By Kelvin Hayes
In 1933 George Orwell released a seminal work called Down & Out in Paris & London. This book detailed life for Orwell – a naïve young man on the road doing odd jobs and living in backpacker style residences of the day. I did not read it until I had completed what became the Nomad trilogy. When I did read it, I was astonished at how remarkably similar our lives had been, a good 60 years apart, the odd jobs and living arrangements (and indeed the public lovemaking he encountered) were still very much in evidence and intact.
When I left Wales for London in spring 1999 I was a poet but had never written a travelogue and had no intention of travelling. I was lucky in many ways that the hostelling system was in place to support my ilk, the wayfaring dreamer, whereas in Paris it would have been a different story; 7 days max stay is common place there. I am lucky that I had a Kiwi passport to hide behind and lucky that I’m still here to write this as every twist and turn in the fabric of life offered its choice of dilemma and near ruin.
Nowadays Earls Court is a ghost-town of its former hostelling self, although a few of them remain, the Inchmont, Silver Fern, Table Mountain and Ayres Rock have all disappeared – converted into luxury apartments or hotels that none of those resident there in the late 1990s and early years of the new century could have afforded. Likewise, the travellers’ bible TNT magazine has also uprooted to Victoria and the greasy spoon Benji’s has ceased to be.
‘Nomad’ was originally issued in August 2001. By this time I had made it back to my childhood hometown of Wellington, New Zealand but found the reception there little different to the UK. Despite my best efforts at PR, the book sank without trace. Unperturbed I wrote about my Kiwi experience and released the subsequent book ‘Returning/Repeating’ in 2003. This also died a pretty quick death. The third and final of the Nomad trilogy ‘TEMP (Such if Life)’ surfaced toward the end of 2005 and suffered a similar and expected fate.
It is now over ten years since my travels in the original nomad book. I intended it to be the book that finally launched me as a professional writer. Little did I know then that George Orwell aside, a burly yet cuddly bearded American called Bill Bryson had already captured the market and wrote far better English than I ever could without the aid of a significant thesaurus.
Frontiers form a big part of my life. From the outset the bridges between Wales and England over the rivers Wye and the Severn cast an indelible symbol of escapism. Likewise, in China when living in Shenzhen and staring across to the lesser known vistas of northern Hong Kong. I have crossed many borders on foot including China/HK. Switzerland into France is another one that comes to mind and now Spain into Gibraltar; walking into little Britain with considerable ease!
It has taken me six months to reach the Rock and this one is unusual because literally right after the border is an airport and a first, crossing a live runway – also on foot! Gibraltar is bigger than thought and it’s Hong Kong that comes closest to mind; a densely populated mass of levels and lanes, stairways and escalators which reveal themselves only after time spent, and also after six months in Spain everything is British again. Though its only non-British twin town to date is in Kingston, Jamaica.
However, what it shares in common with many of the smaller countries (why bother with territories?) HK, Singapore, Monaco, Andorra, Luxembourg and so on is exclusivity! In other words, no riff raff. It’s heavily policed and must have one of the highest amounts of CCTV coverage anywhere on the planet. ‘Everyone is a sleeping policeman in Gibraltar’ I’m informed. Still, if you’re one of the lucky ones to have ‘funds’ then Gibraltar will be a lot more agreeable.
It is what makes the mosaic of the world so fascinating.
It isn’t long before a fellow Brit is telling me it’s more expensive to live here than Jersey and that I’d need to be here at least 10 years to get any sort of benefits. It seems a daunting challenge and a very sobering thought yet I am loving this quaint and very British experience. Red phone boxes and plenty of visual clues to its past; Winston Churchill Avenue, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth for starters, UK currency and wall plugs (well, mostly, some use the European two pin variety). The Irish don’t go unnoticed either, with the street known as Irish Town shaded green on the cities official map.
Arriving on a long weekend, I’m keen to explore the rock and see what fate will bring. On the map, Gibraltar looks like Singapore, a spec on the edge of a peninsular, but geography is the great deceiver and it can take two hours to walk from the airport to Europa Point which has a magnificent mosque, a lovely shrine (Our Lady of Europe), the university and most impressive of all, a transcontinental view – across to Morocco and the beginnings of Africa.
Only nine nautical miles separate the Anglophone from the Arabic world. Again, the similarities to Hong Kong are more than prominent itself bridging British, Chinese and the Portuguese influences in Macau. Gibraltar wedges a geographical spanner in the works between Spanish and Arabic flavours. It is what makes the mosaic of the world so fascinating.
The Spanish are not entirely happy and have spent years making things difficult for Gibraltar and themselves. The border only opened to foreign visitors in 1985. Even today the jets seem to fly outward into the Mediterranean Sea (seemingly blocked from Spanish airspace). Though the tensions are an unfortunate reality, there are plenty of Spaniards working in construction and hospitality for example.
At McDonald’s I am so used to speaking English it’s almost a shock to have to speak Spanish (I recall the same at 7-11 in Hong Kong when Chinese was required). Interestingly my order number was 007 and in Gibraltarian history the original James Bond Sean Connery married here two times, You Only Live Twice indeed!
For its size, Gib, as it’s known, locally packs it all in; Mosques, a Hindu temple and a Synagogue are all nestled in the mix. There’s also a neat Scottish church (St Andrew’s) tucked behind the main street near the Eliott Hotel as well as the King’s Chapel. Gibraltar welcomes all faiths. Little Britain is a bit like big Britain, with the exception that it isn’t an island. Nonetheless it’s a cosy place to enjoy a scone and tea as well as fish and chips. There’s a Morrisons store, not far from McD’s but no TESCO or Sainsbury’s though the smaller Eroski stocks some Waitrose goods. It’s a similar story for coffee, Costa is present but Starbucks haven’t made it yet, not even at the airport. So Gibraltar is very much the same but different.
I never make it to the top of the rock, the Sky Walk or to see the famed monkeys, which is in some ways a shame but it was never my main interest, exploring the city was alongside that view of Morocco – being able to physically see the next step of the jigsaw puzzle ahead of me was incredible and cost nothing. Speaking of the city, there are great vantage points from high up toward the nature reserve or from the Eliott Hotel’s eighth floor bar. It’s a vista showcased by the glistening harbour, and the distant shore of Algeciras over in Spain.
Gibraltar is nice and some say its strategic location make it one of the most important spots on the planet, and what can be better than that?
To see more of Kelvin’s work, visit kelvinhayesglobal.com.