In 1950 my
father was posted to Egypt, to the Suez Canal Zone. At that time
Britain maintained a large military presence along the banks of
the Suez Canal, and extendingsome distance west, towards Cairo.
was normal for families to accompany servicemen abroad, it was
not possible for my mother to obtain passage on a troopship (Why?
Korea?) So she
booked a flight with Air Ceylon. Although I was twelve, an adult
for airline purposes, Air Ceylon agreed to allow me to fly for
half fare. The terminal, in those days was, I think, in Piccadilly
in central London, and we were taken to the airport in a semi-double-deck
bus, the rear seats raised above a large baggage hold. All I remember
of Heathrow was walking through a pre-fabricated hut, where
my mother showed her documents to various people. But then, in
1950, a pre-fabricated hut was probably all there was. We crossed
a few yards of wet apron and climbed a few steps into the aircraft..
was a Douglas DC4, named Laxapana. I recall nothing of the take-off,
which was around 9p.m. My next memory is of having breakfast in
a large almost empty room at Rome Airport in the early hours.
Then nothing again until we were flying over an empty blue sea.
We were served
lunch, chops and strawberry tart. We then encountered some turbulence
and my lunch saw daylight again. Later we flew along a coastline,
sea on one side and desert on the other. Approaching Farouk Field
in Cairo we banked steeply, demonstrating graphically to me the
effects of centrifugal force.
and a colleague, also meeting his family off the same aircraft,
met us. They bought us colas from a machine. Pepsi or Coca, I
don't know which. But to me, buying a bottle of drink from a machine
was a miracle, and the more so since it was icy cold, the bottle
beaded with moisture. I soon discovered that in Egypt at that
time, as everywhere now, ice cold Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola was
ubiquitous, usually served from an ice box rather than a refrigerator.
We all got
into a taxi, a large American vehicle, for the 80 mile journey
to Ismailia, where we were to live. There were eight of us in
the car, as well as the driver. It must have been very hot and
cramped, but my attention was outside. The countryside was very
different to England and, unlike today, where all the landscapes
of the world are familiar through films, television and books,
The road passed
through small villages. It was dry and dusty. The men for the
most part were dressed in what appeared to be nightshirts and
the boys in pyjamas. The woman were largely swathed on shapeless
black garments, often with their heads covered with the same material,
and occasionally veiled. The villages were mud huts, usually whitewashed,
and the road edge frayed into the dust. There were no pavements.
On the right,
for most of the way, ran a canal. I was told it was called the
Sweet Water Canal and had been built to carry fresh water from
the Nile to the workers building the Suez Canal. It was now used
for irrigation. Fields of unfamiliar crops lined the far side
of the canal, as did dusty palm trees, mostly dates. The fields
were surrounded by irrigation channels, into which the farmers
poured water poured water raised from the canal by the use of
primitive shadoofs. These were simply a pole hinged to an upright,
with a weight at one end and a bucket at the other.
plodded along beside the road, either bearing their owner or an
enormous load of vegetation.
the town of Ismailia we were taken to a families transit camp,
where we would be staying while more permanent accommodation was
found. Our home was a nissen hut, built of curved corrugated iron
like a half tube. Here was another miracle, an oscillating fan.
A familiar enough object now, but completely new to me then.
huts were in a park-like setting, with heavily watered grass dotted
with tall palm trees. We ate in a communal dining room and were
served by black Nubian waiters dressed in flowing white robes
with red cummerbunds.
A few minutes
walk away was a small beach, furnished with wicker chairs and
tables and a bar, from which drinks and snacks could be obtained.
The beach, reserved for service families fronted onto Lake Timsah,
one of the lakes through which the Suez Canal passed. It was here
that I taught myself to swim, by the simple expedient of plucking
up the courage to float, then moving around by the use of my arms
and legs. The water was filthy, although it is only in recent
years that I have come to realise this. It even had excrement
floating in it, but nobody seemed to worry or indeed to become
filthy was the Sweet Water Canal, which flowed through Ismailia
before reaching the Suez Canal. At any time of the day it was
lined with locals drinking from it, washing themselves and their
clothing and using it as a toilet. The bloated bodies of dogs
and cows were frequently floating on the surface. We were strictly
warned to keep clear of the canal. If you fell in you would be
hospitalised and subjected to painful injections.
We soon moved
into a flat which belonged to an Egyptian lawyer named Haseeb.
The flat was part of his house, which also contained his offices.
Our part consisted of two bedrooms, a sitting room and a kitchen.
There were more wonders here. The kitchen boasted an ice-box which
, while rather primitive, was more than most people had in the
UK. One half contained a large block of ice, the rest was
the storage area. The ice was delivered daily from an open truck
full of the stuff. We were under strict instructions not to suck
the ice or drink the water, since it was unlikely to have been
made from purified water.
had an office intercom, two telephone sets connected together
by a wire, which he let us play with. He also had a 16mm sound
projector with which he showed us films, and a miraculous device
called a wire recorder on which he recorded our voices.
the flat was a courtyard, closed off from the street by a high
gated wall. In a room off this courtyard, underneath our flat
lived Mr Haseeb's Nubian servant, whose services also came with
A few yards
away in one direction lay the mysterious native quarter of the
town. It was out of bounds to all British service people, which
was indicated by signs at every entrance. In the other direction
lay the French-built town. Our house was in Rue Negrelli, which
passed several large French-colonial houses in their own grounds
before reaching the commercial centre. The most important
shop for me was the bookshop. A large shop, it was piled high
with British newspapers and periodicals, including the all-important
comics. I had been allowed to have one comic on subscription from
the U.K. I had chosen 'Radio Fun', but this and all the others
were easily available in Ismailia.
And in addition
they also had American comics. These were more colourful
then their British counterparts, on better paper, with exciting
characters like Superman, Captain Video and all the cowboys I
had previously only known on the silver screen. The adverts, too,
were eye-opening. Full page adverts for air guns occupied the
back page on most, along with such mysterious items as Popsicles.
shop of interest was Groppi's, purveyor of cakes, pastries and
ice cream of a quality unknown to me before. There were other
shops, of course. Boring places like grocers and greengrocers,
and the NAAFI shop. This was situated near the station, away from
the other shops, but was notable to me only for its outdoor café
and its selection of fireworks at the appropriate season.
Near the flat was a bakery, where we would buy
bread straight from the old-fashioned oven.
our way to and from the shops we passed a cinema, outside which
was a salted peanut vendor. We often bought some from him. They
were delicious, and very different from those purchased in packets
now. Dispensed into paper cones made on the spot, the peanuts
were large and dry, and liberally encrusted with salt.
at first, I went to the garrison school at Moascar. These were
one-story buildings with verandahs, surrounded by sand playgrounds.
The school buses were converted army trucks, with barely padded
seats across the truck bed, reached by steps permanently attached
to the rear.
quickly discovered that the school was some way behind compared
with Frimley and Camberley. I had done most of the work already.
In retrospect I should have told someone, but of course instead
I was delighted. School was easy. This did me no good at all,
for at the start of the summer term 1951 I was sent to board at
English School, Cairo. There, I was behind and had to have
extra lessons in order to catch up.
came as something of a shock. I had never been away from home
alone before. I was quite lonely at first, since I knew no-one.
There were some 80 boarders, all I believe from the Canal Zone.
Most of the pupils, of both sexes, did not board, but came daily
from the families of diplomats and ex-pats in Cairo as well as
from well-off Egyptian families who wanted an English education
for their children.
We were accommodated
in what I understood to have been the Headmaster's former flat
at the top of the building, the girls separated from the boys
by a locked door. The dormitories, having been ordinary rooms,
each contained only 4 to 6 beds. There was usually a gecko resident
on the wall of each room.
we went to church. Apart from one visit to the Anglican Cathedral
on the banks of the Nile, we went each Sunday to a stone-built
replica of a typical English church, in cool leafy grounds, tucked
away amidst the noisy dusty surroundings of Cairo. One pupil would be detailed to pump the organ during
everyone went home for a week. Everyone, that is, except me and
another boy. We were in the sick bay with tonsillitis. This, I
think, was my most enjoyable period at the school. We were waited
on hand and foot by Matron (who also gave us daily injections),
and slept or played all day. A small luxury which sticks in my
mind is the hot buttered toast that she fed us.
When I was
better Mr Haseeb, who had remained a family friend even though
we were no longer tenants, drove my parents to Cairo. I was allowed
leave for the weekend, and we stayed at a hotel. We had a meal
with Mr Haseeb's father and it was, to me, very grand. We were
waited on by servants and there were little brass bowls on the
table to rinse your fingers in after every course.
the Pyramids and the Sphinx, with which I can't remember being
very impressed. The area was practically deserted, unlike today. The
following day we I'm told we went to the zoo, but I remember nothing
summer break we went on holiday to Cyprus. We boarded the Empire
Comfort at Port Said for the journey.
This, and the Empire Peacemaker, a similar vessel in which we
returned to Egypt, had originally been designed as corvettes as
HMS York Castle and HMS Scarborough Castle respectively. But before
completion they had been converted to Convoy
Rescue Ships. Corvettes were small warships, built for speed
rather than for comfort. The motion as the ill-named Comfort climbed
and rolled in the swell made me seasick, much to the delight of
my brother, Dave, who gleefully cried "Up, Down!" as
I turned green. The journey took about 24 long hours, but we eventually
dropped anchor off Famagusta. From the ship we were ferried to
the dock in a landing craft and transferred to buses. These were
wooden bodied, with glassless windows. We climbed into the Troodos
Mountains along barely surfaced roads. On the hairpin bends the
buses had to reverse to the loose dusty, stony edges, with sheer
drops beneath, to get round.
At last we
arrived at the army's holiday camp in the pine forests at Troodos.
After the heat and sand of Egypt it was like arriving in heaven.
The air was cool, and it was a real treat to sleep under blankets,
instead of sweating on a sheet. The accommodation was in 4-man
tents amongst the trees, a bed in each corner and not much else.
It was here that I first experienced fruit juice for breakfast
and syrup poured over ice-cream from the shop in the village.
Everyday items now, but a luxurious treat at that time. The holiday
itself was tame by today's standards; walking in the forest and
a visit to the nearby village of Platres.
to school after the summer break was much better. I now had friends,
and knew my way around. Unfortunately, this did not last. Two
weeks into the term those of us from the Canal Zone were told
to stay in the hall after Assembly. We were told that the Egyptian
Government had abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which had
allowed the occupation of the Canal Zone by British military forces.
There had been riots in Ismailia and we were to be returned to
our families immediately.
We got out
trunks up from the basement, hastily packed and were on our way
by midday. We travelled in buses, each with an armed Egyptian
police escort. The usual route, alongside the Sweet Water
Canal, was considered too dangerous, so we struck off across the
desert road towards Suez. After a while a British Army spotter
aircraft arrived and circled overhead until we reached the border
with the Canal Zone.
We were transferred
to military buses and those of us travelling to the northern half
on the Canal Zone were taken to the huge garrison on Fayed, on
the western shore of the Great Bitter Lake. Here we were bedded
down for the night on bare mattresses.
the next morning there was a large military presence. During the
riots a couple of days previously Mr Haseeb had come to my parents
flat with a gun in his hand and said that he would have shot any
intruder he had found there. Luckily there was none. Every
night there was the sound of gunfire, rather too close on one
occasion when a bullet ricocheted off our balcony.
slept with a Sten Gun under their bed, and every soldier now carried
a loaded gun when outside the military bases. The suburb of Arishia,
divided from the rest of the town by the railway, lived in a state
of seige. The NAAFI shop had been burned down, and an emergency
one was set up in a commandeered school in Arishia, where we also
went to a makeshift school of sorts. The playground was
on the roof, and we were guarded by soldiers armed with Bren guns
in sandbagged emplacements at the corners of the roof. It was
considered too dangerous to take us to the school at Moascar.
After a while
things calmed down a little and we were able to resume a more
normal life. I went back to school in Moascar, again redoing work
I had already covered in England and Cairo. The converted trucks
used as buses carried an armed escort. Roads outside the town
had frequent checkpoints with chicanes constructed of sand filled
oil drums, and all civilian vehicles were searched.
After a while
we moved to the more secure Fayed Garrison, a vast British military
area beside the Great Bitter Lake, halfway down the Suez Canal.
We were initially accommodated in 4-man tents, in the Royal Artillery
camp where my father worked. The tents didn't seem so luxurious
this time, somehow. The toilets were just large holes in the ground,
topped by seats and rough buildings. Meals, served by the cookhouse,
consisted almost entirely of Pom and Spam, that is powdered potato
and a chopped meat loaf. This was because there was some difficulty
in obtaining supplies due to the emergency situation.
Later we moved
to an area where the accommodation was in single-storey
brick-built terraces, with meals taken communally like an old-fashioned
Butlins, called Kensington Village. School here, too, lagged behind.
I didn't mind, but it was to prove disastrous for my education
later. Toilet facilities consisted of communal Elsan chemical
toilets, basically a bucket under a seat. The contents were collected
daily by the 'honey wagon', and emptied into slopping old oil
drums by local workers.
a shopping area nearby, mostly run by locals, and dominated by
a large NAAFI store. There was a shortage of coins (piastres or
'ackers'), so the NAAFI issued its own plastic coins.
We spent a
lot of time at the Senior NCOs Club, set on a beach on the Great
Bitter Lake. The water here, too, was none too clean, but we didn't
know any different and accepted it without question. There was
another shopping area across the road from the Club, a much more
down-market affair with the tiny scruffy shops sporting names
such as Woolworths, Harrods and Fifty Shilling Tailors.
After a while
we moved to Curragh Village, into our own 3 bedroom self-contained
bungalow, still within the Fayed cantonment. This was surrounded
by a garden of pure sand, with a couple of raised beds and a border
at the front which were flooded every night from a tap dispensing
untreated water, supplied for the purpose. I don't recall anything
worthwhile being grown there, apart from some castor oil plants
and a couple of young bananas.
was, to me, a miraculous piece of equipment, a large refrigerator.
Ice cream did not seem to feature in the shops, but at last we
were able to make our own, from a powdered product bought from
the NAAFI store. The other equipment was not so grand. The cooker
was a flimsy paraffin fuelled affair and the 'honey-buckets' were
still with us. And as everywhere, there was a constant smell of
DDT, from the Flit guns that everyone used to combat the eternal
flies and large brown cockroaches. When they weren't swatting
them with the wire mesh swats which everybody also used extensively,
here we were taken to school under armed escort, the schools being
sited in Kensington Village, where we had earlier been accommodated.
In retrospect, this was a little odd as otherwise we children,
and everyone else, roamed freely about the cantonment, through
which ran public roads. Perhaps the Army was just covering itself.