id="drop_cap">Editor’s note: After her death in 2002, the author discovered hundreds of love letters written by his great aunt Dorle Soria in her midtown Manhattan apartment. Soria was a significant figure in the music world beginning in the late 1920s. She was Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini’s press secretary and helped bring famed Greek soprano Maria Callas to New York. In her teens, she wrote a book called “Master Lovers of the World” in which she invented short love stories based on lives of iconic men from Casanova to King Henry VIII. What follows is a partially fictitious recreation of one of her own affairs based on details contained in some of her letters, most of which were written in the 1930s.
Royal Hospital Chelsea
We could begin the story of Dorle’s romance with British police officer, Alfred Tennyson (“Bill”) Barker in several locations. There is, of course, the Lloyd Triestino Line boat from Trieste to Beirut on which Dorle, Bill, a mining engineer named Tallent and a sea captain passed several wine-soaked days.
There is Gallipoli where so many troops were slaughtered but Bill was evacuated. Or whichever other theater of the first world war in which he “dispersed a hostile raiding party that approached our lines in superior numbers and personally bayoneted two of the enemy,” earning a military cross. Or the Ireland of the early 1920s when Bill was a member of the infamous Black and Tans who terrorized the Irish population.
But I prefer to begin at the only place in which Bill and I could possibly have crossed paths: outside the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London. My mother, my father and I spent my parents’ first sabbatical from the University of Virginia in early 1970s London where I went for a brief time to State School and was jolted by impoverished London schoolmates in raggedy suits who drew pictures in “writing class'” of Brits killing Jerries a good 25 years after the war, and were fed (and in my case once force fed) Brussels sprouts, mystery meats and puddings.
I don’t know where we lived in central London, but our journeys on foot often took us through the gardens of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which has housed retired soldiers since 1682. A photograph I found of it looks startlingly familiar: a large courtyard with grand brick buildings and neo-classical temple front displays. The retired soldiers in their red uniforms sit on benches, smoke cigarettes and gaze around them with some strange, bleak pride.
Towards the end of Bill’s correspondence with Dorle in the late 1930s, he bewails being “invalided” out of the army. My reach into the recesses of available public information taught me quite a bit about Bill’s military career but nothing about his last 25 years except that he was a civilian and that he died in England.
Given how bitterly he spoke of the southwest of England where he was from, he might possibly have retired to the Royal Hospital Chelsea instead. As a commander of a large swathe of British Palestine, he may have earned that honor, and I like to imagine that he had.
Bill Barker sits on a bench in his red uniform, feeling his stomach juices swirl unpleasantly inside him. Requiring two surgeries in his 30s, his insides serve him badly in his 70s. This particular morning he feels the effect of the small glass of his beloved Chianti that he had allowed himself the night before. But what preys on his mind as he sits — posture as erect as ever — on this sultry summer afternoon are the dissonant guitars blasting from the transistor radio of a scraggly long-haired man walking nearby. They hurt his ears and offend his sensibility, so painfully far from anything musical.
He hums a few bars from the Messiah to try to get the sound of it out of his head then a melody from one of Beethoven’s symphonies. He’ll listen to it later on his turntable if he can remember which one, preferably conducted by Toscanini, his favorite for many decades.
Then, crossing the garden in front of him, he sees myself and my father, hears our American accents, regards our dark hair and Semitic features and thinks back to the American Jewess, Arturo Toscanini’s press secretary, whom he’d met on board ship on his way back to Haifa in 1934. We’re gone in a flash, but he’s destined to spend another afternoon in the past.
The chronology is hard to figure because so many of Bill’s letters lack dates, but I think their encounter on the Austrian Lloyd Triestino Line ship happened when Dorle took off for Europe in the spring of 1934. She had dropped by her old haunts — Paris, Salzburg, Rome — on her way to the Middle East, a place she’d dreamed of since reading “A Thousand and One Nights” as a child gave birth to a lifetime of orientalism.
On a previous visit to Damascus, she had begun an affair with George Asfar, a Syrian merchant who sold carpets and interiors of classic Ottoman homes.
It was to George in Damascus that I think Dorle was heading when she met A.T. Barker. The next port of call after Haifa, where Bill was to resume his police duties, was Beirut from which she could have easily reached Syria.
Bill and Dorle on Lloyd Triestino, John Carter, another of her lovers, and Dorle on the “Isle de France” and John Carter alone on the “Monarch of Bermuda” epitomize the socializing and lovemaking that must have gone on in 1930s ships.
Booze certainly helped it along, and the post-prohibition 1930s were heavy drinking times, at least among people with money to spend. In screwball comedies and period novels, pitchers of martinis were served before dinner, and a bottle of whisky was in any decent businessman’s work closet.
Shared dining tables must also have contributed to shipboard romance as well as bars located near cabins, easy to slip from one to the other.
And the 1930s were not such a buttoned-up time. Consider the pre-code movies at the beginning of the decade, Jean Harlow and Mae West leaping from bed to bed without being killed off or disgraced by their screenplay writers.
It’s not surprising that Dorle got caught up in it, as by the time she was sixteen, fifteen years before, she was already boy crazy. Her diary records dating six or seven boys, including the young George Cukor whom she liked “very much once in a while,” though they were “too temperamental to see each other steadily.”
“I’m so utterly feminine,” she wrote at about that time, mourning the onset of her sexuality, “I used to be a sexless sort of person. My ideal choice was a library, an ocean, an absence of men. Now I’ve changed. Even my clothes interest me more than they used to.”
We don’t know how many lovers Dorle had between the advent of her femininity and her love affairs in the 1930s, but a worldly woman boarded ship in Trieste in 1934.
The boat bearing Dorle and Bill leaves Trieste around 10 a.m. The first port of call is Venice, a distance of some 80 miles, which should take them only a few hours. Given the remarkable order in which Dorle kept her effects before she grew blind and senile, I suspect her first order of business is to unpack what she plans to wear on the voyage into the dresser drawers of her cabin. Then she hangs up the dress she plans for dinner in the closet — what she has on now will do for lunch — and sets up her make-up kit in the tiny bathroom
After the boat docks in Venice, acquires more passengers and sets sail again, she heads to the dining room for luncheon.
The expression on her face as she sits down at a table for four will be described by Bill years later as a mixture of “immense hurt with terrific fright.”
“Perhaps it’s neither,” he will go on, “but fleetingly you seemed like a wounded animal at bay.”
What bothers her is hard to figure but her turbulent affair with John Carter, the American journalist, is not a bad guess. She may be returning to an old lover, George Asfar, and an old haunt, Damascus, to try to drain him from her system.
But Dorle was innately social. While introducing herself to the three men who will be her companions at meals for the next several days, she must have risen to the occasion. Bill describes the three of them singing Dorle’s praises.
“I speak with authority,” Bill writes, “You have passed a very critical board (a) a captain who has sailed before the masts, (b), a mining engineer who knows the mining camps of the world, (c), a fairly good policeman who has served four years of war; been a black and tan, four years a gendarme in Palestine.”
They are encountering each other for the first time while the boat departs Venice en route, according to a 1920s brochure of the Lloyd Triestino line, to the free state of Fiume (now in Croatia) on the other side of the Adriatic. They will then sail down the Italian coast, eventually passing by Rhodes on route to Haifa in Palestine, Bill’s destination, and Beirut in Lebanon where Dorle will get off in order to make her way to Damascus.
An attractive, exotic American Jewess looking quite a bit younger than her mid-30s, whose best qualities (according to a high school boyfriend) were “flirtation” and “foolish chatter,” and having, as a young George Cukor said of her, “a genius for friendship,” Dorle is in her element at the luncheon table, easily leading a conversation between three awkward men with absent wives or no wives at all.
Dressed in a silver frock with her curly hair bobbed in a 1920s manner, she draws each of her companions out in turn — those not being interviewed listening and sipping their wine. We learn from Bill that a great deal of Chianti was consumed.
I imagine the captain goes first, as he is somewhat the odd man out, the only member of the quartet never to meet up again with any of his fellow travelers after the journey is complete. Bill uses the word “adoring” to describe him, though, as he seems smitten with Dorle.
As the ship journeys across the Adriatic, the captain — loosened by wine and a woman — fills their first meal on board with seafaring tales.
We expect everyone to tuck themselves into their cabins for a siesta after the meal, but Dorle, avid orientalist on her way to the orient, is too wound up to sleep.
After taking a second tour of the ship, she settles herself on a deck chair, gets out her book and begins to read.
She is half way through Robert Graves’s “I Claudius,” a popular ancient Roman potboiler appropriate for voyaging down the Italian coast, which I found on her bookshelf in 2011.
And makes perfect fodder for conversation when the also restless Bill Barker, a little woozy from the wine and the jaw pain that has been gradually worsening over the last few days, walks by her chair just as she is getting to a juicy bit about Caligula
Too modest to talk about orgies when asked to describe what she’s reading, she tells the story of the emperor making his horse into a senator instead, which makes Bill’s tightly-wound handsome face roar with laughter while he looks towards the Italian coast as only in southern climes would such tomfoolery occur.
Just as the Graves conversation dwindles and Bill prepares to dart back to his cabin to avoid the embarrassment of running out of conversation with the exotic American girl who had been crisscrossing his mind since lunch, Dorle asks how he ended up as a “fairly good policeman.”
Bill pauses, clears his throat and explains how the story began when he’d enlisted in The Great War and found himself fighting the Turks at Gallipoli.
Suddenly shy again, Bill turns away from Dorle towards the waves crashing into the sides of the boat then looks back at her again in search of boredom or disdain. Is this proper conversation to be having with a woman? Should he really have answered her question about Palestine by going all the way back to the war? But Dorle’s eyes are wide with excitement, as she’s never expected to meet someone who survived Gallipoli, a man who would fit so perfectly in the Brave Heroes book she began but never completed after she’d finished her Master Lovers.
Bill flinches, gazes back into her adoring eyes and meekly excuses himself after explaining that he has many more tales to tell.
At dinner, as the ship passes by the Abruzzi coast, Dorle shines her spotlight on the mining engineer. From Bill’s letters, we learn his name is Tallent, and he may be John Tallent from San Francisco. We have a record of that Tallent mining in Bolivia, but he could also have mined in the Middle East as Bill later said he knew the “mining camps of the world.”
John’s stories continue after the meal is consumed, and our merry quartet is drinking highballs at the bar.
As the hour grows later, bedtime looming, Dorle catches the look of yearning on Bill’s face and manages, just before his eyes turn timidly towards the ground, to grace him with an encouraging smile. She knows he wants more than just the wider fellowship of the four of them and will not necessarily refuse him.
The following morning Bill rises early in his usual manner, consumes several cups of black coffee at the bar with one teaspoon of sugar each and a crumpet without butter, and takes off to wander the ship again. Once, twice, three times, he strolls the decks, and when, finally, after nearly an hour, he runs into Dorle smoking cigarettes just below the funnels, relief floods his achy body and brings him face to face with his own desires. He’d been searching for her all along.
Warmly but awkwardly, he approaches her, taking her small hands inside his sweaty paws and trying to come up with a question or comment fit for her sophisticated New York Jewish life.
But after a moment of painful silence, Dorle asks him to pick up just where they’d left off, a mental bookmark having been inserted into his oral autobiography.
Upon his return to England after the war, he stumbles, still not convinced she can really be interested, he’d found work as a mechanic as he’d learned something of vehicles while in France but feeling disaffected (and probably haunted by World War I nightmares) he’d re-enlisted after only a year or so of civilian life. Those bloody Irish were causing trouble again, and one had to do one’s part.
We know from Bill’s letters that some of the “tales of fright and frightfulness of war,” that he’d told her involve Ireland, and I would think that Dorle, who had so romanticized Charles Parnell in her Master Lover series, might have been troubled by a Black and Tan view of Ireland. It has been nearly a decade since those romances, however, and challenging a man about politics isn’t something one does, especially to someone so brave but retiring.
As Bill strolls the decks with Dorle, he peers around him, hoping they don’t run into the mining engineer or the captain as the special connection he’s developing with Dorle may fall by the wayside. An hour or so later, they part company with a wave and a quiet kiss upon each other’s cheeks.
By early afternoon, the ship bears upon Brindisi, its next port of call, and Bill has become the man of the hour in lunchtime conversation, his past heroics from Gallipoli to Ireland, his present position policing colonial Palestine.
As Britain is suppressing Arab opposition to the settling of Jews, Bill has had the occasion to meet a fair number of them. They are generally swarthier, more oriental than Dorle, but he can recognize the Semitic qualities of her face — the nose, the cheekbones.
Dorle’s feelings about Zionism are hard to figure. In 1917, just as her family bank was failing, she relates in her diary a conversation she’s had with George, a boy she’s sweet on, about God and religion. “He leans towards atheism (or so he claims) and I towards Orthodox Judaism.”
“I think I have gotten beyond the state,” she goes on, “during which I worshipped an old gentleman with whiskers.”
Her family would soon shed most of their religion, and she would lead a generally secular life until her burial in an Orthodox cemetery in Queens 70 years later, but I found traces of Judaism in her apartment after her death. A small collection of books (a Torah, a Haggadah) a set of plates secreted away in an obscure cupboard depicting historic synagogues around the United States, and correspondence revealing contributions to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the Upper West Side that she had joined, as her husband was an Italian Jew and, therefore, Sephardic.
I don’t think the Dorle listening to Bill’s depiction of Palestine under the mandate gave much thought to a Zionist state, but she had to be impressed by this shy, dashing Brit fighting for the Jews.
Later that evening as the boat approaches the heel of Italy on its way to Greece, Bill fortifies himself with a drink of scotch neat and climbs the staircase towards the hallway in which Dorle’s cabin is located, the number of which she had mentioned in passing during their private conversation earlier that day.
The offering of that information plus the twinkle in her eyes as he recounted his exploits and the gratefulness she must feel for protecting the Jews may make her receptive to his advances. Besides, an unmarried Jewess traveling alone and befriending strange men may not hew to the normal moral standards.
Nevertheless it takes several minutes of fretting and pacing outside her cabin to garner the courage to knock. And several minutes more for his jaw ache to subside enough to give him a chance of sounding articulate.
His fear of disturbing her sleep evaporates as she alertly tells him to “enter,” without asking who he is. Sitting in her nightgown at the cabin’s tiny desk, she reads a dog-eared letter on yellow stationary from John Carter, that she has taken on her journey.
Feeling the alcohol coursing through him and trying to channel the bravery he’s shown on the battlefield, Bill rushes towards her.
“Darling Dorle,” he stutters, “I couldn’t stand another moment without you.”
His jumbled sincerity charms her utterly. She had told John she might be seeing other men and why wait until George Asfar in Damascus when a handsome policeman was declaring his love in her cabin.
That evening, and for the last three nights of the passage, as the boat sails from Greece towards Palestine, two states of affairs exists among our merry quartet.
Their long Chianti-soaked lunches and dinners abound with elaborate running jokes and dramatic story-telling, Dorle, a “marvelous woman and grand” according to the mining engineer, the locus of tremendous sexual energy.
But later in the evening and once in the afternoon, Dorle and Bill find each other, drink a drop of whisky, talk a bit more, and, of course, make love.
The four become two later in the evening, but gradually, after the voyage is over and the years begin to pass — when the captain disappears, followed by the mining engineer, and Dorle ceases to respond to Bill’s correspondence — our “fairly good policeman” becomes just himself.
Their leave-taking as the ship docks in Haifa is both fraught and complex. In public, Bill receives a sturdy hug and a peck on both cheeks from Dorle and firm handshakes from the mining engineer and the captain, but earlier that morning after making love one last time, they’d clasped hold of each other like it could save them from being torn apart.
A perfectly appropriate tear creeps down Dorle’s face during their public goodbye. Bill’s three tears, on the other hand, are unbefitting for a war hero and a 30s British male.
After the Passage
Bill’s first letters don’t appear to have been sent from Palestine where they have just quit each other, but from England where he is sent soon afterwards, “to have a terrific molar pulled out of my jaw.”
“Bloody and unromantic, but I wish you would apply a persisting aching jaw to any moment that I appeared forgetful.”
In almost every letter, Bill addresses Dorle as habibi (beloved) and ends with salaam (hello or goodbye) written in both Roman and Arabic lettering demonstrating both his knowledge of Palestine and determination to spark her orientalist passions.
When next he writes, he is still in England and has met up with the mining engineer.
“We talked of little else — except you — and blast him, he did most of the talking. I couldn’t even squeeze a word in edgeways for some time. We seemed to agree that you were a marvelous woman. We toasted you in three or four bottles of Chianti.”
I picture the two of them huddled over a dark table in a large, busy restaurant having finished dishes of whatever passed for pasta in the Britain of the 1930s, the engineer droning on about his unrequited crush, and Bill never revealing what happened at night when the rest of the quartet were asleep.
On another Lloyd Triestino craft after his dental surgery, bound once again to Haifa, Bill writes to tell Dorle that he expects her “to appear any moment … most marvelous woman.”
“Hell, Dorle,” he concludes, “why are you not here? The sun has just gone down over a calm sea and your presence on board would turn a heavenly setting into heaven. There are very few passengers on board, and everything is very quiet. No one drinks. No one speaks. It seems unreal and ghostly.”
In a different pen, he drunkenly describes what happens after he consumes two Sherries and goes to dine.
“At dinner, I sat alone. There was a bunch of roses and two candles opposite just in front of an empty chair. The roses represented you. They were reddish in bud, cream in flower. That’s you. Dorle I hate you. Hate you. Hate you. Why the hell are you not on board instead of putting pep in pep in Noo York. I don’t know. Seriously, if you were on board tonight I would promote you. You should be above all sheep and above all fairly good goats. In fact, I would create a new category – you would be placed above all very good looking and marvelous women, well above Miss Simpson, because you, after all are a good looking and marvelous woman, and moreover a marvelous woman.”
Dorle, the model American girl; Wallis Simpson, her royalty-desecrating antithesis.
“P.S.,” Bill plaintively concludes, “Write to me to say you don’t really dislike me and minus an aching tooth, there is a chance you might really like me.”
Is Bill’s love returned? The evidence to the contrary is the infrequency of her letters back to him. By the time Dorle was 16, on the other hand, she bemoaned in her diary how far behind she was in correspondence with boys.
The Gare Du Nord
My father, to whom Dorle once told the story of Bill Barker, believed that the two of them had only met at sea, which was my assumption as I read his letters.
But in one letter dated December 26 (no year) he makes a peculiar comment about changing trains in Paris. “I booked a sleeper from Calais to Genoa, so I had to change in Paris. I kept my blind drawn as we passed or stopped at the main station of Hell.”
How can the Gare du Nord terrify a man who survived Gallipoli?
Because he said goodbye to Dorle there for the second and final time.
I can be sure of three things about their final encounter in Paris.
It made a nightmare-scape out of a train station.
They had some exchange of cash. “Once upon a time in Paris, you held two American dollars in your hand and gave them to me. It was to adjust some small payment I had made for you. It was the 12th of November of 1936, years and years and years ago.”
And like most visitors to Paris, they went for a walk and dined at a restaurant. “And in my aimless wandering of Paris,” when he returned in 1939, “I traced part of the walk we took, but I couldn’t remember it at all nor the name of the restaurant at which we dined. I have often been tempted to ask the name of the place, but I think it would spoil it all to even peep into it without you.”
Three years earlier, Bill heads from London to Paris, having recuperated from the first in a series of stomach surgeries.
He takes an early morning train to Dover, and a mid-day ferry to Calais.
On the ferry, he prefers the crisp deck air to the steamy and claustrophobic inside.
The ham sandwich with chips he’d consumed on the train sit heavy in his gut, and he wonders how it will handle the rich French food he will be expected to share with Dorle and worries about making love when his stomach isn’t right, his cursed “tummy,” as he so cutely refers to it.
A half an hour or so into the journey, it seems to be settling down, but the rain and cold have penetrated too deeply into his bones, so, shaking and shivering, he makes his way inside.
The wooden benches on the sides of the cabin are occupied, and he has to squeeze into the middle in between a grizzled elderly man, shuffling uncomfortably and sipping occasionally from a silver flask, and a teenage French girl sucking on candy and glancing warily around her, nervous about the journey home by herself
Though living through the Spanish flu has made a germaphobe of Bill, he asks the old man for a sip and takes a long pull of backwater-flavored whisky, leans his shoulders back and closes his eyes.
And sees Dorle in his mind when he first set eyes on her, boarding the Lloyd Triestino ship in her elegant white frock.
Bill wakes up with a jolt, unsure where he is. The grizzled man is no longer by his side, and the sleeping teenage girl leans against his shoulder.
An announcement over the PA system lets everyone know that Calais is fast approaching. The passengers should gather their belongings and begin to queue.
It is now twilight, the sky outside perfectly clear, the gloom having been left behind in England.
The walk from the port to the train station is longer than he had expected, but the fresh air and brisk exercise should do him good.
On the train, Bill stares out at the dark French countryside destined to be a battleground again in a few short years. The other passengers near him sleep, but he stays rigidly awake, excited, frightened.
He has come up with what should be a workable plan. Dorle will be granted a final year with Toscanini, then she will move to Palestine and experience the desert firsthand — the camels, the cyclamen, the magical sounds of the call to prayer. There is no question of her not falling in love with the place. In no more than a year, he’s likely to be promoted to head the Northern Province and will then be provided spacious and pleasant enough housing to meet her standards, and they will be able to afford at least two Arab servants.
But what if she asks him to move to New York? He hopes she does not.
“Forget skyscrapers, ice water, drinks, pep, gold teeth, stockmakers, Noo York, half chewed cigars and statues of liberty. Think of camel bells, cyclamen and the last lions,” he has written her.
The plan is for them to meet at an inexpensive pension near the Gare du Nord, clean and comfortable enough for sleeping and making love.
By the time the train arrives in Paris, it is one in the morning. As Bill speaks no French nor knows Paris, he hails a taxi and hands the driver a piece of paper with the address of the hotel. The driver’s snickering makes sense once he’s dropped two short blocks away.
Bill has suggested they book two rooms for decency’s sake and meet for breakfast in the morning room of the hotel at nine the next day.
“Bon soir,” Bill tells the elderly lady who opens the hotel door after he’s rung the bell.
“Je suis Bill Barker,” he goes on, employing another expression given to him by Dorle in her last letter.
“Tres Bien,” she replies showing him inside and taking him up the stairs without grabbing a room key, an oversight Bill can hardly remedy without the language.
Up a creaky staircase, down a murky hallway, the old lady abandons him in front of room 7.
“Madame,” he says, rather too loudly for that hour of night.
The old lady turns around and faces him, a question mark on her face.
But “Je suis Bill Barker,” is all he can think to say.
The old lady gestures towards the door, on her face a cloud of annoyance at this inept Englishman.
Suddenly the door of room seven, reserved for Bill Barker, opens and Dorle slips out. She has heard the commotion, understands the problem, and ushers Bill into the room. Having decided it was ridiculous to take separate rooms and only meet the next morning when they had only three days together, she has taken his room for them both.
The next day they stroll arm in arm from Montmartre to Notre Dame, from the Rive Gauche to Montparnasse. Dorle leads the way, as she knows the city well, having first traveled there with her mother, her sister and Mrs. Gershwin (George and Ira’s mother) in her teens and often returned.
Despite Dorle’s Master Lovers and infatuation with Swinburne, Bill is the real romantic here. Dorle is the “one true woman,” like in the Sherlock Holmes story he adored in school.
Which comes home to Dorle during their leave-taking at the Gare du Nord a few days later, as he shakes with emotion and fights back sobs.
Bill never makes the marriage proposal that I placed in his mind as he’s no fool, and despite her relish of their time together in Paris, sees no hint of a desire for a more permanent connection.
“It was hard fate that brought along the war, which caused you to cancel your holiday in Europe and our chance of meeting,” he writes in 1939, though Dorle had already met Dario, her husband to be, and any meeting with Bill would have been markedly different.
In any case, they never meet again, and all we have are Bill’s letters.
“You are a DREADFUL woman!” he writes in one of them. “PLEASE [underlined three times] write and say you are receiving my odd notes written in all sorts of queer places because I have no other way of confirming the address I wrote hurriedly in my notebook and may have copied the numbers wrongly. In fact, you have been so naughty that I feel only a cable ‘address correct, I do not dislike you’ would earn you the honor of being permitted to appear from behind the goat hair partition of a Bedouin tent. So for the love of God, relax. Now think of all the things that are good for you. Think of camel bells, cyclamen, is that better? Now stick your chewing gum under the edge of the table – lower your bottom lip and stretch it with determination (I have only seen you do it once but it means something) and do whatever you feel the urge to do — whether a letter or a cable.”
Seventy-five years later the letter still lived in Dorle’s filing cabinet, the address having not been the issue.
The Arab Winter
Most of Bill’s letters to Dorle were written during the chaotic Arab revolts of the mid-to-late 1930s, which were suppressed by the British with some assistance from the Jews they were trying to settle. The crushing of the revolt by the British paved the way for David Ben Gurion et al during the war for Israeli independence a decade or so later.
History tells a brutal British story, but the letters and “snaps” from Bill to Dorle provide a different impression. Gentle and sincere-sounding, Bill cared enough about Palestinian culture to learn to read and write Arabic and even quoted the first line of the Koran in Arabic script. He certainly saw himself as maintaining order rather than imposing it, and he never says anything about either Arabs or Jews that seems racist, patronizing at worst.
Here is how he describes the situation in Palestine in August of 1938:
“The wealthy Arabs are going or have gone to Europe or Lebanon for safety, and the situation is steadily becoming worse and here I am in a land where innocent people, Jews, and Arabs, women and children are blown to pieces by bombs, lives of people whose only crime is race destroyed by assassins who only know them to be of the race they hate. They know nothing about their private lives, their responsibility of family or anything else. But it is my job to do my best to cope with it – I have no other training and wish for none.”
Another letter is interrupted by his job. “Interval during which I coped with two Jews in charge of a lorry being stoned and the lorry burnt, a bomb being thrown, no casualties, and a Jew shot and seriously wounded.” In a different letter, he complains of there being a “rash of political assassinations,” which are “difficult to cope with.”
Bill also sends her “snaps” he takes of Palestinian life, pictures of “natives” and camels and solders in formation, including one of General Montgomery inspecting the troops.
Along with the snaps are peculiar Christmas cards put out annually by the Palestinian police during the mandate, artifacts of empire.
Each is a booklet, four pages long. On the cover, there is a small piece of cloth fashioned like a bowtie with the British crown on top. The second page is blank to allow personal words to be written. On the third, there is a sentimental watercolor image of the police on the job. One in particular depicts two officers on horseback standing on a picturesque ridge with the words printed below it, “Patrol over the Judean desert.” Across from it are large printed letters that read, “To wish you a happy Christmas.” Each year right below it, Bill simply signs his name.
As the 1930s wear on, Bill’s letters grow less frequent as Dorle barely writes back at all. I’d like to think he begins to lose interest, his yearning for her dampened by the passage of time. On the other hand, the notion of his carrying a flame for her until the end of his days appeals to the Master Lovers side of my own imagination.
In 1939, several years after their first encounter, just as the war was beginning, he writes the following short letter.
“Thank you for your card and note at Christmas. It is a bit dog-eared now (whatever that means) because I always carry a letter in my pocket until I answer it. The cyclamen came early this year. They are giving way now to summer flowers. The situation seems to go from bad to bloody awful but actually is I suppose no worse and it is merely tiresome trying to foresee what the future holds for us. It seems to me that whatever it is it is bound to present the police with a splitting headache, and so I think it wisest not to think about it and simply live one day at a time.
Spare a thought for your old shipmate and try to write “hello” occasionally.
By calling himself an “old shipmate,” he has gracefully demoted himself to a regular member of the forgotten merry quartet as if those passionate nights have been blown away by time.
Bill continues to write Dorle after her marriage, addressing her as “Mrs. Soria,” the “Mrs.” Compounding the “Soria,” as indication of how far they’ve gone since the Lloyd Triestino journey.
Falling in love with the place you occupy may not relieve you of the burden of colonialism, but it still chokes me up to read Bill tell Mrs. Soria that he has to leave the Middle East.
“Just to say I have my bow and after ninety days I hand in my guns and seek peace. I have been invalided out of the service.”
The corner of the bottom of the last letter did not make to the 21st century, the partially shredded document becoming an elliptical poem about the desert Bill so desperately wanted to share with Dorle.
“It will seem strange to be committed to a world where time is calculated by mechanical means and dawn the signal for the day to start is not seen and sunset the time to turn over and sleep on a well-filled stomach is not noticed, except by those charged with running on lights. Where women are blatantly seen and even heard.
People who have never breathed the desert.
Not the smell of burning camel dung.
To live where horses are beasts of burden
And the camel is not known.
Where water is to bathe in.
And the body is exposed to the sun.
Where hospitality is frozen and the sheep is killed before the arrival of the guest.
And the sound of coffee pounding is not heard nor is roasting smelled.
Where today is more important than tomorrow.
And Allah’s name is rarely spoken.
I am looking for a patch of sand on which to pitch a black tent, some well-bred goats and fat-raised sheep and a few women and men.”
It all comes full circle as Bill unknowingly did me the favor of signing his last letter to Dorle, “A.T. Barker,” which allowed me, poking around the Internet three quarters of a century later, to identify him as Alfred Tennyson Barker and learn of his exploits in Gallipoli, Ireland and Palestine as well as his early 1970s death in England, the basic contours of a life.