My grandfather has been an inspiration to me on many levels and as our stories are inextricably linked, I thought it time to honour him and publish part of his incredible story. In this first part, he describes his modest upbringing in Ayrshire, Scotland and onto his career as a leading chemist which would take him on many adventures including Iraq, West Africa (now Ghana) and the USA. Part 2, which will be published next Sunday, will recount his 5,000 mile journey driving from London to Baghdad.
Humble beginnings – Ayr, Scotland
Born in the Royal and Ancient Borough of Ayr on May 31st 1921, my family comprised my father, a shipping clerk and ex-serviceman wounded in the Gallipoli campaign, my mother, my sister Eva and myself. An elder brother, Dennis, had died in infancy. Life was not easy in the pre-war years but it was a good grounding in making the most of what you had.
It was a time of predictability. Wages remained steady and basic food prices were constant. There were few luxuries and our pleasures were to be had in the countryside or at the seaside. As a family we were strong on picnics and would frequently walk some 5 or 6 miles to the Heads of Ayr, an isolated beach with cliffs and a rocky shore, where we would spend whole days building bonfires of drift wood and roasting potatoes which we found in neighbouring fields.
Walking home in the evening we used the road which was free of traffic other than an occasional farm cart. No cars no aircraft, the silence was golden. Only the lowing of distant cattle. Our evenings were passed in simple pleasures the greatest of which was reading.
First taste of adventure
I spent much time exploring the surrounding countryside with a friend, (who was to die in 1941 in Benghazi,) and a great challenge was to wade across the river Ayr using sticks to find and avoid the deep salmon holes. One January day whilst doing this I fell in and the disaster was compounded by watching a shoe floating away in the current. I had to retrieve it. A long walk home followed during which my clothes froze. I don’t recall being any the worse of this adventure. Cycling took us further afield and on Sundays after Mass I was off with food and a Billy Can.
Occasionally we went further, and for longer, with tents to a spot in the hills named Tairlaw. These were halcyon days and I can still smell the bacon frying over a wood fire by the banks of a stream and with nothing but the birds for company. My companions on these trips were a mixed group. One was about to join up and was later in action in the Western Desert. Another was a commando based in Ayr and who disappeared from time on raids into enemy territory such as the attack on the Loffoten Islands off Norway in which many of his companions lost their lives. He failed to return after one of his absences.
I was educated at St.Margaret`s school and Ayr Academy where, after wasting a year playing about and delaying my entrance to university, I obtained the Scottish Higher Leaving Certificate which qualified me for admission to a degree course in Chemistry at Glasgow University from whence I graduated in 1943.
To digress, when I was 16 I decided that I would leave school and try my hand at earning a living. To this end I took a job in a shop which sold decorating materials and also repaired radios. My duties involved serving at the counter and taking care of the radio battery charging system. My boss was a young married man with a very pleasant disposition. I whiled away much of the summer here until my mother arranged that I spend some time with my relatives in Donegal.
On my return I was prepared to restart work but my mother had other plans and on the Monday when school started, I found my school uniform laid out on my bed. Nothing was said but the message was very clear and I took it promptly. And so the course of my life was set.
In order to help finance my degree I took summer work first as a farm labourer which was the most exacting work I have ever done and almost relieved me of an arm in a harvester, and then as a lumberjack which though hard work was very enjoyable as it was done in the company of a group of students of mixed disciplines. Some of these were fairly mature and just returned from participating in the Spanish civil war.
I was exempt from military service only as long as my university reports were satisfactory and when I graduated I was directed into work connected with the hostilities. The ink had not yet dried on my degree when I headed south to a job as works chemist with a company producing organic solvents which were required for the war then raging in Europe.
I arrived in Carshalton, Surrey, with a small suitcase containing my clothes and a larger one with my books. I found digs where the landlady sat at the breakfast table with a loaf in one hand and a knife in the other, cutting the exact amount of bread required. A miserable place where I found I was sharing my bed with bedbugs so beat a hasty retreat to more congenial surroundings.
My introduction to work was a baptism of fire in that I was thrown in at the deep end being responsible for the production of mega amounts of chemicals as opposed to having previously handled but a few grams. The work provided little intellectual stimulus and I was soon scratching around to find a means of extending my studies whilst continuing my more mundane task as works chemist which kept me alive on a salary of £250 per annum.
I soon found what I wanted in the laboratories of Battersea Polytechnic, a college of the University of London. I was enrolled as an internal student of London University for the degree of PhD and began my research as and when my job permitted. The head of department was Joseph Kenyon FRS, a celebrated organic chemist, with whose published work I was familiar.
At times I felt like giving it all up because of the physical strain and the fact that results were not always forthcoming. However, I plodded on pushing forward the “frontiers of science” a few millimetres at a time.
Halifax, West Yorkshire
By now I was perilously short of funds but, whilst attending a lecture at the Royal Institute of Chemistry, saw a vacancy for a research chemist with John Macintosh of Halifax. I got the job at the princely sum of £750 per annum, a good salary in those days. My job was a study of the chemistry of the plant Theobroma Cacao from which chocolate is made. At the time I did not realise that this was the beginning of years of research which took me on some lengthy travels.
Whilst in Halifax I married and lived in a guest house in a perpetual state of penury. I could just meet my creditors with very little over. On one memorable occasion I found a 6d piece (2.5p) and doubled my capital in one stroke. This could not continue as we could not live on my income and start a home unless we took advantage of a house offered by my employers. I cannot recall why this was not acceptable.
Life was not entirely grim at that time as Halifax, although itself a dismal town, was sited in dramatic surroundings which permitted some good walking. A bus ride to the end of one valley, followed by a tramp over the moors to the next led to another bus for the return journey. On one of these walks we came upon the strangest pub I have ever seen. A cottage miles from anywhere with the bar in the living room. No licensing hours there.
On another occasion we visited a cottage whose owners knew, personally, Heille Selassie emperor of Abyssinia who had once visited the same cottage during his sojourn in England.
I attended evening classes in German and also went to lectures in Leeds University. It was on one of these visits that I saw notice of a vacancy for the post of assistant prof. of chemistry in the University of Baghdad.
First journey to Iraq
In September 1951 I packed my bags comprising a small suitcase with my clothes and one very large case containing books which caused an excess baggage problem as I did not have enough cash to cover this unexpected expense. In a moment of brilliance I charged it to the Iraqi embassy in London and got away with it fully prepared to have the money deducted from my salary. I was never called upon to repay either this expense or the one month salary advance which I was given by the embassy and it proved quite impossible to cut through the eastern bureaucracy in an attempt to do so.
I flew out of Heathrow at the end of the month, my first flight and my first journey overseas and I was overwhelmed with the magic of long distance air travel under very comfortable conditions. The first stop was Rome where passengers went ashore to a very fine dinner while the aircraft was refuelled. Back on board, the plane prepared for take off and the ground staff lined up at attention as we taxied off. All very formal and correct. We arrived the following morning at Beirut where we were kept aboard while Lebanese health officers sprayed the cabin with disinfectant. Off again out over Lebanese mountains and across the Syrian dessert to Baghdad where we arrived the same afternoon.
I chatted with a fellow passenger on this last stage of the journey. He was a government official and he offered to give me a lift in the official car to the YMCA where, like most other foreign staff, I had reserved accommodation.
When I stepped from the plane I was struck by the most intense heat I had ever experienced. I was also struck by the bureaucratic lack of organisation and would certainly have been delayed in clearing immigration had it not been for my friend from the ministry. I never saw him again after that day.
The early days in the city of the caliphs were difficult insofar as I was obliged to present myself at numerous government offices and there was a problem with my books which did not arrive with the remainder of my bags. It was here that I learned the virtue of patience. The Arab cannot be hurried and any attempt to do business according to European tradition is met with a stone wall. In fact it is impolite to launch directly into the business in hand before spending some time on, what appears to us, trivialities. My ploy was to enter the appropriate office, present myself to the official, take a seat with many others, and take out a book. The result was satisfying and I was soon called to discuss my affairs in the company of all and sundry that happened to be in the office at the time or even just passing through.
My books eventually arrived and it was time to present myself at the college where I was introduced to the Dean of the Faculty, one Dr.Abdul Azziz Duri, and other members of staff. Consider my surprise when one of the Iraqi staff members recognised me from the time I was working on my PhD. He was a student in the same laboratory. I settled quickly teaching Organic Chemistry, which was my branch of the subject. The students were a mixed lot both socially and intellectually but were highly motivated.
The winter was not long in coming and beautiful it was when it did. Blue, sunny skies all day and every day. Comfortable temperatures, even crisp in the mornings. I had made friends with a Welshman, David Davis, a lecturer in geography and with whom I spent much of my free time wandering through the back streets of the city in no-go areas which were fascinating if a bit it seedy. Houses built in the Ottoman era with upper rooms overhanging narrow alleyways which had waste gullies along their length.
This was the old city which had not changed in centuries. We also spent much time in the suqs (bazaars) which were bustling places smelling of spices and perfume. The carpet bazaar was a favourite where I spent much time on my own admiring the rugs, some of which were exquisitely beautiful. All hand made, the finer rugs made by children whose small fingers could tie finer knots. I collected a number of carpets during my time in Baghdad and brought them back to England, but sold many of them later with great sorrow
One sunny winter morning my friend David arranged a trip, with two archaeologists, to the ancient city of Samarra, one of the four Islamic holy cities of Iraq and the largest ancient city known in the whole world, whose ruins cover an area along the Tigris 34km x 9km. The city was built in 836AD when the capital was moved from Baghdad. Still standing is the ziggurat or spiral tower which we climbed to be rewarded with a birds eye view of the ruins.
David was well versed in the history of the region and proved to be a very informative companion. He left Iraq shortly after my departure and went to South Africa which he described in glowing terms but I am certain he could not have found the political climate agreeable. We lost touch regrettably.
Ships that pass in the night.
Tradition has it that it was here that the 12th Imam was buried and that from here he will return as the Mehdi to establish peace on earth. (I was told by students that the Imam disappeared into the ground and was not interred.) This was my introduction to archaeology which I found so interesting that I acquired books on the subject with special reference to Iraq which is an archaeologist’s paradise.
Life was very pleasant and I was very happy in the city of One Thousand and One Nights. Everything was new and so different and strange to what I had been accustomed and, despite the undercurrent of political unrest, I settled so well that I could have remained permanently.
It was at this time that I was introduced to Diplomatic hospitality in a reception at the British Embassy, an imposing edifice on the banks of the Tigris. I partook generously of a pleasant fizzy drink which engendered a feeling of wellbeing and was later identified as whisky and soda. I am told that I footed the bill for dinner for David and two fellow lecturers in the Semiramis Hotel. Such was my introduction to hard liquor.
November brought sand storms and the first rains which were welcomed with jubilation by the children who danced in the streets. This was a short lived event though more rain fell in the mountains to the North resulting in a rapid rise in the level of the Tigris. The surrounding desert was under water and the city was marooned within its flood barriers. I served on flood patrol with colleagues during the emergency and spent nights on the bund, plugging gaps and keeping watch for potential breaks.
Baghdad in winter was very pleasant, the temperature being tolerable during the day and cool at night. Winter, however was a time of civil unrest when students took to the streets in anti-American and anti-British riots. The student contribution was limited to the function of a fuse and they were soon joined by more professional agitators who lit it. At this juncture the police moved in with great effect. I had the opportunity of seeing one such riot at close quarters having arrived in the college before it started. I was holed up in a lecture room whilst students were prising bricks from the walls to hurl at the police below. They took no notice of me whatsoever.
One young man was struck by a badly aimed brick and was carried off wailing and receiving the adulation deserved of a hero.
During this first winter I was joined by my wife and moved into an apartment in the house of a Romanian professor of music. He was a well known violinist who performed in concert halls throughout Europe. Sandu Albu was taught by Georges Enescu, the Romanian composer and was married to a professional pianist . Before the war he was accustomed to spending part of each year in Baghdad as a visiting professor in the college of music, but when Germany occupied Romania he was not permitted to return to his home and had his passport withdrawn. As he did not have an Iraqi passport he was, in effect, a displaced person.
A bus cross the desert
In May the academic year ended and we were free for three months. I decided to escape the fierce heat of the Baghdad summer and returned to England. The first part of the journey was made on the trans-Syrian desert Nairn Bus. The Nairn bus service was started by two New Zealanders who remained in the Middle East after the First World War. They started selling cars then ran a taxi service between Beirut and Haifa then, with the backing of a wealthy sheikh, started a bus service between Damascus and Baghdad. The bus in which I travelled was air conditioned and articulated and took about 12 hours for the desert crossing.
This was an area bedevilled by bandits in the past. At Damascus we changed from the desert bus to a smaller version for the remainder of the trip to Beirut across the Lebanese mountains. The Lebanese mountains were, at that time, a paradise and the wealthy could afford to ski on the high slopes in the winter and motor down to Beirut to swim in the sea before afternoon tea.
From Beirut we boarded ship for Genoa stopping in Sicily at the port of Syracuse. After Syracuse we passed the island of Stromboli and, with other passengers, went on deck in the early hours in hope of seeing volcanic activity but with no success. It was over fifty years later while on a cruise that I saw this volcano come to life.
Among the passengers were a few interesting folk with whom I played cards in the evenings. One of these was a Franciscan friar with whom I had a completely chance encounter a year later in Rome. I was watching the Corpus Christi procession near S.Giovanni in Laterano when I was hailed from the crowd by my erstwhile card playing companion. A small world. On disembarking at Genoa we went by train to Calais and hence to Dover.
Abridged from A Brief Account of my Life and Times by Dr Terrence Anthony Rohan (unpublished).