“You always start with the senses.”
I try my best to suffocate the sound of my growling stomach. There’s a Marks and Spencers sandwich hiding in my bag, but I don’t want to grab for it and noisily interrupt the English author who’s sitting opposite me at the front of a tiny gallery space.
It’s a sunny Sunday morning – the last day of Gibraltar’s annual International Literary Festival – and Iain Finlayson is discussing the ways to evoke a spirit of place within a piece of writing. He begins to talk about Molly Bloom, a character from James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ who waxes lyrical about Gibraltar and its colour, its heat and its beauty.
I look around at the gallery’s walls, hung with bright modern artworks, and my attention turns to the varied audience: a journalist from Gibraltar; a Scottish woman who relocated to the territory decades ago; another speaker who’s recently written a children’s book about water voles.
And then there’s me. A fellow writer who’s yet to publish a book and who, unbeknownst to Iain Finlayson, has also been thinking about the concept of ‘place’ a lot recently.
Spending the last eighteen months writing a book for my MA degree has brought a number of questions along with it: how I perceive the world, why I think the things I do, and how I put these thoughts and perceptions into words. I’ve questioned how I identify myself as a traveller, as a Londoner, as a woman, and as someone still in the grieving process.
I’m constantly wondering exactly where I fit, and what my place really is.
So what was I doing at Gibraltar’s Literary Festival?
In one way, it felt like a natural progression to attend a literary festival for four days and be surrounded by published writers who, if they’ve ever questioned themselves, have still got far enough in life to be discussing their now published opinions in front of rooms filled with strangers.
On the other hand, I was just a bit nervous. I’ve never read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. I write blogs about foreign countries and share them on social media for a living. I constantly doubt the quality and importance of what I say. What if these writers were all way more intelligent than me?
Even worse – what if they knew it?
Of course, this isn’t the usual attitude of someone attending the Gibraltar Literary Festival. The festival is a place to spend a long weekend immersed in an intimate series of over fifty lectures, panels and talks given by expert writers in every topic from the Arab Spring to Nelson Mandela to modern Spanish history, and it’s appealing to anyone who loves literature.
Particularly when they’re held at an array of beautiful venues all over the Rock.
Thanks to Gibraltar’s tiny size, I spent each day of the festival moving around the eight different venues – from the beautiful Garrison Library set in a shaded square to the King’s Chapel, and from the historical Convent building to the five star Sunborn Hotel, built on a boat in the harbour.
And these little wanderings also gave me the perfect opportunity to gauge what Gibraltar itself is like.
What I knew about Gibraltar before visiting
If I’m honest, Gibraltar has never really been on my radar. I know it sits at the edges of two continents; has a number of macaque monkeys living on its famous rock; has a long contested history of being part of the landmass of Spain, yet remaining a British territory for over three hundred years – and that there are vestiges of English influence scattered all over the area.
My first instinct upon arrival was mainly to try to speak as much Spanish as I possibly could – and the shallow traveller in me was mainly eager to take photos of red telephone boxes and play ‘Spot the Britishisms’ throughout my visit.
But perhaps because I was exploring parts of the city in the midst of the festival with the words of various writers ringing in my mind, it quickly became apparent that there was a lot more to Gibraltar than just ‘Britain versus Spain’.
Getting to grips with Gibraltar
The territory of Gibraltar only measures 2.6 square miles, but it holds a population of 30,000 people from a number of different nationalities. There are Italians, Portuguese, Moroccans, Maltese and Indians all calling the Rock home, and they all represent a number of different faiths like Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Roman Catholicism.
For me, that suddenly meant more than just passing palm trees beside phone boxes. I began to see Gibraltar as a unique space where these different nationalities all converge, and none seemingly takes ‘majority status’.
I peered inside a synagogue that sat across the street from a cathedral, wandered down the main street past English pubs advertising pie and mash and turned into a side street, where elderly men sat on benches and the air echoed with Arabic.
Schoolchildren walked ahead of me, clutching paper-wrapped fish and chips and gossiping to each other in Spanish. I grinned profusely when I realised that two men were speaking a flawless mixture of Spanish and English words within each of their sentences: the hybrid language called ‘llanito‘ that’s native only to Gibraltar.
I couldn’t help wondering whether these different cultures cross over in behaviour as well as language. Do the Spanish families spend Sundays sitting down for plates of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings? Have the Three Lions football fans ducked inside the mosque doors before? Do the women speaking Arabic ever snack delightedly on tapas?
With this new found appreciation for Gibraltar as a place for cultures to come together, the literary festival took on another, deeper meaning.
Finding the heart of the literature festival
I listened to historian Christopher Lloyd discussing global history from the Magna Carta to the present day, and explaining how vital it is to see the bigger historical picture: to zoom out and connect everything that’s happened all together, like so many beads in a necklace.
I watched three time Nobel Peace Prize nominee Scilla Elsworthy speak about her experience working with many of the world’s most prestigious leaders and thinkers; about the roles of women in the process of attaining global peace; and about the ability all of us have to master our own dark side of reluctance, apathy and unworthiness.
And then I sat in awe as Samantha Herron, the British author of a collection of stories based on her travels in Morocco, explained how she’d felt so immersed and welcomed into Moroccan culture by her surrogate family that she eventually converted to Islam. She told us how Moroccans shape a story so instinctively: “like they’re giving you a gift. Something precious.”
She said that the culture of a country is in its language – and Arabic speaks to her, just like I feel with Spanish.
The idea thrilled me more than anything else that weekend.
Each evening there was a dinner for all the writers and speakers which, in my blogging capacity, I was also invited to attend. With every question someone asked me about my blog, the methods of using social media and my writing background, the nerves and self-doubt dissipated.
Soon, I was happily chatting away with the speakers I’d been so in awe of during the day, detailing the importance of having a Twitter account, and I couldn’t have been more comfortable with myself.
Coming together for a love of the written word
The more talks I attended, the more I realised that the books themselves were merely the precipitators for intelligent, urgent conversation about any topic that happened to spiral into the foreground – and what really mattered was the social interaction.
The part I sometimes tend to forget when I’m typing away in my flat.
Iain Findlayson mentioned in his talk that the spirit of a place can be found in its language, and that every culture hinges on its communication.
Well, as far as I can tell the cultural significance of a literary festival like Gibraltar’s is to get all these like-minded people together: a collection of anyone passionate about writing, regardless of whether they’re authors or readers. And when the setting of a literary festival is in a new and unexplored country for you, so much the better.
It means you’ll start to understand the spirit of the place specifically through the dozens of different perspectives you’re listening to.
Have you ever visited Gibraltar? Would you go to a literary festival in another country?
My visit to Gibraltar was supported by the Gibraltar Tourist Board as part of the Must Love Festivals project – but obviously nobody suggested I should voluntarily panic about my writing prowess. That’s all me, folks.