Looking back at Oasis

by Victor Selwyn

No one asked - can we do it? Do we need permission? Will it sell?

Or the big question of a publisher in Britain today, will it sell in America?

This was the Middle East. It was war-time, and if you had an idea you got on with it. And anyway, who in the Army approved an anthology of poetry?

If the idea worked, then higher authority would come in. That was the order of things. And it happened with Oasis. True we informed those who would be interested such as Lt-Col. Stevenson in charge of education for British troops in Egypt. But by then we had started.

When we launched our appeal to the troops for poetry the highest rank amongst us was corporal. We had no official backing. Yet three thousand poems descended on us, the editors, from eight hundred contributors. We would only have space for one hundred and twenty-one! Paper was rationed.

Luck, and that instinct which so often seems to guide one to the right place at the right time, made an idea into a reality. A month before we dreamt up Oasis at "Music for All" in Cairo, I had taken the manuscript of a book I had written on navigation and map-reading (subbed the night before by an ex-Daily Mirror man David Burk in a tent near the Suez Canal) to the chief military censor, Colonel Stephens (pre-war Financial Times).

Before I reached his office I was attracted by a bicycle propped up outside the door of another office. This was no utility get-you-there machine but a sleek racing bike. That was how I met Johnnie Walker, a sergeant in General Staff Intelligence, formerly with Wavell's Thirty Thousand, and founder of the Buckshee Wheelers, a cycling club that grew to nineteen clubs in the Middle East by 1945.

He was a man who enjoyed the distinction of being the only one to whom Randolph Churchill would entrust the key of his drinks cupboard, being wary of the Fleet Street exiles who staffed G.S.I.

That chance sighting of a bicycle led to Johnnie Walker playing the link role in the Oasis story. For when we launched Oasis he passed it round G.S.I. and they put it on the map. It was still unofficial but through them our appeal for poetry, was read on the Forces and Egyptian State radios every day for a week. Military and civilian press carried the story and units picked it up to publish in orders. So three thousand poems flooded in.

When the anthology was complete coheague John Braun took the Foreword down the corridor of G.H.Q. for the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Force, General 'Jumbo' Wilson, to sign. (John Braun knew the General's son, Patrick, which helped) and the Senior General in the Middle East put his signature to the work begun voluntarily by three other ranks, meeting over coffee in a Cairo club.

The troops' own NAAFI (equivalent to the U.S. PX) finally distributed and sold the 5,000 paperback edition to make £250 profit (under U.S. $500) for the Red Cross. Oasis sold at 25 piastres a copy (25p or less than 50 cents U.S.).

Forty years on, I must thank Jasper Sayer, Jimmy Hayes (The Times), Geoffrey Edwards (News Chronicle), Archie Clisholm (BP Oil P.R.), and Peter Scott (Radio) for their help. If I have missed some names ... well, it was a long time ago.

History repeats itself. So many poems in Return to Oasis would not have reached us; The Salamander Oasis Trust itself would not have been set up, without this publicity on press and radio.

The original Oasis took months to produce whereas Return to Oasis has taken years. But then, so much was possible in a non-commercial world where we were kept and fed, and even paid a little, whilst we wrote and produced books in between military duties.

Services mail brought the poems to the editors. Not only was it free, but it was efficient, even if it caused grumbles from the post corporal as he flung mail into my tent, dug into the sand, from the other side of the slit trench. I read copy by the light of a Tilley lamp hissing with menace. When we needed help we could always detail a volunteer.

By the end three thousand poems were whittled down to less than two hundred, and the final choice to one hundred and twenty-one was made by Denis Saunders (Almendro), who remained in Cairo, and colleagues of the Salamander Society (military and civilian writers and poets) who finally published them.

We all took a lofty attitude to the poetry. We had little space and could afford to. I recall even rejecting John Pudney's contributions as not up to his standard. We reprinted some of his previously published poems in Return to Oasis.

Miraculously, when Oasis was finally printed it contained few literals. Miraculously because the Syrian printer knew no English and John Braun went backwards and forwards by cab, collecting and correcting wet proofs.

My Oasis story must conclude on a personal note. If I had been writing for a circulation tabloid I would have led with it. Quite simply, Oasis saved my life.

A month after Oasis was published, the Medical Officer of a camp outside Cairo where I had been posted came to see me. I do not know his name, but maybe he will read this. He wrote poetry and wanted me to read some of it to include in a possible Oasis reprint. He wasn't to know it was to be nearly forty years before we could.

After reading his poems I asked him to look at my throat. It had been sore for a week and each evening in the sergeant's mess (I had gone up a step) I eased it with a paint stripper called 'Cyprus Brandy'. It anaesthetized a layer or two but the throat stayed sore. He took one look and declared: "Hospital you!"

"But they'll keep me there," (I said) "That" he replied, "is the general idea." An hour later, my throat was swabbed. I was put into strict isolation, injected with a 'horse' syringe in the base of the spine, and forbidden to raise even my head. I had diphtheria from which two of the hospital staff had died a week earlier.

By their calculations I had thirty-six hours to go. That morning I had been knocking in tent pegs and kicking over a brute of a BSA 500 motor bike. The evening before I had held a two hour news talk in a crowded marquee and revealed that an Arabic language newspaper in Cairo (officially censored) had carried the story of 'spontaneous' riots in Beirut twenty-four hours before they happened!

Now I had to lie still and keep quiet. I lived on. When I left hospital they posted me to Italy.