Part Three: 'something vital'
The weekly visits by servicemen continued. The Edes began to garner a reputation on the 'Rock', as each group of servicemen returned to the Gibraltar barracks with stories of Jim and Helen and Whitestone. Some wrote letters and sent photographs, others returned for second or third visits. Jim and Helen's energy and stamina never seem to diminish, as seen in Jim's written accounts:
Mick is playing a Beethoven on the gramophone and would be following it with a score if he had one. He is interested in Art, has started to paint and sees what we see. Everything has interest for him, is touched to life; a leaf with the sun shining through it, a glass of wine, the unfolding of this music. I think he is the first of our guests to be so touched, and it is fun to have him in the house. Mick wants to become a schoolteacher, teach drawing etc. perspective to kiddies. I told him that perspective had quite changed its character since the days, or rather nights, when Uccello used to wake his wife up to tell her of its beauty; but Mick said "Ah, but they must know the rule in order to break it". He was up early the first morning, "I can sleep plenty in Gib., it would be a shame to miss the beauty of this morning.”
There are two other R.A.F.'s. Don Watts, young and slight, married two years, an electrician in a sugar firm and John Capewell, older and with a varied background. He worked in glass and china and had travelled to the States; he had a very quiet voice and did not like the American manner.
The other two were simple boys. Reason and Nicholls. Reason was soon to marry and Nicholls loved his work as a butcher, a trade going far back in his family. They all stayed in the first evening and we had quite a talk and much laughter. They all made their beds next morning, quite exceptionally well; I happened to see this when taking some guests over the house; my fastidious eye needed to make no adjustment.
Watts and Capewell have gone to dine in Tangier, Reason and Nicholls ran out late after tea, saying they would be back by eight and Mick stayed home. They were back, and on the dot. How I wish I could remember all the conversation; we discussed parents and the children's attitude to them. It seemed to me that they maintained a reserve towards each other almost 'Victorian'. They laughed long when I asked them if they called their mothers by their Christian names.
There were high, foamy waves at Spartel on Sunday; cold, with a strong wind. Mick enjoyed his swim, Nicholls and Reason and Watts wouldn't go in. We took an American (Webb Ellis) with us. Don fell asleep on John's bosom and the American said it all looked like a drunken orgy with people passed out in all directions.
Later Helen was lying down to sleep in a curve of the sand and the rest of us were away walking. There were wonderful flights of cowbirds across the landscape, their curving wings like a great flower blown across the sky. Back in town, all the roads were full of sheep, each Arab driving one home for the feast.
That evening John expanded into many good Irish cracks and much discussion of books. He said he liked the way we had bookshelves all round the room, you had only to stretch out your hand and take one. Mick was eager to know about many people we had known in the musical world. George (Nicholls) told several funny stories about commanding officers under whom he had served. George will surely be mayor of his town one day and principal butcher at that.
Eddy and Don were quietly easy, listening to all that was said and here and there adding their own comment. We all slept well that night.
Lorna Gascoigne and the Raffertys came to dinner next day. We were a large party of ten and the boys said that they had found it very interesting. Mick had gone in to Town and had bought six pairs of sandals, the others had stayed at home, “too cold to go out” they said and so I got them to light the fire, the first of the new winter. We clustered over tea before leaving and I felt how wonderful it was what a core of friendliness could arise in a short four days; how much they clustered there as to a shelter, not wishing to leave. They said goodbye with much feeling and at the ship Mick said "Goodbye, Jim". We both missed Mick quite a lot, he had the gift of unassumingly entering into the life of the people about him - that gift of vision I think, the prerequisite of artists.
Group 23, November 1946
Moving to Tangier in 1937, the Edes had quickly found themselves part of a new social circle: the large and vibrant expatriate community that, like them, had mostly settled in the area above the old city known as the 'Mountain'. From 1923 to 1956, Tangier was a designated 'International Zone' ruled by eight European countries (Belgium, France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain), in what Anouar El Younssi has described as 'collective colonialism'.1 With this came an influx of Europeans and Americans - diplomats and administrators, as well as socialites, artists and writers drawn to the pleasure, excess and cosmopolitan freedom to be found in the 'Interzone'2 (albeit freedoms not necessarily afforded to the local population). Although there is little mention in Jim Ede's writings of the sociopolitical situation, the Edes were undoubtedly among the beneficiaries of the colonial setup, enjoying the ease and prosperity of expatriate Tangier.
Like Hampstead in the 1930s, Tangier's bohemian reputation undoubtedly appealed to the Edes. Occasionally the name of a famous artist or writer crops up in diaries, letters and the Whitestone visitors' book – a visit from the young American writers Paul Bowles, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote in the summer of 1949, or a photograph of Jim standing at the beach taken by Cecil Beaton. Nevertheless, the company they kept in Tangier was altogether more 'establishment' than it had been in London. Jim and Helen often invited their friends to join the servicemen for supper on their last night. The formidable Kirby-Green women, mainstays of Tangier society, visited the Edes frequently – namely Feridah (daughter of a British diplomat), her sister-in-law Ada (devoted owner of a peacock named Omar); and her cousin Jessie (said to be able to charm snakes). Lady Scott, another doyenne of expat society, regularly entertained the Edes with tea in her rambling gardens.
The Edes were also close friends with Alvary Gascoigne, the British Consul-General, and his wife Lorna, a regular dinner guest at Whitestone.3 Lorna Gascoigne makes an entertaining appearance in Group 19:
‘After our Sunday outing to Spartel, Lorna Gascoigne came to tea, bringing three enormous, long-haired, black, friendly and vivacious dogs; also Mrs Blundel and also a huge cake, all layers of jam and sponge and burnt almonds, together with an assortment of small cakes. After tea, the boys all decided they were going to call on Mrs Green, and Lorna, who was going there too, piled them all into her car and on them all the dogs and also Mrs Blundell, so off they went. They said she was a wonderful driver, the way she took some tricky corners; their hearts were in their mouths, but she was always cool and casual.’
It was Lorna who would orchestrate one of the most exciting events of 1947 (so exciting that Jim devoted a whole 'Interlude' to it) – the arrival of their first refrigerator, which they duly christened 'Lorna':
The next great excitement was the coming of a Frigidaire; large and white and shiny; and it purred gently throughout the house until we felt we were on a liner. Lorna gave it to us, and at once we popped the remains of a custard into the freezer and ate it next day as an ice-cream! Now we will be able to give our family all manner of exciting dishes, things they are not used to on the Rock. “Lorna" makes the kitchen look very small and suddenly it seems necessary to alter everything; so our flop day went on that. It will take us quite a time to realise that we can now cook in larger quantities and “fridge” for further use.
Jim (in white) and Helen (seated, left) with the Dempster family, Tangier, 1940s.
Photograph courtesy Marina Dempster
Jim (in white) and Helen (seated, left) with the Dempster family, Tangier, 1940s.
Photograph courtesy Marina Dempster
When the new ones came they were a studious lot of R.A.F., quiet and sensitive and very eager. Conversation the first evening passed from Joyce to Eliot, from Walton to Sibelius, from Donne to Dali and Picasso. There was a revival of the 17th and l8th century; Pope was coming again into fashion. Paintings no longer shocked anyone that mattered at all, they thought, and they had figured out that whereas the Old Master pictures seemed to be composed of a number of rhythms, a Picasso seemed just to have one clear statement, one wizard rhythm throughout. I am not wise enough to be able to repeat their conversation, but towards midnight I left them clustered in a group over a small Picasso reproduction, earnestly and without malice, trying to see just what it meant. Laurie Adkins, aged 21, was an education Sergeant and had always wanted to teach, but these last months of Gibraltar were shaking him a little; however, he had great hopes of the University. He was quiet voiced, gentle and sincere. He got down to books almost at once, of which, after the restraint of the Rock there seemed a feast here. He was an only child. Des Pye, keen on Radar, was eager and lively, really spoke as though things mattered to him and had evidently given it all quite a lot of thought. He too was banking on getting into college and was 23. Jimmy Green looked forward to the University and was taking History with a view to teaching it. Ernest Ormerod, a Northern name, was an analytical chemist. He had studied chiefly soap and water and loved his work, but like the others, found the present period of 'standing by' most trying. He was 25. Ron Peart was different. Before the war he was a clerk and now reached for wider horizons; he sat listening keenly and smiled, but did not speak.
Laurie got up early the first morning, dressed himself and sat at the window looking at all the sunrise; Jimmy was down for a bath and Ernest went out to work the pump. I spent Saturday morning with them all in the Town and Jessie Green and Maggie Field came to lunch. The afternoon was spent in reading and in walking in the country and a long sitting over tea. In the evening we had music.
Sunday was a miraculous day of warm sunshine and balmy clarity. We all went for a swim and lay out in the sunshine over lunch. I don't think we talked much for each one seemed contented just to absorb the quiet and wonder. The sea glittered and the water came in rolling this way and that over an uneven base. The waves were high and transparent, the air hung dense on the horizon with fleecy white clouds above it, for all the world like snow mountains beyond land. We wandered around shallow mirror-like rock pools. Laurie said it was like a Virginia Woolf. Helen walked homewards into the interior, I read some of Stephen Spender's new book on Europe and the others dispersed in wide directions. We converged at about four, and got home for tea, collecting Helen on route. Then there was an exodus into town for final purchases and a quiet pleasant evening around the fire. There isn't much to write of these men for they entered quietly into the prevailing quietness of the home; there was no disturbance and no spectacular glitter; just people at home and pleasantly at ease. They made their beds each day, pumped the house water without being asked, sat and wandered where they wanted. Ron was always unostentatiously taking photographs and so was Des. Des said that when he was young he used to do such and such, and then we laughed, for he can't now be more than 20. He said he felt physically decayed, that there had been a time when he could dance all night and now the first dance laid him low and if he wasn't in bed by eleven, he jolly well knew it. Jimmy chuckled and kept his council; Ernest with his 25 years smiled benignly and Laurie just said that he did not find he grew up. He continued through his last minutes at the house, his coffee untasted at his side and all of us making ready to depart, hastily copying out yet another poem by Donne.
He must have written almost as soon as he reached Gibraltar for his letter arrived before the next group came, a letter about his pleasure in being here and many reflections on us and the house and the country around us. He also had much to say about “to die, to sleep, no more” and its various interpretations, with references to Montaigne. The subject had come up over our last lunch. I should like to show the letter to the Brigadier who looked in here, for the Big Wigs are inclined to lump all servicemen as one, perhaps just an army way of considering "that class".
Helen says that Ron kept looking back at the house, at the garden, at the mountains, as he left; thinking backwards with a happy anticipation in reverse. Perhaps he will send us some of the photos he took.
The next party didn't come, too rough, and all the cooking done and everything got ready on Friday and on Saturday and on Sunday. We feel we have missed something vital.