Enactment



1.
He is standing outside a bar in Casemates Square, smoking a fag. He must be fifty-eight, possibly sixty years old, and he is leaning tiredly against one of the ancient Casemates Square walls, his umber brown eyes contracted to two weary slits, his underarms soaked in a froth of greyish-white sweat. A cluster of gold signet rings sits atop his age-stiffened and sun-blackened fingers, the skin between them wrinkly and leathery, the entire hand looking like something dug out of a peat bog. Propped up against a wall behind him is an imitation Brown Bess musket, its stippled iron barrel reflecting the glare of the late-morning sun. On his head, an ornately decorated shako, slightly tilted to the left and a little dented where the black felt covering the barrel of the hat is beginning to thin out. With it, he measures six one, maybe six two; without it, probably about five foot four. His smallness of size can be gleaned from the way his trousers and jacket sleeves have been carefully rolled up, as well as from the overall looseness of the scarlet coat around the shoulders. But it is not his diminutive size or his sallow appearance or even his wilting expression that I find most striking about him: it is what he says when, lowering his cigarette and shaking his head, he turns to the ‘redcoat’ beside him: 

 

Valiente caloh, no? Como vamo marcha de aquí al gobernadoh, no se yo!’

 

2.

It is June 9 2016. I’ve been in Gibraltar now for two and a half months. I’m staying at my mother's place in Westside. I’m waiting for my partner back in the UK to let me know that the house we are buying in Wakefield is ready to move into. There is no space for my stuff in the already cluttered cupboards, so I have to keep my clothes in my suitcases. It is very hot and humid at night and when I wake up in the morning my sheets are often soaked in my own sweat. My room, the only guest room in the flat, measures about ten by twelve feet. Miniature stalactites of flaking paint cling to the whitewashed ceiling, filling the air with the smell of mould and exacerbating my nocturnal asthma. For hours and hours I lie motionless on the antiquated single bed, staring at the feathery greyish-white flakes, occasionally seeing some of them break off from the ceiling and come spiralling like toxic snowflakes to the floor. The mould looks like it has been there for ages, but in fact it’s a fairly recent manifestation. In November 2013, just a few months after my father died, I invited my mother to spend some time with me and my partner in Cambridgeshire, where we were then residing. While she was away, her upstairs neighbour took it upon himself to fit a bathroom tap and made a mess of the job. Water filtered through into my mother’s flat for several hours, ruining her ceiling as well as her cupboards and parquet floorboards. When she eventually returned to Gibraltar, her neighbour promised to help her with the cost of the repairs, but when the time came to put his hand in his pocket, he dissociated from the whole affair and failed to give her a single penny….

 

3.

It is eleven in the morning and I am out on my daily constitutional – a brisk, forty-minute march that takes me every morning from Westside to Southport Gates via Main Street and then back to my starting point along Queensway. The man I’m walking past is a member of the Gibraltar Re-enactment Society, one of the unpaid volunteers who once a week recreate the so-called Ceremony of the Keys. He is relaxing with a group of fellow volunteers outside a bar in Casemates Square; most are tanned and Mediterranean-looking; a couple are blond and light-skinned; all of them are conversing in Yanito, the local vernacular. A bunch of tourists has already gathered around the ‘redcoats’, waiting for the man and his companions to shoulder their muskets and start marching towards the Governor’s palace. I thread my way past them and then advance towards Main Street and its even higher concentration of tourists. Selfie sticks poking out at odd angles. Locals switching from Spanish to English. Spanish schoolchildren, giggling and with their arms thrown around each other, clustered around an old-fashioned red telephone box. Young policemen with designer stubble and custodian helmets, the cynosure of all touristic eyes. Towering over the sea of heads and faces are a couple of gravity-defying ‘living statues.’ A fat-cheeked turbaned guy, floating on a trail of ‘vapour’ corkscrewing out of an Aladdin’s lamp; a helmeted motorcyclist suspended in mid-air above an out-of-control motorcycle. Tourists stand in loosely knitted groups around each statute, mouths agape, blocking the narrow street and impeding the flow of pedestrianised passage. It’s like a bleeding carnival, so many people and such a babble of voices. Grimacing, I shake my head and continue weaving my way through the crowd, hands tucked into my pockets and eyes cast downwards, a little vexed but also vaguely amused at mankind’s capacity to be surprised by anything new-fangled and gimmicky.

 

4.

By the time I reach the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned, the crowds start to disperse and I am able to walk in a straight line again. Soon afterwards I reach Cathedral Square, the small tree-lined piazza where brawny, middle-aged taxi drivers congregate every day to sell Round-the-Rock tours to tourists, switching from Cockney to Castellano with practised ease. I turn my head to the right at this point and I see Archdeacon Decimus Storry Govett – or at least the statue erected to his memory. Decimus was one of the leading lights in the fin-de-siècle campaign against alcoholism and organised prostitution, as well as an all-round Protestant do-gooder. He is currently standing on a plinth just in front of the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, some thirty or forty paces away. He has been brought back to life in the form of a six-foot granitic angel, his stony wings folded down behind him, an open book clutched between his long-fingered, photophobically pale hands. He doesn’t look very happy, does he, our Decimus, standing there half-hidden behind the untrimmed shrubbery. Probably hates the fact that Gibraltar is now in the hands of all these pesky ‘Rock Scorpions.’ Must be a right pain, mustn’t it, watching all these local taxi drivers tout for business day in, day out. Moments later, as I’m passing the law courts, I notice there’s a large crowd in Convent Place. Looks like something’s going on up there. The Changing of the Guard, quite possibly. Or some other act of military pageantry connected with the 'redcoats' I saw earlier. The crowds before the Convent, as the Governor’s palace is commonly known, are so dense that they have spilled out of the square and pushed out into the adjacent ramps and side streets. I try to squeeze my way past this living throng, but the pavement is very narrow and, on top of that, just to make things even more complicated, is cut off from the road by a three-foot metal rail. Excuse me, excuse me, I keep repeating, trying to wriggle my way through. I need to get past, I need to get through. But after four or five paces I conclude that it is no use. Most of the folk in front of me have come to a transfixed standstill, iPhones out and excited looks on their faces, little caring that there are people behind them trying to get past. This lack of movement ensures that within seconds the pavement becomes gridlocked and we are all thrown together in a congealed mass, spectators and passers-by alike, our perspiring bodies hemmed in by the three-foot metal rail which skirts the edge of the pavement like a claustrophobe’s worst nightmare. And since I have been stopped and grounded in this way, since I am, as it were, immobilised by the masses, I look up in the same direction as everybody else and notice that they are staring at the raised marbled balcony which projects out of the Convent’s façade like the prow of a mighty battleship. Behind this balcony’s balustrades are the usual big-shots and civic dignitaries – the traditional array, in other words, of epaulettes, medals and peaked caps, each big-shot trying to look more solemn and serious-faced than the big-shot standing beside him. Their semi-cadaverous rigidity contrasts with the jerky excitability of the groundlings under them. Blistering heat. Gossipy laughter. Immaculately cut Savile Row suits. A flagpole flying the Union Jack. Unshaved bobbies holding machines guns and chewing gum. Someone shouting ‘callate ya, for God’s sake!’ It is one of the strange scenographic combinations that can only be found in Gibraltar, a spectacular mishmash of British and Latin elements that couldn’t be topped even if Queen Elizabeth II and her entourage suddenly materialised one day in the middle of the Sevillian Semana Santa.  

5.

The crowds eventually clear and once again I’m scurrying along Main Street in a Southerly direction. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly energetic, I extend my walk by leaving Main Street and taking a detour through la Alameda, Gibraltar’s botanical gardens. Today is one of those ‘energised’ days. Passing through the short subway going under Europa Road, I emerge into the Alameda’s principal promenading avenue, a long, cambered, slowly steepening hill riddled with potholes and lined on one side with backless wooden benches. Many years ago, someone decided to paint matching backrests on the retaining wall behind these ancient rickety benches – and the stencilled designs are still there, mould-eaten and pitilessly ravaged by time, the original green pigment having long-since cracked and puckered up into a series of sinister welts and blisters, pathetic symbols of impermanence and mutability. The gardens, Gibraltar’s first purpose-built public recreational space, were constructed in 1816 under the auspices of General Sir George Don, the fortieth Governor of Gibraltar. The work was funded by private subscription and took just over a year to complete, an achievement all the more impressive when one considers that the gardens stand on a bedrock of limestone and red sand. As I leisurely make my way into the Alameda’s leafy interior, I come across the kind of people that you don’t normally see in Main Street: truanting school children, lost-looking Scandinavian backpackers, jobless Eastern European migrants, local drunks staring into space and mumbling sweet-nothings to themselves. A few days ago, as I was walking along this same lane, a kid of about twelve left the group he was with and marched challengingly beside me for a couple of paces, a spliff as big as a Gran Corona dangling from his sneering lips. Watching that kid made me think of what Iain Sinclair and other psychogeographers claim about public places carrying their own secret, unrecorded history. The history they are referring to is not the sort that gets written about in newspapers, but the type that revolves around incidents that no one wants to admit or talk about: fumbled late-night sexual encounters, acts of drunken hooliganism, tearful park bench break-ups, initiatory gay and lesbian experiences. According to the writer David Barnett, memories associated with incidents like these ‘sit and ferment in the unforgiving stone, long outlasting those frail humans who first forged them.’ If this is true, then these six hectares of terraced land squeezed between Rosia Road and the Rock’s western face can be regarded as a repository of disembodied memories, an open-air museum of forgotten human experiences. For many decades, you see, this relatively secluded area was one of the few places in the garrison where you could escape the dragnet of police and military surveillance. Prostitutes, for instance, used to bring their clients here after the red-light district shut down in 1922; and later, during the years of the Second World War, the Alameda became one of the main cruising zones within the all-male fortress. Even as recently as the late Seventies and early Eighties, it was not uncommon for Gibraltarian mothers to warn their teenage daughters to steer clear of the gardens whenever Royal Navy warships were in port, their low-voiced remonstrations hinting at the type of enormities that could befall their niñas in that woody lair of depravity. (‘Cusha, dear, no pase cerca de la Alameda, okay? Que hay mucha marina en la calle and anything can happen, vale?’) The advent of lockable gates and CCTV cameras may have curtailed the opportunities for sexual transgression, but I like to think that the Alameda still retains something of its old anarchic spirit, hosting weddings and civil ceremonies during the day while offering out-of-hours sanctuary to pot-smoking teenagers and other small-town misfits, its continuing popularity with the local demimonde attested by the scorched spliff ends, broken beer bottles and condom boxes that accumulate on its unswept tarmacked paths.

6.

I exit the gardens via a ramp that connects with Red Sands Road, the narrow road running past the back of the Alameda Housing Estate. Ahead of me lies Picton House, the residential block where my late father spent his formative infant and adolescent years. Not many people in Gibraltar are aware of this, but Picton House was originally named after Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, a Welsh Army officer who fought at Waterloo and in the Peninsular War and who was accused of torturing black people during his tenure as governor of Trinidad. But I’m not really thinking about Picton and his sadistic tendencies as I make my way down Red Sands Road in the direction of Queensway; I am thinking of my father and the amount of times he must have hurried along these streets as a child and later as an adolescent. I can visualise him in my mind’s eye, a dark-eyed ragamuffin with wavy black hair and a partially inflated football under his arm, rambling away in Spanish with a few English words interspersed here and there, carrying a folded newspaper cutting of his hero Billy Liddell in his crumpled leather wallet. You wouldn’t have known it by looking at him, but my Dad was born to an Anglican father and could trace his ancestry on his grandmother’s side to the Hulme district in Manchester. This was all down to Private Joseph Brown of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a doughty, barrel-chested Mancunian who in 1889 left the army to marry a Spanish seamstress by the name of Sebastiana Villanera. Throughout Gibraltar’s long colonial history there have been countless Protestant-Catholic nuptials of this type. The template hardly varied. English soldier meets Spanish/Gibraltarian woman. Quits the military to get married. Becomes a father. Allows his children to be brought up as Catholics so that they can integrate better with the local community. This is exactly what happened in the early 1830s, when my maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Richard Whitelock, married a Spanish lady by the name of Josefa Miró and they started having children, all of whom were duly baptised in the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Mary the Crowned. But in Joseph Brown’s and Sebastiana Villanera’s case the last part of the equation wasn’t followed and they raised their children as Protestants rather than as Catholics. There were five of them altogether: Florence, Charles, Isabel, Joseph and Maria Luisa. I’m not sure whether the first four continued this baptismal tradition when they themselves came to have children, but I do know that when Maria Luisa gave birth to my grandfather Joseph while temporarily domiciling with her Gibraltarian husband Oscar Sanchez in the border town of La Línea she wasted no time in having him baptised as an Anglican. Thus, my grandfather Joseph (who throughout his life remained uninterested in politics or religion) can in some ways be seen as the embodiment of one of those baffling Gibraltarian paradoxes: a man who was born in Spain and whose surname was Sanchez... and yet who looked as pale and blue-eyed as an East End costermonger and who was taught as a kid to believe that the Pope was just the plain old Bishop of Rome….

7.

I am now strolling through Queensway, the last section of my walk on the way down to Westside. There are no tourists in this area, and every few paces you come across sun-dried smears of dog shit wedged between the pavement tiles. Until recently, Queensway’s western, sea-facing side used to be crammed with MOD and Navy buildings, but these were knocked down several years ago and replaced with opulent residential developments with fancy names like The Sails, The Island and Ragged Staff Wharf. Lying behind this last development is Queensway Quay, a small marina for luxury yachts. Back in the Seventies it used to be known as el Camber and was one of the few stretches of Gibraltar’s western coastline open to us locals, squeezed as it was between the Naval dockyard on one side and the stone-built warehouses of the Military Police on the other. My uncle William had his motorboat berthed here and most summer weekends my parents, my brother and I would find ourselves traipsing along the crumbling stone pier towards the Tunny, as the unpretentious but spacious fifteen-footer used to be called. A rusty, waist-high bannister was supposed to stop you from falling into the sea, but large sections of it were missing and this, coupled with the bad condition of the stone paving underfoot, meant that you always had to watch your step, especially when a strong Levanter was blowing and frothy jets of water would be blown onto the quay, making it even more slippery than usual. At the land end of the pier there were several fragile, rust-eaten sheds – so brittle and old that you could literally break off pieces of their walls with your bare hands. Stray cats lived in these sheds among piles of empty two-stroke oil cans and tubes of epoxy putty, and sometimes they’d crawl out on the pier, large-eyed and permanently undernourished, hoping to be rewarded with a fish head or two when the amateur fishing enthusiasts returned in their boats later in the evening. At some point, however, all the local boat owners were moved elsewhere and el Camber became what it is today: a screened-off, gated quay with a few luxury bungalows built at the far end of the pier. I’m not sure who owns those bungalows – probably foreign millionaires. As I saunter along the seafront with my hands in pockets, I search for some surviving trace of the past, some topographical clue harking back to the days when this stretch of coastline used to be overrun by working-class boat-owners and their families, but I cannot see anything other than the stone pier itself, which has now been straightened out and rendered safe by sturdy black railings, the area just in front of it guarded by a series of pole-mounted CCTV cameras, its gated entrance capped by a row of metal spikes. Oh well, I tell myself, shaking my head and turning my eyes away. I’m almost back at Westside now and ready for a cup of coffee, and that’s got to count for something, hasn’t it? 

8.

But when I finally get back to Westside, I decide to catch a bus to the Four Corners instead of going home. I’m not sure why I’m doing this; I can only surmise that I don’t want to be stuck in the flat, with no other company than my laptop and the two or three books that I brought with me in my suitcase. As usual, I sit on my own and with my arms crossed at the very back of the bus, staring distractedly at the pedestrians and cars flowing past. Old women with sharp-knuckled hands sit in pairs around me, clutching their canvas shopping carts and ceaselessly complaining about the suffocating heat. Children with wraparound sunglasses stare fixedly at their iPhones and iPads. Two young men – one wearing an Everton FC top, the other a sleeveless black T-shirt – are discussing the ‘frontier queue’ on the seat behind mine:

Young Man no 1: Mejor ir en bus like we’re doing, bro. La ultima ve que fuí en coche me cogió una cola que no vea.

Young Man no 2: Si, pero el coche esta pa conducirlo, no, bro? We can’t just give in every time lo slopi se ponen malaje.

When we eventually reach our destination, I jump out of the vehicle and start walking towards the border. It is still very hot out there and the ends of the runway are now wrapped in a shimmering deliquescent haze, as if the asphalt and sky were trying to merge amorously with each other. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot an elderly Spanish couple hiding behind the bus shelter next to Parody’s kiosk. The woman is half-naked and holding a money belt stuffed with cigarette packets next to her flabby abdomen. The man has a lone cigarette tucked behind his ear and is patiently winding some brown parcel tape around his wife’s midriff, whatever he is saying drowned out by the tearing, high-pitched sound made by the tape as it unwinds from the reel. This is the kind of cross-border contraband that goes on in 2016: pitiably amateurish and small-scale, its meagre profits helping to keep afloat La Línea neediest and most wretched classes, making a mockery of the oft-repeated Spanish nationalist claim that Gibraltar is un nido de delincuentes y contrabandistas.’ Looking at this particular pair of geriatric estraperlistas, I find myself thinking of spinning dervishes and the paintings of Velázquez, of the bandage-wrapped Lazarus emerging from his cracked open tomb. Most of all, though, they make me think of the Chicano writer Gloria Anzaldúa and her work of non-fiction Borderlands/La Frontera. In this splendidly eclectic and hard-edged biographical essay, Anzaldúa writes that borders are like ‘heridas abiertas’, where two worlds grate against each other and then bleed. Borderlands are the crusted scabs that form over the original wound, problematic interstitial spaces that lie suspended between the solid existential certainties on either side, their very moral “indeterminacy attracting those whom Anzaldúa calls los atravesados: ‘the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half-dead; in short, those who cross over and pass over, or go through the confines of the “normal.” ’ Though Anzaldúa was thinking about the border between the US and Mexico when she wrote these powerful words, they could very well apply to the elderly matuteras, varillas, tissue-sellers and other luckless chancers associated with our own frontier, a human grotesquerie that congregates mainly on the Spanish flank of la frontera, but sometimes spills over onto the Gibraltarian side, continually reminding us of the unnaturalness of all dividing lines. But it is so hot and oppressive today that, apart from the old geezer and his dame, there isn’t much sign of any semi-legal activity in the vicinity of the border. Even better, there is no queue at the gates and the policía nacional on duty just waves me on with a weary flick of the hand, his tired, liquid-filled eyes barely engaging with the passport I have shown him, waiting, no doubt, for the day when he will be instructed by those in Madrid to start harassing cross-border commuters again. Coming out of the adjacent customs building, I make way down la Avenida Veinte de Abril, one of the main arteries heading into the centre of La Línea. Until the mid-Nineties you could enjoy an uninterrupted view of the Rock from this street, but then some bright spark decided to pedestrianise the road and build two parallel lines of pre-fabricated commercial units down the middle, restricting the view even further by fitting the units with monstrously oversized awnings. If that wasn’t depressing enough, the buggers run out of money midway through the construction project and left over half of the units unfinished, with the ones at the northern end of the road destined to remain no more than a series of exposed rusting girders. Out of the twenty or thirty units that were actually finished, only about ten are occupied, the rest lying empty and with ‘Se Alquila’ signs fixed to their dust-covered windows. It is to one of the occupied units – a tacky little bar called Bar Transilvania – that I am now heading. I have already visited it several times over the last few weeks. Run by a poker-faced Eastern European and his equally taciturn wife, it attracts a splendid motley crew of working-class Spaniards and Slavic migrants, nearly all of whom sit on white plastic chairs just outside the unit, hunched over their beers or else staring at the pedestrians ambling past, completely unfazed by the smell that occasionally drifts into the air whenever someone lights a cheeky cannabis joint. 

Lo mismo de siempre?’ the Rumanian bar owner barks out, coming up to my table.  

Sí, lo mismo de siempre,’ I reply, retrieving a Café Crème from its metal case and placing it against my lips, ready to be lit.

Wakefield, West Yorkshire, 3-5-2017