“Dedicated to all those young ones who have ever felt different and try so hard to fit in, when they were born to stand out!”
– (from A Boy from Red Sands by Henry Valerga)
Henry Valerga is a natural story-teller: calm, affable, courteous and with that sort of twinkle in his eye that tells you that this next anecdote will be the best yet, and a way with words that leaves you thirsting for yet another tale. We meet for the first time in one of Gibraltar’s many cafés. Ostensibly, Henry was to tell me some background about his newly-published book and details of the forthcoming book launch. Yet within minutes, I was drawn into a wonderful world of stories: stories from Henry’s fascinating life, of his travels as an entertainer with his young band The Odds and later with his brother, Denis, as The Valerga Brothers. This hardback is full of episodes and encounters of Gibraltar during the 50s and 60s.
“I’m the archivist of the Valerga family,” Henry explained as I reverently browsed what is a beautiful volume packed with photographs that are full of character and individuality, and with specially commissioned illustrations and watercolours by two prominent local artists. Crisp, clear font, engaging text and the glorious smell of freshly printed pages that renders booklovers like me dizzy with joy, I loved it already.
As someone who gathered old photos and scribbled notes that eventually became poems and song lyrics, Henry had a ready access to a wealth of material that triggered so many of those memories that he has documented and is now sharing with us. “About six years ago, while hunting out some old song lyrics Denis had asked for, I found my first ever passport,” he explains when I ask him what prompted him to write the book, “every stamping in the passport tells its own story, and all those memories suddenly came at me; places I had been to, people I’d spent my time with, things we did. And it dawned on me I needed to write these down, that these stories weren’t just about me, because they build up a picture of a snippet of life and society at the time.”
The starting point of the book is the explosion of the RFA Bedenham, when Henry was just 50 days old and in his crib. The power of the blast smashed all the windows of the block of flats where he lived en Los Humphreys. Although surrounded by shards of glass, the infant Henry (Enriquito) was unhurt and grew to enjoy what Henry describes as a “wonderful early life”. He recounts life at Los Humphrey’s and what it meant to be part of that sociable bunch of boys, who wallowed in the lap of glorious luxury and contentment, all the way up the Red Sands Road.
The book launch will take place at 8.00pm on Tuesday, 23rd October at Grand Battery House, and Henry has a planned “twisty” special up his sleeve to surprise those who attend. He refuses to be drawn into details but judging by his remarkable skills as a poet, storyteller and musician, it is going to be an entertaining evening. Henry will go on to give a talk at the Gibunco Gibraltar International Literary Festival on Sunday 18th November, a talk that will be well worth the attendance and will include readings from the book.
“And I might even sing one of my songs,” Henry adds, with a smile, “I’m a musician and I love writing lyrics and poetry.” Henry’s book is interwoven with snippets of his song lyrics and some of his poems and quotes: “…music is fantasy, and possesses the power to penetrate the senses” (The One Dream). These are sensitive pieces that transport you to ponder on the universal.
Henry’s stories, like his life, are permeated with musicality, with personal explorations of his involvement in the vibrant music scene of the 60s in Gibraltar. Henry tells of his time as a teenager performing with The Odds around Gibraltar, Spain, Tangiers and ‘Swinging London’ among many other venues. He talks about the people they met, the scrapes they got up to, the ‘teenyboppers’, screaming fans and the red lipstick…you’ll need to read the book to find out more! Colourful stories reflecting a colourful life at a time when the world, including Gibraltar, seemed to be imbued with a sense of possibilities and positive energy. It is this positive energy that emerges from A Boy from Red Sands, Henry’s lifetime experiences, personality and wise reflections on life shining from his words.
The worth of a people is the sum of all their stories – a line that I read recently that stayed with me and that neatly points to the immense value of A Boy from Red Sands. Not because it is written by a prominent musician and local personality, but because in the collection of Henry Valerga’s memories, lie some of the many stories that go to make up the real story of Gibraltar. Henry is now working on a second volume, adding the stories of his later life. In the meantime, A Boy from Red Sands is the latest valuable contribution to the growing body of Gibraltarian literature, telling Gibraltar’s story through the stories told by its people.
“To all my invited guests, please join me, if you can, in celebrating the release of my book!” says Henry.
The book launch will take place on Tuesday 23rd October at Grand Battery House, Smith Dorrien Avenue at 8.00pm.
BY JACKIE ANDERSON