Tag Archives: Robert Hichens

Sirena’s creamy skin was wealed with lash marks, old and new!

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“Every city has its something. Rome has St Peter’s. Peking has its Summer Palace. Moscow has the Kremlin. In Madrid there’s the Prado. In New York there’s the Empire State. Constantinople has St Sophia. Cairo has Shepheard’s.”

If it seems like this site seems to bang on about Shepheard’s hotel a lot, maybe the quote above goes some way to explaining why. It comes from the 1945 novel London Belongs to Me, written by author Norman Collins, which is a gritty slice of wartime British realism. What it illustrates is how familiar British readers were with the glamorous, internationally renowned Cairo hotel – it suggests that as a shorthand for the city, Shepheard’s was maybe even more familiar than the Pyramids or the Egyptian Museum. I was reading another canonical English novel recently, Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, written in 1959, and Shepheard’s is namechecked in that, too.

The hotel’s fame and appeal to writers in the English language dates back far beyond the 1940s and ’50s. In 1893, a reporter named Richard Harding Davis in a book called The Rulers of the Mediterranean, noted, ‘Shepheard’s is so historical, and its terrace has been made the scene of so many novels [my italics], that all sorts of amusing people go there, from sultans to the last man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and its terrace is like a private box at a mask ball.’

I’ve no idea what those 19th century novels were that featured Shepheard’s, they’re long gone, but there is a vintage genre of fiction in which Shepheard’s frequently cropped up that is still read, and that’s pulp.

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Cairo was rich pickings for pulp writers: labyrinthine souks, inhospitable deserts, mighty pharaohs and ancient gods, treasures buried deep beneath the sands… and remote enough from the average reader’s experience that a writer could get away with all kinds of distortions, exaggerations and stereotyping, not to mention outright racism. Weird tales writer HP Lovecraft took a swerve from his usual New England setting to collaborate with Harry Houdini on the story ‘Under the Pyramids’, which had the famous escapologist visiting Egypt and becoming imprisoned inside one of its most famous monuments, but not before a stop off at Shepheard’s:

“We stopped at Shepherd’s Hotel, reached in a taxi that sped along broad, smartly built-up streets; and amidst the perfect service of its restaurant, elevators, and generally Anglo-American luxuries the mysterious East and immemorial past seemed very far away.

The next day, however, precipitated us delightfully into the heart of the Arabian Nights atmosphere; and in the winding ways and exotic skyline of Cairo, the Bagdad of Haroun-al-Raschid seemed to live again. Guided by our Baedeker, we had struck east past the Ezbekiyeh Gardens along the Mouski in quest of the native quarter, and were soon in the hands of a clamorous cicerone who – notwithstanding later developments – was assuredly a master at his trade.”

Lovecraft never visited Egypt and, like the story’s protagonist, he probably gained all his information from a Baedeker, but not so other pulp writers, as reported in the Egyptian Gazette of 15 April 1929:

“There is an immense fascination about Egypt which never fails to appeal to imaginative folk and it is not surprising therefore that many well-known authors are constant visitors to this country. Just at the moment Mr Sax Rohmer, whose works include a number of stories with an Egyptian setting, is staying at Shepheard’s. Mr Robert Hichens, who is a very regular visitor to Egypt – one might almost call him a resident here – is staying at Mena House. Mr AEW Mason spent the greater part of the winter in Aswan and Cairo, and Mr Rudyard Kipling, who finds this country so much to his liking that he is engaged in writing a book about it, only left these shores a short time ago.”

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Kipling’s no pulp writer but Hichens wrote supernatural fiction and Mason turned out detective stories (as well as the novel The Four Feathers), while Rohmer is the pulpiest of the pulp, creator of the brilliantly over-the-top stories of master-criminal Fu Manchu. In 13 bestselling books and at least as many film adaptations, Fu Manchu plots to take over the world, only to be constantly thwarted (in the early books, at least) by the dogged colonial police commissioner Nayland Smith. Although Fu Manchu was Chinese, the orient was the orient and Rohmer’s stories freely mixed the eastern Asian with the Middle Eastern and North African. The wily Fu Manchu was as liable to pop up in Cairo as Shanghai or London’s Limehouse. Rohmer also wrote reams of stories and novels that did not feature Fu Manchu, and many of these were set in Egypt, a country with which he had a deep fascination.

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Apparently Shepheard’s was one of his favourite hotels; he once met Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, on its terrace, and it crops up numerous times in his novels (including in Brood of the Witch Queen, 1918, and Daughter of Fu Manchu, 1931) and short story collections (including Tales of Secret Egypt, 1918). There was even a short story called ‘A Date at Shepheard’s’ published in Blue Book magazine, a slight tale of a mysterious woman imprisoned in room 34B.

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Rohmer’s frequent namechecking of the hotel apparently paid off: in his author’s biography in the Blue Book, the editors claim that Rohmer (who died in 1959) never had to pay a bill at Shepheard’s. The practice of product placement has been around a lot longer than you imagined.

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In Luxor, 106 years ago today

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From the Egyptian Gazette, of 6 December 1907.

From Our Own Correspondent

Whatever the weather is elsewhere, no one can have any excuse for grumbling about it in Luxor; and no wonder that day by day fresh visitors are arriving from the North. Each day here is more beautiful than the last, from the rising up of the sun until the last moment of the fading away of its afterglow, there is no moment when Luxor is anything but gorgeous. The atmosphere is dry and invigorating, the temperature warm without being torrid, there is sight seeing and exercise for the healthy and energetic and the most luxurious dolce far-niente for the quasi invalid, and one of the finest and most complete hotels at the command of all.

It is less than a year ago that the Winter Palace Hotel was opened to the public* and indeed it seems but yesterday that the workmen were swarming through it night and day to finish it in time for the inauguration. The approach which we remember cumbered with heaps of broken bricks and debris is now adorned with grass and flower beds; the wide waste behind the hotel s now taking shape as an ample garden; and before many weeks are over will be verdant with grass and rich in flowers.

Already there are many guests at the hotel which has been open now for several weeks. Close upon a hundred covers were laid for dinner only yesterday, and many other arrivals are expected shortly. The old Luxor Hotel is to be re-opened shortly, and the Karnak on the river bank will again be sued as an annexe by both the Winter Palace and the Luxor. The Savoy Hotel formerly under the direction of Mr Runkovitz is to be reopened under new management this season. It has well established clientele, and certainly its situation overhanging the river and away from the town are attractive points in its favour.

The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire with their party on board the dahabeah ‘Serapis’ spent some time in the vicinity of Luxor on their way South. Mr Robert Hichens** is still here, living on board his dahabeah moored on the further side of the river; but often coming on shore and frequently taking his meals at the Winter Palace. It is said that he does not intend going further south this trip; but in all probability will leisurely find his way down river to Cairo, storing the while many valuable impressions for future use.

Mr Douglas Sladen*** is also gathering materials for a book on Egypt, for though a great traveler in other lands this is his first visit upon the Nile. He is on his way to Khartoum accompanied by his wife, and by Miss Norma Lorrimer (also an authoress) and Miss Potter. They intend returning to Cairo about the middle of January and will in all probability remain there for the rest of the season.

* And still the Winter Palace website persists in claiming the hotel was built in 1886.

** Author of Egypt and its Monuments, which would be published the following year with illustrations by Jules Guerin, who I blogged about here.

*** Who the following year would publish Egypt and the English, the first of a number of books about Egypt – I blogged about him here.

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The marvelous Jules Guerin

There are a handful of artists whose names are familiar to anybody interested in travel in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the David Roberts and Robert Hay, of course; the watercolourist Augustus Lamplough and orientalist R. Talbot Kelly; and the lesser known but more commercially minded Tony Binder, Willy Burger and Lance Thackeray, all of whom produced designs for postcards and advertising. I’ve posted on most of these artists before. Recently I came across a new (to me) and exciting addition to that list.

Jules Guerin (born in St Louis, Missouri in 1866) was an American illustrator who studied art in Chicago, where he shared a studio with cartoonist Winsor McCay of Little Nemo fame. He specialized in architectural illustration and provided spectacular birds-eye perspective drawings for the monumental Plan of Chicago in 1907. He produced competition drawings for Henry Bacon’s proposed Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, and when Bacon triumphed Guerin was asked to paint two large murals on its ceiling.

From 1909 to 1911 the painter travelled with British journalist Robert Hichens through Egypt, the Holy Land, and the Near East. The trip resulted in several books, including Egypt and its Monuments, published in 1908. Hichens text is negligible, but Guerin’s illustrations are astonishing. They manage to be both incredibly precise (as you’d expect from an architectural illustrator) but at the same time beguilingly romantic thanks to the dramatic perspectives and set-like design, and an Impressionistic colour palette.

 

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