Sport 8: Autumn 1992
In 1941 L/Sgt Frederick Burton was swimming at a beach near Alexandria with a group of fellow soldiers from the and New Zealand Expeditionary Force, when a tsunami appeared from nowhere, broke on the shore and sucked them all out to sea in its aftermath.
In a desperate rescue attempt, those left on shore linked arms and formed a human chain. The man on the end managed to grasp my father by his luxurious shock of hair, but lost his grip as the frail chain of flesh itself was broken and swept away.
Frederick swam, struggled, and trod water with steadily decreasing strength, until eventually it became hell to resist, and bliss simply to lie back and let the water pour down his throat. And yes, his life did flash before him, along with the thought that he would be leaving his five-year-old daughter an orphan on the other side of the world. He entered the clear white light of the Void and his body was washed ashore. It was laid on the beach in a line with some thirty others.
A group of Frederick's loyal friends immediately began the old Holgier Nelson style of resuscitation, propping him from behind, taking his arms and stretching them out like Christ crucified, then folding them together in front of him. It was an ungainly and inefficient method—mouth-to-mouth was yet to be invented.
An army medical officer, walking up and down the line of the drowned men, gave Frederick a cursory once-over, and advised the friends to give up, as he was a lost cause. They persisted, however, for another ten minutes until the medical officer passed by again and formally ordered them to stop. They ignored him and carried on for half an hour, until the officer appeared once more and threatened to have them charged with disobeying an order.
Frederick's body was bundled on to the back of a truck and taken off to a British army hospital in Alexandria.
On this journey to the morgue, Frederick partially regained consciousness. He was aware only of something thumping up hard against him as the page 184 truck turned corners, and having to fend it off with his arm. It was a corpse.
At the hospital gates, without regard for his having just returned from the Void, Frederick was ordered by a hard-boiled matron to climb down from the truck and walk, naked and unaided, through the wards to a bed.
Exactly two decades later, in 1961, the events of Frederick's life assumed a grim symmetry: desperately weak once more, he was again forced onto his feet by a nurse, this time for a walk which took him back into the Void forever.
He contracted pneumonia and died four days later.
As a nine-year-old, I began to jigsaw my father's past together with the pieces he had left around the house: a collection of bayonets, the head of a time bomb, an Italian anti-aircraft bullet; a gas mask; a scabrous black scorpion packed into a tobacco tin with its tail arched permanently into a stinging position; some captured Italian army insignia; shrapnel from a thermos bomb and an incendiary bomb, labelled for posterity in his minuscule handwriting; an Afrika Korps camouflage gun cover which we used as a ground sheet on our family picnics; his service medals and their miniatures, and the solar topee Frederick was wearing in the Western Desert the day a shell exploded in the breech of a howitzer and blew three fingers off his right hand.
His personality was not, however, so uncomplicatedly macho: he also left a minute mirrored silver perfume bottle, an Egyptian woman's veil, a tasselled fez, a scarab, a jewellery box exquisitely inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl, and an Egyptian clay water bottle, which maintains coolness by allowing water to evaporate gradually through its pores.
In our kitchen was a row of bottled eggplants, a rare sight in the New Zealand of 1961, which Frederick had grown and preserved himself. Hidden away in the top cupboard was a trove of tinned treasures: Perigord truffles, Burgundian escargots, frogs legs and Meredith Bros. shell-brand toheroas. There was Frederick's mayonnaise-making gadget, which he had doggedly cranked for half an hour at a time, and his library of cookery books, including a bound volume of hand-written recipes he had used in his post- War career as Nelson's leading caterer.
What captured my imagination most of all, however, was a collection of page 185 leather-bound photograph albums, which presented a picture of Cairo in 1940 as an elegant city possessing a mixture of both Deco and traditional Arabic architecture, neat cobbled streets, scrupulously clean and largely deserted, with woven wire litter bins at each lamppost, impeccably manicured public gardens, sidewalk cafés, exotic men in fez, turban and a caftan known as a jelabiya, women beneath the veil, lemonade sellers plying their trade, and itinerant bread sellers with hoops of bread looped around poles.
In another album we called his ditty book, were menus from bars, cafes and brasseries of the period: the Pam-Pam, Buffet&Bar 'Bristol', Nelson's Greek Shop, 'Splendid' Bar; Claridge Bar; Bar & Buffet 'Pole Nord', the Washington Restaurant Brasserie. Most of these reflected the tastes of the British colonial rulers, offering permutations of eggs, steak and chips.
At the Brasserie Britannia, however, one could dine on poisson mayonnaise, riz á la financière, tripes a la venetienne, escaloppe á la viennoise, gateau praline, tartlette au fraise, and finish off with roquefort and gruyere.
At the Brasserie Restaurant Finish, on June 22, 1940, Frederick had been able to choose from porc en gelée, pommes vapeur; crevettes, sauce remouladé; poisson à la Grecque; jambon, sauce madère et épinards; and crème caramel.
At Groppi, still in existence today, one could even sip, at a price, vintage Veuve Clicquot and pick at pressed beluga caviar.
It was a sophisticated, cosmopolitan society, where wealthy Europeans of every nationality held garden parties for the troops in their leafy garden suburbs, in expensive villas surrounded by date palms.
In the intervening half century before I reached Egypt, however, a generation of fellaheen had sat at the cinema, and later reclined on the straw beds of their mudbrick huts in front of television, and had had their minds filled with hitherto undreamed luxuries of England and America; the consequence today is that they have all come to Cairo in search of them, and in the process, strained every facility to bursting point. Sewage now spews out onto those neat cobbled streets, pock-marked with unfinished road- works. Tides of humanity are forced to spill from the footpath out onto the road, ignoring the horns of impatient taxi drivers trying to cut a swathe through them.
Accommodation has become impossibly tight, with the result that in the tourist season, from November through to March, it can be a problem finding a room of any sort.page 186
This we were to discover, arriving in the city at the end of the day, having been detained for half an afternoon by Egyptian immigration at Cairo Airport, for entering the country without the visa the Egyptian embassy in London had insisted we would not need.
After trying four hotels and finding them all full, we arrived at the Pension Suisse. Its owners might well have benefited from a lesson in Swiss hygiene. The winds which blow in daily from the Sahara had caked the entire foyer—walls, floor and ceiling—with a film of brown dust. This should have been sufficient warning in itself, but we entered the rickety 1940s lift nevertheless. It dropped several centimetres as we stepped in.
At reception, four young Egyptian men were reclined on a large sofa in a writhing knot. One was sitting in the lap of another, who was fondling his crotch. At the sight of us, they simultaneously leapt up and came running. Fresh prey.
They led us off to show us a room. Down the hallway an Englishman complained his shower wasn't working. Nor was the toilet in our room: the bowl was full of faeces and the cistern was broken. The wooden floor was grey with dirt. There were brown, unidentifiable stains over the walls; a few scattered flakes of silver backing a pane of glass on the bathroom wall denoted it had once been a mirror. They showed us three rooms and they all stank equally of shit, stale sweat and unwashed sheets.
The Goden Hotel and the Hotel Tulip were much the same. As darkness fell we were on the streets once more with our baggage.
'Can I help you?' asked a young Egyptian, a pretty boy in his early twenties, with huge almond eyes, slanting down into each other. They roamed every inch of Kate's body, his thick lids flickering slightly, before resting inscrutably on me. 'You need accommodation? I know a place I could show you.'
'Are you a commission agent for the place?' I asked.
His face fell. He seemed genuinely offended. No, he'd have us know he was completing an MA in history at Cairo University. He didn't care at all if we didn't see the pension, he was only trying to help us.
And indeed he was. The Pension Roma was a haven: spotlessly polished wooden floors, ensuite bathroom, hot water, freshly ironed sheets and an ornately carved wardrobe, £8.50 with breakfast included. From our sixth- storey room, I surveyed what we had just escaped: a dismal landscape below of flat roofs, each and every one covered with a metre deep pile of rubbish.page 187
The next morning, dutiful tourists, we took a jolty trot atop a camel around the Giza pyramids to the sad mouldering mound which is all 20th- century air pollution has left us of the Sphinx.
We then decided to ferry down the Nile to see Old Cairo.
The ticket box had once been painted blue, but it now bore what I was soon to realise was the Egyptian trademark for public hatches: an accretion for perhaps 15 cm all around the frame of solid shiny brownish-black grime, from generations of clamouring hands. There was a layer of rubbish over the floor of the waiting area, and the seats were either broken or had split coverings, with the stuffing spilling out.
The ferry itself was even more disgusting. It was a late model, no more than ten years old, but it had never been cleaned. The friction of bums had ensured the plastic bucket seats had remained orange on one side, but their backs were like the ticket hatch—coated solid with shiny black grime. A sheet of canvas had once covered the floor, its brown and grey ragged remains long since trampled under. The portholes were so streaked and splotched that we could barely see where we were going.
The ferry moved in a painfully slow zig-zag from one side of the bank to the other, stopping all the way, until we reached what an elderly passenger told us was Old Cairo.
Our visit lasted approximately five minutes. A stench of donkey dung and human excrement assailed my nostrils as I viewed a scene of desolation: streets of crumbling mud buildings, not a leaf or a twig in sight, and an ankle-deep layer of rubbish everywhere—frayed remains of plastic bags, scraps of cardboard packaging, bits of yellowed newspaper. A group of dirty children played and wallowed in the midst of this, obviously knowing nothing else.
Stepping back aboard the ferry, we were accosted by a commission agent who invited me to see his 'father's' perfume shop. Father my foot, I thought, but I followed him in any case.
We were not sorry, for the Thousand and One Nights Perfume Shop proved to be everything that Old Cairo should have been. Pushing aside the beaded glass curtain over the doorway, we entered a dimly lit room which was the embodiment of a 19th-century Orientalist painter's fantasy: a silk canopy was suspended from the ceiling, finely woven kilims covered the floor with a riot of colourful patterns, and around the walls were richly carved cabinets containing jars of perfume, the scent of which pervaded the page 188 whole shop.
We were ushered to chairs inlaid with mother-of pearl while the tout's 'father' launched into a well-polished spiel: what is sold in the West as French perfume, he claimed, is made at Grasse from a much diluted base of Egyptian oil, distilled from flowers grown in vast commercial crops in the Nile Valley. Once home in New Zealand, I could dilute his Chanel No. 9 or Opium base nine times with ethyl alcohol, and end up with French perfume. Whatever the truth of this, his oils certainly smelled wonderful, and with a black market exchange for my US dollars at twice the official rate, his prices were unbelievably cheap.
Our deal haggled over and successfully concluded, the merchant sent his shop boy out on an errand. Several minutes later he arrived back with glasses of heavily sweetened mint tea and a plate of scented semolina and coconut cakes, simple but very delicious: