Thursday, 11 November 2021

Audrey Beecham

I was reading a novel which I picked up by chance in an Oxfam shop and stumbled across more references to the Western European colony in Tangiers and Fez, and found this might shed more light on Audrey Beecham’s 1957 poem ‘The Cruel Coast of Barbary’:

I am tired land and poor
I am the pattern to which the winds have rubbed me
My nails are sharpened by the sea to knives:
I know not ships – though their forests have known me-
Nor the softening fleshes of long-lost lives.

Piracy has played beneath my skylit eyeholes.
Men were enslaved to pass their lives in pain.
Monkey tribesmen clustered on my shoulders
Many times enriched my dust with richest rain.
(‘The Cruel Coast of Barbary’)

The “Barbary coast” is originally simply a coast where Berber is spoken. (Tangiers is on the Atlantic.) The "enslaved" part refers to the staple of the corsair economy, that is slave-raiding; their ships were propelled by oars manned by slaves, usually (or in legend) European. The corsairs had their homes in Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers. In a previous post, I discussed this poem (the title poem of her 1957 book The Coast of Barbary) and speculated that it might refer to (female) homosexuality, and that the locale might be a reference to a fairly dense group of gay exiles, in 1957 but also ten years later and for a few years before 1957, in Morocco and what was at one time the “international zone”. Beecham published only two volumes of poetry, the one mentioned and one in 1979 (re-issued 1980) called A Different Weather. This is the background against which we can propose that Beecham set a poem, about the curse of being gay and about being alienated and dissociated from a social role generally, in a real place, and that “Coast of Barbary” refers to the expat colony on the coast of Morocco (and, doubtfully, in other Mediterranean cities). "The Coast of Barbary” is the title of a section of 14 poems in the book. The linking theme is likely to be the image of a coast as the ego, in the guise of a welcoming terrain where the proposed lover would make landfall and choose to linger. The poet is like a bay welcoming ships in and offering them fruit and sweet water. A poem about the Fortunate Isles makes this image sharp: these islands are found in the western Mediterranean, or past the Strait but close by. Yet we do not seem to have reached them. Instead, the poet offers a hostile shore, defined by captivity and infertility; and this is the Barbary Shore. This is how that phrase can be extended to all fourteen poems. The novel is A Smell of Burning, 1963, by Margaret Lane (although I rapidly went on to read Lane’s 1968 novel The Day of the Feast, also set in Tangiers and Fez). Lane says there were lots of Europeans living in Tangiers, and refers, briefly but rather pungently, to the prevalence of gays in their number – she remarks that the third question asked about any new arrival was whether they were gay. She also shows one of her characters being accosted by a ten year-old male prostitute in Tangiers, although this scene takes place in French to shelter the susceptibilities of English readers. This confirms what one would learn from books by William Burroughs and Rupert Croft-Cooke, that there was a group of expats living there, numerous enough to provide interesting society for each other, and that some portion of this little group were gay and had either been prosecuted for related activities back in Britain or had simply chosen to live in a city where the police were not much interested in policing the morals of European residents.
A tourist website lists these artists as having lived in Tangiers: 'Matisse, Emily Keene, William Burroughs, Paul et Jane Bowles, Bernardo Bertolucci, Josep Tapiro, Antoni Gaudí, Camille Saint-Saëns, Eugène Delacroix, Mohamed Choukri, Federico García Lorca, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Pierre Loti, Roland Barthes, Jean Genet, Mick Jagger, Jack Kerouac, Paul Morand, Alexandre Dumas, Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Samuel Beckett... Tous ont vécu à Tanger. De coeur ou de naissance, tous sont des enfants du pays.' This leaves out Juan Goytisolo.
Another site I stumbled on describes many Republicans as having fled to Tangiers, a zone under international control, to evade Franco, as the new dictator of Spain. However, it points out that Franco occupied the Zone from 1940 to 1945, presumably to inhibit the political activity of these inherently anti-Franco individuals. This may be the source of the literary colony in Tangiers and it may not. I am also curious about the equally hedonistic expat colony on Ibiza, which was there in the 1930s and also had problems with Franco. John Harlan Hughes remarks “At the time of the novel, there were roughly 60,000 inhabitants: half European, half Moroccan Muslims and Jews.” (That is, his novel, set in 1942.) I understand the correct term is Tangerino (to say "Tanjawi" is more pretentious). The “international zone” reverted to Moroccan control in 1956, the year of Moroccan independence. The Europeans will have been mainly Spanish and French nationals and engaged in trade or in government posts; the western European dilettanti or sexual outlaws were just a smattering. But the police were still tolerant – surely the law did not allow someone to pick up a ten year-old boy, or the boy to solicit clients, but in practice this might rarely lead to an arrest. A character in one of Lane’s novels gives as reasons for living in Morocco the lack of income tax, the servants, the climate. By “servants” we understand that incomes derived from Western Europe had a high purchasing power in Morocco, due to exchange rate anomalies and also low wages. The character does not mention “tolerance for gay sex”.
Up to 1956, Tangiers was a boom town, possibly because the international control commission was lax, exchange controls were absent, and there was a low tax regime as well as a "clean" administration. Also because of smuggling into Spain, which had steep import duties as part of the Fascist policy of autarky and import substitution. There was a construction boom in the 1950s. It was not a low-rent town and was not the classic "town in decline" where drop-outs go to live in crumbling properties for minimal rents. It was full of businessmen. (Ibiza, at least in the 1950s, was a very cheap place to live.) As a prosperous town on the edge of extensive rural poverty and under-employment, its prosperity could also be accompanied by a large group of people without money - the classic "high rent, low wages" town. It was a European town in which half the inhabitants belonged to the Third World. After 1956, the "free port" privileges were abolished and anyone who had capital left to set up somewhere else. Spain moved away from the policy of autarky after 1960. But, the Northern European colony in Tangiers were not doing much business – they lived on remittances from the home country. As a group, they lacked the work ethic – so that problems of how to occupy leisure were unusually prominent. Croft-Cooke, in contrast, worked incredibly hard as a writer living off his royalties, but he still enjoyed an abundant social life, as he describes. (His memoir of the time is The Caves of Hercules.) He lived in Tangiers for fifteen years - after coming out of prison in England.
Beecham presents the Coast of Barbary as a curse. But is this Tangiers? against this idea, we have to say that the sources do not mention gay female expats as a feature and they were not doing anything illegal in Britain, so that exile would not seem to be an imperative need. Further, the tolerance which someone like Croft-Cooke found would make Tangiers a benign place to live, if you were gay and cultured, where you could attend gay parties and act out a gay sensibility without worrying who would disapprove. It was a way of being true to yourself. This “Barbary shore” was hardly an accursed place to be, and people would not have gone to live there if it had been. But, on balance, I find it likely that her poem refers to exile in Tangiers and is about the curse of being born gay. It is personal symbolism and we have to accept that the personal symbolism of a 1957 poem may have vanished over the edge of what intelligence can recover sixty years later.
Lane’s novels (which I found compelling reading) also describe the arrival of what, in 1963, was a new social group – the drop-outs. A review of her describes them as “derelicts and dilettanti”, although she is always less judgemental. These people were already there when the Rolling Stones visited Morocco. Lane portrays a whole ecology of people who had no purpose in life – they have no ambitions (although meeting similar people in cafes was always a priority). Their characters are invisible because they are so inactive. They are like the “new society” of students except that they are not willing to study anything. They are connected to the rise of a “counter culture”, although that involves a level of effort which is alien to them. The role of drugs and sexual freedom was also influential. They are anti-Western almost by default. The hippy lifestyle is not based simply on dislike of English life but also on immersion in a concrete alternative on Ibiza and in Morocco. And this is all an anticipation of the new poetry. Being “non-Western” in British poetry is linked to Camden Lock market and its stalls where people returning from Morocco sold Moroccan artefacts as a way of funding their next trip to the Strait. The abandonment of a work ethic allows artistic endeavour to take centre stage. It leaves a negligent serenity in which any surviving attention is given only to details either of subjective perception or of verbal style. It was a counter-balance to the academic influence: simply describing ideas produced something which was not poetry. The poems had to have human beings at their heart, and those humans could not simply be preoccupied with commuting, office life, and the mortgage.
The connection between the middle-class expats and the “drop-outs” is intriguing, even if Lane as usual shows us a fascinating contact zone without descending into mere reportage. We can link Beecham’s flat-out hysteria to the blank apathy of the Tangiers hippies. Beecham represents the frustration they were saying No to. They refused to start the chase.

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