Gibraltar – the cultured rock

Gibraltar hopes its festival will overcome perceptions it is a culture-free zone
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
by -

It’s no surprise that Europe has decided Spain has done nothing wrong in messing about with passport control at its Gibraltar border. After all, it’s little more than work-to-rule, even if it is petty, mean and, other than to distract the world from Spain's real scandals, pointless.

What Gibraltar has not got that Spain has is any kind of purchase tax, it’s a “low tax jurisdiction” the economists call it, and that contributes to this peninsular of 30,000 resident souls attracting 10 million visitors a year and an annual GDP growth of nigh on 10%.

What those millions are not coming to Gibraltar for is culture. There is no theatre, no concert hall, no art gallery. There’s a cinema showing what most of Gibraltar’s hotel rooms can get on their TV sets.

But that might all be changing. Over the last weekend of October this British dominion mounted its first ever literary festival, and it was such a success that it is already slated to be an annual event. The organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival brought the model, with a top drawer line-up: Peter Snow on the war of 1812; Robin Hanbury-Tenison on explorers; Joanne Harris on her Chocolat follow-ups; Madhur Jaffrey talking to Hardeep Singh Kohli about spices; Anthony Beevor giving the Gibraltar Lecture on the Spanish Civil War; Ben Okri on Africa and Europe; Norman Stone on Turkey; the crime writers Robert Daws, Thomas Mogford and Jason Webster on crime-writing; Ken Hom on lunch; Christopher Lloyd on his Wallbook children’s writing; Gavin Hewitt and Kate Adie, who both have books out, his on Europe and hers on women in the First World War. And so on, with Kevin Crossley-Holland, John Crace, D J Taylor, Rachel Hore… Everything beat expectations – sponsorship, audiences, book sales, feedback.

So inevitably the talk is about something bigger, more inclusive – a proper arts festival.

There may be no formal theatre here, but there are plenty of spaces: the Garrison Library, recently restored to its 18th century splendour by the Gibraltarian government, has two fine small spaces and a magnificent courtyard; the Governor’s Residence, The Convent (which is what it used to be until the Brits took it over in 1711) has its splendid ballroom; there are open spaces like Casemates Square where 1,000 people could gather for open air performances at a place where there are 300 days of sunshine a year;  and what a Tempest could be given in the magnificent prehistoric St Michael’s Cave, with its natural proscenium of stalactites.

For Gibraltar is no longer the fortress it has been for the last three millennia. The military are no longer the overwhelming presence they were, and Gibraltarians, fiercely British, are never going to be Spanish. But they are looking for a new future, which they see as cultural.

“We want to change the perception of Gibraltar,” the Chief Minster, Fabian Picardo, told me.

We don’t want this only to attract more tourists, we need it to enrich our own community, showing that Gibraltar takes its place internationally”, adding generously: “Culture is important to us and we hope that in future Spain will become part and partners”, and the underlying running theme of the literary festival is the Voices of Gibraltar.

His environment minister, John Cortes, went further:

Sadly, most people know Gibraltar from the politics in relation to Spain, and we want the world to know more about us than that. I’m a natural scientist by profession, and Gibraltar is made of limestone and sandstone, it has unique species of plants and wildlife, but it’s a crossroads of migration, so it’s a microcosm of diversity that accepts and welcomes passage through - influx from Africa and Europe. We’re very small, geographically a peninsular but in many ways an island, very diverse having brought in so many cultures – my ancestry is mainly Genoese – and it’s gelled into this thing we call the Gibraltarian.

What they see is no longer the last point of Europe but the first point of the rest of the world, an international crossroads that wants culture to take it on to the next stage in its long life. A place where even the Spanish will be eager cultural tourists.