Authors: Andrew Martin
Part One: London and York
Part Two: Mespot
Part Three: York Again
By the Same Author
About the Author
I am grateful to Lieutenant Colonel Parkinson of Sandhurst Etiquette and Media; to Richard Smith at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; to Michael Harvey of the National Media Museum, Bradford; to Alan Renton, curator of the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum; to Mr Roy Smith of the Oasis Camel Centre, Halesworth, Suffolk; to Mr David Payling and Mr Roy Fenton. All departures from historical accuracy are entirely my own responsibility.
In a quiet and dark corner of London, with the rain falling, I walked up to the doorway of 92 Victoria Street, and read ‘Railway Club, Upper Bell.’ The lower bell was for William Watson, Tailor. Alongside the Railway Club bell was a wooden frame with a glass front. An announcement was pinned inside:
P.M. ‘HUMOUR ON THE RAILS’. A TALK WITH LANTERN SLIDES BY MR JOHN MAYCROFT, AUTHOR OF ‘HUMOURS OF A COUNTRY STATION’, ‘OUR BOOKING OFFICE’, ‘DOWN OR UP’ & C. & C. MR MAYCROFT IS OUR PRINCIPAL RAILWAY COMEDIAN. TEA AND COFFEE WILL BE SERVED.
Alongside the notice was fixed a cartoon showing two women in a station restaurant. The first was pointing at a plate and saying, ‘These cakes are all quite stale, Miss Hunt. They’ve been on the counter a fortnight.’ The reply came, ‘Would you mind taking them to the Second Class refreshment room?’
What exactly John Maycroft had to do with this jollity was not indicated.
Victoria Street was lit by lamps turned down low. A man on a bicycle approached along it. There was no headlight on the bike, but when the bicyclist had gone past, I saw that he displayed a red rear lamp in accordance with the blackout regulations. It was evidently more important to see a bicycle going away than it was to see it approaching. The rain increased as the bicycle faded, and I was reminded of the new silk umbrella in my hand. It was a Peerless with an ash handle, and I’d bought it with money sent me by my father on his learning that I had been made up from corporal to captain as a result of my railway work in the Somme battle. ‘A quite remarkable leap’, Dad had called it.
The money – a cheque for ten pounds – had come with a London Handy-Map and Guide and a note insisting the wife and I were to travel south for a bit of a spree. He knew I’d been ‘through it’ on the Western Front, broken my thigh bone and all the rest of it, and he believed I deserved a treat. The wife and I were to stay for two nights in the Midland Grand Hotel, no other would do, and we were instructed to take a second-floor room, the first-floor rooms being more like suites, and the third-floor ‘inclined to be pokey’. (Dad himself had been to London on exactly two occasions, and both times he’d stayed at what was familiarly called ‘The Mid-Gran’.)
In retirement, Dad had come into money, or at least a means of making a good deal. After selling his butcher’s shop, he’d set himself up as the business agent of the model boat makers of the Yorkshire coast – The Ancient Mariners, as he called them, and they were in the main retired fishermen even older, and much less presentable, than himself. (Dad was seventy.) He’d done so well at this that it appeared he’d made a mistake in having worked as a butcher for the best part of fifty years.
I put the umbrella up and, well . . . It worked. But standing underneath it, I felt a fraud.
It was only just gone six; I had half an hour to kill before ‘Humour on the Rails’, so I crossed the road and drank a glass of London Brown beer and smoked a cigarette in a pub called The Albert. When I returned to number 92, there were two men on the doorstep: an elderly party and a young chap perhaps in the early twenties. The elderly party was singing the praises of John Maycroft – of ‘Humour on the Rail’ fame – even as he
the notice advertising the man’s talk.
‘He’s awfully good, you know. He gave the talk at Cambridge. I’m led to believe it was an absolute riot.’
at Cambridge?’ asked the other, who wore a thick muffler.
‘At Cambridge – at the University, you know,’ said the first chap.
‘At the Cambridge University
?’ asked the younger one, evidently a stickler for fact.
The older chap looked flummoxed, but I got him off the hook by asking, ‘Is the talk cancelled?’
‘Postponed,’ he said without looking at me (which the young one made up for by staring). ‘But we’ve been able to get a fill-in at short notice.’
And as he spoke, he pinned up a new notice in the box:
HERE HAS BEEN A CHANGE TO THE ADVERTISED PROGRAMME.
NIVERSITY LECTURES ON ‘
There had originally been an ‘h’ after the ‘g’ in ‘Bagdad’ but this had been cancelled out by the overtyping of an ‘x’.
The younger chap asked me, ‘Are you a member of the Railway Club? Because you won’t get in if you’re not.’
‘Oh, I think an exception will always be made for an officer,’ the older man cut in – and I wondered how he could tell, since I was not in uniform, and my Northern accent was stronger than is commonly found amongst commissioned men. I was pleased, anyhow.
The younger one softened to the extent of saying, ‘It’s members-only but they generally don’t ask for cards to be shown.’
‘I am a member,’ I said, ‘and I do have a card.’
‘I haven’t seen you before,’ said the younger one.
I’ll bloody clock you in a minute
, I thought, while saying, ‘I’m a corresponding member.’
‘Where do you live?’
I was thinking about The Albert public house. They served topping beer at only tuppence a pint,
they ran to hot dinners. Did I really want to hear about the Berlin–Baghdad railway? It was a scheme, as I recalled, that had come to grief in the war, like many another: a German attempt to connect with . . . what was it called? Asia Minor. At first we hadn’t troubled about it, but as Germany became the enemy we’d tried to block it. The thing had never been finished, as far as I knew – had never reached Baghdad, anyhow. There was fighting over there now of course – us against Brother Turk and the Huns, with the Arabs somewhere in between, and more men dying of heat than bullets. An engine driver I knew called Kemp had gone out to Egypt with the East Yorkshires. He’d reasoned that you couldn’t dig trenches in sand, so he reckoned he’d be better off than the blokes in France, but I heard that when he came back for his first leave, he’d lost two stone, and spent the whole time looking for a mosquito net in the York stores – without success. He’d seen the Sphinx, and reported it no higher than a tall tree. As to the digging of trenches . . . It
possible in sand.
The elderly party was now unlocking the door, and a couple of blokes were approaching along the dark street. They looked like Railway Club types. I stepped off the doorstep of 92 as they came up. The elderly party explained to them about the change in the programme, and they took it easily in their stride. In fact, they didn’t look at all surprised. Then all the four blokes went in. I saw a couple of others coming up, and I eyed The Albert pub behind them. I was just starting towards it when it seemed instantly to disappear from the street. All that had happened . . . the lights had gone out. It had closed, as any pub was liable to do at any time in the war. There seemed nothing for it: I turned back towards number 92, and walked in.
The talk was given in the Club Room of the Railway Club, the holy of holies. Downes, the speaker, had pitched up while I’d been along the corridor in the Gentlemen’s, draining off my pint of London Brown.
He turned out to be a slightly built, sandy-haired fellow, who wore a thick guernsey beneath his suit-coat. The elderly party who’d been on the doorstep was called Mr Short, and he was the Deputy President of the Railway Club. The
sent his apologies, as did John Maycroft, the humorist, who was ‘unavoidably detained on the south coast’. Short was still cut-up over this loss and Downes, sitting beside him ready to start his talk, put a brave face on it as Short said how he personally had been ‘particularly looking forward’ to hearing of the lighter side of the railways. There was then some Railway Club business.
We were all reminded that the monthly meetings were continuing during the Crisis, even if it had been necessary to suspend the annual dinners. One of the members, Mr N. McCracken, had recently distinguished himself by winning the M.C., but then again, two members had been killed in action during the past month. It appeared, from listening to Short, that the Railway Club was at one and the same time both the leading railway society in the world, and desperately in need of new members. Therefore, a recruitment drive would soon begin, and we were all reminded that serving men paid only half the subscription. Short was sorry about the absence of tea; a collection for War Relief would be taken after the talk. He then gave the floor to Downes.
I spent the opening minutes of his talk wondering why the fellow wasn’t serving with the colours, since he was about of an age with me – early thirties – and why the fire wasn’t lit, since the room was chill, and with a feeling of damp. I then looked all about the room, the pale green walls of which were covered in railway photographs and drawings, not over-clean. Some of the photographs showed the Railway Club members on the steps of signal boxes, or the tops of footbridges, and I believed that I recognised some of the faces in the room from these photographs. There were fourteen in the audience, including Short and his inquisitive young pal from the front door. Most had cigarettes on the go, but I’d smoked my last Virginian in The Albert. Amongst the clutter of pictures on the wall was a cigarette machine – Churchman’s, but they’d do, and I wondered whether it would be all right to stand up and put in my sixpence for a carton.
The man Downes still hadn’t hit his stride. He was now saying how, although he knew they’d come for an evening of laughter, it was important to understand why so many of our men were dying out East, and how the Berlin–Baghdad railway was part of the reason we were over there.
I realised that the fellow sitting next-but-one was leaning towards me and holding out his own packet of cigarettes – some foreign brand I couldn’t quite make out. There were only two left, so I whispered thanks, and indicated that he should hold on to them. But he insisted, albeit without speaking, and followed up with a light. The cigarette was short and the tobacco strong, but of good quality – not burning to the throat. It was clever of him to have spotted that I was after a smoke.
I now turned again towards Downes, whose early hesitancy had fallen away. He was leaning forward from his chair, and speaking with urgency. ‘The land of Mesopotamia,’ he said, ‘. . . is it really worth fighting for? It seems on the face of it nothing more than a waste of sandy desert.’ He looked at us one by one as though honestly seeking an answer to his question, and it seemed to me that he had some sort of illness. Otherwise he would have been standing to give the talk. Yes, he was too pale. One leg sagged against the other, and the railway club lectern stood disregarded behind him.
‘But one hundred miles north of the Persian Gulf lies a veritable lake of petroleum,’ said Downes. ‘The Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed to exploit it, and that company supplies three-quarters of the oil used by our navy. As you all know, however, the German navy is equally dependent on oil . . .’
The oil was in Persia – next door to Mesopotamia and supposedly neutral. But it was only
in Persia, and might easily have fallen into the hands of the Turks, the allies of the Germans and the controllers of Mesopotamia. They might interrupt the pipe and take the oil, so we had sent a gunboat at the start of the war, and this had been followed in pretty short order by an expeditionary force of the British Indian Army.
What was the reason for the Turkish alliance with Germany? Downes was asking the question, and had begun supplying the answer when the quiet man who’d passed me the cigarette said, almost in an under-breath, ‘No choice in the matter.’
Downes half nodded at this half answer, and hesitated for a fraction of time to see whether the speaker wished to elaborate. Evidently he did not, and so Downes spoke on himself. The Germans and the Turks shared a common fear of Russia; and Germany might have attacked Turkey if it had not formed the alliance. Turkey had to choose one side or the other, and she seemed to have picked the winner, back in ’fourteen. Also, Turkey and Germany were building a railway together.
It was the Germans who put up the money for a line leading out of Constantinople in the direction of Baghdad in 1888. That had got the ball rolling, and between them the Germans and the Turks had got up various schemes of funding to
‘In 1903,’ said our speaker, ‘a number of German banks created the Berlin–Baghdad Railway Company. This alarmed the Russians, the French, and especially ourselves.’ Downes surveyed us gravely: ‘Can you all see why?’ He leant, or rather lurched, further forward. ‘
Someone, embarrassed, muttered, ‘On account of the oil.’
‘That’s part of it,’ said Downes, ‘and perhaps the main part. But imagine Germany with a direct route to its East African colonies. Imagine her being able to bypass the Suez Canal. Imagine the Germans as rulers of Asia Minor, hand in glove with the Ottoman Empire in a territory unassailable by sea power, and with the whole of the Orient opened up before her!’
We all looked glum at that. Here was the very opposite of Humour on the Rails.
‘The line’, Downes continued, ‘creeps forward towards Baghdad, even while the fighting carries on. It has to date reached almost as far as Nusaybin, a hundred miles east of Aleppo.’
‘Never heard of either place,’ a bluff voice said. ‘Haven’t the foggiest notion where they are.’
‘I shall be passing out a map,’ said Downes, rather shortly. ‘In addition, a branch creeps north from Baghdad to meet the section coming down from Nusaybin. The gap between the two lengths of line is some two hundred and fifty miles.’
He sighed, either at the situation in Mesopotamia or because he was obliged to now reach down for the walking stick that lay under his chair. He rose with difficulty to his feet and made one pace forward – a sort of arrested stagger. He took one of the papers from the sheaf in his hand, and roughly pressed it on the nearest man in the front row. He in turn passed it to his neighbour, and it came to me a minute later.