“Cider with Rosie” was my first Laurie Lee book. I read it shortly after I had left Gibraltar for good in 1961 but it was his book about his travels through Spain before the Spanish Civil War (see LINK) that really seems to have captured my rather inexperienced imagination. The romantic rural Spain of Lee’s - "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” - has long since disappeared and was probably never quite as he described it in the 1930’s either.
But his poetic prose must have made an impression on me at the time. So much so that when rereading the book recently I noticed that he had also visited Gibraltar. Perhaps the following extract - which can be used to compare his views on the Rock with those of Algeciras just across the Bay - will allow the reader to understand why I had forgotten all about his short visit to my homeland all those years ago.
Romantic rural Spain ( 1947 - Gustavo Bacarisas ) (See LINK)
Suddenly it was dark, and Gibraltar became a heap of diamonds, and Algeciras stretched out claws of light. Then a huge moon rose straight out of the sea, and hung motionless, like a frozen bloom. The wind rose too, funnelling from the Atlantic, and I wrapped in my blanket, shivering with cold.
Gibraltar from Algeciras ( Early 20th century - Albert-Moulton-Foweraker) (See LINK)
The Port of Algeciras had a potency and charm which I’d found nowhere else till then. It was a scruffy little town built round an open drain and smelling of fruit skins and rotten fish. There were a few brawling bars and modest brothels; otherwise the chief activity was smuggling. At most street-corners there would be offered erratic items of merchandise unavailable anywhere else in Spain - mouldy chocolate, laddered stockings, damp American cigarettes, leaky Parkers, and fake Swiss watches.
But for all its disreputable purposes and confidence-trickery, it seemed to be a town entirely free of malice, and even the worst of its crooks were so untrained in malevolence that no one was expected to take them seriously. In its position as a bridge between Europe and Morocco, the port could have equalled Marseilles in evil, but its heart wasn’t in it, in spite of the opportunities, and it preferred small transgressions with lesser rewards.
Algeciras was a clearing-house for odds and ends and I stayed there about two weeks. I remember the fishing boats at dawn bringing in tunny from the Azores, the markets full of melons and butterflies, the international freaks drinking themselves into multi-lingual stupors, the sly yachts running gold to Tangier . . .
I spent part of my time with a gang of youths who earned their living spiking handbags with fish-hooks, who got rid of their loot in the bars and brothels, and begged their meals at the local convent. The leader of the gang was a ‘globetrotter’ from Lisbon, who claimed to be walking round the world. But he was always slipping back home to fetch something he’d forgotten and had taken two years to get as far as this.
No brothels, modest or otherwise here but plenty of hotels, restaurants and bars in what was in my day probably the most frequented area for tourists to take it easy while they waited for the ferry to take them to Gibraltar
For myself, I thought it best to stick to the fiddle and here the town was rewarding enough. My patrons were varied, and their approach was direct. I was often taken aside and asked for a favourite tune. Schubert, for some reason, was most popular here, followed by local ballads of mystical sex.
One night I was taken to a boat to play to a Chinese cook, who baked me a bag of biscuits in return. I was also asked for ‘On with the Motley’ by a Cardiff stoker, and ‘Ave Maria’ by a party of drunken priests. Another night a young smuggler invited me to serenade his invalid mistress, after which I was rewarded with a wrist-watch which ticked madly for an hour and then exploded in a shower of wheels.
I was half in love with Algeciras and its miniature villainies, and felt I could have stayed on there indefinitely. But part of my plan at that time was still to follow the coast round Spain, so I had to leave it and get on to Malaga.
Algeciras - “I could have stayed on there, indefinitely” ( Early 20th century - Alfred East ) (See LINK)
But first of all there remained the question of Gibraltar, only twenty minutes across the bay. Too near to resist, I thought I’d drop in for the afternoon, present my passport, and have some tea. The old paddle-wheel ferry carried me across the water, smooth as oil and leaping with dolphins, while I enjoyed the boat’s brief passage of tax-free drinking, with brandy a penny a glass.
Laurie Lee may have taken either one of these two “old paddle-wheel” ferries to the Rock (See LINK)
To travellers from England, Gibraltar is an Oriental bazaar, but coming in from Spain I found it more like Torquay - the same helmeted police, tall angular women, and a cosy smell of provincial groceries. I’d forgotten how much the atmosphere of home depended on white bread, soap, and soup-squares. Even in this enclave of Maltese - Genoese - Indians, one sensed the pressure of cooking steam.
Main Street (See LINK) - “helmeted police and a cosy smell of provincial groceries . . . enclave of Maltese - Genoese - Indians . . .
My welcome at the colony was not what I expected. The port officials looked me up and down with doubt. The rest of the travellers were passed briskly through the barrier while I was put on one side like an infected apple. Clipped phone-calls were made to remoter authorities, warily seeking advice. ‘Uh, his passport’s all right. No, he’s not broke, exactly. Well, you knew . . . Well, sort of . . . Yes . . .’
Finally I was taken in a truck to see the Chief of Police, a worried but kindly man. ‘But who are you?’ he kept saying. ‘It’s rather difficult here. You must try to realise our position. It doesn’t do, you knew - if you’ll forgive my saying so. Nothing personal, you understand . . .’
The market place - one of Laurie Lee’s first views after he had negotiated his stay with the authorities ( 1930 - Otto Wunderlich ) (See LINK)
Anyway, it was agreed that l could stay for a day or two, if l slept in the police station, where they could keep an eye on me. So I was given a clean little cell, a cake of soap, and I played dominoes with the prisoners in the evenings. I wasn’t under arrest, exactly; l was allowed out in the daytime as long as I reported back at night.
Irish Town - Police Station on the far right - but perhaps Laurie also made use of the public baths shown on the left ( National Archives )
But the restriction was tedious, and after a few days of ham and eggs, a policeman conducted me back to the frontier. Leaving Gibraltar was like escaping from an elder brother in charge of an open jail. I crossed the land-bridge at La Linea and climbed up to San Roque - exiled home of the Spanish mayors of Gibraltar.
Looking back, I could see the Rock still capped by its cloud, grey as a gun-turret, dripping with mist - while the mainland around lay under the beating sun, jagged with mountains as blue as clinkers. Spain enclosed me once more with its anarchic indifference, asking no discipline but the discipline of manners. I was back on the road, cushioned by its unswept dust, and by my anonymity, which would raise no eyebrows. It took five days to Malaga . . . .
Possibly Laurie Lee’s last view of the Rock from San Roque - ( Rudecindo Mania )
In retrospect I imagine that I must have been thoroughly disappointed by his complete dismissal of Gibraltar as a place hardly worth visiting. Especially when compared to places such as Algeciras. But the truth is that deep down I would have agreed with him. The fact that Gibraltar was a cleaner, more prosperous and secure place than anywhere close by in Spain made little difference.
Its massive military history was writ large all over the place and its interminable and imposing fortifications, its Line Wall and the heavy handedness of the Ministry of Defence was not much help either, however much one tried to use one’s imagination Even its celebrated medieval Moorish Castle (see LINK) was just a gigantic cube of concrete with a Union Jack flying over it. Gibraltar was a good place to live in but for all the wonderful views across the Bay from the upper Rock - most of it a restricted area in the 1930s - it simply lacked style.
Barbed wire and battleship - the garden was private one and almost certainly belonged to some military big shot ( 1937 )
On the other hand Algeciras - and in fact just about anywhere within the Campo area - reeked of a freedom of spirit and space and perhaps most importantly of all for Laurie Lee and for a younger me - of Romance. Los Rios, la Almoraima, Getares, Rinconcillo, Miraflores, Casa Antonio, la Feria de la Línea, Campamento. . . . To any Gibraltarian living on the Rock during the 1950s, they all bring back the kind of memories that Laurie Lee associated with Spain. At any rate they did so to me.
However . . . none of that explains Lee’s complete dismissal of Gibraltar. It may not have satisfied his or my own younger poetic soul but it certainly is in many ways an interesting place. The presence of a garrison and the fact that large chunks of the more interesting bits of the Rock were out of bounds to civilians might have grated but it doesn’t quite explain why he fails to mention a single place on the Rock other than its prison.
My copy of As I Walked Out . . . was published in 1969. I think that is when it was first published. I also suspect that Lee wrote it shortly before publication rather soon after his first experiences in Spain. My guess is that whatever memories he might have had of the Rock had faded with time - and there are one or two comments that make me wonder at how accurately he remembered the place - there is no land-bridge at la Línea and San Roque is not the exiled home of the Spanish mayors of Gibraltar but that of the descendants of a large number of the original Spanish population of the Rock who went there after 1704. (See LINK)
Nevertheless after rereading the book I wish he had made a bit more of an effort to like the place . . . . just a wee bit more.
A lesson in how to make the unromantic, romantic ( 1928 - The Empire Marketing Board - Charles Pears )