Part Five: Finding Whitestone
In 1952, the Edes left Morocco to live in an old farmhouse near Blois in France. Four years later they moved back to England and eventually to Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, which opened in 1957.
Immersed in Jim Ede’s vivid accounts of life in Tangier, I soon wondered what had become of Whitestone. I wasn't the first to entertain this fascinating thought. By 2015, two researchers had made separate visits to Tangier. Neither, however, had succeeded in finding the house or establishing its location. The challenge was not inconsiderable. Internet and library searches for ‘Whitestone’ drew a blank. We had no street address, as all letters to the Edes were addressed ‘Whitestone, C/O British Post Office, Tangier’. Nor were there architectural drawings or planning documents in the Kettle’s Yard archive. What we did have were a few photographs taken soon after Whitestone was completed in 1937, and the following extract from a letter, in which Jim Ede writes to Peter Howard:1
In Tangier, we lived three miles out (or was it 3km?), anyhow, the road went in the general direction of the airport, and went round the Jewish Cemetery about a mile away, and then went up a hill to Sidi Amar, the highest point of Tangier. We were just a little below this point and looked out over the Jewish Cemetery, which I don’t think we could actually see. We had to build a small road to get to our house.
‘Sidi Amar’, though not on modern maps, was marked on a 1942 US intelligence map we had found. It was at the top of a range of low hills in Tangier, known as ‘La Montagne’ (‘the Mountain’) by the European and American expats who lived there. To the east of Sidi Amar, and increasingly to the south after WW1, large houses and gardens were built, taking advantage of sweeping views over the Straits, the old town and Bay, and inland to the Rif mountains. The other reference in the letter, to the Jewish Cemetery, was confusing. The only Jewish Cemetery was near the port. I began to stare obsessively at this area of Tangier on Google Earth, comparing now with then, trying to spot landmarks, roads and possible houses from above. It quickly became obvious that ‘a little below’ Sidi Amar could apply to many houses, often obscured by trees. I would need to make my own trip to Tangier.
The plot of land, on which Whitestone was built in 1936/37, was purchased in November 1935. Jim Ede carefully marked the event in pencil in his pocket diary. He called the plot ‘Ede’. The researcher who had visited Tangier most recently sent me a list of numbered plots of land purchased in the 1930s. Each one would need to be painstakingly cross referenced on the ground, an almost impossible task. Another approach was to see if someone who lived in the area now might recognise the house from our photographs. Yet, what were the chances of the house having survived? Apart from the old town, present-day Tangier would have been a shock to the Edes. Housing estates and apartment blocks now stretched for miles to the south and east of the centre, built to accommodate a vast increase in population from around 50,000 in 1945 to 1 million today. Speculative developments of new villas, in exclusive areas such as the Mountain, were constantly replacing older houses and their large gardens. In William S. Burroughs’ 1959 novel ‘Naked Lunch’, written in Tangier, there is an apposite couple of lines:
“They are rebuilding the City.” Lee nodded absently… “Yes… Always…”
An old friend put me in touch with Christopher Gibbs, who lived in retirement in Tangier.2 Christopher didn’t know of Whitestone but wrote: ‘Yes, you’d think it likely that Ede would have left traces of a near 20 years occasional presence here, in a house he had built. Always fun to investigate odd fish (I feel!) and their antics’. He suggested that I meet Nadia, a distinguished academic, who was ‘informed (also curious) about local history’, according to Christopher.
A research trip to Tangier was planned for February 2017. Rachel, who was working with me at Kettle’s Yard and spoke French, would come too. One advantage we had over our predecessors in searching for Whitestone was more photographs. The previous October, Rachel and I had spent a wonderful afternoon in Edinburgh looking through Ede family photographs, almost all of them new to us. Here was a Whitestone photo album, its pages the texture of heavy watercolour paper, put together soon after the Edes moved in. The evocative black and white photographs gave a strong sense of the house’s location relative to the old town visible in the distance, though we knew the views of open countryside and hills were long gone. Tantalising as the photographs were, it was still not possible to pinpoint Whitestone’s exact location.
18th February 2017. Having arrived in Tangier the night before, and staying in the Medina, a taxi dropped Rachel and I beside a road at the foot of the Mountain. There were dark clouds above and it was spitting rain. This was the wrong time of year to experience the ‘vibrating heat’ and ‘dazzling sunlight’ of Ede’s Tangier log. We had decided to spend the morning trying to identify the black dots representing houses on our 1942 map, with the hope we might spot Whitestone. We began to walk back and forth along the many residential roads below Sidi Amar. We must have appeared like a rather odd pair of real estate agents, as we looked at the map and our photographs and then back again at the many white plastered houses, frustratingly only partially visible behind their security gates and high walls. Many of the largest houses, with their pastiche of Islamic architectural features, looked as if they had been altered and extended many times. Could Whitestone, or perhaps its original incarnation, be hidden inside one of them?
After three hours of walking, we found ourselves on a sloping piece of scrubland also occupied by goats. Above us the narrow road wound up to the top of the hill and the area marked Sidi Amar on our map, to our right was a large muddy building site cleared for new houses. In the distance below we could see the city centre and beyond it the Bay, not glittering but a smudge of grey as it started to rain in earnest. A hundred yards in front of us was yet another large walled-off garden and the narrowest glimpse of part of a white building through the tall palm trees, shaking in the wind. We walked down the road to find a closed metal gate and a stone flagged drive to the invisible house. A sign by the gate said ‘Villa Elizabeth’ in wrought iron ‘handwritten’ lettering. Just along from the gate and drive, a two-storey house stood out in the overcast light: its walls were a brilliant cobalt blue, as if dipped in ink.
We felt tantalisingly close to finding Whitestone. This was the right area, and there were some large houses, but none was our one, from what we could see of them. Yet Helen and Jim lived here: if only we could imagine it now; unwind sixty years of time and change. Was there a telling detail we had missed in one of the photographs? Or were we chasing a shadow? Did ‘Whitestone’ live on the pages of Jim Ede’s log, without a trace in Tangier?
That afternoon we met Nadia for coffee in the Petit Socco, a famous literary haunt in the old town. She listened intently as I described our quest and Rachel showed her the map, old photographs and the new ones we had taken during our walk that morning. We mentioned how we had ended up by a blue house, next to a drive, a large garden and invisible house beyond. Nadia looked up and smiled: ‘My brother Abdeslam lives in the blue house. You must meet him and his wife Karima. They may know something’. Early that evening, following a phone call from Nadia, we were back at the blue house, being greeted by its owners. Abdeslam and Karima welcomed us into their garden, and we stood looking through the old photographs. We agreed that the views did suggest Whitestone must be (or had been) very nearby. Climbing up a ladder onto their flat roof we spotted a water tower in the distance, which we could also make out in one of the images from the late 1930s. I asked about Villa Elizabeth next door. Abdeslam said it had not been lived in for some years, and was now locked up and looked after by security guards. However, if we came back tomorrow morning he might be able to persuade the guards to let us have a look round.
Karima offered us tea. She recalled hearing that some previous owners of their house had been well known for their interesting parties, though she wasn’t sure how long ago. In passing, as we went into the sitting room, I mentioned that the Edes' house was called ‘Whitestone’. The name hadn’t arisen earlier as our conversation was about possible landmarks in the old photographs. Abdeslam paused: ‘Karima, don’t we have something in the garage?’ He disappeared for ten minutes. Meanwhile we chatted with Karima about how the Edes’ ‘scheme’, inviting servicemen from Gibraltar to stay with them, had helped inspire Kettle’s Yard. Jim Ede’s description of Kettle’s Yard as ‘a space, an ambience, a home’ caught Karima’s imagination. ‘Ambience. It sums up the atmosphere of living in Tangier… He was thinking of Tangier.’
Suddenly, Abdeslam was back and holding a rectangular piece of marble in his hands. He put it down carefully on the table in front of us. Its hand cut lettering spelled one word: ‘WHITESTONE’. Rachel and I stared at it in amazement. ‘Andrew, we have found it!’
Next morning, with flashes of sunlight and blue sky, Rachel and I met Abdeslam outside Villa Elizabeth. Nadia joined us too. One of the security guards unpadlocked the gate. We could look round the outside of the house for an hour. We walked down the drive until it turned to the left and widened out. And there, almost overshadowed by trees on all sides, was the house. We were looking at Whitestone.
Back at our hotel the night before we had begun to put the pieces together. We knew from letters that Helen and Jim had moved out of Whitestone into a smaller house they had built in the garden in late 1948.3 This must be the blue house today. With groups of servicemen no longer coming to stay, they didn’t need six bedrooms, and it seems likely they planned to rent Whitestone out, though we don’t know whether this happened. The marble sign could have been made so their visitors would know not to go down the drive to the larger house. Or perhaps it was the existing sign for Whitestone, which they chose to take with them to their new home.
The empty house in front of us now was much altered, with its upper floors on the garden side completely rebuilt, perhaps in the 1960s. The modernist square block facing the drive was still there, but overlaid with larger windows and an elaborate tiled porch framing a new entrance. However, walking round the corner, here was the terrace and beneath it the sequence of white pillars, so familiar from early photographs. And what of the interior and garden? We peered through a few dirty windows to an empty shell, stripped off furniture and fittings. The garden, so carefully laid out and tended during the Edes’ time, was now wild and almost impenetrable. We searched in vain for the stone garden steps we could see so clearly in the photographs. Of course, there could have been many owners since 1952, each remaking the house and garden. Despite its present state, it felt like an archaeological discovery to us. Something of the Edes’ ‘Whitestone’ was still standing.
Jim Ede wrote of Whitestone: ‘It was a great thrill to be a landowner, to plant trees and picture them so big that pools of shade lay on the parched earth, to make paths and to collect plants and feel the sense of the garden all about the house. To have a house so light and clean that it seemed sky filled’. One of the servicemen who stayed with the Edes wrote, ‘I’ve never been in a house like this before and I don’t suppose I ever will again’.
Our hour was up. A taxi arrived to take us to the airport and back to London. We offered our thanks to Karima, Nadia, and Abdeslam. I promised to send books about Kettle’s Yard and to return to Tangier.4 We still wanted to find out who owned the house now, and more about the blue house and its history too. As we departed Abdeslam handed me the marble Whitestone sign which had survived in a garage for nearly 70 years: ‘Take it. It belongs in Cambridge now’.
The Whitestone sign, now at Kettle's Yard
The Whitestone sign, now at Kettle's Yard