Seven Days in Marrakech

African Sun

We arrived in Marrakech, the pink city of satellite dishes, on Wednesday night about 10pm.  We watched the big African orange sun set through the window as we waited to get off the ‘plane. The heat enveloped us when we stepped on to the apron, and made our way into the airport to fill out registration forms and queue for passport control. It was a long queue. Each stamp took five minutes. Finally we headed out into the African night – warm, dusty, dark.  Roisin spotted our Riad name, El Dajide on the calling card of the transfer driver and forward we went into our adventure. Almost immediately I had to come back as I had left my suit case at the ‘change’ place where I got money. I succeeded in going back through arrivals, retrieving it, finding Roisin and the driver and in we jumped and away we went.

AAAHHHHHH

The van/bus drove extremely fast, through very narrow streets, with much honking of horns. To enter and leave the medina (the old town) you have to drive through a narrow arch, but so does everyone else and there are no traffic lights, no policeman, no regulation! But this is the way in Marrakech. It is brilliant! We didn’t wait long: our driver overtook, entangled, negotiated horns, taxis and waving hands. Finally a police man did turn up.

Fifteen minutes later we screeched to a stop on a busy square full of people and swerving motorbikes. Despite the hour, there were stalls selling bananas and grapes, kitchen towel and cleaning materials, little piles of grass, charcoal and a high volume of chatter. A tall thin man stepped out of the shadows and welcomed us. He took our cases and walked. We followed. The lanes were full of men and women in kaftans, turbans. Small boys chased each other. After ten minutes, the lanes getting smaller, and finally turning into a maze of tunnels which smelt rather unpleasant, we arrive at the Riad. Relief. We were in need of food and a drink. Relief. This would become the emotion most associated with arriving at this Riad, relief, as we negotiated the alleys and the boys.

Inside, the Riad looked lovely. White walls, green plants stretching away up the walls to a third level. Pretty table and chairs and a plunge pool. Hischim, for that was his name, sat us down and gave us mint tea. He copied our passports and showed us our room. Perfectly fine twin room, with a tiny balcony overlooking the courtyard. He said he would take us to Riad Edward where we could get a meal and a drink.

Soon we were following Hichim through the tunnels, alleys, lanes trying to create markers en route. Through the courtyards of the  mosque, first left, second right…I never got it. Fortunately Roisin’s memory is less off a dripping sponge and she was able to get us back, later.

Edward’s Riad was plusher than ours. We were shown to comfortable couches, and cushions (Roman style)  at the end of beautiful green swimming pool in a courtyard of mosaics and comfortable loungers. It was deserted aside from skinny grey and marmalade cats. The bottle of wine was 18e but good and we had Moroccan starters of salad.

Americans and Skinny Cats

Half way through our meal a switch of Americans arrived and started dipping into the pool, sitting at the poolside in groups, and chatting. Roisin and I watched from our couch. A woman, dressed in Andy Pandy dungarees, came and talked to us. Her daughter had got married the day before in the desert. They had bulk booked the Edward Riad. We soon made our excuses, and left.  We investigated our Riad’s top terrace. White couches and sun beds, table and chairs. We sat down and had a last cigarette. Our holiday had begun.

The next day, we were up early and down to breakfast before anyone else. Breakfast was pancakes, muffin things and sponge cake, freshly squeezed orange juice, yoghurt, and coffee. We decided this day was for orientation and set off to explore.

First Pick Up – Abdul

We were immediately picked up by Abdul who insisted on takin us on a tour of our local mosque through which we walked to get most places. It was apparently the oldest of 7 mosques in the medina. Our mosque looked after blind people who gather there for the day and sing and talk. Abdul explained that soon it would be Eid which was the festival of the sacrificial sheep which symbolised the commitment of Abraham to God to kill his son. The little piles of grass being sold by children on the street were to feed the sheep and the charcoal was for the cooking of their heads after slaughter.

Abdul also took us to a small shop where I ended up paying over the odds for some pretty blue moccasins. And, of course, Abdul wasn’t entertaining us out of the goodness of his heart but he was a great initiator into the ways of the Medina. But now it was time for the hammam we had booked before we arrived. Joseph, the brother of Hischim and Riad manager, took us there on the back of his motorbike. It was such fun whizzing through the lanes, seconds from death. At the Hammam, we moved into a different world. In a tiny steamy room,  we were rubbed and scrubbed with grit and black soap, and then hosed down. So, an hour later, sparkling, we set off to explore the souks.

The Joys of Haggling

After discovering unstuffed poufs were not leather pet beds, I bought a lovely camel leather one with a tiny camel decoration  to be filled  with Roisin’s old clothes (it seemed appropriate). Roisin bought a bag made of camel leather, soft and beautiful. We began to use a good cop bad cop routine in our negotiations and we discovered the pleasure of haggling. It is right what the Arabs say. You must haggle with a smile, relax and enjoy the experience. Roisin was truly brilliant. She was all smiles, wit and cheek. Souk sellers loved her and queued up to try and sell us things so that they could enjoy the experience of Roisin haggling.

Lost and Lame

Soon we were hopelessly lost, but happened to notice we had arrived at one of our intended venues of the week, the photographic gallery, so in we popped, grateful for the space and calm of the exhibition after the madness of the medina. We found ourselves staring at portraits of cool, enigmatic and wrinkled looking Arab women and men, Berbers, and they stared back at us: hot, sweaty, limping from the blisters and chaffed feet from the wholly unsuitable sandals. Climbing to the top of the gallery, exhausted, I happily watched an earnest video on Berber culture in the Atlas mountains. After resting so, we went on our way.

Eventually, we came across Place Jameel el Fna which was ablaze with colour, noise, people pulling and pushing sheep, and other charms. The smoke of the 50 odd food sellers began to rise and fish, beef and vegetables smells suffused the evening air. Having given up on finding a glass of wine as we were surrounded by mosques, we sat down to eat.  How did we decide which one? We never made it past the first. We liked him saying “We no touch you”.  We devoured a bony fish and beef tagine, watched an American collapse on the next table, quickly left and got hopelessly lost in the souks on the way back, dodging the motorbikes, the sheep being transported to homes wedged in bicycle baskets, carried in arms. People were preparing for Eid. In the house next door to our Riad, a big woolly sheep was kept at the bottom of the stairs.

On Friday morning, Roisin rose early to watch the sun rise on the terrace. I stayed in bed, wiggling my toes and trying to blow on my feet. At another early breakfast, we negotiated a delicious omelette for Roisin, explaining that she was gluten intolerant.

How the Riad Worked

Hichim and Joseph were both lovely men, always trying to be as helpful as possible. Hichim was on duty nights, letting the guests in,  (he prayed and slept in the TV room) and served breakfast. Joseph was married with a baby girl (whom he brought to meet us the day before we left) and covered the days. He answered all the questions we had, though his English was a little flaky. Abdul, our first kidnapper, had told us that 80% of Riad owners in Marrakech were owned by the French. Ours was no exception, and Joseph clearly didn’t like the big French boss who we never met. Joseph told us he had trained for two years in the Hammam Riad we had visited the day before, now getting his own Riad to manage but his cook was being taken to other Riads, and the wifey (wifi) on his pc didn’t work properly. The Riad is clearly big business in Marrakech with many being owned by one French man. Anyway, we got on well with the two brothers. I think they liked the way we set out to walk, map in hand, with the determined explorer’s attitude.

Stupid and Arrogant?

On that second morning, Joseph ran after us. We ignored his call of ‘excuse me’ as we twisted around alleys and corners, by now used to the remarks of the young men. They would keep telling us the route was wrong, the alley was closed, and to follow them (and ultimately cross their palm with silver). Finally I turned and discovered it was Joseph, demanding to know where we were going and why were we entering into the place where only Moroccans go. We explained we were leaving the Medina to go to the Jardins Majorelle. He nodded. Yes, it was the right way to go but we shouldn’t walk. It was only for Moroccans. Tourists caught taxis. We assured him we would be fine. He shrugged and let us go. Later, after a particularly unpleasant experience fighting off a young fourteen year old,  I wondered if we were being stupid, as well as arrogant as we meandered into vast dusty deserted wasteland, bare except for the odd beggar and old men watching our every step, calling, ‘this way, this way’. Fortunately, we didn’t get lost and after a 40 minute walk, with blood spilling from my blisters, we arrived at the gardens and Roisin and I swapped sandals.

Shady Sanctuary

The Majorelle Gardens were beautiful and welcome sanctuary from the hot sun of the wasteland walk. It was symmetrically laid out along a canal of water of blue water. The shade of the flowering bushes, and the laden fruit trees was delicious. The colour scheme of the paths, walls, the planted pots, the trellis, and the benches was blue, yellow and orange. It was extraordinarily peaceful. The plants came from all over Africa and China. The gardens weren’t too crowded and we people watched. There was a beautiful young girl who posed for photographs with outrageous sultry sulkiness and a daughter who talked at her dad, telling him about college in America while he dutifully listened. It is the same the whole world over.

We decided to walk into the new city and after negotiating vast dual carriageway lanes of traffic and walls of pink apartments, found ourselves the Oxford Street equivalent where H&M, MacDonalds, and Starbucks abounded. We found a supermarket which, of course, I was interested to investigate. I dragged a reluctant Roisin through a mall of empty shops, down to the basement, following supermarche signs. It was similar to Super Value but the array of fruit and vegetables was much more colourful. Otherwise, it sold all the usual brands, but no alcohol sadly, for I had hoped to sneak a few bottles into the Riad. We couldn’t find an interesting place to eat so plumped for a large corner café and ordered a mixed salad. It was huge plate of potato, tomato, corn, cucumber, carrot, celeriac and we slowly munched our way through watching the people come and go, kiss and coffee, and the older turbaned and kaftaned Arab on the next table entertain a string of women, (ex- girlfriends, we decided) with coffee.

After returning to the Riad, past the yard of the bus station which was packed with people with rolled up mattresses, bags, screeches, and general chaos, decrepit looking buses belting out fumes,  it was time to go back to the terrace to sun bathe and listen to American pod casts on income inequality. I fell asleep.

Causing Offense

In the evening we ventured out to find a recommended French restaurant. Wine was a key consideration. We got lost, of course, but the pleasure of getting lost is definitely the relief of the discovery. The restaurant was lovely, in a leafy courtyard with candles, waiters dressed in black and white poured our wine. The breeze tinkled amongst the lemon trees, rose petals and tiny fountain. After the few glasses of wine we got horribly lost going home and found ourselves in the revolving door of the souk, which bit by bit was closing. Despite our protestations that we would be fine, and didn’t need any escort, a young man led us out of the souk. As we followed, we explained we had no cash to tip him to which of course he took great umbrage…If I was a guest  in your country etc etc. Poor Roisin got a real dressing down in broken English. Her face was a pleasure to watch when he pointed us on the right alley and then asked for a small gift!! We negotiated the rest of the way through the medina and carts of doe eyed sheep, with my phone using gsm, following the hovering blue spot. My feet were in bits. I needed new shoes.

The last quarter of our journey, when we knew the way,  was usually marred because there were one or two young boys (8 to 14) who followed us, hard on heel, trying to touch Roisin, making lurid comments. We would speed up (despite my feet) but obviously have to stop at the front door where we urgently pressed the bell for Hichim or Joseph to open the door. I would put myself between Roisin and the young offender, but they would twirl, and touch and hustle. When the door opened, they ran away. This night, it took Hichim a long time.

Flirtations on the Terrace

Let in, I bathed my feet and we clambered, foot sore and weary to have our final cigarette on the roof terrace to discover Hichim flirting with one of the German lassies (we had deduced at breakfast that they had just finished university and were doing a bit of travelling. In fact they turned out to be Dutch). Candles were flickering and there was romantic music. The common language was broken English and there were lots of smiles, tinkly laughs, mint tea (I believe mixed with Gin) and high phenomes. We retired to bed. Half an hour later the doorbell was ringing, the phone started, the doorbell continued, pressed with continued urgency. Hichim did not respond. Finally, Roisin got up and let the Belgian girls (though at the time we had deduced that they were Spanish). They were extremely grateful.

At breakfast the next morning, Hichim was bad tempered. We were the only ones there. He told us had waited up all night for guests to arrive. When the German girls arrived down for breakfast, Hichim wouldn’t look at them and when finally Hichim had to bring their breakfast there were mutterings of hangovers. There was no omelette. No fresh orange juice. No yoghurt. We went upstairs to get ready for the day.

We were off to Ben Yourseff Medersa, the school of learning for the Quoran, through our newly discovered direct path through the souk. We were excited not to get lost. On our way out, Hichim came up and accused us of letting the Spanish (Belgian) girls in. Much to his surprise, they had come down for breakfast. They were the guests for whom he had waited. Yes. We explained that they had been ringing frantically, and ringing the phone but Hischim had not heard but Joseph did over hear us telling him this. He looked inquiringly at his brother who explained, nervously, that he was chatting to the girls upstairs. ‘We owe you a mint tea’, he said to us and looked at Hichim, darkly and went off to apologise to the Spanish (Belgian) girls. We never got a mint tea but Joseph did show me a video later in the week as to how to slaughter a sheep.

Lost Again. Found in The Tannery

The Medersa was not where it was suppose to be, according to Roisin and the map! A boy (where do they all come from) told us it was closed until two because the King’s brother was in Marrakech and that we should go to the Tannery because today was the day of the Berber auction. He set forth, beckoning and calling to us. ‘It is goooood. You must go’. Roisin had been expressly warned not to go to the tannery. It was apparently gross and manky, but I was interested and started to follow. Roisin was not happy.

He led us all around the streets and alleys. At one particular doorway, he grabbed a pile of mint, broke it up and gave it to us. Berber gasmask, he said. Up we go into a courtyard on a hill full of cement pits. In the first a man in thigh high boots in soaking and washing a skin in pigeon shit and ammonia. In another the skin was soaking in lime. Then it was covered in salt and allowed to dry. I might have got this a little back to front, so please don’t quote me. It was stomach retchingly smelly and he spoke very fast. It was also very slippery and I was trying hard not to fall into a pit as we traversed between them. I can tell you that the Berbers skins are camel and cows and the Arab skins are goats and sheep. Finally, we were deposited in the ‘exposition’ where Roisin was offered 7,000 camels for me. Photographs were taken, blankets and rugs were laid out before us, bags commended, to no avail. We were unceremoniously dumped on the front door step, feeling guilty. We did tip the boy who toured us though. The tannery had been worth it.

Now we felt au fait with the Berbers, we pushed our way through the actual Berber auction, though this had not been our intention, just a wrong turn. Skins lay all around. Men haggled. My phone was whipped. It was very irritating. Roisin had just told me off for keeping it in an outside pocket. I have all the trip, I said, I keep having to whip it out for the gsm. With no phone, now we were dependent on our map reading skills which even if Roisin didn’t keep turning it upside down were pretty useless in the Medina. But we found the Ben Youssef Medersa.

Of course, the Medersa had never been closed (though someone did corroborate the King’s brother story). It was full of people anyway, by the time we got there, taking selfie’s and photographs of each other in the courtyards, doorways. It was built in the 12th century as a school for boys who thirsted for knowledge. It had cloisters, prayer rooms, courtyards, and tiny monk cell like bedrooms. The wood was dark, ornate, carved, and painted in natural colours: indigo, cinnamon, mint, argave. The mosaic tiles were beautiful, and perfectly symmetrical. Like knowledge itself, the maze of corridors led you on and on.

After that we deserved a nice glass of wine. El Limoni, an Italian restaurant, was on our way home, on the one road we knew in the Medina. It had a lovely courtyard, a gorgeous mixed salad of crab, herring, ratatouille, cheese and local wine – all of which we enjoyed at our leisure.

Sunset

Later after further sunbathing and foot relief back at the Riad, we headed back down to Place Jameel to watch the sun set from a roof terrace. We were also graced with a flock of a hundred or so geese winging their way south, silhouetted in the orange sky. Roisin took photos. I wrote poetry. We then headed to another recommended bar which we were also advised to leave before 10.30pm as it got a little sleazy. It was already 9.30pm when we got there via a three mile trek along some of the plushest avenues, full of swanky villas, gleaming casinos, boulevards of palaces and apartments, creepy boys. We had stopped to ask directions from an older Arab looking couple who seemed to know where they were going but they were Parisian Arabs on holiday and didn’t. They would find out, and asked a taxi driver, arms gesticulating, finger shaking, heads nodding. This way. They led, we followed. Lost, they asked again when we came to the fanciest looking Casino I have ever seen. The doorman gesticulated something different. We thanked everyone, assured them that we now knew, and battered and beaten finally found The Comptoir. We joined the queue of sleek young, well dressed and coiffured men and women to get in. At the entrance we saw red plush velvet, gold gilt mirrors, high polished. There were chandeliers, tapestries, a double staircase with a beautiful black hostess booking people into supper. The glittery tinkle of coins and conversation mingled with the silence of high value notes and power. Is there a bar? We asked. We were pointed up stairs and trying to glide as best we could, we sat up on a bar stool amongst the cocktails, the magnums, the waiters polishing, flourishing bottles, mixing drinks while behind us the play boys and girls streamed in. After two glorious glasses of wine, we settled into our barstools. But it was time to go. The door man got us a taxi back and Sunday we rested, feet up and sunbathed.

Eid in the Atlas Mountains

Monday was Eid. The baying sheep across the medina were all to be slaughtered. We decided to go on a trip to the Atlas Mountains. We clambered on the bus which toured some pretty fancy hotels in the posh part of Marrakech picking people up.  We ended up a pretty mixed bunch. There was a bizarre African family with a wagon of a mother who ignored her sons, fingered every piece of jewellery, and loved having her photograph taken, pushing away her younger son trying to join her. The teenage son posed alone, regal, arms crossed, grim look on his face. The younger son scrabbled around, always wanting to be first of our possé, getting underfoot. The father was completely non-descript. All of them refused to even acknowledge us let alone respond to our greetings. There was an older English couple who hadn’t been told they were to go on a hike up the mountain but they managed with true English grit and wit. There was the young German couple from our Riad (an accountant and a logistics management student), another instantly forgettable young American couple, and two Muslim lads, Nad and Memet from Colindale in London with whom Roisin and I hooked up. They worked in Heathrow security. We hiked up to a wonderful waterfall high in the mountains, and had lunch in the river…literally, we left our shoes on the bank and chairs sank into the silt as you sat on them. It was absolutely gorgeous to have the water rippling around my poor hacked, blistered, embittered feet!

King of Crom in Marrakech

That night we decided to go the Piano Bar, as recommended in Rough Guide. The Piano Bar turned out to be in a five star hotel near the Place el Jameel and the piano player turned out to be on holiday. So we sat in the hotel courtyard beneath lemon and orange trees, near a 50 metre pool, in darkness and listened to live African drums and singing. And we ordered a bottle of wine. As we were about to leave we bumped into a man who turned out to be the King of Crom castle in Fermanagh who was offering to play CATS on the piano. Delighted, we joined his party who included the Queen of Cutra Castle in Gort. They had popped over to Marrakech for a birthday do. So good to meet the neighbours!

9,000 Camels and Cooked Sheep Heads

Our final full day was spent in the Bahia Palace (amazing symmetrical decoration) and the Souk, bargaining and buying, laughing, eating, and watching the heads of the sheep being cooked on coals in the streets and queues of people lining up by the butcher’s slab with sheep parts. Talking of animals, I was offered 9,000 camels for Roisin. Memet was quite impressed when we told him (we met the lads at the airport and waited together for our flights home). It seems he knew about camel prices. We never worked out why they barbequed the sheep’s head. Joseph had been disapproving when I told him about the queues of people getting the butcher to cut up their sacrificial sheep saying they should do it themselves but I didn’t ask him why they cooked the sheep’s head. I thought it might get lost in translation.

 

 

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The Little Prince and Others

I watched The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry  late last night on Netflix. I had read it as a child, and forgotten its tale, which is ironic given that it reflects on the loss of childhood innocence to the grim experience of the adult.

The first image in the film is a drawing of a boa-constrictor eating its prey whole. I sat up, suddenly alert. I remembered that drawing. I had copied it. And I had traced the illustrations of The Little Prince over and over again sitting in my little box bedroom with its pine cupboard, and dressing table, its fold up bed and the pine chest in which the bedclothes were kept, and on top of which I laid the green Clarke shoe box beds of all my teddies when they were sick. I could suddenly smell the wood, see the pattern of dark brown knots in the grain, and the Christmas tree lights flashing in the window of the house opposite on Christmas Eve.

I watched the film entranced, tears rolling down my face, as I saw The Little Prince watering his rose on a planet, talking to the aviator sitting deserted in the desert. Befriending the fox. Flying the red plane.  It was one of those moments where you suddenly realise that you are more than you seem: you embody a life time of boa constrictors, teddies, roses, little princes, magic, planes, travellers, all of whom you have forgotten, but these things are starlight buried inside you.

It was a similar experience when I saw excerpts of Kes while watching the excellent Ken Loach documentary this week. I had that same familiar stirrings of a different Kate to the one sitting here. It was an older, more nuanced Kate than the Kate reading The Little Prince. But the theme of Kes was the same. It showed the wilderness of childhood innocence and love juxtaposed against the constraints of the mean and bitter social systems adults impose.

It struck me that it was a far cry from the existentialists with whom an ancient Kate has been absorbed this summer as a result of reading Sarah Bakewell’s ‘The Existentialist Café’. Existentialism and phenomenology remind me of the thick black graffiti scrawl I saw scribbled everywhere in Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece in June. The philosophies of existence, intentionality, responsibility expounded by Sartre, Nietzshe, Heidegger, Husserl, are certainly the stuff of adults rather than children but maybe their philosophy evolves from that child hood perspective which is rooted in how the ‘I’ relates to the world, or conversely how the world relates to the ‘I’.

More recently, I read Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, which is a tour de force, and also examines the ‘essence’ of man. Mike was my fiction tutor at Galway. He arrived in class with hat and handouts.  I could listen to him for hours. He meandered easily through a world of fiction quoting, referring, with poetic grace and humour. When I left class, it was as if I had travelled in another realm. I have read Mike’s other novel and volumes of short stories. I found them quite different: quirky, with an awkward grace. I liked them but Solar Bones is wonderful. There is not one full stop as the protagonist meanders across the pages reflecting on his life as a middle aged son, husband, father and engineer who lives on the edge of the western world filled with rampaging growth and hedonism. There are wonderful descriptions of self, fatherhood, love and politics. They are poignant and humorous. It has a pertinent perspicacity fleshed out in convoluted wonder. It was like listening to Mike in class.

So, now, as I try and draw my summer learning together,  I find myself thinking…It is my personal responsibility to filter my individual experience and existence through the innocence of my childhood and revel in the present before I die.

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Hope Springs Eternal. Good luck, Jeremy.

When I rushed in from the garden last night to listen to the 7 oclock news,  relief is what I automatically felt most when I heard Jeremy Corbyn had been ‘automatically’ put on the ballot for the election of leader (though what is automatic about a seven hour meeting, I don’t know).

Having spent a life time in Labour Party politics back in the day (Thatcher/ratecapping/abolition of the GLC), I also wondered about the words of bitterness, irritation and anger that had been expressed in the room that afternoon. Finally, as I watched Jeremy emerge from the building, shaking hands and hugging his supporters, I also felt sad about the energy  Jeremy is going to have to find to plough and furrow the country over the coming weeks. I find myself wanting to shy away from the inevitable bitter clashes that are to come between him and Angela Eagle, the inevitable martyred tones, the heart wrung hands, the compressed anger, the rising passion, the embittered arguments between their supporters – theatre which will no doubt be performed in the sneering lights of the media. All this (and more) in the grim name of democracy.

I have just finished reading two of the Robert Harris trilogy about Cicero and the political intrigue in Rome in his battle for power with Crassus, Pompey and Julius Caesar (as well as many more. I just name the famous ones). It is clear that erudite speech, wealth, self-interest, and corruption are all key ingredients when it comes to politics – even 2000 years ago.

Interestingly, I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn has any of these political attributes. He is not a great speaker. He is certainly not in politics for self interest. He is not wealthy and definitely not corrupt (I don’t think anyone would demur from this). So, why does this principled man does not have the support of the other Labour MPs. I don’t know. Why do they not take his lead and help him build a party that is strong, unless they disagree with his policies. It has to be that. And why is this the case? I assume because it it is not in their personal interests. And that is the rub of politics. Politicians appear to generally perform out of self-interest, not intentionally so. The political intrigue becomes a game to which they are all yolked.

Personally, I believe in Jeremy’s anti austerity approach. I think we need to invest in communities and enable people to organise and manage their own lives within a structured equitable and legal framework. If we  live under capitalism, we need trade unions and strong government to represent the interests of people and off set the corporations, trusts and monopolies. I know Jeremy is a rare politician. He is honest, committed and hard working. I want him to win. I want him to be the finger in the political dyke. I want MPs like Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle, Margaret Hodge, Owen Smith  to work with him, not against him. But, the augers (much depended on by the Romans) are not good.

I don’t know why, when I read Imperium and Lustrum,  I was astonished that politics hasn’t changed in 2000 years. Why did I really believe that modern society had evolved into a better, more civilised and compassionate society? I simply thought that along with electricity, the NHS, penicillin, new technologies that we would have learned a more progressive and civilised form of political engagement, at least within the Labour Party.

Now back to the garden. I’m very sad that after my careful nurturing, my broad bean plants seem to have some disease that turns the blossom to dust. My runner bean plants are so thin and wiry that is hard to imagine them blossoming at all. Maybe, after turning my hands to politics in the last forty years, my fingers aren’t as green as they need to be. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Ah well, hope springs eternal!kate 001

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Musings From the Land of Democracy

Brexit, Birmingham and beaches were the key features of my summer holiday in Greece. Cousin Ruth guided us round Athens, its peninsulas, and the Peloponnese villages and coast, drinking, eating and arguing about the perils of politics, austerity, Brexit and recalling childhood memories of the Ennals clan back in Birmingham, Walsall to be more accurate. I hadn’t seen Ruth for nearly fifty years (it seems she had a madcap but interesting life waltzing between England and Greece) so I had forgotten she had a strong west midlands accent which was really odd to hear as we found each other in arrivals.

Ruth?

Are you, Kate?

You have a Birmingham accent!

You are so tall!

I was eight when she last saw me, and had grown somewhat since! So, having established who we were, off we went into the city and drank lots of Greek wine. It’s a family thing.

I like Athens. It is a big, lived in, somewhat down at heel, city. Big, black Greek graffiti adorns every possible wall. Police on big motorbikes, guns prominent, perch on corners, while the Greeks sit in cafes, drinking cold, iced coffee. In the middle of the city sits the Acropolis (not yet adorned with graffiti, thank God) sweltering on the hill. It was good but not half as good as some of the other ancient antiquities that we saw in our explorations of the country (Ancient Messines is a wonderful site, see photo below). I really enjoyed sitting, in the balmy night (40 degrees centigrade), on the balcony of my aunt’s flat, observing the neighbours across the road: the canary in its cage, the bent palm plants, bougainvillea blooms, the man in his vest eating, the bearded fella and his girlfriend watching TV, the woman in the flowery house dress, sweeping the floor.

What I liked best: Diavolitis, the Peloponnese mountain village where Ruth’s family come from. A lovely villa, with wooden floors, twelve foot high ceilings, and scarlet window shutters which you fling open in the morning to a cock crow, blue and green mountains, red terracotta roofs and the scent of lemon trees to welcome the world into your heart. A few miles away, the coast line of tavernas, anchovies, olives, salads, wine, and a thick, placid sea brimming with salt.

I also liked Thessaloniki to which we travelled on a graffiti blue train with no air-conditioning which overheated in the forty degrees. Saloniki, as it is known, is a city of marble pedestrianised boulevards, beautifully ornate buildings and mosaic squares, full of sunken antiquities. There were Greek Orthodox churches everywhere.  We went into St Demetrius, a pretty red and white bricked building with a rotunda and mosaics. A christening (baptism?) was taking place and the church was crowded with tourists. People crisscrossed each other, kissing the portraits or statues of Christ on the lips, breathing love and religion, crossing themselves, lighting candles, breathing in the fumes of sanctity. There was talking and praying, bowing and buying from the shop, chiming and chanting. A busy place! Inside the Ayia Sophia, next door, a dark, gloomy basilica was filled with streams of criss crossing light, as though cast by the hand of God. The furniture was carved, heavy, dark, ornate, and religious paraphernalia was stuffed, as if in an attic, everywhere: golden and garish portraits, confessional boxes, staircases leading to heaven, nooks and crannies all around; bronze stained candelabras hung from ornate, mosaic ceilings. I like kitsch, so it worked for me.

In Thessaloniki I fell in love with Ataturk and wished that I’d known him when I visited the house where he was born. It was a plain white villa with a neatly curated exhibition of his life with an extremely life like model woman in the corner to whom I apologised for blocking her view. When I realised she was not real, I found myself impelled to continue to address her for she looked so life like. Ataturk seemed to know what was right and what was wrong… for him, as a child, and for the world as a man. He was intelligent, gracious, gentle, clever, a natural leader. He will join Shakespeare, my father, and Gore Vidal at my proverbial dinner table. I do need to think about the women guests. I am really not sure how to partner those three. I think Jo Cox would be pretty ideal, may she rest in peace, and may her children forgive.

Which leads me back to the British referendum. On the 23rd, two hours ahead, I stayed up to listen to the results coming in. On referendum night, over our dinner of sardines and tomato salad, I remarked to Jerry that post referendum, the newspaper columnists would be bereft of news. How wrong I was! The next day, as soon as any Greek heard us speak, we were pounced upon and it was demanded of us to explain. We are from Ireland, we said, with some relief.

Everything that could be said about the Brexit and its fall out has been said. There is nothing new that I can add. Before the referendum, we had an extended family internet colloquy where aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces put forward their very different point of views. Afterwards, my daughter asked some-one to tell just why this vote was a good thing

I’m struggling to see any positive outcome from the Vote Leave. In fact it gets more miserable as I’m just meeting more and more secret racists pleased to say no to immigrants (despite having Irish/Indian parents…) and watching political egos tear any political ideals apart. So the Leave Voters – any future positives? Because I’m definitely not seeing the social unity or the democratic power of the people coming together to work to make a better England…Although I am now enjoying the pleasure of passport control flying back into London from home.”

It is sad that people have taken the Brexit vote as an opportunity to vent their racism. I hope that it is stamped out quickly by both the opinion-formers, the police and that people don’t just wring their hands as by-standers when they see or hear that happen, but intervene and have the courage to say something. Britain has had an amazing multi-cultural history and different peoples from different cultures and countries have lived side by side, if with some tension, for many years. It would be a tragedy if the people followed the lead of their politicians and began behaving in the same way.

I think Brexit was a vote of anger for many in Britain. People are disillusioned. There are no jobs, opportunities, crap education, and little hope in the future for the swathe of people in the Midlands and North that voted to leave. I don’t know if more people in the UK will lose jobs now: it seems likely.  Corporations will move (Easy Jet has indicated this already) and the financial sector will leave and the educated, middle class will follow. It seems sterling will be damaged (it already has been). Personally, I believe people need the summer to reflect on the implications of this vote and manage it carefully. But I am now applying for an Irish passport and we will transfer any pensions we have in the UK rather more speedily than we might have done.

My daughter asked, what is the positive side? It could lead to positive action to defend democracy and political beliefs. What can we do?  Join the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn certainly needs to overcome the corporate leaning, middle-class, self-interested MPs that have the majority in Parliament. We need people to get involved, fight the political egos, and participate in democratic politics.   We need people to commit to politics, and engage. A big ask, I guess, for young people who seem to be forced to  work 12 hour days in order to be able to enjoy a comfortable life style. I sometimes wonder if that is the ultimate aim of the big corporations: make people work so hard, stress them out so much but pay them well, so that they become dependent with no time to participate in society, other than child rearing.

Another thought has occurred to me. Having lived in Ireland for nearly 25 years, as an English woman, I have never really engaged with the culture of Irish politics or felt the right or ability to get involved. Fortunately, I worked in community development and was able to engage with my political beliefs there. But when people live abroad, do they engage less with a political system in which they were not reared? Do they feel less responsibility for the society they live in?

Well, I have to un-pack and take solace in the Greek ouzo and olives I brought home, and get out my Ouija board. I want to talk to Ataturk.

 

 

 

 

 

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Brexit

I have finally come to a decision about Brexit. I have read many articles, opinion pieces, listened to different views, tested my own tentative feelings out in discussion and generally felt anxious, upset and discombobulated by my instinctive reaction that the EU is not what it should be and needs desperate reform. I really don’t like the way it has treated Ireland and Greece. I don’t like the emphasis on corporate business and financial interests. I don’t like the support it gives banks as opposed to citizens. I do think people feel removed from the powers that be in the EU and reform is needed. I am not sure the Euro is ever going to work unless there is a common fiscal policy. I do believe in the power of local government in terms of empowering the individual and our ability to change our own lives so am not sure about supra-national powers (unless we become the United States of Europe and even then I would not be sure).

But I do believe in networking, co-operation, working together for change. I do think that change is more likely if we come together. If we are alone, outside of Europe, we cannot make change, and I do believe the likes of UKIP, Boris Johnson, and Gove in their personal bids for power will lead us into disarray, and further fragment our society and our values around human rights. I think the Schengen agreement is good, I believe in the social charter provisions, I am not sure about the Euro. But I do not think the Commission strips any of its members of our identity. Whether I like it or not, there is an English streak within me. That is why I would vote to remain on Thursday.

kate garden

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Listowel, Boys and Men

I have just returned to Cavan from three days and three nights at the Listowel writers week. It is a festival of wannabe, successful and dead (John B Keane features greatly), mostly middle aged, writers and celebrities. There is theatre, talks, interviews, trails, readings, classic conversation between hotel armchairs, glad handing and gossip in bars, music and workshops. Sun hats off to the Listowel Committee.

I enjoyed my three morning advanced poetry workshops with Tom McCarthy, a wonderful, erudite, and well read poet. I definitely benefited from his advice. He gave me a four year publication strategy which certainly will help guide me through the morass of the submitting process.

I stayed in McMahons in the centre of town. It was a tiny room but it became my nest, safe from all the strangers thronging the sunny streets outside. They weren’t all strangers, I saw a few familiar faces, and everyone was friendly and full of smiles before moving on, wishing me well. At a festival, everyone has somewhere to go, someone to see.

I enjoyed the poems, the readings, the river, the town park, watching the people on Ballyheigue beach. There were seven boys, half grown, giggling like girls, full of curses, treading gingerly in the break of the wave, beneath cobalt skies and mountains. They were beautiful. I watched them teeter out, waist high, arms out stretched, laughing and shouting instructions to each other. They formed a circle, holding hands and took the plunge, together as a man. And they raised their faces into a spray of silver salty sparkles, bubbles, waves, like mermaids, though they wouldn’t thank me for that description.

I didn’t write though. In fact most of the time, I felt awkward, like the smallest fish in the shoal. I tried to live in the moment, relish the minutes, but each one felt like a rather long a time. It is an exhausting business, mingling, talking to strangers, going into pubs alone, sitting next to town statues, eating, being convivial, alone. Next time I’ll bring a friend to share .

I did wonder if my age had anything to do with my feeling of loneliness. Yes, I thought, when I was young I wouldn’t have had the confidence or courage to go to a festival alone. It wouldn’t have happened. It’s not that I don’t like being alone. I do enjoy solitude. It’s being alone in a crowd that is a challenge.

By the way, Tom advised me on how to attract men to my next poetry workshop. Colm Keegan, are you reading this? You may be interested. Tom told me a tale about a chef friend of his who ran cookery classes in the evening. They were full of women. He decided to call his next workshop a Master Class and all the participants turned into men. There and then, I decided to call my next workshop a ‘Master Class’ but I thought better of it. I can’t imagine a workshop of men. Men! Think about it! Honestly, it would be really bizarre. An all men workshop.  I might write a story about it.

There…Listowel gave me inspiration after all!

music in the square listowel

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Art, Expression and Brexit

At one of the International Literature Festival events in Dublin last Friday, Margaret and I, along with similar looking and attired folk, filed into the upstairs bar of the Lord Edward pub next to Christchurch and scattered to the tables and stools. There, we were treated to a reading of Flan O’Brien’s drama, Thirst.

In Thirst, following the local sergeant’s arrival ‘after hours’ with his note pad, the audience is transported to a hot desert by Mr C who over a period of forty minutes described his war years as a duty bound soldier where the feet were caked in scalding hot sand so that the very skin peeled off, the throat was parched with arid dried sun and the water bottles had to be cast away because they were made of aluminium, the packs, guns, knives were the weight of elephants, the eyes were brimming with sand and dust, the sun was a furnace into which they travelled, indeed chased the enemy over dunes, and more (forty minutes more), all to convince the sergeant he needed a pint after hours, and indeed, we were all reaching for our glasses to quench our thirst. It was very funny, very Irish and a brilliant performance.

the thirst

I was less enthralled by Yianis Vouroufakis, though he is rather delightful on the eye and I am sure that if we were in one to one situation with a bottle of retsina (Ruth Ennals, are you reading), I would be totally charmed.

yianis varoufakis

He gave an absolutely devastating description of an EU which was undemocratic, unwieldy, in the hands of megalomaniac bureaucrats and indeed was set up as such a body from the very beginning. Yet after lambasting the mechanisms, behaviours, the corruption (he said that irrespective of the Greek decision to default, the EU paid the bankers and sent him the invoice), he believed that Britain should stay in. I couldn’t believe it. Yianis justified his view by saying you needed common standards, that the political loss would be huge and that the EU was already deteriorating because of its hubris. Speeding it up would create havoc. I wonder what propelled him to say this.

I have been alternating in my views about Brexit (although I don’t have a vote as I have lived more than 15 years in Ireland). My instinct and feeling is that the EU is a conglomerate of bankers and power elites which do not respect democracy and certainly put the interests of the rich and powerful first. However, I certainly do not want to be associated with UKIP, Gove and Boris Johnston who would appear to want to return to Little England, and have unpleasant and racist views about immigration and refugees. I believe firmly in human rights, international conventions, and the need to draw up fairer, equal policies in conjunction with the experience of other nations and countries. I believe we need to rethink what we want the EU to be. I am sure Mr Farage and others will not have in mind the kind of EU wide supports and network that I believe should be put in place.

Yianis described an unwieldy monster when he described the operation of the EU. And he was sceptical of its reform. He thought the Brits were damned if we did leave and damned if we didn’t. I think it is better to attempt change, and not fear it. Maybe the way to do this is to leave because at least it will change the status quo which at the moment is only providing people with unemployment, hysteria, right wing politicians and promulgating fear throughout society. Surely it is better to do something rather than nothing. Maybe this is the revolution, we just don’t know what revolution looks like any more.

Anyway, Yianis helped me think as did Lesley Courcof (an English friend of mine whom I met for lunch the next day before she left Dublin after seeing The Boss) and Margaret Barry with whom I went to the International Literature Festival events and who had to listen to my passionate ranting and ravings with a patience and a humour that only Margaret has. I thank them all.

My few days ended with a return to Cavan to see ‘Underneath’, a performance by Pat Kinevane at the Town Hall (to which, if you look back through my blogs, you will see previous references). ‘Underneath’ is about bullying, the power of the strong over the weak. He makes his point with sensitivity, humour, and his set is of the most beautiful, stark style. He is sinuous, sensual. His movements are graceful, his voice is huge. Performances like this is what we live for. Sadly, whether the EU exists or not, or Brexit happens or not, there will always be the weak and powerful. I just hope we will always have art and literature,  to help us reflect on our vulnerabilities and enable us to think, and listen. (Are you listening, Irish Government?)

Cheers

 

 

 

 

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