The People of Gibraltar
1921 - James Joyce – Ulysses and Gibraltar

The most famous fictitious Gibraltarian, Molly Bloom from Ulysses by James Joyce. This running figure was commissioned from Jon Searle to celebrate the bicentenary of the newspaper the Gibraltar Chronicle (see LINK) in 2001

I don’t think there are too many people I know who have not heard of James Joyce’s Ulysses. On the other hand I have not come across too many who have actually read it from cover to cover. I can’t say I blame them.

When I was a teenager I took the book out from our local Lending Library which in those days was a smallish affair just to the left of the Law Courts building in Main Street. (See LINK) On thinking back I should have been surprised they had a copy. The book had been banned in the UK and elsewhere because it had been considered pornographic and Gibraltar in the mid 1950s was as provincially narrow-minded as the next small town if not more so – especially about pornography.

The Law Courts Building – Lending library on the left

Curiously I had not been aware of this at the time although I knew all about D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover which had also been in the news for similar reasons. I don’t know where one of my school friends got a copy from but I still remember searching page by page through the book for the dubious pleasure of actually seeing the word “fuck” in print. 

 My interest in Ulysses, however, was much more commendable – I had heard that it was all about Gibraltar. I took the book home and over the next few days – could it have been weeks? - I struggled through the first 700 odd pages without actually understanding a word of it as I searched desperately for something that might remotely be connected with “Gibraltar”. I must have missed about thirteen instances of the word itself until I finally found it on page 741 – or more or less at the start of the very last chapter of the book which to make matters worse was written in a style that I later learned was called “stream of consciousness”. I was obviously not impressed as I still can’t remember being overly excited by its “dirty” bits – and the chapter does have quite a few. 

James Joyce in Zurich which must have been just after he had started writing Ulysses   ( 1915 )

I returned the book to the library and forgot all about it until recently when I came across an article by Richard Brown - Molly Bloom’s Gibraltar - in which he had this to say about the Rock as described by James Joyce in Ulysses:
Joyce’s Gibraltar is among the most positively described locations in the book and its treatment must surely count as one of the most significant, most atmospheric, not to mention sexiest, treatments of Gibraltar that exist in modern English, adding significantly to the ways in which it has been presented whether in imaginative or non-fictional literature. . . . Its military associations have sometimes made Gibraltar seem a place of “no” but Molly’s memory turns it into the place of what Jacques Derrida among others have explored as literature’s most famously celebratory and communicative “yes”.
I was taken aback. I had found Jacques Derrida incomprehensible when I was at University - and I still do. But I can tell the difference between “yes” and “no” and what Brown is suggesting is that Joyce’s description of 19th century Gibraltar was the one I have been searching for in the literature for donkey’s years – and had never really found it. (See LINK

However, before delving any further into revisiting the pleasures – or otherwise - of the last section perhaps it would be best – at least for those who have never held the book in their hands -  to have an overview – at its most basic and trivial level - on what Ulysses was all about.

1. The book is a rather lengthy novel with eighteen chapters. All the action takes place in Dublin. There are three main characters - Stephen Dedalus a school teacher, Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising salesman, and Marion Bloom, Leopold’s wife. None of the first seventeen chapters have anything worthwhile to say about Gibraltar. But it is the last one that is of interest. In it Marion – more commonly known as Molly - lies awake in bed reminiscing about her life on the Rock as a young girl.

2. Joyce wrote his book over several years from 1914 to 1921 but the story deals with events that took place in a single day in 1904. Molly Bloom’s memories of Gibraltar, however, are those from the late 19th century when she was 15 years old. She was born in 1870.

The town looking north towards Sierra Carbonera in Spain and as Molly would have found it  ( 1870s - Robert Peters Napper for Francis Frith ) (See LINK)

3. Molly’s father was Major Brian Tweedy who was Irish and possibly not a “Major”. Her mother was Lunita Laredo – almost certainly a Jewish “lady” from Gibraltar – the “lady” is in inverted commas because she was probably no lady.  Molly was nevertheless a member of the social group that made up the British garrison and was able to enjoy some of the privileges of its social life - something not usually available to civilians. And yet as the daughter of a local woman she was just as much a “rock scorpion” as her mother - or indeed Mrs Rubio who was employed by her family as either a maid or a housekeeper.

4. James Joyce never visited Gibraltar. Some have suggested that he got most of his information from the American poet Ezra Pound who did – twice. His Canto XXII is about Gibraltar. Others insist that it was the product of hard work and considerable research. 

Whatever the case I have selected a series of quotes from the last chapter where Molly specifically mentions Gibraltar and have commented on them where possible. As Molly’s monologue is quite long I have opted to divide it into three separate articles. Taken together they are, in effect, an attempt to discover whether Richard Brown’s comment was a valid one – or simply an over-intellectualized conceit.  

The Rock from the Spanish coast  ( Late 19th century – George Washington Wilson ) (See LINK)

You can find the articles here.

1885 - James Joyce - Molly Bloom’s Gibraltar - Part 1 (See LINK
1885 - James Joyce - Molly Bloom’s Gibraltar - Part 2 (See LINK)
1885 - James Joyce - Molly Bloom’s Gibraltar - Part 3 (See LINK)