The front door is open, and a voice from somewhere within welcomes me in. Henry appears as I step through the doorway, shirtless and smiling, with the same affable air that has met the countless individuals he has dedicated his life to. A familiar face to most, the many roles Mr Pinna has undertaken over the past five decades share a common thread which has come to define his reputation. He fights for those who cannot fight themselves, and he strives unwaveringly for what he knows is right.
While nobody would have begrudged him his retirement, the work that Henry started a lifetime ago continues to this day. As he puts it, he’s too old to change his habits now. The group he is perhaps most closely associated with, Action for Housing, recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, with Henry an ever-present feature of the pressure group’s efforts to ensure that everyone in Gibraltar live with the dignity to which they are entitled.
Born into a working class family in 1945, Henry spent his early years sharing a room with both parents and two siblings in Carreras Passage, with no running water and an outdoor toilet. At the time this wasn’t unusual; many lived this way and over subsequent decades the housing situation on the Rock improved in leaps and bounds for most citizens – but the very fact of this progress motivates Henry to help those it has forgotten.
Post-war Gibraltar may not have faced the same challenges posed by the overwhelming loss and economic catastrophe suffered by much of Europe at the time, but neither was it the place we know today. Life was often tough and families struggled to make ends meet. Henry recalls one of his grandfathers, a saddler, playing his mandolin with the Rondalla Calpense – a troupe which went door to door collecting funds to pay funeral or hospital costs for families in the community. I ask if he was inspired by this to help others, assuming he would have been an obvious candidate for early role model in this respect, but Henry doesn’t think so, “Not consciously anyway, but I suppose the genes were there!”.
He fights for those who cannot fight themselves, and he strives unwaveringly for what he knows is right.
Neither was this the only way that Henry’s grandfather served as unwitting inspiration. Dying when Henry was just 14 years old, it was not until later in life that he wished he could learn more about his grandfather’s life, but there was nobody left to ask. It’s for this reason that Henry took it upon himself to document his own experiences, highlighting the salient facts and deeds that define his life, that his own grandchildren may have these words to read, once they reach that age at which we develop a curiosity for our forebears.
He gives me a copy of what he has written – a few sheets of A4, containing a quite matter-of-fact account of his life thus far, further expanded by 90 minutes of conversation which make my task all the more difficult – I can apply only the broadest of strokes in depicting Henry’s life on these pages.
As a young man he was involved in the launch of the left wing periodical, Social Action. At 21, the hallmarks that would come to characterise Henry were already evident: his desire to help and inform, as well as a stubborn resistance to being reined in. First the Gibraltar Post and then the Chronicle refused to print the periodical for being ‘too radical’, but Henry and his colleagues persevered – painstakingly printing copies by hand for distribution.
Henry’s view of socialism is defined by the value of contributing to society rather than only taking from it. He tells me the communist states we have seen in practice result from distortions that detract from this basic principle. As he puts it, he would have no issue with millionaires or billionaires, if there weren’t so many people living in poverty, unnecessarily. Not entirely controversial, perhaps, but the young radical’s appetite was whetted by his experience with Social Action and, in the years that followed, he joined the Transport and General Workers union, and helped found the Action Group for the Abolition of Conscription, Action for Housing, the local branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Alameda Estate Tenants Association and the Self Determination for Gibraltar Group.
By this point, in the mid 90s, Henry Pinna was widely regarded as an essential cog in the wheel of Gibraltar’s society, empowering the public and applying checks and balances where he might. At the turn of the millennium, he was approached by Chief Minister, (not yet Sir) Peter Caruana, and offered the opportunity to be Gibraltar’s first ombudsman in what was a ringing endorsement of the work he had so far done. Henry’s first response? “I told him to find a lawyer for the job,” he laughs, “but he was insistent. I then told him to ask opposition leader, Joe Bossano (also yet to receive his knighthood) if he would approve.” This was imperative – the seat of the ombudsman could not be partisan or subject to political influence; Henry would work with cross-party approval or not at all.
Approval came a few weeks later, although he admits a wave of self doubt made him feel like running away from the situation. “My wife believed in me far more than I did. She asked me: If not you, then who? And pointed out I was doing this for free already.” Henry tells me of his gratitude to his late wife, Elizabeth, who ‘not only tolerated and put up with’ him, but, was always full of encouragement and support. Together they would have two daughters, Lizanne and Kathleen, a source of joy that fate would turn in part to bitter despair.
In 1989, a drunk driver killed Lizanne, who was just 14 years old. The perpetrator was given bail and absconded, with Spanish authorities not only indifferent but resistant to action, and Henry left to pursue justice himself. Years of work involving international lobbying, protesting and co-ordination with politicians, lawyers and pressure groups were undone in a matter of minutes when, eight years after the fact, a judge threw out the case within minutes, closing the door to appeal.
It is in an unhappy context that this father, dealt such a cruel blow by life and such huge disservice by society, took on the role of ombudsman. When so many others would have been forgiven for giving up entirely, Henry took it upon himself to establish the office of the ombudsman, both literally and figuratively, and work for change from within the system. For, as he knew all too well, there is at times very little morality in law, and he would strive for others not to suffer as he had.
His hectic stint as ombudsman saw Henry study tirelessly in Malta as he prepared for the nascent role, then work through the ‘avalanche’ of complaints that came his way, barely taking a day off in over three years, during which he says he was so busy he couldn’t think.
She asked me: If not you, then who?
After handing over to his successor in 2003, Henry joined the Environmental Safety Group and was appointed a trustee of Bruce’s Farm. Three years later he would be be appointed chairman of the Police Complaints Board. It is astounding that one man can have played pivotal roles in so many crucial organisations and groups that today we take as a given. That he did so in the face of such deeply felt tragedy serves only to bolster the admiration that many feel for him. But even admiration would not cause him to compromise his values. Henry turned down an MBE in 2010 – honoured that his work was valued, but steadfast in his anti-imperialist convictions.
All of this comes with a cheerful smile, as he reels off quotes from his favourite authors, shows me the figurines he lovingly crafts in his free time (I’m surprised to hear he has any), and delves easily into matters of philosophy, religion and morality as I struggle to keep pace. Although ‘culturally Christian’, Henry unsurprisingly rejects the structures and trappings of organised religion and remains confident and resolute in his own ethics and what he considers to give his life meaning.
At any rate, he is less preoccupied with the matter of life after death than he is with life before death. And, for all the world’s injustice, for all its seeming indifference in our times of need, it is reassuring to know there remain those among us committed to confronting imbalance and injustice in the life we know we have.