Early in January 1947 my husband, John Allen, arrived in Aden, to take
up his post as one of four or five 'Political Officers' in the Western of the
two Aden Protectorates - WAP and EAP ("Wopp" and "Eep", everyone
always called them). Both these protectorates were technically administered
from Aden, but they weren't part of the Colony which was quite small - just
a couple of peninsulas and a few off-shore islands.
Because of his relative seniority after many years' service in Tanganyika,
John quickly became second-in-command, formally promoted to the new
post of Deputy British Agent. The very hot and humid climate in Aden was
dreadfully exhausting for Europeans, so tours of duty were quite short, and
home leaves relatively long. This meant that John's immediate superior, the
British Agent - a very experienced Arabist called Seager - was very often
away on leave, or taking part in policy consultations in London; and so from
soon after he got there John as often as not found himself in charge as
Acting British Agent, answerable only to the Governor himself.
I was able to accompany John quite often when he was touring in WAP. It
was a truly fascinating part of the world. Most of it was barren and bleak - a
lot of it typical desert sand dunes, but much of it very rugged and
mountainous - "looking as if giants had been playing deck quoits with atom
bombs" was one of John's descriptions. I could quite understand, after
spending time in those arid deserts, why the Arabs believe that one of the
torments of Hell is dry water to drink! I'm sure, too, that that is why the
palace gardens of the great caliphs and sultans always featured fountains
and pools or streams of water. In spite of the aridity, however, the volcanic
soil in WAP was very fertile, so on the rare occasions when it rained - or in
a few sheltered valleys in the mountains which captured moist air blowing in
from the sea - the most beautiful brilliantly coloured wild flowers would burst
out for a few lovely hours.
Such agriculture as there was seemed very incompetent, with a few pathetic
plants poking their way up through a sea of stones. Experts were sent out
from Britain to advise, and they persuaded a group of farmers to clear off all
the stones, so that their fields could be properly ploughed and seeded: but
the result was a disastrous harvest, because - as the 'experts' painfully
learnt - all those untidy stones were trapping the dew and retaining the
precious moisture in the soil, which was otherwise very quickly dried out by
the scorching sun. As John remarked, it's always rash to interfere too boldly
with 'primitive' customs.
Later on, when our daughters were with us, they were fascinated by the
method of building irrigation channels, which also seemed very 'primitive'.
Early every morning crowds of men and boys would turn up with camels - or
occasionally donkeys - each pulling a flat board some 4 feet long by 18
inches wide, attached to the 'saddle' with two long ropes. The driver stood
on the flat board until he got to the sand he had to move, and then tilted it at
a 45 degree angle, stood on the back ledge of the board and drove forward,
scooping up sand. If he wanted to build the bank to left or right he would
simply shorten the rope attaching the board to the saddle for the appropriate
side and ride along at an angle. Our girls tried it, and instantly fell off - but the men used to hurtle about with no spills and remarkably few crashes into
On the first occasion I went out with John I had an awfully embarrassing
time. John had to go off to a village to talk with the local sheikhs, and I was
left in camp in the care of a 'GG' (a Government Guard). The GGs were a
sort of cross between soldiers and policemen, wearing khaki turbans to
distinguish them from the Tribal Guards, who were employed by the various
rulers and wore scarlet turbans. After a while I needed to 'spend a penny',
so I walked out from the camp to get behind a sand dune. But the GG
followed me, so I pretended to be interested in a dreary little desert plant,
and then tried to get behind another dune. But there he was - not very
close, but keeping me well under his eye. I hadn't any Arabic, so I tried all
sorts of gestures, but they made no impression. Fortunately John wasn't
very long away, but by the time he got back I was quite desperate!
Women counted for nothing at all in WAP, so I was simply ignored most of
the time. If we were having a meal I would sit next to John, but no-one paid
the slightest attention to me. Even so, I was always worrying that I might
breach etiquette. For instance, I was so scared of using my left hand to eat
with that I used to sit on it! I used to suffer agonies of embarrassment trying
to pick up things like tinned peaches with my one bare hand: the segments
would keep sliding away - it was like trying to catch little fish! At least one
advantage of being a woman was that I wasn't ever offered special titbits
like raw sheep's eyes to eat. John was, but he discovered that you were
allowed to say "Oh, no, that's too good for me. Allow me to pass it to my
neighbour, who is more deserving!" - but if you were that neighbour you
couldn't do the same again: you just had to swallow it, whatever it was!
Much my worst moment in WAP was when we were having lunch in a tent
one day - all sitting round on mats on the ground as usual. All at once there
was a bang, and the man sitting opposite me - Bob Mounde, a cheerful
young Agricultural Officer - just fell forward onto the plate in front of me. A
government guard who'd been sacked and nursed resentment against the
British had sneaked up outside the tent and shot him in the back of the
head. He was stone dead, poor fellow. I had to go and break the news to his
nice young wife, Eileen, who had a baby. It was awful - horrible.
I wore full skirts and long sleeves all the time, and kept my head covered,
except in camp with John. That wasn't really a hardship, because the sun
was so fierce that one didn't want to be exposed to it. The loose Arab
garments of cotton or silk were eminently sensible. John and the other
British officers normally wore uniform on duty (white or khaki shirts, and
matching knee-length shorts and stockings) but on their heads they all used
to wear the Arab agal and habiyya - a big silk square folded once diagonally and held on the head with a double loop of woven black camelhair: the sort
of thing you always see Lawrence of Arabia wearing in pictures. If there
were a dust-storm you could wrap up your face and breathe through the silk.
Once when he was dressed like this John paused at a crossroads as he
was driving into Aden from the desert late in the evening, and a couple of
rather drunk sailors from one of the British naval vessels clambered onto the
bonnet of the car and told him to find a brothel for them. John told them
what he thought of them, in no uncertain terms, whereupon one remarked to
the other; "Eee! Don't these Ay-rabs talk English luvly!"
On one occasion I was able to accompany John when he crossed the
Yemeni border to Taiz for discussions with the Imam's regent for southern
Yemen, I think it was - anyway, a member of the royal family. I was sent off
to the women's quarters with a teenage girl who spoke a little English. The
senior wife, a beautiful woman, received me graciously. She gave me
quantities of tea made with rosewater and plied me with very sticky
sweetmeats. Through my young interpreter I said how sorry I was that we
had no common language. The princess spoke to one of her attendants,
who went off and brought in a charming baby, which was placed in my lap.
Then the princess said, through the interpreter.- "But we do have a common
language!" Such a sensitive and moving gesture, I thought.
As I was about to leave, another attendant was summoned, who broke over
me a whole bottle of terribly expensive Parisian perfume - 'Reve d'Or' - a
scent of which you'd normally dab on just a couple of drops at most. I was
wearing a dress with the fashionable shoulder-pads and of course the scent
soaked into these, so that I simply reeked ot perfume! For the next two days
John and his fellow officer, Alastair McIntosh, kept dodging round to get
upwind of me! They said the stench made them feel sick: I expect it did -
but what about me!
Alastair was one of the best of the Political Officers. He was a brilliant
Arabist. When 'Toosh' first arrived we were living out in WAP, but John
wasn't there for some reason. I knew he was anxious that I should receive
the new officer warmly. At about the time he was expected a crowd of Arabs
turned up, chattering together rapidly and excitedly. I was a bit worried, so I
tried asking a rather fat one, in broken English: "But where Mr McIntosh?
Why he not come?" The fat Arab replied in a broad Scots accent: "But I am
McIntosh! I'm delighted to meet you, Mrs Allen." In spite of this unpromising
start, he quickly became one of our dearest friends.