As friends and regular readers of this blog will know, I spent most of the 80s in Jeddah. In those days we didn’t have the internet, mobile phones and skype to keep us in touch with home. In the absence of satellite TV, the only live English-language was Saudi Channel 2, then in its infancy and a useful if not excessively critical reporter of foreign news.
There were foreign newspapers, which typically arrived at hotels and supermarkets one or two days after publication, and in a state of completeness largely dependent on the extent to which the content was deemed appropriate. The British tabloid newspapers tended not to get a look-in for this reason. The exception was the Daily Mail, the opinion-former for reactionaries, hypochondriacs and sports fans across Middle England.
So if you were, like me, a news-hungry political junkie from the UK, your main options were the BBC World Service on scratchy long wave radio, and the Arab News, which then and now was one of the two English-language newspapers in Saudi Arabia, and published in Jeddah.
I have had a long friendship with the Arab News. I used to be fascinated by its coverage of world events, which catered for all the English-speaking constituencies in the Kingdom at the time – Brits, North Americans, Antipodeans, Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, Indians and Sri Lankans. I learned about ambitious politicians in Manila, ructions in Delhi and intrigue in Islamabad.
I also read with interest the endless questions on religious observance – the faithful seeking guidance on tiny minutiae of practice and being answered with benign solemnity.
Best of all was the letters page. The Arab News published an incredibly eclectic selection of opinion from its readers. Subcontinentals ripping into each other about Mrs Ghandi’s latest misdeeds. Extensive rants about the evils of America, Israel and other issues of the day (some things never change!). Letter writers ranged from unctuous through to vitriolic, though in those days extreme emotions tended to be directed at issues not related to the host country.
But king of all the letter writers was a chap called Francis A. Andrew. Every day or three throughout the decade the paper would publish a long, rambling missive from Francis A. Andrew. He had opinions on everything. I never discovered who he was and why. But from his letters I formed an impression of a cranky Brit in some desert outpost who spent every evening churning out letters criticizing every opinion and political development that didn’t fit in with his world view that the finest edifice known to man was the British Empire.
Politically he was to the right of Attila the Hun. He particularly reserved his scorn for the European Union, or Common Market as it was then known. His opinions about the way former colonies such as India had strayed from the true path provoked streams of outraged replies from “disgusted of Hyderabad”. He even provoked me into writing a long rebuttal of one of his silly letters – the first time I was moved to write a letter to any newspaper. I still have it somewhere.
After a while, I began to wonder if Mr Andrew wasn’t a long-running in-house joke on the part of the journalists of the Arab News. In other words, if he didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him. In early 80s the British satirist William Donaldson wrote a stream of letters with ridiculous questions and requests to famous people under the pseudonym Henry Root. The bizarre correspondence that resulted became a series of best-selling books. But as the letters kept coming, and no compendium of The Thoughts of Francis A. Andrew was ever published, I began to realize that the guy actually did exist. Curiously, in all that time I never met a soul who knew him.
Twenty years passed, and apart from the occasional visit to Riyadh and Dubai, the Middle East fell out of my orbit. When I came back to Saudi Arabia in the late 2000s, the Arab News was still there. It was not much different from the paper of the 80s, though I was struck by how much more outspoken its journalists were on local issues. Ever since then, even when I have been unable to buy a copy, the online version has been one of the four default sites on my web browser. After all these years, it’s still one of my major sources of information about what’s going on in the Kingdom.
A few days ago I was browsing the site, and, joy of joys, happened upon a letter from…. Francis A. Andrew! Thirty years on, his themes are the same:
“Neil Berry’s article, “UK: A crisis of legitimacy for govt” (Dec. 20) brings to mind that almost every government since the war (with the exception of Margaret Thatcher’s) has lacked legitimacy.
The two most treacherous acts have been mass immigration and Britain’s membership of the EU. Neither of these was sanctioned by the electorate. A complete halt to immigration followed by a policy of voluntary repatriation coupled with a termination of our membership of the EU would save billions of pounds. There would be no need to increase student fees, pensions could be raised and schools and hospitals could be built. Other savings could be made by pulling out of NATO and thus pulling our troops out of far-flung places that are of absolutely and utterly no concern to us at all.
Finally we should end our membership of the UN — a totally worthless and useless body that has never taken Britain’s side in any of her conflicts with other nations.”
And, predictably, the outraged replies, along the lines of
“Francis Andrew never misses an opportunity to regale us with his colorful and often idiosyncratic worldview…..”
It appears that these days the old chap (for he must be getting on a bit by now) is somewhere in the Oman. Since he sent the letter by email, I thought that he might have got round to writing a blog. So I searched the web. No blog. But he has taken to reviewing books for Amazon. In fact there are no less than ten reviews to his name, most of them of books written or co-written by the eminent astronomer Fred Hoyle. All are five-star reviews, written in typically dense Andrewsian prose. Clearly he’s a Hoyle fan, perhaps as the result of all those evenings in the desert gazing at the universe.
Then I noticed something odd. His email to the Arab News containing the latest missive appeared to be from Oman. Yet his book reviews, the latest of which was dated October this year, appear to be from Francis A. Andrew located in Zarqa, Jordan. It is, of course, possible that he moved from Jordan to Oman during the past couple of months. Given his interest in astronomy, it’s also possible that he has used his knowledge to replicate himself, and that there are two FAAs in different parts of the region. The mystery continues.
Either way, Francis A Andrew, I wish you a very Merry Christmas whoever you are and wherever you are. The world would be poorer and far less outraged without you. Should you ever choose to tell the world about yourself and why you have spent the past thirty years as the Middle East’s most prolific letter writer, I hope you will let me be the first to review your book.