23rd November 1940
(Near Cairo, Egypt)
23rd November 1940
My dearest little darling,
You will no doubt be pleased to hear that I am at present settled down on land once more and am making the best of these peaceful surroundings to make up for the monotonous life I led during a sea voyage of apparent interminable length.
In my last letter, I informed you that we had arrived safely at our destination and no doubt you remember that I spent the night performing the duties of guard. Fortunately for me, it was considerably curtailed in order to carry out a rapid exit from the ship and we rose in the darkness of the early hours of the morning, breakfasted at 4.30, packed our equipment and stores, loaded the ferry boat which eventually conveyed us to the busy docks where, after unloading the goods and stores on the train we assumed our seats in a wooden and bare third first-class carriage.
The train journey revealed immense stretches of sand dunes with perhaps one solitary tuft of grass in every square mile; a total lack of vegetation and civilisation and wide expanse of clear blue sky. Sometime in the afternoon we alighted at our final destination and after entertaining a multitude of curious people clinging to the railings that separated the street from the platform, we loaded up and presently made ourselves as comfortable as possible crouched in lorries speeding towards an allotted camp. Arriving at the rest camp (for it is so called I understand) we found great relief in discarding our loathsome equipment, were allotted in a most spacious and well ventilated tent and introduced ourselves to the office, a large modern hut resembling a Swiss chalet, which consists of five rooms with stone floors. These are very cool during the midday sun and spacious enough for work to be carried out in comfort. Since the regimental office was re-established I have been kept moderately busy reorganising several items in my capacity as filing clerk.
The camp itself is a vast sand coloured plain on which a large number of tents of different sizes and shapes have been erected, as well as a multitude of wooden huts serving as mess rooms or offices. A large canteen run by the NAAFI attracts the hungry and thirsty at every hour of the day whilst the laundry operated by energetic natives who toil day and night without murmur, stationery shop and barbershop all have an enormous clientele.
The weather is equivalent to our summer in dryness and heat. The sun throws out her strong rays throughout the day and her early setting, which normally takes place in the region of 1700, is a glorious sight to behold. Unfortunately, it so happens that the constancy of warm weather brings forth its disadvantages, namely clouds of dust wherever you tread and swarms of flies. The former encumbrance almost dispenses of boot polishing! Indeed, even the most perfect and painstaking shine would soon be completely obliterated by a thick layer of white sand dust. The aggravating and loathsome flies have a habit of announcing their approach from nowhere by a sinister buzz and they cling to all exposed parts of the body.
Fortunately there exists effective remedies for these tiresome drawbacks. As far as dusty boots are concerned, small native boys who earn their living as boot blacks simply abound in the most unlikely places where soldiers congregate such as tram stops, club exits etc. One particular, a 12-year-old who lost both his legs three years ago in Abyssinia when knocked down by a passing tram car, does his job well and like all his confederates has a remarkable gift for business deals and accepts or rather tries to charge any amount between one pound and a halfpenny! Others sell fly-swatters with equal audacity and artfulness. Town leave is granted daily from after duty until 0130. To reach the town, I jump on a tram at the bottom of the main road from camp. A tram ride is the cheapest item you can possibly ask for in this country. Indeed the five-mile journey costs a mere tuppence in second class. The conveyance is actually a cross between a tram and district train in that from one end of the journey to the other we leave the streets for the most part of the journey and race through a railway track constructed between agricultural lands of the suburbs and slum areas of the town where mud huts and tumbledown shacks are prominent.
Needless to say the general characteristics of city life are nothing new to me, as they closely resemble those of Paris. Summarising briefly I should rightly call it one of the most cosmopolitan towns in the world. The most prominent section of the population of Egypt is the Egyptian Arab but Greeks, French, Italian and Armenians, mostly refugees and exiles of bygone days who have settled down here, are seen wherever you go. I find great pleasure and derive immense satisfaction by conversing in French whenever I have an opportunity of speaking to a civilian or a storekeeper. I buy the French edition of the newspaper and eavesdrop without arousing suspicion (thanks to the British uniforms) on many intimate conversations by my neighbours. The latter practice is great fun but I should hate to be in the speaker’s boots especially when personal matters are discussed!
The average Egyptian businessmen dresses similarly to a European but wears a red fez with black tassel as a headdress and the working classes pedlars and peasants are clad in garments identical to an old-fashioned striped nightdress and many protect their heads by means of a peculiar floral designed headwear. The women, rarely seen unless escorted by their males or else chaperones are up-to-date in European fashions, the most fashionable attire evidently being light blue or grey costumes. Hats are very seldom worn. The peasant females are generally attired in long black robes and still carry the veil. As already inferred peddlers of all ages and descriptions selling fanciful objects, leather work, souvenirs, periodicals etc swarm around men in uniform and no doubt carry out successful deals at the expense of short-sighted asses who fall into their clutches. Last Thursday night I had the equivalent of one penny in my pocket on returning home after a 15 minute argument in broken English and French with a peddler who tried to pass off an imitation gold ring for half a crown, I succeeded in knocking down the price to the penny I had left. And that’s the sort of thing that goes on every second of the day in this town and in this country as a whole. They will stick to you like glue; a refusal to buy their goods inspires more confidence in them; they are as persistent and as obstinate as the flies.
Talking of finance will receive an extra fourpence a day representing colonial allowance which, needless to say is very welcome. The Egyptian coinage is most complicated as in some cases there are several different coins representing the same value. There is also a vast field of dud coinage you have great difficulty in getting rid of it.
The food in town is excellent and greatly resembles French cuisine. Eggs are as cheap as dirt so much so that asking for one egg in a restaurant is considered an abnormality I’m sure you will shudder to learn that I have averaged three good eggs a day so far and that I am hoping to increase that figure before we leave the area. As in Paris and other famous continental cities there are more restaurants and cafes than any other shop and I would give anything to sit down to a typical Egyptian meal if I was given the opportunity but unfortunately most native quarters are out of bounds to HM forces. There are many cinemas presenting the latest American films and most popular French efforts of pre-war days, cabaret shows commonly known as money traps and several other places of entertainment.
I went to the pictures yesterday and saw Laurel and Hardy act the fools, also Mickey Rooney in “Andy Hardy has Spring Fever”, which was responsible for keeping the international audience in fits of laughter. French captions appeared on the screen on the side of which a smaller one displayed captions in Greek and Arabic!
In the thoroughfares there are a considerable number of archways to huge buildings of Oriental architecture. Under these there are strings of bazaars, cafes, tobacconists and photographers. In the bazaars millions of souvenirs can be purchased at very high prices that simply ask to be beaten down. The most attractive mementoes are the typical Egyptian brooches and spoons, bracelets and necklaces. Needless to say, I am very anxious to add to your spoon collection but in these difficult times I cannot trust the postal services let alone the bad reception at the customs offices. Tomorrow I shall endeavour to have my photograph taken for you, sweetheart, and all being well shall forward it with this letter.
I miss you all the more now that I am on earth again and I try very hard to forget the sadness of being without you, but without much success. It is the fact of being totally unable to forget you, the love and happiness you have brought to me, dearest heart, that still makes me grow more fond of you each day.
I worship the thought that no matter how long we are apart, I shall always regard you in the same light of beauty, of everything that is most sacred. I console myself at the thought that you are as near to my heart as could be. I rejoice when I bear in mind that every passing day will bring you nearer to me.
News about London is so very vague that it worries me terribly. It was with much relief that I heard on the wireless that you now have a moment to breathe in the City and that nights are quieter than before. Thank God, the huns are experiencing similar conditions to those of September and let’s hope that a further dose will quieten them forever. How very happy and relieved I shall feel when I receive word from you in your neat artistic handwriting! Two months have passed without a letter… and it is said that letters from England take five months or more to reach here. This letter, which is being sent by airmail, should reach you in about a month’s time.
It does not seem logical for me to walk about without my other half and when I set eyes on happy couples, a sinking feeling develops over me and my heart almost breaks. It is all the thousands of happy reminiscences in which we both star and which will forever linger in my mind that keep me alive. I do hope you are keeping your sweet little pecker up and continue to uphold your amiable character and pleasant disposition in spite of our common unhappiness of being torn apart for a while.
Keep your mind active, darling Betty, enjoy life and take great interest in your job and then you will find that all these unnecessary disappointing days will soon come to an end. Above all think of yourself first and look after yourself, keep safe, darling and never deny shelter from dangers.
I understand that every so often we are entitled to send a personal letter home, which does not fall into the talons of the censor. It is then that you will know the truth about my deepest feelings towards you and the genuine expression of my intensive love for you. In the meantime darling please content yourself with these dull and dry letters.
Ever your husband lover,