The long echo of the Last Post

THE BBC 1 drama, The Last Post, was criticised, not only by smart television critics who were not the remotest glimmer in their proud parents’ eyes when the “nasty little war” in Aden was happening, but also by former military and their families who were there.

Memory plays tricks, and we all want to look better in retrospect than we probably did at the time. The period of The Last Post was in many ways the last hurrah of Empire. That embarrassing little black and white film at the start sets the thing in context – Her Majesty the Queen has confidence … And why wouldn’t she?

I spent some time in the Middle East – a few years after the Aden troubles. I worked with Aden nationals who had been evacuated for their safety, and knew British soldiers who had been based there and were now working with the defence forces in the Arabian Gulf (you learned very quickly not to call it the Persian Gulf – a sharp indicator of the deep tensions in the area). My then husband was with a small company that was based in Bahrain, and worked with a wide variety of businesses from international oil companies to car importers.

I worked for a construction company which was building an air-strip for freight and military planes for the local war which followed the British withdrawal from Aden. This was between the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman and the Yemen. Later I lived in Muscat where there was a night-time curfew and reports of incidents near the Yemeni border. These were the days before rolling 24-hour news and instant communication (the only reliable international phone line was at the one hotel).

Apart from the all-enveloping heat, what I learned when I first arrived in the Middle East  – and I was pretty naive and ignorant – was just how complicated the situation was. That sounds banal. But it’s true. If I wasn’t as innocent as The Last Post’s Honor nor as cynical as Alison, I certainly had some rather romantic ideas.

I was disabused of my rosy-tinted liberal visions very quickly. The little boys who crowded round begging to carry my shopping basket, when I went to the souk to buy fruit and vegetables and seafood, needed the money I would pay them. Their fathers would be working in the oil and construction industries.The living conditions were poor – shacks made of woven palm leaves, cardboard and corrugated iron, known collectively as “the barastis”, no running water, no electricity. The men sent the money they earned back to Pakistan and Afghanistan and got home to see their wives perhaps once in two years. No paid holidays for them, no paid flights, comfortable air-conditioned apartments and houses, company cars or servants.

Most of the expat wives didn’t work. They lived in company complexes – usually dubbed, with little irony, diplomatic or oil company ghettoes. Because we weren’t attached to a big organisation, we had a flat in an ordinary block with neighbours who were Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Pakistani and Indian. All the men were professional people and businessmen, and the wives were mostly preoccupied with clothes and make-up, their husbands and children, problems with servants, and when they could get to Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East. Their yearning for this beautiful, sophisticated Mediterranean metropolis was like something out of Chekhov – bored middle class women dreaming of the big city.

Most expatriates drank too much. Many of the wives had affairs – with army officers, helicopter pilots and engineers on “bachelor” postings. Some had affairs with the Arab princes, ministers and business owners, wealthy, highly educated men whose own often uneducated wives, while not in actual purdah,were shrouded in ground-length black silk or cotton cloaks, with silk veils and beak-like face masks.

At first shocked by these all-covering garments, I once spent a whole evening out with a group of British, Arab and Lebanese friends, wearing the full outfit – burqa, veil and face-mask. Apart from the amusement of baffling the kindly Baluchi concierges in our building (they were literally “counting them in and counting them out” on their fingers and could not work out who this “Arab” woman was) it was oddly liberating. Everybody, apart from the three of us who were in the know, assumed I was a new wife of one of the wealthy Arabs in the party. Nobody knew who I was, which was quite fun, and nobody could see what I was thinking, which was interesting. But I had to remain silent, which was difficult!

I wouldn’t recomment it. Indeed, I profoundly disapprove of it, but it gave the smallest, most superficial insight how these quiet hidden women saw the world – and how deeply shocking it was for them and for most people, men and women, in this conservative, deeply religious society, to see barely covered western women in the bazaars and on the beaches.

Meeting people of all races and backgrounds, as a journalist, albeit not working as one, wherever I could I asked about their lives. I got to know the Palestinian doctor who kept us up to date with our jabs – he had not seen his family in Nazareth since the Six Day War. I became friends with another Palestinian, a brilliant journalist and go-between for politicians and businessmen of all nationalities. I last heard of him as a prominent spokesman in Gaza. We were good friends with several members of the ruling family, who invited us to banquets (often starting around 11pm) with Persian and Iraqi musicians to entertain us. And through the remarkable Pakistani foreman of the construction company I learned about the lives of the ordinary workers. This man spoke seven languages fluently (including English and Turkish) and could drive and fix any vehicle. Yet he was treated like a dog by some of the expatriate engineers.

I didn’t take The Last Post as history. It was fiction, and perhaps not every military detail was accurate. But a lot of it was bang on the nail for the attitudes, the complacency, the arrogance, the political machinations and the ignorance of the various people who were in Aden, not to help the local people but to meet mysterious, international and sometimes sinister objectives.

We are all still paying the price of these commercial and political machinations, and the failure to understand or empathise with the ordinary local people. The Last Post may have been sounded more than 50 years ago, but it has a long echo.