Gibraltarian Stanzas

By | 15 May 2023

μὴ τὸ κράτος αὔχει δύναμιν ἀνθρώποις ἔχειν
(“Do not proclaim that empire holds sway over human lives”,
Tiresias, in Bacchae of Euripides.)

A boy runs down the steep, stepped street,
varying his strides and his leaps
to each step’s irregular space.
His bodily memory keeps
that rhythm of his native place.

The boy explores the layered clothes
in Mama Herminia’s wardrobe.
Nearly snarling, a stole of fox
breathes out time’s stale odours. Hands probe,
and rest on a wood-and-glass box.

The boy plays with the broken-down
clock. It strikes with resonant sound
long-vanished hours, as he wheels
the minute hand. The room shifts round
in the wardrobe’s mirror. It reels …

The city has, strident or mute,
the company of plant and brute
on the White Rock: the wildlife that,
winging the void or firm of root,
owns birthright to its habitat.

Life, being local, self-enables.
The cloud the uptorn Rock compels
yields it the benefit of dew.
High on the Jurassic cliff, wells
Darwin’s orchid,1 with squill’s drenched blue.

Surprising out of rocks, profuse,
their slender stems light-gemmed with dew
in the morning sun, the jonquils
bestow a fragrance on this New
Year’s Day, that almost overfills.

Was the paper-white’s origin
blank — the wan metamorphosis
of one who, mirrored, love implored?
It bears now, as the “fox’s piss”,2
imprint of our people’s word-hoard.

The local trades trace out their course —
ignored for monuments of war.
Mudéjar bricks remain true still
in Willis’s gunpowder store,
making known yet the Moors’ old skill.

The city’s great scene of affairs
is the roadstead. Once, steering there
by the Pole Star, pilots from Tyre
had brought fine, red-slipped, burnished ware
to emporium (not empire).

For casks of wine — heading and staves:
Canada exchanges with Spain
across this anchorage. Charleston
ships tobacco, Morocco grain,
cottons the Lancashire merchant.

With false, Jerusalem colours
the liberals clear, fate’s rudder
set for Golgotha on the beach.
The blindfolded bodies judder
as shot on shot tears into each.

A young Gibraltarian teacher
stands sixth in death’s rank. Remember
Gazzo, whose last a Capuchin
told. He, one night each December,
roams soundless el jardín de Glynn.3

Britain and the rival powers
begin to count down the hours
to Europe’s holocaust. Wolseley’s
incremental poll-tax scours
civilians from the Rock, he deems.4

Governor Nicholson regards
our people as foreigners, barred
by origin, connexion, tongue,
from self-rule. But from the Dockyard
a counterforce will soon have sprung.

Imperial measures contradict
one another. Some would restrict
the civil population’s size,
or deny it rights. Yet a picked
workforce the Dockyard’s growth implies.

Our people find their voice within
el arsenal itself. No din
of dominion, no soldier’s sway,
can silence it. Dockyard men win
us our first democratic say.5

I honour, with communal pride,
the Gibraltarian organized
working class, union men who knew
that the history newly prised
in Petrograd was theirs too.

Think now of a city at war,
with loved ones sent far from its shore;
more true than the one Orwell drew,
a city of workers,6 whose core
of morale insists on their due.

Risso heads the campaign: “They must
bring our families back; entrust
the people with self-government.”
As in other colonies, just
demands prevail through mass intent.

But satraps choose who will succeed.
“Fava is too gifted. He leads.
Deport him to retain control.”
Whenever Britain some rule cedes,
it first exacts repression’s toll.

All that endeavour brought to nought?
Do not say so. What those men caught,
of our selfhood in the making,
defines the goal to be now sought;
shows the prize, there for the taking.

The clock’s hands turn, turn and return.
From our deep memories we learn
who we are; from that, what to do.
Still the hands of the world’s clock turn:
history’s hour it tells true.

The autumn crocuses raise up
their slim, pink cups, and the rains come.
The boy sits in his window seat.
From step to step the water’s tum-
bles form cascades down Castle Street.

In the Bay of the Remedies
the sun’s dipping rays dye a keen
crimson hue. The sea expresses
in its swell’s grave obscuring sheen
Lord Poseidon’s lustrous tresses.

  1. The Pyramidal Orchid.
  2. In popular speech the Gibraltarians call the paper-white narcissus “meao (meado) de
    zorra”, Spanish for “fox’s piss”. Before their current reintroduction there were no foxes on the
    Rock. Two hundred years ago the Governor’s chaplain and another British resident set
    about killing the foxes on the Upper Rock with imported English hounds (Sir William G. F.
    Jackson, The Rock of the Gibraltarians, 222). But the foxes survived the British blood sport,
    at least by being preserved in this autochthonous expression.
  3. A twenty-four-year-old Gibraltarian, José Guillermo Gazzo, joined Torrijos’s liberal expedition and
    was executed with the others on the beach at Malaga on 11 December 1831.The property of Charles
    Glynn was one of the places in Gibraltar where Torrijos and the other Spaniards, who were being
    hunted by the British authorities, had been given refuge. In the free-trade period Gibraltar’s civil
    society, with resident merchants from Britain among its leaders, was sharply separate from the
    military garrison, maintaining a political culture of liberalism supportive of constitutionalist
    movements in Spain.
  4. In 1887, when Gibraltar had a civil population of 16,641, General Lord Wolseley (who had helped to
    suppress the Indian Rising, served in the despoiling of Beijing, and commanded the burning of
    Kumasi in today’s Ghana) proposed: “A heavy poll-tax to be at once imposed upon every civilian on
    the Rock … You might begin with say 10 shillings for all adults, of both sexes, and half that amount
    for each child, it being publicly notified that the tax would be doubled next year. I would go on
    increasing the poll-tax until I had reduced the population to the 3,000 souls it used to consist of.”
  5. The Gibraltarians employed in the Dockyard organized themselves in their own trade union and
    sustained it actively in the face of repressive regulations during World War I. By 1918, a time of
    social upheaval worldwide, the Dockyard workers had accumulated a range of grievances concerning
    the conditions of work and life of Gibraltarians; but the colonial government, which exercised all
    legislative and executive powers in Gibraltar, systematically excluded the working class from its
    consultative bodies. As soon as the war ended, the Dockyard union sent two of its leaders, Manuel
    Sanchez and James Federico, together with Oscar McIntosh of the Ex-Apprentices and Apprentices
    Society, to London to press the Colonial Office, the Admiralty and the War Department for reforms,
    including the setting up of a popularly elected municipal government. At the meeting with the
    Colonial Office minister, L S Amery, on 15 May 1919 Sanchez was asked what might be described as
    “the Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu question”: had he ever cast a vote in Gibraltar? Two
    months later, Amery said that consultations were under way regarding the representations made by
    the Dockyard union. In 1921 the City Council was established and Gibraltar had its first election.
  6. When we think of the World War II evacuation, it is natural to focus attention on the women,
    children and old men wrenched from their homes. But we should not overlook the quite exceptional
    social circumstance created inside Gibraltar by the evacuation of all non-essential personnel. At the
    beginning of Homage to Catalonia George Orwell writes of his impressions of Barcelona
    six months into the Spanish Civil War: “And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest
    thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased
    to exist.” However, that appearance deceived: “I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do
    bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.” In
    war-time Gibraltar there was no deception. Almost to a man, the civilian population (which included
    my father and all three of my uncles) was composed of the skilled working class.
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