Sunday, February 1, 2015

Heading South (Part 3 of 3)

If you've been following this blog for the last two weeks you will know that it's late July 1978 and my male staff and his friend Andy are hitchhiking (unsuccessfully) from Dieppe in northern France to Gibraltar at the southernmost tip of Spain.  You will also know that they have just arrived in the Spanish port town of Algeciras, just across the bay from the Rock of Gibraltar.  If you haven't been following this blog over the last two weeks, why not? Where have you been and do you have a note from your Mother?  You do realise that there will be a test at the end of this week's post don't you?

They found the ticket office of the ferry from Algeciras to Tanger and discovered that they could not get a through fare to Gibraltar - only a one way ticket to Tanger.  Once they got to Tanger they'd have to purchase another ticket from there to Gibraltar.  This meant that they would have to change some of their pounds sterling to Moroccan Dirham. At least they would have plenty of time for that.  The ferry to Tanger was due to arrive at three in the afternoon and the connecting ferry to Gibraltar was to leave Tanger at eight that evening.

Aboard the ferry my male staff and Andy leaned on the rail and watched in mild frustration as Gibraltar slowly shrank into the hazy distance, and then a couple of hours into the trip the whitewashed buildings of Tanger hove into view, clustered around the town's low hills. The boys cleared customs quickly once the officers found that their guitar cases held only guitars and were not stuffed, as they had hoped, with hashish.  Andy and my male staff soon discovered that the ticket office inside the port was closed, as indeed was the currency exchange office.  This meant that to find a travel agency to sell them a ferry ticket and a currency exchange office they would have to venture outside the security of the port gates and run the gauntlet of touts, thieves and other undesirables waiting for naive tourists whom they could expertly fleece before you could say "Hey! Where's my wallet?".  My male staff was not so naive that he was unaware of this as he'd visited Tanger a couple of times before, so it was with some trepidation that they plunged into the crowd beyond the port gates.  It didn't take long.
 "Hey my friend. You Ingleesh?" Asked an unshaven man in a dirty Djellaba.  Here we go, thought my male staff.  "You like buy carpet? Special price for you.  My bruzza have best carpet shop in Tanger.  You come look, no buy is fine. You just look."
 "No thanks." Said my male staff politely.  "Maybe another time."
 "Anozza time no good." Insisted the man. "Special sale, half price today only.  You come now."  The man grabbed Andy's wrist with a grubby, calloused claw and tried to pull him towards the nearby kasbah.
 "Oi! Get off me!" Yelped Andy and shook the man's hand off.  We don't want a fuckin' carpet.  Do I look like I want a fuckin' carpet?" The man had to admit that at that moment it seemed that Andy was not particularly interested in floor coverings and he melted away into the crowd muttering darkly in Arabic.  The boys pushed on, sweating under the afternoon African sun.  They found a policeman and asked if he knew where they could find a travel agency.  The cop pretended not to speak English and referred them to a trio of tough looking youths dressed in skin tight jeans, flip-flops and faded tee-shirts.
 "What you want?" Asked the lead youth as the other two looked slyly on.  The boys explained that they wanted to buy tickets for the ferry to Gibraltar, but that first they'd have to exchange some money.  The youth's eyes lit up at this news.  "Come with us." He said. "We take you."  Andy and my male staff looked at each other.  My male staff shook his head, but Andy shrugged.
 "What have we got to lose? Let's go with them."
 "What have we got to lose?" Hissed my male staff. "How about all our money, our backpacks and our clothes for starters."  Unfortunately he didn't hiss quietly enough.
 "You think I am liar?" Snarled the youth. "You call me liar? I take you to money changer, then to travel agency for ticket. Why not you don't trust me? I take you, but if you call me liar again I cut out your eyes."  He pulled a penknife from his jean's pocket and opened the largest blade for Andy and my male staff to admire.  They hoped that the brown stain on it was rust.
 "Well, okay then lead the way." Said my male staff trying to sound unconcerned.  The youth led them into the crowded bazaar, his two henchmen walking behind to cut off the boys retreat in the labyrinth of narrow alleys filled with stalls spilling all manner of fruit, spices, vegetables, hardware, carpets and leather goods onto the walkway.  An open air butcher's stall displayed a variety of fly covered gore above which hung three camels heads with what appeared to be large sprigs of parsley stuffed up their nostrils.

 The bazaar at Tanger

After fifteen minutes or so the lead youth disappeared into a shop selling touristy leather products.  He was greeted by a middle aged man in a smart suit who hugged him.  They spoke for a moment in Arabic, then the youth said "This my Uncle.  He change your money."  Andy and my male staff stepped into the shop, but not before the youth had demanded ten dirhams (about one pound), presumably a tip for not cutting their eyes out.  The boys were shown into the back of the shop where they were surrounded by more youths who started to tell them how much they need to buy a camel leather pouffe and even a large stuffed camel leather camel.  The salesmen were making little headway and were soon joined by the proprietor in his suit who offered the boys some ultra sweet mint tea which they gratefully accepted.

An hour later they left the shop with one of the young salesmen who took them to a travel agency to purchase their ferry tickets.  During those sixty minutes the man in the suit had exchanged a few of the boys' precious pounds for dirham at about half the going rate and had persuaded them that they both needed camel leather passport covers and souvenir leather belts.  They were not required to part with any of their cash for these items but the man in the suit generously relieved them of their guitars in exchange.  Why did they not resist?  Well, they were stuck in the back of a shop tucked away in a back alley of the Tanger bazaar surrounded by tough, acne scarred youths, each one probably toting a rusty penknife.  Their Gibraltar ferry departure time was rapidly approaching and they had no idea of how to get back to the port.  In the end they were just relieved to get out of there with both eyes intact.

Now of course the problem was that without their guitars they had no source of income whatsoever once they arrived in Gibraltar.  Not that they would have made much anyway unless people were willing to pay them to go and play elsewhere, which actually is quite likely.  The pair had already prepared themselves for the usual comments from the public on their musical skills.
 "Can you play Far Far Away?"  and "Do you do requests?" Certainly sir. "Good, then bugger off."
Anyway having paid a suspiciously high price for the ferry tickets at the travel agency they then paid another dodgy looking youth to guide them back to the port where they boarded the Mons Calpe bound at last for Gibraltar.  Night was closing in as they rusty old tub pulled away from Tanger harbour and my staff and Andy stood on deck enjoying the salty breeze, happy to be nearing their final destination and even happier that their final destination was a place where almost everyone spoke English and nobody was likely to pull a rusty penknife on them.

Now I'd like to say that as Andy and my male staff were steaming towards Gibraltar they were soberly contemplating the rich history of the place, but actually they were soberly contemplating whether or not to spend some of their dwindling funds at the bar.  Nonetheless Gibraltar has such a rich history that I feel compelled to give you some of the highlights.  Pay attention now, there will be a test afterwards.  For starters a Neanderthal skull was found there in one of the many caves long before they found the one in Germany that gave the prehistoric man his name.  It's just that nobody realised the importance of what they had found at the time.  The Romans were there of course and the Moors, who built the great cubic Moorish castle that dominates the north end of the town during their occupation of the Spanish mainland between the years 711 and 1492.  In fact Gibraltar is a corruption of the words "Djebel Tarik".  Tarik was a Moorish leader and Djebel is Arabic for mountain - hence Gibraltar was Tarik's Mountain.

Spain ceded Gibraltar to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and the place has been in Their hands ever since.  In 1967 a referendum was held, asking the population if they'd prefer to remain under British rule or be returned to Spain.  Only 44 voters out of 12672 wanted to become Spanish. In 2002 another referendum was held.  By then the population had reached 20678 (Gibraltarians are mostly Catholic after all.) but the result was much the same with only 187 voters wanting to become Spanish citizens.  In short as far as Gibraltarians are concerned Spain is about as popular as a herd of guinea pigs in a cucumber plantation.

Gibraltar.  More British than Britain

Andy and my male staff stood on deck as the Mons Calpe slid past Rosia Bay towards the Gibraltar ferry terminal.  It was dark but they could see the Levanter cloud hanging over the town.  This streamer of cloud often clings to the uppermost peaks of the Rock in summer.  It's caused by warm, moist easterly winds from the Mediterranean striking the sheer east face of the Rock, being forced upwards so that it cools and condenses into a cloud that can hang for a week or more over the town while the eastern beaches remain beautifully clear.  My male staff told Andy about Rosia Bay.  It was where Admiral Horatio Nelson's body was brought after being killed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  He was placed in a barrel of rum to preserve him on the trip back to England.  The jolly Jack Tars on the ship that transported him said they'd never tasted rum with so much body.  It makes shoving worms into tequila bottles seem almost sanitary.

Having disembarked, my male staff and Andy trudged the short distance into town and checked into a cheap and nasty hotel that my male staff knew of.  It may have been cheap and nasty but it was still going to finish off their remaining funds in just five days if they didn't get a job of some sort in that time.  They didn't of course and five days later they checked out of the hotel with fifteen pounds between them.  By day they wandered the hot streets, eking out their money on the cheapest food they could find and by night sleeping in their sleeping bags on Eastern Beach near the 007 Bar where in happier times my male staff had spent long hot afternoons and steamy nights with a group of friends drinking copious quantities of vodka and lime and playing Eagles records on the juke box.  That was only a year ago when he was there with his mum, dad and mad sister.  Then he had a job and money.  Now he had a cheap sleeping bag and a leather passport holder.  A year ago the proprietor of the 007 Bar had a large brown dog with demonic yellow eyes named Kano which he kept as security.  Kano was still there and he barked most of the night, but my male staff couldn't think of a better place for them to spend their nights so they put up with it.

When their money ran out altogether they ate figs which fortunately for them were in season and hung in great clusters from the trees which lined the streets.  The figs kept them going in more ways than one and it was fortunate that there were quite a few public toilets around the place.  For almost a fortnight they slept on the beach and ate nothing but figs, drinking from public drinking water fountains.  It was hot, but they were able to shower at the beach showers at Eastern Beach so that they didn't smell too badly, but washing their clothes was a problem - there was nowhere to dry them unless they laid them over the sea wall and stayed with them all day to make sure they weren't stolen.
They were hungry, so hungry all the time.  Their energy levels drained and they dragged themselves around the sweltering town like zombies looking, hoping for a job - any job.

Then one glorious day their luck changed.  My male staff bumped into a friend from his previous trip to the Rock.  His friend - Darren, was staying in Royal Air Force quarters with his father, mother and sister.  His father - Corporal Steel was a chef in the RAF.  The next day Darren came to where they slept on Eastern Beach and brought them half a dozen croissants and an apple each which Andy and my male staff demolished rapidly.  Darren had some incredible new which almost brought tears of gratitude to the boys tired, bloodshot eyes.  Darren's dad - Corporal Steel would rent them his spare room and feed them two meals a day.  My male staff pointed out they they had no money at all, not even a penny.  Darren then told them that Corporal Steel had found them a job as warehouse operatives with the N.A.A.F.I. (Navy Army & Air Force Institute).  The N.A.A.F.I. operate retail supermarkets and clubs etc for the benefit of families on British military bases across the the world.  They are the equivalent of the American PX.

Just a month later Andy and my male staff were healthy, well fed and had enough money to leave the wonderful Corporal Steel and his family in peace and move into a workers hostel.  Most of the residents were Moroccan.  In 1969 when Franco closed the border between Spain and Gibraltar most of the Rock's manual workforce came from Spain - the town of La Linea and the surrounds.  Then overnight Gibraltar suddenly had no labourers and La Linea's unemployment rate doubled.  This was more of a problem for Spain than the British who simply organised a labour force from Morocco instead.  This was all very well, but for Andy and my male staff it meant that you had to be very careful getting up for a pee in the middle of the night because you were likely to trip over someone saying their prayers on a prayer mat on the way.  "Allahu Akbar. Owwww! Watch where you're going you clumsy great oaf!"

The boys wages were low, just enough to pay for their room and buy some food and they wondered how long it would take them to save enough money to get home.  It would be about ten years at the rate they were going, but then what if they lost their jobs?  They'd be homeless in days and back sleeping on the beach, eating figs and rushing for the nearest public toilet again.  Then on the day that the Royal Navy's aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal departed Gibraltar for the final time on route to Southampton and then the scrap yard my male staff received some very welcome news.

The N.A.A.F.I warehouse where the boys worked was right at the dockside and they watched as the huge ship slowly pulled out from her berth into the harbour.  Sailors in dress uniform lined the flight deck and her paying off banner streamed from the superstructure.  Wafts of music blew across the water.  The ship's band was playing Rod Stewart's "Sailing" of course, what else?  The late afternoon sun glittered on the still, oily water.  It was quite a spectacular and emotional moment.  It was 2nd October 1978 and Andy and my male staff had been in Gibraltar for approximately two months.  They had planned to hitch hike all the way from northern France and then make a lucrative living playing a stilted version of Deep Purple's Smoke on the Water on their cheap acoustic guitars to adoring crowds.  As often happens with humans and my male staff in particular things didn't quite work out that way.  In the end they reached Gibraltar without seeing the inside of a single car and had their guitars conned out of them before they even reached their destination and thankfully without playing a single note.

October 2nd 1978.  HMS Ark Royal steams out of Gibraltar for the final time. Somewhere in the distance my male staff and Andy are standing watching the event.

Before my male staff left work for the day the warehouse manager called him to his office.  Fearing the worst - that his employment was about to be terminated my male staff knocked on the door and was invited to enter.  He could almost feel the gritty sand in his sleeping bag again and was wondering if figs were still in season when the manager leaned across his desk and handed my male staff an envelope.
 "You can open it." Smiled the manager. "It's not a termination letter."  Hurriedly my male staff tore open the envelope and stared in disbelief at the contents.  It was a cheque for three hundred and forty eight pounds.  "I met your old boss Alberto Carreras."  The manager explained.  "It's more than a year since you left that job and went back to the UK.  I mentioned to him that you now worked for me at the N.A.A.F.I. and he said That's lucky, I have a cheque for him - back pay and holiday pay. I didn't have a forwarding address.

Well, as you can imagine my male staff couldn't believe his luck.  Here was a ticket home for both himself and Andy.  What's more they could afford to fly - no more hitchhiking or trains.  As it happens Andy decided to stay on a little longer but my male staff was back in the UK by the end of October.  By November he was complaining about the cold and wishing he was back in Gibraltar.  Some humans are like that.  Never satisfied.


Okay, so like wears the test?  Uncal Billy sed there'd be a test and now I find there's no test at all.  I've been like cramming for ours and worrying abowt this bluddy test and wot wood happen if I didunt pass.  I thort maybe I mite get like evicted from my cage or sumthing if I got sum kwestyuns rong and now there's no test after all.  I wuz like all panikking for nothing.  I wuz thinking that if I got sum of the Kwestyuns rong the only thing that mite get me over the pass mark is my spelling.



  1. Billy, your blog won't let me follow you - help! I hate missing out on all your news :0(

    1. Man! That's annoying. What's stupid Google doing? I'm guessing that you have a Google account or you wouldn't be able to leave a comment. Would you like me to email the blog to you? I already do that for lots of other people.

    2. I would feel beyond loved if you would. I have a gmail account and I have my own blog (subtle hint) I don't know why it won't notify me when you post!!