Thursday 18 December 2008

Christmas 2008 and the ongoing battle between Hedonism and Humility


And, of course, hedonism usually wins by a clear margin for 99.999% of us.In the Old Testament, God describes the Israelites as a 'stiff-necked and stubborn people' so many times that he's obviously making an important point. And I think it's true for all of us. Now, God doesn't actually use the term self-centred to describe us but I do, because the truth is that most of us are self-centred, self-serving, consumed with our own needs to a greater or lesser degree (apart from people like Mother Theresa, although I bet that she occasionally put herself first).

Christians are reminded time and time again that they need to 'die to self'and to do things God's way rather than our own, but it's a very difficult thing to do because, let's face it, it's human nature. I've been attempting for a number of years to 'die to self' and I haven't even chipped away at the tip of the iceberg. I describe myself as a 'work in progress', just like most of my writing .

But before you think I'm wearing a sack-cloth, smothered in ashes and in a state of fasting as atonement, let me say that I'm most certainly not. I'm just acknowledging that, and I'm repeating myself here, it's human nature to put ourselves first far more than is good for us or the rest of mankind, and I'm the first to put my hand up and declare: 'Yes, I'm like that.' We all are. And that's one of the reasons why Jesus Christ was born in the first place - to save us from ourselves because we're not very good at doing it for ourselves.

For anyone who has read all of my blogs, it's no secret that I have been a Christian for nearly twenty years and am eternally grateful to be so.

So, as a Christian, this is supposed to be 'my time of the year' and yet I just haven't been feeling excited about the Christmas Story during the long, slow, monotonous build up to Xmas, which started in SEPTEMBER !!!, until I heard the interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury on this morning's BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Not only did I agree with what he had to say about the world's financial crisis but also it got me really thinking about the Xmas story.

Basically, what he argued was that this financial crisis is a real opportunity for us to re-examine the way we live. He maintained that the Government's borrow and spend solution to our financial problems was not the right way to tackle the situation. We should think, instead, of what we need rather than than what we want and that this over-reliance on financial wealth, consumerism and speculation using the Stock Exchange ultimately does not aid a healthy, caring society. When pressed on this for details, he laughingly said that for him to give precise financial advice was 'suicidal madness', which I thought was a great expression to use, but the suggestion was there that there is an alternative and far more rewarding approach. And I think that that's true: spending our way out of financial recession is just repeating the same materialist mistakes which got us into this mess in the first place.

Clive James repeated this idea in his hilarious ten minute slot on Sunday on Radio 4 at 8.50: 'A Point of View'. Making and selling goods is one thing, but making money just from money (note this, all you bankers, hedge fund managers etc,) can only lead to disaster. (That was the serious bit of his talk after nearly ten minutes describing how difficult he found wrapping presents, bribes to a daughter to do it for him, and his delight in finding a service that actually wraps presents badly to avoid suspicion from family members, well used to his inept wrapping skills using not quite enough paper or ribbon.)

And, and this is my thought now, borrowing for material goods when we can't afford them is poor budgeting. But unfortunately, in introducing student loans some time ago, the Government has given a clear message to young people that it's okay to go into debt. Ugh???

And this borrowing, spending culture leads onto my Christmas theme. I've felt for a long time now that we certainly are too hedonistic when it comes to Xmas. In fact, it can turn your stomach seeing trolleys piled high with food at super-markets and hear just how much parents spend on their children. I think we have spoilt our children, me included, to think that they can have everything they want. And often this means that we just give them what they want, without them having to do anything, which, in turn, means that they don't learn how to save and plan and actually earn what it is that they want. And the Archbishop of Canterbury would say, anyway, that 'what they want' should be replaced by 'what they need.'

Of course, there are many countries where large swathes of the population don't even have what they need, making the hedonism of Xmas even more unpalatable, and this highlights the enormous imbalances between the western world and third world countries. Although there is poverty in the UK, it pales into insignificance when compared to a country such as Zimbabwe, which is an international disgrace.

Robert Mugabe, a defeated politician who clings onto an illegal presidency, seems to have no care for his people, who are dying at alarming rates because of lack of food and clean water, cholera and other diseases whilst most of the hospitals and clinics are now closed. This man, who struts around like a peacock, living a life of luxury, and using the race card in a way that reveals that it is he who is the racist, is probably the best example in the world of the disastrous effects of hedonism.

Why don't the African countries in the area open their eyes to the fact that he is no longer the great saviour of Zimbabwe, the freedom fighter who liberated his people, but is now a cruel dictator, guilty of war crimes against his own people? South Africa et al should do what is right and proper and apply pressure on him to leave office peacefully because he won't take any notice of 'colonial white people'. Certainly, the longer they condone his presidency, then the greater is their betrayal of the African people.

And so, from a false saviour to the real thing: the Christmas Story.

Jesus, in fact, was probably not born on December 25th or even at this time of the year. (Most recent thinking is that he was probably born in April and that The Star of Bethlehem was actually Jupiter). Christians just hijacked the pagan celebration of the sun in December. As the days of winter became darker, the pagans were fearful that their sun-god had deserted them and so they devised celebrations to woo him back, which actually occurred naturally near the end of December. I don't mind Christians hijacking celebrations and making them into their own or reclaiming symbols like rainbows and angels, which have been hijacked by new agers, but it means that Xmas is a very artificial celebration, rather like the Queen's official birthday. So, trying to conjure up some special magic of the wonder of Christ's birth on Christmas Day, is something I find difficult to do.

However, the story of Christ's birth is a brilliant one - any writer would give their right arm to re-create a story as good as this one, with so many twists and turns, a seemingly tragic defeat and then, three days later, a wonderful victory. But if you unravel the details, then a different picture comes into focus, far starker than the simple nativity scene that we present to children. I'm not knocking that at all - I love to see the manger scene - the crib, Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the Wise Men. It's stunning and beautiful and totally right as a clear and simple representation. Forget the fact that the Wise men came much later, probably two years later. The crib scene is symbolic of it all.

But, for us adults, and, more pertinently, the present financial crisis, if we examine the early life of Jesus Christ, it's not the totally happy or comfortable scene that represents it. Because:-

a. Jesus's parents were unmarried at the time of his 'conception', which was more than sufficient reason for Joseph to ditch Mary, since she was supposed to be a virgin. He must have been a very special man to accept the excuse that the pregnancy of his fiance had been the result of Divine Intervention.

b. They were a very poor, very humble family - not the background that you would expect for a King.

c. They had to travel away from their home to Bethlehem for the consensus whilst Mary was heavily pregnant, risky with modern transport and even more so on a donkey on rough, unmade roads.

d. There was no comfortable room for them to stay in but a basic stable, which would have been uncomfortable, unhygienic and very smelly.

e. News of Jesus's birth enraged King Herod so much that he ordered the wholesale slaughter of all infants, thinking that this would include his rival, not realising that it was quite a different King who had been born; a King who had not come to rule but to sacrifice himself. It was only Joseph's dream warning of this slaughter, which prompted the family to escape to Egypt.

f. This meant that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees in a foreign country.

I had hoped to have this blog finished well before Xmas but I've had flu and regretfully drifted into a total sleep-do-nothing fest. It's now Boxing Day and this is the first time I'm even wanted to go on my computer. So, I hope that what I write now makes sense. (If it ever did when sans-flu.)

g. Once back in Nazareth, Joseph died at some stage, we don't know when, so Mary was head of a one-parent family.

Now, what I find so relevant about the early experiences of Jesus Christ, was that they were both tough and dangerous. The joyful manger scene was short lived, to be replaced by persecution and difficulties. It's what I call 'the bitter-sweet' nature of life. Jesus had to live with this tension all his life and certainly at his death. But yet, he still enjoyed life and that's a wonderful example to us all and why I'm not wearing sack-cloth etc.

For we live with this tension, too. There will always be problems in our lives, no matter who we are, whether we are rich, well-off or poor, no matter what our age, gender, religion, culture or sexual persuasion. And even if everything is hunky-dory most of the time, then knowing that people are being killed, starved, enslaved and devastated by man-made atrocities or natural disasters in many parts of the world, leave an uneasy feeling for most people. The secret is to find the balance, like Jesus, within this 'bitter-sweet' existence: living as fulfilling a life as possible without being complacent and to do what we can to help as much as we can. We are certainly not asked to carry the world's problems on our shoulders, thankfully. That's Jesus's job.

And this 'bitter-sweet' tension is no more keenly felt on Xmas Day in this country. It should be a day of celebration, not only for the birth of Jesus but also enjoying the closeness of not just family and friends but also in acknowledging strangers to whom it is perfectly acceptable to greet on Xmas Day. But for many, Xmas Day is a nightmare to be endured: the pressures of providing too much food, too much drink, too many presents, everything being perfect, takes its toll on all those who are hosting the day (I should know - I've done it often enough. Xmas lunch is notoriously the most difficult meal to prepare because there's so much of it, all needing different cooking times. Luckily, John became the master of such planning, with a military precision that is a sight to behold, but even so, whilst your guests are getting merrier and louder, you, the providers, are reduced to semi-exhaustion in a hot, steamy kitchen.)

And then there are the family tensions, which often come to the surface with the emotion of the occasion and the surplus of alcohol; people who don't have family nearby or have no family at all; those who are homeless, in debt, have lost their job or about to lose their job, and so on and so on.

I guess that I'm making two points here. Firstly, the Xmas we celebrate in this country often has little to do with the birth of Jesus and, secondly, it is dreaded by many people. So, something's wrong. Big time.

And we seem to have forgotten that Jesus had a particular affinity to all those scorned by society: the poor, prostitutes, those who are ill, the homeless, those whose lives are in danger. And during the three years of his ministry, Jesus accepted and enjoyed the company of society's outcasts as well as those with money. In other words, not only did he come for everyone, rich and poor alike, but he was especially drawn to the unfortunates in life and although he did, on occasions, say: 'Go and sin no more' he often did not.

He came, as he said,'to save not to condemn'. And I'm just wondering here just how much the Christian Churches or Western Governments totally embrace that kind of message. My own church does a lot of work abroad, particularly in Africa, so I know that good work is being done. And St Martins in The Field, that famous church in the centre of London, does incredible work helping homeless people learn new skills, finding accommodation and jobs, and hopefully, will have raised a significant amount of cash after their Xmas appeal on Radio 4.

I acknowledge that sometimes church leaders speak out about Zimbabwe, Iraq, the direction the government is taking in this financial crisis etc. But, only too often we hear the condemning, dogmatic side of the church. Look no further than the Pope's recent condemnation of homosexuality, likening it to the destruction of our world due to global warming. These are people he is talking about!

I certainly don't remember, anywhere in the gospels, Jesus condemning whole swaves of people to eternal damnation because they were gay. Perhaps I missed that part and someone from the clergy could leave a message on this blog, quoting the relevant chapter and verse. Or the role of women in the church. I think that it's essential to re-examine our interpretations of the Bible from time to time to sort out what is valid today and what reflects cultural thinking of the time. For example, slaves were accepted in Jesus's era but we now legislate against it because slavery is disgusting. That is an abomination, I would say

So, back to Xmas. I'm definitely not saying that we shouldn't have fun. Jesus loved having a good time, eating and drinking and enjoying the company of friends and so should we. And giving and receiving presents at Xmas time can be a lot of fun but what I'm suggesting here is that we should tone down the expense and the hype and remember all those who are far worse off than us and actually do something positive. For example, Oxfam have a scheme called Unwrapped ( where you can donate animals, clean water supplies etc to families in third world countries and I'm going to do that next year and probably in January. Why wait until Xmas 2009?

And perhaps this looming recession will make us think about what is really important in life and that helping each other is far more rewarding than anything else. And we're already seeing it: electricians forsaking their own Christmas's to restore power to homes in Lancashire. This economic crisis is yet another 'wake up call', like 9/11, 7/11, the Boxing Day tsunami. Are we going to listen to it ? I really, really hope so.

And so to our Xmas here. I had originally intended to write about my childhood memories of Xmas, which give me great pleasure, and not this serious 'essay' about hedonism versus humility, but I guess my own 'bitter-sweet' thoughts on Xmas just hijacked the blog and I'm glad that it did so because, in my own mind, I've put a number of things into perspective.

Since I was 15, Xmas has always been a difficult occasion for me because my dad died just after Xmas in 1964 and since then, some pretty horrible things have happened to me around this time of the year. So, like it or not, with the excitement and plans come some pretty horrible memories. Some people can switch off from these things but I can't.

However, I have had some great Xmases in between the awful ones and this year has been notably enjoyable despite all our plans going array.

Morocco was not an option this year (now that's a fantastic way to spend Xmas) so originally John and I were going to have a very low-key day, taking the dog for a walk on Sandbanks beach and chilling out in the evening. But on a recent visit to Glastonbury to see John's new-found sister, she invited us to her Xmas do and we jumped at the chance. I adore everyone in our new found family - they are such amazing fun - and the thought of a large family Xmas with people I actually like gave me much pleasurable anticipation.

We booked a room for the night in a nearby hotel and stocked up on goodies for the meal - Xmas pud, creams, chocolates, cheeses and wine. And then I got this bl.... flu and was confined to bed. So we decided that John would go to the party because he had half the meal and I would be sleeping anyway and I stayed at home. I've never, ever spent Xmas alone before and to be honest, I really enjoyed myself. I slept all the day (getting up briefly to watch the Queen's speech) and then rolled out of bed to have a tele fest: Doctor Who, EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing, Wallace and Gromit, and the fabulous Royal Family Xmas dinner, where, of course, everything went wrong but nobody minded and they ending up with a sing-song.

As someone famous said (was it Woody Allen or John Lennon?): life is what happens while you're busy making plans.

But the most enjoyable part of Xmas was listening, snuggled up in bed, of course, to the King's College Festival of Carols on Radio 4 at 3pm on Xmas Eve. And then the magic of Xmas and the miracle of Jesus flooded the room and I felt very, very content

It is now New Year's Day (I don't think I've ever spent so long on one blog but what the heck. I've enjoyed writing it and perhaps I've banished those nasty Xmas ghosts. And I'm certainly looking forward to next Xmas because I've definitely not had enough turkey.

So, all that's left to wish you all a Happy New Year and may you feel a sense of peace and the strength to tackle whatever is ahead.

Sunday 7 December 2008

Anniversary of John Lennon's Death

I heard the news today, oh boy... Yes, I heard on radio 4 - the Eddie Mayer Sunday Broadcasting House programme - that tomorrow is the anniversary of the death (murder) of John Lennon and it reminded me of how I first heard that news all those years ago.

Both Lou,who was about six, and I had bad colds and were in no fit state to go outside, where there was heavy snow and biting North East winds, so had stayed at home. This meant that Lou had not gone to her primary school not far from our home and I had not walked to my school where I was an English teacher. We both hated being off school (strange but true) so to cheer ourselves up, we were making Xmas tree decorations at the kitchen table, which was littered with coloured card, glue, glitter, cotton wool and felt tip pens.

This was in our little terraced single storey house in South Hylton, near Sunderland. It was a traditional North-East house: small garden at the front with a fence separating it from the road, or, in our case, the rough ground that was great for the kids to play on, bedroom at the front, hall way leading to small sitting room with a gas fire, smaller bedroom leading off the sitting room, long, narrow kitchen beyond the sitting room then a lobby with a cupboard and finally the bathroom. And at the back, down a fight of stairs, was a useless piece of grass (because it never got any sunshine.) That's where I kept my motor-bike until it got nicked, which was probably a very good thing because a. with me in control, I probably put my life in danger every time I rode it and b. I was forced to walk to work and very quickly lost half a stone in weight and c. it meant my mother could breath easy again.

The kitchen was definitely the warmest room in winter, the other rooms being very cold because we had no central heating but it was the first house I had ever bought and I loved it dearly. I had decorated it throughout, kept it very tidy and clean (to my mother's surprise!) and even, when I could afford it, had a phone installed!

This house cost the princely sum of £7,250 and I was lucky enough to get a 25 year mortgage with the council, which cost me £60 per month, because I was an employee. This was in the days when mortgages were not easy to get and your eyes may temporarily water at the thought of such low prices.

So, Lou and I were keeping warm in the kitchen, making these decorations and listening to Radio One when the news came on that John Lennon had been shot dead outside his block of flats in New York.

First I felt shock and then disbelief and then a sickening realization that the world had changed, yet again, for the worse,and that our lives would, in some way, be different. He was such a talented writer and musician and he had died so needlessly: shot by a guy who merely wanted fame. Sick. Very sick.

The Beatles were the most influential music group in my life became they burst upon the scene with such enthusiasm and excitement and it was just wonderful to be a teenager at the time. We could identify with these four dishy guys who came from ordinary backgrounds whose music was just fantastic. Still sounds good today, too. Classics. Most of the snogging parties I went to as a teenager had the Beatles songs playing loudly as an accompaniment. Wonderful, wonderful memories.

A couple of months ago, John and I were watching a late night music programme featuring a guitarist (whose name I can't remember) who played a solo instrumental version of 'I heard the news today...' and it was absolutely sensational. Inspired by this, I intend to get the sheet music so I can learn the lyrics and sing them in the bath and on the beach (with no-one else around.)

Who knows how John Lennon's music would have developed had he still been alive. But we were deprived of that on that awful day so many years ago.

For me, I will always remember that day.I no longer teach any more (yeah!) and Lou is now a teacher herself, the decorations lasted for years until they fell apart but that day will always remain an important part of my history.

There have been other days, too, that I still remember clearly because the events that happened on that day touched me greatly: the day we could have had a nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis, the day John F. Kennedy was shot dead, the day Elvis Presley died, the day Natalie Wood died, the day Turkey invaded Cyprus, the day Princess Diana died, the day Paula Yates died, 9/11, 7/7, the Boxing Day tsunami. All terrible days.

But on a lighter note, I know exactly what I was doing on the day that Charles and Diana got married because I painted my back yard door green (my little terraced house in South Hylton), rushed in to watch Diana get out of her coach (couldn't believe how crumpled her dress was) and in the evening went to a very early Xmas party and met John. And reader, I married him...

P.S. If you have a special memory of some momentous day, write about it on this blog (under comments).

Ky-Mani Marley song 'No Woman No Cry'

John has just posted Ky-Mani's live performance of 'No Woman No Cry' at the 2008 Essaouira World Music and Gnawa Festival on his You Tube site stupid. Have a dekka because it's pretty cool.

P.S. Over the Xmas holidays I plan to learn how to provide direct links on my blog so it should make life easier for anyone wishing to switch over.

Monday 13 October 2008


View from our balcony at Albergo Teresa in Laigueilia (Yes! Yet another balcony!)

John and I were fortunate enough to spend a few weeks in Italy in September doing very little apart from being beach bums and propping up various bars and restaurants, reading (John read NINE books!) and enjoying the company of the friends we have made in Laiguelia over the many years we have holidayed there.

I know we're now well into October but since our return I have been v.busy rewriting my introductory letter and synopsis for my recently finished novel - Cyprus Blues (another rejection from an agent greeted my return and I reckoned I needed to totally revamp my pitch)- writing the first chapter of my new murder/mystery novel Winchester Blues (Yeah! I've actually started it!) and the laborious task of washing dirty clothes and putting them away.

Both my camera and i-pod, sadly, did not survive the holiday (too much sand, I fear) but I have now downloaded the pics I did manage to take and they're just too good to leave in a folder. And, I wanted to tell you about this wonderful Italian seaside town of Laiguelia that we discovered years ago, purely by chance.

John had been in Nice on a business conference and I had tagged along for the ride. And afterwards, we decided to spend the next week driving through Italy until we found somewhere nice to stay.

We took the coastal road and the scenery was absolutely magnificent. Both the coastal road and the autoroute are way above sea level (you have mountains to one side of you and deep drops down to the coast on the other side) so you get a birds eye view of Nice, Menton, Monaco and then, into Italy, Ventagmilia, San Remo (we have found a fabulous beach restaurant here - Hippocompo - where they do spaghetti with clams, homemade cake and ice-cream to die for) and lots of other Italian towns dotted along the coast where the river beds have gouged out valleys from the mountains to the sea.

Nothing, though, was what we were really looking for (somewhere small and unspoilt) until we rounded the bend of the road, several hours drive from Nice, and came upon a most glorious bay with two towns straddling either side: firstly Laiguelia (Colin Firth, apparently, spent a holiday here) and then the larger Alassio (Earnest Hemingway lived in Alassio for a while, Frankie Howard holidayed here (is that a claim to fame?) and there's a brilliant wall next to the park which has probably a hundred or so artistic ceramic tiles attached with all kinds of fascinating pictures and designs).

But it was Laiguelia that we loved straight off. We had lunch there, by the sea, and decided we'd like to stay there. Our first attempt at finding accommodation, though, was a disaster. We went into one of the many cake shops and asked if they had a room. The woman behind the counter must have thought that we wanted a room for the afternoon for a bit of illicit hanky panky and shooed us out of her shop with her broom! We've seen this lady serving behind the counter many times since then but she's made no sign of recognizing us.

Both Laiguelia and Alassio have roughly two sections: the medieval old town with narrow, traffic-free streets and ancient buildings, most of them shops, running parallel to the beach, and the more modern section beyond the road and railway line, rising up into the hills as far as modern technology can reach. (The railway line runs between Nice and Genoa, really close to the sea, and must be one of the world's most beautiful railway journeys.)

Entrance to the old town of Laiguelia

Anyway, we reckoned we'd find somewhere to stay on the other side of the road, in the modern section, and we very quickly discovered the charming little family-run hotel called Tre Ciuffi (three trees) with a small room with a balcony looking towards the sea. Sorted!

And we continued to return there for several years until, one year, our room was double booked and we stayed for a few days at Albergo Teresa, just a short distance away: another small, family run hotel. And, yes, they also have rooms with balconies facing the sea and, to our delight, a much better selection for breakfast (well, these things are important)and we liked the family a lot so we have continued to go there ever since. It does mean that I have lost the wonderful mirror on one of the floors of Tres Chuffi that always made me look at least ten years younger and several dress sizes smaller (must have been a trick of the light!) but one can't have everything in life.

View of Laiguelia from the beach

View of Alassio from La Scogliera

One of the things we love about returning to Albergo Teresa, is that we usually meet the same holiday makers every year and it's a real joy to meet up again, even just to shake hands and say a few greetings, most of us only really knowing our own languages, although John has learnt a smattering of Italian. But I need to say a big hi here to MICHAEL and CARLO, from Germany, who know quite a lot of English. We have discovered a shared love of dogs and proudly show photos of our dogs to each other. Also hi to JAN-FRANCO, TERESA, ESMERANDA and the fantastic KATALINA (Teresa's baby girl who is absolutely gorgeous.)

Also, a hi to DANIEL BYRNE and his partner from London. We were sitting next to them at Le Safari Restaurant in Nice on our first night and got round to chatting, as you do, and discovered a shared interest in music and so we 'educated' them about The Essaouira World Music festival. By the way, if you're looking for a great place to eat in Nice, look no further than Le Safari Restaurant in the old town: it has an incredibly wide selection of food, particularly speciality dishes from the region, and plenty of outside seating. It's usually chock-a block so we always book in advance. As you're probably realizing, food plays an important part of our lives!

Another view from the balcony of Albergo Teresa

John on the balcony with the railway station house in the background

Me on the balcony

Me on the balcony wearing my new Loominellie pashmena plus a hat I bought from a second hand stall in Laiguelia for 5 euros and a maroon body and black mesh top from Florence, costing significantly more than 5 euros!

We spend most of the day on the beach. Even if it's raining, which can sometimes happen (yes, even in Italy!), there are overhangs you can shelter under. And I swim in the sea several times a day which is far better than in a swimming pool although considerably more dangerous: I was told off by lifeguards this year for swimming too far out in rough water and I knew they were right so I switched to swimming parallel to the shore when the sea was particularly choppy. There have been times when the waves have been crashing one after the other way out to sea so it's almost impossible to swim so then we just 'play with the waves', trying to jump over waves as they break, getting knocked over and diving under the breaking crest. Scary but fun.

Me on the beach (I look much better out of focus!)

Most of the beaches of both Laiguelia and Alassio have small restaurants (serving excellent food!) with beach beds for hire but we always go to the public beach and lay out a large blanket, our lounger pads, various bags etc and literally camp out, which is far more enjoyable and allows us plenty of space.

For several years we saw the same couple, always in the same place, on the beach and speculated who they were because the guy looked, to us, like a personal bodyguard to the the woman he was with: usually standing with a cigarette in hand surveying the beach. Eventually, though, we plucked up the courage to say hello and they turn out to be a delightful couple - FRANKO and LOUISE - who both work for the Italian Post Office. So much for speculation then! We can manage a fair bit of conversation and it's always a pleasure to see them again.

When it's coffee time, we usually leave all our stuff and walk the several hundred yards to La Scogliera , a restaurant on the beach that denotes the start of Alassio. So another hi here to ETTORE and RENATA, who run the place, and OLGA, the waitress. Last year they had a Moroccan waiter called MOHAMMED and he, naturally, was a great fan of Gnawa music. John took his large i-pod player with us so Mohammed could listen to some of the Essaouira Festival recordings and so we had a little bit of Morocco on an Italian beach. Sadly, he wasn't there this year. I guess that that's the way of things in the catering business.

We usually have lunch at Bagni Lino , which is a fair old trek the other way and there's another hi coming up - to OLIVERO, LANDAR, LAURA and MARCO. They do fantastic salads (tuna, tomato, mozzarella cheese ; lettuce, carrots, sweet corn, mozzarella; tuna, butter beans and egg) and enormous foccacia sandwiches. Our favourite filling is anchovies with thick slabs of butter, which is scrumptious. I usually scrounge some of John's lunch and then have a Magnum, which is one of my many indulgences. (Sorry, did I say many? Of course, I mean few!) For years we would see a group of German and Swiss holidaymakers having lunch here and eventually started to say hi and this year we even got to talking and I scrounged a cigarette. So, hi to BERNARDO and UTE VOEGTLIN, from Switzerland. And guess what! They are music fans, too, and enjoyed the Essaouira Festival CD that John gave them.

Normally, there are so many people on the beach that we are quite happy leaving our things but there was one year, on a day when the weather wasn't so good and the beach was almost deserted, that some sod stole everything apart from my shoes. So now, if the beach is very quiet, we haul everything up to the car and then haul it down again. Generally, we feel very safe in Laiguelia but there are, sadly, thieves everywhere and it was foolish of us to think otherwise.

La Scogliera with one of the resident dogs (he was just a puppy last year)

Bagni Lino

John on the beach near La Scogliera

By late afternoon, when the sun is slowly sinking, most people, including us, head for the town and the beach becomes a rich source of dropped food for the seagulls.

Seagulls on the beach

Seagulls on the rocks

In town, now ready for yet more refreshments, we alternate between the main cafe, Al Mole, or the main pub, Al Galeone, run by another friend, Antonio, (both close to the beach) and watch the world go by. Here, there's usually still sunshine so there are still lots of people on the beach and children playing on the slide and it's a lovely sight to see the sun illuminating the towers of the church (which dominates the town), giving the illusion of shimmering gold.

Al Mole

Al Galeone

One of the waiters at Al Galeone

As for supper, there are so many restaurants in Laigueilia that it's impossible to get around them all in one holiday. By far the most popular place is Le Pecan, which serves the best pizzas you could wish to eat: very thin, crispy bases and a mind boggling choice of toppings.

But quite frankly, the best place to eat is at Albergo Teresa, where the chef makes pastry to die for. You get the traditional four courses of Italian cuisine: ante-pasta, pasta, il secondo (either meat or fish with veg) and desert. It's a very filling experience and one that we can't indulge in too often otherwise we'd get very fat but the food is absolutely scrumptious.

Because the town is hemmed in by sea and mountains, neither Laiguelia or Alasio can be over-developed, so it provides a much needed sense of consistency in this ever changing world of ours. But, even so, we do see changes e.g. shops or restaurants changing hands, but what was very striking this year was how expensive everything has become. Of course, there's the weak pound against the euro effect but the actual prices are much higher, too. Also, as with Essaouira, we've seen the rapid decline in the fishing industry. When we first started going to Laiguelia, there would be loads of little fishing boats chugging back to shore in the evening. Now there are very few and most of the fish in the restaurants is frozen.

Most if not all of the hotels and beach cafes will be closed now and perhaps some of the shops so the town is sure to have a different feel to it. But we'd still love to buy a house there so we can stay longer (this in spite of the fact that in principle I don't really approve of second homes because of the damage part-time residency does to an area). So, I'm buying a lottery ticket every week and we've found the house that we'd like and it is actually for sale. So fingers crossed!

P.S. Forgot to mention that Laiguelia was the inspiration and setting for my very first accepted short story for publication, called, unsurprisingly, September in Italy. (Quality Women's Fiction). It was rejected, at first, because there wasn't enough description and imagery so, somewhat peeved, I re-wrote it dripping with description and imagery and it worked! Yippee! So, thank you Laiguelia.

P.P.S. Since writing this, I had four numbers on my lottery ticket, which is a first for me. However, the £53 I won won't stretch as far as a house in Laigueilia!

Wednesday 3 September 2008


On Saturday evening John and I and friend Hilary, who we met in Morocco in June, went to the Winchester Discovery Centre to watch these three acts. The place was absolutely packed and there were loads of people sitting on the stairs and at the side, which tells you something of the popularity of these artists.

It was quite a nippy evening when we went to the previous concert there, a few months ago, so I was quite togged up, but it would have to be the hottest evening of what I loosely term our summer, and very humid so it felt like a sauna to me. However, I was the one laughing when we went outside during the interval because all those ladies in sleeveless dresses looked frozen. Strange what silly things seem to stick in my mind!

However, the music was, yet again, excellent.

The first act was Mr James Bright,a sort of folk singer/guitarist accompanied by a super tabla player, who wore a ring on one of his toes.

The second act was a group called Stornoway, from Oxford, and they presented a very different style of music using lots of different instruments and sounds and occasionally featuring two excellent violinists. The lead singer, Brian, a skeleton of a man with an enormous voice and dressed straight out of Oxfam, with a jaunty Bob Dylan cap, was most charismatic in an unusual sort of way, with plenty of funny stories about his time with the RSPCA. They produced a very exciting sound and are about to release an album, which I hope does well.

And then, after the break, we had Polly and the Billet Doux.

Half of Winchester appear to have had some kind of virus that leaves an unpleasant cough (I am coughing, myself as I write although Corvonia seems to be helping a lot) and Polly was suffering similarly. Although hidden from sight, she had an array of medicinal aids in front of her which her group were keen to point out and joke about: an enormous piece of root ginger, lozenges, cough mixture, a liquid which looked like pee and a glass of red wine (which Polly claimed was helping her the most).

If it had been me, I would have cancelled and curled up in bed, but Polly is a real pro (in the nicest possible way) and the show went on. How she managed, I do not know, but apart from a couple of times when she opened her mouth and nothing came out, she belted out her numbers with an alarming and spine-tingling strength.

Boy, does that girl have a voice and a half!

This group not only sounds good but they look good, too. Polly was wearing her customary red dress, black cut-off tights, little black top and a red flower in her long, brown hair and she just looks special. They all do. When I get back form Italy, where I shall collapse onto the beach and stay there apart form eating, drinking and sleeping, I intend to send a sample of her music to Jules Holland and Loose Ends (Radio 4 (I am a radio 4 devotee)) because they would be great on both shows.

This is a group with a sparkling future.

To hear more, log onto

Talking of which, John was in San Jose a few weeks ago on business and his hotel just happened to be opposite the San Jose Jazz Festival. He had taken his camcorder (his most treasured possession) to make some recordings for his work but he took the opportunity to record some of the gigs and they are pretty damn good.

You know, I'm thinking this about my writing as well as the music John records. I'm not so sure that I want to get involved with the big, commercial money-making, cynical business people in publishing/recording. It's much more fun to play/write direct to an audience. Might not make mega-bucks but it does mean that you can maintain integrity and not be bullied and bossed about by the guys in grey.

Answers on a postcard! (Sorry, Polly, I've stolen your idea but I did tell you on Saturday Night that it was a great saying that I'd like to pinch for my writing!)

Monday 25 August 2008


Despite my initial doubts about these Olympics, as recorded in an earlier blog, (the human rights issues, Tibet, the smog, the cynicism about drug cheats etc), I am not too proud to say that I got it wrong.

The Beijing Olympics were, in my opinion, absolutely fantastic and I'm very sad that they have drawn to a close but extremely excited that London will be hosting the next Olympics in 2012.

So, what changed my mind? How was I so seduced into singing lyrical about it all now?

Well, firstly that opening ceremony. How could anyone not have been overawed by the sheer sumptuousness of the colours, the costumes, the choreography, the inventiveness of the movement that ebbed and flowed, creating tableau representing aspects of China's history?

And then, when the Games started for real, suddenly, dramatically and wonderfully, it shifted from being all about China and completely about the athletes and their events...

And on the second day, Team GB (sorry, Northern Ireland - it should, of course, be Team from The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and sorry, also, to the Isle of Man etc. It would seem that giving an all-inclusive name for the team has not, as yet, been devised) got its first gold medal in the cycling road race, in the rain, which bodes well for 2012. Good idea for athletes to expect and cope with rain in Beijing because they'll get LOTS of it in 2012!

And then the medals just kept on coming at an alarming rate and I, like the majority of people, was gob smacked at just how well the GB team were doing and it wasn't just all the medals: so many athletes were in finals, sometimes coming fourth, which is pretty bloody good, performing personal bests or having a valuable taste of the Olympics, like Tom Daley, in preparation for 2012, or just being selected in the first place.

We are so used in Britain to thinking that when it comes to such things as world sport, we're very much the poor relations and losing, often badly, has become second nature to us. I'm thinking here particularly of the English football team. My heart sinks when I know that they're playing because I know what's going to happen and then I'll shake my head and wonder how so many talented footballers can hardly kick a football accurately on a football field, never mind win. Are they too pampered, too rich, or too wagged out to give a damn?

Try as I may not to be partisan, just wanting the best athlete to win, whatever country they represent, there's nothing quite like watching your own countryman/woman winning a medal, particularly a gold. I guess it's that primitive tribal instinct we all have of wanting our 'tribe' to win. And far better that countries compete like this instead of fighting each other. (I thought it was really sneaky of Russia to invade Georgia at the beginning of the games when the world's attention was elsewhere: it reminds me so much of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 when the Turkish army took advantage of an internal situation to cause utter devastation.)

But back to the Games. Because of the time difference, I didn't see too much of the action live but I did see most of the rowing because that was when I was having breakfast and it was wonderful to watch these races with the bows going forwards and backwards in a relentlessly challenging rhythm and how vital it was to get the timing right. Shouted myself hoarse, of course. My favourite image was when one of the GB coxless four pulled off his hat at the end of the race, when they had just grabbed gold, his long bleach-white hair cascading around his face in slow motion.

I also saw live the disputed Taekeedo (is that how you spell it?) match where the GB girl should have won her quarter-final because of her kick to her opponent's face (charming) but wasn't initially given the 2 marks for such a move, enabling her to win. The commentators were getting really excited about the prospect of controversy (so important in journalism these days) and the Chinese crowd were obviously getting agitated, thinking that their girl had won. It was really good that the decision was reversed but hardly surprising that the GB girl lost in the semi-final amidst a chorus of booing. However, she did win a bronze in the play off bout which was something of an achievement.

Another memory that stays with me is the amazing way that Usain Bolt sauntered past the finishing line in the 100 metres, striking his chest with pride. Now that really is a cool way to win. One thing that puzzled me, though, was where were all the bulky black American guys in the sprint races because they usually dominate. I must admit to wondering whether improved drugs testing has had a beneficial result in putting off the cheats. I don't know enough about the science of such tests and no doubt performance enhancing drugs are being/are already developed which are difficult to detect but I hope the technology to detect them is also being developed. There were only about 6 athletes who tested positive for drugs this Olympics, which has to be on the low side compared with previous Games, and it does give us some hope because when you suspect that cheats are winning, it devalues the Games. And I also think that drugs cheats should be banned for life, particularly given new evidence that the enhancing effects of such drugs remain long after a 2 year ban has been completed.

And now to the closing ceremony!

I was so determined to watch this ceremony, particularly the 8 minute GB slot, that I not only missed church but also my usual daily swim and John had to take Archie for his walk all by himself whilst I had a total Olympics fest.

I have to firstly mention Boris Johnson, because I was so chuffed that he was representing London and, for me, his eccentric, casual, slightly buffoonish manner was so refreshing to witness. "We're bringing pin-pong home!" he declared triumphantly, adding some humour into what was essentially a humourless Games. And this is where one of London's strengths lies: we're not going to get our faces so up our arses that we can't laugh at ourselves!

Having seen Boris Johnson on 'Have I got news for you' on a number of occasions, I've always had a sneaking suspicion that there was a steeliness to him that sometimes emerged briefly through all the buffoonery. I know he's made a few very public gaffs but at least the guy says it as he sees it, which is almost unheard of in a politician, so I hope he makes a good show as mayor of London.

And then we had the 8 minutes slot.

I already knew about the bus and David Beckham but I had no idea how it would all materialize, wondering how on earth it was going to match the grandeur (like an extravagant 1930's Hollywood movie) of the Chinese displays. Would there be hundreds of dancers in fancy costumes performing a ritualised dance routine, perhaps?

Of course not.

What we had was a pacy video reflecting aspects of London life, featuring a red double decker bus which appeared, as if by magic, in the stadium and a small group of dancers acting out the process of waiting for a bus by a zebra crossing. Perhaps it's because I'm British and it was all so familiar to me, but I absolutely adored it. It was low-key, very 'street theatre' (which we do so well) and it was immediately recognizable as reflecting ordinary life in Britain. So the pitch for the 2012 London Olympics was sending out an important message: the 2012 Olympics are going to be fun and we're not even going to try to present ourselves as something that we're not. For all the 'wow' factor of the Chinese routines in the opening and closing ceremonies, I doubt if anyone thought, for one minute, that what we were seeing was a reflection of typical Chinese life.

I'm not particularly a fan of the type of music that she sings, but Leona Lewis, dressed in a fantastic gold costume that so reminded me of Bodicea, and singing so beautifully was, to me, just breathtaking. Love them or hate them, reality shows are very popular in Britain so, again, the involvement of the X-Factor winner again reflected the country. And, of course, when Jimmy Page started to play his guitar with all the trademark Led Zepplin sound, with Leona Lewis belting out the vocals, I was ecstatic. We really do have a fantastic music tradition, second to none, and it was great to experience world class rock and roll in Beijing, promoting our own country.

The little girl stepping out of the bus and into the dance sequence again reflected our hope for the Games that the young will be inspired, and there was none of this 'we need a token child who can't actually sing but looks good' nonsense.

And, yes, David Beckham did look like a wooden top, albeit it very handsomely, and he's way past his best in terms of football, but the reaction from the crowd was wonderful because he's such a well loved and recognizable figure. And when he kicked the ball into the athlete's section and a Chinese athlete caught the ball, you could see on his face that he was absolutely delighted: a personal memory that will stay with him forever.

I then watched the beginning of the concert in London, after the Games had officially closed and that strikingly extravagant flame had been extinguished, and they would have to start with Queen's 'We will rock you' and 'We are the champions' because I love Queen's music and that sealed it for me: the Olympics now belong to us. Thank you and goodbye Beijing - we've got the Games now and we're going to show the world just what we can do well (and possibly badly!)

If you detect a hint of patriotism in this blog, then you are right. We have been so ground down with the negatives of this country, and I'm thinking here of the calamitous recent foreign policy that has severely affected Iraq and Afganistan and the foul behaviour of some of our young people abroad, on holiday, that it's a real joy to think positively, at long last. We have something to look forward to in the 2012 Olympics. It's a great responsibility but also a great privilege and an opportunity for our young to be inspired in a positive way and, hopefully, to become fitter.

I must add a word of caution here because I remember only too well what happened on July 8th, just a day after we were given the 2012 Games. I was so happy that I put my Union Jack flag on my car and enjoyed hearing the swish as I drove along, on that Thursday, to my Bible Study group. We had just started when one of our members received a mobile phone call from her daughter, who lives in London. London was under terrorist attack, bombs had been exploded and it was a national emergency.

We immediately put the television on and saw, with our own eyes, the chaotic scenes at the the underground and the area where the bus was destroyed. At this time, we had no idea how extensive the attacks were and we were all horrified. Lou lives in London and I had to really suppress my desire to worry about her.

It's times like this that I'm so grateful that I am a Christian and can draw upon a supernatural strength. I firmly believe that when your time on this earth is up, then there's nothing you can do about it. (You might ask why a loving God allows such things to happen but I am in no doubt that the terrible things that happen in this world are meant to be a wake up call for those of us still alive: to see that there are more important things than life itself and to examine ourselves and consider that maybe we humans can't do everything for ourselves. Life on earth for Jesus was pretty tough so why should we imagine that it won't be for us? This isn't heaven, after all.)

So, my main concern for the 2012 Olympics is the threat of terrorist attacks but I will not allow it to dominate my thoughts. Probably the concern that the venues won't be ready on time is another issue but if the Greeks could manage it (and I've lived in Cyprus so I know how slowly things are usually done in Mediterranean countries) then I'm sure we can. And perhaps the government might see fit to encourage an expansion of the school curriculum to include training in the practical skills that not only will be necessary for a successful 2012 Games e.g. carpentry, construction work, engineering, professionalism in the service industries (a good waiter is worth his/her weight in gold as is a friendly, efficient hotel receptionist, top class chefs - the list is endless) but also for life before and after the Games.

Yeah, and pigs might fly!

By the way, I took the flag off my car before returning home on that awful Thursday and a phone call to Lou confirmed that she was okay. How many times have I said this in my blogs? - that each day is precious because you don't know what the next day will bring. 'Seize the day' and all that. Sometimes it's hard work but it's the best way to live.

Of course, now we have the big debate, which I'm enjoying immensely, about whether the London 8 minute slot was a success or a failure and whether having the Games is a scandalous waste of money: people like Arthur Smith and Peter Hitchens banging on about how awful it all is. Luckily, we live in a democracy so we can have such debates but, for myself, I think that the feel-good-factor that has accompanied the Beijing Games and the excitement and anticipation of 2012 is invaluable to a country that has had very little to smile about otherwise.

And finally, one of the things that struck me with Beijing was how little cultural diversity there appeared to be - everyone looked distinctly Chinese - in sharp contrast to the cultural diversity reflected in the London 8 minute slot. So I think that it's about time that we stopped criticizing the mix of cultures in Britain and celebrate it instead.

And now to my suggestions for the London 2012 Games!

1. London and all the other venues should be cleaned up and the careless habit of littering addressed. We already have the legal powers to do so so let's use them.

2. Public transport should become first-class. (Can't help but laugh at this suggestion.)

3. Knife crime and gang culture in London should also be targeted and these 'sink estates' revitalized. Let's give disaffected youngsters positive things to do.

4. It goes without saying that security should be tight, tight, tight

5. Opening and closing ceremonies should be very different from Beijing. I hear that Tracy Kelly is in charge and after hearing a programme about her on Radio 4, she seems to be an exciting choice, keen to involve communities. In fact, I did hear that it's under consideration that the ceremonies will not be restricted to the main auditorium and I think that that's an excellent idea.

6. In this spirit of far more audience participation, why not have Elton John in the middle of the stadium with his enormous white piano and large screens with the words displayed so that there could be an enormous sing-along? (This idea has been received with mixed reactions but I stick to it.)

7. Also, those gorgeous Scottish soldiers in kilts playing bagpipes would surely be spectacular, plus 'River Dance' dancing. In fact, traditional entertainment from all corners of the British Isles etc so everyone feels that they are being represented and the diversity of these small islands celebrated.

8. I hope that Paula Radcliffe has another baby and then concentrates on training for the London Olympics - it could be third time lucky for her: she certainly deserves it.

9. Finally, no more pictures of Myra Hindley, thank you very much, and PLEASE keep Jade Goody out of it. I hope she recovers from the cancer that she has been diagnosed with but the revelation of her illness on reality TV and the subsequent numerous 'exclusive' interviews in the trash mags is, in my opinion, tacky. Come on, folks, we all know that there are some aspects of our culture that should not get the oxygen of publicity. It's not a question of trying to hide things - rather an emphasis on what is positive, which is so often neglected by our media. Bad news travels fast but good news lifts the spirit.

If you disagree with any of this, which is, after all, only my opinion, then leave a comment and we can have a good old barny about it!


Thursday 21 August 2008

Sunday 17 August 2008



We've had such a lovely few days that I wanted to write about them:-


Picked Lou up from the station and we went to THE BLACK BOY PUB, which is my favourite pub in Winchester (serves v good food) and sat outside under the canopy and had coffee. It was chucking it down so we stayed put and had even more coffee. Archie (dog!) was with us and being an absolute pain so we bribed him with a stream of omega biscuits just so we could chat in peace.

(THE BLACK BOY pub, by the way, is utterly unique- no noisy apparatus like gambling machines, loud music etc - it's a warren of interesting rooms splattered with settees, pictures, posters, books and memorabilia, including a stuffed donkey and a stuffed baboon and two live dogs, and the outside L-shaped area is great for us smokers. It also has, I have to tell you with relish, an old-fashioned chocolate minstrels machine and for 20 pence you can get about 5 minstrels (which obviously isn't enough - but the bar staff will happily give you plenty of change) and I have been know to put as much as 80 pence in this wonderful machine!)

The rain stopped and we took Archie for a walk along THE RIVER ITCHEN. It's absolutely beautiful down there: all part of Winchester College grounds and they maintain it really well (they are dredging the river at the moment - essential to get rid of the silt and so avoid too much of a build up of water and prevent the kind of flooding that we now see regularly in the UK).

There are usually swans and ducks on that part of the river but even they dislike the present murky water. But all around are trees and water meadows and a wildlife area (where deer live) and it's so peaceful and soothing to the nerves apart from the steady distant hum from the M3 (thank you government planners - a tunnel would have been far more appropriate.) There's St Catherine's Hill beyond and the Cathedral and St Cross Hospice on the other side of the river, plus very attractive homes along and near to the river.

It's our favourite walk and if we win the National Lottery, I'd like to live there.

(A few weeks ago, Archie and I were walking past the large Edwardian/Victorian house at the end of the private road just before the tennis courts, and there was a party in full swing outside (probably an end of A level exams celebration) and Bob Marley's 'No woman, no pain' was blaring out. John and I had just returned from the Essaouira Gnawa and World Music Festival and had seen one of Bob Marley's sons - Ky-mani - wow the audience and I was tempted to go along and say: 'Hey you guys, I've just seen Ky-Mani Marley perform live, including the track you've been playing.' But time was pressing on and I didn't but note to self: next time I take Archie round there, I'll give them a daftnotstupid card so they can check out John's recording of Ky-mani. Why have blogs and You Tube sites and not promote them!)


Such a busy day having fun: shopping, coffees, manicures, pedicures etc etc. We were all ready for an early night: John had flown in from America in the morning and Lou and I were pretty shattered but we had been invited to the official opening of LOOMINELLIE'S at the end of Stockbridge Road so we thought we'd pop along there, say 'hi' to Ellie, grab a take away from Shaad (Indian takeaway) on Stockbridge Road, watch The Tudors on BBC2 and have an early night. Oh,'the best laid plans of mice and men!' The three of us staggered home, clutching take away bag, well after 10 0'clock, having met friends along the way and generally behaving like tipsy teenagers. It was brilliant! Never had Stockbridge Road as 'the place' to be, but it was on Friday night.

LOOMINELLIE is a small textile company, owned and run by a friend of ours, Ellie Gosse, whose family home is just a few houses down from us. Having studied textiles in London, Ellie set up her own business after graduation designing and producing exquisite scarves, pashmenas, cushions and wall hangings, originally working from her boy-friend's house and then her parents. But she has now set up shop in a workshop behind the row of shops on Stockbridge Road and Friday Night's opening was a celebration of this.

If you like beautiful textiles which are a dream to touch, wear, clutch, look at, all handmade and original and not costing the earth, then Ellie's the designer for you.

Check out her website at: Loominellie - Bespoke handmade textiles

You won't be disappointed but do it soon before she becomes mega-popular! We've got in quick: I bought a beautiful purple scarf which looks totally different on the other side so I have two scarves in one; Lou bought a purple/light green lavender cushion which smells divine; and John is going to order a scarf when he 'gets round to it'.

Anyway, the evening was a great success. How lucky we all were - Friday was the only day that week that it didn't rain so we were able to be outside in the large courtyard, which filled up pretty quickly. We never got round to the barbecue because we were too busy drinking the continual glasses of champagne and wine that seem to appear in our hands, as if by magic, on a regular basis.

And when we started to chatting to Simon and Juliette, who are neighbours of Ellie, we found that we had so much in common and so much to chat about, that we forgot all about our originals plans. And, of course, when they expressed an interest in the Essaouira Festival, caution, time, decorum and 'polite conversation' was thrown to the wind. I have a sneaking suspicion that I was slightly drunk, but what the heck - it doesn't happen often in my austere, controlled life (!!!)

The row of shops on that section of Stockbridge Road is actually very useful. It consists of:-

*NFU Mutual

*Cartridge Plus

*Joanne's Florist (I get a lot of plants and vases from here.)

*The Heather Mitchell Beauty Clinic

*Five Star Cleaning

*Pickards/Patel's Newsagents

*Hair Nouveau

*An empty shop propped up by scaffolding (because the owner, a building company, owns this plus many of the other buildings with a view to knocking the whole lot down to build flats!!!)

*Ripples Bathroom Shop

*Shaad (Indian take-away - superb)

*Jade Garden Chinese take-away

*Rapport hairdressers

*Direct Denture Care (luckily, don't need this shop yet and I hope I never do!)


I can't remember the last time I felt as bad as this after an evening out (or in). Could hardly talk, standing upright was difficult and everyone seemed to be shouting. Revived briefly to cheer the GB rowing teams to either victory or near victory (what an exciting sport to watch - it would seem that race strategy is as important as fitness and I found myself swaying in time with the movement of the prows)and then sank back into self-pity and self-admonition.

This was hardly the day to see MAMMA MIA at the cinema but I'd already booked the tickets and so off Lou and I went in the afternoon. 'It's going to be LOUD!' I complained, but she managed to chivvy me along.

As it was, the film was an absolute hoot and I laughed and sang and swayed and tapped my feet and generally smiled happily throughout. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've always liked Abba's music - it has a unique style and it seems to hit the 'feel good factor' spot and boy do we all need that! And the film is such good fun - worth at least another watch. I reckon it's the kind of film that you want to watch whenever you need cheering up, so the DVD sales will be phenomenal. And who would have thought that such serious actors like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosman and Colin Firth would be game for such a film and carry it off brilliantly. And the very best part?...probably Pierce Brosman taking off his shirt...or am I being terribly sexist?


A day of recovery!!! I wish someone could invent an alcoholic drink that doesn't leave you with a hangover. What's that I hear you say? 'Don't drink so much next time.' Very good advice.

And, finally, happy birthday to all of you with a birthday on this day - apparently it's very lucky to be born on August 17th.

Sunday 3 August 2008


There are some crimes which stick in the gullet, and the murder of the two young honeymooners in Antigua is one of them. How could anyone do that to them? It beggars belief. Heaven knows what their family and friends are feeling at the moment. In religious terms, it shows yet again what a fallen world we live in, but that doesn't make the heart ache any easier to bare. My prayers go out to them. It's the only thing I can do. And yet again, I am reminded that we need to live each day as fully as we can because we never know know what's just round the corner for each of us.


Last week, I found a lovely little shot's glass in the Peter Symonds playing field (walking Archie). I tried to take it to the office but no-one was there (probably because it's the summer holidays) so I've brought it home to keep it safely here.

It has an inscription on it:-


(heart picture)


15 juillet 2006

If it belongs to you or anyone you know, please let me know so I can send it home to its rightful owner.

HELP !!! Lost blogs !!!

I can hardly believe this. Two of my favourite blogs are missing:-




My apologies if you've come to this blog from one of the daftnotstupid sites for either of these blogs. I shall have to ask the daftnotstupid technical expert to try to locate them. And while he does so, I shall go into the field opposite and SCREAM!!!

Also, not all of the translations are working. So, it'll mean a very long scream!!!

Perhaps Bill Gates would like to tell me, personally, why his software sometimes/often doesn't work despite the fact that he's made mega-bucks selling it to people like me.


The daftnotstupid technician has sorted it all out.

1. My blog had run out of space so earlier blogs weren't visible. My technician
has created more space so that's rectified now.

2. XMAS NIGHT LILA is actually on the daftnotstupid blog.

3.The translations are working (they look really impressive!). The problem was that I was trying to skip from one translation to another.

4. Apparently, Google and my Apple computer are nothing to do with Bill Gates so I shouldn't really blame him! However, Microsoft Words can still be tricky on my computer, so the criticism still stands. He's big enough, powerful enough and rich enough to accommodate such criticism and, anyway, I guess he'll never read this blog (!!!) but if he did (!!!) he can leave a comment!!!

Friday 1 August 2008


* Watched a very silly but highly entertaining movie on Saturday night - EUROTRIP - a teen comedy about four High School students who cause mayhem in Europe searching for an attractive German e-mail pal of one of the kids. But the star performance and what makes me want to see this film again was Matt Damon playing a skin-head heavy rocker guitarist/lead singer. Worth watching the whole film for this performance. Boy can that guy act/sing.

* And on Wednesday night watched FREAKY FRIDAY, with Jamie lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan and I laughed so much I was almost howling. Brilliant idea to temporarily have the uptight mum in the body of the bolshy teenager and vice versa. But also very touching as each comes to understand how the other ticks.

Both actors were brilliant but the real surprise to me was Lindsay Lohan. All I knew about her before I watched this film was that she was a wild party girl who gets into lots of trouble. Pity if that's true because the girl can act and has a real screen presence. I hope we see more of her on the screen rather than in Heat magazine etc. Which reminds me - I still haven't watched any of this years Big Brother. I'm truly proud of myself.

* Was mesmerised by the first episode of HOUSE OF SADDAM on BBC 2 on Wednesday: fascinating to have such a drama and although it's fiction I'm sure the 'essence' of Saddam's character is there (incredible performance by Igal Naor - who, ironically, is actually an Israeli actor) and it's not only interesting but also educational to see events from another perspective, including the political realities and the strong role of family in Iraq, and Sadam's hatred of Iran.

As I watched, I was struck by how this drama reminded me of a Shakespearean tragedy in not just the brutal consequences for so many of those involved but also the knock-on effect for Iraq, Iran and rest of the world.

Not that I see Saddam Hussein as a Shakespearean tragic hero. Shakespeare's heroes were men who were in some way brilliant (in a positive way) but had a flaw that proved to be fatal. Saddam is more like a Shakespearean villain, oozing with evil thoughts and deeds but with brief hints of humanity and that came over most effectively in this drama.

* Have just finished watching the DVD box set of DAMAGES, staring Glen Close as a very tough lawyer, not frightened to resort to violence if necessary, who pursues a wealthy business man for damages for his ex-employees. They had lost everything because of his shady dealings and she is determined to squeeze as much money out of him as possible. It does not present the legal system in a flattering light (oh, what a surprise!) and as a drama it works very well, with lots of flashbacks and twists and turns. You really have no idea how things will turn out until the very end. I'm hoping that they make a second series.

Sunday 20 July 2008


Hard to believe it, but today, July 20th, is the 34th anniversary of the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus. 34 years sounds such a long time but I still remember clearly the Greek Cypriot coup, which started on Monday 15th July, and the Turkish Invasion on the following Saturday.

I shall never forget the absolute horror of that shrill air-raid siren early on that Saturday morning that shattered our already fragile peace and my life has never been the same since.

I had married into a Greek Cypriot family and we had a thriving business - The White Horse Pub in Famagusta - a comfortable home, a fabulous lifestyle, lots of friends, several dogs and a baby on the way. The only thing to survive was the baby, now a successful young woman who is a pleasure to know, and I'm very grateful for that.

I also lost my faith in government, my respect for politicians and my belief that everything said on The World Service was true.

What I gained, was a sickening realization that human life means squat all to politicians, that you're just as likely to be killed by friendly fire and that the best place to be during an air-attack is either tucked away outside your house or hidden under some solid piece of furniture e.g. a bed or a table.

But since that day, I've counted each day as a blessing and marvel that I've lasted so long.

I have never been back to Famagusta but the desire to do so is growing within me and I long to stand in front of my old home and the pub and walk along the beach.

And I do feel that I am so lucky that not only did I survive, but also that I have been able to build a new life.

I harboured a lot of anger about the Invasion and being refugeed for a long time until, just before the Iraq Invasion, when I was so chewed up with all the talk of war that I had a long chat with my vicar who said: 'You have every right to be angry.' And I thought:' Yes, I do! But I choose not to be angry any more.'He was the first person that had not tried to brush what had happened under the carpet and that acknowledgment released me.

Returning to Cyprus a few years ago to visit all my relatives and see some of my old haunts in the unoccupied part of the island, plus a lovely afternoon in Kyrenia (still occupied) helped put to bed a lot of ghosts and writing the novel was my way of using the experience for good.

One thing still puzzles me, though, and that is why the rest of the world don't seem to give a toss about Cyprus, including the UK. We have such strong links with Cyprus with lots of expats living there, army/RAF bases, and loads of tourists each year, you'd think that writers and dramatists would have been falling over themselves to write about the conflict.

There's plenty of literature about Africa, India, Parkistan etc all having been part of the British Empire, as was Cyprus, but hardly a dicky bird about Cyprus. I searched Google today to find literature set in Cyprus and there's only about half a dozen novels, and none of them set during the period of the Invasion. I seem to be the only person who has done so and I'M HAVING GREAT TROUBLE GETTING PUBLISHED!!! Of course, it could be that my novel isn't very good but personally, I think it's a cracker AND would make an excellent film.

But it's almost as if there's a secret embargo on anything coming out of Cyprus/written about Cyprus.


And, if anybody thinks they know me from Cyprus - my name was Maggie Charalambous then - then please leave a comment so we can get in touch.

Thursday 3 July 2008



Hard to know where to start, really, since so much has happened: travelling to Marrakesh on the Monday and returning home late Tuesday, just over a week later, absolutely exhausted but with the music still ringing in our ears.

Probably best to start at the beginning.


Starting the day with a smile at La Villa Des Orangers.

Firstly, we spent several days in Marrakesh at the best hotel that I've ever stayed at - La Villa Des Orangers (which figures in the top ten of recommended hotels on Google) - to chill out before the Festival, much needed after the frantic rush to pack etc and all the uncertainty about whether our balcony at the hotel in Essaouira would face onto one of the stages for the Festival or be a bleak, lonely place, far removed from the action.

La Villa Des Oranges is a marvellous hotel to chill out in. I'm often saying to friends that Morocco is a country of extremes and there is no better example of this than La Villa Des Orangers.

The hotel looks absolutely nothing from the outside, just an old walled building with a few small windows facing outward. It's positioned by a dusty, busy road, used by cars, motorcyclists, cyclists, donkeys and carts etc (pedestrians beware - this is not a pedestrian friendly town!); the pavement is crumbling in parts and nearby is a car park and filling station. Just a small sign advertising the hotel and a doorway manned by a concierge give any indication that this is a hotel. But walk through that open door and you are in a different world - a world straight out of the Arabian Nights.

The hotel owners created this little paradise of quiet tranquility and welcome shade amidst the noise and chaos of Marrakesh by renovating two old riad houses and transforming them into a hotel. Rooms are positioned around two central courtyards, on three levels, and it's most attractive on the eye with its central fountains full of fresh roses; orange trees that are the home for cheeky little sparrows who hover about, waiting scraps of food; and the contrast in colours of the soft terracota walls and brown stone floors and the vivid greens and reds of large pot plants. There are shady alcoves with richly coloured couches and cushions and ornate Moroccan carvings on the walls and ceilings, with large mirrors reflecting the green and orange: places where you just want to lie down, close your eyes and do absolutely nothing.

Most rooms are on two levels and it's true to say that we've probably stayed in all of them during our visits over the years. Our favourites, though, are those which have upstairs terraces, centred around one of the three swimming pools, on the roof of the hotel. I can't think of a nicer way to spend an evening - lying on one of the loungers and looking up at the sky and the stars, hearing the distant, brash noise of the drumming in the famous (and,in my opinion, increasingly expensive tourist trap) Place Jemaa El Fna and feeling a warm breeze which just makes me so glad to be alive and in Morocco.

We stayed at this hotel at Xmas, with our daughter, Lou, and it was strange walking past the room that she stayed in. This is a splendid room, of palatial dimensions, on just one level and Lou reckoned that the two rooms together - bedroom and bathroom - were larger than her flat in London. She would have been happy to live in this room permanently, so taken with it as she was, and I expected to see her, each time I passed by this time, sitting on the settee outside the room with her embroidery, a hot chocolate and surrounded by female members of staff, fascinated by her embroidery and, later, the thank you card she made for them all.

Me outside 'Lou's' room at La Villa Des Orangers

Since Xmas, the hotel has bought the old building next to it and converted it into extra rooms, a hamman and third swimming pool, all fitting in beautifully with the style of the hotel. We were amazed that the work had been completed so quickly - I couldn't help thinking how the builders in England struggled with the new Wembley Stadium and I dread to think how building for the 2012 Olympics is going. Maybe they should consult the builders of La Villa's extension.

But what makes the hotel so special are the staff. They are not just excellent at their jobs, but they are friendly and welcoming and remember us from one visit to the next even though they must have hundreds of visitors each year.

Mohammed from La Villa Des Orangers with me in the main courtyard.

FAMOUS LAST WORDS ON SETTING OFF ON HOLIDAY: If I've forgotten anything, it's not worth taking! I forgot essential daily medication which could have caused me serious problems but by noon of our first day, I had been visited by a doctor, the reception had fetched my prescription and sanity was restored. Had to pay for this, of course, but maybe this will be covered by my travel insurance. It's one of the about a hundred
things I need to sort out, which I should be sorting out instead of writing this, but not half as much fun. (No, it's not covered, I have discovered).

Two other things I want to tell you about and both concern eating out.

Firstly, we found ourselves, one evening, sitting next to an English mother and her daughter at one of the roof top restaurants facing onto the Place and discovered that we were all from Winchester, were all going to the Festival and had friends in common, including Polly of Polly and the Billets Doux ( whom I've already reviewed in an earlier blog). Talk about coincidences. AND we met up several times in Essaouira, too. I hope we can get together in Winchester and swap stories.

Secondly, I had the worse meal I've ever had. It was in a very posh, expensive restaurant on the outskirts of Marrakech, called Bo-Zin. A very fancy place, with an impressive inside restaurant, complete with a shiny grand piano, and romantic outside setting spread out over quite an area, with a bar, pond and lots of lanterns etc etc.

However, they herded the few customers that they had cheek by jowl so there was little privacy and there were so many waiters and attendants that it was hard not to fall over them. There were three dark suited 'heavies' at the front, I presume to keep out the riff-raff, whoever they might be, and even a lady to guide you to the toilet along a very dark corridor. I must admit, though, that actually having toilet paper in the loos would have been preferable.

We had a surly waiter who at first pretended not to understand us whatever language we spoke in and who continually interrupted our conversation to pour out not just our wine but also our water, which he kept well away from us. What did he think we were going to do? Drink it all in one go?

But my main criticism I reserve for the actual food. I have to say that John was fairly happy with his meal, although he did say it was too salty, but mine was absolutely foul. It was supposed to be sole stir-fry and there were a couple of small pieces of fish but most of the white chunks were actually potato (what a cheat!) and the whole dish was swimming in soy sauce and was incredibly salty, leaving a really unpleasant taste in my mouth for some time afterwards.

Did I walk meekly out without saying anything? Well, no, actually. I told it as it was to the pretty receptionist in the hope (futile?) that the chef would buck up his ideas.

Not an experience to be missed - it all adds to the diversity of the holiday. If life was perfect then we wouldn't still be on earth; we'd be in Heaven!

And marks out of ten for your meal at the Bo-Zin, Maggie?

If YOU have been to this restaurant and had a great meal or a similar experience to us, then please add a comment.


A welcome stop for coffee. ciggie and loo break

I love the road journey from Marrakesh to Essaouira because it's so full of anticipation and the countryside changes quite dramatically. We usually take a taxi, although this year we took a 4-by-4, which for some reason we found really exciting (never been in a 4-by-4 before).

Firstly, you drive through the new part of Marrakesh, with its wide avenues and hotels, flats, houses and shops (including the new shopping centre where Jen from 'The Apprentice' tried to bribe the assistants in the sports shop - I could have told her that it wouldn't work, as well as being totally unethical). There's a lot of new building work here and you can tell that it's a growth area but, as per usual, there are a lot of Europeans buying here so the locals are being priced out and I wonder if the economic downturn will affect sales/growth.

You continue through the suburbs, with its large new flats, sprouting air-conditioning units and satellite dishes, separated by areas of dry red ground, until you leave the town and gradually the land becomes more arid, although the magnificent Atlas Mountains on your left continually remind you of the beauty of Morocco.

There are several small towns dotted along the way, with very basic shops displaying meat and fruit, including enormous water melons, and the first few times we took this route I used to think how desolate they looked but now they are welcome friends.

The land becomes more desert-like and we always think how much we would love to travel much further south than Essaouira into the real desert.

And then, much later than you've first started to feel the need for a break, like a real oasis in the desert, there is the small row of restaurants, frequented by locals of the town beyond (haven't recorded the name yet but I will do so next time (God Willing) but also geared towards tourists (e.g. the toilets are very clean). We stop here for a coffee (nous nous), which is pretty damn good. The bustle of Marrakech and the solitude of La Villa Des Oranges fade from memory and it's a totally new ball game.

One of the much appreciated restaurants..

Just after we arrived, a bus full of tourists turned up and invaded the restaurant, including these two ladies (names unknown) who we first met at Casablanca Airport during an unscheduled change of planes (the London to Marrakech route) and the four of us were temporarily lost and almost through customs before we realized our mistake!

John with our two friends.

Then a pretend 'gnawa' group turned up, made a bit of a din and then went round the tables with a hat. Really, when you hear the real Gnawa groups playing, you realize what a sham this type of tourist attraction is, plus what goes on in the Place in Marrakech. But it all adds to the colour of the place and if these guys earn a bit of money, then good luck to them.

Pretend 'gnawa musician' trying to get some dosh.

And now I was itching to get going. But first, I fancied getting a choc ice for the journey, since I'm very partial to choc ices (Magnums are my favourite). But hanging onto a choc ice in the Moroccan heat to have a photo taken with 4-by-4 and driver was, perhaps, a tad ambitious and eating it in the car before it melted was a feat in itself.

Along the route to Essaouira there are police checkpoints every so often. We've never been stopped so far, although we were stopped on the way to Casablanca airport on our way home. The police check documents and, for foreigners, passports. On this journey, though, we were waved through. More irritating are the endless speed restrictions at a time when you just want to GET there.

The closer you get to Essaouira, the more lush the vegetation becomes and there are field after field of argana trees, which produce wonderful argana oil (I have found a shop in Essaouira that sells the most fabulous argana products, particularly face creams - it's called Arga Dor on the Rue Ibn Rochd No 5. The quality is much better than the stuff that you can buy on the street stalls and not significantly more expensive.)And if you're lucky, you may see a goat or two up an argana tree, eating the foliage.

And then, after several hours of travelling (less if you travel early in the morning), you literally drive round a bend and there, just a few miles away, is the wonderful white town of Essaouira, spreading northwards along the coast and with the shimmering Atlantic, dotted with tiny deserted islands, as a backdrop. And southwards are dunes and the village of Diabet, where Jimi Hendrix lived for a while. Beyond, are a farm of wind turbines and I really don't know what all the fuss about them is here in the UK. They don't look stupid or out of place or 'a blot on the landscape' They are just doing their job producing eco-friendly power .

I have a movie of this scene but not a photograph. Next time we go (God Willing), I'll take some photos and post them on this blog. There's a layby by the side of the road, where you can stop and take in the view and there are always a few camels there plus their owners if you want to do the tourist thing.

Off you go again and soon you're on the outskirts, where finished and unfinished flats line the road, as do young men waving keys in the hope that you need to rent a flat and they have just the place for you. Luckily, we always have a hotel booked because I suspect these guys will charge far over the odds. But, it means that we're here.


There's just the small matter of driving down the wide avenue towards the old town, over the infernal speed bumps, past the hotels and private houses, a sweep along a back street to get the Bab Marrakesh Square, a brief argument with the soldier manning the road block to drive closer to the hotel (it happens every time and, in the end, our driver always gets out, removes the barriers (with verbal signs of annoyance), drives through, and then replaces the barriers) and a minute later, we're outside our hotel - Hotel Bleu - and there's Mamadoo or one of the other guys welcoming us back, shaking our hands and carrying our bags into yet another beautiful, calm and cool paradise.


A warm welcome from one of the receptionists.

A shaded passageway.

The swimming pool on the roof terrace.

View of Bab Marrakech Square and the sea beyond from the roof terrace.

Hicham looking absolutely gorgeous on the roof terrace.

What a surprise! - another picture of Hicham.

The Hotel Bleu is an extremely exclusive riad hotel, with rooms centring, on several levels, around an open courtyard. And as with La Villa Des Orangers, the staff are so brilliant that when we visited at Xmas and stayed in another hotel (much cheaper to be honest and more within our usual price range), we went round to the hotel several times to say hello to all the staff, have a coffee and give recordings that John had made from last year's Festival.

What is so heart-warming is that they put up with our little eccentricities and my occasional outbursts of emotion, e.g. after I had been pick-pocketed in a crush of people just outside the hotel a few years ago, or when I rushed out this year to try to prevent what looked like cruelty to a dog in the square below (dog and man had disappeared before I could get to them) and again this year, when I clobbered downstairs to rave about the Morrocan Gnawa Maleem - Hamid El Kasri - and his group, who were top notch brilliant (log onto to hear some of their music), they act as if it's perfectly normal behaviour and I thank them for that.

Just a little message here for Kamal, who is in charge of the roof terrace. Kamal, I don't have any photos of you, which is why there are none on this blog. Next Time. AND I definitely want to use your 'lazy-person's' exercise machine next time, the one in your new super-mirrored gym on the roof. My friend has just got one and it's really good.


Yes, the balcony - now we're getting to the nitty gritty. The Balcony. Resigned to maybe not having the balcony or no music, it was WONDERFUL that we had both. Our room had not been booked to someone else and the Bab Marrakesh Square was one of the venues.

Me looking suitably happy/relieved on the cherished balcony.

Considering all the fuss I've made about this balcony, you'd think I would have more photographs of the spectacular view but, sadly, I don't. However, log onto stupid and you'll see a number of music videos shot from there. However, here's a picture of the balcony from the Square - ours is the lower of the two balconies.


I want to write about this in some detail because so much happened and it was definitely the best evening for me. I don't have many photos of the actual performances - I was too busy dancing, eating and drinking - but I do have one of the rehearsals:-

which seems to have vanished from my file! Hopefully, it will turn up later. Let me just say here that my computer is a total bitch and the sooner I get another one, the better!

So, Saturday evening and I have just had my daily hamman and feeling pleasantly chilled out. I want to see Maleem Mahmoud Guinea play at the Electric Pepsi Stage on the beach, opposite the Sofitel Hotel (fabulous swimming pool and Spa Centre) because we attended a Lila at Mahmoud's house at Xmas and I want to see if his two sons are now part of his group and how Hussein, his apprentice, is getting on and how the Gnawa music fits in with the electric stuff that is also going to be played.

So, I give them sufficient time to start late, as per usual at the Festival, but it would seem that even then, I am too early. Instead, there is ear-shattering disco music being played and several attractive young people dancing on the stage. But it's not my preferred music and although two policemen assure me, after my enquires in French, that the advertised performance is about to take place, it is quite clear that it isn't. By this time, I am tired and hungry so decide to return to my beloved balcony and watch the performances at the Bab Marrakech Square.

Disco Dancing at the Electric Pepsi stage.

So, I head back along the beach, enjoying the tranquil view of Essaouira in the early evening with the sea lazily rocking from side to side and the islands now dark but still visible, until I reach the last exit and move onto the pavement, which is still busy.

Almost immediately, my eye catches a couple of young men trying to sell scarves to a couple of Moroccan ladies and I am instantly attracted to the light/dark green one that one of the men is holding up. You can buy this type of long two coloured viscous scarf anywhere in Morocco. They're colourful and cheap and I've already got a couple but I've never seen such a beautiful green colour before.

The guys recognise my interest and swoop down on me and as we walk along the pavement, we barter price. I get them down to 25 dirams (about £2) and have the scarf now in one hand, whilst I search with the other for my purse.

But suddenly the two guys start moving away from me and so I shout: 'Hey, what about the scarf?'

'Keep it,' one says, and they're almost running. So now I understand and turn round and there they are: two policemen walking purposely towards and then past me. And now I'm thinking: 'Shit, I'm holding a stolen scarf in my hand.'

By now, the two policemen are calling out to the two guys who are shouting something or other back to them but it looks as though the police are going to let them go. But I'm wondering how I'm going to explain this scarf in my hand. In sheer frustration, I turn to a row of oldish men who look like workers sitting on a nearby wall and shrug my shoulders in an exaggerated way as if to say, physically: 'What the ....'. going on here?'Then I head towards the policemen and say, in French, that I have been given this scarf by the two guys, because there's no way in the world that I want to be accused of being an accessory to theft.

One of the two policemen takes the scarf and they both advance towards the two guys. All the conversation now is in Arabic so I don't understand it, but the two guys are doing a fantastic act of looking innocent, surprised,'we haven't done anything wrong' kind of act. I'm hovering nearby because by now I'm pretty angry with them and want to see what happens to them.

Eventually, the policemen let them go and then the one with the scarf calls them back and gives them the green scarf. And then, as I continue on my way, it's hard to credit it, the guys follow me and try to sell me the scarf!

'Don't you dare try and sell me a dodgy scarf!' I exclaim in English, indignant to the last. They give up and we go our separate ways. It's another sign of feeling more at home in Essaouira: getting lippy with the locals.

But I have to say, it really was a beautiful green colour!

Very soon, I'm back in Bab Marrakech Square and wriggle my way to the front to watch the first set of the evening, which has already started. It's Troupe Samulnori (The Academy of Music Korea). We saw them dancing on the stage at Moulay Hassan on the first evening and now they're concentrating on their music.

It's very different from anything I've seen or heard before and I'm liking it a lot. The main instruments are drums, symbols and gongs and the rhythm is captivating. And occasionally, one of the group sings - it's almost shouting - and it's all very vigorous. I particularly like their costumes, which are white, blue and yellow, and when they dance, there are very long white streamers swirling from the top of their hats. If you've got a really good magnifying glass, you'll get the idea from the photos below. And to see videos of their performance, log onto

Troupe Samulnori Molgae from Korea plus audience .

One of the things we've come to love is seeing the women in their head scarves and burkas, plus excited children, sitting on the kerb and grass to watch performances and as I stand under the balcony, trying to attract John's attention (he's recording the Koreans), some of the ladies give me a helping hand. 'John!' I shout repeatedly, waving my arms dramatically, and they call out:'John!' and then laugh as he repeatedly ignores us all. Eventually, he sees us and we all wave. It's a lovely moment.

Back on the balcony, I settle down to watch the Korean group. By now, they're sitting down and are performing what I can only describe as a drum concerto which goes on for about an hour, with varying tempo and crescendo. It's absolutely amazing. You can see and hear their passion and it really is something to behold. I try to keep time with the beat but eventually I give up. THEY'RE SO FAST! The only other performance I've seen where the group sit down (most groups include a lot of dance), has been the Ali brothers from Pakistan a few years ago and it really takes your breath away.

Then, the set is over and people drift away and we order supper from the hotel's restaurant: soup and bread and butter and chips and we eat this meal (absolutely delicious) balanced on cushions on our knees, just watching the square and in our own little heaven.

And then the next set comes on: a Moroccan Gnawa group led by Maleem Hamid El Kasri. It's too dark for me to take photographs but John is recording it all, some of which you can see on stupid.

Update from John, 20 April 2009: Here's my YouTube recording of Hamid El Kasri singing Chalaba - an old favourite Gnaoua song.

And now I literally run out of superlatives. I have never heard Gnawa played like this and it is so exciting and melodic and full of emotion that I have to get up and dance. Constantly. In order to understand the powerful effect of this music, I will tell you that a few years ago, I was so ill with an ME type of illness that I could hardly get out of bed. Although I'm much better now, I have to pace myself very carefully and certainly don't usually dance, but I can't NOT dance to this music. It won't allow me stay still.

John is dancing as he records, the audience are dancing wildly, waving t-shirts, holding up their mobile phones which flash in the darkness and the square is now so full that the surrounding streets are blocked with people. It's electric! I don't know much Arabic but I can recognise that certain words are being repeated and can join in, as do the audience. 'Allah' is one of the words repeated, which is Arabic for God and I marvel at the sheer love of God in this country, unthinkable in the UK.

After the performance, I'm so buzzed up that I rush down the many stairs to the foyer and rave about this group to anyone and everyone. Some people are just coming out of the restaurant and I say: 'I can't believe you've been eating instead of watching one of the best performances ever at this Festival. The audience have been going crazy.'

I've never seen these people before but I'm past caring.

They're wearing accreditation badges and I ask what they have to do with the Festival (the daftnotstupid rejection by the committee still rankling) and one guy, who's from New Zealand, says:'We're on freebies because our company have partly sponsored this festival.' Huh! It's just like hospitality boxes at Wimbledon, I'm thinking, or at football grounds. The rich and connected are more important than the fans.

'We're going to watch Ki-Mani Marley (one of Bob Marley's sons) playing,'he adds.

'Well, he'll have to be bloody good to top Hamid El Kasri. I've never seen the square so packed and I've been coming for years,' I say.

One of the women comes back into the foyer and says:'We can't get out. There are too many people.'

'That's because of Hamid El Kasri' I say, as I dash back upstairs for refreshments (beer and toblerone) before Ki-Mani Marley starts his set.

And was Ki-Mani good or did I slump onto the bed and go to sleep?

Normally, before a group comes on the stage, they are announced by someone from the Festival Office but not with this group: the stage is dark and then suddenly it is lit up and his backing group start to play that familiar reggae beat and yes, they have my full attention. And then Ki-Mani Marley sprints/dances onto the stage and you know you are watching something special. He is totally charismatic: white, long sleeved shirt, blue jeans, a white handkerchief flowing from a back pocket and his long, black dreadlocks, tied loosely at the back and he just fills the stage with his presence. An ultimate performer. I doubt if he stops moving or dancing for the the whole hour plus. And a voice to make the angels weep. 'Your dad would be proud of you,' I think time and time again.

He sings some of his own songs and some of his dad's and we all join in with familiar lyrics (no woman, no cry etc)and yes, I dance, dance, dance.

And what I want to know is: why aren't Ki-Meyni Mali, Hamid El Kasri and The Academy of Music Korea not generally known of in the UK?


Please leave a comment if you've heard of any of these groups, plus what you think of them.


There were only going to be two sets, both at Moulay Hassan, in the late afternoon/evening so we moseyed down there and because the first set hadn't started, we walked around the port area to check out a restaurant we'd seen down there at Xmas. I was hungry so food was on my mind.

We stopped to look at some fishing boats being constructed (the port used to have a thriving sardine industry but, like most fishing areas now, I guess, it's all been scaled down), and a nice young man invited us to get closer to one of the unfinished boats and he explained how the ship was being built. I have to say, it looked impressively sturdy. We should have realised, however, that he would want paying for his troubles so John gave him a 'tip' and I took this photograph so at least we could get our money's worth. (If anyone on the street in Marrakech or Essaouira offer to help you, they usually want to be 'tipped').

Woops - that's another photo gone. Think of Noah's Ark under construction and you've probably got a good idea what it looks like.

Then we headed back to the Moulay Hassan because we could hear music.

View of the square from the port.

A traditional water seller in the crowd.

The group playing weren't that great and since everything was running behind time and I was more ravenous than just hungry, we bagsed a table at the front of the verandah at our favourite restaurant in Essaouira - Bab Laachour - where the waiters are a lot of fun and the food is good (and they serve alcohol). I thought I'd taken a photo of you guys but apologies, Louasif, my camera must have run out of space. Next time!

So, by the time we had ordered food, the last group had started their set: ONB (Orchestre National De Barbes) from Paris. I'd never heard of them before but John had. The programme billed them as being musicians originally from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and renowned for their 'theatrical energy and their rhythms'. All I know is that I had to leave my dish of small sole, find a space in the corner of the balcony and DANCE!!! And when they played a Rolling Stones song - Sympathy For The Devil - I sang along loudly. What a way to end the festival!!!

John with his camcorder on the verandah of Bab Laachour restaurant.

View from Bab Laachour Restaurant of Moulay Hassan square during ONB's performance.

And so it was all over for another year and it's hard not to feel very, very disappointed. MORE, MORE, MORE !!! I want to shout. And it was also impossible not to feel absolutely exhausted. I used to think that being a musician would be oh so glamorous but now I've seen just how much energy they expend, the rehearsals and set-ups, how much travelling they have to do (it most certainly is not easy to get to Essauouira)etc etc, I think it involves a lot of hard work and they deserve every penny that they earn because they give people like John and I immeasurable pleasure.

And a final thanks to all the back stage workers who set up the stages, fix the lighting and sound systems and work on the cameras. Now that John had spent a festival recording with a camcorder, he is keenly aware of just how difficult it is.


A final (desolate) photograph of the sea beyond Essaouira at the end of the evening, after all the fun had finished.

To those of you who have no idea what Gnawa music is, by the way (!) - it is African music brought to Morocco, mainly by slaves from Southern Africa, and has its own particular rhythms and instruments and includes a lot of singing/chanting and amazing dancing. These guys can certainly dance. They also play instruments at the same time and perform enmasse and individually and the crowd go crazy at the feats they can perform. They wear spectacularly colourful costumes and so it's a very visual experience, too. And at this Festival they often play with other groups who are jazz or rock or hip-hop etc groups and that's what I am particularly fond of. IT'S AN EXTENSION OF MUSICAL GENRES THAT THE WESTERN WORLD HAS NO IDEA ABOUT. AND HONESTLY GUYS, YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE MISSING!!!

To hear the music and see the performances, check out these sites:-

And I must now return to my fiction writing: a short story, continue planning my murder/mystery novel and FIND AN AGENT!!!