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Based on the journals of RG ‘Pum’ Gayer-Anderson, this historical biography tells of a riotous double life as the British Empire began to collapse. Candid and charming, the story is interspersed with the sordid and violent, and was conceived as a ‘gauge of self-knowledge’.
Pum was an Egyptologist, poet, surgeon, soldier, psychic, noted collector and tomb-robber. As a child in the 1880s he crossed an unforgiving America with his entrepreneurial and eccentric Irish parents. As a man he adopted Arab life and immersed himself in it as colonials seldom did; he saw ghosts and witches, sailed the Nile, wrestled Turks and crocodiles, fought at Gallipoli, smoked opium, performed surgery in the desert, gathered and cared for artefacts and boys in his Cairene home, survived an assassination attempt and, in the name of science and Henry Wellcome, in flowery glades he boiled the flesh from the skulls of Nubian warriors. His journals are filled with frank accounts of his exploits and of the illustrious and colourful people who wandered by: Lawrence of Arabia, Gordon, Kitchener, Conan-Doyle, Eric Gill, and Humphrey and Stephen Spender, among others.
His was a strange and eclectic life, one which teetered over the constraints and excesses of early twentieth-century expectations. It was a tightrope walk of nerve and courage: he had to keep a clear head, a fierce control, and focus carefully on what he wanted. Drugs, race, class, family, sex and selfhood are vividly mixed in a tale of two wars, colonial life, medicine, anthropology and psychic phenomena. The stiff-upper-lipped ritual of a very ‘British’ upbringing vied with his Romantic and consuming love of beauty, his going native and his truly terrible poetry.
As a British Official in Cairo, Pum needed to keep up a respectable front knowing all the while how dangerous his true inclinations and desires were. Pum cherished the ‘peach-cheeks’ of young girl-boys, and his poems and curious drawings of them are held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as reserved material. In order to live the life he wanted he was forced to deceive and manipulate others – including the tragic woman who bore him a son, ‘by arrangement’.
As an identical twin, Pum felt as though he really was split in two. His private contradictions mirrored the dissonance between East and West and the fractured times he lived through.
I read History at the University of Cambridge and now, as a medical historian, I write about perceptions of the human body and the way these are related to our present day experience. What really interests me are the assumptions and attitudes that surround sickness and health, and how we treat and think about our bodies – something that’s fascinated me since I first got hold of my mother’s medical dictionary and read it in secret because it wasn’t considered suitable reading for a child. I’m now researching my next book, which may also be a radio documentary, as well as covertly writing fiction.
I’ve published three non-fiction books: The Making of Addiction: The “use and abuse” of opium in nineteenth-century Britain (Ashgate, 2007); Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A history of the modern menopause (Granta, 2009), which won the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award 2009; and Calories and Corsets: A history of dieting over 2,000 years (Profile, 2012). My fourth will be published this year as part of Hodder & Stoughton’s new series, All That Matters: Sexuality.
I have written for The Times, Independent, Guardian, New Scientist online, BBC Magazine online, London Review of Books, Erotic Review and the New Humanist Magazine, and others, and have been a guest on several BBC TV and Radio programmes including Meet The Author, The Medicalisation of Normality, Am I Normal?, Woman’s Hour, Open Country, You & Yours, Inside Science, etc., and local news and chat programmes. I may have peaked when I was interviewed by Sir David Frost on Al Jazeera English.
In 1923, when Pum was forty-two, he experienced ‘cosmic truth [and] annihilation of time’ in the tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen, newly opened by Howard Carter. He was a member of the official party that stumbled down the slope into the hewn rock at the private opening in the Valley of the Kings. For years he had dreamed and talked of the marvel of visiting an unrifled tomb and believed it was pre-ordained that he should be there. He had received a personal invitation from Lady Evelyn Herbert, Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, and as Assistant Oriental Secretary he was included in Field Marshall Viscount Allenby’s Residency party.
- 7th February 2017 Literary Review
A welcome review by Piers Brendon.
I'd take issue with the idea that ‘some kind of censorship apparently prevented’ my detailing the ‘precise nature of [G-A’s] paedophilia’. In fact there are no explicit details to be had; if there were I would not have shied away from including them. Gayer-Anderson wrote lyrically about the beauty of boys and young…22nd January 2016 Thank you!
Many, many thanks to everyone who has so generously supported this book! It couldn't, of course, have happened without you; it will a true pleasure to see it in print. I first read Pum's memoir some fifteen years ago and have been working on it, in between other books and projects, ever since. The editors are busy now and it is due for publication this Autumn.
THANK YOU again. I hope you all enjoy…9th June 2015 BBC Radio Cambridgeshire interview
I've just done an interview on The Irish Pasha on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and it's here if you'd like to listen, about 32 mins in:
...just putting notes together for the talk at the Gayer-Anderson House in Lavenham, Suffolk, happening this Saturday 13th at 6pm. Numbers are limited so best to contact The Little Hall, Lavenham, if you'd like to come last…11th May 2015 Where and When
Hi, the talk on The Irish Pasha will be taking place at the Guild Hall, Lavenham, Suffolk [opposite the Little Hall, Gayer-Anderson's house and museum], on Saturday 13th June, 6.30-7.30pm. I hope to see you there!
You might like to listen to this interview about the book on Cambridge 105 [begins at c 17.20 mins in]4th May 2015 Invitation to a talk at The Little House, Lavenham
The event at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, on Gayer-Anderson's exceptional life and collection went so well that we're doing another, with new material, at his former home, The Little Hall in Lavenham, Suffolk, on Saturday 13th June - you're all invited! Details to follow.
In 1924, Pum bought and began the restoration of the fifteenth-century timber Great House, the adjoining…19th February 2015 Fitzwilliam Museum Event, 6-8pm, Wednesday 4th March
Hello - here's a reminder and taster for the fast approaching talk at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Theo Gayer-Anderson will talk about his grandfather's route to the East and his house in Cairo looking over the Ibn Tulun Mosque, the Beit-al-Kretlyia, now the Gayer-Anderson Museum. I'll be reading from The Irish Pasha, focussing mainly on his collecting: a large proportion of the Egyptian…4th February 2015 Talk at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
You are invited to an illustrated talk on RG Gayer-Anderson, The Irish Pasha, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, on Wednesday 4th March, 6-8pm. Theo Gayer-Anderson will also be speaking and his sister, Chloe, has been a terrific supporter and organiser. Do come if you can, I'd be really pleased if you do! More details to follow....
Talatat block showing Akhenaten celebrating a jubilee festival…4th November 2014 A research trip to Cairo and Luxor
I'm used to research, I love it, it's almost the best part of writing a book. It usually means spending days in the library, calling up rare books, exploring the stacks, sitting in the tearoom. There was some of this for The Irish Pasha - and then there was a trip to Egypt. I arrived in Cairo in February 2012, just a year after the Arab Spring, and it was pretty grim.
Well, there were moments…26th July 2014 Escape to a secret life
Here is a link to my piece on Pum G-A which ran in the Irish Independent Weekend Magazine last Saturday:
They mention the brilliant Unbound at the end of the article, too.
Enjoy the read!
Louise18th June 2014 A new cache of letters has turned up!
I'd thought that the first draft of The Irish Pasha was pretty much complete but this new material throws more light on Pum and those around him - it is astonishing, reading these exchanges between friends and family, and finding them all becoming increasingly substantial. As though we might know them.
This is one of the episodes touched on in the letters:
Pum so badly wanted a son that he…16th April 2014 Happy families of boys
In 1895, when Pum was fourteen, Oscar Wilde spoke at his first trial of ‘the great affection of an elder for a younger man … such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect … it is in this century misunderstood’. By the early twentieth century, manliness had…28th February 2014 Psychic tomb-robbing
Many thanks to all who are pledging for The Irish Pasha - the book is already written and it's ready to go! (Once we've reached 100% that is.)
Here are four gobbets on Pum's collecting ...
From his early days as a collector Pum had experienced a ‘meant feeling’ about certain objects, one of inevitability and of wonder, accompanied by unusual happiness. He believed that on these occasions a telepathic…20th February 2014 Heavenly Cairo to Hellish Gallipoli
In the summer of 1915 Pum was posted to Gallipoli, travelling on a small troop-transport so packed with men of a Lancashire Regiment that there was no room to sit down except for those who dangled their legs over the sides. They landed at Suvla Bay one grey dawn and were confronted by a low inhospitable beach hedged with sparse scrub and evergreen oak. Beyond that was a vast circle of shell-pitted…7th February 2014 First sight of the Gayer-Anderson Cat
Pum's greatest and most adored find, by far the most spectacular of his collecting career, was the acquisition of what is now known as the Gayer-Anderson Cat. One breakfast-time in October 1934, a villainous-looking ‘old friend’ of the tougher sort from Bakkara, salaamed his way into Pum’s Cairo flat and, with a great flourish of drama and mystery, produced a bundle wrapped in cloth. Instead of the…31st January 2014 Launched!
This is decidedly nerve-wracking stuff! Almost like the feeling of coming in to land at Cairo at night in 2012, light-headed anticipation. As it turned out... but that will be for a later post, perhaps. For now, THANK YOU to all of you who have started off the pledging (just writing that makes me feel domestic...).
These people are helping to fund The Irish Pasha.