This is an interesting book even if it wasn’t the book I thought it would be! Peter Mayne moved to Morocco in the early 50s to write a novel. Instead of the fiction work he imagined, his time in the country resulted in this journal of his year in Marrakesh.
Having lived in Pakistan, Mayne knew something of the Muslim way of life but the year spent in Morocco proved to be eye-opening for many reasons. He was determined not to be seen as a tourist, to live in the old city even though this meant giving up the modern comforts, and to forge friendships with the local people.
The resulting journal is a record of his daily efforts to fit in. His accommodation changes several times and much of the book is taken up with efforts to secure a roof over his head on reasonable terms. He also talks about his relationships with locals who have different expectations about trade and financial understandings.
The time he writes about has passed and with it many of the attitudes expressed here by ‘westerners’ and the Moroccans. I expected a book where the author led us through the sites and gave us local flavour. He does the latter but only in as much as it relates to the business of buying, eating, seeking accommodation. There is little of Mayne himself revealed in this book. We do not find out much about him. I was keen to know how he could afford a year without income from any work. There is no hinterland of interest or experience. What we have instead is a picture of a city in a country before it went through great changes- Morocco became independent in 1956. He captures life in one place at one time and does it well. ‘A Year in Marrakesh’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This poem by the late, great Derek Walcott is a favourite.
Broad sun-stoned beaches.
A green river.
scorched yellow palms
from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.
Days I have held
days I have lost,
days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms.
This short book by Antonia Fraser is worth reading as an evocation of a specific time and place. Historian and writer Fraser travelled with her partner, the playwright Harold Pinter, to Israel in 1978. He was Jewish and she was not; she refers to the differing perspectives in her diary.
These are not anonymous travellers observing quietly in a strange country. It isn’t the type of travel book that shows the exotic. They have connections and know many of the great and the good of the country; at one point they dine with Shimon Peres, leader of the Opposition and future Prime Minister and President. The PM at the time was Begin, a controversial figure as far as Harold Pinter was concerned.
They visit the sites many tourists take in but this trip has access to many other areas. It is the actual diary Antonia Fraser kept while travelling, discovered recently by the author. It reads with the immediacy of a journal. These are not the carefully sculpted sentences of her historical works. It is worth reading for the sense of a journey taken and the growing relationship between two people.
I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This 2007 novel by Elizabeth Laird is the type of adventure story I loved as a boy but with one difference: she tells the story from both sides of the crusade in which the forces of France and England attempted to take back control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Adam is an English boy whose mother dies leaving him to take work in the castle under his Lordship. He starts as a dog boy but finds himself on his way to war when his Lord joins the Holy Crusade. Salim is a son of a merchant but he has a deformity that sees him apprenticed to a Jewish doctor who is heading home to Jerusalem. What the boys have in common is displacement from their families followed by involuntary involvement in a war. What they also share is a conviction that their cause is just. They are, however, on other sides of the conflict so when they meet they do not see each other as allies or friends.
The strength of this novel is the parallel narrative. We know, or can presume, that they will meet but under what circumstances? Their journeys take them to Acre. Adam finds himself serving as a squire and Salim assists his doctor. They should not meet except in battle but they do.
Elizabeth Laird uses her characters to explore this historical event from both sides. With both sides believing their mission is a holy one, the idea of right and wrong is explored through the motivations of Salim and Adam. The Jewish doctor allows the author to show the Crusade in the context of greater complexity as one faith against another. There is reference to historical figures such as King Richard and Saladin but the action is centred on the younger characters and it is the better for it.
Selecting a poem for National Poetry Day was difficult. This is the one that might have been chosen!
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labour in the weekday weather made
bamked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
It is National Poetry Day in Britain, so a poem is needed.
Night Song at Amalfi
I asked the heaven of stars
What should I give my love-
It answered with silence
I asked the darkened sea
Down where the fishes go-
It answered me with silence,
Oh, I could give him weeping,
Or I could give him song-
But how can I give silence
My whole life long?