The boozy bureaucrats

Aden, Yemen, 1962

By our third day in Aden, we had got over the worst of our jet-lag and most of us had had two decent nights’ sleep. We were all still in the Crescent Hotel. Tomorrow we would begin looking for office and accommodation space. Today, Ivo had ordained we should make courtesy calls on some of the colonial administrators who ran the colony. Assuming it would be good to meet the powers that be, Ivo decided to take us all. He had two visits arranged – with the Director of Communications and with the Logistics Director, Western Federation Levies – the former to gain access to radio frequencies, the latter to arrange for a military escort for travel into the interior.

Both offices were near the maidan, so he’d decided to walk. We breakfasted amidst a sea of starched napery and silverware, then all five of us trooped out the front door in Ivo’s wake. It was a typical Aden morning – the sky cloudless, and the sun huge and indistinct behind a silvery haze of salt and dust. The thermometer in the foyer had just edged above 30oC, and the air was motionless, thick and heavy with humidity. We were soaked in perspiration before we got across the street. Howard, who was about twenty pounds overweight, mopped continually – but ineffectually – at his face with a large bandanna.

The office building was typical of those inhabited by the British civil servants – a hundred-year-old Victorian building beside the maidan, with arched verandahs over the footpath.

The office into which we were ushered had high ceilings, a slow, ticking punkah, tall shuttered windows, and a creaking floor that was no longer quite level. Faded and shabby, its walls had been done in a pale blue wash – but not recently – and their mud plaster surfaces had delaminated over the years, exposing sequentially grubbier layers of blue or whitewash.

Below the obligatory photograph of the queen was an immense, battered desk covered in piles of papers attached to each other by means of sewing pins. Each pile was held down by some sort of weight – usually a small stone – to keep the punkah from blowing them off the desk, but the individual piles rustled in sequence around and around the desktop, following the slow passage of the punkah blades overhead.

The British Colonial Service had a curious habit of simply dumping young university graduates in at the deep end to see whether they sank or swam. Remarkably, all of them I ever met – about half-a-dozen – never even paused for breath. They were dedicated, brilliant and tough. Sitting at the top of the administrative pyramid was a group of incredibly experienced Foreign Service officers.

As their empire shrank, the British retired most of their staff, but withdrew their best men – literally the ‘cream of the cream’ – to other postings. By the time I arrived in Aden, it was practically the last outpost of empire – literally the last posting left. As a result, the colony overflowed with super-experienced old-timers – withdrawn from Iraq, Palestine, the Gulf states, Kenya, Tanganyika, Pakistan and India as they gained independence – many with twenty or thirty years experience, six or seven regional languages and a genuine love of Middle Eastern cultures.

As a result of all this, Aden was probably the best-governed colony Britain had ever had. That nearly all of the administrators were eccentric almost to the point of lunacy was hardly relevant. I was to meet two of these incredible men – Alex McTavish and Archie Wilson – today. In every way they typified the men chosen to rule British South Arabia. It seemed a shame that such a vast reservoir of experience and talent should be wasted on such a pitiful remnant of empire. These men all deserved much larger canvasses upon which to leave their marks. However bizarre their personal lives, the way they governed Aden was a joy to behold. Nearly everything I know today about governance, I learned from them.

The man at the desk was in his early sixties. He wore a pair of those huge-legged shorts the British used to wear in the tropics, an open-necked short-sleeved white shirt and sandals. Short and round, he had an untidy thatch of dark hair that looked too much like a bad wig not to be his own, and a dense grey military-style moustache. Below the short sleeves of his shirt his arms were covered in long dark hair, and the backs of his hands and fingers were covered in what looked like fur – almost as though caterpillars had settled there, one on each finger. His hands were square, with short thick fingers that all seemed to be the same length.

“Um, come in,” He spoke softly, lowering and tilting his head to look up at us through his bushy eyebrows.

“McTavish … Alex McTavish.” He introduced himself. “Mr, um, Felerson, isn’t it? We, um, met, I believe.”

Ivo made introductions all around. McTavish beamed, then extended both arms, hands open, palms forward.

“Welcome to Aden, um, gentlemen. What can I do?”

He waved us all to seats. He had a mouth-full of extraordinarily large, white teeth, which he kept clenched even when speaking. This made him spit quite a lot – particularly when enunciating sibilants. His uppers neither rose nor fell when his gums and lips did, so his lips and teeth often seemed to be pronouncing different sounds. This made whatever he said seem like bad lip-synch. It was actually quite unnerving and made him difficult to understand. We quickly learned not to watch his mouth when he spoke.

Ivo briefly explained our mission. We had brought with us a lot of highly sophisticated radio gear – enough to set up a network to communicate with field parties, drilling rigs and three or four offices. What we now needed were assigned frequencies on which we could legally broadcast. McTavish’s office had the authority to do this. Alex – he had insisted that we all call him by his first name – listened carefully to Ivo’s presentation, then cocked his head and looked up at him through his grey hedge of eyebrows.

“I, um, anticipate no problems in this, um, regard.”

Picking up Ivo’s list of frequencies, he bellowed, “Abdullah!”

A very tall, dark man appeared, was given the papers and a string of instructions – in a language I recognised as Urdu – and departed.

Alex turned to Ivo. “Half an hour,” he said. “Libations now in order. Shall we?” Waving us toward a side table where there were half-a-dozen glasses and a pitcher of tepid water, he leaned forward until his chin rested directly on his desktop, wrinkling his forehead and screwing up his eyes with concentration. For a moment I wondered what on earth he was doing. Then I realised that each of his hands was rummaging in the bottom of a separate desk drawer. They emerged – one with a very large bottle of gin, the other with a bottle of Angostura bitters. Heaving himself out of his swivel chair he lumbered across the room to join us.

“I,” he announced, “Shall be Mother.” A lot of saliva shot out on the word ‘shall’. He sloshed half a glass of gin into each tumbler, then a shot of bitters.

“Anybody wants (more spittle) water…..?” He nodded toward the pitcher on the table. Mercifully, he let each of us do his own. To cut the almost neat gin, I filled my glass to the brim. It still wasn’t enough. Alex took none.

“Chin chin!” Alex raised his glass in a toast as soon as we had all doctored our drinks. “Bottoms up.”

He upended his glass and drained it. Out of politeness, I tried, but it took me three swigs to down the bitter, violently aromatic mixture – it was almost like drinking perfume. To make matters worse, there was no ice. In Aden there was never any ice.

After refilling all our glasses, he returned to his desk, taking his with him.

“Now,” He said, “About these, um, frequencies….”

He rummaged through several of the stacks of fluttering paper on his desktop, finally emerging with the one he sought. “Urgent?” He asked. Ivo nodded.

“Only one frequency – 1775 mH. Same as, um, Jeddah and Riyadh airports.”

We looked blank.

“Interference? Thousand miles away. Not major problem. Yours if you want it.”

He spoke in a sort of brisk, verbal shorthand – using a bare minimum of words – as though hoarding the more elegant parts of our language for use elsewhere.

He handed an untidy bundle of papers to Ivo.

“Skim. Wallahs’ll prepare, um, something for me to sign.”

A lot of spittle flew on ‘skim’ and ‘sign’. He drained his glass.

“C’mon, chaps (more spittle), chin chin!”

Reluctantly, we set about draining our glasses. I glanced at my watch. Mercifully, it was nearly lunch time.

For a few minutes we made desultory conversation while his assistant drafted the formal assignment papers. Alex had already refilled our glasses yet again, and had downed his own straight away. The rest of us, already tingling at the extremities from a surfeit of gin, were trying to pretend to drink. Alex was particularly attentive to Martin, youngest of our group, drawing the normally taciturn youngster into the conversation and eliciting from him quite a lot of background information even we didn’t know.

It turned out that Alex was a galloping queer – a long-time resident of the Moslem world by choice because of their casual attitude to homosexuality. He kept a sort of stable of exquisite young Somali houseboys to tend house (and, I assume, perform other services) for him. He had taken a real fancy to young Martin and was to pursue him relentlessly – but in vain – for the next four years.

To make conversation I asked him why he had spoken Urdu to his office wallah.

“Oh that!”, He grinned, “You’re, um, perceptive to notice. Thirty years in the, um, NWF46. District Officer. Demobbed in ’50. Independence. Sent here. Brought Abdullah with me. Helps keep me, um, tongues fresh.”

It turned out that Alex was fluent in Zaboli Persian, Urdu, Pashtu, two Uighur dialects and Arabic. He had, we later found out, become well-known as a poet in Urdu and had had several works published.

It was Alex who first told us about the old Pashtu love song that began, “There’s a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach, but alas I cannot swim.”

He was also an Arabist of note, sufficiently fluent to advise imams and mullahs from the local mosques on the finer points on interpretation of the surahs (verses) of the holy Koran.

“Str’ordin’ry, um, craftsmen the Pakis – make firearms out of, um, scrap. Made these,” he added.

Putting his fingers into his mouth, he quickly extracted a complete set of false teeth. That explained his speech problem – his teeth were not only false, they were so loose they simply didn’t open when his mouth did. Popping them back in, he continued, “Keep these in a glass of, um, gin beside me bed every night. Drink the, um, gin and pop in the teeth at dawn. Jars the old, um, system awake, I can tell you.”

I shuddered at the thought of a stiff pink gin at dawn, but I believed him – I believed him absolutely.

A clock in the hall boomed twelve. “Chaps,” Alex said, “Lunchtime. What say we adjourn to the, um, Victoria for a spot of curry? It’s only just across the, um, maidan.”

The Victoria Restaurant and bar was upstairs above an Indian apothecary shop. Inside, little drifts of rubbish were being shuffled across the splintery wooden floor by the punkahs. Tall French windows were open all along the front, giving access to a wide, covered balcony overlooking the maidan and part of the harbour.  We took a table there by the railing. Even out here there were punkahs, shifting hot damp air slowly from table to table.

The same elegant little Somali presented the menus. Having eaten here before, I unhesitatingly ordered the ‘Ground Nut Curry with Gentlemen’s Accompaniments’. Most of our group followed suit.

“Pink gin all round?”

It wasn’t a question. Alex raised his arm, index finger pointed upward, and waggled his hand in a circle,

“Dubla, dubla minfadlik” (“Double, double, please.”).

I really wanted a beer with my curry, and – trying to cancel the gin – I ordered it. I got both. The curry was as good as I remembered it to be. It was fiery enough to require quite a lot of fluid, and those of us who only had gin drank it all. Two or three – including, of course, Alex – had a couple. I drank my beer carefully, having disposed of my gin by surreptitiously upending my glass into the water pitcher. This seemed a good idea until I realised that I had inadvertently spiked my mates’ water supply.

By the end of lunch my extremities were rapidly going numb and my nose tingled – and I was probably the sober one. On our way back to Alex’s office Ivo was distinctly unsteady on his feet and his eyes had gone quite glassy. By the time we had conducted our business, we had consumed two or three more tumblers of almost neat gin and were a lot the worse for wear.

Alex seemed entirely unaffected by the enormous amount of alcohol he consumed. Quite a lot of senior British civil servants in Aden were able do this – a skill, I assumed, acquired by long practice. We weren’t. It made it exceedingly difficult for us to get through a full workday sober.

***

Our three o’clock appointment was with a Mr Wilson of the Ministry of Interior – a five minute walk around the corner. After the darkness of McTavish’s office, the sky seemed incandescent. The sun was brilliant, and the hot humid air sticky as a poultice. I had the beginnings of a very considerable headache and the distance seemed much farther than five minutes to me. We were all perspiring like stuck pigs by the time we arrived.

Archie Wilson met us at the door of a uniquely tatty Victorian building known as the ‘Secretariat’, shaking hands with each of us with grave dignity. A tall, cadaverous Englishman, he spoke with an upper-class lisp, enunciating his words carefully with exaggerated lip movements that showed an awful lot of teeth. Nearly six and a half feet tall, and lean to the point of emaciation, he had a wispy corona of grey hair and a remarkably long straight nose down which, because of his imposing height, he seemed always to be looking. His glasses, which he wore almost at the tip of his nose, had little unfashionably round lenses.

He made his greeting into something of a formal statement: “I am quite utterly charmed to meet you chaps.”

He wrung each of our hands in both of his.

“It is a very great pleasure indeed. Alex just rang through to advise me that you were, as it were, on a ‘collision course’ with this office. You will, I understand, be requiring escorts through the Western Protectorate. I shall, of course, be happy to help in any way I can. Please come through.”

He guided us down a tall, narrow hallway (done up in that peculiar double-gloss paint, seen mostly in hospitals, that seems only to accentuate the imperfections in the wall it covers) and up two flights of stairs, then bowed extravagantly, waving us through a tall set of battered double-doors.

“Welcome to my world,” he said, “With due apologies to What’s-his-name Reeves.”

Wilson’s office, like McTavish’s, was tall and gloomy with a punkah rustling the papers on his desk. An enormous topographical map of the Federation of South Arabia occupied the Queen’s place on the wall behind it.

Without preamble he presented Ivo with one of the smaller piles of paper on his desk.

“Look, especially for Ataq,” he said, “top right-hand corner of the map on page three, as I recall.”

Ivo passed some of the papers amongst us. Most of them were maps and we scanned them avidly. These were the places where we were going to work and live – tiny, mysterious nations with the most wonderfully exotic names – al Qasha, Musaimir, Zingibar, Dhala, Qa’iti, Nisab, Beihan al Qasab. And towns – Shuqra, Mafidh, Husn al Ataq, Milh Mqah, Shibam, Seiyun, Bir Asakir – each an oasis set amongst gaunt, sterile mountains or in stony deserts or sand. They were magic, those maps. These were names I couldn’t pronounce of places I couldn’t even imagine. And we were going to all of those places – and soon – the first Europeans to do so in twenty-five years!

“Archie,” Joe asked – like McTavish, Wilson had insisted we be on a first-name basis – “I don’t see many roads. Is this route really feasible for Bedfords and Power Wagons?”

“Well, young man,” Archie replied, “There are hardly any roads anywhere in the Western Protectorate, though there are a couple in the East.”

Then, like McTavish, he bent over and began to rummage in his desk drawers. “Oh, God, ” I thought, “Please not again!”

“The dashed lines,“ he continued, his chin resting on his desktop while both hands scrabbled out of sight, “The ones, there, mostly in blue pencil – are the approximate routes taken by such vehicles as now ply amongst the states of the west.”

Because his chin was resting on his desk, his head had to jerk violently up and down for him to enunciate his words. Since I couldn’t actually see his mouth, this made him look like he was chewing on the edge of his desk. I was just drunk enough to get the giggles. Ivo shushed me ferociously.

“As to the particulars of your question, the most accurate answer I can give you is ‘I think so’. And that is the official word of HMG. The fact of the matter is, you shall probably have to play it by ear.”

Archie was as loquacious as Alex had been taciturn. It was as though he had discovered the cache of words Alex had squirreled away and set out to use them all. He also had a way of deliberately mis-using famous phrases – a sort of Mrs Malaprop of quotations. He gave a smile of triumph and began to straighten up.

“Eureka!”

He stood up with a gin bottle in one hand and Angostura bitters in the other. I wondered if these were standard Aden office equipment. (Four years later, having never entered a colonial office without gin and bitters – and having almost never come away sober – I concluded that they were).

“Oh, dear!” he murmured, peering lugubriously at the gin bottle, which was nearly empty, “The flesh, it seems, is willing but the spirits are weak.”

He held the bottle out for inspection.

“Not to worry. We shall discuss your matters in the Yacht Club yonder”

He gestured broadly out the window.

“My treat. Mr….um, Felerson, is it?” Ivo nodded, “Yes, Felerson. Bring the papers with you. Come along, all.”

Papers in hand, Archie led us briskly down the street, toward a little triangular building at the far end of the maidan. Originally on the waterfront, the Steamer Point Yacht Club had since been engulfed by a tide of reclamation, and was now stranded, like a beached whale, a hundred yards from the quay on a small traffic island. If the club still had any yachts attached to it, they were moored well out of sight. Shaded verandahs, cantilevered out from its first storey over the footpaths, made the Yacht Club look top-heavy. Like everything else in Aden, it needed a coat of paint.

There was no wind. The harbour, like the sky, was a sort of luminous grey – it could have been a sheet of lead – and everything else shimmered in silhouette. It was unspeakably hot, and the air seemed almost too thick to breathe. Being three parts drunk didn’t help. Saturated with perspiration after our two-hundred yard stroll from Archie’s office, we climbed the stairs, collapsed gratefully into wicker chairs on the seaward verandah and waited for the slow rotation of the punkahs to surround us with someone else’s stale air.

The thermometer on the wall read 37C: humidity must have been at least 95 percent. A waiter appeared with more pink gins – tall glasses beaded with moisture – several saucers of salt-encrusted sudani and some soggy crisps.

While Ivo pretended to peruse his papers, Archie drained his glass, then reached up and balanced it on his head.

“Waled!” he bellowed, “Wahid same again!” (“Boy, One same again”).

The glass-on-head trick had become the way to reorder drinks in Aden long before we arrived. We all learned – and used – it from day one. The waiter whisked the glass off his head and quickly brought a new round of drinks. By now my taste buds were almost as numb as the rest of me, and the aromatic gin – even without any water – went down relatively smoothly. That wasn’t good news: it only meant that another part of my anatomy had gone numb.

“We shall, of course, attend to your particular requirements to the best of our ability.”

Archie tried to quickly guide Ivo through the thick folder of papers, leaning over him and mumbling in his ear, marking in the margins for emphasis with a red ball-point pen. Both Archie and Ivo were too drunk for this to work. The intermittent blasts of the punkahs whipped about every third page out of Archie’s hand and away across the verandah. Ivo had lost contact with his fingers and he dropped about half the rest, the sheets sifting slowly down across his lap to the floor.

Both Archie and Ivo ignored the missing pages, working their way unsteadily down through what remained of the pile, while the rest of us scrambled to pick up the loose sheets shuffled along the floor by the punkahs. Finally – about three rounds of gin later – they reached the bottom of their abbreviated stack. Whirling his finger above his head, Archie ordered another round of gins.

He leaned forward conspiratorially, “You chaps want to learn a bit of Arabic doggerel verse?” Glassy-eyed, we all nodded uncertainly.

“Wahid whisky, wahid bir, wahid zig-zig, quais kethir.”

He grinned broadly. We all looked blank. I was trying to work it out, but I knew hardly any Arabic. I had got to “One whisky, one beer, one – something – something – good.”

Ivo tried unsuccessfully to light a cigarette, but he was unable to control both lighter and cigarette at the same time.

“D’you know the Arabic word ‘zig-zig’?” Archie asked.

I didn’t, but it didn’t take too much imagination to figure it out.

“Something to do with sex, I’ll wager,” Howard offered.

“It is sex!” Archie replied, “You like my sister?” He mimicked a young boy’s voice, “She give you good zig-zig! Only fifty shillings!”

The whole thing translated as “One whisky, one beer, one piece of ass, very good” (It loses quite a lot in translation). As far as I know, this bit of doggerel verse was original with Archie. Today it is in common use by expatriate communities throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

We all laughed ‘till our faces hurt. It wasn’t so much funny as ridiculous – especially out of context – and we were all drunk as lords by this time. Ivo had given up any pretence of working. He had a problem just remaining upright in his chair. I, too, was having control problems.

My problem was navigating to the men’s loo across a floor that seemed to heave and yaw a lot. My nose and ears were quite numb. Howard, glassy-eyed and inert, was nearly stupefied by gin and heat.

I looked at my watch. I had to close one eye and squint hard to read it. It was nearly five o’clock. Tree shadows in the maidan were edging toward us and the sun, just settling toward a notch in the mountain, had dropped below the edge of the verandah roof and shone almost directly into our eyes.

“Perhaps we could conclude this matter tomorrow,” Joe offered hopefully. “After all, it‘s nearly five.”

He seemed to be holding his gin better than anyone except – of course – Archie. Ivo looked up, his head wobbling slightly, eyes shining, unfocused. Clearly he wasn’t in any condition to accomplish anything further. Nor were any of the rest of us.

After helping each other down the Yacht Club stairs, we started unsteadily back to the hotel, everyone clutching at least one handful of rumpled damp maps. None of us could walk a straight line. Just keeping to the footpath took all my concentration. My head buzzed and my lower legs seemed to have gone to sleep. Acacia leaves began to rustle as a light onshore breeze set in. Sweat-wet as we all were, the breeze felt wonderfully cooling. The tide had gone out, and the odour of the sea – a rancid smell of dead crabs and iodine – was almost overpowering. Howard was suddenly ill, bending at the waist and puking violently into a straggly oleander bush.  My stomach coiled and heaved in sympathy.

Then Aden gave us one of her peerless sunsets. The whole sky – cloudless and perfectly hemispherical – flared incandescent gold. Just for a moment or two, it was so bright in the west you couldn’t look at it, then all the fire quickly drained away. The brilliant colour faded to brass, then to blue and purple in the wink of an eye, leaving only a thin bright line between sky and earth. A single brilliant spark – Venus, the evening star – appeared, waxing amongst the darkening colours.

I staggered from the lift, crossed the hall, fumbled my door open and fell into bed fully-dressed. I didn’t so much fall asleep as finish passing out. My last conscious thought was “Dear God, Please let me die before dawn!”

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