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Did The English Patient send me to Afghanistan?

Two nights from now, by way of (ahem) a birthday present, I will be attending a live-orchestra screening of The English Patient at the Albert Hall.

I had invited an old friend, a raven-haired young lady (named in Debrett’s) of impossibly romantic tendency, who first exposed me to the film in, I’d say, about 1998 or ’99. It took a bit of selling, even then (and back then I thought I was Byron); but after not much more than a couple of minutes of the multi-Oscar-winner – about, to take just Michael Ondaatje’s main character, Count Ladislaus de Almásy, a pilot of dubious origin who is shot down in the Egyptian desert during the Second World War, knows the lines to every song he’s ever heard but not his own name, and may or may not have betrayed his colleagues to ze Chermans for the sake of love (we have no time for the true biography of László Almásy) – I was, of course, completely hooked.

Alexandra, alas, is unavailable (she works in theatre, natch), so I’ll be going with Harry – and as Harry’s guest, in fact. Harry and I were in Afghanistan together, in 2013, and, as he likes to say, I’ll never come to Dorset. (Don’t tell him: I’ve been several times, just not to visit him. He lives in Fulham, anyway.) But that film that Alex showed me has been with me for the better part of 20 years, now.

I applied to study Egyptology almost entirely on the strength of it, a fact I carefully concealed from cagey academic overseers at school and university. During my gap year in South Africa – just to be even more abysmally pretentious – I didn’t tuck things in a copy of Herodotus (‘the book he brought with him through the fire’), but in a Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. At Oxford I would walk around listening to the movie’s famously aching – nay, plangent – Gabriel Yared soundtrack on a loop (like all Ondaatje books, the original itself is in any case full of music and singing). In Canada I bought a black leather blazer-style jacket from Banana Republic, although I drew the line at knee-length khaki shorts.

In the libraries of the Oriental Institute I found odd books on modern Egypt (gasp!), or at least more-recent explorations of the desert, and began to make my own trips – though actually seeing Egypt, perhaps predictably, was not really a course requirement. And when I fell out with my college it was the lonely-hero movies like The English Patient I returned to in the bitter evenings. I became well-versed in the admissions criteria for the Foreign Legion. And then – under the signature of my professor – I joined the Royal Geographical Society, as found, thinly disguised, in the EP novel:

‘In the 1920s there is a sweet postscript history on this pocket of earth, made mostly by privately funded expeditions and followed by modest lectures given at the Geographical Society in London at Kensington Gore. These lectures are given by sunburned, exhausted men who, like Conrad’s sailors, are not too comfortable with the etiquette of taxis…’

The RGS – right next door to the RAH – has some nice old copies of Almásy things (not all in English), as well as material on the Long Range Desert Group (cf. the famous picture of bearded, hard-eyed SOE types in duffel coats, that used to do the rounds of my regimental HQ) and more scholarly desert-exploration articles by the likes of Bagnold, Bermann, Ball and Hassanein Bey, which Ondaatje sought out in back numbers of the Journal.

And in my then mood, the romantic, antisocial, somewhere-on-the-spectrum explorer and lover of the desert’s solitude, whose happiest memory, as he tells his (supposedly) illicit inamorata, Katharine Clifton, is the time he travelled all day with a guide who said nothing until he pointed at the horizon and said “Faya”… well, it struck a loud, if none-too-subtle, chord.

After a meeting once with Ranulph Fiennes (I followed him round the bookshops of Oxford, between signings, until he told me that in Oman he would have killed me by now), he put me in touch with John Hare, who had just completed a long camel-backed Saharan crossing, and whose brain I wanted to pick about doing one through the long crescent of oases in Egypt’s Western Desert. I never made that journey (yet). But a flame had obviously been kindled.

My first copy of the novel, came, entirely fittingly, from the American University in Cairo bookshop: a well-annotated, typo-strewn Picador paperback reprint, with the price (I think) on the title page in blue biro, bought on my first trip, in 2003, in the days immediately following the invasion of Iraq – an interesting time to be a tall, blond, white man in an Arab capital. (The receipt is still inside: it cost 45 Egyptian pounds.) I later gave in and bought myself a first edition, on Charing Cross Road, which I’ve not opened. No doubt I have a clingfilmed ‘deluxe’ version of the movie somewhere, also.

The book, of course, is total poetry (if there were ever any grounds for criticism it would be that there’s too much ‘poetry’). In a wonderful deleted scene, available on YouTube, an old bedou tells Almásy something, which he translates to Katharine: “He thinks he’s been there – but the route he’s describing, well, he couldn’t survive the journey now; but he’s a poet, so his map is poetry.”

I’ve ever since been an enthusiastic reader of Saul Kelly, Justin Marozzi, and other writers on Herodotus, the lost oasis of Zerzura, and the ‘real’ Almásy, all of which led to a friendship with the freewheeling, polymathic writer Robert Twigger, to interview whom I ‘crossed the Sinai’ (I was on a bus) in 2009. Rob now lives in Dorset (ssshhhh…!), and his most recent travel book – on the Himalayas, following on from one on the Nile – was Book of the Month in Geographical magazine, the magazine of the RGS. In a nicely complementary kind of way, I’ve just this week been asked to write my first piece for that magazine.

Eventually, the chance arose to go to my own desert war, and so I leapt at it. But that was years ago now, and unexciting – and I survived, unharmed, unlike (the fictional) Almásy.

I remain ‘a person who if left alone in someone’s home walks to the bookcase, pulls down a volume and inhales it.’ I still keep things I need in books (which means that I can never find them). I know both names for what that place is called, at the base of a woman’s neck. Beyond a weekend or two with HM Forces, I haven’t yet got round to learning Arabic, let alone Hungarian, or several of the other languages that Almásy spoke (my two brothers speak a little, though I bet they can’t describe a mountain that looks like the shape of a woman’s back); but I can name some of the winds Almásy/Ondaatje describes, and tell their stories. I often listen to the Yared soundtrack. In fact, Benny Goodman’s ‘Wang Wang Blues’ was one of the first things that I played my child when she was born. Nor can I give her (or anyone else) a bit of plum without informing them that it’s a ‘very plum… plum.’ We were in Brighton, the other week, at the aquarium, to celebrate her turning one, and I found myself humming Lorenz Hart’s original words to ‘Manhattan’, ‘before they were cleaned up.’

I’ve watched the film at least a dozen times, now, and read the novel maybe half a dozen. I’ve given copies of both DVD and book as gifts, and indeed the movie-script on one occasion. And despite the fact that I own several copies, it’s one of a number of books – among those by a small number of literary favourites, like Chatwin, Coetzee, Golding, Dyer, Sebald, Hitchens – that, if I see it in a charity shop, I feel I ought to rescue, simply because it’s wrong that it should be there.

A few years and/or rewatches back, I realised that the day the ‘ENGLISH(?)’ patient is introduced to us is, by the notebook of the interrogating officer, my birthday.

In July, The English Patient won the Mother of all Bookers (or whatever this go round was called). We all know books mean many things to many people, and can have major real-world repercussions, on personal and even national levels. But amid all the renewed plaudits for Ondaatje’s classic novel, and the obvious, widespread awareness that it’s a tale packed full of questionable characters, traumatised and very literally scarred by conflict, it suddenly occurred to me that, given a long-enough trajectory, and alongside several other factors, it seems entirely plausible The English Patient is the reason that I went to war.

What would Ondaatje think of that, I wonder? My guess is he’d probably be horrified.

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