Part One: 'a living contact'
Ede began to write detailed accounts – sixty in total – of each group of Gibraltar servicemen that came to stay with him and Helen at Whitestone. ‘Variations on a Week-End Theme’, as its title suggests, follows an almost musical rhythm, a steady ritual of suppers and beach trips as one group of men leaves and another arrives. Ede’s writing reveals his and Helen’s deep interest in other people, perhaps especially those from a different background to themselves. It also offers a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of an expat in Tangier. This series includes an edited selection of Ede's 'variations'.
The first group arrived at Whitestone in May 1946:
At first I found it very difficult to distinguish between Walker, Rae and Mackay. They were all from Scotland and were all small. There was Scott who wasn’t a scot and Young, who was called ‘Lofty’. Lofty automatically was occupying the best bedroom almost before I had said ‘You’ll have to fight amongst yourselves for choice of bedrooms,’ and Rae said, ‘I’ll slip in here’ taking the tiny room. They all looked up to Lofty, waited on his every word, not that they were many, and followed his lead; but laughed at him too with playful humour. Lofty was a great tea drinker and would swallow a cupful at a gulp rather than miss a round and this would set Rae, whom we now called Joe, into fits of laughter which came out suddenly drawing everyone’s attention, ‘He’s off’ they would say. He would watch with all eyes, quivering for the event. Scott was very friendly but said no one would marry him, he was too restless, but he mothered all the others. He called Helen ‘Ma’ and spent quite a time in the kitchen. The first morning he was up at 6 a.m. and I hastily got up to put the kettle on. Every morning he took up tea and large chunks of bread and butter to the rest. Mackay had a red face and each morning came busily into the kitchen with ‘please can I borrow the broom and shovel’. He talked to Mohammed in a broad Scottish accent, and Mohammed, for all his eagerness to learn English, could not get a word of it. I can’t remember anything that Walker said, he would stand quietly by us if we were drying things in the kitchen…
Out at Spartel beach on Sunday, I gave Lofty a cigar and the others stood round to see him light it. He then sat down in a warm corner of sunlight and said ‘this is smashing’. He fell with me over a precipice – but when he got up the cigar was still in his mouth. Joe said, ‘I kept hold of your hand, Lofty, and saved your life’.
They went off to Tangier each evening and we left them their suppers, all spread out, while we went to our beds. They would slip in so quietly, taking off their shoes; eat everything and wash all up, and so to bed with hardly a sound. Scott left his photo stuck in the corner of a painting by Ben Nicholson. They were scrupulously clean and when Helen saw all their blankets, each lot an exact cube at the head of each bed, she cried.
Group 1, 1946
As well as generosity and hospitality, the scheme was driven by something altogether deeper: a desire for human connection through art, music, food and conversation. In the introduction to his Tangier log, Ede writes, it is only by giving them what we ourselves believe in, that we can establish a living contact. With every weekly variation, he begins by describing each member of the group, carefully committing each to memory:
We settled in with the next group right from the start. They were Freddie and Jerry – Neville and Peter and Sam. When I met them at the boat they had had a rough passage and looked ferocious, particularly Jerry, who was tall with lank blond hair over his big face, and a broken tooth which made a gap in his mouth. He and Fred made a pair; Fred was a little stout, very red in the face, no chin and laughing eyes. They were both nineteen. Neville was nineteen too, a well set up boy, fair, with delicate hands and his friend was Sam, a boxer. Neville had ‘Death before Dishonour’ tattooed on his arm, while Sam had quite a bookful on various parts of his body. Peter was married and was in charge, a straight, stocky person of twenty-three, less buoyant than the others, but determined.
They all had lots of character. Helen scored a point with Jerry at the first meal; he wasn’t for having any vegetable marrow and I said ‘You don’t know what vegetable marrow is if you refuse it – at least taste it.’ He did and had three helpings.
On Saturday, they spent the day in the town and Jerry and Fred found Concita and Thérèse, who took them to their mother’s pub. Soon Fred had passed out on his first experience of spirits and they were squirting soda water up his nose. At dinner, Jerry said ‘no more drink for me’. I think he ate his dinner in rather a daze, and at one moment mumbled ‘phew, I nearly got married today’ and there was much teasing over Thérèse. After dinner, while Helen was making coffee and the chaps were clearing away the dishes, I found Fred collapsed on a divan murmuring amiably to himself, ‘It’s the first and last time’.
They all took turns at pumping the house water up to the top of the house, a very stiff pump, and we left Fred at it rather a long time. Later on he said ‘You left me so long, but I hadn’t the face to stop because there was an old Arab woman working away at another pump as if it was nothing, so how could I give in’. There was quite a laugh, in which he joined the loudest, when I told him that the other pump needed no pressure.
Group 3, 1946
As the weeks progressed, the visits settled into a steady rhythm. No stay was complete without the Sunday trip to Spartel beach, a short drive from Whitestone.
Going over to Spartel yesterday, we suddenly looked down into the sea; it was high and all transparent around the rocks; and standing close inland were many fishing boats open below us. It was like a miraculous ‘close up’ out of some picture, the shape of ships seen from above, dark shadows of holds, bright blues and orange greys, the texture of wood moving in liquid glass, the precision of a Bellini or a Claude and beyond them, the scudded sea and immense sky.
Group 4, 1946
Sunday was our Spartel expedition and never had the beach been so beautiful and really our guests were thoroughly happy – it shocked them into laughter and movement and they kept saying how wonderful it all was. It was a day of great brilliance and the tide was rapidly coming in. We had to keep moving up the sand from one deep rock shadow to another, plunging through glittering water. I was always finding new cellars of cold sea water for the bottles of claret cup. All the British Consulate arrived. We were a big party for lunch and it was very relaxed. Our group sat in a row, Helen and I in the middle, and we passed out sandwiches along the line and I poured the red wine. (After lunch) I climbed the cliffs, sleek goats darted from the rocks as I came near them. Helen was sitting in the shade of the car at the top and soon our five men joined us, and Billy drove us home. I asked him if it felt different to be driving a civilian car instead of a military one; he just said ‘I should say’ and settled more assuredly behind the wheel. When we got home we all felt we could go to sleep and the chaps did, while Helen and I prepared the tea. This eaten, they were ready to start again, caught a bus into Tangier and danced into the small hours.
They left in a great storm and Helen and I watched the boat through the telescope – it was all spray, disappearing and appearing through heaving seas.
Group 5, 1946
"How difficult it is to convey the texture of people on such short contact. Perhaps their difference to others lay in their giving us, without mention of it, a sense of their own home life, of youth and its ability not to be regimented, of their being such distinctly different individuals and yet so gently and so gaily tolerant of each other..."
Ede's Tangier Log, Group 6
Whitestone (right) seen from above
Whitestone (right) seen from above
The new ones came in a storm, indeed I think that one of them must have funked it, for there were only four. I felt that we liked each other at once, even before the boat came to rest we had singled each other out and waved to each other. Immediately they gave me the impression of expecting to enjoy every minute and then when they got out to Whitestone they were instant in their praise; and how they hoped to take advantage of being in such a place in the country and not spend too much time in the town. Three of them were students; Jenkins, aged 26 had been reading for honours in English Literature at London University and hoped to be back there next term. Doug Williams was 20 and looked forward to going to the University where he hoped to study Spanish, he had brought a Spanish grammar. He had also brought ‘The Egoist’1. He had a soft cultivated voice and was an only child – so was Jenkins who was large and whose voice was high pitched. Robert Robey was lively and thin, pale faced with glasses and quickly ready with ideas and expressions which he never quite rounded to completion. Alf Tougher was quiet and self effacing and had been a packer, but did not know about going back into it; he had a brother and a sister, but he was the youngest. He never offered any remarks, but laughed contentedly over quite subtle jokes.
Robey was an engineer and the other two were in the Intelligence. Robey had been nearly sick when coming over, but when I told him that I had been picking strawberries for their dinner he whooped with glee and said he had not had one for years.
I can only remember their gay outbursts. We sent them off into town after mid-day dinner, but they all came back to the house by eight; we sat and talked for ages after supper – travel and manner of living and books.
Next morning, before breakfast they were playing Haydn on the gramophone and two of them were up to go for a country walk. After breakfast Helen asked if they wanted sandwiches with them, but no they would like to come back to dinner and go out again later; since it was Saturday they supposed they had better stay in late and see a bit of night life – so we gave them a key, and they all trooped back, as if on the march, at about 2 a.m. They were the first group who did not take off their shoes on a night entry, but went whistling up the stairs.
It was windy at Spartel on Sunday, but they enjoyed it all the same. We climbed round the rocks at low tide – each one separately but meeting unexpectedly here and there. Jenkins plunged from a far rock into the sea and swam back to shore saying that the cold was preferable to any more walking on those sharp rocks. On the way home the car kept stopping and all four kept leaping out to push it, either back or fore to start again and every time it stopped, out they leapt with cheerful jokes.
When at last we got home, they said it had been fun and Robey said ‘I’m happy and tired’. It had been a long day out and Helen set to, to get dinner and I to prepare the table. After dinner we sat around drinking tea and talking of America and Helen was having a conversation about music with Jenkins for I heard him saying that it was surprising how Landowska1 managed such brilliant ornamentation on certain Mozart cadenzas and yet never lost her grasp of the piece as a whole. Robey was reading ‘Ulysses’, Doug had got some Rupert Brooke and Alf was chuckling over ‘Esquire’. I was thinking how nice they all were and how lucky we were to be a part in such variety as these visits supplied; and then we had the C Major piano concerto with Schnabel2 and then I treated us to whiskies and soda, since they were so homey a lot and had been so nice with the car, and anyhow who did we know we would rather give it to. Helen next day said she thought I was going to give them all plain soda water! On Monday, we were all a little sad because the boat was leaving in the afternoon; but Doug went out into an arbour overlooking all the immense landscape and read Bambi3 and said it was just the right setting, and later he helped to pick strawberries and cherries.
Dick and Maggie, bright Americans, came to dinner and I teased Maggie about the 4th of July, which it was, saying that I always thought it one of the finest things the British had done to declare their Independence and found that great country and so produce lovely people like herself. She could hardly get out of that and when she said that George Washington was American I maintained that he was British having British parents. ‘But he was born in the States’ she said… which got us to dinner, which was gay and satisfying, thanks to Helen’s cooking, and after dinner Dick took photos of us all with a super camera, snapping it from all directions, even out of trees.
How difficult it is to convey the texture of people on such short contact. Perhaps their difference to others lay in their giving us, without mention of it, a sense of their own home life, of youth and its ability not to be regimented, of their being such distinctly different individuals and yet so gently and so gaily tolerant of each other; and for us so warming to have them so quietly wandering about our rooms and borrowing special books and records. Robey asked if he could take Ulysses with him to Gibraltar and so of course I said yes, remembering an American friend of mine who said when people stole his things ‘I guess if he wanted it enough to steal it he deserved to have it’.