A traveller’s tale from Tunisia – Ross and the Rioters

The BBC & ITV broadcaster and journalist, John Carter is best known for his television presenting on ITV’s Wish You Were Here?. His background in travel broadcasting began in 1969 with the BBC’s Holiday programme until 1987, moving channels to Wish You Were Here until 1997. More recently he has appeared in the documentary Best Years Of Our Lives? (Carlton), the travel quiz Where In The World? (BBC 2 & Channel 4), and Attractions (Channel 5). We are truly thrilled that John has agreed to write a series of articles for us linking his past travels with current events.

John writes for Silver Travel Advisor:

Great Mosque of Kairouan I’m not absolutely sure what’s going to occupy this space on your screen in future, but I’m delighted to become a contributor to an excellent and very useful site.

I suppose I could reminisce about my travelling years.  But not too often because memories, even when they are super memories, can be boring for someone who wasn’t there.

Having said that, however, I do think an occasional “traveller’s tale” is permitted, the more so when it is related to current events.  For example, the sight on television of chaps yelling and screaming and waving banners and generally indulging in sloganised mayhem in Egypt and other North African countries puts me in mind of the time when Ross sorted out a bunch of rioters in Tunisia.

So, in a moment or two I’ll tell you that tale.  “Ross and the Rioters” would make a good title, don’t you think.  So I’ll call it that, when we get to it.
I hope we’ll get to know each other as time goes by.  If you do want to make a comment or ask a question, feel free.  And please forgive my occasional tendency to stray from the point.  I do it because it gives me a chance to mention true things that you probably won’t believe.

(For example, hoping that we’ll get to know each other “as time goes by” made me think of the film “Casablanca”.  And of Dooley Wilson, who played the part of Sam, and whose name people can never remember.  He was a professional musician as well as an actor.  But, being a drummer, he couldn’t play the piano…)

Anyway, here’s the tale of Ross and the Rioters.

Medina Alleys We were in Tunisia, on a press trip.  Half a dozen travel writers, the senior of whom was a splendid chap named S. Rossiter Shepherd – “Ross” to one and all.   

The travel editor of the Sunday People, he was a large and imposing chap who strongly resembled Nubar Gulbenkian (and you have to be of a certain age to remember him!).

He – Ross – had a magnificent beard and a regal bearing and was the man we instinctively turned to when a speech of thanks had to be delivered, or delicate negotiations undertaken in respect of a trip’s itinerary – which was always too ambitious.

On this particular day, in 1962, we had been taken to lunch at an hotel in a seaside resort.  The hotel was ghastly, the waiters sullen and the manager barely civil.  The reason, apparently, was that he was having a row with the people who had organised our visit.

After lunch we repaired to a terrace overlooking the street where coffee was (grudgingly) served.  As we sat we heard distant shouting which got louder as a mob of fifty or sixty men marched towards the hotel.  They carried placards, in Arabic and French, demanding the release of one Ben Bella, who, at the time, was imprisoned by the French in neighbouring Algeria.

They were decidedly anti-French and, seeing our European faces, assumed that to be our nationality.  The situation became tense as they milled about in the road below the terrace, brandishing their placards. shouting insults and shaking their fists.

Then Ross rose to the occasion, and to his feet.  “Messieurs”, he shouted.  “Messieurs, nous ne sommes pas Francais.  Nous sommes Anglais.”

His accent and grammar were so awful that the crowd realised instantly that he – and we – could only be English.  They grinned and waved cheerfully and made as if to move away.  But Ross was not done with them.  Hotel staff, to say nothing of hotel managers, treated him badly at their peril.

“Messieurs”, he shouted again.  “Nous sommes anglais.  Mais, le proprietaire de cet hotel est francais.”

The mob wheeled about and made for the hotel entrance.  As we made our excuses and left, they were preparing to throw a Citroen 2CV through its plate glass doors.

P.S.  Elliot Carpenter played the piano in “Casablanca”.  He sat at another piano on the set, and Dooley Wilson copied his hand and arm movements.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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