Waugh in Egypt

Recognise the picture on this book jacket? It’s the same pic that headed my last post. Not that you can make much out with the type obscuring most of the image (the designer also chose to flip the photo). It’s the right choice for the book though, which is a collection of Evelyn Waugh’s travel writing from the 1930s. The photo was taken in 1938, and the exotic hedonism on display (what a wheeze, a picnic on top of a pyramid! And in bathing togs!) is a good fit for the reputation Waugh had at this time, which was as the satirical chronicler of England’s party-happy, silver-spoon set, otherwise known as the Bright Young Things. Funny thing is that the author himself had a mostly miserable time when he visited Egypt.

It was 1929 and on the back of rave reviews received for his first novel, Decline and Fall, Waugh had been commissioned to write travel articles in return for a free Mediterranean cruise, which he and his new wife (bizarrely, also called Evelyn) were treating as a delayed honeymoon. But She-Evelyn contracted double pneumonia and had to be put ashore and hospitalised in Port Said. She was so critically ill Waugh didn’t expect her to survive. When he wasn’t at his wife’s bedside Waugh was exploring the town, spending more time there than probably any other travel writer before or since. He escaped to Cairo for a brief overnight stay, putting up at the Bristol Hotel. He was not impressed – the furniture in his room, he wrote, consisted of three double beds under high canopies of dusty mosquito netting and two derelict rocking chairs. None of the servants spoke a word of any European language but Waugh considered this a negligible defect since they never answered the bell anyway.

Young fogey Evelyn Waugh

A little time later, when She-Evelyn was declared fit to be discharged, the couple travelled to Cairo together, this time checking in to the Mena House – a hotel sufficiently grand that it almost came near to justifying its terrific expensive, thought Waugh. He grumbled a lot about things, like there not being enough pens in the writing rooms and She-Evelyn’s dinner in bed being brought all on one tray instead of as separate courses, heinous things like that, but he was smitten by the hotel’s situation (as guests still are today): “The Pyramids were a quarter of a mile away, impressive by sheer bulk and reputation; it felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous – it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.”

On the Mena House terrace, pretending not to notice the Pyramids

Despite being terrifically snobbish and curmudgeonly beyond his years (he was only 26 at the time), he is funny: his observations on the porters for example, whose aim, he establishes, is to carry away the smallest piece of luggage possible, so the strongest and most fierce gets away with carrying a bundle of newspapers or a small attaché case, while the puniest end up with the trunks and large cases.

The Waughs’ trip to Egypt forms part of a book called Labels (later collected with three other travelogues and reissued as When the Going Was Good), except the odd thing is She-Evelyn doesn’t appear. Just a month after they returned home to England, without warning, she revealed that a mutual friend had become her lover. The couple promptly divorced and a devastated He-Evelyn wrote his wife out of his account of their honeymoon, presenting it as a bachelor’s journey.

This wasn’t the end of Waugh and Egypt. He borrowed the name of Cairo’s most famous hotel, Shepheard’s, and gave it to the Mayfair hotel where the aristocrats, eccentrics and bored rich of London gather pre and post party in his 1930 novel Vile Bodies. His description of the fictional London Shepheard’s could just as easily apply to the real one in Cairo: “One can go to Shepheard’s parched with modernity any day and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.”

Just over a decade later he was back boozing on the terrace of the original when in 1941 he returned to Cairo as one of a 2,000-strong commando division known as Layforce. He took part in the evacuation of Crete, an episode that would later find its way into his Sword of Honour trilogy, published in the 1950s. Layforce was disbanded only a few months after arriving in the Middle East but one of its senior officers, David Stirling, almost immediately created a new desert commando unit in Egypt that would go by the name of the Special Air Service, or SAS. But that’s another story – and one Waugh had no part in as by this time he was back in England at work on his sixth novel.

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