Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Uncomfortable inside a time warp wrapped in a historical anomaly

Years ago, I was delighted to have the opportunity to set foot, for the first time in my life, on a little corner of the rapidly dwindling British Empire. I broke a journey to Australia in Hong Kong, just a few months before it became independent. Or rather, was handed back to China, which I suppose is independence, though not for any meaning of the word that I would recognise.

I only had 36 hours there, but I enjoyed every moment, even the bit when I got drenched to the skin in a sudden tropical downpour – just the kind of thing that ought to happen, one feels, in South East Asia. I took the tram up Victoria Peak, I took the ferry across to Kowloon, I had that strange but quintessentially far Eastern experience of being plunged into a human wave, as I walked in the rush hour towards a commuter train that was just emptying: extraordinary how those thousands poured past me without jostling me or even coming close to infringing the little bubble of private space they left around me.

With wonderful food on top of the rest, it was a sheer joy, but it wasn’t actually terribly British Empire. It felt like a little bit of China where the street signs happened to be in English. Which, after all, was what it really was.

So it was fascinating, while we were in Southern Spain on our recent holiday, to pop over to Gibraltar. Now that really is a little corner of the British Empire. In fact, it’s a little bit of England set down in the Mediterranean. The experience was doubly like stepping into a time warp. 

In the first place, because it represents a bizarre anomaly, British by virtue of England having been on the right side of a war fought alongside the Germans and against the French over who should rule Spain – don’t ask, just another ghastly mess of the kind the so-called Great Powers liked to spring on their own subjects and each other from time to time.

A historical gun at a bizarre angle:
an appropriate symbol for Gib?

Turns out to have been a depressing gun.
I should say. Think how the Spaniards must have felt.
Gibraltar’s had plenty of time since 1704 to squeeze all the Spanishness out of itself, and in my view isn't any the better for it: I felt much more comfortable in nearby Andalucia. 

Because the rock’s so small, the place feels crowded; because the only thing to do there is take advantage of the tax status to make money, it feels as though it’s in a constant rush; and because it’s completely artificial, owing its existence to a strange anomaly of the history of war, it feels out of joint with its surroundings. Claustrophobia, self-obsession, dislocation. Those were the feelings that predominated for me.

The other sense of being in a time warp came from Gibraltar's particular form of Englishness. It’s out of date by forty or fifty years. We naturally had to have a pub lunch – you can't avoid so English a gesture if you’ve travelled all the way from England to the other side of Spain and another little bit of England. And it was a completely authentic experience: exactly the stereotypical English pub lunch. But not of 2011. It was exactly as I remember from 1970. 

Just to spell it out, to make sure there’s no ambiguity in my message, let me stress that these days I delight in amazing foreign visitors by taking them for meals in pubs, just to show how well you can eat in them (well, some of them). It shatters the shameful reputation of the British for serving unspeakable food.

1970 was right slap in the period when Britain earned itself that reputation.

The Spanish like to make it difficult to leave the rock, so that people who go there are uncomfortable about the experience. Personally, I already felt quite uncomfortable enough, but I naturally had to queue at the border just like everyone else. The impatience of those around us was palpable, and frankly I shared it. Visiting the place had been fascinating, and I'm really pleased I went there, but at the end of the day I was anxious to get back to the twenty-first century and something a bit more like civilisation.

Queuing to get out of Gib, and back to reality
So, how do I feel now about the British Empire? If I’d needed any proof that British imperialism had little to commend it, Gib provided it. And as for the rock itself? If the Spaniards want it, then as far as I’m concerned, they can have it. But poor things: do they really know what theyre wishing for? 

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