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Anna Trench. Laura Freeman on Charles Gibson-Cowan

Chekhov and Oysters

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The night the Evelyn Hope sailed from Hamble, there were sausages, potatoes and fried tomatoes cooked on a Primus stove for dinner. The captain opened a bottle of beer.

It took three days for the boat to reach Le Havre. There the captain and his first mate disembarked and ordered a dinner of moules marinières, followed by nougat and Calvados.

The diners were Charles Gibson-Cowan and Elizabeth David. It was 1939 and the two actors had abandoned the London stage for the Mediterranean. Their two-year odyssey was to turn her thoughts entirely from acting to writing. When she returned, reluctantly, to England she set out to write a recipe book of the cooking of France, Italy, Corsica and Greece.

To read her account, published as A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950, you might think she had travelled alone. Charles, who bought the Evelyn Hope, made her seaworthy, charted their course and weathered the storms, is pitted from the story like a stone from an olive.

To learn anything of the young lovers who fled England, you have to turn to Gibson-Cowan’s own account, The Voyage of the Evelyn Hope, a slim volume published in 1946 and long since out of print.

Though the book is dedicated to ‘E.G.’ (Elizabeth’s maiden name was Gwynne) ‘with all my love’, his travelling companion is called ‘Caroline’ throughout the book. Elizabeth was fiercely private and she had no wish to appear in print as the love interest spirited away to the Med by a drunkard, a chancer, an East End actor, a Grub Street hack and sometime tramp.

Charles was all those things – and worse. When he took up with Elizabeth, he was married with a young child. He was 31, she 22. Her appalled sisters wanted rid of him, of the theatre and of the dingy flat the couple shared. Elizabeth, the daughter of a Conservative MP, was determined to break with convention and her family, no matter how many

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The night the Evelyn Hope sailed from Hamble, there were sausages, potatoes and fried tomatoes cooked on a Primus stove for dinner. The captain opened a bottle of beer.

It took three days for the boat to reach Le Havre. There the captain and his first mate disembarked and ordered a dinner of moules marinières, followed by nougat and Calvados. The diners were Charles Gibson-Cowan and Elizabeth David. It was 1939 and the two actors had abandoned the London stage for the Mediterranean. Their two-year odyssey was to turn her thoughts entirely from acting to writing. When she returned, reluctantly, to England she set out to write a recipe book of the cooking of France, Italy, Corsica and Greece. To read her account, published as A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950, you might think she had travelled alone. Charles, who bought the Evelyn Hope, made her seaworthy, charted their course and weathered the storms, is pitted from the story like a stone from an olive. To learn anything of the young lovers who fled England, you have to turn to Gibson-Cowan’s own account, The Voyage of the Evelyn Hope, a slim volume published in 1946 and long since out of print. Though the book is dedicated to ‘E.G.’ (Elizabeth’s maiden name was Gwynne) ‘with all my love’, his travelling companion is called ‘Caroline’ throughout the book. Elizabeth was fiercely private and she had no wish to appear in print as the love interest spirited away to the Med by a drunkard, a chancer, an East End actor, a Grub Street hack and sometime tramp. Charles was all those things – and worse. When he took up with Elizabeth, he was married with a young child. He was 31, she 22. Her appalled sisters wanted rid of him, of the theatre and of the dingy flat the couple shared. Elizabeth, the daughter of a Conservative MP, was determined to break with convention and her family, no matter how many pleading letters they sent. England was drab, cold, stuffy and traditional. Elizabeth longed for a sailor’s life. Elizabeth and Charles had met in 1935. He bought the Evelyn Hope in November 1937 and by the end of May 1939 (the delay had been caused by the discovery that the hull was rotten), she was ready to sail. So began what Charles called ‘an orgy of buying’‒‒ a compass, a camera, binoculars, a ship’s log, a tool box, a set of International Code flags and a copy of Visual Signalling Part I. Elizabeth bought bed linen, cushions, curtains, china from Woolworths, casserole dishes, malted milk tablets, a thermos flask, playing cards, a ludo board, Oxo cubes, a potato peeler and a tube of toothpaste. Then came their first argument: what books to bring. They had often played a game of Desert Island books, discussing which ten titles they would chose if shipwrecked. When it came to it, Elizabeth brought more than 400 – three times as many as they had space for. She packed Pears’ Cyclopaedia, Shakespeare, the Bible, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Boswell’s Life of Doctor Johnson, the Oxford Book of Verse, Rupert Brooke, Byron, H. G. Wells, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Rabelais, Alice in Wonderland, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Arabian Nights, Chekhov, the Iliad and Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe, the Barchester Chronicles, Montaigne’s essays, several Baedeker travel guides and Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. She also packed a hundred paperback thrillers, which she said she would throw overboard once they had been read. It was the ship’s library that led me to The Voyage of the Evelyn Hope. Having exhausted my mother’s shelf of Elizabeth David recipe books last summer, I borrowed her copy of Lisa Chaney’s biography. There was a passing reference to the 400 books Elizabeth had taken to the Med. I desperately wanted to know what they were and a footnote directed me to Charles Gibson-Cowan. There wasn’t a copy of Evelyn Hope to be found online, but the London Library came up trumps. Charles’s full list of books runs to almost two pages. Somehow, they managed to fit them all into the cupboards under the bunks. And so with a fair wind the adventurers sailed for France, docking at Le Havre and then Marseilles. There they were enchanted by the painted fishing boats and by the crates of black mussels, purple sea urchins, blue crayfish and green and white oysters. The Oxo cubes – and England ‒‒ were forgotten. But it proved less easy to leave behind care and responsibility. Two days after they arrived in Marseilles, a crowd of anxious people gathered at the port. Germany had invaded Poland, and France was at war. That night they experienced their first air-raid. While every other Brit arranged transport back to England, Elizabeth was determined to sail south. War be damned.

‘Always live on a ship,’ she urged Charles. ‘Never wear anything but a blue jersey and an old pair of flannel trousers. Never wash the salt out of your hair.’

‘Why?’

‘Then perhaps I shall stay in love with you.’

Though the Mediterranean was closed to ships, they pressed on, dodging destroyers and reaching Antibes in time for the winter of 1939. While Britain shivered through a rationed Christmas and New Year, our sailors had a fine time of it. Charles recalls mornings wandering through the Marché aux Puces where they bought buttonholes from the flower market and ate kumquats. Lunch was taken on the small suntrap balcony of a local restaurant. The only concession to wartime austerity was that the 20-franc meal had been reduced from three to two courses, though the accompanying trencher of assorted cheeses, lettuce, endive, chicory, fennel and radish remained. Their destination, however, was Greece and they weren’t going to get there eating chèvre in the sun. They headed first for the island of Giglio (stopped en route by a French naval ship, convinced they must be spies) where they were rudely awoken on the first morning by a naked child clambering aboard, waving an octopus caught in his bare hands. It was on Giglio in June 1940 that they heard the news that Italy had entered the war. A friend of the local schoolmaster urged them to sail on: ‘You must leave early, trouble begins.’ They sailed south for five days and were increasingly hopeful of getting through the straits and into open seas. But as they approached Messina, the Evelyn Hope was seized and Charles and Elizabeth were put under house arrest at a pensione where lunch was a bowl of watery spaghetti soup, a blow when they had become used to Stromboli lobsters. After some weeks Elizabeth feigned hysterics and begged to be returned to England. They were released, but instead of going home, they travelled by train to Venice and then, with the help of the US Consul, to Yugoslavia. From Zagreb they took the train to Salonika and then Athens. Not easily defeated, our travellers. What followed were the happiest days of their odyssey. They washed up not on Ithaca, but Syra, an island in the Cyclades. They took a whitewashed house and Charles found work teaching English. They caught shrimps and cuttlefish and delighted the local Greeks with their recipe for sweet, stodgy suet pudding. Then, on 28 April 1941, Syra was bombed. They had fled jobs, family, home, England, all ties and responsibilities, but they could not outrun the war. ‘It hasn’t worked, has it?’ Charles asks on the final pages as they wait for evacuation from Heraklion. ‘You can’t live in a world of your own, you have to live in other people’s world.’ They parted in Alexandria. Elizabeth stayed on in the city, where she met the man she would marry, Anthony David, an officer in the Indian Army. After the war she returned to England, still miserably rationed, where she began pouring her memories of Stromboli lobsters and calamaretti into her books. Charles met a girl called Giela in Alexandria and together they moved to Cyprus where he wrote The Voyage of the Evelyn Hope. On the frontispiece, Charles reproduces a letter Elizabeth sent him from Alexandria in January 1944.

We’ll both think often of the things we have done together; of the canals, and the wine, and the red rocks of my beloved France; of the sea white with nautilus off the coast of Corsica; of dawn in the bay of Naples; of a certain lobster mayonnaise . . . of mountains of golden oranges . . . remember that you made the Isles of Greece more than just a beautiful name for both of us.

But if Charles intended his book as a tender portrait, he had misjudged his former lover. Elizabeth did not read the book until the late 1950s when a friend left a copy in her bedroom thinking it would amuse. It did not. Elizabeth tore the book from its spine with the words: ‘Never, ever, let me hear that man’s name again!’ Their love affair hadn’t survived the war.  Nor did they ever recover the Evelyn Hope. You wonder what the authorities at Messina made of her cargo of books, especially The Tailor of Gloucester.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 50 © Laura Freeman 2016


About the contributor

The last time Laura Freeman went on holiday she took seven books. She was away for two nights.

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