Camels and me

It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. And in Stoke Newington for that matter. A quiet patch in my working life, either side of Easter, allowed me ample time to write, read and vegetate. So I did none of those things, pleading a minor dose of man flu, a run of taxing concerts with my choir in the Royal Albert Hall, and a need to stare into empty space.

The arrival of extensive files of documents to read for forthcoming assignments, calls from search consultants looking for someone (probably not me) to fill positions on Boards, the clocks going forward, the appearance of seedlings in the pots on our balcony, and a word from my lovely partner about how long it’s been since I published a post, all persuaded me that the new season is here – so what to talk about this week?

I know. Camels.

Camels and I have a bit of a history. Leaving aside the rides in all those early trips to London Zoo, I’ll go back just to 2002, when my lovely daughter Naomi was approaching 18 and as a birthday treat I offered her a short break away at a destination of her choice. I was a bit disconcerted when one morning she suddenly said “Would you take me to Egypt for my birthday?” Expecting the idea to change by the minute I readily agreed. The idea stuck and we made a plan.

So there we were in and around the pyramids, where every tout in Egypt was approaching us for business in intrusive ways that don’t seem to interest the ‘tourist police’. Every camel, and every donkey for that matter, turns out to be called Rameses and will soon die without the food that can be provided only if their owner gets you to part with substantial sums of money. Sometimes we fell into the trap, usually we avoided it. But we did want a proper camel ride.

Cut to us mounting an ageing beast at the top of a sand dune, ready for a short walk down to the bottom, with plenty of photo opportunities on the way. For those of you who haven’t done it, it works like this. The camel lies down, allowing you to climb on its back and sit astride, one (lovely daughter) in front of the other (daddy). The owner then instructs the camel to get up. What they don’t tell you is that camels rise from the ground back legs first – and they do it fast and without warning, tipping you forward until, for what seems like several minutes, you are head down, looking over a fearful precipice.

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Camel in the desert (photo: Rameses’ owner)

We got past that bit and progressed down the hill, the owner pestering for cash every few steps in defiance of the solemn agreement, made before we got on board, that one fixed price would be paid when we got off safely at the end. We got there, paid up (not a penny more, not a penny less) and decided we’d had a fantastic time. We had, and I recommend it.

Cut now to the Corniche in Luxor – a boulevard alongside the Nile, lined with craft and other shops whose owners have amazingly inventive ways of getting you inside. They have had about 4,000 years’ practice, after all. One plump young man, calling himself Shaggy – “I am an Englishman trapped in an Egyptian body” – focussed exclusively on how to prise my daughter away from me for the evening, an idea to which she was impressively resistant.

The abiding memory of much of Egypt, though, was of countless young – and some not so young – men offering me increasing numbers of camels for my daughter. When the bidding (a bunch of schoolboys whose last lesson had presumably been about English numbers) got to 100,000 camels I decide it was time to act. I flashed an urgent text message to her brother Nick, saying I’d been offered that much and what should I do? Ten seconds later the message flashed back: “Accept seven. Must be more useful than my sis”.

Brotherly love.

Cut again – to the Booking Office bar in St Pancras station, October 2011: Naomi’s intended (and now my son-in-law) Rob, now a star photographer, had come to ask permission to propose to her. I had always threatened to give any such young man a hard time, so I set about the usual Victorian questions: “Are your intentions honourable? Can you support her in the style to which she thinks she is entitled? I see you went to Oxford … hmmm … I really wanted only the best for my daughter”, etc.

Of course I couldn’t resist pointing out that I had already been offered, and probably wouldn’t have any difficulty in securing, up to 100,000 camels for her so what would his bid be? He had to admit he couldn’t compete. We left it there, I gave my blessing and they married some ten months later, one of the most thrilling days of my life.

But Rob didn’t forget the camels. When I had done the toasts and he got up to make his speech, Naomi turned and muttered to me “I hope you’re ready for this”. As the speech progressed I could see we were working steadily, and without obvious explanation, towards the subject of camels. With mounting horror, I realised something was about to happen. At a given cue, Nick (who MC’d the whole day with insolent assurance and who now travels the world organising international marathons) rushed forward, tied a tea towel to the top of my head and moved me to the front, where I was confronted with the entrance of a pantomime camel, occupied by two of the ushers. My task was to take delivery of this first camel, the down payment for the many that were, presumably, to follow (but never have – Rob are you listening?). I then had to lead it/him/them in a dance around the tables, and did as I was told – at least, when I could stop laughing.

It’s a nice thought that not a soul will remember the (rather well-turned and eloquent) speech I made that day, but equally not a soul will forget the camel.

And that’s how it should be.



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