Death on the Nile

Friday, 29 June 2018


Seeing the recent disappointing news from Turkey, where I worked for 2 years, reminded me of my sorrows for Egypt as I was leaving after the failed revolution.  I worked in Cairo for 5 years and wrote this on departure after the Arab Spring slipped into the Arab winter... 
In childhood, certain things imprint on us and lead us to decisions in later life. I would definitely attribute the 1970s film ‘Death on the Nile’ as being something to do with me accepting a job in Egypt and, indeed, taking a Nile cruise on two occasions in the last few years. I remember thinking, as I watched this film as a child that “over there” is a certain light not even captured on the best days of the English summer and that these gargantuan monuments display not only the brilliant artistry, but also the technological advances of the most advanced ancient civilization in the world at the time. In addition, the steamer used in the film showed the comfort and luxury of life for visitors to Egypt: Cabins with those “breathes like Egyptian cotton” sheets and drinks on the canopied deck as you sailed alongside the lush banks of the Nile. Ah, what an idyll.
Now into my final few weeks in Egypt, I suddenly remembered this film with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot – or “Hercule Porridge” as Angela Lansbury’s character, the drunken romantic novelist Salome Otterbourne, calls him – with his Belgian moustache carefully nurtured in a moustache sling as he sleeps. I downloaded it earlier this week and watched it again, thirty or so years since I first saw it, and loved every minute.
As I watched it, I wondered what had happened to the steamer they used in this film and wouldn’t it be good to go on a cruise on this very boat.
After a bit of researching, I found it and it was for sale! An image of me, bringing it back to the UK flashed into my head: I could set it up on some fine patch of English greenery and serve drinks on the deck. How I’d get it there I had no clue. Would sailing it from Egypt to England be viable? How does a steamship work anyway? Does it involve shovelling coal and am I up to that?
I open the ‘more information and photos’ page only to find a very confusing pair of before and after photos. It ‘has now been stripped for restoration’ the advert read, and ‘it has actually been cut in half’.
I wondered if it was even the same boat as the only thing recognizable appeared to be the funnel.
In the film, the steamer was called ‘Karnak’, and it is now called ‘Memnon’, which is ironic as it is named after the ‘Colossi of Memnon’, a huge monument featuring two seated statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. There was nothing huge about this slip of a boat.
Built in 1907, it had a good life as a cruise ship, including its starring role in ‘Death on the Nile’ with an all star cast treading its boards: The aforementioned Peter Ustinov and Angela Lansbury along with the likes of David Niven, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow and Maggie Smith. Keeping it as a cruise ship with this claim to fame could have been enough of draw for tourists, but no, it was retired and fell into decline as a floating restaurant on the Nile. Yet another missed opportunity in the country with so much potential. Yet another example of mismanagement, as we move into the final round of the two horse race which is the Egyptian presidential election and face a future of mismanagement.
This steamer may present us with a microcosm of Egypt: a Colossus ‘cut in half’ and ‘stripped for restoration’, but who indeed is going to put it back together and renovate it? It’s an ambitious and somewhat costly project, not for the fainthearted and, for the indefinite future, is fated to rot in its current situation: in a little boatyard on the shores of the Nile.
 

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