A new beginning with the Iraq Petroleum Company

My life was about to change. The two years I had spent making a modern village cinema even more successful had also been spent in study. I had been taking a correspondence course in accounting and had reached a level to obtain a post with the I. P. C.

In the second week of January 1948 I was called by letter for interview at the offices of the Iraq Petroleum Company in Oxford Street, London. They required a paymaster for their operations in the Middle East and I had made an application for the post.

IPC flag logo

IPC flag logo

There were three of us waiting in the interview room, one a garrulous fellow from North London, the other a studious chap from Norwich. He was called first, whilst I suffered the non-stop barrage of banter from the Londoner. I tried not to pay attention to him, wishing to marshal my thoughts and the list of questions and answers I had conjured up and which were gradually slipping away from me. At last he was called leaving me alone in the small anti-room to become more introspective. What if I didn’t succeed in getting the post? My present job was assured for as long as I liked or as long as long as cinemas had a future. Frank and I had already spoken about the advent of television and the impact it could have in but a few years time on cinema attendances and knowing Frank very well I was none too sure he wouldn’t one day just sell out all the cinemas and move in to provisions. Of course if he did the two years I had spent studying accountancy would come in useful. But damn it don’t give up before you start! And I so wanted to go back to the Middle East, to the warmth and the sun.

A secretary appeared, saying would I please follow her. I was shown into a fairly large office with two large desks at which sat two large gentlemen who I was to learn were called Mr. Bull and Mr. Bartholomew.

Although it was January Mr. Bull had his jacket off, displaying broad braces. He addressed me first and asked me to sit down. The patter unfolded and I made what I hoped were suitable replies prompted and diverted by the gentleman in braces who turned out to have a much milder manner that the first impression suggested. The telephone on his desk rang, a rapid conversation ensured with a final, “Oh all right, if I must, I’ll be right in,” said in a tone of rebuke tinged with a sigh of resignation. He excused himself, asked “Barty” to carry on and disappeared.

Bartholomew walked across to Bull’s vacated chair, made as if to sit in it, changed his mind and parked his rear on a radiator. I felt more relaxed with Bartholomew’s style. We spoke at length mostly about the Middle East and India and the work I had done in the Royal Engineers Airfields C. R. E. involving payrolls and paying a workforce of four thousand Indian labourers. Bull did not return and running out of conversation Bartholomew closed the interview telling me to see the cashier on the way out to collect my expenses.

On the second of February, the morning post brought me a detailed letter of offer signed by a “W. W. Stewart”. Bill Stewart, on behalf of the Iraq Petroleum Company, advised they were pleased to offer me: an “engagement as assistant accountant for duty in Qatar, Persian Gulf or elsewhere in the Company’s entire Middle East Areas, as might later show equally or better to suit it’s needs.” This at a salary for a first three year contract at a respectable annual rate supplemented by local allowances of £295 per year giving me a four figure sum.

I was over the moon. My reply and acceptance was dated that very same day. By the 5th February Harry West had taken over the correspondence and intimated I go down to London on 11th February for a medical examination by the Company’s Dr. Bishop.

By 16th February things were moving fast and I had agreed to hand in my resignation to the cinema group.

Memories of the next couple of weeks are bleared. I sold my Singer “Le Mans” at a loss, made a sad farewell speech to my last Saturday night audience, kissed the pay box girls and usherettes goodbye and drank with the operating chaps. I would miss all of them, they had been cheerful and loyal yet the call of the East would soon overcome any sentimental thoughts.

I was looking forward to my new life in an Arab country. The two years in England – a land of austerity, which would take several years to overcome, was not difficult to leave behind. The farewells, the journey to London, where I had my first trip in a Rolls Royce limousine, then on to Poole to start another adventure – a three-day flight in a flying boat, landing in the sea near Marseille, staying overnight at the Roi Reney Hotel and casino at Aix-en-Provence. Landing near Agusta, Sicily. The houseboat on the Nile and the final descent into the green blue waters of the Gulf at Bahrain was a safari to a new life and career, and I had still a boat trip ahead of me. A days sailing by dhow in a mist shrouded sea to land up at Zekrit, a tiny landing stage on the Qatar peninsular built by the oil company for whom I was to work for more than a quarter of a century.

All clearances made, the date of 27th March was set for reporting to London to take off from Southampton the next day. Having met Mr. West in the Oxford Street offices situated on the floors above “Peter Jones” emporium. I signed my contract collected my travel documents and expenses and was whisked away in an office car to the Milestone Hotel in the Bayswater Road.

On arrival the first thing I did was to ring Douglas Kassell the Lt. Colonel Commander R. E. for whom I served during the war years in Persia and India. He lived in a mansion flat in Graven Hill Gardens and walking across the park he was with me in less than half an hour. Over dinner we discussed my future in Qatar. A place I had never visited but Douglas had. He and John Strong had flown down from Margil in ’43 and laid out a strip in the middle of the peninsular. He told me it was desolate, really in the middle of no-where but no matter I was not to worry, it was a safe bet, now that the I. P. C. were drilling there again the place could not be all that desolated. Douglas had been very helpful since my visit with him to his Mother’s place in Haslemere in the previous summer in advising me about opportunities in Iraq with the I. P. C.

I realised from our talk, had I not been going out to Qatar and if his engineering consultancy developed as he hoped it would, he wanted to offer me a post within it. It was not just the drink talking, although we had consumed a fair amount, but I knew we respected each others cap-abilities, his highly developed degree skills, my mundane office management skills, and together we had always had a good working relationship. I walked part way across the park with him still chatting about the future in the Middle East and I was sad to say goodbye. It was the last time I was to see him. Two years later I had my letter returned enclosed in a note from the family solicitor. He had been killed in a motor accident on the Great North Road whilst travelling to Newcastle. He had wrapped his Lagonda round a tree near Peterborough.

Bleary eyed, anxious, yet curiously calm, hiding an excited anticipation I sat in the vestibule of the Milestone at five thirty in the morning awaiting to be transported to Waterloo station. The night porter had supplied me with coffee and thick sandwiches which I sipped and pecked becoming more keyed up as 5.30 stretched to 5.45. A large Rolls Royce complete with capped chauffeur drew up at the door. It seemed but minutes after I had sunk into the deep upholstery of the Rolls that we stopped outside a large house somewhere near Hans Place. I was not to travel alone. A pile of luggage was being pushed out on to the black and white tiled pathway bridge to the front door. The newcomer who gave instruct-ions to scurrying figures to load the stuff in to the car was definitely a Royal Air Force type – complete with gingerish handlebar moustache. The voice was right too. He announced himself as “Bartlett” – call me “Monty”.

There was little conversation as we drove along to Waterloo, each with- drawn into his own thoughts; the transfer to the coach was carried out in somnolent silence. Dawn was lightening the sky as we reached the Hogs Back hotel in time for a very welcome and fulsome breakfast. Over the breakfast table we got to know each other a little more. Bartlett informed me he was going out to Qatar to be Camp Boss. As I then associated oil fields as American spheres of influence I imagined he was to be boss of the whole camp, just how this fitted in to the management structure I had yet to learn and I was none too keen to show my ignorance and ask questions. I told him I was engaged as Company Paymaster, which seemed to satisfy his curiosity with a hearty, “Excellent! Good show!” The journey down to Poole was smooth and sped away. Whilst we were being marshalled for the boat trip out to the seaplane we found a third person was going out to Qatar, an engineer, one, Nobby Knobbs.

The B. O. A. C. Solent Speedbird flying boat sitting steady at her moorings loomed large as we drew close to her. The first time I flew was at the time of my repatriation from India at the end of 1945 when I cadged a lift in an “Oxford” of the Royal Air Force at Agatarla in Tripura State down to Dum Dum Airport at Calcutta. There was quite a difference between the Oxford and the flying boat. It seemed a little unreal. After spending more than six years of my twenties in the Royal Engineer, C. R. E. Airfields, organisation, mostly overseas in France, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Persia and India and but twenty six months as a civilian in my home town here was I ready to fly away from it all committed to spend three years working in an alien environment in the desert of Arabian Qatar.

BOAC flying boat

BOAC flying boat

Landing near Marseilles in the early afternoon we passengers and crew were driven in coaches to Aix en Province and quartered in splendid apartments at the Roi Reney Hotel. After dinner Bartlett and I met up with the air crew and the Captain – David Rose – suggested we go along to the Casino. We three scratched together just under a fiver, which converted to francs was enough to get us going at the tables under the guidance of Captain Rose. We, or rather he made most of our winnings at a fairly straightforward game that he called ‘la boule’. We quit after our original stake had multiplied almost five fold, and made our way to the bar. Champagne flowed; we lavished drinks on the five-piece orchestra and got thoroughly sloshed. The following morning I awoke in bed with a very strange pain on the middle of my back. As I rolled over I fished out an unopened bottle of Guinness, God only knows how it got there. Breakfast was endless cups of coffee and the coach trip back to the seaplane was in silent mood. Our spirits soared with the uplift of the seaplane as we swept up gracefully into the silver blue sky leaving behind the French coast and winged our way to Agusta in Sicily.We settled down in the spacious seats, all rather posh and first class. This was travelling in style, the engines started up, warmed up and then after an interminable time we slowly edged away to sea. Waves from our wash swept the windows, we raced on bouncing across the water seemingly for miles, once the plane rose up only to bounce back and slide along the water as if the sea seemed loath to let go the fuselage. I looked across at Bartlett; he was staring through the window, his expression gave little away. Good grief, I thought, we’ll land on the French coast soon if this thing doesn’t get off the water – and at that moment the cabin shifted quickly upwards as if the sea had let go, which it had, and we were airborne flying off to the Mediterranean.

We reached Agusta in time for tea. The passengers were ferried across the bay to a large hotel on the headland. Tea was served on the terrace and Bartlett excused himself and said he was off to find the barbershop and get his haircut. As time went by I became concerned and went in search of him. Of course, whilst searching for Monty the other passengers were rounded up and shipped on board the flying boat. Having located him I sensed urgency and walked rapidly back to the terrace Monty strolling behind without a care in the world. The chief steward spotted us and waving madly from the pontoon raft moored along side the seaplane brought the motorboat to the hotel steps and curtly ordered us the “get in!” As the main cabin door was shut we had to climb the cockpit ladder. The co-pilot grunted and growled what sounded like, “You almost got left behind”. Captain Rose gave us a baleful look but said nothing. I trotted to my seat feeling slightly embarrassed, Bartlett followed, booming a commentary on it being “a near thing”.

If I recall correctly, we flew to Egypt at about eighteen thousand feet. Dinner was excellent with silver service and good wine. Air travel, indeed most travel in those spacious days was so leisurely and peaceful. There was still an elegance that has been lost even at the highest class of today’s travel. The advantage of elegance has given way to speed. We were supposed to spend the night at Shepheards in Cairo but crowd unrest troubled the authorities and we were directed to stay on the Nile and were transferred to a somewhat smelly houseboat to spend a humid and restless night. I remember being awoken by a servant offering tea. He peered down at me with a one good and one “wall eye” making me jump up with a start, knocking most of the tea on to the floor.

The following morning after a hairy take off on the Nile, scattering boats left and right, we flew across the desert to Bahrain. Flying across land without a set of wheels seemed strange. If we lost power and came down would we do a graceful belly slide across smooth sand or would the landing pontoons just snap away?

I gave my mind to thoughts of other things. What was Qatar like? Was the desert similar to the Jordan desert? I had not been so far down south as Bahrain and Qatar. Douglas Kassell and John Strong had flown down from Basra in 1943 and laid out an air strip in the centre of the Qatar peninsular and had remarked on what a desolate place it was. Douglas had given me as much “gen” as he could recall three nights ago when we talked over dinner in the London hotel, which was basically that it was a desolate place. I began to wonder what I had let myself in for but was shaken out of my thoughts by rather strong turbulence. We had a rough ride to Bahrain. I suppose I was somewhat excited on reaching the end of the flying trip which had taken three days and do not recall very clearly leaving the craft. I do remember sitting in the small boat that took us to the jetty and getting my first glimpse of the Bahrain skyline. It seemed to rise no more than six feet from the water. A patch of sandy beach edged with scrappy barasti huts mixed in with a few dirty white gypsum buildings with a sprinkling of stubby minarets in the background. The largest buildings were two storied, but did not stand out with great significance.

On the jetty we were met by a representative of P. C. L. (Petroleum Concessions Ltd.) the Bahrain subsidiary of I. P. C. Geoffrey Bibby held the position of general assistant, a somewhat loose title which gave him scope for extra-mural activities which he later put to good use.

We were three, arriving at the jetty we found the engineer, Nobby Nobbs a cheerful little tubby man, the very opposite of Monty Bartlett. We were taken to the airport and lodged in a barrack block temporarily rented from the Royal Air Force who, by 1948, had almost vacated Bahrain. “Blimey”, “Strewth”, “Good God what have we let ourselves in for!!” sprang from our lips as we surveyed the iron bedsteads, the standard Service furniture and the central ablutions. “Back in the bloody forces eh, what?” “I hope it’s not like this over in Qatar “, said I. Bartlett let forth with an oath and complaint that it was only “erks” accommodation whilst Nobby decided to make the best of it and put his feet up and dropped off to sleep. As there were only three of us to share the whole block we did at least each have a separate room.

At breakfast a tray appeared from somewhere, tepid tea, soggy toast, and a congealed fried egg did not enliven our spirits. We cheered up when Geoffrey Bibby arrived in a station wagon to escort us to Sitra, a few miles beyond the capital, Manama, where the Company launches used a small jetty when ferrying passengers, provisions and material over the fifty miles of shallow, yet often turbulent sea to Zekrit on the Qatar peninsular.

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