My second visit to Gibraltar. My second visit to this once Moorish, once Spanish, now British little stony finger of Union Jacks and pubs. A town wrapped around the warm flanks of a limestone hulk. A subtropical theme park where the genre is Britain.
First the promenade walk out of Spain and through the bored customs check. The Spanish guards tanned and attractive, the British billowy around the waist and pasty. Across the runway, one was immediately affronted by the trappings of what makes the place popular: duty free shops selling cheap technology, watches and alcohol, and chain stores. Over a mug of inexplicably disgusting tea the air was hot and full of Gibraltarian chatter. It was impossible to pinpoint who was who. People with olive skin and blonde hair fired away in southern Spanish to their friends and then immediately flicked to London accents when admonishing their children. The blood of the modern Gibraltarian is a cocktail of British, Spanish, Maltese and whichever other ancestors chose life on the Rock.
The cable car, beautiful as it ascends and unsettling when it slows and stops, rose four hundred metres up. Immediately one is confronted with those Barbary Apes as they go about their cheeky business: furry Artful Dodgers adept at dipping their hands into purses or snatching drinks. The real pests are those dumb apes Homo turistii who pester and annoy the macaques forgetting that they are in fact wild animals whose mouths are full of teeth. One interested young male adds a bit of colour to an otherwise tacky wedding photoshoot. Dolled up young girls with tattoos and piercings smile with Algeciras and its cranes as a backdrop.
The Rock is a Swiss cheese of mostly defunct military tunnels and artillery turrets that must well be the warmest British outpost that one can reach quickly. The heat is cloying and spongy and the sensation, up high away from the shops and the bars, is distinctly un-British. Light mauve candytuft peppers the green hillsides that are otherwise overgrown with round-leaved oak trees, wild olive, osyris and fat seagulls. To the south one can see Yebel Musa, the proud point of the Rif range poking out of the haze. Africa, just across the water. That was what Gibraltar almost felt like. A Moroccan mountain, snipped off, floated over to Europe and pretending to be British.
The town, a pleasing joke, was a pastiche of the attractive and the disgusting. The town centre was pretty enough, though no doubt heightened by the omnipresent sun. Colourful walls, hints of the Iberian, mixed quite amicably with old Victorian brickwork. Then towards the edges were the newer developments: those horrendous apartment blocks that were the specialities of the British post-war architects. A pastel-coloured Catholic church had more of those Spanish/British Gibraltarians spilling out of it in their finery. Jewish people in grey suits and sporting Yarmulkes strolled past nodding to locals. Then a man, some old tweed gentleman, in grey, walked by with a black cane. On his head a navy blue bowler. His neck was clipped to with a dark blue bow tie and from the buttons on his waistcoat hung a pocket watch. After that a brief procession of ten redcoat toy soldiers; all buckles and buttons and carrying sabres, rifles and the Union Jack. Gibraltar was a garish injection of British multiculturalism strung out along a few scorching streets.
After an impressively tasty and fresh lunch of fish and chips at the kitsch pub The Clipper, I left Westside and took the long and ugly road round to the opposite side of the Rock. Catalan Bay: a periphery settlement. A matchbox Torquay, a miniaturised seaside resort scattered out along a light beige strip of sand and backed quite oppressively by the naked and steep sides of the mountain. The houses were pastels of pinks, blues, purples, yellows and peaches. Attractive, and distinctly unattractive, locals stretched their bellies out in the sun. Some bought 99s from an abjectly out of place ice cream van. It was a colourful slice of Devon that was completely tacky but entirely delightful. It was Britain but not as I knew it.
Despite the joyful diversion of Gibraltar, it is not a place to stay. Nor will I go back. Is it all the stereotypes of Britain plugged into Spanish geography. The locals love it as they can play at being British whilst being so far from the homeland. Visitors can gawk and giggle at its well-meaning absurdity. And the Spanish can enter to insult or enjoy. I tired of it quite quickly and somehow felt more at home on La Línea’s grubby little beach and its vaguely Hawaiian bar that served me juicy sea bream cooked on an open fire. With plates of homemade ensaladilla rusa, grilled langoustines, a bottle of Cadiz wine and the sun setting over the somehow now attractive silhouettes of the San Roque refinery, I think I knew to which country my soul belonged.