Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Chapter 2 - An Educated Gentleman

At 32, Tony looked good, his body taught, not over muscular, he thought as he towelled himself down in front of the long mirror. He kept himself very fit and had the typical, well proportioned figure of a good swimmer, as indeed he was. He swam and jogged regularly, still rowed at the Mediterranean Rowing Club when he could and played a decent standard of his favourite sport, Field Hockey, which in Gibraltar, due to the long periods of dry weather and impossibility of growing any semblance of grass playing fields, was played on gravel. To play hockey on gravel, one really had to finely hone one’s technical skills. As a consequence, Gibraltarians sustain a remarkably high standard of hockey considering the smallness of the community. Tony’s thoughts drifted back to the days when he had first arrived at Downside School, the distinguished Catholic public school near Bath in Somerset, where his parents had sent him as a boarder to finish off his secondary education. A custom much employed by many generations of the more well-to-do Gibraltarian families. The ease at which one could play hockey on the lush grass playing fields the school offered was unbelievable. Excelling as a centre back and showing great qualities of leadership, it wasn’t long before he was given the Captaincy of Downside’s Hockey XI, a position that he would later repeat at University, obtaining a Cambridge ‘Blue‘ during the process of graduating from Corpus Christi College, with a rather undistinguished if passable degree in Linguistics. How he ever managed this, would forever be a mystery to his father, as his near entire focus throughout had been on his sporting, social and other, some might have said, more nefarious activities during his undergraduate days, the sowing of a few wild oats having been carried out with some vigour!

His days at Downside and at Cambridge further strengthened his love for Britain and all things English, the people, traditions, systems of justice and government and of course, its history. Of course, as a Gibraltarian, he had been brought up in an environment and receive an education that already cherished and nurtured English, or more correctly perhaps, British values. By the time he arrived on British soil for the first time, it seemed to him as if he already knew it, as if from another lifetime. He very quickly became very much at home and at ease with the lifestyle, adopting the best airs of an Englishman gentleman, quite naturally.

He made many friends during these educative years, including some from other far flung corners of the British Empire. He was pleased to have been able to maintain contact and correspondence with many of them, even during these difficult times and he thought about them now, hoping they were keeping safe and out of harms way. The memory of Tom Niell painfully returned. Tom had been one of his best mates at Cambridge and they had enjoyed many a wild escapade during those halcyon undergraduate days, sowing of wild oats included! Tragically last Summer, whilst flying Hurricanes with the Royal Air Force, Tom had been shot down and killed over the Channel during a particularly fierce series of onslaughts by Goering’s Luftwaffe on the southern and eastern coastlines and home counties. At the time, it was widely suspected as the prelude, the softening up and strong attempt at destroying the RAF, prior to a full scale invasion of Britain by Hitler’s Third Reich. Thankfully, largely due to the tremendous efforts, enterprise and sacrifice of a very few brave young men, who put up a startling fight and defence of Britain’s skies, it seems Hitler was forced to alter his plans as the massive aerial assaults had now petered out to the occasional bombing raid but on a much smaller scale. Time will tell. The news of Tom’s tragic death had hit him very hard. It had especially hit home as Tony’s own younger brother, Eddy was himself serving with the RAF, flying Spitfires somewhere in Suffolk. So Tom’s death had hit very close indeed. He knew Eddy could look after himself. He had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September, in recognition of a significant number of kills to his credit, so no mean fighter pilot this. Of course this did not stop his protective older brother from worrying and hoping he stayed safe.

As he tried to dismiss these concerns, the last rays of a beautiful setting sun came through the open bathroom door. They made their way across his lounge and the large shutter doors that gave way to a small balcony, catching the particles of dust swirls much like the searchlights do with the seagulls over the wartime Gibraltar nights. The view out of his balcony windows always cheered him up even in the most dismissal and tempestuous winter storms that often hit the Bay of Gibraltar. He could see nearly the whole of the bay, with the Detached and North Moles opposite and to the right that formed part of the protected harbour. He could just make out the small lighthouse at the tip of the South Mole, the final section of the inner harbour area and a vital part of the many jetties, which the Royal Navy used within the massive HM Dockyard complex.

Force H, a huge task force with over 50 warships of varying sizes, including the Battleships Hood, Resolution, Valiant and the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, had assembled here the previous month. The larger warships taking advantage of the excellent deep water berths provided by the South Mole. The task force was enormous, with a number of smaller cruisers, numerous destroyers and fast corvettes forming the main defensive elements for Ark Royal.

Force H arriving and berthing at Gibraltar Dockyard and Harbour 1941

Force H had made a quite magnificent and impressive sight as they ’dressed ship’ with their colourful signal flags, ccupying all of the available berths througout the naval base and spread away below him had to use most of the commercial areas to the north and some using the independent anchorages mid harbour. The word was that Force H was now on the hunt for the German Battleship the Bismarck and he wondered how they were getting on, as he stared into another glorious sunset across the Bay and over the hills behind Algeciras.

He turned back once more to the mirror and was tempted to trim the short beard he had taken to sporting. Maybe tomorrow, he thought. He hated shaving and had decided to emphasise his RNR and MTB commander’s image with this dashing, just past stubble length beard. His deep brown eyes looked back at him with a twinkle, conscious of his small vanity. His hair was light brown and he wore a little longer than was acceptable Naval etiquette but typical of the small boats breed that crewed MTB’s, submarines and other small coastal craft. Not classically good looking, by any stretch, with bigger ears than he might have hoped for and prominent nose, which nevertheless, the combination of which women still seemed to find very attractive. In truth and though in a still somewhat childish way he had yet to find out, it was the whole package, the looks in combination with his graceful, even lazy movement and gestures, seemingly laid back but strong, genuine and sincere character and bright intelligent personality was what they really fell for every time. it didn’t seem to have done him much harm to date, other than with Belinda, he thought, suddenly aware that once more, she had surreptitiously entered his mind and irritatingly, he was thinking of her again. As he had done many a time before, he brusquely pushed the beautiful, passionate but strangely painful mental picture of her aside and forced his mind back to tonight. His stomach chose that moment to help make him aware, with a low rumble that he was quite hungry. The shower and had opened up his appetite. A ‘Caballito’ he thought, picturing his favourite supper of medium rare fillet steak, eggs and chips, lightly boiled spinach in garlic and curiously, hollandaise sauce! Cindy and a well chilled Chardonnay should finish it off quite nicely! Quietly whistling to the strains of a rather jolly upbeat new sound created by an American big band coming from his radio, he walked back to his bedroom and took out a clean shirt and pin stripe double breasted dark blue suit and colourful red tie in a paisley pattern. What was the ’yanks’ name, he wondered. Oh yes, some chap called Glenn Miller, the radio had said. Good stuff! Great for dancing. He did not realise it but the local Bands had already been emulating Glenn Miller’s new sound for some time and he had danced to this music at the Hotel and other nightspots numerous times. Cindy, with a giggle and calling him silly, would have been able to tell him instantly!