A History of the Chipulina Family
Maria Luisa Letts  - Raoul

1957 On the 17th of January my grandmother Maria Luisa Letts (2.4) died in hospital as a result of complications setting in after falling down at home and breaking her hip bone. A stubborn, strong willed, often annoying but always interesting women, her grandchildren would continue to hear the echo of her voice for many years afterwards. 'Cerciorate de la puerta',

It was one of her constant commands to any member of the family leaving the house in the evening. It was her way of asking the leaver to make sure the damn thing was locked when they left. If one happened to be off to the cinema she would invariably come out with another of her pet injunctions: 'Tapate la boca al salir'.

Yet another of her fads was to jot down on the window sill the registration numbers of the cars that parked below the house. She was fond of reminding her grandchildren that they should call themselves Chipulina-Letts, rather than simply Chipulina, which she considered a rather common name. She was small in stature but she more than compensated for this by the sheer force of her personality. She was belligerent and autocratic and could often appear both haughty and pompous. She could also be extremely nosey and was an expert at nagging and needling.

My grandmother, Maria Luisa Letts, 86 years old

In fact she had an uncanny ability to pick a quarrel for no reason at all. She had been a handsome woman in her youth and had been well educated, at least by the standards which applied to females at the time. She spoke several languages with varying degrees of fluency and had once given me enormous pleasure by teaching me some choice swear words in Arabic, including the rude and suggestive gestures which invariably accompanied them. In fact she once showed me how to do the Moorish equivalent of a 'corte de manga'.

It involved grabbing hold of your right fist with your left hand and then flicking the former upwards still in the form of a closed fist so that the wrist would hit the holding hand with a flopping sound. This was repeated several times while calling out the word 'Hak!' It was a thoroughly obscene gesture and you didn't have to be an Arab to get the gist of what it was all about. She also spoke a bit of Swahili. Her experiences abroad during her marriage had undoubtedly enriched her personality and she could switch on the charm when it suited her, or when her listeners were people she admired, often for snobbish reasons. Her ability to charm was no doubt the reason why she made so many friends during her travels, many of which kept in touch with her for many years after.

At home in later life she would sometimes gratuitously exhibit this pleasant side to her nature, but that little demon she held so close to her heart could not be repressed for long. Even when she was quietly reading, she would keep glancing over the rim of her book to make sure she would miss nothing that might warrant her censure. Although she enjoyed good health all her life, she had a mania for simulating ailments and would think nothing of indulging in a spot of ham acting to make her point. The other side of the coin was her ability to keep cool in a crisis, even to the extent of not making a fuss when she was genuinely ill. Among her many assets was her culinary skill, but her greatest saving grace was a keen sense of humour.

When she died, her Post Office account contained £110. It should have been slightly more but her youngest grandson had for many years been pilfering from a stock of half-crowns which she had always kept temptingly in the top drawer of her dressing table. To quote my mother’s irate comment at the time, it had been, 'Un continuo saqueo.' She had lived to the ripe old age of 87, had rarely been seriously ill and by the standards of most Gibraltarian women of her era, had led an extremely interesting life. She couldn't really complain. But she probably did.

On the 25th of January I began my military service. It began rather badly as I forgot to register on the appointed day and was collected at home by two frighteningly large military policemen. Luckily there were no repercussions.

This was also the year of a curious local phenomenon called, 'Yo amo a un Canalla' alias 'I'm in love with a Cad'. At that time, radio was a popular means of entertainment and one of the most listened to stations was 'Radio Tanger Internacional. This station regularly broadcast soap opera plays in Spanish. These were always excruciating melodramas but they were also enormously popular. 'Yo amo a un Canalla' was by far the most popular of the lot.

Radio Tanger Internacional: I am not sure who the fellow is but the photo is contemporary with ‘Yo Amo a un Canalla’

Any day of the week, it was impossible to walk down Main Street during that holy half hour without hearing every blessed radio on the Rock tuned on full blast. Down the narrow alleyways came those little sighs and sharp intakes of breath that bad actors use to punctuate their unrealistic passions and make-believe love. To quote an oft repeated line from the play: 'Cuando llega el amor, todo lo sublimiza, y todo lo exalta.'

But only up to a point: a gentleman called Chipolina, who was not related to the family and was known locally as El Caradura, made a satirical skit out of the above which he called, 'Cuando llega el jamon'. Hysteria reached such tremendous proportions that on one occasion Lina opened her front door to a tearful neighbour who promptly gave her the sad news, '¡Lo han mata'o, Señora Chipulina, Lo han mata'o!’ Lina was understandably horrified, until she suddenly realised that the woman was referring to some particularly melodramatic event in the serial.

The main protagonists were Raoul and his partner Lita. For a long time, even as they became household names, they remained mere voices in the ether. Until one day when they turned up in in the flesh. Some time previously, Los Romanceros had been invited to sing and record for Radio International. We had been sponsored by a local merchant and we went by plane. It was, incidentally my first experience of flying. When we got there we half expected to find Raoul and Lita waiting to meet us. We were, of course, disappointed.

But now, however, the two mountains had decided to come to Mohammed. It was a chance not to be missed. José Ochello, a member of Los Romancero group, was also a part-time announcer in one of the local Spanish speaking stations. Raoul and Lita were to visit them on a courtesy call. That day I witnessed the unnerving spectacle of the station being mobbed by hysterical fans as the word quickly went round.
When the two middle-aged 'young lovers' arrived they were caught in the center of an enormous crush and looked as if they needed reassuring that they were not about to be torn apart. On cue, an exasperated taxi-driver trying to get through the crowd leaned out of the window of his cab and uttered the memorable words, '!Raoul, maricon!' Luckily the women were too busy screaming in ecstasy for anyone to take too much notice and the man made his getaway. Again needless to say, I never got close enough to meet the famous couple. What a shame.

The first few weeks of army life were pure murder. For a start we were locked up in Buena Vista barracks for two endless weeks and were not allowed to receive any visitors. In retrospect it seems to me that the only thing we did during the whole of this period was to polish our brand new army boots. Perhaps I should explain. When we were issued our boots - just about the very first thing they gave us - they were in no fit state to be polished.


Haciendo el GDF: That’s me second row, first on the left.

For a start the leather uppers were completely covered with tiny pimples. To be able to get some sort of a shine on them the first thing that had to be done was to remove the lumps. This, we were told, could only be achieved by heating a small teaspoon over a candle and then ironing the lumps out one by one by placing the heated spoon over them. The amount of time the spoon was left under the candle was crucial. Too short a while and nothing happened. Too long and the convex shaped lump became a convex one and you had to do it all over again. As there were a hell of a lot of pimples it took a hell of a long time. Then it was a question of putting into practice those two good old army clichés: lots of spit and polish and plenty of elbow grease.

The final result was a pair of boots that looked as if they had been made of patent leather. According to those who knew about such things, mine were the shiniest boots of the whole intake. The day I left army life for good, my sergeant, a man who had introduced himself to me with the words, 'I'm known as the biggest bastard in the British Army, sunshine, and don't you forget it', pleaded with me to sell them to him. I refused.

Then came a period of general instruction in which we learned the finer points of 'square bashing'. The hardest bit was trying to make out what on earth the sergeant meant when he yelled out his instructions:

' SQUAAaad. . Aha . . EI. ' ( stand at ease )
' IErrrrr . . . ARH. ' ( present arms )
' By the left . . . EEEK. ARH. ' ( quick march )
' RAiii . . . . URN. ' ( right turn.)
' ATerrrn . . . SSSHUN ( attention )

My 10 man squad. I am standing second from right.

We were also taught how to use the Lee-Enfield .303, the rifle used by the British army in both World Wars. The recoil on this rifle was violent enough to break your clavicle if you held it against your shoulder incorrectly. Even done properly it would still leave you with a bruise. As regards machine guns, the Bren gun took pride of place. As far as the army was concerned, the most important thing to learn about of this weapon was how to dismantle it and put it together again within a very short period of time.

The Bren Gun

There was one much remembered incident which had occurred many years previously, probably during my brother's time in the GDF, when an instructor asked a recruit whether he knew the function of a small lever on the Bren which could be adjusted for either automatic or repetition fire. The recruit gazed back dimly at the lethal bit of scap metal until a distant memory of what the instructor had explained to him five minutes previously finally registered on his brain. 'Ah yes. 'He replied. 'Is tomato an' petition eh? '

The Bren gun must have been a logistically attractive bit of equipment to the military establishment as it used exactly the same ammunition as the Lee-Enfield. But there were one or two disadvantages. On those rare occasions on which we were required to go on manoeuvres we were, of course, not allowed to use live ammunition but were issued blank cartridges instead. However, because of its repeating mechanism the Bren would not function as a machine gun if you used blanks. To make it work you had to use live ammunition with the normal lead bullets replaced by wooden ones. Then as you fired the gun, the wooden bullets would hit a special contraption fitted to the barrel which would smash them to smithereens.

As long as you were not too close to the flying splinters you were relatively safe. Unfortunately it was not at all uncommon for people using the Lee-Enfield to get hold of some of these wooden bullets. I can recall more than one occasion lying on the sodden ground of Windmill Hill watching people using these bullets to shoot at passing seagulls. From what I saw, a wooden bullet seems to be capable of inflicting just about as much damage as a real one.

The day finally arrived when we were split into platoons and assigned to train for various specific tasks. As the GDF was in effect a regiment within the Royal Artillery most of these tasks involved the firing of guns. Most people ended up manning these guns but a few lucky individuals learned how to become either radar or predictor operators. I was assigned to the predictors.

The predictor is a now obsolete bit of equipment which was then used to aim anti-aircraft guns. Basically it consisted of a pair of powerful binoculars held inside a moveable black box. The operator sat on a comfortable seat with his eyes glued against the eye piece lenses of the binoculars. The theory was that once the operator had managed to pick up an aircraft, the black box would send some sort of electronic message to a computer that was installed in a bunker close by. The computer would then calculate the speed and height of the aircraft as well as the corresponding angle of fire and these were in turn communicated to the gunners who would then point the gun in the appropriate direction. It was quite simple really. But it rarely worked properly.

The main problem was that the predictor operators tended to go to sleep on the job: literally. The seats were very comfortable and it was very tempting to close your eyes when you had them pressed against the binoculars. It was also very easy to make believe you were doing whatever it was you were supposed to be doing without actually doing it.

The business end of an old WW II predictor.

Target practice involved firing 3.7 guns at large sleeves carried by RAF planes. On one occasion an irate pilot flying a plane that was carrying a sleeve about half a mile behind his craft, signalled back to headquarters that he was calling the whole thing off. He had only just been able to take evasive action to avoid being hit by a salvo of shells. Although I was off duty that day, some of my friends were less fortunate. A few ended up in detention barracks. It could so easily have been me.

Incidentally this was not the first time that a complaint had been lodged against GDF gunners. During my brother's stint in the army an extraordinarily angry pilot was rumoured to have radioed the following message back to base: 'Tell those bastards that I'm pulling the bloody thing, not pushing it!'

It was a maxim of army life that one should never volunteer for anything. Unfortunately it was a piece of advice which I chose to ignore one day when several of us were asked whether we would like to go on an expedition to a section of Lower St. Michael's cave which at that time was not open to the public. The expedition was a nightmare which entailed crawling through endless, unbelievably small holes and tunnels. At the end of this claustrophobic horror there was a huge cavern, the middle of which was filled with a lake of pitch black water. It was possible to walk right round the lake via an extremely narrow limestone ledge that must have formed over many centuries. The ledge was just underneath the water level and as we made our way grimly round the cavern the impression was that the next step we took would sent us plunging into the thoroughly uninviting water. And all the while on the back of our minds was the horrible thought that we would have to go through the whole thing once again on our way back. All in all, it was not a pleasant experience.

It was sometime during the final weeks of my stint in the army that I had another stroke of good fortune. I should mention that my best army mate and I were the lucky owners of the two beds beside the only windows in our dormitory. One night we were having our customary last cigarettes before turning in well after lights out - and completely against army regulations - when we heard the sound of heavy vehicles being moved about in the square just below us. As such comings and goings were part of normal army life we simply ignored them. We flicked our fags out of the window with practised skill and went to sleep.

The next morning we were woken up in traditional fashion by our beloved sergeant:
'Wakey wakey, rise and shine . . ' etc etc. etc.
'!Me cago en diez! ' Groaned one of my neighbours. ' No' podian haber deja'o
dormir un poco mas despue' de lo que a pasa'o''
I looked at him quizzically.
'¿Pero que a pasa'o? 'I asked.
'¿Que a pasa'o? !Pero coño si el fuego estaba debajo tu ventana! '
I knew immediately what had happened. In fact half an hour later when we were on parade I was able to confirm my worse fears. Just below the two windows of our dormitory lay the burnt out wreck of an enormous army transport truck. One or both of our cigarette ends must have landed on the well oiled tarpaulin which had covered the back part of the truck and set it on fire.

Barracks dormitory: Me on the right. Could that be the fag that caused the fire?

Luckily nobody was hurt but I have yet to understand how on earth there were no further repercussions. What I can understand is how we managed to sleep through it all. In the army you were always so tired that you invariably slept like a log.

The full GDF intake for my year.It is difficult to make out but I am eighth from the right on the second last row. The backdrop is Buena Vista Barracks.

Baba had meanwhile returned from her course in Seaford College and had become Head of Department for Domestic Science at Rosia School. She had loved every minute of her stay abroad. She told me later that the bits she had enjoyed best were the 'science' experiments in the labs.