Sunday, February 22, 2015


"There is some corner of a foreign field," wrote the First World War poet Rupert Brooke, "that is forever England" – only it appears not to be Flanders Field at all, but possibly the Falkland Islands, or those two little enclaves Akrotiri and Dhekelia, and definitely Gibraltar, an area of Britain that just happens to be in Spain. 


Because Britain obtained it under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1917. 

Is that a good enough reason to still keep it now, in that post-imperial, post-colonial world that I keep mentioning, but which clearly doesn't exist, in which Great Britain and Spain are partners in the European community? 

Apparently it is.

But why has it not been returned? 

Because GB has a naval base there, right at the northern tip of Africa and the eastern tip of the Mediterranean, and GB still wants to be counted among the major powers in the world, so that it can retain a permanent seat on that democratic institution the United Nation's Security Council, and so it needs to maintain a strong military presence in the world, with bases on Cyprus, and the Falkland Islands, and Gibraltar - the same reason why the French and the Americans have bases all over the world, and China is buying its way into Africa, and Russia is working to expand its sphere of influence once again.

No one in the world even knows why Gibraltar is called Gibraltar, but I can tell you. "Jabal Tariq" means "Tariq’s Rock"; it was the Muslim commander Tariq ibn-Ziyad who transformed the limestone outcrop into a fortress in 711 (92 in the Moslem calendar), and set up his own naval base there, for the first effort to build a global Caliphate.

Beyond politics and history, the place is nowheresville, with nothing to do or see there, except from the air, when the rock fills up more than half the area and looks as if one of the mountains of the moon has fallen out of space. Much more interesting is Tarifa, just thirty miles along the coast, where you can see the seam, the point where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet and join. I’ve written about it in "The Persian Fire", which is not yet published, but here is an excerpt from it anyway:

Atlantic waves and beach on the right; 
stones and calm on the Mediterranean left

   The causeway at Tarifa stretches like the handles of a pair of tongs, each fork into a different sea. To the east, aquamarine blue, deep as doubt, the tideless Mediterranean, a sea of coral still as dry land or the shingles that comprise its shore. To the west, the shallower but deepening Atlantic, pale blue intermixed with pale grey, a flotilla of white horses grazing the long deeps of sandy beaches where the tide has left its footprints in a line of darker brown and in the pools of gathered water in the rocks. Two spaces, too easily transformed in a man’s mind into the platitudes of good this way and evil that, of shingle versus sand, of light competing with the dark as sun and storm, as west and east. Or even Christendom and Islam, science and religion, dogma and free-thought. Too simple, because too simplistic. When what actually grasps the soul is not the metaphoric but the literal, the littoral; the fact that one is fully-fledged an ocean, the other a mere sea. With this, this causeway jutting like a pointing finger, this the joint.

   Dr Angelus was pointing with his own finger, at the gnarled reef imprinted with fossil forms, at sea-shells calcinating in the spuming foam, at his own immeasurable excitement calculated in the extravagances of coral. Porters clad in little more than loin-cloths walked barefoot on the jagged rocks, unblistered and unbleeding, stevedoring bags of grain, but in a manner that suggested Jesu on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Small children repeated Canute’s experiment, with small stones hurled against imaginary dragons – but the ocean would not yield, nor would the sea be halted. On the contrary, it was men who carried on, in service of the sea. Sailors hoisted sails while officers, promoted beyond their competence, stood in the morning like important statues from whose mouths orders poured forth like flowing water, dribbling back into the sea. Only that white figure sprawled prostrate on the sand, the teacher ibn-Mehmet about to set off on his final pilgrimage, only he remained oblivious to what was, Dr Angelus had even scrawled it in his notebook, the most miraculous and inexplicable of natural phenomena. A seam in the tapestry of the world. A point at which God’s working, like the published computations of the finest mathematician, was made visible for those who wished to see.

   Only, not ibn-Mehmet. It wasn’t that he didn’t wish to see, or wouldn’t eventually drink the whole nectarous cup of it, only that a man could not face Allah, could not look into the face of Allah, until he had first made restitution with himself. So he lay prostrate on the sand, and the tide purged him, and the sounds that issued could have been the rattle of a desert snake, likewise condemned to crawl upon its belly. Wetter sand, that looked dirty precisely because the sea had washed it darker, was making patches not unlike a map of the Mediterranean upon his gown. So he became the act envisaged in his mind, the journey planned and now at verge of expedition, and knew that Allah approved it. So he recited slowly, softly, inwardly, the phrases men had written in the hope that Allah would understand them, and if not by their paltry meanings, then by their exalted melodies, their resolved counterpoints, their achieved harmonies, their balance of crescendo and diminuendo, their unravelling of the tortured knots which are the human voice. It was, indeed, a beautiful if strangulated sound, this ululation focused down into the earth, but intended skywards. Dr Angelus was truthfully embarrassed to find that he was simply standing there, gawking like some busybody of a next-door neighbour at a garden hedge, watching, listening, as though this were a public concert, and not intrusion on a private act. Why, it should have been so obvious, that no man has the right to look inside another’s soul.

   So he turned back, to the marvel of the natural pier. Wind so strong it held sea-birds suspended in their flight, seemed to die even as it touched the causeway, passing west to east. And yet, most strange, while you could look to left or right and see the difference clearly, you could not look out straight in front of you and see the clasping of the male and female hands. Branches but no trunk. A body, pressed so close against the silver of a mirror that it appeared to pass right through. There the Atlantic, there the Mediterranean, but the two, not joined at all, but melded. Like two bodies, it occurred to him, in love. But also thought, and took his notebook out to write it down, that that which joins is also that which separates.

Marks For:  0

Marks Against: 2

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