A History of the Chipulina Family
Zambomba - Families that Pray Together

1951 At that time Christmas had not yet reached the levels of consumption and commercialism that it would some forty years later. In Spain, Christmas was hardly celebrated at all, and family gatherings and the giving of presents usually took place on the 7th of January, known as El dia de los Reyes. In Gibraltar, a few families retained the Spanish traditions but the majority usually opted for a somewhat modified version of the British Christmas. Generally the celebrations took place mostly on Chistmas Eve rather than Christmas Day,

The Chipulina family, while following the British version, celebrated Christmas in their own traditional style which went back to pre-war days and perhaps even further back. Celebrations began late at night on Christmas Eve with a sweet Martini aperitif and a choice of cold tapas made up of olives, anchovies, jamon serrano and various other cold meats. Despite the more or less agnostic persuasion of the most of the members of the family, some of them would eventually troop off to midnight mass.

Eric was perhaps the exception. At that time of the year, if he had still been in a condition to troop off anywhere, it certainly wouldn't have been to midnight mass. Back home there followed the exchange of presents and a specially prepared supper. There was in existence at the time some dictat or other from a previous Pope who had decreed that meat could not be eaten on Christmas Eve. Again, more from tradition than for religious reasons, the main course of the meal was invariably a delicious cold mayonnaise salad with pargo al horno, an oven baked local sea bream.


Apropos of which there was in fact some sort of a document which one could buy from the church for a nominal sum. It allowed one to dispense with the 'no meat on Fridays or holy days of obligation including ‘Christmas eve' rule. The dispensation was called, or had something to do with a 'Papal Bulla'. The words immediately conjured up visions of enormous herds of ecclesiastical cattle.

Finally, at the nut cracking stage, the liqueurs came out. An anisette bottled by Marie Brizard was one of my mother’s favourites. Other drinks such as Creme de Cacao, Vermouth, and Anis del Mono were quite popular with other members of the family. Whatever the drinks, however, they all had one thing in common: they had all been brought over from Spain as they were much cheaper there.

Anis del Mono

There were no Christmas trees and decorations were minimal. But the general atmosphere of well-being still hovers somewhere in the ether, and forms an unforgettable part of family nostalgia. Eric, of course, was now a young man of 23. For him Christmas was just a good excuse for indulging in excesses of one sort or another, many of which involved getting thoroughly drunk. At the time it was quite popular for groups of friends to go around town singing extremely banal Christmas carols under the windows of people well known for their tolerance and generosity. There was always the hope that somebody, somewhere, would be rash enough to invite them in for an extra one for the road. A popular favourite on everybody's repertoire that sometimes got results was,
'La Virgen va camina . a . a . a . ando,
Va caminando soli . i . i . i . ita,
Y no llevá mas compa. a . a. a. aña,
Qu'el niño de la mani . i . i . i . ita
Pero mira como duermen los pece' en el rio,
Pero mira como duermen al ver el dio' naci'o.'

This was, of course, a traditional Spanish Christmas carol. However, it seems unlikely that the fish went to sleep when Jesus was born in the original version. Another old favourite was:
'Un pastor le dijo a otro pastor
Vámonos juntos para Belén,
Que la burra se me ha puesto mala,
Hermano del alma no puedo seguir'.

The way in which the last line was sung always seemed to imply that the reason the shepherd could not continue his journey had more to do with drink than with his donkey.

It was probably during Christmas that year that one of Eric's singing companions who worked in the Rock Hotel, was involved in some argument or other with his boss. The friend was duly fired by the manager, a Frenchman by the name of Vispalý, and the group immediately added a new song to their sodden yuletide revelry.
'Ai Vispalý, Vispalý, ai Vispalý,
Ai Vispalý, Vispalý, ai Vispalý,
Ai Vispalý es un hijo la gran PUUU..TA
Ai Vispalý.'

Very many years later Eric was amazed to hear the same song sung by a new generation of Christmas revellers who clearly could not have had a clue as to its origins. It was a curious example, witnessed at first hand, of how words, phrases or songs could remain in the public memory even when their origins were long forgotten. In Gibraltar the added complication of the local patois, the wholesale transfer of English words into Spanish idiom, and the conscious or unconscious additions of gross malapropisms, often made it difficult to follow what was going on. There was, for example, a popular street song of the time which went something like this:
'Ay Pattison, Pattison,
Pattison del alma mia,
Otra vez que te la lleve,
Llevatela en un tranvía.'

Pattison was probably somebody called Patterson but God knows who he was or what he should have taken on that tram. There were, incidentally, no trams in Gibraltar. Another Yanito verse that deserves mentioning is one which was often recited jokingly at home. It went like this:
'Sani sani washer
And the wash are we,
And the gu saniguera
And they come for me.
And the wee, wee, wee, wee, wee.'

One could easily mistake the above for a nonsense verse but in fact it was simply a horribly mangled version of a Scottish jingle which begins as follows:
'Sandy sandy waters
Waters of the Dee.'

As for the 'gu saniguera' one can only assume it had something to do with heather. Eric's main contribution to group singing was the playing of the zambomba.

An 18th century picture by Pasquale de Rossi. The man on the right is playing a Zamboma. The word zambomba has no translation in English. Dictionaries old and new define it as a 'rustic drum'. The body was traditionally made of clay and it looked more or less like an unglazed pot with a skin stretched over the top. Unlike an ordinary drum, however, the skin had a hole in the middle through which protruded a long, thin reed. It was played by sliding the reed between the middle finger and thumb in what can best be described as a rather obscene up and down motion.

One evening during the Christmas holidays, I returned home to find my already well oiled brother holding forth on the finer points of the instrument. The reed, he suggested, should be held like a bird, too lightly and it would fly away, too harshly and one might end up by strangling it. To produce the purest sounds, one had to cut the reed down to a few inches and always carry a bottle of water in order to wet one's fingertips. It was, said Eric as he warmed to the theme, a very primitive instrument with honourable and ancient roots and had probably first arrived in Spain via the Moorish invasion. All of which left me suitably impressed and immediately made me revise my original opinion of the instrument. I had always thought that the only good thing about the zambomba was that it was a cheap and easy way to produce a deep bass sound.
Fancy dress dances were another popular activity during Christmas time. Traditional parties of this sort, which were known as baile de mascaras, were held annually at various local clubs as well as at the Assembly Rooms. At the time, however, the definitive place to go was the Prince of Wales Club, known colloquially as el Pishiway. For many people the objective was to win the fancy dress prize. For a minority, however, it was simply an excuse to have a good grope in complete anonymity. These people usually opted for a costume called a domino which was reminiscent of a black Ku Klux Klan uniform.

It had many advantages. It was inexpensive and made the wearer completely unrecognisable. So much so, that it was often impossible to tell whether it concealed a male or a female: other than by feel of course. Rarely in the history of dances have so few harassed so many for such a long time. The custom of wearing a domino went back a long way in Gibraltar. In fact its origins could be traced to the Italian renaissance commedia dell'arte along with those other fancy dress favourites such as the Harlequin and the Colombine. It did have one big drawback. As it covered the body from head to foot with just a couple of small holes for the eyes, it was extremely hot to wear and induced one to sweat like a pig.

Of course, the Christmas holidays were not all late nights, long drinking sessions and dancing in the streets. We did have other more staid forms of entertainment. During the colder and less pleasant winter evenings Baba and I often played a game which we called 'Famous Men and Women'.

Famous men and women

This was a pencil and paper game in which we made up a long list with headings such as 'famous men alive', 'famous women alive', 'famous male artists', 'famous musicians, 'names of river, 'names of mountains', 'capitals' . . . in fact any heading that took our fancy.

One of us would then open a book at random and pick the top letter of one of the pages. We would then give ourselves a couple of minutes to write down as many names as we could that fitted the headings starting with the chosen letter. Repeats were crossed out so wherever possible we tried to choose the most unlikely name. Whenever they were in the mood, or had nothing else better to do, Eric and my mother would join us.

But all good things come to an end and it was soon back to school to face a winter term of maths, latin, history, geography and all those other subjects that children everywhere have always had to put up with. Some of the lessons we most enjoyed were those on Spanish language and literature. This was because we all thought we knew the subject much better than the teacher who taught us. We were, of course, quite wrong. The man was a Christian brother, as were most of our other teachers, and came from Birkenhead. His name was Brother Taylor but he was always referred to behind his back as the Liverpool rat. We knew our geography.

The Christian Brothers
Back Row from left: Bro. Doherty – PE, a ram-rod disciplinarian, Bro. Taylor – Spanish, Bro. Darcy – Maths, mild and indecisive, Bro. Finnegan – English, is last on the right. Front row starting third for left: Bro Foley – a fearsome Headmaster, Bro. Beattie, Latin and rather eccentric to say the least. I can’t remember much about the rest of them.

Brother Taylor was a small, intensely clever man who could ridicule anybody down to size with his biting sense of humour. He once spent a whole period trying to explain to us the difference between irony and sarcasm. We may not have grasped the subtle nuances of his argument but we definitely knew that we had often been at the receiving end of the latter. Despite all this he was quite popular with the pupils as he had an innate ability to talk about the most commonplace of topics and force you to reconsider your opinion about them. One day he launched into an angry diatribe on the absurdity of trying to teach poetry to Philistines such as us.

'My God!' he shouted blasphemously. 'If any of you had been required to come up with a line such as 'over the hills and far away' you would have written something like 'across the mountain to Algeciras' '

‘Across the mountain to Algeciras’

Even as the bell signalled the end of the period he was still haranguing us.
'Pah! Even if some fool wrote a five word epic poem you still wouldn't be able
to understand him. '
Suddenly I had a flash of inspiration. I stood up and shouted back at him.
'Un hombre vivio y murio. '
He stopped abruptly and looked back towards me in amazement.
'Well, well, well!' he said softly, 'So there is after all someone in this class
with some sort of a brain inside his skull '.
It was my one and only moment of academic glory.

It was around this period that the school organised the only play I have ever had anything to do with. It was called 'Christopher Colombus'. It was a production which lay more stress on quantity than quality. It had a huge cast, endless crowd scenes, and an enormous chorus which would periodically chant out lines such as :
'In fourteen hundred and ninety two
Colombus sailed the ocean blue.'

I had a small talking part as a seaman and was the first person to appear on stage. I was also required to set the scene by exclaiming the opening sentence in the play. It was a question:
'Who is this man Colombus they are all talking about? '
Simple enough for an experienced actor but it was absolute hell for a young boy of thirteen with absolutely no talent for acting whatsoever.

That winter, Gibraltar was gripped by a curious evangelistic fever. The phenomenon was caused by a Catholic lay brother who had been miraculously cured from some deadly disease as a result of his prayers to the Virgin Mary. In gratitude he had promised her that he would spend the rest of his life persuading families all over the world to say the rosary together each day for the rest of their lives. His motto was:
'The family that prays together stays together.'

To join the crusade one was obliged to sign a pledge and innumerable local busy bodies suddenly took it upon themselves to visit every single household in order to pressurise people into signing. To her eternal credit my mother refused to be brow-beaten into committing herself; this despite the fact that practically 90% of Gibraltarians eventually took up the pledge. The other 10% were either Protestant, Jewish or belonged to some other religion.

Family Rosary Crusade Pin. The pin is dated 1954 but I seem to remember that if you signed the pledge you were allowed to buy one of these precious tokens.

I am pleased to say that I also came out of this sordid little episode with some credit. One day at school, one of the Christian Brothers came into my class and asked us whether there was anybody left who had yet to sign the pledge. The Brother in question was a nasty piece of work who also happened to be the much feared headmaster of my school at the time. I still recall the curious mixture of both embarrassment and pleasure I experienced as I put my hand up, even though I knew I would be the only pupil to do so. I think it is worth recording that a few weeks after the evangelist left town, Gibraltar returned to normal and everybody quietly stopped praying the rosary and got back to doing whatever they normally did at night.
At that time we employed a housemaid who came in from La Linea on certain days to give Lina a hand with the cleaning. Her name was Maria Mendez. She was a very small but extremely energetic woman. In fact she usually attacked any job she was doing with such gusto that she once wrenched a door knob she was polishing right off its socket. Lina refused to allow her to hand wash any linen as her violent scrubbing technique tended to destroy the toughest material.

She was originally from Malaga and had lost most of her family during the Civil War. The fact that the family seemed to have been able to afford a maid gives the impression that we had somehow suddenly become affluent once more. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Maria, like many of the other home helps, worked for peanuts. In fact we had very little money. Shoes were worn until holes appeared on their soles and were then sent to el zapatero for repairs and my mother must have spent quite a bit of her time turning worn-out shirt collars to prolong their lives.

There were always holes in my already well mended socks and all my jackets and pullovers had elbow patches. But perhaps the thing that bothered me most, especially as I was now a teenager and was becoming rather more self-conscious was having to wear shirts with frayed cuffs. These could not be repaired and I was continually trying to hide the frayed edges under the sleeves of my jacket.

Although we had by now left 256, the family seems to have had access to it for some time afterwards. At any rate I do know that I often went there to play hide and seek with my friends among its now empty but still familiar rooms. Entry was via the rarely used narrow back passage which suggests that these visits were unauthorized. They were also probably quite dangerous considering the condemned state of the house. But they were also very exiting.

One particular event that comes to mind was the throwing of hundreds of old books into a rather deep and forbidding well that stood at one corner of the patio of the house. The books were probably left over copies from 'The Art Shop'. They had been gathering dust in the attic for years. Symptomatic of the quirkiness of human memory one title has remained engraved in my mind. It was, 'The Deep
Blue Sea' by Terrence Rattigan: or was it 'Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea'?

The Deep Blue Sea

This was also the year of the cult science fiction movie ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ in which the alien Klaatu, in the form of Michael Rennie, threatened to demonstrate his awesome powers by sinking the Rock of Gibraltar. As was usual whenever Gibraltar was mentioned in the cinema, the audience cheered wildly.

Klaatu threatens to demonstrate his awesome powers by sinking the Rock of Gibraltar.

1952 That year George VI died, Elizabeth II became Queen and Lieutenant-General Sir Gordon MacMillan took over as Governor. Of far more importance was the demolition of 256 Main Street and the building of a number of small flats in the place where it had once stood. An important piece of family history had disappeared for ever.

General Sir Gordon H. C. MacMillan of MacMillan and Knap, Governor of Gibraltar

Life went on in Alameda House and I cashed in my Post Office savings and bought a radio for the family. It was made of brown bakelite and was guaranteed transistor free as these had not yet been invented. One had to be patient after switching the thing on as it took its time to warm up, but it was a pleasant addition in those televisionless days. Many a pleasant evening was spent listening to Victor Silvester and his Palm Court Orchestra, Ha…Ha…Ha…Hancock's Half Hour, Wolverhampton Wanderers beating Moscow Dynamo at football, and the band of the Grenadier Guards introducing the news on the World Service of the BBC.

In January, during Malaga's Festejos de Invierno or Winter Festival, the Real Club de Remo held a series of regattas as part of the festivities. Six Spanish crews took part including the Spanish champions, Barcelona, and the runners-up, Alicante. The Catalans had taken part in the Henley Regattas that summer. Eric rowed for a CRC crew that had also been invited for the occasion.

During the tense moments before the start of the race, there was the usual nervous chatter as the crews manoeuvred into position. Curiously the only crews that spoke Spanish were the Malaguenos and the Gibraltarians. The rest was Catalan, Basque, Alicantino and so forth. Eric's crew qualified for the final in the heats and then lost to Barcelona the following day. In a sense it was quite predictable. January was not the ideal time for training and in any case Gibraltar crews were unaccustomed to rowing races on successive days. But going to Malaga was always immensely enjoyable whatever the outcome. That evening the locals probably had second thoughts about their guests as they were treated to several versions of 'Where the Buffalo Roams' by soundly pissed oarsmen of various 'nationalities'. The Alicantinos were particularly vociferous and insisted on singing the tune in English.

The Gibraltar Festival Cup Regatta. Crews from left to right are:Malaga I, Algeciras, Malaga II, Calpe, with Eric rowing bow, and MRC. Calpe won the regatta. The name of the Algeciras boat is just noticeable in the photograph as a white strip on the bow. It was called: Nuestra Señora la Virgen de Europa.

April arrived, and with it came the Easter holidays. On Maundy Thursday a considerable number of the local population took part in an event called Los Monumentos. It was a family affair. Everybody would dress up to the nines and visit as many parish churches as they possible could. The churches in turn would put on a show, decorating their altars with masses of flowers and hundreds of lit candles. It was a pleasant occasion which was only marginally religious. In fact it often provided devout young women a perfect excuse to be up and about late in the evening and allow them the chance to keep their eyes open for any equally devout young men. The above, of course is all hearsay. I never took part in any of these activities.

In Spain, Easter signalled the start of some seriously heavy religious activities. In many of the larger towns of the Campo area this involved a series of solemn processions. Many of those taking part were usually dressed up in white or black Klu Klux Klan style hoods. They would march slowly and anonymously behind drummers who would keep them in step with a monotonous beat. Behind them came an incredibly heavy float containing the statue of the local Virgin. The float was carried by teams of strong men. As they heaved their load precariously from side to side to the beat of the drum and from church to church for no apparent reason, spectators were often carried away by their emotions. Yelling compliments at the Virgin was very much the thing to do. Once, while on holiday in Seville during Semana Santa, I heard an impeccably dressed middle-aged gentleman shout out at the top of his voice :
'!Coño, pero que quapa eres, hija de la gran puta! '
He was referring to one of the most revered Virgins in Seville, a veritable institution known as
La Virgen de la Macarena.

La Virgen de la Macarena.

It was also traditional for people looking down at the procession from their balconies to sing a few lines of some appropriate lament. It was supposed to be a spontaneous expression of religious fervour. The laments were called Zaetas and to the uninitiated the sound was somewhere between a passionate wail and a scream of pain.
'Ahaaaaaaaaaiiii... Ahaaaaaaiiii....
It is pleasant to record that none of these traditions ever crossed the border into Gibraltar. For most young Gibraltarians, however, the prevailing memory of those long weekends from Good Friday to Easter Monday is one of unrelieved gloom. For a start all the shops were shut. The cinemas were closed and all other forms of entertainment were out of the question. On the radio the choice was either classical or church music.

People generally stayed at home and nobody dared to laugh at anything, not that there was ever anything much to laugh about during this period. In fact if anyone managed a smile they were always left with the feeling that they had committed a mortal sin. There was little relief on Easter Sunday as going to mass was more or less compulsory, at least for youngsters like me, and the services were always horrendously long and tedious.

It was probably during spring that year that one of Lewis Hathaway's uncles introduced me to the joys of line fishing. Lewis had by now become one of my best friends and we spent much of our spare time lounging about his house trying to decide what we were going to do next. One weekend his uncle must have noticed that we were looking rather more at a loss than usual and invited us both for a days fishing. We accepted immediately and he took us to the North Mole, a place which could only be entered by means of a special permit. Very few Gibraltarian had one. He was one of the lucky few.

That day by pure chance a huge shoal of young red sea bream or besugos were feeding close to the mole and the number of fish we caught was limited only by the speed with which we were able to bait our hooks. We returned home exhausted, proudly laden with dozens of small but delicious fish. Although we accompanied him again frequently over the years and caught many other species of fish we never ever caught another besugo again. Beginner’s luck I suppose.

Sometimes when the fancy took him he would take us to fish for sea bass which for some reason were known in Gibraltar by the Portuguese name of robalo. We caught these using a rather eccentric method called al corcho which involved baiting a hook tied to a short length of line and attaching it to a large piece of cork. Armed with about twenty of these contraptions we would row out to the middle of the port and throw the corks into the water at regular intervals.

Besugo and lubina

Then it was a question of keeping an eye on the corks and giving immediate chase to any that disappeared below the surface. Using this method we caught a few grey mullet or lisas, fish that were considered to be a great delicacy in France but were dismissed as inedible in Gibraltar. As regards sea bass, I cannot remember ever having caught one in this way, which was a pity, as the fish was even nicer to eat than the besugo.

But perhaps the most memorable of all our outings with him were those rare occasions in which he decided to fish a lo loco. This was his preferred method for catching two enormous fish, the grouper which was known locally as mero and the Stone Bass which was known as the cherna. On these occasions he would use a motor boat which he would take to allegedly secret places in the middle of the bay. Here these were supposed to be found in large numbers living in rocks grottos in seriously deep waters.

Fishing a lo loco required an enormously long and immensely strong line on to which was attached a large silver spinner. Once the spinner hit the bottom one was supposed to jerk the line up and down continuously in the vain hope of enticing the fish from its rocky home. As with the sea bass I never caught anything worthy of mention but I can testify to having enviously seen other fishermen use this method to catch meros weighing literally hundreds of pounds.