What does a person have to do to make their mark on posterity? Douglas Sladen was an author and a journalist who was nothing if not prolific. Born in 1856, he turned out more than 60 books before his death in 1947. He was for a while the editor of Who’s Who, and also the literary editor of To-Day. He was at the centre of Edwardian London literary life and yet who now has ever heard of him?
I encountered him, figuratively speaking, in Egypt. He wrote a book called Oriental Cairo (1911) that contains some entertaining descriptions of what a tourist would have seen in that city back in the first decade of the 20th century. His second chapter is called ‘Street Life in Cairo as seen from the Continental Hotel’:
There is one great advantage in staying at the Continental Hotel for the two or three months of the Cairo season: you can see, without dressing to go out, the most roaring farce ever presented off the stage. The great hotel has a nice sunny terrace with a balustrade which looks out on the Street of the Camel—the Regent Street of Cairo—and the Eskebiya Gardens and a regular museum of touts. It is doubtful which could be satirised more successfully as a human Zoological Gardens, the people who sit on the terrace behind the railings, Americans chiefly, with a strong dash of Jews, Turks, and Infidels, which last name the Mohammedan applies to the Levantine—or the extraordinary collection of parasites in the street below.
Those of the parasites, who are not dragomans have something to sell, generally something that no sane person would want to buy. The street Arab who walks about with a stuffed crocodile on his head must by this time be convinced of its unsaleability. He exhorts you to buy it, but so soon afterwards, without a real bargainer’s delay, invites you to take his photograph with it for a shilling.
I have seen stuffed crocodiles offered often, and once at least a live boa-constrictor and a live leopard—not a very old one—in a cage. Pigs in cages are comparatively common, and, as weight presents no difficulty to the Egyptian educated as a porter, men carry round all sorts of furniture for sale. I have seen men with quite large tables and cabinets on their backs patiently waiting for purchasers. I once saw a man with a palm-tree fourteen feet high on his head. Strawberry sellers are insistent in February, in spite of the fact that every foreigner knows or believes that their Egyptian vendors moisten the strawberries in their mouths whenever they look dusty.
You can read the whole of Oriental Cairo online here.
I assumed Sladen must have spent a considerable time in Egypt because he wrote no less than three weighty travel books about the place (the other two being Egypt and the English, 1908, and Queer Things About Egypt, 1910), as well as two novels set in the country. In fact, he was there just six months.
I was curious to find out more about him. I discovered the existence of an archive of his personal papers and then was bowled over to learn that this was held in the local-history library in my own neighbourhood of Richmond, on the Thames in southwest London. It turns out that Sladen was my near neighbour – at a century’s remove – living on Richmond Green from 1911 to 1923. (He lived in the rather grand Avenue House, long since demolished.) I spent a few Saturday afternoons looking through the contents of several boxes from the archive relating to his time in Egypt. They didn’t yield much – most of what they contained were yellowing clippings of reviews of his books and typed exhortations to his publisher to do more to promote them. But there were also handwritten and signed letters from fellow authors to whom Sladen had sent copies of his books, and these include Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling; the creators of Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quartermain and Mowgli – that is some impressive peer group. If only Sladen could have taken the Arab boy with the crocodile on his head and thought up some adventures for him, he could have been the most famous of the lot.