on 4 November 2003
I'm surprised no-one has written a review of Artemis Cooper's book before this. It's the only connected survey of this fascinating period, with details on just about everything from King Farouk and the formidable Princess Shevekiar to the British army and the Berka (the infamous red light district). There's also plenty on Pastroudi's and the famous Shepheard's hotel. If you've read Olivia Manning or seen The English Patient, this will paint the broader picture. The remarkable thing about this book is the cast of hundreds of British visitors during the war, from writers to entertainers (like No‘l Coward) and, of course, Winston Churchill. It's the sort of non-fiction work that you find you can't put down.
on 31 October 2013
It is gratifying that the publishers have at long last decided to reissue this little gem of historical writing.The astute account of the social and political impact of the war years on cosmopolitan Cairo is simply riveting.The wealth of anecdotes and the description of colourful protagonists read like an engrossing novel .While Rommel's Panzers are sweeping all resistance on their way to Alexandria, the life dramas during these critical years involving the fighters as well as the local onlookers are sympathetically recorded by a historian who is not only interested in political and military history but above all in individual destinies engulfed by the overwhelming events of war.With an eye for details she succeeds also in sketching a panoramic view of a colonial society, beset by ambivalent feelings towards the fluctuating British fortunes of war.Yet it was sheltered from the horrors of the actual fighting and the material privations endured by the populations in Europe.She contrasts the arrogance of imperial might personified by the British Ambassador Sir Miles Lampton high handed dealings with the wily attempts of the Egyptian King and the local political class to accomodate themselves to a situation they could neither control nor ignore.The political humiliations experienced at the time, did sow the seeds of a fierce nationalistic reaction which led to the fall of the Monarchy and the Suez crisis.
There is always a tendency in such chronicles to give greater scope to the testimonies of the Diarists and Memoirists, at the expense of the voiceless ordinary people.The former by in large tend to be endowed with large egos or great sense of power, thus exercising considerable fascination for the reader and historian alike.Nevertheless her account finds space for the odd ordinary person be it the Barman at the Shepheard hotel , the witty Nubian servant or the stranded German hairdresser.Life in Egypt during the war has inspired some remarkable works of fiction. Beside Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet "and Olivia Manning's "the Levant Trilogy " there are works by Christopher Sykes, Robert Liddell and Leonard Mosley in addition to poems by Keith Douglas and Victor Selwyn.This sparkling historical account stands comparison with the best works of literature mentioned above.
on 1 December 2013
A brilliant presentation of the personalities in war and the tensions within Egypt, the Command structure and the expectations in London, set in an exotic and dangerous place.
The first part of the book has a superb summation of the precarious position Britain was in, facing actual and near certain military defeats on a number of fronts all along with the need to balance perfidious allies amongst the Egyptians and local enemies determined to see the British presence eliminated. As some of the pressure is relieved after the start of the German assault on the Soviet Union and the Allies move back on the offensive in the Western Desert, Cooper interweaves the rivalries and back-biting disputes within the military and political spheres, mixed with the good times of Cairo, energetically embraced by those whose lives were at risk and those who were having a good war.
The photos are good and just a few more would be even better.
on 15 November 2010
This is a wonderful book, well overdue for equality reprint. The price is that it is fetching on the second-hand market, is a testament to its quality and readability. As an evocation of a specific time and specific place, I would place it alongside the best of Jan Morris' writing, for instance Manhattan 44. I totally agree with the previous reviewer: the coverage of this book goes from the period when Egypt was still looking back to total British rule, and it ends with a for shadowing of the Suez crisis of 1956 that would mark the end of British imperial power once and for all. Cooper is most at ease when describing the social whirl, and the intricacies of Egyptian royal life and politicking. Her command of the intricacies of the Allied command structures, and the myriad changes of direction in the desert war are entirely appropriate, but have been covered more fully elsewhere. She's at her strongest when invoking the touché, sensational lifestyles of Cairo's rich, famous, and brave. The range of characters that raised my eyebrows were the accounts of the arch trooper Noel Coward, the anticlimactic visit of Vivien Leigh, and my favourite, an account of the uniformed Enoch Powell polishing his buttons during a drive through the depths of the desert. There is a sense of a world coming to an end here, and despite its glamour, it is hard to shed too many tears for British rule in Egypt. Even so, the account of the riots of 1952 is a harrowing end to an evocative book. It certainly whetted my appetite to find out more about SOE operations in the Balkans during the period. Highly recommended.
on 3 August 2015
I should just like to point out that, although well written, it is about officers, and of those the group that interests Ms. Cooper most are the ones with double-barelled names or are famous. We learn nothing of the ordinary soldiers and what they actually did on leave or working in Cairo. For that you need to read Len Deighton's City Of Gold. Strangely she makes no mention of Elizabeth David even though she's written a biography of the lady.