Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hammam Visit

The second of my series of articles entitled 'An English girl in Morocco' was published today. This time the subject was a visit to a hammam and can be found here if anyone is interested.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Bank Holiday Weekends: Home Cooked Meals & Dog Walking

What a pleasure it is on those few Sunday evenings every year when you can actually do something safe in the knowledge that there is no work to be done on the following morning. I sit here at the computer in solitude, a few brief moments in a busy weekend. Music plays in another room and I can hear M and his brother pottering in the kitchen, snatches of conversation drifting along the corridor carried along as a spoken accent on top of Nick Cave's vocals.

I have spent the afternoon cooking, three 'generations' of women in the kitchen. Me, M's mother and M's grandmother. I helped to ice a cake, to make fresh pasta, long elegant strips of tagliatelle which were laid to dry on a teatowel in the afternoon sunshine and then helped bake a tower of profiteroles, from cooking the choux pastry to drizzling the chocolate over the creamed filled buns. I also chopped up a mountain of vegetables, peppers, corguettes, shallots, tomatoes and potatoes, to be roasted to eat alongside a fillet of beef.

This morning we went for a walk. The dog was initially a little bemused; six people do not usually accompany her for her morning walk up a large hillside and back. It was hard work, climbing up through the forest in my borrowed trainers (sandals and ugg boots were not deemed ideal footwear) and skinny jeans more at home in London than the countryside. But what a view. The forest soon gave way to hillside of grass ferns and heather and then opened out by the trig point where we stood and looked out over the Shropshire countryside towards the Welsh hills, momentarily distracted by the hang gliders floating on the thermals. It was busy at the summit though so we didn't pause for long, starting to wind our way down the path which, unsually, seemed rather more steep on the way down. We dropped back down into the forest through a path of waist height ferns and picked our way along a path littered with dry pine needles and small twigs, holding onto the trees for support as we passed, emerging finally at the bottom at the car park where we had left the car two hours previously.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

First Impressions of Marrakech

I was approached last week by a Arabic newspaper which is published in London. They asked me if they could publish something I wrote in March on my return from a trip to Morocco. Some readers may already have seen this article on this blog, but it can also be found here on the online version of the newspaper, Alarab online.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Is it worth it?

Every so often, a market research company that I am signed up to sends me a questionnaire. It always begins by asking me whether I am feeling generally positive or negative about a range of subjects. This invariably starts with personal issues, things over which I have some control. My home life, my relationship, my career and so on. Mainly I feel very positive about these. It then moves onto financial issues, the state of my neighbourhood, the state of the country and the state of the world.

And sadly, my answer to the final three is rarely anything but negative. Yes, there are positive things that I could say about them all, but usually, invariably, something has happened that week which makes me think that we do not live in a very safe or pleasant society, most of the time.

I almost cried on the tube reading about the needless death of another child, victim to selfish gun-culture. This time the child was barely into double figures; had yet to reach secondary school. And killed by another teenager. At the time of writing this, the police suspect the person responsible may be as young as 13*. It makes me so sad. Two wasted lives; on dead, one (when caught) serving a lifetime sentence in prison. And for what? Who knows what reason one boy has that is worth the cost of another boy's life.

And this incident was not isolated. 8 young people have been fatally shot in the UK so far this year. This week there have been two other incidents reported in the mainstream news involving guns being fired, not to mention the shooting of a motorcyclist on the M40 two weeks ago. How did we end up living in such a society where gun crime is so prevalent and so easy. I read today that guns change hands for as little as £50. Such a small amount of money, such an easy decision, such a devasting effect.

The question that needs addressing I suppose is why troubled teenagers are behaving in such a way; why they have such little respect for the value of life, their own and that of others that they would attack and even kill another child without, it appears, second thought? David Cameron spoke following Rhys Jones's murder, stating that he "blamed rap music bosses, lad mags, feckless fathers and the video game industry for the rise in gang violence and yobbish behaviour". I have no real answer to that but I suspect that there is a wider, deeper problem here. It is very easy to lay the blame at the foot of easy 'targets' but are they really the root of the problem. After all, plenty of boys read magazines, listen to rap music, play computer games and are being brought up by single mothers but know the value of life, of manners and do not hang around causing trouble. I would have thought that these people which David Cameron seek to blame maybe only symptoms, not the cause.

There is a boy that rides up and down my street on his bmx, his grey hoodie pulled up over his head. He doesn't sit on his bike when he peddles, he stands up, leaning to the left. He rides slowly past me, up and down the street. I find him vaguely threatening. I suspect that, far from being out to cause trouble, he is bored. I am cross with myself for finding him 'scary'. If he thinks I am scared and he is that bored, maybe one day he will try something, just to see what happens. Luckily for me, he is usually on his own. But, I suppose that, probably, he does have some friends and I suspect that on other occasions they all hang around together; bored. And then peddle up and down the streets in a pack, shouting at each other, because they have nothing else they can be bothered or interested enough to do. So they start showing off, because all little boys do, and jostling for position. And a while later, they have a leader. But round the corner is another group of equally bored little boys. And the two groups meet, start to jostle for territory this time. And soon enough they are emulating the bigger boys. And this time there is more at stake.

It concerns me that boredom is acceptable because everyone is too busy and there is not enough time and money to prevent it from taking hold. It concerns me so much that I have decided that I should do something to help. It won't be much, but I read that there are lots of boys who want to join the scouts but there are not enough leaders. They are desperate for adult volunteers. It's not much, but it's a start. And if only one or two more boys are involved in scouting in my area, that's one or two more who are not peddling their bikes up and down the street and maybe, just maybe, that is one or two more boys who will know that there is more value to life than starting wars over boredom.

*update - police have arrested a 16 year old in connection with this offence

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Remembering Morocco (5)

Again we rose early and after a small breakfast were soon back on the road, piled into the back of the Landie and brimming with excitement. That evening we would be sleeping in the Sahara Desert. But first, a visit to the Todra Gorge. In the clear sharp African sunlight the shadows are crisp and neat making the 300 metre high walls which are either side of the river appear even more majestic. Against the bright azure sky the faded red of the rock takes on a magical hue – this is a natural cathedral if ever there was.

We wander along the bank of the river and a small boy appears by my side, his eyes glinting against his dark cheeks and hair. He holds out something in his hand, which I take. It is a camel, albeit rather small and woven out of green reed. It is beautiful so I pay him and he trots off to his father, pleased with his sale. All along the side of the footpath there are people peddling their wares. Every time we pause, there is someone by our side. We return to the Landie and climb inside. We are obviously not the only ones with this idea as when I turn round to watch the gorge disappear from view I am surprised to find a boy hanging off the back ladder, his eyes level with mine through the rear window. Laughing, he drops off the back as we turn left towards the desert.

We spend the rest of the day driving ‘cross country’, our vehicles taking it in turns to chase each other across the flat desert which stretches in every direction as far as the eye can see, bordered by the Atlas mountains in the distant distance. The sand is orangy and dust flies up in huge plumes behind the Landies as they speed across the ground. We have to drive next to each other as to drive in convey would be nigh on impossible. We race. I feel as if we are on an important mission.

And then, finally, we reach Merzouga. The last outpost before the Erg Chebbi sand seas. It is from this small village that our Berber guide, Omar, is from. He leads us between small houses and we stop at a shop. Some of our party purchase desert scarves – M and I had already stocked up in the souks at Marrakesh. And then, as the afternoon sunshine began to creep towards evening, we went to meet our camels.

Six camels, in a caravan, ropes threaded through their noses. “Hush” says their leader to each in turn and they kneel down, awkwardly, one knee at a time. We pack the saddle bags with firewood, water and Berber drums and pose for one last photograph against the backdrop of the camels. Each of the party is assisted in turn onto a camel and the camel is instructed to rise. Which it does, again, one knee at a time, so for an instant you feel as if you are going to topple off forward and then sideways and then suddenly you are several feet in the air. Their backs are warm and they are furry. Much more woolly than I ever imagined.

I am sat on the leader of the caravan. His rope is held by a Berber camel driver and he leads the train across the sands into the desert. The sun is still warm but dropping over the horizon. The shadows are crisp and clear although lengthening. The sand is redder than I thought and our shadows lay over the dunes. It is quiet and beautiful and so peaceful. The camels footsteps do not make much noise against the shifting sand and the repetitive swinging of their backs is somehow rather comforting. There is very little other wildlife in this part of the Sahara; scarab beetles are perhaps all that I see other than some tiny green scrubby plants. The beetles are quite large and shiny and visible even from the back of a camel. They leave tiny footprints behind them as if the teeniest four wheel drive vehicle had driven in circles along the tops and sides of the dunes.

I sit there and my mind drifts. It is so quiet. In my minds eye I see Count Almasy stumbling along, desperate to get back to Katherine. This may be Morocco but it could just as easily be anywhere else in the Sahara. The sun slides towards the horizon and the sand shifts colour, deeper, redder. It looks colder in the fading light. We wind our way onwards through the sand sea, the dunes getting higher and hillier, the valleys deeper. We tread towards the Algerian border. It is almost dark, the sky is a deep blue-black. The last rays of the sun fade behind the horizon and little prickles of stars begin to appear. And then, we see tents. Berber tents, dark against the pale sand. We stop near them and our driver is speaking to the camels. “Hush” he says, and they bow to their knees. We climb off and look around. As far as there is to see there are sand dunes. It feels as if one could walk forever and never reach the edge.
We gather around the fire that Omar has built, wrapped in thick woollen blankets and we eat tagine, scooping out the meat and vegetables with flat bread, all of us around one dish. It is very bright now that the stars and moon are out properly, almost as light as day. We can see the camels lying down after eating their food, resting on their knees. One has his neck and chin on the floor as well, almost as if he is a dog. The Berbers bring out their drums and start chanting and singing. Drums are handed round and instructions given. We are not our English names but Mohammed, Fatima, Ali Barbar. We join in with the drumming and try to follow the chanting. It is intoxicating. There is no other noise except for the drumming. And after the drumming, silence. Silence so loud that it is deafening. I lay back and look up at the stars, stars brighter and clearer than I have ever seen. I feel very small.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Rehab Chic

I read today (in the Times as I don't speak or read Italian) that Italian Vogue have published a shoot in what the editor, Franka Sozzani, refers to as "a fun take on rehab chic". Now, I've never been to rehab but to my mind the models and 'staff' look far too attractive to be in rehab. I like the clothes, am not sure about the poses but I am sure that no-one in rehab looks well enough to be on the pages of Vogue.

It also worries me that a magazine such as Vogue may be unintentionally promoting isms which they did not intend. As a fashion piece goes, I'm sure it was intended to fall into roughly the same category as Tom Ford intended his adverts which featured girls with their pubic hair shaved into a 'G' shape. However, with so many celebrities falling off their respective bandwagons in such high profile recently (Lindsey Lohan is by no means the only example: Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Britney Spears and Kate Moss are all examples which spring to mind as well as Mischa Barton and Amy Winehouse) it seems that addictions have become part of our culture.

Now, I am not usually in favour of criticism of magazines and the fashion industry in general. I don't, for example, believe that fashion (and therefore magazines) are responsible for the size 0 phenomenon or spiralling trends in eating disorders. Those issues, whilst worrying, are not, in my opinion, something which can be laid at the foot of the fashion industry. So why now? Is this issue really any different?

Well, I would argue, it is. At it's bluntest models need to be slender to make the most of the clothes. They are essentially human coat hangers. There are some people who are naturally that shape, and they should be the models. Those that aren't, shouldn't, and certainly shouldn't diet to try and become something they are not. A beautiful, or at least striking, face helps. Clothes do not need to promote or 'sex up' alcohol or drug abuse in order to make the most of them. Those clothes on those models would look just as effective in a different setting. I think that the two combined is a dangerous step away from influencing people to see alcohol and drug abuse in a glamorous light. This is more than the so dubbed heroin chic of the 1990s. Those were skinny models, looking rather grungy, granted, but there was no overt reference to the drug itself in the pictures. Here, I would argue, the very nature of the concept of 'rehab chic' implies narcotics or alcohol abuse. Not even simple use. Most people who are 'users' don't need rehab. Rehab is for those that are ill, have damaged themselves through self destructive tendencies, for people that need help. It is not something which is glamorous and is not something which, in my opinion, should be the setting to inspire the Vogue reading public to associate with A/W07.

Moroccan Inspiration

Was feeling dull and lacking inspiration so I had a look through some of my Moroccan photographs, hoping it might lift me out of my mood. I'm glad I did - the colours, shapes and memories are instantly peaceful. So, I thought I'd share one with you.

I love this minoret: the shape, the detail of the arches which are emphasised by the sharp shadow outlines thrown by the clear african sun and that gorgeous pale red colour which stands so majestically against the perfect azure blue of the sky.

We bought a bedspread in Essouiria which is made from wool, linen and silk and has stripes of different shades of blue, some of them the same colours as the sky in this picture. We bought it from a tiny shop down a beautiful white washed alley way just off one of the main souks in the medina. We walked past but could not help but stop: beautiful stiped bedspreads, throws and rugs in every colour and size imaginable were hung up, their colours intensified by the white wall they were hung against and the hot sun beating down. We haggled to the best of our ability whilst trying not to show how desperately I wanted that gorgeous throw. It is now on our bed in our flat in London and it soothes me everytime I make the bed.

And then, last week, on holiday in Cornwall, I found a pillar candle in the same colours which I bought and which now stands on the black mantlepiece in our bedroom. That also made me happy.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book Review: The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)

"This the story of Henry and Clare, who have known each other since Clare was 6 and Henry was 36, and were married when Clare was 20 and Henry 28"... and so Niffenegger begins to lay out The Time Traveler's Wife. They meet in 1991 when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28; Henry will get to know Clare in his future, Clare knows Henry through her past.

At the heart of this beautifully written book is a simple love story; of destiny and fulfillment, of hope and of the sadness of separation. Henry suffers from a chrono-displacement disorder which causes/enables/allows involuntary time travel. He and Clare provide the narration in turn, describing their stories and the transition from Clare's childhood to Clare's present. Her past is punctuated with visits by Henry from Clare's future; each time he meets her in her past he has travelled from her future enabling him to know Clare in a way that few people can know their partner. He knows that the six year old Clare who he meets in the meadow behind her parents house will grow up to be his wife. They get to know each other and Henry leaves Clare a list of dates. These end on her 18th birthday and she knows that she will have to spend 2 years without him before they will meet properly in the present. She slowly becomes aware that the time she spends with Henry in his past are the times that she will be waiting for Henry to return to her future. Although this causes heartbreak to her both in the past and future when Henry is not there with her, it also helps, perhaps, their relationship to run smoother. One particular incident occurs when Clare is about 30 and she and Henry have been suffering from some discordance in their present. Henry suddenly disappears only to reappear with such an expression that Clare knows exactly which point in her past he has just visited (the day that she lost her virginity to Henry) and their romance is instantly rekindled.

Time travelling is not something that Henry is able to control. He knows that there are certain triggers which often indicate that it is about to happen, stress, dizziness etc but when he leaves he and only he move. His clothes are left behind, as are his fillings, glasses and anything he may have been holding. He arrives in the past - or occasionally his future - naked. He develops an ability to find clothes, to steal, to run. When he visits Claire in her past he knows of her future: their lives are pre-destined, Henry knows how her life will play out. He mostly doesn't tell her but there must be a certain comfort knowing that someone else knows how things will turn out. For Henry though, knowing how things will turn out is not always a blessing. On one of his rare trips to the future he meets his future daughter who tells him that he dies aged 43, when she is 5. On another trip to the future he meets Clare as an old woman and he is able to leave her a letter to be opened after his death telling her that she must carry on with her life, for they are destined to meet once more.


I have been away this week, as you might have guessed. In Cornwall, staying with some friends from university. A glorious week with five hot summer days in a row with three pretty good ones as well. I spent the first two days helping race a Shrimper and the second part of the week lying on the beach reading. We also played lots of golf (well, I played one round, the others four or five) and sat out until the early hours most nights watching the stars -and a few satelittes. We celebrated L's birthday with a beach barbeque and fire, lying side by side on the sand trying to identify the constellations. But, as with everything, it is now over and we are all on our way back to London. It feels like summer is over.

Friday, August 03, 2007

More Harry Reviews

Following a link posted in response to my review I found a plethora of people who have taken the time to write a review of the Deathly Hallows. I though that this one by Bub and Pie was particularly interesting.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

David Beckham

I don't think I have laughed so much at a website in ages. David Beckham has his 'own' blog. He says, and I quote, "it does seem incredible that in all my time playing professional football, I haven’t had my own website". Maybe because you are a footballer and so famous that your life is recorded in the British tabloids for posterity every time you set foot outside your house David, or perhaps because your american agent thought it might help, what with the move stateside and all? Hmmm. Perhaps I am too cynical.

So, what does David have to say?

In his latest entry he reveals that "On Saturday I rode in the team coach to the game against Chivas, which was great even though I didn’t play and, obviously, it was brilliant to be in the locker room with the guys before the game and be part of the pre-match camaraderie". I am impressed. A long sentence, albeit with American style vocabulary. That's the second time in two entries that he used the word 'camaraderie' as well. I wonder which revelations he will post in his next entry?

And don't even get me started on the 'lifestyle' section which has pictures of, amongst other things, his tattoos and hairstyles and the assertion that "David is regarded as one of the most stylish men in the world".

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Warning - this contains plot spoilers (but I am assuming that most people who wish to have read the book have done so by now).

It was rather fitting that it was in the seventh month of 2007 that the seventh Harry Potter book was published. Throughout the series seven has been an important number; “Isn't seven the most powerfully magical number?” -- Tom Marvolo Riddle to Horace Slughorn (HBP). From the word go things have occurred in seven: Harry is born in the seventh month and indeed the prophecy involves the two born in the seventh month. There are seven Weasleys, seven Quidditch players to a team and 700 ways of committing a foul. There are seven years, seven floors and seven secret tunnels at Hogwarts, witches and wizards come of age at 17. To reach the philosopher’s stone there are seven challenges; there are seven registered animagi and the Triwizard Cup started 700 hundred years ago. The trunk in which Moody is imprisoned in the Goblet of Fire has seven key holes and Dobby has seven socks. It is clause seven of the decree which allows magic to be used before muggles in exceptional circumstances and of course it is seven which appeals to Voldemort and he divides his soul into seven pieces creating seven horcruxes.*

And then, in the opening sequences of the Deathly Hallows, polyjuice potion is used to form seven Harrys to fly to seven locations to try and force Voldemort off the trail when the charm surrounding 4 Privet Drive breaks on Harry’s seventeenth birthday or when he ceases to call the place home. At once the characters are older, stronger and even at this early stage ready to lay down their lives in the struggle against evil. That Hedwig dies at this point can be no coincidence. J K Rowling hinted that Hedwig was Harry’s link to his childhood; from the point of Hedwig’s death this is no childhood story and these are not childhood issues.

The Deathly Hallows does not, as all the other books have done, start with the usual return to Hogwarts after a long summer holiday. There is no return to school for our trio; both Hogwarts and the Ministry have been invaded and turned by Voldemort. Harry Hermione and Ron spend the vast proportion of the book on a journey around the country, sleeping in tents and struggling with both the challenge left to them by Dumbledore to find and destroy the remaining horcruxes and with their feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and fear. Rowling draws many analogies here from other epic tales, not least from Lord of the Rings as disaster threatens to loom. There are desertions and near deaths; there are false trails and help from unexpected quarters. Many loose ends are tied up and the eventually the importance of the Deathly Hallows is revealed before the book and the series ends in the climatic Battle of Hogwarts.

The Battle of Hogwarts joins together the three main themes of the entire series: love death and destiny. We discover that Dumbledore was doomed to die and had ordered Snape to kill him to spare Draco. That Snape all along had been acting as a triple agent, loyal to Dumbledore to the very end and able to die an honourable death, his motivations ultimately driven by unrequited love for the same person whose love had saved Harry from Voldemort at the very beginning of his life and sealed his destiny. In that knowledge Harry was able to accept that Voldemort could not be killed while he still lived and was able to choose to come back, to master the Elder Wand and eventually to destroy Voldemort. But Harry did not act alone; although a crucial role he could not have fought the entire battle alone. Without the courageous actions of the order of the phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army there would almost certainly have been far more casualties. Voldemort’s ultimate downfall was that he had never known love and could not, did not, understand it; he had been born the product of merely a love potion and abandoned when it wore off. It was love which saved Harry just as it was love that killed Voldemort.

Just as Harry looked into the Mirror of Erised perhaps the appeal of the series lies surely in the reflection of our world within the magical world. Just as we struggle with adolescence, of love, loss hope and death, so do the magical characters only in their world love eventually triumphs over evil. The final Chapter may have been a cliché but at the same time pleasing to find out that some things do work out as they ought. The Deathly Hallows is a fitting end to the series.

*This piece was written very quickly and I failed to notice my error for which I apologise. Voldermort deliberately divided his soul in seven but of course to create horcruxes he needed to retain one piece of his soul within his own body. Therefore there were six intentional horcruxes and the unintentional seventh in Harry.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Hermione and the jumper
Deathly Hallows review soon I promise; it's been a busy week with no time for writing... spared a couple of hours yesterday though to watch film 5 at the Electric on Portobello Road. A wonderful date; good story, comfy chairs, wine, sweeties in a darling little tub.

Thoroughly enjoyed the film, although, as with everything, I had a few criticisms and it was not done as I would have. There were plot changes for, as far as I could tell, no apparent reason and it seemed to jump from scene to scene without any of the background noise and detail which make the books themselves so appealing. The scene with Cho was something of nothing; the fights, although impressive, seemed too long at the expensive of other details which need not have been cut. Some of the acting was excellent; some was simply adequate. Daniel Radcliffe has thankfully discovered a new emotion (anger) to add to his repetoire of bored and frightened. Luna, was, I thought, a pleasing addition to the central cast, even if her accent bordered on irritating on occasion but Umbridge was just not quite sinister enough for me, even if her costume was excellent.

And speaking of costume choice - I did find it rather disturbing that Hermione spent the latter part of the film racing around the Ministry of Magic in a Gap jumper which I own and which I will no longer be able to wear as even M leaned across and hissed "she's wearing your jumper". An excellent choice obviously, even if she is about 15, and realistic too, as I bought it in Autumn 2005. I wonder if Gap know and are credited?