Monday, December 25, 2017

Liberalism: what a great idea it was. Wonder whether it will make a comeback? You can’t really tell, can you

A few days ago, the EU announced it would be instituting disciplinary measures against Poland in view of new measures signed into law by its president Andrzej Duda. These 13 new laws would make it very easy indeed for the government pretty much to take over the country’s judiciary, appoint all the judges and run the courts as it likes. Poland’s government is, at present, formed by the nationalist Law & Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS) which two and a half years ago won 37pc of the vote against the 24pc won by the Civic Platform, the main opposition party, and has a 4 seat majority in parliament. Civic Platform, which is as pro-European as PiS is anti- might, of course, regain power at the next general election and choose to overturn those new laws.

On the other hand, it might not, though many Poles took to the streets to protest against the new laws. If things get worse and Poland doesn’t do the EU’s bidding, the next step is for the EU to suspend Poland’s voting rights. Ominously, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, another nationalist with an eye on the main chance rather than fair play, has promised to oppose the EU over the matter.

Elsewhere in the EU, a member state has, for only the second time in the EU’s existence, a far-right party in government. In Austria, the far-right Freedom party is in a ruling coalition with the centre-right People’s party and was given the defence, foreign affairs and internal affairs portfolios, arguably three of the four most important portfolios in any government, and althought the Freedom party governed in coalition between 2000 and 2005, that was crucially before the financial shenanigans of 2008 and subsequent — one might even suggest consequent — increase in support for nationalist parties throughout Europe.

An article in the New Statesman last March highlighted the rise of the nationalist far-right in Europe and charts to progress of parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, Jobbik in Hungary (further to the right than Orban’s Fidesz, which is already rather further right and ‘centre-right’ might imply), Golden Dawn in Greece, the Front National in France, The Finns in Finland, the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party and the Swiss People’s Party. This graphic from a BBC report on the rise of nationalism in Europe is illuminating.

This is now, as 2017 turns into 2018. So cast your minds back 20 years to October 1997 when the EU’s Treaty of Amsterdam was signed and to pretty much all observers the EU was sailing in supreme triumph into an eternally golden future. The liberal values at the core of the idea of a European Union had finally triumphed, it was felt by many, although certainly not by all.

Yet those few sceptics were regarded almost universally as reactionaries, oddball naysayers, cranks, malcontents who might very likely be expected to object even to the Second Coming of Christ, men and women who just ‘did not get it’. Arguably, the — pretentious word alert! — Zeitgeist in the late-Nineties was that liberalism had finally been consolidated in Europe. This was it: on all fronts — economically, culturally, socially, morally — progress and the liberal values of progressives were triumphing and the rise of the EU — the institution, the more starry-eyed euro-zealots declaimed, which had ensured peace in Europe for the past 40 has played and was playing no small part in that triumph. But as I say, that was then, this is now. And I wonder what the British historian Herbert Butterfield would have made of the then apparent to all triumph of liberalism.

NB Later - 27/12/2017: This might illuminate matters a little. From the UK’s Guardian.
. . .

A few years ago, I came across, or rather heard about, The Whig Interpretation Of History by Butterfield (pictured). The link was a 30-minute talk by a well-known political journalist called Simon Heffer, a Conservative
and, I don’t doubt, a man who would not in the slightest be upset to be described as reactionary, though it would be unfair to call him a ‘right-winger’ as some do and thereby already rather muddy the waters. In my view the terms ‘right-wing’ and ‘right-winger’ are rather uselessƒ in the context of British politics (rather, that is, than in European politics) in that there is any number of different – I won’t say definitions – but notions on what constitutes ‘the right-wing’. For example, the main body of the Tory party might by some be described as ‘right-wing’ if Labour, the usual opposition, is described as ‘left-wing’.

On the other hand all too often here Britain when many hear the description of ‘right-wing’,  their thoughts pretty much immediately turn to believing that it is just code for ‘fascism’ and they suspect that those described as ‘right-wingers’ are to all intents and purposes ‘fascists’. Those ‘fascists’, though, the explanation goes, are disinclined to show their true colours because ‘fascism’ isn’t ever popular in Britain, except with those who shave their heads (and, oddly, are often ostensibly and ostentatiously homophobic but in fact closet gays. But I don’t want to side-track myself). I most certainly doubt that even though the most reactionary Tory would have much truck with out-and-out fascism. So in that sense describing someone as ‘right-wing’ could well be very misleading.

I once recorded in this blog that my father, possibly a life-long member of Britain’s secret services rather than a life-long BBC journalist or equally possibly not at all and merely someone who, by his own admission a few short years before his death in 1991, ‘helped out’ the secret services on occasion, described me as ‘dangerously liberal.’ I was about 30 at the time, and a young, rather immature 30 at that, and was very amused to be thought such. I imagined there could be nothing at all wrong with ‘being liberal’ (and I mean it with a small ‘l’) in that ‘being liberal’ was synonymous with being tolerant, being open to new ideas, not slavishly holding on to the past, being aware of other cultural norms, accepting that even if the views of others contradicted ones own, they were (unless wholly outlandish) worthy of being taken seriously. I still think those values hold true, but I don’t think they are necessarily ‘liberal’.

I think I now understand what my father meant: that a certain thoughtless laissez faire liberalism can lead to gullibility if one is not careful; that a generalised and non-critical acceptance of much can, if you are not careful, make you wide open to political exploitation and to becoming what Vladimir ‘Vlad the Lad’ Lenin (who was no political slouch whatever you think of his politics) described as ‘useful idiots’. For the record I don’t think I have moved a jot from the position I then held as, in my father’s view, ‘dangerously liberal’, but I do like to think – or at the very least hope – I am not, or better no longer, too gullible and can spot a political wrong ‘un as best as the next man.

I once asked my father what he was politically, and he told me he was a ‘right-wing radical’. I didn’t know what he meant than and almost 30 years down the line I still don’t. What, I asked myself then and still ask myself can a man who was most certainly not in the slightest bit ‘fascist’ mean by that description. And that is partly because the term ‘right-wing’ is distressingly vague.

As I say, my father was most certainly no fascist, but despite an essential kindness in his nature, he wasn’t the most tolerant chap, either, especially when it came to the political views of others if they were contrary to his. But as he died in 1991, and as I was still then rather less intellectually assured and confident than I am now, I didn’t seek out any political discussions with him. They would most certainly have ended in rows, not least because my father would have picked me up on some grammatical solecism of which I was then and probably still am guilty or making.

. . .

Broadly, and such dichotomies in general discussion are most certainly broad, there would seem to be a distinction between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’ in politics as in many other spheres. And broadly viewing the world in such a way is simplistic verging on nonsensical. Many who regard themselves as ‘progressive’ are often anything but. And often those regarded as ‘reactionary’, who perhaps see themselves protecting their country, their society and their against thoughtless change for the sake of change are often on individual issues rather progressive.

An example here in Britain might be that it was ironically a Tory government which first introduced civil partnerships and then marriage between those of the same sex – ‘gay marriage’ – where incidents of homophobia have occurred among those ‘on the left' (as well as, allegedly, anti-Semitism). But undeniably there are many ‘reactionaries’ who are intent on conserving the status quo solely because that is in their best interests and everyone else can go hang. Similarly many ‘progressives’ really do want to change society in ways to end discrimination against those who hitherto have had a pretty raw deal. But I must repeat, a broadbrush distinction between ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’ is at best useless and at worst dangerous.

As I understand him (and that is a necessary caveat) Butterfield objected to the view among many of his fellow historians that history was simply an unstoppable and necessary progression towards a brighter, better world (and I suspect it would be hard to deny that was exactly what ‘progressive liberals’ felt in the heady days in October 1997 when the EU Amsterdam Treaty was signed). Specifically Butterfield objected that many of his fellow historians judging the incidents and occurrences in history by their contemporary standards. No, he said (I think), we must see history in context and in the context of then contemporary morals, values and standards. A short book I read recently while on holiday last week in Morocco called A Very Short Introduction To The First World War might well be a case in point.

These series of Very Short Introductions are useful and very worthwhile in that they can give you an overview of a topic, and the so far 140-strong series covers many disparate subjects. And once you have an overview, a practical context, you can go on into greater detail. In the case of the First World War a broad and common view is that it was pretty much a case of a militaristic Germany with a view to far greater dominance starting the war and well-meaning Britain, France and eventually the United States putting paid to its ambitions. Well, as the man said, up to a point, Lord Copper

 It was, instead, the result of many factors, not least European countries fulfilling what they regarded as their obligations under already formed alliances, but also all participants, not least Britain, primarily protecting their international interests. And, as far as I am concerned, dishonesty ruled all round. Pretty much everyone, from the Brits to the Krauts to the Imperial Russians to the, by then disintegrating, Austro-Hungarian empire, thought they were in the right and would win and that they were following their ‘national destiny’. Shame that it cost the lives of several million ordinary saps to prove them wrong. But were you to ask anyone today what lead to that conflict and they are bound to revert to the ‘Brits, French and Yanks standing up to Germany’. But that is to view that conflict in hindsight using contemporary standards (though I must concede the the Germans did behave appallingly when they went for France by invading neutral Belgium).

. . .

Butterfield was only 14 when the First World War broke out and wrote his pamphlet, which is pretty much all it was, The Whig Interpretation Of History in 1931 when he was still relatively young.  He has his critics, and here is one, though notably two cheers is better than one or even none at all.

I should confess immediately that although after I heard Heffer’s talk on Radio 4, I ordered the book, but apart from starting it I didn’t get very far. It is very densely argued. But I do believe I get his drift and must admit that instinctively rather than intellectually – I am most certainly not intellectual – I am rather drawn to what I believe he wanted to say. It seems to me that for every new ‘good’ achieved, a new ‘bad’ is likely to be introduced. It’s as though for every step forward we take, we also tend to take a step back.

From our vantage point of affluence and privilege we like to think we are creating a ‘better’ world. Well, ask the families of those who have been killed in South America and Mexico as victims of the various drug cartels providing the affluent West with cocaine – the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands over the years – whether life is getting better. It would be interesting, although admittedly impossible, to know how many lives were lost for each toot of coke sniffed by our Western yuppies.

I suspect that Mr Butterfield made a good point. And I suspect he would have felt that his views were not only vindicated by the unexpected, by many, reversal in the fortunes of European liberalism, but it might even rather have amused him after all that triumphalist huffing and puffing.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Final day and I read up on Scott of the Antarctic as I prepare myself for flight cancellations, icy roads and war stories. At least we didn’t get those here in Morocco, though it did rain all afternoon. Now it’s off to the loo. If you want to know why (though I’m sure you’ve guessed – that’s right ice in a drink) read on

Morocco – Day Five (or Six, I’ve lost count): Marrakesh

You might have heard, and perhaps you are interested, but I suspect you have neither heard and nor are you particularly interested. But Manchester United – my team – lost 1-2 to Manchester City this afternoon. OK, I’m supposed to say City beat United, but given the state of the Premier League table, United have blown a very good chance to be realistic challengers to City for the title.

They began the day just eight points behind and a win would have cut the lead to five. Now they are 11 points behind and catching up doesn’t just mean they must carry on playing well, but, crucially, City must lose at least four games (or draw even more) and that, dear friends is as unlikely as me being named in the starting line-up for United.

One consolation is that Chelsea who are breathing down United’s neck for the challengers spot only drew today and are still three points behind United, they could well have done with three points rather than one. But if United lose one and Chelsea play well, that lead can be cut in 90 minutes. Liverpool in fourth place and five points behind United also drew their match against city rivals Everton, and they, too, will be kicking themselves that the dropped two potential points. But enough about football.

. . .

Back in Marrakesh and at the same hotel (so that means more football tomorrow, but nuff about that as I promised). The trip from Casablanca was painless really and driving out it struck me what a rather scruffy city Casablanca is where much of Marrakesh is smarter. But as my brother-in-law’s sister (which makes her my Schwippschwägerin – the Germans really do have a word for everything) pointed out pretty much every port city is scruffy, even Hamburg, in the north of a country which is largely not scruffy.

We are promised that night of ‘folklore’ tonight and as the occasion doubles up as supper, I think I shall have to go along. Our first stop once we had reached Marrakesh was a trip to the Kasbah to an authentic (well, I suppose it is, and I have no way of knowing) Morrocan chemist. The emphasis is on herbs and after a long rundown on what different mixtures of herbs do, medically, cosmetically and in the kitchen, the hard sell began. And I rather suspect that that was the point of it all.

Then it was inspected the nearby ‘Saadian Tombs’ (the inverted commas are intended to convey that I had never before heard of them and wish to avoid any suggestion that I am showing off). After lunch (a beer in my case, alcohols being available but certainly not readily, mainly in hotels and some restaurants and many cafes don’t sell it at all) it was off to view the Bahia Palace which we were told was intended to be the greatest palace of all time. Then it was back to the hotel and the, er, football. I rather miscalculated and only saw the end of the first half and the second half as I thought the game was staring at five. It wasn’t it was four.
. . .
We have a very good Moroccan tour guide who speaks excellent German, though he says he learnt his German in Morocco and has never even been to Germany, and I – we, I suppose – picked up one or two obscure facts. For example, although it is a quite conservative country and most Moroccans are practising Muslims, it isn’t half as hardline as other Islamic countries. So, for example, many Moroccans tend to get rat-arsed on homemade fig liquor and will climb into their cars pissed out of their heads and drive home (or even drive their lorries while pissed).

The police, though, turn something of a blind eye and only intervene if a drunk driver is involved in a crash. They drink by sitting in cafes apparently enjoying litre of two of lemonade. It is, however, laced with the homemade hooch and everyone – I’m told, I am only repeating what the guide told us – knows. The point about seeming to drink lemonade is not just once of discretion, but so that children don’t know what they are up to and are set a good example. At closing time, they roll off home and are left undisturbed by the police unless they make trouble and the police are called.

Day Seven: Marrakesh

I’ve rather lost count of what day it is but does it matter? Does it fuck. The evening of folklore was as authentic as I suspected, although the musicians were good. The food was, more or less for the first time in a week of euro-tourist cuisine Moroccan and very tasty too. Our two waitresses were not at all to pleased to see us, scowling doesn’t begin to describe it and at one point one literally threw a fork on the table. But I really can’t blame her: one of the guys sitting at our table made a hell of a fuss when he was brought the wrong wine and insisted on returning it for the one he ordered.

OK, you might say, but I don’t. We are guests in their country and guests have just as many obligations as hosts if not one or two more. I have already described the troops of German, French, Spanish and South Korean tourists trailing around getting in everyone’s way, pointing their cameras and clicking off at pretty much everyone and everything with any regard for the nicety we were all told about that Moroccans, and Muslims as well, especially the womenfolk just don’t like having their picture taken. I felt embarrassed to be part of such a troop, but then I’ve been banging that drum for the past few entries already so maybe I should just shut up.

We might sometimes have been a tad chilly here, it is December after all, and it might have pissed with rain all afternoon, but things are worse in Old Blighty and although I have checked into my BA flight from Düsseldorf to Heathrow tomorrow, I might find it will be cancelled. But what the hell, I’m not due back at work until next
Sunday. My brother and I did bow out of this morning’s jollities. I had a great lie-in and then did fuck-all else for the rest of the day and feel all the better for it. My sister and I have latterly suffered a little from a gyppy tummy, and I think I caught a bug because I forgot to order a whisky without ice. And ice is, of course, not made from bottled water. Who would do such a thing?

. . .

I have been asking myself just why I am so antipathetic to gangs of Germans as opposed to the many excellent and very pleasant individuals I know and cherish. I think it has something to do with their insistence that everything must be schőn and the continuous welter of platitudes they are apt to spout. I smile and say nothing, but it does get very wearing. I know the Brits have similar irritating traits, though I shan’t list them here and spoil my evening.

So there you have it. As I say there is still excitement on the horizon in that I really don’t know whether I shall make North Cornwall and home as planned by lunchtime on Wednesday or not. And even if I am not obliged through a cancellation or extreme delay to suffer a night at Düsseldorf airport, I shall still be obliged to negotiate four hours of icy roads and motorways. And there, my stomach has rumbled again, signalling that things are still not all over in the tummy department. But thankfully I am just minutes from a gents, so I think it’s time for another whisky, only 50 dirham (£4), good value in that the measures here, as pretty much everywhere else in the world don’t consists as in Britain of enough spirits barely to wet the bottom of your glass.

I was going to indulge in a little gentle character assassination of my dear younger brother, but as he isn’t here to defend himself, I shall only note that in his old age (60 next June 10) he is becoming a tad eccentric. You wouldn’t notice anything if you met him, but I have known him for almost 60 years so, well, I do. Pip, pip.

PS Just read this in the Guardian:

Astronomers are to use one of the world’s largest telescopes to check a mysterious object that is speeding through the solar system for signs of alien technology. The Green Bank telescope in West Virginia will listen for radio signals being broadcast from a cigar-shaped body which was first spotted in the solar system in October. The body arrived from interstellar space and reached a peak speed of 196,000 mph as it swept past the sun.

Less of it in my next entry, I promise.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

It’s all pretty much a blur consisting of yet more hours travelling by coach, topped off with an utterly futile search on my own for a cigar shop which might exist or might just be a 1,001 Arabian nights myth

Morocco – Day Five: Rabat/Casablanca

To be honest, I could almost not be bothered to write this entry detailing today’s goings on as not much really happened. And I am even having trouble recalling the itinerary. We started a the usual take-off time of 8.30am on the dot, and given the flexible timetable of the rest of the day, I can’t quite understand the insistence on utterly punctual departures except that that is how the Germans like it and would feel distinctly out of sorts if any kind of laxity crept into the proceedings.

As I have already admitted, I am very German in some ways – I am as direct as they are, which to British ears sounds horribly like tactlessness, and if you ask a German his opinion, he or she will give it to you and if you don’t like, well, you did ask. They are not at all folk for the kind of sugary and, to be frank, often downright dishonest beating about the bush the Brits make their own. But in other ways I am as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pud. I like to go my own way if I want to and if that causes ructions, well, so be it.

For example, I am down to my last four La Paz Wilde Cigarros and at the hotel here in Casablanca (OK, I’m jumping ahead a bit, but – well, what the hell) I asked reception whether there was a tobacconists nearby who sold cigars. Yes, he said, turn right, go down the road and you will come to a square. It’s on the left of the square. Well, that’s what he said, but why I don’t know.

The square was jam-packed, it’s Saturday night, with honking traffic and folk of all ages, young children even, everywhere, but search as I might, I didn’t find a tobacconists a la gauche. I wandered around, asked several people in my best abysmal French ‘pour un magasin qui vente les cigares’, oh, just down there, on the right, on the left, first left, second right and on and on. I searched high and low, all the time trying to keep my bearings – who wants to get lost in Casablanca on a Saturday night with very, very little French and no Arabic to speak of – but could find nothing. Finally, I came back mission utterly unnacomplished. But, the inevitable but, for the first time in several days I was on my own, wandering around and seeing the sights a little rather than trailing around with a gang of tourists. And I rather enjoyed it, trivial as it might seem. But back to the itinerary.

First stop was Rabat where we all dismounted and took a look at the king’s palace, though from afar. And no pictures of the members of the army, navy, air force and police standing guard. Then, or before, I really can’t remember, we inspected the mausoleum of Hassad II, the current king’s dad. Then it was back on to the coach and down the motorway to here, Casablanca. Once here, we dismounted again somewhere and – I am not being cute or trying to be clever – I just can’t recall what it was we inspected this time. Something, anyway.

Anyway, here we are at the Almo Hades Hotel where for me the highlight was marvelling at the extremely colourful garb of the women in a party of Senegalese tourist group. Driving from Meknes to Rabat and then Casablanca it was once again apparent what a very green country Morocco is. As I said yesterday my first impression, gained while driving to Marrakesh from Agadir of a rather barren arid country was very wrong.

And that’s your lot for now, I’m afraid. Courtesy of a browser plugin called Zenmate, which allows you to seem as if you are on the net from many other countries (in this case Old Blighty) I shall now sign off and tune into BBC One’s Match of the Day. And along those lines tomorrow, bugger what’s on the timetable, has just one task for me: to seek out a TV somewhere in the hope that it is showing the Manchester United v Manchester City match. A must, I’m afraid. I do know that a supper of Moroccan food is planned with and exhibition of ‘folklore’. Well, count me out. That kind of thing has done bugger all for me in the past, and I can’t think tomorrow will be any different. I’d much prefer mooching around and see real Moroccans.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nothing much more, keeping in faith with the title of this blog (possibly a touch twee?) and so just a few more details of day’s goings on, including an interesting visit to a city’s ruins

Morocco – Day Four: Meknes (Where, you ask? Well, bloody look it up. Don’t you have Google maps?)

OK, it’s getting late, I’ve spent another 48 hours on a coach, inspected a Roman ruin and generally been the cultural angel, I’ve had two bottles of Casablanca lager and helped polish off two bottles of Moroccan wine, so forgive me please if a little kindness creeps into this account. The wine, by the way, was not half bad, and compares quite well with its peers from Spain, France and Italy. And if that makes it sound as though I think I know a thing or two about wine, let me reassure you that the only thing I know about wine is when one is crap panther piss (and I’ve bought quite few bottles of that in my time) and when it isn’t.

Tonight we are in a town/city called Meknes, about 70km to the south-west of Fes, reknown our guide tells us, as being the centre of Moroccan wine production. I didn’t even know the Moroccans produe wine, but hence our choice at supper.

We didn’t drive here directly, but stopped off at the ruins of Volubilis, and although I called it a Roman ruin, it was, in fact, a rather large city of 10,000 which existed for about 1,000 years, from the 3rd century BC until the beginning of the 14th century, and the Romans only ‘had’ it for about 400 of the of those years. It started out as a Berber city, was then Roman, and a few hundred years after they abandoned it, the Muslim Arabs arrived and took charge. But don’t take my word for it, look up – as, of course, I did, cos I didn’t actually know anything at all about the city before today – this entry here.

I’ve got to admit I’m a sucker for ruins, whether Roman, Norman castles, or the range of castles my brother and I visited in France a few years ago. It helps, of course, that these days they are excavated well and plenty of info is given in little plaques here, there and everywhere when you visit them. Years ago I visited the castle at Caernafon in North Wales, and I you like castles, go there. Even far smaller castles like the on at Villandraut which is close to where my stepmother’s sister lives south of Bordeaux and which I have visited several times is worth a look. That’s if you like castles, of course. If you don’t, well . . .

I’ve got to say, I’m enjoying this week, although I know full well that it is the last as well as the first time I shall go on a touring coach trip. It’s not just the organised culture of it all, where I far prefer nosing around to see where I might end up and be surprised, or the, as I put it yesterday rather starkly and perhaps unfairly, somewhat voyeuristic nature of this kind of tourism. It’s the bloody travelling around by coach which I haven’t at all taken to.

We have, however, seen a little more, or a lot more, or rural Morocco and my initial impression, gained while travelling from Agadir to Marrakesh and the early part of our bloody interminable journey from Marakesh to Fes (and I’m still not sure whether that should be Fez) that it is an arid and barren country is wholly wrong. Further north, and the further you get from Agadir, the more fertile the country is, and then some. Dark earth where the Moroccans grow their vegetables and fruit, and the mile upon mile of olive trees tell me that I was quite wrong.

. . .

I have already written an entry, composed on the flight over, on a historian chappie called Herbert Butterworth, his book The Whit Interpretation Of History and how I am inclined, like Simon Heffer whose radio broadcast on him and it first brought it to my attention, to think that Butterworth had a point, but I shan’t publish it here for a week or two, mainly because I haven’t finished it. I add that because having complete the above, I notice I had still only written just over 500 words, and we can’t have that, can we. If I am unable to waffle on for at least 1,200/1,500 the world must surely be coming to an end. Well, it isn’t, and I like to think I am not daft enough to carry on with more inconsequential waffle just to make up the numbers.

So, there you have it, tonight’s entry. No piccies, I’m afraid, because today I used my camera and didn’t bring with me the cable to transfer them to my laptop. Tomorrow it’s Rabat. So goodnight and . . .

Except to say, I had a very interesting dream two nights ago which I shall make work for me. I shan’t say anything else except to ask you to look out for Emily. Means, nothing to you, does it? Well, it means something to me, and as long as I remember the dream and can reconstruct its essense, that’s all I ask. Oh, and also to write something like 60,000 words.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A five-hour schlepp around the souk reminds me that a souk is a souk is a souk. And I am persuaded not to waste my money on a de luxe camel leather bag, and that the difference between £9.10 and £101 is a rather hefty £91.90

Morocco – Day Three: Fes

In May I was in Israel for a week and spent a day in Jerusalem, where after visiting the Wailing Wall, I headed into the souk. It was my first visit to any souk anywhere. A few days later, after driving into Jaffa and realising that it wasn’t really the city for simply following your nose and wandering around, I took of to Acre, about 14 miles to the north, and after eating a tasty lunch right on the waterside, I headed back to the car via Acre’s souk.

Today our battalion of tourists jumped onto our coach and after a brief stop at some palace or other, we headed for Fes’s old city and spent the next four hours trailing around its souk. And I have to say, risking accusations of being an old philistine, it seems to me that once you have seen one souk, you have pretty much seen them all. My sister, who lived in Istanbul for several years, tells me that the souk there is something else, and I don’t doubt it. But that not withstanding, I don’t think I shall be rushing to join the queue to visit yet another. If you haven’t been to a souk, by all means take yourself off and inspect one, and I’m sure your first will impress you. Your second less so. This was my third.

Fes’s souk has the usual rundown of tiny butchers, tiny ‘shops’ selling olives or spices or vegetables. There were tradesman galore, working in wood, in copper, in leather, in this and in that, there was more than any number of men young and old hawking leather wallets, purses, bracelets and caps, though it occurs to me as I write that I didn’t see any shops selling electrical equipment, irons, sound systems, that kind of thing. The one in Jerusalem did (plus and extraordinary amount of cheap religious tat being offered as severely high prices

We spent some time a rather large leather tannery, gazing down from the windows of one of the showrooms in to a large courtyard of any number of vats where the hides of animals were stripped of their hair, treated with quicklime and pigeon poo to soften them up, washed, dyed, then worked into various items, bags, jackets, satchels, trousers and I don’t know what else. On the way in we were each hand a sprig of mint to help us overcome the smell, but to be honest it wasn’t at all bad. Anyone who has taken a leak in any rural British pub, pissing into a shallow trough caked in urea crystals will know the smell, and in terms of offensiveness, the pub gents were often far worse. Sadly, for visitors to Old Blighty wanting to gain an authentic impression of Olde England, especially its traditional smells, you will hardly find such a gents (US ‘rest room) anymore now that health and safety have taken hold and insisted – against tough opposition it must be said – on better hygiene. And let’s thank them for that.

Ever since the man bag I had bought myself in a street market in Mallorca was stolen from my car two weeks later in a London square (and don’t knock them, for the convenience of carrying various items you seem to want to need while on holiday, a man bag takes some beating. Sod machismo), I have wanted another, so my sister and I wandered off to one of the many showrooms at the tannery to inspect those intended for men.

We were immediately given the hard sell, the plain unadorned one which caught my eye being lauded to high heaven as the best quality camel leather money could buy. ‘How much,’ I asked. ‘130,’ the man replied. ‘100,’ I said. ‘115,’ I replied, thinking that I could probably beat him down further, but what the hell. At that point my sister took me to one side and insisted it was far too much. What I had not realised was that the price was in euros, not Moroccan Dirham, so not the £9.10 my bargain might have been, but £101. ‘You can get them for much less,’ she assured me. But more hard sell ensued and it took a while to persuade the guy that there would be no sell. Oh, and barely ten minutes later when the showroom’s main man gave a general talk about the leather used and so on, he proudly told us that they only used lamb, pig and sheep skin, never camel.

Once we had left the tannery and its showrooms, it was on to the workshops of other craftsmen and it slowly became apparent – well, slowly to me – that we were not being guided here and there to admire the skill of the various Moroccan craftsmen, but to buy stuff. I’m not against buying stuff in the slightest, but I’m the boring sort that has come to mistrust the impulse purchases which were so much a feature of my younger days.

. . .
To be honest, the whole souk tour rather swiftly became something of a schlepp, and I was glad when finally, about seven hours later (with a one-hour break) we returned to our hotel. It was also a bit dispiriting to realise that whatever benefits tourists – I have to say under the circumstances ‘we tourists’ as I was part of one of several gangs trooping around the souk and getting in the way of Moroccans doing their shopping, coming home from school and trying to deliver goods through the narrow alleyways – that we are not quite as welcome was we affluent northern Europeans (and a troop of South Korean tourists) seem to imagine.

As I have already remarked, I am really not one for going around in organised groups, but prefer, as on my visit to Israel in May, to be on my own. For one thing, and there is no other way I can put this although it might be too harsh a description, there seems to be something essentially voyeuristic about this kind of tourism, rather like 18th century Londoners enjoyed trips to Bedlam – the Bethlehem hospital for the ‘mad’ – to gawp and laugh at the loonies. Yes, I know I am overegging the cake a little, but I can’t deny I feel that way. When I go abroad, I like to visit a country and see it as it is and perhaps meet some of its people. Yet these organised tourist trips seem almost to achieve the opposite: to see less well-off tourist countries as better-off countries would like them to be. Not for me, chums.

The same kind of sensitivity affects my picture taking. I just don’t like pointing my camera at people and snapping away as though they were merely some kind of exhibit. The upshot is that I tend mainly to take pictures of objects and buildings, and when I do take a picture of someone, I ask them first. Fair enough, but then they tend to pose and the resulting picture is not much good at all and is nowhere near the picture you would like to take. So far I can’t see a way around it.

Tomorrow, it’s off somewhere else, but I can’t say off hand. I know that Rabat, Casablance and a place called Meknes are on the itinerary but which we will head for first I really don’t know. I know I could do with one or two rest days, doing fuck-all for as long as I feel like it, but that isn’t part of the plan. So I shall be a brave soldier and carry on. Still, no Champions League tonight, so it can be an early bath and bed before 9pm (or something like that).

. . .

Since writing the above, I have just found more information about Morocco on the web, following a Google search, and it seemed to confirm an impression I got while trooping around the souk. It was that for every friendly Moroccan, there seemed to be two or three who, although not necessarily unfriendly, did not seem at all pleased by the rabble of tourists choking up the souk. What at first seemed an unimportant impression, possibly a misleading impression, gained a little more of my attention when I was apparently barged into by a teenage Moroccan girl who was coming towards me arm-in-arm with her mother.

This was in the crowded souk, so I thought no more about it. I turned and apologised, but did not get a reciprocal acknowledgment, rather more of a sullen one, as in ‘you should be more careful’. Later, no longer in the souk and walking towards our coach chatting to our tour guide on a less than crowded street, I again bumped into someone, a man in a green djellababa or asleham. Again I turned around to apologise, but the man did not turn around and just walked on. Then I realised that the incident had not been my fault, for although I was turned to the tour guide while talking to him and was not looking ahead of me, there was more than ample room for the guy to walk past without a slight collision. Yet a slight collision there was, and I could only assume it was intentional.

. . .

One last thing: it is bloody cold here in Fes. OK, not as cold as the unimaginably appalling Arctic conditions our gutter press are rather gleefully predicting will afflict Britain over the coming days – temperatures plummeting to -1C and commuters being warned to expect contending with at least 2cm of snow on their roads to work – but distinctly chilly. I opted to bring a pullover with me, expecting the others in my party to subject me to a barrage of ribaldry over my wimpishness.

Well, that hasn’t happened as they are just as chilled as I am and have retreated to their rooms for a little warmth. I am now wearing it. Writing this, fully aware of my duty to acquaint the world with very trivial detail of the minutiae of my life and intent on fulfilling that duty come what may, I am sitting in the large lobby cum TV room cum bar cum Lord knows what else of the hotel and am grateful that about 20 minutes ago a wood fire was started.

It is now only 6.45pm (US 6.45pm) and we are all meeting up for supper at 7.30pm (US 7.30pm), but I can’t deny that I am more than keen to get upstairs, enjoy a hot bath, then crawl into bed for a long kip than, quite frankly, is decent in polite society. We Brits are expected to buckle down if need be and cross the North Pole on our hands and knees before breakfast and are rightfully proud that one or two of our national idiots have done just that. But count me out.

Tomorrow we are due to clamber aboard our coach ready to set of for our next destination at 8.30am. That’s the Germans for you. But why does it have to be so early? Finally, a couple of piccies to keep you happy, though sadly not one of the Moroccan gent who barged into me. Perhaps that’s for the best.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Day Two in which I get full permission to let the bile flow freely

Morocco – Day Two: Fes

NB I have been given carte blanche by my sister – I am here with her, her husband, her husband’s sister and my brother – to spout as much bile as I like. The reason I didn’t in my yesterday’s entry was simply diplomacy. I am here at her and my brother-in-law’s invitation to join the party, which with the exception of my sister, my brother and myself, is made up entirely of German pensioners, and if one or two of them aren’t exactly retired, they bloody well behave as though they were. So it occurred to me yesterday that to be catty – and risk upsetting my sister, who reads this blog (though not my first novel, I might add cattily) – did not seem right. But none of it: go to town, she told me this morning as in some ways she feels rather like me.

The thing is that although I am German in many ways, ways which no one meeting me, a chap who speak excellent English with an excellent RP, might suspect, there are also many ways I am not. And one of those ways is that I loathe being organised, lining up meekly to fill in forms, trooping round in gangs and all the rest. Many, though not all Germans, on the other hand, don’t mind. In fact, I rather suspect they like it and would feel rather at a loose end if there wasn’t someone around with a clipboard and a biro reciting the detailed arrangements for the coming two hours. Is that catty enough for you, Marianne?

I must say that this being a holiday, break, call it what you like in a country I have never visited before, I am rather liking it. But Lord there are some oddities about the set-up. I told you yesterday that we were all flown into Agadir in the south of the country and expected to be coached off to our hotel, for a refreshing shower and, in my case, a glass of cold lager and a cigar. But none of it. Once on the coach, we were informed of a ‘change in plan’ – we would not be staying in Agadir and instead spent the next three or four hours driving to Marrakesh. Oh, well. Today, however rather trumped it all.
It was onto the coach at the, for me, unfeasibly early hour of 8am to be taken to Fes. My brother and I (who, much to his displeasure are sharing a room) got up, joined the others for breakfast, then retired to our room to get our stuff together and duly sauntered down at 8am to get on the coach. Silly us. When Germans say be at the coach at 8am, they mean be there in very good time because the coach leave pünktlich at 8am. And as we were not there, a search party was organised to drum us up.
On the coach we were told the journey to Fes would take, oh, about six hours, but that there would be a rest break for those with weak bladders. We would also be stopping off for lunch, or rather lunch for those who had agreed to shell out a few more euros.

Six hours? Including the one hour lunchbreak, and two rest breaks of about 20 minutes each, the journey took ten hours. So, dear hearts, I have been in Morroco for two days now and have seen the back of a coach seat for most of that time, plus what can be viewed from a speeding coach taking the highways and byways of the Kingdom of Morroco.

What could be seen on the first few hours was not particularly interesting: it was all as flat as a pancake and aridly barren. The scenery perked up somewhat when we ventured into the foothills of the Atlas mountains, where the earth was darker and more fertile and the whole landscape was greener. And that was it, really. Tomorrow, it’s a less early start to see something of Fes, though I do bloody hope it is not through the window of a coach. We are staying at this hotel for another night and then it is off somewhere else to see what else we can catch sight of through the window of a coach.

Our Moroccan guide, who speaks very good German, filled us in an many details of Morroco, its culture and what else, though on more than one occasion the detail got rather confusing. As though I had some premonition of that, I had brought along with my one of the Very Short Introduction series of slim bookd, in this case a Very Short Introduction to the First World War. Now that was interesting and for the first time in my life I have been able to put together a timeline of what went on and do now have a better understanding of that horrible, horrible conflict. So coming to Morocco for eight days has not been without its charms. .

In many ways, though I should imagine not surprisingly, the landscape, both the barren bits and the rather greener bits, remind me of the part of Spain I have seen when I was visiting Seth Cardew in his potter’s bolthole north of Valencia, and Italy, especially Sicily. And I also know that however scruffy houses and apartments look from the outside, it is a very different story inside. The point is that when you live in a country where the sun beats down relentlessly for most of the year, there’s really bugger all you can do with exteriors. Paint peels and walls dry out and crumble. So best stick to making where your life inside pleasant. .

I have taken hardly any pictures seeing as I have so far seen little to take pictures of, but also because it seems Moroccans, especially their womenfolk, just don’t much like having their pictures taken. Now it’s off to bed.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Marrakesh and that beer and a smoke, but, no, not that because I no longer indulge (though I wouldn’t mind) and although my brother-in-law’s guidebook to Morocco claims pretty much everyone smokes hashish openly (and the country is its biggest producer), it isn’t actually legal and the cops are quite keen to crack down on dope-smoking tourists. Have I learned a little wisdom in my old age?

Morroco – Day One, Marrakesh.

I should actually be titling this entry Agadir, but there was a ‘change of plan’, which didn’t suit me too well. After getting up at 5.30 at my hotel in Dusseldorf to catch the 6am shuttle to the airport, I arrived in very good time, but was knackered. The reason: well, I tried to be wise and get to bed early preparing for the early start and put out my light at 10.30.

Didn’t immediately get to sleep, but then at about 11pm was wide awake when I realised I had forgotten all the sodding paperwork my brother-in-law had sent me – plane e-ticket and all the rest. So it was downstairs to reception to see whether I could print out another, as well as all the rest of the necessary bumf. Yes, they could, and they were very helpful, except that their printer wasn’t working and no one knew quite why. It took them 30 minutes to work out that no only did the their laser printer not have the toner, but it took them another 15 minutes to find a new toner cartridge.

By the time I returned to my room with all the crap I thought I would need, it was way past midnight, and with all the excitement (the polite word for bloody hassle) I didn’t seem to get to sleep at all, except that I must have done because I had a very odd, though interesting dream involving World War II British war veterans barricaded in a church where a memorial service was being held in their honour and a necessary flag was missing. Great dream but part of it entailed that ‘I must get to sleep!’. Then my alarm went. And at the airport, checking in I was assured that the bloody e-ticket wasn’t at necessary as my name was already on the system. And thank the Lord for that because my brother, he who pays great attention to detail, had forgotten to bring along his bumf, too.

The flight was, as pretty much all flights are, uneventful and as pretty much all flights are which last longer than two hours, bloody boring, though I discovered I had stored the film Glengarry Glen Ross on my iPad, so that helped somewhat (and it’s a great and highly recommended film). My one thought was to get to the hotel where we had been booked in in Agadir and settle in with a beer and a smoke. That was where the change of plan came in: we were not anymore going to stay in Agadir but would be driven by coach to Marrakesh, but it’s only a three-hour journey with a ‘rest break’. The journey, though took four and a half hours, and I never manage to sleep on buses, coaches or in cars.

Arriving here, I discovered the beer and the smoke were yet again delayed: there followed a very long-winded process of registration, eventually followed by a ‘talk’ which consisted of the tour company hoping to sell us extras. No dice in my mood. My brother thinks I have developed into a grumpy old git and he might well have a point: all I wanted to do for the past eight hours was to settle quietly into a shady corner and have that beer and smoke, and, as is increasingly likely as the years roll by, I wanted to have no one’s company but my own.

Thankfully, I finally got there.

The evening was, to my delight, rounded off with a great game of Champions League football, Bayern Munich v Paris St Germain which was only spoilt by PSG, who for some reason I found myself supporting, playing like prize dicks. With all their talent – Neymar and Dani Alves once of Barcelona are now part of their side – they still don’t have realised that the best way to win matches is not to spend as much time in their own half making dodgy passes to each other. Bayern were 2-0 quite soon, and a goal for PSG soon into the second half didn’t improve their play, and when Bayern scored an easy goal – in fact, all their goals were easy, to be frank – and won 3-1 my mood was only improved by my team, Manchester United, who were 0-1 down in Moscow against CSKA, ending their game 2-1 and conclusively top of their table. (NB Very early late correction: the game was at Old Trafford.)

Tomorrow it’s off – by coach, natch – to Fes, a journey on A roads rather than motorways, but which, we are assured will be worth it as we will be travelling through the Atlas mountains, which are said to be colourful. I hope so because the countryside we drove through from Agadir was remorselessly barren.

No piccies yet because piccies of the inside of hotels pretty much anywhere and the inside of coaches (however long the journey) don’t make for scintillating or even interesting images. But here’s a picture of some rocky in case you have forgotten.

And just for the craic, one of Lukaku scoring his first in we don’t know how long. And may he score many, many more.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Like Webster’s dictionary I’m Morocco-bound

Off to Morocco tomorrow for what is pretty much a buckshee holiday. Not quite buckshee, but £263 for seven nights in pleasant hotels, flights there and back from Düsseldorf to Agadir, then a guided tour of ‘royal palaces’ is as buckshee was you are likely to get this side of Brexit. My brother-in-law organised it after coming across a package deal which looks good value. He and my sister, his sister and my brother and I are going.

I must admit that I didn’t quite get the details right when I was first invited to join the gang – last summer – and have spent the past few months looking forward to a week of ligging, camping out by a nice pool supping an inexhaustible supply of Moroccan gin and tonics, but it was not to be. My brother alerted me to the tour element of it all a few weeks ago, and when I expressed my surprise, he chided me, in the way younger brothers can have glad to get their own back for some long-forgotten slight – well, obviously only long-forgotten by me – for ‘not paying attention to the details’. Well, I can take it.

Quite apart from having a rhino’s skin, developed by necessity I should add, my brother is the lad who, though more generous than many, spends little on himself and always has an eye out for a bargain. So not spending much of his pay working for some odd little outfit in Old Moulton St (or Great Moulton St or some such. NB Later: South Moulton St - I remembered this morning) central London, he saved enough and, crucially, invested in various shares in the early 1990s and struck gold.

For a while he thought as himself as something of a dab hand with finances and picking stocks even though I pointed out again and again that in the years he was buying the market rose and rose and rose, and pretty much everyone was quids in. Luck is more the case than skill. But the wheels came off the cart when he lent his employer, a charming Indian semi-crook called Vidia, £10,000 of the money he had made (and to this day I am astonished by the sum: he must have invested quite a bit in order to have the amount lying around waiting to be lent out. (Vidia, and I don’t know his surname or else I would give it here, also owned several old peoples’ homes – sorry, retirement communities – along the South Coast). Came the time my brother wanted his money back so he could buy a flat at auction (you can get bargains, apparently, though most need quite a bit of work), charming Vidia asked innocently: ‘What £10,000?’ Mr Attention-to-Detail had not got anything down on paper at all and was fucked big time. He never got his money back.

Still we live and learn, and we are all ill-advised to crow. I, myself, have most probably been rooked to the tune of £76 by a gang of Chinese (I would write ‘Chinks’ but I understand doing so might well land my in prison for up to five years of hard labour for racial intolerance, though the temptation is great, but wisdom will here prevail) after answering one of those many ads which seemed to be taking over Facebook. On offer was a Zoom R24 digital recorder for just £76, but with a recommended retail price of around £250. Too good to be true? Most certainly, but I went for it anyway.

In my defence I should add that I did have my suspicions and rather than paying by debit card, with the money irretrievably taken out of my bank account, I opted of using a credit card, knowing that under rather useful financial legislation here in the UK, if one is subject to fraud – which I rather think I was – I can claim the money back from the credit card company, and the hassle of getting the money from the crooks is all down to them. I discovered the seller was Chinese when I went on the credit cared company website to look at my account and spotted AIP*YUHNZJ CO of Shenzen, China. ‘Not good news,’ I distinctly remember myself thinking. ‘Thank God I listened to myself and paid by credit card.’ But, as I say, here is not the time to crow, in fact, to be frank never it the time to crow (though £76 to a gang of Chinese crooks is easier to take than £10,000 to an Indian crook. Get my drift?

. . .

The flight to Agadir leaves Düsseldorf at 08.15 on Tuesday (December 5), so I am obliged to get my arse over to Düsseldorf tomorrow and am taking the 15.50 BA flight from Heathrow. And that’s another story. It seems BA have taken to heart the lessons taught by Ryanair and passengers now pretty much have to pay for everything. ‘Will you be wanting a seat, sir? That will be another £11. Oh, and because of rising costs [funny how costs never fall] we are now obliged to charge you for the air you breathe while in flight, at £1 minute of oxygen used. And didn’t we tell you about renting the upholstery on your seat? Sorry, we should have done, and we’re sorry to inform you that the use of an upholstered seat is now a Air Transportation Agency safety requirement, so that will be another £20.’ And so it goes on. ‘Do think you might want to relieve yourself in flight, sir? Because if you do, we are now sadly obliged to charge for the use of our toilets, safety again I’m afraid. But never mind, I’m sure you will enjoy one of sandwiches from our in-flight menu, very tasty they are, too, and at just £15 for a cheese n’ pickle de luxe special well worth the price, even though we say so ourselves.
To make sure passengers shell out for as much as possible, you can now only check in 24 hours before your flight is due to leave. Bastards.

In Germany I have booked myself into a hotel barely a stone’s throw form the airport, close as I could get seeing as I shall have to be in the terminal at least two hours early to the various instructions the Germans like to give passengers. But still, a week in a place rather less damp and cold than Old Blighty is for ten months of the year, so mustn’t grumble.

. . .

After that it will be just two weeks to Christmas with all the trimmings (my wife and I are currently negotiating what we can fall out about. At the moment, it is the ‘cordless hedge trimmer’ she told me she would like when I asked her what she wanted. Fair enough, I thought, and looked up various models. You can get very good ones for about £90, but you can also push the boat out and get some for £130/150.

Shit, I thought, it is Christmas and decided to be a little more generous. Then she informed me of the one she wanted: one with an ‘extendible’ reach which will deal with all those hard to get to corners of hedges. Made by some outfit called Stihl, apparently the Rolls Royce of hedge trimmer makers, the one she has set her heart on comes in at a cool £385 – without Vat. Well, fuck me, I’m a spendthrift, but surely not that much of a spendthrift. So, in parallel to the tortuous Brexit negotiations we have reached stalemate. I’ll keep you informed.

. . .

After Christmas it will be a gentle rundown until the beginning of April when I shall finally hang up my pen and hand back my Oxford Book of Cliches and call it a day. I must admit that I am still apprehensive, despite my ambitions to keep myself out of harms way by writing the Great Cornish Novel, because push will most certainly then really come to shove.

Incidentally, my cherished den which I bragged about in the summer is now not quite as much mine as I should like as it has cunningly already been filled with prams and cots and all the rest of the paraphernalia demanded by women when they are about due to give birth to their first child.

The woman in question is my daughter, just 21, and the baby was not planned, but happily she is in a steady relationship with a pleasant and hardworking lad who is successfully setting himself up in business as a tree surgeon. But more, quite probably much more of that, another time.

Pip, pip.

. . .

BTW There is a very good joke about Noah Webster, he of the famous dictionary. Apparently, he was in his study beavering away at writing his dictionary – or so his wife thought, and decided to bring him a cup of coffee. But when she opened the door, she found him on his sofa rogering his pretty young secretary.
‘Dr Webster,’ his wife exclaimed, ‘I am surprised!’
‘No, dear,’ the good doctor responded, ‘we are surprised, you are astonished.’