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THE PAUL BOWLES I KNEW

by Tessa Codrington Wheeler

 

 

I first met Paul Bowles when I was in my early twenties in the 1960s.  At that time, my grandfather had recently died and left a house, the Dar Sinclair, in Tangier, in which I was staying. 

 

Joe McPhillips was at that time just starting his lifelong career with the American School of Tangier and I had been out on the town with him.  I had recently read The Sheltering Sky, and Joe and I talked about it.  “Do you want to meet Paul Bowles?” he asked.  “I’d love to,” I replied, thinking Joe would call me in a few days.  “Come on then,” he said. “He lives just round the corner in the Immeuble Itesa.”  It was well after midnight, but it was a perfect hour for Paul, and it didn’t take long for me to understand his routine. Nor did it take long for us to make friends.

 

I am English, and a bit of Paul always seemed to me to be more English than American; the way he talked, the way he drank tea, his sense of irony, and his particular sense of humour―all these seemed to me to be untypical American traits.

 

Tessa Codrington Wheeler

 

 

I don’t remember ever talking to him about his work or anything terribly serious, sensing that he had quite enough of that sort of conversation with the endless stream of journalists who came to interview him. But I used to fill him in on the Tangier gossip, which he loved. Paul didn’t like going to the big Tangier parties—he didn’t drink after all—but he loved hearing about them, and adored descriptions of the numerous silly things that went on around town. One time I had an argument with Paul about food—he insisted that you couldn’t buy good fresh fish or chicken in Tangier. I retorted that that was because he insisted on always doing his marketing in the middle of the afternoon when any chicken or fish still on sale has been sitting around all day with no refrigeration. Anyone who has been to the market in Tangier at a sensible hour knows how wonderful the fresh food is. Once, when he came to lunch, I served a delicious steak and chips. Paul found it very hard to believe I had bought the meat in Tangier, and said he was sure I had brought it with me from England.

 

In the 1970s I lived in Tangier for two years with Ellen Ann Ragsdale from Little Rock, Arkansas, whom I introduced to her future husband, John Hopkins. During this period, Paul brought Tennessee Williams up to our house for dinner. Ellen Ann was in charge of the cooking, and she decided to make a Southern dinner, complete with mint juleps. It was quite a struggle getting all the ingredients together, and Ellen Ann was asking every American she had ever met in Tangier to help her find some bourbon, black eyed peas, etc. Finally they arrived. Paul was his usual sanguine self, but Tennessee was in a “silent” mode, so the dinner was not an unmitigated success; however, he certainly tucked into the food and the mint juleps.

 

 
Paul Bowles and Mohammed Mrabet at Dar Sinclair, Tangier, Morocco, mid-1970s. (Copyright © by Tessa Codrington)

On numerous other occasions Paul would bring to my house the Jilala musicians. The first time he did this, he told me I must take up the carpets for the dancing. We danced and danced. Soon, Paul’s friend, the storyteller Mohammed Mrabet, went into a trance and started showering the floor with bits of glowing wood from the fire, which he then proceeded to dance on. During subsequent such evenings I always took the carpets right out of the house. I adored Mrabet. He was a great actor who would turn on his horrible “I am going to kill you” face whenever he was sitting with Paul in the Itesa and sensed that a visitor overstaying their welcome, especially if it was someone he did not care for. This would be horribly unnerving to anyone who didn’t know Mrabet well.

 

I have one regret—that I didn’t follow through with the idea of working with Paul on a photographic portrait of Tangier that I started in the 1970s. My personal life got in the way and I went back to England. I am now re-doing it and am sad that Paul won’t see the completed book.

 

After the Bertolucci film of The Sheltering Sky, Paul suddenly had even more people coming to interview him or film him. Some of them wrote requesting an appointment, but a lot of them didn’t; unable to cope with the fact Paul didn’t have a telephone, they would just turn up. Paul was unfailingly polite to all of them, and it used to make me cross to see how many strangers took advantage of him in this way, especially as advanced years made him so frail.

 

I travel to Tangier three or four times a year, and I still miss going to the ugly old Immeuble Itesa to visit Paul. However, I hear that Paul’s good friend, the wonderful Cherie Nutting—who published a beautiful book of her photographs of him, Yesterday’s Perfume, a volume that also contains his last writings—now lives in his old apartment, so I look forward to seeing it again with a whole new identity.

 

Copyright © 2002, Tessa Codrington Wheeler

 

Paul Bowles at Marguerite McBey's Tangier beach house in 1975. (Copyright © by Tessa Codrington)

 

 

Tessa Codrington Wheeler is a photographer, horsewoman and writer. She is married to British businessman Stuart Wheeler, the founder of the spread betting company IG Index. They divide their time between homes at Chilham Castle, near Canterbury, Kent, England, an apartment in London, and Dar Sinclair in Tangier, Morocco. The Wheelers have three daughters: Sarah, Jacquetta and Charlotte. Jacquetta Wheeler is known as an international fashion supermodel. Tessa Codrington was a fashion photographer in London throughout the 1960s and 1970s and has also published several books on photography.

 

Codrington's latest book of photographs, Spirits of Tangier, with accompanying texts, was edited by Jean-Pascal Billaud, international editor of Groupe Marie Claire in Paris. Spirits of Tangier was published by London-based Arcadia Books on May 15, 2008. The book presents Codrington's photographs and portraits of many of the famous figures from Tangier's past, including the writers Paul and Jane Bowles, playwright Tennessee Williams, The Hon. David Herbert, the painter Marguerite McBey, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and Cecil Beaton, the photographer preferred by royalty, and legendary residents of Tangier.

 

Additional photographs in the book by Tessa Codrington portray a number of current residents of Tangier and talented artists and painters including Claudio Bravo and Patrick Procktor, and glimpses of some of Tangier's beautiful villas and gardens, glamorous parties and Codrington's images of ordinary Tangerines. Spirits of Tangier further documents the tremendous growth of this Mediterranean port city on the Strait of Gibraltar over the past few decades.

 

Buy Spirits of Tangier by Tessa Codrington

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