China Tea in Gibraltar
by Barnaby Rogerson
It was going to be a lot more foreign than Tangier, let alone such familiar home-territory as Gibraltar, Malta or Virginia. Which was odd considering how proud we were meant to be of our mother’s Scottish blood, from one of the Highland clans that had been forever broken on Culloden field. But perhaps it was best to love Scotland at a distance, through the medium of tartan dressing-gowns, glasses of whisky at dusk and the lyrics of A Scottish Soldier. For whether Andy Stewart knew it or not, he was at the centre of a family ancestor cult, for when he sung, we all knew that it was about my mother’s uncles who had fallen in the trenches and her own heroic mother and father.
Dad had gone on a ‘recce’ to check out this next foreign posting in his long Naval career. On his return from the North-West coast of the Highlands, he sounded suspiciously reticent about our future living quarters, muttering something about ‘its either a bungalow or a castle up there’. He had also privately established that it was not looking good for my mother’s three principal occupations in life: too windy for tennis, card games were frowned upon as the tools of the devil and sunbathing the afternoon away - like a lizard on rocks cooked warm by the sun - was not an occupation that was going to transfer from the Mediterranean to the coast around Skye.
To break the current of unease, I asked him what the nature of his job was, knowing full well I would only get some misleading waffle in return. “Oh mostly watching seals, I hear. Some big breeding colonies on the rocks opposite my office. It’s too far north for an admiral to motor to by day, so apparently they need a Resident Naval Officer, up there. So no boss which will be nice, we might even try and build another boat to go exploring in”. Of the underwater submarine range and the development of an intelligent, submarine-hunting torpedo (a sea drone), of the cabins of bearded sandle-wearing boffins at work in isolated uninhabited islands accessed by helicopters, he kept his habitual silence.
There was clearly going to have to be some radical adjustments to the patterns of daily life. For the living was easy and the drink was cheap.
The mornings never started early in our house in Gibraltar. My father always walked the dogs in the early morning light, then shaved, dressed and breakfasted alone. While the gardener and the maid had learnt to tiptoe around the courtyard house until they smelt that Mum had safely drunk her first two coffees and lit up a cigar. Only then could the noisy pump be switched on and water splashed about, all over the terraced garden and the stone paving stones, bringing up scents and scattering ants and cats. It was a form of daily profligacy in water-rationed Gibraltar (home to a noisy de-salination plant and a vast-catchment screen built over most of the eastern side of the Rock) to have your own underground cistern but the garden-courtyard had been designed by an engineer in the 18th-century so that much of the water that was splashed about in the morning rituals, actually trickled back down again.
Mum was a bit of a star amongst the white-clad ladies of the tennis clubs, where her natural ferocity was allowed its full vent. So she could bellow out her habitual curses, such as ‘bugger my old top hat’ or ‘take that you bastard’ as she successfully returned a particularly forceful forehand drive. Extra confusion could also be caused to her tidy-minded hostesses by letting loose her little pack of three basset-hounds in their gardens, especially that of the stuffy old admiral’s wife, which also allowed for some more bellowing after the game, before she would disappear homeward, her eyes shielded by dark glasses and puffing on a thin cigar with her dogs leaning out of the windows of our rusty old car, their long ears flapping in the levantine breeze.
Lunch like breakfast was not much of an occasion. For my mother had a basic resentment against time spent in a kitchen during daylight hours. ‘Fruit’, she would cry, ‘If you are hungry take something from the fruit bowl’. Fortunately, the fruit was very good in Gibraltar, provided by a local Moroccan street vendor whose patch was on the corner at the bottom of our street. My mother had made a decisive intervention in the quality of life of the street vendor, urging my father to counter-sign some document, which had allowed the young vendor’s wife to come over from time to time from Tangier. So we were continuously rewarded with wonderfully effusive greetings and the best of his fruit, even though my mother tried to refuse any gifts.
Afternoons were calmer. She was an elegant, quiet and graceful companion at the beach club; slim with a mahagony tan, hair casually knotted in a pony-tail (never touched by a hairdresser’s curls or dyes). Mother had burnt out whatever anger it was that crouched at her back through her sport. And so while I liked to swim and read, she lay cocooned in her sunglasses stretched out like a lizard, swimming only at the end of the day. I admired the way she was resolutely silent amongst all the swirls of gossip that so animated the other officers’ wives. She had always remained completely detached from any interest in the details of my father’s career. Her animals, her children, her garden, the tennis and bridge fought out daily amongst a close circle of friends defined her life. Even now, decades later, she expresses no interest in what her husband might have done in Department X, or why it was that Dad was labelled to go down in the underground bunkers in case of a nuclear war. Though in the latter case, at the time she alarmed all her children by threatening to kill him with a shotgun at the front door if her ever decided to desert his family.
But tea marked the crucial shift in the mood of the household. It was never served before half past five, by which time my father had been dropped back home by a naval driver, arriving immaculately turned-out in his uniform. Even as children we knew he looked old-fashioned (but we had worked out that he had been born this way – and to prove it there was a photograph of Dad looking this way when he joined the navy aged ten) with his laundry-pressed starched white collars, and a cream silk handkerchief tucked into his top pocket during the black-uniformed winter months, or in the white uniform worn during the summer months.
Over the scent of China tea that smelt of tarred old rope, a beloved confection known as lapsang souchong, we would finally effectively communicate as a family, assisted by plates of cucumber sandwiches and blue and white china. The tea itself would be praised on an almost daily basis for ‘smelling just like the lower decks of the cutty sark’. Tea was the ritual that seemed to assure us all of some essential continuity. Empires might wither, the number of ships in the fleet would shrink year by year, incomes might diminish, taxes would increase, our American allies would become ever more over-mighty ‘like some monstrous cuckoo that never leaves the nest’ but providing China tea could be served things remained just about manageable. Dad assured us that even during the Korean War, when his ship was assisting covert operations along the shore, tea was always served on time beneath a canvas canopy on the afterdeck. Only once had it been disturbed when one of the Chinese orderlies had gone through the officer’s cabins, pocketing all the gold cufflinks, cigarette cases and watches, before jumping overboard and swimming for the Korean shore. The marines gunned him down in the water so it was never established if he was a communist agent or had just run amok that one afternoon. ‘But the marines were always a bit trigger happy, brave, tough but a little bit dim…though I suppose the poor bugger had a quicker end than if they had fished him out of the water with one of their boats - though in that case I would have got my cufflinks back’ .
After tea, it was time for an evening walk with the dogs and then like fishes allowed back into their water, my parents would settle into their first round of drinks, a pair of lethally strong whiskies to set them up, taken as the sun slowly set over the Spanish hills above Algeciras, lighting up the vast naval dockyard where two whole battle-fleets could be moored at the same time. They had decided that the Spanish had built their oil refinery on the other side of the Bay ‘to disturb the view’ but if they had, we benefited from a wonderfully confusing palette of yellows and browns that the tapering refinery stacks added to the sunsets.
This varied palette extended into the night, for evenings were a blaze of social life, cocktail parties, dances and dinners, evenings at the yacht club, the casino, the night-clubs or slumming it at the table of a restaurant. There was a stream of foreign naval officers and ‘technicians’ to be looked after, plus visiting warships, house-guests and passing travelers to be entertained, before you even began to consider Gibraltar’s own complex society. There was the immediate political division, between hawks and doves (those who wanted independence under British sovereignty versus those who felt there must be some accommodation with Spain), there was the linguistic division between English and Spanish speakers, further complicated by a hotchpotch of ethnic identities; based around Genoese, Jewish, Moroccan, Gujerati, British and Spanish descent (the latter fractured in two by the memory of whose family had done what during the civil war). The civil service was also cleft in two, between locals and the so-called UK-based civilians, while the armed forces of the large garrison were broken into the three rival branches of army, navy and airforce. Themselves further subdivided by the adamantine social fences of military rank (that kept the families of officers, non-commissioned officers and other ranks living quite separate lives) further complicated by education, religion, regimental pecking order and the mysteries of ‘background’. Visitors often commented how trapped it must feel, living in a five mile-long fortified peninsular whose land frontier with Spain was sealed shut, but the longer you stayed on the fortress of Gibraltar, the larger it grew, as you began to recognize the seething mass of different worlds that like a termite mound, all intersected, but never mingled into a whole. Remembering all the separate command, staff and social structures maintained by the different bosses: be they Governor-General, Fortress Commander, resident Admiral, Chief Minister, Naval Dockyard or the RAF Airbase, has given me a lifelong insight into how satisfyingly complex and mischievous the society of a city-state can be.
I was fortunate. I was eighteen and had been expelled from my public school, but after a year at a state school I had A levels and a small motorcycle. I had acquired a pair of short-shift jobs, working in the cocktail bar of the casino by night and in the morning at the ice factory, a frozen-food store used by all the restaurants and bars. These jobs funded a series of travels, to northern Morocco, three months in Canada, the Atlantic coast of Portugal and the Spanish sherry capital of Jerez de la Frontera still reeking of Franco’s fascist reign. Though in truth, many of the most intriguing explorations were at home. I continued to feel completely disconnected to the youths of my own age with their fascination with rock bands, sport and teenage girls, in complete reversal to the dangerous static that came off any encounter with the drunken but well-read wife of the Irish doctor and the ancient sun-etched face of a cigarette-smuggling roué who lived in his converted motor-torpedo boat at the docks. His great days as a smuggler to and from the international city of Tangier was over, but it was said that he still liked to keep his hand in, the business camouflaged by beach picnics. Like some indifferent Janus-headed deity he had observed that each decade had its different crop: political refugees in the 40s, currency in the 50s, cigarettes in the 60s, dope (packed in thick black plastic bags which would later be picked up by divers) in the 70s and migrants in the 80s. He had survived them all by avoiding guns and keeping the customs officers sweet.
Aside from my day and night jobs I had also started to map out all the old walls, tunnels and bastions of the fortress where Moroccan medieval curtain walls mixed with splendid 18th century bastions, some bizarre 19th century gun turrets and a vast web of wartime ammunition silos, bomb shelters and secret escape routes that led to the rock faces of empty coves. This whole dark, half forgotten, dank, dripping underground world mirrored stories best forgotten; such as the arbitrary expulsion of the entire civilian population during the Second World War or the period when the Duke of Kent (Queen Victoria’s father) reigned as Governor General, and who brought the otherwise obedient garrison to the brink of mutiny by a mad catalogue of floggings and hangings, until he was discreetly removed from office. His day-book was still preserved in the library of the fortress, which I was eventually allowed to see, while from the naval architects office I managed to get copies of a series of large-scale maps against which I marked out and dated the various visible and underground networks within the fortress. Behind one of the cathedral-like silos built to store naval ordnance underground, they had unwittingly broken into an enchanted series of caverns, where gothic finials dripped into pools whose levels shifted in some mysterious rhythm to the tide.
The tidal reach in the Mediterranean, is a foolish, whimsical thing compared to the vast excavations of the marine floor achieved everyday by the Atlantic. What was much more interesting in this region was the ocean currents. Different graduations of salinity and temperature allowed for seven different currents to flow in and out of the straits of Gibraltar.
It was these ocean currents that revealed to me how secrets can be revealed as much by an unexpected silence as by careless talk. For like some scene from a Tintin book, a humble looking merchant ship one day lurched into the harbour – and unusually was given instant access to the Naval dockyard. Its captain claimed to have been hit by the conning tower of a submarine, but all the naval attaches of our various allies provided evidence that none of their vessels could have been within a hundred miles of this accident. They continued to maintain this weeks later, even when in the dry-dock, an entire conning tower could be seen to have been wedged in the ships hull, complete with Naval markings. It was an absurd, almost comically concise image of deceit revealed. Days later the actual US submarine involved in the collision was towed into harbour, its entire crew so disabled by acute seasickness that they had to be admitted into the naval hospital, for their vessel (minus the fins on the conning tower) had lost both stabilizer and part of its rudder. The silence that descended over the affair, backed up the continued affirmation that this ship was not part of the US Mediterranean fleet, was surprising. For generally if there was an occasion to knock the professionalism of any other boat or fleet afloat, it was taken with both hands. For the Royal Navy existed in a state of razor sharp rivalry, not only between every officer in every ship, but also against all other ships afloat, its perceived enemies and its allies.
Such as the time when I watched a joint NATO fleet manoeuvre from the summit of Gibraltar one afternoon. The ships of the Royal Navy made a great show of taking up their stations in the harbour with a ballet-like demonstration of finesse, for an entire squadron swept into the harbour at speed and then backed themselves astern in a flurry of white-water to precisely achieve their stations under their own steam. It was showy operation, full of risk but gorgeously confident and concise, that was made all the more rewarding by the fact that the US warships took the rest of the day to take up their stations, each waiting humbly in the Bay to be towed into place by the tugs of the Naval dockyard. Trafalgar had been fought just to the west of Gibraltar.
My first great coup as an amateur teenage spy took place shortly after the affair of the wobbly submarine. I had by this time worked out the basic principles of the Cold War NATO strategy, largely by arguing with my father over the dinner table, for we both loved history and wine fuelled talk. In case of a Soviet military attack, the role of the various armies in Germany was merely to hold the ground long enough for American reinforcements to be rushed in from across the Atlantic to save the Democracies of Western Europe, or as the realists in the armed forces conceded - to push ahead with peace talks. For they had the three M’s - more men, more tanks and motivation. The period before the US reinforcements arrived was considered to be the time of greatest danger, when the Soviet submarine fleet would swarm out from its various harbours and try to sink the American Armada sailing to the rescue of Europe. In this scenario the Straits of Gibraltar had a surprisingly vital role as the very last line of anti-submarine defence before the Soviet submarine fleet dispersed itself into the vastness of the Atlantic.
The Soviet admirals were however well aware that the shallow Baltic and the narrow Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits would prove to be killing fields for their ships during any time of conflict. So the Russian admirals had come up with two grand strategies: to sheath their boats in massively thick condoms of rubber (against sonar detection) and to try and keep a third of their boats hidden in the Atlantic waters at any one time, for it would be too late to achieve this once a war had started-up. There were two well-tried tactics to help them keep this invisible but permanent submarine fleet in place. For a skilled submariner could piggy-back his way through any surveillance, by waiting patiently and then tagging its way along by following (a bit like a limpet) underneath a noisy ship. This was comparatively easy with a tanker or large merchant-ship whose likely course could be predicted and which made slow turns. Only the captains at the very top of their game could attempt the grand finesse of ‘limpeting’ their way across the seas, by lying beneath the great noisy hull of an enemy aircraft carrier. But this they did. Or at least I think I once witnessed this, as a helicopter that I was in dropped its sonar mikes into the water at the same time that the carrier made an unexpected starboard turn. Another ‘craft skill’ of a submarine captain was to be able to cruise this way and that in total silence, using only minimum bursts of power by precise knowledge of the depths of the various underwater currents. And the complex marine stratigraphy of the straits of Gibraltar were the great training ground for this sort of tactic. Suddenly I began to understand the silence around what had seemed like the bizarre instance of the collision between the US submarine and the merchant ship.
Then bit by bit, the rest of the jigsaw started to fall into pieces. The vast mile-long coils of cable that had appeared at the dockyard and then disappeared, the succession of very clever but conversationally stunted young men from North Carolina who had worked with my father, the continued importance of the close American friendship with Morocco, and those impressively learned liaison officers popping in from Kenitra and Tangier.
It was for an adolescent, something of a relief to find out that my father was not just some bumbling old Tory reactionary in a salaried position but was directly involved in developing a sophisticated new underwater sonar system that stretched across the Straits of Gibraltar, if not in at least three other locations. This was being honed to be accurate enough to identify the individual ‘sonic’ signature left behind by every hull and propellor that passed through the Straits. Which would allow the operational procedures, routines and procedures of the entire Soviet submarine fleet to henceforth be mapped, analysed and observed. The waiting wolves would themselves become watched and stalked. Submarines could be set to trail submarines.
My mistake was to summarise these findings in a written diary that I was then keeping, which the next day I found had been heavily edited with a razor. Seven pages of detailed analysis had been hacked out including the identity of the military intelligence officer (badly camouflaged in the Transport Corps) charged with liaison with the Moroccans. That evening over tea, I tried to keep my voice level, clear and cool as I accused my father of breaking the trust between us, and abusing a great confidence. In short ‘how dare he read my very private diary?’
‘My dear boy, before you make yourself ridiculous I think one of the first things a spy should learn is that they must also expect to be spied upon. I burnt those pages and I must ask you not to write them down again.’ Beneath my anger I was thrilled that what I had discovered was not being refuted, just condemned to silence. ‘Yes father’, I lied.
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by Barnaby Rogerson