Thursday, 23 April 2015
I am currently sat in a coffee shop in what could be considered my neighbourhood, or perhaps not. Is a
I live in Pimlico and the normal reaction is to go "ooh very posh". Then I explain I live on a council estate in Pimlico and people tend to scrunch up their nose a little. Then, if I choose to, I can explain it's a privately owned top floor apartment in a very nice estate with the best view in London. Perception is everything.
If I walk for twenty minutes I can be in Chelsea, the heart of opulence. Or I can be in Belgravia, with impossibly lavish homes. In the other direction, Battersea Park or Vauxhall. I can walk towards Victoria which is a little more neighbourly, a small village of pensioners, immigrants and tramps nesting around the brilliant white of Victorian columns.
As it stands, on this overcast morning, I am in Westminster. To be precise, I am about five minutes walk away from Parliament and in the heart of British bureacracy. This coffee shop is not full of tourists or students, it is full of men and women in important looking suits tapping away at their keyboards or having deep eloquent conversations about things only their own kind will understand. Amidst the jargon, conversations about weddings, mortgages and commutes.
The place I'm in, although a large national chain, purports to be authentic Italian fare. In case you didn't quite get it, you are treated to rows of photographs showing traditional rural Italian life. It's not too different from where I grew up. Gibraltar may be a mini concrete metropolis but there are still parts of the old town with the narrow winding labyrinths between buildings from the 1800s.
Look up and you'll see washing hanging up from one side to the other, someone leaning out of the window to look at the world. If it's around lunchtime, there'll be mothers and grandmothers screaming that it's time to eat, the smell of stew in the air, a radio or television on just a bit too loudly to the lunchtime news. Doors will be slightly ajar to let in the breeze, a dog or cat looking for a scrap of sunshine.
There's a time of day just around 2pm when the world sighs. The streets are somewhat empty, everything is quiet and the sun has gone behind one building after peeking up from the other. You can turn a corner and suddenly you're the only person in the world. I call it The Lull, and it's a phenomenon mostly lost to somewhere like London. The world here moves at a million miles a second, everyone's packing themselves in and out of trains endlessly revising their perfectly timed schedules. I don't understand what they're looking for. Is it power? Money? Happiness? Purpose? Everyone lives and dies equally, and I've been wondering if the culmination of your life should come from that business document you put together that only you and a handful of people will understand, however many millions it can possibly make you.
The first time I left Gibraltar, I gave it the finger. Quite literally, I walked up the steps into the plane and turned to privately raise my middle digit to a place I felt had suffocated me for my entire upbringing. That is not a reflection on my family and what they have provided for me, and if I could move them to be close to me tomorrow I would do it in a heartbeat. I think they agree, that the place can be suffocating.
My experiences are my own, and I suffered through a school system that wanted me to be something I was not. My only escape was literature class, and the world of arts I could bring to my doorstep by ordering it online. I felt like Yentl, longing for a piece of sky.
Twelve years have passed since then, and I've made my peace with the place a little. Seeing an older generation pass on, I am becoming increasingly anxious about preserving a piece of the past. So much of what it means to be Gibraltarian is wrapped up in politics, in mob mentality, on what can and cannot be said. I want to have a piece of the culture, a piece of history and way of life and I want to see it translated into a wider world. I want that life to have an audience, I want to be able to stand up and say who I am and where I'm from and not have anyone tell me what I can and cannot be from any angle.
British. Not British. Spanish. Not Spanish. Gypsy. Not Gypsy. Portuguese. Not Portuguese. My English is not very good. My Spanish is not very good. I'm too light to be Hispanic. I'm too dark to be British. I look Italian. I look French. Iberian. Mediterranean. Immigrant. Colonial. Native. My experience is not relevant. My land is not mine. I was born somewhere else anyway. The Thames. The Mediterranean. The exile. The return. The home.
And endless fight, an endless story I feel ready to tell. Nelson looking to the South from a column in the heart of London, and in the South his body brought to the shore in a barrel of rum, soaked in blood and seawater.