[ilds] Durrell's decadent and sensitive characters

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Sat Feb 2 05:17:48 PST 2008

Dear Listserv:

Several glances at Durrell here below, courtesy of Sir John Ure.




*The Telegraph
Cruising the Mediterranean's troubled waters
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 02/02/2008

Sir John Ure is fascinated by the region's bloody history while on a 
cruise in the eastern Mediterranean.*

'The Cockpit of Europe" is a term usually applied to those much 
fought-over lands that lie between France and Germany, but it could 
equally be applied to the islands, coastlines and sea routes of the 
eastern Mediterranean - at least since the time of the Greek-Trojan wars 
(around 1300BC).
Statues in the ancient city of Cyrene, Cruising the Mediterranean's 
troubled waters
The ancient city of Cyrene overlooks the Mediterranean and is rich with 
statues and mosaics

When visiting the region from the comfort of a small but luxurious ship, 
we had to revise our itinerary more than once to avoid the aftermath of 
the Lebanon-Israel conflict and a brief spate of terrorist bombings in 
Turkey. So where were we to go? The answer was to some fascinating and 
delightful, though historically troubled, places.

First was Crete, home to the Minoan civilisation and the imposing, if 
somewhat over-restored, site of Knossos. It was here that Theseus 
grappled with the Minotaur and Ariadne provided the thread to lead him 
out of the Labyrinth in which the monster lived and devoured Athenian 
maidens. But in Suda Bay, at the western end of the island, we were 
sharply reminded of a much more recent conflict: the battle for Crete in 

At this distance in time it is fair to wonder why Crete was so important 
a military objective - strategically essential to the cause of the 
Western Allies in the eastern Mediterranean. But with Greece lost to the 
Germans, and with Rommel's Afrika Korps battling with Wavell and the 
Eighth Army for Egypt and the Suez Canal, it was a vital link in the 
supply chain.

The German parachute attack on the island - the first of its kind - 
resulted in a battle that left Suda Bay the site of a large and 
meticulously maintained war cemetery on what is surely one of the most 
beautiful inlets in the Mediterranean. This would be my chosen "corner 
of a foreign field" for any fallen loved one: the encircling mountains 
behind, the blue sea in front and the spirit of Byron and England's (as 
well as New Zealand's) help to Greece hovering eternally over the bay.

Soon we were at sea again heading for Africa. Allied survivors of the 
battle for Crete had been ferried to Alexandria by British warships at 
huge hazard to the latter. But the Royal Navy does not let the British 
Army down in a tight spot. As its commander, Admiral Cunningham, 
remarked as he put his sailors and ships at risk: "It takes the Navy 
three years to build a new ship. It would take 300 years to build a new 
tradition. The evacuation will continue." More than 30,000 troops were 

Our first African port of call was not Alexandria but Dernah on the 
Libyan coast. These seas are turbulent, as any reader of the Acts of the 
Apostles will remember from the tales of St Paul's shipwrecks, and when 
we approached the harbour it was closed as being too dangerous in such 
weather. We pressed on down the north African coast to Tobruk.

Just as Vietnam in the 1970s was, for the Americans, a war rather than a 
country so, for anyone old enough to remember the Second World War, 
Tobruk is a battle rather than a city. Its old scars are still visible: 
dusty, half-built or half-destroyed buildings line the pock-marked 
streets; a litter of wrecked vehicle parts and plastic bottles fringe 
the pavements; and the museum is more like a discarded spare-parts store 
for Rommel's desert army than a showcase for a memorable campaign - old 
tin helmets, a broken dispatch-rider's bicycle and rusted rifles. 
Military might has never looked shabbier or shoddier than here.

Three hours' drive west, though, was a much more inspirational site: the 
ancient Hellenic and Roman city of Cyrene. High on its plateau 
overlooking the blue Mediterranean and rich with its forum, temple to 
Zeus, columns and mosaics (surely they must stop visitors trampling over 
these soon?), it imposes a classical order on a desert landscape. One of 
the dividends of the Italian colonial period in Libya during the 1920s 
and 1930s was the work done by Mussolini's archaeologists, who - it has 
to be admitted - showed themselves more sensitive than Sir Arthur Evans 
at Knossos.

 From Tobruk we sailed east to Alexandria, perhaps the most exotic of 
all north African cities, being the site of the lighthouse that was one 
of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and itself the playground of 
the fevered society immortalised by Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria 

Where once the lighthouse stood there is now a fort, but close to the 
site of the celebrated library ("the memory of the ancient world") there 
is today a modern library of outstanding elegance, its sloping waterside 
glass panels rivalling in impact the roof of that most famous of 
contemporary waterside buildings, the Sydney Opera House. It was from 
here that Cleopatra scanned the horizon in vain for the return of her 
own and Mark Antony's fleet from the battle of Actium, only to conclude 
that "the soldier's pole is fallen" and clasp an asp to her bosom.

Exploring the centre of Alexandria and its modern port complex is a 
heartening experience, but the two-hour drive west to the battlefield of 
El Alamein is less so: the road follows the coastline, which consists of 
an unbroken chain of holiday complexes, each one a gated compound of 
concrete-looking blocks filling the space between highway and beach. 
This, it was explained, was the air-vent for the hundreds of thousands 
of citizens of Cairo who came for their annual respite from the heat, 
noise and tension of the capital; be that as it may, one felt that 
Durrell's decadent and sensitive characters - Justine, Bathazar, Clea et 
al - would hardly have recognised this as their milieu.

The museum at El Alamein is everything that Tobruk's is not. Elegantly 
laid out around a courtyard overlooking the war cemetery and, beyond 
that, the battlefield itself, separate light and airy rooms are devoted 
to each of the main participating armies in the battle.

Busts of Rommel and Montgomery dominate their respective galleries and 
sand-table models of the north African coast help to make the campaign 
intelligible. Inside, uniforms, portraits and equipment are accompanied 
by informative captions; outside, there are full-size specimens of the 
tanks, guns and armoured transport vehicles deployed.

The battlefield beyond gives ample evidence of the terrain best suited 
to a tank battle: there are no trees to conceal infantrymen with 
anti-tank weapons, only an expanse of rolling gravel, sand and scrub 
bordered to the north by the sea and to the south by the impenetrable 
Qattara Depression - a treacherous region of quicksands.

This was the perfect arena for a decisive clash of arms: no villages or 
towns, civilians or settlements. Indeed, hard fought as they had been, 
the battles of the Western Desert were a relatively gentlemanly affair 
compared with the messy and indiscriminate engagements of the Russian 
and even west European fronts, where civilian populations often suffered 
as severely as the combatants.

These were professional armies fighting professionally: when British 
doctors and nurses were captured while tending German wounded, Rommel 
personally thanked them individually and had them repatriated promptly 
through the Red Cross. We paid our tribute at the vast Allied war 
cemetery and I was invited to lay a wreath while the Scottish bagpiper 
from our ship played The Flowers of the Forest (the 51st Highland 
Division suffered sorely) and there were few dry eyes among the visitors.

 From Alexandria we sailed north to the largest island of the eastern 
Mediterranean, Cyprus. Even here - among the gently rolling hills and 
the lush citrus groves (Durrell's Bitter Lemons) - the restlessness of 
the region had left both ancient and modern reminders of confrontation.

The early conversion of Cyprus to Christianity is commemorated in the 
icon-rich church of St Lazarus on the outskirts of Larnaca - also a 
reminder that Lazarus (he who was raised from the dead) was the first 
Christian bishop of the island; he invited the Virgin Mary to visit him 
there towards the end of both their lives because (in John Julius 
Norwich's memorable phrase) "he wanted to see her before he died again".

The Venetian empire is commemorated in its fortresses - all eventually 
captured by the Ottoman Turks. The British empire is more modestly 
commemorated by its yellow pillar boxes, still bearing King George VI's 
imperial cipher. If ever there was a land where the hymn line "empires 
rise and wane" was visibly true, this must be it.

Even now, with its UN-umpired "green line" dividing the Turkish and 
Greek-Cypriot sectors of the island, the division of Islam and 
Christianity, of East and West, continues to be sadly visible. Can we 
hope the 21st century will see the long overdue turning of a new page in 
the eastern Mediterranean?

Meanwhile, perhaps the Greek-Cypriots have the last word about how to 
adapt the fruits of one culture to the nomenclature of another: as we 
hastened to the airport we were offered boxes of "Cypriot Delight" to 
sweeten our departure.


Sir John Ure, author and former ambassador, travelled around the eastern 
Mediterranean as a guest lecturer on the Hebridean Spirit, one of the 
two small cruise ships of Hebridean International Cruises 
(www.hebridean.co.uk, 01756 704704; similar cruises of six-12 nights, 
from £3,392 per person, including private charter flight from London 
Stansted ).

*-- *
Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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