Readers respond to a Diary of a Victorian Colonial

taken from the Letters section of the Gibraltar Chronicle, 28 July 2010-13 August 2010

On 28 July, 2010 the Gibraltar Chronicle published a feature on Diary of A Victorian Colonial along with a couple of short extracts from the book. A few days later, on 3 August, 2010, a letter going by the title of 'Disservice to Our City' appeared in the Chronicle's Letters' section. The author of this letter was Mr Anthony J. Lombard, who was about to be appointed Mayor of Gibraltar. Although he openly admitted to never having read the book, Mr Lombard argued that A Diary of a Victorian Colonial offered "a miscontructed picture of Gibraltar" and that it represented a "huge disservice to our noble city and honourable ancestors." Over the next few days a series of letters appeared in the Gibraltar Chronicle in response to Mr Lombard's letter. The letters came mainly from Gibraltarian writers and political commentators, as well as from ordinary members of the public. I'm attaching below Mr Lombard's original letter, as well as the spate of letters written in response to it.


Title: Disservice to Our City

Dear Sir,

I refer to your article in today’s issue of the 28th July, in connection with Mark Sanchez’s: ‘Diary of a Victorian Colonial and Other Tales’, one of which seeks to depict Gibraltar in Victorian times. Whilst it is a work of fiction, it is said to be based upon reality. Although, I have not read the book, the extracts you published, with their depictions of ‘Arengo’s Gully’ or the ‘Universal Café’, in Main Street and the characters which inhabit the same, causes me concern. If for no other reason, because the images they seek to portray seem to me wholly negative and unedifying and since, moreover, they are uttered in complete isolation from the examples found in the wider international world and what was happening therein, in the urban communities of the same, at the time, may result in a misconstrued picture of Gibraltar, its streets and commercial establishments, not to say a picture, which denigrates Gibraltar.

Accordingly, permit me to submit that whatever may or may not have been occurring in Gibraltar at the time, and whatever was not the state of our city, it was no different to that of any other metropolis, around the world, and, I should venture to suggest, perhaps very much better.

If in doubt, consider, for example, the works of Charles Dickens and his horrendous depictions of the industrial towns of England of the time, coupled with the appalling sufferings and living and working conditions of the lower orders of society. Consider also, by way of further example, the equally horrendous state of the London borough of Shoreditch, at the same time, the subject of a recent publication, depicting absolute mayhem, therein; or indeed the text, by William Blake [1757-1827], of what has been termed as England’s national hymn: “Jerusalem”, with its infernal references to: “those dark satanic mills”.

On the other hand, the Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, Elizabeth of Bavaria [1837-1898], when she visited Gibraltar, as a simple tourist, during that very same Victorian period, described Gibraltar as absolutely delightful, as was recently reported, in an excellent and riveting article, in the Gibraltar Magazine.

In the circumstances, we should do well, to bear in mind that, regrettably, for reasons known to themselves, authors and observers of the Colonial Power, were, by and large, in the unfortunate habit of highlighting negative pictures of Gibraltar, without reference, or comparison, or analysis, to what was occurring upon their own very doorstep, as might place the situation in Gibraltar, in its proper context. Accordingly, we should be upon our guard against replicating such views, without more and as if ‘Gospel truth’, which may either, in substance, or because they are out of context, convey a wholly false interpretation of Gibraltar and one which should, certainly, not be interpreted, or valued, via the prisms of the 21st century.

That such a situation existed should be deplored and its continued propagation resisted. At very least, it should be questioned and put to proof and analysis. Otherwise, it could result in a huge disservice to our noble city and honourable ancestors.

Yours faithfully,

Anthony J. P. Lombard

* * *


Dear Sir,

The fact that City Mayors in Gibraltar are these days only appointed for a one year term is, perhaps, a blessing in disguise!

Yours faithfully,

L. G. Andlaw.

* * *


Dear Sir,

The ability to launch into full-scale criticism of a book ("Diary of a Victorian Colonial and Other Tales", Mark Sanchez), which on his own admission Mr Lombard has not even read, must be a truly amazing gift.

Yours sincerely,

Dorothy E Prior

* * *


Dear Sir,

Mr Lombard’s letter to you on Mark Sanchez’ book, “Diary of a Colonial and Other Tales”, piqued my interest and made me want to judge the book for myself.

The author sets himself no mean task in the first tale: creating/re-creating the Gibraltar of the end of the 19th century, with particular emphasis on the poorer inhabitants and their lives.

Mr Sanchez establishes a very distinctive voice: an educated man using the language of the time in the ‘autobiographical’ “Diary of a Victorian Colonial”. He presents us with a totally convincing central personality, a portrait of a man with all his prejudices and limitations. He elicits pity for him. The fact that I feel I know the character as I might a neighbour, speaks for itself.

As for the period he works to create physically, I found it commandingly credible. We are all familiar with the narrow alleyways and small, mean houses that survive here and there in Gibraltar. He peoples them with characters and the meagre life of the very poor.

He has obviously done a good deal of research and he evokes the time, the place and even creates a credible oral world of patchwork communication for a Gibraltar where so many cultures met and were yet to fuse. Furthermore, he touches on issues like the social stratification that developed in Gibraltar, a concomitant aspect of colonialism, and on the emergence of a Gibraltarian identity.

I consider the author a professional, imaginative and disciplined writer. This book, with its three very different tales and their clearly differentiated narrative voices, is a considerable achievement. I recommend that others also read it and judge for themselves.

Yours sincerely,

Mary Chiappe

* * *


Title: Warts of the Imagination

Dear Sir,

I would like to refer to Mr Lombard’s letter of Tuesday,3rd August, ‘Disservice to our City’. In his zeal to defend Gibraltar and play the role of champion of our cause, Mr Lombard makes the egregious mistake of condemning a book he has not had the courtesy to read. He castigates Mark Sanchez’s supposedly negative portrayal of Gibraltar in Victorian times in his tales ‘Arengo’s Gully’ and ‘Universal Cafe’. Apparently, ‘highlighting the less salubrious aspects of Gibraltarian life at that time without reference to similar situations in other parts of the world offends Mr Lombard’s highly developed sense of patriotism.

I would like 'to refer 'Mr Lombard to Phillip F. Herring’s ‘Joyce’s Uncertainty Principle’ which deals with the sources of Joyce ’s evocation of Gibraltarian life in ‘Ulysses’. Herring creates a picture of a garrison crawling with drunken servicemen, ‘six thousand bored soldiers, plus visiting sailors’ who spent most of their time in wine shops. Moreover, the Gibraltar of the time was a disease-ridden city, with 5,000 people dying of yellow fever in 1805. The water was contaminated and the stagnant pools were breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

Mr Lombard thinks that misquoting a line out of context from William Blake (the correct version is ‘Among those dark Satanic mills) will bolster his contention that other societies were as squalid and impoverished as Gibraltar was at that time. However, the whole poem, now popularly known as Jerusalem, is part of the Preface to one of Blake’s major poems,‘Milton’, a long ‘epic tracing Blake's attempt to correct the so-called errors committed by the Puritan poet in his ‘Paradise Lost’. The opening poem, which Mr Lombard thinks conveys a feeling of despair at the rampant industrialization of England, is actually a passionate statement of belief in the presence of the-divine amid the gloom and smog of early 19th“ century London. The closing lines of the hymn could not be less equivocal:

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land

The ostrich approach Mr Lombard advocates is unrealistically optimistic and worryingly partial. Gibraltar must be portrayed, warts and all, both in fiction and in historiography. The writer of fiction must obey his imaginative vision wherever it may lead him; the historian must respect the facts and try to make them intelligible. The world of fiction is self-contained and does not need to refer to anything outside itself. If the setting is Gibraltar and the characters Gibraltarians, then there is no requirement for the author to refer to conditions anywhere else. Dickens, whom Mr Lombard mentions, confined his dissection of society to the London he knew so well. Conditions in Tsarist Russia, where the peasant population was reduced to the condition of serfdom, were far worse, but Dickens rightly disregarded them when writing his novels.

I believe some of the mullahs who condemned Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ had not even read the book.

Yours faithfully,

Charles M Durante

* * *


Title: Awesome

Dear Sir,

I find Anthony JP Lombard's uncanny ability to criticize a book which he admits not to have read quite remarkable. The book in question is local author Mark Sanchez’s latest offering, "Diary of a Victorian Colonial and Other Tales". Basing himself merely on an extract consisting of a few paragraphs printed in the Chronicle, he extrapolates certain conclusions. Firstly, he contends that the book dwells on the negative aspects of life in nineteenth-century Gibraltar while ignoring the fact that many fine Gibraltarian families were at the time instrumental in building a Gibraltar that compared favourably with other cities of the period. All this, he gleaned on the strength of 300 odd words -- truly awesome! Then he goes on to identify the reason why the author does this, saying that it is an all too common error among historians of Gibraltar to rely too heavily on accounts proffered by authors/observers of the Colonial Power, as they tended to overly denigrate’ the locals and the local scene in general. This "error" he ascribes to the author of the book.

I, on the other hand, have read this book and therefore feel better placed to state that the author has done an extraordinary job of depicting some aspects of daily life in the Gibraltar of the late eighteen hundreds. The degree to which other facets of the local scene are not indulged in the narrative is merely a consequence of the limitations imposed by the theme and storyline as experienced by the main character.

That Elizabeth of Bavaria found Gibraltar "absolutely delightful" is not in dispute. Rather, it is representative of many quotes attributed to numerous personages of note who have visited us in the past. Ironically, few authors are more aware of this than Mark Sanchez, as he has edited an exhaustive compilation of quotes and observations on Gibraltar which I am sure Mr Lombard would find enthralling. Moreover, it is an added irony that he should base his criticism on the iniquity involved in painting an inaccurate picture of bygone Gibraltarian life which results in its unjust denigration, when this is exactly what he is doing when he denigrates the efforts of a born and bred Gibraltarian without so much as reading his book.

Yours faithfully,

Gerald Mañasco

* * *


Title: Literature is no disservice

Dear Sir,

I was disappointed to read Mr Anthony Lombard’s criticism of the published extracts from “Diary of a Victorian Colonial.” He thinks these convey a “wholly negative and unedifying” impression of life in Victorian Gibraltar. If unchallenged, such a “false interpretation” might “result in a huge disservice to our noble city and honourable ancestors.”

Most of us will share his honest desire to see a favourable portrayal of our city, but Mr Lombard shows a regrettable aim in picking out the historic fiction of Dr Mark Sanchez, a sensitive researcher with a poetic sense of the conflicting relationships that have framed our troubled past.

If you read the extracts closely, you will see how the narrator is revealing his own prejudice, and not just speaking for the author. Comparing this with the travellers’ accounts anthologised in “Writing the Rock of Gibraltar,” you may appreciate how successfully Dr Sanchez mimics both the casual racism and cultural superiority that were unfortunately adopted by so many past visitors.

Yes, the Empress of Austria had a favourable tourist impression of Gibraltar, but she was no more likely to explore our disease-ridden slums than a modern cruise-ship passenger would the Rio favelas. Historic truth must be sifted through contradictory descriptions. Deleting “negative pictures of Gibraltar” is the task of public relations, perhaps even political propaganda. If Gibraltarian culture aspires to more than organising a beauty pageant, shouldn’t we ask more honesty of our writers?

The irony is that “The Diary of a Victorian Colonial” explicitly explores our link to an ancestral past. Are we descended from idle gentlefolk, unprincipled merchants, uneducated savages, or something quite different? I prefer to think we have worked our way out of military-colonial squalor, to the prosperity of civil society. Our honourable ancestors shouldn’t be terribly impressed if we’d only managed to concrete over their Victorian paradise.

Yours faithfully

Christopher Wall