I am frequently asked what I missed most during the years of my captivity as a hostage in the Middle East. Well, apart from the obvious – family, friends and freedom – I missed books. The conditions under which I was kept were sparse. There was no natural light. I was chained to the wall and had no books, papers or contact with the outside world for many years. In such conditions one has to learn how to survive – mentally, spiritually and physically. As I saw my beard grow long and white I feared that I was growing old before my time and that the physical deterioration I witnessed might well lead to both mental and spiritual collapse. It was at this point that the memory of books read long ago came to my aid.
As a young man I read many of the writings of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychotherapist, and I recollected that he had once said that if one was in a situation of extremity then one should allow the unconscious to come to one’s aid. Realising the necessity of holding on to my identity, I recognised that I had been presented with a unique opportunity to make an inner journey and so, as I had neither pen nor paper, I began the trek by writing in my head. Years later the product of this solitary endeavour was published as Taken on Trust.
After three years or so a friendly guard took pity on me and said that he would try and get me a book. As he did not read English he was somewhat handicapped in making a choice and his lack of understanding was revealed when he proudly presented me with The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams. This story of an escape from a German POW camp was a fascinating read but, alas, of little practical help.
Eventually more books were delivered, one at a time, and I was instructed to read slowly. As I have always been a quick reader this was a difficult discipline to follow especially as one had endless hours in which to do nothing but read. I never was able to follow the instructions and frequently found myself reading the same book several times. Laurie Lee was one of the first writers to step into my cell and he was indeed a welcome visitor. As I walked out one Midsummer Morning was a delight. In 1934 the young Laurie Lee set out from his home in the Cotswolds to seek his fortune. From London he journeyed to pre-revolutionary Spain, and he records his experiences in a book that is beautifully written and full of fascinating insights into a country that was on the edge of civil war.
I have long argued that good language, like good music, has the capacity to breathe a certain harmony into the soul, and the prose of Lee not only took me outside the confines of my prison but enabled me to find a deeper level of inner tranquillity.
As a boy I was never a serious collector of stamps but like most lads of my generation I had a stamp album filled with huge, worthless, triangular stamps from Mongolia and the less flamboyant specimens from around the Commonwealth. I remembered in particular stamps from the Gilbert and Ellis Islands in the Pacific with the profile of King George VI in the corner and a picture of sandy beaches and palm trees making up the main body of the stamp. Arthur Grimble, ‘Our man at the Colonial Office’, was unknown to me until one day his book A Pattern of Islands landed in my cell. In 1913 the young Grimble was sent half way round the world to take up a Cadetship in the islands and years later he recorded his experiences as a Colonial Officer. I imagine that the book is long out of print but I was fortunate enough to come across a paperback copy on a Cambridge bookstall and it is open before me as I write. As a young man in Uganda I witnessed the last days of the Colonial era and later, as I travelled the world and also read the works of Somerset Maugham, I realised how the British imposed a similar pattern of administration wherever they settled. In its day Grimble’s book was a best seller, for indeed he was a very good writer and something of a poet to boot:‘But I would back to England once again,
Where lush things grow, where even summer ends,
To firelit books, to all the clean clear things
Whose memory keeps us always English men,
And haunts us as the quiet eyes of friends
Haunt us, and clings as old-time perfume clings.’
Perhaps not the greatest poetry, but as I read those lines in a dark, cold prison cell miles from home they brought a tear to my eye and gratitude to a former Colonial Officer.
I don’t know why but for some obscure reason, despite being an avid reader, I had hardly ever read detective fiction. This was soon to change as there came a time when I received nothing but such works and a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. Inspector Maigret was one of the first officers of the law to step into my cell and, after a somewhat cautious welcome, he soon became a firm friend. The excellence of Georges Simeon’s writing alone made these books well worth reading and on release I sought them out avidly. How Simeon could turn out book after book and continue to maintain such high standards of writing still amazes me.
J. I. M. Stewart, one time student at Christ Church, Oxford, who wrote under the name of Michael Innes, introduced Detective Inspector John Appleby, who arrived in the familiar green and white cover of Penguin Classics. He was followed by none other than Lord Peter Wimsey, the romantic creation of Dorothy L. Sayers. Were it not for my captivity I doubt that I would have read any of these books and I would have been much the poorer for it. Two very different authors who struggled with the eternal problems of good and
evil, Dostoevsky and the American writer William Styron, both made an appearance and, admittedly, Dostoevsky did slow my reading down somewhat, which was a good thing. I now had time to re-read and absorb his works and relate the conflicts he recorded to some of the conflicts taking place within me as I made an inner journey. Set this House on Fire by William Styron was overwhelming in its intensity. The title is taken from a piece written by John Donne, one-time Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where the Dean is speaking of the terrors of being forever cast away from the sight of God. Styron sets his novel in Italy, where we once lived for several years, and his writing is not only descriptive of the country it is also descriptive of the soul.
Although reading in captivity was a frustrating experience in so far as I had no choice of books whatsoever, it was also deeply satisfying. As indicated above, I read books that I would never normally have looked at and, in the main, appreciated them enormously. I must admit that I did groan somewhat when a Mills and Boon novel appeared, but I read it and it made me laugh. As for Barbara Cartland, well she has certainly taken hold of the English reading market in Lebanon for at least nine of her novels appeared in my cell. I tried to read them but alas could not get past the first page of any one of them. Perhaps that reveals me as a reading snob. I don’t know and I don’t particularly care. To me she remains unreadable.
The years of captivity are now long behind me and the difficult memories have vanished. However, I continue to remember those precious days when a guard came into my cell and handed me a book. When he left I removed my blindfold with the excited anticipation of a child unwrapping a Christmas gift and examined what I had been given. Then I could settle down and, for hour after hour, remain absorbed in the world created by the author. On my release I was asked if there was any place I particularly wanted to visit and I asked to be taken to a bookshop. We drove to a small private book store near to where I was staying. It was like entering paradise. There were row upon row of books of every description. That was something I had totally taken for granted prior to being captured. It would have been wonderful to have had such access during my confinement but on the other hand I would never have read so many of the books that gave me such pleasure. So, no regrets. Something can be made of almost every difficult situation and the books I received during those dark days helped make life a little fuller and richer.