Part Two: 'like coming home'
Jim Ede’s ‘Variations on a Week-End Theme’ recounts the visits to Whitestone, the Edes’ house in Tangier, made by groups of servicemen from Gibraltar almost every weekend during 1946–1947. Throughout the 200 pages, Ede punctuates these detailed accounts with short 'interludes' (to continue the title's musical allusion), containing anecdotes and musings on their scheme and life in Tangier. In the first of these, Ede sets out the routine of each visit, revealing how much preparation, housework and cooking Jim and Helen personally undertook. Whitestone was a home, not a hotel. Though they hired local men - Mohammed and Achmet - to help with some jobs, and money was tight, their hands-on approach was part of the ethos. Throughout his life, Ede would continue to find joy in the almost sacred ritual of these daily routines and tasks.
We began to find some routine in these visits. Thursday we shop, collect vegetables from the garden, pick fresh flowers and generally see that all is ready. Friday, I go to meet the ship at ten and Helen stays to cook dinner and have a ‘dish of tea’ ready against our return about eleven.
Down at the dock I peer anxiously across the decks of ships to select our new five guests, wave to them and they hesitantly wave back. Sometimes I pick the wrong five, but no matter – we soon get together and I rush them through the customs and into the car to go up into the Town, where they must collect their money. I begin to try to learn their names and by the time we are home, with luck, I’ve just got them and can introduce them to Helen. We then sit awhile over tea in their upstairs rooms, select bedrooms and disperse for dinner in half an hour. I then lay the table while Helen completes the cooking. It’s a pretty meal, a white room with window seats, light and china – the table, scrubbed oak, laid with Delft and old glass. Not a chap has blinked an eyelid, they might be sitting down to their barrack-room table ‘irons’ and a tin plate. The first dinner is usually fish, new potatoes and other vegetables – a good rice pudding, stewed fruit and claret cup. After that we have coffee under the bean tree – a shaded terrace looking out on a hundred mile view and by now we have become quite friendly. Then the young go out, catch a bus to Tangier and hope to return for a meal between eight and nine.
Next day, early morning tea in their beds, while Helen and I have our breakfast below. Then Helen prepares a big breakfast and I lay the table and serve them when I have rounded them up by 9 to 9.30. We then drive into Tangier and shop and stroll around till it’s time to drive back for dinner. Afternoons they usually go in on their own and come back for a meal at eight. On Sunday we picnic out – driving over to the great Spartel beach and back for tea at five – dinner at eight and in bed before eleven. Monday morning is usually a last chance to shop and then we sit over our last meal together until it is time to go to the ship. I stay back during the morning and remake the beds for the next group and Mohammed starts cleaning up the rooms; and then when they have gone we relax. Tuesday is our ‘Flop Day’ and we send Mohammed away and just do whatever we seem to need to do… sometimes go for a walk – or call on friends or just read books.
Then Wednesday, the floors get polished and we wash our clothes and do a hundred odd jobs to start to make the place ready before we start again on Thursday’s shopping.
'Variations on a Week-End Theme', 1946–7
"...in Gibraltar it had been called a ‘rest camp’ and they had expected to be under canvas with anything up to a hundred others, and then they had got here and found all they could ever want and all for themselves..."
'Variations on a Week-End Theme', Group 7
Ray, Tony and Bob seem to have been with us all the time, but with the playful game of pretending to be surprised over everything. ‘Don’t look round’ says Bob, hiding his eyes and turning his face away when he saw me bringing in fried eggs and tomatoes for their first breakfast; and when he first lay in the swing seat upstairs or sat in the moonlight drinking tea, he just said ‘Now let me die’ little knowing that he was echoing ‘If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy’.1
From the very beginning they were expressive over how nice it all was; which, of course, made it very easy for us; indeed we said to each other almost before they had come into the house that this was going to be an easy week-end and it was. But it was also a talkative week-end, for they loved sitting around. Ray said ‘In a place like this you could just go on talking all the time, you see what I mean?’ and of course I did. The second afternoon they decided to catch the 2.30 bus to Tangier – but they missed that one and so would take the 3.30. They missed that too, so we had tea and they thought they might take the 5.30. When that one was missed, Tony said ‘We seem to have taken a fancy to your house, the way we never got started in time for a bus’ so I said it would be best now to stay right on and have dinner and then go in after. In the end they walked the three miles in at 10.30.
They came back at 6.30 next morning, full of life, and quite excited over the nightlife of Tangier. They had had one drink each, a beer, and it had cost 4/- a head, but they had had ‘a smashing show’ thrown in, ‘almost passed out though when they brought the bill’. Tony had been through the Africa campaign and so had Ray, but Tony had nosed about more and had gone up through Italy and got to Paris and had picked up a few words in several languages and compared one country with another so that it felt natural to him to take the lead. Ray and Bob stood by on tiptoe to see him dance off with a Czech girl who had been four years in a German concentration camp, and talking to her gaily in German. When they got to Whitestone first they were so surprised, for in Gibraltar it had been called a ‘rest camp’ and they had expected to be under canvas with anything up to a hundred others, and then they had got here and found all they could ever want and all for themselves and as for the sheets, Ray said, it was like coming home. Bob said on his third evening that he had never enjoyed a leave so much, not even at home. Of course, on his leave home he had V-bombs and rockets.
We had a grand time on Sunday after I had woken them from their two hour nap. The Spartel sea was very high and quite rough and we all waded through it to a little cove out to sea. The waves knocked us about a lot and made us warm in the cold water and the sand above the high tide level was so hot we could hardly stand on it.
For our farewell dinner there came Ada Kirby Green, Catherine Peake and Charles Ewell and ‘Lady Curzon’ as the chaps called her, nine to table and I think that the men liked it that their host knew someone and that they became part of that wider world. Ada was full of questions about their homes, their girls, their accents. ‘She knew how to get on with us’ one of them said to me as we drove to the boat. They said they would hoist a flag on top of the funnel ‘then you and Mrs Ede can look at us through the telescope’ which I thought a charming way of saying goodbye and off they went until the next ‘lot’ came.
What comes across is the Edes' remarkable openness towards each group of men that briefly entered their lives. Jim especially seemed to enjoy the variety and chance that each new party brought: their characters, backgrounds and the social dynamics between the men. That said, he clearly had favourites:
We will be spoilt perhaps before long, for party 16 was just perfect as a group: I don’t feel I can even write about them, they were so nice, so friendly, accessible and happy. I grudged every moment I could not be with them, their responsiveness carried the day on wings. They were all from the R.A.F. It isn’t that they were nicer individuals than many others, but that they pulled together so well, played with each other, were full of laughter and, at the same time, were quietly aware of thought. Throw out an idea and they followed it, enquiring, encouraging, adding their own store of experiences, blowing it to a gay bursting or compressing it to a clear, quick statement of decision, practical and balanced.
There was never a moment of hesitation with any of them; never the question “what shall we do now?”. Each minute was vividly absorbed in happy wonder. “We’ve only just begun” they said when they left, “Everything has run so smoothly from the moment we got here, that we haven’t done any of the things we could have done; read books, played the gramophone, gone for walks; We’ll just have to come again, as soon as we can, that’s all there is to it.”
They all stood together on the ship when they arrived and already with the water between us they were responsive in waving back when I waved to them. They were somehow the last off the ship, but we were the first out of the dock. “They told us in Gib. that you would get us out quickly; but my!"
On the way up I started to learn their names. Sitting by me was Jack Ryding, large of build, red complexioned, blue eyes and golden curly hair. Just bouncing with vigour he was, open faced and easy of speech.
It was the sparkling whiteness of Frank’s shirt, with not a crease in it, which first caught my eye; and later, with whatever dirty work he did, he sprang up spotless. He and Jack knew each other well and were both Sergeants, both aged about 26. They had lots of friendly backchat with each other and a quiet association on a job. Just behind me in the car sat Roy Raynor, older than the others I thought, though he only confessed to 28. A professional dancer in civvy life, he walked a little ponderously, tended to take control of the conversation, starting in on a series of reminiscences, his hunters, his shooting, his golf and the people he’d met.
Over in the back seat as I peered through my back mirror, I could see two chaps, one small, thin, sharpnosed, but not sharp, with straight hair over his forehead; the other large and young, with a kindly face, twinkling eyes and thin lips which were all the time stretching into a strangely mobile, yet slightly conciliatory, smile. “And what are your names” I asked, “Allen and Volley” came back. The car was pounding up a hill and in the noise I had to ask them several times before I got the small one as Allen Longthorne, and the smiling gentle one as Wally. “But what is your surname?” “Mykura” he said. Walter Mykura turned out to be from Czechoslovakia, having come to England with his Mother and Father in 1939. He had been for a year in Magdalene College in Cambridge and now was doing quite a lot of teaching on the Rock. He was nearly 21. Geology was his subject and soon he hoped to be working at it in Birmingham University, where he already held a scholarship. He talked with a simplicity and knowledge which the others held in respect; he loved the country and was fast becoming an enthusiast over the youth hostels of England and the preservation of our country’s beauty. I asked him if he found barrack room life trying and his companions crude. “Oh no,” he said, “there is so much kindness and tolerance; coarseness of speech is just a convention; it used to shock me when first I met it, but soon I found, just beyond it, a lively desire to know things. We have such interesting conversations and fellowships now.”2
Allen Longthorne was retiring, quick of movement and precise; twenty one, but he looked a little older, some ugly war experiences still vivid to him. He sat quietly in a group and suddenly rounded a conversation with a crisp remark; not cutting in any way, but embracing; a gathering up of loose ends. He enjoyed questioning and being questioned; had nice hands and was a clever electrician. When he got out of the Service he was going to work in Welwyn on the possibilities of plastic. I watched him through the rear mirror darting his eyes from side to side, observing all that was new and often with a little chuckle, he would make a humorous comment.
So we reached the house and Helen met us in the drive and at once Roy was questioning her on Scotland which he loved, and Frank and Jack were bubbling up with sly teasings on her accent and the traditional Scottish clannyness. Wally smiled, looked docile and happy and Allen was helping to carry things and seeming somehow to move three times as fast as anyone else, yet managing to stay behind. As I look back on Allen it is this curious static speed which I remember.
I had whispered to Wally to get himself into Room 5 with all the view, telling him just where he would find it; but when he got to the door he put his bag down shyly and waited. Roy stepped over the bag and settled in, so I got Wally into Room 1. Allen, being small, naturally had to go into 2, it being the smallest and Jack and Frank had the others. I heard Jack say to someone that it had taken his breath away when he had stepped into the big room upstairs. Jack did water colours and had brought a few with him. Then we left them to have baths and relax while Helen finished getting dinner ready and I prepared the claret cup and the table.
At one o'clock we met again. They were the first group to mention the flowers on the table; always rather a nice bowlful of various kinds. It was then I learnt that Frank had no sense of smell, but he did have an appreciation of food. They all had good appetites, which spurred Helen to greater and greater efforts in tasty cooking. Jack almost gave in in the end. When I told them over coffee after our first meal, how they could get in and out of Tangier, they said they were not going in, they had come for a rest. Allen asked if there were nice walks in the country and Roy said that was just what he wanted and Wally too loved walking. So off they went, while Jack and Frank were for doing a bit of service repair on the car. One of the windows wouldn’t go up or down, and it meant taking the door to pieces and then we found that all the wood round the handle was rotten and needed replacing, and so they set to as if they were in their own workshop, with all the tools at their command. They didn’t turn a hair when they found I had only a penknife and a toothpick; and Jack went wandering round the garden looking for a bit of tree trunk which he could whittle down to a plank and Frank started biting at screws which were too long. They worked hard until Helen called us in to tea.
After tea they returned to the charge and by evening everything was beautifully demolished, bits and pieces everywhere and nothing functioning. They said it was like a music hall skit on the R.A.F. fitter. Next day we drove in clinging to a skeleton door to get some vital part riveted, but Tangier indolence failed to do it; so the afternoon was spent in fitting all together again with the window now permanently closed; net result, we ended where we began; “save for some consolidation of friendship” I said. When Frank got upstairs on the first evening, he sat down on a curious invalid’s couch we have, took up a magazine and had just said “isn’t this wizard”, when crash, it all collapsed and twenty screws fell out. He laughed gaily and set to mend it all, plugging the old holes; by then it was dark and time for our evening meal. We finished up some Malaga after supper and sat late in talk; the world’s origin, poetry, barrack room gags and yarns, people and music, careers, travel and the general wide realm of disorganised and pleasant talk.
Helen was playing the piano in the morning and I surprised Allen creeping down the stairs. I told him that if he went on quietly he could slip into the room without being seen. “That’s what I thought I might be able to do” he said. In the evening, they asked her if she would play again and so we all came down to the big music room, which looked mysterious and beautiful with light shining in through the windows from an outside terrace. They lay about on floor rugs or in low chairs while Helen played Beethoven and Frank turned off one of the lights to put our end in shadow. They were a good audience, very quiet, but all attention and I felt that they really had made the place their home.
Sunday brought us all to the great beach and quickly into the sea, except for Roy, who took his time, until a great wave rolled him over, much to the delight of the others. Then Helen had the lunch ready and I was pouring the wine and then some slept and others played with children or had races till we all bathed again, and then hurried to the car, for we were all due to take tea with the Dickenses at 4.30 and already it was four and tea more than fifteen miles away.
Mrs. Katzaros and Emmie came to dinner on Monday. Roy found that he knew Emmie's cousin in Gibraltar and we asked him if she were one of his entanglements there. Mrs. Katzaros told us all the strangest history of Perdicaris and Raisuli the Brigand.3 So the time passed and soon it was four p.m. and time to leave for the boat.
At the dock, several friends that day arrived from Gibraltar, came to see them off and there was lively talk amongst us all and so goodbye and I drove all the friends back to their hotel and asked them all to tea.
It is astonishing that four days can bring so much; we just hated to see them go.