09 January 2012


In a dim corner of my room for longer than

    my fancy thinks

A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me

    through the shifting gloom. 

Photo by EP

In 1958, not long after Colonel Nasser had successfully snaffled the Suez Canal, my first wife and I sailed through it on our way to work in New Zealand. I remember I was reading Wuthering Heights on deck, visualizing Howarth and the moors so close to where I had grown up, whilst observing camels on the canal banks. I fear we did not see the pyramids, but I spotted the mummy case of Tutankhamun just the other day, a mere four minutes’ walk from my front door, having happened to look up at a window. I must see if I can find out more about this apparently convincing replica: reminding me that one can’t help feeling we have intruded on and despoiled the young king’s preparations for the afterlife. 

Photo by EP

The zigzag decorative motif trimming the window was, as it happens, invented by the Egyptians around 1500 BC; it symbolizes water and, by chance, the terrace in the photograph backs onto a disused reservoir. This unusual discovery inspired me to compose an impromptu sonnet:
It’s mild today but simply not the best
This usual walk around our mundane streets
Of Hampstead yes, but with the prefix West
Surprise! There is a breath blown from the East
Not Kilburn, no, nor Cricklewood – simoon
I’m walking in the Valley of the Kings
Hot wind, hot sand – I see Tutankhamun
That window, there’s his mummy, of all things.
In sympathy the window sports zigzag
Egyptian, from four thousand years BC
His mummy’s replica may be ragtag
But zigzag is symbolic, historically
Of water: so I end this aide-mémoire
The house is backed still by a reservoir.
Five minutes away in the other direction is the grave of James ‘Wilson Pasha’ Wilson, marked by a little Ptolemaic temple. Wilson was for many years Chief Engineer to the Egyptian government, and in 1895 the Khedive of Egypt raised him to the rank of Pasha for services rendered to the state.

Photo by EP

Just opposite the entrance to the graveyard on Fortune Green Road, and in appropriate bright sunshine, here is another edifice showing some eastern influence:

Photo by EP

Photo by EP
It was built around 1886 for the monumental mason John Cramb and is described, in a book on Victorian and Edwardian cemeteries, as ‘a three-story advertisement decorated in an eclectic style that combines Byzantine and Egyptian with an exuberant disregard for historical proprieties.’

‘Why is it that its [Egypt’s] name, its history, its natural peculiarities and its monuments, affect and interest us in quite a different manner from those of the other nations of antiquity?’ wrote the Egyptologist and novelist George Ebers in 1878. The Victorians were fascinated by Egypt and two of the period’s most prolific painters of Egyptian themes had connections with West Hampstead. Hampstead Cemetery is the final resting place of Edwin Longsden Long RA, whose visit to Egypt and Syria in 1874 had a profound influence on his subsequent work, e.g. ‘The Egyptian Feast’ (1877). 

Detail of ‘The Egyptian Feast’.
Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford

Long also painted a portrait of Henry Irving as Hamlet in 1880, an engraving of which hangs in our front hall. (One may recall that Irving’s friend and business manager of the Lyceum, Bram Stoker, wrote a thriller called The Jewel of Seven Stars involving grave robbers of Egyptian relics and a mummy’s curse.)

Photo by EP

Frederick Goodall RA died at his home in West Hampstead after being declared bankrupt in 1902, despite having been one of the most popular painters of contemporary Egyptian life in the late nineteenth century. He made two visits to Egypt, the first in 1858-9 and the second in 1870-1. On both occasions he travelled and camped with Bedouin tribesmen, and to give his paintings authenticity brought back to England with him Egyptian sheep and goats.

‘Subsiding of the Nile’ (1872)

I have remembered three Eastern connections closer to home, as it were. First there is the photograph I took of the Bedouin camel boy I met on my research pilgrimage to Syria in 2005, the year I wrote and performed my play about Simeon Stylites.

Photo by EP

Then there is review I received in the Islington Tribune of my Old Actor in The Fantasticks in 2010, written I discovered by an Irish-Egyptian journalist named Roisin Gadelrab: ‘A genius turn from Edward Petherbridge as the crumpled, ageing Shakespearean luvvie whose every gesture, word or weary sigh was pure comedic gold.’

But closest of all is the little khaki-bound Bible my father took with him to Egypt in 1914 and which is now preserved in my West Hampstead home. There is no photograph of my father as a soldier. He avoided being captured by cameras, always saying, ‘I don’t take a good picture.’ The Ever-Ready safety razor he used all his life was issued to him when he joined up. He was sixteen and scarcely in need of it. Rehoboth Sunday School gave him the Bible, inscribed in purple ink:
Presented to Willie Petherbridge
On the occasion of him joining His Majesty’s Forces during the Great European War
1914 to
To what? – he must have wondered. I am sure his poor eyesight rendered the tiny print in the Bible illegible, but he could see to work at stabling and transporting cavalry horses in Egypt. That is all we ever knew about his war experience until his dying day at the age of sixty-four.

Photos by EP

The Melting Pot
The watchmaker wore an Afghan Hat
‘Not for religion – tradition’
He sorted my clockwork quick off pat
And off I went, in addition
I needed stamps from the Indians
Who run HM’s Post Office
Earplugs I got (from China I suppose)
Though they fit my English orifices
The shop by the way, was Iraqi owned
For erudition I started to hanker
And bought the London Review of Books
From the man who comes from Sri Lanka
I popped into the Tube station
Overseen by that gloomy Pole
Beethoven wafted through the air
And I must say, on the whole
I like being an Englishman
Here in NW6 … to be finished at a later date
I’ve used up all my tricks.
Photo by EP

The phrase ‘melting pot’ was popularized, in fact, by another West Hampstead resident, Israel Zangwill, whose play The Melting Pot was a hit in the United States in 1909-10, particularly with former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Zangwill painted by fellow West Hampsteadite Walter Sickert (c. 1896-98).
National Galleries of Scotland

I end with a snapshot of our modern-day melting pot, a West Hampstead ‘montage’ I achieved by snapping through the window of a local men’s hairdressing salon.

West Hampstead Reflections.
Photo by EP


  1. Thought-provoking! Our family were discussing at Christmas whether or not "assimilation" was a positive word. The younger members thought not, that it was a giving-up of identity. The older members, many of whose parents had indeed "assimilated" into American culture, felt it was a melting-pot positive thing. Interesting!

  2. I'd like to thank Mr. EP for the mini vacation to streets and sights that I will never see.

    His words and pictures rest my mind.

  3. The piece about Edward's father touched a chord in me. Like him my mother's father, James Philipps, joined the army to serve in WW1 when under-age, worked with horses (his own father used to buy horses for the army) and for a while was batman to General Allenby. My grandfather also talked very little about his war service and unfortunately died shortly after he retired aged 65. After the war he became an electrician and for years worked in film studios such as Pinewood but eventually because of the unpredictability of how often he would be working, left for a secure job with the John Lewis Partnership. My late mother wished she could have taken him to see the film Lawrence of Arabia, and we would both loved to have heard what he had to say about it and whether it would prompt him to talk of his memories. Now of course, I wonder whether he knew Edward's father.