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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As Rare as Rocking-Horse Manure

The new garden, about the size of a postage stamp, looked forlorn. This time of year, everyone else’s garden is already a riot of colour. Our soil is so poor, this is about all we can grow.

recycling

But then two students gave me an idea. As they walked past the English faculty, I heard one of them moan about having to ‘dump his shit before Michaelmas.’

The other one nodded encouragingly, and agreed he would dump all his shit too, man.

I know what Michaelmas is. It’s the name of the academic term that starts in early October and ends before Christmas. I wasn’t so sure what kind of shit they meant, but it got me thinking.

horse manure

That’s just the thing for improving garden soil.

But have you any idea how hard it is to find when you actually want some? There’s never any shortage of bullshit. The equine variety is another matter.

When I was at medical school, any really rare condition would be described as ‘rocking-horse manure. I never appreciated that the real thing could be equally challenging to track down.

Somewhere in Norfolk I’d spotted a sign that said HOSS SHIT, but Norfolk is a long way from anywhere. Except maybe Suffolk.

Lo and behold, this sign was a lot nearer home, and had more conventional spelling.

horse shit for sale

We stopped the car. Bingo, I thought. There was even a visible guarantee of quality.

horse in paddock

We knocked on doors, rang on bells, and went round the back of the outbuildings. Nobody was in.

So at the weekend we visited Wimpole Hall, a National Trust estate with a mansion and a working farm.  There was cow shit galore, a lot of it still on the actual cows.  There was also an amorous bull in a pen with several cows, which prompted a toddler to ask, ‘What are they doing, Mummy?’

‘Good question,’ said the mother as she wheeled the buggy away.

Sheep shit and pig shit too, but surprisingly little horse shit, certainly none for sale in the twee gift shop, complete with gingham ribbon like everything else. I think the National Trust missed a trick there.

There are substitutes, obviously. Some say cow shit is as good if not better. Would cat poo fit the bill? We have our own little factory, supplemented by presents from guests who come over the wall at night.

cat

If you’re wondering, the human stuff won’t do. Although my mother, ever the eccentric, used to tell me to put dirty nappies on the compost heap. Don’t worry. I wasn’t a very obedient daughter.

If you think you can collect horse manure fresh, think again. For garden use, horse manure needs to be well-rotted. That’s why I haven’t been round the riding schools and livery stables with an extra-large dog-poop bag.

You can get anything on eBay, right?  I checked this out. You can get horse manure for about £1 a bag. The snag is that you have to collect it from Scotland.

The solution was surprisingly simple.  I should have thought about it sooner.  Yep, the garden centre. Go ahead.

calf by the river

Call me a silly little cow.