Archive for June, 2011

The Wrong Solstice

June 25th, 2011 No comments

Yes it’s a bit sad that 18,000 people converged on Stonehenge for the summer solstice when most archaeologists now agree that the alignment was originally made for the winter solstice anyway…

But anyone in doubt about the powerful attraction of sun worship should take a look at these images:

see also my recent piece on the opening of the Great Stones Way between Stonehenge and Avebury for the Guardian.


Deep memories: the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor

June 16th, 2011 No comments


There have been some thoughtful appreciations after the death of Patrick Leigh Fermor – none more so than Ben Macintyre’s excellent piece in the Times, which rather than following the obvious line of ‘the end of an era and can anyone still write travel books anymore’ instead proclaimed the continued need for them.

The thing that has always most intrigued me is the length of time between Leigh Fermor’s journeys and his books.  A Time Of Gifts came out 40 years after his Balkan travels of the 1930s;  Between the Woods and the Water 50 years later;  he was still working on the final volume of the trilogy at his death, which would have appeared almost 70 years after the events described.


Such fine distillation of experience over very many years can do interesting things to a book.  I’m used to it from the chroniclers of South American adventures where you often also get such time delay:  Garcilaso de la Vega, the best known chronicler of the Incas, had been in Europe for forty years before he wrote his account of the civilisation he had left behind;  Pedro Pizarro wrote his memoirs of being a page boy at the Conquest of Peru when he was an old man;  similarly the great chronicler of the Mexican campaign, Bernal Diaz, only recorded his eyewitness account of that parallel conquest some fifty years after the event.

Is there something that makes ambitious journeys difficult to assimilate in the present tense –  that their sensory overload can only best be interpreted years later, when the glitter and noise has fallen away to reveal structure underneath? Many of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels depend on just such an almost optical effect,  in which events of the distant past are foreshortened and looked at with startling clarity.  W.H. Hudson’s classic memoir of Argentina, Far Away and Long Ago, relies as much on the passage of time between the writing and the remembered events for its nostalgic power.  Or is there a simpler explanation – that young men inclined to go out into the jungle and cross deserts  – or the Balkans – are equally disinclined to sit down at a desk and write about it immediately afterwards?

Doing it without the Fez on

June 10th, 2011 1 comment


The last place I was expecting to go for a party in Morocco was Moulay Idriss.  It’s the holiest city in the country, named after the man who founded it and brought Islam to Morocco.  Until quite recently, non-Muslims were not supposed to sleep within its whitewashed walls, although they could visit by day.

So it’s a bold move by those behind the popular Cafe Clock in Fez to open a restaurant, the Scorpion House, to try to attract more visitors both here and to the nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis.  Mike, the owner, invites my children and me to attend the opening party for staff and friends.

The restaurant has a truly spectacular position on the terraces above the green-roofed mausoleum of the saint.  The music and dancing are intense.  At one point a young woman gets overcome by the emotion of the moment and faints, apparently overcome by the djinns, spirits.  Once he’s checked that she’s all right, Mike seems pleased:  “shows it’s a real party.”

This stay in  Morocco is a chance to check out what the impact has been of the Arab Spring.  Aside from the bombing of a cafe in Marrakesh, there’s been little in the Western news about its effect on one of the Arab countries that is most visited.  The King and his government pride themselves on an ecumenical approach – there are Jews and Sufis in important positions – but power is still not equally shared.  No one would call the country truly democratic.  And many Turkish families still send their daughters here to be educated, as while wearing a veil in Turkish universities is banned, as befits a secular state, it is perfectly permissible here.

The King is well-respected and has announced a wide-ranging review of the constitution, but Morocco has a potent mix of foreign investment and visitors, and a well-educated younger generation with a desire for equality.  Expect more djinns to be released.

See Getting Lost in Fez text or as printed