This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views or opinions expressed are strictly his own.
‘Gaza stands upon the verge of The Desert and bears towards it the same kind of relation as a seaport to the sea’ wrote the great Victorian traveller Alexander William Kinglake (1809-1891) when he took such a desert voyage from Gaza to Cairo in the 1830s, recorded in his book Eothen(1844).
As he proceeds for several days astride his camel with his Arab helpers on foot; nothing but the swirling sands about, and the ‘disk of the sun’ above, he comes across another camel-riding Englishman but cannot decide whether it is polite to stop and talk to him. ‘We passed each other quite distantly as if we had passed in Pall Mall’, he writes. Luckily, when they have passed and are thirty yards apart both his Arab porters and the camels unilaterally decide to commune.
‘I could not think of anything particular that I had to say to him’, Kinglake writes, despite the fact that the Englishman he encountered was ‘returning to his country from India’ and Kinglake ‘had come pretty straight from England’.
Strangely his observation of hesitancy is true. When I found myself in the 1990s somewhere deep in the Former Soviet Union, the last thing I wanted to encounter was another English metal merchant who might have got there first. I also remembered how wary I was of others whose potential failure in a deal might infect my own efforts. We didn’t want to mix contacts. We travelled better alone.
Another part I found illuminating about Kinglake’s story was the reason he gives for the awe with which the English were held while travelling alone, vulnerable to the interests of robbers and jackals, and at risk of plague.
Kinglake writes it was none other than the banking system, by which the Englishman was able to travel without coin – and therefore thin pickings for the robber. With the locals’ dependent on the gineih or piastre, the English dearth of coin was considered a sign they were under the protection of ‘Evil Demons’, and we can appreciate that this protective halo of finance was at the root of Britain's immense power in the mercantile world of the 19th Century, and gave the British such mysterious force
Camels, travel, and metal merchants go together in other ways too. The former’s ability to take in water for the journey and survive the reckless voyages of their masters, is a lesson for metal merchanting stamina. In our world, the camel’s conservation of water is an analogy for the metal merchant’s necessary perseverance and, if you like, his ability to build up and retain net worth. The journey of a career in metals can indeed be long; the wolf and hyena lie in wait, plague (as we saw in Covid) will attack, unfavourable conditions will occur, wars and fashion change the flows of metals, and regulations can overwhelm.
But the good camel will reach the other side of the desert with cargo intact and the metal merchant, if he is wise and does not spend it all in the bars and night-clubs, or on yachts and houses, will survive too.
It is true that all too many will be laid low to have their bones picked by vultures or the coyote.
As for Gaza, Kinglake provides an extraordinary glimpse of ancient Palestine through the eyes of a 19th Century traveller and makes what is happening today even more profoundly unimaginable.
There are few words to describe man’s continued inhumanity to man (words used by Robert Burns in his poem ‘Man was made to mourn’) and as we enter 2024 we have plenty of examples. But in this specific case, I fear the region may pay a terrible price for the indiscriminate cruelty visited across the sands and the seaport on the verge of the desert.
On a very different subject to Anthony’s article, I was greatly saddened on Monday of this week to read of the death of JPR Williams. My rugby playing and watching came of age in the late 60s and early mid-70s, and the magic of the Welsh side at that time is a treasured memory, even when they were beating England ( most years….). JPR was at the very heart of that team - and the Lions - and he redefined the position of fullback from mostly static to the penetrating attacking force that he showed himself to be. In that halcyon era of amateurism, he was also a highly respected orthopaedic surgeon. Lechyd Da, JPR: we shall miss you (and no, I don’t really know how to pronounce it……).