The cupboard above the top of the stairs, in my grandparents’ Glacis Estate flat, was a dangerous wonder. The shuttered doors were swung open about once a year to get Christmas decorations or a suddenly-remembered blanket. So a brave family member would climb onto the bannister and jump in to briefly unsettle the past.
As children we were never allowed up there, but we could stand on the landing to scan the cardboard boxes and old suitcases that held all manner of secrets and possibilities. For someone raised on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, this was the closest thing I had to a wardrobe in an elderly relative’s home. So I did my best to charm and plead that something else be brought down along with the intended object of the mission.
Sometimes, I was rewarded. A fur coat and hat that set my lion, witch and wardrobe fantasies soaring. Some of my mum’s old records (The Beatles, ABBA, The Sound of Music) which we couldn’t even play, because we no longer had a record player. And the greatest haul was a dark green leather suitcase with battered clasps, which held photos and letters and books.
My mum pulled out three slim paperback volumes, spotted with age. I remember thinking the brightly-coloured illustrations on the front covers were unusual, because they were drawings of the Rock of Gibraltar and of the Gibraltar coat of arms. I had never seen these on the front of a book before. It was like they mattered. Suddenly it wasn’t just books about English country mansions and Victorian London streets, the promise of these books was that they were talking about me, about us, and about the Rock I could see from the window of the house.
“These books,” my mum told me, “were written by your granny’s cousin, George Palao. He is a very intelligent man.”
The books were passed around each family member for a few minutes. I held
them long enough to take in the covers again, before I was asked to surrender them and they were placed back in the suitcase. Which ended up in the cupboard on top of the stairs, the shuttered doors firmly shut again until the decorations needed to go back.
There is no greater longing than an unread book.
But what that moment gave me was a spark. That actually, spending all my time reading and writing was not as strange as it was often made out to be. That even within our family, there was a ‘very intelligent’ person, who had written and published books. And more so, they were about him, and me, and us, and our town, which apparently had a history that stretched beyond fourteen sieges.
I lost myself in other things once teenage years hit, as people tend to do. I haven’t thought about George Palao again until recently, when I started writing Exiliado and exploring what it meant for me to be Gibraltarian. I thought it would be easy to get copies of his books, but I was very wrong. It seems they were published from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, and never again. I’ve repeatedly asked my mother where the books at my grandparents’ house could have ended up, and nobody has an answer. I regularly look online to see if they pop up for sale. I once found what I thought was a copy for about £15 on Ebay. What arrived was a single illustrative sheet, pulled out from one of his books. The only full copy of a book I’ve seen online (Gibraltar: Our Heritage) is bizarrely located in Virginia, and the seller would like £150 plus shipping costs for it. Some days, I am tempted.
The Wikipedia entry for George Palao is in itself enough to fuel the imagination. His book titles are incredible, the reclaiming our national identity and right to exist as a people comes in the bold simplicity of the placing of ‘our’. Our forgotten past. Our heritage.
Then there’s the biographical entry itself, painfully short but reading like a man who deserves much more celebration. Born in London during the evacuation. Working for the Gibraltar Public Works as a draughtsman. Returning to London to further his education. Author. Historian. Artist. Potholer. Diver. I especially love the black and white photo of him that accompanies the entry. He sits at a table, a mop of curly hair in his eyes, staring intently at an ancient pot he attempts to reconstruct. I like to think of him coming home after a dangerous expedition down one of Gibraltar’s caves, complete with the fragments of our past he painstakingly tries to bring together.
There’s been a lot written about statues being taken down, and what it might do to reframe the past and what is important in terms of our culture. What do we preserve, what do we keep, and what do we approach in a different way? What I propose we discuss is what statues we put up. What are we erasing by its very absence?
There are many statues in Gibraltar, but how many are of Gibraltarians? I may be wrong but I have only counted two actual full statues. One is of a nameless Gibraltarian family coming home from the evacuation. The other is of Molly Bloom, who as much as I love her, is a fictional character.
There has also been debate about the existence of Gibraltarian literature and culture, but how do we keep this alive when important works and important Gibraltarians are in danger of being lost forever?
George Palao deserves to be remembered. To be studied in schools. He deserves an exhaustive biography. A reissue of his books. And a statue on Main Street. Maybe sat at his table with his focused sense of purpose.
He deserves all this, so we can finally begin to realise that we deserve all this too. That we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and elevate it. So that future Gibraltarians can think of this ‘very intelligent man’ and what he gave us to be valued, and realise that maybe they can do exactly the same. Before it’s too late, and the shuttered doors close forever.
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