Sir Arnold Wilson is one of the most reviled characters in that strange unfinished enterprise, the British Empire. After the First World War he was put in charge of the territory that would become Iraq, where he soon became known as 'the Despot of Mess-pot'. Under his administration, riots were put down at a cost of 10,000 lives. While he favoured direct rule by the British, Gertrude Bell, his assistant, supported by TE Lawrence, believed the only solution was to make an Arab kingdom under Faisal, son of Hussein (Guardian of the Holy Mosques). Wilson eventually accepted the idea, but was replaced by Sir Percy Cox, his old boss at the Foreign Office of the Indian Government. Wilson was knighted and, in consolation for his loss of public office, was appointed a director of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (the precursor of BP). Later he became a Tory MP and during the 1930 gained a reputation as an apologist for Mussolini and even Adolf Hitler. However, he died fighting fascism at Dunkirk in 1940, aged 55. This book, 'S.E. Persia' – subtitled 'Letters and Diary of a Young Political Officer, 1907-1914' was published posthumously in 19411. He had written it while serving as an air gunner officer with RAF Bomber Command in the year that led up to his death.
Anyone with an interest in the history of the Middle East, especially if they have spent time in the area, will recognise the authenticity of this book. Wilson, who trained at Sandhurt and started his career as a map engineer in the Indian army, was made a liaison officer to accompany the Turko-Perso-Russian commission which was determining and mapping the eastern border between Iran (then known as Persia) and the Ottoman Empire. This meant surveying through tribal territories between the Shatt-al-Arab and Mount Ararat. It was the first time much of the area had been mapped using modern methods, and through Wilson's efforts the British gained invaluable intelligence. The need for the Turks, Persians and Russians to co-operate created an extraordinary opportunity for espionage that Wilson did not shrink from exploiting whenever he could.
At considerable risk to his own life, he employed knowledge of Arab and Persian dialects, a fearless belief in his right to be there, and the horse-trading skills of a native tribesman. The writing, especially in his letters to his family, often veers into the braggadocio of an earnest young Christian anxious to prove he is no heathen. Whenever he has the need to placate a local potentate, he hands out finely printed Korans as presents, buys up quantities of goats, has them slaughtered and then roasted to make propitiatory meals. According to him, the natives often look on this infidel with a certain awe – i.e. in the same regard we associate with Lawrence. In fact, if even half of these adventures are true, they make his more famous countryman's exploits look like those of a boy scout on some jolly jamboree. Wilson is not some mere orientalist with half his mind taken up by ancient ruins. His remit is as the agent of an increasingly oil-hungry empire. He looks on all foreigners as potential allies or enemies in the Great Game; and if he wonders now and then about the Kurdish or Zorastrian inhabitants of a forgotten village, it is seldom without the hint of how much more profitably they might live under the aegis of Pax Britannica.
At one point in his days as a young political officer, Wilson makes a journey home to visit his family in England. Instead of paying for a berth on board a steamer, he opts to work his passage as a stoker! When the ship calls in at Port Said to take on coal before entering the Suez Canal, he accompanies his fellow stokers to a brothel. I couldn't resist using this in 'My Heart Forgets To Beat', where I have Dic (the stoker of Swansea) befriending a version of Wilson and taking him to the house in the question. Other steamy details include the 'temporary wives' taken by the Bengal Lancers, Indian cavalrymen employed by the British in their occupation of southern Persia.
I don't think readers of this book will be converted into supporters of the British Empire, from which saints preserve us. But I do think a perusal of its anecdotes will help explain Britain's continuing embroilment in – and fascination with - the Persian Gulf.
(I) First published by OUP, I have the hardback Readers Union edition of 1942.