If you don’t write your own stories, others will

The Gibraltarian novelist M G Sanchez has been writing tales of life on the Rock for the past two decades. Here he explains why he wants to give the people of the territory their voice back

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My story starts back in 1998 inside the microfilm department at Leeds University’s Brotherton Library. I was halfway through a PhD in English literature (focusing on representations of foreignness in early modern propaganda), and was regularly trawling through the library’s microfilm holdings for images of obscure pamphlets and broadsides.

It was a pretty bleak task, but there was an unexpected perk: while spinning my way manually through those seemingly endless reels, I’d frequently stumble upon 18th century treatises about my native Gibraltar. Many of these texts had grandiloquently archaic titles, such as Gibraltar a Bulwark of Great Britain, or The propriety of retaining Gibraltar impartially considered. It struck me that they spoke a great deal about Gibraltar’s flora and fauna, the state of its military fortifications and other related subjects, but not about the inhabitants themselves.

My curiosity piqued, I rapidly developed an interest in the subject, which led me to search for literary representations of Gibraltar in more recent times. In doing so, I discovered that Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, Benjamin Disraeli and other luminaries had all visited the Rock and written extensively about it. By this time, too, there was a growing awareness among writers that there was a sizeable civilian population flourishing alongside the military garrison. Unfortunately, in almost all these texts, the natives are presented as picturesque anthropological curiosities – nameless, faceless, with little personality or human qualities of their own. Here, for example, is what Thackeray wrote about the inhabitants following a short visit to the colony in 1844:

It is a curious sight . . . [all these] people in a hundred different costumes, bustling to and fro under the coarse flare of the lamps; swarthy Moors, in white or crimson robes; dark Spanish smugglers in tufted hats, with gay silk handkerchiefs round their heads; fuddled seamen from men-of-war . . . porters, Galician and Genoese . . . (1)

In the 20th century, of course, things improved substantially. Gibraltarian characters began to crop up in the writings of authors such as John Masters and Barry Perowne (albeit in minor ancillary roles, away from the central position occupied by the British protagonists), and historians such as H W Howes started to take a serious scholarly interest in the ethnic composition of modern-day Gibraltar.

And yet, despite these advancements, there remained a post-imperial tendency to look down on Gibraltar’s inhabitants. We see this trait most strongly in the writings of Anthony Burgess. Burgess spent most of his war years in the British territory, where he taught evening classes for the British Council and the YMCA. Although from a Catholic blue-collar background, he was never comfortable living in Gibraltar and repeatedly expressed his distaste for his fellow working-class residents of the Rock (most of whom are also Catholic). In Burgess’s first novel – the largely autobiographical A Vision of Battlements (1965) – the narrator, Richard Ennis, complains about the colony’s cultural aridity and continually uses such terms as “ape-like” and “simian” to describe the local population. If there was any doubt at the time that these were Burgess’s own views, it was quickly dispelled on 9 November 1966, when the writer published an article in the Manchester Guardian, poking fun at the Rock’s “biscuit-complexioned bobbies” and mocking the Gibraltarian penchant for singing “God Save the Queen”. (2)

I must have read Burgess’s Vision towards the end of 1999. Obviously it saddened me to think that Gibraltarians were receiving such “short shrift” from the literary world, but I still had no plans to start writing Gibraltarian fiction. What, then, made me change my mind?

I think the final trigger was the raft of stories that appeared in both the British and the Spanish press in the early 2000s, when the British government fleetingly considered discussing the territory’s sovereignty with its Spanish counterpart. Gibraltar seemed to be permanently in the news during those tense and heady years, and I kept encountering all kinds of manifest absurdities in the newspapers. That Gibraltarians were raising “two fingers to the wishes of the British majority” and needed to be “told what was good” for us. (3) That we were just a bunch of expats, whom one journalist described as “taxdodgers who [had] moved to the offshore haven to pay less dues on investments, pick up their UK state pensions, vote Tory every four years, and brag about how special the place is because they use sterling, have red phone boxes . . . A sort of EastEnders-on-Med.”(4) And all this was in the British press. In the Spanish media, needless to say, things were (and have always been) much worse. Traitors, smugglers, money launderers, piratas (pirates), land-grabbing settlers – these are just a few of the colourful epithets that have been launched against us over the years via television, radio and the printed media.

It is against this context of misinformation and deliberate obfuscation that I finally took the plunge and started writing about my native land. From the beginning my aim was very clear: I wanted to present a Gibraltar that felt more real and more tangible than the “contested territory” cliché that readers so often encounter in newspaper editorials. I also wanted to demolish some of the more outlandish myths that have been spread about us: for instance, that we have no real roots of our own, and can therefore be reabsorbed back into Spain at any given moment.

This is simply fabrication. Most modern Gibraltarian families can trace their ancestral origins on the Rock back to the late 18th century, when large numbers of Genoese, Maltese, Portuguese, Spanish and British immigrants came to the military base looking for employment. My own family is a case in point. My paternal great-great-great-great-greatgrandfather was a man named Juaquin Sanchez, who arrived at Gibraltar in 1805. Since then, eight generations of Sanchezes have been born on the Rock under British rule. On my mother’s side, our connection to the place extends even further. The first Whitelock (her maiden name), a Yorkshireman, arrived here in the mid-1780s.

Yet my writing is not simply about correcting historical untruths or exaggerations. It is also about giving Gibraltarians a linguistic and cultural space for themselves – one that offers a little more scope than the usual thirty or forty seconds allotted to them during brief news broadcasts in the UK. I want people to know what makes Gibraltarians tick, what it is like to live on a three-mile chunk of limestone rock, and how special our British-Gibraltarian identity is. I want them to know about the smell of Gibraltar’s dusty cobbled streets, about the sense of history that oozes out of its venerably ancient stones.

Long ago, you see, I came to a simple realisation. And that is that if we don’t start writing about ourselves, we run the risk of being presented to the world solely through the prism of others’ perceptions. Or, to paraphrase the words of the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe: “If you don’t write your own stories, others will write them for you.”

M G Sanchez is a Gibraltarian writer based in Tokyo. His latest novel, “Solitude House”, was published in January

1) William Makepeace Thackeray, “Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo” (1846)
2) Anthony Burgess, “Rock of ages”
3) Peter Preston, “The people of the Rock must be told what’s good for them”, Guardian (25 March 2002)
4) Brian Reade, “Go ape on the Rock”, Daily Mirror (7 February 2002)