nile delta in the hour before dawn and in the merciful cool, Rollo made his way through the wharfs to the quay where the flanks of H.M S Shearwater rose out of the swirl, like Gulliver tethered by a thousand tent pegs as the Lilliputians swarmed over him to pick him of everything he carried. Bundles, kegs, barrels, crates in great knotted nets swung down bulkily overhead from the gantries and accompanied by a hullabaloo of cries dropped into the welter of smells and sounds and colour on the docks as the fellahin rushed to throw them open and the quartermasters struck their ledgers and gesticulated further directions for transporting them on the next leg of their journey.
Rollo’s Arabic now stretched to the odd command, oath, and warning, but not to much else. He plunged into the harum-scarum of the port, a path parting in front of him like the sea under a sailing ship’s prow, as his men cast to right and left with their own more temperate cries and flourishes of their batons, and he had a rush to the head and the sweat prickled his neck. This was the first time he had played such a part, he, twenty-one years old, on his first detail since leaving Oxford, appointed to Lord Cromer’s office and presently embodying his Lordship’s protection of Egypt. It felt something like the explosion of pleasure all over when breaking the finishing line after a race – hurdling had been his favourite sport, but he’d been a champion sprinter too.
He heard the fox hounds being disembarked before he saw them; baying loudly form the openwork crate high in the air. Neither the sea voyage nor the aerial drop quelled their energies: the pack was a squirming mass of jaws giving voice as tongues lolled, of scrabbling paws, and waving tails…given water and meat as soon as they landed, they were penned in the shade by the freight train which was to leave for Cairo that night once it was cool again, kept for a period of quarantine and then… the first fox-hunt ever to take place in the Egyptian desert was planned for the summer.
Rollo was a presentable and well-behaved young man with prospects, and he found himself increasingly caught up in the ceaseless social round: he was invited everywhere. And wherever he went, everyone, it seemed, had an opinion or a new line to communicate to him about his grandmother’s and mother’s friend.
At night, as Rollo lay behind the mosquito veiling with the servants taking turns to fan him, the gossip he kept hearing played over and over in his head:
- Young Whit and Lady Lucy were out riding in the desert soon after they were first married, and near the old city of Heliopolis they came upon an abandoned garden – ‘Sheykh Omar’.
- There’s a tomb of a Sufi saint in the grounds – the place is named after him. Whit makes offerings to him, can you beat it?
- You’ve been there?
- Oh no, it’s dreadfully hard to wangle an invitation.
- They bought the property for £200 you know.
- Not much of a pinch for them! She’s rich too, you know - in her own right.
- It was first planted by the old Khedive – Ismail – it’s a paradise by all accounts – the Khedive used to go there for picnics. There was no house then – if they stayed overnight they bivouacked like nomads – under the stars.
- Witiqui Pasha and Lady Lucy still do, given the chance.
- The old Khedive let it fall to rack and ruin after he himself was bankrupted… he had bad habits, what?
- There were interested parties …we wanted him in our grasp, don’t you know?
- Whit thinks of himself as Bedouin chief, and god, he looks the part.
- Takes their side too.
- The Gyppos’?
- Yes. Mind you, he’d nevercall them that – to him they’re desert warriors and pure Arabians of an ancient noble race. He’s always creating about our role, saying we should get out of the country- and give up the Canal. Doesn’t see that Egypt matters — to us . He’s an ‘anti-imperialist’. Doesn’t seem to realise that it’ll go to blazes without us. Or, what’s worse, to the French.
- He breeds ’osses now.
- Yes, ten years ago he began buying ’em at auction. The finest horseflesh in all of Arabia. When Ali Pasha died, Whit and Lady Lucy’s stud farm was unsurpassed … not even King Victor Emmanuel’s could touch it.
- He breeds here now – at Sheykh Omar – a dozen brood mares stabled there at least.
- The garden’s full of wild life, but nothing like the game back home.
- Holds with some foolishness about harmony in nature if things are let well alone.
- There’s a high wall all the way around the garden and a whole tribe of Bedouin living there as guards – they just camp there, desert-style, under tents – would you believe it?
- D’you know he turned his Arab ruffians on some Italians who were out with their guns shooting during the migration season.
- He’s a law unto himself.
Laughter, marvelling laughter, harsh and bright, and much puffing on cigars and quaffing of fine wines and liquors, punctuated these exchanges. Rollo joined in out of courtesy. Some of it he knew, though he had not heard it told in quite the same way at home.
In the withdrawing rooms where the ladies retired, in private supper rooms, in changing rooms after golf, or tennis, or a swim, these are some further things that were being said – more discreetly. Rollo was privy to much of this as well, as he found many young ladies liked to pass on what they had heard their mothers say.
- Whit did build a house in the garden to stay in.
- Two houses, darling girl, one for himself as Lady L’s husband. The other...well...
- You know what he calls it – that other one?
- The Rose Villa – la la. Wine and roses, don’t you know.
- It doesn’t end there - in private he calls it El Hashish.
- He had it built a little space apart from the main house because. . when he has certain guests… Lady L. does not want them in the main house...
- But it comes from her, you know, this fad for everything Oriental: she started him off. It was her idea to explore the desert, and she dresses in Arab costume too, male costume – with a dagger stuck in her belt. The pair of them, they fancy they’re in the Arabian Nights.
And then the informants grew softer, even more confiding. Clementina Crowhurst, the Major’s daughter, imparted:
- Mummy says he has more than one family – and more than one child the one with Lady Lucy.
- Clem, honestly, her friend Georgiana tittered.
Rollo tried to look above tittle-tattle, but his palms sweated in anticipation.
- They say after he’s been… well, the mother’s friend he waits for her daughter to grow up…
The two girls, both a little younger than Rollo, huddled their shoulders as a peal of shivery laughter shook them.
- You know him, said Georgie, looking at Rollo and recovering her sobriety. So you’ll get invited.
- Oh Lucky old bean, that would be something! added Clem. Take me with you, oh do!
Rollo could not understand why it was that when he was in company, the figure of Whitiqui Pasha instantly made his entrance, materialising among them as if he were at that moment streaking over the sand dunes on his Arabian mare with his wife or another in Bedouin native dress, or presiding in his floating robes over his Khedival pleasance, where ladies smoked and picnicked on carpets laid under the fruit trees and jessamine arbours and wells filled purling pools and rilling fountains, while scents and sounds mingled with the spattered light and shade. Whit had been a figure in his family’s conversations throughout his childhood, but he had never struck Rollo as quite so remarkable or indeed so peculiar before: everyone at home, especially at his grandmother’s, took Whit for granted and treated every inch of him with a kind of amused admiration. Here in Cairo, it was different: underneath the hubbub of envy, curiosity and hostility, Whitaker appeared dangerous and different and infinitely glamorous, and Rollo found himself thinking with impatience of the garden of Sheykh Omar and the impending return of its pasha from England in the autumn. He also rode out into the desert to find the garden; the cotton fields running up to its high mud walls became familiar to him, but he did not enter.
A week or so later, Rollo was riding behind the pack in the hunt Major Crowhurst had mustered. They’d got up before first light and were moving west under the fading stars; his dappled mare streamed through the still pleasant cool of the early morning air. The hounds were whirling in a dense parcel of bodies, but the whippers-in were kept lively as they kept picking up desert scents – jackals and mongoose and a hundred other rodents. Soon, the first heat began to finger them and they were racing through the cotton fields, towards the wall of Sheykh Omar; there was a stretch where it was crumbling, as Rollo knew, and he let the dogs run along the perimeter, as the huntsmen began sounding the horns to urge them on. Soon they were baying from open throats after the smells they picked up till the point where the boundary wall was low enough for the hounds to jump and for Rollo on his mare and Major Crowhurst on his stallion to follow the animals into the enclosure of Sheykh Omar.
The hounds instantly made a kill, far too quickly. Their prey turned out to be a coyote. Then, wheeling round the pack surged forwards on another wind; made a fresh kill again, almost immediately. This time, it was a fox, but a small thing, like a squirrel.
Rollo remembered the talk: - They’re pets… his garden’s full of animals, but nothing like our foxes back home.
As he watched the hounds at their spoil and the huntsman flick them aside and lean down to pick up the brush – which was not bushy, but sparse, he heard a cry of fury from behind him and before he could turn, a blow landed on his shoulders, and then, to a crescendo of shouts, a flurry of sticks fell on the hounds to scatter them, on the horses of his riding companions and, to his horror, on his own mare, on her neck and between her eyes.
His blood rose in rage at this assault on the animal, and he leaned to her neck to soothe her as she whinnied in fright; he struck out with his crop – all the weapons he had – to right and left, as an Arab in a none too clean djellabah seized his reins. But Major Crowhurst was shouting to him to head out and was turning his own horse’s head and ordering him to follow; but more Arabs were running up with garden tools and poles, and the affray was joined by the others from the hunt who came leaping over the wall to set about their assailants.
Eventually, in the singing heat of midday, they made their way slowly back to Cairo, with three prisoners taken from Whitaker’s men.
The repercussions of that morning sharpened Rollo’s misery: Whit, alerted by telegram of the hunt and the captivity and trial of his head groom and two guards, raised the roof about the incident. He wrote to the Foreign Office, to Lord Cromer, and to the papers. He deplored the casual habits of the British in trespassing on the fields of hard-working peasants, let alone entering his own animal sanctuary. But his campaign in the public print cut deepest of all. There he expressed his surprise that more than twenty English huntsmen, with several Hussars among them, should be so frightened by a gaggle of barefoot fellaheen that they wailed of their wounds and thought it necessary to overpower them and throw them into the cells.
The laughter that kept rising around Rollo before the episode now became venomous to Rollo’s ears. He avoided the social round as much as his post in the Chancery would allow. Then, at the beginning of September, a suffragi, in a blazing white turban and tunic and a red sash, delivered personally to him a letter written on heavy cream paper in a spiky cursive script.
It was a damned shame that I was gone from Sheykh Omar at the time of the unfortunate fracas. But it is my custom to return to England in the summer heat - as your beloved grandmother and mother will have told you. I did not of course know that you were of the company that my men, under strict orders in my absence to allow no trespassing, rightly drove from the garden: my brood mares must not be disturbed, above all by any stallion in the vicinity. I regret that the subsequent wrangles involved you and caused some difficulty with your superiors. But it will all come out in the wash, I trust.
In the meantime, your mother allows me at last to meet you, to make amends for this episode which occurred through no fault of your own. So please will you join me and my Bedouin tribe, as I call my assembled friends at Sheykh Omar this Tuesday next, 21st September, for an equinoctial ride at sundown and refreshments to follow - if you like to camp under the stars as I do, we shall make you a pillow of sand for your head. You will be very welcome.
Your dear mother brought me to you once when you were seven years old, the only time I have set eyes on you, when you were playing with your little dog and rightly more interested in her than in a foolish fond old man.
I will rejoice to see you again – salaams and blessings in the name of the all-merciful, Ivor W.
Rollo Verdanay read the letter, and re-read it. Then he sat at his desk and began his answer. But voices kept playing in his head, and he put down his pen. Of course he longed to accept, to go to Sheyhk Omar. But he would write to his mother first; he needed to hear what she had to say.
Afterword to A Family Friend
7 July 2008
For some time now, I have been working towards a novel-memoir inspired by my parents’ lives in Cairo after the war (l947-l952). I was a small baby when they moved to Egypt from London, and my mother had never lived in England except for the few months before and after I was born; she married my father in Southern Italy in l944 in Bari, her home town, and did not see him again until he arrived back from India late the following year. When they met, he was serving as a staff officer in Eighth Army, which had advanced north and east across the Italian peninsula to deliver Italians from the horrors that the Mussolini regime and its pact with Germany had produced in the lives of ordinary citizens like my mother’s family. Emilia, always known as Ilia, was the youngest of four sisters; their mother was long widowed, and they were all the more impoverished on account of their respectable, bourgeois status, and as young women of their class, still needed dowries to marry on home ground. This wasn’t feasible, and so all four sisters were to marry out – the elder three eventually made their way to America with Italo-American husbands. (All this is the subject of an earlier novel of mine, The Lost Father, l988.) My father, Esmond Warner, was English, the son of a famous cricketer, and he’d been educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, and had served in the Coldstream guards. He offered my mother a way out of her highly restricted life, and I think he took her to Egypt because he thought a young southern girl would flourish there far more brightly than in the damp, rationed, fog-bound wasteland of post-war Britain.
But it was a mésalliance in many ways. My mother made the best of things and at first, in Cairo, they were happy. Cairo after the war was gay, very gay in the old sense of the word. My father opened an English and French language bookshop with backing from W.H. Smith, after he had made friends with one of the directors in the army. Six years later, the shop was burned down, on January 26 l952, the day that came to be known as Black Saturday, when all the businesses, watering holes, and institutions owned by British interests were sacked and destroyed. Other foreigners’ concerns also fell victim, for example, the office supply company which Edward Said’s father owned. The riot was mysterious – it sprang up apparently spontaneously, but proceeded in a very strategic and systematic way. Its forces combined many different elements, including secular nationalists and Islamic militants who were not usually bedfellows. Soon afterwards, King Farouk was put aboard his luxury yacht, royally saluted by the guns of Alexandria, and courteously seen off into exile by the new leader of the Free Officers, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Four years later, the British suffered the débacle of the Suez crisis.
The novel explores this fag end of British complacency and imperial power through my mother and father’s growing knowledge of each other. I have ambitious ideas – to pattern it on The Aeneid and that epic’s treatment of rising empires, failure in love, and heroism, and I also want to introduce a character inspired by Franz Fanon, who arrived in Algeria to work as a psychiatrist in l953, and who, though a foreigner and a member of the colonial power, became more and more deeply involved in nationalist revolution there.
There is a great deal of work still to be done.
As I was only six when we left, I have memories, but very little knowledge, so I have been reading through all kinds of materials about Egypt – there is so much, and of such superb quality, that I am considering compiling an anthology of Writings on Modern Egypt. I want to absorb the atmosphere, history, social conditions etc so intimately that I can write my story fluently. In the meantime, in order to tune my ear, I began practising, and A Family Friend was one of the results – a rehearsal for the Egyptian novel.
In 2007, the BBC invited me to write a short story for the actor Alan Howard to read, as part of a week-long series celebrating his seventieth birthday. The idea came from Julian Barnes - Alan had been seriously ill for a while and needed cheering up. I like this Radio Four daily slot – it’s very good discipline to squeeze an idea into twenty minutes, and the expressiveness of the human voice, especially a veteran actor’s, is a boon.
The story itself is inspired by a historical incident, which Charles Glass, the journalist and former hostage in Beirut, told me about when I mentioned the book I am trying to write. He recommended to me a strange, small volume published by HM Stationery Office in l999, called Wilfrid Blunt’s Egyptian Garden/Fox-Hunting in Cairo. This comes from a series that simply publishes a selection of official reports from certain major episodes – the Profumo Affair is the focus of another title. Later, Gill Waters, the producer of the short story for the radio, told me that the self-effacing and brilliantly judicious editor (his name appears nowhere in the book) is in fact Tim Coates, who’s a well known protestor against current trends in bookselling, and what is more, by an even more fateful convergence, a successor of my own father as a managing director of Sherratt & Hughes in Manchester.
Anyhow, after finding the Stationery Office book, I then read a little more about Blunt in Elizabeth Longford’s biography, A Pilgrimage of Passion (1979) and in Fiona MacCarthy’s inspired book about William Morris, one of Blunt’s close friends and allies.Blunt is an astonishing and rewarding study: an English gentleman adventurer, writer, political activist and horse-breeder; he was quixotic and in many ways peculiar, a womaniser and a dreadful poet. He went to jail for his stand on Irish Home rule, and in his liberationist politics as well as his amours, he did see himself as Byron’s successor, so much so that he married the poet’s grand-daughter, Lady Anne Blunt, an outstanding horsewoman and a fluent speaker of Arabic; she brought Blunt the whole romantic and political aura of Lord Byron – though not his literary gifts.
The story takes a great deal from Blunt and the incident when the hunt trespassed on his land outside Cairo in l901; but I took a lot of liberties – with the freedom of fiction. I invented Rollo – in reality, Blunt had a daughter with a young woman whose mother had also been his lover. Something like this will reappear in my novel, moved on fifty years – I won’t wrench history out of shape, as the British continued to ignore local sensitivities in ways that Blunt had grasped long before.