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15 October 2014
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Dawn and Darkness in Algiers, 1943icon for Recommended story

by Sgt Len Scott RAPC

Contributed by 
Sgt Len Scott RAPC
People in story: 
Sgt Len Scott, Minna Scott
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17 June 2004

Algiers by moonlight, 1943

When writing to my wife, Minna, I tried to recreate for her some tang of the environment in which I found myself in North Africa. I wrote:

'A long time ago (in February) I had to rise at 5.30am for a duty job. Try to imagine it. It is barely light and the sea lies black and glimmering to the horizon. Far across the bay the mountains are a barely discernable humped mass of darkness against a dark sky. A few Arabs are wandering down the streets, their white robes ghost-like in the dimness. A chill wind blows dust down the seafront, twisting it into little soaring spirals.

Then, suddenly, the mountains become more distinct, or is it that the sky has become a little lighter? What had previously been a colourless background grows rounded and gains in character; a golden scarf of light lies behind the topmost peaks. Now the overhanging clouds take on a rich purple that changes rapidly to red. What a red! It seems as if all the fires in all the hells of men's imagining are burning away on some sulphur-strewn plain behind the mountains and colouring the sky with their glow. The sea too, that black plain upon which points of silvery light are dancing, suddenly shows a broad path of iridescent mosaic which changes in texture as the light above the mountains grows in intensity.

The city which, in the semi-darkness, had looked like the dream of an Eastern storyteller, white and delicate, floating between sea and sky, is revealed for the tawdry thing it is. Light, the great destroyer of illusion. The Arabs, who in the dusk, their white robes swinging, had seemed like revenants from ancient Rome, become tattered scarecrows; the palm trees in the square change from fascinating silhouettes to poor straggly things short of water, exiles from some far oasis.

And with the light comes the smell - a sort of spontaneous combustion! But lift the eyes to the mountains where the colours are still shining and interweaving, and the ugliness of the city is forgotten. The chill has quite gone now and when I step across into the street the February sun bears down with the heat of an English July. Another day has begun.'

From a letter dated 16 October

'I have told you something about this place and you probably carry some sort of picture in your mind. But what you can hardly know is how it seems that everything here goes on below the surface - like the town of cats in Blackwood's story. If you could, as it were, remove the lid, I don't think the sight would be a pleasant one.

All the usual facilities are at hand for drinking, brawling and fornicating, but there is something else - a subtle, decaying odour over all - perhaps it is the unburied corpse of the Third Republic.

Sometimes at night, when I am threading my way through the narrow streets, I imagine I have been here before. I seem to remember it from those terrible dreams that haunted me as a child - dreams where I was in a strange town and no-one knew me. I would run wildly down the pavements seeking some familiar landmark, some house, some face I knew. But all was alien, none would stop to speak, the streets toiled on to the very end of the world and all strange to me. And all the time I felt that I needed only to turn one corner and everything would fall into place again, these long, weary deserts of streets would change mysteriously and I would be able to say, 'Why, of course, I know where I am!' But I could never find that corner.

The streets here are like those, dark and furtive, full of shadows, dreadfully alike with their high walls of ten-storey flats or low native dwellings, white-walled in the moonlight, the doors like splashes of black paint. There is an air of shifting scenery about it all. One sees figures that move slightly from light to shadow, shadow to light. Troglodytes carry on business at the darkest corners - the other evening a half-caste girl came up to me, pressing her breasts against my arm and offering me the use of her person in a quiet conversational way. She couldn't have been a day over fifteen. Everything here tends to encourage excess - the climate, the cheap rotgut wine, large numbers of men with nothing to do and plenty of money. I find myself driven towards asceticism. I hope I don't sound priggish - it's just that I've watched too many fellows making fools of themselves.

Sometimes I am wild with longing for your body and then I sit down and relieve my feelings in a letter. It always helps to share my thoughts with you. What a delicate thing is this relationship. Can we dare examine these manifold, fine silken threads that float like summer thistledown between us, gently caressing, but never compelling? How subtle a thing it is that two minds, far distant in space, each living its separate existence, building its own store of personal experience, its own memories, ideals, dreams and passions - how subtle a thing it is, I say, that these two isolated souls should suddenly join together and from that time all these same memories, ideals, dreams and passions will be built up in common.

And not only that. As we live our life together each begins to understand the life of the other before that moment of fusion. It is as though, slowly, I add your experiences to mine while you absorb my own. Daily, monthly, yearly, our knowledge expands. Things that formerly would have moved one of us now strike us both. We are learning to see with each other's eyes.'

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