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Distant Longing in Port Said

Separation can be painful for lovers, but also a great aphrodisiac: witness the love letters of poets and statesmen. But it’s not only the mighty or famous who may be preserved for posterity in their heightened emotions and frustrated desire, viz the correspondence between a certain Reggie — holed up in a military hospital in Port Said at the time of the Great Depression — and his “divine girl”, a Miss Banks in Bexley, Kent. The contrast between the bustling and at the time distinctly louche entrance to the Suez Canal and the most banal of south-east London suburbs could hardly be greater. As we see from Reggie’s missives, which form the centrepiece of an intriguing little exhibition by London-based Greek artist Rania Bellou (“Between I and Me”) at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in Smith Square (until 15 June), romantic love can transcend both distance and gross venality. Port Said — a regular port of call on my cruise lecturing circuits, incidentally - was, in 1930, when Reggie was at his most effusive, notorious for its “dirty postcard” merchants, who besieged every ship headed for the Red Sea. But Reggie chose very proper views of the city in the cards he selected (some sites still recognisable, others a record of historic buildings long gone) to send to his beloved “Winkie” Banks. The postage stamps on these, and on the envelopes of letters included in the collection acquired by Rania Bellou from a London junk dealer, show a more svelte and handsome King Fuad than the ageing monarch really was at the time. One might ask how a collection of someone’s love letters and postcards (only one-sided, to boot) can form an art exhibit. Well, there are also drawings by Rania Bellou, on superimposed layers of tissue paper, which give us a glimpse of Reggie and his world (which he was shortly to leave, without being united with his beloved). And the exhibition also draws, more poetically, on the legacy of Marcel Proust, who famously remarked that the remembrance of things past is not necessarily the rememberance of things as they were. Memory is a subjective and fickle thing, and there is an unreal quality to the story of Reggie and Miss Banks, as well as a nostalgia which is only emphasized by the exoticism and lost quality of inter-War Port Said, when Egypt was officially independent but Britain and its French allies were still firmly in control of the Canal Zone.


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