How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

In her own words, this is how my mother came to write her first book.

Il a nationalisé le canal!” my father said again with disbelief. “Nasser read the decree right here in Alexandria, this evening. He told the USA to choke to death on its fury!”

We were staying with my parents in Alexandria, and, as it turned out, I was only allowed out of the house at certain hours of the day. It was a sort of house arrest (résidence forcée).

There was nothing much to do in autumn 1956. It was October, a lovely month in Egypt, when summer’s heat and humidity are over, and it is pleasant to be out of doors.

One morning, I sat down under the mimosa tree, with the sound of white doves cooing in the dovecote, and began to write my first book, Cocktails and Camels. I never thought of any other title.

Apart from school essays and letters, I had never written anything before. I wrote in pencil, painstakingly, while my young daughter Carol picked daisies on the lawn. As I searched for the right words, they popped up like magic. I was elated. 

Writing my first book had nothing to do with my wanting to be ‘a writer’. It just happened because the circumstances and my state of mind were attuned. Although the country was at war, Gamal Abdel Nasser was on a nationalization spree, and the future looked uncertain, I felt peaceful and content. Maybe that is what writing does for you.

The writing did not always come easily. Every line was written and rewritten a dozen times or more. I did not mind. Every time I corrected a sentence, I could see it getting better. Writing was a challenge, and I enjoyed it. I’d walk around the garden, mulling things over. Sometimes I’d laugh aloud at what I’d written.

“I’m going to write a book too!” Carol piped up.

Friends came to visit and have tea. I told them I was writing a book, and that it would be called Cocktails and Camels.

“You are writing a book?” Then, in French, “Mais pourquoi? Why don’t you learn to play bridge?”

Je déteste le bridge!” We always spoke like that in Alexandria, switching from one language to another all the time. Anyone who did not was not a true Alexandrian.

Annoyed that I always refused to play bridge, they were soon asking if I was planning to mention them in my book.

“Of course.” How could I not include them? They were such characters. But I would do it with humour, and make up names to disguise their identities.

“Will you say that I am the best dressed woman in Alexandria?” asked Yvette who wore a different outfit every day. We laughed.

“You’ll have to be patient and wait until the book is published.”

My father, who for more than thirty years had been the respected President of La Bourse de Contrats en Egypte, had published an excellent and much acclaimed book on the Bourse. I thought he would be pleased to hear that I too wanted to write a book.

One evening, with Carol asleep in her cot, I told my parents that I was working on a light-hearted autobiography called Cocktails and Camels. Their reaction was not what I had expected.

Quoi?” Father cried. “Un livre? Des cocktails?”

“Quelle idée! Nous finirons en prison!” Mother said. “Why can’t you be like everyone else, comme tout le monde?”

“I’ll take a pen name,” I cried, annoyed. “And all the names of the people will be changed. It won’t be published in Egypt, anyway.”

There had been censorship in Egypt for years, and one was careful what one wrote in letters and newspapers, let alone books. Sometimes, foreign magazines were sold with articles missing, cut out by the censors. To be on the safe side, I changed not only the names of friends and relatives, but, to be sure no one recognized the family, I wrote that I had two sisters instead of a sister and a brother. My brother Théo was never mentioned in Cocktails and Camels. As for a pen name, I would be Jacqueline Carol, using my own first name and my daughter’s first name as a surname.

“You can’t afford to publish a book,” Father then said.

“I am not planning to pay for its publication! The publisher will pay me.”

Mother’s blue eyes looked infinitely sad. “Please be careful, chérie. Nice girls don’t write books.”

“Who cares about nice girls?” I howled as I stormed out of the room.

Cocktails and Camels was published in New York in 1960. Now sadly out of print, it portrays Egypt in an earlier time – الزمن الجميل – and is still one of the funniest books I have ever read. Not that I’m at all biased.

Carol

 

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A Parent Worries Forever

Seen that touching Lloyds Bank photo where the mother is hugging her ‘baby’ before he nonchalantly sets off for university? I can’t reproduce the image here, but you can check it out by clicking on Lloyds Bank.  I showed it to some of my friends, who variously remarked on the mother’s height relative to her son, the blissful smile on her face, and the flimsiness of rucksack on the son’s back. 

Those with children noticed none of these things. Their reaction was just terror.

When expecting your first child, there’s usually a golden moment during which you’re thrilled at the prospect of having a baby but haven’t yet realised you’re heading for a lifetime of worry. Well, savour it while you can.

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My twin boys arrived when I had one son already. In a flash, my anxiety levels trebled. The children seemed intent on working their way through the alphabet, with accidents, asthma, appendicitis, and (scariest of all) anaphylactic shock.

Some letters stand out more than others. D was for Duplo, a normally safe toy, except when you stumble face first into it. G was for golf club, as when eldest son was smacked in the face by a 5 iron at the school fete, necessitating yet another tip to A&E.

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Occasional false alarms brought light relief. At eighteen months, one son was on the bus, sitting forward in his eagerness to miss nothing. When the driver braked suddenly, my son’s face collided with a metal handrail. He screamed, and bright red stuff poured copiously from his mouth. I laughed hysterically when I found he’d only been chewing on a red crayon.

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In my novel Hampstead Fever, I couldn’t resist including a super-anxious new mum. It’s not just the prospect of mishaps that cranks up her worry levels. She has studied the parenting books, so she’s aware of potentially lethal conditions like sepsis, where symptoms can be minimal in the early stages yet take a child to death’s door within hours. Like many parents, Laure suspects it’s dangerous to let her guard down, because that’s when things are most likely to go wrong.

Worry can drive mums (and dads) to become over-protective, turning into helicopter parents and doing for their children things that they should be learning to do for themselves.

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For some parents, anxiety becomes hard-wired. I’ve seen them make idiots of themselves as they continue to stalk their kids on social media throughout their teens and even twenties, panicking if they haven’t posted anything in the last few hours.  

Not me, of course. I’ve finally learned to ditch unnecessary anxiety about my offspring. I’ll tell you how I did this. Not this minute, though, because first I need to text my sons to see how they’re doing without me.

Samsung mobile

How Did Father’s Day Go?

Geoff hasn’t seen much of his son for two years. The ex-wife took Davey to live on the other side of the world, and they only got back recently.

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In the run-up to this Father’s Day, Geoff gets out the last card he had from Davey, a crumpled affair from two years back. Clearly made at school, it says

Dear Dad, Happy Father’s Day

Or, more exactly, Hapy Fathers Day.

The colours have long faded but he can still see it’s signed Love, Davey.

“I’ve got your room ready, Davey,” Geoff says brightly on the phone during the week.

There’s a pause on the line before Davey says, “I’m Dave now.”

“Right. Dave.”

“Let’s just make it a day visit,” says the ex-wife. “Easier all round. It’s been a while, after all.”

She’s probably right, concedes Geoff. Davey – sorry, Dave – has been away a long time with his mother and a man who isn’t his father.

So Dave is deposited at Geoff’s on Father’s Day.

Holding his son close is the same as ever. The best thing in the world, bar none. Of course, Dave has grown. He’s seven years old, wears a Cricket Australia T-shirt, and needs a haircut. But he’s surely the same inside.

“What would you like to do today?” Geoff asks Dave. He asked the very same question on the phone a few days ago, and got nothing useful.

By way of response, Dave pulls something flat out of his bag. That’s when Geoff realizes he’ll be playing second fiddle to an iPad mini.

Geoff is about to lay down the law, but the kid has only just got here. Cut him some slack, he tells himself.

Sure enough, Dave puts the iPad away for lunch.

The boy is quieter than he was, and has a wariness about him. To be expected, of course. He’s older and hasn’t seen his father for months.

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After a massive pizza, Dave returns to his iPad.

“What are you doing there?” Geoff hopes he’s not being groomed or downloading porn.

Killer Diller,” replies Dave.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a game?”

Geoff glances at the screen, where aliens are running about. He curses Sonya for allowing Dave to bring the damn thing, but it could be worse.

“Right. Well, don’t play Killer Diller all day. We could go to the park. I’ve got a new football.”

“I’ve got my iPad,” Dave reminds him.

“Well,” says Geoff. “Maybe a bit later we can have a kick-about.” 

“Cool?” says Dave without looking up.

“Want some juice?” Geoff has stocked his fridge with Dave’s favourite tropical juice drink, the kind that strips tooth enamel faster than battery acid.

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“Got any Seven-Up?”

“I don’t think so.” That’s another dental disaster, but the occasional can won’t hurt. “Do you have Seven-Up every day?”

“Nah.”

Eventually Geoff prises Dave off his game with the promise that they’ll stop for some Seven-Up on the way back from the park.

It’s sunny in the park, and Dave becomes almost animated, but that, Geoff reasons, is probably because he’s letting him get all the goals. Dave is barely trying.

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The day passes so slowly that Geoff can hear it creaking. Dave doesn’t want to talk or play with Lego so he goes back to Killer Diller. Is this what it is to be a dad in today’s world?

At 6 p.m. Dave’s mother comes to collect him.

“Did you give Daddy his card?” she asks.

Dave gets out a mass-produced envelope and hands it over without expression.

Geoff hugs him.

***

Geoff and his son are just two of the characters from my forthcoming novel Hampstead Fever, out on June 30.

Hampstead Fever FINAL EBOOK COVER