A BOY FROM RED SANDS (Henry Valerga)

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He may have ended up running one of the UK’s top restaurants, or become Gibraltar’s most senior meteorologist. But we all have dreams and his was to make it in music… `make it,’ being the operative phrase, and that he did, regardless of the craving for that ever elusive goal of fame and fortune!

 

Chasing the rainbow is an arduous task and in the performing business or visual arts it’s never easy, even to make ends meet sometimes. Endeavouring to ‘make ends meet’ is what forces you – in Henry’s case – to put down the guitar, get out there and find yourself a job, because the din of jingle-jangle in your pockets has become barely audible and eating and paying rent are at the top of the agenda now! Henry, like many other performers has had to take on any number of jobs to keep the wolf away from the door whilst at the same time working hard towards perhaps one day, seeing his name up in lights – the tough grind never stops…Yes, working in many restaurants waiting on tables, serving in shops and other short lived casual jobs were the norm for Henry as he ventured towards a career in showbiz – becoming a Scientific Assistant in the Met Office at North Front was in fact, the only ‘proper job’ he undertook  during that time (he later took on the role of Entertainments Manager at the Europa Road Casino) but, he declares enthusiastically: “You know what, it’s all given me great pleasure and I wouldn’t change a thing!”.

And that’s the sentiment held right through the 250 page hard back in Henry’s – or, ‘Enriquito’ as he was endearingly called by family members and close friends – autobiography entitled, The Boy From Red Sands. It catalogues his life from 0 to 21 (21 to the present is reserved for a future publication hopefully), living in Red Sands House on the Humphries Estate through the 50s and 60s, attending the Gibraltar Grammar School and forming his first pop group, The Odds. Although making some long standing friends in school his experience with some of his teachers was not a happy one…Henry says, “They would strap you for next to nothing: on occasions I just didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I remember having to drop on your knees at noon everyday to pray. They were religious freaks reeking of whiskey and tobacco and not very nice.” Perhaps that atmosphere, plus the fact he was bullied for wearing glasses, may have contributed to Henry wanting to shoot off school at 15 and not wanting to continue in higher education. It’s all in the book!

It was the late 60s and music was his dream. He dabbled in piano lessons for a while but was clearly attracted to the guitar but to this day still considers himself more of a singer than an instrumentalist. His love of music was influenced by others who were already in local groups who by this time, had headed off to UK and Spain to try their luck in the real professional music scene. Older brother Tito was instrumental in really getting the music bug going in Henry and taught him to play the guitar. However, there had been music in the family in the past in the form of guitar and mandolin ensembles, “That was my grandfather who was part of a Rondalla and La Tuna in the 30s and 50s but I can’t say my musical inspiration came from him.” The book recollects memories of how Henry formed his first group called the Odds, who many may be familiar with. A very young pop group which became extremely popular performing in many venues on the Rock and elsewhere – Morocco, Spain and heading off to the UK also and the hardback has some great stories relating to the odds pursuit of a place in the world of pop: there are many interesting accounts of the group’s travels to those destinations in the book which the Odds, still in their very early teens – drummer Arturo Bonich, bass guitarist and singer, Douglas Mc Mahon, lead guitarist and brother Denis, Henry on rhythm guitar (and Elizabeth Valverde on keyboards for a time whilst in Gibraltar) – experienced. The group name incidentally, was chosen by Henry, blindly placing a finger on a dictionary page at random…The finger landed on the word, ODD!

A Boy from Red Sands takes us right through the 50s and 60s from the moment Henry was born – almost to the very loud bang of the munitions ship Bedenham, which exploded in the Naval Dockyard in 1951 when he was just a few weeks old – to 1971. Many of us reminisce of what I think is true to say, were the halcyon days of our lives during those years playing in the streets with your friends on homemade scooters and carts or, as illustrated on the book’s cover, playing shops on a cardboard box for a counter, selling or displaying trophies made out of silver cigarette paper, going to the cinema really animated to see your favourite actors in their latest film with perhaps just a few old pence in your pocket for a lollipop or a bag of sweets. Henry recounts playing and exploring in the Alameda Gardens opposite the estate on the other side of the road. “I also remember dads were quite strict then and we never answered back and that’s probably why I never dared question the Christian Brothers in school about why I was being punished.” Venturing into town with younger brother Denis they would dare peep through doors of the busy bars which servicemen would frequent. Excitedly they’d witness girls on stage, scantily dressed dancing to a four piece band entertaining rowdy, beer drinking, soldiers and sailors and recall how they would sometimes be chased away by the doorman. Henry remembers how ‘Pitto Menswear’ shop was the place to go for your clothes. You’d make a down payment of 10 old shillings (50p) choose a jacket and pair of pants or a suit and pay the rest on tick or ‘aplazo’!

There is much reference to the word RED, popping up every now and then in the book, always in RED! Poet Henry shares a lovely poem highlighting the word as being the colour of blood signifying life, Ruby Tuesday – a favourite song, the highest arc of the rainbow, the Chinese flag representing the most populated nation on earth, STOP being the warning sign signalling you to stop and other RED references are woven into the well thought out poem. If I wrote, `and there are 10 or 12 photographs and illustrations in the book,’ I would be lying. There are loads upon loads, depicting every stage of the period Henry’s written about and they’re all captioned.

Well, my word limit for this article does not allow me to go much further just to say: get the book! The Boy From Red Sands was written over six years which at times was relegated to the back burner but it’s done, and here it is now. It’s a very interesting read full of anecdotal episodes including references about his childhood sweetheart – now his wife – Elizabeth, named after Queen Elizabeth, having been born at the time of the Queen’s visit to the Rock in 1954, starting a family, nearly joining La Linea’s very successful pop export to the whole of Spain – The Rocking Boys, the Gibraltar Regiment, a UK consultant predicting, he would never sing again and so much more. Oh, and the time brother Tito advised him to pee on his fingers to reduce the pain from learning to play the guitar whilst pressing hard on the instrument’s steel strings!

And so it’s a must. There has to be a Part Two to Henry’s musical journey: leaving the Rock again with Tito and Denis on another mission to hopefully become successful recording stars, other experiences and the return to his home town without the fame and fortune most of those in the performing arts seek. Well, he’s done his thing: he’s happy, well travelled, treasures experiences galore and as he says, ‘wouldn’t change a thing’ so yes… he has ‘made it’!