Saturday, 1 March 2014

Lawrence Durrell's Introduction to Three Caravan Cities

Copies of Three Caravan Cities are very scarce.
Three Caravan Cities was published in Alexandria in 1945 by Whitehead Morris, the same firm that published the first (1922) and second (1938) editions of E M Forster's Alexandria: A History and a Guide. Its author was Paul Gotch who worked for the British Council in the city, at the opposite end of the same building where Lawrence Durrell was working at the British Information Office.

Gotch and Durrell also lived in the same house, the Villa Ambron, in Moharrem Bey.  They were close friends, and there was probably no one who had a closer round-the-clock eye on Durrell during those wartime days in Alexandria than Paul Gotch.

That explains how Durrell came to write the introduction to Three Caravan Cities.  Not that Durrell's name is on the cover or the title page, and I suspect that his contribution was overlooked by the second hand bookshop where I picked up my copy, because I got it for very much less than this rather rare book might be expected to sell for.  

Published by Whitehead Morris in Alexandria 1945; no mention of an introduction by Lawrence Durrell.
Three Caravan Cities describes Paul's visits with his wife and friends to Baalbek in Lebanon and Jerash in Jordan in July 1941, to St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai in April 1943, and to Petra in Jordan via Jerusalem in August and September 1944.

It was just after that journey to St Catherine's that Paul and Billy moved in with Durrell and his girlfriend Eve Cohen, first at an enormous dark and gloomy flat on the Rue Fuad, then moving all together to the Villa Ambron in October.  In the summer of 1944 when Paul and Billy went travelling for six weeks across Sinai to Palestine and Jordan, the occasion of their visit to Petra, they left their two infant daughters for the whole of that time in the care of a nanny under the supervision of Durrell and his future wife Eve Cohen who in many respects would be the model for Justine in The Alexandria Quartet. It was all very domestic, cooking meals, changing nappies, writing books, that sort of thing.

Paul Gotch and friends living among the ruins at Petra.
Two of Paul's friends on the journey to Petra were Harold Edwards, a teacher at the British Council in Alexandria, and his Greek wife Epy.  They had escaped the German invasion of Greece by the skin of their teeth, much as Durrell had done in April 1941 when he put to sea at Pylos in the Peloponnese in an overloaded caique with his wife Nancy and his year-old daughter Penelope. Evading dive-bombing Stukas, they managed to reach Crete, from where they went to safety in Egypt. Now Harold and Epy also lived at the Villa Ambron. 

So Paul's book, though it is about caravan cities, offers something of a glimpse into Lawrence Durrell's world in Alexandria during the war - often in ways that do not meet the eye unless you know where to look.  For example, that photograph, above, of Paul and Harold and Epy living amongst the ruins at Petra. They had driven first from Alexandria and across Sinai in a Standard Eight, then at Jerusalem's Damascus gate they took 'a tougher means of transport', a taxi in fact, for the final leg to Petra.

In Jerusalem Paul and Billy slept in the open on the terrace at Nancy Durrell's house, that is Durrell's wife Nancy who had been evacuated to Palestine at the time of the Flap in July 1942, where she got to know Billy who had been evacuated there too.  Later that year Nancy wrote Durrell to say she was not coming back; the worst of it for Durrell was losing his daughter whom he would not see again until long after the war when she was seven. 

But though Durrell was estranged from his wife and could not see Penelope, Paul and Billy could, and from Petra and Jerusalem they returned to Alexandria with photographs for Durrell of his child and reports of her; it was a bitter-sweet experience for Durrell, Paul's return from his caravan journey to the Villa Ambron - the theme of missing daughters runs through The Alexandria Quartet.

That might explain the brevity, the terseness, in Durrell's introduction to Gotch's Three Caravan Cities.  For Durrell the book was about a journey he could not make, a journey to Jerusalem, the recovery of a lost daughter, the reclamation of a broken life. 

Seeking clues in Durrell's introduction.
At the end of his introduction Durrell gives a clue to where his feelings lie when he mentions William Lithgow, 'one of the illustrious ancestors of Middle East Travel'.  Lithgow was the author of Rare Adventures and Painful Peregrinations, an account of his Eastern travels published in 1632.  Lithgow had come to Alexandria, this once 'most renowned city', in 1612 and found it 'greatly decayed' and 'mightily impoverished', with an 'infectious air' producing 'bloody fluxes and other heavy sicknesses'.  Which is not far off how Durrell felt about his situation.

But three years earlier, in 1609, Lithgow had been in Corfu, like Durrell himself.  'Corfu is an island no less beautiful than invincible: it lieth in the Sea Ionean, the inhabitants are Greeks, and the Governors Venetians; this Ile was much honoured by Homer for the pleasant gardens of Alcino which were in his time' - these were Lithgow's lines, capturing something of the island's charm, that Durrell quoted in Prospero's Cell, his book about the idyllic years he had spent in Corfu with Nancy.
At such moments we never speak; but I am aware of the brown arms and throat in the candlelight and the brown toes in the sandals. I am aware of a hundred images at once and a hundred ways of dealing with them. The bowl of wild roses. The English knives and forks. Greek cigarettes. The battered and sea-stained notebook in which I rough out my poems. The rope and oar lying under the tree. The spilth of the olive-press which will be gathered for fuel. The pile of rough stone for the building of a garden wall. A bucket and an axe. The peasant crossing the orchard in her white head-dress. The restless cough of the goat in the barn. All these take shape and substance round this little yellow cone of flame in which N. is cutting the cheese and washing the grapes. A single candle burning upon a table between our happy selves.  
The book that Durrell wrote while living in the Villa Ambron and while Gotch was visiting Jerusalem and the caravan cities.