The sea is far below me, the cliff top far above and the curved cliff face on my left as the narrow track curls around it and reaches a ravine that’s not much less sheer than the rock to either side and covered in sub-tropical vegetation – deep greens in the form of ferns and palmitos, great leafy plant life speckled with the yellows and purples of spring.
Here the track becomes a set of old, uneven steps, steep and winding up the ravine in twists and sharp turns towards the top. Looking up at the zig zag stonework – almost swallowed up by foliage – and then over my shoulder out to sea and that other continent’s coast, it’s not the kind of spot where you would expect to bump into anyone. And yet, I hear voices.
They’re coming from behind and since I stop here to sit for a minute, they soon catch up. A pair of Englishmen – one is tall and straight-backed, wispy white hair blowing in the breeze, aquiline nose held high and appears, even up here after quite the hike, to be sauntering along as if on a quiet stroll round his own garden. He looks like I look when I take the few steps from the front door to the buzón to check for post, only taller and with better posture.
I feel a bit better when I see his companion, a stubby man with a snub nose, hair not so much white as dirty grey and beginning to stick to his head with perspiration, a few straggles of it escaping from beneath the temples of his glasses. It might be the setting, but my imagination dresses them both in the kind of naval uniforms you see in paintings of the battle of Trafalgar and the like – the rear admiral out in front, occasionally pointing out items of interest in the vegetation or out at sea, the hapless ensign trotting along behind, missing them all because his eyes are so firmly fixed on the uneven track, his mind on suppressing a dizzying fear of heights.
I offer a good morning and get a hearty one back from the admiral but his rotund companion looks a little put out to be spoken to and hurries along, struggling to keep up as their voices recede. I allow them a couple of minutes to get away from me and then tackle the steps myself. The naval thing sprang to mind, I suppose, because I’m scaling the near vertical eastern side of the Rock of Gibraltar, and everything about this place reeks of its naval and military past.
The very steps I’m climbing – with aching legs and out of breath – were put here by soldiers to connect the gun installations lower down with O’Hara’s Battery at the top – an artillery outpost that crowns Gibraltar at its highest point. Between the guns though there are only the steps and the greenery, the sea and Africa. You wouldn’t know where you were if it wasn’t for the view of the Moroccan coast and as for when; you might almost expect a Man-of-War to round the promontory’s southern tip, beating a path through the bright water and into view. Instead it’s container ships further out on the Strait, bound for the Atlantic.
Not knowing where you are might be an enjoyable sensation, but only fleetingly; if the feeling lasts, it unsettles. People like to know where they are. On the other side of the rock and far below me, the town is choc-a-bloc with clues and symbols to tell you exactly where you are – Union Jacks and dingy, pie & chip pubs, street names like Winston Churchill Avenue and Cumberland Road, King’s Yard Lane, Queen’s Road, Prince Edward’s Road, red telephone boxes, more Union Jacks. Nobody could ever accuse the locals of subtlety when it comes to declaring their allegiances.
The Franco years poisoned Spain for many Gibraltarians – they give the impression nowadays of regarding their neighbour to the north (and the east, and the west and, if you count Ceuta, the south) with suspicion and contempt. You’d need an attitude, I imagine, to carve out a life in an enclave like this. The symbols you surround yourself with would have to be imbued with a near physical potency if you weren’t to be subsumed – your anthem drowned out by the dirges and bulerias of flamenco, your women swathed in the finest jamón money could buy, your young befuddled by fresh fish and delicious seafood at reasonable prices. It can’t be easy to resist.
But resist they have. Flags, coats of arms and crests are more numerous here than anywhere I’ve ever been. Bit of a mystery to me, Britishness, if I’m honest, though I admire it in many ways – if the Rock is anything to go by it seems to be largely a matter of flags, armed forces and frozen pies. These things connect the people here to a mother country they might not even like all that much or recognise as their own. The truth is that Gibraltar is a singular place, its brand of Britishness an odd but unifying web connecting a unique collection of peoples from as far afield as historical Genoa and Malta, India and Morocco. Jews and Anglicans, Catholics and Muslims.
Mainly Catholics, a fact brought home by the little statuette of the Virgin I stumble across on my way up the steps, left by someone in a cleft, in prayer or remembrance of some sad thing. She has the same view as I do, the Strait that divides the continents, and it isn’t the first time that Christianity will have cast a watchful eye over these waters.
I’m flagging and beginning to wonder how many more of these wonky steps there are when I hear some voices again which, as they become louder, become more familiar. It’s the admiral and his ensign on their way back down. The taller man is still strolling easily, his one concession to the physical exertion that he has removed his pullover. It swings gently back and forth in his hand as he ambles.
The ensign, by now a mess of cholesterol and sweat, has elected in his breathless delirium to become talkative, rabbiting away at the admiral’s back as he stumbles along behind.
“It all depends on the hips, you see…”
“…but he said…”
“…that if we…”
His unflappable companion gives no indication that he’s listening, merely peppering the dialogue with a “hm” here and a “uhuh” there and putting up with it all very patiently, although I believe I see his hand tighten on the pullover a couple of times as they fade away below me. As I continue up the final set of stairs to the top, the oddness of the place is evident even in the flora – plants like Candytuft, Campion, chickweed and saxifrage: as strange and singular a mix as that of people in the town below.
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