Saturday 24 December 2011


Okay, so I'm over the nightmare bit, I've enjoyed the Radio 4 Carol service this afternoon, we're just having a cold buffet this evening. NOTHING of interest on the tele but luckily we've got plenty of good previously recorded films to choose from, the wine is chilling nicely so all is well. So, I hope you all enjoy this Christmas and my best wishes for 2012. From a very chilled out Maggie.

Monday 19 December 2011


THAT IS IT! I started my Christmas preparations in good cheer and with kindly thoughts but it has now become a long, arduous process rather akin to a difficult child birthing experience. Each time I think I'm nearly there and all I need is another final long push, I receive cards I hadn't bargained for and more presents to be wrapped than expected.

I have totally had my fill of unruly wrapping paper, Sellotape that wraps itself into knots and Christmas tree baubles that fall off when I pass by the tree. There is, I believe, some dark, deep evil force at work which is out to drive me totally out of my mind.

I know that something is wrong when I find myself shouting at yet another roll of wrapping paper that has decided to move from the place I'd put it. The dog is in hiding and John is keeping a low profile. And I am NOT DOING ANY MORE.

If anyone knows where to buy those lovely simple single sheets of wrapping paper and some kind of gadget that cuts Sellotape beautifully PLEASE LET ME KNOW. I'm thinking, of course, about next year although at the moment I'm not sure that I'll get past this Christmas.

And by the way, a Merry Christmas to you all.

P.S. Thank you for listening. I feel so much better now after this little rant.

Saturday 10 December 2011


For the last year I have listened to Woman's Hour on BBC Radio Four every morning between 10 and 11 o'clock. I curl up in bed with the dog curled up next to me (on his own blanket I should add) and the radio next to me. And if it's gloomy outside, I have a light box facing me from the end of the bed.

And although they don't know it, the presenters, Jane Garvey and Jenni Murray have become two of my best friends. I just love their voices and their interviewing and presenting skills. They sound kind and interesting and informative and full of good humour and compassion, and wonderfully down to earth.

The show is unashamedly for and about women, although many features can just as easily apply to men, and there is a strong male following. And since a recent survey revealed that the majority of presenters on the radio are male, the occasional male quips that in this age of equality such a programme is unacceptable are, I believe, too futuristic.

An incredible variety of topics are covered ranging from interviews with singers, actors, authors, businesswomen and cooks to 'ordinary' women with a story to tell or a view to express.

As far as feminist issues are involved, there was a feature on the role played by women in the recent strikes and how women in particular are coping or not with the declining financial situation. But interviewees don't get an easy ride. Both Murray and Garvey ask searching questions. For example, Jane Garvey took to task a female police officer who was advocating special working hours for female police officers with small children, suggesting that they shouldn't work on Friday evenings or at the weekend. "I don't want to get mugged on a Friday evening or weekend because female police officers won't work then," she said or words to that effect. "You can't demand equal rights with men and then claim special working conditions."

It certainly is difficult for women with children who wish to work and to progress in their chosen field of employment. I was a working mother for many years so I understand the demands and problems of being overstretched but the recent trend for young mothers to job share or work part-time can impair the services that they provide, particularly in such fields as dentistry and medicine, where patients are relying on them to be available for more than just a few days a week. So, I appreciated Garvey's comments.

I have certainly learnt a lot by listening to the programme. For example, Woman's Hour is following three women who have set up businesses. They feature them from time to time with the mentors who are helping them. They discuss how the businesses are going and how they can move forward. I find it fascinating stuff.

And last week, there was an entire programmes devoted to a phone-in with the cook Mary Berry, who was answering questions about cooking for Christmas. So, I now know how to cook the perfect turkey and how to prepare chestnuts for roasting so that they are easy to peel.

There is also a slot called "How to cook the perfect…" with a cook preparing the dish in the studio with all the lovely cooking sounds and obvious delight in the tasting of the food. And by the way, the cook is sometimes male so no bias there.

And it was by listening to Woman's Hour that I first heard of the Danish TV thriller "The Killing." The feature was about the jumpers that the lead detective Sarah Lund wears. I was so intrigued but I bought the box set and watch the whole thing, often several episodes at a time because it was so enthralling. And just recently there was another feature about Lund's jumpers, one of the interviewees being a man who had me laughing out loud as he described the bobbly jumper that a girlfriend had knitted for him. Unfortunately it was too small for him. I used to be an avid knitter so I enjoyed this immensely.

Plus, there is often live music after musicians have been interviewed and that's an unexpected plus from a mainly talk programme.

And finally, the best part of the programme for me, as a writer and reader, is the fifteen minute book adaptation at the end of each show. It used to be that the book was just read aloud but for some time now, far longer than a year, the books have been serialised as mini-dramas. For the last two weeks I have been captivated by Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" and just recently there was an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" which not only had me weeping copiously at the end but also prompted me to buy the novel.

So, thank you Woman's Hour and thank you Jenny Merry and Jane Garvey. Jenni Murray has just been awarded an OBE and surely Jane Garvey should get one too for broadcasting services to women in general (and men) and for me personally.

Tuesday 6 December 2011


The main action in this novel, although it could hardly be called action, takes place in the bedroom of a private clinic. Hence the title, although it could also refer to those dark parts of the brain which some call rooms, closed off and not wished to be accessed. For this is a psychological thriller and dialogue is key.

The occupant of the room in the clinic is Zinx, a young woman who it would seem has tried to commit suicide by crashing her car. But she can't remember and, most importantly, she does not seem the suicidal type. She is strong willed and highly intelligent. The daughter of a ruthless, ex-underworld boss, now businessman, she seems terrified of him and despises her drunken step-mother and irresponsible step-brothers.

Add to this, her recently ex-fiance, Leo, and her best friend, Meg, who is now engaged to Leo, are missing, supposedly in France, there are two unidentified bodies, beaten to death, plus violent attacks on prostitutes, and you begin to get a picture of one hell of a complicated mess which the police are having difficulty in resolving. Not to mention the fact that Zinx's husband was also so beaten to death. So there's a lot of beating and battering in this novel although, thankfully, not described in detail.

As Jinx talks with Adam, the clinical director of the clinic, we strive to unravel the truth and to distinguish between what she can remember and what she chooses to forget.

I have to say that I enjoyed listening to this audio book although at times I found it somewhat pedestrian and there was far too much talking and not enough action. There wasn't sufficient change in pace and I felt that more could have been made of the young couple who found the two bodies and Walters didn't make use of building suspense and menace in the attacks on the prostitutes. At the end, after we discover the identity of the perpetrator, which came as no surprise, events were explained through telling and not showing, which all writers are advised not to do.

Strange, then, that I enjoyed it but I'm certainly glad I only paid my 6o pence at the library to borrow it rather than pay to buy it.


If you want to be listened to, stop talking – Maggie Knutson

Sunday 13 November 2011


If you want the rainbow you have to have the rain – Dolly Parton

Saturday 12 November 2011


Hi Karen,

hope you are enjoying the extra space at home. That short story I was telling you about "The Dog in the Pram" can be found in the short stories section. It comes after "Drinking our way round Cyprus."

If you have a chance to read it, I would be very keen to hear your comments good, bad or indifferent!

See soon,

Maggie xxx

Tuesday 1 November 2011

TREME - the last two episodes

Woops. Whilst sorting out my DVDs the other day, I discovered that I had not watched the last two episodes of Treme. Therefore, my recent post about this latest HBO television drama, set in New Orleans one year after Hurricane Katrina, is incomplete. So I am now going to put that right.

And boy, was I glad to find this final disc because the last two episodes are terrific.

The first thing to say is that the music is absolutely riveting. New Orleans jazz. Wonderful. Weaving its way in and out of people's lives, giving hope and encouragement and joy amidst loss and turmoil.

Lots of storylines are brought full circle, mainly in a deliciously pleasing way but not always. I'm not going to give too many details because you really need to see the drama for yourself. All I will say is that the ending is the beginning, the big man takes a tumble, the Indians in their gloriously outrageous costumes face a stand-off, a red traffic light drastically alters lives, pretty little missy violin player finds a home and bouncy, cheeky musician/DJ at last finds success. "What did I do to be so lucky?" he asks, beaming happily.

Buy the box set and enjoy.

Thursday 27 October 2011


The only complaint I have about this novel is that it is just too darn short. I wanted it to go on and on and on because it was such a good read. There were so many interesting subplots and relationships that it could have been twice as long and still as riveting. Who knows, perhaps, Connelly intends to pick this story up at a later date and write a sequel, in which case I shall most certainly read it.

The plot is as thus:-

Jason Jessop, who is a really nasty piece of work, has spent 24 years on death row having been convicted of murdering a young girl, Melissa Landy. However, new DNA evidence has revealed that traces of sperm found on her dress came not from Jessop but from her dead father and so a retrial has been ordered.

Enter Mickey Haller, normally a defence attorney, who has been recruited as a special prosecutor. He is to be aided by Maggie McPherson, a highly effective deputy district attorney. And by the way, she is one of his ex-wives, his secretary being his other ex-wife. Now that's an unusual triangle.

And the wonderful detective Harry Bosch, who is my favourite literary detective, has been hired to act as Haller's investigator. Bosch is a solitary character, dedicated to his job and bloody good at it. His way of relaxing is to drink beer on his balcony overlooking the noisy LA freeway, which quite clearly doesn't bother him, listening to jazz music. He's pretty hopeless at relationships but I, for one, adore him. Above all, I like his integrity and total disregard for authority. And yes, he always solves the crime.

Both Haller and Bosch are regulars in Connelly's novels but this is the first time that I've read a novel featuring both of them. They are very different in personality and since both are strong-willed, tensions arise. But they are united in their desire to re-convict Jessop, particularly as they have teenage daughters whom Jessop could very well target.

Bosch feels sure that Haller has killed before but this is not fully explored hence my suspicion that there is another novel concerning Jessop in the offing.

Most of the action takes place in the courtroom and Connelly gives a fascinating insight into the tactics of both prosecuting and defending lawyers. The most disturbing aspect is the attempts by both sides to destroy the credibility of witnesses. Character assassination at its very worst.

And now you know what I'm going to say. If you want to know more, buy the book and read it and you won't be disappointed.

Unlike many successful authors who produce novels at an alarmingly fast rate, Connelly maintains a consistently high standard of writing and his plots are fresh and riveting and very topical. If I want a novel that I know I will enjoy, particularly if I'm going on holiday, I always turn to Michael Connelly.

Enticingly, the first chapter of Connelly's next novel – The Fifth Witness –is included at the end of The Reversal. Mikey Haller features in this one and it is quite clearly based on the sub-prime scandal. And yes, I'm hooked already!

Monday 17 October 2011


Time flies like an arrow - truth travels like a banana

Saturday 1 October 2011


Treme is the latest HBO production to be available as a box set and since it is advertised as being the first season then hopefully more are to follow.

Set in New Orleans six months after the devastating hurricane which caused massive flooding and thus loss of life, loss of homes, and loss of livelihoods, it tells the story of individual musicians, chefs and residents struggling against the odds to restore some normality to their lives, in many cases to actually find out if close relatives are still alive, to find somewhere to live and to earn a living.

Characterisation is developed very quickly and so you get involved in their lives very quickly. Not surprising really since it comes from the creators of The Wire, which is, of course, the best TV series ever created. YEAH !!!

And it has all the hallmarks of The Wire: a multitude of scenes involving easily identified characters and the subtle weaving together of different plot strands. Plus, many of the actors were also in The Wire. Wendell Pierce, for example, plays a happy-go-lucky charasmatic trombonist who has an eye for the girls, and the wonderful Clarke Peters plays a steely willed musician who concentrates on Native Indian music.

But perhaps the dominant character is the music itself as we see musicians striving to re-establish the great New Orleans tradition of jazz, so there is hardly a scene without wonderful jazz music as the focus or in the background.

Life is exceedingly difficult, money is scarce and it is a struggle to survive. And, as with The Wire, it presents a powerful condemnation of the political situation in America. In the case of Treme, it is the reluctance of the government to help rebuild the city of New Orleans and to help its residents.

This is made abundantly clear by the podcasts of the University academic, played brilliantly by John Goodman, as he berates the government for its inactivity, using very forceful language. These podcasts are very funny but poignant at the same time.

A production like Treme can explore and expose inadequacies in the system far more effectively than a documentary.

Despite this bittersweet underlying theme, Treme is a delight to watch and I shall certainly be getting Season Two if and when it is released.

Sunday 28 August 2011


As I wrote in a previous post, the emphasis this year was on gnaoua music. Thus it was most fitting that the Festival should close with four Maalems.

It was an emotional performance, the Maalems working well together, not trying to upstage each other. You have to remember that for Moroccans, gnaoua is their own special music of which they are very proud, and quite rightly so. And they adore their Maalems. Each Maalem has his own recognisable sound and their interpretations of the same piece of music can be very different.

I had hoped that the stage would be flooded with all their dancers because the dancers bring tremendous energy and skill and colour. Over the years, I have learnt to recognise individual dancers and to appreciate their abilities. However, each Maalem brought with him just two of his dancers and there were two extra dancers who acted as Moroccan flag bearers, although it was impossible for them not to do their own little dances, despite carrying these enormous flags.

Those of you who follow my Festival posts will know that I have a very special place in my heart for Maalem Mahmoud Guinea and since I hadn't seen his performance at the awful Scene Medital on the beach, I was pleased to be able to see him in this grand finale. Disappointed, though, that neither of his sons had been chosen to dance. But pleased to see that Hassan, whom we met a few years ago, was one of the flagbearers.

As you can imagine, this was a very popular performance. Each Maalem led a number and then, to finish off, they all played together. What was particularly exciting was that towards the end, the music was enhanced by a group of horn players. This provided a spectacularly vibrant sound and really got the audience going. So this year the festival was literally blasted to a close.

Afterwards, we managed to blag our way backstage again through the hordes of people trying, mainly unsuccessfully, to talk their way beyond the guards.

Again, we found frantic activity as well as exhausted performers. To the right, Bob Wisdom was giving an interview, and to the left, at the entrance to one of the tents, Maalem Mahmoud Guinea was also being interviewed.

But when that was finished, I was able to give Mahmoud the photograph album which we had prepared for him consisting of various photographs that we took of him and his group last year and at the special Lila we attended at his home a few Christmases ago. It was our tribute to him. He has given us so much pleasure over the years that we wanted to give something back.

So then all that was left to do was to stagger to Bab Lachour (our favourite restaurant in Essaouira) to drown our sorrows in beer and rosé wine. Another Festival over, hundreds of photographs to file, reports to write. It's tough going, but someone has to do it!


This set took place on Saturday, 24 June at Scene Meditel on the beach and I found it an absolutely dynamic performance despite the difficulties detailed further down this post.

Darga is a young group from Casablanca with a charismatic lead vocalist who, like Errol of Jazz-Racines Hiati, reminded me of Freddie Mercury because of his energy and the way he not only used the stage but climbed up some of the side rigging as he kept on singing. And at one stage he took off his top and sang bare chested.

The audience, which was spread right along the beach on both sides and towards the sea, went wild with enthusiasm.

The music itself was a fusion of a whole range of styles: reggae, ragga, funk, jazz and trad jazz. It was all very exciting and this is a group that I'd like to learn more about.

BUT the area in front of the stage, for VIPs and press ( a large stretch of concrete in-between the stage and the beach wall) was highly dangerous and the guard's identification machine wasn't working so there was no vetting of entrants.

To get to this area we had to walk down an unlit sloping, narrow sidewalk of rough ground, which was tricky to navigate.

The raised sections for photographers in front of the stage consisted of two shabby sets of two steps which were so insecure that John and I had to hang on to each other from time to time to prevent ourselves from falling. Anyone taking photographs or a film of us trying to do our work would have ended up with very amusing photos/films.

To add to this, there was a long drop between the top of the steps (which were very difficult to manoeuvre along) and the stage. There was nothing to get hold of except each other.

And, the only way to get onto the beach wall in order to sit down was via a number of high, rough steps with lots of cables in the middle and a piece of cloth roughly covering the steps which was loose and flopping over the side.

It would take a lot of persuading to get me to photograph at this stage again unless safety was significantly improved.

BUT Dargo were fantastic!



There is a delicious irony to this report and it's proof that sometimes the best things can happen by pure chance.

But let me explain first what a Residence means.

For several years, John and I wondered how so many gnaoua groups were able to fuse their music with musicians from other genres e.g. jazz, hip-hop, heavy rock, reggae etc. Such performances were always so professional and one of the questions I wanted to ask in an interview was how they managed to do it when they had never played together before, had probably never even met before, and for it to sound so good.

Well, now we know. What happens is this: – the performers practice together over a period of several days before their performance, often all day, in a private venue, to acquaint themselves with their particular types of music, experiment with ways that they can fuse their music and to establish a playlist that has been rehearsed over and over again.

And we know this because months before the Festival, Hassan Boussou e-mailed John and asked him to film the practice sessions and then the performance onstage to show the progression from practice to performance, which, of course, John was very happy to do. However, somewhere along the line, we arrived at Essaouira without knowing where the private venue actually was.

Luckily, though, John met the manager of Jazz-Racines Hiati at the Sofitel hotel when he went to pick up our press passes and they went along to the Residence together, which was in a restaurant down a side street.

So, John was able to meet Hassan Boussou, whom he had interviewed the year before, and was also introduced to the members of Jazz-Racines Hiati, whom he found to be very friendly and hospitable. And he took a lot of brilliant photographs at the Residence, which he will no doubt be posting at some stage, and, and I write this through gritted teeth, are far superior to my pathetic efforts using my little Lumix. As you can see quite clearly from the examples at the beginning of this post, I didn't get the lighting right although I had been practising for months previously.

But the reason why I was able to take these photographs was as follows: the next day I ambled along to the Residence just to see how things were going. John was already in there because he was wearing his press badge. However, there were guards at the door and they wouldn't let me in because I couldn't show my press badge because it wasn't ready.

Undeterred, though, I explained that John was already inside and, standing on tiptoes and raising up my arm, described John as being very tall and all they needed to do was to ask him to come out and confirm my accreditation. To my astonishment, and possibly because they wanted to get rid of me, they simply ushered me in without finding John.

The restaurant was very pleasant indeed and it was easy to find where the practice session was located. There were several other photographers/filmers there as well as John. I gave him a wave and then looked for a good position to take photograph. I hadn't planned to do so but it was too good an opportunity to miss.

The musicians were in the left-hand corner at the back of the restaurant and directly in front of them was a sunken fountain area which was totally dry so I clambered down and knelt on one of the steps.

I was clicking away quite happily, totally unaware that my lighting was wrong, until Erol, the charismatic lead singer of Jazz- Racines Hiati, started to sing a solo number that was so beautiful that I instinctively switched my camera to recording. Then it developed into a duet with Hassan Boussou. It was so haunting and so powerful that I just kept recording. And then the gnaoua players and Jazz-Racines Hiati musicians joined in, totally changing the mood into a forceful, full-bodied fusion of gnaoua and jazz.

John, however, had already been asked to leave the venue, having been told that he had been there long enough. Apparently, photographers/filmers were only allowed to stay for a short time so that they didn't record too much of the practice. I, on the other hand, was left totally alone to do my recording. Am I really so ferocious that I am best left alone? I certainly do hope so.

Therefore, I was able to record the same song in both the practice session and then the polished performance onstage, although I didn't realise at the time that this would happen. Thus, I was able to do what John had been asked to do: to show the difference between practice and performance.

John, of course, took enough footage at the Residence and the performance to show that progression as well and he has, as I write, just finished a lengthy film weaving the two together. And, of course, it's infinitely better than mine. But I am a writer, I don't claim to be a proficient photographer or filmer but if I'm there in the right place, at the right time, then I'll do what I can to the best of my ability even if I don't have the best equipment. It's the story of my life, I suppose. And I have to laugh at the irony.

to watch my recording click here


Friday 24th of June at Moulay Hassan.

This was a stunning performance. Hassan Boussou and his gnaoua group is one of the best that there is. Hassan Boussou is a highly versatile musician, playing not just the gumbri but other instruments too. Plus, he's very pleasing on the eye; a very handsome young man, totally dedicated to his music. Therefore, it is always a pleasure to watch him and to see the good rapour that he has with his group.

I have never been a great lover of jazz but Jazz-Racines Hiati has changed that. It was a delight to hear them play, particularly when members played a solo piece. And as for Erol, the lead singer, he has a tremendous stage presence and a sense of theatre. In fact, so dramatic and dynamic that he reminded me of Freddie Mercury.

Erol is also a voodoo priest with several churches and you get a sense of that in his performance. He, too, is a strikingly good looking man with strong cheekbones that many women would die for and he takes full advantage of that. He appeared to going to some form of trance and with large, startled eyes he went into some sort of primaeval dance, bending low and staring out at the audience, the dance enhanced by his long white wrap over skirt which revealed very shapely legs.

(After the performance, John and I were able to go backstage and I was able to shake Erol's hand and compliment him on the performance. That has to be a first for me – shaking hands with a voodoo priest. The drummer is also a voodoo priest so the whole experience for me was unique.)

As with the practice, I was busy taking photographs until I heard that beautiful, haunting song and so instinctively I switched to filming. In the practice, the piece was relatively short but

the actual performance lasted about 14 minutes.

Because I was so tired and hungry (I hadn't eaten since breakfast), I was stuffing down crisps right in front of the performers as I photographed and filmed. And eventually, I just had to take a break. So, as you will see from the film of the performance, I left the photographers area, put my camera down facing the sky, had a drink of diet cola that I had brought with me in a plastic beaker, and had a cigarette. So all you can see for a while it's the sky, a brief view of my face, and a whiff of smoke.


Last year, one of the best experiences for me was to be befriended by a group of small children whom I called 'mes enfants.' We danced together and I gave one of the girls my white cap. So, I was hoping to meet them again this year and to my delight, I spotted this particular girl in the VIP area at Mouley Hassan. I recognised her immediately but it took some time for her to remember me. But when she did, she cuddled me and pulled me out of the VIP area to meet her dad, who was one of the Festival's officials.

John joined us and then Hischam from our hotel, Heure Blue, and we all sat outside the café for VIPs and just chilled out. Grandmother was also there and it was a lovely to meet so many friendly people. Getting back into the VIP area was rather tricky because I hadn't formally left so we went through this funny ritual of me being signed out and then signed back in.

At some stage, John lost an important piece of equipment and thought it was gone for ever. But the next evening it was returned to him via my little friend's father for which John was very grateful.

BACKSTAGE I had never been backstage before and had previously thought it would be a wonderfully calm place for the performers to relax before and after their performances. However, it turned out to be a stiflingly hot and claustrophobic place and far more hectic than outside. There were a lot of interviews going on and a multitude of photographs taken in it seemed quite clear to me that for the exhausted performers, their work had not as yet finished.


This was the final set at Moulay Hassan on Thursday the 23rd of June and I certainly missed a trick with this one. It was way after 10.30 when the performance started and I was so tired that I just took a few photographs and then made my way back to the hotel. However, John recorded the music for his daftnotstupid You Tube site and he played his recordings a number of times when we were in our room and it sounded wonderful so do go to his site and check the music out. It sounds sublime.


This was the second set at Moulay Hassan on Thursday 23rd of June – a traditional gnaoua group. This year the emphasis at the Festival was definitely of gnaoua music, both traditional and fused with a variety of world music genres.

these photographs give a flavour of the performance


This was the opening performance at Moulay Hassan on Thursday 23rd of June. With its mixture of traditional gnaoua and African drums, it was an excellent start to the Festival –colourful and joyful with an exciting variety of sounds. The performers were obviously enjoying the experience and they really got the audience going, even some of the seated officials, which is quite an achievement in itself. these photographs give a flavour of the performance


Each year is different at the Festival and this year was particularly so without our beloved Bab Marrakesh Square as a venue.

It made a massive difference in two ways: –

* In previous years, when the square was used, we had a ring side view from our hotel balcony. This included watching the stage go up, and, at the end, being dismantled, the lighting checked, the sound system tested each day using the most delicious of music, and various rehearsals by performers. This all added to the atmosphere and the increasing excitement beforehand. This year, however, the square was used as a car park and so there was no atmosphere there at all. In fact, you would hardly know that the Festival was taking place.

* Normally, I would watch all the performances at Bab Marrakesh on the Friday and Saturday nights so I would see at least eight performances from start to finish. This year I saw far fewer because the remaining venues were some distance away. This meant that I spent a lot of time walking from a venue to venue zigzagging around a multitude of pedestrians and very often actually missing what I intended to watch.

However, having press badges again this year meant that the performances I did see I saw close up and I can't tell you just how exciting that is. So I can't really complain too much, plus I reckon I've lost about half a stone in weight because of all the walking, which is no bad thing.

And yes, it was a great festival again and I have come away with countless photographs which I shall be posting as soon as I can, and many wonderful memories, not just of the music but also of the people I met from all walks of life from the old lady begging on the street outside our hotel to meeting the American actor, Robert (Bob) Wisdom again plus his lovely wife.

Also, I have come back in a much better state physically. Last year I seriously compromised my back so this year I had small magnets placed all the way down my back on either side of my spine, plus, for performances I wore a support belt for my lower back and a tens machine. And that worked an absolute treat.

What I shall be doing next is to post individual reports on each of the acts that I saw at the Festival. But I will leave you with a brief summary of what lingers on my mind: –

*People are more important even than music.

*I never before realised how fortunate we are in Great Britain to have freedom of speech.

*There are logistical difficulties in trying to cover several venues in an evening and, at the same time, fitting in intake of food. So I now know what it is like to eat 'on the hoof'. One evening, for example, I ate nothing from breakfast until 11.30at night, when I managed to buy a barbecued corn on the cob which tasted far less appetising than it looked. And another evening, and I can hardly believe this, I found myself, at 1:30 am, shoving crisps into my mouth as I took photographs of Hassan Boussou and Jazz-Racines Haiti right below them on the photographers' plinth.

*Treating my time in Essaouira during the Festival as a job rather than a holiday worked well for me. My typical day was as follows: sleep in until about 11.30, have breakfast in bed, eventually wander up to the roof terrace, have a coffee and ciggie, do my exercises, have a swim, a spot of lunch if I could be bothered and then a kip on one of the wonderful space-ship shaped loungers protected by a blue latticed wooden covering, another drink and ciggie, wander back down to the room, have a bath, get ready, leave the room about 7.30, off to a venue or two to take photographs, grab some chips and crisps if possible, return back to the room in the early hours. Listen to some of John's recordings, check the photographs and get to bed about 4 AM. A very pleasant routine indeed.

*Meeting Bob Wisdom again was a pure pleasure. He is such a genuinely nice person, so charismatic and fun to be with and with a real generosity of spirit. Plus, he's a great fan of gnaoua music, which makes him my kind of person. And, it was lovely to meet his wife too. She has a serene air of composure which I found very calming.

*I now, much to my surprise, like jazz thanks to Jazz-Racines Haiti and Salif Keita.

*And, finally, I have found a new exciting band from Casablanca called Darga who I definitely want to learn more about.

P.S. For some strange computer-is-stupid reason these posts are all in the wrong order. I shall get my computer manager to fix this at the week-end.

Saturday 9 July 2011


This is what the bombed Argana cafe in Marrakesh, Morocco looked like in June. As you can see, the building work has been covered by enormous plastic sheets and large paintings have been hung from the top.

It looks eerily beautiful.

And life goes on around it. The shops next to it and the entrances to the souk are still busy. Opposite, the colourful stalls, with their delicious displays of fruits and nuts operate as though nothing had happened.

There is no obvious indication that people were killed and maimed here. Thankfully, none of our friends in Marrakesh were involved but it has left people angry. They are peaceful people and terrorism plays no part in their lives.

Tourism was adversely affected for a while but seems to be picking up again.

Hopefully, when we return next year, the cafe will be up and running and, of course, we shall frequent it.

Thursday 7 July 2011


I wrote in my last post that as far as I was concerned, people are more important than anything else. Therefore, instead of spending this valuable computer time sifting through my photographs of the Essaouira Festival in readiness for further posts, I want to comment about the phone hacking scandal.
You would have to be stupid to believe that newspaper reporters don't play dirty at times. For example, investigative journalists probably need to bend the law a little in order to expose corruption and wrongdoing. However, this scandal that has imploded onto our TV screens is in a different class altogether.

I think the general public weren't too concerned about the hacking of the phones of the Royal family and celebrities, and perhaps this is why the ensuing police investigation seemed rather lack lustre, although for the individuals concerned it was a matter of great concern. I never thought I'd be backing John Prescott in any way shape or form but in this matter I am 100% behind him and applaud his persistent efforts to get to the truth.

But to hack into the phones of missing children who are later found dead is hideous beyond words. And now we're learning that the relatives of the victim's of the 7/7 bombings and soldiers killed in Afghanistan have also been targets. Probably, there's even more to come and it makes me feel sick to the very core of my being.

I heard just half an hour ago that the main culprit, the News of the World, is to close after next Sunday's edition, but this is no cause to rejoice. Not only is it a blatant attempt by the Murdoch Corporation to distance itself from the actions of some of its staff in order to achieve its main goal of owning British Sky Broadcasting, but probably it will re-emerge very soon under a different name.

It appears that the police have over 4000 names of people targeted. Why only tell us this now? They have had this information for years. Added to this, it is now being claimed that Andy Coulson, one-time editor of the News of the World, lied not only to the committee investigating this hacking into the phones of private individuals, but also to the Prime Minister. Hence his appointment as press officer to the Blair government until the allegations about him were so persistent that he also resigned from this position.

But even worse, and it is this that has troubled me more than anything, is the Metropolitan police involvement in selling phone numbers of the families of victims and soldiers to newspaper reporters. So, as investigations have been in their infancy, some corrupt police officers have taken time out of essential work to make a substantial amount of money by selling phone numbers of very vulnerable and distraught people given at a time of extreme stress.

And it poses the question about the integrity of that initial police investigation. Hints of the TV drama 'Shadow lands' comes to mind and one wonders just how far up the chain of command the corruption ends.

At the moment, we are still at the allegations stage but I will eat all of my hats if they prove to be false.

For me, the word integrity is key to all this and reaches far beyond not just the newspapers, the police, and possibly the courts, back to the MP's expenses scandal, the crisis in the banking world because of unscrupulous and dishonest dealings, and fanning out into the general public, society as a whole, and how we all behave.

I have lived for over 60 years now, and I see an enormous decline in standards, behaviour, what is acceptable, and how we do or do not consider other people apart from ourselves. There is no doubt in my mind that Margaret Thatcher started this slippery-slidy slope into hedonism and that it has become normal for a substantial number of people to consider first and foremost number one, i.e. themselves, and to discount, ignore or actively persecute other people, with no sense of shame or an understanding that they are actually doing anything wrong.

Of course, I'm talking in generalities here and there are still many people who have a strong sense of integrity. I feel great sympathy for the majority of police officers and reporters who are not corrupt and are appalled at what is being revealed. But corruption is, and I apologise for using the cliche, the tip of the iceberg. For beneath what is obviously criminal, is this pervading sense that we have, in this country, a lack of respect for others. And this lack of respect has a drip drip drip effect on the morality of the country.

JB Priestley, in his play "An Inspector Calls", warned that it is the little lies that people tell, seemingly not too serious, that can, collectively, snowball into something catastrophic. In the case of the play, it was the First World War.

It must be said that having integrity does not mean that one doesn't make mistakes or sometimes do something that is wrong. We are all human and we are all fallible. But, if we allow ourselves to lose sight of what is right and wrong then we not only damage ourselves but we also damage others. And we also damage not only society but also our standing in the world. If this country is seen to be riddled with corruption then it has no authority whatsoever to expose the corruption in other countries.

I sincerely hope that the British public will look deep within themselves to find that sense of integrity that we all have and demand that those involved in this disgusting case of corruption and withholding of evidence will be exposed and prosecuted, and to boycott any newspaper in the Murdoch Corporation until it has proved to be beyond reproach. I also hope that BSkyB does not fall into the hands of this insidious, self-seeking and over – powerful man who is not even a British citizen.

And finally, it is such an irony that I wrote so recently in my last post that we had in this country freedom of speech. Because now I'm wondering if my phone has been hacked and should I be careful about what I say during phone calls. My freedom of speech and yours and everyone's is under threat here and then we will be like all those people who live in countries where there is no freedom of speech.

There are many people, for example, in many Arab countries who are at this moment fighting for freedom of speech and are prepared to die in the process. We must not allow ourselves to get into the same position.

Sunday 22 May 2011


These will go up when my technical manager has put them in a flickr album, hopefully sometime this year!

John adds: It's coming along. This is still work in progress, so check back in a day or so for more of Maggie's great photos.


Saturday 21 May 2011


For those of you who follow my blog, I am a great Stieg Larsson fan. I soaked up his three novels, which seem now to be unofficially called the Millennium trilogy (based on the name of the magazine published by investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the stories), in a way I haven't done with any other novelS for a long time. And I still haven't found anything to read as yet that comes even close to capturing my total concentration as they did.

Therefore, I was very keen to see the film versions and having done so I wish to give my verdict. These were the Swedish versions and I chose to watch them in Swedish with English subtitles. Therefore, the essence of Swedishness, already very vibrant in the novels, particularly through the scenery and the different institutions exposed, was reinforced by the natural language.

And what can I say? They were all brilliant but particularly the first two.

There's always a danger when watching the film based on a novel, particularly one you have just read, because it's all too easy to look for differences between the two. And that can lead to a great disappointment. However, I can honestly say that I spotted no important differences in the first two films and although I already knew the plots, I was completely absorbed all the time.

The enigmatic and fascinating heroine/anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is played beautifully by Noomi Rapace. She looks and behaves exactly as the Salander in the books. So much so that it is a surprise to see and hear the actress giving interviews. You would hardly recognise that this was the same person. And Michael Nyquist, who plays Mikael Blomkvist, really brought his character alive. Seeing him play the role, gave me a full understanding of just how attractive the character is.

And film can do what sometimes a novel can't do – that is to show visually information that can take a long time to be covered on the written page. So, in the first film we get a really clear idea of all the different members of the Wenger family, who are central to the plot, in a very easy sequence – large photographs of each of the members are used by Blomkist to show who is who. This took a very long time in the novel and I still got confused from time to time.

Now, onto the last of the films. I enjoyed this one nearly as much as the other two but some of the subplots had been altered to fit in with the main plot and I did find this a tad distracting. But I can see the logic in doing so because the film really had to be focused on what was happening with Salander and her story.

Conclusion. Excellent films, all three. Totally worth watching first in Swedish and then in English or the other way round if you so choose. It shall be interesting to see whether Hollywood can produce anything nearly as good. I doubt it but who knows. Having become a fan of European detective drama series e.g. Wallender, Spiral and The Killing (BBC 4, Saturday evenings), I am really enjoying listening to other languages in the context of the countries in which the dramas are set. Makes for far more gripping television.

Wednesday 18 May 2011


The good news

The programme for the Essaouira Gnaoua and World Music Festival 2011 has just been released. Again it lasts for four days and we were pleased to see that many of our favourite Gnaoua groups will be playing, including those led by Maalems Mahmoud Guinea, Hassan Boussou, Hamid El Kasri, Mustapha Bakbou and Omar Hayat (John calls him the Little Richard of Gnaoua). There will also be a liberal sprinkling of World Music musicians from other countries, including Haiti and Afghanistan. Plus, and of course this is brilliant news for John and I, we will be getting press badges again. YIPPEE and thank you God.

The bad news

However, the festival has been scaled down, with no big performers like Ki-mani Marley and Youssou N'Dour. And, and this is terrible news for John and I, the large square outside our hotel, Bab Marrakech, is not to be used so we will not have the great pleasure of sitting on our balcony to watch some of the acts. I shall miss this dreadfully.

We really were lucky to have found this hotel, Hotel Blue, with its two rooms with balconies facing onto the square. And equally lucky to have been able to book one of the rooms each year. I can't remember how many years but it's probably six. Amazed actually. It has been an absolute delight to have been so close to the action and I think we were incredibly blessed to have had this experience. In fact, we used to pinch ourselves each year, almost in disbelief, that we were able to do this.

And it was wonderful not just for the evenings of live, fantastic music and dancing: we really enjoyed watching and listening to the crowd, whose enthusiastic rappour with the musicians was so infectious. There was one time when I was dancing on the balcony and a guy below saw me and started dancing in time to my dancing. It was such fun.

Plus, it was so exciting watching the stage being erected and the sound system being tested over and over again all day using the most marvellous of music. It was on such an occasion that we discovered the singer Jeff Buckley. We were in great awe of the professionalism and skill of the guys involved. Unsung heroes of the festival.

But probably the main disadvantage will be that John cannot record the music being played on the Bab Marrakech stage whilst videoing at Mouley Hassan. Therefore, it will reduce our recording capacity.

The setting of Bab Marrakech as a venue meant that all of Essaouira was buzzing to the sound of music during the afternoon, evening and late into the night. It was so exciting. Magical. This year, however, it will be a large, empty, quiet space and I'm sure that the tens of thousands of people who watched performances there will feel the loss just as much as us.

Who's to blame?

The wanker bankers, of course. Perhaps this is being too simplistic but I doubt it. Because of the greed and the unscrupulous financial dealings of so many bankers, including knowingly selling mortgages to people who quite clearly could not afford them, we have all been left in a financial state of bankruptcy. So it's no surprise then that sponsors such as Pepsi have pulled out of the festival. The fact that it actually taking place in such an uncertain financial climate is a small miracle in itself and one I am grateful for. As for Bab Marrakech and the enviable position of our hotel room, we always knew it would end one day because nothing stays the same. But it's very sad for us nevertheless.

Back to the festival

This year there will be two large open air venues: Place Moulay Hassan and Scene Meditel, on the beach. Both of these venues will be free and obviously bursting to the seams. And there will be two venues which will be chargeable: Bastion de Bab Marrakech and Zaouia Sidna Bilal, both inside. I have no doubt that the festival will be a huge success as usual and John and I intend to make full use of our press badges. I have been learning how to use a larger and hopefully better camera because I want to take even better photographs this year. And, of course, I am really, really, really looking forward to being back in my beloved Morocco. So, again, thank you God .

Monday 2 May 2011


I have been listening to audio books for years and never thought to review them. Strange really, because listening to a book is just as valuable as reading one. I think it's because I associate listening to an audio book with total relaxation whilst I'm having a coffee break plus a ciggie, doing some embroidery or sewing. However, I have heard so many good ones recently that it has spurred me into action.

So, here is my very first audio book review.

I still have no idea who Wanda Fuca because it's not mentioned once in the book but that just shows how zany the book is. Set in Seattle, and written I guess by an American, it's a very light, funny, entertaining detective story.

The detective in question is P.I. Leo Waterman, who doesn't take himself too seriously, which I really appreciate. Leo has been asked by an ageing gangster friend of his father, to locate his granddaughter, Caroline Noble. She has loads of money and loads of attitude and loads of 'no one has the foggiest where she is'.

Leo, of course, with the help of a most unlikely crew of homeless, dithering, booze-loving friends, finds her pretty quickly. She is hiding out with a dodgy section of the green movement and Leo becomes involved with the illegal dumping of toxic waste and the various plans to sabotage it. Needless to say, this is putting Caroline at great risk.

And that's all I'm telling you because, as I always say, if you want to know more then buy or listen to the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Characterisation is excellent, particularly of Leo and Caroline, who are both a lot of fun although in different ways, and the plot moves along in a most satisfactory manner. I particularly liked the dialogue, which seemed very naturalistic, and the writing style generally suits the 'this is a detective story but not as you know it' mood of the book.

According to the blurb on the back of the box, this is the first in a series of Leo Waterman stories and I look forward to listening to or reading further adventures.

There has been enormous trend during the last few years for detective novels to become as gory and scary as possible and I for one have had a stomach full of this trend. I want to be entertained, not sickened. And the novel that I am now writing, Winchester Blues, is, hopefully, part of the movement that Ford belongs to (if there is such a movement), which aims to buck that trend.

The version I listened to was a BBC audio book production, read by Jeff Harding. And I should add here that the reader is crucial to the enjoyment of an audio book. If I don't like the voice, I stop listening and pop down to my local library to choose another one. Luckily, Jeff Harding has a voice I could listen to all day. Pretty yummy in a cool American kind of way.

Saturday 30 April 2011


As a regular visitor to Morocco, I have often been to the Argana café/restaurant. With its position next to the Souk and with two terraces overlooking Djema El Fna Square, plus an excellent menu of really good food at really reasonable prices, it is popular with locals and tourists alike.

On the ground floor is a pastry shop and then there is a wide sweep of marble stairs leading to the first floor and another to the second-floor. Both these floors have plenty of seating both covered and terraced and so it has a large capacity. All the times that I have been there it has been pretty full. And it should be mentioned that it is spotlessly clean, which is not always the case in Marrakesh.

I have very fond memories of the Argana.

The first time that John and I visited Morocco together was at Christmas-time a number of years ago. We first stayed at a secluded hotel in the Atlas Mountains and then travelled down by taxi on Christmas Day for our second destination of Marrakesh. It was beautifully hot day, nearly 30°, and we ended up on the first-floor terrace of the Argana for lunch.

It was there that we surveyed, in sheer wonderment, the diverse activities going on in the square: transvestite belly dancers, snake charmers, drum players, medicine men, henna artists and much more. So much entertainment that I had never seen before. I think John had kebabs and chips but I know I had Salad Nicoise. Fed up with the cold weather and over-commercialism of Christmas back in England, it was deliciously different way to spend Christmas Day.

The weather changed in Marrakesh after that day. It became colder and it rained a lot, so swimming outdoors was out of the question. And it was this that prompted me to visit a hamman (the Morocco version of Turkish baths) for the first time and I discovered, to my delight, but although it was a scary experience stepping into a dark, humid cavern, it was absolutely fantastic to be scrubbed and massaged, covered in mud, and almost drowned when buckets of water were chucked over me. Not surprisingly, I went every day after that first visit.

With my wet hair covered, turban like, with a large Moroccan scarf, I would meet John afterwards at the Argana, sometimes with people I had met at the hamman, for a delicious hot chocolate and, of course, it being me, a ciggie.

These are memories that I will never forget.

But on Thursday, some misguided, delusional, fanatical man or woman, placed a bomb in this lovely cafe and blew it up. How clever! Didn't even have the guts to stay there to be blown up him or herself.

What a contribution this person has made to a world that is already facing countless difficulties! What great act of heroism this was! How admirable to kill and maim dozens of people, leaving families and friends distraught and grieving!

Well stuff them. Stuff all terrorists. I am disgusted. And of course, John and I will be going to Marrakesh again soon. And if the Argana is in any way open for business, we shall be going there. Do what you will, terrorists, you will never win.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Maalem Aziz Bakbou with the Armenian Navy Band and Daniel Zimmerman

This Flickr slideshow has the photos that I took last year in Essaouira of Maalem Aziz Bakbou with the Armenian Navy Band and Daniel Zimmerman:

John was at Place Moulay Hassan recording a different band, so we have no video of the Armenian Navy Band, but he left his audio recorder running (attached to our bedroom balcony!), and he's put together this video with one of their numbers along with some of my photos:

P.S. This was the first time (i.e. at last year's festival) that I'd ever attempted to take photographs at a live concert with moving subjects. In fact, I hardly ever take photos generally and you might well say that it shows!

The camera I used was a small Lumix DMC-FS6, which was the subject of much teasing by the professional photographers with their enormous cameras. I hardly knew how to operate my little 'tourist' camera at first so was really learning on the 'job'. But I have to say how surprised I was that I loved the whole experience of being both close to the performers and close to the crowd, trying to capture as best I could what I was seeing first hand.

Some of the photographs on show here are particularly amateurish and slightly out of focus, as you'd expect. However, there are some, paricularly of the dancers, that I'm really pleased with. I certainly hope that the collection give a flavour of the performance.

If I get a press badge for this year's festival, I hope to use a better camera and am already practising, which I'm finding a lot of fun. I should really be spending more time on my second novel, but the fesival is so important for me and I want to do a better job if I'm given the chance. Fingers crossed and all that.

Monday 11 April 2011

Maggie on duty at Essaouira 2010

Here is a short video of me taking some photographs at the Gnaoua and WOrld Music Festival in Essaouira last year. John recorded the video from our balcony, but I took the photos that are merged in with it.

Wednesday 6 April 2011


There is a large board outside the Thomas Tripp Pub, on Wick Lane, close to the main shopping street in Christchurch, which describes the food as award winning. I just wonder what type of award it was. Possibly, for the worst food in Dorset.

John and I spent a dismal lunchtime in this cold, unwelcoming pub just a few days ago. We should have realised our mistake when we were told that they did not serve fizzy water or have an espresso machine. However, we were too hungry and tired to try elsewhere.

John's meal was marginally better than my own. It consisted of frozen cod, fried probably in a coating of meanly thin processed breadcrumbs, tasteless chips and an unappealing salad.

But my meal was actually inedible. It was supposed to be bacon, liver and mashed potato. What eventually arrived was a bowl of greasy gravy with packet mashed potato plonked in the middle. There were a few small pieces of tough bacon, thin slices of cheap, tough liver and strips of the outer layer of an onion swimming in the gravy. I don't even want to try to remember the taste.

Yes, award winning indeed!

P.S. I forgot to mention that the pub offers live music in the evenings. But the only 'music' that we heard was the sound of the side door banging merrily away in the wind.


Come gather ye people all over the land
and don't criticise what you don't understand – Bob Dylan

What I don't understand is why Bob Dylan has agreed to have his lyrics censored by the Chinese authorities before his concerts in China. Because I don't understand, I won't criticise but surely it goes against the spirit of his protest songs. What do you think?

Sunday 3 April 2011


Last week, we spent a few days in Christchurch, Dorset because it's a beautiful place, particularly its beaches and views, and we wanted to see whether we'd like to move there because one of our dreams is to live by the sea - probably the same dream that the majority of the population have.

And my choice of hotel was The Christchurch Harbour Hotel so it was all my fault.

The first problem with this hotel was that it was not in the right place. To be precise, it was 1.8 miles not in the right place.

My map of the area is in the form of a booklet and the section on Christchurch is on several pages. If I'd had a copy of a map just of Christchurch on one page, just like the one we bought belatedly at The Tourist Information Office, I would have seen quite clearly that the hotel was not on the waterfront close to the centre of the town but actually on the waterfront of Mudeford harbour 1.8 miles away.

Therefore, instead of taking a casual walk to the centre and the surrounds to get a real feel of the place, we had to drive or take taxis to get in and out.

Now, don't get me wrong. Mudeford Harbour is a beautiful place, with walks along the beach and several good pubs around. But it's not the right base if you want to get to know the town well.

The hotel itself is an imposing white building, partly old and partly new, although you wouldn't notice that from either the outside or the inside. And it has spectacular views of the harbour at the back with terraces which lead down to the water's edge.

This is the view which we would have seen from the large dining room were it not for the fact that the terrace was being re-laid with wooden flooring. So what we actually saw were noisy builders at work. Rather pee-ed off that no mention of this was made when we booked.

It also meant that instead of the soothing sound of water lapping against the shore, we heard, both in the dining room and bedroom, that wonderful sound of banging, drilling and sawing plus the cheerful banter of men at work/lounging around having a fag break. (Which was very naughty of them 'cos even the terraces are no smoking.)

Our first bedroom was a great disappointment: too enormous, too impersonal and too cold (the radiator didn't work.) Plus, and this was very important, there were only two single beds which were acres apart. Therefore, the pleasure of the views from the windows (which didn't open properly) were negated. To add to this, a couple in the room below were talking so loudly that I felt like an eavesdropper. (And it wasn't even an interesting conversation.)

So, whilst John was searching for access to the beach, I used my great negotiation skills (start off quietly, resort to firm assertiveness if necessary) to secure another room. This one was smaller, with windows that opened, a view of the harbour if you stood on tip-toes over the wall in front, and a double bed. Now there was just the background symphony of the builders at work without the distraction of intrusive conversation.

I must say, however, that the hotel itself (probably a four or five star one) was impeccably clean and the staff were very friendly and helpful. However, the decor of dull moss green walls and modern attempts at art deco just didn't work for me. Wierd and unpleasing to the eye is how I'd describe it.

On the plus side, the swimming pool in the spa area was large enough to accommodate three or four swimmers and the jacuzzi was a welcome indulgence. However, I decided not to book in for one of the beauty treatments that looked so appealing on the website. This was partly because the prices were excessive and partly because the area was not a place I wanted to linger in. Too cold and impersonal. Instead, I booked myself a couple of treatments at the Tony and Guy Salon in Christchurch. (The beautician, Holly, was an absolute delight, and my soothing leg and eye treatments were a dream.)

Breakfast in the dining room was a noisy affair: the tables were too close together and the noise of people talking and babies crying echoed around the vast room. In fact, it was hard to hear the workmen outside. We chose the continental breakfast and the coissants, pastries and marble cake (jummy) were excellent as was the bread and coffee. The toast, however, was like limp cardboard.

On our last evening, as John and I sat on the bench close to the water and the Captains Club Hotel, a stone's throw from Christchurch town, listening to the roar of the sea beyond the headland and gazing up at the stars, we were both in agreement. Should have booked in at the Captains Club Hotel. Shall do next time.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

Well, it had to happen and it has. I have finished the last of the Larsson trilogy. I tried to delay the inevitable by limiting myself to reading just a few sections at a time. I even re-read paragraphs that I enjoyed, but eventually I came to the end. And I have to say that it was a very satisfactory end.

This novel follows on from the second one, The Girl who Played with Fire, and so it would be ludicrous to read it without reading this second novel. The continuing theme is of prostitution and sex trafficking and we are also introduced to the workings of the powerful inner circle of Sapo, the state security police. Needless to say, it is as corrupt as many of the other Swedish state institutions already highlighted in the previous two novels.

Salander is now seriously ill in hospital and under police surveillance. Without a computer to hack into, she must rely for a time on Mikael Blomvkist, the Millennium journalist who has helped her in the past, Dragan Armansky, who runs Milton Security, and the police department who specialise in protecting the Swedish Constitution. Naturally, they have an uphill job proving Salander's innocence against what appear to be over-whelming odds.

To learn the outcome, however, you'll have to read the novel for yourself!

I can't think of a series of novels that has so absorbed me and it is a testament to the characterisation, plot and sub-plots, and quality of writing that not only do I feel as if I actually know the characters but I still think about them even though I have now moved onto another novel.

What I find particularly exciting is that Larsen has portrayed so many strong women. There's not just Salander, the weird and exciting heroine, but also Erika Berger, who co-owns Millennium with Michael. Then there's Miriam Wu, the sometime lover of Salander and just as capable of defending herself physically against much stronger men.

Salander's lawyer, Annika Giannini, who is Michael's sister, is a pretty tough cookie too, using her intelligence and integrity to defend her client. Police officer Monica Figuerola is someone you would want on your side as is Suzanne Linder, from Milton Security, who is assigned to protect Erika Berger after she receives threatening e-mails.

But mention must also be made of Mikael Blomkvist. He is the central character in all three novels and it is his journalistic investigation at the beginning of the first novel that sets the story moving and introduces us to Lisbeth Salander, who is about as fascinating a character as you would wish to read about.

As for Mikael, he's a man of great intelligence and honesty, dedicated to weeding out corruption, and I liked him right from the start. Although he's not portrayed as a 'romantic lead', he has a certain attractiveness which makes him appealing to women. He's kind and witty and extremely determined. Not full of himself, either. A man to be trusted. A person you'd like to know.

Apparently, Stieg Larsson had completed much of the fourth novel before his untimely death. But it is highly unlikely that we shall ever read it because there is litigation in process as to copyright ownership. Perhaps, in this fourth novel, Larsson intended to introduce a character only alluded to previously but whom I would have liked to have learnt more about. And that is Camilla Salinger, Salander's twin sister!

It's amazing to think that the three novels I have just read and enjoyed so much are actually translations from the original Swedish. These translations are far better than anything I can write in English, sad to say.

Sunday 13 March 2011

Drinking our way round Cyprus

Drinking our way round Cyprus
a true account
Maggie Knutson

Just can’t help it! Half an hour before landing, have my nose pressed against the window, despite the thick-black outside, until I see flickers of light shining like beacons just for me, and I called out in childlike excitement There’s Cyprus!

 I’m returning after twenty-five years!

The Alexander the Great Hotel in Paphos is super - a four-star complex facing the sea and harbour, friendly staff, several swimming pools and numerous cats, which animal-lovers like me feed surreptitiously. It even has its own archaeological tomb! Archaeology is big in Cyprus and sites are preserved with reverence, unlike Winchester (our home town), which has a tendency to bulldoze, its Roman finds to make way for ‘modernity’ i.e. shops.

The maid has left a raspberry sponge cake and two large balloons (it’s my birthday) in our room (a cabana, separate from the main building, and so much more intimate) and I arrange my cards around this steadily shrinking calorific delight. It would be a crime to ignore it after the hotel has gone to so much trouble!

V. disappointed with Paphos harbour, which we reach after a short walk along a coastal path surrounded by pink and yellow flowers and sea-like green foliage. The harbour used to be quiet and charming and just a delight. The Pelican Restaurant is still there (plus two live pelicans – probably not the same ones, though) but it’s hemmed in by new restaurants, ice-cream parlours, kiosks selling tat, even a candy floss stall. It’s like Scarborough without the rain. 'Pelican' food still pretty damn good, though, and Cyprus wine is now definitely drinkable.

Next morning and thank God for Starbucks! The hotel coffee is foul! (I think they use sterilised milk.) But there’s a Starbucks nearby and John (husband) trots off before breakfast to get large regular double-shot and skinny decaf lattes. Waiters aren’t too impressed but, as Rhett Butler famously said …

Check out and head (in groovy little Beetle convertible hire-car) to the Troodos mountains and the village of Kakopetria to visit my ex and his second family at their restaurant. Have to stop at Platres (charming mountain village) for double brandy and ciggie for Dutch Courage. Afternoon goes surprisingly well, though. We’re warmly greeted, join in the family meal: fresh trout, steffado (beef casserole), village salad, Cypriot dips and fabulous bread. Delicious. Wine for John but I stick to diet coke ‘cause I want to be on my best behaviour.

Head off for the capital, Nicosia, and check into a dinky little room at The Centrum Hotel with a charming view opposite a concrete wall. Later, drink a bottle of red (v. tasty) with a non-descript meal in a ‘tourist restaurant’ with ‘Zorba the Greek’ blaring out (please!). Then Five Kings brandy in the room, me hanging out of the window to have a fag.

Next day, visit the Observatory Tower at the top of Debenehams, and am horrified to see, as part of the panoramic view, massive etchings of the Turkish flag on the Kantara Mountains, which are now part of the Turkish occupied northern Cyprus. These flags are a constant ‘two fingers up’ to all those who were refugeed from that area in 1974, including me!

Have lunch at a little restaurant next to the Green Line (part of the medieval city walls that separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot areas). The narrow streets are flanked by interesting old houses and churches. We sit outside, opposite a row of lovingly tended plants in metal tins and with several cages of noisy parrots behind us. We have a bottle of white (musty) with our meal of Greek rice (couscous with fragile strips of chicken and onion cooked in stock), and tavas (lamb with potatoes).

V. hot now and we stagger back to our hotel and sleep all afternoon.

At five, meet ex sister-in-law, Patsy, in hotel lobby. We recognise each other instantly and hug for a very long time. She’s the most loving, warm-hearted, generous person I’ve ever met and I’m so glad that, at long last, I’ve felt ready to make this visit. We pick up where we left off, twenty-five years ago, chatting ten to the dozen. Luckily, her English is excellent because my Greek is etsy-getsy. She adores John already.

On the way to Patsy’s house, we zoom up the long, sweeping drive to the Presidential Palace in her rattling little Ford Fiesta, and she and I sweet-talk the guard into describing the storming of the Palace at the beginning of the Greek Cypriot coup in 1974, which sparked off the Turkish Invasion. I’m writing a novel set during that time and want to get as many details right as possible. Patsy calls him darling (she’s reached the age, she says, when she’s entitled to do that) and we describe how, during the war, the Turkish phantom jets screeched over-head and how we prayed that we’d hear the bombs explode because that meant they hadn’t landed right on top of us. You see, we mature women can still teach these youngsters a thing or two.

Patsy’s new home, paid mainly from a refugee loan, is a two storey white house with large balconies, an immaculately clean courtyard, pots of scarlet geraniums, and a sturdy tree planted as a sapling only a few years ago. Inside, she has a display of family photographs, including her lovely daughter, Louisa, who died last year. (It was phone calls with Patsy during Louisa’s illness that persuaded me to return.)

Afterwards, we all go to a kebab shop and have a fabulous half-meze (lamb chops, sausages, kebabs, salad, bread, dips) plus a bottle of mature red. We eat, talk, laugh and drink until we exhaust ourselves. I’m so glad we met up again.

Had such great plans for our visit to the occupied north, which was to drive to Kyrenia on the north coast (a tourist favourite) then take the winding road up the Kantara Mountains, past Bellapais Monastery (made famous by Gerald Durrell’s book ‘Bitter Lemons’) and right to the top, where there’s a breathtakingly spectacular view: you can see the Mediterranean on two sides, shimmering beyond pine trees, rocky crags and plains, one way towards Kyrenia, the other to Famagusta (where I used to live) on the east coast. But our car insurance won’t cover this so we compromise and decide to take a taxi to Kyrenia ‘cause I’ve been warned Don’t go to Famagusta, you’ll just cry ‘cause it’s a ghost town, inhabited by rats and snakes and I accept that, this time, too much, too soon could be foolhardy.

We walk through the buffer zone, past the Ledra Palace Hotel, once the best hotel in Nicosia. This was where the world’s media based themselves after the coup, like vultures waiting to feed off the carnage… but a week later, the Turkish army invaded the island and fighting was so fierce round here that all those reporters, cameramen and photographers were stuck in the hotel’s basement and couldn’t report a darn thing. I know they had a job to do but… for us poor sods living here, it did seem as if it served them jolly well right! Now the hotel, still riddled with bullet holes, is headquarters to humanitarian agencies and a multitude of flags wave at us from balconies. There are still several severely shot-up houses nearby, with the original sandbags at the windows, and it’s like walking through a World War Two movie set. To the right are the massive city walls of the Green Line from which a couple of Turkish flags fly defiantly, whilst two small dark-haired Turkish children watch shyly from the battlement tops.

At the Turkish checkpoint there’s just the quick filling in of temporary visas, a haggle with a taxi driver for a good price and thirty minutes later we’re in Kyrenia. After all those years of waiting, it’s that simple.

The harbour is just as I remember it: a semi-circle of tall, brightly coloured buildings (mainly restaurants) and, half way along, The Harbour Club (there’s always been a strong ex-pat presence in Kyrenia) with tables and chairs under an Acacia tree. And opposite the restaurants, the inviting setting of tables and chairs next to the water. The only difference that I can see is that all the boats boast Turkish flags instead of the very international flags pre-1974.

We walk along the harbour, ignoring the persistent invitations to taste the best fish in Cyprus, and make our way to The Dome Hotel, once the hotel in Cyprus. Before having drinks in the bar, I show John the swimming pool hewn out of rock and filled by the sea. When I first came here on holiday with my mum in 1970 (it was my twenty-first birthday present), there was a retired British Intelligence Officer called Frank who lived in the hotel and swam in that forbidding pool every day. Legend had it that he had been on his way back to Britain from the Middle East, had stayed at The Dome overnight, fallen in love with the place, and stayed. To a twenty-one year old, it was all so very exciting. But Cyprus was like that. Things happened. Interesting and unusual people lived here. It was not a boring place.

Have lunch outside by the water, surrounded by an army of hungry cats. We have fish, chips and village salad. Quite scrummy. (Cyprus potatoes make the best chips I’ve ever tasted.) Get through a bottle of chilled white. Wander round the town for a while but the shops here are also full of tourist tat but do find a splendid cake shop and buy some honeyed pastries to take home. I ask the Turkish Cypriot assistant if she comes from Kyrenia and she says Yes and I say I hope the island will be re-united soon and she agrees.

Return to Nicosia exhausted and sunburnt, but very content. I feel no anger. People are people whoever they are; it’s when the politicians get their claws in that things go pear shaped. I just feel a deep sadness that we all had to suffer so much (Greek and Turkish Cypriots and people like me who got caught in the cross-fire.)

Walk back through the checkpoint feeling emotionally lighter. Greek customs are suspicious of the pastry box but I say You’re not having these! and we walk on.

Next day, it’s off to the port of Limassol, now a horrendously massive tourist resort with white high-rise buildings sprawling haphazardly along the coast and up into the foothills. There are some fantastic hotels here, really deluxe, but the traffic is noisy and the inevitable building works (yet more hotels and flats) pound away relentlessly. And it has too many traffic lights. There’s no beach to speak of, mainly rocks, but most hotels have pools and Ladies Mile, just a few miles away and next to the British army base of Akrotiri, has oodles of beautiful soft sand but it means a drive to get there and there are too many traffic lights to negotiate.

We’re staying at the Miramare Hotel, which I already knew was pretty pucker. There’s a complimentary bottle of red in our room plus an enormous basket of fresh fruit so things are looking good! From the balcony, we watch tankers waiting patiently to dock and all we can hear is the soothing song of the Mediterranean. The blues of the sky and sea are like Prozac to me.

Have lunch at a nearby restaurant (there are more than enough to choose from) and whilst waiting for my kleftiko (lamb cooked in a clay oven) and John’s spare ribs, sample a very fine rose and chat with the owner. To our mutual surprise, we have a shared experience. During an air raid, all those years ago, he was sheltering in the basement of the hotel opposite my ex’s pub in Famagusta at exactly the same time as my ex and I were fleeing the area in our open-topped land rover. We were straffed by a Turkish phantom jet, whilst a bomb skimmed over the hotel’s swimming pool and crashed into the basement (to the dismay of the hapless people hiding there). But, miracle of miracles, the bomb didn’t go off and my ex and I escaped unhurt! We were so lucky! the restaurant owner says and I think Yes, we jolly well were!

In the evening, take a taxi to Jane’s fish restaurant (ex sister-in-law). The Petroktisto. It’s an old stone house, recently renovated. No one knows we’re coming so I’m apprehensive. There’s a young woman having a smoke in the entrance lobby and I say Have you any tables? and she says Yes and I say Who are you? and she says Eva and I say Well, I’m Maggie, your aunt from England and she shrieks Oh my God! Maggiemou! and we hug and cry. Jane comes out and stares at me in disbelief, and then she smiles a beautiful smile, like the sun emerging from behind clouds, and we go through the hugs and kisses routine again, John as well. As we make our way inside, customers are watching with such affection (Jane is very popular) that this reunion could have come straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. We meet two more of Jane’s grown-up children: the beautiful Julie and brother, Adonis, who is an absolute hunk. They are all so obviously delighted to see us that more tears come easily. Why you take so long to come back, Maggie? Jane asks Because I thought it would be hard I reply and she hugs me again. Don’t wait another twenty-five years she laughs Because I’ll be dead!

We order fish meze and as we eat the most amazing fish dishes I’ve ever tasted, each cooked in a different way (didn’t know that fish could be so versatile), and drink our wine (two bottles of white!), each of the family drift in and chat, Eva in particular, who is so spunky I’m laughing most of the time. She’s lived in Boston for nine years and trained first as an accountant and then as a masseur (accountancy is so boring! she explains). And after I’ve told her that Lou, my daughter, has lost weight, she e-mails her and says So, you’re skinny bitch now! And I just love that. And she calls me crazy aunt and I cry again because they’re my long lost family and I just adore being called crazy aunt.

After a good night’s sleep, a swim in the pool, and a coffee at Starbucks, head off back to Paphos via the coast road, instead of the newish motorway. I love this countryside: stark, uninhabitable hills and the blue, blue Mediterranean Sea glistening as if a billion silver sun-rays are dancing on the surface.

We drive through the British camp of Episkopi with its neat white houses and English road names but mainly there’s nothing, not even much traffic, except us and raw nature. Later, we stop at a lay-by and take photographs of Aphrodite’s Rock way below us. According to legend, Aphrodite came out of the sea here. Since it’s very rocky, I guess she didn’t look too dignified but it’s picture postcard beautiful: rocks jutting out from the sea and steep hills rising up to the road and beyond, towards the crisp blue sky.


But it’s getting late and the handover between day and night begins in its spectacular manner and the sky becomes a palette of reds and pinks and before you know it, it’s dusk- grey and the car lights need to go on.

Back at the Alexander The Great Palace and Sod’s Law rules! Why did I put the pastry box in with the dirty washing? Getting honey out of clothes is not easy! After hand-washing what garments I can and leaving them to dry like surreal sunbathers on our loungers, we head out along the coast road towards the southwest of the island, past the monstrosity of Coral Bay (so ugly in its overdevelopment), until we fork left onto a bumpy road close by the sea. We don’t know what to expect but we’re hopeful that whatever we find will include food and drink.

And we find it!

A lone restaurant, snug between two hills and in a protected game reserve area. We sit on the balcony underneath hands of bright yellow bananas, still on the stalks, which dangle from the ceiling. There are murals of mermaids and fish and Greek Gods, amateurish but charming; the salt is still in the shop container, the price still showing; the tablecloths a dull beige plastic. But the food, of course, is superb: grilled fish for John and lamb chops for me. The wine (white) is full-bodied i.e. deliciously strong. Afterwards, I sneak some bread out for the horse that stands stubbornly in the middle of the road, like the Dick Turpin of the horsy world, trying to blag food from passers-by. This is the old Cyprus I love so much!

Next day and home time and am never doing a late flight again. One is so tempted to drink on an empty stomach - which is not a good idea - but I did make it to the loo just in time.


Are we coming back next year? You bet we are! I want to re-visit my lovely ex relatives, soak in the sun, have fish meze at Jane’s, and see my lost home in Famagusta. And, naturally, sample some more of that remarkable wine!

Maggie Knutson Ó2006
Maggie Knutson has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work.
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