Sixty years ago this week all hell broke loose: Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest and put down a nationalist uprising in a very bloody manner. Down south Anglo-French paratroopers jumped into the Sinai and, in cahoots with the Israelis, took over the Suez Canal in a last gasp of colonialism by the Europeans. And in Washington DC a very peed-off President Eisenhower ordered the Anglo-French to go home or else. They went home and only the Israelis howled that Ike was an anti-Semite and many other things.
And where was your intrepid foreign (future High life) correspondent while all this was going on? On an aeroplane flying from New York to Bermuda for a tennis tournament. I remember the news about Budapest and Suez being passed back to the cabin from the cockpit, and the players on board being far more interested in whether we’d play the best of three or best of five, and other such petty details. Actually, although I was among the youngest at 20, we should all have been ashamed of ourselves.
The problem with the American quest for happiness is that they sometimes ignore what makes other people happy. No one on that flight gave a damn about the Hungarians, among the best people in Europe, who were being slaughtered by T-34 tanks for daring to want to be free. What I should have been doing is what a couple of English girls that I met later on did — fill a car with food and medicine and drive from Vienna to Budapest to distribute it among the freedom fighters. Instead I went to Hamilton and pursued a beautiful Bermudan lady by the name of Jackie B.
My father, who was planning to build a large textile factory in Khartoum at the time when Nasser began to push Europeans around, was on Eden’s side. He immediately branded Ike an idiot, one of the few times that the old boy got it very wrong. Ike knew that the game was up. Nasser blocked the canal, an act that made tanker rates shoot past the ozone level, and they stayed on a high for close to a year. Perhaps old dad had his ships in mind when he was rooting for the hostilities to continue. The ensuing oil shortage made the rates go even higher, with tankers having to go the long way round to deliver the black gold from the Persian Gulf to America. This was the good news for a few of us. The bad was that the Arab-Israeli conflict worsened, and the Muslim world was inflamed against its old overlords in the West. It has got progressively worse ever since.
For some strange reason I followed British politics even back then. After Eden’s fall, Harold Macmillan’s minister of transport, Marples I believe was his name, was asked by my father to head the consortium that built his mega factory in the Sudan, and he did just that. Dad felt very sorry for Eden, an obviously sick man living on his uppers whose resentment of Nasser had turned into an obsession. Two or three years ago, at an exhibition of the paintings of my friend Naresh Kumar’s wife, I was introduced to Eden’s wife, Lady Avon, by the great Indian tennis player. I was a bit under the weather and called her Lady Eden, and she laughed and flirted with me. She was in her early nineties and was wonderful. Eden got the wrong end of the historical stick. An impeccable career marred at the end by a personal vendetta against a typical Arab demagogue who promised a lot and delivered zero.
The irony of all this is that back in Washington the usual suspects, the neocons, or Iagos as I call them, are already planning their next move into the Middle East cauldron. The neocon plan involves constant war as long as war keeps Israel safe, which it does under the circumstances. Their plan is to convince the new regime that the biggest fallacy in the world is that distancing Uncle Sam from Israel would win the goodwill of the Arabs. In other words, be nice to the Arabs and get shat upon. Kick them rather hard and everything will be hunky-dory.
The Middle East is in the throes of a prolonged period of instability. Uncle Sam got rid of anyone who could keep that historically unstable place peaceful, and as I write is trying to make things far worse by waging a secret war against Assad and the Russians. The neocons are on the move. Let Bibi be Bibi, is their cry. That means the whole West Bank becomes part of Israel proper and Jordan becomes Palestine. We need an Ike to put a stop to all this madness.
As I sat down to write this my thoughts went back to four years before that trip to Bermuda 60 years ago. It was August 1952 and I was on the French Riviera with my parents. We were on board the Vagrant, Niko Goulandris’s motor-sailer, and the news came over the telex machine that Colonel Nasser and General Naguib had overthrown King Farouk of Egypt. Farouk got what he deserved, he was too much of a playboy, was the consensus of opinion on board. ‘Personally, I prefer purple to khaki,’ was what my father said before jumping into the then clean sea off Cannes.