I remember as a child coming across this 1932 Methuen’s English Classic edition of Eothen by Alexander William Kinglake in the bookcase amongst my parents’ old books. It looked rather impenetrable but it’s actually a colourful traveller’s tale of a tour of the Middle East in 1834.
This copy is peppered with pencilled notes, underlined passages and notes for revision but with, no name inscribed on the endpapers, I was beginning to wonder if it really had belonged to my father. Then I spotted ‘R.D.BELL’ pencilled in block capitals across the bottom of the book.
It was destined for the charity shop but because of the family connection I’ll hang on to it. Perhaps some day I’ll read it.
In 1932 my father would have been thirteen or fourteen years old and attending what is now High Storrs School in Sheffield. He didn’t always have his mind on English literature. Two drawings seem to indicate that at times he would rather have been playing snooker. As far as I know these two doodles are the only drawings of his that survive.
Whenever he decided to draw for us it was always the same thing; a cup and saucer with the light shining from the left. I’ve since discovered that there’s a connection between John Ruskin and that perennial favourite cup and saucer drawing of my dad’s. Ruskin was involved in setting up educational institutions in Sheffield. He believed that we would all benefit from drawing every day but far from that being a mad half hour of creativity he believed that we should learn the skills that would help us depict the world around us. The cup and saucer drawn in a sidelight was one of the exercises that he recommended.
In 1932 there would still have been teachers around who were part of that Ruskinian educational initiative.
The Old Bazaar in Cairo
This list of revision notes on the front endpapers of Eothen is poignant. Ten years later, as a military policeman, my dad’s beat around Cairo as a special investigations officer included the pyramids (and, less glamorously, the Sweet Water Canal). I still have the pass that allowed him leave to visit Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
The bazaar must have been familiar to him. Prior to his transfer to the military police, when travelling in the desert, his Bofors gun anti-aircraft unit in the Royal Artillery acquired a reputation for fair trading amongst the Arabs so they always had the first offers of provisions – such as fresh eggs – from the locals.
He brought a pebble back from the Dead Sea which I vaguely remember being kept in the top ‘secret drawer’ of the chest of drawers in our bedroom. What happened to it, I’m not sure, although father believed that we children had lost it when playing with it. If we came across it now, I’m not sure how we would recognise it as anything special.