Tag Archives: Evelyn Waugh

The informal charms of the Bristol

When Evelyn Waugh stayed at Cairo’s Bristol Hotel in 1929 he was less than complimentary about the place (see here). However, when it opened 35 years previously, in December 1894, it was by all accounts a homely and comfortable sort of establishment. It wasn’t a top-tier hotel like nearby Shepheard’s, or the Gezira Palace or Mena House, with their frequently aristocratic, high-living clientele. Rather, it was one of several modest hotels clustered around the Place de la Bourse at the north-east corner of the Ezbekia Gardens, which catered to the more financially cautious traveller. A three- maybe four-star sort of place in today’s ratings. The author of a 1910 overview of Cairo society wrote that it was somewhere that would appeal to “people to whom the rigid observance of formalities is irksome” – by which the writer probably meant people who didn’t own a dinner suit (the Bristol advertised “evening dress for dinner optional”). But the place was not without its charms: almost all its 100 rooms were south facing with balconies, and the public rooms included a ladies’ room and a winter garden filled with exotic vegetation. The proprietor was the splendidly named Chevalier Aquilina, a Maltese who’d previously spent 25 years as an agent for Thomas Cook & Son in Alexandria.

Aquilina paid for a booklet to be produced by the Neapolitan company Richter & Co promoting the hotel. Dating from around 1900, it’s a lovely thing (cover above), containing a bit of background on the hotel and plenty of advice on what to see and do in Cairo and Egypt. Page 18 also contains the following Important Notice: ‘Some unscrupulous hotel keepers appoint during the Season, travelling agents between Alexandria & Cairo and Ismailia & Cairo, mostly with a view to carry on an undignified competition. To divert to their own houses Visitors who may be directed to the Bristol or other such first class establishments, they quote ridiculously cheap terms but passengers would do well to bear in mind that in the long run their interests will best be served by paying a reasonable price and get its full value.’

Now compare with this, which I wrote in 1997 for a Lonely Planet guide to Cairo: ‘On arrival at the airport, you may be approached by someone with an official-looking badge that says ‘Egyptian Chamber of Tourism’ or something similar. These people are not government tourism officials, they are hotel touts. They’ll ask where you’re staying and then tell you all sorts of porkies, like the hotel you want is full, too expensive or closed down. They will then steer you to an alternative, cheaper, better hotel, one that will pay them a very nice commission.’ It’s not just the Pyramids in Egypt that are timeless, the scams are too.

Sadly, the Bristol wasn’t so enduring. I don’t know exactly when it closed but I suspect in the 1940s – several hotels that were requisitioned by the British Army during World War II never reopened to guests afterwards, and the Bristol may have been one of them. The site, just to the left of the Sednaoui department store on Khazinder Square, is now occupied by a modern apartment block. The hotel is survived only by a couple of particularly gorgeous luggage labels.



Filed under Hotels then and now, Lost Egypt, Memorabilia

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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Filed under Shepheard's, Travellers' tales

Sweet stuff

Published last month, The West End Front by Matthew Sweet is, as its subtitle makes plain, all about ‘The Wartime Secrets of London’s Grand Hotels’. I was eager to read it to see how life in London’s hotels compared with that in the Egyptian hotels I have written about. Unsurprisingly, there are characters who inhabited both worlds. Sweet begins by introducing us to César Ritz (the Ritz, Savoy, Dorchester and Claridge’s are the cornerstones of his book), who also gets a walk-on role in my book as a colleague of George Nungovich, Egypt’s leading hotelier at the beginning of the 20th century. Also cameoing in both of our books is Ritz’s partner, the godfather of cheffery Georges August Escoffier – although Sweet is the one who unearths the lovely detail that he ‘wore high heels to enable him to see into the pans at the back of the ranges’. We have, predictably, Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh in common. My book has the better quotes from Waugh (‘All the hotels in Egypt are bad but they excuse themselves on two contrary principles. Some maintain, legitimately, that it does not really matter how bad they are if they are cheap enough; the others, that it does not really matter how bad they are if they are expensive enough’), but then Sweet manages to include the writer in a sentence about a third party that ends with the untoppable flourish that this person ‘in a state of advanced refreshment, once mistook the Ritz bar for a row of urinals’. Noël Coward is spotted in both books and Winston Churchill is equally inescapable in London and Cairo.

Unlike Grand Hotels, which lets the hotels themselves provide the structure for the chapters, Sweet puts the inhabitants centre-stage, arranging them by type – aliens (the foreign workers), players (the socialites), subterraneans (the gay scene), cons – with each chapter concentrating on a couple of key characters and their individual stories. It’s an acknowledgment that the book is not really about hotels and, in fact, the text spends a lot of time well away from them. The chapter on traitors for instance focuses on Stella Lonsdale who is, according to her MI5 handler, ‘a woman whose loose living would make her an object of shame on any farmyard’. The story makes it into the book on the grounds that the interrogation of Lonsdale took place in a room at the Waldorf.

Which isn’t meant as a criticism. Sweet has been attracted to the idea of hotels for the same reason I was – they are places in which the broadest cross-section of people are gathered together in one place, all sharing the same address for a night or two. Then the following day the cast-list changes. It’s a set up guaranteed to throw up great stories, comic, tragic, and everything else besides, and The West End Front is packed full of them. Sweet also has an enviable way with a phrase – an army officer has ‘a taste for raw onions, violence and nudity’ – and an endless stock of killer anecdotes, like the one about the young boy who requested a kiss from a male guest who was staying the weekend at his parents’ home and then dismissed the chaste peck on the forehead as inadequate: ‘No, kiss me like you kissed daddy’.

Can I recommend you read both our books?

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