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Chapter Seven

1959 - Adventures in Berlin and Egypt

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I had joined the Hockey Club when it had one and a half teams. The club grew to two, three and then four teams with me always at the bottom of the list. I stopped playing but continued to join in the social activity. In 1959 the club visited Berlin as the guests of a hockey club sponsored by one of the city's breweries. I was a member of the drinking team. In order for the players to be fit to play in the daytime some of us had to bear the brunt of the drinking each evening. We arrived on Easter Thursday and immediately visited the brewery. The Germans brew specially strong "Martz beer" for Easter and by six o'clock we were well past it. Each evening during the visit we were invited to a different venue with a different style of drinking but always we drank copious quantities of "Martz beer". By Tuesday when we left to return to London, our hangovers were monumental but we had had a very good visit. I don't even remember if we won the hockey but I'm sure we did.

Later the same year, the International Society received an invitation to visit Egypt to join in the celebration of the 7th anniversary of the revolution. No-one from England had visited that country since the Suez crisis in 1952 so we were keen to go. In the event, seven of us rustled up enough time and money to join the party. We were a mixed bunch, apart from the bearded me looking a lot like a young Fidel Castro, there were two Englishmen, two Indians, an East African Indian, a West African and the Palestinian head of the International Society who had arranged it all.

We travelled to Athens on a German student charter train. The journey took three days because it's a long way and because all other trains had right of way so we spent considerable time in sidings waiting for other trains to go by. There were no dining facilities so we had to take all our food with us and we had to pick up water whenever we stopped.

The evening we crossed the border from Yugoslavia into Greece was particularly memorable. Yugoslavia was a pretty depressed country and the weather had been less than clement for the whole of the 24 hours it took to traverse the country. The border with Greece is on the top of the mountains which divide Greece from Yugoslavia and the climate is suddenly Mediterranean. The air was warm and heavy with the scent of honeysuckle and the people had turned out to offer to sell us coffee, fruit and other comestibles which were a delight after the privations of the journey up to that time. We availed ourselves of all this and counted ourselves very lucky to have fetched up in such a place.

We had no means of getting from Greece to Egypt so we begged free seats on an Egyptian Airlines flight, which was exciting, particularly when oil leaked out of one of the engines out over the Mediterranean. When we arrived in Alexandria, we were processed by the immigration people. This included looking up each of our names in a big black book. One of my colleagues whose name was Glanfield thought he might be refused entry because he had done his national service in army intelligence in Cyprus during the Suez crisis. The immigration guy's finger going slowly down the list stopped at the name Glan, we all held our breath, but the finger moved on down the page.

We were hosted around Egypt by a school teacher on summer leave. He was pleasant enough but we fell foul of him towards the end of the visit.

Lots of interesting things had been laid on for us but first we had to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution. This required us to observe the military parade. We sat in an official grandstand with some Canadian servicemen who were part of a UN peacekeeping force. One of the highlights of this show of military might was that one of the aged Russian tanks didn't make it to the end of the route but broke down right outside the empty British Embassy building. We also had to sit through the whole of President Nasser's speech. We were again with the Canadians, this time in an open fronted tent of a style reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, complete with carpets and cushions not too far from the podium. We eventually worked out that it was permissible to get up, walk around, and even go off to buy something to eat which was just as well as the speech went on for six hours.

We visited an army boot factory, a small arms factory, a floor tile co-operative all in or near Cairo. We also spent a day at a new community centre in the delta. Egypt then had a population of 20 million, 90% of whom lived in the delta and were still using farming techniques devise thousands of years ago. These community centres had been set up by the Revolutionary Council all over the delta. Each one had a hospital, a school and a demonstration farm and each one served about 20,000 people. These centres were staffed by graduates of appropriate disciplines whose university education had been paid for by the state and who were bonded to work in these centres for some years. The plan was to keep these centres going until a whole generation had been brought up to adulthood without the traditional attitudes to life and work but with new skills and new perspectives. Sadly, I learned many years later from a colleague who had married an Egyptian lady, that the whole scheme had fallen into disrepair and failure.

One of our number had gone looking for the home of somebody he knew who lived in Cairo. Finding ones way around Cairo is difficult because all the street signs are in Arabic. Seeking directions, he walked up to someone's front door. The resident, just by chance, was the head of the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority. Joe was invited in, given tea, and asked about our visit. The upshot was an invitation for us all to visit the establishment where research on the production and use of medical radio-isotopes was being carried out. I'm sure the authorities would have had some concerns about this unofficial visit but it happened anyway.

We were taken up the Nile to Luxor to see the Valley of the Kings and the temples in Karnak and then on to Aswan to see the early work on the new High Dam. The contract for this project hadn't been awarded and the Americans and the Russians were eagerly awaiting the decision. In the event, the Russians won the job, the dam was built and the problems resulting from interfering with major river flows ensued over the following decades. One of the purposes for the High Dam was the generation of large amounts of electricity, some to be used to manufacture nitrogenous fertilizer.

We were having a quiet beer in the hotel in Aswan when a well but casually dressed Egyptian came over to us for a chat. He was a chemical engineering graduate of St Marys College in London and was fascinated to hear of our visit. He invited us to look over his project, a fertilizer factory under construction, which we did the next day.

He had been working in London when the revolution in Egypt deposed King Farouk and established the republic. He had returned to Egypt to offer to do whatever the Revolutionary Council wanted done. They gave him 30 million pounds sterling worth of cotton and asked him to build a fertilizer factory. He asked how big and where and so on and was told to go away and make all the necessary decisions himself. He selected the site at Aswan because it was near to the hydro-electric power station at the High Dam. He had bargained with French and German companies for machinery and support in return for cotton and was all but finished when we visited. I heard later that the plant was up and running as soon as the electricity became available.

He was an amazing character, riding round the site on a bicycle and talking to everyone in his crew of several hundred workers calling them all by name. He told us that like his boss, the President, he worked longer hours than any of his subordinates and he expected the same from all his staff. He had thought of every possible thing to make living and working in this remote location pleasant. There was even a street of shop windows from all the major stores in Cairo where the wives could window shop and order their clothes and so on by mail order.

We visited Ismailiya, the headquarters of the Suez Canal Authority. The Managing Director himself hosted our visit. He was an oil company executive who had been drafted by the Revolutionary Council to take over the running of the canal.

The French who had built and run the canal for the best part of a hundred years were loath to give it back to the Egyptians after the revolution but had been forced to do so. The French and the Egyptians worked together each day on the plans for the hand over and the Egyptians worked each night on alternative plans knowing that the French wouldn't do any of the things they said they'd do.

I was reminded of a story from my father who served under an incompetent General in Bouganville during the war. The days were spent doing what the General asked for and the nights were spent doing what had to be done to prosecute the war.

We visited the dormitories of a student labour camp in Ismailiya which housed students who were purported to be digging a second canal. We had to talk to the students through the cyclone wire fence as we were not allowed inside the compound. We asked our guide to take us to the work site the next day to see the students at work. He refused and we got into a pretty acrimonious argument with him. We didn't get to see the work site and when we got back to Cairo we were told to leave the country. We still don't know what they were hiding nor can I imagine anything which would cause them to risk us leaving with severe doubts about the credibility of the regime.

We visited Port Said and saw the operation of the Canal under its Egyptian staff. Everything was working normally. Ships of all nations, except Israel, were transiting the canal without any trouble.

One of our number had a film camera and went of by himself to get some shots of the local scene in Port Said. He was bailed up by an angry group of local residents and was saved from a nasty situation by the police who intervened before any violence occurred and took him to the local lockup.

Having fallen out with our guide after demanding to see things they didn't want us to see, we left Egypt without meeting Nasser and spent a week in Athens waiting for our train back to London. We were all but broke and survived largely because a local restaurateur took pity on us and fed us every night for whatever we could afford.

When the day came for us to leave we found that the train captain had scrounged a carriage with some first class accommodation and we were invited to join him in it. This was all very well but somewhere along the line a railway inspector declared the carriage unfit for use and we were moved into another carriage. This happened again and we finished up in the guards van on the floor. It wasn't comfortable but we survived the three days and arrived back safely in London.

London had had a once in a lifetime summer and all our friends had been out in the sun whenever possible and all had quite reasonable tans. We had, of course, been keeping out of the sun as much as possible to avoid sunburn and were still the normal pale English colour.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised 6/2/07
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