There was something about the Old Town that felt very familiar and safe to me; it reminded me of the back streets of Newcastle where ordinary people live and where I was brought up alongside other kids with big aspirations but limited opportunities.
In those days we all wanted to play for Newcastle United but most kids settled for a job either in the pits or the local factories, assuming they didn’t end up marrying early because of an unplanned pregnancy. I’d only escaped those natural outcomes because of a seed my cousin Paul had planted when I was about 9 which made me determined to join the Royal Navy and see the world, in particular Gibraltar and here I was.
Wandering the back streets I wondered if the locals felt they were fortunate to live in such a beautiful place or whether they never thought about it. In a previous memoir I remember describing how traumatised I was at being forcibly taken out of Newcastle as a child and now (here in Gibraltar) it bothered me there might not be enough opportunities for the young people and that they may have to leave the Rock against their wishes to find work; the idea that I was even thinking that spoke volumes.
The back streets that afternoon were very quiet, I don’t remember seeing a soul although later when I lived in Gibraltar I learned that in the afternoons people often have a siesta which probably explained the quiet that day. The streets seemed to be on tiers which ran parallel with one another connected by fascinating passages and alleyways, some of which consisted of what looked like hundreds of steps. It was like a labyrinth and I loved it. And I loved that a lot of people had Union Jacks flying in their streets; it made me feel very welcome and at home and clearly Gibraltar saw itself as British beyond a doubt. That Spain had closed its border with Gibraltar very much reinforced that but as previously mentioned I had no desire to visit the place. I hate the whole idea of bull fighting and (as an animal lover) wonder about people who don’t share that view.
The Cathedral bells peeled twice so I knew it was three thirty and that I needed to make my way back to the ship. I was planning to phone the number I had for a taxi but having realised that Gibraltar was quite a small place I decided that I would rather walk. I’m still not sure whether the ship was at Rosia end or Queensway but I soon found myself standing at the bottom of the gangway and looking up at the Rock.
I’m not sure even now whether that first visit was 24 hours or less but I’m very sure of the impact it had on me; no doubt readers also know that by now. I boarded my ship at a couple of minutes to four o’clock to a beaming smile from Chief. As we sailed, a friend took a photo of me on the flight deck. I was off to the Far East and it would be eight months before I returned – but in the scale of things I at least had that to look forward to 🙂
What I didn’t know then was by the time I got back to Gibraltar in September 1974 I wasn’t the same person. During visits on the African continent I’d had very bad experiences and likewise in Australia and New Zealand; but those stories are not for this memoir, they are being written in my Royal Navy memoir. I only touch on them to explain the changes in me.
Perhaps what is relevant within these tales is that between my two Gibraltar visits that year, other than what I’ve touched on, I was flown home from Mombasa because my foster father had had three strokes and whilst in UK my foster mother died. Returning to my ship in Singapore after compassionate leave I hit the bottle. By the time I got back to Gibraltar I was alcohol dependent and a mess.