Sons (and Daughters) of the Desert

Morning Has Broken, Like my Right Ankle. Pic: Andy Preston

Those of you who have seen and loved (and I am assuming that’s all of you) Ice Cold in Alex, the epic, almost perfect 1958 British war movie, will remember the scene half way through where John Mills (as a brave British Alcoholic), Anthony Quayle (as a dirty nazi spy) Harry Andrews (salt of the earth sergeant) and Sylvia Syms (a stunning example of British womanhood) have to winch an ambulance up a hundred foot sand dune to escape from Gerry.

The scene takes ages, full of sweat, pain, close-up shots of vexed faces and bulging biceps, and then Sylvia buggers it all up by letting go of the crank handle, allowing the truck to roll all the way back down the hill. Silly cow. So they have to start all over again.

On the other hand, you may be more familiar with The Hill, Sidney Lumet’s classic 1965 flick about a British Military prison in North Africa during World War II. In the movie, Harry Andrews (he was in all of ‘em) shouts a lot at Sean Connery and Roy Kinnear and has them running, climbing and crawling up and down a dirty great mound of sand (‘The Hill’ of the title) as part of their punishment. It’s grueling stuff. Sean won’t let the buggers get the better of him, but poor old Roy’s only got little legs. Hot n sweaty stuff again. If you’ve not seen it go get it out (or illegally download it, as I hear you young kids are prone to do nowadays). It’s great stuff.

I only mention this because this time about a week ago, I was merrily drinking my own bodyweight in duty free booze when someone had a brilliant idea:
We were sat in a camp in the Omani desert, having arrived far too late to sit on top of a dune and watch the ‘spectacular sunset’, as it says in all the guide books. “We’ll sod that, then” piped up someone, who may or may not have been me, “Let’s get up, sparrows, and climb up top and watch the sunRISE!”. Hurrah said a few of the gathered pissheads, and we set about drinking ourselves into an oblivion that only British tourists go to when they are in a “dry” country.

The party finished (I am told) when the booze ran out. By a later count it would seem we’d averaged about a litre of something each (I’m sure someone else must have had my share). Anyway, apparently I nodded off because I was woken by the incumbent who announced we were off up the dune. It was about five in the morning. I’d been on it for around ten hours, followed by seventeen minutes sleep. I rose and wobbled off into the darkness. Like Saladin, T.E.Lawrence and Michael Palin before us, I and a few close, pissed friends strode out, with only the moonlight to guide us. Saladin, I’m guessing, was teetotal, Lawrence had the help of the Bedouins, Palin a BBC lighting and camera crew. I’d enlisted the help of a bottle of Tanqueray gin and a couple of Nurofen. My fellow trekkers had done similar but also had this fat pissed old bloke to look after. And not a Harry Andrews in sight.

The dark, intimidating dune loomed ominously in front of us. It was huge, A hundred feet, maybe 150. (I say this NOW, but I honestly have very little memory of any of this, most of it is first and second-hand testimony from people who were considerably less pissed than I was). I can remember the first twenty yards-or-so not being too bad. Perhaps I wasn’t so drunk after all? Perhaps all that pre-tour training had finally paid off? No, hang on: I was very pissed and I hadn’t done any training. I was just numb and stubborn.

The Incumbent and I stop for a breather

The next section was another story. Softer sand, steeper climb, I was beginning to sober up rapidly. Several of those above me made the unmistakable sounds of fit people having fun. They laughed, they gasped, they talked about stuff OTHER than how much pain they were in. I made no such polite chitchat. I was pleading with my legs to keep pumping, and for the Incumbent to give me a piggyback. She politely refused and suggested we stop to catch our breath. Too late for me. I’d left my breath back at camp during a recital of Status Quo’s finest at the party earlier that night. However, we dug in half way to the summit to rest.

It was steep, and damp, but the sand was cool and soft. I could have stayed there forever, or until after I stopped hurting- whichever came sooner. The incumbent took off her flip-flops which she’d nearly lost several times on the way up, I thought about writing a will. But for reasons beyond me we were soon on our feet/knees and heading slowly for the top. Our friends had already disappeared from view, and were presumably readying themselves for the great spectacle to come. I didn’t want to miss it, having come so far. So gasping, coughing and swearing at myself (well, it saved anyone else doing it) I gradually emerged over the brow of the hill to see such a wondrous sight: my mates sitting on top of ANOTHER dune 40 yards away. After a brief pause for a word with my sponsor, we made our way over to the other peak and collapsed. Some took photos, some looked for their flip-flops, some merely closed their eyes and wept at the pain and the heat that their quadriceps and lungs were emitting.

And there we sat, like that bunch of old gits in Close Encounters, waiting for something to come over the hill. We didn’t have to wait long. Five or six minutes later a beautiful, perfect yellow sun came up over the horizon and shed it’s pale golden hue on all around. It gave us a warm glow to know we, out of all others left down below, had made the effort to come up top and witness this sight. It gave me a warm feeling in my heart, though that could have been from the gin and a dodgy prawn earlier.

Like Hillary and Tenzing, just a little more dignified. Pic: Andy Preston

But we’d done it, without the aid of 4×4, guide or even Harry Andrews. We stood there and gawped for minutes.

Then we went back down the hill for brekkie.

Days later by a hotel swimming pool I suddenly sat bolt upright and remembered what a prat I’d been to attempt such a thing in such a state. I could have killed myself and been left up there on the desolate peak, like a discarded flop-flop. Such was my distress that I had to order another gin. “Better make it a large one, I’ve got to play cricket tomorrow.”


Oh My God, They’ve Found Tom!

British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, wants EU countries to up their efforts in Afghanistan. There’s a feeling by the Brits (and the Yanks) that our continental partners could lend more men to the war effort. As Miliband puts it,”Some countries are doing significant amounts but other countries have got either significant caveats on the deployment of their troops or they’ve got their troops in parts of the country where there isn’t the same level of insurgency.”
In other words, European armies don’t want to get shot at. And fair enough: not being shot at is pretty high up on my to-do-list also.


Ever since Carry on up the Khyber, Afghanistan has been a little sod to conquer. The British Empire failed to control the Mullahs, the Soviet Army got its arse kicked, and the Yanks are having a few probs with the Taliban too (who, it turns out, were supplied arms by Tom Hanks in the first place). So what are the chances that the 3rd Copenhagen Rifles or a battalion of the Luxembourg Light Horse will fare any better? It’s a scary place, the Hindu Kush, with a soldier’s life-expectancy only slightly higher than that of a diner at Heston Blumenthal’s Dead Duck.

No. Leave it to the professionals. The US did, after all, defeat Nazism single-handedly, having captured Enigma machine and deciphered Ultra, landed virtually alone on the Normandy beaches, forced Hitler to retreat from Moscow and all without a single bit of help from anyone else. Rock Hudson chewed on a huge stogey throughout the D-Day landings, Steve McQueen was the only man on either side not to have to wear a uniform, and only William Holden understood war’s cruelty and madness. In-between shagging nurses on beaches.
The Brits were buffoons. If you were British and managed to grab a line you either sounded like Sam Kydd or Donald Sinden (right). While GI Joes were challenging strangers with the rather cool “Thunder” to get the friendly reply “Flash”, the silly Tommies used the rather more clipped “Leicester” and “Square” (pronounced “squar”). Brits were rescued from Stalags and Bulges by the the Marines or the Airborne, were always depicted holding a cuppa or downing a brown sludgy pint though buck-teeth, and sported some of the finest moustaches seen in modern warfare. And every Man Jack of them was a complete Berk. Edward Fox deserves particular credit for this one.

Alec Guinness built bridges for the Japanese, Dirk Bogarde sent Gene Hackman’s Polish Brigade to be slaughtered at Arnhem, Gordon Jackson said “thank you” when he meant “merci” and poor old Donald Pleasance couldn’t see a bloody thing. Only Richard Todd, who stormed the Pegasus Bridge ( “Up the Ox and Bucks, Up the Ox and Bucks”) gave any help at all to Ike and co. (In fairness, the actor actually WAS in the invading forces at D-Day). Richard Burton was Welsh and is therefore excluded from this conversation. But the rest? :Useless Limey wankers.


No-one, for the whole war, ever stopped for a pee. .

So perhaps the British government’s initial reluctance to attend the 65th Anniversary of D-Day is completely understandable. Miliband is only about 12 so all the movies he would have seen on the subject would show him that the Brits were never there. (In Saving Private Ryan Ted Danson does mention Monty once, as the bloke who’s cocking up everything). I wouldn’t turn up either— if I didn’t even make the end credits.

So Mr Miliband, the next time Obama asks you or your EU pals to supply more troops for Operation Certain Death, tell him you want at least 2nd billing, more and better lines and a cut of the royalties. Dunno why they need us there in the first place. We’ll only bugger it up.