Dragoman Memoirs: searching the East for ‘Elands’ by Barnaby Rogerson
Generation after generation, a steady stream of merchant-venturers, mercenaries, miners and Celtic scholar-saints have gone questing off into the far horizons. The steady emigration of many of its more ambitious and curious souls has spared Britain from unnecessary revolutions, perhaps – and filled its library shelves with travel books! There is no particular need to consult a history book over this statement, since tea with an aunt will confirm the statistics just as well. To cite my own example, I grew up with an uncle mining for silver in Siam, another one governing a small portion of East Africa, whilst a naval father spent much time afloat on the High Seas. The same pattern is repeated through previous generations, confirmed by my own. So I (a so-called travel-writer) am exposed as the stay-at-home, compared to my hippy sister in the Burren hills of Ireland (surrounded by feral goats, blonde children, ponies, blonde grandchildren and a variety of husbands), an elder brother in darkest Venezuela (near the gold-mines in the southern jungle) and a polo-playing younger brother, plotting a techno-empire in the middle of the Alps. This story will be replicated by the tales of many millions of other British aunts, dutifully holding together the fraying strands of their family tapestry, through conversation, correspondence and Christmas cards.
Most emigrants from Britain have no wish to come back (which is one way in which to explain the astonishing bravura of America and Australia) but those that do are often compelled by the bleakness of the British winter to write down their memories. This is where Eland Press, the reviver of travel literature, we cry, comes in. Doughty travel-writers have taken to dropping in on our office (especially after-lunch) to check what we have been up to and then, in exchange for some sobering black coffee, have left behind well-thumbed favourite old travelling companions. This is one of the least predictable but most efficient ways for small publishers to stumble across a lost classic. With such intrepid visitors as William Dalrymple, Michael Jacobs, Dervla Murphy and Brigid Keenan – who have all climbed our grimy stairway in the last few months – we are seldom short of passionate endorsements. However, all too often these ‘road-tested favourites’ become buried under other ‘must reads’ and slowly rise up, to grow paper-towers of Pisa. These tottering piles are a necessary part of Eland, especially if one is trying to follow in the footsteps of the founder of Eland, John Hatt – who read his way through 167 recommendations, for every one that he considered worthy of becoming an ‘Eland’.
However, once I heard that ‘Slightly Foxed’ was looking for classic memoirs to reprint, I started briskly quarrying into some of these towers. Especially the ones I had named after Lesley Blanch and Philip Mansel, who have long championed the Dragoman-Consuls of the Levant. Now, at last, I would get to travel into the East, in the company of men such as De Gaury, Storrs and Grafftey-Smith, who spoke all languages and befriended all creeds, at the service of their nation. Men who knew the streets, bars, palaces and hotels of Cairo, Constantinople, Mosul, Basra, Jeddah and Aleppo, better than any map or guidebook, and who formed the type of Man who had plotted the creation of a new Balkan Empire in the 19th century and helped create Arabian Kingdoms in the 20th. Fortunately, I quickly realised they wouldn’t do for either Eland or Slightly Foxed, so would not have to make any agonising moral choice, between imprints. But, in a way, that cleared the decks for a romp, relaxing back into the sofa as a reader, rather than a potential publisher twitching the editorial blue pencil.
I had read some of Gerald de Gaury’s works before, as he is an important source for the Middle East, where he served between the war, both as a soldier, diplomat and as the British Political Agent in Kuwait, when the oil first started flowing. His own works of history and biography are thorough and well-researched but his memoir plunges you quickly into a highly scented world, dominated by duchesses, desert Kings, sacred relics, palace balls and precious instances of male beauty –all held together by De Gaury’s bravery, good looks and impeccable manners. So one soon gets used to swinging between ecstatic descriptions of Lord Kitchener as a ‘centaur of old’ who ‘sat there as if a God…precisely as the Roman Emperors had been worshipped’ immediately followed by an admirably restrained description of his own experience as an eighteen year-old soldier at Gallipoli. Just before going into combat, they were given an identity disk, the easier to identify battlefield casualties and instructed to shave off all body hair, crop their skulls and keep their stomachs and bladders empty, the better to help the field surgeons in their work. After such encouragement, they were landed by boat, then hidden in blisteringly hot trenches for a couple of days before being led into the hills by their general who having first lost his way – eventually managed to stagger towards the battlefield, where for four days and nights the fighting raged continuously and uncontrollably. Gallipoli was arguably the last great medieval battle of the modern age, fought in the hinterland of Troy, without benefit of radio or motorization. Just 100,000 men left to kill each other amongst hills and ravines, supplied with water and shot by mule trains. Both the Allies and Turks suffered from the terrifyingly powerful, but inaccurate, naval bombardments from the line of French and British battleships. De Gaury’s battalion lost every officer and sergeant but still the soldiers fought on. He was fortunate to have been rescued by a gallant Australian giant and would recover from his wounds, at a hospital in Malta, where the only book he could find was an Arabic grammar – which accidentally prepared the way for his future career in the Middle East.
So, having survived three further wounds in the trenches, he was quite non-plussed to later find himself sitting down to dinner next to The Archmandrite at Julfa, the Armenian suburb of Isfahan, who confessed “that his three immediate predecessors all died in suspicious circumstances.”There were also many happy memories, such as a midnight supper party held in a palm garden outside Basra, where the grapes taste of roses, where water-pipes are smoked, araq is sipped and the local delicacy, an aphrodisiac sherbet made from the stamen of the male date palm, is served until dawn….when the minstrels cease their playing. His role as a diplomatic envoy involves one in a bit too much of the stifling protocol of palace life, though fortunately the savagery of political life keeps bursting through the plush velvet. For instance, the Regent of Iraq used a post-war state visit to exact his revenge on one of the Iraqi generals who attempted a coup back in 1941. The President of Turkey refused to hand this refugee general directly over, but eventually agreed to expel him into neutral Syria, where he was promptly seized by British agents and bundled across the border to Baghdad. There the Regent tricked him into betraying some more of the conspirators, before having his old adversary strung-up from the gatehouse of the army headquarters where his body was left to rot at the end of the rope for four days. On another occasion, the Sheikh of Mohammera (with whom the British may have been plotting to set up an independent Emirate which would occupy most of the oil-rich territory of southern Iraq and southern Persia) is left to make his own explanations to the Shah when summoned to the court at Tehran. He never returned from this audience – which left his old adviser, De Gaury, to try and create a financial settlement from out of the murdered sheikhs property for his 22 surviving sons.
His lifelong interest in precious objects takes us on many an eccentric quest, but in his company we get to look on the wand of the Prophet Muhammad, the holy grail – as seized by the Genoese during the Crusades, as well as an abortive attempt to track down the Archangel Gabriel’s feather. Boccaccio reported that this relic had been left behind after the Annunciation, an object William Beckford had described, back in the 18th century, as “of a blushing hue more soft and delicate than that of the loveliest rose’. Though not even this, a full three feet long, gets such an attentive description as De Gaury’s memories of a flogging – It seems quite clear from his elegant evocation he relished his command over the Iraq Levies, a volunteer force, which assisted the British occupation that had been largely recruited from the Marsh Arabs. He even elegises about the tedium of garrison life for “We each had a punkah boy who tugged away at his cord during the hot afternoons from his place on the verandah…we woke from siesta in time for an evening game of polo on the sun-baked field behind the camp. After it we would ride back on our sweating ponies to the Mess and there sit on the roof while the sun went down, trying to quench an unquenchable thirst.” If only he had carried on in this vein he might have produced something sufficiently idiosyncratic to rival the works of T E Lawrence, or Jean Genet.
Ronald Storrs memoir, Orientations, is not so obscure a literary document, indeed it was briefly a runaway success, that went into many printings in the late 1930’s, just before the second world war. Storrs had been the ‘eminence grise’ behind many of the British pro-consuls of Egypt, such imperious Lords as Cromer, Kitchener, Gorst and Killearn. The Oriental Secretary to a succession of British Consul-Generals, Residents and Ambassadors, who whatever the modesty of their official titles ruled Egypt and the Sudan for almost a hundred years A good Oriental Secretary was required to combine a number of roles, from watching over the daily clippings of local Greek, Arabic and French newspapers, to running foreign and domestic intelligence, liaising with the secret-police, as well as working as a social secretary who knew who to invite, where and when – and also kept a useful tab on their weaknesses, indiscretions, secret vices and rivalries. The job required fluency in half a dozen languages, an acute, restless intelligence and an interest in every form and manifestation of life. Even as a young man, Ronald showed this. At Cambridge he was part of a debating club that included such future key members of the Bloomsbury group as Lytton Strachey and the young Keynes, while he also mingled with the Crabbet Park set, whose aristocratic host encouraged his guests to talk through the night and bathe at dawn, after which they played lawn tennis stark naked until breakfast intervened…
But in those halcyon days, before gossip columns drove all the free-spirits out of politics, the naked, prancing figures on the grass court would also include a future Viceroy of India, battling it out against a future Secretary of State for Ireland, amongst the care-free decadents. Their ancient host, Wilfrid Blunt, was one of the leading breeders of pure Arab racehorses, a travel-writer, a poet who had been the vociferous champion of independence for Egypt, Ireland and India in the late 19th-century, as well as a womaniser of heroic stamina. As we read our way through Storrs, we get to meet many other flawed heroes, such as Said Zulfikar Pasha, Grand Chamberlain and keeper of palace secrets to five Khedives of Egypt, not to mention Sir Rudolph Slatin Pasha, whose lifelong experience of government in the Sudan included ‘twelve years as a prisoner of the Mahdi, naked, often in chains.” We watch old Sir Evelyn Baring (who as Lord Cromer was the hated architect of British rule in the Middle East) leave Egypt for the last time,‘departing through streets lined with troops ‘amid a silence chillier than ice.” We also stumble, almost casually, across the making of modern history, for Storrs was intimately involved in plotting the alliances with traditional leaders that led to the Arab revolt as well as watching (with alarm) the creation of a Jewish homeland from out of British occupied Palestine. Without coming off his apolitical fence he observes the ability and ferocity of such leading Zionists as Vladimir Jabotinsky (who like many of the toughest Zionists had come from families that had been brutalized by Tsarist persecution) and also the chance incidents that bound so many leading British statesmen to the Zionist cause. They felt under an enormous debt of gratitude to the moderate British Zionist, Weizmann, who had invented a vital high-explosive known as Acetone (first made from horse chestnuts gathered by school-children). While it is also often forgotten that A J Balfour, of the Balfour Declaration, represented the parliamentary constituency of Manchester (which at this period was almost half Jewish in population) which naturally inclined him to listen to what Professor Weizmann of Manchester University, and so many other of the leading Zionists of Britain, proposed.
Arguably Storrs should have ended Orientations in 1926, on page 455 with his biographical review of his old colleague, T E Lawrence. It would have made a splendid finale, and spared us the long chapters on the slow transformation of the wicked, and camp young Oriental Secretary, into a married man, a knight and a colonial governor. One feels worried for his wife and for his library of rare manuscripts, first editions and private letters which was engulfed by a fire started by a mob of Greek Cypriots storming Government House in Nicosia.
His life story is mirrored, aped and occasionally mocked by one of his juniors, Laurence Grafftey-Smith, whose career overlapped with Storrs for some ten years. So that ‘Bright Levant’ not only makes a perfect companion piece to ‘Orientations’ but continues the eyewitness story of Britain’s political intrigues in the Middle East until 1956. Apart from their shared intelligence, ambition and capacity for palace intrigue, Storrs and Grafftey-Smith shared an intriguingly similar background. They were both impecunious sons of clergymen, educated in good but not glamorously well-connected public schools (Storrs went to Charterhouse, Grafftey-Smith to Repton) who made the very best of their university years. They had need too, for the competition amongst graduates for a place in the old Levant Consular Service was fierce, with examination halls packed full of six hundred clever young-men competing for just four or five places. Grafftey-Smith was fortunate to be among the last to be educated by the great polymath ‘Persian’ E.G. Browne, who he describes with a ‘finely chiselled face… a radiance of intellect and of love for his fellow-man. I never met a kinder man.” Grafftey-Smith was not alone in this sense of gratitude. To honour a lifetime of work on Persian literature his 100th birthday was celebrated as a national holiday in Iran.
Constantinople, with its First, Second and Third Dragomans permanently attached to the staff of the British Embassy, was the most sought-after posting within the Consular Service – which could lead to terrible feelings of neglect to those Consuls languishing for years in less glamorous trading ports. The depressive condition of ‘Consulitis’ manifested itself through alcohol and an obsessive concern for rank – but could sometimes reach fatal proportions, like the time when Lord Dufferin had to call out from his office door for ‘lots of blotting paper quickly!” after one of his Consuls had capped his list of grievances by blowing his brains out over his Ambassadors desk in mid-interview. Grafftey-Smith’s first posting, to Alexandria, was with one such madman as a boss – a rites of passage initiation into British eccentricity on the cusp of madness. Having survived this test he was moved to Cairo to join the court of the British Consul-General guarded by canvasses in scarlet and gold and served by a team of foot messengers in uniforms of blue. But despite the collective brilliance of this colonial cabinet of mandarins, Grafftey-Smith also observed the dangerous isolation that race and class-obsessed British had imposed upon themselves, centred around the Turf or the Gezira Sporting Club.
They were all observed by the reigning Khedive, Fuad, who ran his own intelligence network through Ismet Bey, his Nubian valet who controlled the appointment of every door-keeper, house-boy and cook in Egypt. Fuad (his voice reduced to a bat-like shriek after he had been shot in the throat by his brother-in-law) resolutely attempted to claw back power to the Khedival throne throughout his reign. So the palace intrigued with both the nationalists and the British, who were themselves often divided in policy – between what the officials in Cairo desired, set against the different policies of the India Office, the Foreign Office and the politicians in Westminster. It was dangerous but exciting times for an intelligent young Consul in the 20’s and 30’s, with Egypt riven by nationalist agitation and assassinations, Arabia disputed between Britain’s two allies (the al-Saud and Hashemite dynasties) with both Iraq and Syria trying to throw off colonial tutelage and Palestine convulsed by the Jewish settlements. Grafftey-Smith is especially good on character assessment: how he considered the Hashemite Sherif of Mecca had been permanently marked by his youthful exile in Ottoman Istanbul (where he was closely watched by Ottoman agents), so that ‘his Proust-like gerundial clauses’ of his language had become so guarded and complex ‘that neither I or my translator could ever be sure what the King was trying to say.” Ibn Saud’s character by contrast, had greatly benefited by his own experience of exile in Kuwait, where he not only tasted poverty but developed friendships with Turks, Druze, Shia and Christian Arabs that he might never have been exposed to in the Wahhabist oasis strongholds of his Arabian homeland.
Grafftey-Smith was not a natural-born courtier (unlike Storrs or De Gaury) and so his anecdotes about monarchs can appear to have an almost republican flavour. Such as the tale of young King Farouk, pouring his tip of gold coins into a basin full of vitriol (to torture some porters with a choice between pain and greed) and how the saintly old Hasemite Emir of Mecca would sometimes descend into his underground dungeon and randomly club the chained inmates. Indeed the fascinating but grim tours of duty in Albania (just before the Fascist invasion), or in Iraq (just before a nationalist uprising would clove his successor in-two with a pick-axe on the Consulate staircase) and at the Red Sea port of Jeddah were clearly meant to be punishment for Grafftey-Smith’s outspoken views and policies. But at times of crisis, like the panic-ridden months when General Rommel appeared to be about to occupy Cairo with German tanks, Graffety-Smith more than proved his worth as a mastermind of propaganda. But his caustic wit comes through to leave few unscathed, whether he is observing W. Thesiger eating, J. Morris recording the wrong aphrodisiac recipe or Rosita Forbes faking her desert travels. Only the old desert warrior-King, Ibn Saud earns a consistently good word from Grafftey-Smith, who describes him as of ‘great physical strength, and the gentle hands and charming smile that made many love him’. This affection is confirmed in the ringing last paragraph of Bright Levant, “Tombstones and all other memorials of mortality are anathema to a true Wahhabi. His Majesty Abdul Aziz ibn Abdurrahman al Saud lies in the sands, wrapped only in a shroud; and today one must ask of the desert winds and of the cold Arabian stars to find his resting place.”
But even this grandiloquent conclusion might also be considered to be part of his long professional duel with Ronald Storrs who had ended Orientations, with this penultimate paragraph quoting one of Sufi heroes of mystical Islam, “Oh my Lord! If I worship thee from fear of hell, burn me in hell; and if I worship Thee from hope of Paradise, exclude me thence: but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty.”
Plainly some of the wisdom of the East, not just its scents, palaces and politics had seeped into the veins of Britain’s great Dragoman-Consuls of the Levant.
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Barnaby Rogerson May, 2011. The public domain photos show the cover of Arabia Phoneix by Gerald de Gaury, Lord Kitchener in the famous recruiting poster, Ronald Storrs, Wilfred Scawen Blunt and the cover of Bright Levant by Laurence Graffety-Smith. Barnaby is profiled below.