THE COWS OF CAMBRIDGE

It’s been quiet in this town lately. There are far fewer tourists since Covid hit, and most students are having to study remotely. But Cambridge still has a few new arrivals. This young herd arrived on April 1. Here they are, slaking their thirst in the brook 20 minutes after the transporter off-loaded them.

Like all newly arrived freshers, these guys stick together at first, but they soon learn to stretch their legs.

Grazing on common land in Cambridge is a tradition that goes back centuries. Bullocks and heifers normally arrive sometime in April, and may stay as long as six months, the state of the vegetation permitting. Common land is surprisingly near the city centre.

I won’t dwell on what happens when the cattle leave, but they seem to enjoy their time in Cambridge. Favourite pastimes include paddling, munching on willow, and getting to know the students.

There’s normally one bullock or heifer who is especially sociable. Here’s Panda Eyes making a friend in 2019.

And another one.

In 2020, we knew this one as Poop Face. Well, how would you describe these distinguishing patches?

His, not mine!

Poop Face was so gregarious that several locals thought of adopting him. He also got himself into the Cambridge News AND The Sun newspaper for being so inquisitive about people’s rucksacks, picnics, etc. Unfortunately he nearly choked on discarded packaging, and survived only because someone had the presence of mind to fish a crisp packet out of his throat. Every year one cow or bullock dies here from choking on garbage, yet people still leave their litter.

Every year’s intake is different. I look forward to getting to know our new arrivals and watching them grow and learn, and just enjoy life while they can.

They’ll get used to the other young people, and their bikes.

Some may appreciate being serenaded while bathing.

If I don’t answer the phone, I’m probably spending some time with these magnificent beasts.

PS In the interests of fairness, I have been asked to point out that Oxford has cattle too.

SPEAK TO ME OF SUEZ

In this short extract from my novel The Girls from Alexandria, ten-year-old Nadia gives her take on the events of Suez.

ALEXANDRIA, 1956

It began on the twenty-sixth of July when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to put it, nearly eleven.

The whole thing was about a canal and a dam. President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a big man with a muscular jaw and impressive teeth that he showed all the time.

via Wikimedia Commons

That night in 1956 was the fourth anniversary of the revolution. Nasser celebrated by giving a long speech right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square by that statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha wearing a turban and brandishing a sword as he sits on his horse.

Mansheya Square, Alexandria, via Wikimedia Commons

I enjoyed listening to Nasser on the radio because I could understand his speeches. Unlike other important men who make themselves sound clever by using formal Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could follow, even a child of not quite eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

Whenever anything interesting happened, I was sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up, so I missed the big speech. Mother told me about it the next morning, which was hardly the same thing. I was especially sorry to have missed the firemen dispersing the crowds in Mansheya Square.

We were all upstairs by the air conditioning which was on at full blast against the sweltering heat. Father and Mother told Simone and me that the Suez Canal now belonged to Egypt instead of France or Britain. That meant it would raise lots of money for Egypt and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

It was a good thing that the Suez Canal had been nationalised. Unless you happened to be Britain or France, I supposed.

For a while after that, I forgot about canals and went back to puzzling over Uncle Selim. Selimkept a thin book in his pocket. Whenever I took an interest in it, however, his reptile eyes swivelled towards me and I’d have to look away. I only glimpsed it once before he whisked the little book back into his breast pocket.

‘Poetry and papyrus,’ Tante Zahra scoffed between burps.

When term started, I consulted the encyclopaedia in the school library. Papyrus came from a plant in the Delta, though that did not enlighten me about Selim. For good measure, I looked up palimpsest as well, its entry being nearby. That was all about scraping something off a parchment to use it again.

Pontus Edenberg/FreeImages

As it turned out, I didn’t get a chance to visit the school library for ages after that. In October, some countries got angry with Egypt for taking a canal that should have been Egyptian in the first place. Father and Mother did not fully explain it but, in no time at all, France, Britain, and Israel all ganged up to declare war on Egypt.

Abdou stuck blackout paper on all the windows, and every night we heard air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. That’s what my horrid cousin Victor called them. With schools shut, he was in our garden more than ever. He told me that the guns were at Smouha, barely a few kilometres away, but I insisted that didn’t scare me at all, so there.

Simone knew better. She hugged me and reassured me that everything would be all right. ‘You can sleep in my room,’ she said.

I padded into her room when the lights were out, leaving my teddy bear behind. I didn’t want my sister to think I was still a baby. What with the guns and Simone’s feet, I barely slept at all while sharing her bed, but at least there was the chance that some of her courage would rub off on to me in the night.

***

The Girls from Alexandria is out on April 1, and features this stunning cover designed by Emma Rogers.

COCKTAILS & CAMELS

I’ve mentioned my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria a fair bit recently, but it’s a while since I shared something from Cocktails and Camels. Sixty years on from when my mother wrote it, I still think it’s one of the most entertaining books ever. And no, I’m not at all biased.

Published NY, 1960

Grandmother, a beautiful green-eyed woman with jet-black hair, had come from Damascus at the age of thirteen to marry Grandfather, whom she had never set eyes on before.

Grandfather had originated in Lebanon, studied in Paris, then emigrated to Egypt and prospered as a merchant. Although the marriage was one of convenience, as marriages often were, it seems to have worked out. My grandparents had eight boys.

Mother and Father were less fortunate. They had us —three daughters. A daughter was not only nothing to write home about, it was something one should definitely not write home about. As for having three daughters, it was a calamity. Obviously someone had given Mother and Father the Evil Eye.

The Evil Eye was, like the British, very active in the Middle East and responsible for everything that went wrong. If someone admired your new dress and then you spilled coffee all over it, it wasn’t that you were clumsy. It was the Evil Eye.

But, if Father was disappointed at having three daughters, he never showed it. Father never showed anything, which was very smart of him but most un-Arab. He faced his fate very well, far better than Maha, the Lebanese nanny who had been with Mother before she was married.

Maha was a big moon-faced woman with brown velvet eyes and pierced ear-lobes from which hung tiny blue beads which were meant to ward off the Evil Eye. She seemed to have been put together out of a series of cushions and looked like a Michelin advertisement.

Because she was flat-footed, but mainly because she was Lebanese, she padded around in bedroom slippers which she had turned down at the back. Her elephantine tread was always accompanied by the soft clinking of thin gold bracelets on her plump wrists. They were her entire fortune and she added one whenever she had saved some money.

Once a week on her afternoon off, she painted her eyes crudely with kohl and stuffed herself into a corset and high-heeled shoes several sizes too small. Then, pirouetting clumsily in front of us, she’d say, smiling like a child, ”I’m not all that fat, am I, my darlings?”

When I was born, Maha sobbed for a week. She did not throw her arms up in the air and cry, ”Mabrouk, mabrouk, congratulations, may the little one live to be one hundred,” and then bake some very special Lebanese dish which would sit on our stomachs for the rest of the night.

She did not utter one single little mabrouk. Such congratulations were used for happy things like baby boys, and really important things like having a new dress or getting over a corn on the foot. But having a girl was not a corn on the foot. It was a pain in the neck. As for being a girl—well, maybe one could live it up in England or the United States, but in the East it was something to live down.

Things have changed so much for women. Or have they?

THOUGHTS ON WORLD BOOK DAY

World Book Day is about every child and young person getting a book of their own, but it has also made me think around the topic of children and books.

I was about four or five years old when my mother began writing her first book, Cocktails and Camels. She did it in my room, it being the sunniest one in my grandparents’ house in Alexandria where we all lived.

As if that weren’t bad enough, silence was required while my mummy filled reams of paper with her pencilled scrawl. Sometimes she stopped to smile at what she’d written, and occasionally she even laughed, but she rarely read any of it out loud to me. Here’s a tip if you ever want to annoy a child: make sure they have no idea what’s going on, then demand they keep absolutely quiet during it.

After some time, I piped up. “I’m going to write a book too!”

Because it’s also #throwbackThursday aka #TBT, you’re getting this of my mother and me in the garden.

I did end up writing books and, like my mother, I use pencil and paper for my first drafts. The novels are entirely made up, but where do the characters come from? I don’t know. They come from here and there, I suppose, from snatches of conversation or a chance sighting of someone so offbeat that they beg to be put in a book.

They also come from ill-defined experiences that go way back and suddenly decide to leap into my head. This they usually do in the middle of the night, and I have to jot it all down on paper lest I forget, which I’m told can be annoying when it happens at 2am, and again at 4am.

As I recall, my mother was apt to do this too. And no, it’s not ‘annoying’. I prefer to think of it as the circle of writing life.

I’m very proud of my mother and all her books, including those for children, but especially this one as it’s a warm and witty tribute to the cosmopolitan Alexandria that I loved and was home.

And now my childhood has led to a novel set in the same world that no longer exists. You may know this already from my frequent mentions of The Girls from Alexandria which is out next month. I’m sorry that my mother isn’t around to enjoy it, or to hear me say how much I owe her.

***

Enough of this wallowing in sentiment. It’s not just World Book Day and Throwback Thursday. It’s also Mishmish’s tenth birthday. Her name is Arabic for apricot and she is a goddess.

كل سنة و إنتي طيبة يا مشمش

Kul sena wa inti tayyeba ya Mishmish which means Many happy returns, Mishmish.

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

No point telling me it’s not spring yet. Not when those crocuses of hope are pushing up all over the place.

It feels like spring outside and it looks like it too. I went out to the wheelie bin and got rain and sunshine at the same time, which pretty much clinched the diagnosis.

The snowdrops have been. So too have aconites and iris reticulata.

Someone’s camellia is busy doing its thing, though its neighbour is less lush.

Looks like my cotoneaster is playing dead again, and one of hydrangeas has copped it. A couple of salvias were meant to disguise a missing chunk of the pot, but that didn’t quite work out.

On the plus side, I now know what slugs do all winter.

As a young child, I thought gardens were a place of wonder, and almost infinite in size. Snails fascinated me. So did the loofah plants that grew alongside the house in Alexandria. Snapdragons were called gueule de loup, made for opening and shutting like a wolf’s mouth. The gardener swept the path with a palm leaf, and watered when the weather was especially dry, though, as every Alexandrian will tell you, the weather is absolutely perfect in Alex.

As an adult, I’m a fairly lazy gardener and anyway the patio isn’t infinitely large. At the moment it’s not so much a riot of colour as someplace to go to between Zoom meetings. But you’ve got to stop and smell the roses, as they say.

The roses aren’t out yet, the honeysuckle is barely visible, and I’ve no idea who ‘they’ are, but even so I did that smelling thing today. And yes, I’ve now figured out what the neighbour’s cat has been doing all winter.

How is your garden doing this month? Is it bursting into life, or haven’t you got around to checking?

THE CAMERA NEVER LIES

How I treasure old photos. They feature a bygone age, with bygone people that I loved so much and still miss.

Here are my great-grandparents with six of their seven children, including my grandmother, great aunts, and great uncles.  As usual, my great-grandfather wore a fez.

My great-grandparents Abdullah and Aspasie with their two eldest children

A fez was normal headgear in Egypt at the time. Until the revolution in 1952, it was essential in the civil service, the armed forces, and the police. Worn at an angle, it could cut quite a dash, until a gust of wind made off with it. My grandfather never took to it. He’d say, ‘As a hat it is completely useless. It neither keeps off the sun, nor the rain, nor does it keep the ears warm in winter. It is like a flowerpot, that is all. You can’t even use it to hide from someone you want to avoid.’

Still, it suited some, like my Uncle Aziz.

Looking at more recent photos, you may gather that I liked food, swans, and my aunt Muriel. None of that has changed one bit.

My mother took a lot of pictures with a bulky Kodak 35mm that accompanied her everywhere around Alexandria. We lived in Alexandria but occasionally went to Cairo to visit an aunt who had, in a moment of madness, decided to move there. Alexandrians and Cairenes generally held each other in the kind of esteem that Oxford reserves for Cambridge.

In Alexandria with my best friend, also called Carol, the camera case, and Boogie the dog

Sometimes we travelled further afield, especially in summer. This was when hordes of Cairenes arrived by train, bus, or car, bringing their children, their nannies, their cousins, their baskets, their suitcases, and their ruckus. The government, too, moved to Alex, and not an inch of beach was left. Ugh.

Mother always travelled with the camera. I remember the case as if it were yesterday. Made of brown leather with a fuzzy lining, it was an object of fascination, and now I realise that it appears in over half the pictures from my early childhood. I don’t recall what the camera itself looked like, and obviously there are no photos of it.

Lake Geneva, I think. Who cares where you are when you have a cuddly camera case?

No toy stood a chance when pitted against the appeal of the camera case. The doll was soon chucked on the ground by the deck chair.

I didn’t have a comfort blanket. With that camera case to hand, there was no need. However, as with many comfort objects, it didn’t last forever. My mother took a trip to Thailand. She returned to Alexandria sans Kodak, having dropped it in the Mae Klong river. I don’t remember what she bought to replace it. It just wasn’t the same.

Do you have old family photos? And, if so, do you enjoy them as much as I do?

***

If you’re interested, there’s lots more about twentieth-century Alexandria in my forthcoming book The Girls from Alexandria.

A FACE FOR RADIO

“An author should always make an effort to look good,” a novelist once told me. Her name was Sally and she was a tutor on a writing course. I’ve forgotten her surname as well as everything else she said, but I do remember her advice to put on your best face, even just for a radio interview.

With this in mind, I slipped into the habit of putting on lipstick even if I was only popping down to the cash machine. My three boys hooted with laughter because it was the kind of thing their grandmother did. Not their mother.

Of course, it’s impossible to look your best all the time. On the school run, mascara inevitably takes second place to lost gym kit, and, in my other life as a GP, I was often bedraggled from visiting patient after patient in the rain.

To be fair, I reckon few people expect their doctor to step out of the pages of a fashion mag. Tidy and clean are usually enough. The occasional patient, however, has a keen eye. “Bed 3 wants to see you,” said the nurse on the ward.

‘Bed 3’ – who happened to be from Tunbridge Wells – didn’t just tell me about her cystitis symptoms. She also pointed out that the hem of my dress was uneven.

I prescribed some treatment, and, when I next checked in on her, she said she was better. Then she asked when I was going to fix that dress.

I didn’t exactly follow author Sally’s advice for my first ever radio interview. It was at the end of a busy week and it was down the line so, come 6pm, I was lying in bed on the phone to the presenter. I took the precaution of using an extra pillow, though. It’s best not to sound completely dead even if you look it.

The following interview was in the radio studio. Sally what’s-her-name would have been so proud to see me arrive with full makeup and shiny hair. The listeners might not be able to see me, but the team at the station would.

As it turned out, the presenter and I never met. I was taken to sit on my own in a separate little studio.

What about the producer? Well, his guide dog thought I looked OK.

***

You may also like My Fabulous Life on TV.

20TH CENTURY MEDICINE, EGYPTIAN STYLE

Covid-19 has already altered medical practice forever but, thinking back, there’ve been many changes in medicine over the years. Most have been more gradual than the ones made necessary by this pandemic, but no less dramatic. The NHS care that I practise, and receive, is far removed from the care I experienced as a child growing up in Egypt.

With my mother in the garden

Antibiotics were few back then, and usually given by injection with a freshly boiled syringe and a reusable needle. I can still feel the cold oily pain of penicillin as it inched its way from my bottom down my leg.

“I don’t want an injection!”

Penicillin was better absorbed in this way than by mouth. There was also a trend of sparing a patient’s delicate digestion, hence the usual recovery diet of rice with boiled chicken, as recommended by every doctor. If the patient ran a fever, suppositories were deemed preferable to a couple of Aspro.

The French occupation of Egypt may also explain how often the middle and upper classes suffered from liver complaints. “C’est de la bile, chérie.” At least bilious attacks can be genuine. A tired liver or le foie fatigué isn’t even a real diagnosis.

Injections of vitamin B12 were popular in the mid-20th century, and not just for cases of proven deficiency. The impressive bright red colour of B12 flowing into a vein could hardly fail to make the patient feel better, never mind what was actually wrong with her.

The divide between haves and have nots dominated every aspect of life in Egypt. With no national health provision, the poor died young, blindness from trachoma was common, and amputees were everywhere.

If you could afford one, your family doctor would visit whenever requested, often with a cigarette in hand as he puffed his way upstairs. Once he extinguished it, he would examine the patient. As he usually wheezed more than the patient, I’m not sure he heard much through his stethoscope.

Granny waiting for the doctor to arrive

What medicine lacked by way of treatments back then was made up for by personal attention, much as alternative medicine still functions today. A little baksheesh to the receptionist ensured that you got seen ahead of others in the waiting room. It seemed unfair to me then, as a young child, and it was even less fair that most of the grownups around me couldn’t see a problem.

It’s almost incomprehensible now, but polio was a scourge that went back thousands of years. With outbreaks of paralysis among young children every summer, no wonder we all feared it. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine didn’t come into use in the Middle East until the late 1950s. For some reason, both doses were injected into the back (not the buttock or thigh). The prospect made me run off into the garden where I promptly fell on the gravel. The two skinned knees and two grazed elbows actually hurt for longer than the polio jab. I’m pleased to say that the Salk vaccine, followed by Sabin oral vaccine, began the long road towards conquering polio worldwide.

According to hieroglyphics and papyruses, bilharzia was known to the Ancient Egyptians. The flatworms that cause the disease are water-borne, with a complicated life cycle that involves freshwater snails as an intermediate host. Bilharzia causes a heavy burden of ill-health, especially for rural children who paddle (and piddle) in the Nile or in one of the many canals. And yet, despite the toll on the population, many people living a comfortable life in Alexandria or Cairo 50 years ago had barely heard of it. The best remedy is prevention with clean water and good hygiene, so the story continues.

***

Although my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria isn’t a book about medicine, you’ll find many aspects of a cosmopolitan world that has long since ceased to exist.

CHRISTMAS IN EGYPT

On this very different holiday season, I’ve been looking back on what I remember of celebrations past, when I was growing up in Alexandria.

Photo by Felix Schmitt

There were many Christian communities at the time, and Christmas trees were easy to find. Ours was always installed in the basement. You didn’t have to be a small child to think it was huge. The top reached the ceiling, leaving little room for a star. I was allowed to make paper chains, but wasn’t to fiddle with the ornaments as they were made of glass, or the lights as they were real candles.

At some point, someone fat turned up dressed as Father Christmas. I never discovered who it was, but the list of possibilities was quite long as practically every grownup man had a paunch.

My current crèche has lost most of its moss

A nativity scene always featured, complete with fake snow on the roof of the stable. I don’t know which bright spark thought there might have been snow in Bethlehem but, this being Egypt, there was ample cotton wool.

Unlike the nativity set I have today where everything is glued down, the figures could be moved around. I had fun rearranging every one while I pondered exactly why Jesus had been born in a stable. Arabs are among the most hospitable people in the world. Surely any self-respecting innkeeper would have made a bit more of an effort to find room for Mary and Joseph.

Ahlan wa sahlan’ means ‘welcome’

When my best friend (also called Carol) arrived, we’d move the figures around some more, so that each could get a good view of Baby Jesus. Carol would argue that the three wise men were entitled to the best places as they’d come such a long way. “AND they brought presents,” she added.

I couldn’t see the point of frankincense or myrrh, especially as I hadn’t a clue what they were, and I was pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t appreciate gold until he was a bit older. Anyway the sheep was missing a leg now so it had to lean against the manger to stop toppling over.

In the garden with my friend Carol, and Boogie the dog

Family was plentiful back then. As my grandmother was one of seven, there was no shortage of great-aunts and great-uncles to pinch my cheeks and tell me how much I had grown since the previous week. I can’t remember what we had for Christmas dinner as I’d be too excited to eat. One year, though, I was so high on anticipation that I threw up onto my plate.

As for many other children on Christmas Day, unwrapping presents was the main event. Sometimes the dog joined in. This was the same dog that had bitten me while I was sitting on my potty, but he’d been forgiven.

Trying to get the dog interested in playing with my new toys.

Going to the pictures was a Christmas tradition and we’d traipse out en masse to the Rialto or the Amir. Mother India was a wonderful film, though as a child I found 2 hours 52 mins on the long side. When I saw the film again years later, I stayed awake throughout and can say that Nargis played her role as Radha magnificently.

For a lucky few, Christmas meant a short break at a grand hotel in Luxor with days spent visiting the Valley of the Kings. These days, the luxury hotels are still there, but devoid of tourists.

It’s a very different world, especially this year. I hope each of you has a peaceful and restorative Christmas, even if it’s nothing like the one you’d planned. Here’s to a happier, healthier 2021.

***

My memories of growing up in Egypt inspired my new novel The Girls from Alexandria. It’ll be published April 1 by Agora Books and you can find out more here, including how to pre-order a copy if you feel so inclined.

THE TRUTH ABOUT BOOK CLUBS

Without serious preparation, a book club meeting is nothing. Which explains why, for the previous half hour, I had been fashioning little flags out of sticky labels and toothpicks to poke into various cheeses. Of course, an elaborate cheeseboard was not the only fare that evening. There was plenty of wine as well. This particular club, like so many other suburban book gatherings, could be described as a drinking club with a reading problem.

The venue may be a local pub, a bookshop, someone’s front room, or, especially this year, a room on Zoom. While the surroundings may vary, I have discovered some universal truths about book clubs.

#1 Like books themselves, book clubs come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Some are highbrow, others less so. Before setting off with a tome tucked under your arm, it’s as well to know which sort you’re heading for. Get it wrong, and it’s like turning up at a funeral dressed for a tarts ‘n vicars party.

#2 There’s always a troublemaker, and the reason for the trouble is ostensibly to do with the book. The end is too rushed or too vague, there are too many foreign words or too little sex, and since when did dove get to be the past tense of dive?

“Since about 1855, that’s when,” a smart-arse will pipe up, citing the OED or an obscure poem by Longfellow.

#3 Someone will try to restore the peace. It’s either an amateur referee, a retired librarian with world-class shushing skills, or the home-owner who fears waking the kids.

#4 That’s why it’s a relief to move on to the choice for next meeting, though a consensus may be elusive. The chosen book is most often a novel, but could it be a biography for a change? The next book has to be well-thought of, or else controversial. Must triggers be avoided? Discuss. And they do.

Recent or topical is good, as long as the book is affordable. If not, some will only study the free sample on Amazon.

The book can’t be too long, because some of us work, you know. Here someone may bring up past choices. “Remember the time we chose English Passengers? I couldn’t be doing with nearly 500 pages.”

“Why not? English Passengers was hilarious.” Which may have been true, in parts. But then this came from the same person who thought of Titanic as a rom-com.

#5 Sometimes the club invites an author as guest speaker. Authors are only too glad to talk about their book and quaff wine, until such time as they are allowed to leave with the gift of a potted plant and the remains of the Roquefort. Just don’t say, “I’ve written a novel. Could you have a look at my manuscript?”

#6 Virtual meetings, being easier to attend and free of location restraints, often increase the number of participants, but Zoom and the like can decrease interaction. That doesn’t necessarily make the club run more harmoniously, though. See #2 above.

#7 It’s easy to dip into a book club and there’s no need to commit to every meeting, especially online. Just Google and you’re bound to find clubs for every possible genre, whether you enjoy sci-fi, feminist literature, translated books, historical fiction, or zombie apocalypse novels. Since the advent of Covid-19, escapism is the order of the day.

Do you go to a book club? I’d love to hear about yours, so please let me know its highs and its lows.

Next week, you can join award-winning author Jane Davis for a lockdown book club meeting via Zoom. On 12 Dec at 6.00pm, she’ll be answering questions about her latest release, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock, a gripping novel set in the 1950s. The event is free but you need to register. Zoom meeting ID: 848 7601 7328 https://buff.ly/3miipHf

***

You may also enjoy What Not to Say to an Author.