Lit on the Rock

‘Is this your first time in Gib?’ locals are wont to ask. Actually, no, it’s the second time I have been involved in the Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival, to give it its full title, the last being two years ago. Then I stayed at the Caleta hotel, where I was hugely entertained by the regular incursions of the macaques from the Rock, who nimbly crossed the road and scaled the walls, entering the rooms of anyone unwise enough to leave a window open. One sat on the wall of my terrace, daintily opening and eating, sherbet-dab-like, sugar packets filched from the room above.

This time the festival entourage stayed at the Eliott hotel in the centre of town, right opposite the Garrison Library, one of the festival venues and also the Green room. And this time I understand the huge significance of the name Eliott, having read up on some history. In the Governor’s residence, the Convent, I had idly said of an oil painting of what looked like a sea battle, ‘Is that the battle of Trafalgar?’, only to be sternly told that it depicted the siege of Gibraltar. George Augustus Eliott was the Governor in the late 18th century, who with great resolve held on to the Rock in the face of many months of bombardment and blockade by the Spanish. On reading of his exploits I can now see why there is a huge pillar to his memory in the Alameda Gardens, and why the hotel is so named. He’s as remarkable a character as Nelson, but for some reason much less celebrated today.

But on to the festival. I interviewed musician-composer-lyricist-novelist Alba Arikha at the Convent, where the organisers laid on a baby grand for her to sing the song she wrote about Flora, the heroine of her novel ‘Where to Find Me’. The song was a kind of exorcism, she explained. With her previous novels, characters disappeared as soon as the novel was finished, but Flora stuck around, only taking her leave when the song was written. Alba also talked about her wonderful memoir, ‘Major/Minor’, about her cosmopolitan upbringing in Paris, with her tricky painter father, Avigdor Arika. Her godfather was Samuel Beckett!

Next up was Bart Van Es, who won the 2018 Costa Book of the Year prize for ‘The Cut Out Girl’, which tells the story of the Jewish child his grandparents took in during the war when her parents were seized by the Nazis. He knew a little of the tale, but a strange family reticence hung over it, and it wasn’t until he met Lien, now an elegant octogenarian, that he managed to piece together its full poignancy. As Bart retraces her steps as a juvenile fugitive, the book becomes as much about the Netherlands today as in wartime.

The next morning I headed to the University of Gibraltar on Europa Point, reflecting on the mass evacuation up to the heights during the most furious bombardments of the Great Siege, when most of the town was flattened. As I looked out to sea I imagined the bay filled with menacing Spanish warships in full sail. Europa Point has the continent’s most southerly Trinity lighthouse, and the main University building comprises a breathtaking glass atrium uniting two former military buildings, one Georgian and one Victorian. The latter, where I interviewed Lord Price, was bombproof, always reassuring to know.

Mark Price has written many books, alongside being a life peer and former head of the John Lewis Partnership and Waitrose. We were discussing his ‘Fairness For All’, about the philosophy of John Spedan Lewis, who made all his employees partners in his grocery business. Where most businesses prioritise their shareholders, then customers, and only after that their staff, Mark eloquently put the case for businesses to consider their employees first – because everything else will follow naturally. He is a terrifically engaging speaker, with many lively anecdotes and aphorisms illustrating his views. One lucky audience member even got a bit of free business advice!

Lastly, interviewing Paul Conroy, Marie Colvin’s photojournalist colleague, who was with her when she died in Syria, was not just a privilege but fall-off-the-chair hilarious. Paul has that unstoppable Liverpudlian gift of the gab and must have been a great comrade when things got rough in the field. I began by asking him to sum up Colvin in three words. ‘How many is “pain in the arse”?’ he replied with a grin. Gallows humour aside, he remains steadfast in his disgust at the Assad regime, and determined not to let the world forget the atrocities he and Colvin witnessed. Afterwards I chatted to the Governor and his wife as they waited patiently in a very long queue to get their copy of ‘Under the Wire’ signed.

‘Hospitality is very important to Gibraltarians,’ the festival director told me over coffee, and as ever the festival combines suitably military precision in the organisation and huge generosity towards writers and guests. Long may this brilliant festival continue.

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