We left Moscow, where no such decadent, capitalistic game of golf exists, in a raging blizzard, and arrived in our next post Alexandria in one of those scorching sandstorms known as a Khamsin, where mountainous columns of sand blot out the sun, and can in minutes strip the paint off your car and pit its windscreen if you are unlucky enough to be out driving in it. Such a sudden and vicious change of temperature was hardly bearable, and we thanked God we had given our faithful white Samoyed, Moiska to friends in the Moscow Embassy, rather than attempt to bring her to what to her would have been an inferno.
The storm subsided on the second day, leaving thick layers of grit and dust on everything, even to the furniture in shuttered rooms, and at last we could venture out to the Alexandria Sporting Club, that jewel of Britain’s imperial past which the Nasser revolution left unscathed, no doubt because the Egyptian élite loved it as much as the British, for its indoor games, for sitting on the cool, shady balcony sipping tea, playing baccarat, exchanging gossip or just taking a fiendish delight in the physical agonies of the players below.
We took one look at the sporting English, lobster-red from the heat and exertion, bath towel wrapped tightly round their heads to keep the perspiration out of their eyes, as they chased after the tennis ball across sweltering red asphalt courts, then looked at each other, shook our heads, and in one breath said, “Not for us”. In complete contrast, the cool, lush green fairways stretched out invitingly to the white boundary fences of the racecourse and beyond. Numerous groundsmen were busy keeping it in perfect condition and preparing for the evening’s inundation. For every evening after the last player had left they would open huge taps situated at vantage points around the course, and flood it with life-giving Nile water until only the raised greens showed above the water level. The rich colour and texture of the emerald green were thus preserved for next day’s play. As if to emphasise the freshness of the game, comely ladies of all nationalities, in fashionable skirts and beribboned straw hats, with brims broad enough to ward off any rays from the blazing summer sun, strolled nonchalantly around, stooping from time to time to hit the ball, in that cool and collected way of the golfer, and with that exaggerated swing of the hips which ladies love to cultivate.
The choice in favour of golf was never in doubt, and we were soon learning its arcane secrets from mild little Angelini and his friendly assistant Hussein, who were very good at teaching the rudiments of the swing, but like all pros had the impossible task of imparting a skill which, beyond all the techniques and wrinkles, every golfer must feel for himself. The instinct is to hit as hard and as far as one can, to take an almighty swipe – and of course to miss the ball altogether. “Don’t try to hit the ball, just take an easy swing, and let the club head do the work”. All very sound advice for the seasoned golfer, but what does the beginner, wrestling at one and the same time with head, body, shoulders and wrists make of it? His head is instinctively raised, to follow his ball’s flight and to know where to retrieve it. He sways, moves sideways, transfers his weight to his left foot too soon or too late, and the ball, faithfully reflecting every distortion, trickles a few yards, plummets to the ground like a seagull, or twists and turns to the right or left with a flight only reminiscent of a corkscrew.
“Look over the left shoulder on the upswing, and over the right on the downswing”. Even now I can only look over my left and right collar bone, but the beginner, exaggerating every instruction, must tipple over either forwards or backwards. “Cock your wrist” was never fully explained, so that for many years my club head almost hit my left buttock and never returned in time to hit the ball fair and square. Slogs, slices, topping and skying were the order of the day, until many lessons on we began to feel the pivotal role of the body, the full pendulum arc of the backswing, the natural turn of the wrist, head down, relaxed rhythm, firmness with flexibility, and so on and so forth.
As if all this were not enough, Egypt and other remoter posts threw up their own particular brands of tribulation. The kites would be there very early, waiting to swoop down on the ball and carry it off to their nests, thinking they had a large succulent egg with which to feed their young. Maddening, especially when the replacement drive was a muffed shot. The hazards in Indonesia were even worse, and came in twos, large fissures in the petroliferous terrain down which the balls would disappear with depressing regularity, and the snakes infesting the course; they would if left alone slither harmlessly away before you approached, but the Indonesian caddies were terrified, as perhaps they had reason to be in their bare feet, and would round up the hapless snake and beat it to death with a club. “Ular” (Snake) was the first word we learnt is Bahasa Indonesia.
Ostensibly to guard against the kite’s marauding raids, forecaddies were employed in Egypt for matches and tournaments, and by anyone willing to pay the stiff backshish. For they had a very important use, which was only to dawn on us much later, when one day a lady friend, whose invariable wins used to baffle my wife, lent her her forecaddie. Now from going barefoot all their lives, the caddie’s toes splay out, leaving a gaping hole between the big and second toes, big enough to grip the ball securely. Her caddy for the day had just such a gap, and as the game proceeded, used it to lift any ball in an awkward lie or in the rough, run forward, and place it in the middle of the fairway, forty or fifty yards further on. I imagine that if the backshish had been rewarding enough, they would have been happy to carry it even further.
The amateur championship was an important event in the golfing calendar, to which aspiring players flocked from far and wide. Everyone fervently hoped that he would not be drawn against John Plant, the reigning champion with a handicap of four over par, who had nothing to do but play golf. Ill-luck would have it that the draw fell to a friend from the Embassy in Cairo, a born golfer and scratch player, whose wood shots were a joy to behold as they soared straight and far on an ideal low trajectory. He must have had an off-day, or been unnerved by the formidable opposition, or something, for he lost all first 9 holes in succession and with them the game. He rang me up at the Consulate in the late afternoon. “Hello, old boy”, he announced, “Would you do me a favour? If B_______ rings up to ask how I got on, could you please tell her that I was beaten on the 9th by John Plant? Thanks. I’ll see you later at the ‘Beau Rivage’”. A reception, to which we too had been invited, was being held that evening in this lovely hotel, set in a dominating position on the Alexandria Marina overlooking the whole coast-line.
Time ticked by, 6 o’clock. 6.30, and still no ring from his wife. Finally, around 7.15, anxious not to miss the reception, I summoned the duty Consular messenger, a willing but very dim Nubian boy orphaned in the war and given by the army the improbable name of Hussein Scout, and entrusted him with the message. “Hussein”, I said, “Have to go now. If Mrs ______ rings up from Cairo to ask how her husband played today, please tell her that he was beaten by John Plant at the 9th hole”. To make sure that he grasped the message, I gave him the message in English, then in colloquial Arabic using the word ‘madroub’ (beaten, defeated, struck) and in the classical Arabic, using ‘maghloub’ (defeated, vanquished). No room for misunderstanding. Or was there? “Yes sir, I know, sir. I will tell her”, he replied, eager to have something to do, and we left for the ‘Beau Rivage’.
What transpired next might have come out of the Arabian Nights. B______ duly rang up, and the conversation ran something like this. “Oh, Mrs __________ your husband has been badly hit by Mr Plant at the 9th hole”. “Badly hit? What do you mean?”, she asked, greatly perturbed, “how did he hit him”. Hussein Scout would never have admitted he did not know, and invented the rest. “He was hit by the stick, I think”. “Where?”. “Over the head, I think”. “Then he must be in hospital?”. “Yes, I think so”. And so it transpired that while her husband was tripping the light fantastic at the ‘Beau Rivage’, she was ringing to locate him around all the hospitals in Alexandria, of which there were many, thanks to the past generosity of the foreign communities and religious orders.
After all the sun and colour to which we had grown accustomed, it came as something of a shock to play golf in Europe. Instead of shirt sleeves and white Navy shorts, we needed several layers of sweaters and on the coldest days woollen mittens, however much they might hamper the grip. Coldest of all was forest-clad Luxembourg, but it was a dry continental cold which never interfered much with the game, for we seem to have played quite a bit with red balls on white snow. The fairways there were cut out of the wood, so direction had to be straight to avoid lost balls and unplayable lies. Everyone who could played, from relatives of the Grand Duke and his Chamberlain to Embassy and Commission staff, American businessmen and their wives, and lobbyists with the High Authority like myself. But it was never exclusive like the Brussels courses – Ravenstein, or Waterloo – where the subscriptions are so steep that, with little time to spare, we reckoned that each round would have cost us £15-£20; that is, if we could have afforded the entrance fee!
Not Filey golf club, but the clubhouse at Ganton, another Yorkshire golf course, summer 1968.
Now we have everything, well, nearly everything, for the sun is severely rationed, at Filey Golf Club, and at a very reasonable cost. The course is long and interesting, the surroundings with the sea and cliffs nearby attractive. Light if bracing sea breezes caress the player in summer; and when in winter the N.E. winds straight from Scandinavia are too piercing even for three sweaters and mittens, there is a cosy bar and good company to welcome you in – a very warm Yorkshire welcome from solid Filey people.
A warm sun is shining after weeks of grey, stormy weather, euphemistically categorised by local folk as “fresh”, my day’s quota of household chores are completed, and I think I will play a few holes, or perhaps take a much-needed lesson from the pro on how to combine firmness of purpose with unlimited flexibility in the perfect swing.