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  OBITUARY  

July 23 - 29 , 1999

 

 Coastweek   Kenya


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GEORGE SPENCE

JOURNALIST, PLAYWRIGHT AND THEATRE HISTORIAN

Coastweek - - George Spence was born on 29th August 1905 in London, where his Scots father was sub-editor of a major daily newspaper.

School holidays at the family home at Garmouth, Morayshire, as well as scouting expeditions in the Highlands, kept the Scottish connection well to the fore throughout his youth, to be retained for life.

He trained and worked first as a journalist.

Possibly it was the existing connection with the Highlands which led to one of the more glamorous projects, the coverage of an outbreak of 'Lock Ness Monster Frenzy', during which George investigated various reported sightings and clues.

There emerged an early African link when some alleged Nessie footprints were found to have been made with the aid of an elephant's foot umbrella stand.

In 1931, he married Marjorie Dalglish, a petite, vivacious Canadian redhead, who was in the newspaper business like himself.

Their only son, "Mac", was born in 1936.

From journalism, the transition to public relations was a natural one for George and led, in the fullness of time, to a job offer from the East African governments, to publicise and promote the region as a tourist destination.

However, as soon as his probation was complete, and Marge and Mac joined him in Nairobi in 1939, 'Herr Hitler' and 'Signor Mussolini' brought tourism to an end.

The Director of Manpower (Lord Errol, no less !) decreed that, being too old for the K.A.R., Spence must become an Assistant Inspector in the Kenya Police.

In that capacity, and as O.C.S., Kilimani, George made further contact with Joss Errol upon being called to the scene where the murdered body was discovered.

He was not best pleased, when the investigation was immediately whisked out of his hands and into those of Chief Inspector Poppy of the C.I.D. - George maintained to the last that he could have done better !

After Kilimani, George was posted to Mombasa Central Police Station, and thus began the love affair with the Island and the Coast which lasted, in reality, for the rest of his life.

There was another police posting back to Nairobi, followed by stints with the E. A. Power & Lighting Co. Ltd, and the Donovan Maule Theatre, but the Spences were delighted to return to Mombasa when George was appointed Executive Officer of the Coast Rent Control Tribunal around 1950.

George remained in Mombasa until 1982, when he left to join Mac and Jannett up-country.

A couple of years later, they emigrated to settle in the U.K., first in Gloucestershire, and later Jersey.

When an attack of shingles landed George in the Jersey General Hospital, he tried in vain to discharge himself "... to go home."

The sister told him that he was not well enough to go back to St. Peter.

"To the devil with St. Peter !" he roared. "I'm off to Mombasa !"

Returning to earlier days in Mvita, the appointment with the Rent Control Board came to an end when the law in that area changed, and George returned to writing, his original vocation, and one at which he excelled.

There were long and fulfilling years 'Covering the Waterfront' first as Roddy's Man George, and later on his own account, when he epitomised the maxim, probably not of Confucius, that:

"The man who work for himself has a really hard boss" !

George drove himself hard, often on foot as well as in his battered little Fords, and was a well-known figure all along the Kilindini Docks, as well as the town, and of course, Mbaraki.

There were various Spence residences at different times, from a big, white double story house above the lighthouse, requisitioned from the Kassam Kanji family during wartime Police years, to a flat above a firm of impecunious advocates in Treasury Square (on a site where the Central Bank of Kenya now stands) via another flat above the late Fontanella, whence essential supplies could be raised on a rod and line !

But the 'Mbaraki Bandas' were home for most of the time, and the place where George seemed most at home, not least because of the proximity of the Port, and of the L.T.C.

Many an evening, George would stroll down to the L.T.C., 'kikapu' containing half a dozen empties in hand; take in the current rehearsal and shoot a few snaps for his press reports, and then return, the empties duly filled, to his home near the Mbaraki Pillar.

Apart from his journalism and PR work, George's great love was the theatre.

The Donovan Maule Theatre has already been mentioned, and at the LTC he produced "three and one third" plays:

'I Have Been Here Before' (surrendered to Phyllis Jones when he had to take over the lead part himself - 1954); 'The White Sheep Of The Family' (1955); 'Outward Bound' (1956) and 'My Three Angels' (1957).

In addition, he wrote no less than three Melodramas.

The second, 'The Cru-el, Cru-el Snow', although in George's estimation, not the best but had become the only surviving script, was still accounted good enough to be staged by Dennis Sandall in Dar es Salaam, and by James Falkland at the National Theatre in May 1976 as a 'double bill' with Terence Rattigan's 'Harlequinade'.

Luckily, James put on the "Snow" first, and the audience stayed through to the end.

For the L.T.C's 25th Anniversary, George was commissioned to write the 'History of the Little Theatre Club', and although this was to have been an opus of some 20,000 words, he was eventually constrained (for financial reasons) to reduce the length by two-thirds.

The resulting booklet, "L.T.C. 25 years of theatre - Mombasa, 1952 - 1977" is still referred to as 'The Blue Book', and remains the definitive history of theatre in Mombasa.

Now out of print, remaining copies are priceless !

In it, George underplays his own contribution to theatre at the Coast, and he was very deservedly elected an 'Honorary Life Member' of the L.T.C. shortly before he left Kenya with his family.

By the time George retired in 1982, the miles of trekking had begun to take its toll in the form of osteo-arthritis.

Marjorie died in 1976, and the development of Mbaraki was bringing the 'Bandas' down even faster than the crypto-termites !

After a few months in one of the rooms let by Elsie Nourse in what remained of the 'Moorings Hotel', George moved to Kiambaa to join Mac and Jannett.

In 1984, he moved on with them to Gloucestershire, and ultimately Jersey.

The arthritis increased its hold, inexorably, and reduced his mobility over those last years until to his extreme frustration, he was admitted to Overdale Hospital in Jersey.

There, he never quite lost his sense of humour and of history, and he endeared himself to the Staff with stories and quips until very near the time when, finally and peacefully, he passed away on 27th may, 1999.

Mac, Jannett and Family kindly hosted a 'Wake' at the Mombasa Little Theatre Club in the evening of 17th June this year for George's Kenya Rafikis.

While the L.T.C. continues, George's labours, and those of Thespians who have come after him, will not be in vain.
 

- W. R. McA. S. & P. D. with grateful assistance from 'The Blue Book'.

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