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David L

 

‘To go back to Iraq…’ (or ‘The bog at the end of the Empire!’) - Edited by Andrea Capstick

John’s single year spent working for the British Council in Basra in the late 1950s seems to have been a defining event in his life.  His account of his time there has been greatly condensed in the version reproduced here. A more complete version of the story is reproduced in 'Tell Mrs Mill her husband is still dead'.

John’s memory for events since leaving Basra is fragmented.  His room is filled with old letters and newspapers which he spends much of his time reading and re-reading.

 

I was born in Devon…my parents were Anglo-Irish... and 1920 was not a very good year to be in Ireland... my father was, as I understand it, an alcoholic... they parted and he died rather quickly... I think he died when I was about three... I have no memories of his presence at all, none... I have memories of my mother who died when I was about ten... and that’s about all that would be of interest in that period...

I have some muddled early memories of a couple of years in Switzerland... I went there with my mother…she couldn’t afford proper nannies and she used to give me up to Swiss sluts.  I remember one of them picking me up and sort of dangling me over the side of the cliff as a joke... and I howled of course as a child. A very early memory is that a maid was drawing the bath and there was a loud pop sound…it sounded to me like an explosion... and then screaming... and my mother locked the bathroom door so I couldn’t go in...whatever it was I really don’t know, but I never saw that girl again... she may have been hurt... I don’t know.

When I came back to England... I went to prep school. I was teased for my slight accent... the headmaster would make me say in front of the other boys ‘Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran’... There was another boy whose father was said to be the director of Rolls Royce[1]...  he had what was then considered to be a common accent... and he was made to say ‘How now brown cow’ in front of everybody... I remember reading in a newspaper a few years later that he committed suicide... I wondered vaguely whether these things are really traumatic or not...

At the second school things were a bit different... first of all I was older... a relation of my guardian had been asked to be kind to me... he was a brat of course…he used to mock me... and say that I was “bog Irish”... I didn’t actually know what a bog was, I thought it just meant lavatory... I didn’t seem to be aware of other associations...

I rather turned the tables on a boy who had been my tormentor... I was left in the Matron’s room one day, and she had a list of the boys’ names, and he was Anthony Mary... which is not very common, Irish I believe, a Catholic thing …I danced round him singing ‘Mary, Mary quite contrary’…nasty... I seem to remember I knocked him down to the ground... and that I gave him a few blows when he was already down...a wicked memory. He didn’t torment me after that.

 

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At the outbreak of the Second World War... I did very low level work in the Ministry... as I wasn’t very fit... A girl I knew very well was working just down the road... we all had these telephones... even people as lowly as me... of no importance whatsoever... which were used when you didn’t want to be overheard... she was on night duty and at about three in the morning she got a message that there was the perfect opportunity to assassinate Laval[2], and she rang me and said what should I do because I think that this is the time that Churchill is said to go to bed... and I said, “I think you better report it immediately and get him out of bed”, and that was all... I very rightly, I think, did not ask her what had happened...very often I’ve found that it is better not to know things...  

I will try to remember where I was before Basra... I was working in the British Council... I remember I did something very silly... I did myself awful harm I think... at the time it seemed right... I was posted to the coastal town of Kenya... Mombasa... My predecessor was said to have done wonderfully right there... I looked at all his reports and they drove me round the bend because Kenya was then still a colony... and the last thing I came upon... was a letter he had written, “You have no idea what good work we are doing here. There are people of every nationality rubbing shoulders in the library”... it was ghastly... waffle and self importance... pretentious nonsense... not suitable for an official letter... I went straight in and told the director of personnel that I couldn’t go there and he was absolutely furious...

 

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However, to go back to Iraq, which is far more interesting…

Just before I arrived in Iraq the regime changed... I can’t remember what year it was... but the King and all his family were taken out of the palace and assassinated... and then this man... his name I think was General Kassem…took over...and he didn’t actually know quite what he was doing, one day he would make a declaration that the Imperialists were responsible for something, and the next day it would be the Communists... so nobody knew where they were with him and he didn’t know what he was doing... eventually he was captured and I believe assassinated or executed on television... so that got rid of him, then the next man who took over led gradually, I believe, to Saddam Hussein...[3]

My first impressions of Basra were filth, immense heat...Martial law had been declared and you couldn’t go out at night so Basra presented itself in the most unsavory fashion when I arrived. It wasn’t at all uncommon to see a corpse floating in the canal... I once saw a floating body with a turtle sitting on top of it... I don’t know what corpses they were... Iraqis I think... pie dogs, gutter dogs all over the place... during the day it was fairly quiet…but there were packs of these rather savage gutter dogs at night... The stench was everywhere, even in my house... and you had very old fashioned air conditioning which broke down a lot...

The first thing that hit me apart from the stench and the filth of the roads and canals was that we needed a sewage system... so I made enquiries and there was no such thing around... I think it was called a sanitary engineer... the man who was picked for me was in Baghdad... I said fine we will arrange a visit for him to go to England to learn the ins and outs of sanitary engineering ...I wrote a minute, rather strongly worded, explaining in some detail how all the shit came out of a particular house and straight into the delicious canals.

One day in the Basra newspaper there was a small article saying that I had incited a revolt amongst the left-wing students at the University... I’d been forbidden to go there, but on arrival I had in fact gone there... I thought it did no harm... so I chatted to the director... and just before the bell went, he lost courage and there I was in the corridor surrounded by potential assassins. So I walked out. One knew anything could happen at any time.

This of course was a very stupid and dangerous thing to put in the newspaper, that I’d incited a revolt…I went to the owner of the newspaper and told him that he must retract this... I remember saying they’d got a lunatic on the staff...he just looked at me and pretended not to understand …a couple of days after, he put an article in the paper saying that Kuwait had to be praised for throwing off the shackles of the British ruler, and then straight away it was claimed by Kassem as part of Iraq. So the newspaper proprietor was arrested before he ever had chance to retract the article in which I’d been mentioned, and he was put in a very nasty prison miles away ... I believe a petition was got up for him to be freed and this believe it or not was brought to me to sign... I said I didn’t think it would do any good at all... I think we compromised by somebody writing my name for me in Arabic... I didn’t wish to be uncivil.

 

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In El Nasaria two extremely filthy doctors arrested me and popped me in the clink which was filthy in the extreme…I was there a day or so…When I was let out the Governor was there saying they’d made a mistake.  One giant of a man with an enormous beard wouldn’t go...he had been told that he mustn’t leave before I went to bed... so I was under observation... he was told to report on me... My driver tried to explain to me, with much gesturing, that while I’d been in the clink he’d been interrogated about whether I’d been to see the people that live on the floating shit...What do you call them? The marsh Arabs... they live on floating shit... they make little islands out of it... they were supposed to be very anti-government... they asked him if I’d been to see the Marsh Arabs, and did I come away with much gold?

One day much to my surprise I got a communication from my colleague in Baghdad saying that he’d received a letter about me…he said I think you should see this it seems to have been written by someone with a grudge.  I read this thing and it said “When Mr. L’Estrange comes into the office he is rude to the men and shuts the door on them, keeping the women with him until after office hours”, it went on considerably saying “Perhaps you do not know this but Mr  L’Estrange is a German, please take him away. Please close the British Council office and take Mr L’Estrange away.”  It was so obviously not true…bloody ridiculous... I was told that the full letter was sent to the Ambassador. I should have made a scene but I didn’t... it’s one of my enormous weaknesses... I never react properly...

I was in Basra for a year…I can’t seem to remember what happened when I left...I must try to get this right... I’m getting rather dotty today I’m afraid... The military governor and the governor of the air force were all going to give me farewell parties... two of the them... rang up and said that that they were very sorry but they would not be able to give their parties... the military governor had the moral courage to speak to me personally... he said, “After what the leader has said about you, he would not be able to give the party”... all three were cancelled...

It seemed that we already had one foot in the bog, so there was no point in trying to get it out.

                                       

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I can’t remember when I came back….

Sometime later I met the Kaddir of Basra without his robes... dressed like an uncomfortable city gent and the chief medical man... I was just going into Lyons... the corner shop... when they came. They brought a present which I’d refused so many times.

I was living in sheltered housing…I’ve been there almost, I think, almost ten years…I’ve moved all over the place.

It’s quite spooky here... in the dining room... there’s one in there who never stops talking... an Irish lady... it’s all, “No, darling. Yes, darling. Don’t leave me here, darling!”

It’s just ordinary dementia I think... we all suffer from it I’m afraid to say...

This is all what I should have said, but I don’t remember saying it.



[1] Then based in Coventry.

[2] Pierre Laval, French Prime Minister 1940-42, a known collaborator, was publicly executed   after the War.

[3] The hereditary monarchy of Iraq was overthrown by military coup in 1958.  General Abdul Karim Kassem became Commander of national Forces until 1963 when he was executed.  Footage of his execution was broadcast to prove his death.