Hotel Tiberias: a tale of two grandfathers by Sebastian Hope

One of the stranger problems of Empire - what to do with all the polo ponies
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The Independent Culture

Sebastian Hope's "official" grandfather had always been General Sir John "Shan" Hackett (1910-97). One of the most distinguished soldiers of his generation, he commanded both the British Army of the Rhine and the British forces in Northern Ireland. He was also a formidable scholar who drew on his research into Saladin's campaigns against the Crusaders when he was himself fighting on the same terrain. Yet today he sounds like a figure from a long-lost era - "the last person you will ever meet," he once told an interviewer, "who has used a drawn sword in action on a horse's back."

Hope takes a rather idealised view of British imperialism, suggesting that the aim of policy in Palestine between the wars was "the gradual creation of a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-faith and eventually independent state". As he visits the General's old haunts in the Middle East and listens to his long interviews for the Imperial War Museum, he skilfully evokes a time when cavalry regiments were run like country houses, and when it was "a good deal of fun" for an officer to dress up as the cloakroom attendant in a posh Cairo hotel. When Hackett's 8th Hussars were told they were not going to be transferred from Egypt to India in the 1930s, a terrible problem arose - what could they do with all the polo ponies they'd already purchased to take with them?

Yet this was only ever half the story. One of the best moments in this book comes when Hope visits the Horns of Hattin, a desolate spot where Saladin won a historic victory in 1187, and looks out over "the hills ... my mother remembers covered with wild hyacinths and anemones in the spring, echoing with the barks of jackals on winter nights. These were the hills over which Shan Hackett ranged at the head of a troop of cavalry in a noble attempt, ultimately futile, to keep the peace, the pitiless hills in whose shadows Fritz found rest at last by the shores of the Sea of Galilee."

Fritz was Hope's real grandfather, whose existence his mother had told him about when he was 16. A German hotelier born in Palestine into an evangelical Christian group called the Templers, Fritz Grossman had killed himself in 1938. Suicide always leaves a legacy of guilt and evasion; the family was prominent and successful and 1930s Palestine was wracked by factionalism, so it is hardly surprising that there was much fevered speculation about why Fritz had taken his own life. Could he, like his first cousin, have been an enthusiastic Nazi?

In seeking to find out the truth about this mysterious figure, Hope risked disinterring some very unpleasant skeletons. He consulted shady websites and eccentric archivists - one phoned while Hope's wife was in labour and left a complicated message with the midwife - as well as his elderly German relatives, the family he had never really known.

Hope's research unearthed some evocative documents such as an inventory for the Grossmans' Hotel Tiberias, dated 1912, which includes "Salt holders, sugar basins, wine coolers, tea filters, nut crackers, menu holders and epergnes - all the accoutrements of genteel Edwardian dining". But most of the book's emotional power comes from the author's journey in the footsteps of his grandfathers through the museum at Al Alamein, the German colony in Jerusalem and a former officers' sports club. Hope is a seasoned travel writer and his descriptive writing is vivid and convincing even when he focuses on familiar themes, such as traffic jams in Cairo, self-display in Beirut and Christian sectarianism in Jerusalem. It achieves real pathos as he wanders round the Grossmans' former hotel (now a youth hostel), the Lido restaurant on the lake built by Fritz, and his nearby tomb.

All families have their hidden as well as public histories. Hotel Tiberias gives us a poignant glimpse into a particularly dramatic example.