Monday, 18 May 2015

Being Gibraltarian

Majestic, presiding over the Mediterranean, Rock of Gibraltar

I must have walked past so many times and yet it was only a few evenings ago, taking the dog out for an evening stroll, that I noticed the stone angel mourning in a discreet corner of the road as it curved past the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and towards Line Wall Road, Commonwealth Park, the marina and the spread of sea beyond.  The sun, just beginning to set over the Spanish hills on the western side of the bay was shaded by the Cathedral and as its creamy walls glowed in the rosen sunlight, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the exotic, the colourful, bright, sunlit Mediterranean and the sober discreet Englishness of a little stone memorial, set in its own rose garden, more reminiscent of a country parish in the home counties than of a bustling city carved into a Moorish fortress turned colonnial outpost.

Unexpected memorial at Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar

Consecrated in 1838, the Cathedral is Anglican in a staunchly Roman Catholic city, and, to my view at least, could be easily mistaken for a mosque, its arched windows and very square, squat walls reminiscent of Spanish archeaology which itself is redolent of the Arabic influence of Al-Andalus.  It is surrounded by palm trees, and looking eastwards, you can see towering above it, draped in its wild olive trees, carob and pines, the majestic Rock of Gibraltar.  Overhead swoop chattering gulls and higher up, tiny black specks which could be birds of prey circling.  The vista is most un-English, yet enter the Cathedral and you are in a cool, hushed space filled with the dignified calm of any other Anglican church I have ever stepped in.

Arabic archways and leaning palm trees

Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned
And that is one of the unique points of Gibraltar.  It is a place where cultures meet and combine and live together, just as do the migrating creatures of sea and air that pass by our Rock.  Standing with my back to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, I could see in the one glance a mosque to my left and a synagogue to my right, and to the east of the Cathedral, just a few short steps away, stands the other Cathedral, of Saint Mary the Crowned, where I was baptised, had my First Holy Communion and where my aunts still light candles and pray for the souls of their dead in that glorioulsy hispanic way of theirs.  The Hindu temple is a short walk away and a stunning mosque one mile to the south. And directly infront of me, the Queensway Quay Marina, millionnaire's watering ground, the epitome of that more secular part of Gibraltar's melting pot of cultures, elegant yachts swaying gently in the evening breeze, their masts stark as spears, silhouetted as they are in the last rays of the sun.

Ocean Village, development and yachts, another part of Gibraltar culture
Mosque at Europa Point, Gibraltar

I stroll round again to the "weeping angel" tucked in the corner surrounded by roses.  It is lovely.  I have lived in England long enough to consider it my home as much as I do Gibraltar and I have to catch my breath in sudden homesickness.  

Stone angel in perpetual mourning

Politics aside, I myself am a product of a mix of cultures, not one, nor the other, just me, my own unique mix.  Perhaps that is what being Gibraltarian is these days: not ex-English Colonnial, not ex-Spanish through local intermarraige; not Genoese, not Portuguese, not Maltese, not Moroccan, not Indian, despite our roots being linked to any number of these.  We are who we are, unique individuals, uniquely Gibraltarian.

I ponder on this now and again, and wonder how so many people from so many different backgrounds can so calmly live and work together, combine their pasts and create new futures together.  I am convinced, though through instinct, not through scientific fact and dry data, that this is one of the reasons why Gibraltar is a survivor and why it forges onwards whatever difficulties are thrown in its path.  One of my ponderings led me to wonder what happens when someone from one culture falls in love with someone from another.  It is a question with thousands of answers, one tackled by artists and writers and story tellers since time immemorial.  So I wrote "The Promise".  It is a short story.  You can download it from Amazon.  But here's a taster, to make you think.



THE PROMISE
(an extract)

Even the thin light of a winter afternoon stabs at my eyes and blinds me.
     “Hey, Tarik, you look terrible,” Hamed’s cheerful voice lurches at me through the gloom, “and if I didn’t know you better, I’d say you have a hangover.”
     I turn a wince into an attempt at a grin, then pluck feebly at my suitcase and the loaded shopping-trolley that I drag behind me. 
     “I haven’t been sleeping well lately,” I croak, a little surprised that my voice still works.  I haven’t been able to speak for days, not since I last spoke to you.
     Hamed slows to accommodate my pace.  He’s young and strong, and volunteers to carry my case to the ferry.
     “This is heavy, Tarik, what are you taking back?  Gifts for your wife?”
     Perhaps he’s trying to be funny, but I’m in no mood for humour.
     “Me.  I am taking me back to Tangiers,” I snap and the words leave traces of gall to sting my tongue.
     “What? Leave Gibraltar for good? Wait till I tell Larbi,” gushes Hamed, “he’s been wanting to go back for years, but his wife won’t go and his kids won’t go, so he stays here.”
     I walk the rest of the way to the ferry in silence, letting Hamed help me with my luggage, trying to ignore the twists in my gut when he talks of his impending marriage.
     “And because she’s a local girl, I’ll get full citizenship and then I’ll be able to travel, get a house, everything,” he rambles, “and she’s even agreed to become a Muslim.  Just you wait till I tell Larbi.  His face will be a picture.”
     He can tell anyone whatever he wants.  I fumble my way up the rusty gangplank and onto the ferry, find a spot to leave the luggage and fight my way through the crowds to stand on the deck.  I need air.  I need to inhale and fill my lungs with the darkening sky.  I rest my elbow on the deck rail, lean my chin into my cupped hands and watch the snake of weekend travellers slither its way into the ship from the grimy docks below.  Now I’ve told Hamed, most of the other travellers will soon know.  For me, this trip is one way only.
     The sheer rise of the north face of the Rock towers up into the clouds.  It’s as forbidding as always: a grey intimidation that reminds those of us who cross the Straits from the yellows and sables of Tangiers that our possibilities here, our time, our very lives, are limited.  My life here ran out the last time I spoke to you.
     I shift my weight from one foot to another and rub my hands over my eyes.  I wonder when it was that this started.  I have known you for many years.  I worked with your husband for a while, watched your children grow, saw you now and again about the town.  As the years passed you blossomed and you became unbearably beautiful.  I tried to avoid seeing you so that I would not be tormented by desire.  But you can’t avoid someone forever, not here.  So we stayed friends.  And I couldn’t keep away, reeled in relentlessly by the warmth of your smile and eyes that ripped down all the defences I had.

Download the full story from Amazon:




Monday, 4 May 2015

Mediterranean Blue



Surrounded by blue - the view across the Straights to North Africa

Blue.  Everywhere.  We are surrounded by this intense blue.  It's the first thing I notice on opening my eyes in the morning; a blueness that shimmers and tells me what the day is to be like.  At night, it is navy, punctured by the silver sliver of the moon and the pinpricks of a million stars.  On a winter's morning, it is a fresh, clean, sharpness of blue, and in summer it fades behind a white haze as the sun bleaches even the sky with its heat.

That's what living in Gibraltar is like.  I can pour forth voluminous paragraphs about culture and commerce, finance and shipping, borders and nasty neighbours and politics, apes and tourism, but actually, living here, growing up here, being part of here, is about that incessant, vibrant blue that surrounds us, day in, day out.  




The sky and sea are the dominant features of our lives.  We are perched on a jutting, upwards thrusting narrow rock with limited if lush vegetation and only small opportunities for independent survival. But so tenancious are the indigenous people, mixed over generations of trade and interaction with the rest of the world as we are, gripping onto our rock face with the agility of mountain goats, that we have managed to create an economic success of a pretty tricky situation.  


To the South of the Rock

Yet it is the sea and the sky that dominate our lives and our thinking.  The sea fed us, nurtured us, imprisoned us.  To live and to expand beyond the immediate, we had to sail, to use the sea, learn its ways, read its moods and movements so that we could survive its ferocity.  It was the sea that brought us trade and took us to the rest of the world.  It was the sea and how we could overlook the entry to an ocean, the passage in between two continents, that brought us riches.  


Cruise ship in harbour as the evening draws in


It is the sea that still dominates and shapes us however we try to tame its strength, and it lies there, allowing itself to be fished in and sailed upon, for filth to be poured into it and its resources to be threatened, and for its boundaries to be pushed back.  For now.  Standing at the edge of land - artificial land, created by dropping enormous rocks into the sea - I see a beast with emerald eyes lurking in its depths, waiting to reclaim its own.  What goes around comes around, and I hope not in my lifetime.


Moonrise over the Rock

In the meantime, it is the colour.  I am no psychologist, but that vibrant blue that surrounds us at every turn must surely have an effect on people.  Is that why Gibraltar more than bustles and buzzes, whether with the energy of commerce and enterprise during the working week, or with excitement and passion of sport, music, dance and leisure activities of the weekend?  Music festivals, May Day festivals, National Day festivals, International Song Festival, literary festival, arts festivals, drama festivals, all sorts of sporting tournaments - the variety is endless.  When, on the other hand, the sky turns out grey - and when that odd, easterly cloud, el Levante, sits perched on the Rock like an ill-fitting hat and muffler, the grey cloying and so deep it borders on purple - and the sea is like a layer of slate scales, the mood dulls and deadens and people frown and tell each other their very bones ache with the damp.  Gibraltar on a grey day is like looking at a work of art without the light on and blackout curtains blocking the gallery windows.

I have often wondered to how great an extent the landscape can shape the nature of the people that live in it.  Without a doubt, landscape has inspired much writing - consider the many poems inspired by the awesome beauty of the Lake District, for example.  I cannot avoid but being influenced by the openness of the sky and the intensity of the blue that lies at my feet wherever I stand on this Rock.  I think, unscientific though my observations are, that I can sample a little of that theory of landscape here.  Gibraltar is the gateway to Europe and the guardian of the Mediterranean, and its colour is Mediterranean Blue.

In some ways I can't avoid being drawn to that colour, that light, to the open sky and the unending sea.  This is just one of the stories that shows that influence:




                                         Mediterranean Blue


     Blue is the sky on a fine May morning. It is the sea when the west wind blows across the Straits in June and when the sun sinks into its cool comfort after scorching the surrounding flats all day long. Blue is the intensity of a love given freely and cruelly returned. It is the colour of forget-me-nots nestling by a brook in the greenness of springtime Kent.
     Sara’s eyes were the azure that captures sailors like a whirlpool to drown them in their depths. Sara had seen men drown in shades of grey. That was the only colour her eyes could see:  the leaden shadows of the dank Levanter cloud that had settled on the backs of the buildings that creep up the Rock towards the Tower of Homage; the grey of the steel and glass box that was her office, a rambling, undefined space decorated with white paint, dove fabrics and black fittings; the various shades of the suits – fitted, pinstripe, Prince of Wales check, plain, flared, tailored, and all grey. The hands of disappointment that gripped the inside of her stomach and twisted it each time she thought of those forget-me-nots in Kent were today, as always, the colour of thunderclouds.
     “Enjoy your evening out on Saturday?  Where did you go, casino?”  Jennifer’s cheery Monday morning voice was too pink, her hair too blond, her lips startlingly glossy, her blouse a painful white.
      Sara gave her secretary a frost-bitten stare and the curt answers that best suited the dullness of the day.
      “Oh come on, you went out on the pull, you said,” Jennifer was still only twenty, single and fascinated with the older woman’s lack of lovers.
     “I was joking. A woman my age doesn’t need to go out on the pull. We have far more interesting things to do,” Sara admonished. It had been an eventful Saturday and she did not want to share the details of it with the young paper pusher.
     When Jennifer breezed into Sara’s office with her mid-morning black coffee, Sara had relented a little.
     “My friend Laura and I started at the Marina with a quick meal,” she told Jennifer, hoping to placate her curiosity. She gazed out of the window at the damp of the day trickling like a layer of sweat down the tiled facade of the building opposite. She felt unusually claustrophobic today, enclosed, the outdoors offering no respite from the infinite gloom. The heat of the day belied its dullness. At least in England you rarely suffered this wet heat, where you dripped out of your morning shower and could feel the sweat running down your back as you tried to dry yourself off.
     “Oh, it’s nice there. Then what?”
     “Can you get me copies of the Transport International accounts for last month please?  Oh, we wondered into Spain to meet up with Laura’s cousins and had a great evening dancing flamenco at a bar in Estepona. Very tame really, but fun, and good for the figure.”
     “You hardly need to worry about your figure. You always look great.”
     “Exercise, raw fruit and vegetables, my girl. It would do wonders for your skin too,” Sara turned to examine the accounts and ended the conversation. Jennifer had perfect peaches and cream skin, unusually fair for a local girl, but then her father was English. No, he was Welsh, Sara corrected herself, and might have been her lover all those years ago had she not been so besotted with Nigel.
     Nigel, the tall, fair, green-eyed, fresh-faced Englishman that had helped her with her cumbersome cases into the halls of residence at university all those years ago and who had stopped her heart with a flash of an emerald smile. Nigel was a second year student from Tenterden, a volunteer helping the freshers settle in. Sara had told her parents she intended to return as a teacher, but once she had spent two overawed days in Nigel’s easy company she knew she never wanted to return to a small town jutting out into a sapphire sea.
     In Richmond Park, Sara discovered the scent of grass that is trimmed for the last time before winter, the desolate darkness of the leaves on the oaks just before they crisped to brown and fell to the ground, the velvet of the cloaks of moss that lined the banks of the brooks where she sat with Nigel, both art students, both sketching, he engrossed in his work, she engrossed in him. They dated, they courted, Sara frequented the chapel on Sunday mornings while Nigel trained at the local pool. He had wanted to swim for the Olympic team and had only narrowly missed selecion. Then, for the rest of the week, she struggled with the red flames of desire that coursed through her young veins at his touch, and resisted him.
     “Sara, why don’t you come out with us on Friday this time?” Jennifer bubbled at her through her pastel makeup as they finished for the day and emerged to the pea-soup air that swirled in the street. The concrete beneath Sara’s feet was black and sticky. The evening stank of sewers that had festered in the heat and not been flushed through by rain for weeks.
     “Well, I’ve a lot of work on these days, especially with those gaming houses talking to the bank about finances. I’ll probably have to work through the weekend,” she hesitated, needing friends now more than ever,  “but if I manage to take some time off, I’ll call you.”
     Sara thought of friendship and remembered Nigel. Nigel had been jade, the colour of jealousy and perfidy. She had brushed aside visions of him swathed in cloths of cinnamon spice and tangerine, limbs locked with some of the long-limbed blondes at whom he would glance when he thought she was not looking. A lifetime of gazing at nothing but the grey and white of the pillar of limestone on which she lived, an expanse of blue so bright it burnt the eyes and the sable and olive tones of the sierras across the bay had left Sara with a thirst for green, for the colour of spring, of newness and life.
     It was on a cushion of lush grass and a pillow of bluebells in the early weeks of summer that fateful year that she surrendered to her lust. Nigel had kissed her throat, and the wanting had poured from her in a torrent of crimson that overwhelmed them both. He had lain between her legs and whispered words of love to soothe her until she had sobbed with desire. Then they had sat against a tree and rested, and he had told Sara her eyes were the colour of the forget-me-nots that dotted the green lace that bordered the woods.
     Two weeks later he had told her he was engaged to Lucy; leggy, platinum, big-breasted and with skin creamy white like the top layer of milk in a bottle. Sara had plunged into the indigo depths of a despair so great she thought she would never emerge.
     A month after that, she discovered she was pregnant and she went on to fail all her exams. No boyfriend, no place at college and no hope, so Sara did the only thing Nigel suggested she should. He had even hinted he would leave Lucy if she did it. She did not sleep for a week, so that she saw everything under a haze of scarlet as the veins in her eyes swelled.
      She had not expected the abortion to be so quick. A few moments in surgery and the baby was torn away, a bundle of red and blue, the same red-streaked indigo as her crushed soul.
     Sara had returned to Gibraltar in the oppressive heat of a full Levanter in August. She had been ill for months, which had saved her explaining to her parents why she had had to give up her studies. Nigel had stayed with Lucy, Sara had flushed her soul down a hospital sluice, and her world had been shades of grey ever since.  A monotone existence, except for the times she was able to exact revenge, spill out her bitterness on other men.  At those times, for a few desperately short hours, she could see her world in exquisite colours again.  She thirsted more and more for those few hours.
     “Would you like a lift home?” Jennifer offered, “Mario is picking me up today on his way home from work. His brother will be with him. He’s not much younger than you and very tasty. You’ll like him.”
     “Stop trying to pair me up with anyone, I have no time for playing games with men, and thanks, but I think I’ll walk tonight,” Sara smiled at Jennifer, thinking she should be pleased the girl wanted to include her in her life. But, like Sara, Jennifer had an unerring ability to attract men and enjoyed the chase and conquer games they played occasionally at the local bars. Except all Jennifer did was sleep with her conquests. Sara’s game always ended shrouded in the midnight blue of the sea.
     Sara strolled up to Main Street. The crowds of the day were thinning and Sara paused to buy herself a bottle of rum and some cigarettes. She found it hard to face the infinite black of the night without some form of anaesthesia. She considered buying the day’s newspaper, but refrained, too scared at what might have been found by the Rock’s eager reporters, or by the coastguards. Instead she walked on, through Southport Gates, past Jumpers Bastion and onwards, her strides long and easy despite the thin heels. Now and again she looked to her right, to where the sun broke from the clouds and shot sparks of white light at her from the surface of the sea. That great, grey, groaning beast, where she had left her last lover just a few days earlier, surrounded her. It was everywhere she looked. Sara could not avoid that expanse of slate. She hated it, was terrified of it, yet it drew her, and now it held what was left of him in its cold, watery embrace.
     “I’m sorry, Madam, but you cannot walk through any further, we have closed the Rosia Bay area off to all the public,” the sergeant’s voice terrified her to attention.
     “Oh, I’m sorry officer, I was day dreaming. Do I really have to walk all the way back and then round Europa Road?”  Sara struggled to think.
     “I’m afraid so.”
     “Why is the Bay closed?”
     “We think there’s been an accident. We have divers out there.”
     “Oh dear, is anyone hurt?”
     “A body washed up on the shore. The fourth in the last year. Another suicide, it appears.”
     “My goodness. That’s terrible. Well, I’ll go back then.”
     The sergeant nodded his helmeted head in respect, navy against the backdrop of stone.
Sara managed a smile as she retraced her steps. The chicks return to roost, her grandmother tended to say. She shuddered with ice-blue rage. Another one gone and still no-one had found out. She had triumphed, and it was only in those moments of triumph that she could look out of her window at the Mediterranean and admire its unique blue.