Birth on the Nile

Stephen Barber, my father, came into the world with a hole in his heart. On the eve of World War II, he was home in Egypt, not long out of school and eager to enlist. A doctor put a stethoscope to his chest and declared him unfit to serve. Since he could not go to war as a soldier, he went as a reporter. In 1941, he landed a job with the Associated Press in Cairo. He was 19. Over the next 39 years, he would witness a lot of history and talk to a lot of people who made it. Then, one winter evening a few weeks after his 58th birthday, the defective organ that had launched his career and kept him from a soldier’s grave started throwing clots into his brain, erasing everything.

Of his early years, I have little more than what I recollect of his recollections. Few contemporaries are left to help fill in the picture. One, as I write, is the woman who was his first love. I shall tell you about her in due course. Beyond that, I have only fragments to go on, mementos preserved by his mother (who outlived him), the odd bit of family folklore and, as I said, what I can remember of what he told me himself. We were just starting to know each other when he died.

The only child of Clement and Margaret Barber was born at 4.30 am on Saturday,  December 24, 1921, at the American Mission Hospital in Tanta, an industrial town in the Nile delta where they gin cotton and bake bricks, or did then. He weighed in at a fairly standard 7 lbs but it was three weeks before they let him and his mother out of the hospital.

In a log of her baby’s first months, Margaret wrote: “Stephen left the hospital…on Friday, January 13th, 1922. He drove in an “arabieh” to Tanta station where he entered the 11.15 train. On arriving at Birket-el-Sab he was met by Bisheer, Metwalli and Moselhi who rowed the felucca which carried him to the British Consular Agency and his home. He was greeted by Mr Chikhani and some of the workmen — also Nibs and Pip Squeak, the dogs. His companions on the journey were his Daddy and Mummie, and he slept peacefully all the way. During next few days he had many Egyptian visitors who kissed the hands of the “hawaga zoreiyer” and prayed to Allah to prosper him. A party was held in the Works for the men, to celebrate his arrival.”

From Birket-el-Sab, infant and mother travelled to Alexandria.  Their first stop on the tramway east from the city centre was Mustapha Pasha, site of a British barracks. They were there until March 18 when they moved a couple of tram stops up the coast to Glymenpoulo and its popular beach. The Rev. Gladwyn Batty, chaplain of St. Mark’s, baptized the child into the Anglican Church on April 3. 

On April 19, they boarded the SS Lotus, a French steamer, which took them to Marseilles, whence they found their way via Paris to the Grosvenor hotel in London. They spent the summer doing the rounds of family, sailing back to Egypt on September 9. The Lotus would collide with a Turkish steamer off Mytilene in 1927, killing eight Turkish nationals and triggering a celebrated case before the Permanent Court of International Justice, judicial organ of the League of Nations. But I digress.

 Clement does not appear to have journeyed with his wife and son. He was in the cotton trade and had been living in Egypt since 1915 after serving in the trenches as a subaltern. Carver Brothers, suppliers of Egyptian cotton to mills in Lancashire, put him in charge of their gin at Bani Suef upriver from Cairo. He was the youngest of three restless siblings born to the Rev. Robert Barber, a country vicar from a long line of country vicars, and the former Adeline Guinness of the brewing and banking Guinnesses. The latter connection pushed the eldest, Arthur, into finance and his sister Margery into rebellion. In 1922 she emigrated permanently to Soviet Russia. We will meet her again.  Clement, the baby, was musical. A chorister at St. George’s, the Chapel Royal in Windsor, he sang at the coronation of Edward VII. He didn’t follow his father to Cambridge. Instead he went to Canada. Guinness relations offered him a start in Vancouver. He preferred playing piano in mining camp brothels, or so his son would recall, and came home in 1913, passing his sister mid-Atlantic as she headed west to help establish a ranch for “surplus women” in British Columbia.

Margaret Mole was the eldest of four. Her father, Wilfred, was a manufacturing jeweler in Birmingham. He and his bride, the former Florence Steeds, seem to have been ill-matched. She gave him two children, Margaret and Kenneth, before walking out on him, and them, for several years. She came back, gave him another two, Barbara and Edward, then walked out again, taking the second pair with her. Wilfred appears to have been a high functioning alcoholic. Florence converted to Catholicism and founded a school for nannies in Hampstead. She would live her last years in San Francisco.

Kenneth Mole lived with his father and helped run the family business, Manton and Mole, after coming back from Flanders with a hand mangled by a bullet.  He kept a diary, not the Pepys-ian kind, but a sort of daily text message fastidiously jotted in a Letts Pocket Planner. The entry for March 18, 1919, reads: “Letter from Margot. Good Gawd! Engaged again.” His name was Gordon Jonas. 

October 14: “Catch 6.00 pm train to London. Belsize Lane. See Margot, Mother, Gordon. Long talks with each. M is in a very bad way, poor old girl.” 

October 15: “M definitely decides to break it off with Gordon and come home with me by 11.30 from Euston.” 

December 14: “Margot in a temper as usual.” 

December 22: “Say goodbye to Margot”.  

She was off to Cairo. There or thereabouts she should would meet Clement. 

When Stephen was six, Margaret’s sister Barbara, a dancer, came to stay. Home was now Alexandria. Barbara was recovering from a split with an unsuitable Russian to whom she had become attached in Paris. A spell by the Mediterranean under the wing of her sensible elder sibling would help her get her head straight, Kenneth and their father thought. They were wrong.  Kenneth’s entry for December 8, 1927:  “Up rather late and find father terribly upset at shocking bad news from Alexandria.” Delivering the eulogy at Margaret’s funeral 60 years later, her other brother, Edward, would divulge what until then had been a close family secret. Clement had bedded his sister-in-law.

 Margaret won custody of Stephen and didn’t demand alimony. She wanted to be free and found solace in martyrdom, he would later say.