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The English Patient made me join the Army and fight in Afghanistan

Blog | By ASH Smyth | Oct 17, 2018

On Thursday night, as a birthday present, I will be attending a live-orchestra screening of The English Patient at the Albert Hall.

I was first exposed to the film in about 1998.

After a couple of minutes of the multi-Oscar-winner, I was completely hooked: particularly about Michael Ondaatje's main character, Ladislaus de Almásy – a pilot of dubious origin who is shot down in the Egyptian desert during the Second World War, knows the lines to every song he's ever heard but not his own name, and may or may not have betrayed his colleagues to the Germans for the sake of love.

I'll be going with as Harry's guest. Harry and I served in Afghanistan together, in 2013. But the film has been with me for the better part of 20 years now.

I applied to study Egyptology on the strength of it, a fact I carefully concealed from my academic overseers. During my gap year in South Africa, I didn't tuck things in a copy of Herodotus ('the book he brought with him through the fire'), but in a Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. At Oxford, I would walk around listening to the movie's famously aching Gabriel Yared soundtrack on a loop (like all Ondaatje books, the original itself is full of music and singing). In Canada, I bought a black leather blazer-style jacket from Banana Republic, although I drew the line at knee-length khaki shorts.

In the libraries of the Oriental Institute, I found odd books on modern Egypt and more-recent explorations of the desert, and began to make my own trips – though actually seeing Egypt was not really a course requirement.

And when I fell out with my college, it was the lonely-hero movies like the English Patient I returned to in the bitter evenings. I became well-versed in the admissions criteria for the Foreign Legion. And then – under the signature of my professor – I joined the Royal Geographical Society, as found, thinly disguised, in The English Patient:

'In the 1920s, there is a sweet postscript history on this pocket of earth, made mostly by privately funded expeditions and followed by modest lectures given at the Geographical Society in London at Kensington Gore. These lectures are given by sunburned, exhausted men who, like Conrad's sailors, are not too comfortable with the etiquette of taxis...'

The RGS has some nice old copies of Almásy things (not all in English), as well as material on the Long Range Desert Group and more scholarly desert-exploration articles.

My first copy of the novel came, entirely fittingly, from the American University in Cairo bookshop. It was a well-annotated, typo-strewn Picador paperback reprint, with the price on the title page in blue biro, bought on my first trip, in 2003, in the days immediately following the invasion of Iraq – an interesting time to be a tall, blond, white man in an Arab capital. (The receipt is still inside: it cost 45 Egyptian pounds.) I later gave in and bought myself a first edition, on Charing Cross Road, which I haven't opened.

The book is total poetry. In a wonderful deleted scene, available on YouTube, an old bedou tells Almásy something, which he translates to Katharine: 'He thinks he's been there – but the route he's describing, well, he couldn't survive the journey now; but he's a poet, so his map is poetry.'

I've since been an enthusiastic reader of Saul Kelly, Justin Marozzi, and other writers on Herodotus, the lost oasis of Zerzura, and the 'real' Almásy.

And then the opportunity arose to go to my own desert war, serving with the British Army in Afghanistan, and so I leapt at it. But that was years ago now, and unexciting – and I survived, unharmed, unlike (the fictional) Almásy.

I remain 'a person who if left alone in someone's home walks to the bookcase, pulls down a volume and inhales it.' I still keep things I need in books (which means that I can never find them). I haven't yet got round to learning Arabic, let alone Hungarian, or several of the other languages that Almásy spoke (my two brothers speak a little, though I bet they can't describe a mountain that looks like the shape of a woman's back); but I can name some of the winds Almásy/Ondaatje describes, and tell their stories.

I often listen to the Yared soundtrack. In fact, Benny Goodman's 'Wang Wang Blues' was one of the first things that I played my child when she was born. Nor can I give her (or anyone else) a bit of plum without informing them that it's a 'very plum... plum.' We were in Brighton, the other week, at the aquarium, to celebrate her turning one, and I found myself humming Lorenz Hart's original words to 'Manhattan', 'before they were cleaned up.'

I've watched the film at least a dozen times, now, and read the novel maybe half a dozen. I've given copies of both DVD and book as gifts, and indeed the movie-script on one occasion. And despite the fact that I own several copies, it's one of a number of books – among those by a small number of literary favourites, like Chatwin, Coetzee, Golding, Dyer, Sebald and Hitchens – that, if I see it in a charity shop, I feel I ought to rescue, simply because it's wrong that it should be there.

A few years and/or rewatches back, I realised that the day the English Patient is introduced to us is, by the notebook of the interrogating officer, my birthday.

In July, The English Patient won the Golden Man Booker Prize.

We all know books mean many things to many people, and can have major real-world repercussions, on personal and even national levels. But amid all the renewed plaudits for Ondaatje's classic novel, and the obvious, widespread awareness that it's a tale packed full of questionable characters, traumatised and very literally scarred by conflict, it suddenly occurred to me that The English Patient is the reason that I went to war.

What would Ondaatje think of that, I wonder? My guess is he'd probably be horrified.