Travel | History | Literature
‘I’m coming with you, Dickoi darling!’ crowed the Hon. Mrs Penelope Betjeman. She had just heard that medic Dick Squires had organised a mixed party of four young people—he and I, Elizabeth Simson, a talented artist friend of Dick’s sister, and Dick’s American girlfriend, Isobel—to travel overland to India in September 1963. For five years Dick had been dreaming about this trip. Now his fantasy was coming true.
Penelope had been on the point of flying to India to rediscover the Kulu Valley, retracing on ponies the steps she had taken in 1931 with her mother Lady Chetwode, wife of the Commander-in-Chief in India, Lord Chetwode, so an overland journey with us was preferable to taking a plane, and considerably cheaper. In the days before budget airlines British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was expensive and served only major cities, making the overland route the most practical way to explore Middle-Eastern countries.
Penelope had some time earlier told the Tatler magazine, in an article entitled ‘Summoned by Temple Bells’, that there was ‘nothing at all surprising’ in setting out on an 8,000-mile journey to India. ‘Having looked after my husband and children badly for 30 years I need a break, don’t you think? … Everybody nowadays wants to do things like crossing a continent by Mini, but if you do it, you need to choose carefully. You must have people who can deal with an appendix in the desert and take out an engine by the light of a candle.’
The Orient fascinated us, especially Turkey, Persia, Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent, but our experiences were considerably enhanced by Penelope’s presence as the elder mentor, who insisted on visiting historical sites and regaling us with stimulating ideas. Indeed, the journey opened our eyes to the remarkable interdependence of the architecture and religions of the regions visited—unwelcome though this perception may be to some believers.
Dick and I met at the Betjemans’ house in Wantage, Berkshire, now in Oxfordshire. The future Poet Laureate sat comfortingly and benignly in his study—not surprisingly, perhaps, as Penelope’s absence would give him free rein with his long-standing amour, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish. But it was also the beginning of a new lease-of-life and freedom for Penelope, who had been much saddened by the rift with John.
The Betjemans’ interests were as different as chalk and cheese. John was intrigued by Victorian architecture; and as he said to Edward James, ‘Isn’t abroad awful?’ Penelope was a mine of information on many religions and an intrepid, exotic traveller. Both were enthusiastic Christians, but in significantly different ways: John a High Anglican with a fear of death and prone to guilt; Penelope a convert to Roman Catholicism, full of optimism and bouncy high spirits—not an easy match yet remaining fond of each other to the end. We thought it was remarkably game of Penelope at 53 to be joining our trip.
In Istanbul we met Mrs. Warr, the Consul-General’s wife. One of the benefits of having Penelope on board was that news of our journey preceded us. She was the draw, with the tedious snag for hosts that we were part of her retinue. Mrs Warr, welcomed us at the splendid building set in a small, very English garden, originally the British Embassy, the second largest in the world and designed in part by Sir Charles Barry, renowned for his Reform Club in Pall Mall.
The following night Penelope and Elizabeth, craving the meagre joys that Istanbul could offer, stayed in a hotel, while the rest of us drove out to a deserted quarry for a meal of beef stew, sweet peppers and potatoes, which Dick was overjoyed to be cooking himself.
Mrs Warr had invited the whole party to lunch the next day, so we dressed up. It seems amazing in retrospect that we had brought dark suits, ties and clean shirts, which we donned in the clayey ground of the quarry, Dick scrubbing himself down naked like a buffalo and Isabel making up in the VW’s wing mirror. Penelope and Elizabeth had endured the night in their ghastly hotel where rats could be heard running around the attic. The Warrs’ lunch at the Consulate was magnificent, served by an impeccably correct Turkish waiter: mussels in batter followed by fried chicken accompanied by chestnuts and exotic vegetables washed down with red wine. A fluffy pudding concluded the feast—all most welcome after wet nights and camp life.
Forty years later Al-Qa’eda terrorists suicide-bombed the Consulate, killing the Consul-General and a number of Turks.
Passing through the old quarter of Ankara, we collected Elizabeth and Penelope from the Museum. Off again! At sunset, we reached the town of Nevshehir, approached through a deep gorge and built on the side of a steep hill topped by a fortress. In spite of Kemel Ataturk’s reforms, many women here were still in purdah. Originally Nevshehir had been the town of Nazianzus, seat of Bishop and Theologian, Saint Gregory Nazienzen, one of the great fourth-century Cappadocian Christian Fathers.
Camping well out of sight of the town in a stubble field, the pattern of our camp routine became finally established. I erected the tent while Dick and the girls unpacked. Penelope was chief chef with Dick assisting, though allowed to be in charge once a week. The girls peeled the spuds and cut up onions while I wrote the diary. After the meal, I assisted with the washing-up if the diary was finished. On that chilly night, Penelope eased the party to sleep with readings from Plato’s Life of Socrates.
Rising early the next morning, Penelope climbed a nearby hill with Dick to photograph the sunrise. The views from the fortress of Nevshehir were superb. The occasional tourist, arriving in an expensive American taxi and wearing smart Western clothes, seemed incongruous among the local people, who travelled on foot and by donkey, many of the women veiled in yashmaks. A middle-aged woman with a weather-beaten face brought her daughter to me. It seemed that she wanted to sell her—there was no other way to interpret her gesticulations. The girl was sweet and shy, and wore a headdress edged with shining metal beads. I managed to turn the offer down, I hope without implying that the goods were in any way unacceptable.
A young man, followed by 30 inquisitive townsmen, led us to a backyard on the edge of town. It was crowded with chickens, cows and a few braying donkeys. Penelope selected two chickens. But aware, as she saw it, of the Islamic method of killing them by slitting their throats and allowing them to bleed to death, she was determined to slaughter them in the ‘humane’ English way by wringing their necks. There were murmurings of disquiet in the crowd, who couldn’t believe the birds were dead, when Penelope started to pluck them as their limbs twitched reflexly. It was an unforgettable image, to see Penelope bent down in the middle of a now aggressive crowd, her tweed-skirted backside haloed by flying chicken feathers. It said much for the tolerance of the Turks that we escaped unscathed, despite breaking one of their major Koranic religious taboos against eating the flesh of a strangled animal.
During the afternoon at Pasargadae, Cyrus the Great’s Persian capital, Penelope enquired if she might have a ride on a horse, which David Stronach the archaeologist then arranged. A scraggy-looking nag, with a tall, thin and even scraggier owner arrived at 5.00 pm, an hour late. He was obviously expecting to lead it and Penelope gently round the field by the reins. But no one had told him that Penelope was used to hunting with the Old Berks. He was astonished when she marched out of the hut in riding breeches, smart brown riding-jacket, shirt and cloth-tie. The horse and Penelope hit it off immediately, breaking loose together and cantering across the plain. It turned out that the man was not the owner, which partly explained his anxiety. As he saw a small cloud of dust disappearing into the distance, he must have imagined that a female horse-thief was stealing his stallion. Horrified, all he could gasp was, ‘Asp chahar kilometer, asp panj kilometer’ ‘Horse four kilometres, horse five kilometres’. He nearly had a fit when I countered with, ‘Asp davazdah kilometer’—‘Horse twelve kilometres’. Penelope returned from her exhilarating ride an hour later, still firmly mounted on the horse.
Just before Ghazni in Afghanistan, we stopped for Penelope’s most welcome porridge, boiled eggs and coffee. It was 20 November. The Afghan winter had arrived. Penelope announced that Dick and I must shave off our beards. She refused to cross the frontier of what had once been British India with bearded Englishmen. She herself donned riding breeches, smart shirt and tie, powdering her face and brushing her hair carefully. She had been forewarned that the Italian archaeologist and renowned oriental scholar, Professor Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984), was excavating at Ghazni. Penelope had been madly in love with him as a girl of 19, and was desperately keen to meet him again. His assistants were said to be five fabulous Italian beauties, so Dick and I happily complied with her command. But to Penelope’s great disappointment, and everyone’s dismay, Professor Tucci had already returned to Italy for the winter with his girls. Nevertheless, Penelope’s desire would be finally granted on her return trip to Ghazni in 1970, when ‘radiant with joy’, she tracked down the Professor—and his young photographer wife—for lunch.
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