BY CLAIRE SPENCER
In the Autumn of 1935, a young traveller in his early twenties set foot in Gibraltar from off the ferry from Algeciras. He’d left his idyllic home in the Cotswolds the previous year and had walked to London, where he worked on building sites to earn enough money for his passage from the port of Tilbury to Vigo in North Western Spain. He’d decided this on a whim after being taught how to ask for a glass of water in Spanish from an Argentinian girlfriend, and imagined himself “Brown as an apostle, walking the white dust roads through the orange groves.” The young man in question was Laurie Lee, who went on to be a well-known author, most famous for his book Cider with Rosie.
Laurie Lee had walked all the way from Vigo on a torturous route that had taken in Valladolid, Madrid and Seville before ending up in Algeciras, where, as he described in his book As I walked Out One Midsummer Morning, he saw Gibraltar from across the bay “As if it had been towed out from Portsmouth and anchored offshore still wearing its own grey roof of weather.”
Unfortunately, there was to be no welcoming committee for the bedraggled traveller, carrying his few possessions in a pack on his back along with his treasured violin, on which he played for his food and keep. Instead, he was put on one side like a bad apple whilst the port officials decided what to do with him. After being taken to see the Chief of Police, it was agreed he could stay as long as he reported to the police station (those days in Irish Town) in the evening, where he was given a cell to sleep in. Laurie relates that he played dominoes with the prisoners, but how after a few days he became bored with the tedious restrictions placed on him, and he was escorted to the border by a policeman.
“It was like escaping from an elder brother in charge of an open jail,” he goes on to say in the book. This is a feeling that some might even relate to today after days of relentless cold levanter, where, after the well-practised formalities of showing passports to bored border guards they are greeted by bright lively bars with their delicious smells of coffee and croissants.
“Gun-metal faced, disciplined and dour, it could never do less than command our respect,”
Laurie continued his journey through a very different Spain to now, through cork woods and fishing villages before ending up in Almuñécar, referred to in his book as “Castillo”. He wintered here, playing his violin in a hotel, before he was rescued by a Royal Navy destroyer looking to evacuate Britons at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, where he relates that he was “piped aboard to a line of saluting officers”.
He visited Gibraltar once again in 1950 with his wife Cathy, though preferring to stay across the bay in Algeciras. He described the view of the Rock from the balcony of his hotel in the sequel A Rose For Winter as “Gun-metal faced, disciplined and dour, it could never do less than command our respect,” and that “It lay on the waters like a glass-blue prawn or crouched like a dog and threw off aircraft like fleas.”
However, I wonder were Laurie Lee to arrive in Gibraltar today, I’m sure he’d have a totally different experience and would write in his unique poetic style what a wonderful and welcoming place it is for travellers and buskers. He’d already experienced the elusive spirit of duende, and his writing was influenced by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and like him had experienced that same deep heartfelt passion of fiestas, flamenco and the bullfight. Whilst there isn’t exactly that same sort of passion in Gibraltar, there is still a certain energy here, that some of us can relate to, maybe a Gibraltarian variant of duende that grabs certain people by the throat and never lets go.
He had experienced that same deep heartfelt passion of fiestas, flamenco and the bullfight.
Perhaps our time-shifted Laurie Lee might have also been affected by this fascinating attraction that The Rock has on some people, would have stayed a while, and written in his inimitable style about the sun-kissed beaches of Catalan Bay with the fortress like Caleta Palace Hotel keeping watch over the sunbathers like a protective lifeguard.
He might describe discovering a secret world, as in The Chronicles of Narnia, after going through a partially hidden door whilst taking a stroll around The Rock, and coming across the ghostly remains of barracks and magazines of the Northern Defences. There he would have stumbled upon a time-locked world with the impregnable siege tunnels high above, bored through like a Swiss cheese, piercing a clear azure blue sky, surrounded by the ceaseless screaming of seagulls. After a short walk, the haphazard vista of the airport and La Linea with the curving Spanish coast dotted by white towns laid out like a tapestry, would greet him in the brilliant Mediterranean sunshine.
There would be a whole world of delights for our intrepid author to discover, the spiral staircase of the Mediterranean Steps, the chaotic enclave of the apes’ den, the dizzying view of the town from the pathways on the upper rock, and Europa Point with its tantalising view of another continent across a short sea strait. Then there’s all the wonderful free events laid on nowadays including the elaborate and colourful Kings Cavalcade in January, the free concerts throughout the year in the bustling Casemates Square, not forgetting the National Day Celebrations and the bright lights of the Gibraltar Fair.
He most definitely would not be out of place playing his fiddle on Main Street today, adding a touch of class to the many other musicians playing there. Alongside living statues of levitating motorcyclists and whitefaced popes, Laurie may well have become well known by locals and tourists alike. He might also be in demand to play in concerts and venues in the town, as there’s always been a fine musical heritage here, who knows what might have been, but for sure Laurie’s Gibraltar was another time and place in a world very different to today.
Claire has donated her fee for this article to Street Safe, a charity for the homeless.