The balconied rooftop apartment in Zamalek on the island of Gezira which my father rented when we arrived in Cairo in 1947 looked over the Nile to the east and Gezira Sporting Club to the west. I learned to count to ten by timing the sunset each night, the sand in the air making the sun a scumbled, smouldering ball, dropping fast and heavily, as if overcome by its own heat. My father had gone ahead of us and been to the Mouski to buy Persian and Turkish rugs, mirrors with gilded and curly frames; brass trays engraved with paisley butis and edged in scallops; a brass coffeepot with a toucan bill for a spout; little ruby glasses, also gilded and flowery, for drinking tea; a bronze sculpture of a crane eating a snake twined round its legs. A dressing table for my mother had bulky, rounded drawers, made of some kind of heavy yellow wood the colour of camel hide; she draped it in pink spotted tulle over a heavier satin underskirt, with braiding and a frill to define the kidney-shaped contour of the tabletop. It was a piece made by hand to look machine-tooled and modern; each of the drawers was slightly different so that you had to put them back in the right order. But Esmond – my father – also shipped a drinks cabinet in walnut veneer from London, as well as decanters for port and sherry and a cunning device called a ‘tantalus’ for locking up bottles so ‘the staff can’t tipple,’ some carver chairs, and lots of bits of silver (cigarette boxes, ashtrays, candelabra, pepperpots, decanter labels): tribal stuff, to keep him moored to home ground, which figured in all the colonial residences of the British, as can be seen in photographs in memoirs like Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner, published in 1966, about living in Cairo as a child between the wars: her father, Sir William Goodenough Hayter, was a judge with the Anglo-Egyptian Service, a vital arm of the British Protectorate running the country from the wings.
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Vol. 39 No. 3 · 2 February 2017
Exploring the colonial propensity for donning Oriental costume, Marina Warner refers to Virginia Woolf’s denouncement of peacockery in Three Guineas (LRB, 5 January). In 1910, six pranksters managed to embarrass the Royal Navy by assuming the likenesses of an Abyssinian royal delegation and bluffing their way into a guard of honour at Portland Harbour and a tour of the state-of-the-art battleship HMS Dreadnought. The perpetrators of the ‘Dreadnought Hoax’ soon revealed themselves, sending a photograph to the Daily Mirror. It can easily be found on the internet: Virginia Stephen is the bearded figure on the far left.
‘Tintin doesn’t fit the profile of the colonial oppressor,’ Marina Warner writes. I wonder if she would change her mind after reading Tintin in the Congo, the second adventure. Hergé depicts Tintin acquiring a ‘boy’ named Coco (who ‘doesn’t look very bright’), teaching Congolese children about ‘your country: Belgium’, and, finally, blowing up a live rhinoceros with a stick of dynamite. Its publication in 1931 was accompanied by a stunt involving a Tintin lookalike escorted by ten Africans and a collection of zoo animals.
University of Edinburgh
Vol. 39 No. 4 · 16 February 2017
Peter Fernandes is right to remind us of Hergé’s Belgian colonialist attitudes (Letters, 2 February). However Tintin is a reporter not an empire official – though I admit I was probably over-wishful in distinguishing the press from the governing powers. He wears a kind of golfing outfit – plus fours and light colours, jersey, and maybe brogues – and together with his dog, Milou/Snowy, has an outdoorsy brio that does correlate with the leisure pursuits of the colonisers. But Tintin also carries many traces of another strong identification of Hergé’s: he’s very like an ideal Boy Scout. Hergé was by all accounts never happier than when in the Scouts, and his hero has many of the attitudes and skills and interests that the movement set out to develop. The Boy Scout movement is a fascinating example of the reverse identification I was trying to capture. Baden-Powell’s movement was inspired by encounters with cultures in India, Africa and the Americas, as the Tintin stories explore: camping, tracking, mirror and smoke signalling, totem animals for tribal groupings (led by a chief called Akela, a Hindi word for ‘alone’ and the name of the leader of the wolf-pack in Kipling's Jungle Book), and rites of passage themselves. The Boy Scouts also involve lots of dressing up. But the most under-examined effect of exotic emulation may well be the spread of male circumcision through the English upper classes during the period of imperial expansion and oppression.