NEAR EAST THINKERS
By PROFESSOR W. J. ROSE
In the short time at my disposal I was able to visit one " quadrant " of this vast area, whose north-south line is more or less Aleppo- Khartum, and which reaches from Benghazi to Bagdad. Not until he is on the spot can the average European picture to himself the distances involved. There must be a very large number of troops— I have no idea how many—scattered up and down these mostly sandy spaces. What is more, the great majority of them cannot see that they are-making any contribution to the winning of the war. Finally, they have in most cases been far too long away from the homeland, wife and children. These facts alone create a situation that offers the A.E.C. an opportunity of rendering an essential service. It is therefore a fortunate thing that, as already said, the choice of the men engaged in this work has been as nearly perfect as anything is likely to be. It should also be added that wholehearted support is given by those in command, from the C.-in-C. himself, through his area commanders, to the men in charge of the local units. These latter are sometimes larger camps of a permanent nature, sometimes acres on acres of tents, but in many cases small technical groups doing a wide variety of jobs. The evidence I saw of appreciation in regard to educational services on the part of both officers and men is eloquent witness of a spirit pervading the British Army, at least in this area, that augurs well for the future.
The visiting lecturers are selected by the Central Advisory Council for Education in the Forces, a civilian body that has been at work in the homeland since 1940. From Cairo they are sent on in whatever direction the need and opportunity dictate, for periods of ten to twenty days of travel. They may be faced either with large meetings or with small groups. The audience in many cases will be " paraded," and then the C.O. is usually in the chair. They may also be, and often are, voluntary, in which• case either the educational supervisor will take charge or someone at his request. I had both kinds of meetings, one of my audiences numbering 500 men. Personally, I very much preferred to have groups of 6o to too at the outside, or even smaller. This provided a far more suitable atmosphere for question and discussion than any platform meeting could give. Some of my best meetings were with a score of men, in more than one case isolated from the outside world. No restriction what- soever was laid on the lecturer, who was encouraged to say exactly what he thought. If I had any measure of success it was chiefly due to my complete frankness. Such subjects as " Britain in War- time " or " Anglo-American Co-operation from the Canadian Stand- point " or " Changing Europe " revealed a high measure of interest and evidence of a good deal of reflection and reading. Men have come to me after meetings and said with tears in their eyes that this was the first personal contact they had had with their bit of Britain in three or even four years. In my judgement these soldiers are doing more hard thinking about the post-war world than the masses are doing in the United Kingdom. I told them this, and urged them to keep on. A poster in one of the local centres prompted me to this: " Serve like a soldier, vote like a citizen! "
The type of work being done, as well as its dimensions, varies greatly with the kind of unit, the, time of year, and the length of stay in the present quarters. One time-table shown me would do credit to a Polytechnic Institute. Everywhere the effort was made to creat an atmosphere in which the spare time of the men could be used both for entertainment and for enlightenment. The emphasis on practical things was obvious ; but purely cultural activities seemed to me to be most in demand. Amateur acting, play-reading, every kind of discussion group, wall newspapers, and last, not least, music —that most civilising of human activities—all have their place In one centre, with the help of women voices from the town, the full score of the " Messiah ' was sung at Christmas to a crowded house.
The foundation on which most of this work is built is, of course, the local libraries. I found these everywhere, and in some cases stocked with books that can scarcely be bought in England. Much patience and skill must have gone into the assembling not only of these books, but of the journals, maps, charts and photographs, which are usually arranged in a special room, dedicated to current events. The range of subjects offered by the library shelves was enormous ; something for every taste and for every mood. Of course, there are text-books in arithmetic, shorthand, higher science, geography and law, not to mention business. These represent' one whole category. Then come the English classics—poetry and prose, biography, history, politics and travel—with finally a large selection of fiction of every kind.
The business of the visiting lecturer is not only to serve as a connecting link with the homeland, but—and still more—to stimulate the routine work. As a rule, the subject chosen was taken by those on the spot from a list sent on in advance ; but it would be almost true to say that the nature of the subject mattered least. It was the fact of a visit from far away by someone in mufti, who had something to say on a matter that is of concern to everybody, that counted most.
Occasions arise when the resource of the educational supervisor is taxed in an unexpected way. _One such arose under my very eyes. I had just got back from a late morning lecture fifteen miles away. It was 3 o'clock, the day was Saturday, and the weather foul. (It can rain in Palestine.) In the office of the captain, a young Cambridge man, was a still younger naval cadet engaged in con- ference. They invited me to sit down, and it transpired that the visitor was disturbed over some of Whitehead's views as to the influence of Greek thought on the pre-renaissance period in Italy. While trying to help him we were suddenly interrupted by the telephone. The captain's reply was, " Hold on a minute: I'll see whether we have it! " In a moment he was back-nom the library, two rooms away, with the news that " it " was not to be had He remarked, however, that he would try in the town. Would the party ring up again in fifteen minutes? I ventured to ask what " it " was, and learned that the text of Macaulay's " Horatius " was needed that evening as part of a programme of shadow pictures, &c. When all efforts to secure the text in the town failed, I volunteered to help. Some two hundred lines of the " Lay " had served me as a recitation fifty-one years ago in a little red school- house. I could dictate them if someone would write them out on the machine. This latter the captain undertook to do. and an hour later the messenger got his text. " This place never likes to admit that it's licked," said the captain. But whether that was one of the things a lecture: was sent out 3,500 miles to ensure can be left to others to decide.