From a Ship at Sea to Cairo

What am I reading?

I last asked this question exactly a month ago and since then I have finished both The Miseducation of Cameron Post and – finally! – T. E. Lawrence’s Letters. I will write about them in separate posts, but here are my two ‘new’ books on the go.

The Cat’s Table
by Michael Ondaatje

I’m reading this book, of course, because Ondaatje wrote The English Patient (1992). I could have read that again, and at some point this year, I hope I do, but if you really love an author you will do more than just read your favourite work by him over and over again. That was why I read In the Skin of a Lion (1987) and it is why I am reading The Cat’s Table.

The book is set on an ocean liner, the Oronsay, as it makes its way from Sri Lanka to England. The narrator is an eleven year old boy named Michael and in short chapters he describes the people that he and his friends meet and the adventures they get up to during the journey.

You may be wondering what adventures could anyone get up to on a ship. Well, next time you go on a cruise, get yourself tied down to the deck during a storm so that you can witness it from the outside – the wind so strong that it pulls the buttons off your shirt and wash as it floods the deck; if you do this, and survive, you will have done just as Michael did.

So far, The Cat’s Table is a light hearted and enjoyable read. The story flows ever so easily – in half an hour this evening I read 25 pages. All in all, it feels like Michael Ondaatje at play and that’s just fine.

by Ronald Storrs

Ronald Storrs (1881-1955) served in the Egyptian government from 1904 until the First World War when he joined the Arab Bureau where he worked alongside David Hogarth and T. E. Lawrence. By the end of the war, he was governor of Jerusalem. Not quite, as he claimed, the first westerner to hold this position since Pontius Pilate, but only once removed.

After the war – well, I’ll let you know when I get there. I know Storrs through his connection to Lawrence so my knowledge of anything else he did is minimal to nil. At this moment in time, the only thing I know about his post-war life is that in the early 30s his house caught fire and burned down.

Orientations is Storr’s autobiography and it is packed with anecdotes and interesting stories about his life. If I open the book now, I come to the ‘scandal’ of the badly written invitation to a party hosted by Britain’s Governor-General in Egypt, Sir Eldon Gorst. Storrs was in charge of the invitations but never wrote it. Who did? Who embarrassed him so?

Then there is the case of the assassination threats. Gorst seems to have received them quite often. And didn’t mind doing so. As Storrs says, the G-G simply praised ‘God for one letter which required no answer’.

And further back there is Harry Boyle, the G-G’s Oriental Secretary who was once asked if he was the hotel pimp at the famous Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. Rather than remonstrate, Boyle took revenge by informing the mistaken stranger that while he was that man, he was also on his break, so if the fellow didn’t mind, the chap over there would help him. The chap over there was Sir Thomas Lipton, presumably another British official, but certainly not a pimp. The stranger went over to him and as Boyle stepped into his cab, he heard ‘the sound of a fracas, the impact of a fist and the thud of a ponderous body on the marble floor’.

At this moment in time, I can’t fault Orientations at all. What I am less keen on is this edition of the book. It was published in 1945 according to ‘book production war economy standard’. The paper is not the finest, therefore, and each page has upwards of 45 lines to it. As the book has over 500 pages, I think I will be reading it for a while. Such is the quality of Storr’s writing, however, I think I can live with that quite easily.

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