Continue the Story Competition: A Nest of German Spies at the Grand Hotel, Khartoum, April 1914


The Grand Hotel, Khartoum, by Venieris, M. [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The Grand Hotel, Khartoum, by Venieris, M. [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

With Europe on the cusp of war, a certain English lady visited Khartoum and began spreading rumours about German spies in her hotel. A letter about her, which features in Palace Green Library’s item of the month blog, seems to set the scene for a great thriller. Can you continue the tale? The best 1000 word story will win tickets to an event at Durham Book Festival.

Two months before the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo this report was written by John Cecil, an officer at the British Agency in Cairo to Sir Gilbert Clayton, Director of Military Intelligence in Cairo – more to amuse than to urge he “round up the usual suspects”. The British press had delighted in stirring up anti-German feeling in the preceding decades, and the resulting scares spawned still-entertaining invasion tales such as The Battle of Dorking (1871), The Riddle of the Sands (1903), or When William Came (1913).

The English tourist from which this report originated was most likely surfing this wave of hysteria, and appears to have travelled abroad only to find her hotel full of foreigners, and Germans to boot! (the Grand is now under different management and currently enjoys several excellent reviews on Trip Advisor.) In truth in 1914 the European powers were deep in an arms race, and a series of Balkan crises and outright wars were adding to a growing atmosphere of international menace that extended to the dining room of the Grand hotel overlooking the confluence of the Blue and White Nile Rivers at Khartoum.

SAD.157_4_87-redacted

SAD.157_4_87v-redacted

Letter from Cecil to Clayton, 28 April 1914 (Ref: SAD.157/4/87. Crown Copyright)

The report includes many of the stereotypical-incredible elements necessary for a really good pulp spy thriller:

  • a son of Kaiser Wilhelm II (there were six to choose from)
  • a German hotel manager, named Otto
  • maps of the enemy coast
  • foreign powers plotting major UK infrastructure projects (plus ça change)
  • poisoned sago pudding
  • a plucky British tourist fluent in a foreign language

To help mark Durham Book Festival, which returns to the city 6-17 October, Palace Green Library would like to invite those literary sleuths among our readers to (briefly) continue the story, in a style of your choosing. To the winning composition is offered the prize of a ticket to the IAS Debate on Sunday 11 October, 3-4 p.m.: novelists Louise Welsh and Peter Guttridge, and Prof. Judith Howard and Dr Dan Grausam will be contesting the motion ‘This House Believes That There is No Such Thing as Hard Evidence’.

Please send in your entry (details below) by 5 p.m. on Thursday 8 October – that’s in only eight days’ time, so get writing! The winner will be contacted on Friday 9 October. Entries will be in the form of a 1,000-word narrative, developing the story, (not necessarily through to a conclusion). They will be judged by Heritage Collections staff, whose decision will be as final as a bowl of adulterated sago pudding or, indeed, a bowl of sago pudding. Entries should be sent to pg.library@durham.ac.uk or to IOTM Competition, Palace Green Library, Palace Green, Durham, DH1 3RN. If you are sending your entry by post please don’t forget to provide your contact details.

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