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November 19, 2013

Portraits: Paris, London, York and Montmartre - Part 1/3

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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I encountered Paris and London three times, two times at a distance some 60 years ago as a boy growing up in Cairo, the first was a happy encounter in the early 1950s and the second was a sad one when the two capitals were involved in the invasion of Egypt in 1956. The third time was last week as a visitor to the two capitals.

As student of history I added York to my itinerary, and as a student of culture I visited Montmartre, outside Paris.

My first encounter with Paris and London was associated with “the crocodile of the Nile” – a name given to Abdel-Latif Abu Heif, the Egyptian long-distance swimming champion when he succeeded in a record time to cross la Manche; the French name - as we used to call it in Egypt – given to the water channel separating the two countries.

Today in Egypt, few youth know that there was a time when one sport generated as much interest as soccer; long-distance swimming, which generally was taken to refer to the crossing of the English Channel since the 1920s.

Although this supreme endurance test has long since lost its popularity, having been excluded from the Olympics, the successes of Egyptian swimmers in crossing the 41-kilometre channel from Dover to Calais have given the sport a lasting place in the Egyptian collective memory, including mine.

But Abu Heif was not the first Egyptian to cross the Chanel in a record time. The first was Ishaq Helmi who, in 1928, was “the first Oriental” to accomplish the feat, putting him on the front pages of Egyptian and British newspapers. It took him 21 hours and 45 minutes. So popular had this marathon become among Egyptians that the following year the Egyptian Channel Swimming Association was founded, and a year later other Egyptian "crocodiles" accepted the challenge.

The sport of Channel swimming traces its origins to Captain Matthew Web who in 1875 made the first observed and unassisted swim across the Strait of Dover in 21 hours 45 minutes. The fastest swim of the Channel was verified in 2012: 6 hours and 55 minutes, by the Australian Trent Grimsey.

Last week I also crossed the same Channel in a record time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, but at 240 meters below sea level, in the comfort of the high-speed passenger train, Eurostar.

Eurostar passenger numbers continued to increase since it was opened in 1994, reaching 10 million last year.

While Cairo was built on the Nile, Paris was built on the Seine and London on the Thames.

The 2011 census showed that 36.7 per cent of Greater London’s population is born outside the UK and the largest group is those born in India. A survey of London's diversity claimed that there were more than 300 languages are spoken.

In London I stayed on the Strand as it was centrally located to many of London’s theatres. But the Strand was not favored by British author E. V. (Edward Verrall) Lucas, as he expressed in his classic A Wanderer in London.

The book was first published in 1900 but my copy was the sixteenth edition published in 1914. I was delighted to come across the book by wandering in a used book store in my Canadian home city of Waterloo, two months before crossing the Atlantic, not only to enjoy reading about London but also to be introduced to Lucas (1868 -1938), unknown to me until I read his book. He was an accomplished English humorist, essayist, playwright, biographer and publisher.

Wikipedia adds that Lucas “was born to a Quaker family on the fringes of London, Lucas began work at the age of sixteen, apprenticed to a bookseller. After that he turned to journalism, and worked on a local paper in Brighton and then on a London evening paper. He was commissioned to write a biography of Bernard Barton, the Quaker poet. This led to further commissions, including the editing of the works of Charles Lamb. Lucas joined the staff of the humorous magazine Punch in 1904, and remained there for the rest of his life. He was a prolific writer, most celebrated for his short essays, but he also produced verses, novels and plays.”

In his book Lucas starts by saying, “I could not, I think, explain why, but I have more distaste for the Strand than for any street in London. I would avoid it as carefully, from pure unreasoning prejudice, as Count D'Orsay or Dick Swiveller avoided certain other districts on financial grounds. This, I fear, proves me to be only half a Londoner if that; for the Strand to many people is London, all else being extraneous. They endure their daily tasks elsewhere only because such endurance provides them with the means to be in the Strand at night.”

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