[As received from Ken Mortimer in February 2018]
Going Back a Little, Spear Side
I do not actually remember it myself, but I was told by my mother that I was born in Tocopilla, Chile, on 11th May, 1926. This is confirmed by my birth certificate from the British Consulate there, but in any case my mother should know, as she was there at the time. My birth lasted a couple of days and would have ended in the expiry of both mother and child, as Hispanic prudery prevented a male doctor intervening until my father was on his knees before him, assuring him that he would not violently avenge the impropriety. The house where I was born had a balcony that actually overhung the great Pacific Ocean, so I was born to the boom of Pacific rollers.
My ancestry was British and English. My father, Joseph Edward Mortimer (my mother preferred to call him Eddie), was born in Malta in 1888. His mother was Maltese, Elizabeth Parnis, so I do have some Lebanese blood in me as the Maltese are descended from the Carthaginians, who had emigrated from Tyre in South Lebanon about 1,000 B.C.
My paternal grandfather, Henry Cecil, was born in Gibraltar, of a Spanish-Italian mother, Emily Guasee. He was sent to Malta as a young man by his father to run the Maltese branch of the family business, which at one time had over ninety employees in Malta, according to the interesting but often inaccurate book Twin Rocks (Arrigo). But he very soon married a girl of only sixteen, to the fury of his father. He provided her with a Spanish servant brought from Gibraltar, so Spanish was one of the languages my father practised from infancy as well as Maltese and English, followed by French, Latin and Greek at school, where he was a brilliant student, finishing at the Jesuit Stoneyhurst in U.K. In South America he picked up Aymara and Qichwa, the Inca languages.
His father (my grandfather) Henry Cecil was the son of Lieutenant Joseph Edward Mortimer, 1833-1906, of the 15th Regiment. Posted to Gibraltar, Joseph Edward soon left the Army and profiting from his military friendships he set up a business supplying the British armed forces in Gibraltar, Malta and Alexandria in Egypt, for those were the glory days of the British Empire when Britannia ruled the waves. Joseph Edward was the son of Joseph Mortimer and Frances Sara Bullivant and this Joseph was the son of Edward Horlock Mortimer and Elizabeth Bythesea of Trowbridge, county capital of Wiltshire. Edward Horlock was Deputy Lieutenant of the counties of Wiltshire and Somerset, meaning that he was deputy in charge of the militia during the Napoleonic Wars, and also Justice of the Peace. My grandfather became Catholic only at the end of his life in 1929.
With the help of the County Public Records Office there one may see property in Trowbridge of Edward Horlock and his son Joseph. This includes an imposing but perfectly hideous Studley and Bellefield House (occupied by some milk-distributing office when I saw it in 1995 and 1997), a bank, and Joseph’s factory which turned out a flop (see Trowbridge Clothiers and their Families by Kenneth H. Rogers, the former kindly chief of Wiltshire Public Records Office, particularly pages 145-8). See also Burke’s Landed Gentry P. 487-8 (edition of 1930s, I believe), Mortimer of Redsham Hall, where I am mentioned.
A sister of Lieutenant Joseph, Maria Octavia, married Sir Joseph Napier of the distinguished military Napier family, and became the great-grandmother of John Napier, husband of Cecily (“Sue”) Mortimer, daughter of my uncle Arthur and niece of my father. John is therefore our third cousin and husband of Cecily.
A grand-uncle of mine tried to trace our Mortimer family back to the Mortimers, Earls of March, who had a valid claim to the throne from Philippa, daughter of Lionel Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III, as Lionel’s nephew, Richard II, died without issue. But our grand-uncle was evidently unable to do this through the male line, only through the Bytheseas. Of course any pride in royal blood is out of the question, for if one goes back a few hundred years one has a million ancestors and any “noble” blood is diluted to the extreme. One may enjoy reading about the 1st Earl in Maurice Druon’s Les Rois maudits de la France, v. 5. La Louve de France. Roger Mortimer distinguished himself by sticking a red-hot poker up the backside of King Edward II. As the TV documentaries, say, “Don’t try this at home!”
My father Eddie dreamed of joining the Royal Navy and, as a prize for an essay, he won from the Navy League a superbly bound copy, original edition, of Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power on History, which influenced naval strategy worldwide prior to World War I. I have given it to Anwar, hoping that one of his children will treasure it in the future. However a motor-cycle accident affecting my father’s lower spine obstructed this ambition even during the war. I imagine he met my mother at the Admiralty, where she worked as a confidential secretary, seeing the big brass such as Beatty and Jellico. She kept a lifelong passion for the sea and the Navy.
My grandfather wanted Eddie to stay in Malta to carry on the family business, but Malta was a small world for a young man dreaming of adventure. So to the fury of his father he went off to Chile as a representative of British firms. Bad father-son relations seem to have been hereditary. Henry Cecil was so angry that he sold off all his business, after having been the richest man in Malta, estimated how many years he would have to live († 1929), and divided up the capital to be spent accordingly. This left his mother as a charge on his youngest son Arthur, father of Cecily. Arthur was in charge of water supply during the siege of Malta in WW II.
Curiously enough, the Malta firm had business connections with Brickwood’s Brewery of Southsea, near Portsmouth, on the south coast, where my maternal uncle Sidney became manager.
I once spent a weekend with my uncle. He took me to the brewery, where I saw enormous vats full of beautiful frothy beer and breathed an air filled with their glorious perfume. My uncle invited me down to the office and I thought I was going to really enjoy myself, but all I got was a tiny glass of beer just used for tasting. Next day I went to church under pelting rain; when I got there I found it was called St. Swithun’s! Most appropriate!
My mother went to Chile to marry my father I suppose about 1922. Those were glorious days for her, fishing and bathing from the rocks with mostly British people there. Tocopilla was the nitrate and borax port of the Atacama Desert, where it simply never rains at all, making borax production possible. The climate was delightful and cheap fruit and vegetables were brought by ships from the South – the extreme length of Chile from North to South means there is a whole range of tropical, temperate and Antarctic climate. (I have just found what appears to be the marriage certificate given by the public notary in Oruro, Bolivia, but the print is faded and the language Spanish. My parents must have gone immediately afterwards to Tocopilla, I believe linked to Oruro by a railway line of which my father was at one time director.) My mother’s conversion to the Catholic Church had nothing to do with her marriage. It preceded her marriage after several years during which she had attended a “High” Anglican church. My father had not wished for her conversion; he was a non-practicing Catholic but he would tie knots in argument around anybody who criticised the Catholic Church.
Sailors would buy exotic animals up around Panama, but by the time they had reached Tocopilla and drunk up the remainder of their wages they were obliged to sell them. My parents were fond of animals and in this way my mother acquired a coati. I have a photograph of my father fishing with a cormorant from a boat. A ring round the neck would prevent the bird swallowing the fish a few times but then at the fifth or sixth plunge the collar would be removed to allow the bird to swallow its catch. With the rich Humboldt Current moving by, there were so many fish it was hardly necessary to bait the hook on a line. There were vast numbers of pelicans who however starved during the season when the fish swam deeper, so the condors that feasted on their carcasses were protected.
My mother had tried to learn Spanish at a night-school in London before travelling, but to no avail. However, once she was in South America with my father, who spoke it like a native, she picked it up in no time. Both were so fond of Spanish that they never spoke English together. When I came to England at the age of four, I knew no English. Unfortunately, my mother was so keen to show off to the neighbours that I could speak Spanish that I shut up like a clam, feeling embarrassed to say things that nobody understood just to get patted on the head (ugh!) So in a few months I was completely Anglophone and had forgotten all save two or three words of Spanish. All children should begin life speaking at least two languages. Once they are adolescent, shyness renders speaking a foreign language practically impossible. Further, unfamiliar sounds are not recognised, and become replaced by ones that are. For example, a Frenchman hears the with his ears but not with his mind; he thinks he hears ze, the nearest sound with which he is familiar.
In 1927-8 my parents paid a visit to England, and for some strange reason my maternal grandmother accompanied them to Malta. She had no educated concept of travel and, thoroughly English, could only look down on even a fine Mediterranean dwelling, “with chickens on the roof”, as Aunt Marjory said.
My father must have had a row with my grandfather, for when we returned to South America his character had changed. We moved up to Oruro in Bolivia at a height of 13,000 feet, 4,000 metres. I remember the house and remember seeing the llamas. I have a very distinct memory of hiding behind the counter of a shop because I was frightened by dancing Indians. I remember the balls I played with and even the dog which was my fierce guardian, with me most gentle.
The Catholic priests were very poor and uneducated so little could be expected of them beyond prayer miserably paid for. On Good Friday, the people said that as God was dead, for a couple of days they could do what they liked and so they got dead drunk. Once on Good Friday the cook of a friend asked for the Saturday off, as she had to bury her mother. But she turned up for work next day as usual. When her employer expressed surprise, the cook told her that it turned out that her mother had only been drunk and had recovered from her stupor.
It seems that without any moral support from his parents,1 and having quarrelled with his father, Eddie started losing money over poker, got into a scrape, and had to be bundled by friends into Argentina. My mother had to write home to ask for money to pay for our return to her parents. We travelled for a second time on the SS Orduña. Once looking through a porthole at lunch time I saw a warship carrying some South American ex-president fleeing from his country.
1 I was told that as she had been married very young to a man of strong temperament, and was surrounded by servants, my grandmother’s character had little opportunity to develop.
Because of the British mining and railway interests in South America, there were many Scots, and my mother became their fervent admirer. She said the Scots were so true; instead of turning their backs on her in her time of need they stood beside her and helped her. Around the year 1950, she visited an old friend from Bolivia, a certain Mrs. Rogers, who was now retired in Aberdeen (or Dundee?). The good lady suggested going for a wee walk, and my mother was delighted. After tottering a few miles with the tough old Scot, she asked, “Is this your wee walk?” Of course in Scottish speech, almost every noun is preceded by the adjective wee.
My father corresponded with us during the 1930s, sending me letters full of sketches that I still posses and photographs of nearly naked hunter-fisher Indians, for he had evidently lost none of his love for adventure and the wild. I inherited this love, but lacked the childhood formation and circumstances that would have allowed me to develop it. I could only dream over books. My father also sent me a model square-rigged three-masted grain ship of the kind that used to drop into Tocopilla coming from Australia, complete in every detail of rope and sail, but unfortunately the masts got broken when I brought it to Lebanon. Great pity!
The correspondence between my father and mother ceased with the war in 1939, after tailing off. Sign of increasing depression? Aunt Totty told me that he had said how much he missed me. Of course, on leaving the Air Force it was my duty to go and look for him. But when young one takes for granted the world as one has known it. Had I gone, I would no doubt have stayed in Argentina and my life would have been completely different. Finally, when I was asked for proof of his decease in order to receive a small inheritance from Malta, I learnt from the British Consul in Argentina, who advertised in the papers, that my father had died from cancer in the lower spine, site of his youthful motorcycle injury, around 1950. He had made a paltry living by giving lessons in English and book-keeping. It is now that I feel for him, too late to have been there to console him at the end.
My mother received much moral support from the letters of his sister, my Aunt Emily, a nun of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, of which she became 1st Assistant when the Society numbered some two thousand Sisters. I have a file of letters from her and three Bibles she sent me, a Challoner (very useful for discussions when I was in the RAF with its references), a St. Joseph’s, and finally a Jerusalem, all treasured.
My visits to Aunt Totty were rare and I only wish I could have had more contact with her when young. She was understanding and would have countered the too prudent and old-fashioned influences I was under.
Now the Distaff Side
My maternal grandfather was Charles Ambrose Shepherdson, b. 1864. When he was a child, his father Samuel was a foreman plate-layer at Milford Haven, Pembroke, Little England beyond Wales. It must have been the time when building iron ships was starting in a big way. Charles had a moustache and Samuel a fine beard. My grandfather’s great-grandfather had been press-ganged into the RN during the Napoleonic wars.
Charles Ambrose became a chartered accountant, finally junior partner, in a highly respectable Quaker City-of-London firm. It was so respectable that the following happened. My grandfather received as a birthday present a silver propelling pencil with a spiral engraved up the side, which he proudly took to work. But during the morning, one of the firm’s partners called my grandfather into his office.
“Mr. Shepherdson,” he said with the solemnity due to the occasion, “It is certainly right for the dignity of the firm that you should bring a pencil of solid silver. However, your pencil has a spiral line engraved along its length. This is a frivolity not to be tolerated in a firm with our serious reputation. I regret your pencil will have to stay at home.”
One doubts if in the year 2012 a line engraved on a pencil would disturb the dignity of a respectable accountants’ office. But absurd though the incident may seem, it does show how there used to be a conscience and integrity that modern times have lost. However, my grandfather’s habits of dignity caused him unnecessary discomfort. In hot weather he would retire to the cellar under the house in an effort escape the heat; it apparently never occurred to him to remove or loosen the suffocating high stiff celluloid collar that he removed only when he went to bed.
On the rare occasions when he wrote a letter, perhaps to his son Sidney at Southsea, he would very carefully first make a draft, even for this writing slowly in copperplate hand, and only when he considered it perfect would he make the final copy – although even the draft never needed any alteration. He tried to instill this habit into me, but of course without any permanent success; if I wrote to a friend I put down my thoughts as they tumbled out.
Charles Ambrose Shepherdson married Emmeline Drane of Gt. Yarmouth, b. 1865. After the marriage in the Yarmouth Parish Church, they were photographed inside the famous skeleton of a whale. A year previously my grandmother had been engaged to a man who stole all the wedding presents and went off to France the night before the wedding was due. Her brother was a shrimp fisher.
I have a photograph of my grandmother taken when she was an infant, obviously suffering from having her head held for a five-minute exposure in an iron clamp.
After their marriage, my grandparents lived in Putney, at first near the Bridge over the Thames. They had four children, of whom two died, one the twin brother of my mother. The twins both caught diphtheria, my mother surviving. Apparently the disease was common and often fatal in those days, no doubt connected with poor sanitation.
My mother was Winifred Adelaide Shepherdson, b. 1893, November 22, also the Lebanese Independence Day. She was sent to the Sacred Heart nuns’ school in Wandsworth despite her parents’ stern but entirely negative Protestantism.
The Yarmouth connection no doubt explains my fondness for shrimps, bloaters and kippers, though nowadays people seem to consider the smell of a kipper the abomination of the desolation. There was a shack on the Gorleston riverside, opposite Yarmouth, where herrings were salted and smoked, quite Dickensian.
Speaking of her childhood days, my grandmother told me that when in late autumn the herring drifters came in with their catches, Scots fisher girls would come to Yarmouth to gut the fish. If there was a slip of the knife and a cut in the finger, the girl would be faced by certain death from infection in those pre-antiseptic days. A book in my possession written in the late nineteenth century describes how men in the Hebrides or Shetlands would fall to their death when trying to reach the egg of a seabird in a nest on the abrupt face of a cliff. How life has changed since those days! Poverty now has a different meaning in Britain.
When I was about ten, on two occasions my mother and I spent nearly a month at Easter with a distant relative of the Shepherdsons in Hull. The brave woman had lost her husband and her young son. I would be well supplied with boys’ books and albums left by her son and I met relatives young and old. One of them worked on an Icelandic trawler. Even in those comparatively recent times the trawlers would spend weeks at sea and sometimes fail to return, lost without trace or news in the winter storms. I often feel that my own life has spanned two different worlds, and with my parents’ generations an even greater chasm. What would school children today think of our inkwells on the desks, the scratchy pen nibs and our inky fingers? My grandfather would recite a poem advertising the first metal nibs to replace the goose quills:
They came as a boon and a blessing to men,
The Pickwick, the Owl and the Waverly pen!
When I was at school every child carried a penknife to sharpen his pencils; more elaborate models had a hook for removing stones from horses’ hooves, already out of use however, but a point of pride!
My grandmother, mother and I used to spend long summer holidays in the mid-1930s at Gorleston-on-sea, next to Yarmouth, staying at the cottage (82 or 84 Colomb Road) of Emmeline’s much elder sister Emma, who wore a bonnet like Marie Antoinette before her execution (Antoinette’s, not Emma’s), a linen bag closed with a broad black ribbon. Her bearded husband, family name Fisk, was a proud Freemason and showed me his regalia – he died before our later visits.
Their daughter Gertrude (Auntie Gertie, hard g) worked in the Norwich Post Office. Very conscientious, she was offered the post of manager but refused, frightened of the responsibility. She and her mother belonged to a small Protestant sect, and their effort to convert my grandmother, a nominal, middle-of-the-road Anglican, one year caused a temporary rift. That year my mother and I took our holiday on the farm in North Wales (see later paragraph).
At the end of the road there were two-decker horse buses still running. Colomb Road ended with a railway embankment and fields, in one of which we saw Sir Alan Cobham’s Air Circus. We used to spend our days in one of the “cosies” on Gorleston pier, actually the structure with which Dutch engineers had once controlled the shifting sands of the mouth of the river Yar, with Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk side and Gorleston on the Suffolk side. I passed my time fishing (a catch was a great event, a small dab or flounder or eel!) and in the mornings polished the brass on the pilot’s boat, in which I would go out with the pilots, sometimes steering, thanks to our friendship with pilot mechanics Bert Beavis and Mr. Harrison.
Sometimes there was a sailing boat with timber from the Baltic and we had to go a long way out for the pilot to board, past the Sands. There was one gnarled, stubby pilot with a bulldog face who had taken sailing ships round Cape Horn, Captain Burton who took over the sailing ships from the Baltic. He must have been tough when younger despite his gruff friendliness in later life! Imagine driving sailors a hundred or more feet up the soaring, swaying masts to furl sails frozen stiff in icy Antarctic blasts! The belaying-pin must have come in handy!
When there was a storm, my mother and I would go on a trip on a paddle ex-tug-boat, The United Service, which even then was pretty old and always breaking down with the holiday trippers aboard. Or we would go in the Gorleston lifeboat, sitting in front to get the spray as the boat rushed up the mountainous waves and then crashed into the abyss.
In 1906 my grandparents and their children had moved into 5, Holroyd Road, Putney, bought for the astronomical price of ₤600 (I have the builder’s contract), a semi-detached house with a small garden in front and one about twenty metres long behind. My grand-uncle George lived with his brother and the family, remaining a bachelor, and I think greatly improving my grand-parents financial status, especially by his will after his decease in the mid-thirties. But a greater contrast between the two brothers could not be imagined.
My grandfather Charles was innocent to a degree that amused even my mother. He was in the local defence force in WW I but resigned in disgust after the others had sung songs of a kind not usually taught in Sunday Schools on a route-march. Two houses up the road, number 9 (all the odd numbers were on one side of the road, the even on the other), there was a French family, Freemason and virulently anti-clerical. The lady could not understand why our Catholic parish priest would not give her husband a Catholic funeral. She hated him for it. French anti-clericals are the ones most insistent on the solemn rites of the Church, while for our priest to give them to a man who hated the Church was out of the question, dishonest. Once Grandpa Shepherdson, looking along the bay windows, saw a man in the bedroom of the daughter of the Frenchman, and was puzzled; he felt there was something strange going on, but could not understand what it was.
His brother George on the other hand was a gay dog of the “naughty nineties” in London city, a man about town, top hat, monocle, moustache, silver-headed stick, and bachelor flat in town to receive his lady friends. Only once was he taken aback. An Irish lady who had spent Saturday night keeping him warm in bed insisted on being taken to Mass in a Catholic church next morning. Of his Victorian Protestantism he conserved only the prejudices, and he went red in the face as he tried to imitate the congregation in its signs of the cross and genuflexions so as not to be noticed.
But he was a kindly man, whom I knew for several years before he passed away. My mother told me how he had once undergone a very grave operation, in days when anaesthetic consisted of chloroform on a sponge. He, who never thought about religion, had a vision of Christ beckoning to him. I think this is not the only case of people with a kind heart but no formal religion receiving such a message of love.
My mother’s brother Sidney, later Chief Brewer at Brickwoods (company which had links with the Mortimer winery in Malta), was a sergeant in the balloon corps during World War I and got gassed when the balloon was shot down. His wife’s brother was owner of the previously mentioned Welsh farm. He had a son Noel who studied law and became an officer and then district commissioner in East Africa, where he died unmarried. He had caught pneumonia and was transported to hospital in a plane (not pressurised in those days) with fatal results.
My mother had a cousin also called George from a second paternal uncle who died young. George was a total atheist. In the 1930s I knew him as a warder in the sick bay of Wandsworth prison. But he was in the Royal Navy in the two world wars and taught me the art of splicing a rope. He was gunner on a mine-sweeping trawler in World War II and despite its weak armament actually shot down an attacking German plane. He had the kind-heartedness that often marks men who have led a tough life through force of circumstances and I was very fond of him. Finally I think I did shake his materialism a little. He said that he believed only in material things he could see and touch. I asked how he knew that the apparently material world and his own sensations were not a product of his imagination, and he seemed quite alarmed at the idea.
As explained above, in 1937, when my grand-aunt in Gorleston was vexed over her failure to “convert” her sister, my mother and I took our holiday at a farm near Wrexham in North Wales run by the brother of Uncle Sidney’s wife. It was about two miles from Cheshire in England. In strict Nonconformist (non-Anglican Protestant) Wales, pubs were closed on Sundays, so on Sunday evenings we saw the Welsh folk trekking all the way to England to enjoy their pints of beer. I saw the Llangollen sheepdog trials (pronounced Khlangokhlan; the Welsh language is Indo-European but not a Germanic language like English.) I doubt if these days the arrangements are so primitive. The “gentlemen’s” was simply a patch of grass and iron rails behind some corrugated iron. We also went to Cheshire and walked on the medieval city walls.
It was in the quiet of 5, Holroyd Road, Putney, S.W.15 that my mother and I joined her parents in 1930 for the reasons already explained. For my mother it was a sad come-down after the good times in South America. Of course there were exciting moments: peering through several thicknesses of curtain, one might see an elderly gentleman on his bicycle or an old lady taking her doggie for a work. Very rarely, one might even see an owl on the tree in front of the house – that was a thrill! Fortunately when I was eleven and twelve years old I had the excitement every winter Wednesday afternoon of visiting the fossil galleries of the Natural History Museum, which was much more agreeable than hanging about a slimy, freezing, foggy school football field, and was also the start of a lifelong amateur interest in Evolution.
For me, Evolution is the most amazing of God’s miracles. I cannot accept the Darwinian explanation of evolution by “natural selection”. This is surely a result rather than a cause. Darwinism came at a time when there was a mechanical view of animal nature, when there was little knowledge of physiology and behaviour. Darwinism does not explain the parallel evolution of male and female sexuality, embryology, the alternating generations of parasitic worms or the agricultural activity of leaf-cutter ants with control of temperature and humidity. Anatomy, physiology, reflexes, conscious motivation, behaviour, digestive systems, rearing of the young, all have to develop in parallel. The whole subject is confused by secularists using Darwinism as a synonym for Evolution, whereas there were other theories of Evolution such as that of Lamarck of France.
After a year in a nuns’ school, which then closed to become an RSPCA clinic (at the age of five I was intrigued by a picture of Diplodicus carnegii on the classroom wall), I was sent by my kind grandfather to quite a good little preparatory school, Willington, 5 Colinette Road, where the white-haired lady owner, Miss Warren, held morning prayers with a hymn, while in Bible classes Mr. Crebbin explained that the Bible miracles were not miracles at all. But at least I learnt the historical background of Christianity. People usually leave Catholic schools without a clue.
Perhaps my closest friend when I was first at Willington was a boy who was really a caricature of a Jew, round-shouldered, sallow, hooked-nose, black curly hair. He spoke to me without any embarrassment on Jewish practices and never suffered any discrimination. In those days there might have been racial or religious or colour or class discrimination and there was no spite about them as we see now around 2017.
From the nuns’ school, when I was five or six, I remember three children clearly. Paul Hice (later my classmate in the Jesuit school), Saunders, and pretty orphan Jean Robertson, cared for by her aunt, who invited me to tea several times with my mother to her house in Fulham, near the Underground station, with gardens in front of it. They introduced me to a piano teacher, a quite charming and very German Miss Bocker, friend of the singer (Hiawatha, Albert Hall) Percy Manchester. Frankly, I had no musical talent and regret not having done more drawing, for which .I might well have developed some real ability. But my grandparents were relics of a time before radio, when a child was expected to play either the piano or the violin to provide entertainment.
There were red wooden letters used by the nuns to teach us the alphabet. My first reader had an illustration of a dog Rover. I also remember another book, with illustrations on pages in alphabetical order. One illustration is still perfectly clear: G is for ghost, that frightened the boys on the village green. I have memories of Bible illustrations on the wall and of myself reciting My Lost Pussy.
I retain a clear image of the first book I read other than a class book, found in the library of the Second Form at Willington, when I was seven. It had a dark stiff cover and pages filled with quite small print. It was the story of Beowulf, details of which I retain, for example how, when Beowulf cut off Grendel’s head under the lake and his companions-in-arms saw the blood swirling up, they feared Beowulf was dead. I still visualise the four coloured illustrations: the ogre Grendel striding the moors at night, Grendel’s mother nearly overcoming the hero as he lay on his back, the men carrying Grendel’s head back to Hrothgar’s hall, and finally the wounded Beowulf dying beside the slaughtered dragon.
One very clear memory I have of those days was going with my grandfather to the Christmas play and assembly with parents at the nearby Methodist Hall. I was dressed for my part in the play. It was a sharp frosty early night and even now I remember the brilliance of the stars. Alas! The brilliant street lighting of modern times has now sadly obscured thee Milky Way and the once familiar constellations.
The gloom of London, my loneliness and perhaps my physiology led me to grow up very depressive and introspective. I would wonder if objects were real or just the product of my imagination. This was not philosophical enquiry but an obsessive state of depression.2 Contact with animals, physical effort and later a sunny climate in Lebanon and lively conversation with friends were the best remedy (and later the martial arts). My character must also have been affected by the fact that, apart from being rather small, I grew and matured very slowly. On my sixteenth birthday I was like my son Edward when twelve.
2 Solipsism appears as a concern of G.K. Chesterton in his writings. He rightly found the solution in the Aristotelianism of St. Thomas Aquinas. Sensations are the imago expressa of the imagination seated in the brain produced by the physical changes in our nervous perceptive system (imago impressa) resulting from outside light or vibrations impinging on our organs. Imagination here is used in the meaning of the faculty that produces images.
As my little friends were all at least seventy years old, I grew up thinking success in life was a matter of venerating the elderly, so later my chief weakness was a total lack of ambition to urge me to study or take a career seriously. I had no sense of rivalry or competition. My dear grandfather was always repeating proverbs that taught prudence and caution. Neither a borrower nor a lender be! Look before you leap! Chew your food twenty times before swallowing it! Although well-intentioned, this was scarcely a preparation for success in life beyond a simple avoidance of disaster. My only consistent ambition in my youth was to flee urban and modern civilisation, preferably in some tropical or sub-tropical country.
I must say when I was about twelve I did have two school friends of my own age, with whom I used to go for Sunday walks on Wimbledon Common. The conversation was mostly about furniture of Louis XIV. One, bilingual André Naudeau, was a brilliant scholar at Cambridge, I think Peterhouse.
Although they had sent my mother to a convent school, my very kind grandparents were of the strict, solemn Protestant kind, suspicious of popery and Jesuits, but never going to church, reading the Bible, praying or using the word God. Grandpa’s piety consisted of taking me to his brother George’s grave in Putney Vale Cemetery on Sunday mornings, from where we would go for a delightful walk on Wimbledon Common. We would watch the swans and ducks with their babies on Queensmere and then have Bovril (like Oxo) and ginger-nuts at the Windmill, sometimes in biting cold.
My grandfather was typically Victorian in having a deep respect for religion, art, music and history without any real understanding. Once he went to the local Globe cinema to see Charles Laughton in Henry VIII. For some mysterious reason he came back quite white and shaken. Eventually it turned out that he had been horrified by the disgusting table manners of the Tudor monarch, gnawing at meat held in his hands and throwing the bones over his shoulder. He had imagined that that in the past manners were highly refined and supposed that there had been a steady decline down to modern times. He looked at the past through very rosy spectacles.
Once he took me up to a bedroom disused his brother’s death and unlocked a massive cupboard. He took out a heavy box from which he produced a fine family Bible. After showing it to me with great awe and solemnity he put it back, treating it as if it were the Holy Grail. But he never actually read it. His expression was always kind, but I never saw him smile or laugh. A slight contraction of the eyebrows was his greatest expression of disapproval, and quite enough.
I need hardly describe my grandparents’ attitude to anything American, jazz for example. But they did have two American heroes, both black, the boxer Joe Louis and the superb singer Paul Robeson. So they inverted their prejudice!
We had a family doctor, Doctor McBean, who had all the qualities that my grandfather could wish for: he was Scottish, he wore a black jacket with tails, pin-stripe grey trousers, a stiff high winged collar like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (a style which had disappeared even among the elderly by 1945) and a solemn, almost woebegone, expression emphasised by his long red nose. He was conscientious. If one had a fever of any sort, on the first day he would make a house call early in the morning, the first on his list. Once assured that that there was no danger, on subsequent days he would arrive somewhat later. I was quite shocked when at the age of eleven I saw a doctor, a young surgeon who was to remove my appendix, in a light grey suit, cheerful and looking quite like an ordinary person. After the operation I spent three weeks in bed, forbidden to move, followed by a long convalescence at home with dire warnings against any effort. At school for months after Miss Warren warned the boys against pushing me or another boy also operated on for appendicitis. Now of course one is expected to be up and around almost as soon as one has woken up after the anaesthetic.
During the nine years that I knew my grandfather, never once did a neighbour enter the house, even though there were one or two whom he would salute with a touch to his bowler hat and a “Good morning!” if he met them in the street. However, there were two who once a year would come to tea from the other side of London whom I suppose had been known in business.
One was a Mr. Boswell, who would come with his wife. He was as blind as a bat. He was descended from the famous Boswell biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, eighteenth-century lexicographer, and out of a desire to keep their blood line “pure” ever since the sons had always married first cousins. As a consequence, each generation was more blind than the last. As a baby the one we knew had been snatched from the cradle as his mother fled from the rebels of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He and his wife lived in considerable poverty as the result of some fiddling with accounts in which he had been involved perhaps indirectly and about which my maternal grandfather had been called to give evidence at the trial. My grandfather’s respect for the law suffered somewhat as he had been kept standing three hours while lawyers argued, not about his evidence, but about whether he should be called to give evidence. I believe the answer was in the negative.
The other friend was a Mr. James, also very blind, small and fragile, so my grandfather frequently expressed the fear that he would never make old bones. When already in his eighties, as a result of his bad sight he was several times knocked over by traffic and taken to hospital and several times fell down flights of concrete stairs, with similar results. When he was over ninety-two, a German bomb fell on the house behind him as he was rushing down the garden into the Anderson shelter (a trench about a yard deep, covered with corrugated iron and a layer of earth, remarkably effective.) A couple of years later he was actually in a house when it was hit by a bomb, and this time he began to suffer from absent-mindedness. He finally passed away as the result of a common cold. My strong, healthy grandfather died at the age of seventy-five after a fall from the lowest step of the stairs; he had a Pott’s double fracture in his left foot, and then a blood clot in the same place on the right foot, “in sympathy” in the medical expression of the time, which went to his lung and then to his heart.
My grandmother seems to have been rather more sociable. She had friends whom she used to meet during her morning shopping in Putney High Street, sometimes having a refreshment with them in Zeeta’s Corner House, and used to go the whist drives organised by the Primrose League. The Primrose League was a Conservative Party organisation named in honour of Disraeli, who had exchanged primroses with Queen Victoria, although its members I feel would have been shocked if they had read the criticisms of capitalism and the “Establishment” in Disraeli’s writings such as his novel Sybil. This gives a much more factual and detailed knowledge of working class conditions than even the novels of Charles Dickens, such as employers buying aborted calves to feed their apprentices.
1935 was the year of the silver jubilee of the coronation of King George V and for a week every day he and his truly regal wife Queen Mary went round a London suburb in an open carriage and I saw them twice, once within ten or twelve feet. I also saw the lying-in-state of the King a year later.
My mother had been High Church and then Catholic well before her marriage – when aged sixty-two she was delighted to be able to receive Holy Communion again under both species in the Greek rite, at St. Saviour’s in Lebanon where she visited me in 1955. For two or three years after our arrival in Putney she took me to the nearby Catholic church3 but, given the home atmosphere, finally gave up – although teaching me my prayers, including Hail, Holy Queen, beautiful in every language. But when I was about ten I was suddenly inspired to go to Sunday Mass myself. After several such attendances, one Sunday I accidentally took away the hymnbook instead of my missal book, and rushed back to the church to correct my mistake. In the porch I met the parish priest, Father, later Canon, Francis Pritchard, who exceptionally had returned to the church after the Mass, and saw my confusion. Then I called him “Sir” instead of “Father” and the upshot was that the holy man gave me an hour’s instruction, or even simple conversation, every Sunday afternoon. I owe my faith to this providential incident and that man’s simple but deep holiness.
3 A very beautiful and tasteful church, St. Simon Stock, perfectly liturgical, as photos show. Fr. Pritchard was in contact with the Eric Gill religious art community. When I saw it in 1995 the sanctuary had been all torn up and an altar put in front that would have done very well for human sacrifice at Stonehenge. Perhaps the old sanctuary has now been restored.
A very beautiful and tasteful church, St. Simon Stock, perfectly liturgical, as photos show. Fr. Pritchard was in contact with the Eric Gill religious art community. When I saw it in 1995 the sanctuary had been all torn up and an altar put in front that would have done very well for human sacrifice at Stonehenge. Perhaps the old sanctuary has now been restored.
A very beautiful and tasteful church, St. Simon Stock, perfectly liturgical, as photos show. Fr. Pritchard was in contact with the Eric Gill religious art community. When I saw it in 1995 the sanctuary had been all torn up and an altar put in front that would have done very well for human sacrifice at Stonehenge. Perhaps the old sanctuary has now been restored.
When twelve or thirteen years old, I had two school friends with whom I went for Sunday walks on Wimbledon Common in 1938-9. Both lived in Larpent Avenue. One was Addington and the other André Naudeau, perfectly bilingual and later brilliant at Peterhouse, Cambridge. I was mostly interested in natural history, my friends rather less so and more concerned with 18th century French furniture, certainly not the football that obsessed most 13-year-olds.
If I managed to get off football, I did at least enjoy cricket on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in summer. When my side was fielding, I would be very, very deep field, either under the elm trees where I could watch the stag beetles or near the nettle patch where there was a rich variety of Nymphaline butterflies – Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and even Commas, as well as occasional Clouded Yellows. When my side was batting, I could sit on the bench chatting with my friends, having to leave them only for a minute or so when it was my turn to bat.
On one occasion I did actually hit the ball and scored a run. I was puzzled by the enthusiasm and congratulations of my team-mates. I was the last man in and it was supposed that I would be immediately “out” and the game lost. But what I had scored turned out to be an equaliser, giving the other batsman, our teacher Mr. Crebbin, an easy opportunity to score. However, Australia never had anything to fear from me.
I put in a word here about school sport. As Mr. Naudeau, father of my friend, once pointed out to me, the trouble with school sports is that all the attention is given to the athletic children, who perhaps have brothers or cousins to play with at home, and none to the weedy types who really need sport. You see a class of boys lined up for the high jump. The boys jump and those who clear the bar have another turn. Those who knock the bar down are made to stand aside and spend the rest of the hour shivering in the cold; but they are the very ones who need encouragement and instruction and exercise. Here I find is the advantage of the Japanese martial arts, which form the character and enable everybody, however weak to begin with, to profit and to advance, and finally to dominate any person not having received similar training.
Grandfather Shepherdson died on September 1st, 1939, two days before WW II began. Uncle Sidney arranged for my grandmother, my mother and myself to stay at Brickwood’s Sunshine Hotel at Sandown, Isle of Wight, and after three weeks there we went into digs. The Isle of Wight wais carefully preserved with all its old charm. We spent our time fishing on the pier and on several occasions I even caught a small flatfish, a flounder or turbot. With a hammer lent me by the curator of the local museum I collected ammonites from the rocky shore under Culver Cliff. After Christmas, we returned to Putney and I spent a term at a boarding school in Sussex (Horsham?) where Willington School had evacuated for the war. However, the owner was anti-Catholic and it had needed a visit from Canon Pritchard for him to allow very reluctantly the three or four Catholics to go to the local Catholic church to perform their Easter duties. Curiously enough, the school was later sold to nuns.
Fr. Pritchard arranged for me to go first to the Christian Brothers at Beulah Hill, Norwood. The teaching was very good and half the boys were not Catholic but the boarding facilities at that time were of old French rather than British standard, a park rather than a means of gentlemanly education, as in those days the Brothers were still French dominated. I then became a day-boy at the Jesuit Wimbledon College. Fortunately this school gave us a course of elementary Apologetics, the defence of the Faith by reason and history. This served me well later. Apologetics deepens the faith, enables one to understand at least that faith has a rational basis and is not blind, and makes one apostolic – if the Church is not apostolic it is dead, and this is true of the faith of the individual. Whereas at the Brothers’ the teaching had been detailed and memory work, at the Jesuits’ there was less material but more quite informal discussion in class to get pupils thinking.
It was at Beulah Hill that for the first time I showed a certain talent for rhyming. We were asked to write a poem about our class. I was called to read my poem aloud. I remember –
Nobody sits next to Wood,
He is plump, so no one could.
Our lively Brother class-master was French and continually translated literally the French exclamation C’est dégoûtant, enfin! So I finished with –
Now no more my poem I’ll extend,
As I fear it will be disgusting at the end! (Roars of laughter)
I also delighted the class with a short story about Tanrear College with a harsh teacher called Mr. Slashard! I chose the grimly humorous names because corporal punishment still existed in some schools. A year or so later, my verse was rather morbid, perhaps due to a spell of dreary weather, as The Hangman shows: –
When at night I see men pass,
I draw back lest eyes of glass,
Wither me or men long past
Huddle on my back!
One late summer afternoon my mother and I sat at her bedroom window watching the smoke trails of German bombers over East London and of British fighters weaving in and out behind them. The nights of 1940-41 were spent by my grandma, mother and I in our cellar, when awake listening to the bombs, droning of planes and canon fire. Once during “rec” in the school playground we boys saw eleven fighters in formation come low, and then laughed at the thrill as we saw big German crosses on their sides.
One interesting friend was the retired Canon John Rory Fletcher, who lived opposite the church (St. Simon Stock) with several elderly and devoted maids, sisters. He was obviously well off, and a man with a culture then unusual in Catholic parochial clergy. In fact until he was in his forties he had been professor of medicine in a famous London teaching hospital. Some Catholic students explained to him how the Catholic Church claimed to speak with apostolic authority, so he converted and became a priest. He was the first in Britain to prepare a slide of tuberculosis bacteria according to the prescription of Koch of Germany.
Another friend, my godfather at my confirmation, was a retired bank manager, Mr. St. Cedd, a very devout Catholic, who went to Mass every day. He taught me chess. His wife went insane and madly jealous. She maltreated her sister who lived with them. She died in due course, when her husband had become practically blind and deaf and was praying the Lord to take him. In later years after her decease when I was at home I would visit him every evening for an hour; the boredom was excruciating but I thought that I might in old age need company. I think that God has rewarded me.
During my school holidays I would go to the public library every day, take out two books, read them and then return and exchange them the very next day, sometimes having read seven or eight hundred pages between the two visits. Reading all the newspapers in the library, from the Conservative Right to the Communist Left, I formed a habit of criticism and objectivity.
In summer when the weather was fair I would go to Boxhill near Dorking butterfly-collecting, especially for Adonis and Chalkhill Blues. On one occasion I was met by several boys fleeing in terror who warned me that there was an Indian in the woods. I was rather puzzled, hardly expecting to find a scalping party on the warpath. The Indian I met turned out to be an extremely respectable and smartly dressed turbaned gentleman who in a beautiful singsong accent greeted me and asked about my butterfly-hunting. That was 1942. I doubt if British children would be terrified by the sight of a man in a turban in 2012!
I decided to be a vet, but as I was only sixteen on taking Matriculation, in those days sufficient for starting higher education, I went to spend a year on a farm to familiarise myself with animals. I went to Mill Farm run by the Harrison family at Witchampton, near charming Wimborne, Dorset, all thatched and half-timbered cottages. Horses, no tractors. It took me six weeks to understand the beautiful medieval dialect (I revisited this lovely corner of real old England in 1995 and 1997.) I went to join the local Army cadets, having been a cadet in school, but was instead enrolled in the “Hoom Guaard” and given an American rifle bigger than myself (as explained above I was small and very slow growing, barely adolescent at this time) and 50 rounds of .3.00. Parades always fell out in front of the village pub, as military training was thirsty work. As for the farm work, it was work in those days, twelve hours a day and more in summer. To pause for an instant when building a hayrick would have been a humiliating admission of fatigue; one just kept on for four hours at a stretch.
There was a ploughman, “Clery” (Clarence) Maidment, just over 70. In 1997 I could still remember him so distinctly that one or two people who had known him recognised him instantly when I showed them a drawing I had just made of him without saying who it was supposed to be.
I used to enjoy teaching baby calves to drink milk from the bucket. The first days were a struggle, but soon they would rush up, dip their heads in the bucket and drink with their little tails wiggling in delight. If they had been left to drink their fill with their mothers, they would have put on weight and later on as cows put their food into poor quality meat “on their backs” instead of “into the bucket”. Note that when children are overfed as babies, they remain overweight for the rest of their lives.
When bringing in the cows, I would often turn my back to the bull, whereupon he would lower his head to charge, but would immediately withdraw when I turned to look at him. In summer the cattle were kept in a large field reached by a cart track through a withy bed where the vegetation seemed really exotic, primitive horsetails being abundant. Once I caught an Orange-tip butterfly (Euchloë cardamines) that was a rare aberration, with yellow instead of orange on its wings.
I spent two years at Reading studying veterinary, lodging with a highly professional blacksmith, judge at royal shows, Mr. Medland, who had been in the Navy about 1900. He had become a navy blacksmith and farrier in order to go up in rank and avoid the ghastly fatigue of coaling that existed before ships were oil-fired.
At the Royal Veterinary College, which had evacuated during the war to Reading University, I admit that I did not study well, lacking the ambition and drive, as explained earlier, and personal contact to urge me on. I remember in particular a certain Dr. Amaroso teaching histology during my second year, an excellent teacher. He was detested by the professors who ruled the Royal Veterinary College at that time, and by other eminent specialists, for three reasons. First for his doctoral research thesis he had shown that the blood in a foetus circulated the opposite way to what everybody thought. He proved his case so conclusively that the examining board could not refuse him the degree but spitefully changed the names he had given to blood vessels. Secondly, he was a West Indian mulatto, half black with an African face and hair. Worst of all, he was adored by both his graduate and undergraduate students, while the ruling clique were detested. Their lectures would have made a good anaesthetic. They had to put up with Doctor Amaroso despite their jealousy as in wartime good staff were not two-a-penny.
During my holidays at home I earned pocket money by milking at Hornby and Clark’s model dairy farm at Petersham, under Richmond Hill. In the summer of 1944 I spent several agreeable weeks working on a farm of the company in Hertfordshire. The farmhouse was part 17th century with a thatched roof, the rest 18th century under tiles. One could tell which roof one was under by the coolness under the thatch. I learnt a little Italian from POWs, collaboratori, who had declared for their King and Badoglio against Mussolini.
The farmer was a relative of the owners of the milk company, Hornby and Clarke’s, who distributed very good rich milk over a large area between Putney and Richmond. He was farming to escape military service in the war, and not really keen on the job. I used to go out on a horse to bring the cows in for milking. The heifers had been left out on the free range and when they calved the first time had no previous experience of being indoors or amid clanking milking machinery. For the first few days I would approach the newly calved heifer, try to soothe her and put the cups on her teats, and then after receiving a tremendous kick I would pick myself up from the floor behind her – I would push hard against her flank so as to receive a push rather than a blow. I would have to repeat this operation several times before finally fixing the cups on the heifer’s teats, and then after a few days the heifer would be tamed.
During my holidays back home in Putney I was meeting a certain Mr. O’Neill, a zealous missionary Catholic who gave me a love for Apologetics. He complained that parish priests were satisfied when the number of parishioners attending Sunday Mass remained constant, when there were a hundred times as many people living within its boundaries who had no religion at all. It is certainly strange that there were many laymen who were far more zealous apostles than the priests. Was there something lacking in the seminary education? But no such complaint could be made about the parish priest and his three assistant priests whom I knew at Reading.
At Reading University our Catholic Newman Society once invited Dr. Sherwood Taylor to speak. He was a noted and excellent writer who could explain serious scientific knowledge in clear terms for the public. He had been an ardent secularist. He was curator of the Oxford Museum of Science and so had a wide reputation. To announce his lecture I did a poster full of dinosaurs to give a Darwinian flavour and entice the atheists. They crowded to the talk but then found that the noted secularist had become a fervent Catholic. He had taken up the Galileo case in order to attack the Church and as a surprising result had become a Catholic! He was also a man of real culture and a lover of poetry.
Another speaker, very lively, was Arnold Lunn. He was later knighted for his work in developing Olympic skiing. He had been a secularist but then became a Catholic and a vigorous defender of the Christian faith. Every Christian should read his On the Third Day, which gives all the evidence available in 1940 for the historical truth of the Gospels and of the fact of the Resurrection – much more has since turned up. One can never tire of reading his The Good Gorilla. He engaged in debates by correspondence with such people as Dr. Cyril Joad and the atheist scientist J.S. Haldane, with a prior contract with publishers for publication. Lunn had no difficulty crushing his adversaries as despite their professional status their ideas about Christianity and the Church were infantile. Haldane showed frustration and bad temper, whereas Philosophy professor Joad was ready to concede points and in fact was later received into the Anglican Church partly as a result of the influence of Arnold Lunn. Joad’s difficulty with religion had been about the fact of pain and cruelty in the world, seemingly incompatible with a good God. Yet it was as a sufferer from very painful cancer of the colon that he found Christ. Google has a good lengthy report on Arnold Lunn.
Once I made a speech that received quite exceptional applause. After somebody talked about the heroic resistance of Malta to German attack, I was due to give the vote of thanks. I said the essential in about twenty words. The audience enormously relieved, having feared a long-winded speech, applauded frenetically, picked up their umbrellas and rushed off home to supper.
White Fathers, RAF and the East
After two years’ Veterinary I decided to join the White Fathers, Missionaries of Africa. At the height of European imperialism they were founded by Cardinal Lavigerie of Algiers not to convert the Africans but to found a native African Church with its own bishops and clergy. This explains why when decolonisation came eighty years later, the Catholic Church was not considered foreign and the bishops, many of them now black, continued their work undisturbed. After only six weeks with the White Fathers, I was called up into the RAF. In late November ’45 I went to Padgate, Warrington, Lancashire, where one thousand fellows arrived daily, mostly from jobs reserved during the war, to spend days queuing under the rain in apocalyptic winter gloom. My party were then sent to Greenham Common, Berkshire, for square-bashing. Our train arrived several hours late, during which the NCOs who were waiting for us stoked their fury on beer. They gave us a literally roaring reception that would hardly have suited a recruiting campaign.
“GET OUT!” “Who told you to get out? Get back in again!” Out – in – out – in: “Dress off to the right!” “Where the hell are you going, dress off to the left!” “You’re my squad. They call me Lumley, the Bastard (sinister growl). I’M THE MOST HORRIBLE N.C.O. IN THE CAMP! (said with a roar,)” “I’m Sergeant Butcher. They call me the Beast of Belsen”4 (crash! as he fell drunkenly off the chair.)
4 Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp where a woman commandant had a lampshade made of the skin of a Jewish inmate.
Once Sergeant Butcher sent me off parade, accusing that I had not shaved that morning. When I meekly protested that I had shaved, he proved his assertion by saying that I had left some soap under my ear. In fact all he wanted was an excuse to punish somebody by sending them to clean his billet.
In mid-winter Greenham Common camp was a miserable muddy dump but at least our instructors finally showed that they were almost human. They had all served throughout the war and were eagerly awaiting demobilisation, “demob”.
In February we were posted to the Middle East, going by Liberator bomber. Arriving in Libya we found Italian POWs who placed steps for us to descend with dignity from the lorry that took us from the aircraft. We nearly fainted with surprise.
At Greenham Common, in freezing cold, we washed under shower fixtures that almost dripped icicles. In Egypt, under a hot sun, the boiler for the showers was stoked by an Egyptian and the water so scalding hot that one could stay in it only for a few seconds before having to jump out again.
The first camp we arrived at was a transit camp in a long hollow in the desert, where I counted no less than nine different armies. Coal-black Senegalese French soldiers loved wearing black sunglasses with broad white rims, so that they looked like darkies out of a child’s comic. The toilets were divided by panels only up to the edge of the seats, so looking along them one had the sight of knees of every colour from the white of newly-arrived British, through the brown of Indians and Sudanese, to the black of the Senegalese.
Three airmen (that is to say RAF Other Ranks) saw the tip of the Great Pyramid just over the ridge; unaccustomed to such clear air, they thought it was only a few hundred yards away. They broke camp through the couple of strands of surrounding barbed wire and began trudging through the loose sand. Another ridge appeared, and then another, until finally they reached the Pyramids some hours later in a state of utter exhaustion.
One of the delights of life in the RAF in the Middle East was the dialect composed of Air Force slang mixed with Egyptian vocabulary. In the canteen, “Shai up and get a shwai igri on!” meant, “Bring tea and get a move on!”
I spent several months at HQ Med/ME in the middle of Cairo, in an office facing the museum of antiquities and the square Midan Ismailia. I had a wonderful view of the Pyramids and the setting sun. 1946 was a year of solar activity and each evening I could clearly see the black sunspots on the red setting orb, each night a little closer to the rim as the sun turned.
One night when I was walking alone in an empty street, two galabieh-clad Egyptians came up behind me and started gabbling about a French girl they offered me in a nearby street. Needless to say, I was hardly tempted, especially when they said she was their sister. One put his hand on my shoulder, so I swung round and hit him hard on the jaw, whereupon both ran off. They obviously wanted only easy victims.
Criminals are to be found everywhere, and I soon admired the Egyptian poor for their courage and cheerfulness in the face of extreme poverty. The ruling class in the days of King Farouk had no sense of responsibility towards the poor. Even the Muslim rich, being of mainly Albanian-Turkish origin, were far removed from the people and some did not even know Arabic.
One picture remains with me to this day. I saw an old man with a dirty torn galabiyeh embracing a filthy little child as they sat in the gutter, no doubt his grandson. Both were laughing happily. Many rich people in the world experience no such joy.
Here in Cairo I made my first delighted contact with the Eastern (Catholic) Churches, which Fr. Pritchard had providentially once told me about. Near the RAF Med/ME HQ camp was a Greek Catholic Church Notre Dame de la Paix, which had been the Anglican Cathedral. Here for the first time I saw a Byzantine Mass, during which I was struck by the profound reverence of the priest, Father Zoghby, an austere man, later Bishop of Baalbek. He had a Muslim Sudanese servant whose advice was much sought after by Muslim women, so really the priest and his servant made an interesting pair. The Sudanese I may add were then reputed for their honesty. When upper-class Egyptian families moved to Alexandria for the summer, they left their house in their Sudanese servant’s charge and on their return received the remaining cash and an account of expenses in perfect order.
This interest in Eastern Churches brought me into contact with Major Ramsay-Fairfax of the Royal Army Catering Corps, a delightful man and a devout Catholic. He moved to Jerusalem when I did and I later had dinner with him in England, before he moved to the new university in Ghana. He introduced me to the Benedictine monk Dom Bede Winslow, editor of Eastern Churches Quarterly at Ramsgate Abbey.
It was through friendship with Dom Bede that several years later I learnt that politeness is all very well but there are occasions when it is better to be brutally frank. Several priests said to me that they were keen to learn about Eastern Churches but found Eastern Churches Quarterly too technical. I wrote a very carefully worded letter to Dom Bede, gently insinuating that long articles about the precise shades of meaning of fourth-century Syriac theological expressions were not likely to boost sales – in fact circulation of the Quarterly was very limited.
I was rather taken aback to receive a reply from the very gentlemanly Dom Bede that was distinctly huffy. When I next renewed my subscription I told his agent that I was renewing only out of friendship for Dom Bede; also I did not fear for the preservation of my old copies as any bookworm that tried to eat them would find them too dry. To my horror the agent wrote back saying that he heartily agreed with me and had forwarded my letter to Dom Bede. I thought that when I had been excessively polite Dom Bede had seemed offended and now surely he would break off our friendship.
I was therefore greatly relieved when I received a quite charming letter from the venerable monk, saying that the next issue would have some lively articles about the life of the Syriac Catholic Churches in India. From that time on there was great improvement.
To be frank, I found Catholic military chaplains to be for the most part disappointing. Later, Father Howell, Provincial of the White Fathers, told me that military chaplains were often priests whom their bishops were glad to get rid of. Maronites and Greek Catholics are puzzled and amused by the continued Latin objection to a married clergy. For a first step in changing tradition, there are many married men, often ex-seminarists, who are very zealous and apostolic and who would make excellent priests, especially for parishes that can support only one incumbent. Then bishops would not be obliged to ordain men with shortcomings of character or to simply shuffle around priests who have caused difficulties by their moral misconduct. No Catholic or Orthodox will deny the intrinsic supernatural value of celibacy embraced for spiritual motives; however, celibates should live in small communities to avoid the risk of nervous depression and to ensure mutual spiritual and intellectual support.
When in Cairo I wanted to go to Jerusalem to see the Holy Places and stay with the White Fathers, who ran the Greek Catholic seminary. Leave there was not allowed but the Zionists, who for some reason or another now object to car-bombs, at least to other people’s, placed a car-bomb in Jerusalem that killed seventy British soldiers, so when I volunteered for Jerusalem I was accepted without difficulty. I even obtained a permit to go down to the White Fathers every evening in the wonderfully romantic Old City and got week-end passes. As I was a seminarist of theirs in Britain, the kind Fathers gave me a room looking onto the great mosque and its vast court, where the muezzin without any loudspeaker chanted against the pure sky of sunrise and sunset. The scene was like an early Florentine painting, sheer magic. I was also lent a habit so I could go out without risk of being stopped by MPs or shot by Zionists.
Once a bearded, long-haired, high-hatted oriental-rite monk from the monastery of Amay-Chevetogne in Belgium beckoned me; I thought he was going to talk about the Hesychastic Divine Light of Mount Tabor, but it turned out that he wanted me to get him Players’ cigarettes from the RAF canteen, tax-free and forbidden for civilians to possess.
For those unfamiliar with the subject, I may point out that in full communion with Rome there are Eastern Churches with authority derived from the founding apostles rather than from Rome, with canon law and customs similar to those of the Orthodox. For example, married men may be ordained priests. When I first knew them, many Churches were in varying degrees Latinised, but the reaction had already begun and now they have no inferiority complex. At first Western Catholic scholars were interested in the Eastern Churches from a purely liturgical point of view, but thanks to Greek Catholic Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh and others at Vatican II it was made clear that they were authentic apostolic Christian Churches as of right and not simply allowed privileges, sisters to Rome (with whom they should be in communion and accept as supreme court of appeal as was the case of Constantinople in the Middle Ages.) Even the Orthodox Churches were accepted as Sister Churches. In fact there has never been formal excommunication and schism of actual Churches. In 1054 the papal legate Cardinal Umberto had no authority to excommunicate Caerularius and intercommunion was practised long afterwards. At the Council of Florence no prior act of “submission” was demanded of the Orthodox. It is now agreed that the theological difficulties with the “Nestorians” and Monophysites were matters of terminology only, and documents have been signed between the Vatican and various patriarchates in this sense.
It was because of their dependence on French missionaries for the education of their clergy in Ottoman days that some Eastern Catholics had become Latinised in varying degrees, particularly the Maronites. But even these have made a marked return to their roots. For example the square Italian-style chasubles have completely disappeared and now vestments are of authentic Syriac style. The White Fathers received the gratitude of the Greek Catholics for not attempting to Latinise their Melkite students and for not interfering in the election of bishops to get their own former students chosen. It is interesting that the Greek Catholic seminary of the Paulist Fathers at Harissa now receives theology students from a Latin order. The new pride in the Eastern Christian tradition may partly be explained by Lebanese Christians’ disgust at being neglected by Western countries when they were resisting Palestinian and then Syrian domination between 1975 and 1990. They are now ready to consider themselves as part of the Arab world whereas previously only the Greek Catholics had proclaimed themselves by declaration of the Synod as belonging to a Christian Arab Church – while proclaiming their equality as Arabs with Arabs of Muslim faith. It was the Greek Catholic Patriarch, Maximos IV Sayegh, who brought about a new concept of the Church at Vatican II and who like his predecessors fought for the apostolic authority of the Eastern Churches against Latinisation. This was not easy. Italian missionaries had been in the habit of founding parishes and through their schools taking Orthodox and Greek Catholic children into their parishes and reporting them to Rome as converts from heresy. But now such parishes in Lebanon and Syria at least are of little significance if not completely shrivelled away.
I wrote an article entitled Eastern Rites and Western Prejudice that was published in Catholic World, August 1959. This article so pleased Patriarch Maximos IV that he had it translated and published in his Le Lien. He told a friend of mine that it was the only article he had ever seen written by a Westerner that showed a real understanding of the Eastern position. Obviously, this was not due to any great learning of mine. Simply, I was employed by Orientals and married into their society, and so heard plain speaking. Learned European scholars from Rome were supported by Western Latin institutions and were addressed by Eastern clergy in a way not to cause offense in a Western-dominated world at that time sure of Western superiority.
Since then I have often been amused by the writings of distinguished ethnologists about “primitive” peoples. They generally fail to take into account the emotional pressures under which other people live and sometimes they are deceived by the “primitives’” sense of humour. An elderly friend of mine was amazed by the story of an Englishman who had saved the life of a Chinese who had fallen into a canal and instead of being thanked was asked by the poor man to pay money for his subsistence. But my friend was comfortably well off and had always been able to rely on three square meals a day. He had never known starvation from infancy as the poor Chinese had no doubt done.
The first article I ever wrote for a magazine, also for The Catholic World, about my stay in a Chaldean monastery, was also reproduced in The Catholic Digest, bringing me in a total of or $205, which in the values of those days was not at all bad and encouraged me to further efforts.
Providence was kind to me by sending me to Jerusalem in 1946. There was still no mass tourism, so I could enter the Tomb in the Church of the Resurrection and spend as long as I liked praying there alone, undisturbed except perhaps for a monk coming to replenish the oil in a lamp. When I went in 1966 a Jordanian soldier stood at the door and allowed each pilgrim only a few seconds to say a quick prayer before he had to come out and make room for another.
I had not been stationed in Jerusalem long when, one evening after dark, a small bomb was thrown over the garden wall surrounding our billets. With shouts of delight we all seized our rifles and rushed to our defence posts, letting off pot-shots at any pussycat who had the imprudence to pass by. I was out at the bottom of the garden beside a poor fellow who had only just arrived from Britain and for whom anything beyond the English Channel was a strange and fearful world. His teeth were quite literally chattering with fear; I could hear them clacking even at a short distance. But I cheered him up and he was soon bravely hiding his fear under a smile and some jokes. As British soldiers were sometimes kidnapped and tortured to death by Zionist extremists, it is little wonder than a crowd of ex-servicemen protested at the honourable reception given to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, member of a formerly terrorist group, in London many years later.
From the office where I worked at RAF HQ Levant, in front of Damascus Gate, I had a wonderful view over the Old City of Jerusalem, every house covered by a little dome, pure Arabian Nights. Once a week I was on guard at the Italian Hostel, H.Q. of the Headquarters Unit. It was next to the Abyssinian Church with its beautiful dome and nothing could be more enchanting than to see it silhouetted against the dawn sky with bells booming. One might see an Ethiopian monk carrying a long liturgical drum.
In shops owned by Muslim Palestinians one could see Orthodox Jews (Israelites, not Israelis) buying or selling with perfect cheerfulness and ease. There was no quarrel between them. But these religious Jews would not touch the new Zionist immigrants with a barge pole, considering them atheist secularists. To their credit, the Palestinians always made it perfectly clear that their enemy was Zionism and not the Jewish religion. Around 1970 the Jews of Funduq al-Ghameeq in Beirut enjoyed more security than anybody else, as the PLO assured their well-being. The Lebanese Jews whom I knew later emigrated to Canada, not to Israel. Zionism started in the late nineteenth century as a nationalist movement and was generally opposed by the rabbis. This may have changed, but there are still many Jews opposed to Israel and its policies, including conservative Jews in New York.
In May 1947 I was posted to HQ Iraq at Habbaniya, 80 km from Baghdad. There was a wonderful Catholic chaplain, Fr. Kevin Harrison, a Capuchin. More than twenty men attended Evening Mass daily and by persuasion and prayer some brought friends into the Catholic Church and these in turn became fervent apostles on their return to Britain.
A friend of mine went to Father Harrison for instruction and became a fervent Catholic father of family apparently because of my breakfast. We had gone to Baghdad together on a 48-hour pass and he accompanied me to the Chaldean Cathedral. Although as a soldier on Active Service I was not obliged to fast from midnight before Communion, as was then the general custom, I preferred to do so and did not take food until after the Mass at about 9.30, from a street vendor. My friend, brought up in pure English tradition, confessed himself astounded how anybody could wait so long for breakfast and then took instruction from our Catholic chaplain.
In September 1947 I spent two weeks at a leave camp in the mountains above the town of Amadia romantically perched on a plateau, among Assyrians and Kurds with their gaily embroidered costumes, hung around with belts of cartridges for the rifles they carried, often received after service in the RAF levies. Here I leant how obstinate mules can be. Three of us went to visit the bishop of Douri in a valley near the Turkish frontier reached by a path which for a considerable distance was a ledge on the side of a cliff far above a torrent. The ledge was about four to five feet wide and I naturally wanted the mule to keep away from the drop and stay close to the wall. Impossible! The mule insisted on putting down its hooves on the very edge.
I spent one weekend in a village of the Chaldeans, these being distinguished from the Assyrians only by their longer-standing connection with Rome and the wearing of a turban round the felt hat. There were Assyrians present and all danced in line together to celebrate a wedding. I was impressed by the high standard of cleanliness and order in this remote village with the use of traditional but effective and discreet sanitation.
We had dinner on the roof of the headman’s house, under a dark blue sky that glowed with the last rays of a sun setting behind a range of mountains. There was a white stone gleaming about half a mile away which the men used as a target for their Lee Enfield Mk IV rifles, common in the area as a reward for service in the levies that defended the Habbaniya airbase. The men were firing over the cot of a baby sleeping only ten feet away, but the child slept undisturbed, apparently accustomed to the sound of rifle fire and the overhead crack of bullets.
Seven of the villagers were subdeacons whom I saw singing the liturgical office of Vespers in the evening, in the courtyard of the church as the weather was still warm. There were arches on one side where there was an altar. The men were still in minor orders according to Eastern reckoning, so if widowed it was possible for them to contract a second marriage. I found it a pity that Latin parishes in the West did not have a similar custom allowing the office to be sung morning and evening.
For Easter 1948 I spent two weeks at the Chaldean (Catholic) monastery at Al-Qosh. No seats in the church, even the Abbot General sat on the floor. Not a single picture or statue in the church. All the turbaned monks squatted around two huge hand-inscribed vellum volumes, while over each a novice unwound a ball of waxed string for light. On Easter eve, after a short two-hour service, there was one that lasted 6½ hours, thoroughly enjoyed even by the boys. The chanting was at times accompanied by the clash of a pair of large thunderous cymbals. I slept in the room used by the Chaldean Patriarch on his visits and so I can vouch for his personal austerity. Fortunately, sleeping on bare boards has never been a problem for me.
Near the monastery was a village of Kurdish Satanists, a sect known as the Yezidi, dualists who believed that while the Good God would do nobody any harm, the bad one, Satan, had to be propitiated. Between Christians and Satanists there was however no ill-will. At Easter the Abbot received the heads of the Yezidi devil-worshippers, who came to compliment him on the Easter feast! I took tea in their temple, where there was nothing more threatening than the smell of cow manure. However the monk who accompanied me warned me that I should not spit on the ground, wear blue beads, or say any words resembling Shitan, in which case they would be obliged to kill me. They had suffered much persecution from the Turks.
I could not help wondering how the monks returned the compliment of the Easter visit. Did they go and congratulate the Yezidis on some feast of the devil? (See my article An Eastern Monastery in the Catholic World, June 1955. If I seem in the article to have insisted on the Catholics, remember that at that time Catholics often looked on Orthodox as being like the Protestants and I wanted to show the authentic Catholicity of all the Eastern Churches. The Catholic Eastern Churches were not to be considered as merely permitted as bait in order to ensnare the Orthodox into submission to Rome.)
The Chaldean Church (or East Syrian Church) deserves special mention for its having been so much ignored in the West. It dates from the first or second century A.D. and its head, the Catholicos (later Patriarch), at Seleucia-Ctesiphon or Baghdad was originally mandated by the Patriarch of Antioch. It was probably established in Southern India at this early time; in any case in the sixth century Cosmas Indicopleustes found a fully formed hierarchy there. There was a monastery at the same time in East China, from which a stone has been found with an inscription in Tocharian B, a West Indo-European language. This branch of the Church acquired Mongol artistic expression and in medieval times had 150 bishops. Near the monastery at Al-Qosh was the sixth-century monastery of Raban Hormuzd, consisting of scores of caves in the mountainside. In the thirteenth century, Patriarch Yahaballah, a Chinese, sent another Chinese monk Raban (Monk) Sawma to the West, where he met King Edward I of England warring in France and then received communion from the hands of the Pope in person in Rome (Dvornik,, National Churches and the Church Universal, Eastern Churches Quarterly, July-December, 1943.) The Chaldean Church’s collapse was due to Timur Leng’s (Tamerlane’s) atrocities. I noticed that the turbans of the Chaldean clergy were exactly the same as those worn by Sumerian priests many thousands of years ago.
The Portuguese missionaries arriving in Malabar in the sixteenth century treated the native Indian Christians as heretics to be converted by brute force and this resulted in many Southern Indians in despair turning to the “Monophysite” West Syrian Patriarch. Now the Syrian Catholic Church, both branches, is flourishing in India, with very many priestly vocations, and an extension outside its original Malabar home. There are nearly five million faithful, with vigorous modern institutions. The West Syrians who returned to Roman communion, numbering half a million, keep very strictly to pure oriental practice. Here we have a native Indian Christian Church, of high social caste.
The Chaldean Catholics of Iraq were not on very good terms with the British. During the First World War, when the Allies were urging Christians to revolt against the Turks, the wise and holy Patriarch Thomas urged the Catholic Chaldeans to do no such stupid thing, so saving them from massacre. Later, he also urged his faithful to vote for Iraqi independence and Hashemite rule instead of continued British mandate. This explains the favoured situation enjoyed by Catholics right up till the American invasion directed against Saddam Hussein. In Christian towns the programme of the government schools included the teaching of the Christians’ native Syriac language.
The Assyrians are Christians of the same rite as the Catholic Chaldeans but living higher in the mountains and joining Rome only more recently. In the nineteenth century they come under the influence of British and American Protestant missionaries who thought they had found primitive Christians uncorrupted by Mariolatry thanks to the Nestorian tradition. It was these missionaries who first used the name “Assyrian” for the modern people although though is no connection with the ancient Assyrians “who came down like a wolf on the fold, and their cohorts were gleaming with purple and gold!” These poor people, like the Armenians, let themselves be duped into revolt by the Allies who promised early rescue, which of course was slow in coming with terrible consequences. The Chaldeans in the days when I saw them wore turbans while the Assyrians wore cone-shaped felt hats. One of the monks of Al-Qosh belonged to a Kurdish tribe of Chaldean Catholics.
It was from a monk living a hermit existence alone as superior of the caves forming the monastery of Raban Hormuzd that I really learnt how to smoke a cigarette. When I accepted his polite offer, he took out a packet and instead of pointing it at me he carefully chose a cigarette himself, tested it to make sure it was compact, and then offered it to me in his fingers. I have smoked cigarettes and then a pipe, cigars or hubble-bubble (hoogah or water-pipe), but only with delectation, never as a habit. From that priest I learnt how to take one’s pleasures, to appreciate and to enjoy them without being their slave.
One of the caves in past times had served as a cell for retired bishops, who were walled up inside and served food through a window while they spent their last years in prayer, reading and meditation. It was certainly a good way of preventing them from being a nuisance to their successors, but not perhaps a means to be copied! I was shown chains used for holding lunatics brought in the hope of a cure and was told that in fact there had been a cure only the previous year.
At Christmas, the officers of RAF Habbaniyeh served the airmen and familiarity was permitted. I had bought a hubble-bubble, which I filled with beer before offering it to the HQ Unit Commander. With his first effort nothing happened, but when I told him to take a deep breath, foam came out of his nose and ears, and he quickly handed me back the mouthpiece. The Air Vice-Marshall commanding Iraq and the Gulf made a tour of the billets on the Christmas Eve to award a prize for the one with the best Christmas decorations. As he had to be supported by a junior officer who had been drinking only a little less than his superior, and he could give only a bleary glance around, I doubt if his judgment was the fruit of much artistic discernment.
I was Master of Ceremonies at the Catholic Midnight Mass (there were three churches and three chaplains on the station, C. of E., R.C. and O.D.), and kept visiting the altar servers beforehand to make sure that they were in fit condition. Being on Active Service and so not bound by the regulations then existing about fasting before Communion did not mean that they should turn up tipsy. The church was crowded with servicemen and British civilian personnel. One of the latter, of middle age, stood up in the middle of the sermon and staggered towards the sacristy to answer a call of nature; there was obvious anxiety among the congregation but fortunately he still had enough wits not to pull the noisy plug. After the Mass it was with a feeling of relief that I could see my friends rush off to the canteen for poached egg and chips (US french fries) and plenty of beer to wash them down with.
My job at the station was an agreeable one of sticking newspaper cuttings of political news into files in the Intelligence Office. This meant that I could enjoy borrowing and reading books about the Middle East from the little library, including Lawrence of Arabia’s famous The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
An Intelligence officer told me rather grumpily that “my” Chaldeans had ploughed up a Royal Air Force flying field. The political situation I have described above explains an incident in the first early morning after my arrival at the Chaldean monastery. I was woken up by a hammering on my door and the cry “Benedicamus Domino!” It took me about three seconds to gather my wits as this was not the usual wake-up call in the Royal Air Force and I had been only six weeks in the seminary before being called up. But now by shouting “Deo gratias!” I gave clear evidence that I really was a Catholic seminarist and not a British spy posing as such, and even through the door I could feel the tension slacken.
Habbaniya was an immense Royal Air Force base that had been built in peacetime, with a fine swimming-pool and many facilities. For example there were horses to ride. If my RAF service had lasted beyond my tour, I would have asked for an extension of the tour. But most men dreamed only of going backing home, one of the attractions there being “Woollie’s”, i.e. Woolworth’s three-penny and six-penny stores. Noticeably, it was the working-class men from dreary industrial regions who had the most nostalgia for home, no doubt being attached to their large families and many childhood street friends. Middle-class men from small families and with few friends at home, but more intellectual resources, adapted more easily.
I could not help admiring the politeness and courtesy of the very poor Arab labourers working in the camp. When two of them met each other early, as they no doubt did every morning, they would look into each other’s eyes as they shook hands to inquire about their health and about each other’s families, continuing in this strain for at least a minute. What a difference from the hasty “Hi!” now common in the West.
Once when I wanted to go riding, for some strange reason without any warning the Kurdish syce gave me a horse that not even officers almost born on horseback could ride. I give it a slight kick and found myself heading at full speed for the wall surrounding the stables. I had not learnt to jump a horse over an obstacle, so I pulled its head to the left to veer towards an opening in the enclosure. We galloped through, but here there was an irrigation channel full of water and about two yards across. I jumped – but the horse didn’t! After flying over its head, I picked myself up, perfectly dry, on the other side while the horse trotted back to its stable.
There was a happy moment during my service in Iraq that I still treasure. The sergeant in charge of the sorting office in the headquarters unit where I worked owed his stripes more probably to long service and later wartime promotion than to intellectual brilliance. One day I received a ribbon for the Palestine Medal, denoting service in Palestine during the time of Zionist violence. Of course, I found a pretext to go and see the sergeant. He looked at my breast and his eyes goggled: “Wh-wh-what’s that, Mortimer?” “A ribbon, sergeant,” I answered as off-handedly as I could, “Palestine service.” He turned his back and went off mumbling something about “…dunno what this bloody Air Force is coming to, mumble, mumble, mumble…” His face with its little black moustache remains vivid in my memory, never to be forgotten.5
5 The actual medal was sent to my home address long after, when I was in Lebanon, and I could not find it when I visited home in 1966. I believe now that following her bank’s advice she had wrapped all jewellery bits in old newspaper and hidden then in the coal cellar. The coal was removed during her long illness. I bought a Palestine medal from a specialist dealer.
At this time Grandma Shepherdson passed away, after becoming a great admirer of my parish priest, Canon Pritchard, despite her past prejudices. My mother was naturally very upset and so made what I consider a great mistake. Our drawing room was filled with treasures of Chinese ivory carving and paintings on silk, the former made with the traditional hand-worked tools before the days of electric drills. They had been brought by a brother-in-law of my grandmother who had been captain of a ship engaged in the China trade. He had been able to pick up a pagoda and a junk, both of ivory, with exquisitely carved panels, interior furnishing in silk and tiny figures of men and trees, for a price that in the West was derisory.
My grandfather also had a collection of books some of which would now be of historic value. There were two beautifully bound collections of the illustrations in Punch of George du Maurier, covering the foibles of London upper-class society and of the Aesthetic Movement with Oscar Wilde, Swinburne and Simeon Solomon, all very thinly disguised (see William Gaunt, The Aesthetic Adventure, Jonathan Cape.) There was another volume of work by other nineteenth-century Punch artists whose names have gone down in history, and a first edition of Baker’s exploration of the sources of the Nile.
Unfortunately, my mother had a horror of “Victorian dust-collectors” and suffered from the way her husband (and later myself) had spent hours deeply absorbed in literature instead of chatting with her. She sold everything at a time when antiques and old books had no value whatever because all efforts in 1948 were being devoted to making good the destruction caused by the war. By trying to avoid the same mistake, and wanting to provide history for my grandchildren and their grandchildren (will they be interested?), I am perhaps falling into the other extreme, although I did make the mistake of destroying most of the huge mass of letters from my mother. She wrote easily in a chatty and informative style. I also regret having left at home Heath Robinson’s Railway Ribaldry and another book of his. My metal trunk was bursting at the seams and I thought I would have another occasion to take the books. When I returned in 1966, they had disappeared.
In May 1948 I was sent back to UK and demobilised, after flying over a magically green Dorset, Old England, even a moated castle, under sun and fleecy white cloudlets, contrasting with the Iraqi desert! We had stopped at Malta, where I met Grandma Mortimer.
I declined the generous offer on the recruiting posters of ₤120 gratuity at the end if I signed on for four years more service, and waited for September and the resumption of my clerical studies. I found Great Britain in a state of moral depression. With the end of United States aid to compensate the vast expense of the war, food was more strictly rationed than at any time previously and there was no longer the wartime motivation to “grin and bear it”. Further, in perhaps the noblest deed in all its history, Britain was sacrificing food for the besieged people of Berlin.
The glum faces I saw everywhere made me ready for any madness to raise at least a smile. One of my friends from the church and the Catholic Club in Iraq was Dicky Burbidge, who was “demobbed” at about the same time as I was and lived facing the Wimbledon Tennis Courts, a short bicycle ride away from Putney. We would climb on the top deck of a bus (where smoking was allowed) whenever we went out together and I would pull out a Kurdish pipe nearly three feet long. This I would rest on my shoulder to fill it with tobacco brought from Iraq and Dicky would sit, not in the first bench, but in the second bench in front of me. When I was ready I would toss him a box of matches and when I gave the signal he would apply a match to the bowl. In those days British politeness prevented anybody staring at another, so the passengers would remain with their heads turned straight in front of them, but their eye nearly popping out of their ear to look at us.
Once we got on the Underground with me wearing brilliantly embroidered Assyrian mountain shoes and socks together with an Assyrian pointed felt hat, and carrying a hubble-bubble water pipe. This we lit. The train was standing in Wimbledon Station, when a portly man stared at me through the carriage window and then staggered in and stood in front of me with a certain anxiety written on his face. “Hic! E-e-es-salam alaikum!” Evidently he had done military service in the Middle East. “Wa alaikum salaam!” I answered him imperturbably. Upon this the man suddenly appeared quite relieved and left the carriage. Then I realised his problem. He was drunk and knew he was drunk. When he first saw me in my exotic head- and foot-wear he didn’t know whether I was real or whether he was imagining me. When I answered him he was satisfied that I was real, not a product of delirium tremens, and so he wasn’t so very drunk after all.
I did two years’ scholastic philosophy with the White Fathers at beautiful Broome Hall, Coldharbour, Dorking, two very happy years with good priests and idealistic seminarists. The pity was that the standard of studies was low but this was rather the result of the British education system, which made it possible for schoolchildren to study Latin and Greek without doing any science at all for their “Matric”, as in the case of young seminarists, conversely to choose only scientific subjects without any classics or languages. Also at that time there was no possibility of obtaining degrees in Catholic theology in Britain.
Our instructors, brought up in a junior seminary, had not even the most elementary notions of chemistry or physics, which led to arguments with students that were quite unnecessary, as in fact there was no contradiction between science and scholastic-Aristotelian philosophy if one went down to basics. After the War, seminarists were no longer all young fellows come up from a junior seminary. One of our students had a degree from Oxford in Church History (Adrian Hastings), another had a degree in Mathematics from St. Andrew’s, Scotland, another had been a commando, and yet another had been skipper of a ship. We gave our teachers hell but for their part they really regretted their lack of scientific knowledge and had very open minds.
Those were the days when Catholics of Latin rite, the vast majority, thought that Mass in Latin was a mark of the catholicity of the Church. When after my experience of the Eastern rites I suggested that it would be a good idea to have one Low Mass on Sundays in English in parish churches, there was always great indignation. But the people who discussed such matters were always ones of sufficient education to whom reading and the use of a bilingual Missal came easy, and these were only a minority in the Universal Church. Even in Europe, most Catholics would get a headache reading anything more than football results and sex scandals in the gutter press and the advocates of Latin took no account of the masses of poor in Latin America or Africa.
I had a little boost to my pride one summer vacation, when I returned to Broome Hall for a day. The brother in charge of the cows was away or ill, and the three priests were trying to milk the cows. After about half an hour they had got just a spoonful of milk. In far less time I had all three cows milked and buckets full to the brim. I could also show how to use a scythe.
At Christmas three seminarists would dress up and distribute spoof presents, each accompanied by a verse appropriate to the recipient. I was one of them for the second Christmas. There was an enthusiastic young fellow called Joe Thatcher (we often called him Thatch), seventeen or eighteen years old, tall and physically mature. He was always making us laugh because of his unintentionally ambiguous expressions; e.g., “It is quite easy to be Master of Ceremonies. All you have to do is keep your head on the altar.”
During a summer camp, we were on the beach at Brighton when the towel he put round his middle to change his clothes fell down, to the delight of neighbouring families of grandmothers, parents and children. When preparing the Christmas feast, I found in Dorking a child’s book called Tales of Old Thatch (cover picture, a thatched cottage). So I gave him first a tiny towel and then the book with –
When on Brighton beach you’re bathing,
Just make sure of ample swathing;
Do not leave the public gasping
When a towel needs re-clasping,
But keep this garment tightly bound
And stop it dropping to the ground.
So with this well-assured protection
You will suffer no reflection.
Now if any more you want to know,
Well, here’s a book about our Joe!
Once, three of us seminarists went to Brighton together. We approached an information kiosk where two Jewish-looking young men were surrounded by posters advertising various naughty shows and night-clubs. The two individuals looked at us three young men, evidently considering us prospective ticket-buyers for a gaudy evening, but looked less interested when we asked for the nearest Catholic church.
In 1950 I went with Bill Foran, of whom more anon, and another seminarist to Rome for the Holy Year. It was on our way back that the smattering of Italian that I had picked up on the farm came in useful. We went to the restaurant car of the Italian train, and as it was a Friday we were puzzled that in a Catholic country there appeared to be no fish, only red meat on the menu, as I understood the word vitello (veal). Those were the days when Catholics of Northern Europe at least still fallowed the rules of fasting and abstinence. The trouble was that I had forgotten the Italian word for Friday, venerdi, and could only say to the waiter, “Dimano samedi. Vitello carne (red meat).” The waiter answered loudly and grandly, “Si, si, vitello carne, troppo bono carne!”
There was a rich-looking Italian gentleman at our table and at last I managed to make him understand our problem. He stood up and called the attention of all the diners in the car, telling them how these holy Inglesi did not eat meat on a Friday. My two friends wanted to hide under the table in their embarrassment at being the cynosure of all eyes. Then the gentleman turned to me and said in a loud and sonorous voice, “Lei Inglesi troppo sancto, andiate nella caelo. Noi Italiani, (with a sweeping gesture of his hand) andiamo nella inferrrrno!” (You English are too holy. You will go to heaven. We Italians, we’ll go down into hell!”)
We broke our journey for several days in Brussels, staying with two cheerful and intelligent elderly ladies whom Bill Foran had known when he was a sergeant-major in the British Army under Montgomery driving from Normandy to Holland. One day there was a general strike which ended with the posting up in public places of the resignation of King Leopold in favour of his son Baudouin, the former being accused of too friendly relations with his German nominal captors during the war, when his government had gone to Britain. I took the opportunity to make a short stay at the Byzantine-rite monastery of Amay-Chevetogne. There was a Russian Orthodox bishop who had managed to pass through the Iron Curtain and reach Rome. He made the “Metany” or deep bow and sign of the cross before the altar in a way that deeply moved me for its deep reverence and expression of inner spiritual life.
The two ladies above-mentioned were French-speaking Walloons and their neighbours Flemish, but on such good terms that they could make ethnic jokes about one another without fear of offence. The Belgians are very open and broad-minded people and I have always enjoyed their company.
In September 1950 we British seminarists who had completed two years of Philosophy went to s’Heerenberg in Holland for noviciate and theology, but Holland gave me a nervous breakdown and I had to leave in mid-1952. The climate and flat countryside were depressing. One might think that in view of the racial ethnic similarities between English and Dutch (particularly between the Friesland dialect and English) there would be little difficulty between them. But the Dutch seminarists were the extremely boisterous extrovert sons of very large families, yet also very prudish (Jansenist-Calvinist influence) while at the same time often enjoying coarse lavatory “brown” humour. The British on the other hand were often an only child, or had only one sibling, were more thoughtful and had mostly been around in the world, military service, etc.. Our humour was far too subtle for the Dutch.
The Dutch had all studied in a junior seminary to a very high standard, and Latin came easily to their lips. When a Dutchman dropped a Latin expression, Bill Foran,6 a truly delightful Scotsman, said “Er- oh yes, I had one but it died.” The Dutchman said, “What? How did you study philosophy if you don’t know Latin?” Bill was then embarrassed. He did not want to show ignorance, but only to pretend ignorance jokingly. His rebuke had been a common English expression to chide anyone for putting on airs of learning. Such self-deprecating humour of false modesty was far too intricate for the hearty, boisterous, extrovert village- or farm-bred Dutch. We got on better with the Germans and French (all ex-soldiers) taken as groups. In those days, if there was anything British people were proud of, it was their false modesty.
6 Bill Foran had been a sergeant-major in the British Army during the invasion of France and Belgium I have learned that after leaving the White Fathers he became chaplain of US paratroopers, something his modest appearance would never have led one to imagine!
Despite their intellectual superiority, we British found the Dutch very narrow-minded. We had to hand in a list of books in our possession to the Superior and the priests were really shocked to find that I had Marxist Communist booklets; they had to ferret around to find some excuse to allow this infringement of rules. In Britain the priests of the seminary found it perfectly natural that I should have books which enabled me to answer Communist speakers using their own texts. After all, my faith had survived my life in a non-Catholic Protestant and secularist world. In Filial Disobedience by Adrian Hastings gives an excellent account of the intellectual atmosphere in the seminaries. The book is well worth reading for several reasons.
Holland has certainly changed since I was there, to say the least. But in those days Jansenist and Calvinist rigour still ruled. The sight of sombrely attired Dutch farmers in a funeral procession was like something out of a film. Some French students went out on their bicycles, racing with heads lowered and saddles (and posteriors) raised. Village people came to the Superior to express their shock at the disgusting sight. The local boys pedalled slowly and solemnly around with their backs straight and a stern expression on their faces. One often sees that austere, puritanical religion is followed by a collapse of religion and morals, while a more joyful religious atmosphere does not lead to such reaction.
For me the introspective Jesuit-style spiritual formation of the White Fathers exaggerated the faults of my character instead of correcting them, as they would for a very extrovert character. That is why the Byzantine spirituality, more joyful and based on doctrine, later saved me. The martial arts, judo and karate, were also beneficial. When doing randori (free combat) or sparring, one forgets everything for pure enjoyment.
One of my problems with the Jesuit-style meditation was that it was supposed to start with a “composition of place”, that is to say imagining a scene in Jerusalem taken from the Gospels. But such an effort only took me back to my RAF days in Jerusalem, and the beauty of the city as I had known it in 1946-7.
Four French-Canadian students were very popular, but there was a difficulty with them. One always had to use the double-barrelled adjective, never simply French or Canadian. I was in charge of reading in the refectory and it was my duty to correct mistakes of pronunciation. There was a very modest, quiet French-Canadian who had made a typically French error in reading. I said to him, “The French pronounce…” He fairly exploded, “I’m not French!”
The large building we occupied had been built by German Jesuits as a refuge where they moved when life under Hitler became too difficult for their order, as nobody then imagined that Hitler would overrun Holland, something that the Kaiser had not attempted. There was a small cemetery in which some Jesuits had been buried and which was needed by the White Fathers, for as well as novices and theology students from Holland Britain, Germany, Canada and even a few from the large French Province (to thoroughly internationalise the community) there were elderly retired Brothers. Permission was obtained and we novices dug up the bones of the old Jesuits and put them in a common grave, leaving room for new occupants.
One of the retired Brothers was a real tough Frieslander, over eighty years of age; he would stand on the very top step of a tall step-ladder without anything to hold on to while doing house repairs. He had reason to go to an optician, who looked at the Brother’s glasses, examined his eyes, and then said, “When were your eyes last tested?” The Brother said, “I was never tested, these glasses belonged to my mother!”
A student spent a few days in hospital and was in a bed next to a local farmer. The man had been constipated and did not get enough relief from the usual laxative, so had swallowed a laxative meant for horses, needless to say without advice from either doctor or veterinarian. A real Dutch boer of the old school!
After the end of the noviciate in the summer of 1951, my mother visited me and thoroughly enjoyed herself. She stayed in a house in the village which a sweet old lady kept spotlessly clean with all its frilly ornaments.
One might have expected the British to feel closest to the Dutch and more distant to the French and particularly to the Germans, with the war a recent memory. However, this was not the case. I noticed that on the monthly day when we were allowed to go out in national groups the British and Germans were close to each other and even to the French, tending to make comments on the queer ways of the Dutch. The Arabs say very truly that all foreigners are brothers. So when one goes to live in a foreign land for the first ten or fifteen years one must avoid one’s fellow-countrymen like the plague, and even those who have the same mother-tongue, in order to adapt oneself. In a French village and in Lebanon I never felt inclined to criticise, simply accepting people and their ways as they were, for there were no British, or for that matter Americans or other foreigners, whom I would meet to talk with about the natives. Finally, I was curious to meet British people!
France and Malta
In September 1952, after a nervous depression obliged me to leave the seminary, I went to stay with the family of a French seminarist at a farm at a hamlet called Creys-Pusigneu in Isère, halfway between Lyon and Grenoble. For the peasants on tiny small-holdings around, work was a matter mainly for the women, who would spend the day knitting on a stool and grazing a cow and a goat or two and perhaps a couple of turkeys or chickens, while the men got down to the serious business of complaining about the world in the bistro. Their small income was guaranteed by laws obliging the government to buy their wine and tobacco however poor the quality. Many had tiny pensions. Peasants were still numerous enough to have massive voting power and with subsistence guaranteed had little ambition.
However, my friends of the farm, the Graëffs, were delightful educated people from the society of Versailles. The house they occupied as tenants was hundreds of years old, with walls like a fortress. It was quite appropriately named Château gaillard. When the family came to UK for the ordination of their son Michel, I was able to help them around London and in particular ensure for the ladies a close-up view of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Having cut off the heads of their own royal family, the French adore British royalty.
I had many interesting conversations with Madame Graëff. She was very pious, saying Grace before and after meals, but she was thoroughly broadminded and intellectually awake. She was an excellent cook. She acted as a nurse for the locals, for example giving them injections. She was amused by their foibles but devoted to them. Her husband was worthy of her and it is little wonder that one of their sons became a great priest.
I got on well with the friendly locals, but once alarmed one of them by washing my hands at the tap after making hay. He said I would catch pneumonia, and Mme. Graëff pointed out to me that if le père Gros washed his hands he would catch pneumonia! One cannot judge France by a chance visit. It is a land of variety. The people of Paris are known for their superciliousness and their coldness towards anybody asking for direction, while in a more southern city or village one may meet with the greatest friendliness.
Once I head Mme. Graëff say, “Voilà M. le maire qui passe –There is the mayor passing.” I went to the window expecting to see a man with a gold chain in a Rolls-Royce preceded by police on motorcycles. But I saw only a farmer in old clothes sitting on a horse-drawn dung-pot. It took me a little time to realise that this was “M. le maire”. Often a word does not have the same signification when used in different contexts. “An old country family” means minor aristocracy in Great Britain, while in the United States it means backward hill-billies. I once had to correct a misunderstanding on this point between an English gentleman and an American-educated Lebanese.
Very few people in Creys-Pusigneu went to church. They were not in the least anti-clerical but I think the problem was that if they went to church they would have had to wash.
The parish priest was a good man, and I never heard a breath of scandal against him. He said his Office and gave a couple of catechism lessons each week at the school. A real Breton, he was waiting for the return of the monarchy to save France, “Eldest Daughter of the Church”, and revive religion: “Tu verras, mon fils, un de ces jours il y aura un roi en France.!” I don’t know if de Gaulle fulfilled his expectations.
The diocese of Lyon had several hundred priests, so I doubt if the rural clergy could look on their bishop as a loving father close to them and concerned with their individual spiritual welfare and apostolate, filling them with holy zeal. It was a wonder that they were generally faithful to their simple routine. In the Middle East the dioceses generally have only a few dozen priests and these feel close to their bishop. When there are good bishops the clergy struggle courageously against adverse conditions. The triumph of the Greek Catholic diocese of Sidon, with its reconstruction and return of the faithful after the ravages of war and occupation thanks to the spiritual drive of Archbishop George Kwaiter, is a case in point.
Once I was walking by the French river Rhone and fell into conversation with an elderly peasant woman. After a time, she asked me where I came from. “From London,” I said. “Ah!” she replied, “I said to myself that by your accent you came from the other side of the Rhone.”
I was amused by the fact that the French never said simply that they would like to go for a walk. Their stomachs had to provide an excuse: “Let’s go down to the wood, there are mushrooms there!” But what was delightful in France was the witty and cultured conversation.
The tasty meals at Chateau Gaillard lasted nearly an hour and half. The meat and each vegetable were served successively, not together as in UK, and were interspersed with animated and joyful chat. In fact when I was back in England I was exasperated by the quasi-impossibility of having a lively discussion. I even made most outrageous assertions to friends in the hope of getting an indignant response but the only answer would be something like, “Er – yes, I suppose there are two sides to every question.”
When I arrived in Isère in late 1952, exhausted after a boat and train journey, there was an outbreak of poliomyelitis to which I fell victim, the symptoms appearing three weeks later. Stiff as a board, I had to be taken to the hôpital de la Croix Rousse in Lyon and for a month I was unable even to move my hands. Three men in the hospital isolation ward died in one day, very cheerful! France in those days before de Gaulle had not yet recovered from the war and was being drained by Vietnam. The telephones in the hospital had to be cranked up by hand; they were of a type I had seen previously only once, in the mountains of North Iraq.
The first time I tried to stand, I collapsed. A dame de service chanced to enter the room, looked down at me, took a bottle of medicine and to my surprise walked out. Then, I learnt later, she went to the next cubicle, where she said to the patient, “Cet Anglais-là, est-ce qu’il est par terre par accident or par exprès?” She rushed back and as I sat on the floor tried to pull me up by my extended hand, while screaming for help. My British phlegm had originally perplexed her, while I thought it obvious enough that I needed help without my having to say anything. A Frenchman would have brought the ceiling down with cries of “Au secours! Au secours!”
The best medicine turned out to be the sight of the hospital bill. Expressed in old francs, it looked like the American defence budget. There is a good health system in France, but it is not a public service as in Britain. One pays and then withdraws all but a small part of the bill from the government office. I learnt in this way that anybody travelling abroad should be sure to have ample health insurance. In many countries it is taken for granted that a large part of the patient’s needs will be supplied by his family clustered around his bed day and night.
I was invited by the elderly brother of Mr. Graëff, a man of great culture, to spend a week in Versailles. Once again my British phlegm drew attention to me. I was on the Paris underground Metro during a rush hour. I found it impossible to reach the door because of the crush and was resigned to alighting at the next station and then coming back. But next to me was a man with his two sons who evidently had no such patience. He charged through the crowd, dragging the two boys behind him. The effect was like that of a minesweeper and I found in front of me a broad open way with passengers on either side doing their best to pick themselves up. So I walked grandly down the way left open for me and descended with the greatest dignity. Going up the stairs from the platform I could not help glancing back and saw the passengers doubled up with laughter.
Later my uncle Arthur, his wife Marie and his sister Marjory, later Director General of Public Education,7 very generously invited me to convalesce in Malta, where I spent the winter quite happily and made the acquaintance of Pappas tal Griggi, Father George Schiro, Albano-Catholic from Palermo and incumbent of the Greek-rite parish, insistent on the pure Greek rite in all its aspects.
7 Marjory (Margaret) was deeply religious and devoted to the children of the poor. She kept British culture alive at a time when an extremist left-wing government was cutting ties with Britain, closing down the British Council, and had turned towards Libya. It replaced English in schools by Arabic. She was later decorated and honoured.
I made a pilgrimage by sea to Jerusalem for Easter, 1953, staying with the White Fathers. On my way to Jerusalem I disembarked at Cyprus and spent a week there, in the capital Nicosia, at the main Orthodox monastery of Cyprus, Panagia Kikko, and in a Greek mountain village nearby.
The British in Cyprus provided primary education, but secondary education was left to the Greek and Turkish communities, with the result that the young were exposed to incompatible and extremist political views during their most formative years.
In any case, I did not get the impression that the British administrators were people with much interest in the colony. When at Panagia Kikko, I encountered two young officials who had just drifted in and suggested that that they should stay to attend the liturgical office of Great Vespers, which lasted only a couple of hours. But they did not show the least interest.
In fact in the days when European countries had colonial empires, the colonial administration tended to be a dumping ground for useless young members of politically influential families or even for individuals who having served some dubious purpose of a government had to be got out of the way. Unlike the voters at home, the inhabitants of the colonies had to put up with the administrators they were given. In Malta next to my aunt’s house there was a flat where British employees whooped it up in the evenings of Fridays in Lent.
During my week at Jerusalem I had the most frightening experience of my life, being incensed by an Armenian deacon. That year the Eastern and Western religious calendars, Julian and Gregorian, fixed Easter on the same day, so Jerusalem and particularly the Church of the Resurrection were crammed with pilgrims. I was squeezed in the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulchre) when an Armenian procession passed, with two deacons swinging their thuribles. Armenian thuribles are much more massive than the Latin ones but are swung at arm’s length like the smaller Greek ones. One deacon had a good swing at me and I had to fear for my nose. I may add that the circumstances were exceptional. The Armenian Mass is sublime, one feels in heaven, and when living near Bourj Hammoud, my family and I often attended Mass at the Armenian Catholic church of Saint Mesrob.
On the ship from Beirut to Malta I developed what the ship’s doctor diagnosed at first as ‘flu. However, as a precaution the Yellow Jack was flown as we entered port, and I was visited in my cabin by representatives of the health authorities. They hastily put me on an ambulance through which we drove through empty streets to the quarantine hospital made famous by Lord Byron’s description. In my fever I thought that perhaps I was going to die but at least I would go down in history as the person who in the twentieth century reintroduced the Black Death into Europe.
However, I was not destined for such distinction, for my complaint turned out to be nothing more dramatic than measles, somewhat severe for coming late in life, not during childhood. A year later in a church in central London I had served the Greek Mass of Father George Dagher, mentioned below, when a lady came up to me and asked if I were not the person who had been taken off ship in Malta under the Yellow Jack. She told me how the captain had publicly bawled the doctor off ship for his incorrect diagnosis.
I spent a fascinating time in Malta, which is of great historic interest. On the sister island of Gozo there are the world’s oldest standing stone buildings, dating to around 5,000 B.C.. There are in Malta the palaces of the Knights of Saint John, with their arms and armour, and the splendid churches they built, in high baroque style. I could not help admiring the baroque but did not really like it. I preferred the quiet sobriety of the little Greek Catholic church, on the site of one destroyed by bombing in World War II which had originally served the Greek soldiers who accompanied the Knights when they were expelled by the Turks from Rhodes. They brought with them the icon of Our Lady of Damascus, of much older date. The old church had been baroque like the others of Malta, but the compensation received for war damage had enabled Papas Schiro to build and furnish a new one in the purest Greek style as advised by professors of architecture from Venice. Although not a formal Catholic, the Greek consul was delighted to bring his family for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on Sundays. His presence on such a small island was due to the passage of Greek shipping.
In those days ordinary people in Malta went to Mass every day, while more pious ones attended three Masses. There was an early five o’clock Mass for the fishermen before they stepped into their boats. A multiplicity of Masses is contrary to Eastern practice, in which even simple Masses are sung by a cantor and if there are several priests they concelebrate.
One evening, my aunt took me to see an elderly married couple who were part-English relatives. The visit passed off very pleasantly, but at one point a young man came into the sitting-room whom I would guess to be in his early or mid-thirties. He sat down, evidently quite at home, and chatted most affably. However, no effort was made to introduce us to each other.
This puzzled me, and after we had left I asked my aunt about him. She explained that in 1940 he, an only child, had failed to go Britain to offer his life for King and Country by joining the armed forces. His two parents felt this to be such a disgrace that for the last twelve or thirteen years they had never spoken to him or looked him in the face, although all three lived under the same roof. I cannot help wondering if such a thing would be possible at the present day when ideas of public duty and devotion are at such a low ebb and when the word aristocracy has lost its true meaning.
I made another stay in France and then returned home in despair about my future, but finally in 1954 was invited to teach English at the large Greek Catholic monastery of St. Saviour’s near Sidon in South Lebanon, thanks to a contact through Father Schiro and the Salvatorian monk Father George Dagher, studying in London. While waiting to go I stayed for a second time at Quarr Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in the Isle of Wight. The whole liturgical Office was beautifully sung by some thirty monks, successors of those who had come from Solesmes in France, expelled on account of stupid and fanatic anti-clerical laws.
I asked the guest-master about a certain monk who did not appear old but walked with difficulty using two sticks. I was told that he was a Frenchman who had been in the habit of not changing his wet clothes after working outside in the rain and had as a consequence contracted severe rheumatism. He had been warned by the other monks but brushed off their advice with contempt: “Vous les Anglais, vous êtes trop douillets, mais nous les paysans de la France, nous sommes costauds!”8 I have since realised that many of the so-called illnesses of old age are in fact illnesses of imprudence in youth, for example in the matter of eating.
8 “You English are too soft, but we peasants of France are tough!”
Staying at the monastery guest house was a London University professor of mathematics. He told me that two of his Catholic African students complained to him that they had been going to the same church for two years and nobody had spoken to them. They naturally supposed that this was due to racial prejudice. But the professor told them that he had been going to the same church for twenty years and nobody had spoken to him. I believe that one cause of the decline in church-going is the lack of parish social life in so many places. In modern times in Britain the people of one parish are no longer born locally or related to one another, or brought up together in the same school or the same street.
My mother used to say that it was all very well for the priests to complain about their parishioners marrying non-Catholics indifferent to religion. But without weekly dances and social events, how were they to meet Catholic partners? Those parishes that do have a vigorous social life are generally strong and apostolic. Here married priests might be able to help. I know that my own brother-in-law, a priest in charge of an Eastern-rite immigrant community is Sweden, attributes much of his success to the activity of his wife.
My two visits to Quarr Abbey helped me greatly in my new orientation. But there was one difficulty. In order to give sufficient notice to the monks when they were due to go into choir or to the refectory, the monastery clock struck every seven-and-a-half minutes. At night until one got used to the chimes, if one couldn’t get to sleep in seven minutes, one “had it” so far as sleep was concerned!
Before travelling to Lebanon I had the idea of going to the Putney Public Library to see if there were any books on photography that would give tips on how to take good pictures. Evidently the most recent books had been taken out by subscribers. The most modern book that I could find said that Kodak had now produced a portable camera. It had straps so that one could fix it in one’s servant’s back. It also had a thin square of wood in front of the lens with a hole in in the middle. You were supposed to hold it up by a piece of string and then let it fall. The hole dropping past the lens would give the correct exposure. Even in 1954 such technology was already a little outdated!
Settling in Lebanon
I arrived at the monastery of St. Saviour’s in July of 1954 and was welcomed by a priest, Father Laurence Faisal, who had been deacon at the consecration of Father Schiro’s new church in Malta. I stayed several weeks in the guest house. This was a wing with several rooms and a refectory where any passer-by could spend a night with no questions asked, any longer stay needing the permission of the Superior. In charge was a certain Nahil who had come as a refugee from Haifa in 1948. Brought up as an orphan by German nuns, she was polyglot and a good companion to my mother during her stay the following year.
What impressed me most on first seeing Lebanon were the terraces for cultivation covering vast areas of the mountains. I could only wonder at the work involved in days before mechanical means of excavation and later when I saw the mountain slopes around St. Saviour’s covered with terraces and planted with olive trees my thoughts turned to the generations of monks toiling away –Laborare est orare as St. Benedict said.
In August I went up to the small monastery of St. George’s between Jazzeen and Kfarhuna higher in the mountains, where the theology students were spending part of the summer. This was one of several small monasteries of the Salvatorian Order whose agriculture provided food for the larger communities and a source of revenue. The Superior at this particular monastery was an austere but gracious hermit who rose very early in the dark hours to devote himself to the liturgy, prayer and meditation.
Once I went for a short walk which took me to the crest of the mountain chain and gave a stunning view of Mount Hermon across the Beqaa valley. In the evening under the brilliant stars as I sat with the students I would listen to their record of the superb Wadih es-Safi singing about a rising dawn and the chant of a bird (Tala’a ‘s-sabah, zaqzaq al-asfour…) Years later, I met Wadih (real family name Francis) as I was teaching his sons English, the eldest, Fady, sitting next to my son Edward in class. Fady’s ninety-six kilos belied his innocence; when I mentioned that Shakespeare had a daughter three months after his marriage, with a very puzzled expression he asked me why the other boys were laughing, even a very sheltered little Muslim. Fady’s younger brothers were certainly far more sophisticated.
After about three weeks we went to the monastery of Ain Jawzeh (Spring of the Walnut Tree) in the Beqaa. Now there is a road across the mountain, but at that time we had to rise at midnight, put our luggage on mules, and walk across the mountain to the town of Mashghara, from where at 5 a.m. we took a bus going finally to Beirut. At Mashghara the priest was a Salvatorian monk whose holiness had given him influence to reconcile warring political parties. At Ain Jawzeh the Superior was Father Yared, of whom more anon.
At the monastery of St. Saviour’s, with the benign climate of Lebanon, and walks down the plunging ravine to the river Awali, I regained much of my strength, as well as new experience. Once I was present when parents were bringing their boys to place them in the junior seminary. This was a time when seminarists were mostly the sons of peasant families who hoped to get a good and free education for at least one of their children, with the possibility that if he actually became a priest he would be in a position to advise and help his brothers and sisters.
One parent presented her son saying, “He is mentally deficient, Father, so I thought he would make a good priest!” It was gently pointed out to her that mental deficiency was not considered a suitable qualification for a monastic and sacerdotal vocation.
Nowadays most parents have financial resources permitting them to pay school fees, and even in regions where this is not the case there is free or cheap education available in government or state-aided schools from where young people may aspire to the University. So candidates for the priesthood or the monastic life present themselves with more spiritual motives after having received a secondary or even university education.
But the old system is not to be derided. At a time when free or cheap education was not everywhere available and people were poor, when government education and aid were not yet organised, the monasteries provided free education of a high standard, particularly in languages. Only a small percentage of seminarists actually continued into theology to be ordained, leaving a large number of educated young men (and women from the convents) who provided the first generation of government school teachers and university professors, serving Christians and Muslims alike. Their mastery of French enabled many to travel and obtain graduate doctorates abroad. Thanks to these qualified Christians in the villages, towns and universities, Muslims were able to catch up in education after the poverty and ignorance imposed by the Ottoman regime, which was based on officials who had paid money for their posts and were concerned mainly to make a profit out of them.
What is more, though I cannot explain it on merely human grounds, there were many boys who grew up to be really spiritual and apostolic monks and priests, as well as ones who accepted vows and ordination for more worldly motives. One priest whom I knew personally, the above-mentioned Father Yared of Holy Saviour Monastery, became superior of a large school in Beirut where by his time most of the pupils were Muslims. He practised the old fasting of the Eastern Church with all its rigour, which in the seventeenth century had been the cause of Christians becoming Muslins for a less severe regime. But in addition he also followed the Muslim fast of Ramadan, no food between sunrise and sunset, in order to encourage his Muslim pupils. Far from being severe and gloomy of mien, he was always cheerful, laughing and generous.
I spent three years at St. Saviour’s after my arrival there in the lap of liturgical luxury. In 1957 I got a decree from Rome for transfer to the Greek Melkite Church, whose liturgical and doctrine-based spirituality and stress on the Resurrection suited me more than the introspective Latin spirituality as then practised.
It should be remembered that at that time the Mass in the predominating Roman rite was always celebrated in Latin, and except for those who had sufficient education to follow in a bilingual Missal the faithful generally were driven to fall back on sentimental popular devotions.
Once I entered the church at St. Saviour’s at the start of a Mass requested by French nuns who had brought their pupils from Beirut. As soon as the priest and the cantor started the liturgical celebration, the nuns and the girls started reciting the Rosary. This shocked the priest and the cantor, who raised their voices to drown the unseemly interruption. A contest to pray loudest ensued in which Holy Orthodoxy came out victorious.
The best gift I ever received except for Aunt Emily’s bibles was a book for the Hours of the Office, given me by a former Superior General of the Salvatorians, Father Simaan Nasr. I recite Vespers and when I can Matins. There are Psalms to fit every mood and the prayers are not only beautiful but also full of concise theology, revealing the divine mysteries. The Office gives joy.
In later years I often went to spend a few days at St. Saviour’s, where I was made very welcome and got spiritual refreshment. St. Saviour’s was founded towards the end of the seventeenth century by the Orthodox bishop of Tyre and Sidon, Eftemios Saifi, who had four objectives, namely the spiritual and intellectual improvement of the Christians of South Lebanon, their material and social improvement, clear union of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch with Rome, and good relations with the Muslim and Druze princes of his region.
Turkish rule had made Christian activity impossible. A church could not be repaired without a permit from the civil and religious authorities and certification from them that there had been no addition to the original structure, and of course all these permits involved a heavy tax and endless negotiation. Outside the princedoms of Lebanon it was simply forbidden to build new church property. Every Church appointment meant a tax on the new incumbent. The Orthodox bishops were the civil heads of the Christian communities and therefore responsible for them; it was not out of spite that the Orthodox called on the Ottomans to suppress Romeward movements but out of fear that they would be held to account for alliance with European rulers. Three Patriarchs of Constantinople were martyred in the nineteenth century. One of them wept when accepting his election, foreseeing what his fate would be. It is wrong to blame the Orthodox Church for its stagnation and it should be remembered that the Latin Church in North Africa had completely disappeared when it came under Muslim rule much less severe than the Ottoman.
While retaining ties with Constantinople, Antioch had always had relations with Rome, which at its own cost paid for the printing of liturgical books for Antioch. Bishop Eftemios Saifi hoped to end the ambiguous situation of practical separation, and by taking advantage of the quasi-autonomy of Lebanon and his friendship with the Muslim princes, he founded his order of monks, not to be shut up as contemplatives, but to be active missionaries and educators. In 1724 Saifi died of ill-treatment when chained in the fortress of Sidon (Saïda at present) but was buried with patriarchal honours in Damascus, where the governing Wali was his admirer. He was a man of heroic stature, who had had to struggle against Latin Catholic emissaries of Rome as well as against the partisans of Constantinople.
With a mentality moulded by its struggle against Protestant attack, Rome in 1728 forbad liturgical concelebration of Romeward or “Catholic” bishops with the conservative Orthodox hierarchy and participation in its synod, so from now on Byzantine Antioch was divided into two branches, of which one was in full communion with Rome, the so-called Greek Catholic Melkites. In more recent times the Catholic bishops have proposed a united Church of Antioch in communion with both Rome and Constantinople as in ancient times, but the Antiochean Orthodox, although open-minded, have to consider their relations with the Russian Orthodox and particularly the Orthodox of Greece, who are very national in bent.
The situation of the Patriarchate of Antioch, in fact based on Damascus and covering Syria and Lebanon, was complicated by rivalry between Damascus and Aleppo, with its strong Christian community, and between Arab and Hellenic bishops. When the Orthodox of Damascus exercised their traditional right of electing the new Patriarch of Antioch (to be confirmed by the Synod) and chose the Arab Catholic nephew of Saifi, the Church in Aleppo, including the Catholics and with the support of the Latin missionaries, chose the deacon Sylvester, the candidate of Constantinople! For some years there was a Catholic bishop of Aleppo who remained within the pro-Constantinopolitan synod! Even within the Orthodox Church of Antioch, Hellenic-Arab rivalry continued until an Arab was elected Patriarch in 1901. Some readers may be familiar with the Hellenic-Arab tensions existing even now within the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
In talking of the Middle Eastern Churches one has to beware of confusion over names. Syrian Orthodox could mean either Orthodox of the Greek Byzantine rite and Syrian nationality or members of the Church which broke away after the Council of Chalcedon, so-called Monophysites, and uses the Syriac language for the liturgy. In Lebanon, Room Kathooleek, or simply Kathooleek, means Catholics of the Greek Melkite (Byzantine) rite, not Latins or Roman Catholics in general, and Greek Orthodox are called simply Room – Room here indicates New Rome, Constantinople. But I have heard that in Aleppo this last term is applied to the Greek Catholics. It may also be noted that in the Middle East each religious group, Christian, Muslim or even Jewish, has its laws of personal and family status recognised by the State, with authority given to its clergy to judge on questions such as marriage, divorce and inheritance.
The large church of St. Saviour’s Monastery was finished in 1724, a remarkable achievement in view of the enormous economic and administrative difficulties under the Ottoman regime, even if the partial autonomy enjoyed by princes in Lebanon somewhat eased its rigour. In pure Orthodox style and furnished with icons painted with oriental technique, the church has an atmosphere that makes one loath to leave it and go outside.
In the summer of 1954 my mother spent several weeks with me at St. Saviour’s which she thoroughly enjoyed. She stayed in the guest house and was entertained by Naheel, the polyglot lady in charge there. She was pleased to be able to receive Holy Communion under both species as when she had been an Anglican. Mother came to Lebanon in the pre-Vatican II days before the reform of Tridentine usage in the Latin Church. One day we went for a walk and sat down on a stone where a road led off to the nuns’ convent. In front of us a family of gypsies were teaching their little boy, I suppose about four years old, to dance. We were both delighted at the sight and I went over to give a small tip for the boy. His parents laughed and at first refused, saying that the boy was not dancing professionally yet, only learning. I had to insist for the coin to be accepted.
Later I was to know a similar family of gypsies at my wife’s village, people who would come and dance wherever there was a wedding in the Beqaa Valley. Just as in Britain there used to be respectable families of gypsies and also “Diddikies”, mixed gypsies and people outside the law, for example running away from military service, so in Lebanon there are respectable gypsies performing or following the crops and others begging or looking for mischief. Gypsies are not Arabs and are not to be confused with the Bedouin.
Early in 1956 an earthquake struck the district and more than forty people were killed in two villages close to St. Saviour’s. In the school attached to the monastery a priest was hurt by a chunk of plaster falling from the ceiling. I myself was not unduly worried because the noise had led me to suppose that there was an Israeli air-raid and, after London in 1940 and Jerusalem in 1946, bombs (unless too close) left me indifferent.
There were a couple of hundred boarding boys, including young junior seminarists, who had just gone to bed but now rushed downstairs in alarm. Leaving my room and watching the rush on the staircase, I could see faces in a variety of colours, some comparatively calm and others in varying shades of yellow and green.
Out in the road dividing the school from the old monastery I looked up at the windowsill of my room and was able to assure myself that the wild cyclamen I had planted in an earthenware pot was still safely in place.
Within a few days a letter was received from a Lebanese expatriate in Australia asking if it was true that in the middle of the earthquake an Englishman had been concerned chiefly about the wellbeing of his cyclamen plant!
The damage to the monastery and school consisted chiefly of cracks in the plaster that overlay the stones of the walls, and calculations were made about the money needed to pay the massive cost of repairs and the means of obtaining it. At that time the monastery was not at all rich, depending largely on revenue from sharecroppers. However, when the plaster was all removed to allow the repairs, it was realised that the rough stone was far more beautiful than the plaster had been, and in fact as a result one saw plaster removed from the walls of churches all over Lebanon.
When one goes to live abroad one is often faced with the problem of adaptation to the food. What are delicacies for the locals may be utterly repulsive to anybody not used to them from infancy. When I arrived at St. Saviour’s in 1954 I wanted to get used to olives, which for me were perfectly horrible.
Now it is a common belief that when one is hungry one can eat almost anything. But this applies only to food which, if not actually liked, is at least familiar. When one is hungry the taste buds in the mouth are more sensitive than usual, so any disagreeable taste is ten times more disagreeable. Therefore for four years running, during the Lenten fast (no food before midday) after lunch when my taste buds were satiated I would eat one olive wrapped in a large piece of bread. After those four years the unpleasant part of the taste had disappeared and I could really enjoy olives, no longer considering them a Lenten penance.
The leban, sour milk, was at first very repulsive, but became enjoyable at only the third try, and when it is taken from the fridge on a hot day I find it really delicious. The Armenian basterma, mutton dried and treated with garlic, nearly knocked me over at the first taste, but at the third try was delightful, and the same was true of the similar sujuk. However it must be admitted that these two delicacies are impossible even for many Lebanese who are not Armenians to swallow. My wife never even tried to enjoy kipper, bacon or shrimps, the very look of which turned her off. I once unintentionally scared her by leaving a crayfish in the refrigerator with its head forward. My wife had barely caught sight of it staring at her when she slammed the refrigerator door in horror.
I had no difficulty with snails, even though I did not actually find them tasty. I once ate a frog’s leg as a test of my will. But the plate of frogs’ legs that was pushed under my nose looked to me like a fifteenth-century illustration of a battlefield in Froissart’s French history.
One thing I cannot understand is the American mania for taking their drinks ice-cold, even when the weather is not particularly hot. When they are half frozen, the taste buds cannot be so sensitive to the taste. If the beer or whisky is good, why knock it back as if it were nasty medicine. In fact there is a scam behind this. A barman will say, “Plenty of ice, sir?” and rely on the customer being too ashamed to say No! The result is that after the first sip one is drinking cold water, although one has paid for a glass of beer, whisky, gin, or whatever.
In 1957 I married Laurice Louis of Ras Baalbek, a Greek Catholic village near the north-east frontier with Syria where in those days nearly all the men still wore Arab dress, as I did frequently myself. The traditional houses were cool in summer and warm in winter. I was delighted with the then exotic village, whereas my wife wanted to get away from it. Her brother, now deceased, was a priest of the Paulist missionary society. Another brother is now a priest (married, according to Eastern Catholic and Orthodox tradition) in charge of Catholic Middle Eastern emigrants in Sweden, where the Latin bishops have shown themselves thoroughly broadminded.
Among my pupils in the school there were boarders from Ras Baalbek who all pleased me for their politeness and serious behaviour.
I got to know Laurice through a teacher at St. Saviour’s who invited me to his home in Ras and one evening took me to Laurice’s family as it was his intention to arrange a marriage between us. Her family were suspicious of marriage with a foreigner who might after a few years go back to his own country, leaving no trace. Also there were two other suitors from among relatives in Syria. This was 1956.
According to Laurice, she went to the church at the monastery of Our Lady near her home and wrote the three names on pieces of paper, prayed and drew with her eyes shut, with a provision in her prayer that it should not be my name that came up. However, three times it was my name that she drew. An elderly monk came and saw her looking troubled; when she explained he told her to have one more try and accept it as the will of God. My name came up again.
The Lebanese Independence Day, November 22nd, was approaching, making a long weekend. So I went to Ras Baalbek with my teacher friend and in the evening a priest came to bless the betrothal after I had put down a sum of money as a guarantee of my intentions.
At Easter vacation a few months later I had my first hesitant conversation with Laurice, hesitant as I was still not practised in speaking Arabic, and we visited relatives in the evenings in the company of her mother. We held hands in the dark but dropped them quickly every time Laurice’s mother turned round to look at us. With my summer vacation we started furnishing a house we had rented and on July 20th were married at Our Lady’s monastery. Six White Fathers were present from the Greek Catholic junior seminary at Rayak, through which my old friendship with the White Fathers had been maintained.
My mother-in-law had an obsession about owning land, which for the older village people was the only guarantee for subsistence. When my future wife was thirteen years old she had tried to force her, with no light hand, into a marriage with a young man who owned a well-irrigated orchard and productive garden. However Laurice, who at the village school was getting an elementary education, did not look forward to a life of agricultural labour and resisted fiercely.
The Mother Superior noticed her unhappiness and asked the reason. She then explained to Laurice that a forced marriage was invalid and would in any case be annulled. Further, before the marriage in church the bride always had to go to confession and in the curtained secrecy of the confessional the priest would ask her if the marriage was of her free choice. In the face of a negative answer he would not proceed. Finally, in the face of Laurice’s resistance to all threats her mother dropped the matter. But she always seemed to resent Laurice’s marriage to an outsider who refused to buy a house or land in the village. I could not see myself making a living out of scratching a vegetable patch. As for a house, this could be rented for five dollars a month during vacation. Not even my mother-in-law’s princely offer of a small hoe on condition that we bought a house and some land in Ras Baalbek made us change our mind.
It was just after our marriage that I obtained from Rome a transfer to the Greek Catholic Melkite Church and was incardinated into the patriarchate of Antioch. However, I did not practice the Easter fast as strictly as some people in Ras Baalbek, including my wife’s brother Yusuf. During Lent he abstained from all animal products and on Wednesdays and Fridays from fried food. For my wife and myself it has always been enough to fast until midday and refrain from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. Even this has had to be modified with old age.
For several years, while teaching in Beirut, I spent the school vacations in Ras Baalbek, at the house of Laurice’s mother and brother Yusuf, a shopkeeper. The main street held about twenty shops. Apart from a couple of butcher’s shops and two that had a license to sell cigarettes, they all sold exactly the same basic merchandise, such as tinned foods. Most of the food consumed locally came from preserves made by the people themselves, cheese, lebneh and borghal (cracked wheat, rough-ground, boiled and dried in the sun, making kishk if milk was added.)
Neighbours had a very fierce big dog what would rush furiously at anybody it did not know. Once it came at me and I said “Good morning!” to it very politely. To the immense amusement of onlookers, it turned tail and trotted off. However, I would never be so imprudent as to deliberately approach fierce dogs.
Once on the BBC some young Anglican ladies, university students, were saying that they wished to marry clergymen so as to help them in their Christian service. However, one of them complained that clerical students were such “wimps” – her expression, not mine. My thoughts went back to a visit I paid to a new parish priest, a monk, at Ras Baalbek.
I found him sitting on a low stool. He appeared to have the physique of an average gorilla and hands like spades. His face was dominated by a massive nose and black eyebrows that went almost up to his hair. Black hair sprouted out of his ears, his nose, his throat, the nape of his neck and his sleeves. A kind parishioner had sent him some sparrows he had shot, and the priest was twisting off their heads, plucking them and gutting them before fixing them on skewers for roasting. Blood clotted the thick hair on the back of his hands. When I heard that young lady on the BBC World Service complaining about wimps, I could not help wondering if that priest at Ras Baalbek would have been her ideal
Every year a sheep had to be slaughtered, its meat chopped up fine, and then mixed with the fat from its tail to provide owrama, tasty frying fat for the winter. The process meant a whole day’s hectic work for the family, starting about 4 o’clock in the morning. Once my wife Laurice’s little brother went to cut grass for the sheep we were fattening up and I was supposed later to take the donkey from him with the load of grass on its back. I took the donkey from the boy Elias and he went off and left me with it. I gave the donkey a tap with a little stick; it took one step forward and stopped. I tapped it again and again it took just one step forward. Then I saw all the men sitting on the steps in front of their shops looking at me. I felt a thorough fool, unable even to drive a donkey as any little boy could. Suddenly I had an inspiration. I realised that the donkeys were not broken in like a British horse; all the time they were driving or riding a donkey the boys kept tapping it with a stick or their heels, and when they stopped the donkey stopped. I kept on tapping and the donkey and I went off with my dignity saved!
One summer’s day I felt an urge to go for a long walk, so I put on my head the Arab kaffiyeh and agal against the sun and set off early. After some fifteen miles I finally reached a spring called The Blue, giving a couple of cubic metres of crystal water every second into a deep, clear, and very cold pool. This was the main source of the river Orontes, which crosses into Syria and then empties into the sea near Turkey. In the cliff above the source are a number of caves forming a monastery of the fifth or sixth century named after Mar (Saint) Maroun.
On my way back I had just crossed the main north-south artery near the road leading to Ras Baalbek a couple of miles away when a lorry carrying a dozen gendarmes stopped and the sergeant hailed me, asking where I came from. When I answered that I came from Ras Baalbek all the gendarmes jumped down and surrounded me, their rifles at the ready. I was asked to show my identity card and fortunately I was able to produce my work permit, which I had carried as a precaution.
The sergeant smiled and apologised and explained to me that they were looking for an Armenian who had escaped from the prison about twenty miles away. When they heard me answer in Arabic but with non-native accent, they supposed that they had got their man!
I was travelling up from Beirut in a service taxi one day (a taxi that would carry several passengers splitting the full fare), when I found myself sitting next to an affable American. He said that he was in charge of livestock at the American University Federal-supported model farm near Baalbek. I remarked that a farm with thirty head of cattle might serve as a model for one of the wealthy landowners in the region but something should be done to help the poor people who had only a two goats, a few hens and a vegetable patch. Touching more people, this would bring more popular friendship for the Americans.
To my surprise my companion agreed with me whole-heartedly. He said that he had insisted on the same point to his superiors but they remained totally indifferent. The Americans more than any others seem to ingratiate themselves with the big people, dare one say bribe them, and ignore the poor who need their help, which only makes them hated. This does not do much for their democratic credentials they boast about. Unfortunately officials, as I have already observed, are often more interested in their salaries and in invitations to dine out than with conscientiously doing their duty to the general public. I have noticed that it is rare to meet Americans outside the Americanised quarter of Beirut, apart from those of Lebanese origin, whereas one easily meets Europeans, including British and Commonwealth, living in the middle class regions. There are of course exceptions, but considering their immigrant roots it is surprising that Americans are not bi- or tri-lingual like the Lebanese, Belgians or Scandinavians.
Travel between Beirut and Ras Baalbek in an old-fashioned bus in the early nineteen-sixties might not always have been very comfortable but could provide some entertainment. The broad modern high roads lay in the future and the main roads were still quite narrow; so there was quite a thrill at being driven at hectic speed at the edge of a plunging ravine by a driver who insisted on looking over his shoulder to chat with his clients, especially if one thought of the fatal accidents in which he had already been involved.
The bus was not supposed to take on more passengers than it could seat, and the traffic police could impose a fine equivalent to about half a US dollar for every passenger standing. To ensure the zeal of the police they received a small percentage on every fine imposed. So whenever the driver’s assistant saw police on their motorcycles he would shout, “Heads down, lads!” and the standing passengers would crouch to be invisible until the danger had passed. However, if the police did actually stop the bus and find a dozen or more passengers without seats, they would impose a fine on the driver for only three or four. The reason was that if they were too zealous, the drivers would stop taking extra passengers and there would be no more fines and no more cut for the policeman.
Some passengers would be carrying provisions, sometimes in the form of indignant chickens with their legs tied. A couple of times I felt a chicken pecking at my feet, though why a chicken should find them at all appetising I cannot imagine. Once when the bus stopped at a village and I was looking out of the window, I suddenly found myself staring at a blaring sheep almost at the end of my nose. It had been tied on the roof only by a rope round its neck, had slipped off and although half strangled was bleating disconsolately until it was hoisted aloft again and this time tied more securely.
Once before I had my own vehicle, I wanted to go to Beirut and a neighbour at Ras Baalbek said that I could go with her son next day. He had just obtained his driving license and bought a car. It turned out that he had a driving license but had never once taken a lesson or even sat behind the wheel of a car. However, he was to be accompanied by his friend, who could drive just a little but had not got a license. Every time this man saw a car coming in the opposite direction on the narrow road he would turn onto the desert. Further on in the more built-up area nearer Beirut, every time a policeman appeared on his motorcycle, he stopped the car and with his friend would get out in order to admire the panorama of the coast far below.
Only a generation before my arrival in Ras Baalbek travel had been a real and risky adventure. The first time my wife and I were due to return to Beirut with the opening of school after summer vocation, I saw Laurice and her sister both in tears. For a moment I thought that they had been quarrelling but it turned out that they were only upset over the coming 120 km. separation (75 miles), a mere bus journey. As one who was accustomed to setting off from one country to another by air or by sea without anybody displaying emotion, I found the tears quite uncalled-for.
There was a neighbour of Laurice’s family who had emigrated to South America long enough to make enough money to buy some land and had returned to Ras Baalbek still a traditional Arab in his dress and in his ways. Gruff and loud-voiced, he was a helpful and impartial advisor when problems arose. He lived with his wife Tammam, her sister Badour, and his son’s family next door. The two women had quite literally never been outside the village. Baalbek and Homs, about twenty-five miles away, were for them like Cathay or Timbuctoo. To use a local expression, they slept with the chickens: as the sun sank below the mountain range to the West and darkness settled, and as the hens with a few last scratches of the ground trooped into their lean-to, we would see Tammam and Badour gather up their long skirts, rise and turn resolutely indoors.
Once they were sitting with my wife on the steps in front of our house. Tammam looked curiously indoors in my direction and then plucked at Laurice’s sleeve. “Look, Laurice,” she said in a low tone, “Your husband, is he Muslim?” “No,” answered my wife, “Of course not. He’s a Christian like us.” “Then what’s he doing there?” What was I doing? I was doing some very basic physical exercise, stretching my arms alternately backwards above my head and touching my toes. I was certainly not engaged in the solemn ritual of Muslim prayer. My wife explained as best she could to two people who had never read a book or a newspaper or listened to a radio set. How life has changed in fifty years! The grandchildren of that generation have university doctorates and cross the Atlantic by air as a matter of routine!
In 1958 United Nations Observers9 had a post in Ras Baalbek, each pair coming for two days to the house of the Mukhtar before being replaced. Mukhtar is usually translated as mayor but in fact he is not the head of a town council. He is elected to act as an official witness to the identity and status of people making a demand to the government, for example for a passport or birth or marriage or death certificate.
9 The United Nations Organisation comes in for a lot of brickbats, but the UNIFIL in South Lebanon deserves praise. Originally intended to protect poor little Israel from attacks from dangerous Lebanon, and unable to stop the Israeli invasions, it has done invaluable social work and enjoys excellent relations with the population of South Lebanon. It has suffered many fatal casualties – not from the Lebanese side, needless to say!
I was acting as interpreter between the seventy-year old Mukhtar and the UN observers. His mother had a sore eye and somehow imagined that with their foreign connection the UN observers could provide her with better medical help than the doctor in the next village, even though he had received modern training and qualification. The observer I spoke to told her that all the medicine the observers had was a box of aspirin. I noticed that the old lady was continually rubbing her eye, so I had an idea, both placebo and practical.
I took one aspirin, crushed it, dissolved it in water, and then rubbed it on her eye. I then said, “Look you mustn’t rub your eye. So you don’t forget, I suggest you keep a heavy object like a big stone in your hand and take it wherever you go.” Next day the old lady said to me, “Look, I am carrying this sewing-machine. Do you think that’s good?” “Just the very thing!” I exclaimed and for two or three days the Mukhtar’s venerable mother lugged the Singer sewing machine with her wherever she went, sitting down, rising up and tottering around the house. As she was no longer irritating her eye by rubbing it, it was completely cured and I gained esteem for my medical science.
The house of my in-laws had the distinction of a well in its grounds. This was about thirty metres deep and the bucket was lowered by a windlass composed of four parallel pieces of wood around which the rope was wound, these being attached to four handles. Keeping up a supply of water for drinking, ablutions, washing clothes and washing up was tiresome work. In those days there was no piped water in the village and no electricity. One day two observers visited us and a tall Scandinavian officer was intrigued by the windlass. He wanted to try his hand at hauling up water and successfully pulled the bucket nearly to the top, when the handles slipped from his hand. He had forgotten that there was no ratchet and pawl system to prevent the windlass running back and received a number of whacks from the handles under the chin.
One pair of Observers told me they had passed a road leading from the diocesan farm. The bishop was sitting by the roadside and thumbed a lift, which the Observers in their Jeep could not refuse. But when they stopped they found that His Lordship wanted to charge some crates of apples on their Jeep. When they started off, one of the crates slipped and hit an Observer in the back. He wasn’t very pleased. To Bishop Maalouf’s credit, it must be said that he got the diocese out of debts left since Turkish times and was a powerful voice when representing the people, whatever their religion, to the government. A local mosque was built with bags of cement left over from the building of a large church and given by the Bishop to the village Muslims as a present.
At that time everybody used to sit on carpets on the floors of the houses and we ate off small tables under a foot high. My mother-in-law had long been surrounded by young children and her ideas about discipline were not what educationalists would call “progressive”. So she amused me by her habit when she wanted to prepare food of sitting heavily on the ground without searching for kitchen equipment first, and then calling those near her to bring the knives, saucepans, dishes or whatever she wanted.
One of the neighbours was a very capable traditional Arab doctor. He sometimes used cautery (not always on the site of the affliction), the effects of which I was in no position to judge, but he was really good with broken limbs, using sticks and a soft paste instead of plaster-of-Paris and then every day loosening the bandage to massage and gently moving the limb so that it would not get stiff from being held immobile. My mother-in-law had him cauterise her back or the top of her head whenever she suffered from lumbago, without anaesthetic. However when I gave her an intra-muscular injection she was really terrified. This Arab doctor, who could sometimes perform remarkable cures, did however know his own limitations, and would often tell a would-be patient to see a modern doctor. One neighbour cauterised her own rheumatic knees with nails heated almost red-hot. I do not think there are any reliable Arab doctors left now that people have modern medicine available, but in 1956 a traditional nun who used Arab medicine treated me very effectively for boils with bread poultices.
In Ras Baalbek several events in the Gospels became clear to me. There is the story of the paralytic whose friends took him on to the roof of a house in which they made a hole to lower him in front of Jesus for a cure. As a child looking at the steep tiled roofs around me in Putney this seemed to me very strange. But the house of my in-laws in Ras Baalbek, like many others, backed on to a steep slope, so from behind it needed only a single easy step to be on the roof. At that time the roofs consisted of earth packed on top of branches and poplar beams, needing to be rolled whenever there was rain. But they insulated against summer sun and winter cold.
There was a habit, especially among visiting Syrians, of taking a piece of flat bread, using it to pick up a morsel of food, and offering it to a guest with one’s fingers, particularly when the guest was evidently more or less satiated. A long conversation would ensue, the host insisting – Take this for so-and-so’s sake – and the guest for a time refusing, with exchanges of elegant Arabic compliments. This showed me that the action of Jesus in offering a morsel to Judas at the Last Supper was nothing strange, but quite routine. Also many houses were built over a lower floor used as a stable and tool shed that was half built room and half excavated cave. The Christmas story of “no room at the inn” came to life for me.
Another Gospel account that became more real for me was the one about Mary being espoused to Joseph but saying she did not yet know man. When I first knew Ras Baalbek it was common for two families to arrange a marriage although the groom still did not have enough money to furnish his home, or was held back for some other reason. In such a case the marriage would take place in the church as a guarantee, since annulment for non-consummation had to go to Rome and was lengthy and costly, and then the bride would return to her family until such time as she could be taken to her new home with a suitable wedding celebration.
A lady in Jounieh to whose daughter I was giving lessons told me about the case of her sister. A partner was desired for her who was a young man studying for the priesthood. On the one hand the girl was very young but on the other hand the marriage could not be postponed until after his ordination, as Church law did not allow a man who was already a priest to marry. So the couple were married in the church, the student finished his studies and was ordained, and when the girl had her first monthly period her mother packed her clothes and sent her off to the priest her husband.
There was a curious case in Ras Baalbek not long after I got to know the village. A girl married in church the son of a younger paternal uncle, marriage between cousins being common; in fact the common expression for one’s husband or wife is Ibn/Bint Amm-my (my paternal uncle’s son/daughter).
This marriage with a younger cousin aroused the fury of the eldest son of her eldest uncle, who claimed first right to marry the girl on account of his double seniority. He and his brothers kidnapped her and took her to the tent some distance away which they occupied in summer when grazing their flock in open country. There her loving cousin raped her. In his ignorance he thought that as the girl was no longer a virgin her spouse would have the marriage annulled by the bishop.
They passed the girl to the family of some Shiite Muslims also grazing their flock so they would hide the girl, but these refused to have anything to do with the shady affair and sent the girl to the protection of the bishop. There was no valid ground for annulment of her marriage and in due course she was taken by her husband and the pair were quite happy afterwards as they had been fond of each from the beginning.
At that time it was still possible for a girl to be killed by her family for “dishonouring” the family by sexual intercourse, and there would be at most only nominal criminal action taken by the authorities. I used to have arguments with my wife, saying that the man should also be killed as he had committed exactly the same sin. My wife protested that for the man’s family there was no dishonour. Even going for a walk or a ride in a car unaccompanied brought dishonour on a girl. So it was a girl’s duty for her family’s sake to keep to the straight and narrow path.
In fact it was not a question of sin, for if a girl dishonoured her family and they did not wipe out the stigma, however great their regret and sorrow, no son or daughter in the family would be able to marry and political backing, business relationships and friendships would all be lost. To understand the conditions and mentalities that I have been describing, the reader should realise that when I came to Lebanon any middle-aged person would have been brought up as a child under Ottoman government, that is to say under conditions unlike the genteel respectability and serenity of Putney or Bournemouth. A woman alone would certainly not have been safe in those days and would have had no good reason for being out.
Now of course the mentality has completely changed together with the whole economy and standard of living. Girls Christian and Muslim travel by themselves to the University for graduate and post-graduate degrees and then go to and fro to their employment. They make friends with whom they like, especially at University, and if they want to marry a person of different religion, they go to Cyprus for a registry-office marriage. It is wrong to condemn outright the practices of another people without knowing the whole social context and the financial and other problems that parents and individuals face.
Naturally, too much laxity brings new dangers and problems and on the whole it is better for young people to enjoy themselves in respectable company known to their social setting. Even arranged marriages are not the same as forced marriages and often ensure lifelong happiness.
In the Bourj Hammoud suburb of Beirut, the Armenian population were particularly concerned with their honour, whether in regard to family morals or business morals and the Tashnag Party made sure that this good reputation was maintained. My Syrian friend Suleiman Hochar had a bad opinion of the Armenians when he opened his business selling and repairing watches in Bourj Hammoud. It is certainly irritating to hear people gabbling in a language one does not understand and I remember well how Welsh students and airmen got on the nerves of their English fellows. But only a year later Suleiman was full of praise for the Armenians, saying for example that one never saw an Armenian begging, the Party always making sure that the poorest individual had some sort of employment to ensure his respectability.
One weekday morning when shopping, a Wednesday if I remember rightly, I dropped in at the St. Mesrob Armenian Catholic church to say a prayer and sat at the very back of the church, which was completely empty at first sight. But soon the sacristan appeared, came up to me and started gabbling away in Armenian. Evidently he was one of the wave of 1920 refugees who knew Turkish and Armenian but no Arabic. At first I thought he was simply greeting me and I answered politely in Arabic. Then his eyes flashed fire and the indignation of his speech reached a crescendo. Finally he made me understand that I was committing the horror of sitting on a bench on the side of the church where the ladies would have been sitting if it had been a Sunday.
In October of 1964 I had to go and pay the Water Board, whose office was in mainly Armenian Bourj Hammoud. I entered the room only to find it absolutely crammed with Armenians, for this was the time of year when most people paid. I despaired if ever reaching the desk. However, I had just started Judo and had learnt that entry against resistance should be made sideways, as the body in this way is narrow. So I simply stood sideways and every time people pushed me from behind I was projected between those in front of me. Of course I got angry glances and was no doubt sworn at in Armenian, so I apologised profusely, trying to explain I had been pushed. The fortunate result was that I found myself at the desk within a quarter of an hour. Still I was surrounded by aggressive individuals with arms that seemed two yards long waving their papers. Once again I saw no hope for myself so I thought I might as well rest. I therefore put my arm on the desk, laid my head on it and prepared to snooze. I suddenly heard a roar from the official, “What, have you come here to sleep? Give us that paper!” This was in fact pure Judo, minimum of effort for maximum of effect.
Some traditions do not change easily. A certain Lebanese settled in Germany, married an excellent lady there, but died quite young, leaving her a widow. She was invited to Lebanon by her in-laws and found a very modern country and people with a high standard of education. She was invited by her late husband’s family to their home in their village, and to do her honour as she stepped over entrance they slaughtered a sheep under her foot, cutting its throat. One can imagine the effect on a lady used to kindness to animals of having a carcass under her foot, gurgling and shaking as its blood streamed over the doorstep. Probably she had never seen meat except as small joints in cellophane packages at supermarkets.
Experience as a Teacher
I spent four years, 1957-61, in a school near Beirut run by another Greek Catholic order, the Aleppines, and then followed nearly a score of years in the school of a Maronite (Catholic) priest, Father Michel Khalifeh from Rashana, at which there were boys from influential families, including Muslims. Edward was born to us in 1959, Rouaida (girl) in 1960 and Anwar in 1961. In Arab countries, the second name, even of a girl, is that of the father, so our daughter is Ruweida (French Rouaida) Kenneth Mortimer. Until 1968 we lived in a suburb of Beirut, Sin el-Fil. Edward and Anwar studied in Father Khalifeh’s school, l’Institution moderne du Liban, and Rouaida (Ruwaida) at an excellent little school next door run by nuns of a Carmelite congregation.
In 1963 and 1964 I taught at Father Khalifeh’s summer school, sharing a room during the week with a theology student, Boulos (Paul) Matar, an intellectual who in due course became Maronite Archbishop of Beirut and who has remained my friend until now.
I had some contact with the British Council, the cultural body. Unfortunately in many countries it seems to restrict its activities to a limited area and a limited social set. But its finances are limited as the British do not have the pride that the French have in their culture.
Once when I was invited to a cocktail at the Council a gentleman came up to me who presented himself as a phonetician, and I soon found he wanted to put on an act like Professor Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalian. “Excuse me, Mr. Mortimer,” he said, “but would I be right in saying that you were brought up in Worcestershire and perhaps your grandmother was from Nottingham…” and so on. “That’s very interesting,” I answered, “but the fact is that for the last ten years I have never spoken English except with a book in my hand and a class in front of me for whom I have to speak very distinctly.” I am afraid the poor man was rather deflated after his attempt at regional analysis.
Despite financial difficulties, Father Khalifeh generally stuck to his principle of not having more than twenty-five boys in any one class, to the great advantage of the teacher of languages, allowing detailed correction of work and practice in conversation with every boy in turn. Classes of thirty were split into two.
There was one outstanding teacher, giving Maths in the top form, a certain Adel Ambouba. He was also brilliant in languages, being a very short-sighted man who lived only for learning. He contributed articles on medieval Arab mathematicians to an American encyclopaedia of scientists, aided by his perfect mastery of Arabic, his mother-tongue, while of course his French was real French. I checked his articles and found no mistakes of English whether in grammar or style. He also taught in the Higher Normal School, and all this was despite the fact that he himself had no university degree. Probably his parents had come from Turkey at the end of World War I in desperate straits. Now his brilliance as a teacher had greatly contributed to the success of Father Khalifeh’s school.
One of my most pleasant memories is of how we senior teachers, including a Frenchman,10 former Brother with a vast knowledge of literature he could quote by heart, used to sit at lunch with Father Khalifeh. The conversation combined widely assorted learning with great humour.
10 Yves Cariou was a full-blooded Breton, very proud of the fact. I understood that he had been in the Resistance and spent some time concealed as a Trappist monk. The Breton Resistance was determined and effective. Thanks to the closed rural society and the often mutually incomprehensible dialects of Breton, a Celtic language related to Welsh, the Nazis were unable to penetrate the Resistance in Brittany.
Two Latin quotations from my school days stood me in good stead. Mr. Adel Ambouba was about to speak, and Father Khalifeh called our attention, “Listen everybody, listen to Mr. Adel!” I quoted from Virgil’s description of the court of Queen Dido when Aeneas was about to tell them of his adventures.: “Conticuerunt omnes intentique ora – All fell silent with faces intent.” Father Khalifeh was delighted!
On another occasion, Father Khalifeh, a Maronite, was on the point of paying my Greek Catholic Church a compliment which I knew would be barbed: “There is something one can say in favour of the Greek rite… “ So I hastily put in, “Timeo Danaos dona ferentes – I fear the Danians when bringing gifts,” said by the priest Laocöon of Troy when he expressed suspicion of the wooden horse. Father Khalifeh, who had been a Latin professor, was profoundly impressed and evidently thought I must be a Latin scholar! Fortunately my scrappy Latin was put to no further test and my reputation remained intact.
Until I obtained Lebanese nationality, every year I had to go to Beirut in the humid coastal heat of July to renew first my work permit and then my residence permit. Ras Baalbek, being at an altitude of one thousand metres on the inner side of the Lebanese mountain chain, had a hot but dry climate in summer that I enjoyed. But the climate of Beirut in summer was very different!
At first the office of the Sûreté générale was in a long and stifling shed dating from the French mandate. There it was the work of one official to deal all day with a rapid succession of foreign residents. He must have seen a hundred every day. But his memory was certainly phenomenal, because the second year he received my demand he stunned me by saying on catching sight of me, “How’s Ras Baalbek?” We chatted a little in French, and then he said, “M’sieur, I have known many English people, but I have never known one so talkative as you are!” I answered him, “Well, you see, I spent a year in France!” His laughter showed that the officer considered this a huge joke.
On one occasion there were two beautiful young ladies in front of me, one evidently a little over twenty years of age and the other a little less. They were protesting about the delay in renewing their permits, and I became anxious lest foreigners were being subjected to new restrictions. After they had left I overheard the official saying to a friend, “Those two ladies are the biggest criminals at present in Lebanon!” It shows that one can never judge by appearances.
Some time later both the Surety and the Ministry of Social Affairs moved into more respectable premises. There came a year, when for the first time when I wanted to renew my work permit at the Social Affairs, I was told I needed a doctor’s certificate of health. I was far away from any doctor whom I knew. However, I was to learn that despite the accusation of poor organisation sometimes levelled by Westerners against Orientals, the latter have their own very efficient way of dealing with matters.
I asked where I could find a doctor and the official told me just opposite the Ministry. Outside there was a large area of hard ground still not built-on, and a small shack selling refreshments. I walked miles under the scorching sun past various buildings but could find no sign of a doctor. I finally returned in front of the Ministry and asked the salesman in the shack where the doctor was supposed to be. “Here,” he said and pulled out a wad of certificates already signed that morning by his doctor brother, filled in my name, and without further ado for a small fee handed me my certificate of health, readily accepted in the Ministry with my demand.
Once I was suffering from severe ‘flu when the time came for me to renew my permits. So in sweltering heat, but shivering with internal cold, I boarded a bus between Sinn el-Fil and downtown Beirut, wearing a thick overcoat. People moved away from me in alarm, no doubt thinking me a dangerous lunatic. But the incident finally served me well, for the Ministry officials, naturally surprised, nicknamed me Abu Kaboot, Father of the Overcoat. In future years, as soon as they saw me they would call me by my nickname and invite me to be served without my having to wait.
Then one year I found the atmosphere in the Social Affairs office highly tense, for regulations had been tightened up and many unfortunates found their demands either long delayed or refused. To make matters worse, the day was exceptionally hot. Men were shouting and raving, but when he saw me the first official said to me, “Hullo, Abu Kaboot, aren’t you cold today?” Now I had just been shopping in the suq for our household. I noisily dumped a paper bag on the counter and slowly unrolled the bag to open it while in deathly silence all stared at me. Then I triumphantly pulled out a smoothing iron and held it high in the air. “Now,” I said, “When I am cold I put in the electric plug and sit on it!” There was an absolute explosion of laughter that happily released the tension. The Director of the Foreign Section rushed out fearing there was violence and asked what the matter was. “Nothing,” said the lesser official, “it’s only Abu Kaboot.” “Is that all?” said the Director and trotted back relieved into his inner sanctum.
Language and Society
My Arabic was of course far from perfect, complicated by the fact that much that I picked up in Ras Baalbek caused amusement down on the coast. Even my wife had misunderstandings, particularly as her Ras Baalbek dialect was very masculine, strong and vigorous, while the dialect of Kesrouan was so soft that on one or two occasions she thought her interlocutor was making fun of her. Whatever Arabic speakers may say, it is easier for an adult foreigner to learn literary Arabic, which is consistent and can be studied logically and grammatically in school books, than to learn spoken Arabic which is idiomatic and full of expressions varying from village to village. But from the literary Arabic, by paying attention to the intonation and facial expression and gestures, it is easy to pick up the spoken language.
On one occasion I was leaving home in Kesrouan when my wife appeared on the balcony and threw me down a piece of paper on which she had hastily scrawled in Arabic a list of goods she needed from the nearby shop. On my way back after making a visit, I dropped in at the shop and started to read off the list, a packet of butter, a kilo of potatoes, a kilo of grapes and so on. But at the end there was something written in a rapid hand that I could not read. The shopkeeper took the paper from my hand and started to read the last item. His eyes nearly popped out of his head. It said, “Don’t let Abu Zooz pick the fruit for you; he’s a son of a ### and will give you all the rotten stuff.” Fortunately the shopkeeper was not too offended as we were regular customers and never ran up debts, paying when we bought.
It is strange how personalities sometimes “click”. When I had an inflammation in my eye, I went to see an ophthalmologist in Jounieh. Starting from the first moment of my consultation, we spent about twenty minutes laughing together and I was unable to break away. When I left, to my great embarrassment I saw about a dozen patients impatiently waiting for their turn.
There was a large, gloomy, old-fashioned church in Beirut, now given to the Maronite diocese, which served as the chapel of the Jesuit school and university. I often had reason to pass by and would drop in to say a prayer. On one occasion a cleaner told me that there was an English priest in the sacristy and that I couldn’t do better than visit him. In fact I found the person indicated was a French-Canadian Jesuit brother, but from the moment we introduced ourselves we were laughing and laughing, against a most unconvivial and sombre background of heavy outmoded church ornament.
The French missionary schools made a very great contribution to Lebanon with their very high standard of education. Even a Shiite Muslim told me of his gratitude to the Brothers for teaching him daily Examination of Conscience, a habit he still kept to. However, I have heard, and I think it is true, that the French-run schools did far more good intellectually and culturally than they did spiritually. They did all they could to Latinise and Frenchify their pupils and make them attend their Latin Mass on Sundays, but this was counter-productive as the youngsters lost the habit of a spiritual life centred to their own parish church of Eastern Catholic or Orthodox rite. This imposed Latinisation declined during the decades after the end of the French Mandate and the Orders themselves were no longer able to recruit sufficiently in France; their members were now Lebanese (or Syrian) and were therefore native Arabic-speakers with local patriotism. But the educational standards were maintained. Latin-rite Catholics are a very small minority now with no impact as such.
In the nineteen-sixties there was still in the Ashrafiyeh district of Beirut a snobbish Lebanese society that considered itself French. Many elderly ladies had never studied Arabic at school and still considered it beneath their dignity.
Once I was looking for school books in Librairie Antoine, and had to go down a steep flight of stairs to the basement. I had just bought a metal bucket, a ladle (those were pre-plastic days!) and some very large nails to fix in the wall of our house. As I had a rather weak knee resulting from my illness in France, every time I put the other foot down the bookshop reverberated to a loud Clang! Downstairs there were haughty-looking grandmothers and grand-aunts choosing Tintin and Asterix albums for their grandchildren as Christmas presents. With every step I made these genteel ladies turned round and stared at me indignantly. Seeing the Christmas rush and these numerous matrons of evident social rank and precedence, I had thought that I would have to wait an hour to get served. But I heard one of the Antoine brothers say to an employee, “See Abu Sutl (Father of the Pail) and what he wants and get him out of here quick!”
I have one great regret in my life. I used to go to a bookshop close to Ashrafiyeh in order to buy English-language reviews. This shop served the cream of the snob society still existing at that time and considered any Arabic-language publication far beneath its dignity; however, it had newspapers and magazines in French, English, German and other European languages. On one occasion I went in when there was the usual crowd of old French nuns, elderly priests who were either French or thought themselves French in their shovel hats and shoulder capes, and a few society ladies.
I bought a copy of Time magazine and was going to leave when the owner sidled up to me and said, in French, “Would you like pornographic literature? … But we have some which is scientific!” I rather stupidly argued with him in a low voice on moral grounds, a waste of breath, of course. I still regret that I did not answer at the top of my voice, “No, m’sieur, I don’t want pornographic literature.” I would have made quite a stir amongst his elite clients.
In the early nineteen-sixties for the first time “porno” magazines and films appeared in Beirut, very, very soft porn of course that nobody would consider pornographic now. For a few days Kurdish porters stood gaping in front of stands with magazine covers showing young ladies attired in bikinis but soon became as blasé as any Parisian.
A French film came on at a downtown cinema called Initiation, starting with a back view of two young ladies going for a bathe in the sea in the costume of Eve. The story was told that once in the audience there was an old peasant from the mountains, baggy trousers, broad waist-band, embroidered shirt, pointed felt hat and all. He kept banging his stick and saying, “Disgusting! Puah! Horrible! It’s a disgrace!”
Some young fellows nearby said to him, “Oh, come on, Grand-dad, what’s wrong with those girls? Aren’t they pretty?” The old man replied, “Oh they’re all right! I was thinking of the old shit-bag I’ve got at home!”
Teaching and Troubled Times
I must admit that in the first two schools, like many foreigners, I had difficulty with discipline, particularly as English in those days was not a subject for final exams in the French-language schools and therefore considered by the boys as unimportant. But with Father Khalifeh’s school I got into my stride. One thing that helped was that in a French-Arabic school the students, thanks to the demands of French, had a good knowledge of grammar and sentence structure, basically the same in English and French and with a similar vocabulary. Four hours per week were enough to give a good mastery of English. Students in French programme schools normally learn English better than those in (American) English schools because of the superior training in grammar and logic, and in the nineteen-seventies English became important for all.
Long after I left the school, a Lebanese Army officer hailed me in the street. He told me that he had done English with me in two of the intermediate classes. He said, “Mr. Mortimer, we used to hate you. If we made a mistake of comma or capital letter we had to write out the whole corrected sentence three times in calligraphy, or we got a zero. But then I had to do an English test before going on a course for staff officers in the United States, and I got 98 out of a 100, and then I loved you!”
My principle had worked. Every time one makes a mistake, one is practising it; it enters into one’s reflexes and becomes yet more deeply entrenched. Therefore one has to write the correct form three times more often so as to acquire the correct reflexes. As the medieval Schoolmen used to say, Lingua habitus est. I would never allow pupils to read with a monotonous level tone. I exaggerated the English tonic accent when speaking, and expected the pupils to do the same when either reading or repeating a sentence from memory. Thus, with the music of the language the structures were more deeply instilled. At present there is a fad of asking pupils their opinion of their teachers, which of course only encourages the teachers to give over-generous marks in order for the pupils to speak well of them to the management. Standards drop. The idea in itself is not bad, but there should be a lapse of twenty years before the pupils are questioned!
Once again I experienced how a word can have different meanings in a different social context. One Saturday morning, when my car was in the garage, the son of a rich member of parliament, grand-nephew of a former President of the Republic, offered to give me a lift. He was a weekly boarder and said I would just have to wait while he was preparing his valise. His dormitory window overlooked the entrance.
I was waiting there looking for his “chauffeur”, as he put it, to arrive in his car. But I did not see anybody with the elegance of a chauffeur in uniform. Suddenly a thickset man with a gun holster on his side got out of a car, and shouted up at the window, “Hurry up, you lazy shit, how much longer do I have to wait?” I thought, “Well he didn’t learn those manners at the Rolls Royce School for Chauffeuring!”
It should be understood that although the driver’s ideas of etiquette were rather basic, he would have given his life to defend his charge against any aggression. With this boy I had many interesting discussions as he was well informed about the Lebanese clans who still dominated political life and whose rivalry occasionally led to violence. His grand-uncle had been President in 1943 when he and the government had revolted against the French.
One boy who although not very studious got on well with me told me about his father. I had seen his father once from a distance, a money-changer with a counter in Martyrs’ Square. To visit this square in the centre of Beirut was an experience. Every square foot was worth a fortune and had been inherited jealously, even if only a hole in the wall, for generations. If you wanted a taxi to Antelias or an aeroplane to Tokyo, you went first to Martyrs’ Square. There was an animation there that I have never seen anywhere else.
The man I am speaking about was a real Beiruti of the old generation. He sat in front of his counter with a red tasselled tarboosh on his head and his prominent belly resting on his knees. A man inside dealt with customers while the only movement made by his boss was to remove the mouthpiece of a water-pipe from his lips and then put it back again. I find an occasional water-pipe (hubble-bubble) by far the tastiest and most relaxing way of smoking that there is. However it is enough to taste the smoke in one’s mouth without breathing deeply. The pipe produces carbon monoxide, which is not filtered by the water and which binds with the red blood corpuscles, which is why a leak of the old-fashioned gas in houses caused death by asphyxiation if a tap was left open.
This gentleman, so his son told me, smoked a dozen heads of tobacco every morning, with the inevitable result that he was having heart attacks. Somewhat alarmed, he looked for a solution. The solution he found was not to stop or reduce smoking but to marry his daughter to a heart specialist. Every time he had a heart attack, this doctor would whip him off by plane to the main London heart hospital – money was no object. Naturally, after a dozen such hectic races with death he finally came back to Lebanon in a coffin. I can account for the truth of this story because soon I was giving English lessons to the doctor to help him in London. There was an amusing TV programme called Abu Salim on television, featuring wildly comic characters. If I sometimes thought a character was exaggerated, the very next week I would find somebody like him in real life. Such is Lebanon!
Near Martyrs’ Square just mentioned there used to be a narrow alley called Carpenters’ Street, where furniture makers had their workshops and showrooms. Here soon after our marriage I met another real Beiruti in front of his premises. He was from one of the old Sunni Muslim families of Beirut strictly honest in their business dealings and invited me to sit down with him in front of his shop and take a coffee. He chatted to me about Lebanon, wishing to inform me about his country, but he was clearly a thorough-going townsman quite unused to anything outside the city.
Some of the Kurdish porters he employed to deliver furniture joined our conversation. The Kurds in Beirut were, and still are, attached to the Kurdish Socialist Party and were in effect refugees from Southern Turkey where the Party has always been engaged in war against the authorities – and when Kurds fight, they fight! They are a brave people who without any independent state of their own have kept their national identity over thousands of years. These Kurds in Beirut could claim no nationality and were therefore unable to enjoy regular salaried employment; but they had a fine reputation for honesty and reliability.
One of the group in front of us started talking about the Soviet Union. “Isn’t life better there than in the capitalist countries, with a salary and medicine and education provided by the State?” I said, “Well, there is the Russian Embassy only half-an-hour’s walk from here. You should go there and get visas. Certainly they would be delighted to have strong, healthy, hard-working young men like you as citizens of the Soviet Union.”
One might have expected them to drop their tackle and rush off then and there to the Embassy to get visas, but strange to say their only reaction was to exchange very doubtful glances. Only their employer showed any signs of a smile, but one which he was obviously trying to suppress. However, he was due for a surprise, he who had been thoughtfully telling me about Lebanon.
Just at that moment some of my wife’s distant relatives from Ras Baalbek passed by. They were all wearing Arab dress, with white kaffiyeh and black agal rope round their heads, and as soon as they saw me they thundered out greetings to “our brother-in-law, suhurna” and threw their arms around me. Meanwhile the store owner absolutely gaped. Obviously he had never spoken to such up-country people and couldn’t imagine how they could claim such relationship with me.
Another incident will show the character of the old Beirut merchant class, comparable to that of my grandfather’s Quaker employers. My dentist when newly married went to a shop owned by a traditional Sunni Muslim Beirut family to buy a carpet. He chose one priced according to his limited means but the owner noticed that his wife was looking at a finer but of course more expensive rug.
He offered it to the dentist and his wife, and when my friend said that it was beyond his means suggested he should take it and pay monthly. The dentist explained that he had only just opened his practice near Jounieh and could not be sure of his income during the coming month. The store owner not only insisted but refused to take the dentist’s name, address and telephone number or to ask him to sign bills. From the beginning the dentist’s business prospered and at the end of the first month he was able to go back and pay the remainder. Needless to say, the owner of the shop was no fool but a very highly practised judge of character. Business had run in the family for generations and given an inherited acumen. Once I was stunned when a pupil of mine about twelve years old, also from an old Beirut merchant family, Christian this time, fingered my jacket, saying “You bought this two years ago, Sir.” This was true, but as one who could barely tell the difference between pre-1939 and post-1945, I was completely taken aback.
About 1970 I had three good pupils in class whose father was outstanding, Fawzi Kawakji. He was from Tripoli in North Lebanon but had led the Palestinian resistance against the British during the nineteen-thirties as Whitehall was supporting Zionist settlement. If the British Army had ever laid hands on him, he would have been hanged. Fawzi was a real hero, fighting, not directing operations from an office under the protection of some outside Arab government. Once he managed to scramble out of a window just as soldiers were entering the room by the door. But strange to relate, he bore no grudge against the British but rather seemed to respect them. His eldest son Mirwan learnt to pilot air liners in the UK.
When war broke out in 1939 and France in 1940 was occupied by Germany, Fawzi withdrew into Lebanon, which at first was under the control of the Vichy puppet French government. When in 1941 Lebanon and Syria came under Allied and Gaullist control, the Nazis took him in a plane to Germany. While he was there, he and a Lebanese friend wanted to go shooting birds as they were wont to back home, but were taken aback to find that they needed a license to obtain for which they had to pass a stiff examination about the different species of game birds, their recognition, their habits and the times of year when it was permissible to shoot them! Fawzi was in Berlin at the very end and in the chaos he met a nurse whom he married and took back to Lebanon. As his three sons liked me, their father and mother invited me to tea and I spent one of the most agreeable evenings of my life listening to Fawzi’s experiences, told with great good humour. He had nothing but contempt for those who later posed as leaders of Arab resistance to Zionism.
Over forty years later, when the Internet was enabling so many to resume contact with old friends, I received an email from his second son, Ossama, now in Saudi Arabia, thanking me for the education I had given him. Professors of English to whom I forwarded this letter at Notre Dame University where I was working came to tell me of their astonishment at the beauty of the letter, written in excellent English.
Mother died in 1966 and my wife Laurice and I spent a month in London to arrange affairs, sell the house and get the bank to sell shares and transfer the money. We left our children in the care of nuns. Laurice found Putney creepy; saying the quiet and the gloomy climate would explain the English belief in ghosts. I found London still pretty much as I had always known it. The main difference was one already to be noticed in the 1950s. When I was a child, even during the wartime blackout, it was perfectly safe for me to walk alone in the street at night. If one went alone to a public swimming bath one could pick up conversation with a stranger without arousing suspicion. That was to change.
After my twelve years in Lebanon, I saw Putney with new eyes. When my grandparents had moved in, like many of their neighbours they had a servant paid ₤5 a year who was in those pre-1914 days glad to be well fed, to be spoken to correctly and to have a room to herself in the attic. Ladies would go down to the High Street every morning and their servant would carry the purchases in a shopping-basket. After World War I, maids living in were replaced by daily helps; the ladies, now middle-aged, would go alone to do their shopping and perhaps meet friends on the way, all of which was good exercise and a change of air from their home. After World War II, the daily helps were replaced by weekly helps and the ladies, now advanced in years, would have to totter home the mile from the High Street, staggering along with their shopping. The basket now had to contain bread as this was no longer delivered at home by a horse-drawn van,11 and with added compulsory school years delivery boys on their bicycles were no longer available.
11 During WW II, when the baker’s van stopped in the street and then passed on, often an embarrassed-looking lady would be seen to come with a scoop and a stiff brush to pick up the memento the horse left behind. Manure for the vegetables now grown by people was valuable.
The elderly ladies could have been spared this burden, I thought after my experiences abroad, if only there were corner shops in the residential quarters. But oh no! that would have been too working-class and lowered the gentility of those particular streets.
But there was worse. In 1966 my mothers’ friends complained to me about buildings several storeys high that were going up, although these rather pleased me as breaking the then monotonous inner suburban skyline along a rhythmic line. I heard the complaint, “Oh dear! I’m afraid Putney is not what it used to be; they’ve built a four-storey block over there, so lowering, Putney has come down in the world.”
My mother had rented the upper part of 5 Holroyd to two retired and very Catholic school-teachers who in due course took good care of her, a Miss Hookham and a Miss Cheetham – I never heard their Christian names. The latter was a cousin of the world-famous ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn, top of her class, but this relationship to a ballet dancer was considered a disgrace, so this dark skeleton in the cupboard was never mentioned and I only learnt about it indirectly.
I imagine that these last remnants of the Victorian obsession with respectability have now faded out.
When we arrived in London, my Aunt Totty and her husband were at their holiday home in the Isle of Wight, and they lost no time in sending us an invitation. On the crossing from Portsmouth I missed the old pre-war paddle steamer with its mighty lunging pistons and thumping cranks and beating wheels. Those old steam engines, whether on rails or on the water, really gave one an impression of power. Both now and later when we visited her at her London home, Laurice managed to converse with my aunt, the one in Lebanese dialect and the other in Maltese. There are similarities of pronunciation, no doubt coming from the old Phoenician roots.
I sold my Putney house on the advice of the new parish priest, an Irishman, who explained that in the London climate one could not shut up a house and leave it without ventilation and frequent repainting. If one rented a house to tenants, one could not rely on a house agent to be entirely honest in one’s prolonged absence. Repairs would run up bills out of all proportion to actual cost and requirements.
So I sold and with the price and the value of inherited shares, I built our present building, four storeys, now occupied by ourselves and our children, each on a floor. It is in Zouk Mikayel near the port of Jounieh, a dozen miles or so north of Beirut on the coast.
Moving from Beirut and War
As the area was still thinly populated when we moved to the Jounieh district in Kesrouan, but expected to develop, it was easy to get served by the government authorities. When I ordered a telephone, it was installed the very next day. But we were given the number 932022, next to 932020 and 932021 of the Automobile and Touring Club of Lebanon (also yacht club) down at Jounieh port. The result was that we were always being asked by telephone to reserve a table for dinner in the restaurant. Finally, I ‘phoned the Exchange and asked for the Club number; the operator rattled off our number with the two others and was obviously very embarrassed when I protested.
Once on New Year’s Eve we received a dozen requests for reservations. Finally, when asked if I was the Automobile Club I said, “No, this is the funeral undertaker’s. Can I be of any help?” “Er- er- no, M’sieur.” “I would be delighted if we can do anything for you.” “M’sieur, (very coldly) I thank you for your kind New Year wishes.” Click!
One morning I was asked three times if I was the Brummana Exchange – heavens knows why! Knowing that my tone of voice would not let me pass off as a “Lebanese” Lebanese, I said with a forced heavy accent, “No, this is the Armenian Lunatic Asylum.” There was a cry of alarm and the ‘phone was hastily closed.
The money I inherited in 1966 permitted me to buy an Austin Cambridge. When I started at the driving school the instructor said to his boss that I would need at least a year. To obtain the license there was no need to drive around town. All one had to do was to learn a booklet of questions and answers by heart and to start, drive a few score yards, stop and park on a remote road. I scarcely slept the night before the exam and had to present myself at six o’clock in the morning, tired and bleary. I was so sure that I would fail that I was quite relaxed and passed with ease when people who had been driving for years in Saudi Arabia and South American countries where licenses did not exist had failed. One thing which won the friendly approval of the examiners was that I learnt the questions and answers in Arabic although booklets in French and English were available.
Almost the first day afterwards when I was driving three burly gendarmes stepped in front of my car and stopped me. I thought, “Oh Lord! what have I done wrong now?” But all they wanted was for me to give one of their number a lift.
However, I am not mechanically minded and in consequence my Austin suffered. Once when it bore scars of hard service it stopped in front of a taxi rank and refused to start again. In my exasperation, I got out and beat the boot with a stick. One of the taxi drivers said, “What, have you got a donkey there?” But to the amusement of all around the car actually started!
The car served to give me an insight into Lebanese and perhaps Arab mentality. One summer a neighbour teaching in a school of the Marist Brothers asked me to give English lessons to a pupil who was the son of a friend of his. Although the Marists followed a French/Arabic programme they insisted on a high standard of English and if the boy failed his exam a second time he would not be allowed to go up a class.
We haggled over the price, I wanting $5 an hour (this was about 1970) and the father insisting on only $3. I intended to refuse but my neighbour said, “Please, for my sake…” so I finally gave in. The boy came and was hard-working and I did not waste a minute of his time. After about five lessons he told me that his father invited me and my family to drop in at his restaurant for a coffee any time I passed by – the restaurant was at some 4,000 feet up in the mountain, as was the owner’s house.
Late one morning we did pass by in the car and I stopped. We were cordially received and we sat down, expecting coffee for my wife and myself and perhaps soft drinks for the three children. But in fact we were brought a large umber of little saucers with at least fifty different tasty little items of food including raw mince meat and pickles, what the Lebanese call mezzé, from the Spanish word for table. There was beer for myself and soft drinks for the others.
We were quite satisfied, considering this our lunch, and were on the point of getting up to leave when the waiter arrived with a large dish of bits of liver and kidney with fried potatoes. Now we felt really full. Again we got ready to go but now the waiter arrived with grilled meat on skewers and more chips and mashed dips. We courageously ate on, not wishing to offend our host and were again getting ready to depart when Lo and behold! a roast chicken was put in front of us! Eating was now almost painful and we were obliged to at least nibble the fruit that rounded off the meal. I remarked that it was a good thing that now we were to return home downhill, as with our increased weight the car would have groaned in protest and probably conked out if we had gone uphill.
But this was typical of the Lebanese. Having beaten down my price for the lessons and proved his business acumen to himself, and also being satisfied that I was putting all I had into teaching his son, the restaurant owner could now have the satisfaction of showing what a fine and generous gentleman he was. The boy passed his exam without any difficulty.
The Druze are very touchy for questions of honour. When I had obtained my driving license, I asked a driver working on a school bus to sit by me while I did some practise, saying that I was ready to pay him. He answered that, because I offered to pay him, he refused. With more experience I would have let him help me and then at the end given him a present. On one occasion during the summer school I went for a walk down a valley and saw in the distance an elderly Druze who by his traditional dress could have come out of opera. He finally met me and forced me to accept the hospitality of his house. From afar off he had seen me as a stranger coming and felt it his duty to welcome me.
In 1975, war in Lebanon started after a seventeen-year lull. It was not a religious or civil war. Lebanon was the arena of a conflict between Egypt, Israel, Syria and the Palestinians fighting against each other often by proxy and Lebanese fighting against occupation. Battles were fought between Lebanese of the same religion. There were Muslims in or with the Christian ranks. Christians lived happily in mainly Muslim areas and vice versa. Newspapers and magazines coming from the opposing side were sold freely, without any censorship either by the “Leftists”/Palestinians or by the bodies resisting them.
A Christian living in West Beirut felt obliged to leave. Not only did his Muslim neighbours take care of his flat, but when it was hit by a shell from the Christian area they paid for repairs out of their own pockets pending his return.
The closest friend of my son Edward at school had been a Druze. Early in the war his mother sent him in the company of a member of the Gemayels’ Phalangist Party to see if our family lacked anything in the way of food! We were horrified at the risk the boy had taken. We also received phone calls from two Druze families who had been our neighbours asking if we needed any supplies.
The fighting produced its own queer characters. I have mentioned the television programme Abu Salim. In it there was a sly and very amusing character called Fahman. There was a fellow exactly like him who as a soldier had been a guard of President Shamoun, a useful contact. He formed a small anti-Palestinian militia, buying his weapons from the Palestinians as I once saw myself, and making money for his dozen or so men and for himself by providing guards for lorries carrying merchandise through the check-points. After a couple of years he started working as an agent at the offices where car licenses were renewed. For a small sum he would make the round of officials whom he knew personally and who with small tips would expedite a process that would otherwise take the car-owner several hours in an inferno of noise and heat.
A year or two later this little squirt had offices in front of the government building and pretty secretaries as well. From this place he would send fellows to take the clients’ papers on the round of officials – at least that was what he did for the first year. In the meantime he leaned back in his office chair with his thumbs in his lapels and showed everybody what an important person he was. When from his window he saw the army colonel who had got him the job in the first place, he told his receptionist, “Oh dear! Tell him I am not here, that child of his is a nuisance!”
Some time later, car owners were told that they had to present their licenses for renewal in person, and this fellow’s clients were astonished when they were told that they had to pay several years’ back payment. They protested and showed their papers. It turned out they had been stamped with rubber stamps made by the “agent”!
At first schools were shut but the sports club of the Electricity Board power station near our house at Zouk Mikayel, opened its doors to all. Studies and sports were organised so as to keep youngsters occupied and out of trouble during a period when schools were not functioning. With the help of my sons I gave Judo and we made many very good friends. Two adolescent refugees whose fathers had been butchered in front of their eyes and had become uncontrollable were accepted free of charge and thanks to Judo became disciplined again and succeeded in their careers.
I was surprised that parents after paying the small fee never asked about their children’s progress. But my sons made the matter clear for me: “Daddy, they don’t care whether their children are making progress or not. All they want is for their children to clear out of the house!”
I was amused when my son Anwar, weighing under fifty kilos, played with a young man, a green belt like himself, who weighed 105 kilos. Anwar threw him at every step. My sons had learnt good technique, thanks to Berty Youssevitch and Mohamed Darwish.
A burly fellow of about seventeen, muscular and as strong as a bull, came with his father who asked me how long it would take for his son to get the black belt. I said about eight years. His face dropped. Evidently he thought that in a month or so his son would have the black belt and could open a club in their village in the mountains, whereas I felt that if one loved the art it would not matter if the black belt, which in any case was not enough as a teaching qualification, took twenty years.
The man then asked if his son could play with one of my pupils, no doubt thinking that his force would show his readiness for advancement. I let him play with my daughter Rouaida, fifteen and slender. I made them play on the ground, not standing, as the newcomer had not practised break-falls. In about three seconds Rouaida had the young tough on his back and was strangling him. The young man and his father then left and I never saw them again.
The power station needed 350 tons of fuel every day, the Chief Engineer, Victor Haddad, told me. This had to be negotiated every day with the northern port of Tripoli, under the control of pro-Palestinians and Leftists, so there were frequent power cuts. The North would make supply of fuel conditional on the release by the Phalangists (Kataëb) of prisoners from Tripoli and the Phalangists would want some of their own men returned. A kind lady telephoned to Mr. Haddad. She said that she had heard that he needed fuel for the electricity. She had half a can of oil under her kitchen sink and if it were any use Mr. Haddad would be welcome to take it. The offer was declined with thanks as it didn’t quite meet requirements!
At this time I witnessed a remarkable case of skill in marketing. A man used to stand in the street near Jounieh town hall touting sticks of dynamite. These were useful for such things as blowing up the car of a business rival. To prove the quality of his wares, the vendor displayed the stump of his right arm which had been blown off.
I have always been cynical about advertising. There used to be a TV clip promoting Lucky Strike cigarettes. The connoisseur presented on the screen to persuade us of their quality was not the (supposed) maître d’hótel of the Waldorf Astoria, the butler of an earl’s country mansion, or a princely descendant of the Romanovs, but instead a travelling odd-job man who dumped his bag of tools in front of a seedy bar and sat down with a woman evidently of the lowest class and the oldest profession to smoke Lucky Strike with her. Hardly the people to reassure us of the quality of the cigarette!
The school of Father Khalifeh evacuated for a time to a monastery in the mountains near the village of Kfifane. I slept there several nights a week. Three old monks, locals, wore no socks even when it snowed. The roof leaked. The place made Wuthering Heights look like the French Riviera. I over-ate to try to keep warm and seriously upset my digestion for many years. There was one charming monk from another district, rather left out, and a queer Syrian workman, and we sometimes supped on sardines and arak together, as happy as if we were in the Ritz. At home in Zouk with our tenants we sometimes spent nights sheltering in the ground floor during bombardments. It was fortunate that we no longer lived in Sinn el-Fil; a missile burst inside my former bedroom.
For the first few weeks at Kfifane I was in charge of the boarders, going home at weekends. There was one boy in the class of my son Edward whose family was related to Suleiman Frangieh, who had just finished his term as President. Every Sunday evening when he returned to the school this boy had to pass through a town controlled by a political party opposed to that of his family, so he came accompanied by bodyguards. I found he kept with him in the school a gun and some hand grenades. In the dark winter evenings he would go for a walk with his fellow boarders and toss off a few grenades in a hidden valley. I complained to Father Khalifeh that I could not be responsible if anybody got killed. Father Khalifeh answered that in the boy’s family everybody was used to handling weapons from an early age; still, he would ask the boy to hand over his weapons on his arrival to be kept until his departure. The young man, his brothers, my sons and myself have remained friends until now.
In the basement of the monastery dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus (patron saints of the Bedouin tribe of Beni Ghassan), there was the coffin of Naamtallah Hardini, who had died well over one hundred years previously and was beatified quite recently. The end of his coffin protruded slightly from the wall, so one could see the top of his head under the broken glass. One day I arrived just before eight o’clock class, and saw that an elderly monk had placed the body on a table outside, a few yards away from where I got out of my car.
“Come here and look,” said the old monk enthusiastically, “You see he is perfectly supple!” He raised and lowered the right arm of the corpse several times and then with the palm of his hand rubbed the skin backwards and forwards over the ribs. “Come here and see for yourself!”
I protested that my class was about to begin and that I would be late. To be truthful, I was eating a meat sandwich for a hasty breakfast (I had driven forty miles) and found that in the circumstances contact with a corpse well over a hundred years old would not improve my appetite. I could see quite well enough from where I was.
I may add that there was no question of any preservative ever having been used on the body, as even in 1976 the monastery was still primitive and antiquated, even semi-ruinous. Needless to say, this has all changed since the beatification, with thousands of pilgrims coming every weekend to a monastery now repaired and approached by a broad highroad.
A pious local priest with a university doctorate came to teach the official programme of philosophy in the top class, but for religious instruction Father Khalifeh relied on one of the old monks, in fact the one who had come near to spoiling my breakfast. He told his class that one could always tell a Muslim apart by his smell because he was not baptised. He was then surprised to see the boys in front of him laughing. They then told him to his great embarrassment that there were several Muslims among them! Fortunately all had a sense of humour.
Foreigners always tend to misinterpret when talking about the situation between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon. A foreign army officer joining UNIFIL was greeted at the airport by a Lebanese officer and immediately asked him what his religion was. But except when outside interference is involved, Lebanese are normally all friends. There was a Greek Catholic priest, Father Daraa, at Baalbek who was sought after by Muslim clerics unable to solve certain problems of family status among their faithful. This priest knew the Qoran so well that he was always able to find a solution correct according to both Muslim Shari’a law and Christian morals.
In 1963 I started practising Judo under the instruction of Mr. Suleiman Hochar, a Syrian who had been taught in the Army by top Japanese and was a Mediterranean military champion (I obtained my first black belt and an instructor’s certificate from the Lebanese Federation in in 1973.) He was a firm Alawite Muslim, and one day I took him to an Orthodox monastery and then to a Maronite one, in both of which we chatted with the superiors, without my having told them in advance about my friend’s religion. Suleiman asked each of the two monks how they considered Islam and they answered at some length. When I told them later in private that Mr. Hochar was Muslim, they were quite alarmed, fearing that perhaps they had said something to hurt his feelings. But I was able to reassure them that on the contrary he had been delighted with their thoughtful analysis. Indeed I have noticed that the most convinced and instructed Christians generally have a great respect for Islam, the true Islam that is to say, and not the kind driven by political interests. Likewise true Muslims generally show respect for Christianity and particularly for priests who represent it worthily.
There was a priest at Father Khalifeh’s school whom I considered very ordinary, but one day Mr. Hochar, who was giving Judo in the school, said to me, “I consider that man to be a true priest. Every day he greets me and asks about the health and well-being of all my family.” Simple goodness shows itself.
On one occasion Mr. Suleiman Hochar accompanied me in my car and we were going uphill. I saw two Syrian labourers standing by the road with their implements and offered them a lift, which they politely refused. But Mr. Hochar said to me, “Why bother about them, they’re only poor common workingmen.” I answered that that was precisely my reason for wanting to help them. Otherwise they could pay for a taxi. “I was only testing you,” said Suleiman. “Now I know your true character.” Previously he had put me under some pressure when I acted as his intermediary with Father Khalifeh for negotiations over his Judo classes at the school, but from this time his attitude changed completely.
He told me the story of a man who was accosted by a beggar in the street at night. When he took out his money, the beggar attacked him, nearly killed him and stole all he had. “Never tell anybody what you have done,” were the last words of the victim to the parting footpad, “or nobody will ever want to be generous again!”
When a beggar came to Suleiman’s shop, he would shout at him rudely. If the man looked shamefaced and went off, he would call him back very gently and give him some cash, satisfied that the man was not a professional beggar.
The breakdown of law and order and absence of police after 1975 allowed my sons to practice driving a car when they were only sixteen and fourteen years old, an age when they learnt and acquired reflexes very quickly. After four ten-minute lessons they could drive confidently through traffic from the temporary school at Kfifane to home. For two years they drove with me seated at their side, warning them of places where danger might emerge, such as a wall jutting near the road from which a pedestrian might suddenly run out.
Once Anwar was driving along the high road when we were surprised by cars coming on our side of the dividing wall in the opposite direction. A little further on we arrived at the scene of a fight between men of two parties which in principle were allies in the Lebanese Resistance; this was mainly Christian although receiving visits and information from Muslims in the occupied zones. We stopped and suddenly a Mercedes crashed into the back of our car. A man got out and on seeing my son Anwar, evidently very young, at the wheel he began to claim damages with much shouting and many threats. The front of his beautiful car was a real mess. However, the firing intensified, his nerve broke, and he drove off.
Our car was an Austin Cambridge, as good as a tank, and the only damage it suffered was an exhaust pipe trailing in the ground. I found a piece of wire to hook it up and had just one problem to face. Should Anwar lie flat and perhaps learn fear or should he remain standing at some personal risk? In fact he remained standing, perfectly calm and indifferent to the bullets cracking all around us.
It turned out that an altercation had broken out between the two groups of men, and a Muslim member of Sheikh Bashir Gemayel’s forces had tried to calm the disputants down, appealing in the names of their Christian leaders. But one of the opposing party had shot him dead. As he was immensely popular in his mainly Christian militia, his companions avenged his death in their anger, killing all nine adversaries.
Our tenant Dr. Nawwaf Khoudari was murdered at his front door in revenge for some affair in Ras Baalbek in which a member of his family was involved, but did not concern him at all. He was head of foreign languages in the Lebanese University East Beirut Side. A superb man! He tried to help students from poor and uneducated families not by lowering standards to make exams and degrees easier for them but by helping them to attain high standards.
The priest-owner of the school where I worked, Fr. Michel Khalifeh, died and I left. In 1979 I was asked by the leader of the Lebanese Resistance, Sheikh Bashir Gemayel, a former pupil of mine who knew I sincerely loved Lebanon, to take over the English in his pirate Resistance Radio, Radio Free Lebanon. When he was elected President, Bashir put in a demand for our Lebanese nationality, which passed despite his assassination a few days later.
In about 1977 I had visited the headquarters of the Phalangist party to visit a friend, father of a former pupil, who was member of the Political Bureau. As I passed by the door of a committee room, Bashir rushed out to greet me, to the great surprise of my friend, who remarked that Bashir, already holding important office in the Party, must have some special esteem for me. I got permission from Bashir to spend an evening on the firing line of his men. It was strange to peer through a slit and to try to recognise buildings I had known well in central Beirut that were now in ruins. I had a few pot-shots at shuttered windows but stopped when I found that the man who lent me his Klashinkov was paying for the ammunition out of his own pocket. He refused my offer of payment. Even those firing a field gun paid for the shells out of their own pockets. Sheikh Bashir had not been able to organise and finance a militia yet and was helped in the defence of East Beirut against Palestinians and Leftists only by volunteers wanting to defend their homes.
Two boys in my classes faced real danger. In the first few years of the fighting, there were many who without actually joining any political party or militia wanted to defend first their street and then their country. In 1975 in one of my classes at school there was a boy of about sixteen who had recently come from another establishment, one where English was not taught. He sat on one side during my classes but showed himself as disagreeable as he could in many ways. A year later he went down to the firing line and there found a brave girl of his age who shared his patriotism. After only a few days they got married in front of a priest and a few days later the girl was killed. When in 1977 I had him sitting in my class again he remained silent, head down, and studied on his own, never making a sound.
There was a boy of fifteen in the same class as our son Edward, of Greek ancestry. He went with his father in a car on patrols in the area of fighting, was wounded, and returned to the front after some weeks of treatment in a nursing home in the mountains. He now runs a security firm, with a franchise from a British company that was impressed by his professional conscience, for example leaving men on guard for only eight hours at a time instead of twelve.
An inter-Arab military force came and for a couple of years did good work imposing security until other pressures intervened. Once I had to pass in my car through the scene of the former battles in Beirut; I passed through the checkpoints of the force but then took a wrong turning and found myself absolutely alone in an area of deserted and ruined streets. Not a city-lover, I found the atmosphere truly creepy and went back as I had come as quickly as I could. But I could not help thinking of how my young pupil had passed through those very streets at night in the dark when there were still enemies lurking there.
Bashir Gemayel is often accused of having been pro-Israeli, but this was not the case. Rather, “Necessity makes strange bedfellows.” The Palestinian organisation tried to turn Lebanon into its base for attacks on Israel. These could only be pinpricks providing an excuse for the Israeli government to bombard the Palestinians in Lebanon, instead of allowing them to return home, which suited the Israelis perfectly. United States policy was of course under the electoral control of Tel Aviv. When a BBC correspondent asked Sheikh Bashir whether he expected help from the United States, he curtly answered that the United States had its own interests. He was vexed that all the Western media represented the Lebanese war as between Christians and Muslims whereas in fact it was a Palestinian affair, with the Egyptians using the Palestinians in Lebanon to support the Muslim Brothers against the Baassist government in Syria.
Once when Bashir was giving a talk to the employees of the Radio, a lady employee asked whether it would not be better for the Muslims of Lebanon to go to Syria, and for the Christians of Syria and other Arab countries to come to Lebanon. He started, and then insisted that the Lebanese Muslim had a stake in Lebanon, whereas the Syrian or other Arab Christian had not. Afterwards in every speech he insisted that Lebanon did not want “exchange Lebanese”. Of course, this was not at all according to the Zionist policy of sectarian mini-states.
A year after his murder, the differences that had arisen between Bashir and the Israelis were published in the Israeli press, for example refusal after his election to bombard mainly Muslim West Beirut, which he insisted was now his capital city. He did not accept the offer of a peace deal with Israel as at least half the Lebanese did not want it. According to Wikipedia, Bashir’s stormy meeting with Begin ended when he refused an immediate peace treaty because it meant Israeli military presence in Lebanon and he did not mean to change one military presence for another. As he had always protested against Arab interference in Lebanon, the Israelis thought Bashir was simply pro-Israeli, whereas he was against interference from any side. One may well wonder who was really behind his murder. It is not high principles of morality that govern the actions of governments.
The director of Radio Free Lebanon where I worked was also spokesman for Sheikh Bashir. When, after the Israeli invasion that reached Beirut, Israeli officers came to the Radio, the director would leave them a long time cooling their heels in the waiting-room before he deigned to receive them. A director of programmes who was too openly pro-Israeli was obliged to leave the Radio.
The director of the Radio had a mastery of the Arabic language that he exercised with great subtlety. His daily Political Commentary would start with an apparently pro-Israeli position to attract attention but before the end there would be a twist in another direction. The Israeli Intelligence had of course men at its disposal whose Arabic was native and who had done higher studies in the language, but even they had problems translating the commentaries from Arabic into Hebrew because of their subtlety, so they had to resort to my English translations, as we later learnt. Arabic is not easy for me, but I had the advantage of knowing what attitudes underlay my superior’s expressions. This incident shows that although a computer can help a translator, making the work easier for him, it cannot replace the human translator who with his intellect understands a text.
I do not use dirty language in English or French but I do sometimes in Arabic, the reason being that it was in Beirut that I learnt to drive a car. I sometimes think that students of a foreign language should start with the swear-words, as they are the easiest to pronounce, come naturally and are accompanied by emotion.12
12 I have often been exasperated by the fact that Lebanese are not very helpful to foreigners wanting to learn Arabic, tending rather to laugh at them for not being bilingual like themselves. I found the Italians to be the most charmingly helpful. The British find it impolite to correct the foreigner. The French I found much more helpful but rather to save their sacred language from sacrilege than for charity.
The Israelis brought The Jerusalem Post to Radio Free Lebanon, and I was interested to see how the Zionists expressed their point of view, just as in the past I had read Marxist and other atheist literature. However, to my surprise the vital question of relations with the Palestinians and of what to do about the original inhabitants of Palestine was completely ignored. It was if during the Hitler war a British newspaper had made no mention of Germany. I found attention was given to problems such as whether rabbis should give a kosher certificate to a restaurant where the Arab belly-dancer turned out to be a Jewess.
What made me suspicious about what was going on behind the scenes of the fighting in Lebanon was that although during the Nasserite troubles American, or even American-looking, property, fine premises and luxurious cars, had come under attack, this time there was no anti-American activity from the Palestinian or Sunnite “street”.
In fact the most noticeable feature of the situation was that although the Americans accused the Palestinians of being terrorists and the Syrians of supporting terrorism, no support was given to the Lebanese Resistance (mostly but not entirely Christian) and the Western media tended to describe the Christians as religious extremists. With all the journalists parked in the Commodore Hotel in West Beirut, entirely under Palestinian control, and never going into the areas of the Resistance, their reporting was clearly distorted. For example, I once heard on the BBC that the Leftists had seized the heights overlooking Jounieh. This gave the impression that the Leftists were in Harissa, the hill from where one looks down on Jounieh a few hundred feet below. In fact they had occupied a small building perched on a high summit of Sannine that was barely visible even from high land miles away from Jounieh.
At one time it became very difficult even with a pass to cross the firing lines in Beirut. There were some Christian children from East Beirut blocked on the West side and the famous Mother Theresa came to Lebanon on a mission of rescue. She was told that it would be impossible for her to get to the children because of the heavy firing but she said she had prayed and God would help. The next day there was an unexpected lull in the fighting and Mother Theresa was able to cross the lines and to fulfil her mission. The fighting resumed with fury the day after. The Radio sent me to interview her as she left Lebanon through the port of Jounieh. However, all she said was that she had come on a mission of peace, not a word more.
About a fortnight later I received a newspaper cutting from Australia with a photo of Mother Theresa on the quay and myself standing just behind her. Unfortunately I was very thin at the time because of an infection and had recently had a tooth out. The result was that I looked like Dracula about to pounce on her. Her tired features and the simple car she arrived in give the lie to secularist accusations about her hinting that she scooped up money for a life of luxury. The photo of myself with Mother Theresa, now declared saint, is of course a source of satisfaction for me.
From time to time I was able to visit a highly respected priest, Father Roberts. He was an Englishman from around London and had served as an Army chaplain in the Middle East during World War II. He was in the Habforce that early in 1941 left Palestine to help British forces under attack in Iraq. In North Africa he lost the hearing of one ear as a result of the explosion of a booby trap left behind by Rommel’s Africa Corps.
From this he discovered his vocation. He sold his house in England and with the proceeds founded an Institute for the education of the deaf and dumb a few miles above our house. His school was adopted as a Papal Institute, thus preventing any local authorities from laying hands on it. Father Roberts’ chief worry was that after his death it might fall into the hands of people more interested in the property than in the young deaf-and-dumb and their welfare. Finally it was entrusted to the Greek Catholic Shweirite nuns. Father Roberts was twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth – on the second occasion he told me he would have been Sir Roberts but for his clerical status – and the Institute has always enjoyed support from the British Embassy in Beirut.
His French was excellent, as he had studied theology at the Paris seminary of St.-Sulpice and he had a modern scientific approach to the education of his young men and boys. He was also fluent in sign language. One of his problems was that many parents of deaf-and-dumb children in those days did not know that their offspring could be educated and that there were facilities available. Humiliation often led them to simply hide their children.
Other friends whose company I thoroughly enjoyed at this time were Doctor Mamo, of Maltese origin, head of the laboratory at the French medical faculty and hospital and also professor, married to a Russian widow born in Damascus, whose sons were my pupils. For many jovial evenings I sat with him over a glass of whisky, as we mixed science with humour. There was a Mr. Nadim Tabet, of English mother, whose sister was married to President Kamil Shamoun. His wife was proudly French and had served in the office of de Gaulle’s Intelligence in Beirut.
One of my pupils in Judo at the Electricity Club was a certain Ali, aged seventeen. His father was a taxi-driver from Muslim Basta in Beirut and himself a Sunni Muslim. However in a certain battle the Palestinians had caught him fighting on the side of the Gemayels’ Lebanese Resistance and were reserving cruel treatment for him as a Muslim who had joined the mainly Christian force. He was freed thanks to a plea from Phalangist leader and government minister Pierre Gemayel to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Strange thought it may seem, at the top level there were often friendly personal relations while the partisans were fighting. A Palestinian leader assassinated by the Israelis had been warned by the Phalangists (Kataëb) of Pierre Gemayel of a plot against him.
Ali and his family were very popular and the boy had been very well brought up. At one moment there was a Judo tournament held in the zone of the Lebanese Resistance and Ali wanted to take part. Although he was muscular I warned him: “Ali, you have done less than two years (he had orange belt) and you will be facing blue and brown belts of your age who have done ten years of Judo. We have only a very small class here so you have not had enough experience, while the schools in Beirut have large classes. Also, you are at the bottom of your weight category.”
However, he insisted, so I said to him, “Don’t think about winning. You haven’t a chance and are doing this only to gain experience. Just be relaxed, upright and balanced, and show good technique. Like that you will do us credit.” But no doubt because he was relaxed Ali won a silver medal after beating blue belts and brown belts.
There was fighting in Tripoli between the Syrian Army on one side and Yasser Arafat with his Palestinians and their Islamic nationalist extremist allies on the other. The Christians were caught unhappily in the middle and Christmas approached. A cousin of Ali wanted to bring them some joy, so he dressed up as Father Christmas and took some toys to visit Christian families. Unfortunately the Islamists (of the Tahrir party) caught him and were furious that he, a Muslim, should be helping to celebrate a Christian feast, so they roundly beat the poor fellow up. One may well ask who were the true Muslims.
When my son Anwar was beginning to work with an architect, before working independently, he had the oversight of the extension of a school in Jounieh. Ali and some friends offered to work as labourers on the site for several weeks in order to give all their wages to a poor old man who was a refugee from South Lebanon. Anwar warned them that he would be paying them out of money provided by the school and that therefore they would have to work and to sweat in the summer heat like any toughened Syrian labourers. They accepted and this they did, all in order to help the helpless old man.
In due course, Ali migrated to Canada. One night he was passing a shop when he saw a gigantic black threatening the owner behind the till. Ali went in and after fifteen minutes of desperate struggle managed to wrestle the hefty giant to the ground and hold him until the police arrived. His family name was Batl, which means hero in Arabic, and could not be more appropriate.
About this time I received a visit from CNN reporter Jim Clancy, later the New York anchorman. When I mentioned the misreporting of Western media he told me that correspondents did their best to send objective news but that this was edited by the newspapers or broadcasting stations according to their policies. He was always being told to interview Yasser Arafat, who was then in Tripoli, North Lebanon and being besieged by the Syrians, although the cornered Arafat had nothing new to say.
During my early days at Radio Free Lebanon, Dr. Charles Malek, the intellectual who had been instrumental in drawing up the International Declaration of Human Rights for the United Nations and who was once President of the United Nations General Assembly, gave some interesting talks which with the help of my daughter I translated into English. I sent him a carefully worded letter of thanks which, as I had hoped, earned me an invitation to visit him for tea. I thus spent two hours with a great philosopher of world standing, one capable of expressing himself with great precision and clarity. Later, I was to enjoy the hospitality of his son Habib, also a man of no mean intellect.
As one outburst of fighting and change of regime led to another in both Lebanon and Syria, it became increasingly clear events were guided by the Israeli ideology of sectarianism and by the need of parties in Washington to please the Zionist lobby before elections. Washington has too many ways at its disposal, including dominance in international organisations, for applying economic, financial and military pressure on political and governmental circles in Lebanon and to a lesser degree in other neighbouring Arab countries. Wahhabi Islamic oil states too have enormous financial resources to use.
In due course the Resistance movement changed its direction, but thanks to an accident I was able to extricate myself. When on a motor-scooter early in 1990 (the car used too much petrol, a rare commodity) I was hit by a car which broke the trochanter of my femur. The evening of the day I left hospital, fighting broke out around us between the “Christian” forces known as the Lebanese forces and taken over by Samir Geagea and the Army under Aoun. This was when Washington was giving Syria a free hand in Lebanon in return for giving an Arab “face” to the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Democratic Lebanon was sacrificed by the world’s leading democracy to a country accused of being terrorist! So much for the claim to be the champion of democracy!
I had by this time obtained three grades of Judo black belt, for me competition being replaced by naginokata, kataminokata and kimenokata, but after the scooter accident I had to switch to Karate, getting 1st and 2nd Black belt Japanese (Shotokan) Karate Association, 1999, examined by Teryuki Okazaki, 9th Dan. I would be working for 3rd now but am prevented by a worsening of the condition of my leg, although I still practise. Our sons Edward and Anwar are part-time Judo instructors, Anwar a 5th grade black belt International, and International referee. When we moved from the Beirut suburb to Zouk Mikayel, the local children mocked the two boys as strangers to the locality, that is to say until Edward and Anwar threw down much bigger boys in a fight against odds of two or three to one.
Our sons scooped up gold medals in the Lebanese school Judo championships but then the war prevented them from gaining experience abroad.
For Judo my children and I were greatly indebted to the Syrian Suleiman Hochar, Berty Youssevitch and Mohammed Darwish, also Michel Nakhleh and Fukami (Japanese trainer of the French team when Judo first entered the Olympics), and for Karate to George Haboush and Fadi Antakli, the latter now 6th dan after yearly long seminars in Japan. I only regret that when Edward and Anwar were 18 and 16 respectively and took their first grade of black belt, handy video cameras did not yet exist; their performance of the Naginogata series of throws, after long daily practice under my critical eye, was as beautiful as ballet.
After Suleiman Hochar left, I gave Judo for a couple of years in Father Khalifeh’s school, L’Institut moderne du Liban, where I was already teaching English. The general conduct of several turbulent boys, classmates of my sons, improved as a result. Later my son Edward was invited to teach Judo as a non-scholastic activity in a school of a couple of thousand pupils. At the end of the first year the Mother Superior was so impressed by the improved behaviour and work of my son’s pupils that she made Judo obligatory once a week in the primary school classes. Some little girls had been frightened, fearing violence at the hands of the boys, but after the first class were so delighted that they wanted nothing else
Shortly after obtaining my first black belt in Judo in 1973, a nun of the Order of Besançon had suggested that I propose my teaching Judo at a girls’ school of her Congregation just outside Beirut. I saw the Mother Superior, who was very polite but did not seem much taken by the idea. At first I thought the nuns must be rather old-fashioned as those whom I saw shuffling around were certainly not young. Then the Superior informed me that the convent was no longer a girls’ school but a retirement home for aged nuns at around eighty years of age who would find it rather difficult to throw themselves with enthusiasm into the practice of the Japanese martial arts.
All the great Japanese masters insist that the purpose of the martial arts is perfection of character, not competition, which is only a means to the end. One may make excellent progress without participating in championships. A person fairly advanced in age or with some physical defect won’t win glory at the Olympic Games but physical and mental health will improve and be maintained in later life, and he or she will always be able to completely dominate an aggressor in the street. There is no greater mistake than to imagine that the martial arts are violent pastimes. But any instructor who insists on competition rather than character is to be avoided as not true to his art.
A martial art influences one’s whole life. I learnt this early on from Suleiman Hocher. Of humble Alawite family, he had learnt Judo in the Syrian armed forces, which had early on brought in high-grade Japanese experts. He was physically very strong and explained technique brilliantly, having an aptitude for mechanics. This explained why he had won Gold at Mediterranean Military Olympics. He had been in the office of Syrian Intelligence Chief Sarraj, a supporter of Abdul Nasser’s when Syria was attached to Egypt, and therefore had to come to Lebanon when the Egyptians were expelled. He was certainly a tough individual from a tough background.
He opened a shop in Bourj Hammoud as a watch repairer. At that time, when Syrians came to Lebanon as building labourers the first thing they did with their wages was to buy a watch to show off in their home village. But their coarse, rough, stiff hands were better at heaving bags of cement than dealing with the delicate mechanism of a watch – unlike those of a later generation of workmen, for whom mobile telephones held no secrets. One day as I was sitting with Suleiman, a poor labourer stormed into the shop complaining that the watch he had bought from my friend was worthless as it had been easily broken. Suleiman could easily have thrown him into the street, but instead he applied the principles of Judo, the “soft way”. He let his client exhaust himself in shouting and raving, and then very calmly asked him if he had said all he wanted to. On receiving an affirmative answer, he invited the man to sit down and very calmly explained that a watch was a delicate instrument to be treated with care. Understanding was reached but I could not help but be impressed by the way my friend had learnt courtesy and delicacy from Judo in the Syrian Armed Forces despite the brutal world that had been his.
Another time, I saw him crossing a road among busy traffic. Most people would have acted like a frightened chicken, craning their neck to look this way and that and then scuttling across the road with eyes downcast. Suleiman Hocher (pronounced Howsher) stood very erect while calculating the traffic from both directions and then walked calmly, slowly and safely across the road.
The first time I applied his instruction was when I went to pay the yearly water rate in the Board Office in Bourj Hammoud. We were still living in Sin el-Fil, and I had not been training long. I found the office crammed with burly Armenians, sweating in the heat. Half the population of Bourj Hammoud was composed of Armenians, or their children and grandchildren, who had come to Lebanon as refugees following World War I. I despaired at first of reaching the desk in less than a couple of hours, but then remembered how Suleiman had taught us to break through an adversary’s arms to get hold of his body. The human body is not a round cylinder but one flattened from front to back and therefore much narrower when seen from the side. So I simply stood sideways and every time I was pushed, without any effort on my part I found myself propelled between and beyond those standing in front of me. I heard a lot of Armenian swear-words, but apologised profusely as best I could and explained that I had been pushed.
When I thus arrived at the desk in a remarkably short time, I still found myself surrounded by stalwart individuals waving their papers, whose arms seemed about two metres long. With no hope of early treatment, I put my arms on the desk and laid my head on them to doze and rest a little. The official roared at me, “What, have you come here to sleep? Here, give me your paper!” In this way I applied another of Suleiman’s Judo principles, “Minimum effort for maximum effect”.
The Japanese martial arts have their source in Zen Buddhism. Buddha taught that desire was the enemy of our happiness. This is hard to deny when we see people so wretched because of their greed and ambition. What is it that prevents one from going to sleep, apart from any physical discomfort? Precisely the effort to go to sleep! “I must get to sleep, I have to get up early tomorrow, there’s such a lot of work to do…” If one empties one’s mind one just drops off to sleep.
The desire not to be beaten, the fear, is precisely what makes a Judo competitor stiff and rigid and easily thrown. If he is fluid like water he throws his adversary without even knowing it until he sees him on the ground at his feet.
One of the most useful techniques to be acquired from Judo is that of falling on hard ground without hurting oneself, the ukemi. Most people break their bones in a fall because they stiffen and fall on their elbows, while Judo teaches the contrary reflex of relaxation and of using one’s arm like a flail to take any shock. Quarter of an hour of ukemi provided an excellent physical and mental warm-up at the beginning of a class. I would make my pupils do forward rolls on a hard wooden floor. In the Judo roll one arm forms a wheel so that the head and shoulders do not take the weight. At demonstrations the audience were always delighted to see the pupils do forward rolls over the bodies of ten or twelve crouching in a row on the mats and over the head of a young man standing upright.
Once I was staying at a small “hotel” in the mountains with my son Anwar, aged about ten, who got into conversation with some clients about his Judo. He asked me to fetch our judogi from the back of my car so he could give a demonstration. As we donned the jackets, Anwar told me that he would just lift me off the ground and not actually throw me, as the floor was hard concrete.
But in fact Anwar entered low, I was relaxed and Anwar’s reflexes got the better of him. The result was that I was whirled over his shoulders and crashed down on the floor on my back. But because I was relaxed, not expecting the throw, I felt not the least discomfort and rose immediately, while of course the small audience was stunned!
Years later when waiting for a class of Karate to begin I was chatting with an Egyptian who was a national champion. Suddenly he threw himself on the ground like lightning and started a leg sweep intended to take my legs from under me and throw me on the ground. With my Judo background I did not throw myself to the ground to avoid a fall; I simply relaxed and fell on top of my friend like a sack of flour far more quickly than if I had made an effort. He admitted that I had gained the upper hand.
There was one occasion when I really thought I would have to use put my knowledge of Judo and Karate into practice. It was when my son Anwar had already started out as an independent building contractor. One dark winter’s evening he took me for a drive in his car but on the way stopped at a site where he had laid the foundations of a factory and office building in a new industrial zone. Anwar disappeared into some deep cellar, leaving me alone in the car while he did some business with his workmen. The zone was still underdeveloped with nobody in sight until a giant of a man with a large shaggy black beard and shaggy black hair approached. He started walking up and down a few yards from me, muttering strangely to himself, fidgeting with his right hand and occasionally throwing me menacing glances. He looked like a pirate in a Hollywood film with a touch of lunacy added
In view of all these signs of strange behaviour I was ready for anything to happen. The man continued walking up and down in this strange way for about twenty minutes. Then he suddenly made the sign of the cross, kissed the rosary he had been holding in his hand, put it in his pocket and then walked off. Once again, you can never tell by appearances! I met a building labourer from a remote part of Syria who simply carried sacks of cement and steel bars on a site. He invested his hard-earned gains in a massive portable high-fi apparatus and CDs that he heaved about all over the site where he was working. What did he listen to? Arabic popular songs? Not at all! But Bach and Vivaldi, seventeenth-century classical Baroque! You never can tell!
If I do not mention at length what I owe to Mr. “Berty” Youssevitch and Mr. Mohammed Darwish (Kodokan Special Student) it is because they had an educated family background and their adherence to true Judo was therefore less striking than in the case of Suleiman Hochar.
Mohammed started Judo shortly after I did, with Suleiman in a workingman’s club in Lower Basta, old Muslim Beirut (now very much changed!). Once a player threw me on my back and I hit my head rather hard on the mat. I sat down and then stood up again, put on my sandals, and then walked in my judogi in the dark street outside as in a dream. That was a time when even educated people had rarely heard of Judo, let alone the people of Lower Basta. I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder, woke up, and heard Mohammed Darwish saying, “Mortimer, where are you going?” For years after that I would sometimes dream at night that I was in a vast gloomy city trying to find my way back home.
In 1972 I was able to follow six lessons of yoga with a very financially disinterested Indian Catholic, Harald Sheikwara, with an instructor’s diploma from a psychiatric hospital. Unfortunately my lessons were interrupted by a change of programme – I was giving English in the same little evening school – but even in this short time I learnt how to breathe and relax. After frequent insomnia, I was now able to sleep after lunch without effort even when workmen were knocking down walls with sledgehammers in the same building! In randori at Judo (free play, like sparring) I was able to play for half an hour with young men without becoming out of breath, although they were panting at the end of every five-minute change of partners. I taught pupils in English class to breathe easily while reading and so give attention to the music of the language, the intonation. Ask anyone to take a deep breath and they usually pull in their abdominals and so expel air instead of inhaling air. The trick is to relax the abdominals so the intestines fall by their own weight and pull down the diaphragm and so enlarge the lungs. Contraction comes with an effort when expelling air, as when one swims.
I had a good pupil who could not stop fidgeting. I put his leg in a half-lotus and then he was able to remain at rest until the end of the class. Every child should learn some Hatha Yoga.
Another common mistake in teaching that may be corrected by yoga relaxation comes in handwriting. If a child writes badly, to make him practise only results in him practising his fault, so his writing becomes worse. The usual mistake of the child is to flatten his index finger and so to hold the pen rigidly in a triangle. One sometimes sees a person using his whole arm and even shoulder to write, of course without any delicate control. The child must be taught to make a circle of his thumb and forefinger, with the pen upright; with fingers relaxed and hand rested; delicate control now becomes possible.
At the University
A couple of years after I started work at Notre Dame University (1990) I was asked to supervise an English test in a room where there were about a dozen students. This was shortly after the fighting had ceased and students, many of whom had been in militias, were not always easy to manage. The general supervisor told me with apologies that she had given me all the difficult customers but knew that I could manage them.
We were just starting when a hefty fat fellow lumbered in, all hundred-or-so kilos; he wore shorts to just below his knees, plimsolls, and a baseball cap on back-to-front and had about six inches of belly showing between his T-shirt and his belt, hardly the academic attire for an exam. I guessed that his family had recently returned from America and that he was not accustomed to a demanding school system; frankly, I looked forward to some fun. He slumped down in a desk and immediately started talking to his neighbour. “What the hell are you doing?” I shouted at him. “Why do you speak to me like that?” “You know that this is an exam and that you are not supposed to talk!” “You’ve no right to speak to me like that!” “I have a right to respect and obedience,” I stormed. For a moment I thought he was going to try to kick me and hoped that he would. To my surprise he shut up like a clam and for the whole hour his eyes remained glued to his work. Needless to say, the other students never budged. At the end the newcomer came up almost on tiptoe and quietly asked if I would please take his paper. Then two days later he came and apologised to me, and we could not have been more friendly to each other.
So it is that when their elders complain about the bad behaviour of young people I protest. I put the blame on the parents and the school and particularly those high on official education boards and in ministries and universities who promote theories of education and upbringing that go against thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of years of human experience. Simple words like drill or practise are replaced by pompous expressions such as affirmative behavioural conditioning to justify so-called “progressive” theories. It is not by being soft and over-permissive that one gains respect, obedience, hard work and good results. If parents and teachers have love for their charges, being just a little too severe or a little too permissive will do no harm. Children know very well if a teacher is acting for their good and has their interests at heart, even if he is severe and demanding. In fact I remember how at Greenham Common my squad was proud of having the most frightening corporal in the camp and had a real affection for him.
Not all experts have addled brains. Once on the BBC there was a 15-minute talk by the Professor of Behaviourist Psychology at London University. For fourteen minutes his explanations of behaviour seemed to justify the “progressive” idea nobody should be blamed for wrong-doing or should be punished. But his very last sentence was, “Therefore if we understanding adults do not train our children properly, they will grow up into young criminals!”
One phenomenon of troubled times is an increasing activity on the Part of the sect known as the Witnesses of Jehovah, who go from door to door to make converts. Nowadays they have adopted the tactic of a husband-wife-child team. My chief objection to them is that just when the conversation becomes interesting they remember another appointment and take their leave.
My question is, “How do you know which ancient writings were divinely inspired Holy Scripture and which were not?” Whereas both Catholics and Orthodox retain such books as Tobit, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus on the authority of the Church and the Early Fathers, these were rejected by Martin Luther and the Christian bodies issuing from the Reformation, which of course do not accept the Church as having authority on any subject. The Witnesses always tried to change the subject rather than answer my question, and on my insistence that we should keep to the subject found an excuse for departure.
One family group at my door asked me if I did not think that at present there were increased wars and trouble in the world. I answered that there had always been wars since the beginning of mankind, as they would find out if they read the Bible. When they repeated the question I told them to read the Bible to see that there were always wars, on which the group moved off, seemingly nonplussed. Fear is a favourite tactic of propagandists and advertisers.
I started work at Notre Dame-Louaize University in autumn 1990, at first supervising English exercise classes. I insisted that students should write complete sentences and not simply the word to be inserted into blanks in the printed sentences. For me, a word was right or wrong in a particular sentence and had to be practised with and in the sentence. A visiting English teacher from Liverpool, no doubt very “progressive”, thought that it was not necessary to write the whole sentence and asked the students their opinion. To her surprise they approved my method, even if it did demand more work from them. I later moved from the English Department to Publications, correcting texts, editing a magazine, etc. NDU is run on American lines in English by Maronite Catholic monks. There are Muslim professors and an Orthodox priest who has an important post. Many instructors were professors in American universities during the war here but returned to Lebanon because their children could get far better schooling here in Lebanon than in the USA (three languages against none, not even English, in USA, discipline and less danger of drug addiction.) I have been very happy at NDU.
When I started editing and had an office of my own, visitors were always asking me if I was American. So I obtained a large poster of Queen Elizabeth and her consort the Duke of Edinburgh, which I displayed prominently opposite the door. The first idiot who came afterwards looked at the poster and said, “Is that George Bush and his wife?”
However, my true nationality soon became generally known, and to my great satisfaction those working around me got into the habit, by imitation, of greeting me with “Good morning!” instead of with “Hi!” I pointed out that Hi! was quite meaningless and was the sort of thing I would shout if I saw a small boy stealing fruit from my garden.
Cold War or Hot Peace
After peace of a sort was restored to Lebanon in 1990, I was able to go with my son Anwar for a few days to Jordan, where he had friends including some Bedouins working at the port of Akaba. Thanks to them we spent a wonderful night in the desert under the stars. I do not know what the famous city of Petra is like now, but at that time it was completely unspoilt, taking one into another world far from modernity. The narrow entry passage and the misnamed Treasure House have become classic in flashes in TV documentary programmes.
For breakfast, our friends took us to Qahwa esh-Shaab, The Popular Café. It was an experience I shall never forget, although I doubt whether one would find it graded with stars in a Michelin tourist guide. Its clients were all dock workers from all along the Red Sea, a remarkable collection!. I remember one man with Arab features and Arab head-dress, but very black. Each table had a huge metal jug full of water and a supply of bread that was absolutely horrible. This was a time when work at the Akaba dock was at a standstill as it no longer served as a transit port for Iraq, an activity that once had given it prosperity. But what struck me was the atmosphere of joy and laughter that reigned in the place. Would one ever see such happy faces in the Ritz or the Savoy or the Waldorf Astoria? One may point out that, from the point of view of law and order, restaurants and public places of entertainment in Muslim and Arab countries are generally free from violence and quarrels, due to the religious ban on alcohol or at least the disapproval of excess even in Christian quarters. Anyway, if I have not had a life of great achievement, at least I have had a life of variety.
Another year I spent three days in the home of a house painter working for Anwar in a village in the Syrian mountains. There was no trace of fanaticism. In this Alawite Muslim village the wife of my host sat with me alone on the veranda, wearing a short-sleeved blouse.
In another year I spent a week at the small Greek Catholic monastery of Maaloula near Damascus, dedicated to Saints Bacchus and Serge, patrons as I said above in the sixth century of the powerful Christian Bedouin tribe of Beni Ghassan.. Its church was once a pagan temple and has been shown by carbon dating of beams inserted in the walls to be two thousand years old. The altar was once pagan, having a cave below where the offal from small sacrificed animals slipped down. The top slab, which replaced the pagan one with a hole in the centre, has a raised rim, keeping the style of the pagan ones where such a rim prevented blood spilling onto the floor. This proves that the present Christian altar stone dates back to before the Council of Nicaea which in 325 A.D. forbad the continued use of the pagan model. Here in this church one participates in the Holy Liturgy where it has been celebrated for seventeen centuries. Note that, although I was known to be British but travelling on a Lebanese identity card, I was never questioned. The atmosphere in this mixed Christian and Sunnite town was perfectly relaxed. Maaloula, together with a couple of neighbouring Muslim villages, is where a dialect close to Our Lord’s Aramaic is spoken.
Every day there were large numbers of pilgrims coming to the monastery where I stayed, a few Europeans among them but mostly conservative Muslims, very respectful and eagerly buying objects of piety. The Syrian Tourist Office had pamphlets for all the Christian and Muslim places of pilgrimage and the copy in English that I saw for the particular monastery needed no correction of language. There were also copies in Arabic and in the main European languages.
In 1995 I spent a month in London with Rouaida, her husband and her two daughters. I did not feel particularly cheerful about the trip until we actually landed at Heathrow in sunny weather. In fact there could be no doubt that summers in London had improved since my childhood. We stayed at Muswell Hill but we also visited Witchampton and Salisbury Cathedral, famous for its exceptionally tall spire and pure early Gothic style, having been built in the space of a little more than twenty years in the early thirteenth century.
Here there took place another of those strange and providential meetings. We were following a guided tour when my eyes met those of an elderly clergyman standing on one side. How was it that he thereupon decided to draw us apart and speak to me? In fact he took us on a little tour of his own. He was Canon Alan Rogers and there was immediate sympathy between us. When I got back to London I wrote him a letter addressed to the Cathedral and so there started a long correspondence.
Canon Rogers was a theologian learned in Latin and Greek and a student of the ancient Fathers of the Church. During World War II he served as a breaker of German ciphers at Bletchley Park Station X. His letters were full of the deepest Catholic spirituality and Anglican though he was I addressed him instinctively as Father. He was a man of deep faith and love of Christ and this religious intensity I found to be shared by his wife and children. He had been a teacher of theology students in Madagascar before returning to England taking up the Dorset parish of Wyke Regis. Finally, a welcome bequest in somebody’s will permitted him to retire to the Azores with his wife. He finally passed away thanking God for his life after a fairly long illness in a Catholic nursing home where nuns and chaplain evidently found it a joy to serve him and share their prayers with him.
In London we stayed in a hotel at Muswell Hill. One thing pleased me greatly. Near the hotel there was a secondary school. When small groups of boys left after class, I noticed that they were all of mixed race – not one group all white, another group all black and another group all Asiatic, but in each group there would be one or two boys of each race. How many places are like that? How general is this?
My Aunt Totty and her husband had passed away, but we visited her son Geoffrey and his wife at their country house in Sussex. This was a building of several stories that dated back to early Elizabethan times and was therefore about four hundred and thirty years old. It was surrounded by a large field in which horses were grazing, providing a view of real South England countryside.
Geoffrey was a person of note, having been chairman of the British Petroleum executive committee and having formed a Catholic charity for development in south-central Africa. At his Wimbledon home we saw him exercising his gift for entertaining young children who were visiting him. Even Rouaida’s Romy and Maureen were entranced despite their not having yet learned English.
I went with Rouaida, her daughters and Anwar again to London in 1997 and again visited the West Country, spending more time touring Dorset, and getting family information from the Wiltshire Public Records at Trowbridge. But this time Canon Rogers was not on duty in the Cathedral.
A year later Cousin Cecily and her husband John came to Lebanon with a group of the Knights of St. John, Anglican branch. I accompanied them when in the evening the party visited a church in Jbeil (Byblos) built by the Crusader knights. As we left, an Anglican bishop of the party and some others asked me what special occasion there was for the quite large congregation that had attended Mass inside. I could only say that this was the normal daily evening Mass, when all the countless churches in Lebanon are at least half full, not to mention the morning Mass. I suppose even on a Sunday in Britain His Lordship the Bishop would have been pleasantly surprised to find one of his churches so full. In Lebanon on Sundays the churches are packed for Mass after Mass.
I had several contacts, or brushes, with ambassadors during these years. My first had been with the excellent British Ambassador Brown early in 1982. He was invited by Radio Free Lebanon to meet Resistance leader Sheikh Bashir Gemayel and I acted as interpreter. After meeting together at the Radio, the party went to a restaurant on the shore. The Ambassador remarked what peace and order there was, allowing his four guards to relax. In a restaurant in West Beirut, where pro-Palestinian (-PLO) and pro-Syrian parties were fighting each other, the guards would have had to stand on high alert at the four corners of the dining hall.
He said that it was the principle of the British government always to recognise the government that exercised effective authority in any country. If Sheikh Bashir stood for the Presidency he would advise Her Majesty’s government to recognise him. I noticed Bashir start and it was not long after that he declared his candidat0ure for the presidency. He was elected but murdered a few days later. We had ample proof that he could not be corrupted with money. He had the right at his election to ask for Lebanese nationality for one family; he made a request on my behalf when others would have paid him millions of dollars. Bashir wanted a strong and united Lebanon, with a strong army and universal military service like Switzerland (unlike his father who thought that Lebanon’s safety lay in its weakness, not arousing fear or cupidity) and he wanted to end by degrees sectarian politics. He even wanted to appoint as head of the Army a Sunnite general who had remained strictly neutral and obedient to formal government authority throughout the recent fighting. Would Bashir have made a good President? His assassination was largely a result of his own imprudence, going to the same meeting place at the same hour every Tuesday and it is doubtful whether Washington, under the prodding of Israel, would have allowed him to make a militarily strong and united Lebanon.
In the early 1990s a British ambassador came to Notre Dame University to give a lecture. I asked him why Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had described Syria as a supporter of terrorism, had withdrawn the British Council from Beirut instead of giving moral support to those Lebanese who were resisting the Syrians. The Ambassador shuffled his feet and mumbled something about considerations of safety, but did not seem very happy. The audience were far more happy than he was with my question and a professor came to tell me that the most fervent old-fashioned Maronite of the mountains could not have asked any better question.
During the Clinton US presidency, a very gentlemanly American ambassador came to the university. I was astonished that the burden of his talk was that the Federal Administration was so vast that minor officials had great power and that nobody really knew what was going on. I was sorry but not surprised when shortly afterwards he disappeared from circulation without the usual protocol of formal visits prior to departure being shown on television. Perhaps he had given vent to feelings of frustration and was only too happy to leave diplomatic service.
During the George Bush II days, another US Ambassador, Battle, came to the University. He no doubt felt sure of pro-American sympathy in a predominantly Christian milieu. But there was something about his simultaneously domineering and ingratiating way that irritated me. He thought to win the sympathy of his audience by saying that he had obtained his doctorate in diplomatic studies at the Jesuit Georgetown University (as did many American officials). This led me to scour the dregs of my rudimentary Latin again and I was the first to ask a question: “I am Kenneth Mortimer, British iure soli13 et sanguinis and Lebanese (loudly) by my own desire and the grace of the Lebanese State.” There was frantic applause and professors near the Ambassador told me he looked furious at me. I continued: “When the Lebanese were resisting forces described by Washington as terrorist or sponsors of terrorism, its press described the Lebanese Christians as religious extremists instead of supporting them. How then does Washington expect to gain support against its own enemies? In fact its attitude leads people here to suppose that its policy is aimed at permanently dumping the Palestinian refugees on us in Lebanon.” Battle snapped back that Washington had supported a UN resolution saying that the Palestinian refugees were not to be left where they were and angrily turned to another questioner before I could protest that he had not answered the question I had asked. In short, the general atmosphere was far less welcoming than Battle had expected. During refreshments I was near him when a student asked if the Americans had not made a mistake by withdrawing their marines from Lebanon in 1983 when there had been a multi-national force in Lebanon. Ambassador Battle answered, “Don’t forget 250 of our soldiers were killed in Beirut!” I said, “Well, 250 British soldiers were killed in the Falklands, but they didn’t withdraw!” “Well, they should have done,” came the angry reply.
13 Not exactly true, but fair enough as though born in Chile I had been brought up in London and done military service.
Later this Ambassador visited a monastery where there was an American priest, passed to the Eastern rite, who was very anti-Washington. His Superior had to put him under oath of monastic obedience under pain of mortal sin not to talk politics with the visitor, fearing a first-class row. One must not judge ambassadors too personally. They have to follow their government’s line. Since the end of his term Ambassador Battle has remained in Lebanon, which he evidently loves, and taken no visible part in local politics since.
I later met British Ambassador Tom Fletcher, a young and athletic intellectual with a keen interest in Lebanon, who lost no time making himself popular with the Lebanese and improving British prestige.
Family and the Region in 2012
Edward is married and has a son Kenneth, born 2/1/1995, surprising fluent in English (French and Arabic mother languages) despite very little practice at home. What infuriates me is that because I was not born in U.K. Kenneth does not have British nationality. I feel that my military service as AC2 2276988 and years of teaching English with British imported books to boys who later had influential positions, including MPs, and who had gained a respect for Britain, should count far more than accident of birth. There is nothing beyond the BBC World Service (which has now lost its funding) to hold the expatriate to Britain, nothing like the Association des Français d’outre-mer. If Laurice had taken British nationality a couple of days before I registered my children at the consulate instead of the other way round, Kenneth would have had British nationality from his grandmother although she hasn’t a drop of British blood and spent only one month in UK!! Edward is an insurance broker and judo instructor.
Ruwaida (Rouaida) has two daughters, Romy born in 1985 and Maureen born in 1988, family name Zalloum. They were born in UK of a British mother, so even their grandchildren will be automatically British. Romy, after Baccalaureat of France, did very well in Audio-visual at the Jesuit université St.-Joseph, where entry and yearly selection are extremely severe. Maureen also shone in everything at school and at St. Joseph’s. From the age of five she had a passionate for ballet and was gifted. After hours of practice at the ballet school she would do a couple of hours at home. She became one of the instructors and then went to London Studio to take higher degrees in the art. The London she is familiar with now must be very different to the one I knew but I still feel a satisfaction at the return of a descendant to the city of my upbringing, and cannot be sufficiently grateful to my cousins who have given Maureen a home from home. Relatives in Lebanon have also been of great help.
Ruwaida brought up her girls firmly and taught them self-reliance. Romy was walking one night with another girl when two men came up on a motor-cycle and pestered them. Romy thrashed them both. Ruwaida is an intimate friend of Magida Roumi, the most famous Arabic singer at present, known for her impeccable private life, a very humble and simple person, beautiful as well.
In a room under a house near us there was a poor lady of African blood from the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. She had married a man who later went to the United States, at first sending her money but then dropping her altogether. She earned a meagre income by housework but her situation was desperate as she possessed neither personal passport nor residence visa. If caught she would have had to stay in prison indefinitely as she was quite unable to pay the thousands of dollars to cover the cost of the visas for the past years in order to obtain her release. The overburdened Lebanese state was little inclined to give such detainees more than bread and water. However, during the Israeli attack of July 2006 foreigners were evacuating Lebanon with no questions asked and this Rouaida pointed out to the poor women. She got through to Damascus in Syria and there was able to take a plane to her island home. In Mauritius this unfortunate and neglected woman suddenly found herself famous, with reporters crowding around her at the airport to hear her story. Rouaida’s marriage was annulled and she is now married to an Irishman, a religious man, living in Yorkshire, both very happy.
Anwar is an independent civil engineer. When finishing school he worked during holidays for an architect who was so pleased that he lent him money to study in USA, where he moved from Michigan State to the Jesuit Detroit University as the standard there was higher. He does much work for a Greek Catholic religious congregation, the Paulist Fathers. At an international course given in Qatar he qualified as an international judo referee for championships and was given the high grade of 5th dan international on account of his beautiful technique, first out of 35 ex aequo with a Japanese and a Korean. 27th June, 2007, he married Mouhana, bank official, in front of Archbishop Absi, the Paulist Superior General, and other priests in the Greek-Catholic basilica at Harissa. Twins, a boy and a girl, Geoff and Jade, were born 15th January, 2009. They have Canadian nationality from their mother, who obtained it legally in a lucky dip when visiting a brother in Canada. A girl Katy was born later.
One of Anwar’s clients was the community of Carmelite nuns at Harissa following the Greek rite. They are very strictly enclosed. One speaks even to the Mother Superior without seeing her face. Any letter has to be placed in a drum open on one side which is then revolved. The convent was originally founded by a Spanish nun, but the community is now all Lebanese. It grew until a daughter house became necessary and Anwar was charged with a part of the work.
I was in his car with Anwar when he had occasion to speak with the nun charged with the new project. Finally he said to her, “But Sister, you seem to know all the technicalities.” She laughed and then explained that she was a qualified architect who had been in practice before entering religion. In fact all these Carmelite nuns in the strictly enclosed convent have diplomas of higher education and have worked professionally. They are not, as many cynics might expect, the unmarriageable daughters of poor peasant families wanting three meals a day. It is when a religious order lives up to its ideals, however austere, that it has spiritually motivated candidates of the highest quality.
Thanks to Internet, over the last few years I have been able to correspond with two who were close friends at the White Fathers’ Philosophy House at Coldharbour, Dorking, Surrey, Peter Collyer who married and emigrated to Australia and Charlie McCarthy who after illness returned home to Ireland. Because of the disruption of mail services in Lebanon in the nineteen-eighties I lost contact with other old friends whom I was later unable to find.
As for the political situation now in 2012, one can only wonder at the shameless hypocrisy of world politics. Whatever the rigour of the Syrian regime might have been when it was surrounded on all sides by enemies, there was at least religious freedom, with Christians allowed to build fine new churches. There was obligatory public education for all. If a child played truant his father would be arrested for explanation, as I once saw. Women filled the universities and reached the highest positions in public office. There was free medical and hospital service. Yet the West has allied itself with countries where a Bible cannot enter and where women are in purdah, in order to overturn the Syrian regime. If the West wants to interfere in countries where it considers that democracy is not up to its own standards, there are many countries more deserving of attention. But so far Western action has only left behind chaos.
In a worldly sense, my life has not been a great success. But I have lived in a Holy Land, marked by the footsteps of Christ, Our Lady and the Apostles. Near me are places that are referred to in the Old and New Testaments. Faith is strong, new churches are everywhere, and every Sunday certain shrines receive such crowds that a car has to be parked far away. There is no generation gap as young and old easily sit and converse together. Thanks to oriental etiquette, making contacts is easy; for example, on entering a small restaurant one may say “Sahtain, Two healths!” to the diners one passes. I am close to high mountains and sea. One may pass happy moments in an open-air rustic restaurant beside rushing water and trees and with splendid scenery in front of one – and service comes with a real smile. In Lebanon there is a variety of language and culture and lively conversation. Whatever the next few years may hold, I thank God for all the joys and pleasures of the past.
1927-early -28 (?)Trip to UK and Malta.
1930: To Putney with mother.
1931: nuns’ school.
1932: Willington School.
1939: Decease of grandfather.
September to January 1940: Stay at Isle of Wight.
1940: Three months at Willington School evacuated in the country, then three months at Brothers’ at Beulah near Croydon, then Jesuits’ Wimbledon College 1940-1942.
1942-43: Dorset farm.
1943-45 Veterinary College, Reading.
1945: Six weeks with White Fathers near Doncaster, then in November called up to RAF.
1946: February–August in Cairo, August 1946–March 1947 in Jerusalem, March–May1947 in Ramleh, Palestine.
1947: May Iraq, May 1948 UK and demob.
1948: September White Fathers, Dorking.
1950: Rome pilgrimage, September noviciate in Holland, then 1951–early 1952 some theology.
1952 summer, left White Fathers. September, Isère, then polio, seven weeks in Lyon hospital. November went to Malta.
1953: Easter pilgrimage to Jerusalem through Cyprus. France then home, autumn in France.
!954: Home, then July to Lebanon. At St. Saviour’s until 1957. July 1957 marriage. Lodged in Dekwaneh, teaching at Aleppine Fathers.
1958: Civil war in Lebanon in summer between partisans and adversaries of Abdul Nasser of Egypt.
1960: Moved to Sin el Fil, school moved to Beirut. Taught part time at Institution Moderne of Fr. Khalifeh.
1961: Whole time at Institution which was then in Hazmieh.
1962-3 also taught in Institution summer school at Sofar, then Fallugha 1964, then Dhour es-Shweir 1965. Started judo in 1963
1966: Mother died. We spent month in London to sell house. 1968, Finished our building near Jounieh and moved in.
1975: Fighting with Palestinians and Leftists. Went to Institution evacuated to Kfifane near Batroun.
1979: Left Institution, one year at Athanaeum School. Rich spoilt kids. Then gave classes for a year or two at American Centre and began at Bashir Gemayel’s Radio Free Lebanon.
1982: Took Lebanese nationality thanks to Bashir, but received it after his death.
1990: Left Radio Free Lebanon under Geagea thanks to broken femur joint. In summer operation for Prostate and later started at Notre Dame University. Changed from Judo to Karate because of leg.
1995 and 1997: a month each year in London with Rouaida and her daughters and in 1997 with Anwar as well.
2012: Left University.
Last letter received from Canon Alan Rogers in hospital in the Azores, 26th October, 2007
Dear Ken Mortimer,
You will realize that I appreciated your letter. I now have Betty (his wife) alongside me to take some dictation. The one thing I do not need is sympathy even when things are difficult. I look back on a varied privileged life. I suppose it began with gaining a place at Cambridge college, then came fascinating puzzles at Bletchley helping to decypher the top grade SZS40 German machine cypher. Disclosures in the last few years have revealed how important this was, though in the public eye Enigma remains dominant.
Fifty-four years of marriage, four children and six grandchildren are a tribute to the forbearance of Betty and her support including nine far from easy years in Madagascar. I must have done some good as one student is just stepping down as an archbishop! Then followed many years training teachers, a few of whom shone in their profession. I was public preacher to four successive bishops of Salisbury. My monthly duties as chaplain at the Cathedral brought me into contact with I don’t know how many people. One of my problems was answering “Is this a Catholic or a Protestant cathedral?” I remember vividly your visit which resulted in years of happy contact with you.
I also taught and examined readers and produced a handful of top quality priests. All that is now behind me and like Paul in Romans Chapter 8, I am content to trust not in my Faith in God but in God’s faith in me.
No one can say how long present disabilities may last, weeks, months, years. I have always appreciated your friendship, although distance has always kept us far apart. Just remember me when you say your office or your night prayers; I spend hours in bed recalling all the people (so far as my memory goes) who have contributed to the richness of my life.
I wonder if you would be interested in a strange sociological fact. You are well aware by the 18th century “The Old Faith” was restricted in England to two groups. Firstly, the same landed gentry under the Duke of Norfolk and scattered groups in the Yorkshire Dales and a sprinkling in Dorset.
Secondly, largely small farmers in what was then the remote hinterland of Lancs. Then came the huge rush of Roman Catholic Irish, which boosted numbers immensely. To this day Liverpool is an Irish stronghold and when the new cathedral was built there towards the end of the 20th century, people called it, unkindly perhaps, “Paddy’s Wigwam”!
Numbers of RC worshippers fell as in other churches through the 20th century – what some analysts call secularisation.
Unexpected in this 21st century no less than one million Roman Catholic Poles have arrived and the most of them are plumbers, carpenters and other workers in the building trade but the Church in Poland has tried to find enough priests to look after them. Most R.C. churches in the London area have to have at least one Mass in Polish on a Sunday or a Saturday evening. There are a few R.C. immigrants from other mainly Catholic countries, such as Hungary but nothing approaching one million Poles. Of course there are some Rumanian, Greek Cypriot Orthodox Christians too.
Betty will be happy to receive a brief note from you and tell me its contents. As ever, Alan Rogers.
Betty writes: Alan is cared for with great kindness and devotion at the nursing home. His weekly communion is brought to the small chapel by the English chaplain and he attends the Catholic service on Saturday evening when the priest comes to him to ask for his blessing. People are very kind and loving to us both. Please pray for us both as we enter this stage of our lives.
In the love of Christ, B.A.R.
Letters received from Ossama el Kaoukji, my pupil round about 1970. Sunnite Muslim whose father was a hero against British occupation in Palestine (supporting Zionist implantation) in the 1930’s
November 07, 2011
Subject: Thank You
Dear Mr. Mortimer,
I do not know if you would remember me.
I still do.
Faces may get blurred in the travel of distance, and people, like sand creatures, see their forms eroded to fragments by the winds of time.
But the legacy of some, breathes a deep warmth one carries within.
One that never ceases to kindle our spirit, and fuel our advance.
One that still radiates in me.
I do not know why I am writing you this note today.
Perhaps my gratitude was long overdue, or simply because I now feel my words would never resonate their true meaning if not, at least once, written to you.
You taught me your language.
And in it my profound appreciation, I wished to express my affection and indebtedness for the education you provided me.
Thank you Mr. Mortimer.
Ossama el Kaoukji,
Your student at IML in the 60’s
November 14, 2011
Dear Mr. Mortimer,
From the last time we saw each other, a lifetime seems to have passed.
When I left IML, architecture was my passion and calling.
Until, on a summer job, I was drawn into the wonders of advertising by the charm of a person, who, not much later, became my wife.
At 21, we married, and I opened in Beirut my first advertising agency with little experience and much optimism, fuelled by innocence, animated by adventure.
All indications suggest I was on the right course: the business was picking up, and we were blessed by a baby boy, Tarek.
But there was a drift of tacit signs, more obscure, more sinister, and only few could sense. And I wasn’t one of them.
The ’75 civil war rapidly brought its ominous weight on our daily lives, and spread wider its mantle of despair.
Brightness turned into gloom. Confidence into uncertainty.
With my wife, our 3 year-old son, my portfolio of work samples, and hundreds of threatened refugees like us, we squeezed ourselves into a small half-wrecked cargo boat heading to Alexandria, which had just delivered in Sidon a shipment of arms to one of the many thriving war lords.
Both our elderly parents, who got along together well, were left behind sharing the safety of our small flat in West Beirut.
The trip took 4 days and 5 nights (we were wrongly informed that the trip was only 24 hours long!) and with no change of clothing, no food or sanitation, it turned into a distressing voyage.
Once in Alexandria, we stayed at friends, nursing a collective seasickness. On land, all surfaces underfoot swayed from the rolls of imaginary waves which we continuously felt over days. By the time I regained my stability, I had no destination in view, no one to turn to, no bearings to follow.
Behind me though, I had a shut down agency, clients who fled the country, and modest savings with the equal urge to escape.
My only contact was one established few months earlier with a client from Kuwait.
In reviving it, I found the opportunity of establishing a new business – another advertising agency – which I started with that client in Kuwait.
It quickly developed in a booming market oblivious of the Lebanese hardship that progressed irreversibly. Soon, my wife and son joined me coming from Egypt, followed by my mother-in-law. My mother opted to stay in Beirut with the company of her loyal German Shepherd. In the process, both my father-in-law and my father passed away peacefully in the midst of an ugly war.
Our stay in Kuwait was one of serenity, happiness, and protection. We consciously turned down any thoughts of return despite the many temptations the patchy fighting lulls offered.
Over the following years, our family grew with the birth of 2 daughters: Dwan, who is now pursuing her doctorate in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics: and Nur, who is presently in India, building her own fashion brand.
And the 7 dark months of Sadam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, didn’t deter us either from leaving the sanctuary of a country which offered us, warmth, hospitality, and generosity.
Today, after having merged my agency with a larger international network, I hold the position of Chief Creative Officer at Memac Ogilvy, overlooking the creative output of our 12 offices across the Middle East and North Africa.
My mother died about 10 years ago. Fortunately, I had the chance to take personal care of her during her old age to her last breath.
My son Tarek, who had graduated with an MA from Columbia University, is now a Financial Consultant to a group of companies in Kuwait.
And my 2 brothers are also working in the Gulf Region: Mirwan, my elder brother, is a Chief Pilot at Emirates Airlines in Dubai; and Bourkan, my younger brother, runs a digital photographic company in Jeddah.
On my continuous tours of the network, I do visit Beirut from time to time where we have an office.
And it would give me immense personal pleasure to pay you a visit and shake the hand that taught me so much, and hug the man I deeply respect.
Now at the age of 90 (20th January, 2017)
I suppose it is natural for me to look back over my life and think of people whose qualities I did not appreciate fully at the time when I knew them. Apart from my parents and grandparents I suppose the most important influence in my life was that of Canon Francis Pritchard, my parish priest in Putney. Our providential meeting in the church entrance, against all probabilities, changed my life. Without it I would have been utterly lost in life, He seemed so simple and unassuming with all his kindness and smiles in his old age that we never realised what a person he must have been. I was in Holland at the time, but my mother was present at his requiem and was amazed to find three hundred priests attending, so his influence must have been great.
Once he said to me that he was in two minds about capital punishment. He had once been a prison chaplain, during the course of which time he had to prepare a man who was due to be hanged. After preparing himself very piously for death, the man received a pardon. Instead of being overjoyed he underwent a complete moral collapse. I have since thought how this little priest must have been ready to stand beside a man at the moment of execution and then to anoint his contorted face while there was still no doubt some life iin his body.
I have vivid memories of my class at the Jesuit Wimbledon College and affectionate memories of my teachers, two priests, three scholastics and a layman, convert Anglican clergyman. But one event haunts me. There was a system of punishment whereby an instructor would order a boy to receive “ferulas”, nine or twelve blows with a flat stick on the hands. The teacher who gave the order was not allowed to administer the punishment. At the beginning of the next recreation the boy went to a room where a scholastic waited. the punishment was registered in a book and then duly administered, the book being checked daily by the Prefect of Studies to ensure against abuse. It was a point of honour to go immediately and receive the punishment with dignity.
One afternoon, the severe but respected Father E. Burns was giving us a Latin class. One afternoon the boy behind me failed to translate a word at the end of a contorted sentence and was ordered twelve ferulas, the one occasion when I think Father Burns was unfair. It was then my turn. I failed and everybody thought I would receive a similar punishment. But the priest, as I later found out, underestimated my age and past over me. The boy in front of me failed and was ordered twelve ferulas. Here the priest stopped, no doubt realising that he would have to order punishment to the whole class. I still feel that I should have raised my hand and asked to be punished, for my honour and to learn what the punishment felt like, as I was threatened on no other occasion. I remember one boy who was very proud of having received well over one hundred ferulas.
In fact just after passing my “Matric” and leaving the school, I went and asked the executioner to give me some ferulas. I was torn between nervousness and curiosity. But evidently the Jesuit did not enjoy his duty and sent me abruptly away. So my curiosity remains unsatisfied.
N.B. My mother’s Birthday was on November 22nd, Lebanon’s National Day. My birthday is on May 11th. This was also the birthday of the American Father Ross.
HIS DEATH (by website administrator)
Kenneth Joseph Mortimer passed away on 9 November 2020. He resided in Zouk Mikayel, Kesrouan, Lebanon during the latter part of his life.