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The Irish Egyptian: 'Pum' Gayer-Anderson's double life


RG 'Pum' Gayer-Anderson moved from Kerry to Cairo.

RG 'Pum' Gayer-Anderson moved from Kerry to Cairo.

The 'Gayer-Anderson cat'

The 'Gayer-Anderson cat'




RG 'Pum' Gayer-Anderson moved from Kerry to Cairo.

Robert 'Pum' Gayer-Anderson was an Irishman who fell for the East. From Co Kerry to Cairo, he was a man who recorded five decades of a double life: travelling, fighting, collecting, loving and failing to love. He was an Egyptologist, maverick adventurer, surgeon, soldier and psychic poet who worshipped beauty.

He was there for the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923. When he arrived he found the newly discovered tomb entrance was just a hole in the hillside neatly shored up with dry masonry. Milling around it was a great crowd of wildly curious sightseers, tourists, journalists and photographers.

Howard Carter was there, and Lord Carnarvon "looking tired and pale", Lady Evelyn, and sundry self-important diplomats, royalty, foreign and Egyptian Ministers. While they waited their turn in the crowd and heat to enter the tomb, Pum passed the time with Carter asking him if there were other unrifled tombs to be discovered. "I hope to God not!" came the answer.

Inside, though the place had an indescribably time-worn appearance after 34 centuries, it seemed to Pum's eyes, "untarnished, not a stain, not a scratch, not a spot of dust on the vibrant, shining gold and blue surfaces, as if it had been dusted and polished but a moment before".

It was so full that one of the fatter visitors got stuck between the catafalque and the painted wall.

As a small child Pum had been carted across an unforgiving America by his entrepreneurial and wayward parents as they tried to turn a profit from the late 19th-Century land boom.

Mary Morgan was just 18 when she was "quickly married within a few months" by her father in the parish church in Rostrevor, Co Down. "Up till then," she wrote in her diary, "I had had nothing to record but utter joy and happiness".

Robert and his identical twin Tom were born in Listowel on 29 July 1881. In 1884 the family packed up and went to America, returning to Ireland in 1891 to his maternal grandfather, the Rev Morgan's house at Rostrevor – "the hole of the pit from which I was digged", wrote Mary. They soon moved to Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, and next to Howth. His twin christened him 'Pum', though it's not known why.

His father believed in a sadistic 'Self-Control Drill' and would stand his small children in a row and say and do painful things: sudden shouting, raising a threatening hand, pinching them hard or pulling their hair, "in spite of which none of us must show the slightest emotion of any sort. If we flinched, flushed, giggled, gasped, laughed or even flickered an eyelid we were shouted at and slapped", wrote Mary in her diary.

Pum says that he and his siblings reached an artificial state of almost complete self-control, and that this had a dark and twisted effect on all their characters and later lives.

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He got away to medical school and then into the army where he was posted to Cairo, and where he adopted Arab life as colonials seldom did. He saw ghosts and witches, sailed the Nile, secretly dressed in flowing robes and jewels, wrestled crocodiles, fought at Gallipoli, smoked opium, got lost and performed impromptu surgery in the desert, collected and cared for antiquities and boys in his Cairene home, survived assassination attempts and, in the name of science and Henry Wellcome, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur, boiled the flesh from the skulls of Nubian warriors in flowery Sudanese glades.

Many extraordinary people wandered through his life, including Lawrence of Arabia ("exuding a feminine attraction"), Kitchener ("clay-footed and dull"), Conan-Doyle, Eric Gill ("innocent, tolerant, honest and perceptive"), Humphrey and Stephen Spender, and Freya Stark, among others.

Tolerant and intelligent, Pum stood at over six feet tall and had a "massive head, long clean-shaven face, large sensitive mouth and thoughtful eyes". This is how Tom saw him so this is a self-description, too. The poet Stephen Spender said he had "an inherited capacity for happiness, coupled with a keen sense of humour ... never gloomy or sad".

Pum wrote his memoir during the Second World War, shortly before he died, and the immediacy of his feelings and experiences are nothing less than startlingly candid. He learned early on to camouflage the parts of himself that did not accord with first his father's and, later, society's idea of what a man should be.

Young men going overseas to the colonies were abruptly introduced to new cultures and some of them, like Pum, found the sudden, apparent freedoms astonishingly liberating and varied. Hiding a poignant secret or seven, he had negotiated the decline of an Empire on a tightrope walk of nerve and courage, teetering over the constraints and excesses of early 20th-Century expectations, all the while "going native" on the quiet.

Experiencing as much as he could, from the flowing robes and strange food, to even stranger drugs, sex and superstition, he realised he could allow his admiration and affection to cross boundaries in ways he had not thought possible before.

As a government official in Cairo, he needed to keep up a respectable front, knowing all the while how dangerous his true inclinations and desires were: he cherished the "peach-cheeks and gazelle eyes" of young girl-boys. It was clear to him that society had erected "exaggerated barriers of modesty, shame", and certain "characteristics, thoughts and expressions must be refused acknowledgment or recognition as though they were something unnatural, even criminal that both the law and decency forbid".

Some of his army colleagues preferred suicide. Pum withdrew to live à la mode orientale and explored his ideas and inclinations in writings, poems and drawings now held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as reserved material. He speculated on spiritual and Uranian love which he considered superior to the "animal sexuality" between men and women, on crypto-religious philosophy, and a surreal cosmology that involved Universal Love Rays and cosmic fecundity; he thought that the Milky Way might be "God's ejaculation, seed-spend fructifying space".

Caught between the effects of the cruel stiff-upper-lipped rituals of a Victorian upbringing and his Romantic and consuming love of beauty, he was forced to deceive and manipulate others – including the tragic woman who bore him a son "by arrangement" – as he attempted to make sense of the life he wanted to live.

Posted to Gallipoli in 1915, he found himself in a badly made dug-out on a conspicuous hillock above Suvla Bay. In dense clouds of flies he worked in dressing stations up and down the endless labyrinth of trenches, exposed to hand grenades and snipers hiding among the rocks and stunted trees. As well as their injuries, the men suffered from dysentery, para-typhoid, malaria, jaundice, severe frostbite in the hard winter, and the ever-present lice.

Yet Pum still managed to feel his spirits lift when nightingales sang at daybreak, or when he watched the fine Antipodean troops, tanned, strong and loose-limbed, stripped naked and sunning themselves or playing in the breakers beneath the cliffs that sloped down from the battlefront. The Turks knew this was their habit and occasionally lobbed over a shell or two, but the New Zealand and Australian "boys were adept at anticipating and dodging the fire and, though there were a few casualties, they refused to give up their games".

The ping-ping of bullets went on incessantly, as Pum sat around the dug-out table, smoking and chatting with other officers. It seemed they were enjoying after-dinner cigars when the ladies had gone to the drawing–room. But outside the stifling heat was laced with the sickly smells of the dead and chloride of lime.

Back in Cairo after the war, Pum wrote 'Weep, Weep!', a poem about the appalling "loss of young life, of youth, almost boyhood, for many young soldiers were still in their teens":

Weep, weep, the unborn for the unborn,

And generations not to be for generations dead,

The ungot yield of many a youthful loin

The seed unscattered and unharvested.

A love of beauty, innocence and erotica formed the connective tissue of Pum's world, a powerful sense of duty gave it muscle and power. Order and obsession plagued him and a scopophiliac's clandestine pleasure infused his drive to possess (scopophilia comes from the Greek, meaning 'love of looking', a form of sexual expression).

His greatest and most adored treasure was the 'Gayer-Anderson Cat', which he gave to the British Museum in 1939 where it is now one of its best-known objects. Pum's story of how he acquired this rare life-size bronze cat, how he painstakingly restored it, smuggled it out of Egypt and hid it in a well-shaft in Suffolk to keep it from the Nazis, is full of a detailed tension born of desire.

As his collecting became an ever-greater and more absorbing part of his life, the rest of the world gradually lost its hold upon him. He became introspective, needing to be left alone to do what he wanted and not what others might want, to be unencumbered. Yet his compulsive collecting undoubtedly boxed him in and cost him dearly: "the collector collects because of his incomplete development".

Pum led a strange and eclectic life, of a kind that is rarely experienced today. He was in many ways displaced and divided, quite literally split in two: he was, he wrote, an "alloy" with his identical twin, Tom, and "an alloy of the sexes", as well, at a time when this was thought of as a disease. His story resonates with the contradictions of the age, engaging and disturbing in almost equal measures, mirroring the fractured times he lived through.

It has weighed on two successive generations, just as Pum's father, it transpires, had weighed so heavily on him.

Louise Foxcroft is an author, historian and broadcaster. Her historical biography of Gayer-Anderson, 'An Irish Pasha', has launched on crowd-sourcing publishing company Unbound Book. See unbound.co.uk/books/the-irish-pasha

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