British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Michael Crouch
The Inebriates of the South Arabian Political Service
As no stranger to the pleasures of alcohol from my days at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1950s - in my case, pints of generally innocuous beer - I should not have been surprised when I came to meet some of the older stalwarts who served as Political Officers in the Aden Protectorates, during the late 1950s and 1960s. I emphasize 'some', because the majority of my colleagues were temperate and even God-fearing. It was their stark contrast with the jovial intemperates which added to the rich legend of 'characters', whom one remembers from over fifty years ago. Even though they are now all deceased, anonymity is decent and some of the stories may be at least partly apocryphal.

My first boss was of temperate habit but he did enjoy his wine in the evening, even if dining with Arab notables who eschewed alcohol. The boss had his blue enamel mug always to hand and, he seated on the floor tackling an Arab feast, his servant would ensure surreptitiously there was always a drop of red wine in his mug. One Arab host, alerted to his guest's alcoholic refreshment, deliberately knocked the mug over. The resulting red stain was a temporary embarrassment.

However, the first really dedicated inebriate I met was renowned for consuming a bottle of whisky a day, while maintaining a steady demeanour and steady hand. He could look you in the eye and offer you a drink, as if it were his first. His major failing as a Political Officer was that in his habitually pickled state, he never made a decision: ambushes, tribal attacks, the works - as they arose, flowed round him and eventually subsided. He was a contract man: after decorated war service in a tank regiment, he was reported to have fought a duel with an American officer, also in a tank. The 'duel' consisted of each tank trying to crawl over the other. My colleague was asked to send in his papers, and eventually transferred to the Desert Locust Survey: this organisation posted pairs of ex-forces officers to lonely parts of eastern Africa and Arabia, armed with radios and copious supply of alcohol, where they sat under the nearest tree and reported to HQ whether it had rained. Rain meant locusts breeding and the dispatch of poisoned bran to kill the hoppers. Thus was Africa spared from the deadly swarms of desert locusts that periodically devastated vast tracts of arable land.

My colleague's co-locust-hunter suddenly died and was buried under the tree. A pipe was let down to the coffin. One dram was poured by my colleague for himself; the other ceremoniously tipped down the pipe with a "Cheers Old Boy!" And, one day, it rained! Greatly excited, my colleague radioed Headquarters: MANY LOCUSTS STOP COPULATING STOP WHAT SHALL I DO? STOP. The reply: STOP COPULATING KILL LOCUSTS.

Once in the South Arabian Political Service, he relieved a colleague for three weeks. It was early morning, cold in the desert, and the three tents contained my colleague, the officer being relieved and their mutual boss, a man of temperate habit who - if you were lucky - offered you a small glass of sherry before the evening meal. As the officer being relieved and the boss emerged to walk to the nearest dune to relieve themselves, they passed the third tent. There he was seated, stripped to the waist, a monocle in his eye, shaving with a cut-throat razor. An opened can of beer was to hand. "Good morning, XXX. Is it not a bit early for the first can of beer?" The monocle was screwed firmly into the steady visage. "Good morning, Old Boy. One: beer is not alcohol. Two: it's not my first, it's my fourth."

An old friend of his was also habitually 'under the weather'. A senior officer, he was also a fine musician who used to play the organ at matins in Aden. The choir was in position - no organist. The latter arrived, slightly unsteady on his feet, red in the face and humming under his breath. He launched loudly into the first accompaniment which was unfortunately not the hymn on which the choir was embarked. The congregation was confused; some sang along with the choir; others tried to follow the music. Eventually the singing died away. The organist slammed his hands onto the keys discordantly, turned to the congregation and bellowed: "Sing you B******! Sing!"

A third colleague was a one-armed ex-Wing Commander who availed himself of a supply of Yemeni grapes that grew just across the border. His principal tipple was dutyfree gin, but he determined to make his own wine. He did this by personally trampling the grapes in his bath, stomping vigorously the lengths of the bath. To aid him in this arduous work, he positioned a glass of gin at each end of the bath, refreshing himself the while. The resulting liquid from the bath was then drained into the sort of jar associated with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and stored below the house. If one was unfortunate enough to be a guest at the time a dull BOOM echoed from below; one was encouraged by the host to start consuming the remaining 'wine' before even more jars exploded and wasted their contents. His concoction was described by an Arab friend who--abandoning the tenets of Islam in this respect--cautiously took a mouthful, staggered back and muttered in Arabic: "God save me! This is a potion of unsurpassed foulness."

The Inebriates of the South Arabian Political Service
Officers' Mess, Khormaksar
Younger members of my service were not of course immune from drinking too much, on occasion. Many of us when on solitary postings as the only European for miles around, foreswore alcohol unless in company. But when called into Aden for a debrief or a break, young men sometimes over-imbibed at the Khormaksar Club or in numerous army or naval messes. Hilarity was sometimes the result. At a New Year's Eve fancy dress party, a colleague suddenly appeared dressed as a Bedouin, clad just in a loincloth and sandals, with a filthy rag around his head, and covered in indigo (used by Bedouin to keep off the cold). Slinging his old muzzle-loader off his shoulder, he squatted in the middle of the dance floor and proceeded to light his nauseating 'hubble-bubble' pipe on a bed of charcoal, foul fumes of rank tobacco adding to the party hubbub. There were outraged cries of, "Get that Arab out of here!" until it was explained this was a guest 'dressed to kill.' He was allowed to join in the dancing when he removed his pipe and rifle, and the party continued until dawn. The next day, numerous young women were dismayed to find blue handprints on their white dresses, sometimes in unexpectedly embarrassing areas.

To end on a positive note: these shenanigans were not typical of the lives of most British political officers, many of whom worked long and arduous hours in remote and increasingly dangerous parts of the Aden Protectorates and went onto to distinguished careers after Aden. They were entitled to let off steam. I was proud to be one of their number.

Aden Map
Aden and Western Aden Protectorate Map, 1950
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 95: April 2008


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