Before the Sun Set

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The backdrop to Priscilla Napier’s childhood was Egypt; the golden years of the Edwardian age were coming to an end, the First World War just around the corner, but for the confident, buoyant upperclass English of her parents’ world the sun would never set upon ‘the regimental band playing selections from HMS Pinafore under the banyan tree’. This wonderful recreation of a time and a climate of mind – a hundred years ago, one realizes, startled – is not just an evocation of place but also of the child’s eye view. A Late Beginner ranks quite simply with the greatest accounts of how it is to be a child, to see with that strange, skewed, uncontaminated vision.

There were three children – William, Priscilla and Alethea. Their father, Sir William Hayter, was legal and financial adviser to the Egyptian government in the days of the Protectorate, a clever, hardworking man, admirably cosmopolitan in outlook and with enlightened views of the Egyptian capacity for self-rule. This was the period of nascent nationalism, the twilight of colonialism, and some, like Sir William, were preparing for it. Writing in 1966, his daughter was able to recognize his liberal outlook, while noting also that for Egypt, at least, colonial rule had not been entirely bad news, coming as it did in the wake of the considerably more brutal regime overseen by the Turks, with universal forced labour and none of the missionary zeal of the British public school administrators who saw their jobs ‘as VSO or the Peace Corps might now think of them; as interesting, dangerous, ungainful and very much in the general interest’.

Priscilla’s elder brother William would one day become the British Ambassador in Moscow; her younger sister Alethea would write superb books, including that innovative and seminal study of a snatch of time and a handful of people, A Sultry Month. Priscilla herself would marry young and lose her husband to the Second World War. But in this book William is a knickerbockered boy, packed off to prep school in England at the age of 8, and Alethea a muslin-clad toddler – all three of them under the firm rule of Nanny, who is as old as the Sphinx so far as the children are concerned but in fact, as Priscilla realizes, recalling the attentions of an Australian sergeant, ‘a fair, freckled and attractive thirty-three’.

It is the recreation of people and of a vivid physical world that makes this memoir so absorbing, so immediate. The parents, kindly and devoted, the cast of Egyptian servants, the other children rampaging around the Gezira Sporting Club, with whom tribal wars are fought – Brits and Greeks and Maltese against the French, the Syrians. The garden, with its lush hot-climate vegetation and the beloved pet rabbits, and the adjacent Nile, rich with water traffic, lined with trees that are studded in the evenings with roosting egrets. The desert picnics – lightly sanded honey sandwiches supplied by ‘a c

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About the contributor

Penlope Lively is a novelist, short-story writer and writer for children. For her, an Egyptian childhood has been a formative and inspiring experience, as it was or Priscilla Napier. Her own memoir of growing up English, far from England – Oleander, Jacaranda – is a Penguin Modern Classic.

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