Thursday 6 October 2011

A Journey to Tangier


How noisy Spaniards are. Barbara kept me awake all night talking in the next room.

Madrid Atocha station with a botanical garden inside it – like some Victorian fantasy. Train to Algeciras. Beautiful journey, comfortable train but tired. 

The mountains. The profound Spain, beautiful and these days tidy and prosperous.

Algeciras. My luggage very heavy, my blisters ache, the heat intense, no Spaniard speaks English (of course)  but a kindly Indian woman from Gibraltar shows me where to catch the bus. At La Linea  I find sweet little Hotel Miramar where I am to pay €35 in La Linea. I walk to Gibraltar in the heat. The tackiness of Spain near the border feels East European. The tackiness of Lake Balaton or Costinesti.

Long walk through open space hobbled by my blistered feet  to border, long walk further, hot sun.


The red telephone box which stands beside the border alas is now a just a tourist thing but I see that the traffic lights are iconic and I know I am on British soil.  A curiously sad feeling. Oh all this again.

Saturday afternoon at 4.30 and everywhere is closed.

A plaque says the Minister of Tourism re-opened ‘Main street’ (an Americanism!) ten years ago after refurbishments. And so it appeared. Dreary kitsch familiar tourist money making machine.

So it was depressing to be back on British soil with Mothercare and most of the shops closed on a Saturday late afternoon, a half naked Northern youth shouting obscenities at his sweetheart and Sky TV showing football in a characterless barn-like pub. But then it got better and two glasses of Pimm's and some scones softened my heart. Though the kind of cream that squirts from a tube not clotted cream. Then a decent curry on the marina looking at the mountains of Africa.

The houses across the water cost, the waiter told me, a million euros each and were built some years ago.

It smells of the services and Anglicanism but the tombs of the Trafalgar dead are moving. There is a corner of a foreign field...

The newsagents and taxi driver love the place and loved it best during the blockade. Rather a nice place to live with free university education and public housing and no crime – like England 50 years ago they said. No problems with Indians they said.  I notice a calmness on all the faces. Quite un-English. A relaxed unstressed happy dull place.

How many people live here I asked the newsagent. Officially? 30, 000. And unofficially? 15,000. The rest really live in Spain.

Sunday 14

La Linea. A traditional dance in the square outside the church after Mass. The unlovely late nineteenth century buildings.  Charmingly uncharming little place.

I suddenly realise that Gibraltar is the rock and not the little town at its base and  felt I should go back to Gibraltar to get a taxi driver to show me the rock and the gibbons etc though I don’t want to. Am relieved to see that the rock is shrouded in fog and this lets me off. ‘Oh good the sun has gone in and I don’t have to go out and enjoy myself’ in the words of Logan Pearsall Smith (who would have been a soul-mate). instead I go instead to Tangiers yet somehow don’t get there till 6.30 p.m.  local time. Morocco is two hours behind Spain oddly. Later J. tells me that this is a special temporary thing enacted by the King because of Ramadan the Muslim Lent when no-one eats in the daylight hours.

The port. Bag heavy, blistered feet, hot, untrustworthy taxi drivers. Alone. The Continental just nearby though I give a couple of pound coins to the taxi.

Like Webster's dictionary, I'm Morocco bound. Well, already here actually in the Hotel Continental, which hasn't changed much since 1862, just deteriorated gently.

It’s just my kind of place - comparable with the Baron, Aleppo and the Imperial, Jerusalem. And the Pera Palace, Constantinople. And a snip. Thirty something euros a night. Unfortunately I discover there is no hot water these days for some reason to do with lack of pressure whatever that means.

Can they wash shirts? No one speaks any English. The concierge hands me to a waiter who hands me to Ali who leads me out of the hotel (its front entrance has been closed for years and the back entrance leads into the medina) and through very many streets in the medina to a launderer who will give him a tip and I say no and he demands money and I cross myself going past church while he asks stranger in white cotton twill suit and white hat for support. 'You know me.'  'Yes I know you.' And thus I meet J. and am rid of the nuisance and we are soon drinking (sweet mint tea in my case) on the terrace of the Café Tingis in the Petit Socco. I suspect at first I say the wrong thing when I say you must have loved the film Casablanca. ‘No, not particularly. Of course I’ve seen it.’ He worked for the Daily Mail, came here to interview a couple of English people who lived here and 'thought they’re onto a nice thing here so I moved here'. Can afford servants and a nice flat very easily here. ‘You’d fit in here like a glove’ he told me. And here on the terrace of the Café Tingis he sits watching the souk. ‘It changes every moment’ he says in a meditative voice.

His friend the shoe shiner who is cross with him.

We have in common Monsignor Gilbey who put him up for the Travellers’ which I intended to ask him to put me up for. I said I didn’t see him often for fear of being a social climber. ‘A social climber by seeing him? ‘

His friend R. M. who wears a jacket and tie and who becomes my companion. Count  R. M. of X he says claiming a collateral inheritance from a childless Irish chieftain ennobled by the Holy Roman Emperor in the 18th century. He finds his college contemporaries who became lawyers hard to understand. They are people who have worn themselves out by working and have very little time to socialise while he receives a ‘very generous’ cheque each quarter.

Like J. he tells me almost immediately that he can’t stand homosexuals and thinks they should all be shot. I said I would never have guessed he was one and he said I am very pleased to hear it.

He reminds me of Oliver Parker but unlike Oliver  a name dropper which Oliver would never be and what a name dropper and what names. Taken up by Noel Coward whom he met by chance at his mother’s house in Dublin which led him to leave TCD after one term and spend his time with Noel for 2 years. Met Picasso, Coco Chanel, Josephine Baker and a hundred other famous people. Endless raconteur and boaster. As I write this up I think this is an Irish tradition. Samuel Lover? Barry Lyndon? And a liar?

When he went back to TCD after taking three years off he resurrected the right of a Fellow Commoner to be served champagne during exams by his butler and got an out of work actor to be his butler in an attempt tpo stop them making the debating chamber the offices of the student union. Or something. Stories tumbled out. Many or most surreal.

Says he did not sleep with Coward or any man till he was 26. Slept with numerous girls in LA. Bombay high life where it was impossible to pay for anything.

I persuade him to lead me to a restaurant called La Nabab which is stylish – far cheaper than it would be he says in Marrakech and has wine – but the tangine is flavourless. The fresh rosé wine is palatable and costs R. says pennies in the supermarket. R. says the good food is in people’s houses.

Monday, 15 August

The Continental is the kind of hotel that has a piano. Wonderful Arab tiles and glorious empty unused public rooms with divans for lolling on as I  make my way to the balcony overlooking the port for breakfast.

I meet R. and J. at the Tingis at 11.

J says 'I am an anguished Catholic poofter.' R says, 'No you aren't. You are an anguished poofter who happens to be Catholic.'

J takes us to a home for 'I suppose you would call them imbeciles'  looked after by Franciscan lay brothers in a house in the casbah. There are a dozen of them, very sweet people who gibber and tug at me. One in particular was until two weeks ago living in a barn tied to a post fed food. Until his aunt who lives in Italy told the authorities who made a search, found him and brought him here. He is J’s favourite. ‘And the only one who is not incontinent.’

J who does not R says have boyfriends seems to gain emotional sustenance from the imbeciles, his five bright coloured birds and his three men servants. He keeps, R thinks, people at a distance. ' But we all have our ways of getting through life.' Yes we do..

Tangier with R. who has written a book called The Lost Houses of Ireland. Came here as a genealogist and an Irish chieftain to unmask a conman called Terence X who was selling forged titles and he stayed.  In the 50s and 60s this place had been very hip, especially with homosexuals. And every man he mentions seems to have had a boyfriend. R. walks very briskly, always in the sun unless I complain, and always wears a jacket. When I met him yesterday a tie too.

"There was a painting  found in an old rectory in the outskirts of Dublin which turned out to be a Caravaggio and people all said ah yes well I always knew it was a wonderful painting. But it wasn’t wonderful because the Caravaggio had been overpainted  but behind it was something beautiful. And so it is with the Catholic Church." 

He believes as J. does but not the sexual part. Later he says: "Loving kindness is the message of Jesus and anything which is not about loving kindness is not from him."

The life of the British colony in Tangier he says is like Mapp and Lucia. For a locksmith’s son marinated in comedies of manners from Fielding to Forster this feels like I have arrived somewhere. Oh dear I am a snob. But most of all it feels like a book which is how I want life to feel. I express regret that I was never a social climber because I would know so many amusing people if I were. R. has a constructive suggestion. He says 'You do not meet people in Bucharest, London is too big, but if you lived here you would meet everyone because everyone comes here.'

A shaorma restaurant  says in peeling paint that it is patronised by the international jet set. This R. explains meant Bogart, Chaplin etc who came here. One feels that Tangier’s moment has passed which makes it all the more appealing.

So many stories about everyone. He knows William Trevor, he knew Behan, he even knows my friend Ruth Dudley Edwards. I cannot remember the stories. He missed Yeats but knows Seamus Heaney. Finally he told me the story of how he and Spike Milligan who had once been his neighbour in West London were sharing a cottage in deep snow, had nothing to eat in the house except cat food,  improvised snow shoes out of cardboard. The shoes melted before they reached the village and they came home and eat the cat food. the next day I asked, my historian’s scepticism awakened, ’Did you really eat cat food with Spike Milligan?’ ‘Oh yes. It was delicious and very nutritious.'      

The 5 star El Minah hotel wonderful view of the sea, many pictures of former guests great names from a generation ago. A mediocre dinner in the courtyard. I have vague memories of Nigel Dempster articles in Mum’s Daily Mail in the very recent 1970s.

My Facebook post a reflection on the riots in England with which I am pleased:

Societies exist to protect and justify inequality. That is perhaps their principal purpose. Britain does a bad job of the latter.

Tuesday 16

R. shows me the grande souk and the upper town and introduces me to Frenchman who owns an antique shop, earlier a Moroccan who is the only one with good prices in the souk. I think of Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca. An ancient Moroccan ceremonial coat. R. says he has similar one which he uses as dressing gown. R. tells everyone we meet I am thinking of coming to live here.

The French town has great charm Tintin style palm trees white buildings. R says the Cafe de Paris is the basis for Rick’s bar in Casablanca and when he repeats this JD tells me quietly I never heard that. But I think Casablanca the film is inspired by Tangier as RM says.
The funeral. The deceased in her early sixties had become an alcoholic lived with her daughter and had fallen  down the stairs. No church service. The cemetery is full of scrub grass which catches my toe and makes it bleed.

People pointed out to me. Barbara Hutton’s widower. David Herbert’s boyfriend. Count Fosco (???) the painter. The famous  interior designer who replaced David Herbert as doyen of community. Chris Gibbs?

Poor girl whose spirit I felt and liked deeply grieving.

At the restaurant like the Italian Club in Honorary Consul where I eat lasagne. The girl seems fine, laughing. TV people from Eastenders. A cold eyed young blonde with silicon breasts, seen momentarily, moved me.

Wednesday 17

The daughter I learnt at the Tingis committed suicide last night. Oh no. Yet while shocked I feel as if for the first time in my life I have wandered into a novel.

View Maggie’s house hidden deep in the Kasbah which she will rent to me for 600 euros? 
Pounds? For 3 days sleeps 9 in 4 bedrooms, roof garden, cook.

Lunch chez J.. Roof gardens are of immense importance in Tangiers and J's is magnificently appointed and overlooks the sea. I love his taste in colours. A blood red parrot struts around. I regretted my camera left in the hotel. A group from Eastenders are there. One is Denise but not as I had been told Van Outen. Even she turns out to have a girlfriend.

Hugh designs houses which are works of art apparently and has them in Cairo and in Alexandria where he mostly lives. Has come from the UK. He says he hates the UK at the moment where everyone is so right wing about the riots. The riots happened because everyone was bored and wanted something to happen.

R. talks about the young man broken on the rack in the Papal States in the reign of Pius IX for desecrating the communion wafer.  Only on 20th C did Popes become decent. But later I could find no trace of this among the list of executions in the Papal States that Wikipedia provides.

Beach. The Mediterranean not the Atlantic yet very cold but fun after Hugh splashes me and I go in.

Hotel. The Tingis. No R.l. I go to an expensive restaurant in the Grand Souk where the food is quite good but I enjoyed the stuff at that place in Str. Franceza much more which Delia Burnham told me was inauthentic. We overlook the square. Noises of football supporters. They support Barcelona here I had been told by R.l. A group of dull looking Englishmen in their early 40s in Joe 90 glasses eat together and I suspect them of being homosexuals and find the whole thing sad as I have trained myself to do. Sterile. And in their case not decadent or shadowy – just men you would meet on the commuter train to Dorking. Simon Dayes once told me I was a very broad minded person but this is something I don’t like about myself. Very true.

Thursday, August 18

Farewell then, Tangiers. Now the beautiful train ride to Madrid, then baking heat and sticky papal crowds.

Hot morning. Usual suppressed panic as I take my luggage to the port and the man who finally asks me asks for more money after I outrageously overpay him. I am cross and he asks me to be friends.

The mountains of Spain. Beautiful but disfigured by wind farms. What fools we all are.

Friday, August 19

Madrid is a ghost town. The streets are empty. Empty supermarket. At last I enjoy the experience of supermarket shopping. 

Madrid is flooded by a sea of Catholic virgins. We eat somewhere in the street where they are all around us, two youths discussing blow jobs beside me.


A double tragedy for literary star

A shocking tragedy has devastated leading literary agent Gillon Aitken, who is having to cope with the deaths of both his ex-wife and his only child in the space of five days. 
Gillon, 73, who has represented many of the great writers of his generation, including Salman Rushdie, flew to Morocco last week for the funeral of his former wife of 18 years, Swedish-born Cari Margareta Bengtsson. 
At a packed service on Monday at the English church St Andrew’s in the centre of the city, friends, including Prince Charles’s great pal interior designer Christopher Gibbs, gathered to mourn her.

Gathering: Guests including Prince Charles's great pal interior designer Christopher Gibbs, flew to Morocco last week for the funeral of Swedish-born Cari Margareta Bengtsson
Her 27-year-old daughter, Charlotte — who had recently moved from London to live with her mother — was, I am told, inconsolable with grief. The following day Charlotte’s body was discovered at her mother’s rented home.

 ‘None of us can believe what has happened. We are all numb with shock,’ says one of the mourners at Cari’s funeral. Charterhouse-educated Gillon, whose list of authors includes Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker, Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding, the Queen’s biographer Sarah Bradford, and travel writer Colin Thubron, married Cari relatively late in life at 44. 
Cari gave birth to Charlotte two years later, but the marriage fell apart and they divorced in 2000.  She moved to live in Tangier two years ago. 

Clients: Gillon Aitken represents numerous authors including Sebastian Faulks (left) and Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding (right)
Adds the friend: ‘Cari became an alcoholic. She was in a terrible state when her daughter went to look after her. We think Cari fell down the stairs in a horrible accident and died a few days later.’ 
On the evening after the funeral, Charlotte, her father and  John, her mother’s son from a previous marriage who lives in London, were seen in a popular Tangier restaurant. But the following morning, her father called a friend in Tangier to tell them that Charlotte, too, had died. 
Her distraught father was due to return home to London yesterday. He is now awaiting the result of an inquest. Adds a family friend: ‘She was a sweet girl who was planning to decorate a new house in Tangier and seemed to be looking forward to making a life there.’

This is surreal. It´s just like you told me. Even details like the lunch after the funeral match. Insane. You should write a novel focused on the character of the daughter. Start with her mother´s death and go back. The plot would be sort of cliche, but I am sure you can put an interesting twist to it. Don´t mention the suicide in the beginning though, alternate time frames past-present.

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