Francis King

Tangerine dreams

Francis King reviews Tessa Codrington's new book

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In 1926, Tessa Codrington’s maternal grandfather, Jack Sinclair, once British Resident in Zanzibar, decided to buy for his wife a house on the ‘New Mountain’ in Tangier. One of Muriel Sinclair’s many eccentricities was that she had no wish to see her grandchildren. In consequence it was not until the old woman’s death that Tessa Codrington, then nine, first visited the house. Subsequently her mother was to give her a smaller house, built by Jack Sinclair, originally an architect, in the spacious grounds of the main one.

An eager amateur photographer from her earliest years, Codrington is now a professionally accomplished one. As one turns the pages of this photograph album, one is repeatedly arrested by some striking image. Tangier is far from being the most beautiful of Moroccan cities, but images of the precipitous slope of the Old Mountain down to the indigo sea below it, of the narrow, tortuous streets of the Kasbah and of the brilliant sweep of the Atlantic Beach, almost persuade one that it is.

Codrington’s artistry is often most evident in the simplest and barest of her photographs — for example, one strangely eerie image of no more than two wooden chairs on an empty beach, and another of the back of a white-robed Arab woman against the pocked, grey plaster of a high wall. The portraits, whether of the Swiss woman known only as Lily — who progressed from riding the wall of death in a circus to presiding over the once hugely popular but now defunct Parade Bar — staring out at the camera with a world-weary cynicism, or of David Herbert, uncrowned queen of Tangier, disguised as a skittish Lady Bracknell, are wonderfully astute revelations of character.

While we turn the pages of her album, the photographer makes her comments. The artlessness and sometimes banality of these contrast oddly with the professionalism of the images. A caption like ‘Noor is a respected Moroccan matriarch; she and Boubker entertain queens and kings downwards in a lavish, but strictly Islamic, style’, is colour supplement stuff. ‘She was much loved by all who knew her’ is obituarist’s cliché. Information like ‘David was all over her like a rash’ or ‘Grandfather was mad about polo’ might well have been dictated into a tape-recorder.

I once asked Patrick Thursfield, a friend of more than half a century who has a page in this book but whom, I suspect, Codrington, like many other Tangerines, never really liked, why, on inheriting money, he had abandoned a successful career as a journalist to settle in Tangier. He replied ‘I wanted to be entirely myself’. By that he presumably meant to be not merely recklessly iconoclastic, waspishly witty and rudely combative but also openly homosexual. My most vivid memory of this highly intelligent and cultivated man is of arriving on a visit to find him in the garden of his resplendent Villa Ritchie. One gardener was digging a hole, another was holding the shrub to be planted in it, and Thursfield was giving imperious directions. That seemed to symbolise the sort of life led by so many of the expatriates of the time.

If Thursfield settled in Tangier to be entirely himself, many of the exiles illustrated in this book did so, one suspects, to be entirely their own fictions. David Edge, a butcher’s son who had spent the war years in Hungary as the catamite of an aristocratic monsignor, from whom he later inherited a fortune, presented the image of a decadent, all-powerful sultan as, clad in purple robe and gold sandals, he received his guests on a throne. Lady Gay Baird would brandish her aristocratic credentials by talking of the ‘side looking-glasses’ of cars, having been instructed from her earliest years, as she repeatedly reminded people, that to refer to mirrors was common.

Codrington provides brilliant pictures both of a city that, paradoxically, has become less and less attractive over the years as it attracts more and more visitors, and of a small, self-contained, mutually admiring little expatriate community that might be the elite of a North African Ruritania. My only regret is that Patrick Thursfield, an inexhaustible source of gossip, a dazzling wit and an irreproachable stylist, did not write the text. As I have already indicated, much of it is inconsequential and trite. I suspect that Codrington’s problem was that, writing about her friends, she did not wish to jeopardise her universal popularity by recording anything in the least unfavourable about them. That makes for enervating reading. But, let me repeat, the photographs are a joy. For them the book is well worth buying.