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Although it was years before I realised this had happened, the direction of my life changed in 1937 with the sudden appearance of a breathless young Englishman who dropped into the dining-car seat facing me on an Italian train. I was to learn that he had missed the earlier express he had intended to take, and had only caught this by the skin of his teeth. The seat he now occupied, moreover, had been the only one left vacant. Fortune had committed us inexorably to each other's company on our journey to Rome. Later a shared sense of victimisation drew us even closer together and we exchanged smiles of exasperation when a flustered waiter dumped before us plates of food we had not ordered. By the time the spaghetti came he was telling me about himself. His name was Oliver Myers and he was an archaeologist on his way back from a two-year dig in the Egyptian desert. This explained the deep tan and the slightly faded quality of the blue eyes exposed over long periods to the sun. Now came the coincidence that we should both be re-emerging from the Islamic scene, for I was homeward bound from the Middle East where with two companions I had spent three months exploring the coasts of Southern Arabia.
Studying Myers I was forced to admit that, by comparison with his experiences, mine had been superficial. Apart from his dark skin and pale eyes, I noticed the cramped way four fingers were gathered to hold his fork, as if he had become accustomed to eat with his hand. I had confronted the almost impossible task of learning enough Arabic to get by. Myers spoke it fluently, although it was Arabic of the kind picked up in the course of working with illiterate fellahin. We both tried what we had to offer on each other, but there were vast areas of incomprehension. Myers was somewhat theatrical and the stream of debased Arabic was accompanied by a repertoire of arm-waving and facial contortions, many seeming to reflect the shrewdness, the cunning and the fear of the browbeaten peasantry from whom he had learned them. He seemed proud of the two years he had spent sunk deeply in the primitive world, drawing my attention to a gap where a tooth that had troubled him had recently been knocked out by a hammer. Half a forefinger had gone—crushed under falling masonry. However, even the sharing of interest in a language can provide a little of the social cement with which human relationships are bound together. By the time the cheese was served we were firm friends, and it was a friendship that lasted thirty years, terminating only with Oliver's death.
Coincidentally, we both lived in Bloomsbury, only five minutes from each other, for at that time I stayed in 4, Gordon Street in the house of my Italian in-laws, while he had a flat almost round the corner in Woburn Square. He was back in London for the publication of a tremendous tome of which he was coauthor with Sir Robert Mond. It was called Cemeteries of Armant, and was just about to be issued by the Egypt Exploration Society.
Gordon Street was a calm Bloomsbury precinct a good mile from the periphery of Soho, and half that distance from the small settlements of foreigners, largely Italian or Greek, scattered like iron-filings round the magnet of Tottenham Court Road. It was largely peopled by those having connections with London University, academics who may have observed with surprise the process by which over a few years a variety of foreigners had crammed themselves into Number Four to produce a singular community. It was probably by pure accident that Ernesto Corvaja had chosen to buy a house in this locality. He and his wife, Maria, and their first child, Ernestine, had arrived some twenty-odd years before this from Sicily via the United States. The Corvajas were from the neighbourhood of Palermo in which people who work in the country return to the town after sunset, and town houses—at least in Ernesto's day—had become little fortresses stuffed with near and distant relations and friends. The original Corvaja family was soon joined in London by Maria's brother, Franco, his wife and son, and as the years passed there were visits by school friends of the children, who often stayed on. By the late thirties my brother-in-law Eugene and two young artists had set up a colony in the principal room. An Eurasian girlfriend of Ernestine who had arrived two years previously was still on the scene, as was Maria Pia, Ernestine's former schoolmistress from Santander in Spain, who showed no signs of wishing to move on. In the meanwhile, Ruth, the Eurasian, had acquired an elderly German lover, whose duelling scars from the Heidelberg days were so numerous and deep that he had some difficulty in varying his expression.
Ernestina and Oliver took to each other immediately, and I was happy that this was the case. Our marriage had been, perhaps, not quite a love match but an arrangement we thought of as a partnership of similar minds. At this time Ernestina appeared to have decided to free herself from the claustrophobia so often accompanying the protection of the Latin extended family. By contrast, I found relief in a refuge from the narrow experience of life in the outer suburbs of London.
The Corvajas, then, were extremely gregarious. They were also fond of animals. They possessed an aggressive and smelly mongrel dog, a large somnolent cat reduced by a diet of pickled mushrooms and tagliatelli con vongoli to a state of chronic incontinence, and a little owl (Athene noctua vidalii) imported from Brescia and chained to a perch in the dining room from which it surveyed the scene with imperturbable golden eyes. A kestrel, also imported from Italy, was kept in a separate room, perching usually on the head of a fairish copy of Donatello's David. Both these birds were sensibly fed on day-old chicks supplied by a pet-shop, which they devoured in a lackadaisical fashion, with little evidence of appetite. The basement was the territory of Maria's cockerels reared by her since infancy without access to daylight, on legs sometimes almost doubled over by rickets. Despite this disablement they launched fierce, staggering attacks on all who approached them. 'If burglars break in they will react,' Maria said. 'They are part of our defence.'
It was an environment made to measure for Myers. The house next door but one had something to do with the University Senate, and wandering academics in search of this building regularly rang the doorbell at Number Four in error. This was far from causing Ernesto displeasure. The burden of hospitality lay upon such Sicilians of the old school like a religious obligation. Ernesto ordered the maid to show all such strays into the front room where they would be offered a glass of blackish Sicilian wine before being redirected. This was the Mediterranean ceremony that so enchanted Oliver Myers when he first called to see me. I witnessed his enthusiasm displayed with the usual exaggeration, as he went through the inevitable wine-tasting, lip-smacking farce while Ernesto, troubled by the knowledge that the shipment had travelled badly and tasted like fountain-pen ink, looked on with his huge impassivity, doing his best to offer a smile of welcome but producing no more than a mirthless writhing of the lips.
For Oliver it was an evening of fulfilment. Conversation at the dinner table was in French, Spanish and Italian and he listened happily to the polyglot chatter, coped well enough with the French, and threw in the standard Arabic interjections which were quite obviously in praise of the food and accepted as such. The ill-travelled Sicilian wine had been replaced by Orvieto Classico.
'Very generous, isn't he?' Oliver said to me later. 'What's he do for a living?'
'He's a professional gambler,' I told him.
Oliver, too, was generous to an extraordinary degree, losing no opportunity to thrust gifts upon a friend, or even a casual acquaintance. Sometimes these were inappropriate. On the next occasion of a visit to the Corvajas he presented Ernesto with a carved ivory pipe from Aswan. Ernesto did not smoke.
For my birthday that year Oliver presented me with Cemeteries of Armant, his work of prodigious scholarship following two years of labour in the field. The results of this vast undertaking, to which forty-six authorities in various fields had contributed, seemed to have evoked symptoms of disappointment. Myers' preface sets the mood in its opening sentence: 'The cream has been skimmed off Egyptology, and the bulk of the information on the register is of no interest whatever to the ordinary reader.' Later we are told that most of the sites investigated had been 'nearly completely destroyed' by robbers. Nothing of exceptional value to the museums was found in any grave. Among the 'interesting material' the robbers had not bothered to carry off were two beads showing pre-dynastic influence in their glazing. There were several thousand items of lesser interest, but the authors clearly accepted that this was not the stuff to make the reader's pulse beat faster.
The fact was that by this time Egyptology had fallen under the shadow of Tutankhamon, and from the year 1922 that saw the opening up of his tomb and the recovery of the unrepeatably magnificent treasure it contained, Egyptology began to fall into decline. It was in a discussion of this melancholy topic that an unusual aspect of Oliver's personality, of which I had already some inkling, became more clearly defined.
The popular press had moved on from their fulsome coverage of the original treasure hunt and its glittering climax and now began to report on the fact that within months of opening the tomb several members of Lord Carnarvon's expedition had died 'in mysterious circumstances'. Next, Carnarvon himself had succumbed, reportedly of a mosquito bite that turned septic, to be followed by pneumonia. With that, all the talk was of Tutenkhamon's curse, said to have originated in a monitory inscription at the entrance to the tomb. It was a story that could have been lifted from the plot of one of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes thrillers, popular at that time, yet when I asked Myers how he felt about the Pharaoh's curse, I was staggered to discover that, in all seriousness, he was keeping an open mind.
Oliver occupied himself at the British Museum and by lecturing at the University. The Armant expedition had furnished a huge number of varieties of mummy, both human and animal. The rarest remained those dating from the Old Kingdom and continued to be much sought after. Consequently Myers found himself on the periphery, as a spectator, of a scandalous affair in which the Museum was said to have been induced to pay a record sum for what was described as a unique Old Kingdom mummy. Myers and his intimates who had worked at Armant and elsewhere believed that this spectacular acquisition was in reality the brother of the Cairo antique dealer by whom the mummy was procured, who had mysteriously disappeared as soon as the order was placed. Eventually ranks were closed, it was agreed that the man so wonderfully encased in ancient wrappers, although the cast of his features could be made out, had died in the distant past, and despite the misgivings of certain experts the mummy remained a centre of attraction at the museum for many years.
The fateful year of 1938 was upon us. It was the year of the peace at all costs at Munich, of disillusionment and the feeling—instinctive rather than intellectual—that this country was under a growing threat of war. Ernestina's brother Eugene had gone off to join in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. A subtle change in the national atmosphere hinted at storms to come, and curious behavioural symptoms began to manifest themselves. The Times suddenly noticed that the membership of miniature rifle clubs had doubled in a year. I responded to this mood by taking a crash course in German, and was soon able to increase my income by translating sensational and pugnacious articles from the German press for publication in English newspapers.
Those were the days of the last fading flush of autumnal light over literary Bloomsbury, the bohemianism of the Fitzroy Tavern, the lectures on sexual emancipation at the Conway Hall, Bertrand Russell and Dr Joad's pleasurable reshapings of London bourgeois life. Myers and I met often and got to know each other better. He refused to eat anywhere except at Prada's restaurant in the Euston Road, where charming Italian waitresses, all born in London, forced themselves to speak broken Italian to such obvious cosmopolitans as my friend. Despite his flamboyant manner (embarrassing to many Italians) and banter and confident gallantries in the presence of girls such as these, Myers belonged to that category of men like Scott Fitzgerald who are prone to whisper to a friend their doubts over the size of their penis. I suspected that some such lurking fear had promoted his friendship with a showgirl from the Windmill, a practically speechless little Siamese with two-inch fingernails who tottered into view from the wings in support of any of the theatre's frequent oriental settings.
The only occasion, he told me, on which he had felt obliged to break faith with Prada's had been when he invited this lady to dinner. Having learned with delight that she preferred to eat with her fingers, he had scoured London and finally heard of an Indian restaurant in Charlotte Street where it was reputed this could be done. It turned out that by the time of their visit the place had changed hands. A number of the diners wore black ties, and when Myers explained what was proposed, the owner showed hesitation and finally led them doubtfully to a table in an alcove at the back of the restaurant, where nevertheless they remained objects of curiosity.
Emblazoned as his personality was with eccentricity, Myers was able to make himself liked by all who knew him well. He became a frequent and welcome visitor to Gordon Street where Maria had instantly been won over by the hyperbole lavished on her cooking, Eugene listened entranced by stories of armed conflict with Egyptian tomb-robbers, Ernestina teasingly corrected woebegone attempts at Italian, and Ernesto, expressionless as a death-mask, watched as he might have some performing animal.
In the spring Myers was obliged to return to the Middle East, and his contribution to the house's social hubbub was missed. It was to be a year of disruption in the Corvaja household. Ernestine's Eurasian friend and her German lover pulled out, and the uncle who had become an alcoholic was taken to the French Hospital in Shaftesbury Avenue, where as soon as he was left on his own he committed suicide by jumping from the nearest window.
Perhaps these upsets fostered Ernestine's sudden desire to go to Cuba. The Corvajas were a family of Spanish origin who had settled in Sicily in the seventeenth century while it still remained part of the Spanish kingdom and its ancestral links remained sufficiently strong for Ernestina to have been sent for part of her education to the Colegio Rodriguez in Santander. In culture and temperament she was incurably Latin.
The latest news from Spain was of the inevitability of Franco's victory, and without waiting for this to happen a Spanish family with whom she had spent short holidays had fled to Cuba. They now wrote begging her insistently to visit them, and this she wished to do. She was at this time having treatment for nervous tension, and her doctor thought it a good idea. 'It's something that's turned into a bit of an obsession,' he said. 'Awful place. We used to call there when I was a ship's doctor. Probably seen the film Weekend in Havana, but it isn't like that. Stinking hole. Might get it out of her system once she's seen it.'
This was the advice I followed, and we arrived in Havana in July 1939.
The doctor's picture of Havana was misleading indeed: it abounded with pleasure of the kind that London could not supply. It was an anarchy of colour, for rather than jettison unfinished cans of paint, people splashed what was left on the nearest wall. The city resounded with cheerful noise, of street-corner boys tapping drums, tramcars flashing and showering sparks from overhead contacts, the whine of fruit juice mixers, and the chatter of one or two of the thousand canaries the dictator Batista had recently released. It smelt of electricity and cigar-smoke, and in places of overburdened drains. There was a leisure not to be found elsewhere, with twenty-five men enthroned in a row to have their shoes polished for the third or fourth time in that day. At nine every morning a religious procession formed to study the numbers of the lottery tickets on offer as soon as they were put up on the stand. In Havana it was normal, as we ourselves found, to be stopped in the street by absolute strangers wishing to communicate their thoughts on anything that happened to have caught their attention. The mulatta girls of Havana were seen to flaunt the biggest posteriors and the narrowest waists in the world.
Excerpted from The World, The World by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1996 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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