Monthly Archives: September 2012

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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The sport of Pyramideering

Every visitor to Egypt goes to see the Pyramids, but at one time that wasn’t enough: you had to climb them too. The ascent was not particularly difficult, only tiring. Detailed advice was given in Baedeker’s guide to Egypt: “The traveller selects two of the importunate Bedouins by whom he is assailed, and proceeds to the NE corner of the Pyramid, where the ascent begins. These strong and active attendants assist the traveller to mount by pushing, pulling, and supporting him, and will scarcely allow him a moment’s rest until the top is reached. Persons inclined to giddiness may find the descent a little trying, but the help of the Bedouins removes all danger. Both in going and returning the traveller is importuned for baksheesh, but he should decline giving anything until the descent has been safely accomplished.”

In later editions of Baedeker the number of Bedouin required for the ascent was upgraded from two to three: one holding each hand and pulling, and a third pushing from behind. Mary Georgiana Emma Seymour Damer, an English lady traveller of means, described the scene in her Diary of a Tour in Greece, Turkey, Egypt and The Holy Land, published in 1841: “I ascended the last, having the assistance of six arms to my share. Minney appeared to fly up the Pyramids, and her arms looked as if they would be drawn out of their sockets by her two wild Arab attendants. She was closely followed by Christine, her father, and the doctor, the latter of whom did not appear to fly, but presented the image of a pinioned criminal on the rack. The whole effect was so ridiculous, as sadly to diminish our expectations of the sublime.”

Once the top had been reached most visitors found it necessary to record their accomplishment for posterity by carving their name or initials into the stone (all the while keeping at bay the vendors of spurious antiquities who were present in just as great numbers at the summit as they were around the base of the Pyramid). This was a long-established practice and as far back as 1840, Usborne’s guide to Egypt was complaining that the summit of the Great Pyramid was so covered with graffiti that it was “difficult for the newcomer to find a place free in which to write their own name”. Some parties climbed with hampers and picnicked on the summit; the British Consul-General George Baldwin in the 1770s drank a toast up top to the union of the Thames, Nile, and Ganges, while his daughter danced a quadrille; a young Englishman named Maze in 1831 flung himself off in a suicide attempt (successful); the Prince of Wales and Duke of Windsor, in 1928, drove golf balls toward the golf links far below.

Climbing the Great Pyramid remained an essential Egyptian experience until the mid 1960s, when the Egyptian government banned it on the grounds of safety; four or five climbers had been losing their footing each year and tumbling down the 51 degree incline to serious injury and even death. But with a bit of baksheesh tourists were able to continue climbing right up until the 1980s, which was when a clampdown saw the ban finally being properly enforced. Even now the reckless still creep across the Plateau by night and risk arrest in their attempts to scramble to the top. The Japanese, apparently, are the most persistent and consider it a challenge on a par with getting change out of a Cairo taxi driver. You can read an excellent account of modern-day Pyramid climbing here.

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When hotel branding was beautiful

In an earlier post (Labelled with love) I wrote about luggage labels, the small printed pieces of paper that were stuck on guests’ bags and cases to make sure they arrived at the correct hotel. The designs created for the labels often then served as a logo for the hotel, appearing on letterheads, envelopes, and even cups and plates in the dining room. But branding creates problems of its own. At one point Shepheard’s was losing 2,000 coathangers a year to guests. When management stopped printing the hangers with the hotel’s name the losses dropped to almost nothing. Ashtrays were another favourite ‘souvenir’ item. This, however, was viewed as a good thing: the idea that Shepheard’s branded ashtrays were being carried off back to Europe and America, where presumably they would be proudly displayed, was good advertising – an early form of viral marketing. To encourage this the hotel even issued different designs to appeal to collectors.

All the designs were close variations on the Shepheard’s distinctive luggage label (the one that heads this post), which was designed by Mario Borgoni of the printing house Richter & Co of Naples, and in use from the early years of the 20th century and throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

As at Shepheard’s, most of the big hotels had their own signature design – many of the best of which were also drawn by Richter artists. In most cases the designs were maintained over the years with only the occasional variation in colour.

For comparison, here’s a bunch of current hotel branding.

And they say that the romance of travel has gone?

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