9 January 1942
This morning I went with Michael and Esther Wright to Mena where we met Freya Stark, Sir Walter Monckton and some more. We mounted donkeys and set off with a picnic lunch for Sakara. My donkey was called Telephone and trotted along well, but some of the others were less amiable and progressed by fits and starts. Freya Stark, dressed in a hideous sporting jacket, spun on her own mills in Italy, and snake gaiters topped by a large double-brimmed felt hat, was a sight for the gods, and her running commentary to her donkey made Walter Monckton laugh so much he nearly fell off his mount.
This evening I went to the Scottish Hospital to visit the wounded. It was tragically full. I found it difficult not to flinch at some of the sights and had to struggle to appear cheerful and smiling.
I heard tonight we have taken Sollum. Japan has declared war on the Dutch East Indies.
17 January 1942
I am sitting up in a train trundling north through the night to Palestine. Today is Dan’s and my third wedding anniversary. I am trying not to look back on that wonderful day in London – or look forward to returning to the Holy Land whose turbulent past and uneasy present makes it an unhappy place to be. I am trying not to think at all . . .
On my return I found a letter from Dan, dated 3 October:
Imagine an old castle restored in the worst Victorian style, grey and featureless with enormous battlements and a tower in one corner. It has a minute garden with ornamental yew hedges and the whole is surrounded by a high, thick wall which one can only see over from the upper windows. The castle is three storeys high. General Neame does needlework most of the time; General Gambier-Parry plays poker extraordinarily badly and we all win his money. General Carton de Wiart is a delightful character and must hold the world record for bad language . . .
Dan’s address is Campo Concentramento, P.C. No. 12., P.M. 3200, Italy.
HE and Lady MacMichael seemed pleased to see me. They’d enjoyed their holiday and visit with General Catroux who keeps a whole tribe of Siamese cats in his house. His aides, secretly, refer to Madame Catroux as ‘The Mad Cat’. She is a rather formidable lady.
22 January 1942
The MacMichaels have decided to keep chickens in the garden here, and sheep from Transjordan. Nick is outraged and keeps muttering, ‘Common people. Suburban habits. Nitwit economy.’ I am kept very busy in the office by day and often at night, too, when most of the cables come in. Now I have little time to write letters to my family at home, or keep my diary – but I still manage to post a note to Dan every day. Each morning I paint on a brave face and all day I manage to look and be cheerful. Only when I close my bedroom door at night can I unleash my terrible sorrow.
Good news: From England – the RAF is making giant bombing raids on Germany and France; Mr Churchill and President Roosevelt have had successful talks and more help may now come to us; the Russians have launched new offensives in the Ukraine and Crimea; Araminta has stopped using my hanging cupboard as her chief hiding place from her mother.
Bad news: Rommel has counter-attacked at Agheila; Malta is being heavily and continuously bombed; the Japanese are advancing in SE Asia and it is likely they will take Singapore and Malaya. Now we are worried for Australia. Most of their troops have had to leave the Middle East to defend their own country. An awful jungle war is going on in Burma. It looks as if we’ll have trouble here ’ere long because of the ‘illegal immigrants’ who keep sailing to our shore from Europe, scuppering their boats and wading ashore.
It is becoming more and more difficult to follow war news. A multitude of events on land, sea and air are happening fast and furiously in every hour all around the world. The tragedy and suffering of all races is now beyond reckoning. In this lovely house filled with flowers and food, and in spite of my interesting work, I feel embarrassed and rather ashamed to be so lucky. I am restless and know I must leave soon to work closer to the war and my contemporaries.
1 March 1942
A letter came from Dan:
Yesterday was Christmas Day. Somehow ordinary days are easy to bear and it is only on days like yesterday that one really feels what it is like to be a prisoner . . . Luckily I was fairly busy preparing our rather ersatzy celebrations and didn’t have time to think too much. I didn’t win the watch the Pope had given us, but the tea and dinner paraphernalia, all of which I arranged, went with a swing and I think the Generals enjoyed themselves . . . The MacMichaels’ wire to General O’Connor arrived on Christmas Eve . . . The YMCA has sent us a magnificent lot of games, musical instruments, etc., and two complete badminton sets so I’m hoping some of them will play and give me some exercise which I long for. The Red Cross as usual did not send our Christmas parcels off till much too late . . . So many people write to us in all seriousness and say, ‘How nice for you to see the art galleries, etc., in Florence.’ Are we indignant! I’ve only seen Florence from the railway station. This is a prison . . .
Here the grass is turning brown and spring flowers are over. The skies are cloudless, and, across the valley from Government House, Jerusalem looks like an alabaster city under the midday sun. The tortoises in the sunken garden by the front door are busy mating – they find this hard work because of their shells.
Extract from Chapter 5
Slightly Foxed Edition No. 50: To War with Whitaker © Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly, 1994