It was all Aunty Elsie’s fault that Ann and I got ourselves arrested, not once but twice, actually me three times, on the banks of the River Nile.
We were on the West bank of the Nile when all this happened. That is the same side as where most of the antiquities are. Where the Valley of the Kings is, where Howard Carter and The Earl of Carnarvon found Tutankhamun’s magnificent tomb, where the equally spectacular Valley of the Queens’ is also located and the incredible last resting place of Queen Hatshepsut.
Pronouncing the word Hatshepsut is actually easier than you might expect, by the way. You simply break the word up into parts, thus Hat Ship Suit. Easy if you know how. That way you could, in time, learn to speak fluent Egyptian. Most tourists, though, never get beyond learning to pronounce Hat Ship Suit. And there they stop. Which is quite sad, really.
Aunty Elsie left me £500 in her will, which was a great deal of money in the days when Ann and I got married. So that is why it was all her fault that I nearly lost my wife of just a few days and got us introduced to President Bourgiba of Tunisia and promptly got rearrested, presumably on the grounds of a touch of ‘Lese Majesty.’
My aunt was one of those magnificent social ladies of a far-gone era who believed passionately and with an absolute conviction in the fairies, whom, she used to tell my mother, lived at the bottom of her garden. That is her country home on the banks of the Thames at Wargrave, They, the fairies, wisely stayed in the countryside while she swanned off to her London flat in Chelsea.
She also fell for Adolph Hitler with just as much conviction till she went out to Germany to meet him and came back, saying that he was a ‘common little man’ who had refused to meet her and that marked the end of her flirtation with the excesses of the Far Right. Aunty Elsie became a Buddist instead. That was the end of her Hitler phase.
Aunty Elsie died in Gibraltar just before Ann and I got married. She was always travelling.
In her will, she also left me a ‘mother and child’ bust by someone who in those days was far better known than she is nowadays called Dora Gordin(or Dora Gordini) as I always knew her. I still have this bit of sculpture and it sits in our Conservatory at Ivy Lodge. It is a very prized possession.
Apparently it is worth about £10,000. Ann and I have just listened to a programme on Radio 4 about Dora Gordine. It was at 4pm on the 14th of February 2009 and taught me a lot I didn’t know about this important sculptress. She was Lithuanian, for example. And that’s just a sample of my ignorance. There’s a lot more I didn’t know till I heard that programme. And she was fascinated with motherhood, for example, though she never had any children, herself. Motherhood featured in a great deal of her work.
Auntie Elsie also left me a long runner Persian carpet which perished in time and a very modern painting which I grossly abused by selling the frame to a friend and cladding it with a modern black frame which looks as cheap as it undoubtedly is I still look at the painting with horror at the loss of its wonderful frame which I casually abandoned because it wasn’t modern enough.
My brother told me a fascinating story about the painting, which I have no idea if it is true or not, but I will tell it anyway. Apparently, Auntie Elsie one day, in the 1920s went to an exhibition of paintings and couldn’t make up her mind which picture to choose.
Aunty Elsie’s choice was between this painting and another one by an unknown artist who was palpably mad called Vincent Van Gogh. After a lot of humming and hawing she chose the one the one that I have in my attic and the Van Gogh went begging, later to be sold for many millions of pounds, by which time the artist had long since died and would have been forgotten, had thing turned out differently.
Which they didn’t.
‘Oh, the foolishness of the young and my Aunt Elsie, who must have been also very young when she made this awful choice.’
But, back to the £500. What to do with it? The answer is obvious…spend it in any way my magnificent late Aunt would approve of.
Ann suggested we took our honeymoon in Egypt. Then we’d nip over to Beirut and Damascus and that way most of the Aunty Elsie’s money would be used up. That would please her much more than if we’d saved it for some sort of mythical rainy day
Ann had another reason for wanting to go to Egypt. Her Grandmother had lived in there for many years during her own childhood. When Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon found King Tutakamun’s tomb, Carter had only just stopped working for Ann’s Great-Grandfather. Later Carter been engaged by Lord Carnarvon, to continue the search. Then the tomb was found.
We would spend our honeymoon in the youthful land of her Grandmother. As soon as the ceremony was over, we were off to the land of the Pharoes.
We got to Luxor after various exciting adventures in Cairo, including nearly missing the one train a day from Cairo to Luxor.
For the first few days all went well. We marvelled at the temple complex at Karnak. We crossed the Nile to get to the Colossi of Memnon and, beyond that, the Valley of the Kings and the tomb of Tutankamun. We didn’t take long to realise we’d have to spend many weeks, if not several lifetimes simply getting to grips with this astonishing place.
Then disaster struck. The West Bank, including the Valley of the Kings was to be shut to Tourists because the President of Egypt, Nasser himself, was due to make a visit. Right in the middle of our honeymoon. The cheek of it!
But Ann soon had the answer. We would ignore the shutting of the Nile, ignore Nasser’s visit and cross the Nile anyway. How to get across? Simple. We’d use the town ferry, as we already did every day. The town ferry was far cheaper. Ann had already worked out that Tourists were charged one rate for crossing the Nile and the town’s people far less for the same trip.
Separate ferries, same journey. We queued for the town ferry and in a matter of minutes were across and making the same deal with the same donkey boys to take us to the Valley of the Kings as we always did.
Except for one thing. The Chief of Police for the whole of Southern Egypt spotted us. He promptly arrested the two of us. As we were driving along in his police car he made this most preposterous suggestion. ‘Tell you what,’ he said ‘given that you are both in a bit of a pickle, why don’t I release you,’ pointing at me ‘and take you back to the ferry.’
We hadn’t told him about the town ferry trick and a good thing we didn’t.
He went on, ‘and then I’ll release your wife tomorrow morning.’
Whatever he had in mind and he was already glowing with anticipation, we had no hesitation in telling him we weren’t dealing and we were staying together, whatever his thoughts were.
Later on, having taken that one in, he pulled up in front of a huge barracks and threatened to let us both loose among the soldiery, some 600 of whom were in temporary residence inside. That didn’t work either, so he drove us back to the tourist’s ferry and let us both go, anyway.
The following morning we were woken at daybreak by a vast procession of lorries packed to the gunwales with thousands upon thousands of Egyptians chanting the words ‘Nasser! Nasser!, Nasser!’ as if their very lives depended on how loud they shouted. Our hotel was on the embankment and right on their route. Thus sleep was murdered. We scrambled out of bed and, after a quick breakfast, hot-footed it down to the town ferry again. We had already established a rapport with the ferryman and some of the regulars on the ferry were beginning to recognise us too. We said ‘Hello’ all round, in Egyptian, of course, and sat down.
The trip across the Nile took only a matter of a couple of minutes and there, waiting for us was our old friend, the Chief of Police for the whole of Southern Egypt, who promptly re-arrested us.
‘Last night,’ he said pointedly at me, ‘seeing I was all alone, I got thinking and worked it out and now I know how you breached my ‘cordon sanitaire’ that I had thrown across the Nile. Very cunning. Devilish tricky, you English Dogs. And now I arrest you all over again. Come and have a cup of coffee while I work out what to do with you. English Dogs.’
We repaired to the local rest house, converted to an Officer’s Mess, for the duration of the visit and there, by dint of some very intense questioning, he learned that my favourite films were all the James Bond extravaganzas. He concluded that I was on a mission to spy on Southern Egypt. Out came the pistol again. Once again I was under arrest. Not Ann this time, just me.
He also gathered from us that we couldn’t get tickets to see the Valley of the Kings because the ticket office was shut for the day. ‘We’ll soon see about that,’ he said, getting to his feet and seconds later we had our tickets, wrested from the terrified man at the ticket office at gun-point. I was de-arrested.
Soon the plane bearing Nasser flew over the town and half-an-hour later the official visit was ready to get going. By then the crowds had transferred from lorries to boats and, still chanting ‘Nasser!’ were ready to escort him across the Nile. There were hundreds of boats, all packed with swarming crowds, all chanting the great man’s name.
Something was something wrong. Actually a lot was wrong. They’d got the wrong man. The VIP was President Bourgiba of Tunisia, not Nasser at all. Without a hitch the chanting crowds changed miraculously from calling out ‘Nasser!’ to the chant of ‘Bourgiba,! Bourgiba! Bourgiba!’ The change was flawless and effortlessly spontaneous.
The flotilla was soon half-way across the narrow stretch of water before our escort realised what a problem we presented. What on earth to do with us. It was too late to do anything drastic like have us shot, so he did the only practical thing available to him. He lined us up amongst the waiting VIP party on the West Bank of the River Nile and made us promise to behave ourselves.
What exactly President Bourgiba thought, when he shook hands with two very obvious Westerners, me in my scruffiest ex-army shorts and Ann with her flowing long and very fair hair, heaven only knows but he did take the surprise very well, all things considering. We even managed to shake hands with one of his wives. She was very glamorous and would nowadays be counted as a ‘Trophy Wife.’
I don’t remember much of what happened after that but the Chief of Police for the whole of Southern Egypt suddenly lost all interest in his two Western prisoners and from then on we were free to see the Valley of the Kings, all on our own.
They opened up the tombs, just for us, and later on that evening, right by the Colossi of Memnon, Present Bourgiba’s car passed us on his way home.
President Bourgiba gave us a very special wave, all for the Westerners he was quite surprised to shake hands with. There was no-one else around.