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Richard Knott

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MIddle East

Places in ‘Posted in Wartime’: 1. Cairo


Cairo was a kind of wartime Clapham Junction, people constantly passing through on their slow journey to some posting far from home.  Almost all the main protagonists of my book Posted in Wartime were there at some time or other, occasionally on the same day.  The two in this extract are a good example.  The date is early 1945…

Donald Macdonald arrived in Cairo soon after the assassination of Lord Moyne.  I like to think that he and Jack might unwittingly have passed each other on an Egyptian street, though clearly not in one of the places in the city where ‘Other Ranks’ were unwelcome or forbidden.  To Donald, after weeks at sea, and years of blackout darkness, Egypt’s extravagant lights and riotous noise were a revelation.  Everything about Cairo was a shock to the system, be it the ‘utterly oriental’ railway station – ‘ yellow ochre in colour, with turrets, battlements and grilles, it might be a sultan’s palace;’ the continual hooting of horns; the Nile ‘busy with feluccas and the old paddle steamers’; the street Arabs who ‘actually cultivated Glasgow accents,’ the better to ingratiate themselves with the troops; the city streets ‘strewn with orange skins, loud with street cries, (and) the drone of tramways.’

 

Posted in Wartime by Richard Knott (Pen & Sword, 2017)

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Middle East Posting: Jack Knott and Freya Stark


 

Compared to some, my father Jack was an intrepid traveller, thinking nothing of driving through the night to Portugal or Austria in the post-war years.  But his love of the road was of a different order to Freya Stark’s who always assumed that any journey was possible, and a God-given right.  Perhaps that difference reflected their disparate backgrounds: hers – exotic, cosmopolitan, comfortable; Jack’s – urban, grey, short-lived, and narrow; Freya brought up in an artist’s sprawling house near Dartmoor, its grounds thick with rhododendrons; and my orphaned father from his Black Country two-up, two-down, with its weedy yard and outside privy.  She regarded the wider world as hers to explore; he, though, would have chosen to see the war out in gloomy boredom in some obscure RAF station in the English Home Counties.  That was all to change in 1942 when Jack was posted to the Middle East.

 

Did their paths ever cross?  It’s certainly possible.  Was he perhaps part of her police protection on one of the occasions when she passed through Habbaniya?  One thing is certain: Freya understood exactly why she was in Arabia, writing in her diary towards the end of March 1942, that ‘Hitler must make for oil or die.’  Jack was not a man to keep a diary, or care about the bigger picture.   He was there simply because his luck had run out and some miserable bugger behind a comfortable desk had decided that Jack Knott’s war would not be complete without taking in some years in the desert sun, and, before that, a long sea voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

Another extract from ‘Posted in Wartime‘ (Pen & Sword, March 2017); the quotation from Freya Stark is from ‘Dust in the Lion’s Paw’, page 129.

 

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