Friday, March 28, 2008

Once more unto the beach

As the English winter goes into what seems to be its 10th month, I’ve been turning grumpy. “If you’re so rude about the French”, asked a puzzled but loyal reader, “how come you can’t wait to get there?” Easy – I’m not rude about the French: I may not be mad about Sarko, but then I’m not crazy about most politicians, whatever their nationality or party. In fact, French pols are probably closer to the will of the people than ours are: at least they didn’t join George and Tony’s war while a million people walked the streets in protest. And yes, I have more French friends than English ones; and yes, perhaps I should give Sarko a decent chance. He’s certainly making the right noises, which is more than you could say for his predecessor: and his predecessor – the famous Resistance hero - was even worse. Meanwhile we Poms can’t talk: we have the man who isn’t Blair – or anyone else for that matter. But all will be well next week – just one look at that blue water and I’m Monsieur Nice.

Shoot-out at the Old Kop corral No one likes political posts, so, to the Matter of the Greatest Importance in the RW household.
The MGI is that Everton are fifth in the table - two points behind Liverpool, who are fourth, and there remain only seven games to play. Only the top four teams go into the Champions League. You get the picture.
On Sunday afternoon, the two play each other for the 207th time. If the Blues beat the Reds, we (I mean "they") go a point ahead and become fourth. If the other way round, Everton go five points behind. Wife is a Reds supporter – bless: she was very young at the time. It was built into the (unwritten) pre-nuptial agreement that I am forbidden from making disparaging remarks about them, even if they are a foreign-owned and –coached bunch of overpaid prima donnas, awash with money that you'd think they might be sharing with their poorer neighbours and – until 1892 – landlords. Now - another pillar of the pre-nup is the Exception to the Non-Disparagement Rule: that it does not apply when the two play each other. Now can you feel the tension?
Even had to iron my own blue shirt.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Stance and Circumpomp

We had a distinguished visitor in Windsor today: the vertically-challenged president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy and his new wife, Carla Bruni - so we went along to show a bit of entente cordiale. The Castle pulled out all the ceremonial stops – bands, cavalry, parades. Not Sarko. The last time I saw a republican president in this country it was William J. Clinton, and he did a walk-about and shook hands with us all. Not Sarko: he was met by the Queen at the railway station but, contrary to the advertised schedule, arrived by car, decided to stay at the castle one night instead of three, and, instead of travelling in the open coach with the Queen, skulked in the back of an enclosed carriage. At least he was polite enough to discard the Ray-bans – they're not an absolute necessity in Windsor. If there’s not much of him to see in bright sunshine, as the pic shows there’s even less in a shrouded coach.
Mrs S was a different item - I guess her name would translate into Charlie Brown. They went up to London to meet the PM. If he’d called in the Defence minister they’d have had three of a kind.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Au revoir Maroc

Take-away chicken We were kindly invited to Larache this weekend - it’s up north near Tangier - but we refused, mainly because it would be an eleven-hour round trip and we go home tomorrow. But there's another reason: the Rough Guide to Morocco advises that, if invited out, it’s considered polite to take food - and recommends a live chicken. The thought of sitting on a train holding a live chook for 5½ hours was too much. At least we wouldn't have to bring it back.

Tomorrow we swap our cloudless skies and 22 degree temperatures for rainy, 8ーdegree London. We’ll miss Casablanca. We’ve had fun lampooning the strange, but we’ve really enjoyed the people here. OK, so the odd taxi-driver may have tried to rip us off - just like those in London do - but hardly anyone else. We’ll remember the many acts of kindness: the kid who got us through the labyrinthine Medina of Fes and refused any reward; the passengers on the train who told us to stay put although we were clearly in someone else’s seats and the rightful occupants were standing in the corridor (we moved); Hassan, with whom we've chatted every day, despite the fact that neither party could understand a word the other said. Will we be back next winter? As they say here, inchallah.

Friday, March 07, 2008


In a quandary over Cliff's tag. Because of baggage restrictions, I only have three books with me, and two of them don't have enough sentences on page 123. There's the Casablancan yellow pages - great cast, crap plot - which would bring us into Auto-collants, or Self-adhesives, so it looks like I'm stuck with book three.
It's called Morocco and is a collection of writings about the country. The quote is from Tangier: A Different Way by Lawdom Vaidon, American freelance journalist and table-tennis champion of northern Morocco for seven consecutive years, and tells of a cosmopolitan part of Tangier called Soco Chico, home to fugitive expatriates of various kinds. The first two sentences are about Bill Burroughs, heroin addict and wealthy grandson of the adding machine tycoon.
"He could produce an excellent curry when he felt like it, and though his quarters usually resembled a sea of books, typing paper, temporarily discarded clothes, syringes, needles and the remains of yesterday's spaghetti, he remained a popular host. The 'different' novel that he was writing was published in 1959 as The Naked Lunch.
Everybody in the Soco was respectful to Paul Lund, a self-styled and proved criminal - he had spent three years in Dartmoor - who was on the run from the English Midlands."
Good book as far as it goes, but one editor, Robert Bidwell, died before publication and the other, his wife Margaret, seems to have lost interest in it and didn't even bother with an index. Surprising, really, in view of the fact that the publishers are the eminent TPP, publishers of such unforgettable works as The French Riviera: A Literary Guide, (ISBN 978-1-84511-455-8).

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Fes tivities

We stayed in a riad in the old town. They’re a sort of posh B & B, usually hidden down some dark alley in the Medina, and - even after three days of residence - not easy to find. The Riad Arabesque is a former Andalusian/ Moroccan palace tastefully restored, its sumptuous reception hall looking as if Sydney Greenstreet might stroll in at any moment in a crumpled white suit. The first night they told us that dinner would be “special”. It was held in one of the rooms off the hall: singers and oud players - are they oudists? - wandered in and out as we reclined on low couches and more cushions than John Lewis’s; people plying us with Morrocan delicacies like stuffed aubergines, sun-dried tomatoes, and wild artichokes - thirteen dishes in all; at the end of which we could hardly move. That was the starter. After that came the lamb tajine, with which we coped gamely before falling back exhausted into the cushions. That was when the chicken tajine arrived. I recall vaguely refusing various deserts: dates, fruits, etc., and cheese and as we struggled upstairs the DG saying something about surgical intervention, but it’s all something of a blur. Breakfast turned out to be similar, but with only 12 courses. We gave dinner a miss.

Halfway between Fes and the coast is the Meknes wine territory - mile after mile of flat, sunny vineyards which produce most of Morocco’s wine. We knew some of them beore we got here, (even Windsor has a Moroccan restaurant) but we decided to try our luck down-market - and got as far as the Gerouane - red, white, rosé or gris (a near-rosé) - without problems. One of these would cost you 32dh - a whole £2 - but our favourite red is still the Domaine du Sahari Reserve, costing an outrageous 63dh, or £4. We found the answer to what happens to empty bottles: they go in the poubelle - there are no facilities for recycling them. But it still hurts.

It was like missing an open goal and I blew it. Our American friends who live in an eagle’s nest, high above Villefranche, are often telling us that they’ve seen (100-miles-away) Corsica - while we who spend our lives down in the town haven’t seen it since the mid-eighties. But the other day they mailed to say that they saw Elba.
It was probably the only time in my life I’ll have the opportunity to say “And are you now able?”, and I didn't.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Fes please

We took the comfortable four-hour train trip to Fes. It’s the oldest of the ancient imperial cities - founded in the ninth century by the great-grandson of Mohammed himself, and from what we could see, not much changed.
In fact there are at least two Feses. When the French took over after 1912, the enlightened French Governor, Hubert Lyautey, decided to leave the old medieval Fes untouched and to build the new French colonial city outside of the old town. (Edith Wharton was so taken with Lyautey that she dedicated her book, In Morocco, to him.) There are only three kilometres between the old town and the new, but the difference is striking: one modern, prosperous, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, fountains and pavement cafes; the other the seething Medina, the ancient Arab quarter - the quarter is ancient, not the Arabs - its narrow streets so winding and undulating that it’s impossible, even with a compass and solar navigation, to keep one’s bearings for more than a few minutes. It doesn’t help, either, that the streets and landmarks are hardly ever labelled, or if they are, it’s in some Jackson Pollock-like script like the product of a leaky paint tin. Your only hope is that some ten-year-old kid will take pity on you and ask what you are looking for. Then the challenge is to remember the name of the mosque (of which there are over 400) that you were so confident of remembering when you read about it the previous evening.
Such is the topography of the Medina that the only practicable means of transport is donkey-powered. Sad-looking - but then, what have they got to laugh about? - spindly-legged donkeys and mules squeeze by, almost invisible under their huge loads, while recumbent on top of it all is the animal’s owner. When Napoleon called the English “a nation of shopkeepers”, he obviously hadn’t seen Morocco. The souks consist of miles upon miles of tiny stalls, their size seeming still to fit Mark Twain’s description when he was here in the 1860s: “about that of an ordinary shower-bath in a civilised land” (in Twain's view there was only one civilised land). Every fourth shop seems to be a shoe store - just like the shopping malls at home except that there’s not a chain store in sight.
Among the seething crowds of locals, tourists are comparatively rare - but they’re there, in their M & S chinos and Panama hats, Indian-filing behind their guide like baby ducklings. As a group passed us, someone called out the first English words we'd heard in three weeks: “donkey-poo”. And the warning was passed down the line: “donkey-poo, everybody”.
Most people wear floor-length, hooded djellabahs, the men's woollen, those of the women - in scarves but not veils - lighter-coloured and more decorative, and the girls wear smaller replicas. The young guys wear baseball caps and football shirts bearing names like Beckham and Ronaldinho.
But I never saw anyone wearing a Fez.