An extraordinary week last week at the second running of the Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival, held on the historic isthmus that is the southernmost point of the Iberian peninsular with stunning views across the strait to Africa.
The iconic limestone promontory, named Jabal Tariq (the Mountain of Tariq) by the Moors and from which its English name is derived- try saying it aloud - is one of the ‘Pillars of Hercules,’ its twin Jebel Musa visible across the famed strait in Morocco and both guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean.
It’s a hell of a location for a literary festival, a fulcrum between Europe and Africa, Christianity and Islam, ancient and modern, and the content of Sally Dunsmore’s excellent programming – she is also responsible for the Oxford and Blenheim Palace festivals - reflected the multifaceted role that Gibraltar has played historically and as a portal for stories and storytelling.
One of the events I had the privilege of chairing was with Joanne Harris and Ben Okri, discussing the art of storytelling. Joanne treated the audience to a glorious faerie fable while Ben recounted a Nigerian story his Mother used to tell him, one that left him and the audience hanging, to end the tale in their imaginations.
Nicholas Parsons was a complete hoot as he recounted chairing 900 editions of “Just a Minute” across 5 decades and John Julius Norwich had the audience in stitches as he took us back to his childhood and the wonderful letters he received from his glamorous, starry Mother, Lady Diana Cooper, while he was an evacuee schoolboy in America. Two better examples of engaging anecdotists would be hard to find, their signing queues proof that the Gibraltarian crowds couldn’t get enough of either.
It was while talking to Maggie Gee (there to talk about her excellent novel “Virginia Woolf in Manhattan”) and Nicholas Rankin (discussing his wonderful and tragic “Telegram from Guernica”) that I Iearned something quite interesting, as John Mitchenson, Unbound's chief and elder statesman of QI, might have it.
They had both been treated to a visit to Gorham’s Cave in which a skull had been found in 1848. It wasn’t realised at the time that it was of a different species to Homo sapiens and not until 1862 that it was studied properly. In 1864 it was proposed that the species be called Homo calpicus after Mons Calpe, the original Latin name for Gibraltar.
The glorious twist is that later still it was realised that the skull was actually a specimen of Homo neandertharlensis, named for the skull found in Germany in 1856 and meaning that had its origins been realised earlier, what we now refer to as Neanderthal man would more correctly be called Gibraltan woman, recognition that Gibraltar has been a refuge for over 100,000 years and one of the densest Neanderthal settlements in Europe, as the ice age rendered Northern Europe uninhabitable for long periods.
The joy of literary festivals is the conversations both on stage and off that create the esprit de corps between the writers, organisers and audiences. Talking to the head of title sponsor Gibunco, John Bassadone and his wife Eileen, I discovered that the firm’s name derives from ‘bunkering,’ providing fuel for ships, with its roots in the age of steam when the bunkers held coal. Director of Factual Programming for ITV, Richard Klein surprised everyone with his accessibility when he gave his personal email address out to the audience saying that he looks at ideas for programming whoever they come from. From Melanie and Ross King talking about death in literature and Leonardo’s painting of “The Last Supper” to Christopher Lloyd inspiring children and adults alike with his extraordinary “What on Earth” wallbook presentations, this unique festival offers a rich and diverse feast of knowledge and entertainment in a stunning setting enhanced by the warmth of the Gibraltarian welcome.
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