The delightful oddness of Gibraltar

John Singleton Copley's The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar

No, we won’t go to war with Spain over Gibraltar, whatever Michael Howard says. Spain can’t afford it – and only 187 of the Rock’s 30,000 inhabitants voted for Spanish union in 2002.

Still, now that Gibraltar’s in the headlines, I would recommend a trip there. I’m amazed how few British people go. I only went, three years ago, because I was writing a book, following in the footsteps of Odysseus – and St Michael’s Cave, a huge cavern beneath the Rock, is supposedly the site of Hades.

There are few places in the world that are so small and so packed with incident – because of its site, at the gateway to the Mediterranean; and thanks to centuries of Anglo-Continental spats.

In my hotel, I asked the concierge – with a Spanish surname, Spanish accent and Spanish complexion – about the huge reproduction picture behind him in the lobby.

“It’s us beating the Spanish,” he said, grinning proudly.

The picture, I later discovered, was John Singleton Copley’s The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782 – when Britain beat the French and the Spanish. It was all very surreal: you wouldn’t get that raw patriotism in a British hotel lobby.

Again and again, you are struck by the sheer oddness of Gibraltar. You expect the red phone boxes, pubs and monkeys. What you don’t expect is the tiny airport runway, bisected by a four-lane road, or the very simple border with Spain. I walked through it in a moment, spent 10 minutes abroad, and then came back; all without queueing.

Everywhere, there are fortifications dating back to times when there were genuine threats of war. The monument marking the Pillar of Hercules – the other pillar was, according to legend, on the north African side of the Strait of Gibraltar – is erected over an old British gun emplacement. Most moving of all is the tiny military cemetery, where veterans from the nearby Battle of Trafalgar were buried.

In the tiny two-and-a-half square miles of Gibraltar, there are also spots of real wildness. I took a walk to the empty side of the Rock. My only companions, as I stared down at the sea, littered with oil tankers, were cacti, lemon and olive trees, and stone pines. This little corner of Europe is so remote that it even has its own unique plants: Gibraltar Saxifrage, Gibraltar Campion and Gibraltar Candytuft.

Gibraltar is, at one and the same time, extremely British and extremely unBritish.


The new BBC One version of Decline and Fall was pretty good – but it could only fall short of the book. The genius of Evelyn Waugh is only properly appreciated in reading him. His wit – rude, cynical, bitter, sudden, surprising, howlingly funny – is sparked off in the mind, not by the eye. The same applies to PG Wodehouse – always diminished on the telly.

Transfer Waugh’s thoughts to the screen and they fall flat. The 2008 movie version of Brideshead Revisited was a disastrous piece of posh-romantic drama. The 2001 Sword of Honour film with Daniel Craig was a dull war movie. Only the 1981 Granada TV series of Brideshead worked. Because practically the whole book was read out, you had the benefit of all that mental sparking, with excellent acting and country house-staging on top.

It was Decline and Fall, written in 1928, that created the appalling modern myth of the Bullingdon.

The Bullingdon, thinly disguised as the Bollinger Club, stars in the opening scene of the book – and in the new BBC adaptation. Poor old Paul Pennyfeather, the book’s hero, is debagged by the Bollinger – and unfairly thrown out of Scone College as a result. That brutally destructive image of the Bullingdon has stuck – right up to the time of my membership of the club in the early 1990s.

At one Bollinger dinner, Waugh wrote in Decline and Fall, “a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles”. At another dinner, the club “broke up Mr Austen’s grand piano, and stamped Lord Rending’s cigars into his carpet, and smashed his china, and tore up Mr Partridge’s sheets, and threw his Matisse into the lavatory”.

In fact, the Bullingdon was much more boring than this – but it is Waugh’s image that survives, thanks to Decline and Fall.

Harry Mount is editor of  The Oldie magazine and author of Summer Madness: How Brexit Split the Tories, Destroyed Labour and Divided the Country (Biteback)

This article first appeared in the April 7 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here