Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Travelling for a book background?

I'm told that adventurous novelist Rosie Thomas is currently travelling in the Libyan Sahara and will be back next month.

Her short-listed novel Iris and Ruby is set in Cairo, partly during World War 2 and partly in the present.

The nearest I've come to Cairo was, long ago, as a soldier's wife returning from S E Asia to Europe on an old-fashioned troopship which sailed through the Suez Canal. I remember there was a sailor on board with whom I used to chat while he did canvas work, known to the uniniated as "tapestry". It may have been watching his skill with a needle that led me, much later, to become a member of The Embroiderers' Guild. More recently I've enjoyed a spasmodic email correspondence with a Egyptian novelist.

In Rosie Thomas's book, Iris is an 82-year-old retired doctor and Ruby is her 19-year-old granddaughter who arrives in Cairo uninvited and at first unwelcome.

In the war-timeflashbacks, Iris is an upper class girl working as clerical assistant to a senior Intelligence officer. She meets Captain Alexander Napier Molyneux, known to his friends as Xan. The reader senses immediately that he's going to be killed, and he is.

A paragraph I found particularly interesting is on page 237 when the young Iris, having inherited from her father the belief that British involvement in Egypt was largely benign, says to the woman doctor who inspires her to take up medicine, 'The Europeans dug the Suez Canal, laid railways lines, built hospitals and schools and colleges.'

To which the other woman replies, 'Yes, de Lesseps built the Canal but Egypt paid for it, and for all the other modernisation as well. The country ended up a hunded millions pounds in debt because the developments were financed by money borrowed from European banks at extortionate rates of interest, and the fellahin had to be taxed to the point of starvation in order to repay it. Then Disraeli took advantage of the economic crisis to buy the khedive's shares in the Suez Canal Company at a rock-bottom price. When there was an uprising the Royal Navy bombed the harbour at Alexandria, the army massacred the rebels at Tel el Kebir and occupied the country. You know the story since then.'

At which point Iris thinks : I did. The sovereign country that had finally emerged from fifty years of British control was still effectively occupied and ruled by the British.


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