SOME CORNER OF A FOREIGN FIELD
Simon Courtauld fears that the Foreign
Office is poised to sell off all that is British and sacred on the Costa del Sol
Malaga ACROSS the street from the bull-ring, opposite the Centre for Aesthetics and Massages and next to an ironmonger's shop, two lions, each with a paw resting on a globe, guard the gates to the English Cemetery. Beyond the Victorian lodge, with gabled roof and Gothic windows, some three acres of garden are laid out, against the steep hillside rising to the Gibralfaro. Here are headstones, tomb- stones, memorials and monuments to the English residents of the province of Mala- ga — and to a number of German sailors and the occasional American and Hungar- ian ambassador. In 1829 the then British consul was granted this piece of land by the governor of the city and took possession of it 'in the name of King George the Fourth for ever'. It is not some corner of a foreign field: it is British territory, shaded by cypresses and palm trees, and surrounded by hedges of bougainvillaea and myrtle. But there are fears for its future.
At a time when the British Government has agreed to give away our fishing grounds to Spanish trawlers, there are dark rumours among the `expat' community along this southern coast that we are in danger of los- ing our cemetery. Is nothing sacred? It is not so much the possibility of compulsory purchase by the city authorities — though this could become a real threat under a less anglophile mayor than the present one — as the continuing cost of maintaining the cemetery.
While the official line is that the local community is responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery and the Foreign Office has no intention of selling it, it is British gov- ernment property and, if local funds run out, a decision will have to be taken whether, from the Foreign Office's ever- shrinking budget, the taxpayer should keep the cemetery going. The general feeling here is that the Foreign Office would pre- fer to be shot of it, and to realise its very valuable asset close to the city centre.
Local financial support is hardly over- whelming. A determined fund-raising effort last year, using local television and newspapers, raised just under £1,000. 'We need a burial a month to pay for the ceme- tery and we're not getting enough bodies,' was how one resident put it. The charge for a burial is about £1,100; the only other income comes from the sale of a few plants and shrubs.
On the expenditure side there is Pepe, the rather mournful-looking gardener with a drooping moustache and a black mongrel dog. He lives in the lodge with his father, Antonio, who proudly shows off his MBE, for devoted gardening services to the British consulate. However, repairs to the fabric of the cemetery — part of one arm of the cross on the wall of the inner burial- ground is missing — tend to be over- looked.
At one end of the cemetery garden stands a Greek Revival sandstone lodge- temple, which was built in 1840 and con- verted into St George's Church in 1891. This church is in the unusual position of having an adjacent burial-ground which does not belong to it. The Foreign Office would rather not be in the business of run- ning cemeteries; it would gladly hand this one over to the Church, rather as the con- sulate in Naples did a few years ago with Christ Church, for which it used to be responsible. But the Anglican Church in Europe (the diocese of the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe) has not got the money. The Church Commissioners give no financial assistance to overseas chap- lains, whose stipends and expenses have to come from generous parishioners.
There is no shortage of English money around Malaga — some of it, along the notorious Costa del Crime, from ill-gotten gains — but not much gets diverted to the local English chaplain. Nor are large sums likely to be given to the cemetery. Of the many thousands of `expats', about 35 peo- ple attend Sunday services at St George's, though donations come from a larger number. The current chaplain, the Revd Bill Pegg, lives in a flat bequeathed by a naval commander's widow who died five years ago.
The future of the English Cemetery could be assured if a large benefactor came forward — perhaps a refugee from British justice anxious to transfer some of his treasure to heaven. An increase in the rate of deaths and the number of burials would also help. One would have thought there were plenty of retired couples around here, in the very late evening of their lives, who would prefer to be interred in this beautiful place rather than have their bodies returned, much more expensively, to Britain. (Many are cremat- ed here, which saves a lot of money on transport.) As one walks round the cemetery, it is hard to believe that anyone — even the British Government — would disturb this oasis of peace. Lancashire voices were plainly audible as two elderly ladies passed by, one of them wearing pale slacks and carrying flowers. They paused to peer into `Sexist pig!' a large hole, a grave in waiting, which is the custom in Spain. Some of the graves, cov- ered in cockle-shells, are of children who died of malaria in the last century. Sixty- two officers and men of the Imperial Ger- man Navy were buried here in a common grave when the training ship Gneisenau sank outside the harbour in 1900. Four war graves stand together, the bodies recovered from the sea during the second world war. There are several memorials to Americans here; and 'tucked away in one corner', Jan Morris found the grave of a solitary Jew some years ago.
Geraniums grow by the memorial to William Mark, 'consul for the kingdom of Granada at Malaga', who persuaded the Malaga authorities to grant the land for the burial of British subjects. Years before, he had observed 'with great grief and disgust' the bodies of Protestants being taken to the beach 'at the dead hour of midnight' and buried in the sand, apparently upright and facing the sea. Rubbish and ordure were often dumped around their resting places.
If the heirs of William Mark decline to use any taxpayers' money and, without enough local money to support it, decide to sell the English Cemetery, some of the remains may have to go back to the beach. In England certain procedures have to be followed if the Church Commissioners want to dispose of a churchyard. Similar regulations govern the disposal of a ceme- tery by a local authority, under the Town and Country Planning Act — which pre- sumably the British consul would have to observe.
All human remains must be removed and reinterred before a cemetery is deconse- crated and sold, and notices must be pub- lished to allow time for the remains and tombstones to be removed by relatives. Any that are still there after two months must be taken away and reburied by 'the person in whom the land is vested'.
Unlike a churchyard or other burial- ground in Britain, the cemetery in Malaga contains very few graves of people with rel- atives living in the neighbourhood. Notices in local newspapers — even in Sur in English — would bring very little response. The British consul would, therefore, be faced with having to remove the vast majority of human remains, not to mention the tombstones and other memorials. What, one wonders, would he do with them all? Would other consecrated ground be made available in the vicinity? Or would the remains have to be reinterred, with those of earlier English Protestants, in the sand along the Mediterranean shore?
In the north corner of the cemetery I came upon a grave recently filled; no turf had been placed over the top, but cement had been laid just below ground level. So that is the practice of Spanish grave-dig- gers: the bodies are entombed beneath a layer of concrete. This should surely be enough to save the English Cemetery from desecration and development.