(Anthea and I were in Libya teaching English for the year immediately following Muammar Gaddafi’s coup in 1969’. Derna is on the coast between Benghazi and Tobruk.)
The view from the window – There was a British sector and a foreigners’ one but we lived deep in the Arab quarter. Across Hurriah Street we could see the flat roofs of family houses where cooking was done and washing dried in the hot sun blessed by the ghibli, the warm breeze from the desert. Just to the right and across was a very narrow street and in the dark it was gently lit by minimal gas lamps. It was like looking into the Old Testament.
The Colonel – Soon after the coup a motorcade accompanying the new leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gadaffi, cruised with confident slowness through the streets of Derna. As it approached Sharia Hurria, we went out to our balcony two floors up and joined the excited onlookers. Gadaffi was standing in the front of an armoured car alongside Captain Ahmed who had led the bloodless local take-over from the Derna barracks. As they passed our balcony, Captain Ahmed, who we’d met, said something to Gadaffi who immediately raised his head left profile and engaged eye contact with us and gave us a handsome smile of greeting and welcome. It was one of my rare experiences of being on the receiving end of indubitable charisma.
Celebrating the revolution along Hurria Street
Feast – I learned more about table manners when our friend, the bank cashier, Ramadan, invited us to his house for lunch. As we entered the main room, our eyes widened at the array of gleaming food spread out on a large table in a wealth of shapes, colours, and textures. Looking shyly at us from a doorway were the womenfolk of the house who smiled at our amazement at the wondrous spread. I bowed my gratitude to them. They then disappeared, never to return. So we were only three at table for a meal that would have left a dozen replete. As I finished, I wiped my plate clean with a remnant of baguette. Ramadan immediately urged more food on me and added to my empty plate himself. Again, as I had been taught as a child, I left a clean plate. Again Ramadan urged more food on me. This time I said I’m sorry, Ramadan – I can’t manage another spoonful. He looked at me in bewilderment. Then his penny dropped. Ah, John, now I understand. In Libya we always leave a bit on the plate to show that we are full.
Triumph – Soon after the coup the new Defence Minister arrived in Derna to make a celebratory speech. He had several armed bodyguards. It took place in the main square where a huge, enthusiastic crowd gathered, some on the ground, some up trees, some leaning excitedly over balconies. At the end of the speech the bodyguards raised their rifles to the sky and blazed away. We are the masters now. One of the rifles jammed and the soldier brought it down to try and stop it firing. A little girl fell from a tree riddled with bullets.
Picnic – An Egyptian couple drove us to a beach a few miles east of Derna for a picnic. We sat down on the sandy beach with the sea not far in front of us. There were only a few people there. We sat in a line looking towards the sea. When lunch was passed round it turned out to be lasagne. But it was nothing like any lasagne we’d ever seen. Imagine a large lard sandwich. It was quite inedible. Anthea and I did a whispered consultation. Somehow we managed to bury the lasagne in the sand without our hosts noticing. However, soon afterwards an army of ants arrived converging in lines like the spokes of a wheel, uncovered the lumps of lasagne, and returned along the spokes carrying visible lumps of the stuff on their shoulders. If our hosts noticed this very visible performance, they didn’t say anything.
Mouthwatering smells came from the bakery on the other side of Hurria Street. They baked French-perfect baguettes but the smell that lorded it over everything was that from the street vendor who made falafels – spicy chick pea patties. He formed them in a mould so they came out like draughts and then they’d sizzle in fragrant oil. He’d scoop several into a submarine and cover them with chilli sauce. Along with roasting curry spices, right at the top of the Food Smells Premiership closely followed by early evening frying garlic from Mediterranean restaurants.
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My son, Young John, and my daughter-in-law, Sonia, visited recently and he gave me this observation from the American poet and author, Malcolm Cowley (1898-1989):
‘They tell me that you’ll lose your mind when you grow older. What they don’t tell you is that you won’t miss it very much’.
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I was introduced to this Philip Larkin poem by the poet, T.F.Griffin, who recited it unforgettably from memory in a pub. (Where else?) I have since learned it and inflicted it on others. As a Philosophy student I discovered overview as we observed processes beneath language, art, literature, science, politics, philosophy itself. But this overview by Larkin isn’t like that. It’s an overview that marks him out as a depressed outsider and it’s one of the chillingest poems I know:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.